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A Wealth of Intimacies

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δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.
You cannot step into the same river twice.

- Heraclitus (6th-5th centuries BCE)

I

Namjoon had never expected to find himself as the pack alpha of a chaotic bunch of fellow youths when only a kid himself, but he had learned on the job, with years spent agonising how to be a better leader, a better alpha. He’d gradually grown into the responsibility and liked to think he’d improved, too.

But he wasn’t perfect – far from it. The hashtags of #PerfectAlphaPerfectLeader were nice, of course, but that never reflected how he viewed himself. He had so many shortcomings.

Take Jimin, for instance.

Jimin had been swivelling his omega hips at anyone who would look, with increasing confidence, for the length of time Namjoon had known him. As far as Namjoon was concerned, he was immune: Jimin could do hip thrusts and body rolls against him – and often did, for no valid reason – and if Namjoon was in a bad mood, he ignored Jimin, and if he was in a good mood, he mumbled a “you’re such a great dancer, Jiminie,” but didn’t look up from his phone as he said it.

Jimin would nevertheless preen over the compliment, more bounce in his step as he went in search of another pack member to get praise from. Especially Namjoon and Jungkook had a weakness for Jimin batting eyelashes at them, whether Jimin wanted their snacks or a dancing partner for the middle of the dressing room. Alphas and omegas, and so forth. Namjoon wouldn’t go as far as to say they were collectively whipped for Park Jimin, but neither could he in any good conscience deny such accusations.

But, too often, Namjoon told Jimin to leave him be, even when he knew how much the small comments meant for the omega. It was only natural for Jimin to seek the pack alpha’s approval, and Namjoon wasn’t always patient enough. Namjoon was, in general, relieved there were six non-Jimins in the pack to give the omega nearly all the attention that Jimin craved, because Jimin was a lot to handle.

Seokjin, on the other hand, remained a mystery to him: Seokjin certainly never marched up to Namjoon to demand that he be called pretty – and it made sense, because Seokjin was his hyung, even if Namjoon was the pack leader.

Instead Seokjin could be bouncing recklessly around the dorm, doubling over in laughter; fighting nerves before a show, reserved and withdrawn; or Seokjin could be casually reminding them all mid-photoshoot that he was, perhaps, the most beautiful omega that the world had ever been blessed with – Namjoon rarely knew which Seokjin to expect when he woke up in the morning, and most often he got all of these Seokjins within moments of each other.

And unlike Jimin, who smirked at perfect strangers (poor foreign journalists) with a ‘I could have you licking my boot in three minutes flat and you’d thank me’ smile, Seokjin snorted and guffawed when he was voted Korea’s Most Desirable Omega three years in a row, then declaring, “This poll is all wrong – just Korea? Where’s the poll for the most desirable omega in the world? Let’s tell them – worldwide handsome!”

So Seokjin knew that he was devastatingly good-looking, but Namjoon was distantly aware that Seokjin was self-conscious of his height and shoulders – model-like features that had resulted in Seokjin being scouted on the street, perhaps, but many thought omegas were still supposed to be petite like Jimin. On the surface, however, Seokjin claimed his broad frame to be his best feature.

And unlike Jimin, Seokjin’s omega tendencies manifested less in attention seeking and more in caregiving: Seokjin had been keeping them fed since day one, always complained about them not cleaning or sleeping enough, got suspicious of even the smallest sniffle and appeared armed with vitamins and tissues, and had even given the safe sex talk to all of their maknae, thank god.

So between Namjoon being the leader, and Seokjin being the older omega who was fixing their ties, Namjoon couldn’t particularly blame their fans for calling them The Mated Couple. Who else could it be? Well, Namjoon and Yoongi, maybe, except Yoongi would probably bite his head off for any over-assertive alpha behaviour. But Namjoon was always touching Seokjin, according to the fans: arm slung around Seokjin’s shoulders on red carpets, a hand resting on Seokjin’s arm, or his palm pressed to Seokjin’s knee as they sat next to each other for interviews.

And Namjoon knew it was true: Seokjin grounded him. They were so comfortable with each other that they probably acted like mates did, in that respect – or at least Namjoon imagined so.

Call it the Westermarck effect, then, or what have you – Namjoon admired both omegas in his pack for their strength, their talent. He forgot, a lot of the time, that the two omegas were that. Often, sure, he had to glare off alphas who unabashedly stared, and sometimes Jimin or Seokjin would emerge at his side if someone had made them uncomfortable, from other artists at award shows to venue staff while on tour – and one death glare from Namjoon was more than enough these days to warn people off as one of his two omegas pressed to his side.

But, really, often he forgot.

A rude awakening, then, when in the midst of a seemingly endless touring schedule, Seokjin told them that he was going to have a heat – Seokjin’s first since they’d debuted. And, somehow, all those hours of being a good pack leader, all those moments of self-growth and introspection that Namjoon had ever done were, simply, shot to shit.

* * *

They hadn’t needed to form a pack, of course – just because they all had moved in together when they were teenagers, practically living on top of each other, hadn’t meant that a pack would emerge. What other idol group was a pack? None of them.

But that was one of their selling points now, years on, that they were a pack.

Namjoon had to take the fall for it, apparently: “You’re naturally charismatic,” Hoseok told him once, earnestly. Taehyung quickly agreed: “Yeah, people are drawn to that sort of thing.” He’d mumbled something in response, flustered – perhaps secretly pleased, although he doubted he’d always been so enigmatic.

He still recalled a modest meeting room at a small record label in Seoul where introductions had taken place a decade earlier. He’d worn his new sunglasses, huge, bulky and black, and his baggy jeans with side chains. He’d felt very, very cool – and he wanted to be a rapper more than anything.

Min Yoongi didn’t give a fuck about people’s statuses, which was good because sometimes people were wary around Namjoon – unsure if he’d get aggressive, if he’d try anything stupid. Yoongi, a little older and significantly shorter than him, didn’t seem intimidated: a grumpy, sleepy beta with hair spiked up with gel, Yoongi was tiny as anything but rapping like no one’s business. Within minutes Namjoon knew that Yoongi was cool. Like. Super cool.

He would never, ever tell Yoongi this, but in a way it had been love at first sight: he had never met someone so like himself before, someone who shared his ambition for music and success, who swore by the same rappers, who wanted to bring something new to the music industry. Yoongi saw Namjoon, whoever that really was, and not just a gangly, awkward alpha with ideas above his station.

As the two of them lingered at the label’s small studio, playing their favourite rap songs to each other and showing off their skills, Namjoon felt a sensation of homecoming that had never waned.

Namjoon’s instincts were still heightened around Yoongi, who absolutely could handle himself, but many mistook Yoongi for an omega due to his size, and Namjoon just wanted Yoongi to be safe. And, in the end, Yoongi had graciously allowed Namjoon to extend his authority over him. A risky business, too: they thought that they had a solid line-up for their rap group when Hunchul walked out on them.

They hadn’t seen it coming: Hunchul had been a fellow trainee with them but didn’t even leave a note, just packed his bags and headed home. Maybe it was a sign that they would never debut, would never make it.

Crestfallen, he and Yoongi went out to the cheap restaurant near the dorm that night, sharing their bibimbap because they could only afford one. They talked about quitting – count their losses, follow Hunchul’s lead. Maybe go home – save some money and try again later?

But parting with Min Yoongi even for a little while seemed like an intolerable thought.

Namjoon had sheepishly been trying to scent Yoongi for a while – accidentally brushing against him, because Yoongi calmed him down and smelled comforting, a bit like home, actually. And because things looked so dire for them that evening, and Yoongi’s scent was bitter and upset because of Hunchul, Namjoon pressed in close as they sat in the corner of the restaurant, on the floor at the low-set dining table, cushions under their behinds.

They scooped out the crusty rice from the bottom of the bibimbap bowl, Yoongi with a frown on his face – and Namjoon pushed the dish closer to Yoongi, offering him what was left in an attempt to offer comfort. He wanted to feed Yoongi if he was being honest, but knew that unsolicited feeding efforts from alphas did not go down well with the uninterested. Just as he fought down such instincts, Yoongi turned to him and said, “Fine, I’m in.”

Namjoon blinked. “In what?”

“This. Us.” Yoongi’s gaze was determined. “Whatever happens, whoever comes or goes, we’re in this together. Right? Us against the world.”

“Right,” he agreed.

Yoongi nodded. “Right. Good. So, you know.”

And then Yoongi tilted his head to the side, exposing his neck in invitation, right then and there – and Namjoon stared in surprise before something utterly primitive kicked in, and then he had buried his face into Yoongi’s neck, rubbing his scent there. At that point he had only ever scented family members, the beta he’d had a crush on in school, as well as the omega who’d shared Namjoon’s rut once, and that was all.

But scenting Yoongi was unlike any of those experiences: it was the first time Namjoon was consciously claiming someone, a sharper edge to his own scent as pheromones kicked in. He pushed in with intent and –

“Yah, none of that here!” the dinner lady cut in before Namjoon was even a little done. He and Yoongi were embarrassed, apologising, heat high on their cheeks from getting caught, but Yoongi also had a small smile on his lips.

It was raining as they walked back to the dorm, the narrow streets of Nonhyeon-dong dark but glittering, with nondescript, grey apartment buildings rising around them – and yet all the dread had vanished. So Hunchul had left. So what? They would make it. They had each other. They were a pack now – Namjoon was going to have one, and it was Yoongi.

Namjoon’s first ever recruit but, as it turned out, certainly not the last.

* * *

The label had heavily questioned their decision to form a pack, but Namjoon stood his ground. Their ground.

“It was a private decision,” he argued – he hadn’t signed anything that forbade pack-forming, he was pretty sure. Any attempt to forcefully separate a pack was destined for disaster, of course – PD-nim let it go, but said that if one of them failed to pass the label’s monitoring, then that would likely be the end of them both. Was that supposed to scare them? No – they worked harder.

Hunchul was soon replaced. The new guy was a street dancer, very talented. He and Yoongi failed to see what dancing had to do with their rap group, but it was clear early on that Hoseok was a keeper.

But Hoseok, too, frowned at their small pack of two. It was unusual for people their age to form a pack – sure, you liked your friends, but to chain yourself to each other?

“Are you two dating?” Hoseok asked them, head tilted.

Yoongi glared. “You think I’d date him?”

“Yah!” Namjoon protested as the other two laughed. “I’ve got moves. I get action,” he asserted. “Omegas, betas – they all up in my business.”

“Uh huh,” Hoseok said, “sure.”

Namjoon bristled, a little.

Hoseok still looked like he wanted to ask them more about the pack but didn’t know how. There were two other trainees with them, too – neither would stay in the end, but the label was now pushing a dance agenda on them all. Namjoon was struggling with it – how could he rap and dance at the same time? It was insanity!

Hoseok offered to help, and they spent plenty of time in the dance studio together, working through basic moves. Namjoon would think back to that winter and remember evenings of walking back to the dorm with Hoseok, Seoul icy and slippery, and the two of them wrapped up in coats and scarves.

And Namjoon somehow knew exactly what Hoseok was getting at when one evening he asked, “So whose idea was it?”

Namjoon steadied himself. “Yoongi-hyung’s.”

“Really?” Hoseok asked, raising an eyebrow. Then, “I mean, I suppose that makes sense. I doubt you could talk him into anything.” Rather than be insulted, Namjoon knew this to be true. “You’re younger than Yoongi, though. He’s your hyung.”

“Yeah, but he’s a beta.”

“What, all betas want alphas?” Hoseok challenged.

“No,” he corrected himself, “but Yoongi-hyung did.”

And maybe Hoseok didn’t understand yet how hard this trainee life was, and – if they one day made it – how taxing idol life would be. You needed more than friends to survive. You needed a pack, he was sure of it, just to keep your head.

“And Yoongi chose you,” Hoseok wondered aloud, like he didn’t quite see why.

Namjoon ducked his head, embarrassed. He was a good alpha, wasn’t he? Yoongi didn’t need him much, was stubbornly independent, so Namjoon didn’t get to be too much of an alpha around him – but there was a thread between them, tying them together, where words were often not needed. Best friends, packmates – ride or die, like a song they both liked bellowed.

Besides, Yoongi was stealthy about his pack needs: they were there, but hiding. Namjoon had once come home early and found Yoongi napping in Namjoon’s bunk, nose pressed into the pillow, one of Namjoon’s hoodies balled up in his arms. Namjoon had, firstly, internally died, and, secondly, backed right out and pretended not to have seen. Yoongi was in the shower by the time Namjoon returned from an impromptu walk around the neighbourhood. His sheets had smelled of Yoongi, though, more than usual – and it’d knocked him right out that night. Best sleep he’d had in weeks. Probably for Yoongi, too.

But that was when he’d learned Yoongi wanted more scenting than he’d been providing, and Yoongi didn’t know how to ask, exactly. So he’d started doing it more – Yoongi never asked, just protested with a “Yah, what is this?” when Namjoon pushed into his neck, but the protest was for show: Yoongi always relaxed into it. Over the years, Yoongi had learned to linger with intent, even, when he wanted scenting – the pack, collectively, had worn Yoongi’s defences down.

“It’s the power of love,” Jimin once told Namjoon firmly.

But from the get-go, Yoongi and Namjoon hadn’t acted in the most conventional way. They were young and not at an age to be mating (and certainly not with each other), yet the pack became a lifeline.

“Yeah,” Namjoon said eventually, taking this all in as he walked with Hoseok, “Yoongi-hyung chose me.”

And a hint of pride was in his voice as he said it.

Hoseok was careful around Namjoon in those early days because Hoseok couldn’t neatly place Namjoon in relation to himself. But the fact that Namjoon had a pack, no matter how small, seemed to impress Hoseok.

Hoseok stayed on as a trainee, although he was struggling being away from home, was lonely, tired, overworked, scared, and then mourning a break-up when a girl alpha left him for an omega. Hoseok was struggling, but he was a keeper, and Namjoon started leaving his clothes scattered around the dorm in some vague hope that Hoseok would find his scent comforting. He even threw a hoodie onto Hoseok’s bunk bed – an invasion of privacy if there was one – and pretended that it was on accident.

After Hoseok had cornered him in the kitchen for a lecture about throwing his sweaty and gross post-practice clothes in Hoseok’s bunk, and Namjoon was left embarrassed and rejected, Yoongi looked up from his food and said, “Stop trying so hard.”

He stilled, instantly. “What? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Yoongi poked at his rice. “You know exactly what I mean.”

“No,” he denied, tugging on the sleeves of his hoodie absently. “Can’t say I do.”

After a few beats, Yoongi added, “I’d like it, too. If you wanted my blessing.”

Heat was creeping up his face. “Yeah, whatever. Cool. Whatever.”

And when during one month’s monitoring one of their fellow trainees was kicked out and another quit – the one who had kept talking about debuting with them, how he was in 110%, how they would make it for sure – god, it hurt.

“Wow,” Hoseok said, sat on his bunk bed in the small bedroom, “this feels awful.”

“Yup,” Yoongi dead-panned from where he and Namjoon lingered at the door. Two of the bunks were emptied out, stripped of sheets. “We’re going for bulgogi to eat our feelings. Wanna come?”

Hoseok frowned at them. “We’re on a diet.”

“Yeah,” Yoongi agreed. “Wanna come?”

Hoseok blinked and then smiled, a little. “Yeah sure. Sure, I’ll come with you.”

It wasn’t quite a pack, but it formed an alliance.

* * *

All the dread from their early days was nothing compared to the responsibility of sold out stadium tours. They lived in a glass bubble now, the entire world looking in, their lives never quite real. If one of them was spotted wearing a semi-affordable hat, it sold out the next day. If Taehyung posted a selca, it was liked in numbers that matched the population of Ilsan – exceeded it, even. They were dressed in designer clothes from head to toe worth absurd amounts of money, with fashion houses begging for them to throw on a jacket of theirs, or at least some socks.

And they no longer did the most mundane things: they didn’t go out to buy groceries, nor could they hope to go running in a public park. Namjoon realised that he’d taken walking down the street without security for granted. When they managed to sneak out to walk around at night or meet a friend for coffee without being recognised, they all felt like they had won a small victory, claimed themselves back somehow.

The lives they lived were hard – worth it, absolutely, but hard.

For a normal omega having a heat wouldn’t have been much of an issue: they’d call work, take some time off, get their mate to bang the hell out of them, or maybe they’d manage on their own, whatever. They could go to the pharmacy to buy a heat patch for their neck without too much embarrassment.

But not Jimin or Seokjin. Nothing was as scrutinised as the pack’s love lives or the suspicious lack thereof: theories covered secret mates and secret offspring, cruel label restrictions, fully fledged in-pack polyamory, as well as Namjoon being an irrationally jealous pack alpha who forbade the others from dating.

Truthfully they had all agreed that, for now, their collective career was more important than romance. Being caught with their pants down was not on their agenda.

So they kept working, singing about romance and heated love without necessarily experiencing it – dreaming of it, maybe.

And in anticipation of their now extended global stadium tour, they all had appointments for thorough health checks: Hoseok had low iron levels and needed tablets, Yoongi needed more eyedrops and his other usual meds, and Namjoon had his sleeping pill prescription renewed because he struggled, sometimes, to get the rest he needed. Namjoon had put Seokjin’s second visit to the doctor down to something equally manageable.

That day they were all at the dorm, which was what they stupidly called their multi-billion-won apartment complex like they still slept in bunkbeds. It was increasingly rare for his pack to be home without staff around – but like any pack, they needed their alone time.

The living room was mid-chaos with Taehyung showing off Yeontan’s latest trick of playing dead on command, but Yeontan was not co-operating and Taehyung was fiercely defending poor Tannie’s honour while the others laughed. Seokjin returned to this with his usual hello, but Namjoon instantly knew something was wrong: the smile didn’t reach Seokjin’s eyes, Seokjin’s shoulders were tense, his posture poor – and maybe most tellingly Seokjin’s scent of honeyed musk mixed with the pack scent had changed to something sharper. Too much adrenaline, on edge like Seokjin was before shows or MC duties.

Seokjin sat with them for a while but then went out on their balcony to call his parents. Namjoon watched him through the wall of glass, taking in the neatly cut brown hair that was damaged by constant re-dyeing, the mouth that stretched into wide smiles and grins but was then a worried, pursed line. After Seokjin finished the phone call, he stayed outside. Namjoon had three questions he always asked himself: was his pack intact? Was it safe? Was it happy?

The spacious deck area had a view to Han River, just like Yoongi had always dreamed, with lounge chairs and designer plants, kept pristine by cleaning staff that came when they were out. Seokjin was sat on one of the deck chairs, biting on the edge of his thumbnail – a sure sign of distress from the omega who vowed by regular manicures.

Seokjin didn’t seem surprised to see him coming, didn’t object when Namjoon sat opposite him on one of the chairs. “How’s everyone?” Namjoon asked, nodding at the phone by Seokjin.

Seokjin smiled. “Fine, you know. Good.” But Seokjin didn’t sound like either.

“Yeah? What’s up?”

It wasn’t exactly an order, but it didn’t have to be.

“Something’s come up. Ah, this is stupid.” Seokjin exhaled, looking both annoyed and frustrated. Namjoon waited it out, and Seokjin said, “They did some tests on me at the clinic.”

“Okay,” he said, trying not to get ahead of himself but still tensing up.

“And- And I’m, like, this close to a eunuch or a barren wench, how attractive is that?” Seokjin said, but Namjoon didn’t quite follow. “My hormone levels are super low.”

He sniffed – but Seokjin just smelled like Seokjin to him. Could he even sniff something like that out?

“Did they prescribe something?” he asked, mind racing. “Or do you need injections?”

“That’s what I asked,” Seokjin said, “but no. It’s the suppressants’ fault. Staying on them for a literal decade because of an idol lifestyle isn’t correct usage, apparently, and I quote, ‘complete hormone suppression isn’t natural,’ end quote.” Seokjin put his air quotes down and rolled his eyes, but he had a blush on his cheeks – embarrassed. “So they’ve told me to go off suppressants as, like, a matter of urgency –”

“But that would trigger a heat,” Namjoon cut in, the hairs on the back of his neck pricking up, eyes focusing, intently, on Seokjin sat across from him.

“Yeah, it’ll restore my natural hormone levels or something,” Seokjin said. “It’s a simple fix, but our schedule is insane right now.”

The wind pushed hair across Seokjin’s forehead, the tip of his nose a little red from the chilly spring air. Seokjin was the most beautiful omega Namjoon had ever seen – had been on the first day, was so on that day too and would, probably, be that for Namjoon forever.

Seokjin’s shoulders hunched as he said, “They also said, um. That it can harm me in the long run if I do nothing.”

“In the long run being…?”

“No kids, I guess.”

He flinched. “What?”

“Or I’ll really struggle, at least.”

“No,” he said. “No, that’s not acceptable.”

They all needed to have a life after this – whenever this wild ride ended, because one day it would, and then they’d be outside the glass bubble. They were putting some parts of their lives on hold as they waited for it, and Seokjin had always smelled – fertile, maybe? To him. Always had. Of course Seokjin would have kids, that wasn’t negotiable.

But they had no gaps in their schedule for the next three months, at least. Every day had been accounted for, booked in advance: flights and hotels and security, and not just for them, but for the dozens of crew members that travelled with them. They were incapable of changing plans or tour dates – it wasn’t possible, not for anything that wasn’t life threatening. But –

“We’ll get it done,” he said. The knowledge that Seokjin would go into heat was spreading in him – warm, heavy. His hands nervously flexed on his thighs.

Seokjin frowned. “Can we?”

“Yes, hyung. This is too important.”

You are too important, he meant. They were not pushing themselves to the limits just to be destitute at the end: and he thought of the children that Seokjin would one day have, small boys or girls with big dark eyes and pouty little mouths, with cupid’s bows that looked like they’d been sculpted, and perfect porcelain cheeks. Maybe dimples too.

He steadied himself. “We’ll figure something out,” he promised, and Seokjin visibly relaxed. He only realised how anxious Seokjin had been when the other moved to sit by him and pushed into his neck. Namjoon stilled in surprise before he scented back, absently, an arm tightening around Seokjin’s back.

They’d get it done.

* * *

Jungkook had arrived to Seoul buck-toothed and chubby-cheeked, smelling strongly of his parents and looking at Namjoon like he was the most amazing thing Jungkook had ever seen. Jungkook hadn’t presented yet so there was no tension or suspicion that Jungkook treated him with. Just awe. A lot of awe.

Jungkook was shyer than shy, but still keen – meekly mumbling, “Could you teach me how to rap, hyung? If you’re free some time…” Jungkook followed him around often, and Namjoon’s ego rather liked it. “I want to rap too one day,” Jungkook confessed bashfully, “just like you and Yoongi-hyung! Maybe if I try really hard I’ll be half as good…!”

Cool. Cool, cool. Namjoon was thinking about growing out his hair into dreadlocks, so he knew he was cool.

Jungkook was incredibly talented, sang and danced well, and would probably grow up to be relatively handsome – all key ingredients. Jungkook also kept watching him and Yoongi whenever their dynamic displayed itself, small pack habits of brushing their hand on the other’s arm, Namjoon dropping his head to brush against Yoongi’s hair quickly – and Jungkook stared at them wistfully. What was Namjoon supposed to do?

Yoongi and the others went home for Seollal – well-deserved after months of gruelling training. Jungkook’s parents, however, were in Thailand for a family friend’s wedding and, dejected, Jungkook stayed in Seoul. It was the first time, too, that Namjoon had been apart from Yoongi for longer than a day, and neither of them had thought much of the holiday break, really. But by the second day Namjoon grew restless, anxious: he called Yoongi, and Yoongi sounded relieved when he picked up. Namjoon had nothing to say, really: they talked, idly, about nothing of importance, but Namjoon felt better.

Come day three, however, he had a persistent headache – and he smelled all wrong, Yoongi’s scent on him fading. Pack withdrawal, of course it was. He took ibuprofen and hoped for the best, but by the afternoon he’d curled up in his bunk, with a notepad and pen to work on some lyrics, but he felt too rotten to do so.

“Do you want this, hyung?”

He opened his eyes and saw the top of someone’s head over the bunk edge. He sat up: Jungkook was gazing up at him, holding – holding one of Yoongi’s shirts. Namjoon had looked for those already, but he’d found none because Jungkook had just washed piles and piles of laundry.

Now he mindlessly grabbed the t-shirt, brought it to his nose with an inhale, caught Yoongi’s understated, semi-sweaty beta scent, and collapsed back against the mattress with a pleased growl. “Thank you,” he managed, eyes already closed.

“That’s okay.” A small shuffle of feet. “If you need me, I’ll be working on my school project in the living room, okay hyung?”

He nodded into the shirt, his headache slowly abating. The shirt smelled of someone else, too, he realised: of Jungkook’s youthful scent, not marked by a designation yet but still carrying the distinct smell of him. He focused on it, the way it mixed with Yoongi and himself. Pleasant, warm. It was good, like a drug – how could he get more of this?

He sat up, spotted Jungkook’s sleep shirt on the kid’s bed, and climbed down to retrieve it, taking it back up with him. Yes, this was better: the scent of Jungkook was stronger now.

He wasn’t sure how long he lay there, breathing in the two t-shirts, but his headache had vanished when he came to, the withdrawal symptoms nearly all gone.

He found Jungkook in the kitchen eating cereal, cheeks full. He wondered when he’d last eaten – before Yoongi left? He was starving. Jungkook, munching, asked, “Do you want some, too?”

What a good kid, he thought, as Jungkook poured him a bowl of cereal. He reached out to ruffle Jungkook’s hair fondly, and Jungkook instantly flushed.

“What?” Namjoon asked, grabbing a spoon for his bowl, quickly shovelling Frosted Flakes into his mouth.

“You smell like me, too?” Jungkook managed. “Like Yoongi-hyung, but also me? It’s… Um. It’s really nice.”

He blinked. Yeah, it was nice. Like, really nice. He put the bowl back on the counter. “Hey, you ever thought of joining a pack?”

Jungkook’s eyes went wide, mouth dropping open – expression turning from shocked to eager in a nanosecond. Namjoon swallowed half-chewed cereal and then shrugged, sheepishly.

When Hoseok returned that evening, Namjoon and Jungkook were sat on the living room floor playing Mario Kart, Jungkook happily engulfed in one of Namjoon’s XXL hoodies, bathed in Namjoon’s scent.

“Welcome back, Hoseok-hyung,” Jungkook chirped happily – but Hoseok was staring at them with wide eyes before focusing on Namjoon.

“You’ve really taken on a child? You think that’s appropriate?”

“I’m not a child,” Jungkook said, his beaming smile fading. He’d been so proud all afternoon of being accepted into the pack.

“I get it, you think you’re mature enough,” Hoseok said and looked like he didn’t want to reprimand Jungkook either – “But joining a pack isn’t something to do on a whim, Kookie. And what if- what if this doesn’t work out, with the label? What then?”

Jungkook’s scent of contentment was changing into agitation. “But it will…!”

“And did you ask your parents?”

“Well no, but Namjoon-hyung –”

“So you know –”

And that was all Hoseok managed to say before Namjoon growled, low in his throat – a simple warning. Hoseok blinked in surprise, as if seeing Namjoon for the first time, while Jungkook flushed red, sat on the floor in Namjoon’s hoodie, black hair sticking out randomly.

In his defence, Namjoon didn’t go growling at harmless betas with sunshine smiles on a regular basis. But this was his pack now, and he needed Hoseok to know that going for Jungkook meant dealing with him.

“Right,” Hoseok said, avoiding eye contact. “Congratulations.” And as Hoseok backed out, Namjoon relaxed. Pack intact. Pack safe. Pack happy?

He nudged Jungkook’s shoulder with his own. “You don’t have to worry about him, you know. I’ve got you.”

It was a cheesy thing to say, the words foreign in Namjoon’s mouth. Jungkook looked surprised, too, before unfreezing their race on the screen. “Thanks, alpha-hyung,” Jungkook said shyly, rubbing the sleeve off the hoodie to his nose, clearly inhaling. Namjoon’s guts clenched – no one had ever called him that or sought out his scent so blatantly.

“Yeah,” he said, shrugging, “like, it’s no thang.”

Jungkook beamed, a shy smile on his face. “Ah, you’re so cool!”

The weight of his responsibility was dawning on him in the shape of a fourteen-year-old boy: the withdrawal symptoms were long gone now, but from there on out he’d have to consider Jungkook, too, for times like this. Yoongi would kill Namjoon when he got back to Seoul, of course, and then he’d go scent Jungkook, probably, because Yoongi loved the kid just as much as he did.

He could manage two, he thought. That was a good-sized pack, right?

* * *

They were not great with personal boundaries, meaning that they had none. They all knew when, how, and with whom Jungkook had lost his virginity, which of Jimin’s butt cheeks was more prone to the occasional pimple, and they definitely knew more about each other’s masturbation habits than any of them would want to admit. (No jerking off allowed in the dorm bedroom had always been the golden rule, but the length of their showers had them mocking each other regularly.) Yoongi even habitually wore whatever underwear he found around the dorm, regardless of who it belonged to. They all hated this – yet years in, with huge sums in their bank accounts, Yoongi kept doing this, shrugging his indifference.

Jimin also struggled with boundaries. Jimin became obsessed with Seokjin’s upcoming heat, even, which perhaps stemmed from some envy. At first Jimin had panicked that his suppressant intake was damaging him too – and then seemed disappointed when this wasn’t the case. Seokjin had been taking suppressants longer, in higher doses, too.

Jimin now persistently called the heat a ‘sexcation’ – an English term Jimin had picked up from who-knows-where when his English was generally limited, but sexcation, sure, that was in Jimin’s vocabulary.

“Let’s be honest,” Jimin said, “none of us are getting laid as much as we should.”

This wasn’t due to a lack of eager partners as much as the need for stealth and privacy, their need to keep up the illusion of availability to their fanbase, and their paranoia of someone putting in spy cams in hotel rooms. Namjoon had seen peers from other groups fired, defaced, rejected.

Not them – they would do better.

But they did get laid, sporadically: with staff members or people they’d known pre-fame, and at awards shows they met idols who needed to be discreet, too. Hoseok had, to the envy of most, engaged in a brief fling with the main vocalist of an all omega girl group best left unnamed, while Taehyung had low-key dated one of their makeup artists for four months, a handsome and friendly alpha, half-Taiwanese – the longest romantic relationship any of them could boast.

These little affairs never ended well: all any of them could offer was a message of longing from nine time zones away, and they could maybe text their hotel room number to someone in the tour crew and then pretend it had never happened come morning. No public dates, no PDA, no public acknowledgement whatsoever. Might as well not exist, right?

Taehyung hadn’t cried in front of Namjoon when the makeup artist dumped him while they were on tour (via text), but he knew Jimin had handled it. Was their career preventing his packmates from living better lives? And where did Namjoon place himself with the knowledge that any of his packmates falling in love with an alpha would probably mean them eventually leaving Namjoon’s pack? He wasn’t sure, but he had shared a hotel room with Taehyung a few days after the break-up, and they had talked about love and relationships and how impossible it was for them, as they watched a cheesy romantic movie on Namjoon’s laptop.

“It won’t be like this forever,” he consoled. “One day, you know, you can go out with someone holding their hand, kissing them – all that.” But not yet. Not now.

The alpha/omega romance continued to play on the screen, the pretty male omega blushing as the female alpha started to feed him cherries in a standard courting move.

Taehyung sighed. “But have you ever been in love, hyung?”

“Of course.”

“No, like really in love. There’s liking someone so much it drives you crazy, but I’m talking about- about love, when you… you feel them, deep down, in your soul.”

Namjoon stopped at that.

Of course he was only human – he indulged, too. Omegas with pretty eyes and pretty necks, usually while he was on tour, in some anonymous hotel room where he always felt less like his real self. He’d once dated a cute omega that he’d met through a producer friend, some years after their debut: she’d been pretty and smart, had a soft spot for hiphop, was studying fine arts, and was sympathetic to Namjoon’s insane schedule and pack alpha priorities, even the absolute secrecy. The fumbling sex and flirtatious messages had been nice for the five weeks it lasted, but Namjoon had been asking too much: you can’t tell anyone. Not your friends, your parents…

So he’d ended it. It wasn’t fair to demand so much and give back so little. Had it been love? Had his heart been broken? He’d brooded, for sure. Seokjin had made him tea and listened to him whine about wanting to find an omega for himself one day, and Seokjin had told Namjoon he was twenty-one, for god’s sake, he had plenty of time, and then it’d been alright somehow.

Besides, these days the stress of getting away with a one-night fling made these brief encounters barely worth it.

Now, with Seokjin’s heat, Namjoon worried about a scandal, too – there’d be endless rumours if the public found out.

Talking about Seokjin’s heat was of course within the pack’s bounds of normalcy. It was discussed as the seven of them were squeezed into the back of a limousine on their way to an American awards show. They were all in suits – burgundy, maroon, mauve, two dark greys, navy and emerald green – and with five-million-won watches because that had become their reality at some point. Jungkook had never had a real rut, and Jimin’s last heat had been pre-debut too. The betas got neither – even Yoongi, for all his composure, was intrigued.

Seokjin was flustered by all the attention, the tips of his ears a telling red. “I don’t know why you think this is fun for me!”

“But hyung!” Jimin said, all mischievous grins. “You get to stay in bed for days! How is that not fun? A proper sexcation!”

“You’re using the word wrong,” Namjoon corrected.

Jimin wasn’t listening to him, though, and instead kept bothering Seokjin. The two omegas sat at the back of the limo together, the rest of them on the side seats. “When you last had a heat,” Jimin enquired, “how long did it go on for? Four days? Three?”

“How am I supposed to remember?” Seokjin objected. “We hadn’t even debuted then! Maybe my body will launch years of heats on me, and then you won’t see me until August!”

Jimin pouted. “But you’d miss me!”

“How can I? It’s a sexcation.”

Hoseok looked concerned. “That can’t happen, right? Like, years of heats in one go?” And Hoseok looked at Namjoon like he was somehow the expert.

Jimin and Seokjin stared at them. “Of course not,” Jimin said. “Seriously, you live with us. You know basic omega biology, right?”

Clearly not enough.

The doctor had advised Seokjin on when to stop taking suppressants to have the heat kick in within a ten-hour window, but even with clear instructions of how to time the heat, their management had struggled to find a gap for these “medical reasons”. The remaining pack could keep going sans Seokjin, of course, but people would immediately ask where Seokjin was – and heats were private affairs, and Namjoon certainly had no desire to tell the rest of the world when Kim Seokjin was going to be fertile and willing.

But, in the end, with some shuffling around and a few cancellations, they had been given a new schedule: they all got five days off now, because that was easier than explaining Seokjin’s absence. Jungkook and Hoseok had instantly arranged to go home to see family, while Jimin and Taehyung were busy making plans with various friends in Seoul. Yoongi booked himself a collab that he’d been meaning to pursue with a Dutch DJ, and Namjoon pondered which of his various projects he should tick off.

“You’re not visiting your parents?” Yoongi had asked him – but that had not crossed his mind. He’d thought that it was best for him to stay at the dorm, a mere five-minute walk from Seokjin’s apartment. Omegas were vulnerable during heats, and Namjoon was pack alpha: he should stay alert, just in case. Besides, he hated them splitting up, scattered across cities – staying at the dorm, waiting for his pack to return, would keep him calmest.

But even in the midst of all this, none of them forgot the real reason for the break.

“I want a sexcation,” Jimin now declared to all in the limousine, while Namjoon was psyching himself up for a litany of English interviews. “I want someone tall and hot to throw me over their shoulder and –”

Taehyung grinned, Yoongi looked mildly disgusted, Jungkook had a blush on his cheeks, and Namjoon, annoyed, said, “Jin-hyung isn’t doing that.”

Jimin again ignored him, poking Seokjin’s knee. “I’ll be on the look-out tonight. I’ll pick out the perfect alpha for you, I promise!”

“I haven’t decided what to do about that yet,” Seokjin said dismissively, and although Namjoon didn’t know what was happening, he wasn’t an idiot.

“You’re sharing your heat?” he asked, dumbfounded. Seokjin’s ears looked even redder. “With.” He had to clear his throat. “With who?”

“I don’t know yet,” Seokjin said, eyes on the floor.

“I’m on it!” Jimin said with a wiggle of his eyebrows. “Let’s get some numbers tonight!” And it was a joke, Namjoon knew this, but it took every effort not to growl at his smaller omega. He’d assumed this entire time that Seokjin would, well, help himself, and not have someone…

Jimin leaned into his seat and sighed a dreamy, “Sexcation!”

And Jimin was right after all.

Their limo slowed down, ready for the red carpet, and they all had to refocus. Namjoon was the first one out, and as the flashes of cameras blinded him and screams pierced the air, he stood there like an idiot with a lump in his throat, heart hammering wildly. He felt frayed in his dapper suit, wondering how much he’d learned of himself during all this time after all.

* * *

A month after Jungkook had been initiated into the pack, Namjoon and Hoseok went to see a rap battle in a packed, underground club, and they bounced in the crowd and felt the energy run through them.

“They were so good!” Hoseok enthused as they filed out, limbs sweaty under their clothes.

Namjoon was beyond hyped but reined himself in to nod and conclude, “Yeah, it was dope.”

“They had it! You know, that special something!”

“They had swag,” he answered, thoughtfully.

Despite their adrenaline-filled analysis of the rappers they’d seen, the conversation turned to worries that Namjoon usually shared only with Yoongi: when would they debut? Was this their final line-up? Were they good enough? Hoseok shared these doubts with him as they waited for their bus together, shivering in the cold.

Namjoon took a moment to message Yoongi and Jungkook that he was on his way back: Pack Business, they had labelled their group chat. Yoongi rarely did anything else except send a thumbs up, while Namjoon used it to ask for location updates because he got restless when he didn’t know where Yoongi and Jungkook were. at dorm read roughly half of Jungkook’s texts, but most of them came with smiley faces attached.

And so even now, as he and Hoseok stood at a bus stop: where you guys at?

at dorm :), Jungkook sent, and Yoongi sent a thumbs up, which indicated “ditto”.

good, he typed, i’ll be back soon. And though his pack was at the dorm, he still added, stay safe. He then put the phone away, but Hoseok had been standing next to him and read the exchange. “Silly,” Namjoon mumbled, shifting his feet. “Like, I just worry. It’s instinct, I guess.”

“You’re really good with them,” Hoseok said. “They get a lot of strength from you, you know, a lot of confidence. It comes naturally to you, huh? Leading.”

Not all alphas were good at leading packs, and Namjoon wasn’t sure if he was. Hearing Hoseok tell him that he was doing a decent job, however, helped him relax. It did feel natural: like he had a little brother and a big brother – the other copying all that he did, and the other seemingly unimpressed but bragging about the two of them behind their backs to anyone who would listen.

And as Namjoon was about to say something like ah, he was hardly a good alpha, he was just lucky with his packmates, Hoseok stepped right up to him, almost knocking into him from the speed of it. And as Namjoon froze, but did not recoil, Hoseok hesitated – and then grabbed Namjoon’s jacket, pulled Namjoon in, and nosed at his chest a little in an act full of confidence, but Hoseok smelled of uncertainty, of fear of rejection, which – which was absurd. Hoseok was one of the most talented people Namjoon had ever met, kind to everyone and maybe even too much so, and Namjoon knew he’d have Hoseok’s back, always, and would kill and/or maim anyone who ever considered hurting him.

So he wrapped an arm around Hoseok’s shoulders and pressed into Hoseok’s neck, gross and sweaty as they were from the show, but to be honest it made the scenting better. And by the time the night bus arrived, Namjoon could detect Hoseok on his skin, the way he could pick apart the smells of Yoongi and Jungkook on his skin too.

They were exchanging excited smiles as they boarded, both perhaps a bit smitten.

“Yoongi will be pleased,” was the first thing he thought to say as they found empty seats.

Hoseok had a shy but blinding smile on his face. “Really?”

“Oh yeah. He’s been pestering me to ask you for, like, weeks. You’re cool, Hoseok-ah,” he said, and Hoseok ducked his head as they sat together – shoulders pressed, seeking skinship in a way they hadn’t ten minutes earlier. “I mean, the label will kill me, but you guys come first. So – so anything I can do for you, if you need anything, ever…”

Hoseok, still flustered, said, “Well, you could stop leaving your clothes all over the dorm.”

Namjoon sometimes blurted out truths when his defences were down: “That was for you.”

Hoseok looked stunned. “Oh?” Then, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” he admitted, rubbing the back of his head awkwardly.

“Cool. I mean, tidy up, but cool.”

And then they laughed – the streets gleamed outside, and they were both seventeen years old with still-black hair and excess baby fat and agreed that boots with metal studs were cool. They’d never rapped in front of more than two hundred people, either of them, but it would be cool if, maybe, they could reach five hundred? One day? Eventually?

Hoseok’s head dropped onto his shoulder, tentatively, and Namjoon steadied himself the best he could.

Four, including himself, Namjoon thought. That was the size a pack should be.

* * *

The first thing Seokjin ever said to him was, “Oh hey, did someone punch you?”

It was a question of pity because clearly Namjoon had had his ass handed to him by an abler, more skilled alpha, the bruise on his cheek still visible.

But truthfully he’d walked into a door a few days earlier. He’d been at the studio, trying to record a demo for a new song he was drafting, but the progress was slow, he was distracted, his throat dry and his nerves shot. On his way back to get a glass of water from the label kitchen, he’d made friends with an open door, smacking his face hard and doubling over in pain.

With the bruise forming on his cheek, Yoongi had seethed. “You fought with some alpha, just admit it. What was it about? Your mother’s honour? Eminem’s? Or – or did someone bully Jungkook?” For a short beta, Yoongi had two very strong, swinging fists on him – and was ready to take them out for a worthy cause, such as the well-being of their maknae.

“I literally walked into a door, hyung,” he persisted, and then sighed. “I think there was an omega?”

“Oh shut up, you make me want to barf,” Yoongi said and handed him an ice pack.

But he’d been so distracted because there’d been a scent: mellow and sweet, equally alluring as disarming, a honey-like musk that had him sniffing the air as he processed it. A male omega, unmated, and the scent was mature enough, but how old exactly? Where was the omega who smelled like this, and why was that omega somewhere at the label? He wasn’t usually distracted by people’s scents, mated or not, and certainly not to this extent. Whose scent was this? How could they be unmated when they smelled like – like warmth and like a promise of something? When they smelled so right?

And then he met the door and, at the practice studio some days later, Seokjin.

He was whacked again, but only figuratively this time, by the honeyed musk, except it had changed: now drowned by a heavy layer of some unknown alpha’s scent. Namjoon felt like he lost his footing, taking in the newcomer with confusion.

Someone made introductions, and Namjoon shook hands with Seokjin – a few years older than him, a college student, and stupidly gorgeous. Seokjin seemed reserved, but was also cracking jokes and flashing white teeth. He had a pale, unmarked neck that Namjoon had to persistently tell himself not to sneak glances at. The unknown alpha’s scent on Seokjin was pungent, telling of a youthful romance.

Hoseok and Jungkook were already charmed by Seokjin’s friendly smiles. Yoongi was still making up his mind.

Seokjin had no experience dancing or singing, but the label thought that an attractive omega would serve them well: for alphas to lust after, for omegas to envy, for betas to admire. The rest of them weren’t hot enough to fill those shoes.

And so: Kim Seokjin.

“Yeah, sure,” Namjoon said, his voice rough. “We could definitely use some help.”

Most idol groups favoured some segregation to avoid rumours and conflict: alpha-beta groups, or omega-beta groups. They were determined to be different, to speak for their generation and break down archaic myths that alphas and omegas couldn’t co-exist outside mating, that alphas couldn’t be close friends with each other without resentment and rivalry, that omegas were always jealous of each other… But Namjoon feared he was already failing on some of those accounts.

What had that alpha’s name even been, the one Seokjin had dated at university? That alpha had been irrelevant for a good while now. As time passed them by and brought them closer, he and Seokjin could fall asleep on each other, walk past each other’s half-nude bodies in dressing rooms and hotel rooms, Seokjin could push his head into Namjoon’s neck to share scent as they watched a movie, but it was always pack behaviour, and that was all. The perfect omega – according to various Korean and international polls and ratings – was in Namjoon’s pack, and was, in a sense, his. As pack alpha, of course. Not as alpha.

It’d been sensible to internalise that on the first day, before he got any non-sensical ideas into his head.

“Can you believe the new guy showed up scented by some alpha?” he still asked his pack.

