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Innocence and Instinct

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Just because the bleeding has stopped does not mean the wound has healed.

 

 

 --

 

 

Daesung dreams.

He stands at the edge of a thicket, peering into the press of sticks and leaves and questioning whether he can squeeze through the thick, squat trees without his skin snagging on something sharp. As far as he can tell, the path ahead—or the lack thereof—is as densely packed as the fur on his back.

Wait. Fur?

He cranes his head around and finds himself covered in the stuff. Long, coarse hair in mottled grays and warm browns with dark accents sprayed across his shoulders and back. And, twisting as far as his long neck will let him, he can just make out black-tipped guard hairs converging in a jagged stripe down his spine. His colors are rather common for one of his kind. And that suits him just fine.

Moments later, his coat inspection complete, the heavy scent of damp soil reaches his nose, and only then does he realize that though he is standing, he is unusually close to the ground.

He tips his snout down—he has a snout! —and finds not two legs propping him up, but four. Two in front and two behind, hands and feet replaced by paws. Tentatively, he presses one into the dirt, into soil made soft from the recent rain, and he does not sink into it as he expects; the pads of his toes conform to the surface and cushion his steps.

Gone are the deep gouges his human feet left in the ground. This body distributes his weight so evenly and efficiently that even the rain-soaked earth supports him. When he moves on he will leave behind nothing but a faint impression.

Lifting his paw, he peers down in curiosity at the shallow imprint of toe pads tipped with claws.

That’s when something else catches his eye. It was there all along, he realizes, he just hadn’t noticed amid other discoveries. Now, if he concentrates, eyes crossing from the effort, at the end of his snout he can make out what he knows must be his nose—dark in color, covered in a satiny sheen, a little leathery. Without thinking, his tongue darts out to touch it.

He can lick his nose! He's never been able to do that before.

So he does it again and again, delighted by how easy and natural it is, until his own nose gleams in the sun, made wet by his own tongue.

He’s having so much fun that a sound from behind sends him three feet into the air in surprise.

That was a shout. A human shout. He tenses up, ready to run…

…but sees that it is only a couple of small humans, he sees when he locates the source of the shout. Children dragging big sticks, stopping here and there to heft them into the air and take a swing at each other. Two young boys playfighting with makeshift wooden swords, the limbs connecting with a resounding crack like daggers being driven into Daesung's sensitive ears.

Despite the racket, something stirs in him at the sight of them. So small, so susceptible. His jaw locks, rows of sharp teeth slotting snugly into place at that familiar pull, his mouth flooding with saliva.

He is hungry.

Maybe they have food.

Maybe they are food.

He is not given time to chew on that before the boys take a break from their sparring and catch him watching them.

"Look," one says to the other, staring with wide eyes that reflect the sky. "What’s a dog doing all the way out here?"

He raises his stick and waves it at Daesung, who instinctively cowers. The boy may be young and his face friendly, but he wields the piece of wood in his hands like a weapon, and Daesung knows firsthand what humans are capable of. Even little ones.

"Think it knows how to fetch?" The boy looks to his friend, who shrugs. "Go on! Fetch!" he shouts, throwing the stick—not directly at Daesung, but at an angle, so that it lands in the grass off to one side with an innocuous thump.

Confused, Daesung looks back and forth between the boy and the weapon he’s just given up, his only tool of defense.

This child does not fear him and does not intend to hurt him. Instead he wants to... play with him?

Maybe, if he plays with them they'll give him a treat. Hopefully something he can eat.

So he thrusts caution aside and turns his back on the thicket he had been eyeing, running and romping through the woods with the two boys on four new legs, darting in close enough to keep them engaged but never so near that their hands can touch him.

Human hands have hurt him before, and he was not even a wolf then.

These boys don’t seem to realize what he is, calling to him like they would a dog, dancing around him and laughing shrilly as children do, grabbing at his fur with small, grubby hands every time he comes within reach. And before Daesung knows it his tongue is hanging out the side of his mouth, tail lashing the air behind him so hard his hind end moves with it as he trots away yet again, and that’s when it hits him.

He’s having fun. Tempting the boys to touch him, daring them to try, proving that he is faster and more agile than they could ever hope to be.

Catch me if you can!

At first he was only playing along; now he is genuinely playing, and having such a good time he has all but forgotten his hunger.

"Why do you keep running away?" one of the boys whines at him when he skips out of range again. "Don't be scared. We just want to pet you."

Daesung pauses, panting, and considers them with careful eyes. His wildly wagging tail slows, a sudden shyness overtaking him. Should he let them…?

"Hey, dog," the other one says, squaring his small shoulders and standing as tall and straight as he can manage. "Speak."

The tail wagging stops.

"Do you think it knows how?"

"I dunno, let’s find out. Speak!" the boy says again with authority, clearly the bolder of the two, and Daesung takes a frightened step back.

Do they know what he is? Have they known all along? What are they going to do to him when they find out he’s like them—but not?

They’re just kids, he reminds himself. They can’t do anything to you. They won’t.

He should… he should give them what they want, he decides, his hunger roaring back to the surface. They might still have something for him.

Only one way to find out.

So he does what he can. His mouth opens and closes awkwardly, sharp teeth clacking together as a strange sound rolls out of him like groaning. His wide tongue curls and flaps in his long mouth, a clumsy thing, and without lips he cannot form the words he's spent all his life speaking. Whatever he is saying right now, it’s nothing like human speech, and is not what he expected at all.

The boys exchange a worried look.

"What’s it doing? Is it sick?"

I’m not sick, I’m trying to speak, Daesung wants to say. He doesn’t remember it being this hard.

He tries again, the awful groaning turning to growling ... and when that seems to scare them more, he gives up with a sad, defeated whine.

"Speak," the one boy repeats, grinning at him this time. "You don't know that one, do you? You're pretty smart but you’re trying too hard. Silly dog, you're just supposed to bark."

Bark? Daesung doesn’t think he’s ever barked before, but he has seen and heard dogs do it. And long ago in a land far from here—wherever here is—coyotes too.

He takes a breath and drops his jaw open, and with some effort forces the harsh sound out. It's loud and percussive and dreadfully disruptive, but the boys seem to love it.

"Speak! Speak! Bark! Yeah!" they chant over and over in rising excitement, so he does, for no reason other than that they want him to. He plops down on his haunches and barks and barks, the new sound growing in strength and clarity the more he tries it, until the children are laughing in delight. And somehow, even though Daesung feels unbearably silly about the whole business, his tail swishing in the grass behind him gives him away: he is just as excited as they are.

It doesn’t have to make sense, he supposes, as long as it makes everyone happy.

"Come on, let's take him home!" he hears, and then they are dashing through the woods again, leaving him to chase after them.

Wait, Daesung wants to call out, but all that comes out is a thin cry, wordless, his long legs churning under him as he catches up to them with ease. Wait, where are you going? Home? Already?

Why are they leaving? Weren’t they having fun? Daesung was! He wants to bark—no, speak —for them some more, wants to see their boyish faces lighting up as he masters his new voice.

Besides, they haven’t yet given him anything for his hunger.

That thought does not last long, however. Hot on his new friends’ heels, he crests a hill and finds himself face-to-face with the wooden slats of a weathered old cabin. Daesung drops to his rear and slides to a stop, spraying dead leaves and twigs into the air.

"Maybe Mom will let us keep you," the bolder of the boys says with a big smile, patting him on the head, and Daesung forgets that they are not supposed to touch him, too focused on what lies ahead.

Cabins are bad news. Cabins are to be avoided at all costs.

So why did he let them lead him here?

The door swings open and out steps a young woman with her hair tied loosely, low on her neck—the boy's mother, Daesung realizes. At the sight of her boys her face is welcoming, but all that softness is lost the second her eyes land on him.

His ears flatten in renewed fear, head drooping. He would know that look anywhere.

She knows what he is.

"Mom, look what we found! Can we keep him?"

"Boys, come here! Now," she demands in a voice that cuts the air, eyes as pale as crystal and just as hard.

"But—"

"I said come here," she repeats sternly, grim-faced. "Seven years old and you and your brother can't tell the difference between a dog and a goddamn wolf. You're lucky it hasn't eaten you already. I said get over here!"

The boys comply this time, and where before Daesung sensed joy from them, all he detects now is disappointment—and at last, a whiff of fear. He smells it. He feels sick with it.

He never wanted to be feared.

“But Mom, we were playing,” he hears them plead with their mother one last time. Daesung wishes he could do the same. “It was nice to us, it didn’t hurt us none.”

“There’s only one way a wolf is of any use to us,” she says, ushering them inside, “and that’s when it’s dead.”

She ducks back into the doorway at her back and reappears with a familiar tool, pressing the polished wooden stock against her shoulder. An old enemy that Daesung has spent a lifetime on the run from.

Daesung does not wait around for her to train the weapon on him, turning tail and bolting into the bushes just as she is raising the rifle. Shots ring out behind him like lightning splitting the air, the thunderous sound piercing his ears, his tail crawling its ways between his legs as they carry him away, away, away. An explosion of leaves to his right nearly stops his heart with fright and sends him hurtling to the left, legs changing course under him before his mind can catch up, claws tearing into the earth while the trees whiz by in a gray-green blur.

They were only playing. It was harmless fun. He was harmless. Even hungry, he had not thought to hurt them.

But she does not know that. Like all humans, the boys’ mother has her own ideas about him, and Daesung is not about to stick around to try and tell her otherwise.

The echo of gunshots fades with distance, as does the fear, but the nagging hunger does not.

Feeling beaten, he sinks to his belly in a bed of leaves and broods over the human boys and their mother, of how to handle his hunger, and of how it hurts to be hunted when all he ever really wanted was to make a few new friends.

 

 

--

 

 

When he wakes it’s to the sight of wooden slats overhead, and beneath him, a bed. Staring up at the grain in the dark, at the lines between the boards—one of them is cracked and will need to be patched—he finds comfort in familiarity. He knows this place. The mattress supporting him, the walls around him, and on his left, a dip in the mattress. Heat under their shared blanket.

He is back in his own bed. Back in his own body. Only a dream, then.

His ears no longer ring with gunshots, but his heart still hammers with remembered fear. The weight beside him is Seunghyun's, his scent a silent comfort, and soon the dream slips away. With the smallest of sounds Daesung rolls onto his side, reaching for his mate, needing to feel him, solid and real. His fumbling hand lands in something shaggy, sinks into it like—

Fur.

Seunghyun—no, the thing in bed with him rolls to face him, amber eyes gleaming as if lit by some inner fire. It is the only light in this place, and with its glow he can make out the vague shape of his bedmate. Pointed ears. Long snout. Furred mane. Not Seunghyun.

He’s in bed with a wolf.

Daesung throws off the blanket and flings himself from the bed, careening over the side. He falls for what feels like forever, stuck staring up at a red sky and a rapidly retreating cliff's edge.

Why did he jump? He said he wouldn’t. Seunghyun will be so disappointed.

That’s his last thought before the rest is drowned out by the roar of rushing water at his back, the river welcoming him with watery jaws stretched wide—

—but the rocks find him first, and there life ends with the most exquisite pain as everything shatters.

 

 

--

 

 

"— sung?"

Seunghyun's voice.

"Daesung?"

His name in Seunghyun's voice.

Daesung jerks once, his arm colliding with something warm and soft.

“Ow,” he hears as if from underwater. “I know you hate me waking you up, but you didn’t have to hit me.”

Daesung would move, if only he could. His body is heavy, arms and legs rooted to the ground. Prying his own sleep-crusted eyes open feels like fighting his way to the surface... but when he succeeds he is rewarded by a sea of stars winking at him through the trees.

He lets his head loll to the side, almost afraid of what he will find this time.

He has no reason to be. Seunghyun's face, Seunghyun's human face, the one Daesung knows and loves and trusts, thick brows and dark eyes pinched in concern, greets him. Propped up on one elbow, his mate peers at him in sleepy confusion… and concern.

"I was dreaming," Daesung croaks, his mouth feeling stuffed with cotton. Not a moment later Seunghyun's lips are on his, soothing and warm.

"About what?"

About being a wolf. About you being a wolf.

Befriending humans. Running from humans.

Falling. Dying.

"I don't remember," Daesung says, and against his dry lips he feels Seunghyun smile.

He is resting on something that compresses under his weight but scratches at his skin. Strands of grass made coarse by the summer sun; it grows all around them while they sleep the night away in a copse of dogwood trees. Floating up on his other side are the faint snores of his still-dreaming packmates: Jiyong, Youngbae, and Seungri. Without looking, Daesung knows they must be curled around each other like kittens.

He sighs into Seunghyun’s mouth, his mate’s sleepy kisses smoothing over the ripples of his dreams, and tries to forget the phantom pain of his body breaking.

That was only a dream, nothing more. This, he thinks, pulling Seunghyun closer, this is what’s real.

 

 

--

 

 

"What's this?"

Daesung looks up from the thing he had been inspecting—a wooden rood jutting out of the ground, long and narrow with unnaturally smooth edges. The toe of his shoe had caught on the exposed end of it as he’d been walking by, and after a moment spent clutching his foot in pain, he had dropped down to examine the strange object.

It’s too straight to be a tree, too uniform on all sides, like the wood was polished at some point. Like someone put some work into it.

"What's what?" Daesung asks, and finds Seungri with arms thrown wide, balancing atop something equally unnatural. Something metallic, he notes, squinting against the reflected sunlight. It is as tall as their hands are long, a solid line spanning east and west as far as the eye can see. When Daesung stands he sees that there are two of them, side by side, connected in between by wooden slats.

“This,” Seungri says and hops off, disturbing the bed of gravel that supports it all. “It’s kinda cool, whatever it is.”

The others catch up, looking over the mysterious structure with wide, bewildered eyes.

"Some kind of boundary marker?" Jiyong speculates. "A fence?"

Youngbae kicks one bar lightly, wincing when it doesn't budge.

"Weird fence if you ask me. Too short. You can just…" He steps over, planting one foot on either side. "…walk right over it."

Not done playing yet, Seungri skips over the rails and waves at them from the other side.

Then there is Seunghyun. "Reminds me of the roads back in the city," he says, shielding his eyes as they follow the rails west, to the setting sun. "How far do you think it goes?"

"We could follow it."

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Daesung, remembering what he had been doing before Seungri distracted him, grabs the rod on the ground and pulls, throwing his whole body into it. Brittle dirt crumbles and falls as it breaks the surface. When he's done, he stands there holding a pole as tall as he is—a few inches over, actually—and at the other end of it is tied a sheet of canvas.

He blinks down at it in surprise. Is this…?

"What the hell? Gimme that." Jiyong bends down and grabs at the heavy, stained cloth. And with all five of them soon pitching in and digging in the dirt around it, they uncover the full makings of a tent.

"From an old campsite?" Seunghyun wonders while they work to wipe the pieces clean of dirt and debris.

"I tripped over it," Daesung says in explanation, but no one seems to care how he found it, only that he did.

"Or part of an encampment," Youngbae suggests, turning back to the tracks. "For whoever built this… thing."

An uneasy silence hangs over them as they look back and forth between the day’s discoveries.

"Let's just stay here tonight. We've gone far enough for one day," Jiyong sighs, his weary voice reflecting the fatigue they all feel. "We can use this for shelter." He gestures at the splintered rod Daesung still clutches proudly.

Accident or not, he is excited about what he’s just found. Even if his poor foot is still feeling the effects.

A more thorough search of the area rewards them, and before the sun has set they have unearthed three more poles and a few shreds of what may have been clothing or bedding, it's hard to say when they’ve been underground for so long. They use the scraps to fasten everything together until they have a shelter just large enough to fit the five of them if they tuck in tight. It keeps the wind out, at least, and feels safer than sleeping under the open sky, nothing around for miles but prairie grass that whispers in the wind.

"Good find," Seunghyun tells him when they’re bedding down later that night.

"It found me," Daesung chuckles, rubbing at his sore foot. He is just glad it hadn’t torn through his shoe. They left the city with nothing but the clothes on their backs; this is the only pair he has.

It was good they gave themselves a head start, leaving the city at sunrise. They knew their absence would not be noticed until day’s end when they failed to return to the gates. Daesung thinks they might not have even been followed had Seunghyun not slaughtered those men for him—what’s a few stray wolves to humans when they have a whole city of them to keep tabs on?

But there is no sense in dwelling on that because what’s done is done, and they had come after them, hunting them with hounds and horses, the baying of their dogs driving them onward in desperation. They had walked calmly out the city gates, but before long were running.

It was not the dogs Daesung feared; it was their masters behind them, and what they would do them if caught. Seunghyun would sooner die than go back to that place. Live free or die, he had said before pulling him into the river and letting him cling to him all the way across, keeping him afloat.

It was not one of Daesung’s proudest moments. He never did learn to swim. And in those moments when he thought the current would suck him in, holding fast to his mate’s back, he was prepared to go down with him.

It was only by good fortune that they hit several sources of water along the way, rivers and streams that they used to confuse their scent trail. And before long the dogs’ excited cries died down and the hunt was called off and the threat of capture—and the certain death Daesung knows would have followed—vanished on the horizon, just another memory.

Since then they have journeyed far, keeping course with the sun as it rises to their right and sets to their left day after day. Where they expected scatterings of human settlements, they have seen none.  Nothing occupied, nothing abandoned. Only an endless string of days crossing flatlands untouched by human hands.

Until now, Daesung thinks, lying on his back and watching the canvas overhead flutter in the wind that lives here. He has never minded a little wind, but out here on the plains it never seems to stop. He’s just grateful not to feel it on his face for once.

Maybe, in the stillness they’ve created, tonight will bring him kinder dreams.

 

 

--

 

 

When he opens his eyes the next morning, he is the last of his packmates to wake. Everyone else is already up, heads turned to the sun, listening intently to...

What is that?

"Something’s coming," Jiyong says ominously, and if Daesung was not awake before, he is now.

That is when he hears it. It’s unlike anything he has ever heard before, and he struggles to identify it. A long, drawn-out howl cutting through the morning, deep and resonating. Not like the coyotes whose voices rise and fall in frenzied song. This call is closer to the lowing of the cattle that overtook their land and drove out their wildlife when humans moved in.

The sound rings out again, and this time Jiyong lurches to his feet and pokes his head outside their tent in search of the threat.

Daesung does not know that it’s a threat… but instinct whispers to him that whatever is making that noise, it sounds unsafe.

"What do you think—" is all he gets out before Seunghyun is grabbing a fistful of his shirt and pulling him to his feet and out the front of the tent.

"Smoke! To the east!"

"It's coming this way," Seunghyun says, returning to the tent for their shoes. "Shit, what could have started a fire all the way out here? We should get going."

"There’s no fire," Jiyong says, stopping Seunghyun before he can go far. He lifts an arm and trains a finger on a speck of black in the distance. "The smoke is coming from that."

And then they wait, watching on high alert as the thing approaches. Daesung fights the urge to flee, curiosity warring with caution. Bouncing on the balls of his feet, he stands by, ready to run at a moment's notice.

Then one of them does run, but not away.

A snarl is all the warning he gets before Seunghyun is gone from his side, charging at the tracks, planting feet on the wooden slats with hands curled into fists and a scowl carved into his angry face.

Daesung knows a challenge when he sees one. He also knows this is a challenge that can’t be won.

"Seunghyun!" Jiyong is the first to shout since Daesung’s throat is too busy closing up in fear.

In a flash Youngbae is on the tracks with Seunghyun, strong arms wrestling the other wolf back. “What the fuck are you doing?” he growls against him, and soon Daesung is there too, dragging him into the grass by the arm and shaking with the effort it takes to ignore his mate’s angry snarls.

"I’m standing up to the threat since no one else will!" Seunghyun roars, lashing out at them both.

"You don't know what that thing is," Youngbae says into his ear, sweating with exertion, "Or what it's capable of!"

"I can take it!”

"You don't know that! " Daesung cries and buries his face in his shoulder, and then Jiyong and Seungri are adding their weight and Seunghyun’s legs are giving out and they’re all going down in a jumbled heap in the grass.

Daesung’s face is still in Seunghyun’s shirt when the thing roars by, but there is no mistaking how massive it is by the way it shakes the ground. Or how fast it's traveling.

Seunghyun sits up suddenly, throwing him off, and Daesung cannot avoid it any longer. He watches as it rumbles past, spewing plumes of dark smoke into the air, bruising the sky black. The sound, the one from before, blares again, and this time their hands fly to their ears to cover them—at such close range it's deafening, it hurts.

He thought gunfire was bad, but this is worse.

It rolls by on giant wheels with a roar like constant thunder, like the devastating winds that precede a powerful storm, like the rushing of a flooded river overrunning its banks. It is a solid wall of steel and sound and Daesung is cowed by it, they all are, staring up at it in terror and awe.

There is power in this creation that no werewolf could have withstood, not even one as fearsome as Seunghyun.

And then it’s over. It disappears down the rails, the smoke from its stack scattering as it rises, the air clearing. Daesung turns to his packmates, their faces bloodless, and succumbs to a full-body shiver.

Something tells him they just missed becoming smears on the tracks.

"What the fuck was that?" Seunghyun says, short of breath—and shaking a little himself, Daesung can feel where they are touching.

"Something that would have killed you if we hadn't stepped in, that's what," Youngbae snaps with uncharacteristic venom. "Forgive me for not wanting to scrape what's left of you off the rails."

Seunghyun sneers. "It looked smaller from far away."

They watch it disappear, that godawful horn trumpeting across the plains as it goes. Fortunately, the growing distance between them softens the sound, no longer the torture it was before.

"That… that was amazing," Seungri says at last. He turns to Jiyong. "You’ve been around. Have you ever seen anything like it? What do you think it was?"

"Nothing natural," Jiyong says, face grim. "That was a human creation, I'm sure of it."

Seunghyun snarls, staggering to his feet. "Fucking humans." He stalks over to the tracks and scoops up a handful of rocks to sling at the cloud of smoke to the west. "We’ve gone so far. But not fucking far enough."

"So, we keep going?" Daesung bites back a tired whine. Until when? Until we drop? "When do we stop? Where are we even going?"

"There," Jiyong says, pointing north, across the tracks, and as one they all follow his hand.

Seungri squints—then turns wide eyes on Jiyong.

"We're going to the mountains?"

The stunned silence is broken when Seunghyun bounds over and slaps a hand onto Jiyong’s shoulder in excitement, a swift change taking place, his anger all but forgotten.

"The mountains? That's where you've been leading us all this time?"

Daesung stares at the pale silhouette of a mountain range in the distance, blue at the base with tops coated in white. They look humble now, not unlike the hill-covered lands where he grew up, but it must be like Seunghyun's perception of the beast they just watched power on by—deceptively small from far away, imposing up close.

His eyes study the snow-capped peaks, mind racing with questions. They have never been to the mountains before. Most of them have never even seen mountains. Are they really ready to make their home there?

Jiyong turns to them with a promising grin. "You're all tired of life on the plains, aren't you?"

He's right. Life out here is hard for them. A successful hunt requires more than stamina—they need the element of surprise. They lack that here, with nothing but sage grass and the odd clump of trees to hide them. Their prey is plentiful, but when cover is scarce, getting close enough to catch them is difficult at best.

It's dull too. Their world has been reduced to nothing but flat land and clear blue skies. No matter which way Daesung turns, the horizon is the same. It's… dizzying. If it was not for the sun and the stars he would have no sense of direction, no way of knowing where he is going. Daesung misses all the features of their old home—the hills and valleys and rocky bluffs and leafy trees—and he knows his packmates do too.

An arm curling around his waist pulls him back to the present.

"Hey. We're going to the mountains," Seunghyun says, ducking in close to brush lips over his ear.

"I heard."

Seunghyun draws back. "You’re not excited?"

"I think I will be," Daesung says, not sure yet how to feel about the announcement. He had sensed that Jiyong was taking them somewhere specific, that as their alpha he had somewhere in mind for his wandering pack, but…

The last time they set out to build a new life for themselves Daesung nearly lost his. After all they’ve been through, he isn’t sure he’s ready for another big shift.

But he supposes that is what they’re doing now, isn’t it? Crossing the world on foot in search of somewhere better. And if his pack wants to continue their journey into the mountains, believing in a brighter future, he will not be one hold them back. He will tag along as he always does, because a wolf who loves his pack does not simply desert them over a few shadowy doubts.

Daesung leans into his mate, deciding to hold his peace. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.

He slides his hand into Seunghyun's waiting one and through a thin but hopeful smile says, "To the mountains."

 

 

--

 

 

"Looked a little different from far away, didn't they?" Youngbae teases, jabbing Seunghyun in the ribs.

"Shut up," Seunghyun says, shoving back with a grin, even though Youngbae is right. How does something like this even happen? Nature is amazing.

"I had no idea they could be this big," Daesung says, head tipping farther and farther back as he tries to take in the full view of the mountains before them. "They're… they’re huge."

“And to think, we’re about to go over them.”

Daesung looks over at him in concern. It takes Seunghyun a moment to figure out why.

"I know what you're thinking," he says, shoving hands into the pockets of his jeans and leaning back to better appreciate the towering peaks and the slopes that seem to stretch on forever. "But this is nothing like the city walls. So don't worry about me."

He hated those walls, yes. And though what looms before him is a barrier, it is a natural one, and one he can cross if he chooses. The magnificence before him was not constructed with the goal of keeping him in or out. If he decides he want to see the other side, no one is going to stop him.

Well, his packmates might. But not with guns or gates or, worse, a fixed number of permission slips per month.

God. He had wanted to tear those things to shreds. But those allowances had been his saving grace, his last line to the world outside, the land vibrant and alive. The only thing he had to look forward to at the end of each day besides returning home to his packmates.

Every sunrise and sunset brought him one day closer to the next time he could pass through those city gates. One day closer to another taste of freedom. One day closer to escape.

Here, though, he can go wherever he pleases, whenever he pleases, without notifying anyone, and needing no one’s permission but his own. The only thing standing in his way is the climb.

And though standing here in the shadow of the mountain calls to mind his own insignificance, too small to make a difference in this great big world, that’s okay. He is not here to change anything or leave anything behind. He is just here to survive. And something about this place has him feeling strangely… safe.

Just as he had despised living behind walls, he felt similarly ill-suited to wide open spaces. Much of his time on the plains was spent in a restless state, fending off a prowling anxiety, as if he was not made for such flat, featureless terrain.

This though... this feels right.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" he hears from Jiyong who twirls to face the pack, arms thrown wide in delight. "Our ancestors lived here long ago in a place just like this. I've always been curious about our origins."

"Origins?" Youngbae says, grinning at him.

"Yes. Surely I’m not the only one who wonders where we came from.”

"Oh, Daesung can tell you that," Seunghyun says, joining in. "He’s got stories galore. More than you can shake a stick at. Wait ‘til he tells you the one about the— ow," he laughs when Daesung smacks him.

"Don’t make fun of my mom’s stories."

"Wait, ancestors?" Seungri's face scrunches up in confusion. "Which ones? The ones with two legs or..."

While Seungri is talking Seunghyun sees Youngbae sneaking into position behind him, mischief in his eyes with their youngest in his sights. Then, when he’s nearly upon him, he lowers his mouth to his ear and howls, long and loud.

"Shitfuck—did you have to right in my ear?!" Seungri hollers, swatting at Youngbae who laughs and laughs.

"Did that answer your question?" he says when the laughter dies down, wiping at his eyes.

"That was mean," Jiyong says without any heat, "but yes, that is what I meant. Those ancestors."

Seunghyun wants to join in his packmates’ antics, but his good humor fades when he turns and finds Daesung looking over the slopes, seeming a little lost.

"What's wrong? You seem spooked."

"Nothing, I just..." He watches his mate’s eyes scan the mountainside, as if searching for something. "Do you think there could be wolves here?"

"Actual wolves? Not werewolves."

Daesung nods.

"Doubt it," Seunghyun says, dismissing the notion. "When was the last time anyone saw a wolf, dead or alive? I've traveled a lot more than you have and I've never even heard of encounters with wolves. Not since before our time, anyway."

"Maybe they just didn't live to tell about it."

"The wolves?"

"The people who encountered them."

"I thought you were interested in wolves. All those stories you loved," Seunghyun says, his grin back in full force. Stories that Daesung had then passed along to him, in bits and pieces throughout the years. He wishes sometimes that he could have met her, this woman who instilled in his mate so much wonder.

Daesung says nothing in reply but his hands tell Seunghyun everything he needs to know as he plucks at the front of his coat, fingers toying with the zipper, a nervous habit.

"Hey, don't be afraid. Be hopeful, for a new and better beginning," he says, taking Daesung's hand in his and leading him onward—while they were talking the others saw fit to go on without them, and that is not okay, and he needs to make sure they know it. But he wants Daesung at his side as he does it. "Let’s go."

Time to begin the climb. He can't wait to see what awaits them on the other side.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The trees are so different here, Seunghyun notes, growing tall and straight like arrows pointing to the sky, reminding them to keep looking up. Back in the land they once called home many of the trees were short and squat, little more than overgrown bushes. Others grew as far outward as they did skyward, their leafy branches low to the ground making them difficult to see around. It was easy to lose themselves in those trees. Or their prey. Or their enemies.

Here, however, they tower like giants, and Seunghyun sees something simple and elegant in their bare trunks, devoid of branches until, tipping his head back, he spots some way up high. The canopy far above them seems as impossibly out of reach as the sky itself.

A laugh rings out through the forest, joined by another, and soon another.

His packmates are not far. Last he checked they were amusing themselves by wrapping their arms around the trees, marveling at their size, at how their hands don’t even come close to connecting on the other side. Seunghyun told them he'd be back and had wandered off to do a little exploring of his own.

He would be over there goofing off with them—he was for a time—but something else has just caught his interest.

The trunk of a tree, smooth gray bark with a silvery sheen. Yett its surface is marred with deep claw marks, and beneath the bark is wood that’s red like flesh.

If he didn’t know better, he would say the tree is bleeding.

"I can't, it's too big!"

Daesung's laughter sails through the woods again, followed by Youngbae's "Seungri, get on the other side, see if you can reach his fingers with yours."

Curious now, Seunghyun twists around to see what his packmates are up to now. He finds their two youngest on opposite sides of a monstrous tree, their arms stretched as far around its massive trunk as they can go. Jiyong is at Daesung’s back, pushing him into it like that will somehow help. On the other side Seungri is suffering the same abuse at Youngbae's hands.

"Ouch! Stop pushing!"

"We're just trying to help," Jiyong sighs, ditching Daesung to pick on Seungri instead. "But I guess your arms are just too short."

"No, this tree is too damn big," Seungri snaps, scrubbing at his cheek where it’s covered in angry, red indentations of rough bark. "Why are you always picking on me."

Jiyong sidles up to him, taking his arms in hand at the elbows, suddenly contrite. "Because I love you, stubby arms and all."

"Stubby?!"

Seunghyun snorts and returns to the tree he had been inspecting, leaving his packmates to their games. Jiyong is always on his case about his handling of Daesung, but the way he sees it, it's nothing compared to the constant pecking Seungri has to endure.

Alpha and omega, he thinks, shaking his head. A most unlikely pair.

He traces fingers over the marks, considering them. Then unsheathes his claws and does it again, carving paths into wood that’s surprisingly soft, and when he is done, measuring the width of the old gashes against his own fresh ones.

Whatever made these marks, whatever was here before him, was bigger.

Bears, probably, he thinks, and digs his claws in deep, rakes them over the existing marks until new wounds crisscross the old.

It is a challenge. And a claim.

“Wolves have moved in, and we’re here to stay,” he says to himself with no small amount of pride. This is their land now, and no one—not men, not bears—is going to take it from them this time.

 

 

--

 

 

They decide to keep the canvas, rolling it up when it's time to move on and carrying it to their next stopping point. Without other settlements to scavenge from, building materials are in short supply. They are truly on their own this time.

Daesung drops the bundle of fabric on the ground with a heavy sigh.

"Tired yet?" Seunghyun asks him, slinging an arm over his shoulders. He knows his mate hates lugging it around. He is probably regretting ever finding it.

"Can't someone else carry it this time? Why does it always have to be me?"

"Because you're the strongest," Jiyong says matter-of-factly. "Unless those muscles of yours are just for show?"

Daesung sticks his bottom lip out in a pout. Seunghyun wants to kiss it off.

"Doesn’t make me your pack mule," he mutters under his breath, but Seunghyun hears it. "Good thing we left the poles behind. I probably would have ended up carrying those too."

"Nah, that honor would have gone to Seungri," he says, giving his shoulder a squeeze. "Chin up. We’re done for the day anyway."

Daesung doesn’t shrug him off, but in in the set of his shoulders Seunghyun senses a thickening tension and removes himself. It’s strange to see him acting up like this. His mate is normally so mild-mannered and eager to please. Especially with Jiyong, who, as alpha, is to be respected at all times.

…which is funny, Seunghyun thinks, since he and Jiyong bullshit their way around each other all the time. Jiyong lets him get away with too much. Seunghyun knows better than to ask why.

"Just bring it over here. We'll string it up between these trees," their leader tells him, and Daesung sighs but does as he is told, bending down to drag the heavy canvas over the ground rather than gather its bulk up in his arms again. Even his tail seems tired, listless against the backs of his legs.

"Seungri, go help him," Youngbae says, sending their youngest running with a slap on the ass. Seungri obeys and trudges over to Daesung but makes sure to glare daggers at Youngbae all the way.

Seunghyun would expect nothing less; if Daesung is getting grouchy, Seungri will not be far behind.

Hours later the woods are growing dark and the five of them are still fussing with their tent, if it can be called that.

"Should've kept the poles," Seunghyun mutters as the corner he has been wrestling with for the last hour unfurls and flutters to the ground again.

“"Only if someone else carried them," Daesung cuts in.

"I would have carried them if it meant finishing this fucking tent before dark," Seunghyun growls, frustration mounting. They have thrown together temporary shelters before; this should not be so hard.

Youngbae shoots him a dark look. "It wouldn’t have helped," he snaps, "not when you don’t have a clue how to connect the parts. That first when night we had a proper tent, who did most of the work while you were busy tripping over things and getting in the way? Oh yeah, me."

"We helped," Seungri starts up, sounding huffy.

Seunghyun growls again, feeling like a failure and hating it. "Whatever. Fuck it, this isn't working." He stomps away, fuming, and it helps to relieve the heat somewhat. But it doesn’t last. When he turns and sizes up their flimsy shelter, he feels a pang of embarrassment—this time for all of them.

Worse, the wind is picking up, and it's only making their job harder.

"We need something sturdier than this."

"It's only temporary,” Jiyong says, joining him in surveying their work. "We'll build something better later." His face screws up in uncertainty. "Somehow."

"Yeah, somehow. Because not one of us knows how to build an actual fucking house," Seunghyun snaps. They have never needed to. Their old home, little more than a rickety shack, had been built by someone else. And by the looks of it, long abandoned by the time he and Jiyong and Youngbae had chanced upon it that one lucky day. So what if it had been falling apart from neglect? It was theirs.

And their house in the city...

Seunghyun doesn't want to think about their time in the city.

So he watches, defeated, as Daesung cries out, his corner of the canvas slipping free of his hands and escaping to the forest floor just as his had minutes before.

"I just thought this would be easier," he says, tempted to do the same—just flop onto the ground and call it a day. "We’re an embarrassment to werewolves everywhere. Can't even pitch a proper tent."

"Wow, we’re not that bad." Jiyong offers him a smile, and maybe it is just his alpha influence, but… it helps. "We'll put together an A-frame hut or something once we find a place to settle. Since something like that takes work."

"And this doesn't?"

"This... shouldn't." Jiyong drops his head into a waiting hand, rubbing at his eyes. "Not this much."

"See? Embarrassment."

"You're right about one thing though. Having poles would make this easier," he continues, "so why don't you go find some for us?"

That’s… not a bad idea, actually. He can do that.

"I'll see what I can find," Seunghyun says and turns into the wind, lets it ruffle his hair and scrub away the frustration of the last few hours as he sends up a shout, "Daesung, Jiyong is sending us on a mission!"

Jiyong squints at him.

"What?"

"If Daesung goes with you, are you going to get anything done?"

Seunghyun laughs and throws an arm over Daesung’s shoulder when he shows up at his side, seeming eager to apply himself to something else, a new task, anything besides the tragedy that they are calling a tent.

"C'mon you, let's go find wood," he says and leads a smiling Daesung away.

"Find wood," Jiyong says with a knowing look. "I'm on to you two."

Darting in close so Jiyong does not hear, Seunghyun purrs into Daesung’s ear, "Yeah, it's a game. You find the wood," he says, sweeping a hand down his back and around his tail until he has a good, firm hold on his ass. "And then I'll hide it. Right here."

"Seems counterproductive," Daesung murmurs back.

"Who said anything about being productive? This is about having some fun."

Daesung takes his hand and guides it around front.

"And then you'll find mine too, right?"

"It would only be fair."

Daesung flashes him a naughty grin, and Seunghyun is reminded that his mate only looks innocent; deep down he’s dirty as hell.

"You know I'm up for it, but don't you think shelter is more important right now?" Daesung lifts his nose to the air, testing it with a few good sniffs. "I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the wind getting stronger. And I think I smell rain."

"Then there’s something wrong with your nose, because I don’t see a cloud in the sky," Seunghyun teases, tilting the other wolf’s head back with a hand under his chin. "Just look at all that blue."

Daesung laughs and takes his head back. "Okay, okay, whatever you say."

And with that they go, but in the seconds before they disappear over the hilltop that separates them from their pack, Seunghyun catches a snippet of conversation between the three they've left behind.

"Think they'll be back before sundown?"

"Something’s going on with the weather. I think rain?" Seungri has joined them. The last one left working, he has finally given up. "You don't think they would let us get drenched, do you?"

"Not like this canvas is going to keep water out," Jiyong sighs, resigned to his fate of getting wet— if it does, in fact, rain.

"So... Seunghyun and Daesung? Back before sundown?"

"A blowjob says they won't be."

"You're on."

 

 

--

 

 

To Seunghyun's surprise and slight disappointment, they end up doing what they set out to do: gather wood. There is plenty of it scattered across the forest floor, but pieces sturdy enough to support the heavy canvas require more careful searching. They find a few good ones—long, stiff limbs that grew reasonably straight before they broke off and ended up in the dirt.

He is tucking his third piece under his arm when the first drop of something cold and wet hits his nose.

Then, without further warning, the whole sky opens up.

"Shit, shit, shit—Daesung! Where—"

Daesung comes flying at him in a blur and they collide, wood falling everywhere—out of their arms, into the air, into the mud with a splash—and they leave it there. A little wood is not worth the shock of standing around in cold rain coming down in sheets. They can come back for it later.

So whatever is left they drop and run, not knowing where they're going, only needing to be out of it. As luck would have it they don’t have to go far and are soon ducking into the remains of an old, hollowed-out tree, huddling together for warmth and laughing—no, giggling like they haven’t since they were young and dumb and reckless enough to enjoy being caught in such downpours.

…oh wait, Seunghyun thinks, remembering that he hasn’t outgrown it yet. He loves the rain. He just wasn’t ready for it.

"Where did it come from?! The sky was clear just a minute ago!" Daesung cries, grinning even as he tries to merge with the tree wall at his back in an effort to stay dry. The top of the tree has been shorn clean off, leaving its interior—and them—exposed to the rain.

"Must have come over the mountain," Seunghyun guesses, still catching his breath from the sudden sprint. Years of watching thunderclouds roll over the hills of their old home taught them that though storms can advance quickly, they always arrive with some kind of warning.

Apparently, that does not hold true here. One downside to dwelling in a valley, he supposes.

Daesung meets his eyes, exhilaration blowing his pupils wide.

"Is it always gonna be like this?"

"I think we'll get better at knowing when it's coming," Seunghyun says, deliberately ignoring that Daesung had known, he had just talked him out of it. "New land, new weather patterns?"

Daesung collapses in laughter again and falls into him, forehead colliding with Seunghyun's collarbone a little harder than is comfortable... but soon his face is tucked in nicely against his neck, and Seunghyun's hand is on his nape, fingertips tracing the band of scars he knows is there.

Not scars that Seunghyun gave him. Scars from the city.

Like the tree they are sheltering in, a shell of its former self, Seunghyun has seen signs of nature's great power in their travels. The carnage of downed trees with cracked and splintered trunks, roots ripped from the earth and rotting in the open air.

Something happened here. They may never know what. All they have to go by is what's left.

Damage.

Scars on the land are like scars on their bodies, he thinks, mapping the marks on his mate's neck with careful hands, following their raised surfaces, little pain-filled paths etched into his skin. For Seunghyun they serve as reminders of a time he failed to keep the most important promise a wolf will ever make to his mate: the promise to protect.

Daesung's shoulders draw up and Seunghyun half-expects him to guide his hands away as he so often does these days. For Seunghyun, Daesung's neck has always been a point of interest—he has always been weak to the sight of him tipping his head back and offering it up for exploration. But ever since the city the other wolf steers his lips elsewhere, rarely allowing him to roam like he used to.

Something happened here. Seunghyun knows what, though sometimes he wishes he did not.

These are nothing like the marks he has made on him over the years, gifts that Daesung keeps like treasure. Seunghyun thinks them elegant, delicate crescents and dots adorning his skin as decorative as fine jewelry, white like diamonds when the light catches them just right.

His palm flattens over the side of his neck, fingers pressing in and feeling where smooth skin meets rough edges. There is nothing beautiful about these scars. Daesung never brings them up or talks about them, but Seunghyun knows he thinks them hideous.

Secretly, silently, he agrees.

These scars are ugly, a collar created out of hate. He wishes he could remove it, wants to tear it from his mate’s skin like a chain, ripping it into a hundred tiny links and losing every last one in the grass at their feet.

"Not a bad place to hide from the rain, huh?" Daesung says, sounding grateful.

"It's alright," Seunghyun replies absently, his mind more focused on what’s under his hands than what’s around them.

"Now if only we could find one big enough for all five of us."

"It would have to be the world’s biggest tree."

"Wonder what happened to it. Lightning strike?"

Seunghyun hums in thought, his attention still divided. "Could have been. Maybe it was already on the decline and the lightning was the last straw. Or maybe a lightning strike is what started it all."

His hand glides back up Daesung's nape and into his rain-soaked hair, scratching at his scalp in a way he knows he likes. If he gives his fingers something to do up here, maybe he can keep from clawing at the marks down there.

Daesung's breath falls hot and slow over his throat as he relaxes and lets Seunghyun pet him. His shoulders sag, the stress bleeding out of them as his neck is spared, and soon Seunghyun feels bare arms settling around him, still so warm under all the wet.

Daesung’s visible scars hurt them both, but Seunghyun knows it's the scars he can't see that hurt him most.

Returning the embrace, he presses in, touching lips to the top of his head. Holding and being held and paying no mind to the trickle of rainwater down his cheeks.

I won’t fail you again.

The light soon fades but the rain does not, streaming from a sky determined to empty itself, the steady roar of water through the treetops reducing their world to just the two of them tucked away in their little hollow. And here Seunghyun pulls Daesung a little closer, holds him a little tighter, one hand in his hair and the other wound in his shirt at the small of his back, and desperately hopes that it’s true what they say: that lightning never strikes in the same place twice.

 

 

--

 

 

"We got caught in the rain," is all the explanation he gives when they return to the others shortly after sundown, dragging wet tree limbs in the mud behind them. Jiyong wears a fierce scowl at their approach, but it is soon wiped away. He smirks at Youngbae.

Youngbae rolls his eyes and turns around with a wave of his hand. The message is clear: later.

"Caught in the rain? Is that all?" Jiyong says with a greasy grin.

“What do you think?” Seunghyun says with a grin of his own, feeling just as smug. Hunting for materials, hiding from the rain, and later retracing their steps to where they had dropped them had taken a bigger bite out of the day than expected… but not so big that they hadn't found time to squeeze in mutual, hurried hand jobs. How else were they supposed to pass the time until the rain ran out? It was as if Mother Nature herself had worked up an excuse for them to spend some quality time together. Alone.

"Took you long enough!" Seungri cries, red in the face, and Seunghyun cannot stop himself from laughing at the sight of him.

"You're pretty feisty," he throws back, "for someone who looks like a drowned rat."

Seungri glowers at him through his hair, pale bangs plastered to his face.

"At least you weren’t goofing off the whole time." Jiyong gives the tree limbs they have dropped at their feet a glance. "But it doesn't matter now. Look at us." He throws his arms wide, wet clothes hanging off his slender frame. "What's the point?"

"It might rain again?"

He sighs, "Whatever. Let's just get this thing done."

And with that, the five of them get to work once again. This time their tent goes up without a fight, the heavy canvas finally tethered to something sturdy.

Seunghyun does not mind sleeping in the open when circumstances call for it, but this is unfamiliar territory. He doesn’t know these lands, not yet. Until then, he is glad to have something over his head when the crickets start their nightly song.

Not long later they are bedded down, their damp clothes hung nearby to dry.

"It's so dark," Daesung says softly. He is on his side, propped up on one arm and watching Seunghyun clear a space for himself. The rainclouds have moved on, but the canopy of trees high overhead shuts out the moon and stars completely; were it not for their keen night vision, they would know each other only as disembodied voices in the dark.

Which would be a real shame, Seunghyun thinks, having his mate so near—and so naked —yet unable to lay eyes on him. Wouldn’t stop him from laying hands on him though.

"I wish we had a blanket or something.”

"You're cold?"

"Not really. But you know I like having something to curl up under."

Creature comforts. Not a necessity, but he sleeps better with something to hold. Most nights he goes to bed with one and wakes up with two, his and Daesung's.

"Here, let me just…” And a moment later hot skin is up against his, Daesung pushing his back up against his front. "Better?"

"Much," Seunghyun says, draping an arm around his middle. It may not be the blanket he wanted, but this is an offer he will never refuse.

Behind them their packmates are fussing at each other, their voices piercing the dark.

"You owe me a blowjob, you know."

"I'll pay up later," Youngbae promises in a voice that is sleepy and soft. "Too tired. Long day."

There is a moment of silence, then some shuffling, and finally Jiyong calls out quietly, beckoning, "Seungri..."

"You called my arms small."

"Didn't say it was a bad thing," he croons oh-so-sweetly.

Seunghyun hears someone turning over, skin sliding over soaked grass, and smiles into the back of Daesung's neck. Omega he may be, but Seungri is sassy, and not one to take an insult lying down. Not even one poorly disguised as a compliment.

"Fine, whatever, go on thinking my arms are small. As long as we both agree on what isn't."

"Your ego?"

That’s it. He can't take any more of this.

"If you're trying to get laid you're going about it all wrong," Seunghyun twists around to snap at Jiyong. "If you're gonna fuck or whatever, drop the act and just do it already.” If he has to listen to their verbal sparring any longer he is going to lose it.

Silence again. A stalemate? Minutes pass, and just when Seunghyun thinks they have rolled over and gone to sleep, the whisper of wet lips and wandering hands fill the air between them.

Fuckin' finally.

He loves them like brothers and likes to let them work out their problems themselves, but sometimes they need that push to cover the last few inches between them. The way he sees it, their incessant pecking at each other is only tolerable when it leads to fucking. Which it usually does.

The alpha and the wannabe alpha. Like the sheep they have seen scaling the rocky slopes in recent days, the males sporting giant, curled horns, they are bound to butt heads from time to time.

Burying his nose in Daesung’s hair again, Seunghyun breathes deep, relishing the scent of his mate. He would like to let his lips wander, to work his way down and suck and nip at his skin like he has always done... but there is still something in the way.

It’s those damn scars. He doesn't know how to approach them.

His arm around him squeezes, crushing—and quickly lets up when Daesung lets out a surprised breath.

"It's okay," Seunghyun hears, Daesung finding his arm and pulling it back into place over his belly—soft on the surface, but underneath there is such strength. "You weren't hurting me."

"That's not why—” He stops short, because yes, that is why he pulled away, and Daesung knows it. “Are you sure?"

"I'm better now. Stronger. I'm not going to break."

Again, you mean, he silently fills in for him. You’re not going to break again.

He wants desperately to believe that, to take him at his word, but... it was never Daesung's physical strength that he doubted.

"It's the scars, isn't it. They bother you."

Yes, he cannot bring himself to say, and hides his face in his neck again. You aren't the one who has to look at them all the time.

"Well?"

"A little," Seunghyun says softly, relenting.

Is it too much to want to cover them up with marks made of love? To rewrite the story of what happened to him? If only it were possible. If only Daesung would let him try.

Daesung turns in his arms to peer at him over his shoulder. "Remember when I told you it was an accident? Maybe," he says, sounding like he might be smiling, and it’s all wrong, "maybe you can just go back to believing that."

"Fuck that, I'm not letting you carry this alone," Seunghyun growls, sticking his fingers into his ribs in reproach, fingertips itching, claws yearning for action. If Daesung has to live with this burden, so will he.

"What do you mean, you guys are always making me carry things," Daesung grumbles, feigning irritation. "We already have an omega, and his name is Seungri. Give him some of the heavy lifting sometimes."

This again? Seunghyun tickles his sides, loving how it makes Daesung squirm against him. "I know what you’re doing."

"What?"

"Deflecting."

“I’m—” Daesung laughs and curls inward when his fingers grow bolder, attacking him under the arms. “I’m not! I’m just voicing a complaint! About the way this pack is being run."

Seunghyun smiles into his shoulder and decides to let it go... for now.

"I'll talk to Jiyong about it," he says, and decides he's feeling up for a little distraction himself. He skims a hand down the other wolf’s front, thumbing briefly at the line of hair that begins at his bellybutton and fades a few inches down, following it until he has his sex in hand, pleasantly warm and heavy and still soft… but not for long.

If distraction is what Daesung needs to get through the day—or through the dark of night—he will happily lend him a hand. And if this is the only way he ever comes undone again, Seunghyun will consider his promise fulfilled.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The matter of building themselves a shelter solves itself, as luck would have it, when their path deeper into the mountains takes them right by a cave.

It will need some work, of course, but it's a solid start. A shallow cave at the top of a gently sloping hill, three strong walls and a ceiling carved in stone. Shelter from the wind and rain and snow. And by all appearances, unoccupied.

The others venture inside, curious about their lucky find. Daesung stands outside the entrance, the afternoon sun warming his shoulders and the top of his head, and stares into the cave mouth, wondering at the mystery of what lies within. But where he expects apprehension, he finds exhilaration instead. Perhaps it’s knowing that his packmates are just inside, waiting for him to join them.

He senses Seunghyun watching him, waiting for him to work up the courage to take that first step and pass out of the light.

"You coming in?"

The last to enter, he wanders inside.

"Yeah, I’m—"

"Oh!" Seungri whips around, excited. "Can we call it a den? As in, the den?"

"Call it whatever you want," Jiyong says back, sounding distracted. "Maybe one day we'll call it home."

Daesung blinks in the sudden dark, letting his eyes adjust as he considers that. Home. Can they really settle here, in a place like this?

Touching a hand to the cave walls, he finds them rough in most places yet worn smooth in others, the surface almost polished. One section near the entrance draws his eye.

"Why is this wall so smooth?"

"Maybe that side gets more rain."

He jumps in fright when, from behind, something loops around his neck, a warm weight settling against his back.

"Seunghyun," he says, relaxing into the embrace. "Don’t scare me like that."

"What’s to be scared of?" Seunghyun leans his cheek against his, and Daesung can feel how he smiles. "Not me, I hope."

"What do you think of this?" he asks, returning his attention to the wall. He cannot keep his hands off it, the cool stone inviting him to touch.

"If it is rain that did this, we'll have to put up some kind of wall to keep it out," Seunghyun says into his ear. He hums in thought. "A den, huh? Now we're really living like wolves."

Daesung can’t help how his tail gives a little wag at that, the furry tip sweeping the fronts of Seunghyun’s thighs… and once it starts he can’t seem to make it stop.

"You like it?"

"I do." Already he sees them waking in the morning to the sun’s first rays sneaking in. He sees the walls covered in trinkets and baubles—a collection of feathers and cleaned bones and cracked open gemstones and other items of interest picked up on a whim, curiosities to fill this cave and help make it a home. He foresees the five of them hauling back with them what they cannot consume in the field, fresh from the hunt, and storing it for a late-night snack. With startling clarity, he pictures his packmates sprawled out on the cave floor in the summer, keeping cool in the shade, and clustered around a fire in winter, huddling together for warmth.

"I can see us living here,” he says, summing up his vision rather plainly.

"Good. So can I." Teeth nip at his earlobe and Daesung shies away, untangling himself from the other wolf’s embrace. "And even better, it's nature-made. Carved out of the mountainside just for us."

"Not just for us. Something else lived here once," Youngbae says, reaching for something on the cave floor. "Something that ate meat like us."

Seunghyun holds up a hand, signaling for Youngbae to throw, and catches the thing when he tosses it his way. It’s bone, once long and thick and strong… but now it is broken, one end cracked off by what Daesung imagines must have been impressive teeth set inside powerful jaws.

"Probably a bear," Seunghyun says, offering it to him—and when Daesung shakes his head, tosses it over his shoulder and out the mouth of the cave, forgotten.

They soon set to work fixing the place up, and the first improvement they make is installing a wall along the entrance—though it is less a wall and more an extension of the mountainside, stacking heavy stones atop each other and packing them in with a mixture of grass and mud. It is a tedious process, and by day's end Daesung's palms are dry and cracking from tearing up clumps of grass and kneading the blades into a sticky paste. But their wall looks nice, at least. It might even actually hold up.

"We just made it out of a city surrounded by walls," he wonders, looking over their work. "So why, again, are we building one?"

"To keep the rain out," Seunghyun tells him. At his dubious look, he continues, "It’s just a small wall, it’s not like we’re not closing the whole thing up."

Daesung shakes his head, patting down a rough section. "After this, no more walls. I’m done with walls."

"You and me both."

When they are almost done Daesung sees Youngbae staring up at their wall with hands on his hips, eyes focusing somewhere near the top.

"What are you looking at?"

Youngbae’s eyes slide in his direction, and just like that, he regrets asking. He knows that look and what it means: nothing good for him, usually.

"Just wondering how we’re going to reach the top,”" Youngbae says, rubbing at his chin, "but I think I have an idea."

Minutes later, after some awkward—and at times painful—maneuvering, Daesung has him balanced on his shoulders, arms locked around his packmate’s shins to hold him steady.

That's all I am to them these days, he thinks, resigned to his fate, just another beast of burden.

"Bet you wish it was Jiyong up here, huh," Youngbae says, steadying himself with a hand on his head—no, in his hair—while the other he uses to pack the last few handfuls of mud along the top of their wall, sealing it off. Mud that Daesung had mixed with care before he was assigned the role of giant stepping stool.

"I don’t know…" He adjusts his grip and tries to ignore the growing ache in his shoulders. "Jiyong might be lighter but he's skinnier too. Would I want his bony ass digging holes in my shoulders?”

"I heard that," Jiyong says, stepping around the wall to tweak the tip of his tail—and when that doesn’t get the reaction he wants, pinches his ass instead.

"Don't!" Youngbae cries, holding onto Daesung's hair for dear life as they nearly topple over. "He'll drop me!"

"You'll be fine," Jiyong says. Then, to Seungri, who is staring at their newly-formed wall with a face that screams skepticism, "What's with that look?"

"Won't it just melt into mud again when the rain hits it?"

It sounds like a valid concern, and one Daesung thinks they should definitely have considered before putting in all this work, but Jiyong’s eyes flash at being challenged and Daesung has seen this dance between these two often enough to know how it ends. He purses his lips and waits for it.

But someone beats Jiyong to it. This time it's Seunghyun who gets him, snagging their youngest by the back of his shirt collar and dropping a handful of freshly-mixed mud down his back.

"Leave the planning to your seniors," he says, watching with cruel delight as Seungri flails.

"Hey—ugh! Seunghyun!" Of course, once is never enough for Seunghyun. While Seungri is wiping at his back without success, he scoops up another handful, eyes lit with a look of pure evil. This time he smears it through Seungri's hair, turning blond locks brown.

"What the fuck, stop!" Seungri complains, ducking out from under his dirty hands.

"Mud is definitely your color," Seunghyun says, stepping back and out of the way.

"Did you have to get it in my hair?"

"You should just leave it like that," Seunghyun adds, grinning wickedly. "Since we're going hunting in the morning."

Daesung sighs when Youngbae climbs down, and as soon as he is off pulls his shoulders back, the joints popping. It's true that Seungri would benefit from the camouflage—his bright hair when he doesn’t hide it has an unfortunate side effect of scaring away their prey—but if there is one thing Seungri cannot stand it’s dirtying his hair for no good reason. He will only agree to it when necessary, and only for as long as necessary. No way is he going to sleep in it.

He scrubs ineffectively at the back of his shirt, wearing a dark scowl. Soon Daesung is frowning too; it was funny at first, but the joke is over, and unlike his older packmates, he does not enjoy standing around and watching him continue to struggle.

"You're just making it worse," he says and helps him out of his shirt, balling it up and using it to wipe the mud slicked down his back. By the time he is finished, the shirt is caked in brown; he drops it on the ground where it lands with a disgusting squelching sound.

Seunghyun stares down at it with what might be the first stirrings of guilt. "You were going to have to wash it anyway."

"Yeah, later. But now I—ugh, it's all over my tail too.”

"I think we're pretty much done here," Youngbae says, standing and giving their wall a once-over. "So if you want to go and wash up…"

Without another word, Seungri heads downhill toward the stream that led them here, taking his wadded-up shirt with him.

"Don't go alone," Jiyong calls out after him.

Glancing down, Daesung takes in his hands and arms coated in a thick brown paste up to his elbows. It’s already drying, pulling at his skin and beginning to itch.

"I'll go with him," he offers, already turning to jog after him—but not missing Jiyong’s grateful smile.

Down at the stream he finds Seungri flat on his back in the water, dappled sunlight playing over his closed eyelids, at peace in nothing but his own naked skin.

"You waste no time."

The other wolf sits up suddenly, water sluicing off him. "The water feels great. You should join me."

"No thanks. I'm good." Daesung crouches at the water’s edge, holding his tail high out of habit to keep it dry.

Seungri shrugs and sweeps his wet hair back in a way that Daesung would describe as provocative . No more mud; his blond locks are once again as blinding as they have ever been, even dripping wet.

"So… what do you think?"

He feels himself being watched while he splashes water up and over his arms, cleaning the grime from his skin.

"Of what?"

"This place," Seungri clarifies, shifting his weight onto one arm so he can use the other to gesture at the sights that surround them—the stream's soft banks and the trees that grow alongside it, their exposed roots, their branches dipping gently into the water. "Do you like it?"

Daesung tucks in his chin before Seungri can see how his words have touched him. He wants to know what he thinks of their new home? First Seunghyun, now Seungri? Why do they care so much about whether he likes it or not? Would it make a difference if he didn’t? He knows they know that wherever they go he will follow.

"It's nice," he answers softly, scraping absent-mindedly at the dirt under his nails. "Seunghyun seems happy."

"I wasn't asking about Seunghyun.” Seungri’s hand falls back into the water with a splash. “But of course he’s happy. He's just glad to be away from the city. He hated it there."

"You liked it though."

Seungri does not reply right away, and in the silence that stretches on between them Daesung rubs a thumb over his knuckles for good measure. Buffing away stains that are no longer there.

"Have you noticed that we haven't run into any coyotes yet? Don’t you think that’s weird?"

Daesung has noticed, and he is grateful for it. Coyotes are more a pest than a real threat to any of them, but they are quick and clever, a combination that makes him nervous. And their chorus of yips, yaps, and yelps in the dead of night never fails to creep him the fuck out. Still hating it after this many years, he doesn’t think he will ever get used to it.

"I guess,” he says, “but I don't miss them at all.”

"Silly as it sounds, I kind of miss having them around." Seungri sighs. "They were fun to mess with."

"Fun to steal from, you mean."

"That was one time!"

Daesung grins. "Was it worth it? One stolen rabbit in exchange for weeks of not being able to get yourself off without help. But oh, wait." He pauses for effect. "You didn't even get the rabbit in the end."

"Yeah, ha ha, sucks to be Seungri." Seungri lets out a massive sigh, seeming aggravated… but the smile on his lips gives him away. "Whatever, I learned my lesson in the end. Don't fuck with the coyotes or you might get rabies."

"You didn't though."

"No, but that didn't stop you all from locking me up for weeks to make sure I didn't start foaming at the mouth."

Daesung frowns. "None of us wanted to..."

"Cage me up?" Seungri finishes for him. "Okay, but don't think Jiyong wouldn't do it again if he thought he had to."

Though it had pained him terribly to do it, Seungri’s quarantine had been Jiyong's idea. Their leader had taken such a fancy to the younger wolf right from the start—from the first swing Seungri had taken at him.

Daesung thinks it had something to do with his spirit, how he had thrown himself headlong into a fight he likely knew he could not win, all to prove a point. The kid had spunk, and though Daesung doesn’t quite understand it, Jiyong had seen something he liked that night… and had made sure to keep it.

Hostile wolves like Seungri had been don’t generally get invited into packs. Hostile wolves get killed.

Before he can say anything more, Seungri is on his feet and making his way through the water toward him. "Whatever. I'm over it."

Daesung watches him pick his way through the stream, bare feet balancing on the rounded stones along the bottom, aided by his tail sticking out behind him. Upon reaching the shore he pulls on his underwear and pants, then slips two fingers into his shoes and slings them over his shoulders along with his shirt. No shoes, no shirt... just sunlight on unprotected skin.

"You'll slice your foot open," Daesung admonishes when he starts up the hill like that.

"Thanks, Mom, but I can handle it." Seungri grins and wiggles his wet toes in the grass.