But the others had no idea what he was talking about. They hadn’t noticed, apparently – maybe you needed to be an alpha, Namjoon thought, to notice the way Seokjin smelled. But other alphas had been at the studio, too, without reacting. The rival’s scent must have been mild, much milder than Namjoon’s instincts had told him. It must have been barely there for everyone except him.

Really, that should have been the first warning sign for Namjoon – in truth, it had been one of dozens.

* * *

It had taken years for the collective world to stop screaming abuse over their pack status. Young adults, some still teenagers, debuting not just as idols but as a pack? The label had clearly forced them to bond as a desperate marketing strategy.

And it didn’t matter if they’d debuted two, four, or five years ago, they were always asked about being a pack. Some thought their pack was fake and many thought they all must secretly resent being in a forced pack, and if Jimin had a cough, some fan pinned it on Namjoon’s failures to look after his packmates properly.

But there were also dozens – hundreds? – of YouTube videos with titles such as 16 minutes of everyone being whipped for the omega line – a compilation of them letting Jimin and Seokjin get away with murder because how could they not; Hobi’s pack scenting habits UWU CONTENT, showcasing years of backstage and onstage material of Hoseok hugging them, nosing them, dipping his head into their necks, and all of them accepting Hobi’s affections with shy and grateful smiles; fiercest lil meow meow beta moments of Yoongi taking no one’s shit, including Namjoon’s, of Yoongi looking at alphas twice his size with complete disregard – and having a few of them shrink under his stare; when the pack alpha jumps out of Namjoon at award shows, on red carpets, in the practice studio, with a single glance getting the others to follow him, sit down, stand in line, disperse; Namjoon being territorial AF (warning: scary AND hot) of Namjoon staring down people unexpectedly approaching his pack members, Namjoon positioning himself between the pack and journalists – subtly, discreetly – of Namjoon claiming his pack with small gestures, arm slung around their shoulders or waist, hand brushing their necks – and the others not blinking an eye but letting him, a clear indication of ownership, while Namjoon’s steady gaze warded off outsiders with a ‘this one’s mine’.

How they acted with each other was dissected, analysed, criticised, adored. And while many fans saw Namjoon’s failings, most loved that they were such a close-knit pack despite being so young, despite none of it being built around the traditional mate pairings.

Even now, as they were in Los Angeles recovering from the previous night’s award show with a radio interview, it wasn’t their achievements that were discussed, but their dynamics. The female alpha hosting the radio show asked, “Now, you’re not just an idol group, of course, you guys are also a pack.”

Namjoon tried to focus, although he was exhausted – they all were. They were in America for sixty hours, coming up to fifty-five then: landing, heading straight to the studio of a talk show for rehearsal and filming, then posing for the host’s social media accounts, doing interviews at the hotel, some sleep, wake up, do hair and makeup for a photo shoot, followed by the shoot in downtown LA, then more press, practise for the evening’s performance, dress rehearsal, then back to the hotel, change clothes and makeup, prep speech, focus, limousine, sexcation declarations, lose focus, red carpet, award show, accept award, perform, back to hotel, all pack VLive, sleep for four hours, more press, be driven to the radio station for their final US interview, and now their plane back to Seoul was only a few hours away.

They were all ready to pack it in: for the love of god let me sleep.

But no, it was back to the same boring questions: you’re a pack! Tell me more! It’s not invasive when the world wants to know!

The interview was being filmed, too, so whatever they did would later be shared online in video format. He was mindful of this and looked cheerful in spite of the one-note questions and him being done with it all.

“Yeah, we’ve been a pack for years and years now,” he said, as the seven of them sat in the studio around a large table with recording equipment and microphones, half a dozen of their own staff lingering, another half dozen from the radio station observing. He was translating for the rest, a little stressed as always, but Seokjin was thankfully sat by him – their knees were touching, and he focused on that. Across the table, Hoseok was beaming in a way that carried across language barriers, and Taehyung and Jimin were quieter but trying to catch what the conversation was about.

“Is that common in South Korea, in the music industry that you have over there? Because in America it’s very rare for people your age to be in packs – never mind that you all work together.”

He turned to his pack and translated the question – they got this one often.

Jungkook, bravely, leaned into the microphone in front of him. “In Korea not many, um, idol packs? Yes, but we – we are a pack and. We are a good pack, together.” And then Jungkook gave the interviewer a bright smile.

“Well, I can see that,” she laughed. “But do you guys ever fight, do you bicker?”

Namjoon translated, and Hoseok stepped in. “Yes, we fight,” Hoseok said with a laugh. “But little fights? And we, ah…” Hoseok lost the word.

“Resolve?” Namjoon ventured, locking eyes with Hoseok and repeating it in Korean.

“Yes, resolve,” Hoseok nodded from across the table. “Ah, see, our alpha helps – if we fight, he helps. Very good pack alpha, you know?”

And Namjoon ducked his head, embarrassed. The hostess laughed. “So you don’t have trouble keeping your pack in line then?” A typical question from an alpha to another, but she seemed cool enough: a mating bite marked her neck, maybe a few years old.

“They keep me in line,” he argued quickly.

“That’s awesome! Does being a pack make navigating the music industry easier, do you think?”

“In some ways,” Namjoon admitted, filing this question as too complex for translation. “We’re always together, which – which I like, of course. We can support each other, and we’re, like. We’re always home wherever we go, you know, because we’ve got our pack. But sometimes we have different schedules or- or responsibilities, and then that’s hard.”

“The withdrawal?”

“Yeah, hits us pretty hard,” he admitted. The hostess was looking at him intently now, so he shrugged. “But it’s pack life – family, you know.”

“Family!” Taehyung echoed from the end of the table with an emphatic nod. Namjoon fought off a fond smile.

“Awesome, awesome!” The hostess smiled knowingly, and Namjoon somehow sensed it. “And any room in the pack for more members, then? Maybe girlfriends, boyfriends? Intended mates?”

Americans – every damn time! Namjoon was excellent at dodging these questions: it was true they were focusing on their careers, but the pressure to appear available for tender-hearted fans was constant too. If any of them admitted they were dating, many would be genuinely happy for them perhaps but numerous others would still cry, and Namjoon was rather distressed by the thought.

And now: sexcation. Seokjin was sat by him, flustered by the question. What was Namjoon expected to say? Perhaps ‘no, no one’s dating, but Seokjin here is looking for a heat partner. Know a decent alpha? Apply within!’

Namjoon pressed on with a non-answer. “We’re focusing on our careers, so we’re kinda busy, so yeah.”

“What a shame,” the hostess shot back, her eyes perhaps lingering on Seokjin, even with the mating mark on her neck – but alphas were always drawn to Seokjin’s scent and looks.

“We don’t think so,” he argued – journalists. You had to fend them off sometimes.

But she thankfully moved on. “So who did you initiate first into the pack and who last?”

Yoongi, who always understood everything but never helped, held up his hand. “First, me. Yeah.”

And Seokjin, who had understood from context, leaned to his mic and said, “Me last.”

“The missing puzzle!” Jungkook chirped happily from the end of the table, grinning – a phrase he knew from some song, Namjoon figured.

Seokjin blinked in confusion at Jungkook, but Namjoon said, “Yeah, he was our missing puzzle.” He reached out to brush the nape of Seokjin’s neck because he could while other alphas couldn’t, the skin warm against his hand, and Seokjin looked at him questioningly. “Then I was complete.” He paused, pulled his hand back, and added, “The pack, you know, was complete.”

“Awesome, awesome!”

Ten minutes later, heading to the cars taking them at last to the airport, Hoseok and Taehyung were already mimicking the hostess’s perpetual cry of “awesome, awesome!” Everything was always awesome in America.

Right before they boarded the plane, one of their staff showed Namjoon Twitter’s worldwide trends with a bemused smile: #OurMissingPuzzleJin had made it to number three.

Chapter Text

πάθει μάθος.
There is learning in suffering.
- Aeschylus (6th-5th centuries BCE)

II

When Seokjin joined their idol collective, he got the same spiel all trainees did: that although Yoongi, Jungkook and Hoseok were in Namjoon’s pack, that was their own private business and not label policy. PD-nim had pulled Namjoon aside and told him to stop taking trainees into the pack because it looked like the label was harbouring nepotism instead of talent. Namjoon also knew that any of the trainees could be let go, pack members or not, and then what would Namjoon do? So they were right: his pack was complete.

Many trainees took this as a sign that they weren’t welcome or needed, which the label was less than happy with. Some alpha trainees couldn’t stand a rival pack in their faces when they didn’t have one of their own, and Namjoon struggled having such alphas in the dorm, on his self-perceived territory, in the same bedroom as his unsuspecting, sleeping packmates.

Namjoon was also too quick to defend. When an alpha trainee said of Jungkook, “He’s just a clueless kid”, Namjoon lost his temper and shoved the guy – try coming for my pack, I dare you – and Yoongi had to pull him off.

“You think people won’t say worse?” Yoongi asked him afterwards.

“But it’s my job to –”

“No. You protect us if we need it. That doesn’t mean you beat up every bully, Joon-ah.” And Yoongi looked at him with some sympathy as he exhaled, deflating, and Yoongi nodded – a wordless conversation, understood perfectly by both.

Namjoon still worried that his pack would be sent home because he was being too aggressive and difficult with other alphas. That’d be something: him moving back home with three packmates he couldn’t provide for. God, his parents would kill him.

He could hardly sleep sometimes, anticipating an attack when his guards were down – upon moving in, Seokjin noticed.

“This isn’t the dark ages,” Seokjin told him flatly one morning, when Namjoon rolled out of bed exhausted, barely having slept. “No one’s ripping throats out anymore. Ease up.”

He’d been living with Seokjin for only a few weeks at that point, but he was growing to like him. Seokjin was funny, in kind of a lame way, and surprisingly indifferent as to his looks. Sure, Seokjin scrubbed and moisturised dutifully like they all did, but Seokjin didn’t act entitled over how handsome he was. A lot of omegas would have. Strangers held doors for Seokjin, alphas craned their necks as Seokjin passed, fellow students offered to carry Seokjin’s bag while on campus, and street vendors frequently gave Seokjin free food, a flushed elderly beta rushing after Seokjin on the street once just to give him a bungeoppang with a “May your children be strong and healthy!” Seokjin bowed politely before biting in happily, while the rest of them looked on, stunned. “Mmm, third time this week!” Seokjin mused over a mouthful.

Seokjin came from a wealthier family and the only hardship he’d ever seemingly endured was that his alpha brother academically outshone him. Seokjin was now combining idol training with university courses, and Seokjin also had a boyfriend, Chiwon, of whom the label did not know – and Seokjin quickly guilt-tripped the other trainees into silence.

They never saw Chiwon in person – he never came to the dorm, never picked Seokjin up or dropped him off. Namjoon had seen a picture or two, however: a tall, tanned alpha of twenty with perfect skin and a wide, set jaw, had played basketball in high school and it showed in his build. A catch, definitely, oozing of a powerful young alpha – what had Namjoon expected? But this meant Seokjin snuck out to “study groups” after practices and returned shower fresh early in the mornings or late at night. Namjoon always caught traces of Chiwon’s scent on Seokjin. Once Seokjin even came back with a hickey on his neck, tantalisingly close to his scent gland, and Seokjin wore a turtleneck for a week, even during dance practice, laughing it off brightly.

Life appeared easy when you were Kim Seokjin, who had been dragged in for an audition with the label without Seokjin having to beg for a chance the way Namjoon had.

So at first Namjoon kept his distance: he didn’t feel like they had a lot in common. Seokjin had some money, was older, in university, had good looks and an alpha boyfriend – and Namjoon was a single, broke-ass trainee music nerd with an ugly face. What could they possibly have in common?

But their choreographer found something to unite them: they were hardly natural dancers. He and Seokjin started staying late at the dance studio, trying desperately to improve. And as they danced and cursed and stumbled, Namjoon was frustrated to discover that Seokjin was just damned nice. All the office noonas loved Seokjin, cooed over him and complimented how polite and pretty he was, and everyone from the label’s newest interns to PD-nim himself clearly had a soft spot for Seokjin.

Seokjin stopped being shy, too, as the weeks passed, turning bubblier and dorkier, making Namjoon laugh.

And maybe because of Namjoon’s issues with other trainees, or maybe because of something else, their line-up went through further changes.

“Guess Jungkook’s bambi-eyes weren’t just for you,” Yoongi teased a week after Taehyung moved in with them.

Taehyung was a beta – had presented only a few months earlier. Namjoon decidedly did not get Taehyung, and neither did Yoongi, but the other members were head over heels for him, especially Jungkook who was happy to have someone closer to him in age. Taehyung and Jungkook became thick as thieves within days, really, and if Jungkook adored Taehyung, there must have been a reason for it.

Namjoon may have been jealous, to be honest, that Jungkook suddenly smelled of Taehyung’s subtle beta scent, earthy and grassy, on top of the pack’s, consisting of Jungkook’s scent that was like water, with the sweetness of Hoseok and the more bitter edge of Yoongi, and dominantly mixed with them all Namjoon – what he smelled like to others, he had no idea.

It came as a considerable relief that Seokjin was annoyed too, because while Namjoon was Jungkook’s pack alpha, Seokjin was the one who took Jungkook shopping to buy new socks and mittens, drove Jungkook to school in the mornings, sometimes let Jungkook come on campus with him, and one day Namjoon came home to find Seokjin styling Jungkook’s hair into an Ichigo Kurosaki style as the two giggled and Hoseok took pictures. Seokjin would make a good parent one day, Namjoon thought idly, because Seokjin was that kind of an omega: gently paternal without thinking about it – patient, kind, and full of silly antics that Jungkook always giggled at.

Seokjin disliked Jungkook’s abandonment of him for Taehyung just as much as Namjoon did, and they bonded over their shared jealousy – not that they disliked Taehyung at all, but being Jungkook’s Favourite Person was simply a title worth wanting.

As Namjoon and Seokjin walked to the practice studio for dance lessons one evening, Namjoon noted how good Seokjin always was with Jungkook, especially when the young one got homesick or lonely.

“So you don’t mind the time Jungkook spends with me?” Seokjin asked, squinting in the evening sun. It was now summer, the evening bright but not as warm as it looked.

“Of course not.”

“No? I mean, I’m not in your pack, so I thought –”

“Yeah, but – It’s fine, with you.”

He didn’t mind Seokjin stealing Jungkook’s attention, he meant: Seokjin was taking care of the kid in ways Namjoon didn’t know how to. Jungkook was still shy around him sometimes, whether he was wearing one of Namjoon’s hoodies or not.

Namjoon added, “Ah, you’re just really good at, like. Taking care of us all, I guess.”

“You mean I cook for you,” Seokjin shot back, smirking. “An omega’s place is in the kitchen…”

“Whoa, I never said that!” Namjoon intervened, but was only met with a teasing grin.

“I like it, don’t worry,” Seokjin said, nudging their shoulders together, and Namjoon stared at his shoes to hide the flush that he worried was on his cheeks.

They stopped at a crossing, waiting for the lights to change, and Seokjin kept talking about the choreo they were trying to learn, his fringe splayed across his forehead, his mouth pursing in a small dissatisfied pout when the lights were taking too long. It was cute, Namjoon thought, memorising how Seokjin looked in that moment. Seokjin was disarmingly charming nearly all of the time: how did Seokjin do that? How did you become so good at people instead of trying too hard or too little like he did?

The light turned green and they began to cross, passing two alphas mid-way, both at least a decade older than them – and Namjoon paid them no mind, mid-conversation with Seokjin, until the male alpha whistled and hollered, “Looking good, pretty omega! You sure you don’t wanna swap for this knot?”

Namjoon jerked, bewildered, but Seokjin only squared his shoulders and walked on, grabbing Namjoon’s arm when he began to slow down.

“But they –” Namjoon protested, disbelief fading into anger, the hairs at the back of his neck pricking up. The laughter of the two alphas echoed behind them, and Namjoon snarled, but Seokjin’s grip on him was surprisingly firm.

“I don’t want to get groped or forcefully scented, so we walk the hell on,” Seokjin said, jaw set tight.

The female alpha shouted, “Don’t run away, baby, we’ll take care of you! Come on, tell us when your heat is!”

This time Namjoon did snarl, turning around, hands curled to fists, but Seokjin snapped, “No.” Namjoon looked from his opponents to Seokjin, whose eyes were wide – not just anger, but fear. “Joonie, no.”

The lights were back to red, a car was honking at them, and Seokjin dragged them to the pavement while one more loud whistle sounded from across the street. Namjoon was still ready to fight, but Seokjin kept pulling him along, letting go of his arm only after another block.

“At least I wasn’t followed this time,” Seokjin muttered, shaking his head. “Another day in Seoul, huh?”

Namjoon had never met such crude assholes in his life! What the fuck?! He’d seen plenty of people stare at Seokjin before – on the streets, at the studio, and Namjoon was well aware of it. But you didn’t just… just!

Namjoon didn’t mean to growl, but he did.

Seokjin rolled his eyes. “Welcome to the omega experience, Kim Namjoon. Glad you could join us.”

He deflated, at a loss. If Seokjin joined his pack, it would justify Namjoon beating the hell out of those jerks – his scent on Seokjin would provide protection, would be enough reasoning for him to march right up to those alphas and bark, ‘You wanna say that to my face?!’ You didn’t say shit like that to his omega! To Seokjin!

But before he could say anything, Seokjin added, “I’ll ask Chiwon for one of his jackets. Wear it for walking in the evenings, I guess.” Chiwon, right. “Besides,” Seokjin then said, “don’t pretend you haven’t done the same as those alphas just did.”

“Not like that!” he objected. Not yelling about – about his knot, not jeering about heats. But in school, of course, there had been pretty omegas whose attention he’d wanted, but he hadn’t been a creep about it. Maybe he’d called something after them once or twice, but…

“I’m sure you did it in a classy way,” Seokjin said, as if reading his thoughts, and Namjoon realised he had no comeback. Seokjin took in a breath and pushed a hand through his hair as they walked on. “Look, I can handle it. I’ve been handling it since I was thirteen.”

He jerked. “Thirteen?”

“I presented early,” Seokjin shrugged.

Namjoon was angry but not even sure who with. “Alphas are scum,” he said in realisation.

Seokjin laughed and shoved his shoulder. “You’re alright, for one. Maybe you’re a bit rough around the edges,” Seokjin mused playfully, “but I see you try.”

The shocked anger still lingered, his jaw set tight and hands in fists. All he wanted was to wrap an arm around Seokjin: keep him closer, make sure he was okay. Offer his scent: a protector, a guardian.

But those were not things he was allowed to do, so they walked on, Seokjin still tense, and Namjoon sending death glares at every alpha they passed: don’t even try it. Don’t even think about it.

But some alphas still stole glances, like they just couldn’t help themselves.

* * *

Namjoon’s pack of four was complete until the day he walked in on Taehyung crying in the practice room. The others had left already, and Namjoon was eager to depart as well – and as he came in, searching for his headphones, he found Taehyung sat by the mirrored wall in tears. Taehyung jumped up instantly as Namjoon entered, wiping his face to his sleeves. Taehyung then mumbled a “sup” and started gathering his things: his backpack, some schoolbooks.

Namjoon was not great with tears. He was, in fact, extremely uncomfortable with tears.

He hovered, feeling protective and baffled. Most of the time Taehyung was quiet around him, but then loud and bouncy around the others – Namjoon had no idea how this kid worked. “Um, you okay?”

“Yeah. Yup.” Taehyung very clearly did not want to talk to him.

“Cool, that’s cool.” He’d asked and Taehyung had answered. That was fine, right? But that wouldn’t have been him trying in the way Seokjin claimed. What would Seokjin say or do? He added, “Erm, you wanna, like. Talk about it?”

Hoseok would have been better at this. Yoongi, Jungkook, any of them.

“No, it’s fine,” Taehyung said, eyes on the floor. “It’s just, um, it’s Dad’s birthday. We always have a family thing, and they’re – they’re all together back home, and I’m. Well I’m here.”

Homesickness – thank god. Namjoon could deal with that, could understand that. He’d been afraid Taehyung was upset with the group, maybe thinking of quitting even. Homesickness? A breeze.

“Right, okay,” he said, “that sucks.”

Taehyung nodded that it did indeed suck and added, “And then, like, my friend from school posted something – they’re all out bowling, but I saw them at lunch today and they said nothing. I even asked if they wanted to hang out tonight, so I guess… I guess they just didn’t want me to join them.” Taehyung looked shamed.

Namjoon would have to recruit Yoongi for at least one low-key murder, ASAP.

He steadied himself, rubbing at his neck awkwardly. “I think bowling’s kinda lame,” he said, “I like arcades better. More fun, you know? More action. Hey, you wanna, like. Go shoot robots?”

“What, now?” Taehyung asked.

“Yeah. They’re open till late.”

“Oh.” Taehyung wiped at his face quickly. “Oh, okay.”

Taehyung still looked uncertain – and because Namjoon was bad at this, he stayed quiet for most of their walk to the small and rather shitty collection of arcade games at the nearby shopping centre. Namjoon fished his pockets for whatever cash he had, and they killed some robots while Namjoon left space in the air between them, waiting to see if Taehyung would take the bait.

Taehyung did: after their third round of defending planet earth from invaders, Taehyung went on a rambling speech about how lonely he was, how much he missed his parents, siblings, grandparents, and the group was nice and all, but it wasn’t the same, was it? And he wasn’t making friends at school either because people thought he was strange, and he was kind of awkward and shy (and bullied? Namjoon thought), and people laughed at him for being trained as an idol. “And besides,” Taehyung mumbled, “I don’t have a pack here, not like you guys.”

Something broke in Namjoon’s chest. He shifted his feet, still holding the plastic gun he’d been using to neutralise robots on the screen. “The label’s told me not to initiate trainees into the pack anymore. It’s not a good look, so…”

“Oh,” Taehyung said, eyes on his shoes. “Oh yeah. I get that. Sure, I wasn’t – I wasn’t, like.” And Taehyung looked frustrated and on the verge of tears again.

Namjoon could handle a lot of things – Seokjin rolling his eyes when Namjoon realised cat-calling was a problem, and Jungkook switching who his favourite person was on any given day, and he could handle how little Yoongi outwardly needed him because Hoseok kind of made up for it, and, he realised, he could handle the label giving him absolute hell, too. He could.

But he absolutely could not handle seeing Taehyung break down in a mediocre arcade at a shitty shopping centre.

“Ah, but here’s the thing,” he said, “I think rules are meant to be broken.”

Taehyung’s big doe eyes widened, hope clear in them. Namjoon had to nudge at Taehyung’s neck for Taehyung to tilt his head back, but Taehyung did, breath held tight – and Namjoon wondered if claiming a packmate ever got less unnerving, until gradual confidence, the instinct to claim, kicked in.

Like with the old restaurant keeper with Yoongi, Namjoon also got yelled at for initiating Taehyung, this time by an old gentleman who told them to keep their pack scenting habits at home where they belonged. But it was worth it because he had never seen Taehyung so happy before.

Predictably, he got pulled into a meeting with PD-nim. “You young alphas run on instincts, but you have to control yourself. You can’t just start scenting every trainee who comes along, kid, and –”

“I’m not,” he said, because he had a pack to defend.

“Interrupt me again? And we’re done here.”

So he shut the hell up. It didn’t feel good – it felt awful. But he kept thinking of Yoongi and him at the bibimbap place, of Jungkook engulfed in Namjoon’s extra-large hoodie, of Hoseok pulling him in for scenting at the bus stop that night, and now of Taehyung with wide smiles as Taehyung persistently called them all his “pack bros”. He thought of his pack, and he had to endure this.

And he thought of Seokjin, who had been unsurprised by Taehyung’s initiation, like Seokjin had been two steps ahead of him all this time. Probably was.

Namjoon wanted to say that he wasn’t recruiting randomly, out of hormones or pity – these people? His packmates? They were not random. They made sense as a pack, they were better for it.

At the end of the meeting, he was asked if their other two trainees, Seokjin and Hyosang, were in the pack too. He shook his head.

“Well, keep it that way,” PD-nim sighed, “because it doesn’t matter if someone is in your pack or not – if they don’t make the cut, we’re sending them home. Have you ever lost or ousted a pack member?”

“No,” he admitted.

“It’s not nice, kid.” Namjoon wondered what experiences had taught PD-nim that, if he’d ever find that out, and if he was being told off for his own benefit or the label’s. Another sigh. “It damages the alpha, too, you know.”

Namjoon walked out of the meeting, appropriately humiliated.

“Fuck them,” Yoongi said helpfully when Namjoon returned to the dorm, shamed and defeated.

“Yeah, easy to say,” Namjoon answered. They owed the label everything: their training, their dorm, their chance of making it in the music industry. Hoseok was sat on the couch on Namjoon’s right, Jungkook to his left. Yoongi stared from the doorway, with Taehyung pressed carefully to Yoongi’s back, seeking comfort from Yoongi in a way only packmates could.

Seokjin and Hyosang were clattering in the kitchen, doing the dishes because it was their turn but also because they had been excluded from the pack meeting. Hyosang would walk out on them all soon, after nearly a year as a fellow trainee, but as with so many things, they didn’t know that yet.

“The managers might think this pack is a weakness,” Yoongi said stubbornly, “but maybe it’s what sets us apart. Maybe it’s what we need to make it – what gives us strength.”

God, how right he would turn out to be.

* * *

What Namjoon hadn’t known was that Seokjin was much more likely to benefit from a heat that was brought to satisfaction – which only an alpha could help with. In an ideal world an omega would know their heat partner well and would have already been intimate with them in the past: Seokjin could call up such an alpha, maybe?

“Chiwon?” Namjoon echoed in disbelief.

Jimin perked up, the three of them out for dinner in Bangkok – in a private cabinet at the KBBQ that staff had located for them, their chauffeur waiting for a pick-up, their two bodyguards dining in the restaurant proper with their hired translator. There was no such thing as a simple outing for them anymore. The serving staff were professional – though flustered to have three sevenths of Namjoon’s pack in their restaurant – and the food was excellent, with Namjoon enjoying the company: his pack’s two omegas ordering more meat to cook and filling their bellies, laughing and joking.

The private cars, the security, the scrutiny all had become normal at some point, so much so that even saying Chiwon’s name felt like another lifetime: a rough doodle amidst Rembrandt paintings.

Seokjin gawked at him from across the table, while Jimin chirped, “Who’s Chiwon?”

“Someone I dated before you joined,” Seokjin said. “At the university, you know. Namjoon hated him.”

“Oh, there’s a surprise,” Jimin said, smirking with his bleached white hair and dangly earrings. When had Park Jimin turned from a surprisingly well-toned, overeager teenage munchkin into a lethal machine of omega smouldering, Namjoon would never know.

“I barely knew Chiwon,” Namjoon objected – but yes, he’d maybe disliked the man. It was Seokjin who had dumped Chiwon, not the other way around, but Seokjin had still moped around the dorm while Chiwon kept texting that surely they could fix things if Seokjin just told him what he’d done wrong? Namjoon had observed it from a semi-respectable distance: when Seokjin went to a college party and returned with swollen lips and two hickeys, smelling like a girl alpha, Chiwon stopped calling.

“Chiwon is mated these days,” Seokjin said, rolling his eyes. “Someone told me his mate gave birth to twins last year.”

“We like a fertile alpha,” Jimin mused, much to Namjoon’s annoyance. But who else could Seokjin’s turn to? Namjoon stared at Seokjin from across the table as it hit him, and Jimin had caught up. “So will you ask Jaebong?”

“I considered it,” Seokjin admitted, “but I’m not going to call him.”

Jimin tapped fingers against his chin, deep in thought. “Jaebong was cute. I still don’t even know what happened with you guys.” Jimin then picked up some meat with his chopsticks, and Namjoon and Seokjin shared a quick look before they filed it away.

“Regardless and like other famous saddos, I guess I’m renting,” Seokjin said and looked vaguely humiliated.

There were services for rut or heat companions, and while this had been perfectly legal for some time now, the practice was still branded with old notions of prostitution. Besides, having omegas selling themselves to rut-mad alphas was far more common than alphas selling themselves to omegas. Namjoon had not thought Seokjin would ever consider hiring an alpha.

But Seokjin was hardly the first famed omega in this situation, and there were highly selective, completely discreet companies that specialised in providing partners to politicians, TV personalities, and whoever had the money and the need for absolute secrecy. Namjoon had heard of these companies, of course, but he’d never envisioned that their label would need to approach one.

He wished Seokjin had been more averse to the idea – but what had Namjoon said about getting Seokjin’s hormone levels back to normal? That they absolutely had to do it, that they’d do whatever it took?

Like hired help.

Seokjin’s heat had been scheduled between the Asian and the European legs of their tour, in a week intended for promotion and filming back in Korea. Most of them were happy to get a break before Europe now – Namjoon, too.

But Seokjin’s heat, like everything else, was on a tight schedule, and only a few evenings after Namjoon had discovered that Seokjin was paying for a heat partner, he somehow ended up in Seokjin’s crowded hotel room post-concert because Seokjin had been emailed the details of potential alphas from a company called Cellular Solutions. Did they sell phones or sex workers? Anyone’s guess.

Namjoon had no idea what he was doing there – he’d rather skulk to Yoongi’s room to crash the VLive session Yoongi had going with Hoseok than sit in the corner as Jimin and Taehyung monopolised Seokjin’s tablet, snickering on the large hotel bed. Jungkook looked embarrassed, at least, but was also too curious to help himself as he ogled over his packmates’ shoulders. Seokjin sat in their midst was, for the most part, annoyed.

“This one’s name isn’t actually Ralphio, is it?” Jimin giggled, peering at the screen. “Is that how you say it? Ral-pho? Oh wait, he is foreign! Oooh, he’s like a Gucci model!”

Taehyung snatched the iPad from Jimin, bringing it close to his face. “Oh hello, Ralpho!”

A burst of delighted giggling from the kids.

Seokjin tried to make grabby hands for the tablet, surrounded by the maknae. These profiles, from what Namjoon had observed from his seat, included model-like head shots, nude body shots, and close-ups of hard-ons and knots so that the client could get a realistic estimate.

Seokjin, whose anonymity at this stage was secure, had sent his preferences to Cellular Solutions and been given profiles that matched, yet after all these years Namjoon had no idea what Seokjin was really looking for in an alpha.

Female alphas were generally considered better for heats: less raw physical aggression. But Seokjin had asked for male alphas only, which had surprised them somewhat – Seokjin had been with women, too. Seokjin wanted someone ideally the same age as him or older, up to thirty-five, which seemed significantly more mature: a decade older than, say, Namjoon was. Was that what Seokjin was attracted to? Older male alphas with six packs and big knots?

But Seokjin had at least once found Namjoon attractive – or attractive enough, given the circumstances – but Namjoon was unsure if such an old memory, of the two of them in a hotel room in Manila, had any value in the present situation. He quickly pushed it aside.

The profiles came with “client feedback”, and Taehyung relished reading them aloud: “Ralphio left me completely satisfied, did not resort to any toys during my six-day heat. Amazing knot, gave great head. Signed by Happy Customer, female omega, aged thirty-four.”

Seokjin frowned. “Maybe Ralphio would prefer female omegas, then?”

“Oh please,” Jimin said, finally getting the iPad back from Tae and scrolling down. “Ralphio is getting to hook up with Mr. Worldwide Handsome – I highly doubt he’d be upset. Hmmm.” Jimin tilted the iPad, scrutinising. “His dick isn’t as nice as the last one, though? That one was a bit more –”

“Does it matter?” Namjoon cut in, speaking for the first time in at least ten minutes. His four packmates looked at him like they’d forgotten he was even there. “It’s gonna be inside, right? How much of his privates would you actually see?”

“But if you like giving head,” Taehyung reasoned, side-eyeing an embarrassed Seokjin, “like some of us do…”

“TMI!” Jungkook objected in horror.

“He told me himself!” Taehyung defended.

“Aish, after I’d been drinking!” Seokjin argued, swatting at his dongsaeng. “Just because I tell you something doesn’t mean –”

Namjoon sat in the corner, dumbfounded, as chaos erupted. Apart from the two sort-of boyfriends Seokjin had had, there’d been times when Seokjin had shown up to dance practice or appeared out of his hotel room shower-fresh but with just the barest hint of an unknown alpha or beta on him. Although the others whined for details (they had no boundaries), Seokjin was always close-lipped. Namjoon certainly never asked to know more. He didn’t want to know, and at the end of the day such hook-ups were rare, for all of them.

Namjoon only worried if there were repeats: if Seokjin smelled of someone more than once.

The disorder on the hotel bed had calmed down somewhat, and Jimin was poking Seokjin’s shoulder. “Hyung, let’s look at the next one!”

Clearly they approved of the next candidate, too, all four letting out a collective ”ooh!” as they stared at the tablet with renewed vigour.

Namjoon left at some point – after Ralphio and Daewon and Geunsik – and he doubted anyone even noticed. He wondered how they were rating the junk of the alpha currently on display, and then he thought of Seokjin on his knees, mouth open and wanting, an alpha’s large hands tugging at his hair, and Seokjin staring up with dark eyes…

Namjoon was irritated, unsure what to feel.

Seokjin had his own apartment in Seoul these days, in the same complex as their dorm. They all had their own apartments now, except for Namjoon: he had the money for it, of course, but not the inclination. The dorm was his home. The pack was his home.

When Seokjin had bought his apartment, Namjoon had nearly panicked: Seokjin was leaving them? Already, so soon? Namjoon had thought he’d get a few more years of pack cohabitation at least. But the apartment was just an investment, and Seokjin was rarely there. They all stayed at the dorm, vanishing into their own apartments only if they’d had arguments, and even then Yoongi or Taehyung would reappear within two days, suffering from pack withdrawal and an apology prepared.

They were all miserable without the pack: Namjoon clung onto that more than he should have.

But sometimes Seokjin disappeared into his own apartment to be by himself, and Namjoon wondered if this was to meet up with someone, perhaps. Seokjin was free to do as he pleased, of course, with whomever he pleased, as long as Seokjin was safe and careful. The same applied for all of them, Namjoon had told them all as much: if you want to have casual sex, go ahead – but be safe and be careful.

The heat wasn’t any different. In a way, heat sex was less significant: an omega would do anything to keep their partner with them for repeated sex during a heat. Sex outside of heats was a choice, was perhaps more intimate and meaningful because of it – so why couldn’t Namjoon shake off the irritated scraping in his guts, his chest? Why did he want to snarl at the mere thought of this goddamn Ralphio?

Namjoon just wished he hadn’t known. It was always easier when he didn’t know, just like with the other anonymous bodies that had passed through their beds as the years rolled by.

God, if only he didn’t have to know.

* * *

“RapMon-hyung, don’t you want me?”

Namjoon choked on his water, alone in the conference room with Jimin after they all had been shown their debut concept art. Jimin stared at him, face soft and faux innocent, a black cap backwards on his head. Namjoon had known him for less than a year: the kid had come bouncing into the practice studio, the dorm, their lives, like a good-willed yet reckless baby otter with more talent than he knew what to do with.

Plenty of staff was just outside the open conference room doors where he and Jimin remained sitting – whatever happened next, Namjoon thought, there’d hopefully be enough witnesses to testify that he had not started this.

Namjoon choked out, “What?”

Jimin persisted. “Don’t you want me? I’m really good, honest! I’ll do whatever you want!”

Oh god, one of them was going to get kicked out for sexual harassment, this close to the debut, and Namjoon wasn’t sure which one.

“Ah, listen, Jimin-ah,” he began, a flush already heating up his cheeks. It wasn’t that Jimin wasn’t an attractive omega – Jimin was, of course: bubbly and petite, ticking off so many boxes for ideal omegas. And Jimin had been working on his six-pack all winter, confidence soaring as the muscles became better defined, and Namjoon appreciated, definitely, how attractive Jimin was.

But there was to be no in-group, er, mixing.

“I think very highly of you,” he said, “and I’m flattered that you, uh, think of me that way? Uh.”

“What?”

“Yeah, uh, like I get that- I probably smell really, er, appealing to you? But uh, we have to restrain our, er, natural instincts, and, um…”

Jimin blinked, frowned, then laughed. “Oh my god, no! No, I’m not hitting on you. Hyung, that’s so embarrassing.” But clearly not that embarrassing because Jimin inched his chair closer, and Namjoon went rigid. Jimin poked at his chest. “Your pack. I want to be in your pack. And I know you weren’t recruiting what with the trainees changing, but hyung, we’re debuting in a few months, I’m all over our video logs. I’m not leaving, so – so I can join, right?”

The pack’s co-existence with Seokjin and Jimin had been mostly peaceful – perhaps because the two were omegas that Namjoon got on well with: he wasn’t territorial against them. But he hadn’t seriously considered that –

“Taehyung said maybe you don’t want omegas in your pack?” Jimin then ventured.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Jimin tilted his head. “Because you’re a romantic and the only omega you ever want to scent is your future mate? Ah, hyung, is it true? You’re going all red!”

“That is not true,” he said, feeling like he was being bullied by a puppy-sized fluff ball. “I’m not looking for a mate,” he added in his defence. “I’m, I’m checking out the goods, not buying.”

“Okay, sure,” Jimin granted. “But why isn’t Jin-hyung in your pack either?”

“Well, because – the label, and, and because.”

Jimin changed tactics to pouting. “But we’re debuting soon! No takebacks, so take me on! I’ll be such a good packmate! I’ll, I’ll remember all your birthdays, I’ll give the best cuddles, and – and I’ll put in a good word for you with omegas you like! Come on, Monnie-hyung,” Jimin whined, opening his arms wide, tilting his head back, and offering his throat. “Take me! Take me now!”

“Oh my god,” he breathed, mortified.

He scented Jimin later at the dorm, in the privacy of their home because it felt like the right place to do it: as the others slept, he nudged Jimin awake. Jimin needed no convincing in getting up, clinging onto Namjoon as he pushed into Jimin’s neck for claiming.

Namjoon let Jimin stay in his bed that first night, Jimin curled up against him like a small mouse, nosing at Namjoon in his sleep – the scent of Jimin was content, the look of him perhaps a little smug. But when Jimin was asleep, without the bravado, the show, the constant flirting, Jimin looked like a kid with round cheeks and too many worries, starving himself to fit a version of himself that existed only in his head.

You’re amazing just as you are, Park Jimin – although maybe tone it down a little, he wanted to say.

He still enjoyed the scent of Jimin on him, floral and calm, and the way it mixed with the pack scent he carried: the darker bite of Jungkook, the subtle tones of his betas, earthy, bitter, sweet. Omegas smelled soothing to all, and Jimin was no exception.

Namjoon carefully stretched out in the bunk, listening to the hum of the dorm around them, the distant sound of the occasional car on the street, the rattling window frame, the old pipes in the ceiling, and the final seven: the ones that had stuck. He recognised the others’ breaths as they slept in the dark, the different rhythms, rises and falls. All in his pack now, apart from Seokjin.

Jimin’s question was valid: why not Seokjin?

Seokjin had never shown any interest, for one. And then the ban had been on them, anyway, although Jimin was right: they could get away with it now because their line-up was public knowledge (apart from Taehyung – a secret member to be revealed at the debut). Namjoon maybe should talk to Seokjin about joining because Seokjin was great, of course, he absolutely could be in the pack, Namjoon definitely had those pack feelings towards him.

Jimin mumbled in his sleep and pushed into him, and Namjoon was torn between affection and being grossed out, because pack member or not, Jimin was an often-sweaty teenage boy who didn’t change his socks regularly enough (but, well, neither did Namjoon). Jimin would be sent back to his own bed tomorrow, but for now, when the inclusion was so new and transferring scent meant so much, Jimin was welcome to his bed. Omegas, he figured, just got away with more than others did.

Namjoon decided to bring up the pack issue with Seokjin in the morning.

He woke up when Jimin clambered out of his bunk, kneeing him twice and mumbling insincere apologies, to head for a shower before the bathroom got occupied again. The others were up by the sounds of it, bunks empty when he arose. He smelled strongly of Jimin and knew that the entire pack would spend time scenting both him and Jimin now, in search of some balance that suited them all.

Hoseok popped his head into the bedroom. “Breakfast!” he announced and disappeared with a wide grin of excitement that Hoseok got when the pack grew: another member for Hoseok to dote over.

Namjoon descended from his bunk and saw that the only person still sleep was Seokjin, whose brown dyed hair was visible from under the covers piled atop him. Seokjin was a blanket and cushion hoarder: a typical omega trait that Namjoon had always found endearing.

Now was as good a time as any to ask, before he could overthink it.

So he shook Seokjin gently, and Seokjin groaned in protest before rolling onto his back and blinking himself awake. “Jimin-ah?” Seokjin rubbed at his eyes and looked surprised to see him, then sniffed. “Oh.” Seokjin sat up quickly, looking around the room. “Um, congrats are in place?”

“Um, I guess. Like, uh, yeah.”

He meant, ‘yeah and here’s a crazy idea: you wanna join the pack, too? Because you’re so funny and smart, you look out for us when you don’t even need to, and sometimes I don’t know what I’m doing but you always help me, and I think about scenting you all the time, and you’re perfect and clever, and anyway would you ever, like, consider having me as your pack alpha? Because I’d try so hard for you – I’d try so hard to earn that position.’

Instead he stood there, feeling foolish and awkward and gangly, noting that Seokjin looked absolutely breath-taking first thing in the morning, flushed from sleep, hair messy, his omega musk deeper from the night’s rest and now settled onto his soft-looking skin, onto the unmarked expanse of his throat and neck – and words, if Namjoon knew any, vanished.

Flustered, all he could say was, “So, like, breakfast is ready.”

Seokjin avoided his gaze. “Cool, yeah. Thanks.”

And neither of them really looked at each other for the rest of the day.

* * *

Despite fans worrying constantly that they were working themselves to death, Namjoon hated breaks. Breaks meant them splitting up on different flights, heading to different cities, of withdrawal slowly begin to gnaw at them.

When a break was coming, Namjoon tried to act cool about it: the others had family and friends to see and obligations beyond the pack. Namjoon tried to hide how miserable separating made him, although the pack knew. Need anyone be reminded of the time he’d lost his passport and been sent back to Seoul while his pack had roamed around Finland without him? Need anyone be reminded how he’d sulked in the studio, refusing to text the pack because he didn’t want to spoil their fun, spiralling himself into panicked withdrawal in a day and a half during which he convinced himself they were all better off without him? And need any of his pack be reminded how they’d returned to Korea to find him curled up in bed, staring blankly at a wall and shivering from withdrawal, too bereft and out of it to do anything?

It’d taken a lot of unprompted PDA from Jimin and Hoseok to help him recover, of Yoongi coming to his studio to hang out unnecessarily, of Taehyung and Jungkook repeatedly asking him to play video games with them, of Seokjin loudly complaining that he didn’t have enough of Namjoon’s scent on him and then borrowing his clothes: his pack persistently trying to show how much they needed and wanted Namjoon around. He recovered slowly from the withdrawal, but the fear of losing them all had never left once it’d seeped into his skin. What was a pack alpha without his pack, after all?

Their hectic stadium tours were perfect for keeping them together for months, but now Seokjin’s heat had changed that. Namjoon reluctantly counted the days to the break, crossing out yet another on their return flight to Seoul, their private jet carrying them from Osaka.

Everyone slept on the flight except him. The past few weeks had been a whirlwind of a stop in Los Angeles for an awards show and promo, then straight back on tour for their concerts in Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan. They were exhausted, all of them – but Namjoon couldn’t sleep. Upon landing they would be faced with a two-day MV shoot, followed by a fan sign in Jeonju. Then: the break.

When Seokjin had told them of the heat, it had seemed distant, but now it was mere days away. Seokjin had picked an alpha for his heat, too: congratulations, Daewon. Namjoon knew nothing of this alpha, though Jimin teased Seokjin about him endlessly. Professional or not, could this Daewon be trusted?

Right then Seokjin was asleep in the back of their small plane, in a plush leather seat, leaning against the window. He had a baseball cap pulled down on his forehead, a mouth mask covering his lower face, and an RJ in his arms. Seokjin was tall and strong, but the appearance could be misleading: behind Seokjin’s perfect face were his moods, his laughs, his jokes, his fondness of anything pink, his partiality to exceptionally comfy hoodies, his omega habit of being focused on food nearly seventy percent of the time. Seokjin had a soft interior. Did this Daewon know how gently to treat that for four days, or however long it’d take? Namjoon wasn’t sure.

The image of Daewon plagued his mind: he assumed Daewon looked like a model, tall and muscled like one of their bodyguards. He also knew, rationally, that heats were not about being soft. Heats were hard, brutal, single-minded. Seokjin wouldn’t want soft: omegas were known for getting shameless. Seokjin would, too.

At least Namjoon thought so. He had no personal experience: just stories, movies, pornography. Maybe Seokjin didn’t know what to expect either and that put Namjoon on edge.

Opposite Seokjin, Yoongi and Jimin were asleep. Tae was sat by Seokjin, leaning against Seokjin’s shoulder, mouth open. Their managers were likewise out of it, snoring across the aisle, Jungkook resting with them. The plane window by Namjoon showed nothing but darkness and the blinking light of the plane’s left wing.

The hum of the plane was comforting, and when he closed his eyes he could pick out the scent of each of his packmates. Intact, safe, hopefully happy.

But one day, Namjoon would lose this – and not just for a few days, but for good. One day he, Jungkook and the betas would enlist: the five of them could serve together because as a pack they’d be kept together. The withdrawal from their omegas, however, would be hard as hell.

And their omegas would wait, hopefully, although how often did a pack alpha come home only to discover their omega had sought out a new alpha in their absence? It happened all the time.

But say Jimin and Seokjin resisted the temptation of other packs, rejected the efforts of other alphas. Maybe all seven of them would return to music after the army and maybe not – but fame at this level, this absurd level that they had reached, was temporary. It would fade and mellow out, and they all had to face that. One day they’d go to award shows and walk away with nothing, and that wouldn’t be the fans’ fault, or anyone’s: some group would surpass them, eventually, as people’s attention spans came to their natural ends.

Compassion fatigue translating to celebrity fatigue, perhaps.

So yes, while the fame would follow them, it had to decline. It had to, and they would lose these glory days. And maybe a small part of Namjoon looked forward to it: retirement at the age of thirty or so and finally getting some rest. He’d always do music, one way or another, but he didn’t have to be the world’s most famous idol to do so. The adjustment wouldn’t be easy, but he could manage some of the fame fading.

The pack, however, he couldn’t bear losing. Breaks reminded him of this, and heats were intense, physically and emotionally. What if in less than a week Seokjin announced he’d found a new alpha for himself? Those things happened. They’d all seen Pretty Woman: a hired omega meets an elusive, rich alpha in need of a rut partner – and bam, they were in love.

“Hey.” Hoseok was looking at him, sat directly across the small table between them. He’d thought Hoseok was asleep, but the beta was observing him, no trace of sleep on his features. “You wanna talk about it?”

Namjoon shifted in his seat like he’d been caught red-handed. “I’m fine,” he said tiredly. He didn’t say ‘one day you’ll all leave me and this pack, and then what do I do? What is my purpose then?’

“You’re fine, sure – tell me more,” Hoseok encouraged, poking at Namjoon’s legs under the table.

He sighed, eyes washing over his sleeping pack. “I just worry,” he admitted. “Things have been good, so I feel like something bad is due.”

“Like what?” Hoseok asked. The plane jerked a little – Seokjin shifted in his sleep in the back of the plane.

Like I lose him. Like I lose all of you.

He shook his head and said he needed sleep, and Hoseok looked worried but said nothing.

Namjoon awoke to the plane bouncing as they landed in Incheon, his packmates stretching, reaching for their bags, finding their masks and hats in some vague effort of privacy.

The Korean press and fans awaited them, but their security had learned the hard way how to handle the chaos of an arrivals hall. Seokjin was in skinny jeans and an oversized baby blue jumper, a cap on his head, a mask covering his mouth, smelling of sleep and the pack and travel. Seokjin had stopped taking suppressants now, as they all knew: a countdown had begun. Seokjin was a matured omega, his body would kick into what was expected of it without further prompting.

The crowd welcoming them home was bigger than they’d thought, their security team escorting them to the cars. Cameras flashed and screams sounded – in the midst of it, he stayed close to Seokjin, who kept his head down. Namjoon put a hand on the small of Seokjin’s back as he eyed their surroundings, on edge.

Someone shouted too loudly, Seokjin flinched, and Namjoon wrapped his arm around Seokjin’s shoulders. Uncharacteristically, Seokjin leaned into him as they navigated the pandemonium, Seokjin half-burying himself into Namjoon’s frame.

They made it into the car in one piece, and as the door slammed shut and Namjoon had checked that the others were in their respective vehicles, Seokjin said, “Thanks.” Seokjin looked tired, eyes blood-shot and puffy – but beautiful as ever. Off suppressants. The scent of him stronger already.

“Of course, hyung,” he said before reaching over to buckle Seokjin in. Seokjin looked surprised but didn’t protest.

Anything any of them needed – while Namjoon was still needed.

But this didn’t appear to be for much longer: as they filed into their dorm an hour later, exhausted but happy to be home after such a long time abroad, Seokjin had a parcel waiting.

“What did you order?” Yoongi asked in spite of the communal exhaustion, huge online shopping enthusiast that he was – why go out and deal with people when you could tap out orders on your phone?

“Ah,” Seokjin said, sneaking the flat box under his arm, “it’s from my heat partner, I think. He offered to send me some of his clothes.”

“Romantic,” Taehyung said through a yawn. Normally they would be teasing over pre-heat scent presents, but now they were too exhausted, with a mere six hours before pick-up to go on location for the MV shoot – with mumbled goodnights, they all headed to their bedrooms.

Finally in his bed, Namjoon thought how clever it was for this alpha to send Seokjin some clothes: for Seokjin to get used to the man’s scent, to make it less likely that Seokjin would reject him once the heat started. The man Seokjin had hired was a professional, so of course he knew what he was doing.

He wondered if Seokjin had already taken the clothes from the package, if Seokjin was wearing the alpha’s shirt to bed.

Frustrated, he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling of his bedroom. He was home: this was a good thing, what he’d wanted for weeks now. He was home with his pack. Nothing made him happier, usually, but a headache was forming. Get rest – come on, just sleep.

Come on, the clock is ticking… Just relax, stop worrying.

Nothing bad will happen.

Breathe – nothing bad will happen anymore.

But as he closed his eyes he only saw horrors – and ghosts and ghouls he’d rather forget.

* * *

For their first Japanese album PD-nim had hired Ito Sota – a producer Namjoon knew by reputation, and he and Yoongi were over the moon because not just any group could get Ito Sota! PD-nim had known the man for a long time and, before Sota’s arrival, PD-nim gave them a small speech: work hard. Don’t complain. Make the label proud. You’re professionals now: act like it.

When Sota flew to Seoul to join them at the studio, Namjoon was determined to show that he was a good rapper and knew his hiphop. Sota was a beta in his late thirties, with an angular face and intelligent eyes, black hair with blond streaks dyed into it. Namjoon communicated with Sota in English when they realised it was better than Namjoon’s Japanese or Sota’s Korean. Sota had lived in New York when he’d been Namjoon’s age – mixing with the hiphop scene in Brooklyn. God, so cool! Sota even told them all to call him Sota-hyung!

With Sota in Seoul, the pack descended on the studio for hours on end, taking turns between working on the Japanese lyrics together and waiting for their new vocal tracks to be laid down. Sota was enthused and impressed. “Not a weak link in this pack of yours,” he said to Namjoon after a couple of days.

Namjoon grinned, happy. “Thank you, Sota-seonsaengnim!”

“Hyung, I told you!”

“Hyung,” he said gratefully. “Yes, sorry.”

Sota grinned. “You’re a cool kid, Namjoon. If you ask me, why can’t an idol be a real rapper, too? These people, you know, who say idols like you aren’t real rappers – don’t listen to them, kid. Sure, the makeup and dancing is lame, but the rapping is solid.”

Namjoon had recently had a makeover: his black mohawk was gone, his hair now silvery white with short sides and longer at the top. His pack insisted that he now looked “weirdly kinda hot” – Jimin, thank you – but he also looked much more like a typical idol, and he wasn’t sure if he liked it. His rapper friends had commented on his changed appearance, and not necessarily kindly. Namjoon wished that these various acquaintances from his underground days, who rolled their eyes at him, had been there to hear Ito Sota’s verdict.

PD-nim dropped in sporadically, but the rest of the time Namjoon, Yoongi and Sota worked as a trio, going over songs and tweaking them here and there. Their mix of Japanese-Korean-English amused them all, Yoongi grinning and laughing, Namjoon excited about the album, and Sota calling them “talented kids”.

The rest of the pack was busy with dance and vocal lessons – no idling just because Yoongi and Namjoon were busy. But Namjoon missed the rest in an abstract way, which was silly when he could go to the dorm every night, to the bedroom with bunkbeds squeezed in and with his six packmates asleep right there. But pack alphas could get needy sometimes.

When Seokjin came by the studio to say hi one evening, Namjoon was happy to see him. Seokjin gave him a soft smile and said the rest of them were heading home. Would they be much longer? Probably, he and Yoongi ventured – they were in the midst of creative chaos, putting together one of the brand-new songs for the Japanese album.

“Stay if you like,” Sota offered to Seokjin in Japanese, the three of them sat by the large desk, editing software open on the screen.

“Ah, it’s okay,” Seokjin said, leaning towards the monitor over Namjoon’s shoulder, the scent of him familiar and homey, with Namjoon’s pack claim on him. “You guys know more about – er,” Seokjin said, giving up on Japanese with an embarrassed smile. “Protrucing?” Seokjin added in English, looking down at Namjoon with a raised eyebrow.

“Producing,” he corrected.

“Protrucing,” Seokjin said, confidently. Sota laughed with Namjoon, and Seokjin smacked Namjoon’s shoulder gently. “I’m saying it like you’re saying it!”

“Pro-du-cing,” he emphasised with a grin, catching Seokjin’s hand in his before another smack could be aimed at him. Seokjin was pouting, but his eyes were twinkling. Namjoon squeezed his hand fondly.

The little things: that was what he missed when he didn’t see the others that much. Jungkook’s easy smiles, Hoseok’s squealing, Taehyung’s deep laughter, Jimin’s pouting, Seokjin’s hollering. What was life without any of it?

“Protrucing,” Sota mimicked. “In Japan, we’d call you kawaii.”

“Oh, I dunno,” Seokjin mumbled and ducked his head, embarrassed. “See you at the dorm, then?” he said, palm dragging against Namjoon’s as he pulled it back – just for a bit of scent. They had debuted nine months ago now, the same length of time Seokjin had been in Namjoon’s pack. The best nine months of Namjoon’s life.

“Yeah, we’ll see you there,” he promised. Seokjin smiled at him.

As the three of them turned back to the monitor after Seokjin’s visit, Sota swivelled in his chair and switched back to English. “Shit, how do you guys get any work done with that little tease around?”

It took him and Yoongi both a moment to realise “that little tease” was Seokjin. Yoongi raised both eyebrows at Namjoon, and Namjoon frowned but then shook his head – since their debut, he’d heard roundabout compliments on Seokjin in numerous ways, from betas and alphas alike.

PD-nim popped in an hour later, beaming widely to Sota, calling him his good, old friend. PD-nim had good Japanese and the two clapped each other’s shoulders, reminiscing over times shared. “He was the funniest guy we knew!” PD-nim enthused. “Ah, you always had good jokes!”

“Still do, still do,” Sota laughed. “Here’s a new one – why do omegas have legs?”

PD-nim grinned in anticipation. “Is this appropriate for the young ones? Fine, go on – why?”

“Because have you seen the trail that a slug leaves behind?” Sota grinned, and they both laughed. Yoongi looked a little embarrassed, but Namjoon had to be ready to mingle with the big leagues – and he laughed, because that one was new for him too.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” PD-nim accused. “Still cracking jokes! You’ll learn a lot from this guy, boys. They’ve been obedient, yes?”

“Hard workers,” Sota assured, and Namjoon stood up straighter.

“Good, excellent. This man right here is a genius, don’t forget!”

“Ah, you’re too much!” Sota insisted. “A genius, come on.”

Namjoon knew he and Yoongi both dreamed of such acknowledgement from PD-nim: for PD-nim to tell them they had made it, were pioneers, were contributors to music at large, and that they had made him proud. Maybe there’d be drinks, champagne, cigars – maybe PD-nim would tell them to call him hyung! If only!

And as PD-nim left, they worked even harder.

Sota showed up late to the studio a few days later, all seven of them waiting. Sota apologised, said he’d slept in because they’d been working so many late nights, but he smelled faintly of sex and an omega. Namjoon knew Sota had someone back in Japan – was living with someone, in fact – but they weren’t mated, no mating mark on Sota’s neck.

And as it became obvious that everyone could smell the truth on Sota, the beta laughed. “Seoul at night can get wild – come on, you’re not all that young! Surely you go out sometimes and let loose too? And what about your fans – bet they’re eager?”

They all stuttered and flushed because they did no such thing! But neither were they young anymore: they had performed their own shows now, had done fan signs, they had experience! Besides, Namjoon wished that he had the confidence that Sota clearly did around omegas, whereas he got tongue-tied whenever pretty omega fans approached him – still. He was getting better at it, though: pretend it’s just Jin-hyung, he told himself sometimes, because Seokjin always put him at ease.

When they admitted to no wild partying, Sota shook his head. “Hey, college kid,” Sota said, using the nickname he’d started using for Seokjin. “You’re the oldest, so why aren’t you taking your pack to parties? Use your god-given assets for VIP lists – you shouldn’t be shy with that face and scent of yours.”

“Um,” Seokjin mumbled, ears turning red, whereas Hoseok said, “Half of us are still underage!”

“Didn’t stop me when I was a kid,” Sota laughed. “Oh, and here!” Sota then said and reached into his messenger bag, pulling out a vinyl and handing it to Taehyung. “You said you like jazz – start here, kid. You’ve got a record player, right?”

“Yes,” Taehyung lied convincingly, eyes sparkling with excitement as he turned the LP in his hands, Jungkook and Yoongi crowding in on him to see the present. “Thank you so much!”

“Don’t sweat it,” Sota said in English, Taehyung nearly bouncing out of his skin as he proudly showed the record to Seokjin.

And later that day when they finally wrapped up, with their throats shot but all the vocals recorded, Sota asked if Namjoon would be interested in a collab for a little project he had going on. Was Namjoon interested?! “Of course! I’ll make the time, just let me know!” he said eagerly, with Jungkook listening in on the exchange and looking proud on Namjoon’s behalf.

“Can’t believe he wants to collab with you,” Jungkook beamed. “Ah, wait until Bang-nim hears about it!”

“Yeah,” he said, happy and eager.

That evening the pack celebrated the Japanese album at the dorm, cross-legged around their living room coffee table, instant ramen cups in their hands, but they had splurged on some ice cream. As a challenge, they were all trying to speak Japanese, which was causing giggles and meltdowns.

“Not fair!” Yoongi was shouting at Hoseok, who was falling all over him and cackling. “You’re not being fair!”

Namjoon barely heard his phone ring, but was glad that he did: it was Sota-hyung saying that he wanted Seokjin back in the studio to sing some of his parts again.

“The pitch isn’t quite right,” Sota said, “I missed it earlier.”

It was already late, but perfection was perfection, right? It was Namjoon who had to pass on the message – he did so, guiltily. “Um, some of your vocals…” he mumbled.

Seokjin, still sat on the floor – cross-legged, in pyjamas – coloured instantly. Seokjin had been taking extra singing lessons lately, trying to catch up to the more congenital talents of Jungkook and Jimin. He had improved a lot as a singer, but perhaps not enough?

Seokjin got changed and gathered his things, the tips of his ears red. Their celebrations felt dampened as Seokjin tied his shoelaces. Jimin called out, “Hyung, fighting!”

Seokjin nodded, mouth pursed, but it was clear that Seokjin felt called out – like he wasn’t as good as the rest. They carried on with the celebrations after Seokjin left, but it was never quite the same with one of them missing.

Namjoon stayed up late sketching some ideas for his collab with Sota, but was surprised when it got to two AM and Seokjin still wasn’t back. Even so, he went to bed: Sota had kept him and Yoongi in the studio until three or four before, so this was hardly new.

Namjoon stirred later to do a head count: all six present? Hoseok’s sleep-talk cut through the quiet as Namjoon gazed into the dark of the bedroom, catching people’s scents: five. Okay, five. Hang on – just five? He sat up instantly, nearly hitting the ceiling with his head.

A minute later he was out of bed and had his phone, slipping out of the bedroom to call Seokjin. But he paused, blinking: the kitchen light was on. He padded into their over-cluttered kitchen, pulling on his loose sleep shirt, his pyjama bottoms coming high up on his ankles because Jungkook had shrunk the pair in the laundry and Namjoon had no money for new ones.

But – thank god – Seokjin was home, stood by the sink and the microwave, a mug in his hand, back against the counter. He was in the clothes he’d left in that evening, for all intents and purposes the same, except the microwave’s clock read five-thirty in the morning and Seokjin looked like he’d been crying. Namjoon froze, taking this in.

Seokjin startled at the sight of him. “Ah, Namjoon-ah.” Seokjin wiped his face with his sleeve quickly.

Seokjin’s scent was bitter and anxious, sending a wave of alarm through Namjoon. He stalled, as uncomfortable with tears as always. “Did the recording not go well?”

It wouldn’t be the first time Seokjin teared up over a failed performance – a mistake in the choreography, a crack in his voice, a flat note. They all had their moments of failure, but Seokjin was working the hardest to make up for them.

“Yeah, I guess not,” Seokjin said quietly.

Namjoon was unsure what to do: the two of them had grown close, even more so after Seokjin’s initiation into the pack. Seokjin scented him a lot, which still took Namjoon by surprise sometimes, and when Namjoon had to be the pack leader for the rest of them, Seokjin was the only one that Namjoon could later still go to and goof off with. He felt freer around Seokjin, more like himself perhaps. More confident, too.

But none of that helped when Seokjin cried: Namjoon was just as tongue-tied then as he was with any of the others. How did he provide comfort? A hug? A ‘there, there’? Should he open his arms and say ‘scent if you wanna’?

“Uh, the music industry can be tough,” he began vaguely.

Seokjin’s lower lip trembled and he put the mug away. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with my vocals. He just wanted to…”

Namjoon frowned. “Who? Sota-hyung?”

Seokjin shook his head. “Don’t call him that. Don’t call him hyung.”

Why shouldn’t he? Sota-hyung had been so gracious and cool with them all.

Seokjin wrapped arms across his chest, like he was trying to make himself small. “I think he was just trying to get me to sleep with him.”

“Sota-hyung?” Namjoon said again in utter surprise, and Seokjin looked annoyed that the honorific was still there, but nodded. Namjoon failed to process this: Sota was a lot older, a real adult and practically like an uncle to them, not someone who was trying to – “Are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure. He was saying- he was saying all kinds.”

“Like what?”

The flush on Seokjin’s cheeks darkened, a look of indignation crossing his face. “I don’t have to repeat it to you!”

But Namjoon remained puzzled. “Sota-hyung flirts, I guess,” he admitted, scratching his head. Sota liked omegas, clearly, had made some comments. But that was just some talk, the way some people did. “You’re attractive, so he flirts,” he reasoned slowly. “I mean look at you, hyung, of course he flirts.”

Seokjin looked stunned. “Because I’m handsome he gets to do what he wants?”

“I mean, if he compliments –”

“It wasn’t just some compliments!” Seokjin struggled to keep his voice down – but was still doing so, not to wake up the others: “He kept me there for hours, and he was trying to touch me and he was saying things, and –” Disbelief crossed Seokjin’s face before something sadder settled in, Seokjin’s shoulders sagging. “You really… you really think I’m making this up?”

Namjoon hesitated: Seokjin looked and smelled distraught. “No,” he granted slowly, trying to form his words carefully. “No, I think he maybe flirted and you took it badly, but –”

And he wasn’t entirely sure what reaction he expected, but it wasn’t for Seokjin to snap, “Fuck you!”

Seokjin pushed past him and, because there wasn’t much of anywhere to storm to in the small apartment, Seokjin went to their bedroom. Namjoon stared after him, bewildered, a snarl bubbling in his throat. Fuck him? Where the hell had that come from?!

Namjoon returned to the bedroom: Seokjin was in his bed, under the covers, facing the wall. Was Seokjin crying again? He wasn’t sure – the two of them rarely ever came to blows like this. But Namjoon couldn’t talk there with the others asleep, so he climbed back into his bunk.

In the dark he fumed – fuck him? He’d been trying to be nice! Okay, so Sota had said something, but Seokjin didn’t have to take it so personally. They’d had all kinds of comments since their debut, some more flirty than others! You just said a ‘thank you, hyung’ if Sota said you were a babe and moved on. The last thing they needed was Sota telling PD-nim they were being difficult to work with!

In the morning Namjoon was stirred out of sleep by anxious thoughts, with Taehyung asleep in the bed beneath his as usual, but curled to Taehyung’s side was Seokjin, face tucked into Taehyung’s chest. Namjoon blinked at this – but then Taehyung was good cuddle material and also often sneaked into someone’s bed for cuddles, completely ignoring how small their beds were.

Namjoon was searching their kitchen for some ramen when he got a text from PD-nim that their Japanese album would be ready for a spin that very afternoon. Thrilled, he rushed to the bedroom: “The album’s ready!” His pack, still asleep, had mixed and confused responses. “We can go over this afternoon to hear it!”

Predictably, Yoongi perked up first, head lifting from the pillow. “Already? Sota-hyung’s fast.”

“Yeah, he’s crazy good,” he said, typing back an answer.

When he looked up again, Seokjin was awake and alert, head lifted from Taehyung’s chest, eyes fixed intently on Namjoon, but no warmth was in them. Namjoon averted his gaze: he wasn’t angry anymore and he didn’t want another fight over this. So he and Seokjin had different opinions on Sota’s compliments: Namjoon thought they were harmless, while Seokjin perhaps needed thicker skin. Besides, last night Seokjin had ran out on him and said “fuck you” to his face. Did Seokjin even know how most pack alphas would have handled that?

The day was too important for him to dwell on whatever Seokjin’s real issue was: the vocals, most likely. Seokjin didn’t want to be reminded he’d been recruited for his looks rather than his musical talent, so Sota-hyung had poked at a nerve, unwittingly.

When they gathered with PD-nim and Sota-hyung at the label that afternoon and listened to the tracks, Namjoon was excited. Breaking the Japanese market would be huge and this was their chance to do so! They sounded good: Seokjin, too, sounded pitch perfect to him. See? Seokjin had done well in the end! He needn’t have worried!

Seokjin sat next to him in the meeting room but said nothing the entire time – eyes downcast, reserved. His scent was sour: anxious, afraid. Namjoon didn’t get it. But it was fine now? Seokjin sounded good! The album sounded great! And, more importantly, Sota-hyung was pleased with the results, so they’d done well in the end.

But Namjoon couldn’t quite enjoy the meeting, feeling that something was askew. What was he missing?

They all bowed their thanks to Sota once the meeting was done. Sota barked that friendly laugh of his: “We’re friends now! Come on, we hug!”

Namjoon hugged Sota gladly, grateful for his help, and the others hugged Sota, too. Sota made the rounds, hugged Seokjin last and slipped an arm around Seokjin’s waist, squeezing Seokjin to his side as he addressed them all. “You guys will do well,” Sota promised and grinned at Seokjin. “You’ll all do well, huh?”

Seokjin’s ears were pink, gaze still fixed to the floor. Namjoon didn’t want Seokjin to be embarrassed – the vocals had been fine!

“We’re so grateful,” Namjoon said. “Aren’t we, Jin-hyung?”

Seokjin looked up at Namjoon, no trace of joy on his face. Namjoon stilled, but then Seokjin said, “Yes. Thank you, Sota-seonsaengnim.”

“Hyung,” Sota repeated again, squeezing Seokjin. “I told you last night, didn’t I? It’s always hyung.”

PD-nim stepped up. “Right, shall we celebrate?”

They went out for a meal, but Seokjin excused himself with a headache. PD-nim wasn’t happy about it: it wasn’t often by any means that the label treated the entire pack to a business dinner with their producers! But Seokjin was persistent, and PD-nim shot a glare at Namjoon. Whatever his pack failed to do, it came back to Namjoon.

The rest of them had a great time, though. What a night! The waitress recognised them, even. Hell, they were all getting recognised in the streets sometimes now, people would whisper “It’s Rap Monster!” when he passed. They had clout, they had kudos, and soon a Japanese album!

In the car back to the dorm, the six of them excitedly talked about touring in Japan, how cool it would be to share the language with the crowds. Their voices filled the building stairwell on their way up to the dorm, then the small hallway and living room as they all toed off their shoes. Namjoon was joking with Taehyung when Jungkook, who had gone to check on Seokjin, returned and said, “Hyung is crying.” Jungkook looked troubled and upset himself.

Five boys were suddenly looking at Namjoon – but he didn’t know what to do.

It was Hoseok who went to investigate because if one of them was upset, it didn’t exactly help to have six people crowding in on you.

Namjoon stayed in the living room, listless and eyes darting to the bedroom frequently.

“He’s been upset since this morning,” Yoongi said.

Namjoon said, “It was the stuff with the vocals.”

Yoongi frowned. “But the vocals were fine?”

He hesitated. “I think Sota maybe said something to him, I dunno.”

Jimin was chewing on his bottom lip uncertainly. “He smells wrong, too.”

“Yeah, I noticed,” Taehyung said, visibly anxious.

“He was really crying,” Jungkook supplied and sounded scared: Seokjin never let any of them see him upset if he could help it.

Hoseok stayed in the bedroom for a long time. Eventually he came out and said Seokjin was asleep, if people wanted to go get some sleep, too. “Personal stuff,” Hoseok said when Jimin wanted to know what the drama was about. And it felt like Hoseok glared at Namjoon before disappearing back into the bedroom.

Seokjin woke them up the next day with breakfast ready-made: rice and a selection of banchan served on the coffee table. “Eat up,” Seokjin said with as much fake cheer as he seemed able to muster. “We need the energy.” But Seokjin was still quieter than usual, even if the gears of the pack were slowly turning again.

And so Namjoon didn’t know. For a whole four months, he didn’t know: about the late night at the studio. Sota-hyung left and Seokjin sort of didn’t talk to Namjoon for a while, but their schedule was packed and they had to get on with their duties – and gradually they started talking again about the schedules and what to order for dinner, about work stuff until the fight seemed behind them, the two of them eventually scenting again, the mild withdrawal headaches easing. It wasn’t that unusual, at the end of the day, for one of them to cry sometimes. Rarely Seokjin, but even Seokjin reached that point of exhaustion, Namjoon figured.

Spring turned to summer, their first debut anniversary passed, and Namjoon visited his favourite bookshop on a rare free afternoon. He bumped into Doyoon on his way there: a fellow idol rapper and leader – not a pack leader, just a group leader – of a beta-omega sextet that had debuted a year before they had. Doyoon was a tall, handsome beta, hair dyed purple – they had won awards already! Namjoon’s pack had won one.

Doyoon asked if he wanted to grab coffee, and so they ended up sat in a small café a few streets from the bookstore, talking idol business and comparing experiences. Sota came up in conversation when Namjoon bemoaned that Sota-hyung still hadn’t been in touch about that collab he’d promised.

“Ito Sota?” Doyoon clarified. “You’re working with that creep?”

Namjoon was taken aback. “What? No. No, I mean Sota-hyung.”

And Doyoon made a face – not a good face. “Yeah. We worked with him, too – but the track he produced for us flopped, so he hasn’t been called back. Thank god for that.”

Namjoon frowned. “Why would you say that?”

“Uh, because he’s gross? Like, everyone knows. You guys, too, right?” But Namjoon shook his head. Doyoon looked around the café before he leaned closer. “He has wandering hands, you know? Likes omegas half his age. And my omegas would rather not have their asses fondled and necks scented as they’re trying to record – just a personal preference.”

Namjoon stared. “Are you serious?”

“Man, I saw it happen,” Doyoon said gravely, “but ask anyone! Not the bosses, no. They’re his buddies; he makes sure of that. Ask the artists – honestly, he always does it. Talk about a beta with an alpha complex, huh?” Doyoon rolled his eyes and moved onto the next topic, but Namjoon couldn’t touch his drink.

Namjoon did some detective work the next few days: on the downlow, asking a few people he knew for details. And people seemed to agree that Ito Sota was not someone to be trapped alone in a room with. Did PD-nim know? Did anyone who actually owned a studio know or was it just young idols under contracts who were aware of this, their footing in the industry too uncertain to say anything? And what was it that Namjoon had dismissed months earlier: touching. Seokjin said there’d been touching. Groping? Fondling? He gritted his teeth. Scenting?

When he heard a rumour that at least two omegas had tried to press rape charges against Sota in the past – not even recently, but going a decade back – and that it had all been brushed under the carpet, he thought of Seokjin’s wide smiles and wild laughs, Seokjin with his ability to bring the best out of people, the good out of people, and then he thought of Seokjin alone that night, completely alone, in a studio with Ito Sota – and Namjoon wanted to punch something. He wanted to destroy something, tear it to pieces.

But how pathetic was Namjoon? This pathetic: it took him two more days before he talked to Seokjin, waiting until they were alone at the practice studio. The irony of this planning wasn’t lost on him. And all Namjoon could say as an icebreaker was, “About Sota-hyung. About that time.”

Seokjin, who had been stretching by the mirrors, arms over his head, instantly froze up: fear. That was fear – perfectly genuine, and Namjoon had told himself it was something lesser. Why? Because Sota had been so nice to him that he couldn’t fathom it being a front? Or because he hadn’t known how to deal with the situation if Seokjin’s claims were true? Or something even pettier: because he wanted the collab, maybe? Fuck, had he sold Seokjin out, himself out?

Seokjin’s arms slowly came down, Seokjin vibrating with fight or flight, perhaps, Namjoon wasn’t sure.

Alarmed, Namjoon rushed out, “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“About…!” he said, fighting for words. “About what he’s like with- with omegas, with you.”

Seokjin stared at him evenly, taking his time. “And what is he like?”

Namjoon startled. “He… He harasses you. Tries touching you. Stuff like that.”

“And more,” Seokjin said blankly, and Namjoon’s stomach dropped.

“You should have told me,” he said faintly.

“I did tell you,” Seokjin said. “You didn’t believe me.”

Namjoon had failed abysmally, and he failed even more then – as days of brooding guilt and disappointment got the best of him. “Fuck,” he mumbled, blinking back tears of anger. Fuck, fuck, fuck!

And it was Seokjin who had to comfort him – because of course Seokjin did, pulling Namjoon into a hug when he least deserved it, letting Namjoon’s hands twist in the back of Seokjin’s shirt because how had Seokjin not left the pack that night? Namjoon was supposed to protect him, keep him safe: for omegas one of the rare goddamn benefits of a pack was that extra layer of protection, and Namjoon had failed. He’d sent Seokjin to the fucking wolves and told him not to complain about it. How had Seokjin not disowned him as his pack alpha?

He asked this final question into Seokjin’s shoulder, and Seokjin jerked and stepped back, hand squeezing Namjoon’s shoulder. “Namjoon-ah,” Seokjin said, shocked looking. “I wouldn’t leave you. I knew we had to, to think about our careers, and who can we tell? I know all that. But I wouldn’t leave you. Joonie…” And Seokjin hugged him again, scenting him and calming him down: and Namjoon let himself sniffle. Not much, no, of course not – he wasn’t a crier, no one wanted a cry baby as a pack alpha.

But as it occurred to him the danger Seokjin had been in, he was filled with such dread that all that was left were angered tears. “He didn’t – I mean,” he said, struggling, “he didn’t hurt you, did he?”

“Do you really want to know about it?” Seokjin asked him quietly.

For the next hour they sat against the wall of mirrors together, Namjoon exhausted, gently holding Seokjin by his wrist, feeling the pulse and the warmth: rubbing his scent onto the skin there with the pad of his thumb. Seokjin leaned into him and talked: about how Seokjin had just “needed to relax” and how Sota had suggested they go about it. Oh, nothing at first: Sota massaging Seokjin’s shoulders because it was a relaxation method that was great for recording, while commenting constantly on Seokjin’s “distracting looks” and “ripe scent.” Seokjin had sucked it up – it was friendly, Sota assured, nothing more. Some winks on top. Maybe some of that was what Namjoon had imagined, too.

But what came after, Namjoon had no capacity of imagining. He couldn’t imagine, “I can keep your worst takes and play them to your boss and say it was the best I got out of you – do you want to embarrass your pack like that? Or are you gonna be smart about this? You’re smart, aren’t you? Pretty thing like you, a college kid – yeah, I can tell you’re smart. Ah, don’t freeze up like that, don’t get all frigid. We’re having a good time, Jinnie. All I’m asking is that you’re good to your hyung like I am to you – isn’t that fair? It’s fair, Jinnie, you know it’s fair – the way you tease me and flaunt yourself, don’t you think you owe me? Just be a good lil’ omega and get on your knees for your hyung, hyung won’t take long.”

That part. That part, and Sota’s hand tightening around Seokjin’s arm, fingers stroking Seokjin’s neck and over his scent gland, trying to corner him, trying to get Seokjin to sit down on the couch: get down a level. Let Sota loom over him. Those parts, all of those, Namjoon did not and could not even guess at.

Nothing else had happened. Seokjin managed to run out, too shocked to cry until three blocks away. Sota used the good takes and flew back to Japan, and only Seokjin and Hoseok knew for months, Hoseok sworn to secrecy, because who could they tell? What would be done about it? Nothing. ‘Shit happens,’ someone would quip.

“I guess it’s true, that stuff like this is common,” Seokjin said quietly as they sat in the practice room. “It’s not the first time someone’s been pushy like that, but… but so far he’s the worst.”

So far. Namjoon considered seriously, for the first time in his life, getting his pack out of the idol business. They should go live with Taehyung’s family in the south, become farmers, all seven of them. Namjoon would keep them safe. Keep Seokjin safe.

“Hyung,” he said quietly, “it doesn’t matter who: whether it’s a stranger, or, or someone closer, like Hyowon or Sejin or –”

“Sejin?” Seokjin interrupted, sounding equally shocked and amused.

“Anyone – that’s the point. I will always believe you. I swear, I will always believe you.” He swallowed hard: he’d tear them down, leave nothing standing. Maybe he was just one man against all the powers that be, but he would tear down any person who made Seokjin afraid. “From here on out, all you need to do is give me a name. Just tell me who, and I’ll make sure they never bother you again. Okay?”

He knew Seokjin was looking at him while he stared at the floor, still shamed. Seokjin sighed and pushed into his neck. “Okay.” Seokjin then added, “You big softie.”

And all he could do was squeeze Seokjin’s hand and say, “Yeah.”

Namjoon had been told several times that growing up was painful, and that night in the practice room with Seokjin definitely hurt. But the real pain came much later – two years over, after they had finally won awards, sold out some shows, home and abroad. And then it was time for another Japanese album, and PD-nim told them that Ito Sota would come produce again.

Namjoon got the news first: his pack hadn’t been informed yet. But he stilled, instantly, feeling sick to his stomach.

And so Namjoon asked for a meeting with PD-nim because Seokjin had been right: there had been others, some betas, some alphas, but none worse than Ito Sota.

Namjoon now had a policy not to leave a pack member alone with someone they didn’t know well, and sometimes this applied even with people they knew damn well if Namjoon deemed it necessary: never would he let any of his packmates be holed up in a studio or a hotel room with a practical stranger again. They needed to be in pairs, minimum, or have one of their trusted assistants or managers there. Was it inconvenient at times? Yes. Did he ever question his policy? No. The wall between their public selves and their private affairs was so high that sometimes the shadow it cast left them vulnerable: no one believed that their lives were anything but rosy, no one believed that they could be targeted like that. Being famous didn’t necessarily provide protection – it could attract leeches.

This meant Namjoon had to protect the pack himself.

When Namjoon showed up at PD-nim’s office on a sunny Tuesday morning, Namjoon sat down by PD-nim’s large desk, ignored his nerves and cut to the chase: “We won’t work with Ito Sota.”

PD-nim looked dumbfounded. “Excuse me?”

Namjoon was young – would he always be young? When would he finally be grown up? – and his hands were sweaty, and he had never in any way defied PD-nim, who had given them everything, who had given him his pack, too, in a way.

“I won’t work with him.”

“What are you talking about?!” PD-nim asked, slowly getting indignant.

He had his answer prepared: “Last time Sota-nim made my pack uncomfortable, and I will not have him work with us again.” His blood was soaring in his ears: had they been successful enough for PD-nim not to kick them the hell out for insolence?

“Uncomfortable,” PD-nim repeated, leaning over the desk. “What do you mean uncomfortable? Hell, everyone’s uncomfortable! Listen here, I’ve known Sota since before you could rap two lines, so you better have more for me than that!”

But Namjoon wouldn’t give names or details: none of that mattered, none of that should matter – and he would not drag Seokjin into this. What mattered was this: “I won’t let him near my pack ever again.”

PD-nim looked stunned. “Look, kid –”

He growled. “Ever. Again.”

PD-nim breathed out, “Fuck.”

It wasn’t much of a meeting: nothing was decided really. He was sent away to calm the fuck down, and he left shaking with adrenaline and nerves, terrified of what he’d done. But a few days later the label had contracted another producer, a Japanese-Korean beta whose work Yoongi knew. There had been a schedule clash with Ito Sota, they were all told. Seokjin, upon hearing the name, paled – but Namjoon squeezed his hand under the table: he’d handle it. He had handled it, if the schedule clash was simply a lie.

“What a shame,” Jungkook said during their outdoor photoshoot later that day, them milling in a park and taking turns to pose under trees and next to some slides. “I liked working with Sota-hyung!” Jungkook said, rolling on the balls of his feet.

“Hey, Jungkookie, do me a favour?” Namjoon asked, and Jungkook beamed at him. “Never call Sota your hyung again.”

Jungkook’s face fell, and Namjoon got it, he really did: growing up hurt like a bitch. Namjoon could only hope they were getting some of it right.

Chapter Text

πᾶς γοῦν ποιητὴς γίγνεται, (κἂν ἄμουσος ᾖ τὸ πρίν) οὗ ἂν Ἔρως ἅψηται.
Everyone becomes a poet (even if songless before) when touched by love.
- Plato (5th-4th centuries BCE)

III

Sometimes Namjoon couldn’t sleep as his head buzzed with endless responsibilities, with the pack spread between luxury apartments or lavish fifty-fourth floor hotel rooms in Hong Kong. Whenever this insomnia hit him he pretended to be back in their claustrophobic dorm bedroom in Nonhyeon-dong, with all of his six packmates asleep as noises from the street carried in. Sometimes this pretence was the only thing that allowed him to rest.

He thought of the dorm now as the break became imminent, how much easier it had been back then for them all to stay together. Now he had the nervous unease in his guts that he always did when they were about to part, as he sat in an SUV taking them to the location of their new MV shoot. They had spent the afternoon filming the choreography scenes in a studio, but now they had to film the night-time outdoor scenes – it was ten PM and they had barely started.

He shared the car with Seokjin and one of their assistants, who sat at the front with their driver and was asleep within minutes. Namjoon didn’t even blame her: their schedules had been insane lately.

He sat in the back together with Seokjin, both of them bare-faced and in loose track bottoms and tops, to be dolled up and dressed again once on site. Seokjin’s hair had been dyed a soft pink for the MV, like cotton candy Namjoon wanted to brush his fingers through. Namjoon had a blue-ish silver that he rather liked, although he was pretty sure he’d be wearing a hat that hid most of it.

Next to him Seokjin was on his phone, scrolling down the dimmed screen as they got on the motorway that cut through Seoul’s high-rise buildings like an artery, pushing them along in the night traffic. He took comfort in Seokjin being safe, right there with him, smelling of the pack with an underlying richer, deeper essence of just himself – not heat yet, but definitely something that made him pay attention and his nose twitch.

But it was still comforting and homey, whatever it was, and Namjoon focused on it as he fell asleep.

He awoke some time later, the world outside fully dark and their assistant now faintly snoring at the front. He rubbed at his eyes and found Seokjin still awake with a Shooky plushie in his lap, looking out of the window. He wondered what had happened to RJ.

“Hey,” he croaked, “where are we?”

“Nearly there,” Seokjin supplied. Outside, Seoul’s endless streets had turned into a tranquil country road, empty fields illuminated by moonlight. Seokjin’s pink hair was mussed and he was clutching Shooky to him protectively.

Long drives equalled nap opportunities, and Seokjin, if anyone, promoted that – but Seokjin slept little if he was stressed. Pack not happy?

Namjoon blinked himself awake further. “You okay?” he asked, reaching out to squeeze Seokjin’s shoulder.

Seokjin nodded, arms tightening around Shooky, but then he sighed. “Do you think I’m being selfish? With the break and the, the change in schedules, and the whole – It’s my fault we had to reschedule that TV appearance. I know it looks unprofessional.”

“No,” he said instantly. “No, it’s a medical thing. You can’t help that, hyung.”

Seokjin worried on his bottom lip. “I could just stay on suppressants. Worked so far, right?”

“But it’s not working anymore.” He tried to figure out where this was coming from, after weeks of them knowing this, after the profiles of alphas and Jimin’s sexcations, after Namjoon trying his best to just let Seokjin do whatever he needed to do. And now, with hours to go, Seokjin seemed unsure. Namjoon sat up straighter, focusing. “Heats are fun, right? Tiring, but fun. I mean, people say that anyway.”

“Yeah, I’m just,” Seokjin said, motioning at his head, “waiting for the bit where my hindbrain tells me that.”

Namjoon suddenly felt disappointed, like he’d done something wrong, like he’d failed in the simplest of tasks. “You don’t want to have your heat?”

“No, no I do,” Seokjin said quickly, squeezing Shooky. “Of course I do. For – you know. Kids and stuff. It’s just inconvenient timing, that’s all.”

As silence stretched between them, Seokjin picked up a water bottle lying on the middle seat and began to unscrew it to no avail, knuckles turning white and brow creasing. Namjoon took the bottle from him, cracked it open first try, and handed it back. Seokjin stared at him, then at the bottle, then sighed and took it.

“No wonder people stay on suppressants,” Seokjin said, taking a sip. “Taehyung held the door for me earlier and I swear he was hot for, like, two seconds.”

“Taehyung is very hot,” he agreed easily.

“No, like – I thought he was hot hot.”

“Taehyung?!”

“Yeah, you know,” Seokjin shrugged sheepishly, waving with the bottle. “It was like, uh, one day he’ll make someone very happy, ah, romantically, sexually sort of appreciation? Not me, obviously. He’s my kid. You all are.”

Was that how Seokjin saw him too? A twenty-four-year-old kid and pack alpha? Right then Namjoon didn’t appreciate hearing it.

“Seems to me you already have a lot of kids,” Namjoon said, trying to joke. “Are you sure you want even more?” His tone was teasing, and, like always with the two of them, Seokjin took the bait.

“Please! I want actual cute babies, not twenty-something idols who forget to treat me with the reverence I deserve.”

Namjoon poked at Seokjin’s thigh. “I treat you with the reverence you deserve.”

“Hardly.”

“Hyung, of course I do,” he insisted, and Seokjin scoffed, indignant. Namjoon tilted his head. “Okay, well, how many babies do you want?”

“Five.”

“Five?” he repeated, letting out an exaggerated whistle. “Quite a lot, don’t you think?”

“It’s a good number!”

“It’s an odd number.”

“It’s the perfect number! Don’t you question me!” Seokjin complained.

“Okay, it’s perfect,” he conceded, and Seokjin nodded forcefully. “Why is it perfect again?”

“Well, five kids, plus me and my mate, so we’ll have a pack of seven. That’s the number I want.” And Seokjin seemed sheepish as he took a quick sip of water before screwing the cap back on.

Namjoon felt hollow. “Right, okay.” He looked out the window. Seokjin was right: it was the perfect number. “Five kids, that sounds good.” He lost his train of thought and tried to focus. “The pregnancies will be a lot of work, though.”

Seokjin gave him one of his exaggerated scoffs. “Are you kidding? I can stay in bed and yell at my mate to bring me food. Oh, and I’ll do pregnant Eat Jin!”

“You’ll break the internet,” he warned.

“So be it,” Seokjin said, accepting his fate easily.

It wasn’t a bad idea, really – what mate didn’t want to boast about their pregnant omega? Alphas could be jealous, but give them an opportunity to show off their mate and they could go overboard: here’s my pregnant omega on a livestream for millions to admire! Even Namjoon saw the appeal.

“I don’t mind being pregnant, I just don’t want to inflate like a balloon,” Seokjin then said, examining his midriff worriedly. He pulled up the hem of his hoodie and shoved Shooky inside.

Namjoon laughed as Seokjin tried to get Shooky to stay in place. “Pretty sure it’s not meant to be lumpy.”

“How dare you criticise my unborn child,” Seokjin shot back, trying to shape the cushion into something resembling a baby bump.