Shaking the last of the water from his hands, Daesung shrugs and follows after him. "Suit yourself."

"City life was too easy on me. I think my callouses have gone soft. Gotta toughen 'em up again somehow, right?"

Easy? Just thinking that word coats the back of Daesung’s tongue with something bitter. It was that easy way of living that had misled him, lulling him into a false sense of security. He thought he was safe there. He hoped he was. But if this life has taught him one thing, it is that while a little hope can get you far, too much of it can get you killed.

He had been too trusting. Too optimistic. Too naive.

But no more of that. It’s time to live smart again, to look out for himself as he did before hope blinded him. Time to listen to instinct when it warns him away from things that might cause him undue pain. It’s time to be a wolf again.

 

 

--

 

 

Early the next morning, when the sun is still beneath the trees, the clouds the color of a blush, they emerge from their den and set out in search of prey.

The animals here are larger than what they have fed on before. In their travels they have passed plenty of deer, but the deer here are different somehow, with bodies that are bulkier and antlers that splay wide and branch like great trees. Most striking of all are their pale faces, white with a forehead that is a rich, dark brown.

"They have your hair," Daesung hears a second before Seunghyun tugs on the fringe that falls over his eyes. He may need to ask Jiyong to cut it again soon before it blocks his vision entirely.

"Great," he mutters, but Seunghyun is right; the buck they are stalking lifts its head, showing off a shock of brown "hair" that stops right above its eyes.

"Maybe they’ll accept you as one of their own." His mate plays with his bangs, making them messier than they already are. "Go on, give it a try."

"Quit it," Daesung says, swatting at his hand. “You know it’ll just run off.” And he does not want to be responsible for making their first hunt in their new home a failed one.

"Look at those ears, they’re fucking huge!" Seungri whispers emphatically, eyes wide. "How are we supposed to sneak up on something with ears like that? It can probably hear us a mile away."

"It can probably hear us now," Youngbae hisses, slapping a hand over his mouth.

"It's called stealth," Jiyong joins in, "Something you obviously still struggle with."

"I covered my hair," Seungri says defensively, referring to the fresh mud he had applied on their way out.

"I'm not talking about your hair. There's more to stealth than not being seen."

"Like?"

"You're kind of... loud."

"Only when you’re picking on me!" Seungri hisses, bristling all over, and Daesung sympathizes with him, he does, but the outburst only proves Jiyong's point—the buck they’ve been tracking bounds away, disappearing into the woods like a gray ghost. Here one second, gone the next.

At least he is not to blame.

But it's not all bad, continuing their search, because just after sunrise they crest a hill and find something breathtaking awaiting them in the valley below.

"What is that," Seungri says, voicing what the rest of them are thinking. It's clearly some kind of deer, but...

Seunghyun turns to Daesung with astonished eyes. "Is that a deer? Or a horse with antlers?"

"Elk," Daesung breathes, unable to look away from such large creatures, and in such large numbers. Unlike deer, which spend much of their time alone or in small groups, the elk congregate in vast herds, many members strong. The sight of so many at once fills him with open-mouthed awe... and a sudden, twisting hunger.

He has heard amazing things about elk meat.

"Where I come from we call them wapiti." Jiyong shrugs. "But elk works too. I like it. It's shorter."

"I thought you didn't like short things," Seungri says under his breath. He shuts up when Jiyong swats him on the head.

"You’re still sour about that? It’s not like I said your dick is short, what’s the big deal?” He turns to his second-in-command, throwing a friendly arm over his shoulder. “Anyway, if that was true I wouldn't be best friends with Youngbae."

"Ouch," Seunghyun says, snickering.

Youngbae rolls his eyes. "The only reason I'll let that slide is because we're best friends." Then he is rising up on his elbows for a better view, pointing. "Nothing short about those antlers though. Look."

Daesung stares at the big male that has just come through the trees and into the clearing.

"Its antlers alone are as big as we are," he breathes, awed.

What’s more, they are still growing, wrapped in a layer of skin and short, fine, velvety hair. He hopes his packmates are not thinking about going after that one; he wants to see that crown again months from now when it’s done growing.

"Can we even take down something that big?"

"Sure we can," Seungri says with such certainty that for a moment Daesung actually believes him. He sees Jiyong giving him an appreciative look. "What?"

"Nothing," their leader says, smiling softly, "just admiring your confidence."

Finally, a compliment, Daesung thinks when Seungri returns their leader’s smile with one of his own, as fierce and unwavering as his faith in the five of them and their ability to accomplish whatever they set their minds to.

And so, working as one, they bring down their first ever elk. It's a matter of moving into position undetected, and once they are all in place, springing into action.

The hunt is on.

Utilizing their great speed, they throw themselves at the surprised animals until the herd is on the run, stampeding. The females bellow in fright at the sight of them and flee, surprisingly fleet-footed for such immense creatures, some of them with young calves at their sides, galloping away atop gangly-looking legs.

Daesung eyes one as he closes in, tempted. He could handle a calf on his own. Something that size would be easy prey as long as its mother does not come to its aid. But they have not had a good meal in weeks; a calf would not feed the five of them.

Not today, then, he thinks, and lets it run back to its mother.

To his left something on two legs catches his eye. It's Youngbae, fastest of them all, gaining on an aging cow elk that is struggling along under an obvious limp, an old injury she cannot hide now that she is forced to move. He locks on to that weakness, his mind made up.

This one. She'll do.

Altering course sharply costs him valuable time and Youngbae reaches her first, sinking long claws into her hide and tearing at her hindquarters, and soon it is no different than any other hunt. Daesung joins in, aiming for the neck but falling short and slashing at her shoulder instead, his claws coming away bloody, strips of flesh dangling from their tips.

Before he can try again the others have caught up to them, their teeth and claws out with fatal intent. Against the five of them, her size is not a factor and she soon slumps to the ground, long legs giving out under their combined weight.

The rest of the herd moves on, forgetting their own, and Daesung holds fast to one hind leg, waiting for a cue from Jiyong to eat. He can’t dive in without permission. All his alpha has to do is give the word.

With blood on his hands and bliss on his face, he does. And then they feast.

Elk meat is every bit as delicious as he had heard, Daesung is glad to learn, lowering a slab taken from the flank into his waiting, wide-open mouth.

"God, I fucking missed this," Seunghyun growls, coming up to breathe with blood dripping down his chin.

"What, getting bloody?"

"Fuck, yes, didn’t you?" Seunghyun says, eyes raking over him like he’s next on his list to eat. "Here, let me help you…"

Daesung squeezes his eyes closed but otherwise doesn't move while Seunghyun smears fresh blood over his cheeks and nose, warm and wet.

"That's better," he hears, and before his eyes are even open again he finds himself agreeing. He had forgotten how right it feels to wear the evidence of their kill, to celebrate the effort it takes and the satisfaction it brings.

So they tuck in and eat their fill, stuffing themselves to the brim, full to bursting with so much warm meat. The nutrient-rich organs they wolf down first, the main course in a meal of generous portions that they’ve earned .

Daesung flops onto his back in the bloodstained grass, arms thrown wide.

"I think I ate too much," he groans and pretends he doesn't see Seunghyun eyeing his distended belly with interest.

This is, he realizes a bit late, way more meat than they need and far more than they can consume in one sitting. His mouth wants to keep eating, still craving the texture and the taste, but his stomach is telling him he’d better not. One more mouthful and it might all come back up.

Jiyong shoots up from where he had been bent over, face buried in the cooling carcass. Droplets of blood from his soaked hair fly into the air. His face is warped in a grin that’s positively predatory.

Daesung’s lets his eyes drift shut, a shiver crawling down his spine at the killing look.

Seconds later something else is crawling down him, but it’s not in his spine this time—it’s atop his belly.

"Boy or girl?"

His eyes fly open. "Huh?"

Seunghyun taps his swollen belly with two bloody fingers. "The baby. Think it’s a boy or girl?"

Daesung drops his head back into the grass and laughs , surprised and abashed.

"You're still thinking about that? You're obsessed!"

And I'm damaged goods.

He lets his head roll to one side, wondering where that came from. It isn’t wrong though. Even if he had the parts for it, even if he could, he cannot imagine carrying their pups, not anymore.

Not when he’s like… this.

He can feel Seunghyun’s eyes on him burning holes into his skin, and lies there, wondering what comes next.

"I still think they’d be perfect," his mate says, stroking his stomach with reverence.

Daesung blinks away… something. Swallows down more of that something.

"I..."

"You...?"

"I used to be able to eat more than this,” he says, tacking on a pained moan for effect. "I think my stomach shrunk."

“This doesn’t look shrunk to me.” Seunghyun stops petting him. "You’re really done already?"

"Uh huh."

"Sure there's not room for a little more?" Then the palm on his belly is flattening over him and pushing, prodding, applying more pressure where he really doesn’t want it.

"Don't," Daesung says on a gasp and rolls onto his side to escape the assault. Seunghyun laughs and finally lets him go when he curls into a tight ball—or as tight a ball as his bloated stomach will allow, anyway.

"So," Seungri says, talking with his mouth full after a juicy bite of liver. Daesung is surprised Jiyong let him have it. "Are we taking any of this back with us?"

"Actually, yes," Youngbae answers, and before anyone can wonder what he means he is crouching over the animal’s back and making a series of cuts with his claws to separate skin from muscle. Then, with deliberate slowness, he peels it back, pulling the skin from the body in one solid piece.

He holds it out in triumph, showing it off.

"We've tried tanning hides," Seungri reminds him. "They always rotted. Or dried too hard to be any good."

"I don’t know what you were doing with all your free time back there in the city," Youngbae says, "but I had things I wanted to learn, and I found people willing to share their secrets. What do you think the humans were doing with all those coyotes they killed?”

"They taught you how to process hides?"

"I didn't like their hunting methods any more than you did, but it wasn’t all for nothing. They showed me a few things, things I should have learned a long time ago," Youngbae says, laying the hide out on the ground and rolling it up neatly. Then, standing again, his gaze sweeps over the four of them, eyes lit with a flame of renewed purpose. "And now I'm going to teach all of you."

 

 

--

 

 

They have tried this before without much success, scraping hides clean and stretching them out to dry in the sun. The end result had always been too stiff for a blanket or any kind of clothing, and they stank. Worse, when exposed to water, the hides would rot. What they had they soon threw out, and that had been the end of their tanning endeavors.

Until now.

With Youngbae’s guidance, they stretch the hides over wide, flat rocks and scrape them clean with crude blades made of sharpened stones until the skin side is free of meat and fat and membrane. Then, when the hide is free of organic debris, down to nothing but skin and hair, they apply the brains.

Seunghyun has a strong stomach, but brains are not something he encounters often. Even he makes a face when they stir it up spread it over the skin like a paste, pale pink goo sliming up under his bare hands.

After that they build a fire and suspend the hide over the smoke, taking care not to breathe too much of it in. And finally, they work it over a log for hours, running it back and forth to break down the fibers in the skin and soften it up—a monotonous process that would put Seunghyun to sleep if it was not such back-breaking work.

Afterward though, when the drudgery is done, he sleeps like a log. It takes great commitment to turn a raw hide into something they can use, but they all pitch in and help, because here they are on their own, they have nothing else, they need this.

Luckily for them, since elk are so large, a single hide goes a long, long way.

That is also when Seunghyun learns that one of them did, in fact, manage to sneak something out of the city—a small sewing kit concealed in the pocket of Jiyong's jeans, complete with a few tiny needles and some spools of thread spun from wool. Just enough to make repairs to minor rips and tears in their clothes. The needles are too thin to pierce leather, however. Something longer, sharper, and stronger is needed.

Using what he learned working for the tailor, Jiyong fashions a leather needle from bone. Seunghyun watches as, with a careful hand, he cuts a notch at one end and through it strings sinew—they have learned to make that too. He spends days like that, hunched over their freshly tanned hides, using his new tool to stitch them together until they have one big blanket for the five of them to share.

And since they need to keep eating, they keep on hunting and keep on harvesting hides, and soon they have more to lay out on the ground as bedding, a layer between their bodies and the cold cave floor. And when it rains, just to be safe, they pick them up and pile them at the back of the den so as not to let all their hard work to go to waste.

Seunghyun curls up under their newest blanket, this one made of several skins from deer, softer than elk, pulling the edge to his nose to take a curious sniff. There is a smell, a hint of animal musk, natural and not too strong.  All in all, it does not stink, and he burrows deeper into the warmth it provides, sufficiently satisfied. Outside, the light of day is fading, the sun's final rays reaching in and illuminating the walls of their den.

It’s not easy, living like this, but in these moments when he can lie back and indulge in the fruits of his labor, knowing he did this, with his own two hands… it’s all worth it.

Behind him the blanket lifts.

"You look comfortable," Daesung observes, quietly amused.

"I am. This is the best blanket… because we made it," Seunghyun says, wrapping the deerskin tighter around himself until the hairs tickle his cheek.

A single, clawed finger skates down his back. Seunghyun turns lazily, pushing into it.

"There's a hole here," Daesung says. He scratches at him through his shirt again, smiling slyly. "I can fit—" Seunghyun feels a second claw join the first. "—two fingers in it."

Seunghyun flips onto his back and pulls him down with him, throwing the blanket over the both of them. With Daesung half on top he slides a hand down his back, over his tail, into his pants, between his cheeks, until he finds what he’s after.

"There’s a hole here too," he says, teasing a fingertip over soft, pliant skin. Dipping one in. "And I can fit more than two fingers in it."

Daesung just laughs, and then he is diving in and sucking Seunghyun’s lips into a sweet, spontaneous kiss.

"Doesn't take much, does it," Daesung says between kisses. "All you need is the word hole and you're ready to go."

"Don't act like you're not," Seunghyun returns, pushing his hips against his in a slow grind, his need clear. They are both hard as the rock walls around them, and in the perfect position to do something about it.

That’s all it takes before Daesung is slinging his other leg over, rolling fully onto him under the covers, lips locked while Seunghyun nudges his pants down and kneads him open, readying him for what’s to come.

He has two fingers buried in him, then three, deep in Daesung's heat while he ruts against him, his mate reaching for his own pleasure while he prepares him. His cock is hard but inside he is soft and yielding and Seunghyun cannot wait to get in there with more than just fingers. He crooks them and pulls, surprising a high, needy sound out of him and sending more blood rushing to his own aching cock and fuck, he's ready, he's so ready—but is Daesung?

He pulls out and squeezes his hip, wet fingers slipping on hot skin. "Are you—"

Their world abruptly goes dark and they jerk apart, something light and soft landing on their heads.

"Cut it out. Trying to sleep over here."

Daesung yanks the sweaty shirt off and flings it somewhere behind them, deep into the den, and together they glare at Youngbae's back.

"Did you just cockblock us?" Seunghyun growls.

Youngbae growls back. "This isn't like back in the city, we don’t have our own rooms anymore," he says, sounding surprisingly grouchy. "We're literally sharing a bed again. I don't care if you guys want to fuck, but can’t you do it quietly?"

Seunghyun looks to Daesung, uncertain. Can they?

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

"Fuck off. You're just jeal—"

He doesn't get to finish before Daesung's lips are covering his, catching whatever angry words he had for Youngbae and kissing them away. When he is finished he pulls back slowly, tugging on Seunghyun’s lower lip with a hint of teeth, just how he likes it.

"Don't," he pleads, moving back up to dot quick, soft kisses at the corners of his mouth. "Maybe we can just... keep it down this time?"

"You know I don't like to hold back," Seunghyun whispers into his mouth, hiding the words away inside his heat where Youngbae can’t hear them. Not with you. Never with you.

Daesung swallows what he gives him, he always does, and then his weight atop Seunghyun disappears.

"It’s just for tonight. Let's just..." He falls onto his back and beckons him to follow, a hand pulling at his cock, hungry for him, wanting. So Seunghyun does just that, shucks off his pants and takes himself in hand and lines up, finding his way in without much fuss now that they’ve been hushed. In the dark he knows where he is going but Daesung comes to his aid anyway, a helpful hand on his cockhead guiding him in… and once he is there he buries his face in the slope of his shoulder, latching onto skin to muffle his moans, hating every second of their silence, his and Daesung’s. Their heavy breathing mixed with the slide of skin on skin is the only music he will ever need, except that one critical component is missing.

You're still mine and I want the whole world to know it, he thinks after, resting on his mate with spent cock softening against his hip.

"Let me hear your voice," is what he says instead, and Daesung cards fingers through his damp hair, chanting his name like a song of praise, as quietly as he can, for his ears only, "Seunghyun, Seunghyun."

 

 

--

 

 

"What’re you up to?"

Daesung looks up from the flower whose petals he had been stroking.

"I see that my fingers are moving the petals," he says, "but I don't feel it."

Youngbae gives him a smile as warm as the morning sun above them. "They're just that delicate," he says, crouching at his side. "You’ve got to be gentle with them. Otherwise..."

He doesn't finish, but he doesn't need to. Daesung knows what happens when handled without care. He has been the cause of crushed flowers more times than he can count.

"Why do you like them so much?" he asks, genuinely curious. Youngbae put so much effort into painstakingly removing them from their place by the stream and transplanting them here. "Because they're pretty?"

Youngbae turns his face into the sun, eyes closed, seeming at peace.

"They don't last."

"And that's a good thing?” Daesung asks, tracing the folds in the petals. Thinking of how much time they have before they shrivel up and die. “It would be nice to have them year-round. Especially in the winter when everything’s just… gray.”

Youngbae shrugs, turns his gaze outward, into to the valley that stretches out below them, light from the rising sun setting the treetops aflame, golden and glowing. He relaxes, leaning back until he is propped up against the wall of their den—the wall they formed themselves, with their own hands and a little ingenuity.

"I just think there's something special about things that fade. Knowing that they won't be with us forever... it makes me appreciate them more. You know?"

Daesung does not know. He prefers the unchanging, the familiar. The constants in life. The things he can rely on to be there for him when he goes looking for them.

"Or not. I forgot you want everything to stay the same," Youngbae says, ruffling his hair.

"It's safer that way," Daesung says, ducking his head and letting him. His hair is already a tangled mess from a morning spent tossing and turning; what’s a few more knots to work out later?

"You mean boring."

"Oh, whatever. I know nothing lasts forever."

Youngbae hums in thought. “These mountains might.”

Daesung does not get the chance to reflect on that because just then something buzzes by, missing his face by inches.

Bee!

He is already on the ground, so it doesn’t hurt much when his feet slip out from under him and he falls on his ass, scrambling backward while Youngbae looks on and laughs.

"This is your fault!" he cries, eyes never leaving the bee. "Your flowers came with bees!”

Daesung appreciates the splash of color his flowers have brought to their den, but not the stingers on wings that come with.

"What’s the big deal? It’s just bees." Youngbae rises, patting him on the leg on the way up. "You know how it is with things that sting: don't bother them and they won't bother you."

He wanders back inside, probably to pester the others into getting up. Daesung stays where he is, keeping an eye on the bee as it lands gently on the flower he had just been admiring, combing over its soft petals in search of nectar.

Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.

He stares at its warning stripes, yellow on black, and longs to go back to a time when he might have believed that.

 

 

--

 

 

With every passing day they venture farther and farther from the den, needing to see for themselves more of this land they have chosen to call home. Today they are making their way up a slope in a strung-out line, hiking through a field alive with color and filled with the fragrance of flowers in bloom.

They're a short way into it when Seunghyun notices something missing—steady footsteps at his back and, more importantly, the person who was making them.

"What's wrong?" he turns and calls back to Daesung, who has stopped at the field’s edge and seems fixated on the flowers.

"I… I think I'm gonna go around,” he says, looking a little lost.

"What? Why?"

"What if there are bees?"

A little way ahead of them Youngbae lets out a laugh.

Seunghyun frowns. "Seriously? Bees? That's what you're afraid of?"

Daesung flashes him a smile—a weak, fleeting thing—and a moment later picks up his feet, meticulously picking his way through the flowers toward him. Seunghyun lingers there while he catches up, confused but willing to wait.

He stops when he reaches his side, and Seunghyun flicks his hair out of his eyes fondly. "What's the real problem here?" He knows his mate is scared of everything that moves, but refusing to set foot in a field of flowers for fear of bees would be a new low, even for him.

"I didn't want to step on the flowers," Daesung confesses, quietly enough to keep it between the two of them.

"You…" Seunghyun blinks at him, digesting that slowly. "…what?"

The other wolf picks at an old hole in his jeans, fingers worrying at the seam where Jiyong had stitched it up with such care back in the city.

"I know it's stupid," he says, voice borderline defensive. "It just doesn’t feel right."

Wrong? Seunghyun looks back and forth between him and the field they are standing in, at an ocean of flowers as far as he can see. The healthy ones swaying in the breeze. The flattened ones under their feet.

He was wrong about his fear of bees. This is a new low. What kind of wolf goes out his way to avoid trampling flowers?

"Youngbae."

"Yeah?"

"Stop planting weird ideas in Daesung's head. I know you like flowers and all, but this is a little extreme."

"Huh?"

"Stop it," Daesung hisses, "This isn't about him."

"Then what is it about?" Seunghyun asks, worried. It may seem like a small thing, but all this tells him is that he does not know what's going through his mate’s head, and that alarms him.

It didn't bother you before, not knowing, a small voice points out, watering that seed of doubt. So why now? What are you afraid of?

Seunghyun doesn't get the answer he was waiting for, because a moment later Jiyong is there with them, bounding over and dropping a crown of flowers onto Daesung's dark head of hair. He grins, pleased.

"Did I hear someone say something about liking flowers?"

Daesung frowns, touching a hand to the flowers strung together by their stems, feeling their fragile petals with fingers that seem somehow regretful. "Now they're gonna die."

Jiyong steps in close to thread a few loose ends back together. "They were going to die anyway. Might as well enjoy them a bit before they're gone."

Daesung seems to accept this and Seunghyun is relieved when he looks up them through his fringe, his eyes no longer quite so sad.

But that does not mean it’s time to move on. They hang around for a bit while Jiyong makes crowns for them all.

"We look ridiculous," Seunghyun says, brushing a hand over Daesung's yellow crown with more care than he knew he had in him, though Daesung doesn’t seem to notice. His attention is somewhere else, lost in the spotless summer sky, or in the towering peaks that hem them in, or in the scores of trees that, strangely, cease to grow at a certain point high on the slopes. One of these days he will have to investigate that.

"Hey," he tries, tugging gently on his crown. "You feeling okay?"

"I'm fine."

In the blazing afternoon sun his scars burn a bright, searing white. Seunghyun has to look away.

"Just checking,” he says.

"Why?" Then, a beat later, eyes still fixed on some faraway point, "Nevermind. Don't answer that."

I wasn’t going to, Seunghyun thinks, a little stung.

He tips his head down and lets his crown fall into his waiting hands. His flowers are a vibrant red, his favorite color. With his slender fingers, Jiyong likes weaving together dainty things like this. His work for the tailor back in the city taught him to be methodical with his hands in a way he had never been before.

Seunghyun though, his fingertips are too calloused for the softness of flowers, his skin too thick from years of use and abuse. Knitting together wearables from things that could fall apart in his hands is just not for him.

"Are you two coming?" Jiyong's voice carries far in the clear mountain air. To Seunghyun's surprise, he and the others have moved on, exiting the field while Daesung’s eyes were on the landscape and his eyes were on Daesung.

He wants to touch him but does not know how he would be received. Here in the light Daesung should be radiant and warm, a hint of sweat on sun-kissed skin. But all Seunghyun senses from him is cold.

"Come on," he says, offering him a hand, one that he eventually takes. "Let’s catch up."

When they reach to their packmates Jiyong takes one look at Daesung—at his hands still feeling their way over the flowers in distraction—and gasps.

"Stop touching it, it'll come apart!"

"Sorry, sorry," Daesung says, hands dropping to his sides and curling into fists, which doesn’t escape Seunghyun’s notice.

He needs something to keep his hands busy. It used to be the hems of his shirts or the denim of his jeans, but these days they only have one set of clothing each… and where there are claws involved, accidents happen. Already Jiyong has threatened not to mend any more holes they might make.

So Seunghyun takes one of Daesungs’ hands in his, ignoring the insidious fear that his touch will be rejected, and lets his mate fiddle with his fingers the rest of the way up the slope, squeezing at his knuckles and kneading at his palm. He even feels the prick of claws a few times, but always where his skin is toughest so it does not hurt.

Before long they arrive at the ridge Jiyong had brought them out here to investigate. Said it might make a good vantage point for hunting and scouting and making sure they aren’t caught unaware by any more freak storms.

What they were not expecting was for the wind to be so strong at the top. When a sudden, intense gust tears their crowns from their heads and bears them down the slope, back the way they came, Jiyong cries out in dismay.

Seunghyun though, Seunghyun laughs, not at all sad to see them go. The flower crowns were fun for a time, but now it seems the land wants its flowers back. And it can have them. Hand in hand with Daesung, he's got a good, tight hold on the one thing that matters most. It will take more than a little wind to steal him away.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Where's Seungri?" Jiyong asks late one morning, emerging from the den on bare feet and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Seeing sunlight for the first time since last night while Daesung has been up for hours. Waking with the sun has long been his preferred way of starting the day.

"Who knows. He was here when I got up," Seunghyun says, slouching against the rock wall at his back. "Where does he even go?"

Jiyong yawns. "You know how he is. Never can sit still for long. I think he likes all the travel we've been doing lately."

"He gets restless," Daesung adds, feeling a need to defend Seungri since he is not around to do it himself. "He liked the city, you know."

Seunghyun scrunches up his nose at that. "The sights and sounds?"

"No… the people."

And if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't have had to leave them. Daesung frowns and looks down at his lap and what lies across it. He continues laboring over the deerskin in his hands, breaking the damp leather with determined fingers. He is getting better at this. The harder he works it, pulling the fibers in the skin apart as it dries, the softer the leather becomes. And it has the added benefit of keeping his hands occupied while his mind wanders freely. Sometimes a little too freely.

Seungri is out there wandering freely too, he realizes, lifting his head to sweep the canopy of trees in the valley below, imagining for a moment that he can see through the foliage, all the way to wherever Seungri may be right now. He had risen around the same time as Daesung and had left the den shortly after. He could be anywhere by now. With nothing limiting him but the strength in his own legs and the bond he shares with the four of them, he could, if he wished, go so very, very far.

Daesung doesn’t understand it, his packmate's drive to broaden his horizons, when all he wants is someplace to call home.

"He was so excited about the den," Jiyong sighs, "but he's never even here to enjoy it."

Not looking up from his work, Daesung says, "You miss him."

"Yeah," Jiyong admits with a lopsided grin. "Yeah, I guess I do."

"He'll be back." On those days he wakes with adventure in his heart, Seungri can go far, but he will return to them, Daesung is sure of it.

But then, wolves are creatures of action. Even though it seems it’s all they’ve done lately, they never did like waiting.

"Or better yet, why don't you go find him? I bet it wouldn't take you long to sniff him out."

"Hunt him down?" Jiyong throws both arms in the air and stretches, bending backward and grunting in contentment when his spine cracks. "Yeah, I could do that."

Seunghyun stirs from where he has spent the last hour lounging in the steadily-warming sun. He was supposed to be helping Daesung with the deerskin, but his usefulness had not lasted long. Now he is, as he calls it, "overseeing."

Although, how he is seeing anything with his eyes closed, Daesung doesn’t know.

Lazily, Seunghyun cracks one eye open to land on Jiyong. "When you find him, rough him up a little for me, will you? He hogged the blanket all night."

Daesung snorts. "Pot calling the kettle black."

"What’s that supposed to mean?”

"Nothing," Daesung says, hastily returning to his work. It was just something he had heard in the city. They have never had any need for such things as pots or kettles or cooking utensils, but the humans they lived among had depended on them, and Daesung may not have Seungri's knack for new words and phrases but he had picked up a few things.

Jiyong shuffles over to them, slouching all the way. Still waking up. When he reaches Seunghyun's side he digs bare toes into his thigh.

"Rough him up? If his blanket-stealing bothered you so much, why didn't you ? You said you saw him this morning."

"He wasn't around long," Youngbae says, appearing from behind a nearby boulder and doing up the fly of his jeans. "Besides," He leers down at Daesung, eyes flitting between him and Seunghyun, "These two were too caught up in each other to pay him much attention."

Seunghyun shoves him, smiling. "I was taking care of Daesung."

Dropping the deerskin, Daesung shoots him a dirty look. Seunghyun had not been taking care of him, he had been taking care of Seunghyun. They had both seen Seungri roll out of bed and leave the den, sure, but they had not really seen him. Seunghyun's eyes has been closed, and Daesung? He’d been doing his best to stuff his mate's morning wood down his throat.

Seunghyun loves waking up to a good morning suck. As someone who likes to sleep in, some days it's the only way to get him up with the sun. Daesung would let him rest, but there are days he wakes up hungry, his stomach growling at him to fill it, and while he can feed himself just fine, they always hunt better in pairs. The promise of a fresh kill, a hot meal, is worth the extra effort.

Not to mention that Seunghyun would freak if he woke up and found him gone.

He puckers his lips, pushing them out just a bit to catch the other wolf’s eye… and cannot resist a little self-satisfied smirk when, as expected, it works.

Daesung knows why he stares. He recalls in vivid detail baiting Seunghyun the same way that morning, showing him his lips before lowering them to the head of his cock and murmuring into that hot, red flesh, “I'm hungry.” Seunghyun had groaned and cupped his head as he’d parted his lips and proved his point by gulping him down as eagerly as he would any other red meat, just without the teeth.

"Alright then! You've convinced me," Jiyong announces, breaking him from his reverie. Seunghyun startles too, whatever spell that bound him to his lips broken. "Time to go catch me a Seungri."

"Remember what I said about giving him hell," Seunghyun reminds him. "Do it for me."

"Oh, don't be too hard on him," Daesung tries, sympathetic to their younger packmate's plight. "I mean, unless he wants you to."

"I will only be as rough with him as he wants me to be," Jiyong promises sweetly, but the glint in his eye says otherwise.

Youngbae shakes his head at his friend. "Do I need to tag along and play mediator?"

"You can tag along and watch."

"Ouch, Jiyong. Cruel." Youngbae's hand flies to his heart, pained.

"You know I'm just fucking with you," Jiyong says, skipping over to him and slinging an arm around his best friend's shoulder. "Come on, let's go wrangle our wayward pup."

Daesung bites his lip to keep from laughing; if Seungri was around to hear this, the woods would be ringing with his rage for days. "You're never going to stop calling him that, are you."

"Pup?"

"Yeah. You know he hates it."

Jiyong’s grin is fiendish. "Why do you think I still use it?"

Daesung flips the hide over in his lap, shaking his head. Pup. Jiyong used to drive Seunghyun mad with it too, stirring him into a frenzy with nothing more than a word, but those days have come to an end. Daesung cannot remember the last time he caught him describing Seunghyun as anything resembling a child. Years, probably.

They've really grown up, haven't they?

"Yeah so... see ya. We’ll be back with one more." And with that, Jiyong and Youngbae are off. They make an odd pair, Jiyong ambling down the hill fluidly, as if his bones are not bound quite like the rest of theirs. For a wolf-human hybrid, his way of moving is remarkably feline. In contrast, Youngbae cuts a more robust figure, small but compact, a solid stone to Jiyong's meandering stream.

"We won't be seeing them again until after dark," Seunghyun says, watching their packmates disappear into the trees with sleepy eyes. "At best."

"Well, hopefully by then I'll be done with this," Daesung sighs, laying the hide out in front of him to check his progress. He doesn’t mean to complain; it is soothing in a way, softening hides by hand.

But he would appreciate like some help. Their catch this morning had been modest, just a pair of pheasants whose long, striped tail feathers they had plucked and added to their growing collection of trinkets. Jiyong will find a use for them; if nothing else, they will end up as ornaments for the den. Daesung is already looking forward to eating again, but with this task to complete first, when will he find the time? If he has to break this hide alone, he'll be at it all day.

Seunghyun's eyes fly open when Daesung dumps half the damp hide on his lap.

"Are you going to help me with this? Or are you still overseeing?"

"But you're doing such a good job," Seunghyun says with the guiltiest of smiles. "I would just mess it up."

"You complain about Seungri stealing your blanket, but if I have to do this alone you won't be using it at all. It'll be my blanket, and mine alone."

"Yeah, right." Seunghyun smirks. "I know you. You would share."

"You sure about that?"

"You wouldn't leave me to freeze, would you?" Seunghyun changes tactics then, his pleas bordering on whining, and Daesung realizes he was wrong—he thought they had grown up, but at least one of them is still a child. A pup through and through, until the end of his days.

"You won't freeze! It's the middle of summer!" Daesung laughs and takes the hide back. "You know what, nevermind. Maybe I don’t want to share anymore. It's mine now."

He hears Seunghyun sit up and drag himself across the space between them, finally giving in.

"When did you get so selfish," his mate grumbles, scooting close. The sun on Daesung's shoulders is warm, but Seunghyun's chest against his back as he reaches around him is warmer. "Alright, hand it over," he sighs, grabbing for the hide.

Daesung makes a sound of protest. "Just half! I'm not asking you to do the whole thi—you're on my tail!" he cries, holding tight while they fight over the hide. Eventually, when it’s clear his mate is set on helping this time, he concedes the front end.

The skin is thicker there. Seunghyun will be pouring hours into the neck and shoulders alone.

It’s nice to work as a team, especially when they are racing against time, the hot summer air drying the hide faster than Daesung can keep up with on his own. The sooner they finish with this, the sooner they can eat again. The sooner they can do whatever the hell they want again. Even so, it’s hard work and he stops to take a break from time to time, rubbing weary hands over his thighs, pausing a moment when he encounters little bumps in the denim of his jeans. They have been there for what feels like ages but sometimes still catch him by surprise.

Stitches.

Jiyong did a good job pulling the holes closed, holes earned through years of falling in the dirt and rolling in the grass and crawling through wheat stalks and wading through streams and slogging through mud and prowling through thickets in search of prey and hauling himself up steep rock faces, his arms trembling with effort and his legs with fear, in search of something resembling approval from the strange wolf who had claimed him and didn't seem to know what to do with him after, but sure seemed drawn to high places.

And it was never enough to let him remain below. Seunghyun had pulled him along every time, expecting him to keep up, walking him through the highs and the lows and everything in between.

Jiyong's stitchwork is sufficient, Daesung thinks, rubbing idly at the coarse threads. The seams will hold. He just needs to be careful with them, that’s all.

"Getting tired?" Seunghyun asks, a fine sheen forming on his face. Breaking a sweat already.

Daesung drapes the deerskin back over his own lap, shaking his head with a distracted smile. "No. Just thinking."

A companionable silence settles over them while they work, and the knot deep in his chest, the one he has been quietly carrying for months now, unwinds just a little.

 

 

--

 

 

In this land he does not yet know Seunghyun never leaves Daesung alone for long, nor does he let him go far without him… but when he does, Daesung can often be found by following a familiar, welcome sound.

His voice.

Daesung sings, his melodic voice a map leading Seunghyun straight to him, wherever he is. When he is near his songs are soft and airy and impossibly sweet. Such as when Seunghyun catches him humming to himself, absentmindedly running through a simple tune, a series of notes floating up and out of him as natural and easy as breathing.

Maybe as necessary as breathing too.

Without words his songs are more a mood, telling Seunghyun all he needs to know about how his mate is feeling. Daesung does not always like to share his thoughts or divulge what is bothering him, but the way Seunghyun sees it, as long as he keeps singing, everything must be okay. And it’s pleasant, so no one complains.

But when the others are not around, when Daesung no longer feels the need to keep his voice down and really puts his mind to it, his voice is backed by power and clarity, carrying far through the woods and reaching Seunghyun if he is even remotely in the area—which he makes sure he always is.

It’s a good thing they are without enemies here, Seunghyun thinks. That voice of his would be a liability because it stands out, and his newfound love of song a potential threat to his very survival. He would hate to have to tell Daesung that his gift is downright hazardous. That by singing his heart out, he could be putting them all in peril.

He doesn’t think he would need to warn him though. If he felt threatened here, if he thought his voice might cause problems for them, Seunghyun knows Daesung would not slip into song no matter how desperate his need. He knows when he is in danger, perhaps better than any of them.

So why, then, did he ignore all the warning signs before? The city and its people did queer things to him, things that Seunghyun still struggles to make sense of. Daesung had set aside his words of caution and let himself be drawn in, cramming himself into a mold he could not fit. And, too busy looking inside himself for parts to trim, he missed how they were looking at him.

Until it was too late.

No, not too late. Seunghyun shoves the thought aside. Too late would mean waking up without Daesung at his side. Too late would mean, without Daesung at his side, not waking up at all.

But today Daesung is singing, and Seunghyun is all eyes and ears, and this time no words are needed because to him the message is clear:

I’m okay. You’re okay. We’re okay.

 

 

--

 

 

"Seunghyun," Daesung asks him one day out of the blue, "Do you think I was weak?"

Seunghyun hums, lethargic in the late evening heat. "Weak? When?"

Daesung shifts on top of him, his hair fanning out over naked skin where his head is pillowed on Seunghyun's chest. At their feet, the stream they had been washing in burbles softly, and their clothes they have left hanging in a tree, draped over a low branch and drip-drying in the fading light.

"You know when." Seunghyun feels Daesung’s throat work as he swallows. "For a while I really wanted to be like them."

Oh.

"You weren’t weak, you were just..." Seunghyun reaches for the right word. "...kind?"

"Which is interpreted as weakness," is Daesung's swift reply. "Might as well be the same thing."

"That's not always true. There’s… a place for compassion," Seunghyun tries again, dutifully disagreeing with Daesung’s every attempt to put himself down. He would prefer this to be easy, to say yes, you’re right, and let it end at that. But if his mate will not stand up for himself, who will?

Is this what it is to be kindhearted? It's exhausting.

Seunghyun thinks of the flower field, and of Daesung’s visible distress at the thought of treading on them. He still doesn’t understand it. He wonders if he ever will.

"The strong prey on the weak," Daesung says despondently.

"Sometimes the strong protect the weak," Seunghyun counters. "Not that you’re weak or anything, that’s not what I—"

"I know what you meant,” Daesung assures him. "I just wanted everyone to be happy. Together, you know?"

"Humans and wolves? That’s a stretch."

"I know. You tried to warn me." He feels a rueful smile tugging at Daesung’s lips where one cheek rests against his chest. "I didn't listen."

Seunghyun is quiet, recalling his frustration at his refusal to listen. At how he had warned him to stop spending so much time around those who did not care about him and stay close to those who did.

He had feared for him. He had been looking out for him in the only way he knew how. He hadn't cautioned him to be cruel, as Daesung may have thought; he had cautioned him to save his life.

Daesung continues, voice heavy with regret, "I made myself a target back there, didn't I? By being kind.”

"I wouldn't put it that way," Seunghyun hedges still. "Those bastards targeted you. You just..." He does not want to say it. Daesung will not want to hear it. "You may have left yourself open to attack."

"Now you're just splitting hairs." Daesung turns and balances his chin on his chest so they are face to face—though even then, their eyes don’t quite meet. "The strong prey on the weak, in our world and theirs. It’s a fact of life, and a very basic one. It was just a matter of time. I just didn’t want to see it."

Daesung follows that with yet another sad smile, but this time Seunghyun can see it, and something inside him snaps. His patience, probably.

"It wasn't your fault,” he reminds him, resolving to repeat it again and again, as often as he needs to. As many times as Daesung asks he will answer, and his answer will be the same every time. It’s the least he can do.

"But you just said—"

"No, shitty people do shitty things. And in the end those shitty people got what they deserved." Seunghyun tilts his head to the side and peers down at his own hands flexing, suddenly enthralled by his razor-edged claws gleaming in the evening light. "No... they deserved so much worse than what they got. They didn't suffer enough for what they did to you."

For what they're still doing to you.

"Thanks. For doing what I couldn't," Daesung says softly, scarcely more than a whisper, and when Seunghyun returns to him he finds his eyes closed—and between them, a wrinkle of pain.

"They thought they could hurt you and get away with it." With claws now sheathed, he smoothes away that furrow in his brow. "But they didn't get away with it, did they. Not unscathed. You left them a parting gift."

Daesung's faces scrunches up in confusion.

"You got that one across the face—their leader? Remember? Just missed taking his eye out. Just…" With his finger he draws a path over a closed eyelid, the skin there softer than any petal and more precious to him than all the flowers in the world. "…missed. What a shame."

"I don't even remember doing that. But I guess that explains why they left me alone after."

"You defended yourself, as you should have." Daesung groans into his chest, hiding his face. "What? I hope you don't feel bad about what you did to them."

"I don't… much."

"You— really?” Seunghyun stares but cannot see past the other wolf’s mop of hair. "Okay, I hope you don't feel bad about what I did to them."

"No," Daesung rushes to say. "No, that was—"

"They were going to chop off your fucking tail," Seunghyun hisses, a growl building in the back of his throat, threatening.

Not threatening Daesung, no. Threatening the ghosts of those vermin who dared to hurt him. He would rip them apart again if he could. Without end, if he could.

"I know, I know," Daesung gasps, and Seunghyun feels the prick of claws on his ribs as he grapples with the memory too. He cannot see it from here, not with him on top like this, but he thinks of Daesung’s tail, and of the patch of new fur that replaced what was ripped out. It feels different; the fur is rougher than the hairs around it, and lighter too. Just like all the other scars forced on him that day.

Seunghyun still thinks, sometimes, that he should have taken Daesung with him that night. It might have done him good to see his attackers die one by one on the ends of his claws. He would have pulled Daesung to the floor and pushed the man’s slimy intestines into his hands before he put them to better use as a noose around his neck.

Daesung should have been there. He should have witnessed the moment when the one who hurt him was silenced for good. Dispatched like the animal he was.

His suffocation had been slow, the life choked out of him one rasping, inadequate breath at a time. When his lungs had seized up and his heart had stopped, Seunghyun had considered reviving him so he could do it all over again. Only Jiyong, his voice of reason, had stopped him.

"Seunghyun," he had said, touching a clean hand to his bloody one. "We're on a schedule. There isn't time."

In his most depraved daydreams Daesung is there, crouched at his side, and Seunghyun is taking his hands and thrusting them into the cracked-open cavity of his attacker's demolished body, forcing fingers into all his pulpy, exposed parts. Encouraging him to feel for himself how weak and helpless the man had become at his hands.

Only one thing could have made it better; it could have been their hands, together.

He can't hurt you anymore, Seunghyun wants to tell him, not when his failing heart is painting the floor red with the last of its blood. Not when I'm crushing a kidney in one hand and slicing open his stomach with the other. Not when I’ve plucked out his liver and cut out his lungs and tossed them to the floor, ruined. And everything else? Not recognizable anymore. This is damage beyond repair. Any risk this filth was to you ends right now, right here.

He had been proud of his handiwork. Secretly, he had hoped to show it off to Daesung, to commemorate their last night in that despicable place. But Daesung had wanted no part of it, and his mate’s absence has been like a splinter under his skin ever since, pricking him when he least expects it.

Even if he had not taken part, the least he could have done was tag along and enjoy the show.

Deep in these thoughts, he misses Daesung kissing his way up and over his jaw. Soon warm lips are sealed over his, and under their attention his resentment melts away.

"Wish you could have seen him," he growls into Daesung’s mouth.

"Mm?"

"In his last moments."

Daesung pauses, hovering, lips barely brushing his as he says in a whisper, "Why?”

"It was fucking foul, how he—" Seunghyun’s fingers curl in the short hair at his nape, "He pissed himself when I told him who I was." He knows his claws are out, just the tips, scraping shallow channels into everything they touch, including skin. Daesung can take it. "I broke him open on the floor and pulled him apart one bloody piece at a time.” Like he tried to do to you. Like he would have if you hadn’t struck back. “I made sure he left this world as ugly on the outside as he was inside."

"Seunghyun..."

"And god, Daesung, I wish you could have heard him." He sucks on the other’s lips until they are puffy and red, red like the pool of blood he had kneeled in as he’d done his worst. "His dying breaths, fuckin' awful sound, all gasping and wet and—"

"Seunghyun, stop."

And he does stop, because fingers are digging into his jaw and Daesung is edging away, holding his head steady so he can look at him with wide, troubled eyes.

"I don't need the details. Just knowing that he's dead... that they all are… that's enough."

Seunghyun bites down until he feels the muscles in his jaw jump. They used to share everything. But if Daesung wishes to be kept in the dark, blind to the horrors of this world... Seunghyun doesn’t know how to allow him that. Doesn't know if he can.

If there is one thing their years together have taught him, it’s that, good or bad, whether he wants it to or not, everything comes out eventually.

Stuck on that thought, he lets Daesung take him by the hand and lead him down, knuckles grazing firm abs and a flat, somewhat softer belly until he bumps up against hard, hot flesh. He does not need further prompting; he closes his hand over it and tugs, teasing. Testing.

Daesung sucks in a breath through his teeth.

"They tried to take this from me… from us," he grits out.

"…this?" Seunghyun pumps the cock in his hand once, slowly, drawing it out like a question. Daesung didn’t tell him that part.

"Yeah, my—my desire for—oh fuck," Daesung bites out, dropping his head to his chest.

"That’s right," Seunghyun murmurs, remembering long days and, worse, nights without his mate’s touch, without his warmth. Remembering, with a pang of guilt, how he had handled the distance. Regretting how he had strayed.

"They got inside my head and fucked me up bad. But,” Daesung swallows hard. "But you brought me back."

"Good thing I knew how," Seunghyun says, grinning, but the truth is he hadn't known, not really. There was no guarantee that a return to intimacy would reunite them in a time when all they had done was drift farther and farther apart.

But in hindsight, it makes perfect sense to him. Sex is what they do. It's how they connect.

…and sometimes can't disconnect. Seunghyun likes to think of his knot as a symbol of what he already knows to be true: he's stuck on Daesung. Might as well be stuck in him too.

"Yeah," Daesung agrees, as if inside his head with him, privy to his thoughts. Then he is climbing off of him and his cock is slipping out of Seunghyun's hand as he eases onto his back and encourages him to follow, flipping their positions. "Come on, remind me again what I came back to?"

Seunghyun’s tail isn’t the only thing that gives an excited twitch as he settles smoothly between Daesung's spread legs.

"Thought you'd never ask," he rasps, his sensitive tip poking against the other’s inner thigh. He is always so warm, as if he is burning up, even on the outside; he cannot wait to burrow into that heat.

"Liar," Daesung huffs out a laugh, "You knew I would. But you went and waited anyway." Then, as he is arching under him and baring his neck in that way he so rarely does these days, "You never used to wait."

Seunghyun can’t help how his eyes latch onto his scars, those he loves and those he loathes, all the same shade of silver in the twilight.

He brought Daesung back, that much is true, but sometimes he gets the nagging sense that something with the other wolf is not quite right. Something is missing. Or changed. He just can’t put his finger on what.

"So… what are you waiting for?"

Daesung is lifting a hand to his neck where Seunghyun’s eyes have settled, suddenly self-conscious, and Seunghyun cannot have that; he brushes it away.

"Nothing. Just getting a good last look at you before the sun goes down."

He gets a confused smile in reply.

"Silly. You can see me just fine in the dark."

Then Daesung is nudging his hips up insistently, sending Seunghyun’s weeping cock sliding into his crease, aimed right where they both want it.

No more talking. No more thinking. No more waiting. And most importantly, no more hesitating, not when his one and only weakness is flat on his back begging for love that only he can give him. Slowly, so that they both can savor every inch, Seunghyun gives himself to his mate and wonders, after everything he has been through, that Daesung still wants him like this… what more could he ask for?

 

 

--

 

 

"So, what's it gonna be?"

They are on their stomachs in a semicircle, gazing down from atop a hill at the herd of elk below.

All but Daesung, that is. His eyes were on them, and he was on his belly like the rest… but now he is sitting upright; had he remained on his stomach for much longer he might have nodded off. Leaning back on one hand, he yawns, jaws gaping open wide until something pops.

Like a trap, his mouth snaps shut, and he turns to the others with a sleepy expression.

He doesn’t feel much like hunting today. The sky is dark and dreary, gray clouds close overhead threatening rain. And yet the downpour he expected all morning never came—only a light, sustained drizzle gradually weighing him down and making him oh-so-weary as he waits for his pack to make a move already.

This is no day for hunting. This is a day for staying inside and sleeping.

Jiyong nudges Seungri. "Well?"

"Wait, what?" Seungri stares at him in disbelief. "You’re asking me?"

"Yes, you," Jiyong says, sounding achingly fond, though his eyes never leave the herd. "Go on. Pick one. And be quick about it, I don’t want to be here all day. I don’t think any of us do."

Daesung sits up in renewed interest. Really? Seungri gets to choose?

"You never let me choose," Seungri says, amazed at the options laid before him. He is right to be so surprised, Daesung thinks. An omega selecting their prey in a group hunt is all but unheard of. Daesung is not too concerned with who calls the shots, as long as the decision is a sound one, but Jiyong has always maintained a certain adherence to the old ways. Why the sudden change of heart?

Jiyong's shoulders bob in a comfortable shrug. "Well I’m letting you know. So you better hurry up before I change my mind."

"You could be a little nicer about it."

"Do you want to choose or not?"

Behind his hand Daesung hides a hopeful smile. If Seungri will take the bait—if he and Jiyong end up bickering loudly enough—maybe they will alert the herd to their presence and frighten them off. If their prey starts to move before they have even begun their approach, their chances of success are slim to none. Jiyong will call off the hunt before it’s even begun. It’s perfect. Now if they would just—

"That one," Seungri says, pointing. He has risen up on muddy knees to scan the herd, eyes searching.

Jiyong leans in, following his finger to its intended target, and behind him the rest of them do the same.

"That one?" Seunghyun scoffs. "Are you trying to get us all killed?"

Youngbae tips his head back and stifles a laugh, while Jiyong hooks an arm around Seungri’s neck and drags him close—nearly throttling him in the process, if the choking sounds Seungri makes are to be believed. Maybe that was Jiyong’s intent.

"See, I never let you choose, and this," he shakes their omega, fondly but firmly, "this is why."

Daesung crawls over to them, curiosity piqued. Off to the side as he was, he hadn’t been able to see when they had all leaned in; too many heads and hands in the way. "What? Which one did he pick?"

"Only the biggest, strongest bull in the herd," Seunghyun says, lip curling in contempt. He likely wants to be back at the den as much as the rest of them. "God, Seungri, why?"

"It has the—let go already, I can’t—" Seungri chokes out, squirming out of Jiyong's headlock.

"Sorry, didn’t catch that."

"It has the biggest rack," Seungri says when he is finally free, not sounding the slightest bit contrite.

Daesung slumps where he sits, too drowsy and disappointed to feel at all surprised. It is no secret that Seungri likes nice things. In another life he might have indulged his appetite for extravagance, might have filled his hands and his home with elegant, expensive things. But in this life they are wolves, and wolves living wild at that, as they should be. They have no need for nice things.

But he supposes it’s not always about what they need. Sometimes it’s about what they want, and taking chances to attain it, reaching for it with all that they are.

Even if it might get them killed. He swallows thickly and desperately hopes it will not come to that.

Jiyong looks back to the herd, a frown on his face.

"I'm overruling you," he says after a moment. "We’re not going anywhere near that one."

Seungri deflates. "Well, you are the leader," he grumbles, just this side of sulky.

"The alpha has spoken," Youngbae says with a sympathetic smile. "Maybe next time."

"Maybe never," Seunghyun adds, but he is smiling too, and it seems to soften the impact, the dark cloud hanging over Seungri lifting just enough.

And that should have been the end of it. Either they would settle for something more reasonable, or nothing at all—Daesung is still hoping for the latter because Seungri’s dark cloud may have lifted, but the actual dark clouds hanging over them are still promising rain. He scarcely has the energy to take down a yearling spike right now; no way in hell does he have it in him to bring down a mature bull, even with the pack's help. Surely Jiyong sees how beat they are already, how the light rain weighs them down and drags their spirits into the mud.

But Jiyong, as he sometimes does, goes and proves him wrong.

"Oh, don’t look so defeated. We'll go for that one instead," Jiyong declares, pointing. This time Daesung gathers ‘round with the rest of them, following his leader’s line of sight into the valley.

His heart sinks.

"Another bull?" Seunghyun growls out, agitated all over again. "You know what, fine. Fuck it, let's just get this over with."

Daesung briefly considers sprawling out in the mud and letting it suck him in—anything to escape the task they are about to take on. But it is only a passing thought; obediently, he picks himself up and follows his pack without complaint down the hill and into the trees, with heart as heavy as his waterlogged jeans. Even under the best of conditions this would be ill-advised. A bigger pack might fare better against such large game, but at just five members every one of them must pull his own weight when tackling something this size—sometimes more.

So he trudges along, frowning to himself. Maybe he’ll just hang back. Maybe someone will slip in the mud and fall behind, then fail to catch up, allowing the elk to escape and effectively ending the hunt. Maybe they all will, here in the slop.

He looks up at the trees as he passes beneath, noting the wet sheen on their dark branches, and sighs.

Seunghyun drops back until he is at his side, matching him step for step.

"You ready for this?"

"Who's he trying to impress?” Daesung gripes, reminding himself to keep up, one foot after the other, one foot after the—are they really going to give chase in this muck?

"You know who."

"Why though? He doesn’t need to." Daesung shakes his head, water droplets flying everywhere. "Sorry, I’m just… this is just a bad idea. I feel it."

"Yeah, well." Seunghyun threads their arms together at the elbow. "Don't worry, we probably won't even get close enough to touch. He'll call off the hunt once he gets a good look at what we’re up against. Everything looks smaller from far away, you know?" He falls silent, disappearing into his thoughts for a moment. "Or maybe that's the point. Maybe this is supposed to be a teachable moment.”

"For who?"

"Who else? Our dear Seungri."

Daesung frowns when he steps in a puddle, water splattering everywhere—again.

"I didn't sign up for this."

The arm in his squeezes. "You did when you became a part of this family."

Daesung pulls his lip between his teeth and chews on it, thinking, I didn’t sign up for that either.

He doesn’t have to say it; one look at Seunghyun’s stiff smile and he knows he is thinking it too.

 

 

--

 

 

It goes about as well as expected. They cannot move as fast in the mud as they would like, but they don’t have to; the bull elk is larger and slower than the rest of its herd, weighed down by its enormous antlers, and catching up to it takes less out of them than Daesung expected.

This thing could crush me, he thinks, maintaining what he hopes is a safe distance as he keeps pace alongside it. All it would have to do is fall on him and he would end up like those beetles that find their way into their den, and that Seunghyun is always squishing for him. Guts squeezed out and all.

And those antlers are not even done growing yet—they will reach their full length by end of fall and it is only mid-summer—but already they are long enough to reach his packmates and him, knocking them off when they go for the shoulders, scrabbling for purchase in hair that is coarse and long over a hide that is thick and strong. The bull roars not in fear or pain but in outrage and swings its head violently from side to side, and it’s this move that dislodges them again and again, jarring the wind out of them as its antlers catch them in the chest, shoulders, and sides—anywhere they can reach.

After a few rounds of this Daesung is jogging, just keeping up, winded but otherwise okay—and eyeing the creature with trepidation. Blunt force is one thing, but impalement is another; the last thing he wants is to end up on the pointed end of one of those spear-like tines.

A few strides ahead of him, Seunghyun sees an opening and dives at the bull’s throat where it is most vulnerable. His jaws lock, claws fumbling through thick hair to aid his bite, searching for skin, but the beast’s heavy mane protects its throat. All he is getting is handfuls of hair, Daesung realizes, watching him struggle, and seconds later a powerful shake of the elk’s head hurls him aside.

When Seunghyun fails to land on his feet, falling for a moment to his knees, Daesung breaks stride, ready to go back for him—but before he can alter course the other wolf is up and running again, face clouding over with frustration.

Daesung feels it too. If they cannot go for the throat, then running their prey to exhaustion may be their only option. But he is not in the mood for an hours-long chase. This is foolish, this creature is too strong and they are too weak and not so hungry that this meal can’t wait. He wants to be back in the den, warm and dry and nestled skin-to-skin with his packmates, the hunt delayed until another day.

In the end he gets his wish, but not in the way he wanted.

Since antlers keep getting in their way, Jiyong drops back and rushes in, aiming for the flank. But that’s a dangerous place to be—they all know this, Daesung knows this, Jiyong knows this. Because while the front end has antlers, the hind end has hooves.

Before Daesung can gather a breath to warn him, the elk drops its head low and bucks, one long leg lashing out—and in mid-air Jiyong folds, falling out of sight behind the tall grass.

Daesung skids to a stop, shoes slipping in the wet grass, heart in his throat.

Jiyong is down. Their alpha is down.

His fatigue forgotten, he sprints back to where he last saw him.

"Jiyong!" he cries when he nearly trips over the tight ball of the other wolf’s body. "Are you—"

Hurt? Something oily slithers through him, stealing his voice. Don’t ask stupid questions. Of course he’s hurt.

To his immense relief, Jiyong stirs, uncurling just enough to hiss at him through clenched teeth, "Go, I’ll catch up."

Daesung does not go, and does not want to. He drops to his knees, hands hovering—but not touching. Not without permission.

"Are you okay?"

"I—I will be, fuck," Jiyong grunts, uncurling a little at a time and starting the process of sitting up, one arm firmly fastened around his middle. "What hit me?"

"You got kicked," Daesung tells him. It had been like a lightning strike, sudden and deadly. You’re lucky to be alive, he would say if Jiyong would not bite his head off for it.

"Fucker," Jiyong wheezes, face contorting in pain with every breath. A sign Daesung doesn’t miss.

Ribs , his mind silently supplies. Bruised or broken he cannot tell without getting hands on him. He can’t forget what he saw, how Jiyong had crumpled in an instant. Even prey animals have ways of defending themselves; their hind legs pack a powerful punch. Superior speed and strength… it all means nothing when they let themselves forget that they are only one well-aimed kick away from death.

Something smacks his arm hard. Jiyong’s clammy hand. "Daesung, just… go. Find the others, continue the hunt. I’ll be fine."

"Are you sure? I can bring them back—"

A vicious, rumbling growl sends him sprawling back on his ass in surprise.

"Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to," he rushes to say, putting his hands up where the other wolf can see them.

That’s right. A wounded wolf is not to be touched.

Especially an alpha whose wounds are fresh and still stinging with pain. Daesung just wants to see to his injuries, to help him in whatever way he can, but Jiyong’s bared teeth are right there, sharply reminding him that, good intentions or not, it isn’t his place.

I just want to help, he thinks, not above begging if it would make a difference. I wish you would let me.

But against their animal instincts, he knows he cannot win.

He bows his head until the growling tapers off, a submissive posture meant to appease him. It works; the warning fades, followed by an uneasy silence. Jiyong’s face is pale and drawn while he collects himself, his breathing steady yet clearly pained. It hurts Daesung to hear, knowing he can do nothing. Where he sits in the grass, there is water soaking through the seat of his jeans. He wants to climb to his feet but cannot work up the courage, even though Jiyong is no longer showing him his teeth.

Thankfully, he doesn’t have to wait much longer. Hurried footfalls behind him signal his packmates’ arrival.

Seungri’s face falls at the sight of Jiyong on the ground. And even though he is worn out, so ready for this day to be done, Daesung finds that he has just enough energy left to feel bad for him. Seungri will find a way to blame himself for this outcome. He’ll be beating himself up over it for weeks.

And for what? They are returning empty-handed.

"Should’ve kept going," Jiyong grits out as they gather around him, four worried faces bearing down on him.

"Let’s just go home," Youngbae says, and Daesung tries not to take offense when Jiyong accepts his touch and lets himself be helped up.

They are done here. Without their alpha to lead them, there is no reason to carry on. The hunt was over the moment Jiyong fell.

As they cut a slow path home Daesung brings up the rear. He likes it back here where he can keep an eye on everyone. Besides, it would not be right to walk ahead of his alpha. In some packs to do so would be a grave offense. Jiyong is not so strict with them, never has been, but now is not the time to test him.

There is, of course, a downside to tailing him like this; it is his wounded way of moving, it is having to witness how he carries himself like something inside him has collapsed. Daesung would offer him his back but worries it would only make things worse. His back is solid and strong; the walk home would be a bumpy ride for bruised or broken ribs. He wants to help Jiyong, not hurt him more.

It’s a good thing, then, that Youngbae is already on it, helping him along with one of Jiyong’s arms slung across his shoulders, and Seunghyun is nearby if needed. Seungri, if Daesung is reading him right, seems too guilty to venture near him, Daesung notices. With hands shoved in his pockets and eyes glued to the ground, their omega has not said a word since they withdrew from the herd, and that is how Daesung knows it’s serious.

Maybe Jiyong never meant it to be a teachable moment, but it had become one anyway.

Know your limits, respect them, he can see their leader advising them. Rushing blindly into risky situations will only get you killed. We are not unstoppable. Not you. Not even me.

He settles for watching Jiyong’s back, ready to run to his aid should his legs fail him or the ground give out beneath him. Anything to help the pack. Anything to prove himself useful.

Maybe then they’ll stop looking at him like he’s the one who’s broken.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It’s a good thing he's so keen to help, Daesung thinks, because this man he has pledged his life to sure needs it sometimes.

They have built a fire in a clearing tonight, for no reason other than that Seunghyun wants to watch something burn. Fire, though destructive by nature, can be therapeutic when contained. Jiyong had allowed it, reminded them to clear the area first, and then had painstakingly lowered himself to the ground to supervise, wincing as the motion jostled tender ribs.

Tender, but on the mend. Jiyong is stronger than he looks. With his resilience, Daesung likes to believe that not even a hoof to the heart can keep him down for long.

A hoof to the heart would have kept him down forever, a cautionary voice warns him. Don’t be reckless.

He hates that voice these days, but knows he needs it.

He turns away after a time, afraid to linger for much longer on the sight of his injured alpha for fear of what other thoughts it might inspire. He does not need another reminder that none of them are indestructible.

Not even that one over there.

Tending the fire, stirring the flames higher and higher with a thin, flimsy stick, sits Seunghyun. Every so often his hand jerks back as if burned, but not once does he make a sound. Determined to carry on despite the pain, Daesung guesses, watching him work the flames. Or too proud to let it out.

"Having trouble?" he asks with a grin. No reason to hide it. His mate is notoriously stubborn and not always in a way that works in his favor. It’s like he thinks he has something to prove.

To who? Not him, he hopes.

"The stick is too short," Seunghyun complains, scowling down at the small-but-growing fire. He does not, Daesung notices, ask for help.

He watches Seunghyun stab at the kindling, sending embers sailing into the air like fireflies, using his too-short stick to urge the flames higher, hotter, brighter. The firelight reflected in his coal-black eyes sparks an emotion in Daesung, filling him with a new fire and reawakening in him a passion that for a time he feared he had left behind inside city walls.

He shakes his head to clear it. That saga of his life is ashes on the wind. There are too many days... weeks... no, months between this place and that one to let it ruin a perfect moment like this.

And Seunghyun, jerking back again from the rising flames, could really use a bigger stick.

He stands, about to go in search of one, when out of the darkness Seungri appears. And clasped in his left hand, the perfect stick.

Daesung moves to take it from him, a plea on the tip of his tongue—if he asks nicely enough Seungri might just give it up without a fuss—but his mate beats him to it.

"Wha—hey, that was mine!" Seungri shouts when Seunghyun leaps up and snatches it out of his hand without a word.

“Mine now,” Seunghyun grunts and returns to his beloved fire. His features smooth over in a look of pure satisfaction when his new tool allows him to reach the deepest, hottest coals without risking his own skin.

Daesung bites back an apologetic grin. It’s over. For Seungri, the battle is lost.

“I don’t think you’re getting that back,” Daesung tells the younger wolf sheepishly. Then, to soften the blow, “Sorry.”

With the longest, most put-upon sigh, Seungri trudges back into the woods the way he had come, muttering under his breath.

Daesung feels for him, he does. If there is one bad habit Seunghyun has never quite grown out of, it is taking what he wants when he wants it, and not a second later. Werewolves are not exactly known for their restraint, and in Daesung’s experience, Seunghyun is as wolfish as they come. It’s part of what makes Seunghyun, well, Seunghyun.

With that thought he joins his mate by the fire, drawn again to the enchantment in his eyes as he stares into the flickering light. This is Seunghyun in his element, and Daesung has never seen anything more beautiful, has never known anyone more worth his attention.

Despite what instinct tells him, he thinks it’s okay to rush blindly into things every now and then. To be a little reckless. To know his limits… and still choose to ignore them. To go beyond them.

There are times when Seunghyun burns him with his touch, but that does not mean he’ll die. It’s good, sometimes, to be reminded that he is still alive.

Some days Daesung walks these woods like a shadow, keeping beneath the trees, feeling like he could disappear at the touch of sunlight through the leaves. Like a wisp of smoke, gone without a trace.

But then Seunghyun comes roaring at him like an inferno, and the heat of his touch sears him back into being. Seunghyun won’t let him slip away, not without a knock-down drag-out bloody-fisted fight—and he’s damn good at those.

His mate’s constant presence is both a comfort and a chore, a reminder that he is loved, yet an insult to his independent spirit. Would it be too much to ask for a little space?

Something pricks at his arm, right over one of his scars—one of three he had earned pulling Seungri from what would have been a muddy grave had he not intervened. It feels like a lifetime ago.

He tears his eyes from the stick scratching a line into his skin, turning to the person holding it.

Seunghyun reaches over and lightly taps him on the temple. “What’s going on in there?”

“That was mean of you to steal his stick like that,” Daesung says. It won’t make a difference, but he has to say something.

Seunghyun snorts and turns back to the fire—taking his stick with him, to Daesung’s relief.

“He’ll get over it,” he says, but Daesung knows that what he really means is that he’ll find another one.

And he will. In fact, he will find an even better one the second time around—at least, that is what he’ll want Seunghyun to think. And he will boast and brag about it, talking it up until Seunghyun, forgetting the one he already holds, has to have it. But Seungri will only agree to a trade, one that Seunghyun just might accept. It would not be the first time. And that, Daesung decides, is how Seungri will get his original stick back.

He can already see him trotting off with it, tail raised in triumph—their wily omega, quietly victorious.

“I thought you two were getting along better now.”

“We are.” Seunghyun guides a coal out of the fire and jabs at it until it breaks open, charred black all the way through. “I didn’t whip him with this stick after I took it. That’s an improvement, right?”

Though he knows he should not encourage it, a grin tugs at Daesung’s lips. “You’re such a bully.”

“Someone has to keep him in place,” Seunghyun replies, “since Jiyong has gone soft for him.”

“Um, I don’t know where you’ve been lately but Jiyong is the exact opposite of soft for Seungri.”

“Soft in the head .”

They both laugh and Daesung shoves him playfully, and Seunghyun shoves back but harder, knocking him back on his ass, and Daesung just laughs more because from this wild wolf he would expect nothing less.

Something dances in Seunghyun’s eyes when Daesung goes down on his back, inviting him over wordlessly. The other wolf is not alone in his love of the flames, Daesung is captivated by them too, caught up in how the light plays over his mate’s face, casting it half in shadow—

That is when Seungri reappears, and with something large in tow. Through the thin grass behind him he drags a thick branch, etching a long, continuous line in the dirt. All its twigs and leaves appear to have been stripped off—as if by force, and recently. Did Seungri give up the search on the ground and break one off fresh?

Seunghyun perks up and he turns, eyes lit with interest.

“Oh!” Daesung exclaims, sitting up and playing up his surprise. “You found another one.”

Seungri stops and stands tall, seeming proud of his find. On his face he wears the look of a man determined to win back what he knows in his heart is his.

“Yeah, it’s pretty—” He plants the branch in the dirt and leans on it like a crudely crafted cane, “—it’s pretty heavy. Solid. I like the weight though, feels good in my hands. I mean, I’m strong so it’s no big deal.”

Daesung presses his lips together, determined not to laugh, not when Seunghyun is eating up every word.

“It’s fresh too, so it won’t catch when placed in the fire,” Seungri continues. He steps back and gives the branch a once-over, seeming satisfied. He then spares Seunghyun a glance. “Not too shabby, huh? Guess I have you to thank. If you hadn’t taken my first stick I would never have gone and found this one.”

Seunghyun stares—first at the stick, then at Seungri flaunting it—dark eyes burning with want .

Grinning behind his hand, Daesung kicks back and relaxes, ready to enjoy the show.

 

 

--

 

 

Seunghyun creeps into their cave, rounding the corner with eyes fastened on one thing: Daesung, humming softly to himself while he patches a hole in one of their hides. And fumbling rather clumsily with Jiyong’s bone needle by the sound of it. He hisses in pain here and there, pricking himself almost as often as the hide he is trying to repair.

Seunghyun stares at his back as he tiptoes closer, his feet bare to hide the sound of his footsteps. His shoes, while useful, have an unfortunate habit of giving his position away, slipping in the dirt and scraping noisily over stone. For what he has planned that simply won’t do; he must sneak up on the other wolf as silent and stealthy as the surprise he holds in his hands.

Daesung is not going to like this surprise… but Seunghyun will like his reaction.

Jabbing himself with the needle again, Daesung curses angrily, and in his distraction Seunghyun covers the last few steps between them. He leans in over his shoulder and purrs, “I brought you something.”

Daesung flinches and drops the needle.

“If you’re going to sneak up on me, maybe don’t do it when I’m using this?” He plucks it off the ground and holds it up for Seunghyun to see. “I could have stabbed myself. Not that I haven’t done that a hundred times already, but—”

He spins around, presumably to scold him some more, when his eyes drop to the thing in his hands.

“Oh shit get away from me —”

This time he drops not just the needle but the hide and the spool of sinew too, to scurry backward as fast as he can, his denim-covered ass scraping across the stone floor.

Seunghyun throws his head back and laughs.

“It’s not funny!” Daesung cries, holding a hand to his chest, eyes wide and terrified.

“It can’t hurt you,” Seunghyun says, grinning down at the snake wrapped around his wrist. Such a small thing, its overall length is not much longer than his forearm, only as wide as one of his fingers, and its scales gleam a bright, pleasant green, its smooth belly white. When its tiny mouth falls open, Seunghyun sees no fangs. It even appears to be smiling.

It’s even kind of cute, he thinks… for a snake.

“You don’t know that,” Daesung says, voice wavering.

“Yeah, actually I do.” He holds his hand out, snake and all. “Don’t you know what kind of snake this is? Come on, we’ve been over this.”

Daesung’s eyes narrow, studying it—from a safe distance, of course, making no move to come closer. Every bit as cautious as Seunghyun would expect.

“One without venom, I’m guessing,” he says, watching Seunghyun stroke its scales with the fingers of his other hand. “Otherwise you wouldn’t have touched it. You’re not that crazy.”

“That’s right.” Admiring the snake’s brilliant color, Seunghyun lets it wind itself around the rest of his arm. “Reminds me of grass in the springtime…”

“…a grass snake.” Daesung drops his head into his hands. “You brought me a grass snake.”

“Oh, you do know.”

The subject of snakes and how to identify them has been one of Daesung’s hardest lessons, since as long as Seunghyun has known him he has wanted nothing to do with them at all. It’s not a bad survival tactic, avoiding everything he fears, but Seunghyun prefers to be a little more hands-on with the world he lives in, a little more selective about what he lets shake him.

"Yes, great, I know my snakes, happy now? Will you just put it down already,” Daesung moans into his hands.

Seunghyun shrugs and does as he is asked, bending down to—

"Not in here! Over there! Outside!"

Seunghyun pauses, on his knees about to release the snake at his feet. "What are you so scared of? You said it yourself: there's no venom."

"You know I don't like snakes,” Daesung hisses.

"I don't like snakes either,” Seunghyun says, frowning. “But there’s no reason why just the sight of one, especially this one, should send you running with your tail tucked."

Scooping the small, surprisingly tame snake up in his hands again, Seunghyun turns to take it outside. Daesung had nothing to worry about. He wasn’t really going to let it slither around inside their den; he had just been messing with him. It belongs in the grass anyway—or maybe back in the leafy bush where he had found it.

"Better safe than sorry," Daesung snaps back, his patience fading fast.

“Not taking any chances, are you,” Seunghyun says over his shoulder.

He feels Daesung watching him go, and just before he is out of earshot, he says, “You shouldn’t mess with snakes, Seunghyun."

And yet you did, Seunghyun thinks sadly on the way out. You got too close once and were bitten, and the venom is still in you. You feel it, don't you?

He had thought it a harmless prank, but maybe Daesung does not see it that way. There was a time when he used to know his mate’s thoughts as if they were his own. He gave him cues, like clouds on the horizon announcing a change in the weather. But these days Seunghyun is not sure what’s going on in those skies, or what Daesung sees when he stares with haunted eyes into the shadowy spaces between the trees.

 

 

--

 

 

The sun is low in the sky and there is a light breeze blowing off the water to his left as Seunghyun makes his way along the river, searching for objects in the water. Hoping he will not find anything. Dreading the moment he might.

His packmates are not far ahead, Jiyong, Youngbae, and Seungri combing the area with hopeful eyes and heavy hearts. It must seem strange to them, Seunghyun thinks, that he’s not out there leading the charge. Instead he is back here, overturning every stone and inspecting every shadow for signs of… life, he hopes.

A peculiar feeling pulls on him, a vague memory of this place coming to him as if from impossibly far away. He has never been here before and yet he knows this place well, has walked the banks of this river more times than he can count in search of something lost. Something precious, something irreplaceable.

Something that should be at his side, walking with him. Someone. Seunghyun suffers his absence like a lost limb.

Letting hope and instinct guide him, he realizes he has passed that bend in the river already, has stepped over that moss-covered log and ducked under that low-hanging branch. And that bridge in the distance… he has been here before, not just once but many times, and suddenly he remembers what it is he’s looking for.

Who he is looking for.

No, he pleads, I don’t want this. Not again.

It’s always the same. The same dream, the same fist around his heart as he scans the horizon, scouring land and water for what he seeks.

The same nightmare, and the same despair dragging him down when, sooner or later, he always does in the end… he finds it.

In a flash his packmates are in front of him, grabbing at his arms, shoulders, sides, anything to stop him from advancing. Anything to hold him back. At the first touch he snaps, and Seungri is the first to back off, tail tucked, unhurt but seeming wounded all the same. Not willing to fight him over this. Not willing, or perhaps not able past the tears dripping down his face.

Jiyong though, Jiyong moves with him, following his head with his own. Deliberately blocking his view of what lies ahead.

“Seunghyun, don’t. Don’t.”

“Get the fuck out of my way,” Seunghyun means to say but it comes out strangled, as if his lungs have been emptied, nothing left to power his voice, nothing left at all.

“You don’t want to—” Jiyong gets in his face again, pushing him back. “Look at me—look.”

Move.”

“Don't go over there,” he chokes, face hard. “You don’t want to, you know you don't.”

You’re right, I don’t want to, I shouldn’t, don’t let me, Jiyong, please, Seunghyun wants to say, but what comes out is combative, the full force of his heartache aimed at the one standing in his way.

“Don’t tell me what I want!” he roars at Jiyong and shoves past, racing toward a patch of grass at the water’s edge, to the little bar of sand between it, eyes locked on what Jiyong had tried to shield him from—a dark, wet shape motionless upon it.

Daesung had not come home that night. No one has seen him in days.

Seunghyun has searched high and low for him, starting with all his favorite places… and all his favorite people. But no one helped him, no one could. And so he cast about blindly for Daesung’s whereabouts, aided by his packmates—dropping by the bakery where he worked, examining every alleyway, even checking with the city guards and gatekeepers who might have seen him passing through, until at last Seunghyun had caught a whiff of his scent. Just a trace of him ground into the rough bark of a tree growing along a secluded path that had led him down to the river.

Daesung and water do not get along. That had been his first hint that something was terribly wrong.

But the scent trail had been true, because at the end of it Seunghyun had found his coat. Discarded on the sand at the water’s edge, no bloodstains or tears, or any signs of a struggle at all. As if he had simply… left it there.

The sight of it where it should not have been, without its wearer and with no explanation for how it got there, had filled him with a horror he had not wanted to name. So to hold back the pain he would deny, deny, deny.

But try as he might, he could not stem the tide of despair any more than he could part the river at his feet to scour its depths for his missing piece. And the name for what was hurting him had come to him anyway, damn it all.

Loss.

Daesung has cherished this coat for as long as Seunghyun has known him. He would not have simply forgotten it, nor would he abandon it without reason.

“Seunghyun, wait, stop,” says Youngbae, standing and squaring his shoulders, bracing for impact before Seunghyun plows into him, the last obstacle between him and… and…

They go down in the sand together, a tangled mess of scratching hands and tearing claws and bared teeth. When Seunghyun whips free, Youngbae, nursing a bloodied arm, does not try to stop him again. This time no one does.

He has found Daesung.

He could be sleeping, Seunghyun thinks, gingerly lowering himself to the ground beside his mate’s still body, as if taking care not to rouse him. He could be resting. His face is peaceful enough, lost in dreams, lashes fanning out over high cheeks.

And yet so pale. White skin tinged green in places, and that’s—

It could be bruising, Seunghyun tells himself, imagining that he and Seungri had spent the previous night fighting over scraps, the last to eat when they have made a kill. Nevermind that it’s been months since they’ve had to rely on hunting to sustain themselves. As long as they work, as long as they do as they are told, the city takes care of their most basic needs.

He’s just… he’s just napping, he also tells himself. He only needs to wake him up.

“Daesung,” he murmurs, wishing to wake him gently, “Daesung, wake up.”

Please, no, he whimpers from afar, wanting desperately to look away. How many times does he have to watch this? How many bad dreams before his mind decides it’s had enough? Adrift in a false memory, trapped in a nightmare.

“We looked everywhere for you,” he says, meaning to scold him, but it comes out so soft, and he finds he does not mind. “And yet you were right here.”

As always, Daesung’s hair is a mess, falling over his face in clumps, the tips of his bangs touching the dark circles under sunken-in eyes. Still damp in places but frizzing up where it has begun to dry in the chill autumn air.

Oh, it’s cold, Seunghyun realizes belatedly. Is that why he’s shivering where he sits?

He eyes Daesung’s short sleeves and bare arms. He isn’t shivering, and that surprises him. His mate’s body runs hot, but even he has a hard time sleeping comfortably in the cold.

He’s not sleeping! Seunghyun wants to scream, wants to take his dream self by the shoulders and wrench him away so he doesn’t have to endure the agony of what he knows comes next. Every fucking time.

He thinks again of the coat. Sadly, he think he should have brought it with him. He remembers scooping it up in careful hands and finding one sleeve soaked through, as if the river had surged up in a bid to drag it in too. As if claiming the coat’s owner had not been enough.

No.

His thoughts grind to a halt. He backtracks. Sidesteps that last one. Continues on.

The coat, the coat, he should have brought the coat with him. Daesung would want it back. Daesung could use it right now. He should let him know he found it, he retrieved it, he’ll have it back soon.

“Aren’t you cold? Your coat’s back at—at the house.” At home, he almost says, but this place is not home to him. It never will be, no matter how much Daesung seems to like it.

He has been acting out of sorts lately. Distant, like his mind is somewhere else. On edge, even around him. Seunghyun has not touched him in weeks, not the way he wants to, because Daesung never allows him close enough for the intimacy he craves.

He sees him every day, yet every day he feels farther away.

But now that he is here, Seunghyun is the one who feels flimsy and unreal, as if there is little tethering him to this world… because the person who held him down, who kept him grounded, has already left it.

No.

Seunghyun clutches his head, thoughts fragmenting again, shards of glass falling around him, images of broken light. This time there is a terrible, splitting pain in his skull as he refuses the thought, forcing it away in desperation.

Daesung hasn’t gone anywhere. Daesung is right here.

He raises a shaking hand to his mate’s face, traces a finger along the edge of his jaw, up the side of his face, into his hair, his skin as cold as the water he came out of. Daesung likes being coaxed into wakefulness like this, with soft touches, whispers of what Seunghyun wants to do to him when he is with him again—awake, aware.

His fingers catch in his hair, stuck on a stubborn knot. This often happens. He tries to disentangle them as carefully as he can. The last thing he wants is Daesung waking in pain at him pulling on his hair. If he can just—

The knot comes loose, his hand flying away without resistance.

No, it didn’t come loose. It came off.

He’s pulled Daesung’s hair out.

Seunghyun stares, dumbfounded, at the clump of hair sticking to his fingers, at the strip of skin that came off with it. Then down at the bald patch where it had been. Lingers on Daesung’s pale hands curled loosely in the sand, fingers stiff. On his placid face, his eyes closed in something like sleep, skin bruised green and brown everywhere it meets the ground.

That is where the blood settles in a body that has died, gravity pulling it down.

Something is pulling Seunghyun down too.

The river is on his left but he is drowning right where he sits, suffocating around the hole that’s opened in his chest, the breeze off the water blowing through him like he isn’t real, this isn’t real, none of this is real it can’t be—

That is when the smell hits him: the stench of decay.

In a breath his senses are overwhelmed with it, he’s choking on it, throat squeezing closed and eyes burning with tears and heart shredding itself into a pulpy, bloody soup and it hurts, it hurts, it fucking hurts.

A few nights ago he had blown through half their month’s soap ration scrubbing himself clean of that other wolf’s scent, erasing the events of that evening, all so that when he came home Daesung would not know what he’d done. But all the soap in the city, all the soap in the world will not, cannot wash away the sight or smell of his mate dead.

Dead. Daesung is dead.

He’s beyond his reach, Seunghyun searched for him and he found him but he didn’t, not really, he’s gone and left him for good in this godforsaken place and nothing he does will ever bring him back.

He’s not in there, he thinks, staring in shock at the—at the body before him.

He’s not coming back.

He’s gone.

Somewhere else apart from himself Seunghyun is howling in rage and pain and throwing himself against the walls of his mind for putting him through this torment again. It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not.

The memory may not be real, but the devastation is.

His dream self doesn’t know the difference though.

Seunghyun lurches to his feet and stumbles back a step, then two, then four, then he’s not counting anymore. Somewhere someone is screaming, and it’s not until hands are on him, steadying him, Youngbae’s grief-stricken eyes staring back at him, that Seunghyun realizes it’s him.

He breaks free, twisting out of Youngbae’s grip and throwing himself into the trees, away from the water and the husk of his loved one. Retreating from the ruins of his heart where they lie in a decomposing heap on the shore.

That’s not Daesung, not anymore, he thinks past the madness and the grief, and that is when he remembers.

He was supposed to be the first to go.

The door to their home cracks open against his shoulder as he stumbles through it, barrels into a bedroom, forces open the closet door and reaches in, rooting around inside it until his hand closes over cold metal.

He cannot bring Daesung back. But he can rush to meet him.

He checks the chamber: empty. Youngbae is too responsible. Near the door he finds his bedside table, rummages through its drawer until his hand bumps leather, upends the ammo pouch and catches the bullets in his palm and pops one in. With shaking hands he spins the rifle around and jams the business end into the roof of his mouth. Already he tastes blood—or is that metal? Who cares? With uncooperative fingers he finds the trigger, fumbles with it, hooks one around it.

There is shouting behind him, his packmates crying out, several sets of feet racing across the old wood boards like rolling thunder.

But their concern is nothing when Seunghyun’s anguish is lightning, ripping through him over and over again without mercy, a full-body electric agony. The bond is broken and every waking moment without his other half is the worst fucking pain he has ever known. He has to end it, he has to, he has to.

They will want to stop him, they will try, but their words don't matter, nothing matters, not without his mate, not without Daesung.

The bullet is still in the gun but he’s halfway outside himself already; he just needs a little help leaving the last fractured pieces behind. His jaw is aching and he’s holding his breath and there is resistance on the trigger before it begins to move.

Nothing matters. Not anymore.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

It’s so cold.

…is Seunghyun’s first coherent thought when he comes to. His next is that he is in the den, on the ground, a deerskin blanket bunched up at his bare feet. He must have kicked it off in his sleep.

“Damnit,” he says aloud this time, a wet whisper, though his mouth is dry. To his relief, it does not taste of blood or gunmetal, only bad breath.

Something in him still feels crippled though. It always does when he wakes from this dream. Maybe one day he will come out of it a little more intact. Maybe one day he won’t have to suffer through it at all.

Almost afraid to, he rolls over, expecting a warm body to catch his halfway. But he lands on his back, his arm flopping to the side, the space beside him a reflection of his heart: cold and empty.

Daesung isn't there.

He stares blankly up at the cave ceiling in the dark, hoping that tracing its dimples and cracks will help him forget what horrors his dream has forced on him. Picks at the coarse hair on the elk hide underneath him, relying on it to overwrite the phantom sensation of Daesung’s hair peeling away from his scalp, skin and all.

He shudders. Daesung… where is he?

What if it wasn’t a dream?

“Youngbae,” he tries. No reply.

"Youngbae.” A sleepy what floats up in the darkness from a few spaces away. “Have you seen Daesung?”

He is closest to the cave entrance; if Daesung had gone out for some reason Youngbae would know. But a long silence follows.

He’s just thinking, Seunghyun tries to calm himself. That or he fell back to sleep. There is no reason why it should take this long for Youngbae to answer. It’s a simple question.

Seunghyun sits up, pulse picking up under a fresh wave of fear. Ears straining, he listens for any sign that his mate might be nearby.

What if…

What if Daesung was never here to begin with? What if the journey into the mountains with him at his side, and every day and night since—what if that was the dream?

Seunghyun sits in the dark and breathes, confused and afraid.

He is opening his mouth to ask Youngbae again when a breeze carries in a familiar, welcome scent. And soon after there is the soft padding of bare feet in a rhytm he would recognize anywhere.

He could cry with relief.

Daesung sinks to his knees and crawls under the covers with him, making an effort to be quiet. He is halfway under when Seunghyun latches onto him, startling a breath out of him.

"Sorry,” Daesung says, sounding sleepy. He touches the arms around his waist. “Did I wake you up?"

"Where'd you go?" Seunghyun mouths into his chest where he is warm and alive, his heartbeat relaxed but strong.

Daesung eases onto his side, taking him down with him. With some trouble, because Seunghyun will not let him go, he works the blanket up and over them both.  

"Outside. Had to take a leak."

"Don't do it again.”

"What?” Daesung muffles a laugh, his breath heating the bit of air between them. “What if I have to go again?”

"Hold it," Seunghyun says stiffly. "Or, fuck it, do it here.” Where I can see you. “I don't care."

"Are you still asleep? You sound awake, but…”

“I’m awake,” Seunghyun says, as much for Daesung as to remind himself. He is awake, and this is real. He does not know how he could ever lose sight of that, but dreams have this funny way of messing with the mind.

He tries not to think about the what-ifs, or dwell on how things could have been different, how they could have ended. But in sleep he has no control over such things. In dreams are where his worst fears come out to play, stirring up memories, real and imagined, tormenting him until the next morning.

Although even then, some stay with him. Not all dreams fade in the sunlight.

It isn’t a regular occurrence, the nightmare he just emerged from. But even once is too much. If only there was something he could do about it.

With Daesung close like this, Seunghyun pets his hair, soft touches over the top of it. No pulling, no tugging. One careful stroke at a time, he is working up the courage to card fingers through it. He may be awake now, but that does not mean the fear has relinquished its hold on him.

"Are you okay?" Daesung whispers into the dark.

Seunghyun decides that if the goal is to rid himself of bad sensory memories, there is really only one way to do it—replace them with new ones.

"Ow! What was that for?” Daesung’s hand flies to his head. “Why did you pull my hair?”

“No reason.” Seunghyun pats him consolingly. “Turn over?”

Daesung does, rubbing at his head as he goes. As soon as his back is to him, Seunghyun closes in and wraps himself around it—around all of him, and allows one hand to wander. Across his chest, down the plane of his stomach, taking comfort in the hills and valleys of his body. Smoothing over a slim hip and down a strong thigh, stopping only where the reach of his arm ends—then beginning the journey up again. With every pass of his hand Daesung sighs softly, melting under his petting and snuffling into the pillow of his arm. And soon sinking back into sleep, his body going slack under his touches.

Seunghyun deliberately steers clear of what rests between his legs. That is not what he is after, not tonight. Not when remembered grief still resides in his heart, and in his eyes, tears, his face buried in the wispy hair at the base of his mate’s skull.

He just needs to hold him, to remind himself that though the river took Daesung, he took Daesung back. If he can do that, and if he can fall asleep like this every night, then maybe the dreams that plague him will dissolve away like darkness fleeing into the day.

Daesung is here, and Seunghyun, a plan slowly taking shape, is going to do everything in his power to ensure that he stays.

 

 

--

 

 

“Where are you taking me?”

It’s an innocent question, one filled with a calm curiosity, much like Daesung himself. Seunghyun has him by the hand as he leads him through the woods. He knows where they are going. Daesung does not.

“You’ll see.”

It’s not far now, he realizes as they pass another of his marks on the aspen trees: a crudely-drawn arrow carved into their soft, white trunks, pointing him in the right direction. That’s the fifth one so far. Only two more to go.

“I wish you would just tell me,” Daesung says, but lets himself be pulled along just the same.

Seunghyun is about to turn and flash him a smile that’s meant to be reassuring, but thinks better of it. It could have the opposite effect, and he does not want him on his guard. Best to go in blind. This is going to be hard enough as it is.

Daesung is not going to like what he has planned for him, but it cannot be put it off any longer. They should have done this years ago.

That is when Seunghyun sees it, just ahead. A clearing through the trees, an expanse of open air, and below…

Daesung stops suddenly, his hand slipping out of Seunghyun’s.

“Oh,” he says, staring at the water with wide eyes. “Wow, this is…”

“Cool, huh?” Seunghyun goes on without him, sliding down the creek’s steep bank and trusting him to follow at his own pace. From there his feet carry him onto a peninsula, a small finger of land jutting into the water. In the shallows it’s clear, the creek bed littered with slippery stones lodged in viscous mud. But farther out, where the bottom slopes away, the water turns a murky green, too deep and dark for light to breach.

To Seunghyun, it’s the perfect place to dive in and take a swim, and the best way to cool off on a hot day. He cannot wait to show the others.

But Daesung gets to be the first, and today it is just the two of them, because Seunghyun has plans for this place. Plans that depend on Daesung’s cooperation.

“There are some rapids up that way,” he says, pointing upstream, “and a small waterfall too. I’ll show you sometime. But the current here is pretty calm.”

He hears footsteps approaching from behind and allows himself a private smile.

“When did you find this?”

“I dunno, few days ago,” Seunghyun guesses, dropping his shoes at the water’s edge, followed by his shirt and pants and underwear as he strips down to nothing. The sun on his naked skin is not enough to stop goosebumps from erupting as his toes touch the water, feet sinking into soft, cool mud. Though his back is to Daesung, he knows he is being watched.

“And you didn’t say anything?”

“Maybe I wanted to surprise you.” Wading in deeper, he talks over his shoulder, “Was out walking in a field and found some flattened grass. Looked like flooding. Followed it downhill and ended up here.”

“Looks deep,” Daesung says, sounding anxious. Then, hopeful, “Think there are any fish?”

“Only one way to find out.” In up to his hips, Seunghyun turns and offers him his hand, palm up. “Come on in.”

He really should not be disappointed when Daesung’s face goes as white as the snow high on the mountaintops. He should not be, but he is.

“Uh,” the other wolf laughs nervously. “Me?”

“Who else?”

Daesung edges away then, and Seunghyun can see how his tail presses flat against the backs of his thighs.

“I’ll come in,” he finally forces out, “but not that far.”

“Why not?”

“You know I don’t know how to—”

“You will.” Seunghyun wiggles his fingers invitingly. “Daesung, come on. It’s time you learned how to swim.”

“No.” Daesung backs away, retreating, and it takes all Seunghyun has not to follow. “No, no, no.”

“You need to learn.”

“That’s what you think.”

Seunghyun frowns. “You can’t stick to the shallows forever.”

“I’ve managed this long. Maybe if you all would stop trying to drag me in—”

“I’m not doing this so you can play with us,” Seunghyun cuts him off. “This is just... I want you to be safe. It’s a basic life skill. One you need to know.”

Daesung wipes his palms on his pants. Sweating already?

“Ten years and none of us have taken the time to teach you how to swim,” he says, feeling unbearably guilty. And partly responsible. If he had only stepped in sooner instead of putting it off all these years then maybe… maybe Daesung would not have…

“If I wanted to learn I would have asked,” Daesung snaps. “Why now? Why all of a sudden?”

“Look, I know you’re afraid.” I am too. “But you’ll be okay. It’s just swimming, it’s easier than you think.”

Daesung worries at his lip and wrings his hands, eyes sweeping the water with a deep distrust.

“And also… I’ll be here.” Seunghyun starts forward. He had not wanted to budge, he had hoped Daesung would come to him, but maybe what Daesung needs is for them to meet in the middle. “Trust me.”

If that doesn’t get Daesung to come in, he doesn’t know what will.

The next time those eyes turn to him Seunghyun thinks he sees it—Daesung’s doubts beginning to disperse. He begins with a single step in his direction, hesitant, but it’s something. Then another, and another again, until he is entering the water. His shoes stick in the mud as he goes, pulling hard with every step.

“You might want to take those off,” Seunghyun says, nodding to them. He knows how gross that feels, water soaking through and turning every step into a disgusting squelch. “Your shirt and pants too. It’ll be easier without them.”

Daesung tucks his chin to his chest, peering down for a long, long time—at his submerged shoes, at the water seeping in and creeping up the legs of his jeans. With his hair in the way, his eyes are hidden, but it does not matter; his fear is as clear to Seunghyun as the cloudless sky above.

But through the trees the sun is shining, and he cannot imagine anything going so wrong on a day so flawless and bright. So Seunghyun waits for him, heart balanced between belief and rejection. Daesung’s next move could tip it in either direction.

“Daesung. Don’t be afraid. I’m with you.” The water swirls around his hips as he goes to him again, sloshing through the water to where his mate weighs his faith in him against his fear. “Are you with me?”

Please be with me.

The clothes come off. Daesung comes in.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung heaves and throws his weight forward, the muscles in his back straining. A droplet of sweat falls from his brow and he straightens up to survey his work—and to catch his breath. In his right hand he holds a flat rock with a honed edge, a dull blade with which to scrape the skin stretched out beneath him clean. Another day, another hunt, another hide for them to flesh. Today it’s just him and Youngbae, and they are running short on time; the sky looks ready to let loose on them at any moment.

He bends over the hide again and bites back a groan as his lower back twinges in pain. They have earned themselves another cow elk and have been at it for what feels like hours already, stripping the skin from her cooling carcass, laying it flat and pulling it taut and working their way over it with crudely-fashioned tools. Daesung had wanted to sharpen his blade to make the work go faster, but Youngbae cautioned him against it. Said he would end up slicing too many holes.

“You cut more holes with a dull blade,” Daesung had quipped. Something his father had told him once. He isn’t sure is he believes it, but here he is, repeating the words more than a decade later.

Youngbae glares at him through sweaty bangs. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Daesung sighs and lets his cheeky grin fall—and with it, another drop of sweat. Dull blade it is.

That is how Seungri finds them, stooped over a half-cleaned hide and working frantically to reach the other end of it before the sky makes good on its threat of rain and ruins all their hard work.

“You knew rain was coming, right?” he says, and Daesung gets the sense that he is judging them hard. “This couldn’t have waited until after?”

“You’re really gonna be like that right now?” Youngbae says, panting. They are both too tired and too pressed for time to give him the roasting he is asking for. “Get over here and help us out. We could use another set of hands.”

When a reply does not come, Daesung checks on their youngest, curious. He finds Seungri eyeing the hide with no small amount of doubt.

“Is has so many holes... is it even worth keeping?"

"It's better than nothing,” Daesung snaps at him, irritation flaring.

A beat of surprised silence passes between them. Youngbae and Seungri exchange dubious glances. Daesung returns quickly to his work, face flushed, no one more startled by his outburst than him.

It is true that in their haste they have cut a few holes, but that doesn’t mean the hide is beyond saving. This one might not make the best blanket anymore, but Jiyong will find a use for it. He can cut it into smaller squares and use them for repairs or line their clothes with leather for added warmth in winter.

Dragging his blade down the hide again, he does not understand why Seungri’s comment needles him. It’s just… a little damage doesn’t make the whole thing worthless… right?

Seungri grinds the toe of his shoe into the ground, head down. “I just meant…”

“Such a critic,” Youngbae cuts in with a tepid grin, taking up the role of peacemaker in Daesung’s stead. “If we’re doing such a poor job of it, then why don’t you get over here and show us how it’s done?”

Seungri perks up, turning away. “Ah, actually, I think I hear Jiyong calling me—"

Something smacks into the side of his face with a wet sound, and sticks.

Youngbae bursts out laughing, slapping at his thigh with a greasy palm while Seungri scrubs at his face.

“What the—gross, Bae!” he squawks in dismay.

“Don’t call me that,” Youngbae laughs, reaching for more. There is a pile of elk fat sitting in a glob off to one side, fat they have scraped off the hide. Daesung watches him scoop up another handful of it, rolling it in his palm and taking aim a second time.

But before he can let the fat fly a new voice stops him.

"Quit being a brat and help out your elders," Jiyong scolds in his stead, bopping Seungri on the head from behind.

Not far behind him is Seunghyun. Upon reaching them, he slides a finger through the fat that remains on Seungri’s cheek and flicks it at Daesung. Daesung ducks and laughs, dropping his fleshing knife into the grass.

Youngbae wipes his slick hands over his shirt. “Done with the quartering already?”

“Got most of it into the den,” Seunghyun says, bending down to retrieve Daesung’s blade. “Left a few tough bits behind though. Gotta leave something for the scavengers, right?”

“That’s thoughtful of you.”

“He just didn’t want to go all the way back for scraps, that’s all,” Jiyong clarifies.

“You got the skull, right?” Daesung asks him. Youngbae will need it—or more specifically, what’s inside it—to tan the hide.

“Yeah, yeah,” Seunghyun says, “Don’t know how he’s gonna get to the brain though. I stuck a finger in it. You know, in the hole at the back? Tried to stir it up and scoop it out but…” Leaning in close, he practically purrs, “Surprised me, actually. Felt a little like putting a finger in you .”

“Ugh,” Daesung jerks away, nose scrunched up in disgust.

Seunghyun pulls back with a big, filthy grin. “Youngbae, how you gonna get the brain out?”

“How else? Break it open.”

“The whole skull?”

Youngbae looks up. “Yeah? Just throw it against a rock, it’s not hard.” He blinks, grins. “Well, it is, but the rock is harder.”

“It’s back at the den. We can crack it open later. Besides, I wanted to get here before the rain starts.” Seunghyun nudges Daesung, still smiling wide, but it’s sweeter this time. “You’re the only person I want to get caught in the rain with.”

He lifts the knife, about to hand it back to him, when he decides to run a finger along its edge, testing. His face scrunches up in confusion. “Why is this so dull?”

“A dull knife leads to a dull life,” Seungri chimes in cheerfully. “So keep your claws sharp.”

“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

Seungri shrugs. “Hell if I know. Whatever you want it to, I guess.”

“No one has to remind me to keep my claws sharp.” Seunghyun scoffs, letting them out and holding them up to the light. “These bad boys are always primed for killing.”

“Then use your claws,” Youngbae cuts in loudly, tossing him another tool. “Whatever gets the job done. We need to get back to work before—oh no.” He freezes, eyes going comically wide. “I think I just felt a raindrop.”

It seems like a miracle, but with the five of them working together, they make it to the end and slip inside the den just before the rain comes rushing down, the cleaned hide—cleaned and dry—safely draped over Youngbae’s forearm. And if in their haste they cut a few more holes, well, it’s just leather. Or will be. Nothing a needle and thread and a steady hand can’t fix.

 

 

--

 

 

It isn’t that they haven’t learned not to go running blindly into bushes after whatever animal, unknown to them, made that sound. First rule of hunting: identify your prey. It is that sometimes, in their excitement, they simply forget. It is that the chase instinct, when it is especially strong, demands that they act first and think later. It is that sometimes, when something unseen catches the interest of three wolves wandering the woods together, it becomes a race to see who can catch and hook his claws into it first.

In summary, many things have landed them in this mess. And Daesung is looking directly at two of them.

Well, looking at one of them and smelling the other… and doing his best not to gag.

Seungri throws a hand up, palm to Seunghyun, warding him off. "Sorry, but I'm gonna hurl if you come any closer."

Seunghyun scowls darkly at him—or tries to. The effect is lost when he doubles over, retching for the third time in as many minutes. Daesung’s stomach spasms in sympathy, though he doesn’t budge, trying not to move.

Like Seungri, he is… a bit tied up at the moment.

Seunghyun wipes a fist across his mouth when he is through. "So, what, you're going to walk all the way back wrapped up in thorns?"

Daesung looks to Seungri, then down at himself, then back to Seungri, then to Seunghyun. Weighing the bite of thorns cutting into his skin against the sickening skunk stink radiating off his mate. It leaves him feeling lightheaded, even with Seunghyun standing several yards away.

He doesn’t know what to do or what to say. He loses either way.

"We'll live,” Seungri coughs out. “I mean, at least we don’t reek like—oh god, I’m gonna be sick.”

A growl starts up in Seunghyun’s throat.

“Seungri, don’t poke him,” Daesung says, trying to keep the peace. Be glad it was him instead of you.

Seunghyun goes on ahead of them, leaving the two of them encased in their thorny prisons and wondering how they are supposed to get home like this.

Diving into the bushes had been a bad move. The skunk had raised its tail and they had been in such a hurry to scramble out of the way they’d tripped over each other. Daesung and Seungri had succeeded somewhat, their rapid escape taking them straight into a patch of vines. Seunghyun had not been so lucky.

The thorns hurt, swaddled in them as he is, but Daesung will take the pinpricks of pain over skunk spray any day.

The walk back to the den is a long one, a seemingly endless trek spent waddling awkwardly to minimize the damage, wrapped in tiny spikes from shoulders to ankles, their arms trapped. They’ll need their packmates to cut them free.

By the time they make it back the world is going dark, the woods fading to gray and flattening out as the world loses color, lacking depth.

“Where’s Seunghyun?”

Wordlessly, Jiyong points downhill, toward the stream.

“How long has he been down there?”

“Not long enough. I can still smell him, even from all the way up here. Can’t you?” Jiyong complains, covering his nose with the hem of his shirt.

No more skunks, Daesung laments, swallowing around the urge to be sick. Please, no more skunks.

The stars are out in full force by the time Seunghyun comes back to them. Daesung is already in bed and in a light sleep when the smell—oh god, the smell —pulls him from his half-formed dreams.

“Nnn—no,” he slurs, batting clumsily at the body settling in behind him.

“What?”

“You still smell.”

“You should probably sleep outside tonight, Seunghyun. Maybe tomorrow night too,” Jiyong says from across the den, sounding as sorry as he is dead serious.

A stunned silence follows, and in the quiet Daesung feels himself drifting off again.

“You’re not fucking serious,” Seunghyun hisses at last. “You want me to sleep outside? Alone?”

Jiyong’s eyes flash in the dark. “Scared?”

Seunghyun stumbles to his feet, angry.

“Fine. But just for tonight.” He snatches a spare deerskin off the cave floor on the way out. “Should have stuffed our pockets with soap when we left that goddamn city…”

Dopey with sleep, Daesung smiles.

 

 

--

 

 

He can’t move. He can’t move.

The ground, at least, is cool, here in the shade where the grass still grows green despite the crushing summer heat. Daesung drops his face into it and blows out a breath. All he gets in return is a faceful of dirt. But not even that is enough to make him move. Because he can’t.

Turning over would take energy, energy he does not have. Forget returning to the den tonight; if it means walking all the way back in this heat he might as well make his bed right here. If he lies here long enough perhaps he will become one with the weeds. Sink into the soil and take root and, when enough time has passed, sprout back up as something tougher, something that can tolerate the heat and humidity. If these hardy plants can survive here, so can he.

What the fuck are these thoughts, he asks himself, but the question is gone before he can muster an answer, evaporating into the air.

A moment later a growl breaks free, but not from his throat. This growl he feels, and it is coming from below.

“I'm…” He laughs into the grass, embarrassed by his body’s demands. “I’m hungry.”

"Then go catch something," he hears from somewhere above him. Behind him. Over him. Where…?

"It's too hot to move."

“Then let me help you.”

Then Daesung is in motion, someone else’s hands rolling him over not once but twice, until he has completed a full turn and ended up right back where he began: on his front, head buried in his folded arms.

“I, uh—I moved too much.” He grins, knowing no one can see it. “You moved me too much.”

“You’re ridiculous.” And then something is touching his hair, and it’s not the wind as he had hoped, it’s Seunghyun’s hand, nails scratching lightly at the nape of his neck. A shiver runs down his spine at the touch, goosebumps up his arms.

“I thought summer would be cooler here. There’s snow on the slopes!” he whines. “So why am I the one who’s melting?”

He hates to complain, but summer is hard for him when his body already runs hot. And yet still Seunghyun clings to him at night, wrapped around him like moss on a tree. It isn’t the best arrangement for Daesung in the hottest months of the year, his mate’s heat always at his back, but it keeps Seunghyun happy, and Daesung is not keen to take that away from him.

“Hmm,” he hears, the distracted hum Seunghyun often makes when something has caught his eye. It isn’t until he feels a fingertip following a path around his neck that he realizes what, exactly, the other wolf has set his sights on.

Daesung would like to just forget his scars, but that’s easier said than done when Seunghyun is always touching them.

"Wanna go for a swim? Deep Creek’s that way."

“Not really.”

“Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad,” Seunghyun says, shaking him with a hand on the small of his back.

He’s right, it wasn’t, but that doesn’t mean Daesung wants to try again anytime soon. Or ever.

But Seunghyun seems determined to see him swim, and if he needs to indulge him, at least for now, well…

"I'm in!"

Before Daesung knows what’s happening he is being dragged through the grass by his ankles. He has just a moment to catch a glimpse of his attacker’s face before self-preservation kicks in and he digs his claws into the dirt.

“Youngbae!” he half-laughs, half-cries. “I should have known!”

Youngbae laughs right back, as strong as ever and seemingly unaffected by the heat, because he is throwing all his weight into moving him and succeeding. Daesung’s claws leave deep trenches in the soil as he is hauled away against his will, slicing through shallow root systems and brutalizing the earth beneath him.

Looks like he will have to find another place to become one with nature.

“Let me go!” he cries, kicking, and that finally does the trick; Youngbae drops his legs, the fight draining out of him.

“God, Daesung," he pants, "have you always been this heavy?"

A hand finds his ass and pats it reassuringly, and even with his face to the ground, Daesung knows right away that it’s not Youngbae’s.

"I think it's time you had another swimming lesson anyway," Seunghyun says, squeezing one cheek just because he can. Because he knows Daesung will let him. Daesung whimpers, not at the squeeze but at the suggestion and digs his claws in deeper.

Seunghyun grabs him by the back of his shirt collar with a long-suffering sigh. "Come on. Up. Let’s go beat the heat."

Daesung makes a strangled sound when his collar bites into his throat. So what if it’s a little overplayed? If it will get them to leave him alone…

"Don't make us carry you,” Seunghyun threatens.

"We'll get Jiyong and Seungri to help if we have to," Youngbae adds. “And you know how they hate to be interrupted.”

Daesung knows. They had left them behind for that very reason, expecting them to catch up later. Jiyong had been in a playful mood, snatching bits of bark from off the forest floor and dropping them down the back of Seungri's shirt to watch him squirm and shout. The last time Daesung had checked on them Seungri had Jiyong up against a tree… and when clothes had started dropping, he and Seunghyun and Youngbae had gone on without them.

Seunghyun snorts. “Interrupted? They don’t have that kind of stamina. They’re probably already done.”

“Round two?” Youngbae wonders.

“Maybe we should have just joined in,” Seunghyun grumps. Daesung cannot see it in his current position, with his face to the ground, but he knows his mate is pouting. “Daesung?”

“You two go on without me,” he says into the grass. “I’ll stay here. Just in case they, uh, forgot the way.”

“Nope. We’re going to the creek. And you’re coming with.”

“Deep Creek calls to you,” Youngbae joins in, crooning, “Daesung… Daesung…”

“Why are you siding with him?”

“Because as much as it pains me to say it, Seunghyun is right about this. You do need to learn to swim. And there’s only one way that’s gonna happen.” He taps Daesung’s ankle with every repetition of the word, “Practice, practice, practice.”

Daesung falls into a reluctant silence, his packmate’s words sinking in.

“Seunghyun could use a dip too,” Youngbae adds, turning to the other wolf. “You’re almost back to normal, but I still detect a hint of skunk.”

“Oh, fuck you too.”

“So? What do you say?”

“I guess…” Daesung hedges, his hope that they’ll give up and go on without him dwindling. Dying.

“It’ll be fine. No, it’ll be fun. We’ll all be there.” Youngbae takes him by the heel and rocks his foot back and forth playfully. “Come on, what do you have to lose?”

My dignity, my pride, Daesung thinks. As if he has any of that left.

His friends will not let him drown, this he knows, but there are worse things in this world than death, things he cannot touch but feels nonetheless—and they lie in wait in deep waters and dark places.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"Something touched my foot!"

Seunghyun splutters, creek water rushing up his nose as Daesung tries—and fails—to climb onto him.

"There it is again, oh my god oh my god," the other wolf blubbers, clinging to him. Seunghyun would laugh if he could only find the air to do so. With every escape attempt he only manages to pull him under.

“Daes—stop, you’re pushing me und—get off!” He gets an arm between them and manages to shove him away, just long enough to catch his breath.

“I don’t like this. Let’s go back.”

“It’s probably just a fish,” Seunghyun pants, holding him at arm’s length.

“Probably?” Daesung’s eyes are wide through his drenched hair. "How do you know?"

Seunghyun doesn’t know, but he isn’t about to tell Daesung that. Not when he is watching him with those eyes. Seunghyun contemplates his panicked state and wonders if they are making any progress at all, or if this is all for nothing.

"Okay, maybe it’s not a fish. There are plants at the bottom too, you know. You stomp all over them in the shallows."

"We’re not in the shallows,” Daesung says like it’s a death sentence.

“No, we’re not,” Seunghyun says, wrapping him in his arms and buoying him up, towing him through the water at a relaxed pace. He keeps to the shoreline instead of leaving it because if he takes Daesung any farther out he fears he might have a heart attack right here in his arms.

Daesung whines, breathing hard, “Seunghyun…"

“And look at you. You’re okay.” Underneath, Seunghyun can feel him kicking wildly and ineffectively. “You’re okay.”

He shakes his head, tonguing at his inner cheek in concentration as he drifts through the water ahead of Daesung, taking care to keep their legs from colliding and pulling them both down. He wants to let him go, wants to see him to stay afloat at the very least… but he has seen the thrashing that takes over when Daesung is left alone in deep water. Hands slapping at the surface with sloppy strokes, stirring up foam, out of control.

And still he sinks.

Seunghyun does not understand why this is so hard for him. Swimming is simple. He had learned when he was little, in the pond behind the hut he shared with his mother and sister in the colony he once called home. An essential life skill for their kind, his mother had taken him into the water with a firm, guiding hand and taught him to brave the deep.

Sink or swim, she had told him, though deep down he always knew there was no real danger. He was her only son; she would never let him drown.

Her hands had been dainty but strong, a mother’s protective instinct and all its ferocity disguised inside a deceptively slight frame. He had seen bits of his mother in Jiyong the day they met many seasons later. Same small build, same dazzling inner flame.

Seunghyun is not Daesung’s mother, but he will impart to him the same skills since, apparently, no one in his birth pack thought it necessary.

Daesung cries out again and presses close, pulling him back to the present with more water up the nose.

“There it is again!” He jerks, the muscles in his arms tensing up under Seunghyun’s tight hold. "I don't like this at all, let’s get out now, please."

"What’s that? You want to go deeper?”

“What?” Daesung's mouth drops open in distress. “That’s not what I said!"

"You want to get away from the plants, don't you?"

“It wasn’t a plant, it touched me like—”

“Just touched?”

“—bit me,” Daesung amends quickly. “Like something nibbling on my toes. What if there are snakes? Or turtles?” He gulps. “Or worse?”

Seunghyun chuckles. “You’ll be fine.”

"Can we please just get out already," Daesung says, voice wobbling. “Take me back to shore.”

Something in Seunghyun snaps.

“Fine, go back to shore,” he says, turning Daesung around with hands on his shoulders until he is facing the trees that grow along the creek’s southern bank. “But you’ll have to swim there yourself.”

And with that, he lets him go.

“Wha—” Daesung flounders. Wails, reaching for him, “Seunghyun!” The water around him turns white as he strikes the surface in a sudden panic.

Seunghyun frowns, watching him flail from just a few feet away. If he really wanted to cross the distance between them, he could. Hell, he could make it back to shore all on his own if he would just calm the fuck down and remember his lessons. Seunghyun is sure of it. All Daesung has to do is put his mind to it instead of losing it.

His mate is healthy and strong, but none of that seems to matter in the face of this crippling fear.

In his frenzy Daesung manages to claw his way closer to him, hands smack the surface with such force that Seunghyun has to turn away from the resulting spray.

It’s sad, Seunghyun thinks, watching him fight so hard to accomplish so little. A wolf who cannot even keep himself afloat.

This is getting them nowhere. All Daesung is doing is wearing himself out.

And riling Seunghyun up.

“Daesung.” He has to put an end to this. “Daesung stop, you’re not—stop.”

He reaches out blindly, grabbing Daesung’s wrists to still them, and once he has him firmly in hand the other’s struggling slows.

“Why did you let go,” he coughs wetly when Seunghyun pulls him back in, eyes lost somewhere under his long, limp hair.

“Sorry. That was mean of me.”

“I’m not ready.”

“I know,” Seunghyun says, helping him hold his head above water and heading for the trees, together.

He wanted to give him a chance to prove himself. Sink or swim, like his mother had done for him. Except, like Seunghyun with his mother, Daesung knows he will not let him sink, doesn’t he? So why the fit of panic?

He guides them both back to shore where, once there, Daesung wastes no time gathering his legs under him and fleeing up its steep bank, water sluicing off his naked body as he puts distance between them. Seunghyun stays behind, lingering at the water’s edge and pretending not to hear his coughing as he clears the last of the creek water from his airways.

Taking small steps has never been his style.

You’re not ready yet, but you will be, he thinks when he hands him his clothes a while later, feeling as contrite for pushing him too soon as he is committed to one day seeing him swim without fear. This cannot go on forever.

We’ll overcome this. You’ll see.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung appreciates these moments when he finds Seunghyun napping, soft in sleep in a way he rarely is awake. Even more remarkable is that somehow, even in this state, his mate seems to recognize him, not stirring in the slightest at his approach. For anyone else it would be strange behavior. This open grove is far from the safety of their den, their only cover the trees that grow low to the ground, the wind whispering through their bending branches. And a wolf that does not wake at the first sign of danger is a wolf that does not live long.

Yet here he is, suspended in a shallow sleep while Daesung tiptoes through the grass toward him, quiet as a mouse.

He likes to think it’s their bond that keeps him calm. As his mate, Seunghyun does not need to be awake to know that with him he is safe.

Safe, perhaps, but even so his sleep seems disturbed, Daesung notices as he settles at his side. Taking in the tension in his face, he wonders if he should wake him. Daesung is no stranger to unsettling dreams, but even though his packmates mean well, he prefers not to be awoken when caught in one’s web; the memory of it seems to stay with him longer when he is pulled out prematurely.

He would hate to do the same to Seunghyun. Best to let it run its course.

Deciding to let him sleep, Daesung gets comfortable where he sits and passes the time doodling in the dirt, using his fingers, tongue poking out as he reaches into the stores of his memory for the right strokes.

D… E…

No , he thinks, eyes screwing up. That doesn’t look right. He squeezes them shut and tries to drag the memory back before his mind’s eye, the image coming up fuzzy. He knows this, he has practiced in secret too many times to still get it so wrong.

He sweeps dirt over his mistake and starts again.

D… A… E…

Without warning, Seunghyun jerks violently, a hand cutting a wide path through his work. Daesung stares down in surprise at his ruined writing. Then at the hand that messed it up. Then at the person the hand belongs to.

Maybe I should wake him up, he thinks as the other wolf presses his face into the grass with a distressed whine, breath hitching. He might hate him for it later, but Daesung cannot just sit here and watch him suffer.

No bad dreams, not while he’s around.

So he slips his hand into Seunghyun’s, and instantly the fretting dies down. He doesn’t even have to shake him or speak his name. His touch alone—or as Seunghyun calls it, his calming presence —is, it seems, all the cure he needs.

He watches the lines on his mate’s face smooth over, his breathing evening out. Seeing that his sleep had been made peaceful again, he leaves his left hand where it is and, with his other, returns to his work, determined to get it right this time.

D… A… E… S…

 

 

--

 

 

Seunghyun is on his own today.

But that’s okay; his quarry is only a deer today, nothing he can’t handle. Ahead of him there stands a mature buck boasting a fine set of antlers. Though they are covered in soft, velvety skin, still growing, the tall tines reach for the sky like a ponderosa pine. This is a healthy animal in its prime. He does not expect the hunt to be an easy one.

He wants to try though. He wants to wrestle with something his size, and while his packmates would normally suffice, right now he needs something more, something he can push his claws into.

He takes his time stalking the buck through the brush, his approach slow and steady, keeping downwind to hide his scent. And just when it seems he is within striking distance, all his muscles flexing in preparation… his prey spots him.

“Damnit,” he whispers to himself when it lifts its head and trains those giant ears on him. I’m not here. You don’t see me. Maybe, if he holds perfectly still…

But the buck does not flee as he expects; no, it drops its head and pivots, ears pinned back, antlers aimed right at him.

“Oh shit,” he barely has time to yelp as it charges. Shoes slip-sliding in the dirt, he turns tail and runs like hell.

His rapid retreat takes him by a cluster of boulders, and with a great leap and claws raking over rock, he scrambles up to the top of the nearest one. Then, huffing and puffing, he plops onto his ass, folding his legs underneath until he is cross-legged and glaring at the angry animal down below. It paces back and forth at the rock’s base, agitated. Seunghyun gets the sense that it is standing guard, unwilling to let him go. At least he can’t be reached up here.

…he hopes he can’t be reached up here.

“What the hell is your problem,” he mutters, picking up a rock and throwing it. “Big bastard. You think you’re so tough. Lose those spears you call antlers and we’ll see which of us comes out on top.”

Hurling another rock, he sees his clawtips poking out, half-extended. Just as the deer has its antlers, what is he without his teeth and claws?

If he is being honest, Seunghyun has never put much stock in fair fights. Nothing in nature is fair. Life out here as they were meant to live it dictates that they learn to use what nature gave them… or they die. It’s simple, just how Seunghyun likes it.

He supposes humans have found other ways to survive, unnatural adaptations. But he rejects their reliance on strange ways. He was born with speed and strength beyond that of any human, and deadly weapons built right into his skin. They are gifts. He has no need of spears or traps or nets. And with his bare hands he will gleefully break apart anything that accepts bullets.

Guns have no place among them. He and those he loves have stared down the wrong end of a rifle too many times to ever make peace with such instruments of destruction.

So alright, this damn deer can keep its antlers. It will not have them forever anyway. Seunghyun will find it again in the spring when its headgear is gone, see how willing it is to pick fights with him then.

A clacking sound from below reminds him that he still has company.

"Okay, you can go away already!" He pelts it with more sticks and stones, trying to shoo the angry animal away. Who knew the deer here were so aggressive? The buck snorts and turns its back on him, presumably to graze, but Seunghyun sees those ears laid back, listening intently. Tracking his every move.

He sighs, shoulders slumping. He could be up here awhile. At least no one else is around to witness his humiliation.

So he nearly slips off his perch in surprise when, in a flurry of motion, something bounds out of a nearby pile of brush and vaults onto the buck’s back.

No, not some thing , some one .

Youngbae, Seunghyun thinks grimly. Because apparently the world has not laughed at him enough today.

His packmate’s arms circle the deer’s neck like a lasso and Seunghyun sees how his claws plunge in, leaving deep red gouges in the skin. He whimpers, wishing it was him down there.

And with just that, it is over almost as soon as it began. His first strike successful, Youngbae dismounts athletically, folding in on himself to break his fall and rolling out of harm’s way like a loose wheel off a cart. The buck flees into the woods, crashing through the treeline until it’s out of sight.

Youngbae stands, dusting off his hands—and where there is blood, letting his tongue out to lick them clean.

Seunghyun frowns and calls down, "You're not following?”

"No need to. Check out that blood trail."

There is a rustling in the cluster of bushes Youngbae had come out of; so Seunghyun lobs a rock at it. The pained yelp that follows is a decidedly familiar one. Seungri comes crawling out, rubbing at his shoulder.

"I told him you wouldn't like him stealing your kill,” he says uncomfortably.

Youngbae scoffs, "I didn’t steal it. Seunghyun was just distracting it so I could sneak up on it, right? Teamwork." He grins and gives Seunghyun a thumbs-up, a gesture he picked up from Daesung.

Seunghyun wishes he would not use it, knowing where Daesung learned it—from humans.

“Oh, is that what we’re calling it now,” Seunghyun grumbles, sliding down from his safe place and hitting the ground with none of the finesse that Youngbae had displayed moments earlier. Not everyone can be so agile. He is as swift and strong as they come, but he leaves the fancy footwork to his packmates.

“I’ll let you land the killing blow,” Youngbae offers, clapping him on the shoulder as he passes by. “Since I know how important that is to you.”

“Why don’t we let Seungri have the honor?”

As one, they turn to their youngest, whose tail wags at the suggestion, cautiously optimistic.

Youngbae shakes him. “Are you serious?”

Seunghyun shoves him in reply. “Of course not. When have I ever let Seungri have what’s mine?”

“Well, there was the other night… or was that not our dear omega I saw sandwiched between you and Daesung?”

“Damn, Youngbae, you really need to stop spying on us from the shadows.” Seunghyun leers at him. “Next time just join us.”

And with that he laughs and sprints away at breakneck speed, leaving Youngbae’s teasing and Seungri’s eager eyes behind. He has a deer to find. The earth blurs under him as he runs, but it’s okay. It’s more than okay. He does not need to see the trail of blood that will take him to his prey. He is a wolf, after all, and his nose knows the way.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung is watching Seunghyun patch the wall at the entrance to their den when the stones he had stacked up and stood on start to wobble under his weight.

He bolts to him, arms out to catch him—but he’s too late. Arms windmilling, Seunghyun topples over—but only after planting his face into the wall itself on the way down.

Daesung drops to his knees, looking him over hurriedly. “Are you okay?”

Flat on his back, Seunghyun stares up at him, seeming dazed. Then his face contorts in pain, his hand flying to his nose.

Ow, damnit , did—did I break it? Is there blood?”

“You’re not bleeding,” Daesung tells him, but Seunghyun wipes under his nose and checks his fingers anyway.

“Well, fuck. Knew that was gonna happen,” he says, climbing to his feet gingerly.

“Then why did you go up there?”