“Your unborn Shooky, you mean. Anything you and Yoongi-hyung wanna tell me?”

“Ungh, don’t be gross,” Seokjin protested, having arranged poor Shooky to his liking. “There. You see? She’s perfect.”

It was still lumpy, but the illusion worked on some level – maybe because of the gentle way Seokjin stroked over the bump, or because the dim light penetrating the tinted windows of the car helped – like maybe in some other life they had never debuted and they didn’t have the responsibilities they did, and Seokjin was twenty-six and expecting his first child, and they were driving back to Seoul in the middle of the night after a day trip, unfamous, happy, excited…

Namjoon reached out, gently pressing his palm against the bump – and something about it felt familiar, startling him. He’d imagined this before. He’d imagined this perhaps hundreds of times, the thought always half-formed and then quickly discarded, but there was no escaping it in the backseat of the car, with his hand on the bump. It was such a pleasant thought, however – satisfied and content.

“Five of these, huh?”

“Five,” Seokjin repeated. “I won’t stop until we reach that number.”

“May your mate be patient and virile in equal measure,” he joked, the contentment evaporating as he pondered who this mate would be. Suddenly his hand on the cushion felt like an invasion, and he pulled back. Hollow. God, he felt so hollow.

The car slowed down as they turned onto a dirt road. Their assistant was stirring, and Seokjin slipped Shooky out from under his shirt like he’d been caught.

Namjoon looked away, focused on the fields outside.

Seokjin would leave soon – vanish off with some alpha.

Namjoon wasn’t sure how to express the anxiety in him, the nerves, the longing, or the fear. He didn’t know how or what any of it even meant, and so he unbuckled himself as they began to slow down and, without looking up, said, “Looks like we’re here.”

* * *

The rented dorm for the label’s trainees had been stuffy enough as it was, let alone with the hormonal pheromones of seven boys on top – moving in meant getting on suppressants, which dulled their natural scents and removed the danger of heats and ruts. They all complied with this rule, making co-living easier.

It was a nasty shock, therefore, for Namjoon to wake up to the deep musk of an unknown alpha. Yoongi had shaken him awake – it wasn’t even morning, everything pitch dark, but Namjoon’s first inhale was full of a strange alpha who was clearly there, in their bedroom, and in the next second Namjoon had hopped down from his bunk with a confused snarl.

The alpha was in Jungkook’s bed, curled up under the covers and shivering, letting out small anxious moans. The alpha was Jungkook.

Seokjin was sat on the edge of Jungkook’s bed, dabbing a balled-up tissue to Jungkook’s forehead and neck, careful not to go too near the swollen scent glands. Jungkook was pale and clammy looking, and very much out of it – and he stank, absolutely stank.

Jungkook shifted, a hand landing on Seokjin’s knee.

Namjoon responded with a growl as he reached out and yanked Seokjin by the arm, Seokjin stumbling onto his feet as Namjoon pushed Seokjin behind himself. He stared at Jungkook, his snarl cutting through the bedroom loudly, erupting deep from his lungs.

“Namjoon!”

Seokjin was looking at him with such shock that Namjoon’s snarl turned into a whimper: “Grr… prrr... prrr?” What had he done wrong? He looked to his packmates, to Taehyung, Yoongi and Hoseok, stood back nervously – pack intact. Pack safe. Pack happy? No. Worried.

“He needs to see a doctor,” Yoongi said, eyeing between him and Seokjin quickly. Hyosang, their other omega trainee, was stood back too, arms crossed over his chest, crinkling his nose in displeasure. Namjoon could think clearer now, shielding the rest from Jungkook with his frame. Pack safe – safer. The omegas, too. And Yoongi was right: you presented, you had to go to a doctor. Yes, get Jungkook out of the dorm – good, that was good.

“There’s a sexual health clinic not too far away,” Hyosang offered. Seokjin clearly wanted to get back to Jungkook, but Namjoon stubbornly blocked the way, unnerved, chest aching with vague anguish over the thought. “It opens at six, I think – they can get him on suppressants.”

“How do you know?” Taehyung asked.

“Please,” Hyosang huffed, but was agitated like they all were. “I nearly had a heat the second I moved into this place – alpha hormones everywhere.” And Hyosang glared at Namjoon: he’d been the only alpha there for months now. “Jinnie knew the drill.”

Namjoon looked from Hyosang to Seokjin, taken aback. Seokjin’s cheeks suddenly looked red but he said, “Well? Are you gonna get dressed?”

“What? Why me?” he protested. He wanted Jungkook to leave and for him to remain on his turf.

“You’re the only one here who knows what he’s going through,” Seokjin argued, but Namjoon didn’t like any of this, and the hairs on his arms pricked up as he kept a wary eye on the kid shivering on the bed. “Joonie,” Seokjin then said, stepping closer to him. His voice was soft, although urgency lurked in it. “You can’t get territorial about this. He’s your packmate, and he needs you.” Seokjin’s hand came to gently rest on his arm. Namjoon stared at it, trying to focus. Seokjin was looking at him with dark eyes, deep and kind.

He couldn’t let his pack down – or Seokjin down. It was Seokjin’s standard, somehow, that he had to live up to.

So he nodded.

Yoongi and Hoseok got shoes and a coat on Jungkook, atop the boy’s pyjamas, but Jungkook growled when thrust upon Namjoon. And Namjoon blinked, owlishly, because Jungkook had never growled, and certainly not at him. But right then it looked like Jungkook barely knew him, while Seokjin was giving him what looked like an encouraging nod.

“Come on,” he said, guiding Jungkook to the door. “You have to walk, come on.” When Jungkook protested, he said, “Jungkook. You will obey.”

And Jungkook stirred, looking confused, but followed.

Namjoon kept an arm around Jungkook’s waist and with his free hand he held his phone to navigate to the address Seokjin had given him. Jungkook was dragging his feet, disorientated, shivering with the fever as they made their way through the narrow streets and side lanes, buildings rising around them. The streets were thankfully quiet, the day only now getting bright, but that walk to the clinic was one of the most stressful journeys of Namjoon’s life.

When he finally had the clinic in sight, Jungkook declared, “I’ll fight you for him.”

“Okay,” he said, keeping an eye on the clinic entrance, making sure they were still undisturbed. Jungkook was defenceless like this. “Wait, fight for who?”

“Jin-hyung,” Jungkook growled. “I’ll fight you, and –”

“What?”

“You look at him. I see you,” Jungkook said, uppity and in-his-face. Jungkook didn’t try to come at him, thank god, but rather collapsed against him even more. “Has he always smelled so good?”

“Yes,” he admitted. He was surprised by how bitter he sounded. “I think you’re gonna get your heart broken, Kookie.”

“Why?”

He snorted. “Because – Because he’s out of our leagues.”

“But I want him,” Jungkook whined, with the conviction of an-hour-old alpha. “Does he want a mate? I’ll court him and breed him –”

Enough,” he said, and Jungkook shut up.

The clinic receptionist took one look at Jungkook and directed them to a small side room to keep them separate from other patrons. Jungkook didn’t say much else, and the beta doctor who came for them knew exactly how to handle an alpha in Jungkook’s situation.

She sniffed at Namjoon and said, “You’re his pack alpha?” She sounded surprised, but Namjoon was used to it by now: he looked too young for such responsibility, and even more so with Jungkook by him with his buck teeth. But he nodded, trying to jut out his chin. “Right, well,” she said, clearly unimpressed, “you can sit in the waiting room.”

So that was what he did, fidgeting – angry with himself because he’d handled this poorly, so poorly that Seokjin had stepped in, and he was also worried because presenting wasn’t fun at all. Really, it was mildly traumatising.

He also thought of what Hyosang had said before they’d left. Intense and sustained exposure to alpha pheromones could send an unsuspecting omega into a heat, but Namjoon was on suppressants, of course. Hyosang had needed the clinic to help, anyway. Apparently Seokjin had, too.

He fidgeted, his stomach in knots. He hadn’t meant to be caught looking.

Eventually Jungkook was deposited back into his care, now on mild tranquilizers and strong suppressants – even more out of it than before, but mellowed, fever subsiding, his new alpha scent weaker. Namjoon dug in both of their pockets for won to pay for a taxi back.

Back at the dorm, his pack and Hyosang had left for school and the label. Only Seokjin remained, appearing from the kitchen the second they got in, still wearing his pyjama bottoms with a loose tank top. Seokjin took one look at Jungkook, drowsy as Namjoon held him upright, Jungkook’s eyes drooping and head lolling, and Seokjin gasped, “Oh, Kookie…!”

Seokjin didn’t reach out, however. Namjoon was worried he might.

He dragged Jungkook back to the bedroom where Jungkook passed out the second he landed on his bed. Namjoon stared at the kid in wonder, feeling useless now that the crisis had passed. Jungkook nosed at his pillow and then curled in on himself, small and innocent-looking – but he’d wake up, collect himself, and settle into his status as an alpha.

Namjoon swallowed hard before voicing a dreaded thought: “What if he doesn’t submit?”

Jungkook might rebel now. Jungkook might completely tear his small pack apart.

Seokjin, stood in the doorway, said, “Aish, of course he will. He’s got the best pack alpha he could ask for.”

It was the forgiveness Namjoon needed after being so miscalculating and crude. He was about to mumble an apology anyway when he looked over and noticed a bruise on Seokjin’s arm, red marks shaped like fingers digging in. He reeled, an angered snarl building in his chest until he realised that the grip was the size of his own hand – and that winded him completely.

“I hurt you.”

Seokjin followed his gaze and then covered up the marks with his palm. “Ah, it’s nothing. I was the one between two alphas.” But no – that wasn’t an excuse. “You’re fine,” Seokjin then added sternly, but he looked a little flushed. Of course Seokjin was angry, he had every right to be.

Namjoon couldn’t look away from the bruises – a form of masochism. He wanted to examine them, to nurse them, to try and fix them somehow, but he was horrified by the thought of touching Seokjin if that was what he was capable of: tainting Seokjin’s pale, flawless skin with dark bruises.

He was a brute, reckless, unpredictable. All those things people said of bad alphas: he was them and then some.

“I never want to hurt you,” he managed, feeling sick to his stomach.

“It’s fine,” Seokjin repeated, covering the marks with his hand more fully. “Okay?”

But Namjoon saw the bruises and knew what a failure he was. No amount of defensive instincts could excuse that, no amount of reasoning that Jungkook had been a potential threat to Seokjin – who wasn’t even in his pack! Namjoon had no excuse whatsoever.

If he hadn’t treated Seokjin with kid gloves before, he did after the incident, the sheer guilt of it lingering far longer than the bruises ever did. Seokjin was wrong about what had happened: it wasn’t fine that Namjoon had done that, for Namjoon to lose control like that.

But Seokjin was also right: Jungkook had no desire to challenge Namjoon as pack alpha – no, he was happy where he was. And Jungkook remembered little, it appeared, of their trip to the clinic and of what had been said. Good.

“Dad always thought I’d be an omega, you know,” Jungkook mused a few weeks later, the alpha scent of him more settled, mature and musky, with the watery, childlike essence of him now gone. They grow up so fast, they’d all been joking, but somehow Namjoon understood what parents meant when they said it.

Hoseok was busy cooing at their kid alpha, petting Jungkook’s fluffed up hair, in a baby voice singing, “This little bunny is growing up, yes this bunny is!”

Jungkook beamed at them all, happy to be babied – still – chubby-cheeked, buck-toothed, alpha-scented. How had Namjoon ever growled at this kid? Fuck, he was an embarrassment.

But even as the dust settled, Namjoon began to realise that no matter how hard he tried, he would always fall short of his expectations of himself. The instincts dormant in him – to control, to protect, to challenge – were ugly, a part of himself that he loathed. He wasn’t even twenty but had a notable pack: he had to learn to be better, to never give in to those instincts.

To be better than those around him expected him to be.

* * *

Namjoon had sat through the same sexual health classes all kids had, so he knew what to expect of himself in rut, or what a heat triggered in omegas – clichés dominating both conversations, but the stereotypes came from somewhere. Alphas pre-rut zoned in on a potential mate and turned aggressive against the rest of the world, whereas omegas became overly affectionate and needy for contact. Seokjin appeared to largely follow the textbook.

“Just a few more,” Seokjin encouraged, handfeeding Yoongi cherry tomatoes in the dressing room of their fan sign. Yoongi was on his phone and ignoring Seokjin, but obediently opened his mouth for the treats. Seokjin’s mouth pursed. “Yah, you’re too skinny!” Seokjin complained. “Eat more!”

A few minutes later Seokjin had practically clambered onto Hoseok’s lap, far too large to be there, but neither of them minded the unusually blatant search for contact as they sat on the couch together. “You smell nice,” Hoseok observed, pushing into Seokjin’s neck, while Seokjin remained where he was, head resting on Hoseok’s shoulder as he said he wanted to nap. Jimin was the cuddler, usually: now Seokjin couldn’t go without it.

Shooting the new MV had been so hectic that Namjoon hadn’t had time to worry about the break, about Seokjin being off suppressants, about any of it. Even Jimin had stopped talking about the heat and started focusing on getting the choreography perfected. Seokjin’s hair, which had been a gorgeous soft pink, had been re-dyed that morning ahead of the fan sign, to keep the video looks secret: Seokjin’s hair was black again, shiny and smooth. Namjoon himself had gone back to blond after the video’s blue-ish silver.

When their pre-event food arrived, they all gathered at the large trestle tables in the middle of the dressing room, taking their seats. Jimin and Jungkook were snickering about something on their phones while Hoseok and Taehyung were talking about the MV, wondering how it would turn out, with Yoongi distracted by a game on his phone. Around them the staff were using garment steamers on the clothes they’d soon be putting on, and it felt like the calm before a storm, business as usual when Namjoon knew it wasn’t.

Of course it wasn’t: with food containers before them, Seokjin continued his feeding extravaganza, first with Jimin, who enjoyed the attention, then with a flustered Jungkook, who didn’t know what to do with such intense focus from Seokjin, and finally with Tae, who was already waiting with his mouth open like a baby chick. Namjoon observed this from across the table, on edge: Seokjin should be eating the food himself.

“Jin-hyung,” he interrupted, and Seokjin looked up from scooping out noodles for Taehyung. “Eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” Seokjin said dismissively, which was absurd because Seokjin was always hungry, but then Namjoon stalled. Omega near-heat logic: feed the babies before being indisposed. If Seokjin had a mate, that person would make sure Seokjin was eating and sleeping enough before a heat kicked in. The hired alpha, however, would only show up at the hour of need – until then, someone else had to step in.

“I don’t care you’re not hungry,” Namjoon said. “Eat.”

Seokjin blinked at him, surprised. Namjoon didn’t break eye contact: it wasn’t a suggestion. Seokjin’s nose crinkled before he settled in his chair with a sigh and began to eat, and Namjoon watched him, wanting to make sure Seokjin wouldn’t go back to offering noodles to Taehyung.

It didn’t take long before Seokjin’s chopsticks were scraping the bottom of the container, and Namjoon pushed his own across the table. “Eat, hyung,” he said, more softly. Seokjin glanced at him, gaze searching, and did so.

When the second container was done, Namjoon asked, “More?”

Seokjin blinked. “Yes. Yeah.” There was something docile about the way Seokjin was sat across from him now, waiting, something that made Namjoon’s insides heat up. Namjoon needed more.

Yoongi was sat by him, still on his phone, and Namjoon grabbed Yoongi’s mostly full container from the table. “Eh?!” Yoongi protested, head lifting in alarm.

Namjoon didn’t get to do much before Yoongi was prying the noodles from his grip – and before Namjoon could do anything else he had already growled in warning. Yoongi blinked at him, surprised, and then looked between him and Seokjin. “You both? You need to fucking chill.” Yoongi snatched the box back and stood up. “I’m eating over here.”

Namjoon watched Yoongi walk to the couch to eat, at a loss.

Frustrated but undeterred, however, he next grabbed a small tub of kimchi from the table. Why was this all the food they had?

“Kimchi?” he offered to Seokjin, who craned his neck, watching in interest at Namjoon’s offerings.

Namjoon then became aware of some of their staff staring at them in confusion. More to the point, the rest of the pack was looking at them disbelievingly too.

Hoseok stood up. “Let’s go for a walk.” Hoseok stared at him intently while he blinked back. “Can we? Alpha-yah?”

Hoseok hardly ever called him that.

Reluctantly, Namjoon followed Hoseok out, eyeing their staff – daring any of them to approach his pack, approach Seokjin now munching on kimchi.

Outside the dressing rooms, Hoseok clasped a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “You okay?”

“Yeah, of course,” he said. He could do better than that, though, he just needed to find a supermarket, or check his food delivery app for places nearby, or –

“It must be different for you and Jungkook. Is it his scent?” Hoseok asked, tilting his head to the side.

“What?”

“The feeding. The ritual.”

“Right, yeah. Hey, you think we can get some more food?”

Hoseok looked at him, long and hard. “Okay. Okay… Best you and Jin-hyung don’t sit next to each other for the fan sign. We don’t want any heat rumours, right? So let’s survive this. Focus on the fans.”

Sensible, good advice. What about more snacks, though?

Back in their dressing room, half of his pack was now in fresh clothes with their staff dolling them up. Seokjin was with their personal physician, however, for a quick consultation. Namjoon instantly got out his phone when Jimin said this and texted Yoongi: what consultation?

Yoongi was sat by the mirrors, getting his hair styled. Yoongi took out his phone and Namjoon watched him roll his eyes and type before Namjoon’s phone vibrated with, he went to get his heat shot. Something tightened in Namjoon’s guts. It was standard practice, of course it was: the injection curbed a heat’s high fertility risk, ensuring that an omega could not conceive. But Seokjin and needles?

would you relax, Yoongi then texted.

i am relaxed, he argued.

no you’re acting like some alpha’s gonna break down the door and carry hyung off, Yoongi typed. he’s got this so you really need to get your head out of your ass

Namjoon frowned and put his phone away. Yoongi only shrugged at him.

Seokjin was taking ages to return, and when their physician showed up sans Seokjin, Namjoon went on high alert – only to have a grinning Jimin inform him that Seokjin was with a beautician for a private appointment. They had stylists and makeup artists everywhere, though?

Jimin giggled and leaned into Namjoon’s ear to explain: “It’s an intimate wax.”

Namjoon’s mind instantly supplied a dozen images, one more explicit than the next. “For the…?” he began.

“You wanna feel extra tidy,” Jimin mused, now fixing the sleeves of his shirt. “I know I would.”

Namjoon let himself, very briefly, visualise the results on Seokjin. Yoongi was right: Seokjin had this, clearly.

When Seokjin returned, all of them knew where from. “The first one to comment is dead,” Seokjin declared, pointing at them all viciously, the overflowing affection from earlier gone. It was Taehyung who started giggling first and earned well-aimed smacks to the top of his head, Taehyung squirming and trying to fight Seokjin off with “Hyung, nooooo!” while Seokjin bellowed, “Respect your elders!”

But Seokjin’s wrath didn’t last long as Seokjin was soon clinging onto Jimin, squishing Jimin’s cheeks and scenting him more blatantly than Seokjin usually did.

Namjoon tried to refocus as the day’s event began.

They walked onto the stage set up for the fan sign to much shouting and applause, all of them on their best behaviour. As they went to their places, Namjoon followed Hoseok’s advice and took the first seat in the line-up, with Seokjin ending up in the very last seat at the other end of the stage.

Some part of his brain was still taking note of where Seokjin was, even with their fans queueing up.

Still, Namjoon put on his warmest smile. “Hi,” he greeted the girl coming up to him, security around them monitoring everything. “How are you?”

Usually, he loved this: getting to talk to their fans, to give back a little when they received so much. Their fans were cute and clever – the usual “Namjoon-ssi, can I join your pack?” and he’d say, “You’re all honorary packmates!”

He didn’t pay much attention to fans’ statuses usually. Not many were tall, older male alphas that fit Seokjin’s profile, but there were plenty of younger, gorgeous female alphas, casting side-eyes along the table at Namjoon’s betas and omegas. He found it harder to smile for them that day. Would they sniff out that Seokjin’s scent was already stronger than usual? He knew that to be unlikely: you had to be a packmate at least to tell the difference at this stage; even Jungkook didn’t seem to have noticed it yet.

But Namjoon still worried one of the alphas queuing up would pick up on it.

And there were exceptions to the rule: a tall male alpha wearing an RJ headband came up to him, smiling excitedly. Very handsome, stubble-covered chin, deep brown eyes. “Hi!” the man said, voice deep and soft – they were the same age, more or less.

So Namjoon did the usual thing: was pleasant, smiled, asked a few questions. The man worked as an IT engineer and had his whole office listening to their music – it was kind and cute. “You like RJ?” Namjoon then ventured.

The man laughed, giddy. “Jin-ssi is my favourite! Oh, I love you, too! I love you all! But I especially love Jin-ssi!” A security guy was firmly guiding the man along, his forty seconds with Namjoon up. “Bye!” the man chirped and moved onto Hoseok.

A short beta came up to him next – fourteen or fifteen, still a kid – but he kept an eye on the IT engineer, who was currently enamoured by Jimin, and then Yoongi and Taehyung, eventually Jungkook – doing a fist bump, both laughing and beaming, taking their time. Seokjin was without a fan at the very end, leaning into Jungkook and then pointing at the IT guy’s RJ headband. The alpha flared red, even as he beamed widely, and Seokjin got a small, flustered smile on his lips. Namjoon gritted his teeth.

The IT engineer was now stood in front of Seokjin, and as the man pointed where on the poster he wanted Seokjin to sign, Seokjin placed a hand on top of the man’s in a friendly gesture. They did it all the time: hold hands with fans, offer some skinship and flirtation. The fan service came with the job, always had.

But this time Namjoon growled, quietly and low in his throat, a warning as he stared down the table. One of the security staff heard and approached quickly to see what the issue was, while next to him Hoseok turned to him with raised eyebrows and mouth in a perfect ‘O’. The boy beta in front of them was frozen to where he stood, taken aback, but the other end of the table hadn’t heard and was business as usual: Seokjin chatting brightly with the tall alpha, who was leaning towards Seokjin, the table between them – hands still touching.

Hoseok’s hand landed on Namjoon’s thigh mere seconds before he was about to stand up and- and go challenge the IT engineer.

But the weight of Hoseok’s hand kept him still. “Ignore him,” Hoseok told the beta in front of them, reaching out with his free hand to snatch the poster Namjoon had just signed. The fan looked at Hoseok’s beaming face, the shock from Namjoon’s low growl fading – Hoseok’s sunshine magic at work. “Our pack alpha missed lunch and is grumpy today! What’s your name?”

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon mumbled quickly – the IT engineer had walked away, Seokjin talking to a new fan already. “Sorry,” Namjoon repeated. He was a mess. Why was he such a mess?

Namjoon gave a quick nod to their security guy that all was well, even as the sudden surge of adrenaline lingered, some part of him still in fight mode. Stupid – how stupid! He forced down the instinct to challenge – to scent, claim, and whatever stupid shit was churning inside him. He had to be calm, to stay in control of himself, and especially now when there was so much to lose.

“Hi,” he said to the fan in front of him: a short omega in her thirties wearing a Chimmy t-shirt, looking put out. She’d heard the growl too and instinctively steered clear of aggressive alphas. Namjoon felt like an asshole. “Hi,” he said again, more gently, offering a disarming smile until the woman gathered her courage and approached him. “What’s your name?”

* * *

His name had been Song Jaebong, the Professional Dancer with the Perfect Body and a Ballet Background and a Master’s Degree in Performing Arts.

Or just Jaebong for short.

Jaebong, on Namjoon’s murder list.

Jaebong had been one of the many dancers hired for their Wings tour to travel globally with them. Namjoon had known only a handful of their dancers’ names – Seokjin fared better because he always did – but Namjoon would not forget Song Jaebong in a hurry.

He had already noticed Jaebong at the pre-tour practices: chisel-chinned and dark-eyed, a strongly built alpha with black hair in a neat man-bun and a dragon tattoo on his left bicep. Jaebong mastered all of the choreography quickly, movements sharp, clean and strong, while he and Seokjin were bumping into each other like idiots. Jaebong was tall and broad, body full of strength, every muscle toned. “Nice, huh?” Hoseok said when he caught Namjoon looking. It was Hoseok, maybe, who Namjoon had thought was drawn to Jaebong’s good looks.

But it was already in America, early into the tour, that Seokjin started sleeping with Jaebong.

No, Namjoon had no idea when or how this had happened – they were constantly doing interviews or fittings or endless soundchecks, surrounded by their managers and staff. He could recall Seokjin talking to the dancers – joking with them, being friendly, but this? When had this happened? Had Seokjin hit on Jaebong or the other way around? When? How? Was this a tour development, or had something been between the two before they even left Korea?

Namjoon was taken completely by surprise – hit in the fucking face with it.

He only found out because he went to Seokjin’s hotel room early in the morning to locate his missing phone charger, and while Jaebong had already gone, the scent of the alpha was still in the room, accompanied by the distinctive smell of sex – Namjoon recognising the alpha’s scent as Jaebong told him that he’d paid much more attention to the man than he’d realised.

Seokjin, who had opened the door shower-fresh, seemed embarrassed and taken aback, Namjoon stood in the hotel corridor with nostrils flaring. The scent was half-foreign but also half-distinct: Seokjin. His skin. His pheromones. The heavy, enticing pull of it all, echoing what had happened the night before, making Namjoon’s guts twist because he recognised it. “Ah, Namjoon-ah…” Seokjin trailed off guiltily, rubbing the back of his neck.

Like that was all there was to it.

The rest of the pack knew already, Namjoon later learned: Taehyung had shared Jimin’s bed in another room so that Seokjin and Jaebong could be alone.

But, as Namjoon maintained, as long as his packmates were safe and careful, then it was fine. No big deal! No, of course not – and this wasn’t the first time Seokjin had indulged in a one-night-stand, was it? They all needed to blow off some steam sometimes, right? Namjoon didn’t want to interfere with his packmates’ flings too much and so he’d set up simple guidelines for them all, including himself: it was fine as long as his packmates were being safe and careful. And, to protect their own feelings as well as those of others, it was for the best not to sleep with anyone more than once because relationships were impossible for them.

And so he collected himself. “Yeah, I lost… You know what, doesn’t matter,” he decided as Seokjin seemed frozen at the door, unsure. Why Jaebong, though? Why him? Namjoon pushed it all down. “We leave in ten minutes.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m – I’m good to go,” Seokjin said, glancing over his shoulder. The bedsheets were still unmade. Rumpled.

I bet you’re good to go, he wanted to say and nearly flinched at how bitter the thought was.

As they made their way to the cars, Seokjin mumbled, “Ah, listen, I guess it’s- it’s been pretty lonely lately, you know, travelling all –”

“It’s fine,” he said. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me – we all fuck around sometimes.”

Seokjin seemed startled, but Namjoon couldn’t look him in the eye.

Jaebong was older – nearly thirty. Seokjin was twenty-four. Namjoon didn’t like it: alphas and betas would do anything, Namjoon was sure, to trick Seokjin into their beds – hadn’t Ito Sota shown them as much? Namjoon was twenty-two and felt like it: out of his depth.

But then Jaebong broke the final rule: Seokjin slept with Jaebong more than once.

Namjoon became acutely aware of this because sometimes he followed his nose – unthinkingly, instinctually – and as he made his way backstage a few days later, distracted by his phone as he typed a text to his parents, he sensed someone near him and said, “Ah, Jin-hyung, do you –”

But the man he was addressing, in a black hoodie and jeans, was not Seokjin. Namjoon was looking at Jaebong, the alpha’s expression one of surprise. Namjoon’s surprise was greater: because Jaebong had the omega’s scent caught in his clothes, hair, skin, some combination thereof, and the residue was so faint that most people wouldn’t even notice. For Namjoon, it was distinct – and it was a couple hours old, perhaps. Hadn’t Seokjin been late for their hotel pick-up?

Namjoon was stunned and had to fight down a snarl.

But Jaebong stood his ground, and for a few seconds they simply stared at each other, both tensed up.

“I’ll tell Jin you’re looking for him,” Jaebong then said calmly, with a semi-bow of respect in which he didn’t lower his gaze or even blink. Sensible, wise: don’t turn your back on another alpha.

Namjoon stared after Jaebong long and hard, feeling challenged.

More than once. It was more than once.

He had no rule or guideline for this scenario – Seokjin had never done this before.

By the time they were doing their Asian shows, Seokjin appeared to be dating Jaebong on the downlow – all of them sometimes shared beds when Seokjin asked for privacy. Hoseok said to cut Seokjin some slack, that it was nice if Seokjin had found someone nice – and hadn’t most of them broken the one-night-stand guideline once or twice, Namjoon included? It was safe and careful, and it seemed to make Seokjin happy.

All good points, sure, but what if it wasn’t sex?

What if it was love?

Namjoon stubbornly ignored the entire thing because he was busy – busier than the rest of his pack, because he had extra duties and dragged his laptop and speakers from country to country to keep working on music in hotel rooms; and he was the only one available for English phone interviews that were coming in more and more frequently; and he wanted to keep working on a second mixtape, too, and all major pack decisions had to be run through him, and he was overworked, stressed and tired – he barely had time for his pack, but it would pay off, he told himself, all of this work would pay off.

And while he did all that, Seokjin was apparently screwing Jaebong.

Seokjin started going over to Jaebong and some of the other dancers during breaks, laughing and joking with them, and Jaebong had heat in his eyes looking at Seokjin. Jaebong was affected, of course he was: Seokjin had been voted the Most Desirable Omega in South Korea that very year.

Namjoon should intervene: it wasn’t professional, but risky. Their management hadn’t caught on yet, and of course the pack never ratted out one of their own – but if the label found out, who’d get the worst of it? Namjoon. Control your pack, they’d say, but somehow the thought of talking to Seokjin about the affair was impossible.

Besides, who the hell knew what Jaebong was saying to Seokjin behind closed doors? Murmur that he would give Seokjin a good mating as he nosed at Seokjin’s neck? And then what? Did Seokjin tilt his head back and offer his throat to Jaebong? Did Jaebong kiss Seokjin there, right next to the scent gland, and did Seokjin go pliant and willing and call Jaebong oppa, or worse – alpha? Did Seokjin call Jaebong his alpha?

The thought was so enraging that Namjoon couldn’t even touch it – and so, with all the maturity and wisdom he had, he ignored it.

But Yoongi brought it up as they shared a car back to the hotel after a show. “About that dancer.”

Namjoon froze, eyes still on his phone. He knew exactly what dancer.

“That’s been going on for, like. A while now, right? Do you think it’s serious with them?”

Namjoon thumbed down the webtoon he was reading. “How should I know?”

“By asking him,” Yoongi said, and Namjoon’s stomach sank. “Have you asked him?” And when Namjoon didn’t respond, Yoongi said, “Well, don’t you think you should?”

But Namjoon could not deal with it: they were on their biggest ever tour and he could not corner Seokjin only to be told that Seokjin had fallen head over heels for a back-up dancer and was planning on eloping.

“You ask him,” Namjoon said in the end. “You’re his roommate.”

Yoongi stared and sighed. “You’re so useless sometimes.”

Whether or not Yoongi asked, Namjoon would never know because then Nagoya happened, tearing down whatever walls he had been trying to build.

It wasn’t easy for any of them to sneak out – it wasn’t safe, of course, because the less-than-pleasant fans usually found out which hotel they stayed at, lingered outside waiting, and the pack was not, under any circumstance, allowed to leave the hotel without letting management know.

So of course Namjoon had a habit of sneaking out once in a while. It was a small claim to freewill and agency: he liked walking around in the night-time, in cities he didn’t know, taking pictures, listening to music, enjoying the quiet of the backstreets. And so he snuck out in Nagoya, quietly, out of the room he was sharing with Jungkook – nearly at two in the morning, after the day’s show. Jungkook was fast asleep, all tucked in. He ruffled Jungkook’s hair before leaving.

He welcomed the fresh night air of early summer as he entered the streets of Nagoya, the air smelling of traffic fumes but also grass from somewhere. Even this late there were people around, emerging from night clubs, going out for street food and ordering taxis home. He joined their patchy, anonymous flow, walking away from the hotel.

When had he last been happy, he wondered, ambling along. Weeks ago now. It was as if he had a pebble in his shoe, a weight on his heart, no matter what he did. He didn’t probe at it: just pushed on. He had a tour to survive, a pack to manage.

But he didn’t make it far from the hotel: two or three blocks, with a hood over his head, a mask covering his mouth, watching the flashing signs of shops and adverts glowing in the night. He turned onto a larger street, some people milling around. Maybe he’d go to a bar? Would he dare, alone?

And then he saw Seokjin coming out of a mini-supermarket across the road, a 24h sign flashing above the door. Seokjin was in a baggy black hoodie despite the warmth of summer, with a cap, a hood, a dust mask, steps hurried, shoulders hunched, trying to be as invisible as he could – and Namjoon recognised him instantly, from the way Seokjin walked and moved.

Namjoon had seen Seokjin retire to his room with Jimin earlier, but now Seokjin was in the streets of Nagoya alone in the dead of night. Fuck telling the management if you snuck out – you were supposed to tell Namjoon. Pack intact? No.

Alarmed, he rushed across the street and reached Seokjin quickly, grabbing his arm to twist him around. Seokjin yelped – loud and blood-curdling – and Namjoon rushed out, “Hyung, it’s me!” He pushed down his hood and mask.

“Fuck, you scared me!” Seokjin accused, shoving him back. “I thought I was getting mugged!”

“All alone you could be!” he snapped, realising closer up that Seokjin’s black hoodie was in fact his, the scent of Namjoon clear on Seokjin – some protection, a warning to others. He ignored the relief and pleasure of it as he asked, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Seokjin blinked from behind his black-rimmed glasses, eyes suddenly going wide. He swiftly hid a brown paper bag behind his back which was, of course, poor judgement on Seokjin’s part – a worried, agitated pack alpha met with suspicious behaviour from a packmate? Hell hath no fury or, in this case, ardent concern.

“Jinnie,” Namjoon said, dropping all honorifics as dread suddenly filled him: none of this was usual Seokjin behaviour. “What’s going on?”

Seokjin’s face was still half-hidden by the mask, but he sighed a very audible “Fuck.

They made it back to the hotel – Seokjin refusing to say anything until they got there, Namjoon keen to get Seokjin off the streets. Anxious as Namjoon increasingly was, he kept an arm around Seokjin’s shoulders, keeping the omega close and protected.

Back on their floor, Seokjin removed the dust mask and cap, mouth tightly pursed. Seokjin knew, of course, that Namjoon wasn’t simply letting this go. As they got to Seokjin’s room, Seokjin told him to be quiet. They entered, not turning on the lights – Namjoon couldn’t see in the dark, but the air carried the calming scent of Jimin, warm and sleepy.

In the bathroom, Namjoon was reminded of a memory that seemed distant: their first award at MAMA, and of Seokjin afterwards soaking in a bath, calm and content, not a care in the world, Namjoon utterly transfixed by him… But at least a year and a half had passed since that evening – more time, always time – and he and Seokjin were the same: best friends, confidantes.

But not lately. This had happened to them before: something would go wrong between them, and they’d pull apart, stop talking for a while. It had happened in the lead-up to the debut, when things were awkward after Jimin joined the pack but Seokjin hadn’t. It had happened again after That One Night early into their careers, when they went to the Philippines for a show, and it had been happening more recently with Jaebong.

He and Seokjin had recovered before – Namjoon wasn’t sure if they would now.

Seokjin looked at the paper bag with a stony expression that Namjoon barely recognised. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.

“I think I’ve messed up,” Seokjin said quietly. “I think I’ve really fucked up.”

Namjoon said nothing, eyes fixing on the paper bag with dread as Seokjin reached into it.

People said your life flashed before your eyes as you were about to die: Namjoon’s did. From the dorms to the debut to fan signs and photoshoots, to Seokjin’s endless jokes, smiles, laughs, from their first scenting, from the first time Seokjin had jokingly called him “alpha”, from the thousands of glances they’d shared on stage, all of it ended with the two of them in a small hotel bathroom in Nagoya, with Seokjin and a pregnancy test.

Namjoon stared, in complete shock.

Seokjin held the box in his hands. He sounded faint, distant, and said, “There was a… a mishap, I don’t know, a month back? The condom broke, but we didn’t. We didn’t think it’d be a problem, because… we noticed before we finished.” And Namjoon got a full visual in his head, and he’d avoided them successfully all this time. Now he failed: the warmth, the thrusts, the groans – all there, suddenly fully formed in his head, of this alpha leering over Seokjin, of Seokjin pulling him in, both of them enjoying it. And now: the hotel bathroom and a test. “I thought it’d be fine because he hadn’t finished, and we’re both on suppressants anyway.”

But suppressants kept heats and ruts at bay – they weren’t birth control. Young omegas especially could conceive outside heats, say someone of Seokjin’s age, so of course omegas also took birth control, right? They –

Namjoon stared. “You’re not on birth control?”

“It’s bad for my skin,” Seokjin said, motioning at his face – and then Seokjin laughed weakly at the irony of it. Worldwide handsome.

As that sunk in, Namjoon wanted to yell what kind of a moron just shrugged off a broken condom if they weren’t taking birth control, what kind of an idiot wasn’t more careful than that, and Namjoon as the pack alpha was going to be blamed for this, this all would be put down to his failures in leading them, and what kind of an idiot was Seokjin, wandering around Nagoya at night if he was pregnant, how dangerous was that for him, for the baby?! Namjoon wanted to sit Seokjin down and make him rest, make sure he was well looked after, scent him head to toe, and maybe he’d thought Jimin would pull a stunt like this on him, but not Seokjin. Never Seokjin. Please.

Seokjin was drawn in on himself as he looked at the box. “I’m really scared,” Seokjin whispered, glasses low on the bridge of his nose.

The abject fear swelling in Namjoon’s chest, the disbelief and the shock: he forced it down. Later. He’d let himself feel all of that later.

He stepped closer and took the small box from Seokjin, his hands shaking only a little. The box advertised that it could tell pregnancy from two weeks on, with an exclamation, proudly: in just two weeks! Namjoon stared at the words, uncomprehending. “So you think you’re at least one month…” He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Maybe?” Seokjin rubbed at his forehead. “Yeah, it’d be – it’d be a month. Roughly. Fuck… fuck, fuck.”

“Okay,” he said, trying to compartmentalise everything at dizzying speed. “Okay, let’s find out.”

Namjoon had to turn on the taps and look away because Seokjin couldn’t pee on the stick with an audience watching, but Namjoon didn’t dare leave the room and wake up Jimin either.

Seokjin had, in fact, bought two tests: to be sure, to double check. Soon both were placed on the side of the sink. They looked at them together: white, thermometer-like sticks, with small screens where the results would show. Namjoon had been reading the instructions while Seokjin did his business: they needed to wait between three and ten minutes. There was a hell of a difference between three and ten minutes when life as you knew it hung in the balance.

Namjoon, weakly, set an alarm on his phone.

“Fuck,” Seokjin said again, so Namjoon pulled him into a hug. Seokjin sniffled into his shoulder, mumbling that it was stupid, but Namjoon disagreed. It was fine to be scared – god, it was fine. “My parents will kill me,” Seokjin groaned.

Namjoon shook his head. “They’ll have to come through me.” He pushed into Seokjin’s neck, breathing him in, clutching the back of Seokjin’s hoodie, adding to his own scent on Seokjin. “You don’t smell different.”

“No?” Seokjin asked. “Do you think you could tell?”

“Yeah, I think so.” He couldn’t think of a person whose scent he was more attuned to than Seokjin’s.

They sat on the edge of the bath together as he kept an arm around Seokjin’s shoulders. Their socks matched: black and black. Simple, uncomplicated. Life from half an hour ago.

At first they didn’t speak – what could either of them say? If this was happening, no amount of preaching could change it. He hadn’t talked to Seokjin about Jaebong. He should have, but no: he’d buried himself in work and ignored it. A young omega with a matured alpha: Namjoon should have known better.

“Have you had many symptoms?” he asked quietly, trying to stomach the conversation: Seokjin pregnant by someone who wasn’t – by someone.

“Fatigue. Nausea. I’ve gained weight,” Seokjin said quietly. “I usually lose weight on tour, not gain it.”

Namjoon nodded – true, that was true. He moved his thumb in circles on Seokjin’s shoulder, wondering where the hell he’d been lately. Seokjin should have come to him a month ago: they’d have figured it out – morning after pills or something. But Seokjin hadn’t confided in any of them, and mere hours earlier Seokjin had been on stage with them all, giving an outstanding performance to ten thousand people, laughing, waving. All a front. Was it wrong for Namjoon to be impressed by that level of professionalism?

He stared at Seokjin’s legs, the black jeans broken at the knee, and marvelled at Seokjin, who was multitudes to him right then: the Seokjin from that morning, but now also Seokjin carrying life inside him. There was a miracle in that, somewhere.

He had to ask now. The time had come, and he had to.

“Are you in love with him?”

Seokjin pushed against him, giving him a half-shove. “Joonie, I barely know him.”

“But that’s the easiest way to fall in love, I think.”

Seokjin stilled before sighing. “Yeah, I guess that’s true. How do you know?” Seokjin worried on his bottom lip. “Is love like reaching orgasm – if you’re not sure you have, then you haven’t? Is love like an orgasm?”

“Some orgasms can lead to love,” he reasoned.

“The really good ones?”

“Yeah, mainly those,” he agreed, and Seokjin chuckled, and even Namjoon smiled – but he felt young and lost, even as some relief spread in him: not love. Unlove. And he was relatively sure he knew the answer as he asked, “Does he know about this? Jaebong?”

Seokjin hesitated. “No. Not about –” And Seokjin motioned towards the sink. “But I told him I was feeling unwell, and he said – He said, ‘Hope you’re not pregnant, your pack alpha would kill me.’ So. So yeah.”

“He said that?”

“Yeah, he says you’re eerily assertive for someone so young.”

Namjoon found it surreal to think Seokjin and Jaebong discussed him behind his back. What was Seokjin even doing with Jaebong? So Jaebong was hot and talented, objectively speaking. So sex was nice – sure, having sex was nice, and touring was lonely. But –

“If it’s not love, why bother?”

Seokjin thought for a while before answering: “Because it’s akin to love, and sometimes that’s enough. When you have nothing else, I guess that’s enough.”

Seokjin then dug out his phone, the screen lighting up to the messaging app, and Seokjin showed Namjoon a picture: a bunch of their dancers in a bar somewhere, sent a half hour earlier, Jaebong in the middle of the party and grinning at the camera. The caption read ‘Partying it up!!’ Seokjin thumbed to the next message, a video: loud music sounded, the camera was shaky, and the dancers were slurping tequila shots from the belly button of a girl Namjoon had never seen before, the girl lying on a bar table and giggling, Jaebong jumping up and down excitedly, manbun bouncing, and shouting into the camera, “YOLO!

Seokjin stared at the screen, unfazed, as the clip finished. “Yeah, so. Really don’t think he wants to hear he’ll be a dad.”

Namjoon had to bite back another snarl: if Jaebong didn’t step up, if Jaebong even as much as flinched at the news, Namjoon would finish him. If Jaebong didn’t beg to claim Seokjin on the spot, Namjoon would find this Nagoya club and drag Jaebong out by his goddamn collar, Namjoon didn’t give a shit that Jaebong had years on him, he would –

“Doesn’t matter, anyway,” Seokjin then said, “I won’t keep it.” Namjoon stilled. “If. If I am, I won’t. I can do it abroad, I looked it up – I think I could get it done here and, and still be able to perform the next day, I think.”

Everything stilled for Namjoon, then: Seokjin had been researching this on his own, how to have an abortion without damaging the tour schedule. Namjoon knew he’d been busy with the way their careers had taken off lately – more meetings, more decisions, less time with the pack – but only then did he realise how detached he’d become.

“Jin-hyung, I –” And then nothing came out. How could he even begin to say how sorry he was? His throat was closing up but he said, “We could just have it. I’ll claim it.”

“Joon-ah,” Seokjin said, the roll of his eyes clear as he put the phone away.

“We could, hyung. I’d- I’d claim every child you ever choose to have.”

Namjoon would. Let the world think whatever the hell it wanted, let Seokjin’s parents be shocked, his own parents disown him, the fans outraged, the label fire them, let it all burn down: they had some money now, they could live on it in Seoul somewhere, change careers and go to college or something, and they could raise Seokjin’s child together, the two of them and the pack.

“That’s sweet of you,” Seokjin said, and Namjoon wanted to say he wasn’t trying to be sweet. “You’d make a good dad,” Seokjin then said quietly.