Seunghyun shrugs, still prodding experimentally at his nose, wincing with every touch. “The wall needed repairs. I took a chance.” He gives him a thoughtful look. “Maybe next time I’ll just do like Youngbae and hitch a ride on your shoulders.”

“You’re taller than Youngbae. You’d take us both down,” Daesung says back, and when Seunghyun continues jabbing at his injured nose, “Stop poking at it, you’re not helping!”

Later, as they are washing up in their favorite stream—well, Seunghyun is washing while Daesung, who took a dip that morning, is looking on—Seunghyun’s mind is still on his nose.

“You would still love me if my nose broke and it healed wrong, right? All crooked and misshapen,” he says, pulling his shirt over his head slowly, mindful of his recent injury.

Daesung laughs. “I don’t know…”

Seunghyun hits him, open-handed across the back and— shit, Daesung thinks, catching himself with hands braced on the rock under him. Sometimes his mate forgets his own strength.

“How did you know yours was broken?”

“If it’s broken, you’ll know,” Daesung assures him. “It’s like—” He holds a hand to his face, all five fingers pinched together, then splays them suddenly, mimicking an explosion. “—fire in your face, but burning through your eyes and into your brain.”

“Wow.” Seunghyun pulls his hand down and out of the way so he can move in close. “That’s quite a description.”

“It’s bad,” Daesung concludes, nodding. “Really bad.”

He flinches back when, without warning, a finger taps the bridge of his nose, a playful touch right on the bump about halfway down.

"If you ever break your nose again," Seunghyun tells him, "I'll kiss it better."

“Alright. I’m holding you to that,” Daesung says smoothly. But, god, he hopes he never has to make good on that promise. Once was bad enough.

He grins and drops the stones he had been collecting, returning them to the water with several little splashes. And when he turns to face Seunghyun, he does it with deliberate slowness, because he has this feeling that the other wolf is about to—

Lips land on his nose right where his finger had been, feather-light. Daesung smiles, proud of himself for his foresight. With all this talk of breaking noses, the last thing either of them needs is to accidentally make it happen. Or in Daesung’s case, happen again.

"Hmmm,” Seunghyun hums, drawing back to dust shallow kisses over one cheek. “But do try not to. The only blood I want to see on this perfect face is the blood of our prey.”

Of course, Daesung thinks, leaning into him. Because according to his mate, meals are best when they are messy .

Smiling softly to himself at Seunghyun’s concern, he reminisces about how the bend in his nose came to be. It’s not like he had broken his nose on purpose all those years ago. Had he been a little quicker on his feet, he might have even dodged the fist that did it.

But when the man throwing the punches was his own father…

He tries not to let it drag him down. If he had never left, he would never have met his current pack. Jiyong, Youngbae, Seungri—Seunghyun—he is bound to them by something stronger than blood. Bonds of friendship forged through hardship. His parents may have brought him into this world, but this family has walked him through it, with him every step of the way since the day they invited him in.

Content where he was, Daesung had remained with his birth pack well into his teenage years. Where others his age had been setting out on their own to see the world, he had been happy to remain at home with his parents, helping out wherever he could. His father had raised his sister and him with a firm hand, but Daesung had taken the brunt of his discipline, the dutiful son submitting to his sire’s authority. Though he was not the alpha of their tightly-managed pack, Daesung had yielded to him as if he was.

Back then he could not make sense of it, why his father would give a fierce growl and leave the room, as if furious with him, when he bowed his head and gave in. Sometimes it seemed as if he wanted him to fight back.

Daesung didn’t want to fight back.

He felt his father’s frustration at failing to toughen him up in the bruises he left behind, and in the way he took his sister out to hunt but left him at home to help his mother with the household chores, of which there weren’t many. He knew as well as anyone what it had really been: a thinly-veiled excuse to exclude him.

His sister, however… Damn, he misses her.

He had looked up to her, and she had looked out for him. In everything she did she excelled. Before long she was joining high-ranking members of the pack on secret scouting missions, often accompanying the alpha himself and his mate, his second-in-command. With every move she made, she made their father proud.

Daesung, on the other hand…

His hunting skills were average at best. He could hold his own in combat, for a time, but rarely tasted victory. He had the build for it, but not the mind. He was “without a wolf’s fighting spirit,” his mother once told him in a well-meaning but awkward effort to help him feel better about his fighting prowess… or lack of it.

He did not seek his father’s praise, and the desire to be best was never pressing. All he had wanted was to be seen. For him to remember, and perhaps even acknowledge that though his sister outshone him in everything she did… he still had a son.

She would defend him sometimes, standing between them like a shield and, with all the courage Daesung lacked, insisting he was being unfair. That he was too hard on him, that the least he could do was allow him a chance.

Then she succumbed to the rabies virus, and everything changed.

When she died, Daesung believed he would lose his parents to their grief. And still he stayed to see them through it, sweeping the hut they shared so his mother would not have to, and for a short time taking his father’s place in the pack hunts. Hoping to ease the burden in their heavy hearts even as his own was quietly bleeding out.

She had been beautiful and strong. For a time it was unimaginable that she could be gone . Her last contribution to the pack had been insisting that they isolate her before the sickness spread—thinking only of her packmates, of her family, until the end.

Daesung wonders if he could ever be so selfless.

But his father could not, in the end, stand the loss of his favorite child. Daesung bore his heartbreak as best he could while his bruises collected like dark clouds, and closed fists turned to claws. Still, the sharp words were what cut worst of all.

That he does not think about.

Then came the morning he awoke by the creek that cut through their land with blood leaking from his head in two places—dripping from his nose and oozing down the back of his neck, his hair sticky with it.

They’d been fighting, his father and him. Hurtful words had turned to fists. Struggling to his knees with hands in the sand, he had seen the smear of red on the large rock behind him and realized what had happened.

Better a broken nose than a broken skull.

Knocked out and left for dead , he had thought to himself, taking time to process that. Even with the world around him whirling, thoughts slipping through his fingers like the sand he sat in, he knew what he had to do.

For the first time in a long time, Daesung did something for himself. Not knowing what he would find or who would take him, he ran away.

I’m sorry, Mom. I love you but I can’t stay, he had prayed, hoping she would understand when he did not come home that night, and followed the creek downstream to where it fed into the river that became his road to a new life. One that would eventually, many long years later, lead him here.

"She made me massage her legs all the time," he says, smiling bittersweetly.

He feels Seunghyun’s lashes sweep his skin from where his face is tucked in against his neck.

“Who?”

“My sister,” he clarifies. “Maybe that’s why I don’t mind helping you with your leg cramps. The difference is that you don’t have to bully me into it.”

When they were kids, she would come home after a hard hunt complaining of sore legs. Only to him, of course, never where their father might hear. Most children their age did not take part in hunts, but she was precocious. Primed to become a warrior. Daesung hadn’t stood a chance. When he would run, she would catch him handily and sit on him, pinning him with her weight until he caved and agreed to massage the sting from her calves.

Of course, she lost this advantage when he reached the age of maturity and packed on muscle, his growth swiftly outpacing hers.

Another smile tugs at his lips, a sweeter one this time, free of sorrow. Her days being bigger than him had been limited… but she would always be his big sister. One who, though she bullied him into it, made sure to thank him every time, a scrap of recognition that made his service worth it.

“Well, if I could thank her I would. You have the best touch,” Seunghyun rumbles in that deep voice of his, sounding as if he was on the verge of sleep. “Come to think of it, my back is a feeling little sore from the fall…”

Daesung throws his head back and laughs, and the burbling stream at their feet joins in.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Swim,” Seunghyun urges, disentangling himself from Daesung again. “You can do this.”

“I’m—” Daesung bobs in the water, head going under up to his eyes. Seunghyun reaches out and pulls him back up. “I can’t.”

“You can.”

“Nn—” Daesung sinks again, and when he resurfaces it is with a mighty gasp… before he dips under yet again. Seunghyun darts in again and lifts him up so he can breathe, takes his face in hand so that their eyes lock.

The river on his left, cold and dark. Daesung washed up on the shore. The life in him no more.

He cannot let that dream become a reality.

“Why is this so hard for you? You know it all, everything I’ve taught you, I know you do. How to move, how to—how to stay afloat.” He growls when Daesung slips under again the second he releases him. It’s like he’s not even trying.

“Seunghy—” he chokes out when he can, in a small voice. “Help me.”

“Stop being dramatic,” Seunghyun says, twisting away when he reaches for him.

It’s all in your head. You just have to… to…

What? What can Daesung do to get over this? What can Seunghyun do, besides urge him to keep trying? It was never in his plans to force him, but he never thought it would be this damn hard, but if this is what it takes, if this is what he has to do, then maybe—

Sink or swim, his mother taught him, releasing him and stepping back. Sink or swim.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Seunghyun hears from behind, then a splash and a series of measured strokes through the water. Someone swimming their way. Just seconds later Youngbae arrives and wraps arms around Daesung, hoisting him up until his head clears the surface of the water. As soon as he’s above water Daesung doubles over, coughing long and hard.

Seunghyun reels back, surprised at the mouthfuls of water that spill down his chin.

Youngbae turns them around in the water so he can glare at him unobstructed. “What are you trying to do, drown him?”

Seunghyun sets his jaw stubbornly. “I’m teaching him.”

“Can’t teach a dead man,” Youngbae snaps, showing him his back and swimming away with a still-struggling Daesung in tow. Swimming away back to shore… and taking Daesung with him.

“We’re not done!” Seunghyun barks, chasing after them with rough, choppy strokes, rage making his swimming sloppy.

“Yes, you are!” Youngbae calls back, and speeds up.

When they reach the shallows, Daesung, who was holding on for dear life the whole way back, comes alive again in Youngbae’s arms, fumbling through the water and slipping in the muck until he’s out and falling on hands and knees in the sand to spit up the last of the water in his lungs. Or what he picked up on the ride back.

Seunghyun stands, emerging from the water, and wonders why the air feels so heavy, as if he is still submerged.

“I can’t believe you,” Youngbae nags, slapping Daesung on the back to help the process along. “You should be ashamed. What if I hadn’t been here?”

Shame? Is that what this is? Feels fuckin’ awful.

"You must feel real good about yourself right now, Youngbae to the rescue," Seunghyun bites back, furious. "His savior. Bet you think you're getting lucky tonight.”

Youngbae shoots him a scathing look. "You're pathetic if you think that's what this is about."

“Then what is it about? You tell me.”

“Listen to yourself,” Youngbae shakes his head, no doubt deeply disappointed. “What’s wrong with you?” His eyes are on Daesung as he says it, rubbing his back through wet gasps, but Seunghyun knows the words are meant for him.

“He has to learn,” Seunghyun says on repeat, as he does every time he brings Daesung here for these lessons. But this time his words feel woefully empty, all their former resolve drained out of them and discarded at the bottom of the creek.

That was not learning, what he had just watched. That was…

“Haven’t you ever seen a drowning person? It’s not what you think,” Youngbae says gravely, rising to his feet and facing him when Daesung is breathing on his own again, without help.

“I wouldn’t have let him drown,” Seunghyun snarls. That’s crazy. The sole purpose of these lessons is to ensure that he won’t.

“And yet that’s exactly what you were doing,” Youngbae cuts in angrily. “Drowning isn’t splashing about wildly and screaming for help. It’s quiet. It’s slipping under little by little, not getting enough air each time you come up, until eventually, too tired to keep trying, you’re all out.” He gives Seunghyun a withering look. “Then you sink.”

“I was right there!” Seunghyun yells, throwing his arms in the air. He is dripping wet but the hairs on his tail stand erect, raring for a fight. He feels as if, with just one wrong word, he could burst right out of his skin.

“Yeah? And when would you have gone after him? When he went under and didn’t come back up?”

Fuck you.”

“Nn—no, fuck you.”

It floats up from behind Youngbae, so frail that Seunghyun almost misses it. Youngbae twists around to stare down in shock at the source of the sound.

“After everything…” Daesung’s hands dig trenches in the sand, squeezing it into thick, wet clumps.

Seunghyun waits for the rest… but his temper is short and his patience is spent.

“After everything— what? Spit it out.”

When Daesung lifts his head, his eyes are red. Water from his hair runs down his face in rivulets.

“Back then,” he starts, shaking, “I almost drowned… and it wasn’t because I couldn't swim. It was because I didn't want to swim.” At last he opens up, spilling the truth like the mouthfuls of water he just puked up, a sickness he has been holding in. “It was no fucking accident. Or did you forget?”

Seunghyun has to touch a hand to his face to be sure Daesung has not just reached across the space between them and raked his claws across it, all five of them, the way those words wound him.

He’s right. It was no accident. Daesung had wanted to die… and had taken steps to make it happen.

Somewhere along the way Seunghyun had convinced himself otherwise. Daesung hadn’t meant to do it. He had changed his mind at the last second but could not swim. Knowing how would have saved him. That’s right. Not Seungri splashing in after him, after tailing him on nothing but a whim. That something as fickle as chance was the only thing that kept him from losing him forever… he can’t accept it. He can’t.

Something in Seunghyun quakes, a fault line deep inside grinding its plates and sending tremors through his bones.

Maybe it isn’t Daesung who is fractured. Maybe it’s him.

Maybe they are both a little broken. Maybe, just maybe, they are breaking each other.

“Come on, let’s go back,” Youngbae says, taking Daesung by the hand and pulling him to his feet. It is the gloomiest Seunghyun has heard him sound since he was stationed at Daesung’s bedside for days, not knowing if he would awake again… and if he did, would he even be the same?

To both their surprise, Daesung jerks away, hand slipping out of Youngbae’s.

“You can go on without me. I want to stay here for a bit.”

Seunghyun’s eyes flit to the creek. To the stillness of the shallows, and farther out, where the water runs deep. Why would he want to stay? He hates this place. A flutter of fear has him opening his mouth to speak, to protest, to—

To beg him to come back with them if he has to.

“I think you should come with us,” Youngbae says, beating him to it.

“Why?”

Sounding far more collected than Seunghyun feels, he answers, “I don’t think you should be alone right now.”

Daesung smiles up at him but it’s all wrong—a twisted, spiteful thing. “You care too much, Youngbae.”

“Yeah. Maybe I do,” Youngbae says, never one to shy away from the fact of his own compassion. “But that’s what pack is all about, right? Looking out for each other?” Offering his hand again, he tries one more time, “You coming?”

Daesung shakes his head but takes his hand as he does it, lets himself be pulled up led away to where their clothes lay in the sun, waiting for them.

Nothing more is said to Seunghyun, who keeps his distance, feeling sufficiently disgraced.

Later, when they are clothed again and are making their way back to the den, Seunghyun trails a few steps behind them, eyes glued to his feet so that he does not have to watch how Youngbae sticks fast to Daesung’s side, guiding him.

Or guarding him.

Against me, he thinks sourly. How did they get here? He thought he had things under control; that though Daesung was fighting it, they were on the verge of a much-needed breakthrough. That with one last push Daesung might conquer his debilitating fear of water once and for all.

Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps he pushed too hard. Perhaps he should not have pushed at all.

Finally, he can take the separation no more. He picks up his feet, speeding up until he is close enough to clamp a hand around Daesung's upper arm, skin to skin, craving that connection. He can handle the silent treatment, as long as Daesung will still permit him to touch. He needs it, that constant contact, no matter how small.

Daesung jerks away, favoring Youngbae, and Seunghyun's fingers slide free.

 

 

--

 

 

“Coyote?"

"No, too big."

Daesung gulps, unwilling to even suggest it. "Mountain lion?"

Jiyong huffs at him. "No, tracks made by a cat wouldn't have the claws showing. You know that." He grabs him by the sleeve and pulls, moving aside so he can take his place.

Daesung shuffles closer for a better look. And he tries to focus, he does, but it is exceedingly hard to pour all of his attention into paw prints with Seunghyun’s eyes boring into him from the side.

“Bear?” he ventures, hoping his third guess will be the right one.

Jiyong squints down at the tracks stamped into damp soil, considering that. “Could be…”

“They look like really big coyote tracks,” Seungri decides, sounding, as he often does, like he cannot be swayed. “They’re probably bigger up here in the mountains, like everything else.”

“That’s a good point,” Youngbae joins in, supportive. “The deer are bigger. The foxes and bobcats too… when you’re lucky enough to spot one.” He grins. “Get it? Spot? ‘Cause the cats have spots?”

“Hilarious,” Jiyong deadpans. “I don’t think those last two are actually any bigger though. They just have longer fur. Underneath it all, they’re about the same size.”

“Which means…”

“…colder winters,” Jiyong finishes for him. “It’s like that big doe we cut open the other day. Three inches of fat on her. Why so much fat? Energy for winter.”

“And insulation,” Seungri adds. Jiyong reaches up to where he is hovering over them and awards him a congratulatory on the ass.

“Winter is coming,” he says, the patting soon turning to blatant groping. “And I think you could use a little more padding.”

Seungri grins, sticking his ass out for better access. “Is this my reward for getting it right?”

Jiyong grins and gives his handful a squeeze. “This is because I felt like grabbing your ass, that’s all. But if a reward is what you’re looking for…”

“It’s only fall. There’s still time to fatten you up,” Youngbae says, joining in with a hand on his other cheek.

“Whatever you want.” Seungri shrugs, basking in the attention, because what wolf in his right mind turns down the suggestion that he eat more? Certainly not Seungri, and it isn’t long before they’ve all but forgotten what they were doing on the ground in the first place. What they were examining so closely, and why.

Daesung, however, has not forgotten, because with his packmates preoccupied, poring over mysterious tracks is all that’s left to distract him from the one thing he does not want to deal with right now. Even if that one thing would very much like to deal with him.

Through it all, just a few feet away, Seunghyun is uncommonly quiet.

Crouching down, Daesung hangs over the peculiar paw prints, pretending that they are all he sees. He knows his mate is watching his every move, studying him as closely as he is these old tracks. Trying his best to tune him out, he reaches for the tracks and runs a curious fingertip along one’s edges, tracing toe pads and the unmistakable imprint of short, blunt claws.

He’s pretty sure bears have longer claws than this. These really do resemble coyote tracks. Daesung opens his hand above them, spreading his fingers wide, all five of them, measuring.

…but what kind of coyote makes tracks this big?

 

 

--

 

 

Nature is inherently unclean, but it has ways of tidying up after itself, at times employing the smallest of creatures.

Daesung does not like bugs, but these little soldiers he supposes can share space with. As long as they keep to themselves, dedicated to their task, and well away from him.

Today he is supervising as a colony of ants cleans a jaw bone he had found in the underbrush, hidden in the shade of a fern. From something small by the looks of it, a raccoon or a possum, with bits of drying meat still clinging to it. He had set it on the ground beside the ant colony, and in no time at all the hard-working insects were diligently stripping away what was left of it. He watches as each marches away with its prize, an army of workers in a tidy line, amazed that such tiny creatures can conduct themselves in a such an intelligent way.

How do they do it? What room is there in those pin-sized heads for a brain? He pulls his knees to his chest and rests his chin on folded arms, losing himself to such thoughts.

When he comes back to himself, it’s because of one ant. It stands out; the load it carries seems impossibly large, and it shows signs of struggling under the added weight. Its fellow workers have formed a new path around it, continuing on unimpeded.

But for this one all hope is not lost. He looks on, sympathetic, as the lone ant makes slow but steady progress under its burden.

“Look, that one’s you,” Youngbae says, crouching beside him and pointing.

“Because you guys are always pushing the heavy things off on me,” Daesung says, catching on quickly. He wishes he could help the little guy out somehow but fears that if he tried he would only end up squishing it by accident.

“What are you doing over here near an ant hill, anyway? You hate bugs,” Youngbae asks, taking him by the shoulder and shaking him playfully. “But now ants are okay?”

“Only as long as they don’t touch me. They can be useful,” Daesung says coolly, though he has to back up a step when a few stray too close to his bare toes. His shoes, if they have not been moved, are up the hill behind him, airing out by the den.

He hears shuffling behind him and assumes it’s Youngbae. So when a clump of something light and crumbly is dropped on his head, strands of dry, dusty grass raining down around him, he splutters and falls back on his tail in surprise.

Then the sneezing starts.

“What was that for?” he whines when he’s done, blinking up at Seunghyun through bleary eyes, careful not to move more than he has to. The lump of meadow grass hanging lopsided from his hair threatens to fall, and the last thing he needs is more pollen in his eyes and up his nose.

“Your hair always looks a bit like a bird’s nest,” his Seunghyun says, something nervous in the smile he gives him, “but now you might even fool the birds. Hold still and maybe one will lay on egg on you.”

Daesung frowns. This is just more of his mate’s usual teasing, but he is not in the mood for it today.

“Or not,” Seunghyun mutters when he scrubs the “nest” from his hair.

“Is this your way of telling me it’s time to cut it? Because Jiyong will if I ask, he always—”

“I’m not trying to tell you anything. I’m just playing,” Seunghyun says, seeming taken aback. “You know I like to play.”

“Yeah, well, not today. Go bother someone else. Seungri maybe.” Daesung looks away. “Or Youngbae, wherever he disappeared to.”

I’m still angry at you, he wants to say, but somehow he cannot bring himself to speak the words. If he gives Seunghyun even that much he will want to talk, will want to probe for more of what’s been bothering him. As if he hasn’t done enough damage already.

Daesung does not want to talk. And he doubts Seunghyun really wants to listen. He seems to have his own ideas about what he needs and when, his own private agenda for righting all the wrongs of the past year plus.

He could start by letting his wounds close at their own pace.

When Seunghyun sighs and wanders off without a fight, he is glad to see him go, if a little guilty. He knows his mate is reaching out to him in the only way he knows how—by poking fun at him. He does not mean any harm.

But Daesung is tired of being picked on and pushed around, even if it’s with the best intent. If he cannot stand up for himself against his own mate who doesn’t mean to hurt him, how can he hope to hold his own against those whose goal it is to see him suffer?

Seunghyun had warned him once: “Don’t let them lose their fear of you.”

Maybe that applies to more than humans. Maybe he has been too trusting for too long.

He can’t stay here, he decides, brushing the last of Seunghyun’s grass from his hair. The peace and quiet that led him here have been frightened off like a pair of doves flushed from cover.

As he is climbing to his feet, he remembers to check on the ants one last time. Their line has been broken, cracked strands of grass blocking their path and scattering them in all directions. The burdened one is nowhere to be found. The jaw bone he leaves behind. He’ll come back for it later when the colony have regrouped and finished their work—if something else does not drag it off first.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung stands alone in the woods.

But he is not as alone as he thinks, instinct warns him. A shadow flits between the trees, floating through the dark like a patch of smoke but fast, too fast to follow, the mist curling in its wake.

The air around him is so still as to be stifling. The wind, so hopelessly far above the trees, has abandoned him, unable to reach him all the way down here.

And down here is not safe.

The thing is barreling toward him, cutting through the mist with every stride and it takes shape now, head bowed low over four legs, charcoal black fur and eyes like embers. It flies at him with jaws thrown wide, set to devour him, and he would twist away but he can’t, trapped in mud up to his knees. Rooted in place like the trees that tower over him, he can only stare down the beast’s black throat as yellowed teeth sink into the skin around his eyes and pull

Something soft is tickling his face. Strands of grass swaying in the breeze.

Daesung’s eyes fly open to a cloudless sky, and around him, a lush meadow, green with new growth. He is lounging on his stomach in the open, the sun warming his naked back. It seems even the grass wants to touch him, its soft blades teasing at his thighs and hips and sides, anywhere their wispy ends can reach. And the wind…

He turns his face into it and smiles, perfectly at peace. This place, what is it? It feels like paradise.

Sighing in contentment, he snuggles into his folded arms, returning to the comfort of sleep. Something startled him out of it before but strangely, he can’t remember what. It doesn’t matter anyway, not on this perfect day.

So he is slow to notice when the wind picks up, no longer playing but now beating at his back, the grass lashing him, and when his eyes open again the warmth he was enjoying has solidified, more solid than the sun’s rays. A heat he can, if he wanted to, reach out and touch.

Heavy, too, as bodies are. That is not grass tickling his skin, he realizes then, freezing up in fear. That’s fur.

He flies up onto hands and knees—or tries to, but something is blocking the way, blacking out the sun. Around him the meadow dissolves into darkness and the weight on his back forces him down, back to the ground, grinding him into it the harder he fights it. Something long and warm and wet laps at his neck, and he opens his mouth to snarl in fear and loathing but the sound will not come, he’s choking, his once-open airways pulled as tight as the rope around his neck.

He gasps. The rope. Where did it come from this time, and who holds the other end? Wounds he thought had healed burn open, fire flaring up along old paths, and he cannot be sure if it’s the creature’s teeth tearing into him or the rope’s rough fibers abrading away his skin—again.

But worse than that is the wet nose in his hair, hot, snuffling breaths across his scalp making his skin crawl, ten thousand tiny ants tunneling underneath, and then there is thick fur settling over the backs of his thighs and something hard and pointed poking between his cheeks and an unmistakable pain as it finds a way in, the only way in—

The meadow tilts and he slips off the edge of it—

—and hits a wall head-on.

Seeing double, Daesung curls up on his side and waits, dazed and confused, for the world to right itself. For some time he rests there, breathing slow, his head on the cobblestones. Hoping their smooth, cool surface will ease the ache in his skull.

Cobblestones?

He becomes instantly aware of another presence, every survival sense he possesses buzzing through him like wasps under his skin. He doesn’t want to know what awaits him but he knows how this goes, knows he cannot just stick his head in the sand and pretend the danger away.

So, like any good wolf, he faces his fears.

But his fears do not have faces . Hazy figures whose forms shift and sway in the dark, human-shaped but everything in him screams snake. They slither in close, poised to strike, and this time he doesn’t wait until they’re upon him. He swipes at them, claws out, but—

He recoils in horror, his nail beds soft and pink, newly-exposed skin raw and inflamed, and wonders where his claws went.

"You wanted to be one of us, didn't you?"  they hiss, mocking him with voices like serpents, their words dripping malice. When they lean in their combined breath wafts over him and he doesn’t mean to breathe it in but—

No! Daesung throws himself at the brick wall behind him, the one he must have hit on the way in, stomach turning over again and again at the stench. Go away!

A blade lights up between them, a glint of moonlight on metal. Soon they all hold one, faceless men with knives, long and sharp and gleaming in the dark. Daesung sees blood on every blade and wonders who it came from. Not from him, surely. He would know if he was bleeding, wouldn't he?

“You wanted to be—"

“—one of us—"

“—didn’t you?”

Please, just... leave me alone. He shivers where he sits, not knowing why those words cut so deep. Please.

"You wanted to be like us, didn’t you?" they say, this time sounding mercifully more human. But no less malicious.

“I did,” Daesung manages in a thready voice. “I don’t anymore.”

“In that case, here,” he hears, followed by the soft thump of something light dropped on the ground and kicked across the few feet between them. “You can have this back.”

Daesung does not have to look to know what it is. His blood runs cold when he realizes what’s missing. There is fur against his hands where they are pressed against the stone street, but this fur is familiar, somehow dear to him. He has carried it with him all the years of his life.

Until now. How did he not feel its absence?

He swallows and means to look away, but his body moves all wrong. When he tells his head to look up it turns down, and he’s staring at his own severed tail, a flash of fur and bone bathed in blood. It should be behind him, tucked under him, not right here in front of him.

Maybe it was his blood coating their blades.

The coolness of the cobblestones turns to ice, a chill he can ward off no longer. It creeps up and overtakes him, freezing water sloshing about his knees, rising all around him, closing over his head and squeezing into his lungs and locking him in place, his body a block of ice.

It hurts, fuck, it hurts like nothing he has ever—

No, he realizes, sinking ever deeper. He has known this agony once before.

It is not the first time. But it might be the last.

“—sung!”

Through the water he sees a dark figure looming over him, a new one, alone this time and coming at him fast.

No. No!

He lashes out, fighting the water, the figure reaching for him, the darkness closing in, but all it does is send him deeper.

I don't want to die!

"Daesung, wake up," he hears, a string of sounds coming to him muffled, as if still submerged. “Wake up.”

Pressing in around him is a heaviness, one that holds him down—not water but a body. He thrashes regardless, desperate to be free of his nightmares and the hold they have on him. His claws hook into something soft and smooth and he pulls hard on it, whatever it is.

His claws! He could cry with relief. Warm wetness wells up under his hands and still Daesung does not let go while, above him, Seunghyun hisses in pain.

Seunghyun.

“Seung... hyun..." he pants, sucking in air fast now that he is able to, as fast as he can. Too fast.

“Hey, it’s okay, you’re awake now.” Seunghyun winces, holding stock-still over him, very careful not to move. “Can you… your claws…”

I can’t—” Daesung wheezes, filling the air between them with the sounds of his struggle, “I can’t breathe.”

“What?” A hand cups his face, fumbles over his mouth in the dark, open and gasping for air. Daesung can just make out his mate’s confused smile. “But you are breathing.”

Daesung moans and snaps his mouth shut, holding his breath. He’s right. Maybe if he just stops for a second everything will go back to normal. Everything will be fine. He’ll be fine.

He'll be... he'll be fine.

But it’s no good. He needs air and his chest constricts in pain at the absence of it, and seconds later he withdraws his claws from Seunghyun’s arms to roll onto his side, throwing his lips wide, heaving harder than ever, on the verge of convulsing. Getting too much of what needs and yet not enough.

“Daesung, stop, slow down.” Seunghyun turns him onto his back again to watch him with worried eyes, but beyond that seems unsure of what to do, how to help.

“I’m… trying...”

Sweat beads on his brow. Drips down his neck. Soaks his shirt and leaves him cold and clammy all over. With what little breath he has at his disposal Daesung whimpers around this new helplessness, tossing his head from side to side in frustration at his own failings.

Why can’t he control this? What’s happening to him? What’s wrong with him? The den tilts, a thousand tiny needles stabbing down his arms until they have lost feeling. He feels like he’s falling, he feels like he’s fading, he feels like he’s dying.

"Stop it,” Seunghyun hisses when, with his rising panic, his breath picks up. “You'll pass out!”

Maybe he will, but for now his hands are seizing up, fingers curling into fists without his telling them to.

“What the hell?” Seunghyun tries to force them open, only to find that he can’t.

I’m not doing that, Daesung wants to tell him. That’s not me, that’s not—

"I can't… can't stop," he gasps out, feeling light and insubstantial, feeling weak all over. His head is starting to spin, Seunghyun phasing in and out above him. “I’m… Seunghyun… oh god…”

Shaking hands clamp down over his nose and mouth, and oh fuck no. Now he really can’t breathe. With the last of his strength he struggles wildly, getting a foot under the other wolf and kicking while he grabs his wrists and pulls. But it’s no use. The hands will not let up. The air cannot get in.

Seunghyun is going to kill him. Out of one nightmare and into another.

“I’m sorry,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing harder. “I’m sorry, I’m just trying to help—"

“What’s going on over there?” A new voice punches through the betrayal. "Seunghyun?"

“Help me hold him, he’s freaking out,” Seunghyun cries out and jerks away when Daesung bites him, fangs piercing the fleshy part of his palm. “Fuck!”

“Daesung,” Jiyong hurries over. “What—hey, calm down, it’s okay. You’re okay.”

'm not,” Daesung whimpers, on the verge of tears. Reassurances are not helping.

“Can you take a deep breath and hold it?”

He shakes his head, or he thinks he does; the energy it takes to try leaves him feeling run over.

“What’s wrong with him?” Seunghyun asks, voice frail with fear, and that only frightens Daesung more.

“He’s hyperventilating.” Jiyong grabs at his own chest, as if reaching for his shirt, pausing when he realizes he isn’t wearing one. He tugs on Seunghyun’s instead. “Take off your shirt, we can use it.”

Seunghyun peels it off in a rush, wrestling with it for a moment when the collar catches on his head, and with Jiyong’s help folds it over and presses it to Daesung’s nose and mouth. Daesung struggles weakly, still not understanding why his packmates are so intent on smothering him. First Seunghyun and now Jiyong?

…until, after a few frantic breaths, he finds that they are not cutting off his air supply as he thought, they’re controlling it. Through the fabric he can still suck in air, but in a more measured way. With what little he has left in him he fights, but not against his packmates—he fights the instinct to resist.

He understands now. And with a little help from Jiyong, whose hands are carding through his sweat-damp hair, gently but firmly holding his head in place while Seunghyun does the same with his shirt, they coax him down from the heights of his panic.

Some indeterminate amount of time passes in this manner, and Daesung feels the tingling in his arms recede. His hands unclench. The darkness prowling at the edges of his vision slinks away, denied.

When his packmates draw back, taking Seunghyun’s balled-up shirt with them, Daesung is still panting lightly, but he no longer feels so out of control, no longer one touch away from coming apart.

His body is his again, and that’s a hell of a good start.

Gradually, his breathing evens out, returning to something close to normal. With a kiss to his forehead Jiyong returns to his bed, reclaiming the space between a fast-asleep Youngbae and Seungri. Daesung’s tired eyes sweep over Seunghyun then, taking in the ripe scent of his fear and sweat and the streams of blood down his arms where his claws had dug in as he fought off a threat he could not identify, a face that in his half-asleep haze he did not recognize.

Seunghyun stares down at him for a long time, face unreadable, and Daesung wonders for a weary moment which of them is more strung-out by what they’ve just been through.

Seunghyun lets his shirt fall to the floor. With the hand that held it he touches his chest cautiously, as if the brush of fingers might send him into a sudden panic all over again.

Daesung tries to crack a grin, hating to see him so afraid. But it reminds him again of the faceless men and his frail attempt at humor falls away.

He does not want to be like them, not anymore. But he does not want to be like this either. A creature uncontrolled, unable to keep his own damn body in check.

He remembers the dog, the inky blackness of its fur—the animal in him—and covers the hand on his heart with his own. Drawing on its warmth to drive the thought, the memory, the dream from his mind.

"It was just a dream," he says, not meaning for it to sound so feeble. But it’s the best he can do for now.

"Yeah," Seunghyun says, looking and sounding just as wrecked. "Just a dream."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

"You don’t need to treat me like glass," Daesung tells Seunghyun when he pushes up and off him for the third time.

This time though, Seunghyun rolls away completely, put-off by his tone. He is not sure what Daesung means by that, but it sounds an awful lot like he's being blamed.

He had been holding himself up on stiff arms while they kissed, mindful of the little voice in his heart whispering that he should not make Daesung bear the brunt of his weight. Not after what happened the other night. Not after watching, helpless, as he fought to draw breath, as if an invisible weight had been laid on his chest, crushing him to death.

Except he had been breathing just fine. Daesung just didn’t know it. Seunghyun doesn’t know what to make of it, only that seeing his mate in such a state had pained him more than his claws gouging bloody holes in his arms.

"I’m not," he says, defensive.

"You are. Come on, just lie on me, you won’t squish me."

Seunghyun chokes on a laugh. “Squish?”

"I wasn’t trying to be funny. Stop laughing!"

"Alright, sorry, jeez," Seunghyun says, lifting the arm he’s thrown over his eyes. "Let me just…"

Soon they are at it again, and again Seunghyun is climbing on top of him, easing himself onto a chest he knows can support him, clutching at shoulders he knows can hold him, aligning with hips he knows can take him. Daesung’s breath hitches the moment their cocks meet through their jeans, just a soft hiccup in the flow of hot breath against his lips.

Seunghyun can’t help it. He flinches and slides off him again.

After what he witnessed the previous night, there is no such thing as too careful.

A growl is all the warning he gets before he is shoved onto his back and wild eyes are sizing him up, their roles reversed.

"Like this," Daesung rasps and grinds on him, eyes hooded, taking what he would not give him… and Seunghyun reacts explosively, but not in a way either of them wants.

His whole body cracking like a whip, he snaps up and throws Daesung off.

Daesung knows not to pin him. He knows what it does to him.

Daesung winces as he lands on his tail. "What the—"

"Don’t!" Seunghyun barks when he reaches for him, every muscle straining as he fights to hold back. "Just... don't." Something is crackling under his skin, a bloodborne violence burning new pathways through him in desperate need of a way out.

He doesn’t know what he might do if Daesung touches him again. He doesn’t want to find out.

Because there is a brutality in him held at bay, and if set free it wants just one thing, one thing that one more touch might set into motion. It wants him to attack. Under its influence Seunghyun wants to savage the other wolf while he pins him down and fucks him senseless. Wants to put his back to the ground and wear a hole in the grass where they lie, losing himself in his exquisite heat.

If he moves right now, if he allows himself even that much, he might do something he’ll regret. Like crash into Daesung until they come apart, there in the shadow of the mountain. Like sink into him, tooth and claw and cock, staining them both red like the evening sky overhead. Like fist a hand in his hair and pull… until he is lifting his prize in triumph, locks of hair like clumps of grass ripped from the earth.

He turns away, a hand over his mouth.

He thought he was done with these thoughts.

"Fine." Daesung takes a deep breath. Blows it out. Does not reach for him again. "Okay. You won’t touch me the way I want you to… and you won’t let me touch you the way I want either. So, what? I guess that’s it? We're done here?" He laughs, sounding hurt, and it only fans Seunghyun’s anger. Doesn’t Daesung understand that hurt him is what he’s trying not to do?

"Give me a minute," Seunghyun grits out.

"Why?"

"I don’t want to hurt you," he forces through clenched teeth, claws coming out inside closed fists, slicing his own skin. Probably drawing blood. Better his than Daesung’s.

"You already have."

Seunghyun absorbs that slowly, not even given a chance to reply before the other wolf is on his feet and walking away.

Don’t go, he depairs, worrying, should he? Should he? Should he give Daesung what he is asking for, even if he risks hurting him? "You don't need to treat me like glass."  What if he wants that?

But there is no more time for questions, because when he comes to next, he’s face-down in the back of Daesung’s soiled shirt, wrestling him to the ground, claws hooking in the waistband of his pants and dragging them down—

Daesung twists and snarls, "Make up your fucking mind," and tries to buck him off, and Seunghyun wants to bite back, make up yours, because he thought this is what Daesung wanted. But when it comes down to it he doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing anymore except hurtling headlong down a hill in an avalanche of misunderstandings. Where will they be, he wonders, when they come to a stop at the bottom?

“I have made up my mind,” Seunghyun snarls back, “and the last thing I wanted to do was hurt you, but when you get like this I just—” He doesn’t finish, just throws all his weight onto Daesung’s broad back, miles past the point of caring that he could be crushing him.

This is what you do to me. Don’t you know how dangerous I can be?

Daesung answers with a weak cry, trying to fit his arms underneath him.

But Seunghyun will not let him. Bearing down on him harder, he snaps, “I try to hold back for once and you fucking throw it back in my face. What the fuck do you want me to do?

“I don’t want you to hold back,” Daesung gasps out, “afraid to touch me wrong, like you think I’ll fall apart. That’s not who you are, that’s not who we are.”

“Who we are?” Seunghyun breathes hard, fighting to keep him down, and sneers, “I know who I am. It’s you I wonder about these days.”

Daesung drops his head and arches his back, forcing Seunghyun to ride the bend of his spine or go flying. “I can take it!” he cries, sagging when Seunghyun holds tight, refusing to be thrown. “I just want us to go back to the way we were before, back to normal, when everyone didn’t look at me like I’m some sad, crippled thing that needs to be put out of its misery.”

“You’re fucking crazy,” Seunghyun growls into the space between his shoulder blades, tasting sweat through his shirt. “You’re out of your goddamn mind if you think any of us see you like that.”

I have eyes,” Daesung hisses. “I see how you—"

Seunghyun gets his pants down, his underwear too, pushing them past his ass with a few rough tugs, and whatever Daesung was going to say is lost.

“You gonna fuck me now?” he snarls, as savage as Seunghyun has ever heard him. “That’s how this goes, right? Gonna force me down and fuck me into the dirt, who cares if I want it, just like you did when—”

When we first met, Seunghyun hears past the rush of blood in his ears.

“I can’t believe you’re bringing that up now,” he says, red-hot anger over old hurts warring with his desire to have him again.

“Why, does it bother you?”

Seunghyun grunts in surprise when he shoves back hard, ass to groin. More mixed signals. The move has his zipper nipping at him with tiny metal teeth, heightening the ache in his hard cock. Heat flares everywhere they touch and Seunghyun is seconds away from bending in half and sinking his own sharp teeth into that pert ass. Just like he used to.

“I’m just giving you what you want,” he mutters, finding his tail and sweeping it aside.

“What I want,” Daesung says with a watery laugh, “When did that ever matter, you take and take—”

Seunghyun growls, “Stop confusing me with someone else,” then slides thumbs down his cheeks and parts them, holding him open wide for his ravenous eyes. Now if only he would be still long enough for him to collect himself. A few measured breaths, that is all he needs.

For what he is about to do, teeth and claws are best kept tucked.

It is a good thing he has his hips in hand in a bruising grip, because the moment his lips touch him Daesung yowls in outrage and surges forward, away. Seunghyun pulls him back in, mouth opening wide over tender skin that has, in all their time together, suffered so much of his love. There are no secrets at this end of him.

…so why, when they do this, does Daesung get so shy?

Seunghyun knows how vulnerable he is back here, crouched on knees and elbows. Daesung is free to move if he wants to. If he decides to whip around and slash him across the face, Seunghyun will find it hard to stop him. He hopes he understands that though he has him where he wants him, he has just been granted the upper hand.

All he has to do now is take it.

Daesung bucks and squirms on the end of his tongue, making his task a messy one, and before long half his face is wet with his own saliva. And yet, through it all, he does not attempt to break free. He stays, tail whipping Seunghyun across the face at intervals—like when he sneaks a finger in alongside his tiring tongue. And when he turns to kisses instead, peppering them down the swell of skin that leads to his balls, Daesung surprises him again, shoving back with a sudden intensity that leaves Seunghyun’s eyes watering.

He imagines, for a moment, his packmates’ reactions if he had to tell them that he broke his nose on Daesung's ass. He is sure they would have a good laugh over it, even as his face throbbed in pain.

Something else throbs below, but that he ignores. His work here is not done. Not until Daesung lets go.

With that goal in mind, he gets his tongue inside one last time, and with a gasp, Daesung twitches away. So Seunghyun tugs him back again, by the tail this time, back onto greedy lips, lapping and kissing at wet skin until his legs are quivering, his hips rocking in a rhythm Seunghyun would know anywhere.

Hands off, that’s mine, he thinks, knocking Daesung’s hand from his cock and taking its place. He forms a fist around him, fitting his pointer finger and thumb snugly under the head, a tunnel of skin for him to fuck into, and Daesung accepts gladly, thrusting through the tight ring of his fingers like a creature possessed. A few minutes of this and then his orgasm is streaking out of him, some of it ending up in the grass, lost forever, while the rest slops over Seunghyun’s closed hand in hot trails.

Spent, he sags forward, his shirt hiked up and his pants falling down, stuck around his knees, and that is Seunghyun’s cue—eyes glued to the red tracks up and down his back where claws had found their way to skin, he crouches over him and tears open his fly and lets his hand, well, fly.

He needs to come now, and he has, on hands and knees before him, the perfect canvas to paint.

But Daesung does not wait for him. He flips onto his back and slides under him until he's looking up at Seunghyun from between his spread legs, unbothered by his shirt riding up under his armpits. Then there’s a hand on his ass, sharp nails like needles piercing the denim and pricking his skin—and around front, a fist on his cock forcing his foreskin back so hard Seunghyun hisses in pain at the careless touch from hands that are normally so loving.

“Fuck, Daesung, not so hard—”

He is about to slap those hurtful hands away when a tight seal over his tip draws him down, down into that hot cavern Daesung calls a mouth. He clenches up when, inside, his sensitive head slips over the other’s tongue and taps the back of his throat, soft and spongy, Daesung taking him in as deep as years of enthusiastic practice have made possible.

Seunghyun’s eyes flutter closed, and he is gone before Daesung even really gets going.

After just a few bobs of his head Seunghyun is spilling down his throat, marveling at the wet press of it around him as he swallows, Daesung’s tongue crushing up against the underside of his cock and guiding down every last drop with an appetite that seems insatiable.

That suits Seunghyun just fine.

So he holds there, hunched over his mate with hands in his hair while Daesung cradles his used-up cock in his mouth, suckling on him with all the tenacity of a starving pup latched onto a teat.

…or holding him hostage. Seunghyun’s hands curl in warning, grabbing fistfuls of his hair, the heat of pleasure becoming a burn, borderline painful , when Daesung shows no signs of letting up.

“Daesung,” he starts, face screwing up.

Daesung stares up at him through his dark hair, a fire in his eyes, swollen cock trapped between his lips. Daring him to do something about it.

Challenge accepted.

"You want me to knot your mouth? ‘Cause that's what's gonna happen if you don't let go," Seunghyun threatens, gripping himself at the base where Daesung’s lips don’t quite reach.

They have never done it. Could his jaw take it? Would he be able to breathe past it? What if Daesung gags around him, what if what comes up has nowhere to go but—

Something like fear flashes across Daesung’s face but still he does not give in, stubborn until the end. So Seunghyun works fast to remove him; with a hand on both sides of his face, praying that he will not introduce teeth to his tender flesh, with an obscene pop he frees himself from Daesung’s wet embrace.

Minutes later they are sprawled out on the grass, catching their breath. Seunghyun, though sated, the beast in his blood pacified, is still trying to make sense of what the hell just happened.

The beast in us both, he thinks, winded. Holy shit.

"Holy shit," he blurts out, slack-jawed, words finding their way up and out at last. That had been bad sex, really bad… and yet so fucking good. "What the fuck was that?"

Daesung lies next to him with eyes closed, a hand at his lips, his face pinched.

"Daesung? Hello?"

"Disgusting," Daesung says gruffly, sounding like a layer has been scraped from his throat. He wipes at his mouth. "You taste vile."

Bristling, Seunghyun bites back, “You seemed to like it, sucking it down like it was the finest fucking thing you’d ever had.”

"Oh, fuck you." Daesung glowers up at the branches overhead, teeth bared. "Don't want any part of you in me right now."

“Well, too late.” Rough with anger and resentment, he stuffs himself back into his pants and does up his fly. “If you didn’t want it, you shouldn’t have swallowed.”

He sees Daesung’s face harden before he rolls away angrily, showing him his back… then he is folding in on himself, gagging on his own fingers, and Seunghyun’s stomach squeezes in sympathy pain at the sound of retching. He cannot see it, but by the way his whole body heaves—then falls still, gasping harshly—he must have puked on the grass.

“Daesung?” He scrambles to sit up, his renewed rage retreating as quickly as it had come. “What...”

Daesung lurches to his feet and fixes his shirt and pants, face dark and ugly with disgust.

“Shouldn’t have swallowed.”

And with that, Seunghyun is left gawking at his back as he turns for home with head bowed, hurrying away like he has somewhere more important to be. Somewhere Seunghyun is not.

At a complete loss, he stares at the wet spot on the grass, semen mixed with bile.

This time he lets him go.

 

 

--

 

 

When Seunghyun returns to the cave late that night, long after the sun has hidden its face, conceding the sky to the moon, everyone else is asleep. Even Daesung.

He loses track of how long he stands, motionless, and stares at the space beside his mate. His space.

“Don't want any part of you in me right now.”

What about now? What about not in him, but beside him? Does Daesung’s aversion to being near him extend to sharing a blanket? A bed?

He takes a spare blanket and curls up in a ball against the far wall, feeling wretched through and through. Daesung came away from their encounter with fresh marks, but as he lies there, longing for sleep to take him, Seunghyun is the one left feeling battered and bruised.

 

 

--

 

 

When Seunghyun wakes the next morning, his face is in Daesung’s hair.

He nearly panics, fearing that he found his way back to him in the night. He hasn’t walked in his sleep in years, not since he had someone to hold the whole night through.

But a glance around reassures him that no, he did not go to Daesung. Daesung came to him.

Wait. He blinks the sleep from his eyes. What?

“I’m sorry,” he feels whispered into his neck, Daesung’s lips like hummingbird wings at the hollow of his throat as he says in a rush, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it, I didn’t.” Seunghyun hears him swallow thickly, the quiet click of his throat working. “You didn’t have to sleep all the way over here. When I woke up and saw…”

“Daesung,” Seunghyun says, bewildered by it all, “What’s going on with you?”

“…I wish I knew.”

Though he feels like he should after the events of yesterday, Seunghyun does not wait for permission to hold him; he wraps both arms around his mate and hugs him tight, soaking up the scent of him through his sleep-mussed hair. With Daesung, who rises with the sun, morning is the best time to trade affections—and, apparently, the best time to make up too.

“I think I have some things to work through,” Daesung continues, just the sort of vague answer Seunghyun did not want. “And I should probably be by myself while I do.”

Seunghyun’s arms around him tighten in disapproval. That he definitely does not want.

“What good will that do?” he asks as calmly as he can with his mate hinting at leaving. “We’re a pack. Stronger together. How will being away from us help you?”

How will being away from me help you?

“I don’t know,” Daesung says, sounding like he really, truly doesn’t. “But this isn’t working. And I just think it might be time to try something new.”

Seunghyun can’t understand it. Every day Daesung is with them, where he and his packmates can keep an eye on him, helps him heal. But as Daesung snuggles in close to lay a feather-light kiss under his chin, Seunghyun wonders why his presence is not doing the same for him.

Something still troubles him, something Seunghyun cannot help with if he will not tell him.

“What did you see that night? When you were dreaming.”

He waits, expecting something like monsters or men, enemies they have found themselves on the run from before, dodging snapping jaws and speeding bullets. But at the reply he receives his heart sinks, because against that he has no defense.

“Memories.”

 

 

--

 

 

Wasting no time, Daesung makes good on his new initiative later that day.

Seunghyun chases after him, doing all he can to keep up with his brutal pace as they hike uphill. Daesung isn’t stopping to rest, so neither can he. Besides, he can handle being a little out of breath if that is what it takes to keep his mate in sight.

They are far from the den, it’s getting late, and Seunghyun is ready to turn back. Daesung wants to keep going. Alone.

He can’t have that.

“This isn’t about you,” Daesung tells him, digging his heels in and continuing up the slope without breaking stride.

“You said you wanted me to leave you alone. How is that not about me? What did I do?”

“Besides the obvious?” Daesung throws back, breathing hard. “I just need space to think.”

Seunghyun pushes past the burning in his legs, the fire licking at his thighs and calves, his desperation growing as the gap between them widens. “About what, memories? Don’t touch ‘em. Let them be.”

Finally Daesung slows, dragging his feet just long enough for him to catch up.

“I know you’re trying to help, and doing it in the only way you know how.” His head bows. “But I think all we’re doing is hurting each other.”

Seunghyun bristles at that. "I’m sorry,” he says, though they have already been over this, “for what I did at the creek that day. I shouldn’t have pushed you, I know that now. But… it was an honest mistake, you know? And look at you now. You’re fine, you’re alive. No harm no foul, right?”

“There’s more to it than that.” Daesung straightens up as he walks, his head held high, his shoulders back, his chin lifted. It is a look Seunghyun does not see on him nearly as often as he would like—a look of confidence, a manner of carrying himself that, given the way this conversation is going, can mean only one thing.

His mind is made up.

“This time I’m listening to instinct,” he presses on in a voice as steady as the rest of him. “And it’s telling me that right now, you’re not good for me.”

And fuck, that hurts.

"No more walls. That's what you said," Seunghyun croaks, his throat closing around some rising emotion. “Don’t go.”

He knows Daesung has always been prone to wandering off on his own, and he has never taken issue with it. Werewolves do not coddle their own, they prepare them for the myriad of problems they may encounter when they step out into the world. In their best years Seunghyun let him roam, knowing he had little to fear. Daesung has never been a wilting flower, not even now. He can defend himself if he needs to. Or, with his powerful voice, he can howl to the rest of them for help.

…but what if he doesn’t want help? Seunghyun can and will protect him from many things, but if he is miles away, how can he stop him from hurting himself?

He can’t. And that is why he cannot let him leave.

“Seunghyun, please . I have to do this.” A warm hand pushes into his. “Don’t make me run from you. Just let me go.”

I can’t let you go.

“I…” Seunghyun folds both his hands over Daesung’s one, clinging to him like it could be the last time they touch. He hopes it isn’t. "I love you."

I have to stay with you.

"If you love then let me be alone," Daesung pleads with him, giving his hand a squeeze. Then his face softens into something not so stormy. "It’ll only be for a little while. I just need to… I don’t know, find myself or something.”

“You’re right here.”

“My old self.” The smile Daesung gives him is a murky thing and only worries Seunghyun more. “I'll see you later. Back at the den."

"When?"

"Later." Then he pulls away, starting back up the hill at the same brisk pace that Seunghyun had been hard-pressed to keep up with before.

Seunghyun feels the loss like a line has been cut. "You're angry with me,” he calls out without meaning to, a part of him still probing for the real reason why his mate is walking away from him. There must be more to it, there must be something he can fix.

"Not anymore,” Daesung calls back.

"Afraid?"

Daesung cuts a sharp right onto more level ground and keeps going without another word.

"I thought we were past this!” Seunghyun shouts, taking off after him at a run. For someone who does not know exactly where he is going, he sure is moving fast.

"I'm not afraid of you, I just—" Daesung’s head turns a fraction, a growl slipping out when he sees him at his back again. “Stop following me already! I told you, go home!”

And that is all Seunghyun gets before he makes a break for it, running from him, and—

—and something inside him cracks, a streak of lightning splitting the air, and everything comes crashing down like thunder.

Daesung knows better than to run from him. He knows what it does to him.

The chase is on. Daesung has strength but Seunghyun has speed, and in a few ground-eating strides he has devoured the distance and has him in hand, shaking him hard as he would any prey.

He won’t let him go this time, he won’t.

It’s only when Daesung unleashes a cry like a wounded animal that he comes to his senses, the lightning and the thunder drowned out by a sudden rain of awareness. The cold shock of it wrenches him out of his head and back to the present where he sees his hand closing around Daesung’s neck with wicked, crushing force.

Seunghyun throws himself back so hard and so fast he has to catch himself against the trunk of a tree to keep from falling back down the hill they’ve just come up. He remains there, afraid to breathe as he watches Daesung collect himself.

Maybe he is right to fear him. Maybe, Seunghyun is beginning to see, he was right after all.

He isn’t good for him right now.

The world dims in the time it takes Daesung to uncurl, rising at a snail’s pace while, through a shrinking gap in the clouds, the distant sun descends.

"I remember when you doing that didn't always mean pain. Your hand on my neck. Sometimes you would just..." He rests a gentle hand on his nape. It seems to bring him some remembered measure of comfort, from a time when their world was smaller, their suffering simpler, and the worst of their troubles laid to rest on the ends of their claws without regret.

His hand comes away bloody.

"...I miss that,” he says sadly.

Something in Seunghyun constricts as he realizes then what is anchoring him to the tree. His claws are out. He swallows around a painful lump—another one. He can’t seem to get rid of them these days.

"I thought you didn’t want me treating you like glass.”

Daesung wipes the blood on his shirt. Red on black, it’s lost in the fabric, as if it never was at all. But they both know better.

“I guess I don't know what I want.”

"Well," Seunghyun says, stuffing his hands in his pockets and pretending that he does not feel the blood drying on them. "Let me know when you figure it out."

If alone is what Daesung wants, alone is what he’ll get.

For the first time since they set foot in this new land, he goes home without him.

 

 

--

 

 

"Just fuck it out like you always do," Jiyong says, shrugging.

“Tried that.”

"Or fight it out like you and Youngbae.” Grinning, he swings a fist through the air, half-spinning with it. “Or both? Both sounds good.”

“We’re already fighting,” Seunghyun says, on the verge of sulking. “Which is he won’t let me anywhere near him, Jiyong. Your advice is shit.”

Even from behind, Seunghyun knows the other wolf is rolling his eyes at him, his patience for his relationship woes wearing thin. Then something seems to catch Jiyong’s eye, and he trots away with a soft oh ! to investigate.

“What do we have here?” He says, dropping out of sight in the waist-high grass.

“And you know,” Seunghyun continues, “the worst part of it all is not knowing why. We’re mates, we should be able to tell each other everyth—are you even listening to me?”

Jiyong waves him over. “Come over here, take a look at this.”

Seunghyun finds him squatting over a mess of bones. They must be months old, cracked, porous, and dotted with chew marks where the field mice have been at them… and deeper, larger marks where something else has had a turn.

Jiyong looks up from the skeleton, or what remains of it. It appears to be missing a few important parts, like, well, legs.

“Something must have carried them off,” he says before taking an interest in the sun-bleached skull. Once upon a time this was a young buck with small, unbranched antlers about the length of his hand—dead before it had even truly lived.

He holds the skull up to the sun by one of its spikes. “This is cool. I like this.”

“Gonna keep it?”

Jiyong shakes it, dirt raining down around it and a few loose teeth falling out.

“Sure. Our den could use more decoration. Nothing says stay away like a bright white skull.”

Stay away, Seunghyun thinks, watching him clean it carefully. A concept he has had his fill of lately. Daesung spends most of his time on the move, rising at dawn and slipping from the den before they have a chance to catch him. Even when he returns to them, usually well after dark, he tends to make his bed at the cave’s far end, well out of anyone’s reach. Throughout the night Seunghyun feels the distance between them like a rope around his heart pulled taut. Daesung is with them… yet not.

And as the weeks drag on, he is coming home less and less. Sometimes he disappears for days at a time. Seunghyun does not know how much longer he can handle the stress of wondering when he’ll come back. Worse, wondering if he’ll come back at all.

“Jiyong…” he says, his gaze stuck somewhere inside the skull’s empty sockets. He is feeling pretty hollow, himself. “What’s wrong with him?”

He does not need to say who. Jiyong will know.

Jiyong gives the bones a final look, then turns and heads back the way they came, his prize in hand. They have reached the boundary between field and forest and Seunghyun is beginning to think he is being ignored—again—when Jiyong finally speaks up.

"Remember that time Youngbae walked up on a den of rattlesnakes?"

"...yes?"

He throws his head back and laughs, "I've never seen his eyes go so wide! Or him move so fast . I mean, fuck, no wonder. You ever been bitten by one of those suckers? Their venom is no joke."

Seunghyun frowns, not quite following. "You would know if I had.”

"Daesung tried to grab him. Tore his shirt clean off when he went over the edge." Jiyong’s eyes darken, something honest in them—honest and afraid. "Scared the shit out of me, seeing him disappear like that. I thought he was gone. For good."

Seunghyun knows. He remembers how Jiyong had flown across the clearing to save his best friend, covering the distance like a falcon in a dive. The memory of Daesung's face, too, will never leave him—how he had stood at the edge, frozen in shock, Youngbae's tattered top hanging limp from a clenched fist.

"I remember.” Just one of many close calls. “Jiyong, why are you bringing this up?"

Jiyong scratches at a spot on the back of his neck, a nervous habit, lips pursing in thought.

"Remember how long it took his broken leg to heal? It still bothers him, you know, when the weather changes. Every time a storm rolls through he's following me around and bitching about it." He scuffs a shoe against the dirt and grumbles, "Like there's anything I can do about it."

"I don’t hear him complaining."

"Yeah, because he unloads it all on me."

They fall silent, Seunghyun still trying to make sense of Jiyong’s spontaneous interest in revisiting old memories.

"I'm just saying," Jiyong continues softly, "Some hurts stay with us forever."

Seunghyun scoffs. "That’s bullshit. Nothing lasts forever."

"Some things do. Or maybe not forever forever, but... they last as long as we do." Jiyong’s walk slows to a crawl as his words pick up speed. "We bury them. You can't always see them, can't even feel them most days but they're still there, lying in wait for a rainy day when the soil is soft enough that they can claw their way back up and out. They hunt us down. Wake us up at night. Hurt us in ways we don’t always understand but… learn to live with, with time." He pulls Seunghyun back to him with a look. “And worst of all, they turn us against those we love.”

Seunghyun sets his jaw, not liking where this is going. “And how do they do that?”

“You get cranky when you’re in pain, don’t you?”

Seunghyun stares at the ground as he walks, digesting all that Jiyong has said. It doesn’t sit well with him, what he seems to be implying.

"Youngbae's leg can still heal. Maybe it's still healing,” he says.

"It's been ten years."

“Shit, that long already?”

“That long,” Jiyong confirms. "Maybe what's bothering Daesung…" He cups the deer skull in both hands, running a finger along one rough edge. "It's bone deep."

Seunghyun won’t believe that. The way he sees it, Daesung’s problems are venom collected under his skin, eating away at him and still spreading. It is a toxin he just needs to have drawn out.

Seunghyun will draw it out for him.

Jiyong sighs. “You don’t agree with me.”

"It's not bone deep,” Seunghyun says, shaking his head adamantly. “It’s just a scab.”

“Just a scab?” Jiyong is clearly not convinced. “Youngbae told me about what happened at the creek.”

"…and I just picked at it a little,” Seunghyun says, defensive.

"Why?"

"Because..." Because he has to reopen the wound to suck out all the bad. Because maybe Daesung is healing, but he isn’t healing right. It makes perfect sense to him, but something tells him Jiyong will not be so understanding. "Because?"

"Fine, don’t tell me,” Jiyong says, squeezing between a pair of wild rose bushes and wincing when their thorns catch on his clothes. "But you know how he is. We all need a little time to ourselves. Just give him what he wants. Just this once?”

"I always give him what he wants.”

"Oh yeah? Do you? Because I doubt he wants you sticking fingers in his cuts.”

In a breath Seunghyun’s fangs are fully descended, little pinpricks against his lower lip, every hair on his tail standing on end. His hackles are up, all set for the fight Jiyong is asking for.

But Jiyong is still talking, unaware. That or he simply does not care.

“…don’t like him being out there all on his own either, but you can’t just go and drag him back. Well, you can, but you shouldn’t. And this is coming from your alpha; I’m supposed to keep us all together!” he exclaims, seeming surprised at himself.

Seunghyun is surprised too—surprised and seething with anger.

You don’t know him like I do.

“I just think you need to back off for a little bit,” Jiyong continues. “Daesung will come back to us when he’s ready. He always does.”

I brought him back,” Seunghyun snarls. “It was me, my efforts that brought him home.”

“…no,” Jiyong says with a deliberate slowness—not out of caution, but with the air of someone talking down to a child. “You gave him something to come back to, but ultimately, Daesung made it out of his head on his own. You were just there waiting for him when he did.”

Seunghyun stops, his feet sinking in the sand beside the stream that will lead them the rest of the way home, an obscure pain overtaking him.

He brought Daesung back, he knows he did. Daesung himself has said so and thanked him for it. No, he had not gone in after him as Daesung had, what, wandered the halls of his mind? But he had done the best he could, holding him so he would not feel cold, talking to him so he would not feel lonely, making sure he stayed fed so he would not feel hungry, waiting with his life on pause for that moment when Daesung awoke, having gathered enough strength to climb out of whatever dark place he had holed himself up in.

He could not reach inside and pull him out. He could only care for him, be there for him, until he was ready to come home.

Fuck, he curses, a terrible powerlessness pouring over him, spreading through his limbs and leaving him weak. Maybe Jiyong is right. All he had done for Daesung was watch and wait. It was all he could do. Maybe it is all he will ever do.

Up ahead, Jiyong has stopped too, waiting for him.

“You see it now, don’t you,” he says, and something apologetic in how he meets his eyes. “I’m not saying you didn’t help, because you did. You did. I’m saying that even after all he’s been through, Daesung is stronger than you seem to think. Maybe he doesn’t realize it yet, but he will… if you’ll just give him the chance.”

Seunghyun swallows thickly.

"I..."

"You're always telling him how strong he is," Jiyong continues. "Or are you just saying that?"

Seunghyun sets his jaw against the sudden sting of tears, wanting desperately to believe his alpha’s words, but… "I'm scared, Jiyong." The last time he left Daesung alone he almost lost him.

When he looks up, Jiyong is an arm's length away, extending him a friendly hand and a hopeful smile.

"You trust me, right?” he asks like he knows the answer—because he does. Seunghyun does trust him. Well, most of the time. “This isn't like last time. He's on the mend, and seems to me he’s finally taking steps to speed things up. Let him walk on his own again; let him remember how. He’ll get the hang of it.” His smile turns sweet, like those sugary treats Daesung used to hand out to the street kids on his way home from work. “And don’t think for a second that he’s forgotten you. I bet he’s out there thinking about you right now.”

“I hope so,” Seunghyun says, still reeling, feeling as if he is recovering from a devastating blow.

“He loves you lots, you know.”

And that’s what does it. Seunghyun finds his lips quirking up, mirroring Jiyong’s. Because even apart, the bond he and Daesung have spent years forging is a constant one, a very real connection he can physically feel—and across the miles between them, it is alive and well.

“I know,” he says, and for the first time since they went their separate ways, smiles.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

With nothing and no one to hold him back anymore, Daesung explores.

He uses his hard-earned time to himself to learn the lay of the land. And much of that time he passes doing nothing of significance, just how he likes it—and just what he needs after the stress of the past few weeks.

Wrapped up in the arms of the one he loves, he felt himself sliding backwards. He could not carry them both. For now, all he wants from Seunghyun is a little time to carry himself.

Most of his days he spends on the move, roaming freely over the hills and valleys of their new home at a sedate pace, nothing spurring him on but his own idle curiosity. He tours the open spaces with arms thrown wide and crawls through the confined ones on hands and knees, just to see how far he can make it before the thick foliage forces him back.

Sometimes though, when he wants to test himself, he pushes all the way through. And when he comes out the other side with twigs and berries and leafy bits in his hair, he leaves them there.

Led by sight and smell and sound, Daesung tastes what he believes will not hurt him and at least makes an effort to touch everything else, laying hands on all he can reach, an innate childlike curiosity lifting his spirits and encouraging his senses to come alive again in the clean mountain air.

It’s just him out here, with no expectations to meet and no one to impress… and it’s the best he’s felt in a long, long time.

Except for when he slips and falls against a rock ledge, slicing his arm open. The sharp sting is bearable, but when he checks his arm, expecting a small cut or scrape, he is surprised to find blood, and lots of it. He stares at the deep laceration and the flow of blood from it, spellbound at the sight of his own life leaving him.

Do it again.

He does not do it again. But he loses some time thinking it over, mulling over how he might do it and in the dark forest of his mind following the whispered suggestion through to its inevitable conclusion, and that alone scares him into being more careful.

He pulls off his shirt and binds the wound with it, covering the blood. Out of sight, out of mind… he hopes.

He hunts in small bursts, settling for whatever he can catch on short notice—birds, rabbits, marmots. He sees a few skunks and minds their warning stripes, keeping well away. He is not one to make the same mistake twice. And when he finds water trickling down a vertical cliff face, cold and refreshing, he cups it in his palms and drinks deeply.

Something darts by way up high—a chipmunk watching him from a safe perch. He waves at it with wet hands and moves on.

He naps in the shade, sometimes for half the day, dozing away the afternoon heat and waking shortly before sundown to the mourning dove’s soft song—the saddest of serenades. And when he rolls over, his head and eyes and mouth still fuzzy with sleep, he finds himself surprised at the absence of another warm body at his back.

…Right. Remembering his mate is miles away, he falls back onto his side, nestling back into the grass where the ground is still warm.

His sporadic napping wreaks havoc on his sleep patterns, and he spends nights back at the den, tossing and turning restlessly. Some nights he does not make it back at all. On those nights that he sleeps under the stars, thoughts of Seunghyun spring to mind. Some days he half expects to see the other wolf’s eyes staring back at him through the prairie grass; is sure he will catch him stalking him like prey. Daesung wonders how he would react, rehearses what he would say if they ran into each other out here. If, after all it took to convince him to stay, Seunghyun came after him anyway...

…and wonders why he feels disappointment when weeks creep by, and he does not.

Seunghyun said to come back to him when he’s “figured it out.” Problem is, Daesung doesn’t know what it is. All he knows is that out here there is space enough to think, to breathe, and to let painful memories scatter in the wind, borne away before they can take root and grow into a poison ivy of the mind.

The wind can have them. He never wanted them anyway.

 

--

 

 

Today Daesung is on his knees, scratching lines onto a boulder many times his size with a rock that leaves behind lines the color of scorched earth. He steps back to examine his work, a string of symbols that after all this time he is still making sense of.

His name.

The townsfolk had taught him. They had never heard a name quite like his, so they had done the best they could, and Daesung had accepted their effort graciously. Wolves have no use for alphabets, no pressing need for a written language. They live in packs that are close-knit, rarely apart for long; everything comes by word of mouth. And his packmates identify him by more than sight and sound, they know him intimately by scent—a perk their human neighbors seemed to lack. Daesung had a name but no way to write it… until someone in the city showed him how.

They had kindly spelled it out for him and sent him home with a stick of charcoal and a sheet of parchment to practice, which he took up right away. His name, his name—he couldn’t get enough of it. And he couldn’t wait to share it with his packmates, Seunghyun most of all.

But when it came to matters of humans and wolves, he should have known better than to get his hopes up.

Because Seunghyun wanted nothing to do with the ways of humans, and any thoughts Daesung had entertained of teaching him to write his mate to write their names died a swift death when he showed him his new skill and was met with a dark scowl.

So Seunghyun’s not into it. So what? He stands there, hands on his hips, admiring his name in bold black writing. Seven letters. Pondering whether he wants to attempt it again. Make the lines a little less choppy this time. He thinks he’s getting pretty good at it. He wonders how long the marks will last. Maybe the next time he comes by here they’ll still be—

“Daesung!”

He drops his rock in surprise.

“Up here!”

Squinting against the sunlight, he looks up and spots Jiyong, comfortable as can be atop another boulder much, much higher up.

"How did you…” he trails off, craning his head back. Just looking at him all the way up there is making him feel faint.

"You're welcome to join me... if you can figure it out," Jiyong calls down with a great big toothy grin.

Daesung does figure it out—after a long, perilous climb. Just don’t look down, he reminds himself as he goes, scaling the boulder with clammy hands. He is almost there, sweating and shaking with exertion and fear—why did he agree to this?—when a hand closes around the collar of his shirt and pulls him up the rest of the way, cutting off his air just when he needs it most. Jiyong’s idea of helping.

"Did you have to grab my shirt?" he gasps, rolling onto his back to catch his breath—and to avoid looking over the edge into the valley below. Far, far below.

Jiyong pats his chest in consolation. “What were you doing down there?”

“Marking my territory.”

“Really? Didn’t see you pissing on anything.”

Daesung hits him, grinning. “I’m not an animal.”

He had been leaving marks, but he had been doing it the human way—intelligently. He wonders what Jiyong would think of it if he knew.

"Is there room for me up here?" he asks, eyeing the rock’s flat top with doubt. Jiyong is pretty small, but at the moment Daesung feels way too big to be sharing this space with anyone. They’re a long way from the ground—and a short way from the edge.

"Are you calling me fat?"

Before he can answer, Jiyong is ducking down to tuck fingers behind his jaw and turning his head into a kiss that strikes Daesung as attentive and caring. Thanks for coming up, it says, and I’m glad you’re here. I'm glad you're safe. Then he deepens it, and this kiss is anything but careful, Jiyong opening his mouth wide with his own and licking into him with hungry intent.

When he draws back Daesung can’t shake the sense that he has just been searched.

“You ate recently,” Jiyong whispers against him with wet lips.

Daesung only nods. He had been strolling aimlessly alongside a stream when he had spotted fish in the water, their bright scales flashing in the sunlight. And since he loves fish, had wasted most of the morning trying to win himself one… trying, and failing.

“Ugh, forget it,” he had said in the end, giving up and wiping his hands dry on his pants. Seunghyun had always been better at catching fish anyway.

But hours spent fishing had worked up his appetite, and he had left the stream in search of something else to snack on. He found that something else inside a burrow, its noisy scratching in the dirt leading him straight to it. He had crouched above until the stirring inside quieted down, and with a quick chirp had lured the weasel out, its little head poking out its hole.

Curiosity killed the weasel, Daesung thinks, licking his lips at the memory. He had snatched the tiny animal up by the neck and delivered it a swift death… and an even swifter devouring.

“Was just something small,” he murmurs, suffering a curl of shame at feeding without first offering his catch to his alpha. He tells himself Jiyong doesn’t care, Jiyong wasn’t there, and that’s not the kind of pack they are anyway… but even a decade later, some old habits die hard.

He sits up carefully, and an arm settles comfortably at the small of his back.

“I wasn’t spying on you, in case you were wondering,” Jiyong tells him. "You’re not the only one who could use a little soul searching every now and then.” He laughs, and it seems directed at himself. “Sometimes I start overthinking things. Just... little things. But when I'm up here, with the wind and the sky," he throws his arms wide, "I feel alive . And all that shit goes away." He leans back on his hands with a smile as warm as sunlight. "You know that feeling, don't you? You’re looking for your place too."

“My place?”

“Yeah, your happy place.”

Daesung gives him a knowing look. "You come up here to get off, don't you."

Jiyong returns his sly look with one of his own. "Join me up here more often and you’ll find out."

With a wry smile, Daesung turns and gazes out across the land—at a lone eagle soaring overhead, a speck of brown and white, then at the herd of elk below, their massive bodies reduced to little blobs of tan and brown at this great distance… and fights off vertigo. Heights have always given him the shakes; he cannot imagine coming up here on a regular basis, not for any measure of peace.

Not even for the good time Jiyong is promising.

Besides, there is no peace to be found in peering down over the edge and wondering what it might feel like to fall. Would he hit anything on the way down? Would it knock him out? Would it kill him instantly or would he spend some time lying broken at the base, waiting in agony for his ruined body to give up the fight and just let go.

He does not want these thoughts, of course, but that does not stop the whispered what-ifs.

“You doing okay?”

“I’m fine,” Daesung says automatically, which, given the other wolf’s keen senses, is as good as saying no .

He sees Jiyong’s eyes drop, settling somewhere on his neck. He knows what he is looking at and resists the urge to cover up. Like the rest of their meager belongings, he had left the scarf behind in the city, but there are days he wishes he had held onto it. Maybe he can talk Jiyong into making him a new one. Or maybe he’ll learn to make one himself. Maybe then his packmates will stop staring all the time.

All five of them carry scars in all shapes and sizes. What makes his so special?

"I knew something was wrong,” Jiyong says out of the blue, but Daesung follows because his mind is set down the same dark path. “I just thought..."

"You thought I was stronger than that."

"Yeah, I did." Jiyong lays a soft touch on his knee, fingers worrying at the stitches there. Stitches that he put there himself, stitches that are, so far, holding up well. "And I still do."

Daesung’s leg twitches. If Jiyong wants him to stay, he needs to stop picking at his stitches.

“Sorry to prove you wrong,” he says glumly. For a wolf, there is not much worse than letting one's alpha down.

Jiyong shakes his head. “Okay, look, I’m not even asking you to be strong, none of us are. Just be yourself. There’s no pressure to be anything else. Not with us.”

What if I don’t know how to be that anymore? What then? But Daesung is not ready for that conversation, might never be, so he seals his lips and gives away nothing.

Jiyong sighs heavily and shifts away, allowing him some much-needed space.

"Your guard is up. I see it. You probably think that letting yourself be vulnerable is a death sentence. And yeah, among most of our kind you would be right. Wolves generally don’t do well with things they see as weak." Though he does not like it, Daesung lets him pick up his hand and hold it. "But you know us. You know we're not going to turn on you. You know we... we love you. However you are.”

“However I am,” Daesung repeats, the words sounding as hollow as he feels. “I’m not who I used to be, Jiyong. And I don’t think Seunghyun knows how to handle it.”

I don’t blame him. I don’t know how to handle it either.

“So what? We’ll figure it out, and we’ll do it together.” Jiyong sits up tall, chest puffing up in pride. "Also I've talked to Seunghyun. I wanted you two to have the chance to work things out on your own, but I guess there comes a point where someone has to step in and play peacemaker."

"I guess," Daesung says and carefully disentangles their hands.

Jiyong watches his retreat, seeming strangely repentant, though he's done nothing wrong. "Don't forget, Daesung. We're a family, and we protect each other like one... if you'll just let us."

“What are you really trying to tell me,” Daesung mutters, wishing he found his alpha’s reassurances comforting, but all Jiyong is doing by coming at him like this is making him feel more confined. It doesn’t help that with an endless sky and empty air all around him, he has nowhere to run if Jiyong pushes too far.

“I’m telling you that we just want you to be happy." Then, after a long, purposeful pause, "And that isolating yourself isn’t the answer.”

Daesung surges onto his hands and knees and begins his shuffle across the rock, back the way he came.

“You have been watching me,” he says, throat tight. “Did Seunghyun put you up to this?”

“No. We met by chance today.” Jiyong keeps talking but never once tries to stop him. “I was already here, enjoying the sun, when you came along and started scratching around on rocks or whatever it was you were doing. You found me.”

Shit, he saw, Daesung thinks, face burning with anger and shame. How much did he see? He swings his legs around and off the rock, beginning the arduous process of climbing back down.

“I just want to be alone for a while. It’s nothing against any of you. Why can’t you just let me have that?”

Jiyong’s head appears over the top of the rock to monitor his descent.

“Because as your alpha, I’m still responsible for you!” he shouts back. “What kind of alpha just lets a member of his pack wander the wilderness alone? And for so long?”

Daesung grits his teeth and keeps going, heart pounding under the sudden stress of so many warring emotions.

“I’m letting you do this because I know you need it… but don’t disappear on us for days at a time,” Jiyong calls down, a note of whining creeping into his voice. “We’re a pack! You’re wondering where your place is? It’s at home with us!”

“I’m going! Don’t come after me, and tell Seunghyun to stay away too!” Daesung says loudly, forgetting for a hot moment that he is not supposed to snap at his alpha like that. He needs to get away from here before Jiyong loses his cool and decides it’s time to drag him back to the den, whether he’s ready or not.

“He worries about you!” Jiyong calls out one last time. Then, so softly Daesung almost does not hear it, “We all do.”

Head down, Daesung falls the last few feet to the ground and strides away stubbornly, wishing they wouldn’t.

 

 

--

 

 

Seungri rolls off, cupping a hand under his mouth. With his head out of the way, Seunghyun runs a palm down his belly and over his softening cock, wiping away the other’s wolf’s cooling spit.

“You didn’t swallow?”

“Jiyong gets a little weird about that,” Seungri says, falling onto his back and practically attacking his own stiff cock with his wet hand, using Seunghyun’s come for a little extra slick. Seunghyun watches the frothy mess that foams up as his hand flies up and down his length as he races to the finish.

“Weird?” He snorts. “Are you two mated now, or what?”

Seungri spares him a glance. “No,” he groans, fingers squeezing in a rhythm around his head. “It’s not—like that.”

“Then what is it like? You two seem awfully close these days.”

“Jiyong says it’s like...” Seungri pauses, eyes falling shut while his hand works. “It's like we chose our connection. Instead of it choosing us.”

Seunghyun wonders if it might be better that way, having the power to choose. Taking a mate is a major commitment, one most wolves make only once in their lives. One they hope to make only once. He wonders sometimes, would Daesung have chosen to stay with him were it not for their bond? He knows beyond a doubt that Daesung is right for him, and though it was not so clear at the start, always has been.

He cannot say with confidence, however, that he has always been right for Daesung.

He wonders why they haven’t done it yet, Jiyong and Seungri. Become mates, that is. If they did it would catapult Seungri into that higher ranking he has always not-so-secretly craved. He could even be alpha again, in a sense—co-alpha standing tall alongside Jiyong. Wolf packs in the wild typically consist of a dominant, mated pair, and werewolves, though only distantly related these days, tend to function in similar ways. Jiyong, an alpha without a mate? At his age? What does that make them?

Seunghyun supposes their pack is something of an anomaly in its current state. Bachelor packs like theirs come and go, but they have lasted this long and he cannot imagine them ever breaking up. Not for love, not for children—not for anything.

Even if one of us is currently unaccounted for, he thinks miserably.

So if there is a connection as Seungri says, why not go ahead and secure it? What’s stopping them from taking that final step? Seungri could have it if he wanted. And if Jiyong was willing, which Seunghyun thinks he is.

Maybe they have tried… and it didn’t work. Like conception, the bond does not always take.

He needs to talk to Jiyong about this.

Lost in his musings, he misses the exact moment when Seungri tips over the edge. By the time Seunghyun catches on the other wolf is catching his breath, hand squeezing his cock under small spurts of come that slip out in thin, watery ribbons. It seems to go on forever, and Seunghyun watches with great interest, making sure he knows it. Seungri likes when someone is watching.

Finally, Seungri lets out a sigh and sags to the ground, smiling in deep satisfaction. The sight of him like this is almost enough to make Seunghyun want to go again already.

…but it’s the smell that hits him hardest of all. The air between them is heavy with sex, so thick he can taste it, salty and sharp. He licks his lips, tongue darting out to sample it like a snake.

Before his tongue is even back in, a pang of longing hits him A pang of longing hits him. Daesung does that all the time.

“For someone who hates snakes so much, you sure act a lot like one,” Seunghyun had teased him once. “Your tongue, your love of lying on the ground, belly down. Just don’t start slithering, okay? I like snakes just fine, but I can’t be mated to one.”

Daesung had laughed and given him that look that says you are out of your mind and I don’t know why I stay with you, you big fool, but I can’t imagine life without you, all without uttering a single unkind word.

Seunghyun misses his laugh—and his scent. He used to smell like cedar and sweat, sharp yet sweet. But they are a long way from the cedar trees back home, and their shaggy bark that they would peel off in strips. Here Daesung smells of something spicier, and sometimes Seunghyun buries his face in his hair to the unexpected sting of fir needles.

He turns back to Seungri, who is staring down at his cock, his fingers forming a tight ring around the base with a steady pressure. Waiting expectantly.

When, predictably, the skin begins to swell anew, Seungri flashes him a grin. Proud as fuck of his own knot. Seunghyun rolls his eyes; if he had known ahead of time he could have coaxed his out for show too, but it’s too late now.

He thinks that’s big? He should see his.

“So… seen Daesung lately?”

“No, not since…” since Jiyong crossed paths with him a few days ago. He came back and told Seunghyun everything—how he had found him, how Daesung had joined him, how his concern had soon driven him away. And strangely, it had only hurt him more to know that his mate is out there on his own, enjoying their time apart and apparently doing just fine without him. “Fuck, wish I knew where he goes. I would go there too.”

“It might not be a bad idea to follow him,” Seungri says with an uncertainty that does not suit him. “I mean, as long as you don’t get caught. If I hadn’t followed him that night…”

“I know I’ve already said this, but,” Seunghyun stops there, struggling with the rest. He is spending more time around his youngest packmate these days, grateful for what he did for Daesung. What he did for him. But appreciative as he is, sincerity around Seungri is something he is still working up to. “Thanks again. For what you did.”

For saving him.

Seunghyun wishes it had been him, but in matters of life or death, it’s not a competition. It’s not important who gets there first, as long as someone gets there in time.

Seungri smiles uncomfortably. “You don’t have to keep thanking me.”

“Fine, I won’t.”

“Okay then.”

“Okay.”

After a strained silence, Seungri shakes his head and goes on, “Daesung and I were actually talking about this recently. You know what he said to me?” He glares down at his hand on his knot, seeming agitated. “We’re even now. Can you believe that?”

“I don’t get it.”

“You know, a life for a life. My debt is repaid or some shit,” Seungri continues, and now he is truly angry. “Something about how I only saved him since he did the same for me all those years ago. Remember, back when I was new to the pack?”

Seunghyun blinks at him, not following.

“The mudslide. The falling rocks.”

“Oh. That’s…” Exactly the sort of thing Daesung would think, Seunghyun realizes with a sinking feeling. He is surprised to hear that he actually came out and said it though.

“Fucking pissed me off, to be honest. That’s not why I did it.”

“He probably meant it as a joke.” A self-deprecating one. As if the only reason Seungri would save his life is because he felt he owed him.

Seunghyun bites back a sigh. Sounds like Daesung.

“Well it wasn’t funny. It was a shitty thing to joke about,” Seungri says. “Anyway, I hope he comes back soon. I miss having him around. It’s nice that you guys love me so much, but it’s good to have a buffer sometimes.” He grins at him, cheeky as ever. “Even if you two do keep me up at night. Show a little restraint, will ya?”

“Restraint? What’s that,” Seunghyun says with a matching grin. He smacks Seungri’s hand aside; the other wolf releases himself with a yelp, startled and probably a bit pained. Seunghyun’s aim might have been a little off. “And quit fawning over your own knot like that, it’s grossing me out. It’s almost like you wish it was in you.”

Seungri rolls his eyes to the sky, his brazenness knowing no bounds. “Okay, well I don’t have a Daesung to stick it in, so my imagination will have to do. I’m sorry if my fantasizing is offending you.”

“You cocky little shit,” Seunghyun growls, “I don’t have one right now either, but you don’t see me making eyes at my own dick.”

“No, you’re just making eyes at mine.”

Seunghyun doesn’t know what to say to that, so he cuts the banter and turns to the next best method for managing their mouthy omega: he attacks, tail high in the air in play as they tumble over and over in the first leaves of fall.

 

 

--

 

 

The days are growing shorter, the nights longer, and as summer passes into fall the temperature drops, but Daesung has ways of warming himself up.

He stares down his body at the head of his cock cradled in his hand, a healthy shade of rose pink. Precome seeps out the tip, shiny and clear; he smears it with his thumb, taking pleasure in how it smoothes the way for him to explore.

Not that there is much left to discover. He has been here many times before.

He has found a birch grove, smooth and slender trunks rising up around him as far as he can see like pillars of white. He is sitting with his back to one of them, and beneath him, there lies a bed of moss, soft and cushioned. The forest floor blanketed is in green, while above, the canopy shimmers with gold and copper leaves.

He should bring Seunghyun here sometime. The soft ground would be easy on his knees while they—

In his palm his cock twitches, a stab of pleasure pulling his attention down—as if kindly reminding him not to go there.

He didn’t want Seunghyun here, therefore here he is not. It’s just him and his hand today. As it was yesterday. And the day before that. And, well…

Daesung sighs. Jerking off alone is getting old, especially when he knows full well how much better it can be when it’s someone else’s hands on him instead of his own.

But right now his own is all he’s got, and he will just have to make do. And so it goes, one hand stroking lazily up and down his length, letting the pleasure of his own touch build slowly, not in any rush. Not this time, not today. But somewhere along the way he hitches his knees up, plants his feet in the springy moss, and the brush of cool air between his thighs reminds him that there is more to know below. He looks past the swell of his cock and balls and eyes the space between his spread legs, very specific itch making itself known.

Except when bathing, he rarely has to touch himself there since Seunghyun is all too eager to do it for him. But he has been cut off for weeks, in the middle of nowhere with no one else around, and he’s beginning to think…

It would be nice to get fucked again. But he would have to go all the way back home for that.

“Damn,” he breathes, letting his legs fall further open. That’s too far.

He supposes his own fingers will have to do.

It’s awkward at first, fumbling down his perineum and between his cheeks until he cannot see his fingers anymore, finding his way around by feel. He pulls his knees to his chest and curls in on himself until he is bent in half, sliding away from the tree and onto his back, trapping his tail under himself for one uncomfortable moment on the way down.

This will work, but his balls are still in the way, bumping his wrist, and he really just wants to focus on what’s behind them, damnit.

Finally, he huffs in frustration and rolls over, the moss pillow-soft under his cock. Reaching around and back, he finds what he was searching for, fingers locating that familiar and—by his mate—oft-visited spot.

He means to take it slow, starting with just one. But his own body surprises him, opening up under his slicked-up fingertip like it’s been waiting weeks for it.

…which, well, it has.

He huffs out a laugh, a breathy “Fuck,” one side of his face smushed in the spongy moss, and resolves to give his body what it wants. Because all the way out here, if he doesn’t, who will?

He is a lone wolf, at least for now, and lone wolves take their needs into their own hands.

It is with that thought in mind that he works himself over feverishly, and it feels good for a while, really good, little flares of heat fanning out, sizzling up his spine and tail and settling somewhere near the tip of his cock… and yet, strangely, as time wears on he feels his interest waning. And with it, the relief he seeks edging away.

He almost can’t believe it. He’s bored. Bored and lonely, he grudgingly admits.

Because half the fun of sex is the person he is having it with. It is the sight and sound of Seunghyun, the heat and hardness of his desire for him, his hot, staccato breath against his skin. It’s in the way his mate’s hands never really leave him—when Daesung rides him, Seunghyun stroking up and down his sides, revering how he moves; when Seunghyun has him on his knees, the heel of his hand low on his spine, just brushing the base of his tail, holding him down; and when Daesung is on his back, Seunghyun’s palms on his inner thighs holding his splayed legs wide so he can get inside and take him apart one fluid thrust at a time.

But Seunghyun’s favorite way to take him is on all fours so he can climb on top, chest to back, his arms on either side of him a cage. Sometimes he grabs onto his shoulders or reaches around front, forearm tight against Daesung’s throat, trusting him to hold them both up while he fucks into him from behind with wild abandon like—

Like animals.

"We know what you and that other wolf friend of yours get up to together,” the man said, sneering. “Everyone does, the way you howl like a bitch in heat when he's in you."

Daesung frowns, his arm slowing, stopping, the tips of his fingers still tucked inside. No matter how they do it—and no matter what anyone else has to say about it—Seunghyun loves roughing him up and Daesung loves letting him. His own hands cannot give him that, and it has been so long since he’s had to go it alone that he forgot how flying solo can feel so… empty.

It’s like letting off excess heat. But Seunghyun, Seunghyun puts the heat in him. His touch lights him on fire and burns him alive, body and mind. Sometimes, when Seunghyun is done with him and gathers him up in his arms, Daesung wonders how he doesn’t just falls through his fingers like ashes.

It’s a bit much sometimes. But for Seunghyun, never enough.

And when was the last time he had his knot? Seunghyun loves plugging him up and reeling him in as close as can be, covering him with his own sweat-damp skin until they can exist separately again.

Slowly, carefully, Daesung spreads his fingers inside himself, trying to simulate the stretch… but it just isn’t the same. Nothing satisfies him like Seunghyun but, well, Seunghyun. Soon his hand is cramping, so he gives up and pulls out, feeling a little tender in more ways than one.

Seunghyun is more than just sex to him, but… right now, more than ever, he misses him.

Rolling from his stomach onto his back, he reaches for his cock to finish himself off the usual way, quickly, when something stops him, a nearby presence unannounced. Hand halfway down his belly, he goes still as stone, suddenly, acutely aware.

He is being watched.

“Seunghyun?”

His voice is lost to the grove, the birches and their thick moss carpet swallowing his voice. Nothing comes back in reply.

“Jiyong?”

Still nothing.

“I know you’re there,” he says, projecting a confidence he does not feel. “You guys better not be spying on me, thinking you can get a free show,” he mutters, sitting up straight and sparing his flagging erection a cursory glance. He was losing interest before; now he is losing courage. His packmates would answer him. If it isn’t one of them, then who—

It is while his eyes are down that it moves, not nearly as far from him as he would like. There is, he sees, up high on a nearby ridge, a flicker of motion through the trees. Its blotchy coat blends in with the birches, black on brown on white, nature’s near-perfect camouflage.

But Daesung’s eyes are sharp, sharper even than Seunghyun’s despite all the teasing he endures for their small size. Earth tones and a vague, woolly shape are all he can make out before it’s gone from sight.

Four legs. Fur. Not one of his own, then.

He has always found it exceedingly weird when animals watch him get off. He wonders if they understand what he is doing. He hopes they don’t.

“They’re just animals,” Seunghyun has told him countless times, but moves over him anyway to shield him from prying eyes.

“That’s what humans say about us,” Daesung often reminds him, to which Seunghyun only shrugs, unbothered. “So, what? We can’t fuck outside now because someone—or some thing—might be watching? Fuck that.”

Well, Daesung is outside now, naked as the day he was born, fighting off that awkward feeling of being studied without his knowing as he lets himself go, giving up on getting off for good. Something was watching him, something that did not wish to be seen. The question now is what?

 

 

--

 

Lightning.

It flickers in the night sky, too far off for its rolling thunder to reach him. Daesung must see it too, wherever he is. Seunghyun wonders if, like him, he is watching it right now.

He wonders if, like him, he’s thinking of his other half.

“What are you staring at out here, all alone in the dark,” he hears from just inside the den, Jiyong’s nasally voice thick with sleep at the end of a long day. They hunted this evening, just the four of them, and it felt wrong without Daesung. By the time they were finished Seunghyun’s stomach was full, but his heart still ached, as empty as ever.

“Silent lightning,” he says softly, watching flashes of it light up the clouds, as beautiful as it is deadly.

Jiyong comes crawling out the cave entrance on hands and knees and lowers himself onto his stomach, stretching his arms out far as he can once he’s there. He reminds Seunghyun of a cat, as he so often does, which is a strange thing indeed to think of a person descended from wolves .

“Is it coming this way?”

Seunghyun turns back to the distant storm. “Can’t tell. But I hope not.”

“Because of Daesung,” Jiyong finishes knowingly. “You love storms. If he was here, you’d probably be racing toward it right now—and dragging him with you.”

“He likes them too. As long as there’s not—” Seunghyun stops, seeing the corner he has just backed himself into. “…lightning.”

Daesung may not like lightning, but Seunghyun loves it just as much as everything else that comes with it. But when it comes down to it, his favorite part of a powerful storm is the wind , particularly what it does to the trees. How they bend and sway, creak and groan and snap. Sometimes, when the storm brings with it strong, straight-line winds, the trees cannot withstand them, and they lose limbs. But with time, what falls becomes nourishment for the forest floor, feeding the world below with decaying wood and withering leaves. Soon it is gone for good, and where it lay, rich soil primed for new life.

Nature has ways of perpetuating itself. Life through death, restoration in the footprints of destruction.

“Hmm, yeah, I remember the two of you using our last passes to go outside the city walls and run around in the rain when that big storm blew through.” Jiyong grins at him. “Like maniacs. Youngbae thought you’d lost your minds. To be honest, I kind of did too.”

Seunghyun snorts. Run around in the rain. Jiyong has no idea.

“It’s a good thing we left when we did,” Jiyong continues softly. “We were in more danger there than we knew.”

“Which I tried to tell you all, but did anyone listen? No,” Seunghyun says in something approaching a growl. It’s still a sore spot for him, the way they all acted like he was the one with a problem. All because he had not wanted to fit in.

Daesung tried. He threw all of himself into it, gave it everything he had. Look where that got him.

“No, you don’t understand. Just by being there we were vulnerable in ways we couldn’t have predicted. I didn’t tell you because…” Jiyong takes a deep breath. Lets it out slowly, weighing his next words. “We had to bide our time, we had to wait. But even then, they came after us. Having a head start may be the only reason we got away.”

Seunghyun is in agreement with that, but one thing Jiyong said is bothering him.

“What do you mean by vulnerable?

And with that, Jiyong tells him of waking in the early hours before sunrise and shuffling outside, standing on the street on bare feet and watching as bodies were carried by. Sometimes they were loaded onto carts, sometimes slung over the backs of mules. But always they were concealed under linens. Clean linens.

Though he could not see them through their coverings, there was no mistaking what they were. Even reeking of death, he could never mistake a wolf for a human.

“What killed them? Humans? Or other wolves?”

“Neither,” Jiyong says gravely. “They smelled of sickness and disease.”

In the dark Seunghyun whips around to face him, furious.

“I can’t believe you kept this from me,” he hisses. “As our alpha, you could have at least warned us.”

“I didn’t understand right away! It took me some time to figure it out. But once I knew what we could be up against…” Jiyong buries his face in his folded arms, rocking his head back and forth in distress. “In the wild we are strong, but against human disease...” His voice drops, scarcely above a whisper when he finishes, “we have no immunity.”

Pestilence and plague,” Seunghyun growls, “All the more reason to never set foot near them again.” The first step toward survival is identifying their threats; but how are they supposed to fight against an enemy they cannot see? Worse, one they did not even know existed?

“Just another dead wolf, they said,” Jiyong continues, voice cracking. “It was cold that morning and I was wrapped in a blanket that covered my tail. I don’t think they knew I was one.”

It is nothing short of a miracle that none of them caught anything serious, Seunghyun thinks. All that time Daesung spent with humans, attempting to blend in, learning to be like them. He and Youngbae had poked fun at him that night he came home with the sniffles, wiping his runny nose on his shirtsleeve until he had to pull the whole thing off and wash the snot out of it. To think that such a small, innocuous thing could have been the beginning of the end for all of them.

But they are here now, and have been for some time… and, Seunghyun hopes, have brought with them nothing but memories. Those are bad enough.

“What else haven’t you told me?”

“Nothing important.” Jiyong yawns impressively. “That’s it, I’m dog-tired. See ya in the morning.”

“’Night,” Seunghyun says over his shoulder, settling back on his hands to lose himself in the late-night light show. “Oh, wait, one more thing. About you and Seungri—"

But Jiyong is gone, has crawled back inside the den to sleep—for real this time—leaving him alone again with the lighting. The clouds have traveled while they talked, east to west by his estimate, not closing in on them but simply passing by. He waits, hoping for a bolt to bridge the gap between earth and sky, something to connect the two, but it never comes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Daesung collapses, his stomach churning. That smell

Something was here before him, and it has made its presence known in a way that pulls his legs out from under him and sets his sense of smell ablaze.

Urine. Fresh urine.

His knees go weak and he slides to the ground, the bark of the tree he had sagged against scraping his back through his shirt. The muscles in his arms and legs involuntarily contract, and soon he is shaking, not with cold but with remembered fear, something he cannot identify. He doesn’t know why this is happening or what memory his body is reliving, confused and inexplicably afraid… and still the smell surrounds him, tying his stomach into knots and filling his mouth with saliva again in preparation for another round of coughing up all its contents. His throat tightens, a pressure somewhere under his sternum expanding outwards, pushing up

He has to get out of here. He has to get away.

So Daesung falls onto his front and crawls. He does not know how far he goes, or for how long, but some time and distance later the air clears, and he can breathe again without his stomach trying to squeeze up into his throat.

He finds relief in the heavy shade of a sycamore tree, slowing to a stop with a grateful sigh. A few crushed leaves crinkle under him uncomfortably, but he cannot be bothered to move again. Not without risking being sick again.

So much for that ptarmigan he had eaten for lunch. A small bird, it had been more feathers than meat—just a snack, really, something to quiet his stomach for a bit—but now it is soaking into the ground somewhere back there, catching and consuming it a wasted effort.

What the fuck brought that on? He doesn’t understand. It's just animal piss, he tells himself. Nothing he hasn't had his nose in before. Probably placed there by whatever made those tracks he and his pack were struggling to make sense of back in the summer. Placed there… for him to find?

Daesung shivers, wondering again how alone he truly is.

Animals mark their territory to send a message, and he has been covering a lot of ground lately. Passing through places where his packmates have not yet been, he may be the first of his kind to set foot here. If that is the case, then it makes sense that whatever was here first would want to warn him away.

A cool wind blows, and he shivers with sudden understanding. He knew something had been watching him. Now that something is sending him a message, one that’s all too clear.

Stay away.

He should… he should probably move on, away from this place, in case whatever left its mark is still around. He wonders, should he alert his pack? If they have neighbors, they will want to know, even if, for him, that means going home. Daesung is enjoying his daily tours across this new domain, exploring it with the hope of his pack one day making it their own; but if something else was here before them, he does not want to fight for it. Rich with resources, surely this region is big enough for the both of them.

But he isn’t about to stick around to try and tell them that. Already he is feeling better, strength returning to his legs as his nausea ebbs away, and he has lingered here long enough.

It’s time to go home.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung returns to them without warning.

He shows up in a swirl of leaves, the wind at his back. It is for this reason that Seunghyun smells him before he sees him—it’s that crisp, tangy scent that surrounds him in recent days, something about him changed but no less enticing.

It will never crowd out his underlying earthy musk, however, or the little hints of himself Seunghyun has left on him through years of fierce handling. He has devoted half his life to making sure his claim to the other wolf cannot be overlooked or overwritten, for his own protection and Seunghyun’s peace of mind. A change of scenery and the countless new scents that come with it cannot erase what has been written into his skin.

Daesung’s new scars may be eye-catching, but they don’t cancel out his old ones. With his mate returned to him, whole and seemingly unharmed after weeks on his own, Seunghyun sees this now.

“I’m looking for Jiyong,” Daesung says without preamble. “There’s something he needs to know.”

Seunghyun frowns. “You can’t just tell me?”

Daesung shifts his weight from foot to foot, his hands stuffed in his coat pockets, seeming conflicted. When he speaks again, it’s as if the wind has made off with more than his scent—it’s taken his voice, too.

“Something’s out there.”

Seunghyun rockets to his feet. “What did you see?”

“…I didn’t see it,” Daesung confesses. “Or, I did, but only for a moment. And while I was out there, something left its mark on the land. I think it wanted me to know it was there. Like it was leaving me a message.”

Seunghyun laughs. He knows it’s a little mocking, a little mean. He doesn’t mean for it to be, but... “You came all the way back here to warn us about… animal piss?” He shakes his head, chuckling. For a moment there he really had him worried. But it doesn’t take much to scare his mate these days, does it? Hell, maybe this is the new normal.

“Alright, come on,” he says, stepping up to the other wolf and slinging an arm over his shoulders—ignoring the stab of fear warning him that he might be shrugged off. “Let’s go tell Jiyong. I’m sure he’s dying to hear all about—"

“It smelled canine.”

Seunghyun stops, but only because Daesung refuses to follow. The wind picks up at their feet while they stand there in a battle of wills, dry leaves crackling over the forest floor. Seunghyun meets his mate’s solemn eyes. Eyes clouded over not with mindless fear as he expected, but a calm, candid concern.

“Probably just coyotes,” he says despite the uncertainty slowly creeping in. Daesung would not have come back to warn them of coyotes.

“Have you seen any coyotes since we came here? Or even heard them? I know coyotes,” Daesung says, sounding strained. “It took me a while to place it, but… I’ve smelled this before. Just once. And it was just as bad back then.”

“Back then? You mean…” Back in the city. Seunghyun cannot help pulling him closer.

Daesung bows his head, retreating into himself a little. “It made me sick, Seunghyun.”

Seunghyun slides a hand down Daesung’s back, craving the heat of his body through his coat. The changing seasons have brought cold nights to their side of the mountain, too cold for them to brave on their own. It was just last week when Daesung returned to the den to retrieve it—old and worn but still useful, still warm. Returned, shrugged it on, then set out alone again.

To Seunghyun, it had felt like losing something dear to him all over again. He had not worn the coat, but it still smelled like Daesung and he had kept it close. Every night since has felt colder without it.

“…I’m sorry,” he manages, wishing he had been there to comfort him.

“I don’t think we’re as alone out here as we thought.”

“And that… scares you?” Seunghyun pulls back hard on his excitement. Because Daesung may be frightened, but if what he is hinting at turns out to be true…

“It should scare you too!”

“I don’t know, maybe I’m a little curious about our new neighbors.” If these animals—at least, he hopes they are animals—truly meant them harm, they would do more than just leave scent marks. Marking is an act of defense. Seunghyun sees no aggressive intent in it.

But maybe Daesung is right. Better safe than sorry. He reaches for his arm in a second attempt to whisk him away back to the den, and his heart skips a beat at what he sees.

“What happened here?” he asks, turning his arm over roughly. Down the underside, a laceration that spans the gap from elbow to wrist. Scabbed over, still healing. It must have been deep.

A dreadful suspicion threatens to take him to his knees. Did he…?

“Oh, that. I slipped,” is all Daesung says. When Seunghyun does not release him, even when he tries to pull away, he rushes to explain, “No, that’s really what happened! I was trying to squeeze past this ledge and I fell and—”

“Okay,” Seunghyun says, dropping his arm. Deep breaths, Seunghyun. Don’t freak out or you’ll scare him off again. “Okay, I believe you.”

Daesung rubs his arm and looks the other way, seeming unsure of what else to say.

“Alright then, let’s take this to Jiyong. You’re right, he’ll want to know.” Seunghyun starts toward the den again, this time not dragging Daesung along, leaving him to follow on his own. “Not to mention how happy everyone will be to see you. We’ve… we’ve missed you.”

But no one more than me.

Sure enough, Daesung catches up to him after a few strides. He surprises Seunghyun by sliding a hand into his.

“Seunghyun, I’m sorry,” he says, sounding like he expects a rejection but hopeful all the same. “But also… thanks. I needed that.”

Seunghyun says nothing, afraid that if he does he might let slip something like I think about you every day, or please, god, tell me this time you’re here to stay.

“I missed you too, you know.” Daesung swings their joined hands once—his way of asking for Seunghyun’s attention. “Can we… start again?”

“Did you find what you were looking for? Your old self?”

“I think I found something else. Or something else found me.” Daesung gives him a wry grin. “But no, I think that whatever I’ve been looking for, I’ve been looking in all the wrong places. Jiyong found me,” he says, not knowing that Seunghyun has already heard all about it from Jiyong himself. “He reminded me that my place is right here, with the pack.” They bump shoulders as they walk, falling into step together as easily as ever. “And as usual, he was right.”

“So the search continues?”

“So the search continues,” Daesung confirms. “But it continues here, with you.” He bumps shoulders with Seunghyun again, and this time it feels deliberate. “Just give me some space sometimes, okay? Like you used to. I’ll come back; I always do.”

With a squeeze of his hand, Seunghyun lets him have that last word; he could not speak around the lump in his throat even if he wanted to. And the smile Daesung offers him for his silence may be a small, contrite thing, but it does wonders for his weary heart.

 

 

--

 

 

The first time they hunt as five after Daesung’s return brings Seunghyun pleasure beyond words, everything in his world made right again. Youngbae cuts into the carcass with his claws until he holds up an extra thick slab of meat, asking if he can fit it in his mouth in one bite. Daring him to try.

Daesung takes one look at it and shrugs. “Sure.”

The others are amazed, crowding around as Youngbae lowers it into his mouth, Daesung taking it expertly while droplets of blood dribble down his chin. Jiyong even claps when his lips close around its stringy edges, slurping the last of it down with ease. Seunghyun, though, only looks on, not especially impressed.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Youngbae throws his way, wiping his hands clean on his shirt.

“Yeah, well,” Seunghyun says, busy licking his own fingers clean. “He’s had bigger.”

They all laugh—all but Daesung, who sits surrounded by family and working his mouthful into something he can swallow, as pleased as can be.

 

 

--

 

 

This time Daesung does not leave them—not for long, anyway. Seunghyun suspects his run-in with whatever is out there watching them has spooked him into staying. There is safety in numbers, after all. The pack protects.

Whatever his reasons, Seunghyun is just happy to have him back.

"I wish I could write yours too," Daesung laments, stepping back and giving Seunghyun room to view his work. They are lounging around just outside the den today, and Daesung is, at long last, showing him his new skill set. A bit self-consciously, but Seunghyun is just glad he is showing him at all.

He has not forgotten how he blew up at him for it back in the city. If anyone should be embarrassed right now for acting badly, it’s not Daesung… it’s him.

Seunghyun shrugs. “You offered to learn for me. I told you not to.” What surprises him is that Daesung actually listened.

He remembers his mate’s excitement over being taught how to write his name. A part of him had hoped that, with time, Daesung would simply lose interest. Or forget. He has been so secretive about it ever since they left the city that Seunghyun thought maybe, just maybe, he finally had.

Now, watching him scrawl his name across the outer wall of their den, he hates that he ever entertained the thought. Whatever brings him joy, Seunghyun wants him to have it. And that he is willing to share it with him a second time, ready to try again…

He doesn’t deserve this. Yet here Daesung is, at his side again, and opening up to him about secrets kept—even if this secret is nothing serious.

Small steps, Seunghyun reminds himself. They have to start somewhere.

“It’s harder than I thought it would be. I don’t know how they do it—and with their whole language! Do you know how many words that is?” Daesung turns to him with wide, astonished eyes. “Have you ever seen a book, Seunghyun? Pages upon pages of… of this!” He throws a hand out, gesturing to his name written in charcoal with sticks of wood they cooked themselves. His fingers and hands are all black. Seunghyun has not done any writing, but his are covered in soot too—that’s what he gets for helping him make the stuff.

“Nope, not one,” he says with a tilted grin.

“It’s taken a lot of practice to get to this point.” Daesung rolls the charcoal stick in his hand absentmindedly. “I knew you wouldn’t like it… so I tried to keep it a secret.”

“What’s funny is that you thought I wouldn’t notice,” Seunghyun teases. “Who else would go around drawing strange symbols on rocks? Scratching them in the dirt? Carving them into trees?”

He can see how Daesung’s face heats, cheeks tinted pink—and in that moment wants to devour him. While he was away he missed that lovely shade on his skin, and would like to see it again on other, more sensitive parts of him. It has been too long since they last touched the way he likes, too long since he kissed and sucked and swallowed his fill.

Daesung bites his lip in thought, and that only makes it worse.

“Seungri might.”

“Don’t you dare teach him.”

“I wouldn’t know how!” Daesung laughs. “I bet he would love to learn though.”

“Here,” Seunghyun says, holding out his hand, palm up. When Daesung passes him the charcoal stick he closes his fist around it and sets it against the rock, grinding out a thick black line.

“You’re not… um…”

“What?” Seunghyun snaps, trying to concentrate—but he sees how Daesung covers his mouth to hide his smile.

“You’re not holding it right.”

“Not holding—fuck that, I’ll hold it how I want,” Seunghyun says and continues where he left off, dragging the charcoal down, then to the side, then back up, bits of charred wood breaking off as he grinds its soft end into the hard rock, leaving behind short lines and long lines, kind of boxy in places—and throws in a few circles for good measure.

Daesung’s way—no, the human way—is too sprawling for his liking and takes up too much space. This method is much neater, Seunghyun thinks, leaning back and assessing his work. It looks nicer, too.

Finished, he offers the charcoal to Daesung, who squints in confusion at his spontaneous creation.

“What does it say?”

“You can’t read it?” Seunghyun feigns hurt. “That’s my name.”

Daesung’s mouth hangs open in a little “o” of surprise. “It doesn’t look like mine at all.”

“That’s because I made it up.”

“You—really?”

Seunghyun crosses his arm and nods. “Yep, just now.”

“But it looks so real!”

“It is real. What can I say, I’m an artist,” Seunghyun gloats, unexpectedly proud of himself. “Think you can learn this one too?”

Daesung moves in close, studying the lines and, where they converge, the rough shapes they make. They are not letters; by themselves they mean nothing. But together they form a picture, one that represents him. And one that it looks like Seunghyun is going to have to memorize. And to think he once wanted nothing to do with this.

He allows himself a smile while the other wolf is busy looking over his work. Whatever Daesung wants, Daesung eventually gets; he is helpless to deny him for long.

“Yeah, I think I can. It’s so different than mine… kind of blocky and yet… nicely contained…”

“Don’t touch it!”

Daesung jerks back, smearing one of the circles just a little—no harm done, really, but by the look on his face he seems to think he’s ruined it. So Seunghyun shoves a hand in his thick hair and messes it up in retaliation, and then Daesung is ducking away with a delighted laugh, and Seunghyun is left wondering how he ever thought, even in his lowest moments, long ago, that he could get by without this man in his life.

 

 

--

 

 

Later that evening they are seated outside, the den at their backs, watching the sunset while their packmates are wading in the stream downhill. Light from the setting sun catches the clouds, like streaks of fire across a darkening sky.

“Did I ever tell you about the time when someone called us a dying breed?” Daesung says softly.

“When? Back in the city?”

Daesung nods.

“And you let him get away with it?” Seunghyun has heard worse from the mouths of humans, but that does not mean their ignorance should go unpunished.

“It was implied. He didn’t use those exact words,” Daesung says, his gaze falling from the clouds to the ground. "It got me thinking though. How many werewolves do you think are still out there? How many of us are left?"

“Who knows,” Seunghyun says, closing his eyes against the glare of the sun’s last rays. "Plenty, probably. Just because humans never see us doesn’t mean we’re not here. We don’t live like they do, crowding together in big cities, walled off from the rest of the world. God, it was like living in a hive…”

He rubs at his eyes, remembering the press of too many bodies packed into too small a space, the cramped, dirty streets, the homes and businesses stacked on top of each other. Too much like the colony where he watched his mother waste away, and his sister, after taking a mate, chose to stay.

With conviction, he continues, “No, we band together in small, reasonably sized packs and live off the land. And as we’ve seen firsthand, there’s a lot of that to be had."

And at just five members, their pack is uncommonly small. Seunghyun likes to think their size is what enables them to be the family that they are—loving, devoted, inseparable. The crowded colony he grew up in did not foster bonds like theirs.

“I didn’t think it was that bad.”

“I don’t get it,” Seunghyun says, shaking his head. “You loved roaming our old lands, and now you’re doing it here too.” Now that I’m letting you, he thinks with a twinge of guilt. “How did you not hate the city?”

“Because I spent a lot of time exploring and meeting new people, when I wasn’t at work or at home with you. Maybe not as much as Seungri, but…” He shrugs. “I guess that made it feel bigger than it really was.” Moments later, the surfacing of a memory casts a shadow over his face. “Until I realized how unsafe it was for someone like… me.”

Gently, so as not to startle him, Seunghyun lays a hand on his nape and lets it lie. No pressure. No pain. And certainly no claws. Just the weight of it resting there, and the transfer of his warmth.

Daesung’s head dips, the darkness lifts, and Seunghyun’s heart soars.

“Humans are arrogant, thinking they know everything,” he hears himself saying, swept up in the euphoria of Daesung trusting him again. “…when they know so little. Werewolves aren’t going anywhere. Like it or not, we’re here to stay.”

Daesung is silent, letting that sink in.

“Maybe for other packs,” he eventually says, "but for us, I guess this is where it ends."

"What ends?"

"You and me," he says simply, stretching his legs out in the grass and wiggling his feet. "That's it. The end. Nothing comes after us."

“…You mean no one?” Seunghyun asks when it finally clicks. “No… children to call your own?”

“Yeah.”

“Well you’ll need a woman for that. None of those all the way out here, I’m afraid,” he says lowly, a little stung. Daesung knows his thoughts on having pups, knows how much he wants them.

But he only wants to have them with him. If only it were possible.

"That's not what I'm—" Daesung tips forward to drop his face in his hands. His next words come out muffled. "I’m not saying I want that, it’s just that humans seem to find it important. Leaving something of themselves behind.”

“Like what, a legacy?” Seunghyun scoffs. "Again with the arrogance. They hole themselves up inside their settlements and think they're so special. If they would get back to their roots, back to nature, they would see just how little this world cares about them and their legacy. Nothing lasts forever." Not even memories, he wants to say, watching Daesung with a mixture of sorrow and hope. He releases his neck, and with that hand taps his temple lightly. "That's why we wolves live in the moment. What lies ahead doesn't matter, not for us."

Daesung fills his hand’s absence with one of his own, fingers tracing the edges of his scars in thought.

"What about what lies behind us?”

"That doesn't matter either," Seunghyun says adamantly. "What's done is done. The only thing about the past that matters is how it affects you in the present."

Daesung turns to him fondly. “When did you become so wise?”

“Wise?” Seunghyun leans in for a kiss; Daesung meets him halfway. “Forget what the city taught you, what lies its people told you. Going there was a mistake, but none of that matters anymore because now…” He gives his mate a sharp-toothed grin, his long canines down and out, ready for blood. “Now we’re living like wolves.”

 

 

--

 

 

A voice floats through the trees, hauntingly sweet. So Daesung does what any curious creature with a love of song would do: he follows it to its source.

He thought he was alone in this—Seunghyun will sing with him, but only when he begs him to—so his illusion is shattered when he enters a clearing and, perched on a log, there sits Seungri, blond head tipped back as he empties his voice into the waiting woods.

Daesung does not mean to give himself away so soon, but his surprise gets the better of him.

“Since when do you sing?

Seungri startles badly and flails, falling off the log. Something goes flying; it lands in the leaves to Daesung’s right with a soft, steady hiss like something… burning?

“Since where were you so sneaky?” Seungri cries, looking caught from his place on the ground—and absolutely fucking terrified.

“What were you doing?” Daesung eyes slide to the side, searching for the thing he had tried to throw away without his noticing. Tried, and failed.

“Nothing.” Seungri scrambles after Daesung when he goes to investigate. “Seriously, it was nothing!”

Daesung gets there first. “This is—”

Frantically, Seungri grabs the stick out of his hands and holds it in front of himself, waves of guilt practically pouring off him.

Strangely, that is when Daesung finally smells it. Seungri’s singing had done more than draw him here; it had put him under a spell.

Seungri twists the stick in his hands anxiously, the half-cooked lump of meat on the end of it spinning like a wheel.

"Don't tell the others," he begs.

Daesung keeps a straight face, giving nothing away, letting him suffer for a bit. It isn’t every day he catches this packmate doing something he isn’t proud of. Daesung is not usually the type to hold embarrassing truths over his friend’s heads, but watching Seungri sweat it out as he waits for an answer is… surprisingly satisfying.

He’s been spending too much time with Seunghyun. And he hasn’t even been back all that long.

"Please," Seungri tries again, "I'll give you some if you want. I’ll share. You like rabbit, right?"

Daesung’s nose scrunches up when he is offered the steaming meat. “Not cooked rabbit.”

"I mean—” Seungri takes it back quickly and fumbles with it, wincing as he starts pulling it apart in messy pieces. “It’s not done, there might be an uncooked piece somewhere inside—”

“Seungri, stop.” Daesung says, stilling his hands. "It’s okay. I won't tell."

He doubts the others would care, but Seungri seems fearful at the thought of them finding out, and Daesung has enough experience with keeping secrets to know that they are best revealed on their own time, by those who hold them. Seungri’s secret is safe with him. He will not out him.

Seungri heaves a mighty sigh, relieved. "Thank you. I'll catch you one too. There’s tons of ‘em around here."

Daesung feels some obligation to refuse—he isn’t even hungry—but he thinks he can find room for a little lean meat. Besides, he would be a fool to turn down free food.

"Sounds good to me." He covers his nose with his sleeve and makes a face. “But please hurry up and eat yours so I don’t have to smell it anymore.”

Later, when they are seated on the log together and Seungri is licking his fingers clean, he surprises him again.

"You know, I thought you would like cooked meat. You, uh… you fit in pretty well with those humans back there. For a while.” As an afterthought, he adds, “Don’t be mad at me for saying that.”

Daesung looks up from the remains of the fire he had been digging through with a twig, trying and failing to stir dying embers back to life, and frowns. Don’t be mad? What does Seungri think he is, a set trap waiting to be sprung?

“Why would I be mad at you when it’s true,” he says, swatting him on the thigh with his stick, just hard enough to smart. Seungri doesn’t yelp, but he does flinch. "I didn’t like their cooked meat and I didn't like their wine either," he reminds him, remembering all too well how it had made his head spin—and his stomach rebel.

"Seunghyun did though," Seungri points out. "I think he liked it a little too much."

Daesung swats him again and this time gets a yelp out of him. Seungri is right though; strange that Seunghyun, who had hated everything crafted by humans' hands, had taken to their drink of choice so quickly.

"He also used to smoke. But that was a little before your time," he says. But Seunghyun’s smokes had been a luxury item, and the effort of procuring them—usually from other wolves, rival packs who were uninterested in establishing safe trade channels with others of their kind—had not been worth the risk.

“Good, I’m glad he quit. Those things are nasty.”

“Says the guy eating smoky meat,” Daesung counters, and this time, instead of swatting him he prods him, pushing the stick’s narrow end inside a wide tear in Seungri’s jeans that leaves his skin on display. Daesung’s used to have tears like that too. Now they are all closed up, nice and neat.

But fraying in places, he has begun to notice lately. He needs to consult Jiyong about it.

Then, “Hey,” he says, remembering something. “Your singing voice is really nice, I like it. It’s uh, it’s surprisingly… sweet.”

Seungri laughs, carding an embarrassed hand through his pale hair.

“Thanks. I guess a taste for cooked meat isn’t the only thing I picked up back there.”

“I bet we’d sound good together, you and me,” Daesung muses. “We should sing together sometime.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth Daesung feels his face heating. It feels… intimate to ask that of Seungri. The only person he has ever joined voices with, besides the townsfolk singing lively tunes around the fire, is Seunghyun. And they don’t make a habit of it. Seunghyun does not enjoy the sound of his own voice the way Daesung does.

It’s okay though. They have other ways of coupling up, and in this way, their voices combined have plenty of chances to shine—an age-old chorus of whimpers and moans, of soft sighs and harsh breaths set to the soundtrack of skin on skin.

Seungri stands and dusts off his hands. “Well, think it’s time I go catch you something.”

“Oh, you actually meant that?” Daesung says playfully, raising his stick and poking at his packmate’s crotch and laughing when he stumbles back with a surprised squawk.

“I said I would, didn’t I? What do you think I am, a liar? ”

“No, just someone who will say whatever it takes to save his own hide.”

Seungri barks out a laugh and fearlessly kicks the stick out of his hand. He only partly succeeds—it ends up breaking in half, so Daesung ditches what’s left of it in the dying fire.

Then, pulling his oversized coat tightly around himself, he curls into a comfortable little ball on the forest floor. “Maybe I’ll just take a nap here. Could be waiting awhile.” He fakes a massive yawn for effect. “Since that hair of yours scares everything off.”

This time Seungri makes as if to kick him. Daesung knows he won’t—is reasonably sure he won’t—but his body flinches anyway, and that seems good enough for Seungri, who wears a broad, satisfied grin while Daesung buries his face in his coat sleeve and curses his too-sharp survival instincts.

There was once a time when he would not have dared tease Seungri about his hair, but the other wolf makes fun of his eyes every chance he gets, so he figures his blinding white-blond locks are fair game. Besides, neither of them mean a word of what they say, and they have been friends long enough that they both know it.

The truth is, however, that Seungri's pale hair has always been a liability of sorts. Like albino animals in the wild, it sets him apart from his peers in a way that, from a survival perspective, most would deem undesirable. His parents had to fight tooth and claw to keep him when their pack’s alpha wanted him gone. In some packs, like Seungri’s, superstition runs rampant. Every string of failed hunts was blamed on the cursed child, every wave of misfortune upon the land—fire, flooding, famine —laid on his young shoulders.

Amazingly, his status as an outcast among adults never broke his will or dulled his desire to set out on his own. If anything, it honed it. Accompanied by his only sibling and the few friends he could convince, he left home of his own volition before the age of maturity, entering the wilds as a child, determined to make his own way in the world. Before Seungri, Daesung had never met a wolf who harbored such issues with belonging. It was only when, bit by bit, as Seungri entrusted him with pieces of his past, that Daesung began to understand why.

Why and how he found his way to them—and why he stayed—Daesung has never fully figured out. But he is glad he did. Without him, he would not be here.

Daesung unfurls a little and sweeps a hand through the dirt, clearing a path amid the crinkly leaves. In the silence that follows, he listens, hoping to hear Seungri singing again, not convinced that he is as committed to catching him a meal as he claimed.

Truthfully though, Daesung doesn’t care if he comes back empty-handed... just as long as he comes back. Seungri doesn’t owe him anything, and he hopes he knows that.