Namjoon wanted to press closer to Seokjin, to scent him while he could. Seokjin was still in one of his hoodies, smelling of Namjoon. Would it be that insane, that absurd? Anyone would look at Seokjin carrying and assume it was Namjoon’s, with Seokjin scented like this, borrowing his clothes like this. Something in Namjoon ached and pulsed over the thought.

Seokjin added, “All of you would make great parents.”

“Yeah, I think so,” he agreed. “Like, imagine Yoongi babysitting. He’d pretend he wasn’t smitten, but you know he’d be. Would babytalk when we’re not around, cooing over how cute your kid is.”

“He probably would,” Seokjin said, smiling weakly now. “Imagine Hobi.”

Namjoon shook his head. “Oh god, Hobi? He’d go nuts and hoard your baby. Hobi and Jimin both, you’d never see your kid. And Tae would buy all these cute baby clothes, you’d have the most stylish kid in Seoul, I’m telling you. And Jungkook would teach the baby to walk, probably. A real prodigy – would be doing body rolls and summersaults at fifteen months, just you wait.”

Seokjin laughed – finally, at last, and then he wiped at his cheeks and readjusted his glasses with a sniffle. Namjoon reached for Seokjin’s hand – both of their grips clammy and sweaty.

Seokjin laced their fingers together. “And you?”

And him? With a small baby that smelled of Seokjin, had Seokjin’s eyes and nose? Would it even matter which alpha had begotten it?

“I’d be the cool uncle. Teach rap skills.”

“Vital.”

“Hey, any kid of mine has to learn,” he said, and Seokjin’s smile looked so sad somehow. “You have options, hyung. Please don’t feel like you don’t.”

Seokjin was quiet for a while, staring at the floor. “It’s not that I don’t want kids,” Seokjin said, and Namjoon took that in quietly. Seokjin exhaled. “I do, I really do, but… not like this, not now. Not with him.” Seokjin worried on his bottom lip. “I’m not having this child.”

Namjoon let that settle in before he said, “Okay.” Okay. The welfare of Seokjin came first – over everything, anything. “Okay, I’ll come with you. For the procedure, I’ll come with you.”

“I think it’d be pills,” Seokjin said, and Namjoon exhaled in relief: that sounded less invasive, less painful. “There’s bleeding, when it works. Cramps, nausea… but you can do it at home.”

Namjoon weighed their options. They’d get their tour physician to find a local doctor and get the abortion pills. Would they have to tell management? The rest of the pack? No. Not about this. And Seokjin could hopefully see it through in a hotel, after a show maybe – god, how unfair was that? How fucking unfair was it? But it was illegal back in Korea, so what choice did they have? Namjoon would ask their doctor to stay with them, just in case – or be on call, at least. And –

God, if the public ever found out they’d done this, their careers would be finished. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Let them dare come for Seokjin – let them dare.

“I’ll stay with you.”

He expected Seokjin to object, but Seokjin leaned into him and said, “Thank you. For not being mad, for not –”

The alarm beeped before Namjoon could even protest over the suggestion he’d be mad. He silenced the alarm quickly, and they both looked towards the sink. The result would be visible, now: one line negative, two lines positive. One negative, two positive.

He never wanted Seokjin hurt – he’d realised that years earlier, from the first time he had left bruises on Seokjin, when Jungkook had presented. That sensation was vaguely like Jungkook often said: seeing the others in pain was worse than any pain you felt yourself. With Seokjin that feeling had always been multiplied. Now Namjoon loathed the pain to come that he couldn’t protect Seokjin from. He could stand by, watch, aid, ease – but he couldn’t stop it, and he hated how useless that made him.

Namjoon squeezed Seokjin’s hand in his as they approached the sink. “You want me to look?” he offered, and Seokjin hesitated.

“We could both look?”

“Yeah, good idea.” But they were still hovering by the sink, too scared. “Whatever the result, we’ll handle it, okay?” Namjoon said. “You and me, together. I’ll be right here.”

Seokjin blinked, and then smiled – sad again – before nodding. So they both picked up a stick – Seokjin’s hand was squeezing his so hard it hurt.

And then Namjoon looked. He looked and looked, but he wasn’t sure his brain could process any of it. Seokjin had checked the stick in his own hand and then grabbed the one in Namjoon’s, comparing both, wanting to be sure –

Seokjin nearly crumbled in on himself, leaning over the counter, shivering. “Oh thank god,” Seokjin said, dropping the sticks into the sink and covering his mouth with his hand. One line in each. One line. “Oh thank god, thank god.”

“You’re fine,” he said, smoothing over Seokjin’s shoulders, the world returning to him – the shows, the fan signs, the interviews, and Seokjin. Always Seokjin. “Hey, c’mere.” Seokjin almost knocked the wind out of him, launching into the embrace, and Namjoon hugged back just as fiercely. “You’re fine,” he said, pressing his nose to Seokjin’s hair. “You’re fine, hyung, you’re fine. Don’t cry,” he pleaded when Seokjin trembled. “Don’t cry, you’ll make me cry if you do.” He squeezed Seokjin against him hard. “I love you. I love you so much.”

“’Tis so stupid,” Seokjin muttered against his shoulder.

“I love you anyway,” he insisted, the words flowing easily when he normally found the admission so hard.

Seokjin let out a teary laugh. “I love you too.”

Namjoon breathed Seokjin in, more relieved than he could ever put in words: so he squeezed the fabric of the hoodie as tight as he could, focused on the press of Seokjin to him, in his arms, the two of them hanging on.

It took them long to calm down, although Seokjin had been safe the entire time. But for a few moments that protection had been removed from not only Seokjin, but the pack, their lives, their careers. The drop of losing all of it was terrifying – losing Seokjin even worse.

They put all the evidence into the paper bag and washed their hands. They’d have to dispose of the goods, somehow – too risky leaving it in a hotel bathroom, no matter the result.

When they were finally done, Namjoon asked, “Can I stay with you?”

Seokjin smiled weakly, hair messy, glasses on his nose wonky. “Yeah,” he said, “yeah, you can stay.”

They slept in Seokjin’s hotel bed, Seokjin pulling Namjoon’s arms tight around him as Namjoon spooned Seokjin to him. He kept Seokjin close, scenting him gently. There was nowhere in the world he’d rather be – or needed to be – as he fell asleep breathing Seokjin in.

They woke up to a brightened hotel room, with Jimin poking their shoulders. “Jin-hyung! Alpha-hyung!” Jimin whined and pouted. “You never let me sleep with you!” But even Jimin knew it wasn’t usual to find Namjoon in Seokjin’s bed in the morning, in the wrong hotel room altogether. “Is everything okay?”

Seokjin was rubbing at his eyes, and Namjoon kept his arms firm around Seokjin. His hand was over Seokjin’s lower stomach where nothing grew, and that was a good thing. He had to remind himself that was a good thing.

“Rough night,” Seokjin managed, then added, “It’s over with Jaebong.”

This was news to Jimin and Namjoon both.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Jimin said, genuinely upset because Jimin always cared for them all too much. Jimin tugged down the hem of his pyjama top. “I took a picture of you guys and sent it to the pack chat. Sorry, I didn’t know. You wanna scent?”

Seokjin nodded, and Namjoon slipped out of bed as Jimin climbed in, nuzzling against Seokjin instantly. Namjoon took the brown paper bag with him as he left, and he was only able to dispose of it a day later, at the toilets at the airport.

Ironically, Jimin had captioned the picture of him and Seokjin sleeping, curled up in each other, with Daddy and papa?!?! The rest of the pack teased them accordingly, calling them an old mated couple just like their fans did. Daddy and papa.

But whatever the result, there’d be no parents here.

Jaebong joined a dance troupe based in Seoul a few weeks later. An amicable break-up, or a fading out. Not worth the risk, Seokjin told Namjoon plainly, the two of them back to hanging out more: going out for meals together, Namjoon dragging Seokjin to an art exhibition when Taehyung bailed on him, Seokjin rolling his eyes that modern art was overrated, Namjoon gasping at the offense. One of their security guys trailed behind them at a respectable distance, just in case.

Seokjin grabbed Namjoon’s hand, pulling. “I like this one!” he declared with a wide grin, dragging Namjoon across the gallery – how lucky am I? Namjoon thought, watching the way Seokjin doubled over laughing as he pointed at a canvas of all white, with red splotches of paint on it. How fucking lucky was he that he hadn’t lost Seokjin?

Not yet. Not that day.

* * *

Namjoon and Yoongi had to swing by the label offices on the morning of Seokjin’s heat, and Namjoon worried that Seokjin would sojourn in their absence – disappear from right in front of him and would return only days later, smelling faintly of heat, sex and an alpha that Namjoon had never seen – but as he and Yoongi toed off their shoes in the dorm’s foyer, he picked out Seokjin’s scent still in the air. He stopped. Inhaled.

It was the scent of pre-heat, persistent and demanding Namjoon’s attention in a way that made it hard to concentrate on anything else. He’d smelled it on omegas before – on some of their omega assistants and staff on the day before their heat break, sometimes even on fans during signings – and it was always polite not to mention it. An interested alpha might make an ass of themselves, of course, propositioning any such omega instantly, but Namjoon liked to think that he had evolved beyond that.

Not that day: Seokjin’s scent of honeyed musk was interlaced with sex, there was no other way around it. Namjoon tensed up, alert and aware, hairs pricking up on his arms, his insides tightening.

Yoongi also sniffed the air. “What is that?” What an absurd question – how could Yoongi not tell? But even Yoongi figured it out with an “Ah. Of course.”

Yet Yoongi didn’t look like it was driving him to distraction.

Namjoon told himself to rise above it. He was already down on himself because of course his slip of a growl at the fan sign had been filmed and circulated online, which fans had misinterpreted entirely, debates surrounding what exactly had triggered him. The whole thing had turned into a ‘please respect the boys and their personal space’ campaign, which was valid and true, except no fan had actually done anything wrong. that's HIS pack, someone had opined in the comments he’d glanced at, show some respect!!, with another replying yeah i'd smack a bitch for crowding my packmates istg

But fans generally were respectful and all fan signs were carefully monitored – no one had any real chance of getting too close to any of them. Namjoon was just on edge, constantly, and now millions were up in arms over it, simply making it worse.

They found Taehyung in their large kitchen, sat on a bar stool by the kitchen island, munching on a bowl of ramyeon – most of them barely knew how to cook, expensive shiny kitchen or not. And before Namjoon could ask, Taehyung said, “Jimin’s gone for lunch with his friends but said he’d be back by three, I just talked to Hobi-hyung and his mothers say hi, and Jungkook was picked up half an hour ago. And I’ve, uh, I’ve been doing nothing.”

“Stick to what you’re good at,” Yoongi agreed, opening the fridge and getting out a bottled water.

“I’m good at lots of things!” Taehyung objected – Yoongi rolled his eyes: as if they didn’t all know that.

Namjoon for his part nodded at the update on his pack, ignoring how a part of him was still tracking Seokjin’s scent, trying to locate it almost. Jungkook’s departure cut through this task, thankfully, as his eyes searched fruitlessly for Jungkook. No matter how tall or toned Jungkook got, he’d always be Namjoon’s kid alpha. But now Jungkook had gone to Busan; they had scented goodbye the night before. Further anxiety curled up inside him as he counted another packmate missing. Breaks. Fucking breaks.

“Cool,” Namjoon still said, trying not to show he was upset. How many days until he’d have Jungkook back? Hoseok back? “And Jin-hyung?”

“He’s packing in his room,” Taehyung supplied, “but, er, he’s not in a good mood? I might not have helped, I dunno.”

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. “Omegas are fussy going into heat. What did you do?”

“Nothing!” Taehyung exclaimed with wide eyes, a tad too defensively. Namjoon, too, narrowed his eyes. Taehyung sighed, dropping his chopsticks into the bowl. “I dunno, I maybe pitched the idea that Jungkook should join him for the heat.”

Yoongi choked on his water, and Namjoon felt like he’d slammed straight into a wall, breath leaving him before he went on high alert. It was a gut reaction – a challenge, he’d been challenged – but Jungkook had already gone, wasn’t even there anymore. Yet Namjoon was stunned: Namjoon’s baby alpha – going for Seokjin?

Yoongi snapped, “Whose genius idea was that?!”

“I thought maybe Jin-hyung would be less nervous with a friend, or even a packmate!” Taehyung defended.

“And Jungkook wanted to?” Namjoon managed to say, a snarl lurking somewhere low in his throat.

Taehyung looked at him and flinched, unable to hold his gaze. “I wouldn’t say he wanted to,” Taehyung said evasively, “but he said he’d help in any way he could, so I went and asked Jin-hyung, and it was a pretty resounding ‘no’. Or, ah, a resounding ‘get out’, actually.” And Taehyung looked towards the bedrooms with unease.

“What the hell were you two thinking?” Yoongi demanded.

“Heats are natural!” Taehyung argued. “There’s nothing to be ashamed of! And people team up with friends, don’t they? And Jungkook has said he’d help Jimin if ever needed, and I told Jin-hyung that, that Jungkook would help any of us, with anything.”

Yoongi’s wrath visibly eased, something fond crossing his face before a look of disapproval settled in. Namjoon, for his part, had something like dread swirling in him, although relief was interlaced with it. Seokjin had turned it down, but what the hell would Namjoon have done if Seokjin had accepted? The mere thought of Seokjin and Jungkook heatedly embracing as Seokjin offered his throat to Jungkook had black, murky anger bubbling in him – it was wrong, a violation, a mockery of natural order.

Yet the deeper bite to Seokjin’s scent was still heavy in the air. Jungkook would of course have noticed – how could any alpha be immune to something so enticing? Taehyung always did live in a world of his own with absurd notions the rest of them couldn’t catch, but Namjoon was still tensed up.

Taehyung squirmed under his heavy stare. “Sorry, alpha-hyung,” Taehyung said. “It was stupid.”

When Namjoon didn’t as much as nod, Yoongi said, “Joon-ah, he was just trying to help.”

“I’ll go check on Seokjin,” Namjoon decided as Yoongi sighed and curled an arm around Taehyung’s shoulders, and Taehyung pressed in to Yoongi’s neck instantly, seeking comfort as Yoongi mumbled, “Hyung knows you only wanted to help.”

Namjoon wasn’t angry with Taehyung as such because, yes, it’d been a stupid idea but Taehyung’s intentions had been good; and he wasn’t angry with Jungkook either because Namjoon knew the extents that the kid would go to for any of them. He was angry that he was angry, that he couldn’t rise above it.

Outside of Seokjin’s bedroom door, he stopped. He knew Seokjin was in there, the scent of Seokjin pulling at him, carrying an air of urgency. Namjoon could handle this. He had handled a hell of a lot more.

But before he could knock, Seokjin’s voice came: “Namjoon-ah?”

The door opened a second later.

Seokjin had showered, hair wet, and was in loose loungewear, and for a second they both stared at each other, something nagging at Namjoon, pulling at him.

But then he stepped back, frowning, because despite the maddening, sweet pre-heat scent that clung to Seokjin, Seokjin smelled wrong up close like this. Or not wrong, precisely: he smelled of his own honeyed musk, the scent of it cutting straight through Namjoon, but none of the pack was imprinted onto Seokjin: no traces of Hobi, Tae, Yoongi, no Jungkook or Jimin. No Namjoon. Just Seokjin like a blank canvas: an invitation, almost, for an alpha to push their own scent onto unblemished skin. To stake claim.

Namjoon reeled at the complete absence of him on Seokjin. He hadn’t encountered it since Seokjin’s initiation, and now his guts tightened – with revulsion or something else entirely, he didn’t have time to decide.

Seokjin had been taking him in with an unfocused look, but then Seokjin blinked and squared his shoulders. Namjoon was still breathing in deep, adjusting to the difference in scent – good or bad? – when Seokjin said, “Yeah, I – I used that special shower gel.” Seokjin wandered back into the bedroom, a duffel bag on the bed, half-full. Seokjin was throwing stuff into it. An overnight bag. A heat bag. Louis Vuitton.

Namjoon followed, skin prickling, fingers pressing into the skin of his palms. “I came to see how you’re doing. If –”

A neatly folded navy jumper on the bed then caught Namjoon’s attention, the scent of an unknown alpha on it, rich and dark, full of musk. The notion of being challenged renewed itself, much stronger than before: he knew which alpha it belonged to without having to guess.

Seokjin wasn’t wearing it. Seokjin should have been wearing it: that was the point.

He needed to focus. He needed not to give in to petty urges.

“Taehyung told me,” Namjoon said slowly, “about what happened.”

Seokjin scoffed as he continued to pack. “What an idea. I told him I’d slap him into next week if he said another word. And as for Jungkook, well he… he’d probably give both of his kidneys if one of us asked.” Seokjin then paused, giving Namjoon a pondering look. “Did we raise them too well? I think we maybe did. No concept of self-preservation – I love them, but they’re idiots.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, hovered, guts warm as he inhaled the scent of Seokjin – like a promise, like sex.

“And anyway,” Seokjin then said, “I get that they were feeling protective. You’re worried, of course you are, and it’s kind of you all, but I’ll be okay. You don’t. You don’t all have to be…” Seokjin was rearranging the contents of the bag, just pushing things back and forth, not really doing anything. He seemed to lose his train of thought, tensing the way he did sometimes when Namjoon stared at him too intently. “And sure, you know, waiting is… Daewon will come by in the evening, it’s a bit – never having met him, I guess it’s…” And Seokjin glanced quickly at the jumper on the bed. “Once we get going it’ll just do its thing, I’m sure.”

But Namjoon didn’t like the thought of Seokjin this nervous before his heat. He wanted Seokjin relaxed and content, excited even – Taehyung had been right in knowing Seokjin was anxious.

Namjoon took in the controlled chaos of Seokjin’s heat preparations, eyeing the offending jumper on the bed. Did the scent of it make shivers run down Seokjin’s spine, urge the heat on? Had Seokjin considered, however briefly, taking Jungkook on? Seokjin wasn’t short on suitors: he could walk out into the street and any alpha would instantly offer themselves just by inhaling his scent.

Very slowly, Namjoon said, “Well, Taehyung was right. Some packs deal with heats and ruts on their own. It’s safer than strangers.”

“Ah,” Seokjin said, “but it can change pack dynamics, that kind of thing. Better to, to outsource cycles, don’t you think? And it’s, um, it’s easier with someone I don’t have to see once we’re done.”

He frowned. “Why is it easier?”

“Well, you know,” Seokjin mumbled, “Daewon will have seen it all before, with, with me and with others, how needy and submissive omegas get. And there are no consequences with him, so… that’s the ideal scenario.”

This was clearly a comforting thought to Seokjin, but this Daewon would never have seen Seokjin, laid out and vulnerable, whining. Namjoon had only once, briefly. He hated the thought of Daewon lumping Seokjin with other conquests – other contract jobs – like Seokjin was a dime a dozen.

Seokjin was avoiding eye contact. “And besides, heats aren’t big deals these days, really, so what does it matter?”

“It does matter,” he said quietly. “It matters when it’s you.”

Seokjin glanced at him, surprised. “Ah, Namjoon-ah…” he trailed off, like he was touched or flattered, a faint flush on his cheeks. Namjoon stepped closer, inhaling the heavy air between them. Seokjin would be in heat before the day was done, his scent told Namjoon as much, but Seokjin would be ready even sooner if Seokjin’s alpha coaxed it out of him, urged the heat on – by scenting, touching. Tasting.

How good would it feel to scent Seokjin right then? The thought was almost overwhelming.

Seokjin seemed to hesitate before he blurted out, “Sometimes, you know, ah – things happen, even within packs. I guess it’s not unheard of.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Like did you know Jimin and Jungkook have a cycle pact? Should either of them ever, you know, unexpectedly, and if there’s no one else… Who knows if they’d follow through,” Seokjin mused, “but a lot of my unmated friends have agreements like that.”

“Yeah, mine too.”

“Yeah. It’s comforting, right? Knowing you’ve got someone.” Seokjin paused. “Because it might catch you unaware. You never know, so it’s handy. Like in Manila that time.”

Namjoon, who had slowly been approaching Seokjin, stopped – caught off-guard. Seokjin looked embarrassed but said, “You remember? That night in Manila when you…”

But Namjoon remembered, god did he remember: their unsteady breaths, their mixed scents, the springs of the cheap hotel mattress creaking.

And then Namjoon recalled how it had nearly ruined everything between them.

His head felt clearer in seconds. “That was years ago, hyung,” he managed, mouth dry.

Seokjin flinched – flushed. “Yeah. Yeah, of course. Sorry, I – I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.”

“I am sorry. I don’t know why I – Aish, forget about it. I thought you… God, never mind it.”

“What?”

“Never mind it!” Seokjin repeated, taking a step back and crossing his arms. “Look, I don’t need you barging in here insinuating –“

“What have I insinuated?” he cut in, frustrated.

Seokjin stopped and looked lost. “Nothing. You’ve insinuated nothing. This has been a non-conversation, Joon-ah.”

Namjoon looked at the almost full bag, Seokjin ready to go. Seokjin was such a constant for him – and now Seokjin had washed Namjoon’s pack claim off himself. What if Seokjin never came back? What was Namjoon supposed to do? For all of his lyrics he didn’t know how to articulate the tangled web of feelings in him even a little.

“Well, I hope you enjoy your heat,” he said emptily.

“Yeah, thanks. I’m sure I will.”

Seokjin picked up the alpha’s jumper and put it in the bag, and Namjoon instinctively stepped closer to stop it but then he let it happen. Some part of him wanted to curl up and maybe just not move for whatever was left of their break.

“I’ll see you in a few days, then,” Namjoon said, and Seokjin only nodded, not looking at him.

He was nearly at the door when Seokjin called out, “Hey, uh…”

Namjoon stilled instantly, looking back.

Seokjin was holding an old hoodie, eyes fixed on it, shoulders slumped. “I know I’m not allowed you,” Seokjin said quietly. He then motioned vaguely towards the window. “Whereas him? I’m allowed him. So don’t worry, I know that.”

Taken aback, he managed, “What?”

Seokjin sucked in a breath. “Forget about it. Okay?” Seokjin looked at him, one strand of black hair out of place but even that looked styled just so, perfectly where it wanted to be. “I’m just confused right now with the heat coming. I’m sorry – just forget about it. Please?”

“Okay,” he said, agreeing to anything and everything Seokjin asked of him, because he always did.

But he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave. He absolutely must not leave.

Seokjin was right there – but then again that wasn’t new, as the door closed between them.

Chapter Text

ὁ δὲ μὴ δυνάμενος κοινωνεῖν ἢ μηδὲν δεόμενος δι᾽ αὐτάρκειαν οὐθὲν μέρος πόλεως, ὥστε ἢ θηρίον ἢ θεός.
He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.
- Aristotle (4th century BCE)

IV

 

There’d been a night before. Years ago.

Namjoon’s fault. Entirely, completely his fault, and he had carried the guilt of it for years. It was their biggest international tour to date, and they were all bumped up: Japan and Singapore! And people came to the shows, abroad! Venues of a few thousand! They couldn’t believe that this was how far they’d come, in a year and a half post-debut. They stayed in hotels and practised their choreo endlessly, atop interviews and soundchecks and the actual shows.

Namjoon was exhausted, but man was he fired up, which suited him well: his hair was bright red. It looked badass, with a neat undercut. They all looked cool as hell!

When they got to Manila, he and Seokjin shared a hotel room. Not the worst person to share with – Seokjin was tidy and had a high tolerance for Namjoon’s snoring.

But hours after landing, they started bickering: first over who got which bed because Namjoon wanted to be closer to the door but Seokjin wanted the power outlet there; then over which car Seokjin should ride in to the venue because Seokjin wasn’t initially going with Namjoon; and finally, when they got Korean food delivered on their lunch break, Namjoon got upset when Seokjin didn’t finish his meal.

“You can’t leave the jajangmyeon.”

Seokjin waved him off. “But I’m full.”

“Finish it,” he ordered. Seokjin shot a glare at him, but did.

And when Seokjin tripped over his own feet during dance rehearsal, smacking onto his butt on the stage floor, he blamed it on Namjoon for making him eat too much. Namjoon got annoyed – how was it his fault Seokjin had two left feet? He said as much.

“Bite me,” Seokjin snapped back: a particularly challenging thing to say to an alpha, because it meant ‘you wish you could’. And Namjoon snarled, upset and confused.

Hoseok, forever the peacemaker, stepped in and said he could show Seokjin the choreo nice and slow, and perhaps Namjoon should stop interfering in what his packmates did or didn’t eat. But Namjoon felt justified. It was important for omegas to eat enough – they needed the energy, for life and dancing and, well, baby-making, and Jin wasn’t eating much, so he’d stepped in. He didn’t say this, though, simply prowled close by while Hoseok and Seokjin worked on the choreo together.

On their way back to the hotel, Yoongi said, “Hey, maybe turn down the alpha a notch, huh?”

Namjoon said nothing – fumed, silently. He knew he needed to be a good leader about this – be patient, be understanding, but Seokjin had been uppity with him all day for no valid reason. Seokjin should apologise first.

The others were going out for food that evening, before their concert the next day, but Namjoon didn’t want to see his pack because they were all getting on his nerves just then. Seokjin also stayed behind, which was what Namjoon wanted.

So they sulked in the small hotel room together, still not really talking. Namjoon showered while Seokjin had a half-hour Skype chat with his mother, about useless, trivial things but that was their business, he supposed.

Namjoon felt exhausted in a way that felt unfamiliar, but he put it down to the travel, the practice, the stress. He got into his pyjamas and slipped into bed, then read webtoons on his phone while Seokjin used the bathroom. He felt restless and itchy, his body wired up.

After some reflection, Namjoon grabbed the t-shirt and jumper he’d worn that day and pushed both into Seokjin’s bed, under the covers. If Seokjin couldn’t apologise, the least he could do was let Namjoon’s scent catch onto him.

When Seokjin stepped out of the bathroom in navy pyjamas, his hair a reddish-brown that Namjoon liked, he shot a glare at Namjoon. Namjoon said nothing – frustrated, but still happy that Seokjin was there.

Seokjin pulled the covers aside, saw the clothes Namjoon had left, and muttered, “Okay, sure. Sure. Namjoon?”

“You’ve just showered,” he said, simply. “So.”

“Sure,” Seokjin said, sarcasm heavy, but he still got into bed, much to Namjoon’s relief, and turned off the lights. No goodnight.

Namjoon stared at the ceiling in the dark, annoyed. “Goodnight?”

“Night.”

Namjoon clicked his tongue, but said nothing.

Then, after a few minutes of Namjoon fuming to himself, came a rustle of sheets, feet touching the floor and closing the small distance between their beds, and the next second Seokjin was climbing into bed with him. “You’re such an ass,” Seokjin declared as Namjoon made space for him on the narrow bed, surprised. Seokjin settled next to him, smelling of shampoo and moisturiser. “Dad says never sleep angry.”

“You sound kinda angry,” he offered, only able to see Seokjin’s outline in the dark.

“Says the moron passive aggressively leaving scent presents in my bed,” Seokjin shot back, and Namjoon bit the inside of his cheek. Seokjin sighed. “This is a peace offering. I’m not even mad at you, okay?” Seokjin said, more softly. And, to be honest, Namjoon felt better with the warmth of Seokjin under the covers with him.

“Okay,” he said, relaxing back into the mattress. He felt calmer, better – some space remained between them as they settled to sleep, but Seokjin was there, safe and sound with him, and Namjoon felt more relaxed than he had all day.

But when Namjoon woke up, that space between them was gone. He was pressed against the length of Seokjin’s back, arm firmly around Seokjin’s waist. He was nosing at Seokjin’s shoulder, breathing in the omega’s scent – and Namjoon was hard, was straining in his pyjama bottoms, pressed against Seokjin.

Namjoon jerked fully awake, but his arm around Seokjin tightened. He felt warm and sweaty – and Seokjin was in his bed, like the answer to every question Namjoon had ever asked. He nosed at Seokjin’s shoulder more boldly, breathing him in, and Seokjin shuddered.

Seokjin was perfectly awake, he realised.

Seokjin swallowed hard. “Joonie?”

Namjoon had warmth pooling in his stomach as he grunted in response.

“Have you – ah, have you been taking your, uh, your suppressants?”

He nodded – he did, he always did.

“Yeah? ‘Cause I – I swear you’re in pre-rut,” Seokjin said, breaths unsteady. Namjoon rolled his hips experimentally, curling his fist in the front of Seokjin’s top. Seokjin’s breath hitched. “Oh…” Namjoon rolled his hips again, with more intent – and Seokjin weaselled out of his arms.

Namjoon blinked, reaching out in dismay for the blurred silhouette of Seokjin in the dark.

“You stay there,” Seokjin said. “Stay. Okay? I’m gonna go to the bathroom and come back. You got that?” He was about to growl, but Seokjin said, “I promise.” Seokjin was using a calm, soft tone, the one that could talk Namjoon out of anything.

Soon the bathroom light and fan came on, bathing the hotel room in half-light. Namjoon blinked, feeling groggy, feverish almost. Why was Seokjin not in his bed anymore? He’d had his omega. How had he lost him?

Seokjin returned quickly, holding out a plastic cup of water. “I’m triple dosing you,” Seokjin said.

He needed to take his suppressants every three days – he hadn’t. The tour and the schedules, and it had slipped his mind, and he hadn’t.

Namjoon’s head had cleared a little. “Oh shit,” he said when he realised what the pills were. He took all three, washing them down with water. “Shit, shit.” He was in pre-rut, and they had a show in less than a day. Shit!

Seokjin sat on the edge of the bed, a hand reaching out to brush his hair. “Hey, calm. Okay? I know how careful you usually are.”

He felt so confused – Seokjin had been in his bed, and he’d smelled responsive, so then Namjoon had… But that wasn’t how it was supposed to go. And he was still hard, and if he went into a rut he’d have to skip the show and –

“Do you think we caught it early enough?” he asked.

Seokjin bit his lower lip. “I’m not sure. I think so?”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck! “You should go,” he said, panting a little, “please go.” All of him wanted Seokjin to stay: soft, warm, and that honeyed musk, mixed faintly with arousal. He almost snarled: let me put my mouth on you, anywhere, let me fill –

“Yeah,” Seokjin said, eyes fixed on him. “Yeah, I’ll go sleep somewhere else.” But Seokjin didn’t move. “You, uh. You smell good. Really good.”

“Or stay,” he said, instantly, and Seokjin jerked. “Not to – Not to, with me. But just… stay.”

“Ah, we could – erm. Scent? I think it, it takes the edge of, uh,” Seokjin mumbled, slipping back into bed, and Namjoon’s entire body hummed in excitement.

Without preamble Namjoon pushed into Seokjin’s side and started scenting, dipping his face to Seokjin’s exposed neck, his heart thumping. And Seokjin not only let him, but relaxed, going lax, letting out a content sigh. It was good: just scenting each other, smelling the pheromones and the arousal on Seokjin, knowing his omega was responding to him like this. In any normal circumstance Namjoon would have been mortified to have his erection pressing against his packmate’s hip, but not in pre-rut: Seokjin was letting him do that, too, Seokjin’s pretty mouth open in a silent groan.

Namjoon slipped a hand inside the shirt of Seokjin’s pyjamas, stroking across Seokjin’s belly, his sides – so smooth, so warm. “You smell really good,” Namjoon breathed, mouth wet against the fabric of Seokjin’s shoulder. That was all he was doing: touching, scenting.

Seokjin whined – helpless. “I swear you smell better. Oh, god, it’s been so long since I last…”

“Mmm, since you what?”

“You know,” Seokjin offered, flustered. Namjoon shifted, cock digging into Seokjin’s hip, and Seokjin shivered and moaned – the thrill of it bled into Namjoon’s bones. What a good omega, so receptive, so soft –

“Um. Can I…?” Seokjin asked, motioning with his hands very, very vaguely, but Namjoon got it and nodded, eager. “You too?”

“Yeah,” he agreed. He reached down to touch himself, hand snaking between their bodies. Seokjin did the same: reached into his pyjama bottoms with one hand, and then Seokjin whined as he – as he began stroking himself. Namjoon was watching him do it, in the light coming from the ajar door of the bathroom, the way Seokjin’s fisted hand pushed against the tented fabric. They were in bed together, half pressed to each other, jerking off.

Namjoon felt hot and cold, his belly pulsing with heat. God, he was hard – and was in no way ashamed of it, feeling himself heavy in his hand, still inside his pyjama bottoms. His hand stroked against Seokjin, too, with every up-and-down and rattled breath. He wanted Seokjin to know how hard he was, how big he was – what he could offer, what he’d give –

Seokjin’s breaths sounded like hiccups, abrupt and short, and Namjoon growled – pleased, encouraging. “What the fuck,” Seokjin sighed, hips jerking.

Seokjin looked at him through half-lidded eyes, bottom lip caught between his teeth. Namjoon looked at Seokjin’s mouth, heart thumping: what did it taste like? He’d always wondered.

Seokjin was still on his back, maddeningly pliant – and then Seokjin lifted one leg over Namjoon’s, thighs spreading and knees bending. Namjoon observed, alert, as Seokjin’s other hand joined the first inside his pyjamas. Namjoon couldn’t see too well, it was too dark, but Seokjin reached with his hand, and then he gasped. One hand was still fisting his cock. The other –

Namjoon heard it, the wet sound. Then he smelled it. Seokjin’s eyes were now firmly closed, hair mussed, face flushed, and he was touching himself – and Namjoon lost any notion of control then, grinding against Seokjin’s hip, mimicking something more, feeling the base of his cock starting to swell against his palm. There was no logic to it, no finesse: it was Seokjin, the maddening scent and feel of him, next to him like this, smelling more aroused and ready with each second. Namjoon pushed into Seokjin’s neck again, mouth pressing into the skin.

He had to ask because it was driving him mad: “How wet are you?”

Seokjin let out a whine. “Shouldn’t be so- Ah, from so little, but…”

He almost purred, pleased. “Keep going,” he encouraged, “you’re doing so well…”

“Shit, Namjoon-ah…”

Namjoon had never let himself imagine any of it, but he did then: vividly, eagerly, with hunger in his guts. He pressed his nose against Seokjin’s jugular, lips brushing against the salt of Seokjin’s skin, a few centimetres from Seokjin’s scent gland. He rutted against Seokjin with intent – the friction was good between his hand and Seokjin’s side.

Such a good omega, opening himself up for his alpha like this. Namjoon should reward that, take good, good care of Seokjin –

“Don’t stop,” Seokjin breathed, seconds before Namjoon was going to flip him over and have him on his belly – then slowly pull their clothes out of the way, ask Seokjin how he wanted Namjoon to make him feel good and fill him up – “Don’t stop,” Seokjin whined, and Namjoon could refuse him nothing. Seokjin pushed against his head, moaning, “Scent me.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon breathed – and did, the rut scent of him spiking, him nuzzling in hard, the beginnings of a knot swelling.

So they came like that: Namjoon in his pyjamas, face buried into Seokjin’s neck, hips rutting against Seokjin, and Seokjin similarly in his pyjamas, both hands inside his pyjama bottoms, legs spread, body shivering, muscles of his thighs twitching. They came seconds apart, whimpering into the dark of the room – their breaths, uneven, filled up the space between them, their heads rubbing together, sharing scent.

The room smelled of sex, of the two of them together. The pleasure of it was radiating through Namjoon, powerful like a newly discovered drug.

“Oh god,” Seokjin said – not in a sex-awed voice, exactly. Seokjin was wiping his hands to the sheets, drawing his legs firmly shut. Namjoon could still smell him, the addictive musk of Seokjin’s sex, and Namjoon wanted to take Seokjin’s fingers into his mouth, get that scent and its taste onto his tongue, show Seokjin how much he wanted it. Seokjin groaned, “Oh god, we’re so gross.”

Namjoon tried to focus. Gross?

“This is – Shit, this is embarrassing,” Seokjin said, now sitting up on the bed, looking down at both of them. But Namjoon didn’t quite see what the problem was.

Seokjin wriggled out of bed again, insisting that he had to wash up, and so Namjoon listened to him moving about in the bathroom, alert and making sure his omega stayed close by. The scent of Seokjin’s sex lingered, but Namjoon’s erection had gone down, soft inside his soiled pyjamas.

Seokjin re-emerged in fresh boxers and walked to his bed. “Hey, I’m gonna sleep in my own bed now, okay? I think you’ll be fine. You smell – mellower. Okay? So just get some sleep. You’re tired, right?”

And Seokjin was right: Namjoon was tired. But he mourned the loss of Seokjin next to him, smelling so good, whimpering in pleasure.

“Hyung,” he whined in protest, but Seokjin shook his head.

“You need to sleep this off,” Seokjin said and then sucked in a breath. “I knew you were – with your pheromones, but fuck… I never realised you were so…”

He was so what? Namjoon had no clue.

When he awoke, he remembered these events through a blurry haze of pre-rut that had evaporated as he’d slept. Seokjin was asleep on the other bed, and Namjoon had dried come all over the front of his pyjamas. He wondered, in vain, if it had been a vivid sex dream – but Seokjin’s soiled pyjamas were on the floor between their beds.

He grabbed fresh clothes from his suitcase and rushed for a shower as fast as he could.

Seokjin was awake by the time he came out of the bathroom, fully dressed. The window was open the ten centimetres that it allowed, airing out the room. Seokjin looked tired but not particularly debauched, sat on his bed. Namjoon opened his mouth, and Seokjin said, “Worst things have happened.”

“Sorry?”

Seokjin was biting on his lower lip. “I mean, we all had friends when were younger, right, when we – you know.” And Seokjin motioned back to Namjoon’s bed and lifted an eyebrow.

They had?

But all Namjoon could manage was, “I’m so sorry, I –”

“I’m sorry too,” Seokjin said. “I was doing stuff like, like whatever.” Seokjin’s face was a humiliated red. “It was just pre-rut but I still got, got all pathetic, I’m so sorry. God, this is embarrassing,” Seokjin said restlessly, “like, I haven’t been with any alphas since we debuted. I know that’s no excuse, but I’m mortified I did that, with you.”

“It was my fault,” he rushed to argue, feeling hot all over again.

“No, it was my fault! I should have left – given you the pills and left. But… But I stayed. It was stupid. Obviously really stupid.” Seokjin clearly blamed himself wholly. “Are you mad at me?”

Namjoon stared, riddled with guilt and shame, and shook his head.

“Okay,” Seokjin said, awkwardly. “Um, can we – like, not tell the others? Or anyone? Ever?”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “Yeah, uh, no one has to know.” He thought back to the two of them scenting each other as they got closer to climax, and his guts tightened. “I guess it was kinda gross?”

“So gross,” Seokjin agreed quickly. “And, like, kinda pathetic. We’re such losers, honestly.”

They avoided eye contact and busied themselves packing. Namjoon stuffed his come-stained pyjamas into his suitcase, and only minutes later Sejin was at their door, coming to collect them.

Seokjin had nervously sprayed his deodorant all over the room – and Sejin nearly choked on the fumes. “You can barely breathe in here! God, what is wrong with you two?”

But that was it: no one found out.

They didn’t talk about it, either, not after that first day when Seokjin came up to him mid-soundcheck and muttered, “Hey. Don’t turn it into some big thing, okay? You forgot to take your pills – literally everyone’s been there. It really doesn’t define you as a person or a pack alpha.”

It was unnerving how well Seokjin could read him.

“Yeah, but are we okay?” Namjoon asked desperately, not really looking at Seokjin because he couldn’t.

“Yeah, of course,” Seokjin said, but the fact that they were both talking to an invisible ghost between them rather than at each other didn’t suggest so. “I think we prevented a full rut doing what we did – it probably helped. So it was a good thing, right? And imagine you’d roomed with Jimin,” Seokjin then said. “The poor boy would be pregnant by now.”

And Seokjin laughed, very forced but he laughed, while Namjoon was too mortified to do so. He’d never – with Jimin, he wouldn’t…!

In the weeks that followed, they stopped sharing hotel rooms, and Seokjin publicly blamed it on Namjoon’s snoring. Worse than this, they stopped scenting. Namjoon was a klutz around Seokjin, breaking glasses and dropping his phone because he felt nervous all the time and the lack of scenting was giving him headaches and nausea. It had perhaps been the hottest and most erotic few minutes of Namjoon’s life. He kept thinking of the little choked sounds Seokjin had made when he’d fingered himself – right there, right next to him, warm and tense like something for Namjoon to take apart, to offer release to.

The pack noticed the distance between them – of course they did. “Are you and Jin-hyung fighting?” Jungkook asked, big bambi eyes concerned.

“No. No, we’re totally fine. It’s just – you need space, sometimes?”

From a packmate? Did he convince anyone at all? He wasn’t sure. But that was the problem with packs: he and Seokjin couldn’t ignore each other without it negatively impacting everyone.

At least they were so busy and the shows kept coming, and interviews and studio sessions and fan meetings, and Seokjin kept being himself – charming and goofy and silly when the pack was together. Except Namjoon couldn’t quite forget Seokjin’s hips jerking as he came, moaning right next to him – the scent of him then. And then the guilt of why he knew that crashed on him, and he hated himself. He didn’t want to be yet another asshole forcing himself on Seokjin – taking advantage of the situation like Sota had done, the image of Seokjin stood in their kitchen early in the morning, cheeks swollen from tears, lingering in his mind.

He always took his suppressants – always, absolutely always. Who was he if he didn’t? An irrational beast? Going from a pack alpha to a predator, turning to his own packmates for carnal lust, using them to satisfy his needs? “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god,” he murmured to himself, quoting his latest philosophical opus. He wasn’t a god, but he didn’t think he was as awful as a beast either. Still, unable to trust himself he swapped his pills for a hormonal implant. There – now he didn’t need to worry.

Yet he analysed the event over and over, trying to make peace with himself over something that made him so self-loathing. Seokjin had guessed that, he figured.

It wasn’t until Taiwan, some months later, that he found some peace. Seokjin and Hoseok knocked on their door late at night, when he and Yoongi were already asleep. Seokjin was in navy pyjamas (just like he’d been back then) and bare-footed, fidgeting in the hotel corridor, next to a wide-eyed Hoseok with wild bed hair.

Hoseok rattled, “Jin-hyung and I saw a spider in our room, we’re not like totally sure but we both saw it, and can we sleep in here?”

“Are you kidding?!” Yoongi’s voice protested from over Namjoon’s shoulder. “Say no!”

“It was a big spider!” Hoseok bounced on the balls of his feet nervously. “It could be poisonous!”

“You’re grown men!” Yoongi protested.

Seokjin was clutching Hoseok’s arm and looking directly at Namjoon – which Seokjin hardly ever did because it was still awkward. “The spider was really big, Joon-ah!” Seokjin whined, the scent of him upset. Namjoon was helpless.

Within minutes Seokjin was pressing a rolled-up towel into the crack between the door and the floor, to keep the murderous spider out in case it had a vendetta and was following them. Hoseok was hovering over Seokjin’s shoulder, supervising the blockade.

And because Hoseok had been having back pains, Namjoon gave Hoseok his bed while he and Seokjin ended up on the floor, in the narrow space between the two occupied hotel beds, atop extra blankets and cushions. It was uncomfortable and barely worked, but neither of them complained as they settled to sleep.

But Namjoon awoke with Seokjin in his arms, the other tucked closely to his chest. His nose was pressed to Seokjin’s hair, nuzzling into the familiar scent of him, and he realised Seokjin was doing exactly the same, rubbing against Namjoon’s chest sleepily. There was nothing sexual about the scenting: it was home.

But Seokjin still pulled away from him, hair messy and expression sleepy. Seokjin stretched and, through a yawn, said, “You’re gross.”

Namjoon blinked. “What? No, you’re gross.”

Seokjin’s eyes thinned, a challenge lurking in them. Seokjin poked at his chest. “You’re gross.”

“You’re both annoying,” Yoongi’s voice supplied from his bed while Hoseok lightly snored on the other. The corners of Seokjin’s eyes crinkled and then he laughed, loud and wheezing, making Namjoon laugh, and then they were falling against each other amidst the makeshift blanket-and-pillow cocoon on the hotel room floor.

Somehow they were okay again, and they returned to the casual pack scenting Namjoon had missed so much. Seokjin would grin at him from across the stage, eyes sparkling as their ten-thousand headed audience swapped to twenty, forty, sixty thousand – bigger, larger, more incomprehensible. Seokjin would look at him mid-song, and Namjoon was anchored each time.

It was just Jin – it was always just Jin.

But there was no “just” about Seokjin, who was always two steps ahead of him – always.

* * *

Whenever Namjoon couldn’t sort out his head, he went for long walks or turned to music, and on the day of Seokjin’s heat the latter won out. He holed up at his studio to keep his distance from the dorm and Seokjin’s apartment, knowing what was taking place. The studio always calmed him: his own space, his carefully chosen decorations and furniture, his framed picture of the pack on his desk, but somehow none of it eased his nerves that day.

His phone beeped with pack chat notifications: have ~fun, jin-hyung!! i already miss you! Jimin, of course.

don't forget about us :(, Taehyung added.

ew!!, Jimin typed: DO FORGET ABOUT US. FOR NOW. But then come back :) :)

Seokjin didn’t reply, but Namjoon knew, then, that Seokjin had retreated into his own apartment for the heat. Daewon was probably already there; they’d soon be getting started.

In a handful of days they would be on a plane, off to Europe. Seokjin would be on that plane with him, but would they be talking?

Eight years. He stared at the monitor. He’d adored Seokjin for eight years.

He sighed, restless, and took his notepad full of lyrics to the couch with him. He came up with a few good lines and then tested out a melody on his piano. As he sat there, his eyes darted to the baby shoes he kept atop the piano: decorative, too cute for him not to impulse buy. He’d proudly showed them to his pack, fans, everyone else – extremely cute, they had all agreed. Why had he bought them?

His fingers traversed the keys, a faint melody echoing, as Seokjin’s words echoed in his head: “I know I’m not allowed you.” What did that mean? And Manila – why had Seokjin brought up Manila? God, the last thing Seokjin had needed back then was someone feeling him up like that. Seokjin had told him to forget about it, but every single detail of it was burned into his memory: the hitches of breath, the scent of Seokjin, the wet sound of fingers pushing in… But he had plenty of memories he avoided and knowing those details was just one more thing he wouldn’t let himself dwell on, would not allow himself to dwell on.

That word again: allow. “I know I’m not allowed you.” He made it the first line of the song he was now writing, even as the word was starting to anger him; it hinted at rules that bound them. Whose rules? The label’s? Or rules made up by fans, their families and friends? Heats were intimate, private affairs. Whose business was it who Seokjin chose to spend it with, stranger or packmate? And if Seokjin didn’t want some random guy that Cellular Solutions was sending over like Taehyung asserted, then who? Jaebong? Chiwon? All these… All these other alphas from along the years. Not that many, no, neither of them had gone overboard. But this time was different somehow.

Him. Had Seokjin considered him instead?

His fingers on the keys stumbled.

But Namjoon knew that these rules of who they could have were their own, something they had wordlessly set for themselves years ago, something he had set between himself and Seokjin, in fact – perhaps for Namjoon’s sake.

Returning to the computer, he penned a quick blog entry: a thank you to those who had come to the shows in Asia, hyping how they’d be heading to Europe next. He wrote that he was working on new music, but it was challenging as ever. They were all having a short break now, things were well and they were grateful.

He posted the entry before heading out.

From the backseat of the taxi, he stared at the people on the streets, going about their lives without the restrictions that they had. He thought back to when the pack all had been younger and less famous, of when he and Seokjin had first become friends – really good friends and packmates – how much fun it had been, how much they had made each other laugh. He’d never had an omega friend that close, and it’d been nice having Seokjin fuss over him, tease him, shooting mirthful glances at him, and draping over him in public, saying, “Ah, what a good pack alpha I have!”, embarrassing Namjoon each time. But Seokjin never actually treated him like a pack alpha, but rather something else, something different, and Namjoon had never been able to place it.

They’d grown apart since then, even as the years had solidified their bond. Now unsaid truths stretched between them like endless canyons, when in the past they had told it all. Why had it changed and when? When the fans first started calling them The Mated Couple – and they laughed it off, wasn’t that funny? Except that Namjoon tried to touch Seokjin a little less while in public after that – just a little.

Or had it changed when Ito Sota produced for them and Namjoon had let Seokjin down in more ways than he could count? Or after Manila, perhaps, when Namjoon had overstepped every boundary between them, greedily and selfishly? Or had the closeness between them changed when Namjoon started getting propositioned for heats and his ego rather liked it, him fumbling through a few short-lived, sex-driven nights with omegas he didn’t call afterwards? Or had it changed even more recently than that, when it had become apparent that Seokjin longed for something that in their circumstances they couldn’t have, dragging Jaebong into hotel rooms in various countries for even a resemblance of love?

All he knew was that the carefree nights of the two of them wandering around Seoul together, fresh packmates, newly debuted, sat in cafés and trading secrets, drawn to each other like magnets – those afternoons and nights were gone.

Now Seokjin was trying hard to live up to what everyone expected of him. Namjoon too. “You will get the worst of it,” PD-nim had always told him. “You lead them, as a group, as a pack? They will judge you the hardest.” What did Namjoon allow himself now – with their fame, the screams, the money, the glory? Was he allowed even less than before? And if yes, then why was he doing any of this?

Was he – maybe, just maybe – allowed this one thing?

He had to be.

He had to.

Fuck, he had to.

“Can we go faster?” he called out to the driver. “I’m running late.”

“How late?” the beta woman called back, even as she pressed the accelerator.

“You don’t wanna know,” he almost laughed, but it was urgent and desperate.

In less than ten minutes he entered the lobby of their building like a storm descending from the sea, full of urgency and restless energy – and he knew his scent had intensified, wasn’t able to stop his own pheromones from spiking as the awareness of a potential fight, a challenge, a claim were now breaking loose. Behind the reception desk one of the usual security guards was sat, looking up at him and flinching.

“Has anyone arrived for Kim Seokjin?” he asked, body tensing as he said it, with tar-like bile bubbling deep within. After eight years and who knew how many days, was he perhaps just forty minutes too late?

“No one’s arrived since I took over,” the man said quickly, glancing at a monitor. “Although I do have a note here that –”

“Good,” he said and headed for the stairs – good. Because if they’d beaten Namjoon to it, then pity the fucker – Namjoon wasn’t backing down. He’d done enough of it – too much, too often: can’t, shouldn’t, don’t… Not anymore. Not this time. Not Seokjin.

He was a little out of breath when he came to Seokjin’s apartment, ringing the doorbell hastily.

The response was nearly immediate: the door opened and revealed Seokjin, black-haired and made-up, now in tight black jeans and a silky cream shirt with the top buttons undone, showing off his throat and collar bones – soft, beautiful. Seokjin’s scent was even more intense than it had been few hours prior, warmer and thicker – alluring, distracting, slowly curling in and around Namjoon, pulling him in. Home. Home, home, home.

Seokjin stopped at the sight of him and looked around in confusion. “Namjoon-ah, I’m waiting for –”

“Can I come in?”

“Daewon will be here any minute, you can’t –”

“Please,” he said, and Seokjin’s expression softened.

Like their dorm, Seokjin’s apartment was spacious and modern, a largely open plan, with marble floors and marble counter tops, tasteful shades of beige and granite grey with design furniture pieces – and a massive gaming centre set up in the living room with a huge TV and every console under the planet. Seokjin still didn’t spend much time here, preferring to stay with the pack, and Seokjin’s brother had free rein to the place when he was in Seoul and they were on tour. A few of his parties had been more or less legendary, or so they’d heard.

Seokjin, bare-footed, led them towards the kitchen. “You want something to drink? I’m pretty well stocked… Heat snacks, you know. I probably overdid it. There’s ice cream?”

“I’m fine,” he said, staying close to Seokjin, trying to calm himself as he began to notice how carefully Seokjin had styled himself, even after the shower earlier: the outfit looked casual, but was worth a handful million won. Seokjin wasn’t bare faced either, but in neutral makeup that gave the illusion of not wearing any, smoothing out even the smallest blemishes.

“I thought you went to the studio?” Seokjin said casually. They were tactfully not talking about their non-conversation earlier that very day. They had always excelled at that: the artful dodging.

In the kitchen, a fruit platter had been placed on the kitchen island, with pineapple, cherries, strawberries, and next to the platter was a wine cooler with a champagne bottle submerged in ice, two flutes at the ready.

Namjoon stopped at the display of intimacy for a man Seokjin had never met.

What did it feel like when your heart broke? How did you know?

But Namjoon’s instinct to stay with Seokjin was so strong, was stubborn as anything – and he knew it was right. God, one look at Seokjin, and Namjoon knew it was right: this, like so many other things, was something they should face together.

It was time.

“I came here because I need to say something,” Namjoon managed, taking in Seokjin’s preparations with murky unease. “About what you said earlier.”

Seokjin seemed distracted, fiddling with the long sleeves of his shirt. “Hmm? What about that?”

He steadied himself. “That you’re allowed me.”

Seokjin stopped fiddling and stared. “What?”

“You’re allowed me.”

Seokjin’s stunned expression morphed into – into anger? “That’s not funny.”

“It’s not meant to be,” he agreed but with a hint of urgency, even as he tried to keep calm. “We should spend this heat together.”

Seokjin stared at him intently before he blinked it away. “Namjoon, wha – what is this?! I never said I –” Seokjin started, cheeks and neck turning rosy. Hadn’t Seokjin, though? Hadn’t they been skirting around this for days somehow? Weeks? But Seokjin was having none of it. “Do you have any idea how inappropriate this is! You walking in here right before my heat and then just, just saying that! With your alpha scent all wired up! And then you just, you just stand there, I hate how you just stand –“

“I think you’ll be amazing in heat,” he said, and Seokjin’s rant came to an abrupt stop, mouth open. Namjoon took a step closer, all bubbling out of him now: an omega in heat. Seokjin. “God, I like needy, I like submissive. Why would I not like that, especially on you?” His voice had gone awfully low. “Spend it with me.”

Seokjin’s scent spiked: adrenaline, arousal. Namjoon clung onto the reaction. There were extremely few times in his life, he realised, that he’d felt this sure about anything.

“But we can’t just –”

He did something reckless and foolish: he kissed Seokjin.

Seokjin silenced instantly, the world ending and restarting with the single act of their mouths pressed together. Seokjin’s lips were just as soft as they’d always looked, now pressed to his own as Namjoon cupped Seokjin’s head in his hands. Seokjin exhaled shakily against his mouth – and then responded, the touch light, gentle, their mouths experimentally slotting together. Namjoon let himself kiss more firmly, coaxing until Seokjin sighed and pushed closer, a whine at the back of Seokjin’s throat.

Seokjin smelled of heat and want and responded to Namjoon. Finally – at last. Never should have gone on suppressants, either of them, should have done this years ago, should have –

Something in him snapped.

In seconds, he had Seokjin pressed against the kitchen counter. Seokjin’s breath hitched, but Namjoon wrapped an arm around his waist, pulling him in and kissing him soundly, his other hand on the back of Seokjin’s neck. He put everything into the kiss: that they were allowed. They had to be.

And so he kept kissing Seokjin, with more intent, purpose, pushing ever closer. His heart was hammering so fast and hard that it soared in his ears, the tips of his fingers tingled, the core of him was heated and wanting – and yearning, most of all, like eight years of wistful moments were tearing their way out of confinement. Seokjin’s lips parted for him, and at the invitation the kiss deepened: their mouths met with wet, hungry touches that went from tentative to demanding in seconds, Seokjin’s arms wrapping around his shoulders. Seokjin tasted sweet, like the fresh strawberries on the table, and up this close, this entwined, Seokjin smelled distinctly of sex, and Namjoon didn’t need a guidebook. He’d coax it into a full-blown heat, take Seokjin apart, satisfy the heat and Seokjin, leave Seokjin satisfied and bred – the urgency danced at his nerve ends. God, nothing made more sense than this – right now, right here.

When they came up for air, Seokjin’s cheeks were red, his gaze dropping to Namjoon’s lips and then back up to his eyes. Seokjin seemed flustered, his lips a little swollen already. Namjoon was hooked.

Seokjin swallowed, seemingly speechless for the first time in his life. “Oh… Right, I see.”

“You do?” he asked, squeezing the fabric at the small of Seokjin’s back. A few kisses had never left him this wrecked. This. God, this. Why were they doing endless work if at the end they weren’t even given a chance at this, whatever it was?

“I think so,” Seokjin said, inching closer, so Namjoon kissed him again. It was thorough and deep this time, and Seokjin chased his mouth with a restless whine when he pulled back to soon, and Namjoon knew he was fucked. His hands slipped down to grab Seokjin’s ass so that he could carry them to the –

The doorbell rang loudly in the foyer, pulling them out of their daze, breathless and flushed, all space between them gone. Seokjin blinked, arms sliding off Namjoon’s shoulders. His lips looked wet and puffy from kissing, and Namjoon had never seen Seokjin as beautiful, never in a single photo shoot or award show. Just for him – just them.

Seokjin now wiped at his mouth, flustered, and said, “Oh, that’s probably…”

The other alpha, the knot for hire. And, to Namjoon’s horror, Seokjin pushed him back. The doorbell rang again, and Namjoon gritted his teeth and jutted out his chin, and Seokjin said, “Would you stop that?”

“What?”

“That, that posturing. There really is – God, hang on.”

Seokjin nervously got out his phone, opened an app, and a high definition video feed came on from their building’s reception. Even getting to the lobby meant passing two security checks on the complex grounds, and now on the screen was a well-dressed, Adonis-esque man – Daewon – who was in his late twenties, had short black hair, dark brown eyes, and the face and body of one of Taehyung’s Gucci models.

“Ah, hello, Seokjin-ssi?” the man said with a warm smile that reached his eyes. “They tell me I need clearance from you to be let through?” And then Daewon held up a paper bag. “I brought you churros, too – the paperwork said you like them.” Daewon winked, all smooth and suave, and – and Namjoon would probably have slept with him, to be honest, if it weren’t for the fact that the man had come to join Seokjin in bed.

The video comm was one way, Seokjin not having shared video of himself. “Ah, just a minute,” Seokjin said and killed the connection – and then exhaled, a hand pressed to his face. “Ah, fuck. Goddammit.”

Namjoon steadied himself but failed. “Don’t ask me to stand down now. I don’t know how, not when it’s you.”

“But now he’s here!”

“So send him away.”

“Send him away? I can’t do that!”

“You can. Of course you can.”

“He brought churros!”

“I’ll buy you a million churros.”

And they both knew that this was not about churros and was, in fact, absurd. Seokjin laughed, blush high on his cheeks and disbelief to his chortle. Daewon had arrived. Namjoon didn’t know what the hell he would do if he was sent away. Fight, maybe? He’d fight Daewon. Win his omega’s affections. Right, do it the old-fashioned way.

“This isn’t a competition,” Seokjin said quietly, as if reading his thoughts.

And he realised that Seokjin thought just that: that Namjoon had showed up to outdo another alpha, to be overprotective and possessive like pack alphas were, and maybe to just make out a little like that was something the two of them sort of did, when they absolutely did not.

“It isn’t just that,” he said and then tried to explain it somehow, thinking of where they’d be in five years from then, on tour, retired, studying, who knew, and he thought of the baby shoes he kept in the studio, how excited he’d been to show them to Seokjin, who had flushed and said they were cute. He thought of Seokjin: come what may, always Seokjin. “You’re having a heat, and I, I need to be here. I want to be here. But it’s… it’s your decision to make.”

Seokjin looked anxious. “I’m not willing to risk the pack.”

And Namjoon could only say, “It wouldn’t, of course it wouldn’t. Nothing can touch you and me, are you kidding? Hyung, we’ve been through everything together.”

“We have,” Seokjin said slowly, “but…”

This was different. Namjoon knew it was different and craved it. Seokjin swayed on his feet, and Namjoon leaned into him until Seokjin’s hand planted against his chest, stopping him. Even so, they were impossibly close.

After a small eternity, Seokjin said, “So a million churros, you say?”

Namjoon choked down the dizzying relief. “A trillion. Bazillion,” he vowed, and Seokjin snorted. “What? You think I won’t?”

“I think this is heat talk,” Seokjin said, embarrassed by the attention – but Seokjin wasn’t shying away from him. “Right…” Seokjin then breathed and tapped the screen of his phone – and Namjoon snarled quietly, stepping closer. Seokjin looked at him, surprised, their heads nearly bumping together – but Seokjin looked affected, the scent of him opening up somehow. He’d liked it.

He’d liked it.

Namjoon let himself crowd Seokjin in a way like never before, resting a hand on Seokjin’s hip.

Seokjin held the phone on his palm as he told Daewon to go home. Daewon, handsome as ever on the screen, frowned. “Seokjin-ssi, are you sure? It’s not uncommon to be nervous, but I promise there is no need for it.”

“Er, my situation has changed?” Seokjin said, a hand pressed to Namjoon’s chest – to keep him at bay. “Unexpectedly, and – and we’ll still pay you, of course, and your scent present, yes uh –”

“Please, Seokjin-ssi, keep it,” Daewon assured, and Namjoon growled. Of course Daewon didn’t see him, but he certainly heard him. “Oh! Oh, shi – Uh, I mean, do not keep it – throw it away! It was inconsiderate of me to give it, I apologise!” Daewon bowed at the camera. “Thank you for your time, Seokjin-ssi! I will leave now! I shall not return! I relinquish all claims and intents!”

Seokjin stared at the screen, looking mystified and puzzled, but Daewon must have dealt with a similar situation before, must have, because each word calmed Namjoon down, the instinct of fight in him diminishing. Even so, he did not relax until the feed showed the alpha rushing back across the lobby, stupid bag of churros and all. Only then did Namjoon realise how agitated he’d been.

Seokjin put his phone away – slowly, sliding it onto the kitchen counter. Namjoon still had an arm curled around Seokjin’s waist, the feel of him warm, the honeyed scent of him one of burgeoning heat. It seeped into Namjoon’s pores, to the very core of him, and he wanted to be bathed in it. Seokjin had chosen him. He had never felt as elated in his life – forget the rush of a sold-out stadium tour: this? This moment? He’d get to –

Seokjin’s hand on his chest curled into a fist, catching on the fabric – like he was worried Namjoon would leave, like an omega getting needy for his alpha. Namjoon was relatively sure they pressed into each other even further, Namjoon using his height to tower over Seokjin, showing he had no intention of leaving – and Seokjin welcomed him, adrenaline to his scent. Warmth. Excitement. Sex. Also home.

Seokjin’s hand trailed down his chest. “Do you think my heat has started?” he asked, lashes dark against his cheeks.

Namjoon smoothed over the small of Seokjin’s back, tilting Seokjin’s chin up – and then pressed closer, mouth hovering over Seokjin’s. “Who the fuck cares?”

* * *

In 2015 they were first voted the most powerful pack in the world, right after the Saudi royals and the Kardashians. What set their pack apart, of course, was that they lacked pre-existing family ties, that they were all so young, and that none of them were mated to each other.

And it wasn’t this title, given to them by some overenthusiastic Korean celebrity website, that made Namjoon proud of his pack, but it certainly added to it as in the succeeding years other outlets followed: he had, objectively speaking, the best pack in the world. They all looked out for each other: Hobi would handfeed any and all of them, Jimin was always scenting them, Seokjin made them feel at home wherever they went, Taehyung was constantly buying them little presents when money finally rolled in, Yoongi observed them all with poorly hidden adoration, and Jungkook beamed at their seemingly never-ending achievements. They all played their part, in little ways. Namjoon didn’t have to tell his pack to do any of this: they took care of each other instinctively. And he, for one, was happy for the recognition his packmates deserved.

Of course they all knew they had become famous, richer, more powerful, but Jungkook and Taehyung were still running around dressing rooms trying to smack each other’s butts with towels; they all still jumped at the chance of small cash prices when they filmed variety shows and pouted over rock-paper-scissor losses; and as security increased and the fame became more inflated, Namjoon knew he’d been right: you needed a pack to survive this. It was just a pack thing to do, the global stadium tours. Pack business, as Hobi said in his cute English when people approached them abroad: they were on very important pack business.

The attention placed on him, however, was both unexpected and surprising. Ah, how could he say it without sounding like an asshole?

Half the world wanted to bang him, more or less.

Half the world wanted to bang his packmates, too, but he knew there was a whole pack alpha authority thing that worked for a lot of people. Look at romance novels, Hollywood movies: sexy pack alphas oozing power, everyone swooning and hoping to be initiated into their pack. The question he was undoubtedly asked the most was “is your pack complete?” He always smiled and said, “For now.” People would aww at his answer, at the allowance he left for a mate. Rumours circulated that there was a secret eighth pack member somewhere, someone from the staff maybe.

In one fan meeting, a cute beta confronted him on his love life: “No one is this well-adjusted without a mate holding their hand through it – or an intended mate, at least.”

“Ah, you think so?” he asked, signing the woman’s poster nervously. “Very sweet of you, uh…”

Thankfully the woman’s time was up. Seokjin, sat next to Namjoon, did the flower pose at Namjoon like he sometimes did when he was bored and wanted to tease or goof around, and Namjoon had to roll his eyes before quickly beckoning the next fan over.

Namjoon’s confidence grew as the jeers turned to praise, the insults to compliments. He carried himself with a certain sense of pride, not because of himself, but because of his packmates. Korean award shows became less stressful, acceptance speeches smoother, and instead of doing endless gang signs during photoshoots, he jutted out his chin and stared straight at the camera. (And then Jimin would call out a teasing “Alpha-hyung, so sexy!” and he’d get embarrassed instantly, although once or twice he’d accepted the challenge and turned to his packmates and smirked; the reactions had ranged from scoffs and giggles to flustered blushing – Jungkook for the last one, unexpectedly.)

People tried to hit on them all the time, but at first they had no idea what to do with the attention – they were so surprised. Fans had always shown appreciation, sure, but after their first award wins, their peers began to pay attention too. They got a taste of what was to come after their first ever MAMA award – for performance, their one win out of three nominations. “Next time,” Yoongi said, “I want album of the year.”

“Sure, hyung,” Hoseok said, bemused, Jimin looking exasperated behind Yoongi’s back, but Namjoon saw the solid defiance in Yoongi’s eyes, Yoongi’s hair a halo-like mint colour: Namjoon doubted there was anything Min Yoongi couldn’t do.

They were all relieved, however, to walk away with something. How embarrassing to be nominated thrice and win nothing – they’d been prepared to leave as complete losers, had all feared it. But an award! An actual, real award!

They gushed over their victory as they were leaving the ceremony, but then were intercepted in the parking hall under the arena. Namely, Jiyoon sunbaenim approached them and their staff, and they all slowed down in awe of her presence: ten daesangs to her name, debuted solo when only sixteen nearly a decade ago now; she danced, sang, rapped, and had been the Most Desirable Omega in South Korea for two years running.

Mun Jiyoon was absolutely gorgeous in person too: long, sleek black hair, in a flimsy silver dress full of sequins, making her glitter, shine, dazzle, the low-cut dress drawing attention to her famed bosom – she wasn’t very tall, but her stilettos looked like they could kill and brought her only a head below Namjoon. She said, “Rap Monster-ssi.”

She knew his name! He gawked, they all gawked – the staff stood back, and his pack bowed repeatedly to Jiyoon.

“Congratulations,” she said. Her gaze was fixed and intense – her perfume caught Namjoon’s nose, full of floral tones that complemented her omega scent: soft, sweet, alluring. Yoongi was still cradling their award like his firstborn, and Jiyoon motioned at it. “Your first one of these, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Thank you,” Namjoon said, flustered and bowing – he’d felt cool earlier on stage, wearing all black, hair short and pink with a blond undercut, with his orange-lensed glasses. Now that confidence was evaporating.

“Mmm,” she said, looking at them all. “This whole pack thing – interesting. That must be nice on the road.” And without further ado she handed him a piece of paper. He took it – a phone number! For a collaboration? Oh wow, did Mun Jiyoon want to do a song with them?! Holy shit!

“It’s my private number,” she said, brown eyes fixed on him. “Call me, RM-ssi.” His heart missed three beats – nay, it stopped beating altogether. She leaned into him, but didn’t bother lowering her voice: “I’d like to find out what else you’re good at.”

“Excuse me?” he asked, flustered.

Jiyoon laughed – bright, magical, and he nearly swooned. Her lips twisted in a smirk. “I could do with a new heat partner.” She grinned at his shock as he started stuttering something, but she didn’t wait for him to get his shit together. She took a sweeping glance at them all and said, “Bye, boys.”

Jiyoon walked off with a steady sway of her hips, stilettos clicking, the dress showing off her bare back – and she clearly had the full knowledge that they were all staring as she walked away, enthralled.

They collectively realised that the Mun Jiyoon had just blatantly courted Namjoon.

“Oh my god,” Taehyung managed. Namjoon was still staring at the piece of paper in his hand.

Hoseok punched his shoulder. “Joon-ah!”

“I didn’t do anything!” he defended himself quickly. Oh wow, he must be a lot more appealing than he’d thought? Since when?

He was bright red, he was sure of it, as Jimin mocked his idiotic “excuse me?” after Jiyoon’s sultry “what else are you good at.” Sex! She’d been talking about sex! How stupid was Namjoon?! Yoongi and Hoseok were nearly dying with laughter, he was humiliated, Taehyung and Jungkook were giggling, while Seokjin sharply said that they had to leave now.

Namjoon was still holding the piece of paper like a relic as his pack split between three different vehicles, and he headed to one with Jungkook. Their managers and security were still with them, and Sejin held the door of the black SUV open for him. Namjoon didn’t know what to do with himself – of course dating was disapproved of by the label at this stage of their careers. He shouldn’t have accepted the note!

And so he offered the paper to Sejin to dispose of. But their manager didn’t take the note. Instead Sejin looked at him and said, “I’d hold onto it if I were you.”

He started. “What?”

“You’re a grown alpha,” Sejin said, “and she needs to be discreet too. Could be a good deal?”

“Oh my god,” he said, mortified. Sejin had seen them all grow up and had always told them not to be idiots and fool around with the wrong people – this same Sejin was stood by the car telling Namjoon to keep Jiyoon’s phone number, like a parent telling him to use condoms.

“It’s natural, Joonie,” Sejin said thoughtfully. “She’s an omega in her prime, and you’re an alpha in yours, so –”

“Oh my god,” he repeated and disappeared into the car to avoid further mortification. When Jungkook opened his mouth, he said, “Don’t.” He pushed the note into his pocket, embarrassed but also exhilarated. To think that an omega like Jiyoon found him attractive! She could have any alpha in the world! And to think – to think that she wanted him as a heat partner. To think of her in heat – oh god, he couldn’t possibly let himself think of her naked and willing, he –

The whole thing was absurd, but his pack refused to talk about anything else as they got to their Hong Kong hotel. Namjoon refused to comment – was still blushing, nearly forty minutes after the encounter. They’d won an award at MAMA and this was all they could talk about?!

Thankfully their focus shifted back to the award as they shared a bottle of sparkling wine in Yoongi and Taehyung’s hotel room, clinking to the cheap paper cups with their staff, Jungkook and Hoseok calling their parents, Seokjin drinking down the wine in large gulps and instantly helping himself to more, Jimin hugging them all – but Namjoon had Mun Jiyoon’s number in his pocket and he couldn’t quite forget about it.

He stayed with Tae and Yoongi until one in the morning, just talking about the award and pondering how they could win more in the future, maybe. When Taehyung fell asleep against Yoongi’s shoulder, Namjoon realised he too needed rest.

Hoseok was still awake in their hotel room, sat on one of the two beds in pyjamas, watching tennis on TV. “This is live from Europe,” Hoseok supplied, eating peanuts from the mini-bar’s selection. “Too buzzed to sleep! Jin-hyung’s taking a bath.”

Namjoon looked at the closed bathroom door. Seokjin was sharing a room with Jimin, though?

“Jimin was hogging their bathroom,” Hoseok said before he could ask. “It got ugly, briefly.”

Namjoon nodded and changed into pyjamas, slipping Jiyoon’s phone number into the Kundera novel he was reading, careful to make sure Hoseok didn’t see him do so. He knocked on the bathroom door when done, entering the warm, steamy air at Seokjin’s “Come in!”

“Mind if I wash my face?” he asked, pushing the door shut with his foot.

The bathroom was all white, with the bath on one side, the wide sink area on the other. Seokjin was soaking in the bath, some floral-scented water having overflown, with bubbles frothing the surface. Seokjin’s reddish brown hair was wet and plastered onto his forehead, and a towel was rolled up behind his neck. Seokjin hummed a ‘go ahead’.

Namjoon wiped the steam off the mirror and started removing the evening’s make-up, cleansing, moisturising, pushing his pink hair out of his eyes. As he did so, his mind darted to Seokjin reflected in the mirror, soaking behind his back: Seokjin was visible down to his shoulders, skin wet and gleaming. It was a comfortable silence – hell, it was after one AM; they had cried and hugged and been through every emotion imaginable that day. Still, he couldn’t help but gloat: “We won an award, hyung.”

Seokjin sighed – a pleased sound – as one knee broke the surface. “Yeah, we did. The late nights paid off, right?”

He stared, distracted. “Yeah.” The bubbles covering Seokjin were slowly evaporating.

Namjoon began to brush his teeth, focusing on the task. Seokjin was craning his neck, rolling his shoulders, and then he shifted in the water, propping himself against the end more. The water came down to his chest now, just below his dark, hardened nipples.

Namjoon stared.

The knee above the surface tilted to the side – Seokjin’s legs spreading.

Namjoon choked on the foam in his mouth.

“You okay?” Seokjin asked, not even opening his eyes.

“Uh huh,” he agreed quickly, coughing, before he nervously dug out his mini-mouthwash.

Seokjin shifted in the water again, and water rippled down his form, from the wet tips of hair down Seokjin’s long, unmarked neck, his wide, exposed shoulders, onto his smooth chest. Seokjin looked wet and soft, skin gleaming, but there was more to it: the way Seokjin had tilted his head back and exposed his neck was compromising, let alone the hardened nipples, the slightly parted legs. Namjoon was staring again, painfully aware of Seokjin in a way he rarely was.

Seokjin opened his eyes and looked at him, meeting Namjoon’s gaze in the mirror like Seokjin had known he was being watched. Namjoon flinched, his guts burning like embers, and quickly began rinsing his mouth, eyes downcast.

“She’s perfect, right?”

Namjoon felt completely caught out. “Who?”

“Jiyoon sunbaenim,” Seokjin said. “The way she’s petite but curvy, the way she smells… You must like that.” A beat. “Do you like that?”

“Ah, I dunno,” he muttered, ducking his head. Jiyoon was perfect, of course she was: every alpha’s dream, definitely.

“You don’t know?”

“Objectively she is, of course, very, um… desirable.” He couldn’t stand there and pretend Mun Jiyoon wasn’t gorgeous, that even the thought of mating her didn’t make some part of his hindbrain short-circuit. “But, uh… Um.”

“Pass me that towel?” Seokjin requested. Namjoon obeyed, picking up the folded towel on the counter and stepping closer to the bath just as Seokjin’s foot emerged from underwater, easily catching the ball chain between the big and the long toe, tugging at the chain once – and the water started to swirl, the sound of suction echoing.

“Hold it out for me?”

Seokjin was looking at him steadily with dark eyes, in a way Namjoon did not at all recognise. The humid air of the bathroom suddenly prickled his skin.

Namjoon unfolded the large towel, grabbing the top corners and holding it out in the space between them.

Seokjin stood up, the water splashing around him gently. Namjoon decidedly looked up at the ceiling. He had seen Seokjin naked before, of course he had – you didn’t live with someone for five years without seeing something, and they had, maybe, all compared their dick sizes like once, because they were seven young men so of course they had. (There had been much screeching not to look, although they had to make sure no one was cheating either: Yoongi had been the moderator and now had too much knowledge and power, while the internet would break if anyone found out who had won.)

It wasn’t often, these days, that he struggled holding Seokjin’s gaze. The other way around: Namjoon teased and Seokjin got flustered from too much attention.

But when Seokjin didn’t take the towel, Namjoon dared a look at him: Seokjin was stood before him, water rippling off him. He was still wearing earrings, two dangling from one ear. His red-tinted hair was wet, his lips pink. He looked so soft and smooth – was probably soft and warm all over. He smelled clean, of roses from the water, of soap and lavender, of the pack and his own musk – of Namjoon, too.

Namjoon felt done for.

Seokjin lifted his arms, and Namjoon exhaled unsteadily, reached out, and wrapped the towel around Seokjin’s waist. Namjoon’s sleeves got wet, but somehow that felt insignificant as he twisted the towel until it folded at the front, his fingers brushing Seokjin’s taut, lean stomach.

Now his eyes fixed on Seokjin’s bare shoulders, the dips of the collarbones, the hollow of his throat, and the unremarkable patch of skin at the side of Seokjin’s neck, just at the jugular, where the scent gland was. The scent of it was always there, informing any alpha of availability, of what their chances were. Young alphas drove themselves mad just thinking of mouthing over that patch of skin, of kissing it, licking it – of being allowed to bite down.

Namjoon was staring at Seokjin’s neck without meaning to, hands still on Seokjin’s hips, holding the cotton of the towel to him, breaths shallow.

Seokjin stepped out of the bath, and Namjoon stepped back – barely – and had Seokjin in his arms. Seokjin’s cheeks were red, from the bath or not, he wasn’t sure. Seokjin tilted his head to the side, neck exposed in a way that was starting to make Namjoon unhinge, and Seokjin looked at him through half-lidded eyes, lashes dark. For a wild second Namjoon thought this is it, and his entire body felt weak, his teeth finally knowing what to aim for.

“Thank you,” Seokjin said, quietly. Namjoon realised he was still holding Seokjin and let go – stepping back, surprised by the way his chest felt tight. He didn’t know what to do with himself, so he cleared his throat and turned to the counter, picking up the mouthwash, twisting the cap back on, focusing on the task. Seokjin, for his part, just kept looking at him – and then a pondering look crossed Seokjin’s face, like Namjoon was being evaluated.

Seokjin then took the hotel bathrobe hanging from a hook by the door, expertly wrapping it around himself: the towel pooled at Seokjin’s feet as it dropped from underneath. Seokjin picked it up and said, “Goodnight, Joon-ah.”

Namjoon nodded awkwardly as Seokjin slipped out – the sounds of tennis from the TV rang in the air before the door closed again.

Namjoon stared at the sink, wired up. All in his head – god, it was all in his head. This is it? Really? One look at Seokjin seemingly at his mercy and his brain jumped to this is it? What the hell was wrong with him?

He forced himself to calm down and spent five minutes flossing, frustrated but not really sure why. Seokjin was gone by the time he re-emerged – Hoseok had fallen asleep with the TV on.

The next day at hotel breakfast, Seokjin was feeding Yoongi some rice and calling him Seokjin’s award-winning dongsaeng while Yoongi was grinning and playing along with Seokjin’s antics – a sure measure of how happy Yoongi was. Seokjin flashed a grin at Namjoon when he arrived: dorky, bright, Seokjin as usual.

“Sleep well?” Seokjin asked him, and for a second Namjoon was terrified that Seokjin knew somehow that he’d taken advantage of Hoseok sleeping and snuck back to the bathroom to jerk off, thinking of – well, of omegas, in general, how soft they were, how good they smelled: the usual vague fantasy of an omega moaning beneath him, begging him to go harder, calling him alpha, all wet and needy and throat offered as Namjoon took them.

“He snored so loud,” Hoseok sighed, and Namjoon ducked his head, embarrassed.

“Aww,” Seokjin said and reached from across the table to pet his hair, patronising as anything. “Our little snore machine.” And Seokjin laughed as Namjoon swatted him off, indignant.

This was the same Seokjin as the one soaked and glistening, with a fixed hard stare, in the middle of the night, practically naked in his arms. That man was Seokjin, this man was Seokjin. Namjoon was more at ease with the one at the hotel buffet, while the other grazed against the instincts inside him that he’d persistently kept suppressed as the years rolled by. Jimin and Seokjin’s designations didn’t define either of the men for him: their talents, moods, jokes, wisdom, strength, all of those made up who they were. Being an omega was somewhere further down the line.

But somehow, with just a single glance, Seokjin was able to reverse that list entirely. Namjoon felt like he’d misjudged Seokjin, his mind restless, a lurking, stubborn heat in his guts.

And it was back home three days later that Jiyoon’s number slipped out of his book while he was reading it. He stared at it for a good while. Call her. Go get some! When was the last time he’d gotten laid properly and thoroughly? It’d probably be discreet and safe, he could finally try heat sex, and Sejin wouldn’t even rat him out to PD-nim. But he wanted an omega that was more… More exciting? Or more familiar? Were those even different things?

And so he threw the crumpled piece of paper to the waste basket by his door, doing a small whoop when the ball went in – and then he was saddened that none had been there to see his superior throwing skills.

Jiyoon would turn out to be only the first of many, many people who propositioned him so directly – omegas, betas, some alphas too. And as his undeniable appeal began to dawn belatedly on him, he sneaked around with a few of them. Hoseok said he had a particular weakness for long-limbed but slim-waisted omegas with dark eyes and gorgeous necks. But he chose them carefully: certainly no one as high risk as Jiyoon, that was simply out of the question, and not often either because an odd sense of guilt always clung to him. He knew he wasn’t in it for more than sex – and that got boring sooner than he expected.

It was rare for him to accept someone’s number these days, as he gently pressed any such notes back into people’s hands with a polite, sympathetic smile. Then, after any such propositioning happened, he returned to his pack, did a head count: all six there, including Seokjin, hair pink or grey or black or blond. He did wonder, sometimes, if he was denying himself too much, but as his pack swarmed around him and Jimin or Tae or Hobi pushed into his neck to seek his scent, he felt fulfilled enough. A fling could wait – he’d crack eventually, weakened by sexless months the way it always happened – but such affairs could wait most of the time and were always secondary to the pack.

Seokjin would grin at him from across the table at increasingly nicer restaurants and at increasingly more prestigious award shows, and Namjoon was happier than he’d ever been, hand casually clapped on Seokjin’s shoulder as they navigated red carpets or laughed over one of their jokes.

Seokjin would fall asleep against his shoulder in the car back to the hotel – and it was madness to think he would choose to be anywhere else than where he was and who with.

* * *

Namjoon had never let himself think about what Seokjin would be like in heat, which was perhaps for the best. Omegas were – as movies and TV shows persistently told the world – like melted butter for their alphas, pliant and willing, and desperately writhing.

Seokjin was none of the above.

So while Namjoon had perhaps pictured manhandling Seokjin right there in the kitchen – all instincts were urging him to do so, with Seokjin heat-scented and flushed, and god Seokjin was clearly on the verge of the heat, just needed to be tipped over – he was put in his place as Seokjin pulled back.

But Namjoon’s arm was still tight around Seokjin’s waist, the two of them pressed together. Seokjin’s hands came to rest on his arms, a flush high on his cheeks, lips a sinful red – perfect hair in slight disarray.

And as Namjoon dove in for another single-minded kiss, Seokjin stopped him with, “You should shower before we start.” But Namjoon was still distracted by Seokjin’s wet-looking mouth – the soft feel and sweet taste of it – and he pushed closer to kiss Seokjin again, Seokjin nearly returning it – and then Seokjin pulled back further, taking in an unsteady breath. “Shower.” Seokjin swallowed audibly, eyes flickering down to Namjoon’s mouth and then back to his eyes. “Then… Then meet me in the bedroom?”

“Anything you want,” he promised, hand squeezing Seokjin’s hip, heart hammering and blood coursing through him, hot and wanting. “Have you nested?” he asked, voice deeper than moments earlier, carrying the intimacy of the question – omegas told such things only to the few.

Seokjin’s cheeks turned redder. “No, I don’t really do that.”

“Each to their own,” he assured, trying to hide his surprise – he’d expected Seokjin to, with the way he was always hoarding blankets and throws. But these were the details he wanted to know, to find out: each omega had heat habits as unique as they were.

“And you need to tell the others something,” Seokjin then said, sounding distracted, “about where you are. Make something up.”

The last one finally helped him focus – right, the pack. “Yeah, of course.”

They somehow managed to part.

He was soon showering in the bathroom of the guest en-suite, using the scent-neutralising bodywash as per Seokjin’s request, losing the scent of his pack in the process. Was this what life had been like before? Before Yoongi, Jungkook, Hoseok – and then Taehyung, Jimin. The scent was just Namjoon now, and to Namjoon he smelled of nothing: just the absence of the pack, somehow virginal and exposed.

When he stepped out, his clothes were gone from the small bench: Seokjin had replaced them with a plain white t-shirt and RJ patterned pyjama bottoms, his phone placed on top. With no other choice, he quickly towelled dry and put the clothes on – and was pleased by the faint scent of Seokjin surrounding him.

He stopped, then, stood in the bathroom, hands inexplicably sweaty even after a shower. He could smell Seokjin in the air, the scent of him like a siren, flashing like a beacon, and he was half-hard from it alone. Something dark and determined lurked in him, but it was excited too. Nervous.

change of plans, he typed into the pack chat, heading to see my parents this week.

It was a plausible lie, he thought, but Yoongi texted back almost instantly, and not in the pack chat either but one on one: you okay?

yeah, he typed back, realised I need to recharge a bit. talk to you soon

Yoongi responded with a thumbs up while Jimin was spamming the pack chat with complaints that Namjoon had taken off without scenting them goodbye! Jimin would be upset to be told that Namjoon didn’t smell of Jimin at all then.

Seokjin had similarly covered his bases by tweeting a simple selca earlier that day. Their fans got restless when any of them went MIA for too long, but the tweet would buy Seokjin a few days of inaction at least, while the others had promised to keep up a social media presence during the heat to offer a distraction from Seokjin’s whereabouts.

Now: radio silence from both of them. And not just from the wider world, but the company, their staff, even their pack. The two of them were completely alone in a way that in all of their years together they never had been. What did they do when alone like this? What did an alpha and an omega in heat do?

He saw his tensed-up figure in the bathroom mirror, blond hair wet and swept to the side. He was aware of each of his limbs, from his toes and the heels of his feet up to the backs of his knees, and his arms felt heavy, his wrists weighed down, his hands and fingers tingling, anticipating – focused on what they would be touching soon.

Meet Seokjin in the bedroom.

He’d had two ruts with partners: one with a schoolmate when his parents were out of town and he’d been so keen to try it, but it hadn’t been particularly good for either of them. After he’d moved to Seoul, he’d shared a rut with an omega acquaintance who had wanted to experience rut sex in turn. He had been young both times, but as a teenager he’d been so convinced he was mature enough for that kind of sex. Sure, his body had matured, maybe. His mind? Ill-prepared. This time, however, as he finally left the bathroom, bare feet silent against the floor, following the scent of Seokjin’s heat to the back of the apartment, he felt like he understood this: mating, heats, ruts…

Seokjin’s bedroom was much like the ones in their shared dorm, the outer wall made entirely of glass with a sliding door to the balcony, the trees on the complex grounds shielding it. The floor was wooden and smooth, the walls an off-white – the bed, in the middle of the room, was large with black sheets and a hoard of cushions, so many that Namjoon thought it fair to say Seokjin nested at least some.

And it was by this bed that Seokjin was stood, in the middle of arranging cushions with a displeased look on his face – but this, thankfully, melted away the second Namjoon stepped in.

As he took Seokjin in, he knew his purpose with stunning clarity. He still quickly observed two things, both making his guts tighten.

First, Seokjin had changed out of the tight jeans, flimsy shirt and jewellery to wearing loose grey pyjama bottoms and Namjoon’s white oversized hoodie, with round, black-rimmed glasses now on his nose. Namjoon had left the hoodie in the bathroom, and now it was on Seokjin. The Most Desirable Omega in South Korea, with the strong scent of a blossoming heat on him, wearing his chosen alpha’s clothes – acceptance and ownership. A claim. A turn on.

Second, Seokjin had put a heat patch onto his neck. The patch was squared and skin-toned, larger than a matchbox but smaller than a coaster, blending to the right side of Seokjin’s throat. It would only peel off when Seokjin’s body temperature cooled down, signalling that the heat was done, but for the next few days try as either of them might, the patch would be glued to Seokjin’s skin, right over his scent gland to prevent an alpha biting there for a mate claim, to prevent Namjoon from doing so – and this deterred him for a few seconds, a hint of protest inside of him.

But omegas were sensitive during heats: their heat partner had to tread gently until the need for calming touches and soft praises had passed. His fingers flexed at his sides, longing to touch and press into the sweet scent of Seokjin’s heat.

“I don’t have to look nice for the likes of you,” Seokjin then reasoned, motioning at his bespectacled, bare face, misinterpreting Namjoon’s fixed stare completely.

“You look beautiful,” he said, and Seokjin blinked, flushed. Seokjin was nervous. They both were, but Namjoon pushed on. “I texted them.”

“Yeah? Good, that’s good,” Seokjin said, plummeting a cushion into place. And just as Namjoon thought he should make a move – that was the thing to do, right? – Seokjin said, “I suppose you want to see the questionnaire.”