I’ll tell him later is his last thought before he lapses into a light sleep, one filled with song unlike anything he has ever heard—a chorus of voices soaring, united, spanning field and forest to reach inside his wild heart and set his spirit free.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung stands, linking his fingers and stretching until his arms and shoulders and back pop all at once. He loves their den and all they have done to cozy the place up, but the sleeping arrangements leave something to be desired. He should probably go back to that mossy grove he’d found and bring some of the stuff back here for padding. Their bedding could use it.

A voice floats up to him from the floor, amused.

"Finally joining the rest of world, I see. You slept in late,” Youngbae teases from where he sits with Jiyong, deft fingers stitching up a tear in the sleeve of his shirt using one of Jiyong’s prized needles. It’s a tiny thing, plucked from the pocket-sized sewing kit Jiyong had swiped from the city. At least one of them had the foresight—and the daring—to take with them something of use.

Daesung thinks of his pants lying in a pile on the floor, and of the repairs Jiyong had made at his request. Wonders if he should ask for a touch-up. The threads are wearing thinner than he likes. They are his only pair, and they’re becoming a little threadbare.

Problem is, if he asks Jiyong for help, he might make him learn to do it himself, just as Youngbae is right now. He struggles enough stitching up hides with thick bone needles; he doesn’t even want to think about how many times he might jab himself with a smaller needle, one that's thinner than a blade of grass.

…It can wait, he tells himself, vowing to do it later.

He is reaching for his jeans when Youngbae sets down the needle and stares at him for so long Daesung is about to ask if there’s a bug in his hair or something. God, he hopes not.

“Has anyone ever told you that your legs are kind of bowed?"

“Yeah, a thousand times,” Daesung replies, stepping into the legs of his pants.

Jiyong snorts, picking up Youngbae’s work where he left off. "Probably from all the time Seunghyun spends between them."

Daesung does up his fly, grinning now. "My legs have always been like this. My mom was worried it would slow me down and make me a bad hunter."

He has long been aware of this flaw, his knees a little wider than that of his peers, the way they flow into his ankles a little more defined, but his in the end mother’s concerns were not needed. Though his legs may look a little different, they get him around just as well as anyone else’s, and he has never felt disadvantaged.

"The only thing slowing you down is this," Jiyong says slyly, darting in and cupping his crotch with a devilish grin when he comes too close. Daesung squawks and staggers away, hands cupping himself protectively. No one does a surprise dick grab better than Jiyong.

“Yeah, there’s a reason why we put you at the back of the pack when we hunt,” Seunghyun says from his place on the ground—Daesung had not been the only one sleeping in. He reaches a hand out and grabs Daesung by the back of his knee, pulling, until he gets the message.

Down here, with me.

Daesung pouts. “I’m not that much slower than the rest of you,” he says, balancing on one leg and shaking Seunghyun’s claw-like fingers off his other. “Except for Youngbae, who’s just… freakishly fast.”

Youngbae preens at that.

“He traded speed for height" and "You'd get around faster if you were that small too," Jiyong and Seunghyun say together.

Hey.”

"For real though, you're too big up top to be very agile. All that muscle packed into your chest and arms. But hey, what you lack in speed you make up for in brute strength." Jiyong taps his own forehead with a knowing expression. "Just gotta get your head in the game and you'd be deadly. Well, deadlier."

Daesung’s pout reshapes itself into a grin. It sounds a lot like something his father would have told him, but infinitely kinder.

"Thanks, guys,” he says and goes in search of his shirt. He knows he chucked it somewhere last night when Seunghyun came at him with hungry lips and hands, but it could not have gone that far…

They hear footsteps scraping up the walkway to their den long before the person making them appears. Seungri puts one shoulder to the wall, hands in his pockets, casual as can be. And seeming very, very pleased.

“Bucks are rutting,” he says like it’s no big deal.

“Wait, really? You’re serious?”

“Already?”

“Maybe the rut starts earlier up here.” Seungri comes in and joins them, settling in a cross-legged pose on Jiyong’s other side. “But they’re out there, locking horns and chasing tail like it’s the last thing they’ll ever do.”

“For some of them, it is.”

“We’re gonna eat good this winter,” Seungri announces, cracking his knuckles and seeming pleased with himself for his discovery.

“We do need to fatten up a little,” Jiyong says seriously. “Winter’s never easy, but something tells me it’s going to get extremely cold. Colder than we’re used to. Don’t expect all that snow way up high on the peaks to stay there.”

Youngbae flops onto his back and sighs loudly, “Great.”

“It’s not all bad,” Seunghyun rumbles, quietly amused. “Seungri might actually blend in for a change. No more mud in his hair before a hunt.”

“Oh.” Seungri blinks over at him owlishly, as if the thought had never occurred to him. “Wait, you really think so?”

The light of hope in his eyes is charming, Daesung thinks, locating his shirt and pulling it on. Where they come from, heavy snow was not a common occurrence. Who knew they would one day journey to a land where, at least for a time, Seungri’s one weakness might become his strength?

“We’ll see, won’t we?” Jiyong tugs on Seungri’s jacket, slender fingers picking at where the wool lining is peeling off. “But for now, you’re gonna help me with this, right? You wanted me to work on it. If you’re going to keep tearing holes in your clothes, you’re going to learn how to fix them.”

Seungri groans, “Do I have to?”

“It’s for your own good. I can’t fix everything for you—or I shouldn’t have to.” Jiyong pats the space beside him expectantly. “Daesung, you too. And bring your coat, I know it needs some work.”

Damn. I guess it can’t wait.

Daesung breathes deep, bites back a complaint, and with coat in hand, answers his alpha’s call.

 

 

--

 

 

Winter arrives with little warning. They wake up one morning and, peering out their den, it’s as if the snow that had sat high on the mountainside throughout the summer, seemingly untouched by the sun and its persistent heat, has slid down the slopes into their valley, blanketing everything in white. As it often does when it comes to the weather, Jiyong’s prediction came to pass.

The first snow of winter, Seunghyun recalls seeing a landscape like it just once before—their first full winter with Seungri.

Perhaps some of the superstitions are true, he thinks, wading through deep snow. Perhaps, wherever the wolf with the white hair goes, wintry weather follows.

He is stomping through the stuff, as cold and miserable as he is mystified by the sea of white around him, when he spots something decidedly suspicious pressed into the fresh powder, just visible through the softly falling snowflakes.

Tracks. New tracks by the look of it. He picks his way over to the paw prints for a closer look, snow flurries slowly filling them up. Whatever made these made them recently.

Big paws.

He stares, a wild idea taking over. Looks up and sees the trail leading away from the safety of their den and into the surrounding mountains, a peculiar sensation beckoning him to follow—a temptation, a fascination.

Big paws and small claws.

He thinks of his packmates, remembers how he left them—huddled together around a hastily-built fire. It had not been in his plans to go far today, not in snow this deep. Jiyong has been working on garments for them using their surplus of hides, but the freeze is here and their winter gear is not. Seunghyun expects he’ll be holed up in the den for days, finishing as much as he can as fast as he can. In cold temps like this, their comfort—no, their very survival—depends on it.

But standing here, Seunghyun can see that something has used the curtain of snow to steal in close, closer than ever before. Closer than he is comfortable with.

Should he…?

He parts his lips and exhales, his breath hanging in the air in front of his face like a puff of white smoke. He knows he vulnerable to the chilled air, and the snow sticking to the legs of his jeans will soon melt under his body heat, but something tells him that what he has just stumbled upon should not be ignored.

He lets the tracks take him up the mountain, a curious glow warming his cold fingers and toes.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Daesung wakes to another body sliding into bed with him. Shivers at the rush of cold air that steals under the covers with it.

“...Seunghyun?” he says sleepily. Icy, naked skin touches his and he jerks back. "Fuck, you’re freezing. Where'd you go?"

Seunghyun scatters cold kisses up and down the length of his neck, from collar to jaw and back again, frigid lips nipping and biting at him like the winter wind. Daesung shivers.

“Found our new neighbors,” Seunghyun says, breathing hotly over him.

“You…” Daesung rubs the sleep from his eyes while the trail of kisses continues, not sure he heard right. “…what?”

"Daesung, Daesung,” Seunghyun fists a hand in his hair and pulls him in, tongue tangling with his own, scorching hot as always, and Daesung goes limp under the assault and lets his mouth be ravaged, not awake enough to even think about resisting.

“Mmm,” he says when his mate pulls back with a wet smack. “Seunghyun, what’s—”

“Wolves, we’re living with wolves.” Seunghyun tucks his face under his Daesung’s chin and laughs, breathless, giddy, elated.

Daesung bolts upright, the deerskin blanket falling from his shoulders and pooling at his hips. He does not feel the cold air; Seunghyun’s words have already chilled him to the bone.

"Wolves?!"

"Shhh," Seunghyun hushes him, guiding him back down, coaxing him onto his front with a hand that slides from his side to his back as he turns, and crawling on top.

“I saw them,” he says, sounding every bit as feverish as he feels. “Followed the tracks. Led me to one that was all alone—a scout. It turned and ran when it saw me but I—”

“You chased it?” Daesung gasps, more surprised by the news than the weight settling over him—that he can take easily. “Wait, what am I even—of course you did.”

“—it took me straight to the pack,” Seunghyun finishes, breathing hard with excitement.

“The pack,” Daesung echoes, mind racing with questions. “Werewolves? Like us?”

“No. Real wolves. Actual fucking wolves.”

Seunghyun returns his attention to his neck, sucking hot, wet, open-mouthed kisses into it everywhere he can reach, and soon his hips are joining in, thrusting against his ass with a determined, steady rhythm.

He's hard.

Daesung inches his legs apart and rests his cheek on the hide beneath him and imagines Seunghyun wandering off into the unknown on a day like today, cold and surrounded by snow… alone.

“You went on your own? Why didn’t you come and get us?”

"They're amazing,” Seunghyun says like he did not hear him, pressing the words of praise into the muscles that line his spine.

"Are you okay? You're not hurt?" Daesung scents the air for blood. All he detects besides the crisp winter chill is the sharpness of their sweat and Seunghyun’s excitement.

"I'm fine. No, I’m—I'm great," Seunghyun says, emphasizing it with a long, slick thrust up his backside, and with that Daesung’s finds his confusion and concern fading fast. Soon his own cock is stirring, his pulse picking up, sharing in the thrill of Seunghyun’s discovery. His enthusiasm is… catching.

Wolves. He had wondered. Had not dared to hope. And yet, there had been so many signs.

So that’s why they don’t have coyotes.

Seunghyun’s slow grinding over his lower back rucks up his shirt, and for one breathless moment Daesung is back in that alley, the weight on top of him belonging to something else, coarse fur sweeping his skin.

"I want you to see them."

“They’re just big— uh,” he grunts when an especially hard thrust pushes him up the deerskin blanket, "—really big dogs, aren’t they?" He digs his fingers in and pushes back.

“You won’t think that when you see them.”

“Think they could be like us? Werewolves, but stuck in wolf shape instead of human shape?”

Seunghyun seals his lips over the curve of his shoulder and uses that to muffle his laugh. “Come with me next time and we’ll ask them.”

Daesung remembers his dream—his wolf dream, he calls it. Remembers slinging a long, rubbery tongue around inside a mouth shaped all wrong for the sounds he had wanted to make. It was not that he had forgotten how to form words, it was that he couldn’t anymore. He did not have the parts for it.

“Think they can talk like us?” he jokes, cracking a small smile.

“Doubt it,” Seunghyun murmurs against his shoulder. “But they’re amazing creatures either way. You have to see them.”

Daesung isn’t so sure. He remembers his mother’s stories, accounts of how their kind came to be. If what she told him is to be believed, wolves are supposed to be magnificent creatures, larger and smarter than any domesticated dog, an apex predator with eyes that shine like polished gold. In all his years since he has carried those stories with him, guarding them in a safe, secret pocket of his memory.

Well, secret until he started sharing them with Seunghyun.

Daesung thought wolves were long gone, a relic of the past. He thought every did. But maybe they have something in common, these creatures and him. Pushed out of their homelands by humans. Forced to follow the setting sun west. Trudging, empty-handed and broken-hearted, toward their own inevitable end.

But their story is not over yet; their end still waits for them somewhere on the distant horizon. What if the tales about wolves were wrong? They’re here. And they have probably been here all along.

Silently, Daesung frets. What if they are not all he expects, and all he needs them to be? What if they are just… animals?

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” he says reluctantly.

Seunghyun’s steady grinding slows, the gentle press of teeth on his bare shoulder disappearing.

“But… you have to,” he says in a small voice.

Daesung peers at him over his shoulder. “Says who?”

Seunghyun sags against him, falling still for a moment. When he speaks again, something in his voice sounds punctured, low on air.

“Promise me you will. Maybe not right away, but someday. Soon?” Arms wrap around Daesung’s middle in a tight, hopeful bear hug. “I want to see them again… but I want you with me when I do.”

Daesung breathes for a bit, thinking it through.

“When I’m ready.”

Seunghyun presses hot kisses between his shoulder blades, mouthing at the many marks there—shallow marks and deep marks, all according to the shape and size of his fangs and the strength of his bite. Seunghyun says they’re beautiful. Daesung sometimes wishes he could see them, if only to remind himself that they are still there.

“...Okay,” Seunghyun says across their surface, accepting his answer with none of the fight Daesung was expecting. “Okay. I won’t force you.”

So Daesung rolls onto his back, welcoming him into his arms—and later, into his body. And face-to-face with him once more, just the way he likes it, he decides against telling Seunghyun that in the beam of moonlight bathing the den in blue and white, his eyes burn like molten gold.

 

 

--

 

 

Unlike in their old home, the snow does not come and go as winter wears on. And once it’s begun, it never seems to let up.

No, it piles up. Around Daesung’s feet, to be exact. All the way past his knees in some places, such as in the shade where the sun cannot reach, under these tall trees that never dropped their leaves, decked out with little green needles the whole year-round.

And he is losing count of how many snowdrifts he’s blundered into blindly, only to end up buried up to his hips—or worse, in over his head.

His packmates will never let him live that down.

Daesung is walking through just such an area today; dragging his feet through thick snow up to his shins, the legs of his pants are heavy and wet. He is not searching for anything in particular, is just keeping his eyes and ears open in case an opportunity presents itself. He could really use something warm right now; hungry or not, he always looks forward to eating.

He has been wandering in circles for what feels like hours, careful not to stray too far from the den. Cloaked in white, this is not the valley he has come to know, and the last thing he wants to do in weather like this is get himself lost.

But his search has turned up nothing. As far as his eyes can see and his ears can hear, everything is as still and silent as the snow he is wading through.

And then the stillness is broken.

A sudden rush of wind over his head blows Daesung’s hair into his eyes—and sends him into the snow in a fit of panic, his feet flying out from under him.

At least his landing is soft.

About ten yards ahead of him an owl plunges to the ground, mottled wings outstretched, black banding on bright white feathers. With legs reaching, talons gleaming in the low light, it swoops down on something only it can see. Then there is an explosion of snow, a rapid whuff-whuff-whuff as the bird’s wings slap the snow, then it's taking to the air again—this time with something small and dark in its grasp.

Small and dark and squeaking in fright. Daesung watches it go, disappearing into the dim-lit woods without another sound.

How…?

How could it detect something as small as a mouse under so much snow? He climbs back to his feet and jams his hands into the deep pockets of his coat for warmth, resigning himself to the notion that he may never know. A silent predator hunting silent prey. Daesung had no idea the mouse was even there; would have walked right over it had the owl not intervened and been none the wiser.

He isn’t upset at missing out on a mouse. Mice aren’t worth the effort. No, they are better off expending energy on larger, more filling prey—fuel for their ferocious appetites. Sure, they may end up hurt, but the reward is worth the risk.

He is more bothered by the fact that he had no idea it was there to begin with—the mouse or the predator hunting it.

Daesung thinks about the last time he had to eat a rat. Remembers how he had swallowed it whole, bones and all. Choking it down on an empty stomach, one that had driven him from his bed and out the house in search of something to eat, anything, had given him terrible indigestion… but his body had needed it at the time. No—it had required it.

The passing discomfort of downing a rat like that had been nothing compared to the pain of his stomach constricting around, well, nothing.

Daesung shudders at the memory. He hopes he never has to live on rats and lizards again. The others had taken to eating roaches when they could catch them. Daesung would rather cut his own throat than put a cockroach down it.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to do either, because shortly after the rat Seunghyun came along and opened his eyes—and his mouth—to other options, and taught him the true meaning of turning to desperate measures, of doing whatever it takes to survive.

His stomach gurgles unhappily at the memory.

“Shut up, I’m working on it,” he tells it, and marches on, listening intently and wondering if something awaits him under the snow too.

 

 

--

 

 

Later, looking into the beady black eyes of a bushy-tailed squirrel, Daesung thinks, well, maybe tree rat isn’t so bad.

He leaps from his hiding spot, claws out—but something else gets there first. Same as with the owl, he sees a burst of snow, hears a sharp squeal of fear, and before Daesung knows what the hell is going on a ball of fur is scurrying up a nearby tree with claws digging in the bark…

…and his meal dangling from its furry jaws.

“Hey!” he shouts, glaring up at the spotted cat as it crouches on a limb and turns straw-colored eyes on him. “You fucker, I saw it first!"

Laughter bubbles up at his back. "Damnit," Daesung swears, ears burning. Of course Seungri of all people would come along at just the right time to see his meal stolen right out from under his nose.

"Oh man, was that perfect timing or what? Sucks for you though!” Seungri slaps his own thigh hard and howls with laughter, clearly loving what he just walked up on.

"Glad you enjoyed it," Daesung says flatly, ignoring him in favor of watching the cat.

"Okay, sorry, sorry,” Seungri apologizes insincerely, wiping tears from his eyes. “But aren't you going after it?"

Daesung gives the cat a look. Its bobbed tail swishes lazily as it sets the squirrel down on a limb and starts sniffing through its fur. Probably deciding which juicy bit to sink its teeth into first. Its smug face pisses him off.

“Well?”

This time Daesung gives him a look.

"It's a bobcat.”

"Yeah, and? We're werewolves. Got the blood of the wolf in us,” Seungri says proudly, adopting a wide stance with hands on his hips. “I can’t wait to see them. The wolves, I mean. I don’t get why Jiyong insists we have to.”

“It’s winter. Food is scarce,” Daesung reminds him. “This is a bad time to be making enemies.”

“Okay, but what about making allies?” Seungri’s tail begins to wag, highlighting his hopeful tone. “Friends?”

Daesung shakes his head, feeling sorry for him. He struggles to imagine the wolves wanting anything to do with them. Like most animals, they probably just view them as intruders on their land. More mouths to compete with for food. More sets of teeth to steer clear of.

“I was always told that they’re extremely territorial. Where do you think we get it from?” he tells Seungri, wishing he didn’t have to but needing his younger packmate to understand the reasoning behind their alpha’s orders. “We should do what Jiyong says.”

Seungri visibly deflates.

“Hey,” Daesung says, touching a hand to his arm. “He’s trying to keep us safe, but I’m sure he’s just as curious about them as you are. He won’t keep us apart forever.”

“I just hope they’ll stick around long enough for me see them at least once.” Seungri trails off, eyes making their way back to the cat in the tree. “They would totally eat this furball.”

“Hmm, gotta catch it first though. Don’t think wolves can climb trees.”

“No, but we can.” Seungri grins. “And I don’t know about you, but I’m as fast as any bobcat."

Daesung pushes him playfully. “Then why don’t you go after it?”

“Squirrel’s yours, isn’t it?”

Daesung looks away, embarrassed. "Climbing is… still kind of a weak point for me," he admits.

Seungri shrugs. "Just get Seunghyun to push you up. You know he'll do it. Any excuse to get his hands on your ass."

"Uh, no, we’re not doing that again.” Daesung backs away a step, just in case the other wolf is getting any funny ideas. “Once was enough. No more trees for me."

"Why, because you wouldn’t come back down?"

“It was higher than it looked from the ground!”

"Be right back, I’m getting Seunghyun." Seungri turns and trots off, tail held high.

"Seungri, no." Daesung sprints after him in a flurry of white. "Seungri! Forget the squirrel, the cat can have it. I'm not climbing any more trees!"

By the time they make it back to the others they are gasping for air, there is powder in their hair and in the folds of their clothes and—bending to one side and batting at his ear until a few drops of melted snow dribble out—Daesung thinks he even got a little up his nose.

 

 

--

 

 

Youngbae is normally so nimble, but today he is moving like he’s eighty years old.

Seunghyun watches his packmate lower himself gingerly to the ground near the den’s entrance. The sun is out today, a welcome beacon of warmth in a clear blue sky, but strangely, the change in the weather has taken Youngbae’s usually cheery nature with it. Jiyong gives him a sympathetic pat on the shoulder on his way by and saunters away down the hill to take advantage of this rare cloudless day to clean up in the stream. From his place in the dirt, Youngbae scowls after him with arms crossed.

Seunghyun observes this exchange with a kind of twisted glee. Cranky sure is a funny look on Youngbae.

"If you want him to suck your dick, you should just ask."

Youngbae’s eyes slide from Jiyong to him. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Your leg’s bothering you, right?” He nods toward his leg, the one he broke so many years ago. “It’s the change in the weather, isn’t it?”

Youngbae’s wide-eyed surprise says it all. Seunghyun’s suspicions were right. Jiyong’s loose lips strike again.

“It’s… yeah,” Youngbae says and flops onto his back, arms outstretched—and snaps upright in surprise when something—no, some one behind him groans in protest. Daesung uncurls just enough to peer out at them with sleepy eyes, the rest of him swaddled in blankets like a caterpillar inside its cocoon.

Youngbae clutches at his chest in fright. "Shit, sorry Daesung, didn't know you were there.”

From where he sits, Seunghyun can’t make out much of his mate’s face—just his mess of hair poking out the top—but he hears him smacking dry lips.

"I'm hungry," Daesung says, the words coming out a little slurred, eyes squinting against the sunlight. "You want someone to blow you? Bring me something to eat and I'm your guy."

Seconds later, Seunghyun is in a shoving match with Youngbae as they streak down the hill.

"He was talking to me," Youngbae hisses, trying to elbow him out of the way.

"What happened to your leg? Feeling better now?" Seunghyun counters and shoulder checks him hard.

"Whatever, I'm a better hunter than you anyway.”

"Keep telling yourself that.”

Then, before either of them can get another word out, they're racing away in search of easy prey.

By some stroke of luck—or ill fortune—they make it back at exactly the same time. Seunghyun sees Youngbae running up the hill with something small in hand and pushes himself to pick up the pace, all but colliding with him at the entrance to the den. At the sound of their approach Daesung sits up like he’s the one with achy bones—dragging himself upright sluggishly and rubbing the sleep from his eyes. What looked to be a massive yawn is interrupted when, as one, they drop their combined catch into his lap.

He stares down at the pile of fur and feathers, counting two dead things where he was only expecting one.

"Both of you?"

“I got here first,” Seunghyun declares loudly, stubbornly ignoring how Youngbae glares at him for it.

Daesung sniffs and picks up their offerings, pulls at the dove’s feathers, tugs on the squirrel’s tail. Eyes darting between them like he does not know which gift to accept—or which to tear into first.

"Do you think you could... um…"

They lean in, waiting.

Daesung laughs. "It’s just… fur and feathers don’t go well together, you know?"

Before Seunghyun can ask what the hell he means by that, Youngbae has snatched up his dove and is tearing at its feathers, ripping them out by the fistful.

Seunghyun looks back and forth between Daesung and the squirrel he still holds, incredulous.

“You want me to skin it?” There's no plucking fur out. He'll have to strip off the skin, and on something this size, something this small, doing that without demolishing what’s underneath takes time .

“Please?” Daesung says in that breathy, just-woken-up voice that drives him wild. Seunghyun grabs his squirrel with a huff and gets to work.

He has the skin off in record time—Daesung will just have to deal with a few clumps of fur stuck to the meat, nothing he can’t handle—but even so, by the time he is ready to present the squirrel to him a second time, Daesung is already out of his blanket casing and on his stomach between Youngbae’s legs, head buried in his lap, soft feathers and hollow bird bones littering the ground around them.

Youngbae sends Seunghyun a smug look as he holds Daesung’s head in place and eases in, half of his still-swelling cock disappearing between blood-slick lips.

Seunghyun glowers back at him. Bastard.

"You'll do me next, right?" he says to Daesung, down but not out. The hum of agreement he receives in reply is a beautiful, promising thing… blemished only by Youngbae's answering, pleasured groan.

There is little he hates more than losing. But Daesung is generous with his talents, and Seunghyun supposes that as long as he is willing, everyone can win.

 

 

--

 

 

“Oh no.”

Seunghyun turns just in time to see Daesung break away from the pack, heading straight for something only he sees on the forest floor. It is still winter but the days seem to be warming, the heavy quilt of snow across the land diminishing slowly yet surely.

Too slow, Seunghyun thinks. While it’s nice how the cold brings them all closer together, he is ready for days when he no longer has to slog through this stuff just to take a walk, longs to get outside and stretch his legs without his hands and feet and face going numb from the cold. Finding that frozen pond had been interesting and fun—until he had broken through the ice and plunged into freezing water up to his hips, shrieking like a little girl. And all the others had done was stand there and laugh.

He will miss their snowball wars though. Not much beats watching his packmates go down in the snow after he’s just landed a well-aimed shot to the crotch.

“What did you find?” Jiyong asks from his place at the front. Behind him, everyone stops.

“Paw prints?” Seungri asks. Seunghyun thinks he sounds a little too hopeful.

Seungri will not find any tracks around here. No, Seunghyun knows where the wolves go. Some of his days he spends away, braving hours in the cold for a closer look at what he hopes in his heart could be distant relatives. He follows them at a distance, walking in their tracks, enamored by the size of their paws and the length of their ambling stride. Where Seunghyun sinks into the snow, they walk atop its surface, their heavily-furred toes spreading and distributing their weight. It’s a nifty trick, and one he wishes he could imitate.

He wishes he could tell Daesung. But he worries that if even one of them knows, soon all of them will know. And Jiyong, firmly of the opinion that they should keep their distance for now, would never let him hear the end of it.

Daesung can keep a secret safe, Seunghyun knows this. Still… is it worth the risk?

We’re wolves. We’ve always been wolves,” he remembers telling him once, not so long ago, when he so desperately needed the reminder. Werewolves, he had meant, but watching these extraordinary creatures effortlessly shake the snow from their coats and carry on comfortably, he does not think being an actual wolf would be such a curse.

He smiles to himself and keep his dirty little secret.

“Look,” Daesung says, showing him the object in his hands: a mess of twigs, leaves, and wispy feathers woven together in a bowl shape.

“A bird’s nest?” Jiyong exclaims, snow crunching under his feet as he makes his way over, suddenly interested. Naturally, the others follow. “How are you always finding these things?”

Youngbae grins. “It’s because he’s always looking at the ground.”

“It must have fallen.” Daesung cups the nest carefully in both hands, handling it like it might fall apart without warning.

“Probably when that storm that swept through last night,” Youngbae says, reaching for it. “Can I see?”

Daesung passes it to him and starts scouring the ground again—and moments later drops to his knees, fingers closing again around something in the snow.

“What is it this time?” Seunghyun cranes his neck to see what’s in his mate’s cupped hands as he comes back to them.

Daesung’s fingers uncurl. This time it’s an egg, smooth and white except where it’s speckled with spots the color of rust. It fits perfectly in the basin of his palm and he stares down at it like it’s the saddest thing, this abandoned egg. Seunghyun wishes he could read what thoughts lie behind those mournful eyes.

“You’re not a mind reader. If you have a question, ask,” Jiyong used to tell him way back when he was too proud to admit to not knowing everything. Oh, the delusions of youth. “And you may have a tail growing out you ass but that doesn’t make you an animal. Use your words.”

So Seunghyun does.

"Gonna keep it?"

Shit. He only meant to ask a question; he didn’t mean for it to sound like a suggestion .

"I—" Daesung’s teeth worry at his lip. "Can I?"

"You’re asking me? If you want to keep it, keep it. No one is stopping you. Unless… Jiyong…”

He turns to Jiyong. Jiyong shrugs back at him.

“Is it even still alive?" he asks, peering down at the tiny egg tucked under Daesung’s fingers, and this close, he sees that its flecks of brown match the dirt under the other wolf’s nails.

"I don't know. I hope so."

Daesung pokes at it inquisitively, pushing it around on his palm. When it nearly rolls off, he frantically juggles it between both hands to keep it from falling.

Seunghyun laughs.

"You're so jumpy,” he says, stilling his mate’s hands and folding them over the egg. Safe… for now. “Even if it is alive now, it won't be for long."

Daesung holds his clasped hands to his chest protectively. "I want to keep it."

Seunghyun shrugs, already walking away. "Okay."

One by one they turn to go, the act of falling into line behind Jiyong as natural as breathing. While Youngbae drops the nest back to the ground where it had been found, Daesung slips the egg inside his coat where it’s warm.

“So now we’re gonna have a baby bird?” Seungri wonders aloud. “Aren’t they noisy? And needy?” He tips his head back and opens his mouth comically wide. “Their mouths are always hanging open, waiting to be fed, like—”

“Like you?”

Seungri turns his biggest pout on Youngbae for that, but before it can reach full power Youngbae is pulling him down to his height by the neck and landing a loud, smacking kiss square on his pouty lips.

“You know I’m just playing with you.”

“Yeah, thanks, love you too,” Seungri says, swaying a little when he is released, seeming dazed.

While all this is happening up front Seunghyun lags behind, waiting for Daesung to catch up, contemplating the hand stuffed in the front of his coat and what it holds.

A bird’s egg? It’s sweet that Daesung would take an interest, but he doesn’t think—

He throws that thought out like a bug that’s found its way into their bed.

“You coming?” he calls out. Time to get moving.

“Yes! I was just—yep.” Daesung hurries over to him, turning on his brightest smile, cold nose and cheeks a charming, rosy pink.

Seunghyun slings an arm around him and pretends he didn’t see him going back for the nest.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung watches over that egg like it's his own. It did not come from his own body, but he cares for it as if it had. Seunghyun studies him as he studies the egg, probably imagining the fragile life forming inside and eagerly awaiting the day when a tiny beak will break through its shell, ready to greet the world.

The others poke fun at him for it, but he pays them no mind. He lays the egg in its nest and guards it closely, carrying it with him wherever he goes.

…except while hunting, of course. It would not survive the bumpy ride. When they leave the den in search of something to eat, the nest and its contents stay safely behind.

Seunghyun isn’t sure what to make of it, but he lets Daesung have his fun, or whatever this is. It’s important to him, and that’s all that really matters, right?

Five mouths to feed, five bellies to fill. They might soon have one more.

"What do baby birds eat?" Daesung wonders, sitting cross-legged on the den floor, nest in hand.

Seunghyun looks up from where he is busy rubbing his ankle. No elk today, just a dainty mule deer doe, but an ankle sprain can happen anytime, no matter the size of their prey. “Bugs, I think,” he says, brows pinching as he hits a tender spot.

Youngbae laughs. “That’s gonna be a problem.”

“I can catch bugs,” Daesung says, defiant.

"That's funny. You. Catching bugs. With what, your hands?" Youngbae leans in and hits his leg playfully. Daesung twists away, holding the nest out of reach.

“Leave him be,” Jiyong chides from behind them, lazing under a heap of hides, his long, spindly arms looped around a sleeping Seungri. Letting his food settle, Seunghyun figures. Big meals always leave them feeling lethargic. “If he wants to hatch an egg, let him. Don’t you think it’s sweet? Like some kind of late-blooming maternal instinct.”

Daesung rolls his eyes.

“I’m just messing with him,” Youngbae says, his teasing smile softening. “If it’s that important to him, I know he’ll find a way.”

Seunghyun chews his lip, running down a list of options. Bugs don’t scare him. And though he has not asked for it—yet—Daesung could use his help. Seunghyun may not know what to make of all this, but he does know one thing: if hatching this egg will help Daesung heal, he will do what he can to make it happen.

“I’ll catch ‘em,” he offers emphatically. “And I’ll just give whatever I catch to you. We’ll hatch this thing together.”

The smile Daesung gives him in reply lights up their dark den like sunlight.

"You two are nuts,” Youngbae chokes out around a laugh. “Raising a baby bird is more trouble than it's worth.”

“Give it a rest, Youngbae, god,” Jiyong groans, pulling one of his blankets up and over his head. “Why do you care so much?”

“I don’t, it’s just…” Youngbae lies back and folds his hands over his stomach, staring up at the cave’s damp ceiling. “Even if it does hatch, it probably won’t live long. If you think it's fragile now, just wait 'til you get your hands on a live chick. It's like..." His hands flex, opening and closing as if recalling something. "A flower bud is stronger.”

“I’m pretty good with flowers,” Daesung says. “I mean, not as good as you, but… I can be careful.”

Youngbae sighs. "We’re too savage for things like baby birds.” He flinches when Seunghyun closes a hand over his leg discreetly, letting his claws out in warning. Just enough to get his message across. “But hey, it’s cool, you do you.”

Daesung tucks his knees to his chest, the nest now warm and safe inside his coat, not even trying to hide his hopeful expression. And Seunghyun may not understand what this means to him or why he needs to nurture this tiny life, but watching him now, one thing is crystal clear: if anything here is worth protecting, it's that smile. 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

A long time passes.

Too long, Seunghyun is beginning to suspect. The last snow fell weeks ago, and though there is still frost underfoot, he senses a thaw is near. It is almost that time of year—spring is on the horizon, bringing with it renewed hope for the natural world and all that dwells in it.

But as with life itself, hope can be a frail thing. And like the winter chill giving way to warmer days, for some things, there comes a time to let go.

Daesung sits on the den floor, staring down at the egg he has been watching over for weeks, his face blank.

"It's not going to hatch, is it," he says at last.

"It could” and “Probably not” Seunghyun and Youngbae say at the same time. Seunghyun shoots his packmate a dirty look.

"Don't beat yourself up over it,” Youngbae says, standing over Daesung and laying a consoling hand on his head. “It was probably dead when you found it.”

Daesung’s face falls.

“That doesn’t make me feel better!”

“Youngbae, just go away. You’re not helping,” Seunghyun grumbles, pulling an arm from under the covers and hooking it around Daesung’s waist.

Youngbae wanders away without another word, and in his place Jiyong appears. He strolls over and holds out a hand to Daesung expectantly.

“Here. Let me see.”

Reluctantly, Daesung gives up the egg. It may be his to care for, but the demands of their alpha are not to be ignored.

Jiyong brings the egg to his nose and sniffs it—then doubles over in a coughing fit, holding it at arm’s length.

“Daesung, this is rotting,” he wheezes. “Ugh, here, take it.”

Daesung lowers his head—to hide his disappointment, Seunghyun expects—and Jiyong drops the egg in his hand, not even trying to be careful with it anymore.

“Is it really that bad?”

Yes,” Jiyong insists, still clearing his throat. “But there’s no way you didn’t know that already.”

“I just thought…” Daesung lowers the hand holding the egg to his lap, as gentle with it as ever. “I thought maybe that’s just how eggs smell? I mean, they come out of a bird’s—” He stops and makes a face. "Wait, what do they come out of?"

“They shouldn’t smell,” Seunghyun murmurs, turning his face into his mate’s thigh. Daesung knows this, he knows he does. Every one of them has raided a nest and eaten the eggs when times were lean. They did not smell... unless they had gone bad.

Daesung peers down at his hand—closed this time, warm fingers still trying to coax life out of a cold, dead shell.

"What should I do with it?"

“Get rid of it,” Jiyong says, pinching his nose shut.

“You could bury it,” Seunghyun suggests. He would tell him to drop it in the stream downhill or take it to Deep Creek and let the fish have it, but something tells him his ideas would not be well received.

Seungri sets aside the stone he is sharpening and turns inquiring eyes on them. “What if you broke it open? To see what’s inside?”

“Okay, but do it outside,” Jiyong stresses.

“I can’t do that,” Daesung says, face pale and drawn, and—fuck it, that’s it. Seunghyun throws his blanket off and staggers to his feet, pulling him up with hands hooked under his arms.

“Come on,” he says brusquely, “Let’s go give it a proper burial.” And with that he takes them out the den, leading the way while Daesung totters after him, hands in a tight cage around the egg.

The decaying egg.

Seunghyun would find it charming—he did at the start—but there is no reason to waste any more energy on this. Daesung knows it is dead, has probably known for a while, and the worst part of it all isn’t even having to watch how it tears him up inside, it’s how he tries to hide it.

It’s time to bury this thing.

Seunghyun slows to a stop in the slush, something profound settling over him. Gone is the fine white powder they played in when days in the den left them restless, replaced now with a wet, miserable blend of mud and melted snow. Winter does not end conveniently, here one day and gone the next, and the road to spring is never an easy one. There is a time for flowers and sunshine—but until then, it’s bitter cold and freezing rain. It’s dreary days that start out gray and long hours later end the same way. And when their lips are too numb with cold to smile, and it seems the gloom is here to stay and that color will never return to the world… there it is. A break in the clouds.

He turns to Daesung, knowing what needs to be done. The question is, will Daesung do it?

"Do you… want to do this alone?"

Daesung seems to sag all over—his shoulders slumping, his tail drooping, the corners of his lips pulling down as his carefully-crafted mask of indifference cracks.

“If you don’t mind…” He sighs heavily. “Yeah.”

Seunghyun squeezes his wrist since his hands are full, and, though it is hard to let him go, backs away. But before Daesung can leave, there is one more thing he needs to know.

“You knew it wasn’t going to make it.”

“Not right away. But eventually, yes.” Daesung lets out a weak laugh, his breath turning to mist in front of him. “I guess I just wasn’t ready to let it go.” Uncovering the egg, he makes a face at the faint smell—now that everyone knows, there is no reason to keep it a secret. “You could tell, couldn’t you?”

Seunghyun gives a tight nod. He had noticed; he just hadn’t wanted to say anything. A part of him wanted to see how long the other wolf would let it go on.

Daesung does not move, still and silent for a long time, though little puffs of air materialize in front of his face, the only sign of life in this desolate place.

Not spring yet, Seunghyun reminds himself to be patient; the seasons speed up for no one. But soon.

“How long have you known?”

Daesung uncups his hands and shoves them in his coat pockets, egg and all.

“Long enough,” he says, and trudges into the woods.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung pats the soil atop the shallow grave where he has laid the egg.

He does not say goodbye or I’m sorry or anything of the sort. Or anything at all, for that matter. With nothing around to hear him, he would only be speaking to the trees. And maybe, if they are listening, the grass seeds lying dormant underground, waiting for their time to spring to life and greet the sun.

Not this seed though.

He had known something was off about the egg about a week in, and still he had hoped—hoped that somehow he had it wrong. He had kept it extra close so the others would not notice, masking its scent with his own.

But he is so tired of holding onto hope. All it ever does is drag him down when, he is told, hope is supposed to give him wings.

As usual, Youngbae was right. A werewolf would be no suitable surrogate for something this small and helpless. Most of his kind would have eaten the egg—a bite of protein in late winter, a snack to help keep them on their feet in a time when food is scarce. In any other pack he would have been ostracized for wanting to incubate it, would have faced ridicule for even suggesting it. Why had he kept it? Daesung isn’t sure. But if his time in the city taught him one thing, it is that he is not like most of his kind.

Is that a recent thing? Did the change take place there, or has he always been this way? He doesn’t know anymore. He just wants…

He wants…

He could have been careful. He likes working with small things. Tinkering with twigs and blades of grass, tying their pieces together to anchor in the dirt—miniature huts—or float them down the stream—tiny canoes. For as long as he can remember, he has derived great comfort in fiddling with found things. And crouched here at the burial site, his most recent finding returned to the earth, he is now willing to admit it: this egg was just one more effort in a long line of passing fancies meant to keep his mind off everything he isn’t yet ready to face.

Sometimes the best survival strategy is lying low, undetected, while the threat moves on.

Hiding. Isn’t that what he is doing now? Hoping everything that is bothering him will go away on its own so he can finally move on with his life. He already tried running, and all it did was drive a wedge between him and his mate, distancing him from the one who matters most. He returned to him ready to try again. And now he is trying. If he can just find something to occupy himself, something that will last, he hopes that—

There it is again. Hope.

Now hope is buried, gone. The hole he dug was not deep, but even so, the egg’s thin shell must be crushed by now, the interrupted life inside it seeping into the soil around it, and with every passing minute Daesung slows down, feeling like he is falling into a hole too, a deepening pit he cannot crawl his way out of.

But he can be pulled out.

A stinging pain in his legs lifts him up and away, little pinpricks of pain—oh, it’s his claws. He draws them in and staggers to his feet before he can lose himself to more destructive thoughts. At least he is getting better at recognizing them when they show their ugly faces; more skilled at shoving them away for later review.

Maybe one of these days he’ll learn to bury them too.

He kicks some loose pine needles over the grave and, without another look back, follows his own footprints home.

 

 

--

 

 

As spring settles over the valley, taking most of the snow with it, Daesung and the rest of his pack resume their explorations of the land, venturing farther and farther from the den in search of anything that might be of interest. The air still holds a certain chill, but Daesung finds it invigorating—a crispness that burns his lungs when he is on the run, in pursuit of prey.

But longer, warmer days are just around the corner. He can feel it, in the same way he feels the approaching sunrise at about the same time every day, and wakes in time to see it.

Ears pricking, he realizes there might be something else waiting for him just around the corner. He is making his way through the trees, keeping to the shade where a few scattered piles of snow still remain, safely out of the sun. Towering over him on one side is a steep rock face that he grazes as he goes, touching fingertips to its cold surface. Up ahead the wall slopes down and out, and at its edge, punched through by great tree roots that appear to hold the ancient stone in place. In one spot its surface sinks in, dipping into the hillside, a dark cavern…

…and what is that sound? Soft, distressed whimpers. Curiosity getting the better of him, he goes to investigate.

He is not disappointed.

“Pups,” he breathes, hardly believing what he sees. Wolf pups.

He sinks to his hands and knees and crawls toward them for a closer look. They are impossibly small for creatures that will one day grow so large, their short fur a dull gray-brown, utterly defenseless with ears folded over and eyes sealed shut. Their glossy black noses catch the sunlight where they have crept out the den and into the world outside. They cannot be more than a few weeks old, Daesung guesses, watching them struggle to get around and loving every second of it.

They move in a clumsy way, bumping into each other at every turn. One bites at its sibling’s ear, and the other pup pulls away with a sharp cry, flopping onto its side in the sand, its hairless belly bared to the sun. A smile springs to Daesung’s face as he watches them, charmed. They are powerless at this age, but already their wild nature compels them to wrestle with their peers and lock their tiny jaws around anything within reach—including their peers. He sighs, wishing he could get comfortable where he is crouched. He could stay here all day and watch them play.

…but where is their mother?

It’s not safe here, a cautionary voice warns him, and he curses, wondering how he ignored it for so long. No amount of curiosity or charm can outweigh the danger he has put himself in just by being here. He has stumbled right into a wolf’s den. A den with pups.

The mother will not be far.

Shit, he thinks, turning to go. Already he has stayed too long. By the time he is on his feet, his senses blowing open and screaming at him to run, you fool—it’s too late.

She’s found him.

 

 

--

 

 

Seunghyun looks up from the deer leg he’s gnawing on when the sound of something limping through the woods reaches him. When he sees it’s Daesung, he sets the leg down and grins.

“Did you walk into a cactus again?” he teases.

That’s when he smells the blood. Not blood from the deer whose leg he was snacking on—Daesung’s blood.

He bolts to his feet, his snack forgotten on the ground. "You’re hurt. What happened?"

"Finally met one of our neighbors," Daesung says darkly, stopping to rest against a tree.

“Our neighbors. The wolves?” Seunghyun blinks, at a loss. "What did you do?"

Daesung whips around with teeth bared. "What did I do?” he snarls, wincing when he accidentally puts weight on his injured leg. “Why do you think it was something I did? Why is it my fault?"

“A wolf wouldn’t just attack you for no reason.”

Seunghyun can see him bristling inside and out, can imagine how his fur would be standing on end if he had any—if they were more like these creatures they came from generations ago.

“I can’t believe you’re siding with them.”

Seunghyun crosses his arms. “I’m not. I’m just saying they wouldn’t come at you like that unless you’d done something to provoke them."

“What makes you so sure? God, you never stop talking about them. You’re obsessed,” Daesung sneers. “If you like them so much then why don’t you just go and be one of them. I bet they'd love to have you.”

Seunghyun locks his jaw, refusing to rise to the bait. He talks of them frequently, sharing what he sees with Daesung because he still refuses to go and see them. But he is always careful to make his meetings with the wolves sound accidental, like he does not mean to cross paths with them; it just happens. As if it's the wolves that are curious, not him. Daesung doesn’t know yet how he sniffs them out and, once he has found them, spends all day spying on them, eager to learn more about them and their ways.

He’s just intrigued by them. He's not obsessed.

Daesung sighs. “There were pups,” he says at last, with a disappointed that seems aimed at himself this time. “I found pups. And then their mother found me.”

Seunghyun scoffs. “Well, that explains it. A mother’s instinct isn’t to be messed with.”

“I wasn’t going to touch them. I wasn’t even that close!”

“You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Seunghyun shift his focus to his wounded leg, trying to make out the blood through his black jeans. “How bad is it? Let me see.”

“She got me in the leg. It’s not that bad,” Daesung says softly, holding still as Seunghyun squats in front of him to take a closer look. “I ran. I could have fought her off, but I didn’t want to hurt her.”

“How kind of you.”

“I was thinking of the pups.”

Seunghyun touches the torn flesh above his knee, tooth marks in the fleshy part of his thigh. Could have been worse. A few inches lower and her bite could have caught bone.

"I tried to..." Daesung hisses when Seunghyun presses an experimental finger under the punctures, observing the blood that wells up. He shrugs off his jacket and pulls it tight around his leg; he isn’t bleeding badly, not anymore, but every little bit helps. "I tried to talk to her. To tell her I didn’t mean any harm."

"You talked to her?" Seunghyun cannot help it—he laughs. He knows it’s cruel, it’s just... "They’re animals, Daesung. You can't talk it out and expect everything to be okay, like with—"

He stops, knowing the other wolf will not want to hear it.

“Like with humans?” Daesung leans heavily into the tree, his claws cutting through bark. “Right. That didn’t work either.”

Then he shows him his back and limps away, and even if Seunghyun wanted to strike back… to that he doesn't know what he would say.

 

 

--

 

 

Days later, the words come to him.

They are words Seunghyun has spoken before, but he thinks it’s time Daesung heard them again.

“Daesung,” he says when they have settled down for the night. "Remember what I used to say? You might not think it these days, but I see it: you are strong. You don't need to prove it. That you’re still here is proof enough. And I just want you to know—” he whispers into the back of Daesung’s ear, pulling him close until nothing separates them “—that I'm still so proud of you."

"You all keep saying that,” Daesung says, sounding tired, “but what if what I want to be isn’t strong? What if I want to be kind, and caring, and… and nurturing? Is that so wrong?”

"We’re too savage for things like baby birds,” Youngbae had told them, and silently, Seunghyun had agreed. But Daesung is not savage, not unless he has to be. And even then… it takes no small amount of pushing and prodding to pull that side of him out. Seunghyun knows this better than anyone.

“It’s not wrong,” he mumbles into his nape. “Different, but not wrong.”

“I just—” Daesung huffs, rolling toward him a bit. “What if I don't want to be… this."

“This?”

Something sharp touches him, feather light but with a promise of pain if he wished to inflict it, and it does not matter that they’re not his own—Seunghyun knows claws when he feels them.

“This beast that I am.”

Beast?

Seunghyun reaches for his hand—and when he finds it, wraps it up in his, paying no mind to the bite of clawtips against his callouses. He lets his own slip out, bumping them up against Daesung’s with a quiet clack.

“Don’t ever question your claws. These saved you, you know.”

“I know.”

“They are amazing tools,” he continues fiercely, gaining speed. “Sure, humans make do with their knives, but you…” He takes Daesung by the hand and runs his claws over his arm, hard enough to leave lines in his skin, but not deep enough to cut. “You were born with blades built in. How cool is that?”

Daesung’s shoulders bounce, laughing silently. “Okay, okay.”

But Seunghyun isn’t finished.

“Anyway, you are kind, and so caring. You're the most caring person I know. And you might not realize it, but there is someone you’ve been nurturing all these years. Me . I've grown because of you.” A wave of embarrassment out of nowhere slows him down then. Seunghyun runs a thumb over one of his mate’s claws, measuring the curve of it while he works up the courage to tell him what he needs to hear—what he needs him to know. “I'm… I’m a better person now than I was when I met you."

Slowly, the claws retract, withdrawing back into the ends of Daesung’s fingers. Seunghyun noses down his neck, breathing in the scent of him through the scars that mar his skin.

No, not mar. Adorn. They wear their scars with pride, Daesung too. Why should these be any different? In stages, Seunghyun is changing the way he sees them, and he hopes Daesung will be able to do the same. These scars are nothing to be ashamed of; they are a story of survival that will stay with him forever. And for them, is that not the ultimate victory? Dodging death—defeating it—at every turn?

"And... and I know you’re searching for something, and you’re frustrated that you can’t find it, but I'm still so fucking proud of you for trying. For not giving up on yourself. Or on us.” He gives Daesung a squeeze and hopes he does not feel his heartbeat through his back, stressed and anxious and skipping beats with so much of himself on display. “Never stop trying.”

After a long, harrowing silence, Daesung tries to turn over, his shoulder butting up against his collarbone. Seunghyun eases back a bit to give him room.

“It’s just, people take advantage. Animals too. The strong prey on—”

“No more of that,” Seunghyun says, tightening the hand clamped over Daesung’s mouth. “It’s just us out here—you know, your family? No one’s out to get you.”

Under his hand Daesung smiles, so Seunghyun lets up.

"Sometimes it's hard to remember you as that wild young wolf who jumped me in the middle of a raid,” he says, flicking Seunghyun’s short bangs. “Your hair was longer back then. Why did you start cutting it?”

“Kept getting in the way,” Seunghyun says into his shoulder. “And I haven’t changed that much, have I?”

“Weren’t you just telling me that you’ve grown?” Daesung reminds him. “Mostly in a good way— ah!” He jerks and lets out a surprised, laughter-infused cry when Seunghyun’s fangs sink into him. “But you’re still you, if that’s what you’re worried about. I don’t think anyone or anything will ever really change that.”

“Damn straight,” Seunghyun growls out, proud. The city and its people could not break him. Only one person has that kind of power over him, and he is right here in his arms. “But you love me for it, don’t you?”

Daesung chuckles. “You know I do.” He cocks his head to the side and dips in for a kiss, one that Seunghyun gladly gives. When he pulls back, it’s with a soft, satisfied hum. “It's just weird to think about the what-ifs. What if you had taken a different turn that day and run into someone else? What if I had stayed inside while the rest of my packmates were out there fending off yours? I was just supposed to be keeping an eye on the place until they got back.”

Seunghyun listens intently. The exact events of that day are shadowy memories in his mind since at the time he had no idea what he was getting himself into—what he was getting them both into. That Daesung has held onto it in such vivid detail is news to him.

“What if I hadn’t run,” Daesung keeps going. “Would you still have chased me down? Or if my pack had come back sooner, would you have pushed me aside and run? Or maybe you would have just killed me instead—"

Stop.”

“Sorry.” Daesung touches a hand to his, perhaps aiming for calming. “You didn’t though. You could have done anything… and what you did was claim me.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, I knew I’d claimed you—or had gone through all the motions to—but I didn’t think it would actually happen.” Seunghyun nuzzles into him, smiling guiltily to himself. “And then, damn, it did. Being so clueless sure paid off.”

Daesung hums in thought. “I can’t help thinking… about if we never crossed paths again, after. I didn’t know whose land I was on when I stopped at the pond that day. You really could have hurt me then. Most wolves would’ve. But you just—" He laughs, remembering, "—pushed me into the pond. At least you pulled me back out when you saw I couldn't swim."

Seunghyun frowns deeply. That he does remember. First impressions have never meant much to him, but to see a wolf he barely knew a second time—alone again and, though it was clear he had been on his own for some time, still alive—had seemed like something he should not ignore.

He was also on his pack’s land without permission. That also could not be ignored.

"I didn't know you couldn't swim. I just thought your thrashing about was sad. As in, pathetic. Sorry.” He grins into his mate’s neck and strokes a hand over his hip, petting him in apology even though that was years and years ago and he has more than made up for it. “It was hard to watch. I had to put an end to it."

"So you dragged me out..."

"Yep."

"…and gave me something to snack on."

"By that you mean..." His hand dips below his hip and drifts lower, something very specific in mind.

"A fish! You gave me a fish. Did you forget?” Daesung clamps a hand over his wrist but does nothing to stop his hand’s steady descent. “I'm not talking about your dick, god."

Okay, but can we talk about yours? His fingers meet hair, and nested within, warm, soft skin. On second thought, let’s not talk about it. Just touch. Touching is good.

"Is that when you knew?" he asks, opening his hand around him.

"Knew what?"

"That I wanted you."

"No, that didn't come until later. For a long time I just thought you were crazy and I didn’t know why you wanted me to be a part of it." Daesung shifts, back arching as he traces the seam down the center of his balls. "I though your packmates… oh,” he sucks in a breath when Seunghyun goes under, massaging tight circles into his skin. “Jiyong and Youngbae were nice, but they kept leaving me alone with you and I just thought—I thought I would end up dead anyway. By accident or something."

"Because of me?"

Daesung squirms, something strange flitting across his face. "Yeah?"

Seunghyun abandons his progress and grabs him by the hip again, putting him on his back so he can look him in the eye.

"It’s taken you this long to tell me this?"

Daesung flushes, peering up at him in the dark with bright eyes. "You didn't know?"

"I am a better person now than I was back then,” Seunghyun says again. “And by that I mean I’m no longer so damn slow.”

“I wouldn’t say you were slow,” Daesung says, pulling him down for another kiss, and this time he adds teeth to it, nipping playfully at Seunghyun’s lower lip. “Just a little self-absorbed. You didn’t know me, I didn’t know you. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.” The tips of their noses touch. By the third time Seunghyun realizes Daesung is doing it on purpose. “But I guess our bond knew something we didn’t.”

Seunghyun doesn’t disagree with him. He did not know and, frankly, he did not care. But accidental or not, taking a mate soon changed all that.

…even if Daesung deserved better than what he got.

Do you ever still feel that way about me? He wonders silently, afraid to ask. Do you sometimes think, even for a moment, that I would really do you harm?

They have lived through so much, and in the process have learned as much about each other as themselves. As his mate, Seunghyun knows what Daesung can handle.

And right now, in the heat of this moment, he knows he can handle this.

He snakes a hand back between Daesung’s legs and works him over until he’s sitting up with a ragged gasp, his abs drawn tight, his cock thick and dark at full mast. With fingers and thumb Seunghyun forms a ring and eases his foreskin down, revealing a head that’s nicely plumped up, smooth and wet and so, so receptive to his touch.

And he intends to exploit that.

He told Daesung he is not slow, not anymore, and he intends to prove it, even if that means his pleasured cries wake the whole pack—hell, he doesn’t care if the whole valley hears them. It’s just animals out there. A part of him even hopes the wolves are lurking nearby, listening in.

Tonight is not about making it last; it’s about coming together, hard and fast.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung had run, but not fast enough.

By the time his packmates were rounding the corner, drawn by his cries and the maddening scent of a rival wolf, Daesung was already back on his feet, gritting his teeth against the pain and wobbling where he stood while he tried to work his clothes back into place—not that he could hide what he had just survived.

And his attacker, that tall wolf with the hair like soot and hands like hot coals, was long gone.

His packmates had given him a quick once-over before pointing him in the direction of the river, instructing him to wash up. Indeed, his wounds needed tending, but he found their haste to be rid of him unsettling; did not understand why, even as they examined him, they kept their distance.

It was not him they came back for, some part of him instinctively knew; it was their home.

His injuries were minor, all things considered—shallow scratches scored into his arms and sides, bite marks up and down the back of his neck, abraded knees. With a resigned sigh, he turned toward the river and busied himself with picking gravel out of his face where one side of it had been ground into the dirt. He’d had worse. He just wished his packmates had not been there to watch him hobble away, ass hurting like a bitch.

Well, he had just been fucked like one.

So Daesung was on his feet again, wincing with every step, but he had done what any good wolf would—he’d picked himself up and carried on. Had rinsed the blood from his cuts and scraped the dirt from under his nails and scrubbed the dust and debris from his hair for good measure, wiping away the stinging memory of fingers grabbing on and pulling hard. Relaxing there in the river’s shallows, his body slowly let go of its aches and pains, allowing the cool waters to soothe the bruising outside and in.

It helped, he realized, crawling out of the current on hands and knees to let the sun dry his damaged skin. It helped keep his mind off troubling thoughts like why did this happen and what now?

Pulling on his clothes, he had looked himself over once last time, steeling himself for the walk back. Though a little worse for wear, he survived the initial attack. But the next challenge still lay ahead: facing his pack.

Because even after rinsing in the river, something felt… off.

No, something smelled off.

It clung to him, a scent he did not recognize following him as he tottered home. And to his dismay, upon arrival, his pack had turned him away.

“You stink,” they told him, backing up quickly. “I know you’re scared and all, but maybe try actually getting in the water this time?”

“I did,” Daesung said, flicking at a few strands of damp hair.

But it made no difference to them; back to the river he went to bathe again. And shortly after that, again. After the third time they let him stay, though some shot him odd looks as they bedded down for the night. Daesung could feel their eyes on him as he tried and failed to catch some rest. And over the next few days he kept his head low and his mouth shut and pretended not to notice how his own pack seemed to be avoiding him.

Until they didn’t.

Soon they were irritable, snapping at him for the smallest things. At mealtime they would shove him aside harder than he thought he deserved, even when he waited his turn. And if he approached them with questions or wanted to play, they would bare their teeth and drive him away, as if he was no longer one of them.

He didn’t understand. What changed? Daesung felt the same, but to his packmates it was as if he had become someone else, a stranger in their midst.

As the omega, he never expected favoritism, but why single him out? Why kick him when he was already down? It didn’t seem fair. It didn’t seem right.

It hurt the night they took him, his packmates pushing him to the floor and fucking him on all fours, switching places as if they had meticulously planned it out, something calculated and purposeful in the way the other boys pulled him onto their cocks at the end and held him there expectantly.

Never long enough to knot him though.

They were trying to keep him, Daesung understood that much, but their efforts had been half-hearted at best. No knot meant no claim. They desired him enough to give it a try, but not enough to commit.

And all the while, there lingered the scent of something burning.

Not long after that, Daesung walked in on them huddled together in a tight ring, whispering his name in hushed voices while he’d been out. Discussing him.

No… discussing what to do with him.

"You can't stay here."

Daesung had thrown a hand against the door jamb to steady himself through his shock. "What? Why?" Running away from home had been hard enough. But standing there in the face of so much rejection, seven sets of eyes sending him away, it had hit him even harder: being cast out felt so much worse.

Then they were hustling him through the door—

“Wait—"

—and he’d planted his feet and dug his claws in and tried to hold his ground, but there were too many of them—

“Wait, no, hold on—"

—and the next thing Daesung knew, he was outside, facing the pack alone.

The pack. Not his pack. Not anymore.

They had tossed his coat at him and told him to go. Said that they could not stand the stench anymore. That they didn’t know what else they might do to remove it. That for his own sake, he needed to leave.

And if he tried to come back, they said—if they found him hanging around, hoping they might change their minds—they would kill him on the spot.

After that, Daesung had not put up a fight. Why would he when these people did not want him anymore? So with a heavy heart, he had done as he was told—he turned his back on his former pack and took off, never to see them again.

And just like that, he set out on a new journey. He walked until he left their lands, until he no longer knew the hills around him, not realizing until some time later that his feet had taken him in the same direction as the wolf who turned his life upside down just a few short weeks before. He walked until the ache in his legs rivaled the ache in his heart, trying not to think too hard on why this had happened to him and what he was to do about it, if anything at all.

So Daesung did the only thing he knew he could. He rose with the sun and rested with the stars; stuck close to water and kept his eyes and ears open for his next meal, grateful for every chance he got. With no destination in mind, his purpose narrowed to lasting just one more day, every day. And all the while, he chewed on his former packmates’ words, worrying at them like an old, splintering bone. Because everywhere he went the strange scent still shadowed him, hard to place but always present—strongest at sunrise, in those hazy moments upon first waking, an illusory warmth wrapped around him in a claiming embrace.

“What’s it smell like?” he had asked, his last question before he withdrew from the pack, his coat bundled up in his arms, the only possession he had to call his own.

"Like smoke."

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Seungri runs, shrieking, like he’s overturned a hornet’s nest. He hasn’t, but what chases him is arguably worse.

Just ahead of him, Daesung skids to a stop and ducks behind Jiyong, hands on his shoulders, poking his head out to see how his younger packmate is faring. Jiyong glances down and around at him, amused.

“You could at least pretend to be surprised,” Daesung whines.

“That would just scare Seungri more, and he’s already freaking out as it is,” Jiyong quips. “Honestly, you two are being big babies about this. You’re acting like he’s really going to—”

"Why are you running?! It's a mark of our friendship!" Seunghyun crows with glee, grinning wildly.

"If even one drop of your piss touches me we're not friends anymore!" Seungri screeches, so shrill that even Daesung has to grit his teeth against it from where he cowers behind Jiyong. Who, by the way, he thinks should really be doing more to curb this craziness; if anyone can stop Seunghyun when he is misbehaving, it’s him.

“Please, Jiyong,” he says, hiding his face in his side so he does not have to watch. “If you love him, help him.”

Jiyong gets a hand in his hair and ruffles it affectionately. "This isn't new to you, is it?"

Daesung shakes his head.

"Yeah, me neither," Jiyong sighs. "Seunghyun used to pull this shit all the time. Long time ago, when we were… fuck, I don’t know, teenagers probably."

"I was in my teens when we met.”

"Before you came along, then.” Jiyong folds his arms and leans back, casually shifting his weight onto him. “Thought maybe he’d grown out of it. Guess not."

Daesung grunts as he is forced to hold him up, suddenly reminded of Seunghyun’s words from the other night:“I’ve grown because of you.”

Yeah, right, he thinks, wiggling out from behind his alpha without dropping him. Once a pup, always a pup.

Surprisingly, Jiyong is not proving very helpful either. Daesung thought he would want to help Seungri out of his predicament, the way he’s been been favoring him lately.

As Seungri zips by, Youngbae snags him under the arms and pins him against his chest, holding him there with a wicked grin. Seungri’s shrieking turns to snarling as Seunghyun deliberately slows, intimidating him with measured steps in his direction, fly down and dick out, a mad glint in his eyes.

"I'm not fucking around! If you do this shit I’m never talking to you again! I'll leave! I'll fucking go!" he screeches, spitting mad—but to someone like Seunghyun, their omega’s threats mean nothing. He’s calling Seungri’s bluff, widening his stance, planting his feet and taking his dick in hand and—

Daesung makes a face. Seungri doesn’t deserve this. Pulling Seunghyun down into the stream when he had offered him a hand up does not warrant this kind of punishment, and Daesung just… it’s all fun and games until Seungri is shaking with rage. He has to help him out.

Jiyong is not the only one with the power to end this.

"Seunghyun, wait," Daesung says as smoothly as he can manage, stepping out from behind Jiyong and slinking over to him with a suggestive grin.

Seungri is practically vibrating in Youngbae’s hold, face purpling with pent-up anger. That’s concerning, but Daesung tries not to worry about him too much as he cuddles up against his mate’s back and sneaks strong arms around his waist.

"How about we put that to better use?"

“…my piss?"

"Your dick," Daesung says, fighting not to lose it right then and there. Then, standing on his toes to blow over Seunghyun's ear, he croons, "Why does Seungri get to have it? I want it."

Seunghyun turns his head a fraction so that the shell of his ear skims his lips.

"Where do you want it?"

"In me.”

"Where in you?" Seunghyun rasps, voice dropping. His hands too.

“Anywhere you want it,” Daesung purrs and begins the process of steering him away. “But first… you’ve gotta go, and not on our poor omega. Okay?”

“But—I really wanna,” Seunghyun whines, still eyeing Seungri like a man out for revenge. “What if I do it anyway?”

“If Seungri gets wet, this stays dry,” Daesung says, reaching for his fly, fingers teasing everywhere but where he knows he really wants it. “So…?”

“Okay let’s go,” Seunghyun says and hauls him out the cave.

As Daesung stumbles down the hill behind him, he hears a medley of reactions from their packmates: Jiyong snorting with suppressed laughter, Seungri sighing with relief, and Youngbae groaning in disappointment, his mischief-making interrupted.

And Daesung, Daesung smirks, even as Seunghyun leads him right back to the stream where their shenanigans began. That had been easier than expected, but what can he say? He’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve.

 

 

--

 

 

Of course, Seunghyun returns the favor.

Daesung doesn’t even have time to swallow before he’s being spun around and pulled to his feet—and with a few slick pumps his orgasm is dragged up and out, Seunghyun’s skilled hand milking him before he is even fully on his feet. It happens so fast his head spins, and only Seunghyun’s presence at his back keeps him upright—with a cry that’s cut short, he comes over a cluster of flowers at their feet, pearly drops on soft pink petals.

Daesung sags back, breathing hard while Seunghyun tucks him away, patting the front of his pants when he is done. He is just beginning to catch his breath when Youngbae wanders by.

“You’re still out here? Jiyong was wondering if—”

He stops, taking in their rumpled state. Daesung gives him a wasted grin, wondering what he thinks of the fine sheen of sweat on his face, his wilting stance, Seunghyun’s hands on his waist holding him steady since he is too boneless to do it himself.

Youngbae squints at them in suspicion. "What are you two up to now?"

Seunghyun hooks his chin over Daesung’s shoulder and says breezily, "Watering the flowers."

Daesung chokes on a laugh, head lolling to the side. His come is plain to see, streaks of white in the harsh sunlight. If only Youngbae knew where to look.

Against his neck Seunghyun’s lips twitch, lifting into a smile that Youngbae may not see but Daesung can most certainly feel.

Youngbae gives them a shady look and moves on, apparently uninterested in joining in on the fun after it was spoiled once already. But that’s okay; the evidence all over the flowers says they’re done here anyway.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung curls his fingers in the grass, using his claws to anchor both himself and the body on top of his. Seunghyun has hands planted in the grass too, one on each side, but even so, Daesung bears most of his weight while he settles in for an extended, all-too-familiar, intimate wait.

There is never any way of knowing how long his mate’s knot will last, but today that is perfectly alright. They are not in any hurry.

At least, that was the plan.

They have been fastened together just long enough for Daesung to go soft, his spent cock returning to a state of rest underneath him, everything inside him slowing down and loosening up.

“Daesung,” Seunghyun says sharply, tensing up all over. “Don’t move.”

“I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” Daesung replies, grinning and pushing back onto him. With the other wolf balls deep already, there is no more of him to take—but that doesn’t mean Daesung isn’t willing to try.

But he doesn’t get the chance—he stops short when a hand grabs his neck and bears down, hard enough to hurt. He whimpers in pain—and displeasure, a little miffed.

He knows Seunghyun is extra sensitive when tied, but was that really necessary?

“Look,” Seunghyun hisses. “Over there, in the trees.”

Cold dread trickles over Daesung then, and though he does not want to, he makes himself look, and it’s then that he finally sees what has Seunghyun so on edge.

Amber eyes. Thick, tawny fur in bands of brown and tan, the hairs down its back tipped with black. Pointed ears alert and trained on them. Gawking at them like they are the strangest thing it has ever seen.

Daesung whimpers again, this time in fright.

“Shit,” he gasps, backing into Seunghyun again, only because there is nowhere else for him to go. “Shit shit shit—”

Why now, when they are stuck like this, naked and unable to part? They can’t fight like this!

“Hold still,” Seunghyun grunts as he squirms under him, instinctively trying to hide. “It’s not coming this way, it’s just watching, it’s just—” But even as he tries to talk him down, his voice is hardening into a low, menacing growl. “Fuck, Daesung, stop moving.”

Daesung is pretty sure the threat in his voice is not aimed at him, but it still upsets him. Instinct compels him to tuck his tail in submission, to press it tightly between his legs… but that space is already taken.

Locked together as they are, there is little they can do to defend themselves if the wolf attacks. Once it’s behind them it’s over. It might even see them as easy targets, recognizing their plight.

So what is it waiting for?

He peeks out from under his mate’s arm. Watching cautiously. Waiting anxiously. Praying that things will not come to violence in this vulnerable state.

But the wolf does not attack them as Daesung expects, only observes, its posture seeming to convey a curious interest. Ears pricked, tail limp, its body loose and relaxed, its demeanor laid-back. The longer Daesung watches it the less he feels hunted. It is almost as if the wolf had just been passing through, and they simply happened to cross paths.

That makes him feel only marginally better.

“It’s… not attacking?” he says to Seunghyun in scarcely a whisper. The wolf’s piercing stare does not feel too great either, but in the face of such danger, modesty is the least of his concerns.

Seunghyun’s growling dies down. “Maybe it’s not going to. But if it does…” He rests a hand on his back and applies a firm pressure. “Get down and stay down. I’m in a better position to strike back.”

The wolf takes a single, careful step toward them—and immediately Daesung shows it his teeth, claws out and at the ready in case he needs them. It takes another step toward them, and another, pausing at intervals, watching them all the while, and Daesung thinks this is it, this is it

Then something else captures its attention, its ears twisting back, tuned in to something behind it—something Daesung cannot hear—and without further ado, the wolf turns and trots off, zig-zagging through the trees, big paws padding silently through shoots of fresh spring grass.

Only when it’s out of sight does Daesung dare to breathe again.

Something smacks into his shoulder—Seunghyun’s forehead, he realizes, hot breath racing over his heated skin as the other wolf laughs, “How about that?”

Daesung laughs too, breathless with relief. “What the hell was that?!”

“You know, I wonder if… I think…” Seunghyun starts and stops, squeezing him in a one-armed hug. Daesung feels his heart pounding away against his back; his is doing the same.

“What?”

“Think they might be as curious about us as we are about them?”

Daesung thinks about that for the rest of the day. Seunghyun’s question follows him around like his own shadow, until the sky fades to black and the moon shows her face and the stars are blinking down at him like a thousand tiny, searching eyes.

 

 

--

 

 

A spring breeze floats by, a warm caress that Daesung welcomes after the bitter winter they’ve just been through. He would close his eyes and savor it if it would not mean losing track of his target.

He has been hunting this young buck for hours, stalking it from the shadows to avoid detection but never quite letting it leave his sight. This one has just shed its antlers, the places where they had sat atop its head raw and red, as open wounds are. Daesung is glad that they are gone; that’s just one less thing for him to worry about when he is close enough to mount his attack.

And just now, a change in the wind has turned the hunt in his favor, carrying his quarry’s scent to him; he is downwind. At last, he can approach, closing in on his prey while it nibbles on the broad leaves of a low-hanging branch. Eyes darting between the deer and his path forward to ensure that it is clear, Daesung picks his way through the brush with care until he stands, stooped over, now within striking distance.

His blood is up, the rustling of leaves and snapping of stems as the deer eats like thunder to his keen ears. Just a few more sneaking steps, the success of this hunt hinging on not being seen or heard. He only needs to round this bush, and then…

A loud commotion to his left has him dropping to the ground in fright—cracking, breaking, splintering, like a bull charging through the woods and taking down everything in its path. The deer doesn’t wait around to find out what it is; it vaults into the woods, gone in a flash.

Daesung stares at the space where his prey stood—at the leaves it had been reaching for just seconds ago now fluttering to the ground. At hours of hard work gone to waste.

What the fuck?

His blood is still up, but not in anticipation or fright. He whips around to face the source of the sound. Whatever it is—wolf, bear, he does not care—it’s going to die.

The trees quiver as their leafy branches fly apart, and out from between them barrels Seungri; he’s frowning fiercely and slapping at sticks in his hair, little bits of brown and black raining from blond bangs.

“What the fuck?!” Daesung wastes no time—he’s beyond frustrated, he’s furious. That was about to be his kill.

Seungri looks over at him like he is only mildly surprised to see him, and somehow that only makes Daesung angrier.

“That was mine! I almost had it!” he yells, advancing on the other wolf. “What the fuck were you doing in there, trying to scare it off?”

“I tripped,” Seungri says, turning his frown on him now.

“You tripped.”

“Yeah? Sorry. Didn’t mean to.” Then, with a mocking smile, “I guess Jiyong is right, sometimes I’m still as clumsy as a bear cub.”

Daesung starts pacing irritably, every short, snappy step taking him one step closer to an edge he does not want to go over—not with Seungri, not with anyone.

“Why are you even here,” he growls, ”I was this close.” He grinds his teeth, gums still itching with the maddening urge to bite. An urge denied.

“I didn’t see you there.”

Daesung curls his lip at him. “Of course you didn’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seungri snaps back.

“I’m not a bad hunter, but we both know I’m not that good. There’s no way you didn’t know I was there.”

Seungri throws his hands in the air. “Okay, god, sorry for trying to say something nice.”

“So you did know. Were you trying to steal my kill?”

“Your kill? I’ve been following it for a while too,” Seungri growls this time. “But you didn’t see me either, did you?”

Daesung’s scowl deepens. “Didn’t need to, I heard you. Hard not to.”

He sees Seungri’s tail rising behind him at that, his anger catching like fire.

“Stand down, Seungri,” he growls, low and threatening, his own tail responding in kind. He is not the fighting type, but he knows a challenge when he sees one.

“Why, because your feelings are hurt? The deer got away, get over it.” Seungri says, making fists at his sides. “I don’t know what your problem is or why you’re so sensitive these days. We’re all tiptoeing around you. Everyone’s afraid the smallest thing will set you off.”

Everyone...? Daesung clamps down on the hurt, holding it at bay.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snaps. “I don’t have a problem.” Except he does. “And I’m not being sensitive.” Except he is.

“Yeah you are. You’re moody as hell. You’re acting like—like Seunghyun.” Seungri throws it at him like an insult. “But why am I even surprised? He’s so far up your ass most days I’m surprised he’s not stuck there. Hell, you guys are fucking all the damn time; maybe some part of him is."

Daesung doesn’t know why—why it gets under his skin, why he moves like someone pulled a trigger and the bullet is him, his body flying across the few feet between them with nothing but violence in mind.

"We know what you and that other wolf friend of yours get up to together. Everyone does, the way you howl like a bitch in heat when he's in you."

No one uses Seunghyun against him, turning their love and how they show it into a tool to hurt him. Not humans, not other wolves, not his packmates—not Seungri. Not again. Never again.

This time he fights back.

They hit the ground in a tangle of fists and flashing teeth and snarled insults. It’s all fists between them, hard knuckles and thrown punches. No claws. Daesung falls onto his back and kicks like a mule until he gets in a lucky strike, throwing Seungri off with a foot to the gut. The other wolf goes down, winded, and Daesung seizes that chance to hurl himself at his packmate—and then they’re rolling, over and over in the dirt until everything’s scrambled and he can’t tell up from down. And just when he thinks he has him pinned, Seungri surprises him, surging up at the last and shoving him aside.

Daesung catches himself on both arms and sees, for a split second, the flattened grass around them, the trenches where their claws have broken through and pulled up the roots as they scrabbled for purchase in the dirt. Signs of a fight scored into the earth.

Somewhere behind him, Seungri groans as he gets up. Then a hand is grabbing him by the collar and wrenching it back and Daesung swings blindly, choking, his elbow crashing into something soft and yielding, earning him a grunt of pain. He is reaching for his neck and sucking in a ragged breath when—

—he’s suddenly face down on the ground, pain erupting between his eyes, an agony that burns through his skull like fire. Flames of pain lick at his eyes until tears spring forth unbidden, beyond his control.

Socked in the face, point blank. If he’s broken his nose again…

Dazed, he vaguely registers being rolled onto his stomach, a heavy weight on his lower back holding him in place.

“Still with me?” he hears Seungri rasp, harsh and grating. “Didn’t mean to knock you out, but damn,” he moans in pain, “I think you rearranged some things down there with that last one."

Still reeling, Daesung can scarcely think straight—the words come to him garbled—but he can still move so he twists and bucks to throw his attacker, fighting to free his arms from his grip where they are wrenched back and crossed at the wrists.

This is a familiar position. One that rarely ends well for him.

“—off! Get off me—fuck’n Seungri—” he spits and snarls, his spine snapping like a whip, shirt riding up and ribs scraping over the ruined grass as he thrashes like a serpent in the throes of death, winding in on itself on its belly in the dirt.

He’s just so fucking tired of everyone always putting him on the ground like this, always pushing him down and climbing on top and having their fucking way with him.

“Nghhh—fuck off already!” he roars and tastes blood in the back of his throat.

“I would if you’d just calm the fuck down!” Seungri hisses, bearing down on his clamped wrists with all his might, “Give up,” and Daesung just growls and writhes harder, the pain spurring him on.

He struggles until they are both out of breath, until he cannot keep it up, the pain where he’d been struck weakening along with the rest of him, his body giving in. Empty, Daesung drops his head into the grass with a tired thump…

…and senses a shift in the air.

Seungri, another wolf, has him subdued. Letting it end here, like this, with his packmate in control—surrendering to Seungri—can only mean one thing.

It slithers in and goes straight to his core, constricting. The balance of power that has defined them for as long as they have known each other tipping in a new direction.

He has endured enough change in recent days. He is not ready for this constant to be taken away too.

There is a snapping sound in the distance, followed by familiar voices. Drawn to the sounds of a scuffle, their packmates have arrived. One set of feet starts forward faster than the others, running, and Daesung hears another giving chase—

No,” he hears said sternly. Jiyong. “Wait, just—wait. Let them.”

Let it happen.

Daesung wilts where he lies, mortified.

Omega again, after all these years?

“Are you done?” Seungri asks from above, sounding like he knows the answer—like the answer is yes and he is just waiting for Daesung to confirm it. Waiting for him to concede defeat. Waiting for him to formally submit to his new authority.

No.

Daesung calls on all that he has, every synapse sparking, every muscle tensing, every tendon pulling so taut he fears he just might snap—and explodes into motion.

I’m not done. But you are.

Something tears, something pops, but it’s all just background noise to him when he sees that finally, finally, he’s got Seungri on the ground again, eyes wide and face slack with shock.

He slams a fist into it.

Squeezing his eyes shut so he does not have to watch, Daesung drives his knuckles down again and again, forgetting whose face he is laying waste to, forgetting why, and in the midst of it all forgetting himself. Letting go of kindness and embracing violence, giving his body over to it, months of pent-up resentment and directionless anger erupting out of him in a volcano of vicious emotion, emptying his pain over the landscape in streams of fiery red, red like—

Blood.

He comes back to himself with Seungri’s blood staining his fists—and fears he’s gone too far.

“Fuck,” he breathes, physically unable to tear his eyes away from the damage he’s dealt. “Seungri…”

But Seungri only squints up at him, his revenge a bloody grin, blood from his split lip seeping between his teeth. A little bruised and battered and bloodied up, but as far as Daesung can tell, otherwise okay.

Their wild eyes lock, looking each other over—Seungri up, Daesung down—panting harshly, brokenly, blood on Daesung’s hands and on both their faces. Daesung did not know he was bleeding until he feels a drop of it slip over his chin. It lands on Seungri’s throat with a sticky red splatter.

His eyes still burn, but this time there is more than pain behind it, regret hitting him harder than all Seungri’s punches combined. "Seungri, I—" Touching two repentant fingers to his packmates’ face, avoiding his injuries, he chokes out, "I fucked up."

A flurry of footsteps behind them indicates their packmates’ approach.

Approach. Not interference, Daesung realizes, wondering why they didn’t stop him sooner. Why they didn’t stop him at all.

He wishes they had.

“I’m so sorry."

Seungri scoffs wetly, turning his face to the side when Daesung tries to touch it again in apology.

“Don't be,” he says, even in defeat, even in pain, wincing around that damn cocky grin. “It's cool. You win.”

 

 

--

 

 

Later, when Jiyong and Youngbae are taking turns wiping the blood from their faces with their wetted down shirts, Daesung makes sure Seungri does not forget just how sorry he is.

“Stop apologizing,” Seungri says, waving him off while Jiyong flits about him, working carefully over the curve of his chin.

Daesung’s eyes fall to his own fists, remembering how it had felt to pummel him as he had done—without restraint. He does not remember what he had been thinking, only knows how it had felt.

And for a time it had felt damn good. And that's what worries him.

“I just didn’t mean to let it go that far. I don’t know why I was so angry. And over what? A deer? One meal?” He works up a tentative smile. “It’s not like we’re starving or anything. I shouldn’t have jumped you like that.”

“Yeah, that was kind of weird,” Seungri agrees. “But I know I said some things. Can we just… pretend that never happened?”

“Yeah, sure,” Daesung is quick to say. He is less concerned about words that were said than actions that came after.

“Although, you know, back to the deer… for a long time, I really didn’t know you were there. Maybe you’re just getting that good.”

“Or you’re just that bad,” Jiyong murmurs distractedly, patting him dry as he finishes up.

“Rude,” Seungri says.

“I’m just glad you’re not holding it against me,” Daesung continues shyly. “Thanks.”

Seungri laughs. “Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you to lay into me like that? I’m always trying to get you to wrestle with me, but you’re never really into it. Now I finally know what it’s like. You throw a mean punch when you—well, when you mean it.”

“You’re crazy,” Daesung tells him, shaking his head. “And you said I was the one acting like Seunghyun?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Seunghyun cuts in, indignant. He has been sitting on the sidelines, watching them with an unreadable expression, unusually quiet.

“Nothing. Just Seungri saying weird things as usual.”

Seungri hums when Jiyong finally moves away, his face now free of blood and dirt and other debris. The cut on his lip is already scabbing over. Accelerated healing does have its perks.

It does not, however, make Daesung feel any better about beating him bloody.

He moves to give Seungri a quick peck as yet another apology, avoiding his split lip and aiming high on his cheek, but Seungri, of course, turns his head at the last second and collides with his injured nose.

The pain is excruciating. Daesung ends up in a ball on the ground, shaking through it.

“You did that on purpose!” the others accuse, laughing, which Seungri denies vehemently.

“I did not!” he cries, patting Daesung on the back. “Sorry, that was an accident, I swear.”

“Now look who’s apologizing,” Daesung croaks, wanting to sob, and swipes a finger under his nose to check for fresh blood. No blood, just more pain. And for some reason that’s funny, so funny he’s soon laughing, soft and halting at first because fuck, it still hurts, but it builds and builds until he cannot withhold it any longer, so he lets it out. Fuck the pain, he deserves it.

“Look at us,” he manages through tears he doesn't have the strength to fight off. He's had enough fighting for one day. "We're a mess."

“Yeah, we really are,” Seungri agrees, treating to him to another smile. It looks so much better without all the blood. “Hey. Daesung.”

“Hm?” Daesung says, poking at the swollen bridge of his nose experimentally. Yep, still hurts like hell.

Seungri taps him on the ribs until he has his attention, right over an old scar. He knows exactly where it is; after all, though it feels like ages ago, he put it there it himself.

Now we’re even.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Seunghyun wakes early to traces of hazy blue light filtering through the den. Not even the sun is quite up yet. So why is he?

He was dreaming, this he knows, but the memory of it is as dim as the low light trickling in. Daesung is beside him, mouth wide open and snoring in sleep.

…oh. So that’s what woke him up. Seunghyun cannot wait for his nose to finish healing so that he can return to sleeping with his mouth shut. A little snoring he can handle, but this, this shatters the silence and threatens to bring the mountain down on them all. How does Daesung sleep through it?

He wishes he could somehow speed up the process for him. He would kiss it better if he could. After all, he promised him he would.

Gently, so as not to wake him, he rolls Daesung onto his side. The snoring stops… for now.

Seunghyun climbs to his feet quietly, eyes sweeping the den. All appear to be accounted for… save for one.

Padding outside on bare feet, he finds his missing packmate.

“Watching the sun come up?”

“Yeah,” Jiyong sighs wistfully. “I don’t see the sunrise often enough.”

“That’s because you sleep in half the day.” Seunghyun settles in beside his old friend, knees popping like snapping branches as he goes down.

“Sounds like you could use a little more sleep, yourself. You’re up early, but your body is saying it wants to go back to bed.”

“I’m getting old,” Seunghyun says easily, rubbing at one knee. “We all are.”

“We are not,” Jiyong disagrees fondly, the first glimmer of sunrise in his eyes. “But I hope that one day we will be. We weren’t made to die young.”

“…Yeah.”

And from there, side by side, they watch the sun ascend in silence. To Seunghyun it always seems like such a slow, impossible process, as if it will never make it over the mountains. Sometimes, when the sky is caught between two states—no longer night, not yet day—he imagines a freeze. The world and everything in it suspended forever in a moment in time.

If that were to happen, would they never die? Could they just stay like that, living out their days in the twilight with no end in sight?

Seunghyun would not mind. Dawn does something indescribable to him, as does dusk. He never understood why the tales speak of wolves transforming under the full moon. Indeed, the moon is hauntingly beautiful, but the pace of their lives is set by the sun, a steady rise and fall, as essential to their well-being as breathing.

But then, at last, there arrives that moment when the first ray of light bursts forth, spilling over the ridge and striking the land bravely. And from there… there is no taking the day back once it’s begun. They can only hide from the sun or rise to meet it.

"I'm worried about him."

“He’ll be okay,” Jiyong replies right away. No need to ask who he is referring to.

“Jiyong. He attacked Seungri.”

“I don’t know what exactly they were fighting about, but maybe they needed to fight it out. We all do sometimes.” Jiyong tongues at the tip of one fang in thought. “Gotta let these things run their course.”

“Yeah, but that was…” Seunghyun trails off, remembering most vividly of all the sound of flesh on flesh as Daesung struck over and over again like he had lost his goddamn mind. Maybe, for a time, he had. Sure, they all fight sometimes, but that had been something else, something Seunghyun does not think they should so readily brush off. “I’m surprised you didn’t step in and stop him.”

“I was one punch away from laying him flat with his own fist,” Jiyong confesses, seeming conflicted. “But Seungri is tough, you know that. I wouldn’t have let it go on so long if I didn’t think he could take it.” Scratching at the back of his neck—nervous?—he continues softly, “And you know what was happening. He’d have hated me forever for interfering.”

Seunghyun had sensed it as well, had wanted nothing more than to run to his mate’s aid, but…

“Would you really have allowed it? The rank shift?”

“If Seungri formally challenges him, only Daesung can defend his position. You know how it is.”

Seunghyun frowns, remembering a time when he had ignored that little fact; their omega has been testing his limits, his displays of dominance growing too daring, so Seunghyun had stepped in on Daesung’s behalf. The old ways had not mattered to him then, not when his mate’s place in the pack was at stake.

But things have changed since then—are still changing. And little by little, he is learning to let Daesung fight his own battles.

"He doesn't like the wolves," Seunghyun says sadly. He still wants Daesung to meet them, to see what he sees in them, but his every attempt to persuade him out is met with resistance. Is this how Daesung felt back in the city when he refused to join him and his human friends?

It’s so… lonely.

“He had one bad experience with them, of course he doesn't like them.” Jiyong locks hands together over his head and stretches, spine arching and shirt riding up, and Seunghyun is satisfied to hear his joints cracking just like his had. Jiyong sighs in relief, slouching again. “We’ll see them soon—but we’ll do it as a pack. Safety in numbers. Just give their little ones time to grow up, at least until they can leave the den. They’ll be more accepting of us then.”

“Little ones?”

“The pups. You know what I mean,” Jiyong says, smiling. “You’d fight to the death to protect them, wouldn’t you? If you had any.”

“I do have something to protect though,” Seunghyun says morosely. “If only he’d let me.”

"Hmm.” Jiyong nudges him in the side. “By the way, whatever happened to those swimming lessons you were giving him? Gave up on that, did you?”

“Well, winter came…”

Jiyong gives him a knowing look.

“Don’t look at me like that,” Seunghyun says sullenly, staring down at his bare feet, toes wiggling in the cool grass. “He hasn’t brought it up again, and I haven’t asked. Don’t push him, you said. See, I’m learning.”

"I just know how you are.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Lifting a hand to his face to shield his eyes from the sun, Jiyong perks up. “Wanna hear something a wise woman once told me? Love that does harm isn’t love at all.”

Seunghyun makes a face and digs his toes into the grass, tearing it up in strips. “Who the fuck said that?”

“Some old hag from my birth pack, no one important.” Jiyong waves a hand in front of his face dismissively. Seunghyun thinks it looks like he’s fanning away a foul odor. “So maybe I lied about the wise part. It’s bullshit, isn’t it? I even sort of believed it until you two.”

“I don’t mean to hurt him, I just.” Seunghyun stops there. He knows how it sounds. He also knows Jiyong will understand. “Shit, I care too much.”

“Well, I suppose he gets you back sometimes,” Jiyong says, his gaze sliding over Seunghyun’s left shoulder—drawn to the scar there, on full display where his shirt collar has slipped down.

Daesung gave him that, back in the city. A promise without words, a renewed pledge, the wound had been deep and the new skin that filled it in grew in warped and dark, ugly as sin, but Seunghyun dons it like a badge of honor. For a wolf who does not like to leave marks, Daesung gave him an impressive one—all Seunghyun has to do is take off his shirt, and it’s impossible to miss.

More minutes crawl by in silence before Jiyong disturbs the peace again.

"Sometimes I wonder what he sees in you. Why he stays.”

"Uh.” Seunghyun blinks, blindsided by that. “What?”

"I mean," the other wolf keeps going, "I know at least one reason..." His grin is lecherous as his gaze slithers over Seunghyun's lap. "I don't know how he does it. Keeping you satisfied was hard enough when there were two of us. then Daesung came along and it’s like Youngbae and I never existed."

Seunghyun preens, puffing his chest out proudly. "You make it sound like Daesung isn't just as into it," he counters. "We're pretty damn good for each other. We fit."

"Yeah, a little too well.”

“Jealous?”

"I might be. Wish you'd share." Jiyong slaps his arm playfully. “I just wanna know. What’s it like to bend him over and—"

Seunghyun knows he isn’t being serious, but he shows him his teeth anyway for good measure. He does share Daesung. Just not like that.

"Isn't Seungri enough for you?"

"Sometimes Seungri is too fucking much,” Jiyong moans, flopping dramatically onto his back. "He can be such a handful.” He runs a hand down his body with intent, pausing at the waistband of his pants to tack on, “A long, hot, thick handful..."

Seunghyun stands, intending to go back inside. The sun is up and so is Jiyong’s dick, but the person he really wants to fool around with is back in bed right where he left him, no doubt still sleeping soundly. Probably still snoring up a storm too.

But he won't be for much longer. To hell with rising to meet the day—he wants to go down on Daesung. The sun will still be there when they’re done.

"Right, well, I'll leave you with that thought. Have fun."

“You’re going back in?”

“Daesung is waiting for me.”

Jiyong rolls onto his side with a soft, needy whine. “Daesung is sleeping, and doing it just fine without you. He can wait a little longer,” he says, close to begging. “Play with me instead.”

The problem, Seunghyun does not tell him, lies not in Daesung, but in him. He likes his mate’s body to be the first he touches in the morning and the last before he drifts off at night—besides his own, of course. It's simply, really; he does not want to wait, not when Daesung is dozing just inside, his body warm and inviting.

And a bit worn out from the fight with Seungri, but Seunghyun knows Jiyong is right—with a little more time, he’ll be okay. Seungri will be okay. They will all be okay.

“Fine, be that way,” Jiyong says, rolling onto his side and fumbling impatiently with his fly. “But before you go, just so you know, we're all rooting for you two.”

“…thanks?”

Jiyong laughs—at himself, probably. “Yeah, you're like the power couple of the pack.” Then, with a wistful sigh, “Our only mated pair.”

“Yeah, speaking of that: what’s up with you and Seungri?”

“What about us?”

“I was just wondering,” Seunghyun hedges, not sure how to approach it or where to begin. “Think you’re ever gonna… you know…”

But Jiyong has worked his pants open by then and gone on without him, going at himself at high speed like he doesn’t have all day to play. Which is laughable, because like the rest of them, he has all the time in the world.

But then, Seunghyun isn’t exactly crazy about taking it slow either.

“Nevermind,” he says and does an abrupt about-face. He will ask again later when one of them doesn’t have a hand down his pants. It’s distracting, it’s giving him ideas, but this packmate is not the one he wants to act them out with. He has other priorities that need seeing to. Somewhere else to be, someone else to do.

On his way in, he rounds the wall that forms part of the den’s entrance. With a little maintenance, it has held up well throughout the winter. There had been something soothing about those cold days spent inside, something cozy in camping out around a contained fire, cracking open bones to dig out the marrow while outside a light rain turned the world gray, unable to reach them—or in the deep of winter, a steadily falling snow.

But soothing or not, Seunghyun has had enough of such days. This day promises warmth and light to a land that is still waking up from winter, rubbing the snow from its eyes as the sun enters the scene.

His sun has not yet risen… but he’ll take care of that. It’s time to go and greet the day in his favorite way.

 

 

--

 

 

“Mmm,” Daesung hums, rolling onto his front as Seunghyun pets him awake. He has just awoken but seems to know exactly what he is after. "All yours if you want it,” he slurs sleepily.

"Is that an invitation?"

He wiggles his ass at him and damn, Seunghyun loves that he sleeps in the nude. He is not the only one, but he is the one whose bare skin habits he appreciates most—and indulges in every chance he gets. It is one of his favorite things about summer and spring.

Daesung peels one eye open and over his shoulder sends him a flirty look. "Since when did you need an invitation?" He pushes up into Seunghyun’s hand where it rests on the curve of his ass. “Come and claim it.”

"Fuckin' right," Seunghyun says and pounces.

Problem is, once he’s in he keeps slipping out.

“It’s like you’ve never done this before,” Daesung laughs into his arm. Their packmates have all risen and left the den—a rare gift of privacy—and Seunghyun wants to make the most of it. They have thrown the blankets off and he’s holding Daesung’s leg upright, bracing it against his chest, fucking him on his side.

“Oh, shut up,” Seunghyun laughs, slotting his cock back into place and sliding home again, slotting his heat inside Daesung’s.

Daesung barks out another surprised laugh when, a few thrusts later, he pops out again.

“Are you gonna be sharing a bed with me later when all this air you’re putting in me comes back out?” His shoulders bounce with stifled laughter. “‘Cause this is how you get farts.”

“Don’t care, as long as it's just air,” Seunghyun grunts, gripping his cock and pulling him closer until their hips are good and snug, Daesung folded up under him, and finding a steady, unbroken rhythm—finally. All he wants is to fill Daesung up. Whether that is with his cock, with his come, his love... air… doesn’t matter to him, as long as it feels good and gets them both off.

And anyway, Seunghyun thinks, watching pleasure overtake his mate’s face while he pounds him, he is not so naïve as to believe that sex is without its consequences. Daesung has done him worse than a little odorless air. They all have. Hasn’t stopped him yet.

He wets his lips and leers when the first spurt of come streaks across Daesung’s stomach, surprise written across the other’s face. He hasn’t even touched him yet.

Hours later they are up and dressed and finally ready to face the day—halfway through it. Seunghyun guesses that is what he gets for falling back to sleep after sex, but what can he say? Without even trying, Daesung wears him out.

He would not have it any other way. Holding a hand to his eyes to shield them from the afternoon sun, he steps outside.

Just outside the den entrance, he finds Daesung running a hand along their wall. With time and wear, it is difficult to discern where their amateur workmanship ends and the mountainside around their den begins. After several seasons’ worth of sunlight and wind and rain, it’s all begun to blend in.

They are no longer outsiders here. They have carved out a living here almost a year; this is their home.

Daesung gives him a fleeting look when he sees him, then shoves hands into his pockets and turns away, lips going thin like they do when he has something to say but does not quite know how to say it.

“You look like you have something you want to tell me,” Seunghyun suggests, helping him along. “Or show me.”

“That obvious, huh?”

“I just know you.”

Or I used to. I’m still getting to know this new you, he thinks, finding that the thought no longer fills him with fear, but an ambition to learn.

Daesung smiles and shakes his head. Reaches for his hand. “There’s somewhere I want to take you. Come with me?”

 

 

--

 

 

Seunghyun had not known what to expect when Daesung whisked him away through the woods. He knew Daesung would not lead him to water, but this? This is the last place he thought their hours-long hike would take them.

“Coming up?” Daesung asks, reaching for something and hoisting himself up—a handhold in the rock that Seunghyun cannot see. His coat swings in the breeze where it is tied around his waist.

“You’re afraid of heights,” Seunghyun says, dumbfounded, as he watches Daesung continue his ascent with all the ease of someone who has done this many times before.

“I am,” Daesung calls down, making a daring grab for another handhold. “But every time I come up here it gets a little easier. There’s something—” He grunts, gaining another few inches, “—empowering about facing your fears.”

Well, Seunghyun thinks, getting a grip on his surprise, he’s not wrong.

“I mean, I’m not about to go scaling mountains, but I’ve been up the side of this boulder plenty of times, so I know it pretty well by now,” Daesung continues, pausing to peer down at him from under his arm. “Jiyong showed me this place. It’s a good lookout spot… once you make it to the top.”

“Uh huh,” Seunghyun says, forgetting to keep an eye on where he is placing his hands and feet—his arms are terribly distracting, how his biceps flex and bunch as he pulls himself ever higher. Soon he is sweating in the late afternoon sun; even from all the way down here, Seunghyun can clearly see the sheen on his skin.

He licks his lips.

Daesung pauses to peer down at him again, panting lightly now. “You’re not scared, are you?”

Seunghyun grins and, with eyes on the prize—his prize—starts up after him.

“Shit, you’re right,” he says at the top, appalled when tremors start up in his own legs. The surface area up here is small, that’s all. He’ll adjust to it soon enough. But for now… “This is really… how often did you say you come up here?”

Daesung crawls around on hands and knees; Seunghyun guesses he hasn’t worked up the courage to stand yet. Daesung and heights never did mix. That he comes up here on his own—that he comes up here at all—is nothing short of a miracle.

Or maybe he’s just decided to throw caution to the wind.

Whatever it is, it is not like him to climb so high of his own volition, and Seunghyun does not know whether he should be proud of him, or worried for him.

“This feels familiar,” Daesung says, untying his coat and shrugging on as he risks a peek over the edge. “Remember that time you asked me if I’d follow you over?” He smiles as he says it, and—it’s wrong, it’s all wrong.

“I remember.”

“I told you no.” Daesung’s smile turns strange then. “Want to ask me again?”

“No,” Seunghyun says gruffly. Surreptitiously shifts a little closer to the other wolf, just in case. “But if I did… your answer better be the same.”

Idly, Daesung pushes a pebble around with his foot and watches, indifferent, as it rolls off the rock and into the ravine below. The sound of it bouncing on the way down, a staccato clack-clack-clack can be heard long after it leaves their sight. To Seunghyun it sounds like cracking bones.

“Daesung,” he says, needing to cut to the chase. “Why did you bring me here?”

Daesung sends another small stone over the edge. “Just wanted to show you.”

“Show me what? ” He grabs Daesung’s leg to stop him from going for a third—and to get his attention. “Hey. I’ve made a promise to protect you, but all this… this is new.”

“What, me finally making peace with heights?”

“No, not—come here.” Seunghyun tucks a leg under himself as he turns to face him. “Give me your hand.”

“You’re not gonna try and pull me over the edge again, are you?”

“Not a chance,” Seunghyun swears, and thankfully that is all it takes for Daesung to grant him his hand, which Seunghyun locks in a vice grip inside his own.

“What happened the other day? With Seungri?”

Daesung’s brows pinch together in pain. “I snapped, didn’t I? Guess I still had some bad blood to let out.” He looks away. “Just hate that I took it out on him. He didn’t deserve that.”

Seunghyun suspects there is more to it than “I snapped,” but he will not push. Jiyong urged him not to. Besides, he has other wounds to see to.

“I see how you grow stronger every day, I know you’re getting better, and I know you don’t want me to, but sometimes… I still worry about you.” He closes his eyes against it because damnit, this is harder to put into words than he ever imagined now that Daesung is here with him, listening in. “I promised to protect you, but I—I don’t know how to protect you from yourself.”

And it hurts that I feel like I have to.

He watches Daesung’s face undergo a subtle change, becoming frighteningly brittle.

“And now, with you climbing all the way up here,” he plows on before his courage fails him, “alone…”

“You think I’ll try again.”

Seunghyun squeezes his hand—hopefully not too hard. “I don’t know what to think.”

“Sorry for scaring you,” Daesung says in a stony voice, “I never meant to.”

And somehow that lackluster reply and Daesung’s limp hand in his terrify Seunghyun more than the hundred-foot drop at his feet. It’s about as pleasant as spilling his guts, but he will power through it if it means expelling this fear that has eaten away at him ever since the night Daesung stumbled through that door, like death warmed over dripping river water on the floor… and later, reopened his eyes and rose from his bed and, one teetering step at a time, relearned how to let his legs carry him away from the safe circle of Seunghyun’s arms.

And because he asked, Seunghyun let him.

“You are what keeps me alive,” he says, taking the plunge, “But you’ll also be the death of me. I would walk that way,” he says, motioning to the valley below, “right off this boulder if that’s what it took to make sure you outlive me. But if you go first… damint, Daesung, I’ll follow.” The words burn on their way up like stomach acid. He swallows to soothe the sting and presses on, “After all we’ve been through, there’s just no life after you.”

“Jiyong said something similar once.” Daesung swallows too, his throat bobbing. “Where you go Seunghyun will follow. So if you care about him at all, watch your step.”

Seunghyun smiles wanly. “How does he always seem to know everything? I’ve never told anyone.”

“Nothing gets past him. But it’s nice that he tries to help,” Daesung agrees. “The problem is, all that does is make me feel worse . Your life shouldn’t be tied to mine like that.”

The hand in Seunghyun’s squeezes back, and it’s small, but it’s something; any sign of life is better than none at all.

“But we are tied to each other,” Seunghyun insists. “As often as you’ll let me, anyway.”

Daesung rolls his eyes and tries to pull away, but Seunghyun isn’t ready to let him go, caging him in with fingers that grip like claws—but no actual claws. Not this time.

“Okay, sorry, sorry, I meant the bond. It’s as real as anything you can feel, isn’t it? You thought you lost me and tried to… end it.” He remembers the pain of separation, a body by the shore, and cold, hard metal cutting the roof of his mouth and filling it with blood.

It wasn’t real, he reminds himself. It never was, it never will be.

“I don’t blame you for that,” he says weakly. “Back then, if I had been in your place, something tells me I would have done the same.”

“The bond…” Daesung trails off, his thumb stroking absentmindedly over the fine bones on the back of Seunghyun’s hand. “I felt it, you know? And once I realized it was still there, still intact, I followed it back. Or maybe that was just your voice.” He ducks his head, and Seunghyun spies a shy smile on his lips. “And I’m not going anywhere this time. I promise. So I might get a little weird sometimes, but you have nothing to worry about.”

“Hey.” He lifts Daesung’s hand over his shoulder, pressing it over the palm-sized scar there. Sealing it. Reaffirming it. “Promise?”

Reverently, Daesung touches the mark he made. “Promise.”

Seunghyun wraps him in a hug, folds him up in his arms and wishes they could stay this way forever, longs for a life in which he never has to let him go. He would carry him until his own legs gave out, until his bones grew brittle from the endless trek and splintered through his skin, taking them both to the ground… and even then, he would find a way forward for them.

But Daesung has to walk on his own from here on out—not necessarily alone, but on his own two feet, his confidence returning to him with every imperfect step.

“I’ve noticed something,” Daesung starts, loosening his grip, and Seunghyun supposes that means it’s time. “You’re filthy as hell sometimes, but deep down, your heart is surprisingly pure.”

“You did not just call me pure.”

“I sure did. You operate on instinct and don't overthink things.” Daesung pauses, reconsidering that. “Usually.”

"Are you calling me simple?"

“What's wrong with simple? I'd like to live a simple life, like we did before.”

“Like we’re doing now? ”

“I guess in some ways I’m still settling into it,” Daesung says and pulls back, sheepish. “But by simple, I guess what I really mean is… knowing nothing of all the bad things in this world.” He smiles sadly, eyes downcast. “Too late for that, huh?”

Seunghyun understands then. He understands because he watched it happen, hating every second of it. He saw Daesung shifting, changing, not into a wolf but away from one, gaining one thing while throwing out another… and Seunghyun had been helpless to stop it, all because Daesung did not want his help.

An innocence lost. And in its place, a humanity he never knew he had, one he is still coming to grips with.

“Anyway, thanks for saving this old thing for me,” Daesung says, glancing down at his coat. At these heights the wind is biting, and he came prepared. Seunghyun, however, feels a shiver coming on. “It's old and ugly but I’m actually really attached to it. It’s been with me a long time.”

"Ugly?"

“I mean…” He lifts his arms, considering the oversized sleeves. “These big green and gray patches…”

“It looks good on you. Why did you leave it?"

Daesung fidgets nervously, sliding the zipper up and down in that way he does, never actually closing it. His habit drives the rest of them crazy, the zzzzip of metal teeth locking and releasing, until one of them cannot stand it anymore and stills his restless hands.

"I wanted you to have it,” he says in a small voice.

"I don't want the damn coat, I want the person in it!" Seunghyun cries, pained. "And that’s always going to be you."

Then he grabs him by the flaps of his coat and pulls him in with force, forgetting for a moment the narrow seat they share atop this perilous rock tower.

He was wrong; try as he might, he doesn’t understand. Wolves do not damage themselves on purpose, not without good reason. Survival is key, and the will to live is what drives them to their feet every day. Self-harm is a uniquely human problem—and in Daesung’s case, a complication of becoming human.

Seunghyun sees him grappling with this new self. There are days when he does not leave the den, sluggish mornings and listless afternoons when Seunghyun cannot rouse him, but those days are dwindling in frequency. He sees Daesung strong-arm himself to his feet and out the den and into the sun. He sees him trying. He sees him smiling… and the more he sees it, the less forced it feels.

Most important of all, he sees him still fighting.

Daesung’s head comes to rest on his shoulder.

"I thought I let it go, just like my coat. But parts of it keep coming back."

“What comes back?”

“Too many things.” His head rolls forward to watch his fingers worry at the stitches in the legs of his jeans, threadbare, one careless touch away from coming apart. “It’s weird. I used to be good at putting things behind me. Or under me. It was like digging a hole and just—” He goes through the motions of dropping something in a pit and patting down the dirt on top, burying it. “There. Done.”

“But now?” Seunghyun prompts gently.

“But now it’s different. Everything I bury finds its way back out and catches up to me.” He turns haunted eyes on Seunghyun. “Even in my dreams.”

Seunghyun does not know what to say to that.

"I'm just so tired of running. Hiding," he murmurs. "Hurting."

"What hurts?"

"I’m not sure." Daesung runs a hand up his front. It stops at his chest, the few fingers Seunghyun can see poking out his coat sleeve forming a tight fist over his heart. "Something important, I think.”

"These things that are following you,” Seunghyun growls, as determined to be there for him as he has ever been. “They’ll have to get through me first. I’ll chase the bad memories away and give you good ones to take their place."

"Can you do that?"

“Watch me. Who needs a guard dog when you have a wolf watching your back?”

Against his shoulder, Daesung’s cheek pulls up in a smile—but it doesn’t last. “I don’t know what to do, I—” he keeps going, voice catching. “I can’t be stuck this way forever.”

"You won’t be. Nothing lasts forever,” Seunghyun promises, doing all that he can to supply him the confidence he lacks. “Don't run, meet it head-on. What was that you said earlier about facing your fears? It gets easier?" A fervor is gaining strength inside him, a beast known as belief stirring from a long, swamp-like sleep. "We're wolves. We have no natural enemies. Not humans, not memories.”

"...but what if there is an enemy and it’s in here," Daesung whimpers, the hand over his heart tugging at his hair.

Seunghyun yanks that hand down and throws himself headlong into a fierce kiss, meeting Daesung with a clack of teeth. They both suck in sharp breaths but neither pulls away, and Seunghyun tastes blood when frenzied teeth stab at his lip but he barely feels it and it suits him just fine anyway, this pain of living.

"Then I will save you from yourself," he vows, calling on every scrap of conviction left in him. "Monsters in your mind keep hounding you? They've got nothing on me. I'll follow you everywhere.”

Even into that endless sleep if that's what it takes.

Without warning, Daesung laughs, and the sound brings Seunghyun such tremendous relief.

"How can you just say stuff like that?"

Seunghyun grins. "Like what? That you can’t get rid of me that easily? But you already knew that.”

"Like…" Daesung’s tongue darts out, tasting him on reddened, wind-chapped lips. "Well, I guess that's what I love about you. You don't hold back.”

"Life is too short to hold back," Seunghyun says bravely. "We could be gone tomorrow. We live our lives expecting to see the next sunrise, but the only sure thing is that one day we'll all bite the dust."

“And that's… supposed to be reassuring?”

"That's life. Or death. Whatever." He tugs on Daesung’s coat sleeve, keeping him close while his thoughts scatter like flies, darting in every direction. There is so much he wants to say, so many paths he could start down to convey what he feels Daesung needs to hear. He just needs to settle on one.

“Sorry if I still don’t see how this is supposed to cheer me up,” Daesung says, not unkindly.

“You and I, we're still alive,” Seunghyun finally seizes on one. “And I mean to make the most of that."

“Even if it could get you killed?”

“What are you so afraid of? You told me something once, long ago: fear is meant to keep us alive.” His coat is soft when Seunghyun clutches it, broken in from years of use and lots of love. “But Daesung, don’t let it keep you from living.”

“I said that,” Daesung says, a question. “I said that?”

“And I remembered. See, I listen.”

“Thank you.” Daesung treats him to a small but appreciative smile. “I want to recover from this, I do. It feels like someone shook me up inside, and there are parts of me that haven’t settled yet, but…” His voice drops. “The road ahead doesn’t seem so long anymore. Or so dark.”

“Just tell me. Tell me when you need someone to pull you up. Or, if not me, Jiyong or Youngbae—or even Seungri. We’re all here for you. We’re a pack. That’s what we do.”

“Your passion for life... share a little of it with me?”

"All you want, it’s yours,” Seunghyun tells him, his heart so full of love to give. “We've survived a lot of shit to make it this far." He rests a warm hand on Daesung's knee. Underneath the worn fabric, past threads that threaten to snap at any moment, his skin is chilled. "But when the time comes—and it will—make sure you go down fighting."

"I don't like violent ends," is Daesung’s quiet reply. Seunghyun hears what he is very carefully not saying.

I'm not like you.

Maybe that is for the best. If they were exactly the same, each as wild and impulsive as the other, they would have pushed each other to an early grave by now. And Jiyong, in all his wisdom, is right about many things, but one thing most of all: they were not made to die young.

"Well, I do," Seunghyun says, "So don't put flowers on my grave when I'm gone, okay? Youngbae will try but you'll have to stand your ground."

If he even gets a grave, that is. Does he really want his body going in the ground?

“I—”

"You know what, no,” he cuts Daesung off as another thought smacks into him. “Don’t bury me. Burn my body and scatter the ashes from a high place. Maybe here. Or maybe that peak over there, if you’ve truly overcome your fear of heights by then,” he says, pointing to a snow-capped peak in the distance, one that stands miles above the rest. “I want to ride the wind when I die."

"I don't know if I can promise that," Daesung says, looking a little woozy.

"But you'd be helping me become the wind." Seunghyun turns to him excitedly. "What about you? What would you be?"

“Me?” Daesung’s eyes sweep the area, and Seunghyun is pleasantly surprised to see him playing along. “I'd like to be... a tree. A really tall one.”

“Perfect for you,” Seunghyun says, and like everything else that’s come out of him today, he means it.

“Not the tallest though. I wouldn’t want to overshadow the others, and I would want to see what's happening on the forest floor.”

"As the wind, I would visit you from time to time," Seunghyun promises, his imagination already taking to the sky. "I'd play in your branches and dance with you and make you sway." Just like I do now. "And I would bring you rain. And tell you stories of all the things I saw while I was away. Since you’re such a stick in the mud and never like to go anywhere."

Daesung laughs again, and now more than Seunghyun’s imagination is taking flight.

"If I'm a tree I won't be able to go anywhere. Not with roots for legs!"

"Exactly."

This time they both laugh, and Seunghyun turns his face into the wind. And in the valley below, as far as his eyes can see, there stands a sea of trees, their tops pointing skyward as if waiting for a kiss from a passing wind. Strangely, seeing their branches so still—so neglected—he feels sorry for them. He wonders how many of them were once wolves like themselves, wolves like Daesung who shouldered their hopes and dreams and hurts until the end, as strong and silent in their second lives as they were in their first.

Seunghyun tears his eyes away before he can become too lost in the landscape. He does not believe in such things. Some packs hold fast to their beliefs about what becomes of them after death, but he has no such illusions. One day the sun will set on their lives; however, unlike the sun, they will not rise again. But he sees no harm in pretending for now, not when this world they exist in is so damn unforgiving.

And yet so exquisitely beautiful.

With a broad brush, the setting sun paints the valley gold, and in its glow Seunghyun notes the flush on Daesung's face, his nose and cheeks a rosy pink that rivals the evening sky. Watches as he sinks back and sprawls across the warm rock, feet thrown boldly over the edge, wet eyes turned to the heavens in something like wonder.

 

 

--

 

 

On the walk back to the den a shadow passes over them. Daesung looks up to the sight of vultures circling overhead, their dark wings spread wide high in the sky.

"I don't like it,” he says, uneasy. The sun has not set yet, but vultures are not nocturnal. Shouldn’t they be heading home to roost by now?

Wherever home is for vultures, he thinks, watching them drift about in lazy spirals.

“Don’t like it?” Seunghyun bumps his shoulder playfully. "Why not?"

"You don't see or smell anything dead around here, do you?"

"Their vision is better than ours. Sharper. I wonder how the world looks through their eyes." Seunghyun squints up at the birds, black in the fading light. "What would it be like to go up there anytime you want? As high as you want?"

"Terrifying," Daesung answers promptly, surprising a laugh out of him.

"If we were part bird, do you think we'd have wings?"

"They would have to be huge to get you off the ground," Daesung laughs. He throws his arms open wide to convey just how much wing they would need, stretching them as far as he can until his shoulders crack.

Ow—just kidding, that actually felt good.”

Seunghyun blinks at him, unimpressed. “If you were part bird you’d be doing everything not to pop your shoulders. Or fingers. Or knees, or back—”

“Okay I get it.” Daesung knows his body is prone to making popping noises when he least wants it to, but Seunghyun really has no room to talk; his does too.

“I’m just saying.” The other wolf grabs him by the shoulder and squeezes hard. “Hollow bones break.”

Daesung shrugs him off. "Okay, well I don’t know about you, but I’m glad we’re not part bird. Forget about wings or hollow bones; we’d probably just have feathers in uncomfortable places."

"We don't have fur in uncomfortable places."

Daesung stops walking, recalling his wolf dream. It was almost a whole year ago when he had it and still he remembers the thick fur coat he wore so well, how natural it felt, how at home he had been in that skin.

He is almost afraid to even entertain the thought, but… it might be nice to dream that dream again.

"Although… you’re pretty furry in places,” Seunghyun adds, and without warning attacks him with tickling fingers.

Daesung folds in on himself to fend him off, but Seunghyun plays rough—rough and dirty . Not one to be deterred, he grabs Daesung’s leg and pulls until he has him on the ground, holding him captive there in the clovers. Driven by desperation—a desperate need not to be tortured with tickles—Daesung kicks when his pant leg is wrenched up at the ankle, and when that doesn’t work, screeches when Seunghyun scrubs nails through the hair on his calf. And when he tries to squirm away on his side, shrieking with laughter, Seunghyun clamps both hands on his thigh, a tight ring above the knee, and drags him through the grass until he is close enough to collapse on—which he promptly does, landing on him like dead weight and startling an oomph out of Daesung.

The next time they lock eyes the vultures, like the sun, are gone.

“Daesung, Daesung,” Seunghyun says into his belly where he’s rucked his shirt up, lips brushing the thin trail of hair there as he whispers his name.

Daesung pants, every breath bringing his skin back to his mate’s playful lips, now dotting kisses across his hip.

“Seunghyun,” he says, but it’s so faint even he strains to hear it, his voice vanishing into the night that surrounds them.

Seunghyun hooks a finger in his belt loop and tugs, giving himself more to love on.

Seunghyun.”

Breathing hard, Seunghyun freezes. Pulls his tongue back in and gazes up at him through his bangs with eyes as big and bright as the full moon at his back.

“Yeah?”

“Let’s go see the wolves.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

They sneak out at sunrise, stealing out of the den first thing in the morning while they their packmates to their dreams.

“I feel bad,” Daesung says as they make their way downhill together. “Seungri would kill to come with us. Why doesn’t Jiyong just take him one day? Or let all of us go together?”

“He says it’s still not safe. Not until the pups are grown.”

Daesung frowns, remembering the thrashing he had received from their mother just for setting foot near them… and that had been an accident.

“That could take forever though.”

“I don’t mean grown grown. Just not…” Seunghyun waves a hand in the air, searching for words. “Helpless little balls of fluff.”

Daesung slows a bit, just enough so that his eyes can bore into the back of Seunghyun’s head while they walk.

“How big are they now?”

Seunghyun’s head snaps up, staring straight ahead. “How would I know?”

“Because you’ve been spying on them,” Daesung answers, and ahead of him, the other wolf misses a step. “I know you follow them. Why did you try to keep it a secret?”

Jiyong wouldn’t approve. Seungri would want to tag along. You would have worried. Youngbae might have tried to stop me. All of these things Daesung expects him to use as excuses. All would be true.

But “It’s complicated,” is all Seunghyun says, and it isn’t what Daesung wanted, but he decides to let it go.

“I wish you wouldn’t go alone.”

“I keep a careful—well, respectable distance,” Seunghyun says in defense, “and they leave me alone. But there’s no way they don’t know I’m there. They might even be getting used to me hanging around, as long as I stay on the fringes.”

“As long as they don’t view you as a threat.”

“Something like that.”

Daesung slows his pace, feet swishing through the grass that grows thicker and taller with every passing day. All around them, spring is in full swing. After an extended silence, Seunghyun checks on him, and seeing how far behind he has fallen, comes to a full stop.

“Hey,” he says, beckoning to him with a hand outstretched, palm down. “I wouldn’t be leading you right to them if I thought they would hurt you.”

Daesung might not trust the wolves, not yet… but he trusts Seunghyun, and that is enough.

“Does our dear leader know where you run off to?”

“Yes,” Seunghyun says a little too quickly. “At least, I think he does. He’s never explicitly said anything to me, but he always gives me this look when I come back. That look he gives Seungri when he’s been up to no good and is trying to hide it, you know the one.”

Daesung does. “Is it just me or is he going easy on us these days?”

Jiyong is far from the most controlling alpha Daesung has known, but he does what he believes needs to be done to sustain the pack. They don’t always have to like it, they just have to abide by it. But out here… maybe it’s because he feels they are safe here, but Daesung has never seen him so lenient about letting them take charge of themselves, so lax about keeping them in check when they have overstepped.

He wonders if a certain omega has anything to do with it.

“Well, no matter what Jiyong says about the wolves, we’re safer here than we’ve been in a long time,” Seunghyun says, all but confirming his suspicions as he ambles along with a spring in his step. “It’s nice having room to stretch my legs again.”

“You can say that again,” Daesung agrees, now matching him step for step. Walls are for humans. Fences too. A wolf’s heart, however, knows no such boundaries, only the freedom to roam.

Half the day passes like this, and by the time Seunghyun slows them down to scan the land for signs of life, the sun is blazing in a brilliant blue sky. Together they scour the area for tracks, droppings, scent marks, scraps of fur left on tree bark—anything. But long hours crawl by without a single sighting, and soon Seunghyun is dragging his feet alongside Daesung. They agree to take a break and find something to eat.

Of course, that is when the pack finds them.

Daesung is halfway through the hare he caught when he realizes the sounds of Seunghyun eating— shredding, slurping, and swallowing—have stopped. He looks to the other wolf, about to ask him why he’s suddenly gone so quiet, but Seunghyun is not looking at him.

“They’re here.”

And with his heart lodged in his throat, just another lump of dark meat, Daesung follows his line of sight and sees that he’s right: they are. Five wolves are monitoring them from atop a rocky ledge, standing guard where they are sure to see them.

Five fucking wolves.

Daesung nearly drops his rabbit.

“Oh my god.”

“Don’t panic,” Seunghyun tells him with remarkable calm, even as the pack decides to abandon its post and come their way for a closer look. One after the other they descend the rocky slope, their long limbs nimble and strong. And at the head of the pack is a wolf with fur as black as starless night.

A black wolf. Daesung shrinks back, feeling as though he knows this ghostly creature. Why did it have to be a black wolf? He has seen it somewhere before, a dark figure inside a fading memory.

He watches the pack draw near and suffers the sense of being terribly outnumbered, unable to take his eyes off their big paws, and on the tips of their toes, tough black claws. He swallows hard, forcing down the blood and gristle still sitting on his tongue—and with it, his fear.

They may be outnumbered, but Seunghyun did not bring him here to see him harmed. He knows these creatures better than he does and believes them safe enough to meet. He just has to have faith in his mate.

Have faith. He can… he can do that.

“Well, fuck,” Seunghyun says hoarsely as they close in, not helping at all. “Of course they would find us first. We’re on their turf after all. They probably watched us catch these suckers,” he says, plucking distractedly at the remains of his rabbit.

“They’re so big,” Daesung breathes, his apprehension stripped away by awe. Larger than any dog, and several times the size of the coyotes back home, these are animals not to be messed with. The width of their muzzles and bulk of their heads tells him all he needs to know about what kind of bite force he can expect if they get off on the wrong foot.

Seunghyun slides closer to lay a reassuring hand on his thigh. “This isn’t even all of them. The pups and their mother aren’t here. Must be back at the den.”

“Which is… where?” Daesung asks, not taking his eyes off the wolves as they slow to a stop a short distance away. All but one, who continues advancing—the black wolf, who must be alpha. Daesung cannot take his eyes off it.

“I don’t know. I’ve never followed them there,” Seunghyun answers in a low tone. “I’m curious about them, not stupid. I’m not about to start a pack war just to see some scrawny pups.”

I hope that’s not what this is, Daesung silently pleads, pulse spiking as the black wolf comes at them, head low but ears high, listening in, tail held stiffly behind it in a way Daesung interprets as self-assured but not especially aggressive. It stops just steps away from them, and up close like this Daesung can see that its coat is not solid black as he previously thought. Where the sun catches it, its fur turns a deep chocolate brown that fades to gray at the base. Highlights behind its shoulders and down the backs of its legs lend a sense of shape to the animal’s dark silhouette. And on its heavily furred chest, like a star over its heart, a circle of white the size of Daesung’s fist.

He should have known. Nothing in nature is ever so flat. The world they live in is far too detailed for such dull designs.