Namjoon blinked. “The what?”

The questionnaire. Seokjin had completed one for the company that had sent Daewon, and Seokjin now opened it as a pdf on his phone: it was a long list of sexual preferences, with ‘please specify’ for each. Some of them had been ticked.

Seokjin sat on the edge of the bed, letting him read as he said, “It’s all there.”

“Uh huh,” he managed, eyes glued to the screen. It was an inventory of Seokjin’s sexual psyche, more or less, and it made sense: have the omega tell the hired alpha what they wanted and didn’t. Seokjin had not ticked full-body bondage, for instance, and that seemed like a pretty big thing to know whether your partner wanted during heat or not. Still, Namjoon felt rather speechless and cleared his throat.

Seokjin’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t need comments.”

“Hey, no,” he hurried to say. “I’m so glad you’re showing me this. Thank you.”

Seokjin visibly relaxed.

He read quickly like one of the scripts they were given for shows, memorising who would say what, who would go where: this time, what Seokjin wanted his alpha to do. Where to touch him, what to say to him.

The survey was thorough: sucking in bruises? A clear no for that one, which was of course vital when Seokjin would be on stage mere days after this heat. Spanking? A few encouraging taps seemed to be okay. Nipple-play was a definite yes, too. Come-eating? Yes, Seokjin was fine with that. Fuck. Fuck, okay. Sex toys? Seokjin would provide his own, the alpha was encouraged to use them if needed. Gentle or rough? Rough. Dirty talk? Yes, fine. Name-calling had options to tick from: Seokjin’s preferred terms appeared to be slut, omega, good boy. It was surprisingly filthy in tone.

“What?” Seokjin cut in, and Namjoon realised too late he was frowning.

“Nothing, it’s –”

“Tell me,” Seokjin said pushily, even as he crossed his arms over his chest, pushing the glasses up the bridge of his nose quickly. “It matters what you want, too, sexually.”

“Hyung,” he said in protest, embarrassed because a heat was not about the alpha at all.

“I’ve shown you an entire list, so I need blackmail material here.”

He hesitated, then said, “I just, um. I don’t want to call you… this.” He showed ‘slut’ written on the screen. He knew it was supposed to be a teasing, sexy thing, and maybe it would be on another day, but… “Is that okay?”

“Yes. Do you prefer something else?”

All business.

“It doesn’t matter what I –”

“It does,” Seokjin said quickly. “Like, if this was a rut, what would you want from me?”

The way Seokjin worded it sounded like Seokjin would join him for a rut, and he instantly got more aroused – god, he was weak. But as for the question he wasn’t sure, exactly: what would he want?

“I’ll tell you if I think of something, okay?” he promised, and Seokjin appeared appeased.

None of Seokjin’s preferences were too out there (finger-sucking was as kinky as it got), but – breed play. Seokjin had ticked it. The genre was hugely popular online, omegas with holes dripping with semen, alphas murmuring, “I’ll fuck you until everyone can see you swollen with my child.” It didn’t work for everyone – the ‘mating is for babies’ stance had been out of style for decades, and heats and ruts could also just be sexcations, indulgences. Namjoon may have downloaded some breeding porn once and the pack had found it on the computer – he’d walked into the dorm to discover the entire pack peering at the computer screen as loud moans and heavy thrusting sounded, with the alpha grunting, “Gonna knock you up like the whore you are” and “Yes, give it to me, oh alpha, let me carry your babies” – or something to that effect.

Hoseok had asked, “Is this really what you like, Joon-ah?!”

“Shh!” Taehyung had shushed, fascinated, while Yoongi had been tilting his head like he was estimating the alpha’s efforts, Jungkook’s eyes were so wide that Namjoon was surprised they hadn’t popped out of his head, Hoseok was murmuring to Jungkook that he really shouldn’t take any tips from porn like that, Seokjin had heat high on his cheeks, his scent a little stronger than most days, and Jimin said, “Alpha-hyung, it’s filthy”, because the omega was sobbing as the knot caught on, the alpha murmuring, “That’s a good bitch.”

The video came to an end, the dorm strangely quiet. After a beat Taehyung said, “Should we… watch another one. For edification?”

So yeah. Breed play.

And Namjoon now fleetingly pictured Seokjin spread out beneath him, Namjoon saying he’d fuck his child into him: the first goal for any alpha, no matter how much they might pretend it wasn’t. And he’d always known that was something he wanted – one day, maybe. Today. His guts tightened with renewed want.

“Okay,” he said, calming himself as he handed the phone back, Seokjin quickly dumping it on the nightstand. “Okay, that one’s fine too.”

In movies the alphas just picked the enamoured omegas up, all smooth and suave, but Namjoon felt more nervous even with the information given him. Doing grinding choreography in front of sixty thousand people appeared simpler than wooing a heat-ready Seokjin in Namjoon’s large hoodie. And with frustration Namjoon realised he was still, after all this time, struck dumb by Seokjin, like he was seventeen again with a thousand won in his pocket. Seokjin had chosen him – he should feel good about that, confident, but he felt tongue-tied.

He steadied himself – be cool, play this cool – and failed. “You look so beautiful,” he said, because he was a sap and knew it, but god. God, it was true.

“Of course I’m beautiful – what are you, new?” Seokjin complained, but there was no bite to it. It was meek, maybe.

“Not new. Kinda old.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin said faintly, still sat on the edge of the bed with dark eyes, smelling of heat.

“New to this, though,” he said slowly.

Seokjin sat further up the bed, dark eyes on him. “You smell nice.”

“Yeah?” he asked, encouraged.

“Yeah.” Seokjin moved to the middle of the bed with an expectant look. “Really good.”

Okay. Cool. Cool, cool, cool.

“So, do you want me to –”

Seokjin tilted his head to expose his neck, eyes on him. This was familiar, at least, as he got on the bed and pushed into Seokjin’s neck, where the other smelled ripe. He didn’t know how else to put it: Seokjin had always smelled of this faintly, but now it was like a flower in bloom, a nectarine bursting.

Seokjin’s loose bottoms were tenting, too, and Seokjin removed his glasses quickly, in afterthought sliding them on the nightstand by his phone. The sheets smelled of a floral detergent, fresh and crisp, and they were alone and would remain so for who knew how long.

With his knees digging into the mattress, his hands settled on Seokjin’s hip and shoulder as he rubbed the bridge of his nose against the column of Seokjin’s throat. Seokjin’s scent was strongest by the heat patch, the surface a little rough, and his own scent spiked in response – because Seokjin did not smell of him, and that should be declared illegal by the UN’s international peace relations committee.

But this time as Namjoon pushed in his scent, like he had done thousands of times, Seokjin let out a small moan of pleasure. This time Seokjin smelled of arousal – and that scent increased the more Namjoon scented. This wasn’t a pack claim but foreplay, and it was making him hard and Seokjin whimper.

His nose pressed into the skin behind Seokjin’s ear, breathing him in. “Good?”

“Uh huh,” Seokjin confirmed, lips a ghost presence on his jaw – and Namjoon dipped down and sealed them in a kiss, and Seokjin took the opportunity to lay down fully, tugging Namjoon with him.

He squeezed Seokjin’s hip, fingers flexing nervously over the fabric, looming over Seokjin. “Can I touch you?”

Seokjin licked his lips. “Yeah.”

“Yeah? Can I touch you here?” he asked, stroking over an exposed slice of skin at Seokjin’s side, the skin warm. Seokjin was so narrow at the waist, lithe and smooth. Namjoon loved the way Seokjin broadened towards his shoulders, more skin there for him to kiss and suck, while Seokjin’s waist was like it’d been built for him to grab a hold of.

“Everywhere,” Seokjin said. “You can touch me everywhere.”

This was happening, he thought, hands suddenly sweaty, clumsy and awkward. He always broke things – remotes, door handles, phones, sunglasses… He didn’t want to break Seokjin.

But he moved fully on top of Seokjin anyway and kissed him – taking control of it, kissing the breath out of Seokjin. And Seokjin let out a moan and returned the kiss instantly, relaxing beneath him, welcoming him on top, legs parting to accommodate him as their tongues met, both reaching for the other. He kept telling himself to act like this omega was his, like they had planned to spend this heat together weeks ago, reinforcing their bond.

And so he pushed in closer, the pressure firm between them as he put his weight on Seokjin – and it felt so good to cage Seokjin beneath him, to have his omega laid out for him like this.

And he wanted. God, he wanted, as together they pulled the hoodie off Seokjin, revealing pale, perfect skin – a little flushed, a little warm, with Seokjin’s nipples erect, skin responsive wherever Namjoon touched. He was amazed by the response, smoothing the pads of his fingers across Seokjin’s chest, asking, “Are you always this sensitive?”

“No,” Seokjin said, the word strangled and overwhelmed, Namjoon’s thumb circling over a nipple. “I feel – God, it feels so…”

And then Seokjin pushed him back before quickly tugging the sweat bottoms down and off himself, and Namjoon had to take a fucking moment.

Seokjin was now in nothing but black, lacey briefs, although Seokjin was usually a comfy boxers kind of guy. Jimin, however, always asserted that his behind was a smooth, silky persimmon and deserved to be treated to smooth, silky underwear. Now Seokjin had converted.

Namjoon’s fingers brushed over the lace of the briefs, over the noticeable bulge there, the scent of Seokjin headier, heavier. “Did you get these for the heat?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed. “I thought my heat partner might like them.”

Seokjin had thought right: Namjoon was unable to look away, admiring Seokjin from his toned, smooth thighs and the black underwear up Seokjin’s taut, well-defined stomach, smooth chest and broad shoulders, up to his pale, unmarked neck, and to his swollen lips, dark eyes, shiny but messy black hair. Omegas often wanted to offer themselves to their chosen heat partner – please them, lure them in.

Namjoon did not need luring as he placed an open-mouthed kiss on Seokjin’s stomach, hand settling on Seokjin’s hip. “Fuck, you look sexy.”

“You should take them off,” Seokjin said quietly.

Namjoon pressed his forehead against the warm skin of Seokjin’s stomach, palms pressed to Seokjin’s hips. He should take them off. Of course. Regroup. Focus.

“Joon-ah,” Seokjin said, cutting through his mild crisis of nerves and want. He looked up at Seokjin, meeting Seokjin’s gaze that was calmer than seconds earlier. Seokjin’s hand came down, brushing a few of his still-wet strands of hair – familiar, affectionate. “We’re not kids anymore.”

They weren’t teenagers. He knew that – of course he did.

The intimate wax, he discovered as the briefs came off, hadn’t meant a complete hair removal. Seokjin’s hard cock curved against his belly with neatly trimmed hair at its base, but elsewhere Seokjin was smooth: the tops of his legs, the creases between leg and groin and, as Namjoon’s hand slid between Seokjin’s legs, Seokjin’s skin was perfectly smooth on his balls and further between his buttocks. Namjoon could smell him distinctly before he touched him, with the tips of his fingers getting wet.

A soft growl rumbled low in Namjoon’s throat – but it was pleased, encouraging, and it made Seokjin part his legs with a needy sigh. Thoughtlessly, he brought his wettened fingers back to his mouth to suck on them – the taste on his tongue was pleasant, sourer than he’d thought but addictive. Seokjin’s chest and stomach moved with uneven breaths, eyes fixed on him.

“You taste good,” he said, slowly licking his lips, reaching down again – and Seokjin was wetter than before, Namjoon’s fingers circling the rim, touching. “Are you ready?”

Seokjin jerked, nodded. “I am.” The heat was taking over, overriding any other instinct. “Please.” God, Seokjin needy – for him? How many nights had he fantasised about –

And in the next second it bubbled out of him: “I want to call you mine.” His heart was heavy in realisation. His omega. His mate. His own, for him to touch, to taste. “I know it wasn’t in the survey but –”

“You can,” Seokjin said quickly, breathless as Namjoon’s fingers kept pressing against him. “Yeah, that’s- that’s okay with me.”

“Yeah?” he asked, needing to hear it, forefinger stroking, teasing – feeling Seokjin get wetter.

“Yeah – yes. I didn’t want Daewon to –” Namjoon’s growl cut Seokjin off, and Seokjin blinked, hips jerking in response, Namjoon’s fingers getting more slick onto them. “Fuck,” Seokjin sighed, like he couldn’t help himself. “Namjoon-ah…”

“Mine,” he managed, hand pulling back.

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed, the single sound strangled. “Please – please.”

He grabbed Seokjin’s thighs, pulling them further apart, and filled his mouth with Seokjin’s cock, jumping right over the ‘oh my god’ echoing in his head – but Seokjin made up for it with an “Oh my god.”

Seokjin’s cock was thick, slipping past his lips with a wet sound. Seokjin was salty and bitter on his tongue, but it complemented the taste from before. As he carefully licked over Seokjin’s slit, Seokjin bucked beneath him. He lowered his mouth as his fingers brushed over the smooth, pale skin of Seokjin’s waist, thumbing the protruding hip bones.

He pulled back to suckle on the tip of Seokjin’s cock, the crown now red and shiny. Seokjin was gazing down at him in – in mild shock? Seokjin’s hands came down to twist in his hair, hips bucking with a strangled “Yeah.” All the encouragement he needed, as he greedily took more in, lips stretching, getting Seokjin wet with his spit. God, Seokjin should fuck his mouth – get the edge off, thrust into his throat with stuttering hips, screaming Namjoon’s name…

But Namjoon knew that a heat was needier than this, and the way Seokjin had his legs spread said as much, let alone his scent and how wet he was. And so he sucked hard on Seokjin’s length as two of his fingers pressed against Seokjin’s hole again but now, without teasing, he pushed the two inside. No resistance against his fingers although Seokjin let out a cry, hips jerking. His fingers sank in easily, so smooth and warm, tight heat around his digits. A wet sound cut through the air, Namjoon beginning to work two fingers between Seokjin’s spread legs.

The reaction from Seokjin was thrilling: a slur of “Joonie”s and “god yeah”s, Seokjin’s hips already mimicking small thrusts, seeking Namjoon’s mouth and fingers. He was in no doubt that his omega felt good – and this pleased him, endlessly. His cock throbbed at the taste of Seokjin’s sex on his tongue, the taste of pre-come already in his mouth as he pushed down and sucked while pushing into the maddening, tight heat with his fingers.

“Yeah,” Seokjin moaned, hands in Namjoon’s hair – restless, needy. He pressed his tongue to the underside of Seokjin’s cock, sucking. “Oh shit,” Seokjin said, “oh fuck, please. I –”

He swallowed around Seokjin, driving himself wild with the taste of him. Seokjin merely spread his legs wider and said, “Please… More, please…”

Namjoon had never gotten naked faster. He hadn’t had unprotected sex in years either, since – since his rut at seventeen, probably. But ruts and heats were far too messy for condoms, so everyone relied on heat shots and the like. Besides, the purpose was to get messy – to fill, overflow.

He ended up on his knees between Seokjin’s spread legs, naked and harder than he thought decent, body wired and tingling. Seokjin shifted his hips – enticing, inviting – staring up at him, and his hands slithered from Seokjin’s knees to mid-thigh. Seokjin was staring at him intently, reaching out to brush down his chest. He worked out – not like Jungkook or Taehyung – but he had muscle. That muscle felt entirely different when Seokjin’s fingertips trailed down it, heated gaze wanting. And, almost shyly, Seokjin’s palm brushed over his cock, dragging over the length, causing Namjoon to move up the bed – but no, not shyly. Purposefully.

“Yeah,” Seokjin encouraged as he loomed over the omega again, dipping down to kiss Seokjin deeply. It was wet and full of tongue, Namjoon’s heart beating so fast he felt it in his toes, his groin, his chest. When the kiss broke, Seokjin said, “You taste like…”

“Like you,” he supplied and kissed Seokjin again. “You taste amazing.”

Seokjin’s eyes flickered to his face. “Yeah?”

“God,” Namjoon breathed, “do you even need to ask?” And he glanced down to where he was – overenthusiastically – glistening at the crown of his cock, the skin taut and a deep red. He then pressed his face to Seokjin’s neck, scenting – but now he kissed and licked the skin there, mouthing at Seokjin’s throat. He wanted his scent all over Seokjin, just the two of them together. Seokjin shivered under him, head tilted back, and every alpha recognised the gesture as permission – ‘surrender,’ some claimed more archaically.

Seokjin moved beneath him with an edge of urgency and need, and Namjoon read it easily. “I’ve got you,” he promised into a demanding kiss. “Shh, I’ve got you,” he assured when Seokjin whined. “I’ll give you what you want.”

He throbbed in his own hand as he guided himself in, dragging the head down Seokjin’s smooth perineum. Seokjin shivered, letting out a strangled, “Yes.” Had Namjoon ever in a million years realistically thought that –

Seokjin let out the most pleasure filled, encouraging moan as Namjoon began to push into him, the glide smooth, Seokjin wet and ready for him in a way omegas only could be in heat. Namjoon had never experienced it before, the way his cock sank in, the way Seokjin accommodated him perfectly, and the ease of it.

“Oh god,” Seokjin groaned, back arching. Seokjin was tight, warm, slick, and opening up for him. Namjoon met Seokjin’s lips, overwhelmed, dazed. “Fuck,” Seokjin whined, voice high pitched. Namjoon dropped kisses along Seokjin’s jaw, down to his salt-slick neck where Seokjin smelled like himself and Namjoon and heat: all for Namjoon, now. God, what a good omega, taking him like this, willing, eager…

“Such a good omega,” he said aloud, and Seokjin clenched around him in response, and Namjoon felt it in his lower belly, his groin, his balls, tight pressure around the length of his cock. “Can’t believe I’m inside you,” he breathed, “god, baby…” He’d stilled, nearly all the way in, but he was a lot to take. His hands gripped Seokjin’s waist – it would bruise. “You want it all?”

Seokjin was breathing heavily, but glanced down their bodies. “This isn’t all?”

“No.” And then he thrust in the rest of the way. Seokjin’s mouth dropped open, eyes wide, and then he moaned. Namjoon kissed him. “Shh, you’re doing so well…”

Namjoon was now sheathed in fully, their bodies flush. Seokjin’s hands slipped to Namjoon’s lower back, holding him close, nails digging in – and Seokjin looked gorgeous like this, spread out and filled, dark-eyed with a crimson glow blossoming over his chest and neck, lips swollen and shiny with spit, breaths unsteady as Namjoon filled him.

And Namjoon’s hips were already working: his mind useless, but his body reacting as he grabbed Seokjin’s waist firmly. Seokjin’s head rolled back, nipples hard and cock leaking, letting Namjoon lift his hips off the mattress as he began to fuck into him. Namjoon was taken aback by how brutal this already was: fucking with intent because he knew he had to, because Seokjin was open and perfect, tight, wet warmth – and his, all his.

“So good,” Seokjin breathed, “god, so good, fuck.”

“Yeah?” he asked, driving in his cock. “This what you need?”

Seokjin whimpered and nodded, laid out and getting fucked. “But more,” Seokjin groaned, “Ah, I need more – please.”

So he did – harder, faster, pushing in deeper, but it didn’t seem to be enough. He pulled out and pushed Seokjin onto his belly, Seokjin following his lead, looking over his shoulder as Namjoon quickly pulled Seokjin onto all fours, ass lifted. As he lined himself up, he watched his own cock, glistening, smeared, push back into the pink hole. Seokjin groaned into a pillow and kept his ass offered. Namjoon was gone after that: he drove in with force, hard and fast, hands gripping onto Seokjin and bruising him. Their bodies joined with wet sounds, Namjoon’s hips snapping forcefully, as Seokjin was blissed out, encouraging.

“Just like that – fuck, just like that. God, so good,” Seokjin babbled, on his knees, fisting his cock. And just as Namjoon thought he had this under control, Seokjin said, “Want your knot in me – please.” And Seokjin craned his neck, tilting his head to the side and exposing the patch-covered scent gland. The gesture was tantalising. “Please,” Seokjin repeated, “please…”

Namjoon instantly swelled in response – because god, what a good little omega. But he buried his face in the crook of Seokjin’s neck, the scent of Seokjin strong there, nosing in. “I don’t wanna hurt you,” he managed, hips still working.

Seokjin whined – in frustration. “You won’t – please, need you to –”

“Let me open you up more first…”

But Seokjin shook his head, heaving. “You’d never hurt me. Please.” Namjoon’s hips came to a still as he tried to calm down, an arm wrapped around Seokjin’s torso. He pushed against the side of Seokjin’s head, blindly kissing over his ear, breaths uneven, covered in sweat already, the both of them. Seokjin offered his neck and Namjoon pushed in, scenting, and Seokjin let out a pleasured hum. “You’re such a good alpha,” Seokjin said, and Namjoon’s ears pricked up, hanging onto the words. Seokjin pushed back against him, returning the gesture of sharing scent, and said, “You wouldn’t hurt what’s yours.”

Namjoon inhaled shakily, letting his thumb circle over one of Seokjin’s nipples. Seokjin shivered beneath him, clenched around him – wired up, tense. “No, but I –”

“I need you to, want your – in me, inside me.” Seokjin had an edge of desperation to his voice, head turned to his, their lips brushing. “Please, Joon-ah.”

“Seokjinnie, I –”

“Alpha,” Seokjin breathed, heat-laced, words whispered against his lips. “Need this, need you. Please. Please meet me where I am.”

His forehead pressed to Seokjin’s, his chest tight. “You sure –”

“Please.”

Namjoon shattered. He kissed the corner of Seokjin’s mouth, hands on Seokjin’s hips re-affirming their hold. His, all his. The dark possessive lurk in his veins knew that – his own. Asking him, begging him. “Ask me again.”

Seokjin arched under him, back curving, squeezing Namjoon’s length inside him, wet and tight. “Knot me?”

“Of course, baby,” he said, hand brushing over Seokjin’s stomach, pressing into the sweat-slick skin. “You don’t have to ask.” Seokjin keened – writhed nearly, restless. Seokjin could talk him into anything, in a way no one else ever had. “But you gotta relax for me,” he said, “it’s a lot to take.”

“Yeah, yes –”

He picked up the pace again but was now fucking in his knot, arm wrapped around Seokjin’s torso, murmuring encouragement against Seokjin’s shoulder blade, completely helpless to fight any of this. Seokjin was loud, so, so loud, moaning with every thrust as Namjoon began to swell, the feeling of it radiating throughout his body, almost painful with the promise of imminent release – and then Seokjin tightened around the nearly formed knot, muscles of Seokjin’s back shivering and hips flexing, pushing back against Namjoon and his cock, and Namjoon swelled further, forcing Seokjin to open more – and Seokjin came with a sob, clenching around him and locking in place. Namjoon instantly spilled into Seokjin, groaning, body jerking as his orgasm came over him, and Seokjin clenched, clenched, like the cruellest and sweetest punishment and reward, the orgasm binding them together, Seokjin caught on his knot and pulsating.

And Seokjin took it so well – “You take it so well,” he breathed in awe, because the handful of times he’d done this, no omega hadn’t at least flinched in pain, making Namjoon spiral with worry and guilt. But Seokjin responded only with want, taking his knot and stretched around it fully, and he kissed the back of Seokjin’s neck, scenting him. They were a good fit – of course they were. “Look at you taking it – fuck, you do this so well. Such a good omega, just look at you. Whose are you?”

“Yours,” Seokjin breathed – the word broken with Seokjin throbbing around him and squeezing, milking come out of him.

“Yeah, mine,” he said, spilling into Seokjin more. “All mine. Fuck, all mine.” He smoothed over Seokjin’s hips, groaning as Seokjin kept clenching. “Fuck, you’re greedy – fuck.”

“You’re giving me so much,” Seokjin said nonsensically, pushing back against him – seed, he was giving Seokjin seed.

“Can you take it all?”

“Yes,” Seokjin said instantly – firmly. “Yes, I can – please.”

“You can have it all,” he promised, and Seokjin whined, heated and wanting. “Does it feel okay? Does it hurt?” he asked softly, nosing the back of Seokjin’s neck.

“Hurts but it’s good, the stretch is good.” Seokjin gulped. “You’re so big, Namjoon-ah…” The pressure between them was spine-tingling, Seokjin stretched around him, and Namjoon kept scenting him.

“You’re so good for me,” he praised, and Seokjin clenched – and then he caught skin between his teeth at Seokjin’s neck, sucking in a bruise. Seokjin clenched around him even tighter, going pliant – good, so good – but then Namjoon let go, moving his mouth away. “Sorry,” he managed, nose pressing into the skin behind Seokjin’s ear.

“No, keep going.”

“But –”

“Fuck the agency,” Seokjin said. “I don’t do what they say.”

Namjoon grinned, a possessive thread in him pulsing. “Yeah? You want me to mark your neck?”

He should know better, he should –

But Seokjin offered his neck, and he was already sucking in a bruise. Seokjin whimpered, another aftershock shivering through him, hips flexing, muscles clenching. Namjoon nipped at the skin of Seokjin’s neck, making grand plans, painting canvasses in his head of the way he’d mark Seokjin – at his throat and chest, stomach, thighs… Fuck.

Namjoon then moved them onto their sides carefully – Seokjin seemed blissed out, moaning when Namjoon grinded against him, just to add pressure in the aftershocks. Namjoon’s belly and groin were tightly wound, but they were in sync, the way Seokjin clenched, the way Namjoon released more into him. No wonder people wrote songs of love and filth in equal measure about this: the connection was like a persistent drug pushing pleasure and desire into them, leaving behind a gold-tinted, hormonal glow. He wrapped Seokjin up in his arms – his, his.

Seokjin’s breaths evened out as Namjoon kept dropping kisses along Seokjin’s broad shoulders, rubbing his scent onto Seokjin’s skin, drawing soothing circles onto Seokjin’s stomach. He focused on that, on making sure Seokjin’s stomach was scented – claimed. Namjoon was transfixed and relatively sure the rest of the world had ceased to exist as they lay in the midst of half-destroyed covers and pillows.

After they had both calmed down, their legs tangled together, and Seokjin more focused and out of the daze, Seokjin asked, “How long have you had this?”

Namjoon kissed Seokjin’s shoulder, and Seokjin offered his neck again, Namjoon instantly kissing him there – the way Seokjin was letting him at his neck was maddening. Not anyone else – just him, just Namjoon.

“How long have I had what?” he hummed in question, kissing at the column of Seokjin’s throat, soothing over Seokjin’s belly.

“This knot,” Seokjin said, craning his neck to look at him – and Seokjin clenched forcefully to make a point. Namjoon grabbed Seokjin’s hips with a hiss, still pulsing inside Seokjin. Seokjin groaned, shivering. “Fuck, how long have you had it?”

Namjoon blinked. “Always?”

Seokjin’s eyes thinned. “What? How am I only finding out about it now?”

Namjoon couldn’t help but grin widely, diving down to press their lips together. “You like my knot?” He was purring almost. His omega liked his knot.

“Ungh, what is this? This smug face, get it away from me,” Seokjin complained, palm-planting Namjoon’s face, and when Namjoon resisted and pulled Seokjin’s hand away, Seokjin laughed. Their fingers interlinked, gliding in for a gentle hold, coming to rest on the pillow by Seokjin’s head.

“I’m still in you,” Namjoon reminded, brushing his nose against Seokjin’s. “I think you want me here, hyung.”

Seokjin licked his swollen lips, eyes half-lidded, gaze warm and heat-dazed. “Yeah,” Seokjin said softly, “I guess I do. I mean, I should’ve guessed, really – what was it again? You were gonna beat that pussy with your knot like –”

No,” he objected, Seokjin already laughing. “That song was a cover, those were not my lyrics, and I can’t believe you’re bringing that up when –”

Seokjin shut him up with a kiss that lingered, Seokjin holding him by the chin, their upper bodies twisted to allow them to kiss. As they parted, their noses brushed together. Seokjin had a smile on his lips. “I forgive you your youthful indiscretions.”

“How generous.”

“I really am,” Seokjin said with a grin when Namjoon glared down at him. Seokjin’s hand had snaked into his hair, brushing the blond strands, scratching against his scalp in a way that made Namjoon weak. Seokjin was looking at him steadily, gaze warm but also puzzled. “Let me rephrase my question, then – when did you become this?”

“Become what?”

“This,” Seokjin said, taking all of him in. “You were a dorky alpha out of a growth spurt when I met you.” Namjoon nipped at Seokjin’s jawline, and Seokjin offered his neck for scenting instantly. “Fuck,” Seokjin whined, arousal picking up in his scent. “How did you get so hot?”

Namjoon started sucking a new bruise to Seokjin’s neck and murmured, “With the help of professional dermatologists, personal trainers, and stylists.”

“Mmm, it’s more than that,” Seokjin said and caught him in a messy half-kiss, their tongues meeting, lower bodies still pulsing together – but less so, now, with the swelling of Namjoon’s knot slowly reducing. “Something’s made you insanely attractive.”

“Besides the fact that you’re heat-lusting over me while on my knot?”

“Irrelevant.”

“Oh, it is?”

“A minor detail,” Seokjin insisted loftily.

He paused, then ventured, “My determination to destroy the status quo, then.”

Seokjin groaned and smacked his shoulder. “My god, stop listening to everything Yoongi says.”

Namjoon gaped, faux shocked. “Hitting your heat partner isn’t polite, you know, no matter how hot you are.”

“At least that’s true,” Seokjin said, “I’m much hotter than you.”

Seokjin’s mouth twisted into a grin, and Namjoon’s eyes narrowed and he tried tickling Seokjin – a mistake because it felt like his dick was getting ripped off when Seokjin jerked to move away, and after they both hissed and oohed, Seokjin was laughing and calling him an idiot, while Namjoon kept his eyes closed and counted to ten, only in mildly severe pain.

“Don’t break your dick just yet,” Seokjin warned. “I need it.”

“And after?”

“Do what you like with it,” Seokjin said, and Namjoon huffed – and then Seokjin was laughing, and Namjoon felt high on it, muffling the sound with a kiss, pulling Seokjin ever closer. Were heats supposed to be like this? Kissing and giggling in bed while high on mating hormones? Namjoon wasn’t sure. No one had told him of anything like this, not ever.

Seokjin kissed him soundly, in a way Namjoon would never recover from.

Chapter Text

καὶ ταῦτ᾽ ἐγώ οὐκ οἶδ᾽ ὅ τι ἐστίν,
ἀλλ᾽ ὅμως ἔχει γέ τι τοιοῦτον, ἐγγύς τ᾽ εἰμὶ τοὐνόματο.
I do not understand what love is,
but all the same it is the type of thing I have said only without this name.
- Alexis (4th-3rd centuries BCE)

V

Often Namjoon felt like he lost himself in the concert halls and bright lights, slipping into the cracks of long-haul flights and endless time zone changes. Is this really me? He was never sure. Was he the pack’s leader accepting award speeches gracefully on stage or still the kid with a god-awful haircut getting told off by PD-nim for initiating Taehyung?

There had been other moments of horror – accidents, injuries, hospital trips, social media outrage over a politically offensive outfit picked out by a fashion coordinator and not them, Hoseok nearly quitting the group pre-debut, Jungkook too – and then the worst ones: secret cameras in their home, death threats, stalking. Is this who I am? Is this happening to me?

Namjoon spiralled often, losing sleep, pacing hotel rooms, masochistically searching social media for critiques of himself, but something always snapped him out of it, anchored him back to his surroundings: the pack. He knew that. Even their managers, who had been with them since day one, treated them a little differently as the fame slowly soared. You couldn’t help that, he supposed. But as long as he could appear at Yoongi’s hotel room at any time of the night just to bitch about the schedule or listen to a new rap track they both liked, he stopped spiralling. As long as Taehyung came to him with big eyes asking for advice on a melody Taehyung was nervously working on, Namjoon knew where in the world he belonged.

But there had been times when he’d thought he would lose the pack, when that dread had seeped into the very marrow of his bones. It perhaps started to dawn on him during a photoshoot when the label was intent on reworking their image from gothy hiphop kids into something more mature. The photoshoot was controversial and provocative, nothing Namjoon would ever consider doing now, but back then it had addressed their new concept: youth and how fleeting it was, signalling the most beautiful moment of one’s life. Their fans called it The Bite Shoot: all seven of them had fake mating bites painted onto their necks.

Their makeup artists were good, too: the blood-red marks looked fresh and wet, and their hair was messed up to insinuate a recent mate claim, the clothes on them wrinkled and even torn. Hoseok was flustered – “I hope my family never see this!” – while Taehyung and Jimin were absolutely fascinated by their fake bites, prodding at each other’s necks and taking suggestive selcas together until one of the noonas snapped at them for ruining the artwork.

Namjoon was the first one dressed and ready for the photoshoot. He didn’t make much of the bite mark on his neck, realistic as it looked. He knew he wanted to be mated one day, but it seemed too distant still. He’d called it quits with his fling of five weeks Sunyu a month earlier, too, the only attempt at dating he’d made since they’d debuted – a few dates at her place because Namjoon couldn’t risk being seen with the omega in public, plenty of frustrated attempts at sexting (not his strong point, it had surprisingly turned out), but thankfully she sent some amazing nudes (while Namjoon couldn’t risk returning the gesture). All of it had been relatively casual and a bit exciting, but not really amounting to anything. He felt guilty by how quickly he’d forgotten about her – but their careers were doing well, and Namjoon had to focus on that and not think with his knot all the time.

Still, before their break-up – if you could call it that – he’d gone over to her place one night, and as they’d shared noodles in the kitchen Sunyu had asked, “Do you want to be mated? And kids, do you want kids?” Namjoon had thought it far too soon for such questions, but she’d laughed. “In general! Not saying us. Don’t look so freaked out.”

“Yeah,” he admitted eventually. “I want to be a dad before I’m thirty.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl first,” he said. “Twin boys next.”

“You can’t just decide on twins, that’s not how it works.” But Sunyu was smiling, prodding at her noodles. “That’s real cute,” she told him, and he shrugged but smiled down at his food. “Aw, don’t dimple-smile at me!” she insisted before adding, “Where does your pack go in this scenario?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where do they go when you start breeding?”

“Nowhere,” he frowned.

Sunyu quirked an eyebrow. “Really? Isn’t that when pre-mating packs usually dissolve?”

“No. Well, yes, but- but not us. They can bring their mates, their kids into my pack. It’ll be great.”

Sunyu looked doubtful – the huge packs of before, when a whole village was a singular pack ruled by an alpha and their mate, were long gone. Those kinds of arrangements simply didn’t work in modern society and Namjoon knew deep down that they wouldn’t work for his pack either.

“Anyway,” he pushed on quickly, “I am not mating anytime soon, none of us are. Never met anyone I wanted to bite, anyway.”

“All alphas want to bite me,” Sunyu said teasingly, “although they try to act all cool like you.”

“I don’t want to bite you,” he assured and realised he’d said the wrong thing – because she frowned, smile gone. But he’d never felt the impulse to bite someone except perhaps once in his life, and even then it’d been fleeting.

Fast-forward one month and a break-up and Namjoon had, ironically, a fake bite on his neck.

They were filming in a warehouse with a bedroom set filled with lit candles, a grandiose rococo bed, torn fabrics hanging on the walls, evoking eroticism from a porno Namjoon had certainly never watched. The photographer wanted him posing by the bed and showing off his marked neck. He found the entire thing somewhat embarrassing but did his job – fans told him all the time he was sexy. He was definitely okay-looking, but was he really sexy?

Jimin was next after Namjoon’s shoot, emerging from makeup looking thoroughly roughed up: top buttons of the silky shirt were seemingly ripped off, a touch of smeared lipstick on Jimin’s cheek, and a bloody mating mark was on his neck, right over Jimin’s scent gland. Jimin lay down on the bed, neck exposed, and stroked at his chest while staring at the camera. It looked sexual and sinful, and Jimin giggled with pleasure in between shots, acting shy about it. As Namjoon watched the display, he grew restless. One day Jimin would mate – would run off and join the pack of some model-like alpha, probably.

Jimin had, however, told them recently that he maybe liked omegas too, which had not really surprised them: Namjoon could be blatantly unaware at times but even he had realised that Jimin’s very, very close omega friend from that spring had been more than that.

Seokjin had taken the news poorly, however. “It’ll be hard,” Seokjin had told him, worrying on his bottom lip when the two of them were at the dance studio together. Seokjin’s eyes twitched the way they did when he was stressed. “If Jimin wants to be with another omega, it will be hard for him, for them.”

“Maybe,” Namjoon granted, “but times are changing. And love is love.”

“Of course it is,” Seokjin said impatiently, “but Jimin, he – I don’t think he knows what to do if he isn’t loved. Does that make sense? And if the public – the fans disown him… because some of them will. Then –”

“But we won’t,” he cut in. Any of his packmates could in the end bring absolutely anyone home, and if they said ‘this is who I love’, then Namjoon needed nothing further.

Seokjin looked apologetic as he said, “But are we enough?”

Were they enough? When you were used to the love of thousands, how could the pack by itself ever be enough? Maybe if they’d never debuted, Jimin would be content with just the pack. But now they had a million – an actual million – of Twitter followers, and their fans appeared fiercely loyal up to a point. Jimin dating another omega, however? How would that be received by that million, especially when Jimin would have a hard time telling even his parents that?

But as Namjoon watched Jimin posing for the photoshoot with what was supposed to be an alpha’s bite on him, Namjoon was torn: if Jimin found an omega, Jimin’s life would be marked by prejudice, but Namjoon would happily and without question take Jimin’s partner into his pack. If Jimin found an alpha, on the other hand, Jimin’s life would be easy – but Namjoon would lose him.

Which was the better option? Which less selfish?

He hadn’t decided when Jimin finished and Hoseok showed up with a mating bite, sitting on the floor by the bed, elongating his neck, stroking next to the fake bite as the camera flashed. “Is it okay?” Hoseok asked the staff, seduction fading to concern in between shots. “Is it sexy? Really?”

Namjoon gritted his teeth at the display. And then Yoongi’s turn came, hair messy and an angry, red bite on him, staring into the camera with his lower lip caught between his teeth suggestively. Namjoon was trying not to growl when he finally stormed off.

Across the warehouse, by the long buffet table, he spotted Seokjin picking out some fruit. He walked over with a sense of relief, his bad mood fading. Seokjin turned to him with a smile, brown hair ruffled up, wearing tight white jeans and a torn silvery shirt that showed some chest, and Seokjin had a gory, bloody mating mark right over his scent gland.

Seokjin said, “I wanted snacks but the noonas –”

And then Namjoon wasn’t entirely sure what happened because everything got so, so blurry, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe, but then Seokjin was there, hands pressed to the sides of his face, holding him still. “It’s not real. Joonie, breathe – breathe, it’s just makeup, painted on, it’s not real.”

“What?”

“It’s – Come here.”

Seokjin sat him down on one of the chairs by the buffet section, Namjoon heaving, heart hammering, cold sweat on his brow. Seokjin was crouching in front of him, gazing at him intently, carding his hair. Namjoon held Seokjin’s wrists, feeling the pulse and warmth, breathing in the honeyed musk of Seokjin before he pushed against Seokjin’s head – and Seokjin smelled of hair spray, but beneath it was the scent of their pack, all seven mixed together.

Seokjin didn’t smell claimed. He didn’t smell mated.

Namjoon exhaled shakily, a small whine at the back of his throat as he nosed in. Seokjin let him. Seokjin even pushed right into his arms, pulling Namjoon into a hug as he said, “I wouldn’t do that to you.”

But all Namjoon managed was a lost, “Still mine?”

“Yeah, yes of course. Don’t say such stupid things – of course. Just exhale – that’s it, nice and calm.” Seokjin was still carding his hair gently, soothing, calming – always so good with all of them. “Good alpha,” Seokjin crooned, and Namjoon shivered. “That’s my good alpha.”

Namjoon wasn’t sure if he’d even heard right, but the words absolutely undid him.

He blinked, the world coming back into focus, finding himself clinging onto Seokjin after he’d – after he’d who-knew-what, but he was already mortified. He’d panicked – had a near meltdown.

“Fuck, I’m so sorry,” he managed.

Seokjin pulled back, a hand on his shoulder but looked just as flustered as he was. “It’s okay. Of course this was gonna be tough for you.” Seokjin had a kind yet worried expression on his face, the same one he had when Jungkook had a bad cough or Yoongi twisted his ankle, or when the two of them stayed up all night after his recent break-up, Seokjin nudging at Namjoon’s ankles as they sat on living room floor at the dorm, playing video games as Seokjin said it hardly meant Namjoon would be mateless forever. Seokjin always knew what to say, what to do.

“You always know what to say,” he marvelled.

Seokjin smiled, a hand fleetingly pressing to Namjoon’s cheek – and then Seokjin stood up and pulled back all too soon. “I’ll go get you some water, okay?” Seokjin gave his arm a reassuring squeeze, with the mating bite – fake, of course it was fake – still smearing Seokjin’s neck.

In the brief moment Seokjin was away, Namjoon realised what an absolute ass he’d made of himself. What kind of a leader was he, panicking at the mere suggestion of his pack dissolving? That stuff was years away if it ever happened at all!

But when Seokjin returned, Namjoon again flinched at the sight of the bite, dread spreading in him: Seokjin mated off. He thought of someone biting down on Seokjin to claim him, of Seokjin letting them – and worse, Seokjin inviting this unknown intruder to do so, wantonly offering his neck. Namjoon remained stunned and anxious.

“Yeah, I hate this photoshoot, too,” Seokjin said, fumbling with his sleeves. “Even Jungkook has one of these, and he’s a baby.”

And Seokjin was trying to comfort him, like it was fine, like Namjoon’s response had been expected, but Namjoon barely recognised himself in that moment.

Staff came over to check on them, and Seokjin wandered off while Namjoon sipped on the water carefully. One of their assistants soon brought him snacks from the buffet table – had he been eating enough? Namjoon wasn’t sure.

Namjoon didn’t stay to see Seokjin’s solo shoot, didn’t want to see in what position Seokjin would show off the bite on his neck, didn’t want to think of all the alphas who would see the picture and fantasise that it was their teeth that had done it. When they did group shots later, he had steadied himself enough to power through – but he could barely look at any of his packmates, least of all Seokjin, and he stomped off the second they were done.

He brooded for days afterwards, not scenting any of them but keeping to himself. It was Taehyung, in the end, who came looking for scenting, and Namjoon could deny him nothing.

Perhaps this truly was the most beautiful moment of Namjoon’s life and not just an album concept: these glimpses, these months of shared youth, when he still had his pack together.

The pictures caused an internet meltdown, of course, when they were released. Sensual, mature, sexy – nobody said wistful. Nobody said sad, heart-breaking, agonising.

Namjoon never looked at the pictures, not even once, and Seokjin never brought up the photoshoot either.

* * *

The first night Namjoon spent with Seokjin was, perhaps, how some illicit fantasy of his had always been envisioned: long, insatiable, handsy, overexcited. His body reacted to Seokjin’s heat: his refractory period was damned quick, Seokjin only needing to look at him for Namjoon to rise to the occasion in a way that normally was out of the question.

They didn’t sleep but rather filled the time between rounds with talking, making out, scenting, marking. He couldn’t decide which part he enjoyed the most.

But it was on the second day, when the heat really got to Seokjin, that the sex became a mission, that the Seokjin he knew so well seemed to be replaced by someone much, ah… hornier. Needier. At times seductive, but seconds later submissive, and it kept Namjoon captivated. This was a side of Seokjin he had never seen – that only a few (two, three other heat partners?) had ever seen.

The cushions and covers of the bed, ripped and stained, were probably unfit for any future use, while he and Seokjin desecrated not only the bed, but the floor and the wall and the dresser, and Seokjin kept looking at him with dark, fiery eyes full of want because nothing seemed to be enough. And Namjoon kept having to assess at what point, exactly, he was ruined: because he undoubtedly was.

He first thought this when Seokjin pinned him down to the mattress, straddling him, and then sat down on his cock. The glide was smooth and Seokjin let out a needy sigh, head tossed back and throat gorgeously exposed. Seokjin was hot and tight around him, and Namjoon swore heavily, hands landing on Seokjin’s hips, keeping his omega still as they both adjusted. The length of Seokjin’s body was covered in a sheen of sweat, with bruises, scratches, and love bites along his chest, wide shoulders, his neck, and Seokjin’s cock was flushed and hard, his hole wet, hair tousled – and Seokjin bounced on him, moaned, looked down at him with dark, half-lidded eyes and said, “Alpha-yah, let me ride your knot into me.”

“Fuck,” he managed – and not much else.