The wolf studies them, looking back and forth between their astonished faces with eyes that are inquisitive yet wise. They remind Daesung of sunlight striking the lining of a cloud. And just as he cannot stare directly into the sun, he finds that he can’t bear to look this proud creature in the eye. The wolf turns from Seunghyun to him and lingers there, lifting its head high, and there isn’t time to think before his body is taking over, compelling him to do what feels right.

He drops his gaze to the ground and bows his head, submitting to the alpha.

Why the surprise? a seductive voice whispers through him. The wolf in you knows what to do.

While he thinks that over, the wolf’s eyes lower too, but there is nothing passive about the way it watches him. Waiting expectantly, it seems to want something else from him, something more than submission. Something in his… hands?

Oh. His hands tighten around his catch. The hare.

“You… you want this?” Daesung says in a whisper, lifting it in inches, hoping the wolf understands what he is offering. If not his words, then his actions. Wolves are supposed to be intelligent, right? That’s what the stories said.

Seunghyun seems to catch on and flings his half-eaten rabbit carcass as far as he can. The wolf swivels its head around and watches it fall, the mangled meat landing well behind it with a muffled thump. Uninterested—unimpressed—it lets the rabbit lie until one of its packmates steps out of line, darting forward and snatching it up.

“Damnit,” he hisses as the wolf is turning back to Daesung, eyeing the rabbit he still clutches, intent on having it, and closes the gap.

He squeezes his eyes shut, expecting searing pain, expecting death

It’s just like in my dream, it’ll tear me apart, why isn’t Seunghyun doing anything

—so when something soft and warm and wet lands on his face, lapping at his chin and licking at the corners of his bloodied mouth, he doesn’t know what to think. Doesn’t have the emotional energy left to think anything at all.

All he can do is hold still, let it happen, and hope for the best.

By the time Daesung finds the courage to reopen his eyes, his hands are empty and the wolf is trotting away, tail swinging behind it lazily—and jaws fastened around its prize. It seems pleased with itself, Daesung thinks, and without so much as a single look back at either of them it disappears into the forest, the rest of the pack dutifully falling into line behind it, following in their alpha’s impressive pawprints.

He touches his face in wonder, fingers feeling along the corner of his lips where the wolf’s tongue touched him.

He makes a noise like a whimper. A wolf’s tongue just touched him.

"He must like you. He practically kissed you," Seunghyun says, startling him out of it and sounding far more amused than Daesung thinks he should. "He’s never even given me the time of day."

Daesung twists around stares back at him, slack-jawed.

“It was just after the—it just wanted to taste the blood,” he says. He’s just glad the wolf settled for hare’s blood when it could have just as easily sampled his. “Why did you just sit there?”

“What, you didn’t like it?”

Daesung smacks his thigh.

Seunghyun puts his hands up, eyes wide. “I was going to, but then—I don’t know. Somehow, I knew he wasn’t out to hurt you. Or me. Remember what I said about them being curious?”

“I think,” Daesung counters, still coming back from his shock, “that you’re putting an awful lot of trust in a wild animal.”

“You have no idea how much time I’ve spent observing them.” Seunghyun leans in and sweeps a thumb over his lower lip, and Daesung wonders what, exactly, he is wiping away—the remaining rabbit’s blood, or traces of the wolf. “They’re more like us than you think. You’ll see.”

And thinking back on it, Daesung is beginning to think Seunghyun might be right. Everything about the wolf’s body language had signaled an animal largely at ease. An apex predator squarely in his territory, an alpha in his element, with loyal reinforcements at his back. He seemed confident when he approached them, and no less so when he left. Curious about these outsiders—curious about them—but ultimately in control.

And not above stealing to snatch a quick snack.

"So, does this mean I have a rival?” Seunghyun teases. “Do I need to let him know who you belong to?”

"Ugh, don't even," Daesung says, standing on shaky legs and wiping furiously at his mouth with the back of his hand.

“I’m just saying!” Seunghyun stumbles to his feet after him, “I don’t want that guy getting any weird thoughts about you! We’re wolves too and there are boundaries that need to be maintained, you know."

“Stop being gross,” Daesung laughs, waving him away.

“Did you just lick your lips?!”

“N—no!”

This doesn’t have to come to violence, he is beginning to see. They are no longer the same and can perhaps never hope to be, for wolves and werewolves have spent too long growing apart, generations that lived and died without ever seeing a wolf in the flesh. But since the beginning, wolves have harbored an instinctive fear of humans; Daesung knows they would never have come so close if they had not sensed in them something shared. Separate, yet still fundamentally alike. As long as they respect their differences and are mindful of each other’s shared presence, he sees no reason why they cannot simply… coexist.

Two packs, one vast domain. This land can carry all of them.

Unlike the humans of their past, these creatures will not hunt them down and hurt them without reason, and nothing about this budding connection has to be forced, nothing taken from them without their consent.

Except wolf kisses, apparently.

 

 

--

 

 

"Tell me what you want."

Seunghyun knows what he wants, but today is about Daesung. He was so brave in their encounter with the wolves, and Seunghyun is suitably proud of him. Courage like that deserves a reward.

“Mmm, whatever you want,” Daesung sighs into his arm, still half asleep by the sound of it. To be fair, it is early, but Seunghyun is already up, raring to go in more ways than one.

“No, come on, give me something to work with,” he says, sucking wet kisses up and down the back of his mate’s neck. Jiyong cut Daesung’s hair last night and Seunghyun is loving all this newly-bared skin to lavish with so much attention.

You came with me yesterday, and that made me feel so good. He hadn’t even had to ask; Daesung brought up the idea all on his own. So now I want to make you feel great . Anything you want. Anything at all.

Daesung turns just in time for Seunghyun’s next kiss to fall squarely on his lips.

“Anything?”

Daesung rolls fully onto his back, forcing him aside—then pulls him back in until Seunghyun is climbing over him, until he is nestled snugly between his thighs. Daesung cups a warm hand around his head and, lifting his legs up, guides him down.

"Eat me."

Seunghyun grins, making sure to let out a little tooth so there is no mistaking just how pleased he is. Access granted. There is just one problem though.

"You're gonna need to be more specific than that," he says, not sure where to begin. There’s a lot to love down here.

“You know what I want,” Daesung says in a voice that’s scratchy with sleep and thick with arousal. “You always do.”

Seunghyun pauses. He used to think that too. But maybe, he is starting to see, it was not always about what Daesung wanted; it was about what he wanted for Daesung.

This isn’t about him anymore. And it never should have been.

“Why so shy? Just say it,” he croons, bending down and blowing over him. “Tell me.”

But Daesung stubbornly holds his silence, so Seunghyun stops waiting around for him and goes straight for what he knows he likes. When he strikes upon something good Daesung will let him know—whether he means to or not.

"Here?" Seunghyun lays a sweet kiss on his cock, still soft but starting to plump up under the imploring press of his lips. With perfect ease, his foreskin slides back so that the tip slips free, the head a hot pink that begs for his touch.

Seunghyun is enticed to it like a honeybee to an open flower, the tip wet with nectar, its rich color and heavy scent luring him in, watering mouth opening wide to take him—

A hand in his hair stops him.

“No, not there.” Daesung steers him down again. His knees touch his chest as this time he does more than grant him access—he invites him in.

Eat me.

Seunghyun saves his saliva. He’s going to need it.

“That clear enough for you? You know I don’t like telling you what to do,” Daesung says, hooking hands under his knees to hold them there. Shaking the hair from his eyes, he peeks down at him. “But I can show you.”

“And that makes me the luckiest fucking wolf in the world,” Seunghyun growls, going in for the kill. Wth Daesung offering himself up like dessert, he blazes a trail down his balls and perineum, hot and slick, kissing and sucking and keeping to the contours of his body as it dips in.

"Ow," Daesung complains when he nips him sharply. "When I said eat me I didn't mean take an actual bite out of me."

"You don’t like my love bites?"

“I don't know if I like them down there. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but you get a little carried away when you—” He sits up suddenly, legs drooping a bit. “I’m not bleeding, am I? Is there blood?”

“There’s no blood.” There is blood. He allows himself a devious grin, way down here where Daesung can’t see it. "Don’t worry, I won't hurt you… much."

Daesung heaves a sigh.

“I don’t know why I bare myself to you like this when all you do is threaten me.” Seunghyun hears his head thump against the den floor. “Survival instinct? What’s that? Here I am, flat on my back, spread wide for a hungry wolf who would like nothing more than to eat me alive.”

Seunghyun plants hands on the backs of Daesung’s thighs and bears down, hanging over him and baring sharp teeth at him in an unhinged grin like the wild thing they both know he is.

“I love you.”

“Yeah, I love you too,” Daesung says, tonguing at the inside of his cheek with an embarrassed smile. “Now do your worst, you big bad wolf. Before my legs go numb.”

Seunghyun throbs with need at that. Do his worst? Sure, but Daesung comes first, and he has made it clear what he wants. Seunghyun is going to eat him out like he hasn’t fed in weeks and his ass is a fucking feast.

"Turn over,” he tells him, pulling on his hip, “So I can…”  

“I would, but.” Daesung blushes—fucking blushes. “I want to watch.”

"You want to watch me chow down on your ass?” Seunghyun shoves his legs back up, out of his way. “It won't be pretty."

"It better not be,” Daesung says, wiggling his toes at him, and Seunghyun would laugh if he was not so keyed up with sexual energy, too turned on to think past the ass laid open before him.

"I fucking love you,” he says for the second time in as many minutes.

“You love fucking me.”

“That too.”

Daesung grins at that, but even his patience has its limits. "Come onnnn, don’t keep me waiting—ahh," he gasps and goes instantly quiet when Seunghyun’s tongue flattens over his hole and holds, relishing how Daesung clenches and relaxes under him. Pressing, pressing—

A small, desperate sound floats down to him from above, Daesung holding himself in a tight, tense ball while Seunghyun works to loosen him up, and that will not do; Seunghyun wants to feel him squirm. So he unleashes the full fury of his lips and tongue upon his mate’s quivering hole, licking over him with abandon until Daesung’s strict hold on himself releases, into him until Daesung’s hands are falling from his legs, forgetting them up entirely, every inch of his skin from his balls down slick with Seunghyun’s spit.

Seunghyun pulls away when his heels hit his back, parting his mate’s cheeks with his thumbs and admiring a job well done.

“I’ve ruined you,” he rasps, licking at lips that feel raw and remembering that once upon a time Daesung would not allow his mouth anywhere near here. Seunghyun has since developed a taste for it—no, a craving. “Fuckin’ ruined.”

Daesung’s head flops to the side and Seunghyun sees his wide, gasping grin. “That bad, huh?”

“Oh yeah, totally wrecked.” Seunghyun dips a teasing finger in. "Had enough yet?"

Breathing deep, Daesung pleads, “Don’t stop.”

So Seunghyun dives back in, ignoring the other wolf’s tail twitching and sweeping his chin, tightens his tongue into a fine point and stabs into him as much of it as he can fit. A needy cry breaks from above, sounding so far away to Seunghyun, who is so far gone in his art.

Pleasuring his mate is an art. And the more he practices it, the more he perfects it, the more mind-blowing it becomes for them both.

"Ready yet?" he says into Daesung’s skin, praying that the answer is yes. If it isn’t, he’ll soon have nothing left to give because he hasn’t so much as touched himself but if Daesung keeps on making those sounds and thrashing about under him like he is actually eating him, he is not going to last.

He wanted this to be all about Daesung. But maybe, just maybe, it can be a little about him too.

"Oh, fuck—Seunghyun, do it, do it," Daesung urges all of a sudden, half-sitting up and turning frenzied eyes on him. "Come on, need you now, put it in—"

Seunghyun needs it too, so he lines up and slides home, nothing more to it, Daesung watching him sink in with a slack expression that Seunghyun cannot wait to fuck right off him.

And he does just that, throwing his head back as he holds Daesung down and fucks him open, losing himself in the squeeze of his body and, it being just the two of them, alone in the den, the sounds he lets escape. Years ago Seunghyun might have stopped to ask, concerned, are you okay? Now he does not need to. He knows what those cries mean, knows that Daesung is close when he drops his legs and fists his cock instead, closing desperate fingers under the head to steady it as come dribbles out in a milky white line, strong thighs constricting around Seunghyun’s pistoning hips in a crushing grip as he sinks in one last time—and stays.

Because Daesung lets him, he stays.

There are days he still cannot believe he was once some dumb young wolf who, without a clue, went and stuck his dick in the best fucking thing that ever happened to him.

Later, lost in lazy kisses, they breathe the stillness back into each other while inside Daesung Seunghyun’s knot swells, as snug a fit as it’s ever been. Daesung sighs, the soles of his feet reconnecting with the floor, and Seunghyun feels him unwinding, easing up around his knot. Accepting him again, his shape and scent and claim.

Seunghyun sighs too, something in him uncoiling as it always does when they are linked like this. Nothing has ever instilled a calmness in him more effectively than Daesung.

But then, to his annoyance, Daesung breaks the kiss, groping over his head for something on the ground.

"What," Seunghyun mumbles into the side of his neck, missing the hands that had been scratching lightly down his back.

"The blanket,” Daesung says, straining to reach. “It's cold in here.”

You’re cold? That’s new.” Seunghyun snuggles closer, even though all he’s really doing is crushing him more. “You have a blanket. The best blanket. Me.”

Daesung laughs and Seunghyun thinks that’s the end of it… until the shivering starts.

Seunghyun heaves a sigh and reaches over their heads, seizing the blanket they had thrown off at the start. With the deerskins draped over them, soft from wear, and the heat of their bodies combined, the space around them is soon pleasantly toasty. Daesung gives him a grateful smile and coaxes him down into another slow, searing kiss.

"I guess if you're gonna let me hold you down and have my way with you—and then hang out on top of you after—the least I can do is keep you warm," Seunghyun says.

"The very least," Daesung agrees, and Seunghyun says no more. After all, if he wants Daesung to keep kissing him, best not to remind him where his mouth has just been.

Not long later, a dark silhouette ducks into the den, sweeping aside the elk hide they have hung across the entrance, followed closely by two more. Jiyong takes one look at them and stops mid-stride.

"You're locked in, aren't you?"

“What’s it to you?” Seunghyun mumbles, not looking up from his neck pillow. Maybe, if he is subtle enough about it, Daesung will not notice him sucking bruises into the hollow of his throat. Or at least won’t call him out on it.

"You always get that dopey look on your face," Youngbae chimes in gleefully.

“You can’t even see my face.” Then, to Daesung, he asks, "Do I?"

"Your face does go a little funny."

"Well, fuck.”

“You two are too damn cute,” Jiyong says, sounding oddly smug about it. Like he had anything to do with it. “I mean, sometimes the things you get up to together are fuckin' sick, but…"

"Don’t care, and you shouldn’t either,” Seunghyun says. Their alpha’s approval is appreciated, but not required. “You fuckers can make fun all you want but I'll be over here indulging in some of the finest ass this land has to offer."

Underneath him Daesung’s chest bounces with barely contained laughter, and soon a hand is on his mouth, silently pleading with him to stop. Seunghyun bites him.

Then, across the den something hits the ground, and he smells blood. Animal blood.

"Whatcha got?"

"While the two of you were in here dicking the morning away, the three of us were out there grabbing some breakfast."

"Anything for us?"

"Why would we give you anything," Jiyong says with a wicked grin, "when you've already eaten?"

And that’s it for Daesung who cannot hold it in any longer, his laughter exploding out of him at last, his whole body shaking with it—which means Seunghyun shakes too. He digs his claws into the deerskin under them, shocks of pleasure skating up his cock where it is still sunk in. Daesung’s laughter is always a treat… but it’s ten times sweeter when they are stuck together like this.

"You were watching us?” he grits out.

"We were still here when you got started. You didn't see us leave?"

“I was a little busy, if you couldn’t tell.”

Jiyong shakes his head, but not in disappointment. “Eat my ass, he says, and you dive right in like you haven't had a scrap to eat in weeks. If that's not true fuckin' love then I don't know what is.”

Seungri wanders over, licking smears of blood from his fingers. “You guys are like…” He looks at Jiyong. “What was it you called them?”

“Power couple,” Jiyong announces happily. “Every pack needs at least one.”

And with that, he snatches Seungri’s hand out of the air and sucks a finger into his mouth, startling him badly, and Seunghyun wonders if this band of misfits they call a pack might soon have two.

 

 

--

 

 

At long last, Jiyong gives them permission to approach the wolves.

No one is more thrilled about it than Seungri, who has been waiting months for this, smooth-talking Jiyong every chance he gets in the hopes that with enough buttering up, he just might give in and give him what he wants: permission. That Daesung had seen them first, after so long spent avoiding them, has been a sore point with him ever since the day he found out.

And Seunghyun’s need to rub it in his face, describing their close encounter in great detail, has not exactly helped.

“I’m sorry, Daesung,” Jiyong says, touching his arm in apology. “I told him not to push you. But you know how he is. He doesn’t listen.”

“I listen… sometimes,” Seunghyun says, practically hanging off Daesung’s shoulder. “Besides, it was his idea. He was ready.” He nuzzles into his neck, grinning. “Right?”

“Sure, if by that you mean ready to die.”

“Oh, come on, it wasn’t that bad.”

“I thought we were there to see them from a safe distance. Nothing about that was safe.”

“But it was special.”

“…yeah,” Daesung says after a moment, unable to deny that. “Yeah, I guess it was.” It was only later, when they were almost home, the welcome scent of his packmates layered over familiar scenery—Jiyong on the trees, Youngbae on that rock where he likes to sun himself, and Seungri somehow, appropriately, everywhere at once—that Daesung had regained the peace of mind to really reflect on what he now regards as a profound experience.

He never dreamed he would see a wolf in the flesh, much less touch one. Or, well, be touched by one. Perhaps there is nothing magical about them, perhaps they are just animals as he feared, nothing more. And yet… the more he thinks about the moment they shared, the more he wants to get to know them.

“There,” Seungri whisper-shouts, tail wagging furiously as he drops to all fours to hide himself. The rest of them follow his lead—and that he doesn’t notice says much about his focus, his world narrowed to nothing but the pack of wolves up ahead.

Pack of wolves. Daesung shakes his head, settling in beside his own pack for what could be a long wait. It almost does not seem right to refer to themselves as wolves anymore, not when the real thing is right in front of them.

They pass much of the afternoon like this, the five of them atop a ridge spying on their distant kin.

One wolf—a short, stocky male with cream-colored fur—rolls onto its back in submission when its larger packmate trots over and stares it down, the tips of its yellowed teeth bared. Daesung recognizes it as the tawny wolf he and Seunghyun had caught peeping at them weeks ago. A beta male by the looks of it.

The pale wolf whines, belly up, ears laid low, paws in the air, tail curled tightly between its back legs, and Daesung feels for it as he recognizes some of their own inexplicable behaviors on display. The tawny wolf, evidently unsatisfied with this, snaps its jaws in the air once—and the pale wolf cowers, seeming to become several times smaller.

“This feels familiar,” Youngbae comments, looking pointedly between Seunghyun and their youngest.

“Are you kidding me? Seungri never submits so easily. Or at all. The worst omega I’ve ever known,” Seunghyun says, ruffling his packmate’s hair. “Don’t ever change.”

Seungri just ducks his head and smiles, shocking everyone with his lack of reply… but no one more than Seunghyun. Disturbed, he turns to Daesung.

He’s really into them,” Daesung mouths back.

Then there’s a commotion down below and the two wolves are up and running, the tawny wolf chasing its pale brother, kicking up clumps of dirt as they tear through the grass, tongues lolling out the sides of their mouths in play. Whatever dispute they were having must have been resolved.

"I wish I could play with them,” Seungri says in a voice filled with longing.

Seunghyun licks his tongue over the fronts of his teeth, deep in thought. “I wish I could hunt with them. Think they would ever let us?”

“They know we’re here right now, watching them,” Jiyong says with a laid-back smile. “They’re surprisingly gentle creatures when they’re not being forced to fight. Who knows? Maybe we can forge something meaningful with them one day.”

“We're all animals, aren't we?” Youngbae adds. “Humans too. Just tool-wielding animals.”

“Do you see it now? That you're nothing more than an animal? Just like this mutt here.”

Daesung swallows hard around the memory of words that did him so much lasting damage. He cannot forget them or how they once hurt him—how they still hurt him—but he can refuse to let them define him any longer. It’s time to take a stand and stop leaving it to others to tell him who and what he is.

“We’re all just trying to get by,” Jiyong answers Youngbae thoughtfully. “What we call ourselves along the way doesn’t change that.”

Maybe, Daesung thinks, for the first time in a long time they can live without undue conflict. It does not have to be complicated. In fact, watching the wolves now, it all seems quite simple.

Maybe they don't have to fight. Not this time.

“What do you think, Daesung?”

“I’m glad I got to see them,” he says awkwardly. I’m glad I lived to see them, he cannot bring himself to say, not yet. Maybe not ever. Daring to hope again is difficult enough.

“And I’m glad to hear that.” Seunghyun nudges him playfully. “Now, tell me, do I need to worry about you running off to live with them?”

“I said I liked them, I didn’t say I wanted to be them,” Daesung says, pushing back. This is not like last time. Nothing will ever be like last time. “After everything I’ve been through, I think from now on I would just like to be myself.”

Something brushes his chin and he turns to find Seunghyun drinking him in, flecks of gold in his smiling black eyes.

“I’d like that too.”

Thumbing the scars on his neck absentmindedly, Daesung feels a thought forming and finds that this time, to his surprise, he actually believes it. He may never again be the person he was before, but some part of him—a part that’s holding on—is starting to think that might be okay.

His packmates love him just as he is. Now it's his turn to do the same.

 

 

--

 

 

On the way home that evening, while watching their youngest recount the things they have seen with his typical unrivaled energy, Seunghyun is reminded that he still has a question for Jiyong, one the other wolf has yet to answer—because, after several abandoned attempts, he never quite succeeded in asking. He catches up to him and, glancing furtively behind them to make sure the others are not listening in, finally asks him about Seungri.

Jiyong reacts like he knew the question was coming—which is to say he reacts very little at all. With nothing more than a look, he has Youngbae escorting their two youngest back to the den while he lags behind with Seunghyun. There is a question in Daesung’s eyes when they catch and hold Seunghyun’s, but Seunghyun waves him off, and to his relief, the other wolf turns to go, seeming satisfied enough with just that.

Daesung is as inquisitive as they come, but thankfully, never nosy.

“We’ve tried,” Jiyong confesses once the others are well out of earshot.

“And?”

“It didn’t work.” He kicks at a rock, sending it into some nearby shrubs. “Shit, I don’t know, I guess we’re just not compatible like that.” Letting go of a long sigh, he turns to the darkening sky for answers. “Maybe we’re too alike.”

“Too alike? That seems so backwards.”

“Too alike in a bad way.”

Seunghyun grins; it was plenty clear to him. “Too dominant, you mean.”

“Seungri wishes he could be. Hell, sometimes we…” Seunghyun sees the other wolf’s lips quirk up, his eyes going a little glassy as he delves into a thought—or a memory. When he comes back to himself it is with a sharp, self-aware jerk. “You know what, nevermind. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.”

Staring down at the scuffed-up toes of his boots so he does not have to see the misery in Jiyong’s voice mirrored on his face, Seunghyun frowns.

Bonding between werewolves is and always has been something of a mystery. Possibly someone somewhere out there has it figured out, but given their preference for isolationism, the large scale spread of knowledge between packs is practically unheard of. And with so much lore surrounding the subject—much of which Seunghyun has never put much stock in and much of which, in his years with Daesung, he’s found to be blatantly untrue—it’s hard to know what to believe. The only truth he accepts with any certainty is that which stems from his own senses—what he feels and smells and sees.

For how long it took him to acknowledge back then what Daesung had become to him, his inexperience is only partly to blame. He was a bit slow, yes; he was also skeptical.

“No one knows for sure why it happens… or why it doesn’t. Don’t feel too bad about it,” Seunghyun says, aiming for sympathetic with a friendly yet awkward pat on the back. It’s not that he has anything against the contact, but coming from him, the words feel a bit wooden given how much this topic means to him. If something were to happen to his bond with Daesung and he could not reestablish it, there would be no consoling him. To make light of it like this, even if he is only trying to help, feels wrong on so many levels.

And to think, there was once a time when the concept of mate meant nothing to him—just a flowery pet name between fools in love.

“Besides, as alpha, can’t you just declare a mate? We’ll recognize it.” They would have to. But in this pack there would be more to it than that. They love Jiyong, and Seungri too. They would not respect their union only because they felt pressured to; they would want to.

“C’mon, Jiyong,” he croons. “Make it official.”

Jiyong sighs again, and Seunghyun thinks, damn, he’s got it bad. How long has this been quietly taking place right under his nose without his knowing?

“I would, but I’m… waiting.”

“You’re always waiting,” Seunghyun points out. “Wait. Why are you waiting? Thought you said you already tried.”

“I did, it was right after we made it out of the city and had nowhere to go and I just—” A sad, scornful laugh. “Did you really think I had a plan in mind all along? It was like the blind leading the blind.”

Seunghyun doesn’t think he gives himself enough credit. Jiyong may not have known where exactly he was taking them… but whether he meant to or not, he led them here safely all the same. As far as Seunghyun is concerned, that’s all that matters.

“I was just glad to be out of there. I didn’t care where we were going,” he tells him. And was a little too absorbed in Daesung at the time to doubt where you were taking us.

“You know how I overthink things,” Jiyong continues sadly. “But this time I didn’t think, I just went for it. I knew I wanted it. I just didn’t know if…” He scrubs a hand through his hair, distressed in a way Seunghyun rarely sees him. “If we’d last long enough to have the chance to try again.”

And then it had not worked. This time there is nothing self-conscious about the hand Seunghyun lays on his friend’s back; this time the sympathy he feels for him is painfully real.

“But then we made it here, and I got to thinking. This place is perfect for us, but the road here has been a rocky one, hasn’t it?” Though Jiyong says it with a smile, Seunghyun feels something like shame winding around his soft insides and squeezing, knowing he is alluding to the friction between Daesung and him—and not the good kind.

“I think I see the end of it,” he offers up. “It’s not too far. We’ll get there.”

“That’s just the light playing tricks on your eyes,” Jiyong vehemently denies. “You saw how Daesung reacted when there was a chance Seungri might overthrow him—might soon outrank him. I know in the past he didn’t care so much about all that, but now…”

Seunghyun still is not sure why Daesung reacted as violently as he did that day. He thinks it had less to do with the rank shift and more to do with being physically overwhelmed in a time when he already felt under attack and spread thin by opposition from within. If the choice was taken from him kindly by someone he looks up to and trusts, obtained by gentle persuasion rather than by force, he might not find his new place in the pack quite so hard to stomach.

Seunghyun supposes, when he slows enough to give it serious thought, that among the five of them the term omega is really nothing to run from. Some packs treat their omegas like trash—Daesung’s old pack, for one. But that kind of shaming has never been their style. Sure, Seungri’s position opens him up to more taunting from the rest of them than he would receive otherwise, but part of that is due solely to Seungri being, well, Seungri; he is just so easy to tease. He doubts that would all go away over a little thing like rank.

Seungri has always been a terrible omega anyway. He doesn’t act like one, but he has been an indispensable part of their pack for so long they have all just learned to live with it.

Perhaps it’s time they took a long hard look at these outdated dynamics they grew up with, he is beginning to think. Rewrite the rules to better reflect the way the five of them fit together. Or, hell, do away with them altogether.

“And what about you?” Jiyong asks, pinning him with an incredulous look. “Are you really ready for alpha Seungri?”

“Well, when you put it that way…” Seunghyun grumbles. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be ready for that. But after all they have survived in their short lives, it seems selfish to keep this one sought-after thing from him. From both of them.

“We’ve been through a lot lately. So much change… so much upheaval,” Jiyong goes on, and Seunghyun is not sure he has ever seen him so down in the dumps. “I just don’t know if we’re ready for more.”

“Huh, Daesung had it right,” Seunghyun muses, impressed by his mate’s insight. “There’s something different about you lately… you seem softer.” Batting his lashes, he sings sweetly, “But I guess love will do that to you.”

Jiyong’s face darkens. “Excuse me for thinking of the pack’s well-being first and my own wants second.”

“Yours and Seungri’s.”

“What?”

“You and Seungri both want this, right?” It is strange to have to tell him this, his alpha… but also one of his closest friends and confidants, and the head of the only pack he has ever truly thought of as family. Seunghyun thinks it’s time. “You don’t have to be so self-sacrificing for our sake, not anymore. No one is making us abide by the old rules. We can live however we want now.”

“Seunghyun…”

“We can adapt.”

“Adapt,” Jiyong says, turning to face him with tired eyes. “I hate to have point this out, but historically, you haven’t exactly been the best at that.”

“Well, now I’m trying. Can’t you see I’m trying?” Just ask Daesung, he wants to say, he’ll put in a good word for me. “Fuck, I don’t know. You’ve helped me and Daesung through so much. I feel like I should do the same for you.”

Jiyong stops him with a hand on his shoulder; his grip is tight enough to hurt.

“Seunghyun, no,” he argues, “don’t feel like you have some duty to—"

“Sorry, that didn’t come out right.” Gently, Seunghyun removes his hand, holding the other wolf’s eyes the whole time. “I want to.”

Jiyong’s hands hang at his side. For a few concerning moments—concerning only because it is such an unusual state to see him in—he appears utterly lost.

“I want to too,” he says just when Seunghyun is sensing they might be done here. “Maybe you’re right. We’ve pulled through things that have torn other packs apart. It’ll be a dramatic shift, but maybe I’ve misjudged us. Maybe we can handle it.”

“You’re the only one saying maybe,” Seunghyun. “Which is funny, seeing as you’re the only one with the authority to make it a definitely.”

“Yeah, well.” Jiyong gives him a sly look. “I don’t abuse my position of power.”

“…and I do?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“You were thinking it,” Seunghyun accuses, managing to keep a lid on his laughter but helpless to stop his smile. “Implying it.”

“Hey, how you and Daesung do things isn’t any of my business unless it’s causing problems,” Jiyong says, resuming their walk back to the den under the approaching night’s first stars, the biggest and brightest. “And we seem to be past the worst of that. I think my work here is done.”

Seunghyun thinks so too. And now it is Jiyong’s turn for some much-deserved happiness.

"Just don't let it go to his head," he warns, already bracing himself for the storm of smug Seungri is sure to rain down upon them at his long-coveted promotion.

"I'll be elevating an omega to near alpha status. It's gonna go to his head at least a little," Jiyong tells him plainly. "But don't worry. He'll still answer to me, especially since he still has so much to learn." He touches a hand to his side as if recalling an old wound. "Remember that elk that kicked me?"

"Yeah, the one that—" Seunghyun stops, mouth hanging open as he is struck by a sudden, stark realization. "Oh. That was a test." Jiyong nods. "One he didn't pass." Another nod.

"He would have if he'd just taken it seriously like he was supposed to. He's smarter than he lets on," Jiyong says with an exasperated shake of his head.

He is right, Seunghyun thinks, to be frustrated. As the alpha's mate, Seungri will be expected to help Jiyong lead the pack in matters of group hunting, coordinating defense against outside threats, settling disputes within the pack to keep the peace, and, if necessary—though Seunghyun hopes it is never again required of them—migration. Seunghyun knows Seungri wishes to have a more prominent hand in making such decisions. The question is, is he capable?

That, Seunghyun reminds himself sternly, is up to Jiyong to decide.

“So…”

“So I’ll make a move when I’m ready, god, do you ever give up?” Jiyong’s laughter, lighter now, rings through the woods, empty but for the two of them. “But I still want to give the pack a little more time to warm up to the idea. Now that you know, maybe consider planting a seed in Daesung’s mind for me? Soften him up to the prospect of co-alpha Seungri?”

“Sure. What about Youngbae?”

“Leave Youngbae to me.”

“So we’ve gone from maybe to probably,” Seunghyun says, falling into step beside him. “Sounds like progress to me.”

Jiyong laughs again, in significantly higher spirits now than when they began.

“It’s an eventually.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Daesung stares down at the ball of fluff in his mate’s arms—at the long, puffy tail hanging lifeless from the bundle of fur and folded up limbs.

Seunghyun has brought him a fox. A dead one, of course.

“This must be what a cloud feels like,” he marvels, alternating between stroking and squeezing it, amazed. “Did you have to kill it?”

“We’ve gotten pretty good at tanning deer skins,” Seunghyun tells him. “I thought maybe it’s time we tried our hand at tanning furs too. It’s so much softer.” He cannot seem to stop touching it. “So much nicer.”

“And you know Jiyong will want the skull,” Daesung adds, nudging up the fox's lip and revealing rows of sharp, yellowed teeth. When it comes to skulls, their leader has amassed quite a collection, hanging them I rows across the walls of the den, but Daesung doesn’t think he has a fox yet.

He pets the fox a little longer, its fur the color of a sunset under his hand. Beneath it all is a surprisingly tiny body, one that is still slightly warm. A fresh kill. Does Seunghyun plan to eat this? Does he expect him to? Like the meat of most predators, fox meat is foul, and not something he would willingly eat unless he was out of options.

Especially after the last time Seunghyun offered him fox… which, as it turned out, had not been fox at all.

“Do you remember…” He stops, wondering if he really wants to bring this up.

“Hmm?” Seunghyun takes the fox from him and set it on the ground on its back. Then, starting at the neck, he and works a claw under the skin, pulling down as if unzipping it. “Remember what?”

“…when you fed me that fox meat that wasn’t fox meat,” Daesung finishes.

Seunghyun’s hand stops at the fox’s belly.

“Of course I do.”

“Was it someone we knew?”

“No,” he says, and Daesung almost sighs with relief. “But…”

“…but?”

“Han Seo Hee.”

"You got their name?!" Daesung cries, horrified. “Her name?”

“I didn't want it!” Seunghyun says, suddenly defensive. “I didn’t ask for it. She choked it out with her dying breath. She knew it was the end for her, she hardly even put up a fight. Maybe all she wanted was to be known.” He growls, “And here we are, still talking about her years later. I guess she got what she wanted in the end.” Then, quietly, eyes darting to and from Daesung so quickly he almost misses it, “That’s fine though. So did I.”

"Do you ever regret it?"

Fuck no,” Seunghyun swears viciously, spit flying. “Eating her back then might be the only reason we’re alive right now.”

"Hmm, that’s true. Do you ever wonder if she lives on inside us? Like, think she became a part of us when we ate her?” Daesung asks, and he cannot believe the words coming out of his mouth, cannot believe that a once-traumatic event has become something they can joke about so freely.

Is this what it means to heal?

“Yeah, she became a part of me alright,” Seunghyun says dryly. “Until I shit her out.”

And then they are both doubling over with laughter until their sides are sore with it, wiping tears of mirth from their squeezed-shut eyes.

“I thought it would turn me into something terrible, since it’s forbidden,” Daesung says when he has calmed down enough to speak again, squatting down to join Seunghyun on the ground.

He remembers the fear. For days he had waited to feel himself change, tortured by wild thoughts of what he might become for consuming one of his own kind… and, trapped in those thoughts, had forgotten to hate Seunghyun for making him do it. But what he feared never came, nothing changed, except that he was no longer so desperately hungry.

And as for his thoughts toward Seunghyun, Daesung could not hold a grudge against him, not for long. He never can.

“That’s just an old wives’ tale. Your mom told you too many stories growing up,” Seunghyun says, fussing with the fox’s legs. “And you believed them.”

“Not all of them were made-up,” Daesung says, defending the things he held dear in his formative years. “The ones about wolves were real.”

Seunghyun looks up from him work, watching him with an expression that is free and easy and so hopelessly fond.

“What?” Daesung asks, face heating uncomfortably, so he nods at the fox, at where Seunghyun’s hands have frozen in place. “Do you need help with that? I can hold—”

“I’m glad you like them,” Seunghyun says.

“The stories?”

“The wolves.”

Daesung smiles and reaches for the fox’s front legs, holding them out of the way so Seunghyun can work unhindered.

“You know, I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to shift. To change the shape of your own skin.”

The closest thing to shifting he has ever known is when he brings forth his claws and teeth. His canines jutting from his gums triggers an itch, one he can only satisfy by lodging them in something soft and warm and wet—fresh meat. It varies from wolf to wolf, more intense in some than in others.

Like the urge to fuck, he muses. All tooth and claw and cock. That is what they have been called, and Daesung sees no sense in denying it when it’s what they are.

“Do you wish you could? I do sometimes.” Seunghyun flips the fox over, tugging at its pelt with short, sharp jerks, peeling it back and off. “It’s just a thought though. Nothing serious. I’m comfortable in my own skin.”

“Same,” Daesung agrees, because he is finding that day by day, little by little, so is he.

 

 

--

 

 

Later, when Seunghyun has left the area, skinned fox in one hand and its fluffy red pelt in the other, Daesung promises to catch up to him before ducking behind some bushes to heed nature’s call.

He has just buttoned up his pants and is turning to go when a faint splashing in the creek nearby floats over to him.

That’s not the way Seunghyun went.

Crouching behind a bush for cover, he expects to find a doe with her fawn or something of the sort… not the wolf pack, out and about in broad daylight. The she-wolf and her litter of pups are with them this time, bringing the pack to ten members in total. And, of course, leading the charge though the water is the one he could never forget, his black coat glossy when wet.

It’s like they’re not hiding from us anymore, he thinks, charmed by the sight of them making their way across the creek. No more fear from either side, just fascination.

He watches as, one by one, they wade into the water, paddling across the creek with heads held high, tails streaming behind them, paws underneath kicking against the current in a controlled rhythm. As with all they do, they make it look easy, reaching the opposite bank and rising smoothly back to their feet. Then, when they are standing square, they shake vigorously, drying their wet coats and spraying creek water everywhere.

Daesung grins; he does that with his hair sometimes, though he’s usually flinging the water at someone. Most often Seunghyun or Seungri.

The pups are cute, but he hardly recognizes them as the helpless creatures he had chanced upon in early spring. He wonders if they can still be called pups with how they have grown, several times the size they were when he last saw them. Back then they could barely crawl; now they might as well be small-scale adults, their guard hairs growing in and giving them the markings that will set them apart from their littermates for the rest of their lives. Although, Daesung notices with a smile, they are clearly still growing into those oversized paws of theirs.

The pups hesitate at the water’s edge, the four of them lined up and waiting to see who will make the first move. But their hesitation does not last for long, not with the pack calling to them, waiting on them patiently. With their family’s encouragement, they soon take the plunge and swim across without issue… and the moment they are free of the water they are ready to romp and play again, another of life’s hurdles crossed. Just ahead, their mother awaits—the alpha’s mate, a steely gray with no-nonsense brown ears and snout and an undeniable air of authority that her pups respond to readily. She nips at their flanks to keep them moving, and Daesung cannot help smiling even as he feels the phantom pain of those teeth piercing his leg.

He has forgiven her for it. She was defending her young, as any good mother would. And though he was stiff for days, moving with a noticeable limp, he soon got over his wounds. Like many things lately, he has let it go.

As he stares at the creek, remembering how effortlessly the wolves had crossed the deep, a familiar fear creeps up on him.

Why is he still so afraid? It’s just water. He wishes he knew what he could do to overcome it.

He looks down at his hands. Paddles the air with them as they had, testing. The method Seunghyun had tried to teach him was different, scarier somehow; Daesung panicked every time his face touched the water. Even worse was the sensation of it filling his ears, his world going cold and muffled. But the wolves have managed it with their heads raised, their faces and eyes and ears all as dry as when they began.

Wolves and humans are social creatures, and Daesung, being made up of both, cannot bear to be left behind. It isn't right to ask his packmates to wait on him forever as he searches for a longer, safer way around when, like the rest of them, he could just go straight through.

He has some catching up to do; and if the wolves and their pups can do it, he can too.

 

 

--

 

 

“What are you drawing?” Shoes scraping over the dirt, a muffled laugh. “Is that supposed to be a dick?”

Seunghyun turns lazily from where he had been dozing in the grass, his little patch of peace and quiet. Jiyong is crouched on the ground, inspecting something that’s been scratched into the dirt at Daesung’s feet.

Daesung sweeps a foot over it quickly, erasing whatever he had been drawing. Or, if Seunghyun’s guess is correct, writing.

“No, it was… um,” he stutters, looking to Seunghyun for help. “Uhh.”

“Give me that.” Jiyong grabs his stick and jabs it into the dirt, tongue poking out of his mouth in concentration. A minute later he steps back, inviting Daesung to critique his work.

“That’s very… lifelike,” Daesung says, nodding appreciatively.

“It’s all in the details,” Jiyong answers, beaming.

“You know what I miss?” Seunghyun announces loudly, strolling over to them lazily. “Dick Rock. This place is great, but does it have rocks shaped like dicks? No.”

“You’re just not looking hard enough,” Jiyong says with a waggle of his eyebrows. Behind him, Daesung laughs.

Dick Rock. In truth, they had lost that landmark to rival packs long before humans moved in and began wreaking havoc on the land, driving away their main food source and hunting what remained to scarcity. It had been all downhill from there. If he had known that his time with their land’s most prominent feature was finite, Seunghyun would have made an effort to go there more often.

“That’s it, let’s go back.” He starts away in a hurry.

Daesung pulls him back with an arm linked through his.

“What, The Twins aren’t enough for you?”

“Those old mounds? You know I’m not a boob guy,” Seunghyun scoffs. “Twin Peaks? They’re not that impressive.”

With a silly grin, Jiyong returns his stick to the dirt and scratches out an image of the two identical hills, carefully arranged so that his dick drawing is aimed right at it.

“Twin Cheeks?”

“That’s more like it,” Seunghyun says, and Daesung doesn’t even twitch when he takes that as his cue to reach down and cup one half of his ass.

Damn, he thinks, giving his handful a squeeze. He’s become predictable.

A breeze floats by, and the scent of one of their own reaches them just seconds before they hear a shout.

“Are you guys drawing dicks without me?!” Youngbae yells out as he jogs toward them, a flustered-looking Seungri not far behind. “Hang on, let me find something—”

“There’s always your fingers,” Jiyong calls out as Youngbae runs off in search of something to draw with.

“Jiyong could break his in half and share,” Daesung suggests.

“His fingers?!”

“His stick.” A moment later he mutters, too softly for anyone but Seunghyun to hear, “It was mine first anyway.”

“You’re just too nice,” Seunghyun tells him, nose in his hair, lips nibbling at his ear. In reply Daesung puts an elbow in his ribs—nicely.

“Does alpha mean anything to you? If Jiyong wants my stick, he gets my stick.”

“Wait, are we still talking about sticks, or...”

Daesung laughs and pecks him on the lips, a move that's more laugh than kiss, and Seunghyun decides that like Daesung himself, it’s perfect.

Suddenly emboldened, he reclaims his mate’s stick, wrenching it out of Jiyong’s slack hand when he isn’t looking and offering it to his mate.

“Oh, no, no, no,” Daesung says, putting his hands up and backing away, and Seunghyun is not given a chance to follow before Jiyong, all one hundred and thirty pounds of him—lean, muscle-wrapped wolf hybrid seeking retribution—is cutting off his air with skinny arms around his neck and dragging him down into the dirt…

…and right on top of his masterpiece of male anatomy.

 

 

--

 

 

“Look at this thing,” Seungri says, picking up something long and dark and, by the looks of it, heavy.

Daesung thinks it’s a branch at first glance, but no—it’s a shed antler. a gift from their local elk herd. Sheds are nothing new to them, but never have they happened upon one quite like this. It takes two hands to hold comfortably and strength to lift. For the bull elk that grew this, its weight was nothing; but now the annual rut is over, mating season come and gone, and such weapons are no longer needed, so the males let them fall and move on.

And now it’s theirs.

“You were wanting one, right?” Youngbae says, sidling up to Seungri and tapping the end of one curved tine. “And you didn’t even have to kill a big bull to get it. You must be so disappointed.”

Seungri passes the antler to him and sets off in search of more, a hand over his eyes to shield them from the sun.

“Antlers come in sets, right? Keep looking, maybe we’ll find the other one.”

Youngbae shoves it into Seunghyun’s arms, nearly gouging his eye out in the process.

Watch it.”

“Sorry,” Youngbae says, not sounding especially contrite.

“I can't believe they regrow these things every year.” Seunghyun plants one end of the antler in the dirt, leaning on it like a staff. "What a waste of energy. And for what? Growing bone?"

"We waste a lot of energy growing bone too… and then getting rid of it,” Daesung says, swiveling his hips. Seunghyun is there in an instant, catching his hand in an exuberant high five.

“Yeah, some of us more than others,” Jiyong says with a lewd grin, and that is when Seungri returns triumphantly with another matching antler held high in one hand, completing the set.

Before long they are playing with the antlers, swinging them at each other like swords. The clack of bone on bone as they exchange blows hurts Daesung’s ears so he edges away from where Seunghyun and Seungri are locked in battle, as dangerous as any pair of bull elk fighting for the right to mate.

It all comes down to fucking in the end, doesn’t it, he thinks, moving out of range.

Except that some of them are wild enough to like fighting simply for the sake of fighting. He shakes his head and glances over his shoulder where, dark and silent at the bottom of a steep drop-off, there lies Deep Creek. Aptly named because they have traveled up and down its banks for miles and still have yet to find a part of it that’s not.

If they had, maybe he would have spent more time in it by now, Daesung thinks. Wading in shallow water is fine. But since Seunghyun has given up on teaching him how to swim—

He is just reaching the end of that thought when something knocks into him from the side, punching the air from his lungs and throwing his feet out from under him—the ground, too. He does not even get the chance to cry out before the water closes over him.

 

 

--

 

 

Seungri’s next strike catches him in the side, but Seunghyun is numb to the pain because he just watched Daesung disappear.

Right over the edge of a rocky bluff.

Daesung, he tries to call out but can’t, throat constricting with terror as he throws the antler he had been battling Seungri with to the ground and rushes to the edge.

Oh, water, he thinks through a wave of relief, taking in the foam and rings of ripples telling him where Daesung fell went in.

Then, oh shit. Water.

“What the hell, Seungri? Watch where you’re going,” he hears Jiyong’s shrill voice as his feet leave the edge too.

Then he’s in, he’s under and fighting his way back up through the rushing in his ears and the cold hand around his heart and the panic in his blood. Where’s Daesung? Did he come back up at all? What if he hit something on the way down? What if he’s down there, trapped in the deep dark? Seunghyun shakes the wet hair from his eyes and scans the surface frantically for his missing mate, prepared to go to the bottom for him if he must. He does not know how far below the water reaches, how deep it goes. What if he can’t reach him in time, what if he can’t reach him at all, what if he’s…

He’s…

…dog paddling toward the shore?

“Where did you learn to do that?” Seunghyun asks when he has caught up to him a few frantic moments later. Daesung flops onto his back, panting, but otherwise in fine shape.

“Did I just…” A few breaths in he laughs, no less surprised than Seunghyun. “Did I just swim?

Seunghyun gapes at him, lost for words, while somewhere in the background is the sound of their packmates clumsily following them down the cliff face, kicking up a terrible commotion as they go. It is a far cry from the wolf pack’s graceful descent he and Daesung witnessed just the other day.

“I think you did,” he says, his fear a weight discarded at the bottom of the creek because Daesung did not need saving just now—he saved himself. He did not panic, he did not drown, he did not let himself be pulled down. He found a way out, and he did it all on his own.

And Seunghyun is so unspeakably proud.

Daesung lifts his hands and paws at the air, his clothes soaked through and clinging, laughter bubbling up and spilling out of him—laughter, not water—and to Seunghyun, he looks as if he could accomplish anything. Like he could spread invisible wings and take to the sky if he wanted to, if he was only willing to try.

 

 

--

 

 

Seungri had fallen to the ground where Daesung lay and tackled him, practically weeping out an apology.

“Trying to get me back for beating you up, huh?” Daesung had joked, then pulled him down with dripping wet arms and hugged him harder, until Seungri whined out his distress, tail curling in complaint.

Seeing that the danger has passed, they soon wander away, but Seunghyun remains there with him, still processing what has just taken place.

This changes everything.

He is watching Daesung fight with his jeans as he peels them down his legs, needing to hang the soaking wet denim to dry, when something catches his eye.

“The holes,” he blurts out suddenly, “the ones that Jiyong closed up for you.”

Daesung stops, his pants caught around his knees. “Huh?”

“They’ve come open.”

“Have they?” Straightening out the fabric confirms it; somewhere along the way, the fraying threads that held the holes closed have given way, blowing wide open like windows to his skin. The sight of them seems to give him pause; he spends a moment admiring the tears in his jeans like old friends he thought he would never see again.

"The stitches," he says, running a finger over their worn edges. “They couldn't hold up.”

"Well, nothing lasts forever."

Daesung gives him a quizzical look. “You keep saying that. Why?”

"Because it's true."

"It's depressing."

“Is it?” Seunghyun hooks a finger in one of the holes, gives it a sharp tug.

"What—hey! What are you doing?!" Daesung bats his hand away—or tries to, but Seunghyun is determined. This has been a long time coming. Too long.

"Letting more of it out."

"More of what?"

"This darkness that's been seeping out of you ever since we left the city."

Daesung hums with a faint but recognizable musical lilt, and for a moment Seunghyun thinks he might burst into song; he has not stopped singing that one he and Jiyong came up with together, something upbeat and peppy about wings or something. Seunghyun has heard it so many times by now he could probably sing it himself if he wanted to.

“A part of me missed these,” Daesung says, apparently deciding against singing. “They were coming apart but they were comfortable, because they were mine, I made them. To be honest, even though I asked Jiyong to fix them, I was sad to see them go.” Finally, he lets them be, looking out across the water. “They’ve seen better days but… I like them this way. A little worn, a little frayed.”

“Could say the same about you.”

Daesung cracks a smile at that. “So I’m like a pair of pants to you?”

“Maybe. Yes.” His skin is wet but still so warm when Seunghyun leans on him. “I want to grow old with you.”

"Well, now that I can swim…” Daesung trails off. “How old are we anyway? Does anyone even know?”

Seunghyun shrugs. "Doesn’t matter. You and I will never die. We're gonna live forever.”

“Forever, huh?”

“Yep, and you’re gonna be stuck with me for all of it.”

"But I thought nothing lasts forever," Daesung says, throwing his own favorite words back at him.

"Maybe not. But some things…” Seunghyun leans into him, loving how his eyes slip shut in anticipation. “They last as long as we do.”

Against his lips, warm and soft, Daesung whispers, “Did you come up with that yourself?”

No. Jiyong did. I stole it from him.

“Yes.” He makes sure to draw back with a loud smack. “Pretty good, huh?”

Daesung’s face softens. “Seunghyun, you’re the craziest wolf I’ve ever known. But even you must know you’re not invincible.”

"Not with that attitude." Seunghyun smiles wide, all his sharp teeth—some of his very best assets—on full display. "Come on, let's go fuck something up."

He wants to find the herd and set it into motion. Wants to nip at their hindquarters, sending them running for their lives. Wants to see himself reflected in the whites of their eyes. Wants to hear the thunder of their hooves pounding the earth, racing after this healthy herd three hundred strong until his lungs burn. With all the speed and strength and stamina of his kind he dreams of the chase, of driving these dumb, delicious creatures onward with his mate at his side. Together they will press them harder, faster, farther, until one weakens and drops.

Just one, that is all they need.

Then he and Daesung will fall upon it, and all the valley and the mountains overlooking it will witness their might and ferocity.

The way Seunghyun sees it, anything less is not living.

 

 

--

 

 

Daesung is halfway into the den, mind on the warmth of his bed and the man he shares it with, hand on the elk skin that serves as a door, when he hears it.

Howling.

He remembers the late-night piercing cries of the coyotes back home—their old home, he corrects himself. He could never forget the packs’ otherworldly screeching and wailing as they ganged up on prey in the dead of night. It sent his nerves skittering across the floor, made him want to curl up under the covers and hope the distance between them holds.

This, however, is not that. This is nothing like that.

A shiver runs through him at the sound, something seething inside him, bubbling up. He sucks in a breath, needing to release it, not knowing what it is or why it foams up inside him or how to let it out, but maybe if he just opens his mouth and—

His packmates come running, all of them trying to exit the den at once and falling over each other on the way out. Daesung almost doesn’t make it out of the way in time.

“Is that—”

Yes,” Seunghyun breathes, eyes turned to the full moon, a white sun in the night sky. And behind it, fields of diamond-bright stars and colorful dust in a ribbon of light, as intense as a skunk’s stripe. They do not know what it is, only that it has always been there, its constant presence as breathtakingly beautiful as it is comforting.

“How come we’re only hearing them now?” Seungri asks, sounding troubled. “It’s not the moon, is it? I thought wolves didn’t howl at the moon.”

“They're not howling at the moon,” Jiyong says. “They're howling to each other. It's how they keep track of the pack.”

“But they’ve been so quiet until now.”

“Not anymore though,” Youngbae says, smiling serenely with his eyes closed. “God, listen to it. It never ends.”

Daesung does not need to be told twice. He is listening, and the longer he listens in the more he loses himself in the haunting melody. The rise and fall of the wolves’ wild voices floating over to them from across the valley is more than a sound… it feels like something he has been waiting his whole life to hear. He stands there in the warm night air, the seasons suspended between summer and spring, letting their wolfsong inspire as it surrounds him and sinks in and settles in his bones.

Acceptance. That is what it feels like.

Up ahead, he sees Seungri touch a hand to his throat. “Why don't we ever howl? I mean, we can,” he says, referring to when they have turned to their howl in times of need, a last-ditch cry for help.

Youngbae scrubs a hand through their omega’s hair, mussing it up. “You’re still asking questions?”

“It’s a good question,” Seunghyun says, surprising them all. But that is all he says, with hands lax at his sides and eyes unfocused. Daesung shuffles over to him until their arms brush, waves of heat pouring off the bared skin beneath the hems of his mate's short sleeves.

“We should howl back. Let them know we're here in their own language,” he says as if in a trance, the heat and the howling getting to him.

“They know we’re here.”

“Let them know we’re here to stay.”

Seungri looks like he might break through his own skin at the suggestion. "Can we?" he asks excitedly, turning feverish eyes on Jiyong. "Just for a few seconds, if they stop we'll stop too—" Jiyong's arm whips out and drags him in for a kiss so swiftly he stumbles on the way over... and when they part, the look he gives him lasts a little too long to be anything but intensely loving.

Daesung knows what that look means. He has seen it smoldering in Seunghyun's eyes often enough.

Are they...? Will they...? It isn’t something Daesung has given much thought to, what it will mean for him if they do, but something tells him he should, and soon. If Jiyong ever gets past whatever is holding him back and decides to go through with it, taking Seungri as his mate, there will be nothing he can do to prevent it.

Though after all those two have walked him through, why would he even want to? Perfectly at peace in this present moment, his fingers laced with Seunghyun's, the thought of what is to come does not shake him. If it means the happiness of his packmates, it's a sacrifice he is willing to make.

And Seungri won't even have to fight him for it this time.

"If they stop," Jiyong says, facing the valley again, "we'll keep going."

“So, you wanna?” Seungri fills his lungs in preparation, sparing the rest of them a glance with eyes that gleam bright—but that is as far as he gets before Jiyong steps out first and shows them the way like the leader he is, throwing his head back and sending his voice into the night sky, reaching for the stars, leading them confidently in an ancient song, one they did not know they knew.

But that’s okay. There are no words that fit this tune… it’s all soul.

 

 

--

 

 

Winter is a fading memory.

...but its effects can still be seen upon the land if one knows where to look, and Daesung is in the perfect place today to do just that. Fields of snow melting at higher elevations have turned their little stream into a remarkably busy body of water several times its normal size. Most days the smooth, sloping rock he is resting on would be nowhere within reach of the stream. But on this day, with the legs of his jeans rolled up his calves, he can test the water with his toes right where he reclines.

His foot has barely breached the surface when goosebumps erupt across his body. It’s like ice.

Which, well, he supposes it was ice not very long ago.

Returning his feet to the rock, Daesung turns his face skyward to catch the little bit of sunlight filtering through the trees and thinks of Seunghyun. It is comforting to know that, no matter where he may be and how much may separate them—a distance that can be measured or one that can only be felt—he can always be found under the same sun, sharing the same warmth.

Speaking of Seunghyun…

"You're not going to push me in, are you?"

A familiar face pops up at the far end of the rock, mouth stuck in a pout.

“I was thinking about it,” Seunghyun says, hauling himself up. “But lucky for you, I changed my mind. It’s only fun if I catch you by surprise.”

Daesung smiles and turns back to the stream, though he keeps his ears open, tracking the other’s approach. When it comes to Seunghyun and playing pranks, only a fool would let his guard down.

“If you push me in, I’m pulling you in with me. And I’m warning you now, it’s fucking freezing.”

"You wouldn't have to. I'd dive in with you."

“No, I meant—” Daesung sighs. Seunghyun doesn’t have to follow him in. Not anymore. “I can swim now.”

“Yeah, but your technique could use a little work,” Seunghyun says, dipping down and sitting cross-legged at his side. Daesung supposes he really has given up on shoving him in. “So, until I see you do it again… and again… and again for good measure, until you’ve got it down so well you could swim in your sleep,” he says, poking a finger into Daesung’s ribs where he is most ticklish, “Wherever you go, I go too. Even if that means freezing my balls off.”

"Suit yourself.” Daesung flicks a few droplets of water at him, sending him scurrying. “That’s just a taste! Just so you know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Seunghyun makes a long face at him, his big wet eyes as innocent as a doe’s… but Daesung knows that’s a boldfaced lie.

“You’re not fooling anyone with those eyes,” he chides. “That doesn’t work on me. Just like it doesn’t work when Jiyong tries it on Seungri. Are they still sleeping?”

“Nope, both gone by the time I got up.” Out of the corner of his eye, Daesung catches Seunghyun flashing him a sneaky look. “Seems like they’re always together these days. Think it could mean something?”

“Yeah, it means they should tie the knot already.”

The sneaky look on Seunghyun's face melts into one of surprise.

“What? It’s obvious they want to," Daesung says, keeping his voice calm and controlled for Seunghyun's sake, just in case this is news to him. "Although knowing Jiyong, we might all have gray hair by the time they get around to it."

"I don't know," Seunghyun throws out casually. "Could be sooner than you think."

Our hair turning gray? Daesung almost says just to be cheeky, but decides against it. He knows what Seunghyun meant. "Did Youngbae finish planting his flowers?” he asks, falling back on a safer topic for now.

“Yeah, all around the front of the den. Wait ‘til you see it. You’ll go blind.” Seunghyun squints at him. “Aren’t you supposed to be gathering water?”

“The flowers won’t die if they aren’t watered right away,” Daesung gripes, though Seunghyun is right. The bucket Youngbae sent with him is somewhere behind him, tipped over on its side in the grass. “He acts like they’ll wither away the second he takes his eyes off them.”

“Well, nothing lasts for—stop!” Seunghyun yelps and scoots away when Daesung flicks more water at him, two freezing handfuls this time.

You stop,” Daesung laughs. “If I have to hear that one more time…"

“Okay, okay, I won’t torment you with it anymore.” Seunghyun rejoins him, holding his hands up this time to show he means no harm. “But in return, you have to do something for me.”

“…what?”

“Sing me a song?”

For a moment Daesung forgets to answer; whatever he was expecting Seunghyun to ask of him, it was not that.

“I don’t know very many. It’s usually just me making stuff up and it’s not very—”

“There’s the one Jiyong made for you.”

Daesung feels his face scrunching up in doubt. “I thought you were sick of that one.”

“I just want to hear you sing, I don’t care what it is. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It doesn’t even have to have words.” Seunghyun’s tail gives a single, hopeful wag, and Daesung is reminded once again how when his mate is not out there pulling down prey twice his size and weight, providing them meals for days, he is following him around like an overgrown pup eager for his affections.

Slobbering all over him like one too. And gnawing on him, and pouncing on him, and pinning him down and climbing on top and pressing in until they are skin to skin, close enough to—

Well, Daesung stops that thought there, smirking to himself. Nothing about that is puppy-like.

“Alright, one song,” he says, giving in. He always does. “Just remember, you asked for it.”

So for his audience of one he frees his voice and sings about the promise of good things to come, about sprouting wings, about the power of belief and new beginnings, because...

Because everything will pass,” he finishes, the final note tapering off… and considers starting again so he does not have to sit through this silence, wondering what Seunghyun thought of it, did he like it, was he even listening? Was it too much—or was it too little? He has the range, he has the control, he has the soul, but Seunghyun isn’t saying anything, not a word, not a sound. Has he failed to do Jiyong’s inspiring song the justice it deserves?

Before he can follow that thought any farther down its dark and treacherous path, insecurity eating away at him with every step, a hand slips into his. Seunghyun pulls it over his lap and enfolds it in his own, and by the way he holds him—firmly, gently, dearly—Daesung has a feeling he will not be getting it back any time soon.

“You can sing that for me as many times as you like,” Seunghyun says, looking down at their linked hands like it is the only thing that brings him peace. “And as many times as you need to.”

For a while Daesung contents himself with watching him, entertained by the tickle of fingers playing over his palm, soft touches from a mind that seems adrift in a stream of thought. So he lets Seunghyun have his hand while his mind meander too, other sights and sounds tempt him away—the babbling brook flowing past their bare feet, the brightly-colored birds that make their homes in the trees, their birdsong filling the air, the wildflowers that find a way to grow all the way down here where it is dark most of the year, sprouting up stubbornly in patches of dappled sunlight. Splashes of brilliance in an otherwise bleak place.

The world is telling them something, and if he listens closely, Daesung can just make out what it is.

No more sad songs. Hand in hand in the sun through the trees, enveloped in the fragrance of spring, it is finally time for them to live.