Seokjin was still riding him when he reached for Seokjin’s face, intending to grab Seokjin’s chin and bring him down for a kiss, but his fingers ended up brushing over Seokjin’s mouth – and Seokjin parted his lips in anticipation, eyes closed. Namjoon stared, disbelieving, and then pushed two fingers in, with Seokjin’s mouth obscenely open for him – and Seokjin sucked on his fingers, kept riding him, and came when Namjoon pushed his fingers deep enough to gag him.

When Seokjin had collapsed on top of him, warm and heaving, Namjoon sucked on Seokjin’s earlobe and asked, “You like feeling like you’ll choke?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed, “but it takes a lot for me to feel that.”

“Is that a challenge?” he asked, smoothing over the sweat-slick skin of Seokjin’s back, grinning against the side of Seokjin’s face.

“…Maybe.”

And so Namjoon sat on the edge of the bed as Seokjin got on his knees on the floor, Seokjin’s mouth instantly wrapping around Namjoon’s cock. Namjoon sucked in a sharp breath – the suction was wet and tight, and Seokjin’s tongue was working its way around the crown with such precision that Namjoon was glad he’d been ignorant of this talent in the years they’d known each other. Seokjin’s mouth had always been distracting – pink, pouty, inexplicably wet-looking – but knowing what it could do, knowing how it stretched so perfectly around his girth?

Seokjin stared up at him, eyes wanting, and lowered his mouth. Namjoon cursed. He carded his fingers in Seokjin’s hair, breathing through the stimulation, Seokjin’s tongue pressed to the sensitive underside of his cock – fuck. Seokjin bobbed up and down, getting him wet with spit, and then pulled back a little, the flat of Seokjin’s tongue pressed to the cockhead, licking over the slit. Seokjin whimpered, groaned, fingers digging into Namjoon’s thighs. “Good,” Seokjin said breathlessly.

“Yeah?” he asked, stroking over Seokjin’s brow, receiving a nod. “Do I taste like you?” His voice was raspy and low, and he knew fully that his cock must taste like the two of them together. “Do you like tasting yourself on my cock?”

Seokjin nodded, taking the head in again – but Namjoon said, “Hands behind your back.” Seokjin did as he was told. Namjoon had to steady himself, hand rubbing the back of Seokjin’s neck. He’d never thought he’d get to see Seokjin like this, hadn’t known Seokjin could be like this… “That’s good, baby… Now open your mouth… Good, that’s it.” Seokjin took more in, lips stretching, eyes shut. Reverent. “Take in some more – come on, I know you can. That’s it… Shit.” He sucked in a breath, twisting a hand in Seokjin’s hair. “Fucking hell – fuck, okay.” He tried to focus. “I’m gonna fuck your mouth now – I’m gonna be rough, baby. You understand?”

And Seokjin nodded – and Namjoon did get him to gag, making Seokjin’s eyes water, making Seokjin keen and moan from getting his mouth fucked, his throat fucked. It was so pornographic that Namjoon had never thought it could exist in the real world, and it made him fiercely possessive, having Seokjin so completely at his mercy, doing something so filthy.

When he was about to come, he pulled Seokjin back with a yank of Seokjin’s hair, his cock slipping out with an obscene wet pop. His length was shiny with spit, the crown leaking, a knot at the base swelling, and he took himself in his hand, groaning and on edge, balls drawn tight. Seokjin stayed on his knees, hands behind his back, and opened his mouth. His eyes were wide as he looked up at Namjoon, chest heaving.

Fuck.

But Namjoon wanted something more, and so he yanked Seokjin by the hair again, getting Seokjin to expose his bruised throat. His cockhead pressed underneath Seokjin’s chin, smearing – Seokjin whined, tensing, still on his knees, cock curved upwards and flushed a deep red, almost painful looking – and Namjoon’s own cock rubbed against the hollow of Seokjin’s throat, his hold of Seokjin’s hair tightening. He fisted himself once, twice, a grunt escaping his lips – and he came hard, all over Seokjin’s neck and throat, milky streaks of come rolling down, pooling at Seokjin’s clavicle, dripping.

Seokjin stayed on his knees, panting, eyes wide – marked.

Namjoon growled, hauling Seokjin up and into his lap, kissing the hell out of him. Seokjin was breathless and shaking – and so wet, perineum smeared when Namjoon slid fingers over and then into him. Seokjin rutted against him, and he got Seokjin off with his fingers, his other hand fisting Seokjin’s cock as he kissed Seokjin’s mouth, then licked at his own come on Seokjin’s throat, murmuring that Seokjin was perfect and his, so perfect for him, all his, just his… “Mine. That’s it,” he encouraged, Seokjin coming apart on his lap. “Come on, baby, let yourself come – my pretty omega, I’ve got you, you worked so hard for me, that’s –”

Seokjin came harder than Namjoon had expected, the release erupting from somewhere deep, Seokjin going absolutely boneless – Namjoon had to wipe them both clean with one of Seokjin’s throws while Seokjin caught his breath in a post-orgasmic glow – dazed but content. Namjoon slowly rubbed the drying remains of his come into the skin of Seokjin’s throat, covering it with the scent of sex – his sex – and it pleased him endlessly, how perfect it made Seokjin.

“You okay?” he then checked with Seokjin, kissing the side of his face, and received a firm nod. “Yeah?”

“Uh huh.” Seokjin was blissed out on the bed, eyes half-shut. “You?”

“Me what?”

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” he lied – because he was ruined.

Later, as he had Seokjin laid out on the bed with the vibrator’s constant, muffled buzz in the air around them and his grip at the toy’s base firm, he found himself returning to Seokjin’s throat like a man possessed. Seokjin’s hips kept twisting as Seokjin fucked himself against the vibrator before trying to back off again like he couldn’t decide, but Namjoon kept Seokjin pinned to the bed and Seokjin’s legs spread, kissing and teasing Seokjin’s nipples as he steadily fucked Seokjin with the toy. Seokjin’s moans were a slur of “oh god” and “I can’t” and “don’t stop” and “Namjoon”, senseless and helpless.

And Namjoon didn’t mean to press his free hand to Seokjin’s exposed throat, marked with purple-tinted bruises and his come – he wanted to stroke the gland there, to coax Seokjin on but found the coarse surface of the patch instead. As his hand withdrew in defeat over Seokjin’s throat, Seokjin’s breath hitched and his hips twitched, a loud moan escaping – and so Namjoon splayed out his hand there, over Seokjin’s windpipe. Just a presence, no pressure at all.

But Seokjin got desperate. “Namjoon-ah,” he whined, with Namjoon’s hand at his throat, Namjoon’s mouth now sucking on a nipple, Namjoon pushing the thick vibrator into him. “Oh god, oh god, ohgod, ohgod –” Namjoon bit down on the hardened bud in his mouth and tightened his grip on Seokjin’s throat slowly but firmly – and Seokjin came like it was ripped out of him, hips flexing, fucking onto the vibrator with a moan that sounded almost like a sob.

I’m ruined, Namjoon thought, drunk on the power. Seokjin shivered as he came down, and Namjoon scooped Seokjin up in his arms, scenting him softly, holding him close and murmuring how good Seokjin was.

But the heat was relentless and Namjoon couldn’t keep up – “You wanna fuck me?” he asked some hours later, pressing another kiss to swollen lips. Seokjin grabbed Namjoon’s ass, pushing his tongue into Namjoon’s mouth. Namjoon smiled into the kiss. “That a yes?”

“I’ve only- with a beta, but I can figure that out,” Seokjin said breathlessly.

“I’ve no doubt,” Namjoon agreed, haphazardly going for the lube on the nightstand – unneeded, as of yet.

He found himself swearing, breath catching, as Seokjin slowly fingered him open. He’d thought he’d get a break – his cock and hands would get a break – but he found himself erect again, grabbing onto Seokjin’s shoulders restlessly, saying, “I’m good – fuck, I’m good. God, get in me.”

As Seokjin pushed into him, he wondered why more alphas didn’t do this – but then he remembered that he rarely felt this urge, rarely felt comfortable or relaxed enough to let someone this close. But with Seokjin he felt nothing but eager, urging Seokjin to push in deeper. Fuck if it didn’t feel good, and god if Seokjin didn’t have an amazing sense of rhythm as he began fucking him. Namjoon, unused to the friction, was on edge much sooner than he’d expected, breaths ragged, Seokjin having figured out the exact angle to use for fucking him.

Seokjin thrust in, movement sharp, and Namjoon let out a groan, pleasured radiating through him. Seokjin gazed down at him with a hint of a heat-drunk smirk on his lips. “Alphas have prostates too, you know,” Seokjin said.

“Yeah,” he managed, “am- am very- fuck. Fuck. Aware.”

Another sharp thrust. “Mmm, you ever finger yourself?”

“Sometimes, yeah,” he admitted. Once or twice a year – more often, clearly he should do this more often. “Fuck, don’t stop,” he said, desperate for more, and Seokjin indulged him.

Soon Seokjin reached between them, fingers wrapping around Namjoon’s cock. There was something helpless about being laid out like this – how did Seokjin do this for him? But his omega was so good, so perfect, that Namjoon was quickly moaning how he was going to come.

Seokjin fisted his cock, hips moving. “If you come from this,” Seokjin asked, “will you still have more?” Seokjin’s hand twisted at the head of his cock, and Namjoon’s hips jerked.

“More come?” he clarified breathlessly. Seokjin nodded, sweat rolling down the side of his face, eyes dark with want. “You think I won’t pin you down and leave you dripping?” he asked, hand pressing to Seokjin’s neck, and Seokjin whined, fucking him harder. “I’ll give you so much, baby, breed you so good – so don’t you dare stop. Wanna feel you after, come on.”

Seokjin pushed in faster, harder, their orgasms peaking almost in sync, with Namjoon a fraction ahead of Seokjin.

Namjoon was ruined.

But as the heat got deeper, Seokjin lost his earlier coherence, visibly out of it in a way Namjoon disliked. Seokjin’s head lolled to the side, eyes closed, moaning. This was what Seokjin had meant: how far gone omegas could get. Seokjin was barely there, mindlessly pulling Namjoon in, whimpering, spreading his legs and asking for more without thought. “Alpha,” Seokjin whined, and whereas earlier the single word had made Namjoon keen, it now made him stop.

“Hey,” he said, brushing over Seokjin’s brow as he hovered over Seokjin on the bed. “Hey, look at me. Look at me,” he said, growling for effect when Seokjin didn’t respond. Seokjin’s eyes fluttered open, unfocused. Am I even here? Namjoon pondered, a pang of hurt echoing. “Who am I?”

“Al –”

“No,” he said, cupping Seokjin’s face. “Who am I? Come on, stay with me.” He kissed Seokjin – which one of them was being needier mid-heat?

“Joon-ah,” Seokjin sighed when the kiss broke, eyes locked on his.

“Yeah,” he said, thumb brushing over Seokjin’s cheek. “You and me. I’m all yours.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah – always. Always have been yours. Don’t you know that? I’ve always been yours.”

The kiss was deep and lingered.

But there were aspects of the heat that were new to him – ruts he knew, ruts he understood. So sometimes it took him a while to catch up to what Seokjin wanted, beyond seed and a knot – and once he caught up it made perfect sense, like when Seokjin seemed restless after they’d just finished, after Namjoon pulled out and collapsed beside him. Seokjin didn’t relax but looked needy. Why needy?

“What is it?” he asked, stroking Seokjin’s chest – Seokjin looked displeased somehow, frustrated. Namjoon rose to sit on the bed, alarmed. “Baby, what?”

And Seokjin hesitated, but then rolled over – and offered himself: lifting his ass, legs a little spread. Offered not for knotting – they’d just finished – but for. For inspection. Approval. It clicked, then, and Namjoon felt deep satisfaction settle in him, admiring the mess there, of himself leaking out of Seokjin.

“So good,” he cooed instantly, “you’ve been perfect – god, just look at this.” The tension vanished from Seokjin as Namjoon stroked over his tailbone. “Look at how you present yourself to me,” he praised, letting his fingers slide to Seokjin’s hole, his other hand sneaking around to press into the soft skin of Seokjin’s lower stomach.

He moved closer and pressed stray kisses up Seokjin’s vertebrae, up to the nape of his neck, rubbing at Seokjin’s stomach and – belatedly – realising he was carefully pushing his own come back into Seokjin. But he should, of course he should… And somehow, although he’d just come, he was hardening again. It was Seokjin: his taste, his scent, the way he was offered…

“Fuck, you’re going to look amazing,” he said quietly, Seokjin relaxed and pliant for him. “The prettiest omega, all big and heavy,” he said, palm pressed to Seokjin’s stomach, excitement sparking in him. “I can’t wait to show you off, baby.” He nuzzled at Seokjin’s shoulder blade, feeling Seokjin shiver. “Does it feel good, presenting yourself to me like this?” He pushed two come-covered fingers in, Seokjin clenching around them, Seokjin moaning. “All bred like this?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed – slurring, almost. “Wanted this for so long.”

Namjoon felt more focused, nosing the nape of Seokjin’s neck, fingers working lazily – not trying to excite, but to breed. “You’ve wanted to offer yourself to me before? When?”

“Whenever I see you,” Seokjin said with an abrupt laugh – nearly a sob.

“Yeah? God, you shouldn’t fight that,” he said. “You know I’ll give you what you need. When would you want me to do that, hmm? In dressing rooms? On stage?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin said, tone desperate, pushing back onto his fingers – and Namjoon was hard again, all of him tensing up and excited as he thought of Seokjin heavy with child. Heat talk, this was all heat talk.

“God, you should’ve told me, baby. I would’ve done it years ago. Crawled into your bunk and kept you there, spread out beneath me until I had you bred.”

“Joon-ah…”

A little broken but needy – Seokjin was trying to fuck against his fingers again as Namjoon had started pressing against Seokjin’s prostate, rubbing Seokjin there. With perfect timing, Seokjin’s phone beeped on the nightstand, a reminder that the world hadn’t vanished quite yet. Namjoon licked his lips. “God, maybe I should go live right now – stream you like this. Let everyone watch me breed you…” He gave Seokjin’s left buttock a smack, and Seokjin hiccupped and offered himself even more. He licked his lips. “Would you like that? Let millions watch you like this, let them watch as I fuck a child into you?”

Because god, then everyone would know that Seokjin was his, everyone would… Just ten seconds of streaming would be enough: Seokjin on all fours on the bed like this, heat-dazed, bruised, sweaty, and Namjoon sliding into him, the backs of Seokjin’s thighs already smeared with come –

Namjoon took his cock in hand, pressing the head to the soft skin behind Seokjin’s balls. “You ever touched yourself thinking about that? About letting everyone see who you belong to?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed, moaning as Namjoon’s fingers rubbed his prostate. “God, Namjoonie…”

“What else have you done? Tell me.”

“Ngh, stolen your clothes sometimes,” Seokjin groaned, and Namjoon was surprised he didn’t pop a knot then and there. “Get so turned on smelling you. It gets me off so well…” Was that true? Had that happened? “Haven’t you ever thought about me?” Seokjin asked, with an edge of uncertainty.

Namjoon knocked it back with, “God, of course I think about you.” And he pulled his fingers out and lined himself up, cock pushing back into Seokjin. Seokjin moaned, thrusting back – offering himself. “I think about you just like this, getting bred, but it doesn’t even come close to what you feel like.”

Seokjin’s phone beeped again – god, what if –

“But this is just for me,” he said against the shell of Seokjin’s ear – because this? This he would never share. Seokjin fucked out and blissed out – no, this was just for the two of them to know about.

And within minutes they were both chasing orgasms again, Namjoon fucking Seokjin hard, hips moving with ruthless precision. Namjoon felt his knot swelling, Seokjin letting out an encouraging moan – and soon they were knotted together again, Namjoon brushing over Seokjin’s belly through it, kissing his vertebrae, murmuring for Seokjin to relax and take it, for them both to just let go and let it happen.

After the swell of his knot had come down and he was able to pull out of Seokjin, he kept a hand on the back of Seokjin’s neck, keeping Seokjin down and still on all fours, letting his thumb smear over the widened hole, with Seokjin on display and offer.

“Good boy,” he murmured, pressing his thumb into their collective mess – Seokjin let out a sob. “Shh,” he soothed, “you’ve done so well. Look at you, all mine – dripping, bred. God, can’t wait to finally see you.”

Then he leaned down to taste them: and was ruined. Ruined, ruined, ruined, as he brought Seokjin to another climax with nothing but his mouth and tongue.

How could he ever have considered letting someone else do this with Seokjin? No, he would never.

They were both too dazed afterwards to do much else except stare up at the ceiling, catching their breaths. Seokjin had a hand over his eyes, lips swollen from biting on them, sweat glistening on his cupid’s bow. Unable to resist, Namjoon captured Seokjin’s upper lip in a kiss – Seokjin sighed but then unexpectedly smacked his shoulder.

Namjoon pulled back, dismayed, and found Seokjin glaring at him. “A lot of kids watch our livestreams!”

Namjoon blinked and then grinned. “Aww, but they gotta learn about the birds and the bees sometime…”

“Not from us!” Seokjin said, motioning between them. “Not from a hands-on visual presentation!”

“Mmm, you are a visual presentation,” he agreed, and Seokjin snorted, more like himself again – a sign of the heat waning, perhaps?

“You’re such a dork,” Seokjin muttered, grabbing his hand and pulling Namjoon’s arm tight around himself – and they cuddled together, Seokjin’s back pressing carefully against the length of Namjoon’s body, and Namjoon wanted nothing except to have Seokjin safe in his arms exactly like he was.

His hand brushed over Seokjin’s midriff, and Seokjin’s hand came to rest on top, their fingers interlinking before settling on Seokjin’s stomach. Namjoon kissed Seokjin’s shoulder, letting his thumb press gentle circles under Seokjin’s bellybutton. God, the thrill if Seokjin really…

“Get some rest, baby,” he whispered.

Who was he talking to?

Seokjin sighed – content, happy, bred – and Namjoon knew that he was ruined, forever.

* * *

It wasn’t uncommon for Namjoon’s omegas and betas to be approached for courting: for a declaration of serious romantic intent to be made that would hopefully lead to mating. Many viewed the whole practice as old fashioned, but their fans thought it cute to declare courting intentions on a daily basis – not that these were ever accepted or acknowledged by the pack.

Yet fans frequently teamed up to buy a billboard with cutesy testimonies for their favourite idol, and Jimin and Seokjin had been subject to numerous such billboards over the years. The ads on the subway would feature a seductive picture of Jimin with a text of To our perfect omega Park Jimin, please accept this offering of our eternal admiration dedicated to your beauty with a sign-off from a group of fans, usually all alphas wistfully mooning over Jimin.

Some were more direct: Kim Seokjin, please allow me to court you and make you my mate! Our children will be healthy and strong! with, perhaps, only one alpha’s sign off if they had saved up enough by themselves. Betas courted too and were likewise courted: Light of my life Jung Hoseok, please let me take you away from all cares and worries! Your happiness is my only goal! Disinterested commuters in the meanwhile stood on the platform and yawned into their six AM takeaway coffees.

One courting incident did, however, stand out for Namjoon: when Seokjin caught the attention of an alpha who, for all intents and purposes, had walked out of a cheesy romance novel. Kim Jisoo was a famed alpha bachelorette, in Korea’s top ten wealthiest businesspeople and the CEO of her own company. They had no idea she even knew of their existence until the day she put up a hundred billboards around Seoul with To Kim Seokjin, I ardently declare my love and intent to make you my mate. Accept, be mine, and make my life’s purpose to ensure your bliss forever. – Kim Jisoo

Forget idol Mun Jiyoon with her omega hips marching up to Namjoon at an award show, saying she wanted Namjoon for a heat partner – that was tactful compared to this. One of the billboards was even right outside the gates of the complex they had just moved into – a luxurious new dorm on private grounds and superb security. And this alpha – Kim Jisoo – somehow knew exactly where they lived before it was public knowledge.

She was also sixty-eight years old.

The media loved the absurdity of it. Kim Jisoo gave an interview when approached outside her offices: she had heard their music, of course, but was a busy woman with no time to keep up with modern fads – then she had seen them televised at an award show and had realised she was looking at her future mate. “I am awaiting my beloved’s response,” she said with utmost sincerity. “If he prefers to live quietly, I will buy an island for us and the many children I will give him.”

Many children?! She was sixty-eight!

An alpha who had lost their wits – the public loved it, perhaps laughing at Kim Jisoo a little. The news stations ran the piece as Kim Jisoo, 68, CEO of Kim Technologies has declared an official courting request to idol Kim Seokjin, 25.

“She’s hopelessly in love with Jin-hyung!” Jimin said as the TV ran the story, the seven of them in the label’s conference room, waiting for a project meeting to start.

Yoongi scoffed, but kept his eyes on the TV screen, sipping on a soothing tea for his throat, a red beanie hat on him. “Hopelessly in lust, you mean.”

Hoseok made a face. “At her age, I’d prefer platonic love.”

Taehyung pointed his finger at Hoseok. “Hey! Old people are sexual creatures, too!”

Jimin thankfully interrupted this with, “Ah, Jin-hyung, you’ve made it now! A rich alpha to treat you right! No more dancing and touring!”

“But I’m a millionaire,” Seokjin said, “because of the dancing and touring.”

“Yes, but she’s a billionaire,” Hoseok reminded, motioning at the TV. “Why spend your money when you can spend hers?”

Yoongi said, “And she has to die sometime.”

“Soon,” Jimin added. “Sometime soon.”

While the others giggled and snorted, Jungkook more sternly said, “She should’ve approached alpha-hyung if she was going to take it this far.”

True: to court Seokjin so boldly and directly, with such intent, Jisoo should have asked for Namjoon’s blessing – which he would in no way give, absolutely not. Over forty years their senior?! Out of the question! But perhaps the age difference was why she was ignoring Namjoon completely: he was just a kid to her, nothing more. Being lovestruck aside, Jisoo looked fierce and determined in all footage Namjoon saw of her, in smart business suits, grey hair in a sharp off-the-shoulders bob.

But the pack was busy with their own success and billionaire Kim Jisoo’s attempt at courting was something Namjoon had no time for, annoying although it was. These courting things came and went, anyway.

But Kim Jisoo was no ordinary fan putting up a cutesy ad in the subway, oh no. She was a businesswoman who didn’t take no for an answer.

When they returned to Seoul after an award show in Tokyo, Kim Jisoo had turned it up a notch or twelve: she had sent forty-six bouquets to the dorm (one for each day she had been in love), a thousand portions of ramyeon, a diamond collar from Tiffany’s, a baby rattle made of solid gold, and made a generous donation to Seokjin’s old high school in Gwacheon.

Kim Jisoo had lost it. Clearly she’d fucking lost it!

Namjoon stood in their living room, travel-worn but shocked, taking in the goddamn jungle of flowers spread everywhere. This shouldn’t have been possible: Jisoo should not have been able to have their exact address nor get deliveries slipped into their home.

“Oh my god,” Seokjin breathed, holding the card that had been waiting amidst the gifts while Jimin was already fiddling with the diamond choker.

“I’m taking this if you don’t,” Jimin said. “Not fair only alpha-hyung has one of these.”

Their manager was already on the phone regarding the security breach – only pre-authorised packages were supposed to make it this far, and Namjoon was fuming. No more Mr. Nice Alpha who was bemused that an elderly billionaire was trying to court his packmate – Kim Jisoo needed to back the hell off!

“I want all of this out of my sight,” he snarled, glaring at the nearest bouquet of flowers.

“But we should keep the ramyeon!” Taehyung said, hugging a twenty-four pack to his chest – one from the sizeable ramyeon mountain in the middle of the room. Taehyung turned to Seokjin. “Take one for the team, hyung! Accept!”

“Taehyungie,” Yoongi said, “you can buy your own ramyeon.”

“But it tastes better when it’s free!”

“She’s crossed a line this time,” even Hoseok said, flicking at a sunflower, and Namjoon was relieved someone understood how inappropriate this was. “I almost feel sorry for her, though,” Hoseok then added when Yoongi passed him the large jewellery box with the golden baby rattle in it. Hoseok examined it sadly. “I looked her up, you know – her intended mate died in a helicopter crash back in, like, the seventies. The seventies. And now she’s got a whole fortune and no one to leave it to, or even share it with.”

Yoongi pointed at the rattle. “I’m sure some gold digger will oblige.”

Seokjin was still taking in the lavish display of presents, cheeks flushed. “She’s never even met me…”

Jimin smirked. “Hyung, are you considering it?”

“No!” Seokjin said, folding the card – and slipping it into his pocket, Namjoon noted. “No, but I can be flattered. This is flattering. It’s what I deserve and I am glad someone sees that!” Seokjin picked up the vase nearest to him – red roses, a classic. “She is an alpha of great taste!” He headed towards his bedroom, calling out over his shoulder, “Send the rest away!”

An hour later, Kim Jisoo’s presents had been carried out while Taehyung was slurping on a suspiciously large bowl of noodles in the kitchen. In response to the incident the label sent a formal and official rejection to Jisoo herself and said that further courting presents would lead to legal action.

Namjoon was pacified and Jisoo gave up – the billboards came down. There were a couple of internet memes and some What will it take to woo Kim Seokjin? articles (maybe someone not nearly thrice their age, crazy thought).

But perhaps a month later Namjoon was searching for a shirt in Seokjin’s room – it was one of his favourites but he’d last seen it on Seokjin – when he spotted an envelope with the Kim Technologies logo peeking from a stack of papers on Seokjin’s nightstand. Was it that card that had come with the gifts? And should he read it? No. No, that was an invasion of privacy.

But it was already opened and in Namjoon’s hands.

Yet it turned out that it wasn’t the card, but a letter. It was a response to a letter that Seokjin must have sent to Kim Jisoo. Namjoon stared, taken aback: the handwriting was old-fashioned with its arcs and strokes, telling of Jisoo’s age:

Dearest Seokjin-ssi,

The time you took to write to me is proof of your good heart and my fair judgement of your kind soul – thank you, Seokjin-ssi. I hereby acknowledge your refusal, although it pains me deeply. I have lived a long life without a mate and know the sorrow of loneliness. It is a glasshouse – yes, what a fitting metaphor, I liked that very much. I can tell we would have had much in common.

With my age comes wisdom – the wisdom to read between the lines. Rest assured that the matters of your heart are therefore safe with me and that I have destroyed your letter as per your request. Thank you for relinquishing me from my passions although, if you forgive me, perhaps I will love you for a little while still.

Wishing you eternal health and happiness.

Kim Jisoo

Namjoon held the letter in his hands, frowning. Seokjin had articulated a refusal clearly and Jisoo had acknowledged it. Good, that was all good, but what glasshouse? What sorrow of loneliness? And what matters of the heart between the lines?! Maybe Seokjin had made something up to let Jisoo down gently or hinted at it? Alphas rarely backed down unless told someone had beaten them to it, to the annoyance of nearly all omega- and betakind, but he pondered if Seokjin had met someone and Namjoon simply didn’t know about it – Jaebong Number 2 perhaps? But no, that didn’t seem possible.

But he still didn’t like it: a matured alpha sending private love letters to Seokjin, yes even if the letters were about not pursuing said love. He growled quietly to himself, flummoxed. If he ever met this Kim Jisoo at any kind of a function, he’d have to remind her of some basic alpha courtesy rules. Secret letters behind the pack alpha’s back…!

He had managed to put the letter back in its place when Seokjin walked in, unfazed to see Namjoon in his room, slurping on an iced tea and in a t-shirt Namjoon recognised.

“Yah, I was looking for that,” Namjoon complained but had no willpower to claim back any of his clothing once it was on Seokjin.

Seokjin shrugged, uncaring, and sat cross-legged on the bed, reaching for the game controller there. Seokjin’s hair was blond and fluffy looking, Namjoon’s grey t-shirt on him too big, revealing his collarbones and neck, unmarked and untainted. Unclaimed. Could Namjoon really blame Kim Jisoo?

Seokjin’s eyes were already on the wall-mounted TV as a game flickered on. “Out of the way,” Seokjin shooed at him.

But he had some time to spare and sat down, taking a sip of Seokjin’s drink, and he thought about Seokjin’s letter to a billionaire alpha. Whatever Seokjin had written had touched his suitor – of course it had. Seokjin was the first to worry about the feelings of others, be it a toddler in a park bruising their knee or Kim Jisoo in her CEO offices somewhere in Seoul, late sixties, childless, and longing for a mate.

Jisoo was right: Seokjin had a good heart.

“What?” Seokjin frowned, and Namjoon stopped staring at him, his chest all warm and fuzzy.

“Nothing.” He settled on the bed, leaning against the headboard like Seokjin was. He slung an arm around Seokjin’s shoulders, slurping the iced tea with his free hand. “What level you on?”

“Thirty-four.” Seokjin’s character was already bouncing on the screen, collecting gems. Seokjin leaned into him – not scenting but still seeking the proximity.

“Let’s try and get you to level thirty-five, then.”

Namjoon stayed up to thirty-seven, with Seokjin warm next to him, smelling of the pack but of Namjoon most of all. Namjoon considered bringing up the letter – of asking what Seokjin had said to Jisoo – and decided against it. They all carried secrets, Namjoon too. Namjoon plenty, maybe, as he played with the collar of his own t-shirt on Seokjin. So let the letter be, fine, but –

“Hey, about Kim Jisoo?”

Seokjin kept playing but said, “Oh you mean the only alpha out there with even the vaguest notion of how to court me properly?”

“What? Is it diamond chokers or go home?”

“Hey, I’ll have you know my old school is getting a new wing!”

“She didn’t ask for the money back?”

“No, and I’d like to see someone beat that,” Seokjin said but then paused the game and turned to him, expression searching. “Fine, what of her?”

What of her? Namjoon wasn’t sure. But god, it certainly took someone of Kim Jisoo’s power and confidence to go for Seokjin. Namjoon expected more billboards in their future, perhaps gifts in the form of yachts, definitely some puppies, and perhaps someone donating RJ toys to all the children’s hospitals in the country – anything to prove an alpha’s worth of Seokjin.

He nudged Seokjin’s side. “I didn’t know you liked them so old.”

Seokjin’s eyes narrowed. “Like you know anything about what I like!”

“Grey hair, apparently,” he said, clocked that his hair was silver right then, and amended, “Natural grey hair. Older the better.”

“Yah, get out of my room! Shameless brat!”

“I’m your pack al –”

“Still a brat!” Seokjin insisted, shoving at him, but they were both smiling.

Namjoon got out of bed and straightened his clothes. “See you at practice,” he said, and Seokjin stuck out his tongue. “You’re twenty-five, hyung.”

“Yes, and the rest of you can bite me,” Seokjin said, back to playing his game.

And Namjoon stilled at the door – ceasing to function just for two seconds or so – and then exhaled and refocused. God, whoever would eventually earn Seokjin’s affections enough to get their bite on him was going to be a near-godlike figure. To get into Seokjin’s bed, to get to Seokjin’s neck.

Whoever that would be, he thought – whoever this near-godlike figure must be.

* * *

Namjoon awoke in Seokjin’s bed, absolutely exhausted, with Seokjin firmly pressed to his chest. The heat had kept him half-awake, something ingrained ordering him to stay on guard as his omega rested, to keep Seokjin safe – but now Namjoon had finally slept deeply and knew it signalled that the heat was ending. They lay naked, no covers on them, with Seokjin relaxed against him, the touch of his skin still warm but less so than before. Moonlight cut through the dark of the room, yellow glow landing on clothes, pillows, even the vibrator that Namjoon had thrown away when the batteries died.

He couldn’t have told anyone what day of the week it was. Had they missed the tour? No – No, someone would have come for them.

Seokjin began to stir too, stretching against him and nuzzling his chest. Namjoon fought off a smile, rubbing Seokjin’s back. “Hey,” he croaked, pressing a kiss to Seokjin’s hair – dirty, unwashed, but that felt good. “I gotta go check my phone, is that okay? I think it’s in the kitchen.”

Seokjin shifted, eyes closed. “Mmm, only if you bring ice cream.”

“Yeah? Is this omega hungry?” he asked, teasing but satisfied.

“Starving,” Seokjin complained, which was a good sign. Namjoon had already done a few snack trips as the heat waned, the bedroom floor now littered with candy bar wrappers and a few emptied instant noodle cups.

Getting out of bed was a task in itself, but he managed it and pulled on a pair of boxers while Seokjin curled up on the bed, pulling covers on himself – too tired, still.

“I’ll be right back.”

“Ungh,” Seokjin protested, but there was an anxious edge to it – Seokjin had been eyeing him fearfully whenever he’d sneaked out earlier, with Namjoon endlessly promising to be back quickly. “Then go already.”

Namjoon couldn’t stop the winning grin on his face. “Cute,” he cooed, and Seokjin huffed.

The world pointlessly existed outside Seokjin’s bedroom: Namjoon was stiff on his feet, the marble floor cold, but the stretch of his limbs was welcome. He was disgusting, of course, scratched, bruised, sweaty, but that came with the territory – and for Namjoon that was a sign of a job well done.

In the kitchen he took out the chocolate ice cream to thaw, found a bowl and a spoon. His phone was on the counter from last time, battery very dead. He placed it on the wireless charging dock, watching the screen come to life: it was four in the morning. The pack chat had only – oh, only four hundred and sixty-eight new messages. Wow, okay. He refocused, scrolled up and down, seeing Jimin, Taehyung, and Hoseok chatting from the night before, with Jimin complaining: I napped with mang earlier but it’s not the same why has everyone left me?? :( :(, and with Hoseok replying, i am literally an hour away now, and Jimin protesting: an hour too far!!

Jimin got withdrawals quickly – Namjoon, stood in Seokjin’s kitchen, was disturbed to realise he was having absolutely none. Jimin clearly hadn’t been tolerating his absence either, messaging him directly:
alpha-hyung
alpha-hyung!!
alpha-hyung?!?!
i barely smell like you pls come back
alpha-hyung :( :(

Three selcas of Jimin pouting – on Namjoon’s bed.

yoongi-hyung says you’re taking me time, am i not a part of your me time???
alpha-hyungggggggggggg don’t ignore meeeeee

The messages were over two days old – Jimin had given up, then, but the others had also been messaging him about the inane and the everyday, with Taehyung saying, can you text jimin to stop stealing my face masks bc he said you’d agree that he must stay pretty more than i do but I DO NOT AGREE, please weigh in on this and Jungkook had sent, hyung, when are we doing that latin pop collab again? i know you wanted me to write lyrics for it but they’re not that good… and Hoseok had sent, did you see the sketches for the new concept outfits, not sure about the leather? and Yoongi, for some reason, had sent remember that place by the dorms with the good bibimbap, let’s go sometime soon. Then Yoongi had added, although i hear fans use the place for pilgrimage these days so we probably can’t go. never mind.

He tried to take this all in.

And it wasn’t just the pack: he had endless messages and missed calls from family and friends, from a handful of their assistants and PD-nim too, about collaborations, merch meetings, production details, and plenty of messages from Sejin: when do you get back to seoul? we need to talk schedules ASAP

As for the voicemails, he didn’t even know how to pick one – but he chose the most recent message from Sejin and instantly regretted it: “Namjoon-ah, this is my fourth voicemail. You better have a good reason for having your phone switched off when I’ve been trying to reach you all day – all day since yesterday! And I’ve just called your parents in Ilsan and they have no clue as to where you are, were you not supposed to be there?! I told them I got my days mixed up, but, but I don’t know where you are and you’re not picking up.”

A long pause followed. “Look, Joonie, I haven’t told your pack, unless they know your real whereabouts and none of you are telling me? I mean, have you been kidnapped, are you- you dead in a ditch?! Okay, worst case scenario, Sejin, focus, focus… Listen, I’m gonna have to alert your pack in the morning, because if they know where you are then I need to know too, alright? God, you haven’t done anything stupid, have you, like go all American celebrity on me and have a breakdown with cocaine and knuckle tattoos and omega prostitutes? Maybe it really was just a matter of time until one of you cracked…?” Sejin sighed and a few beats of silence followed. “Humour your old uncle Sejin, alright? Just call me and let me know you’re okay. That’s all. Alright, I’m gonna keep calling. And I know I don’t say this enough but- but I love you, kiddo, you make me proud. Call me.”

The message ended with Namjoon feeling like an absolute asshole as he stood in Seokjin’s kitchen, in nothing but a pair of red underwear and Seokjin’s heat scent rubbed into his skin.

Into the pack chat he typed, sorry guys phone died. For good measure, he added, had to buy a new charger, chaos. check in as soon as you read this. To Sejin he sent, sorry i’ve been MIA, haven’t gone off the deep end i swear, i’ll call you first thing, not dead in a ditch, etc., thank you for always looking after us

Jimin had sent them all a selca with Taehyung from the night before, and Hoseok was also back at the dorm with Jimin humble-bragging to the pack chat that hobi-hyung smells like actual flowers, we must cherish him forever. And while it was four AM, Jungkook now sent, checking in: busan still, all good! Flight back in a few hours

Namjoon made a note to ask why their youngest was up at four, but he typed, yoongi-hyung? because four AM was Yoongi’s bitch and he only had to wait a minute until a loquacious at studio. He relaxed: okay.

Jungkook added, any news from jin-hyung?

Yoongi replied, no but who texts during a heat?

Which seemed like a valid point?

“Joon-ah?”

He looked up to see Seokjin in the kitchen doorway in the simple white hoodie Namjoon had worn when he’d arrived – and nothing else. The hoodie engulfed Seokjin down to upper thigh, and mouth-shaped bruises decorated what he could see of Seokjin’s bare thighs, flecks of white mixed with stray purple marks. Seokjin’s black hair was an unwashed mess and his throat had love bites down to the hollow of his throat. The sleeves of the hoodie were too long for Seokjin, making his broad frame look small. Namjoon faltered. How did you know when you fell in love? How were you supposed to know?

“You should be in bed,” he managed, mouth running dry. He could smell Seokjin: the deep and rich honeyed musk, laced with the scent of Namjoon himself, of sweat, of sex. The combination was already carved into the very core of him somehow as a scent he would never forget. Never stop craving.

Seokjin walked into the kitchen on unsure legs. Seokjin’s heat patch had started peeling off in two of its four corners, slowly shrivelling like a leaf when winter came. But while the heat might have gone they both looked a mess and remained disorientated.

“I got impatient,” Seokjin said, shuffling closer and burying his face in Namjoon’s neck – needier than what Seokjin usually was, bolder too.

They should get back to bed, sleep this off – but Namjoon was still holding his phone. And so, even as Seokjin pressed in close to scent him, he said, “Listen, I think I… need to go. Everyone is – It’s chaos.”

And when Seokjin pulled back with a frown, Namjoon waved his phone like an excuse, guilt churning in his guts.

The world outside remained, not to mention the impending European leg of Paris, London, Barcelona – and god, in Barcelona they had sold out the largest stadium in Europe, and Sejin needed pacifying, and Namjoon needed to look presentable for the airport, Seokjin too, and the pack needed reunifying, and – and the fans, god their millions of fans… The heat was one thing but this, his phone with a million tasks for him to do, was reality for both of them.

For far too long, Seokjin said nothing – long enough to set fear in Namjoon’s heart. Then Seokjin said, “Yeah… Yeah, of course.”

“I’m –”

“We’re disgusting,” Seokjin said, pulling back and looking around the kitchen. “We should get cleaned up.”

And something awful happened in that moment because Seokjin no longer touched him.

Seokjin put the untouched ice cream back into the freezer. So much for that.

Namjoon showered in the guest bathroom, slowly washing the scent of Seokjin off himself, the heat and the sex – dried come, dried slick. He felt dizzy, an ache in his chest.

When he returned to Seokjin’s bedroom with a towel wrapped around his waist, he found the bed empty and cold like a battlefield, with an air of loss remaining long after the bodies had been buried. He stood there, startled how the entire heat felt like a memory already, like something that had happened to someone else. Professional cleaners from Cellular Solutions had been hired to come tidy up the heat mess after Seokjin departed. Poor fuckers who had that job – but they’d have seen worse, Namjoon figured.

He found Seokjin in the bathroom by the mirror, now in loose black boxers, broad shoulders marked with bruises, hair wet from a shower. The air was steamy, and Seokjin was wiping at the fogged-up mirror for a spot to see himself from. Their eyes met in the revealed mirror, but they said nothing.

Seokjin focused on his reflection and began peeling off the heat patch by a corner. It slowly came off, revealing pale, unmarked skin before Seokjin dropped the patch onto the counter and rubbed at his exposed neck.

It was done, Namjoon supposed. Finished.

“Everyone will recognise this,” Seokjin then said, worry to his tone.

Seokjin was right: the former location of the patch was marked perfectly by red love bites, forming a square around the area where the patch had been. People would take one look at Seokjin’s neck and think ‘well that alpha gets points for trying’.

“Let me see,” Namjoon said, approaching. Seokjin turned to him and tilted his head to the side, and Namjoon was taken aback by his own precision, unintended or at least subconscious, like he had tried to get to Seokjin’s scent gland as stubbornly as he could – doing so had made Seokjin’s orgasms more intense, each time. And Namjoon was pleased by his efforts – couldn’t help but be – and at the thought he brought a hand to Seokjin’s bare stomach, just under his belly button, and stroked across it softly, palm pressing against the skin there.

A soft rumble sounded from his chest – but it was pleased, content.

Seokjin inhaled sharply. “You know I’m not…”

But what if that wasn’t true? How effective were heat shots anyway?

“We’ll see,” he said, although he knew distantly what a mess it would be if Seokjin was, but beneath that was excitement, and he focused on that. God, if only they… But his hand on Seokjin’s lower belly stilled, his heart heavy. “Would you have it?”

It was a goddamned stupid thing to ask and he knew it.

There was a beat of silence before Seokjin said, “Yeah.”

“Yeah?” he asked, relief washing over him. His fingers traversed the skin of Seokjin’s stomach again. “Would you have it right now?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I would.”

“You would?” he asked, and Seokjin nodded with a weight of certainty to it. “Good. That’s so good… God, I can’t wait,” he said, and Seokjin looked at him with wide, surprised eyes – as gorgeous as ever.

Is this love? Sing it a thousand times and you still don’t know.

“Should you get some rest?” he then coaxed, wrapping arms around Seokjin’s waist and pulling him in. “Wear that hoodie of mine and sleep?” he murmured into Seokjin’s hair. “You’re gonna need the extra sleep now…” Seokjin went utterly pliant in his arms. “That’s my good omega.”

Seokjin swallowed. “What are we doing?”

Namjoon wasn’t sure – what felt natural. What every fibre of his being was telling him to do. The heat was gone, but this part felt equally important even if Namjoon was supposed to step back and let go now. Yet he pushed closer, gazing deeply into Seokjin’s eyes, yearning. He absently stroked his thumb over Seokjin’s scent gland, which was swollen and carrying lingering heat. As his thumb pressed against it, Seokjin faltered, breath hitching. The heat was all but done – but god, just the smell of Seokjin…

Seokjin’s cheeks were rosy and, once more, Namjoon smelled arousal on him.

“Here?” Namjoon asked, voice low and husky as he pushed in closer – still?

“No, in Peru.”

“I’ll fuck you in Peru, too,” he promised, grabbing Seokjin’s waist and hoisting him onto the counter in one swift movement, then paused – too rough? Too – but Seokjin was already kissing him.

And Namjoon wasn’t at all sure what happened next and how, except that suddenly their kisses felt like they were hanging on for dear life. Seokjin tasted of spearmint and mouthwash, and Seokjin was tugging at Namjoon’s towel until it pooled at his feet, and Namjoon pulled Seokjin’s underwear off, all of it rushed and desperate.

Namjoon stood between Seokjin’s spread legs, both hands on Seokjin’s behind, lifting him up slightly as he pushed back inside, like the hours it had been since the last time had dragged on for weeks – and Seokjin bit on his bottom lip, one arm looped around Namjoon’s neck, the other on the counter for balance. Seokjin nodded, breathless, and Namjoon began thrusting, their mouths chasing the other’s with a needy, apologetic quality that Namjoon didn’t recognise.

Despite his soreness, Seokjin was still wet, still ready for him, and Seokjin breathed through the thrusts, full of quiet murmurs and whimpers – music, like the most beautiful music. And the heat lingered as Namjoon kissed Seokjin and said, “I love making you come.” He felt drunk on it, thinking what a dangerous discovery that was.

“Ngh,” Seokjin managed, a groan pressed to his chin. “God, don’t stop.” Seokjin kissed him – really, truly kissed him, in a way that pulsated from his lips down to his toes. Seokjin’s hand tugged the hairs at the nape of his neck, breath hitching when Namjoon got the angle right, his arms tensed as he kept Seokjin lifted up, cock pushing into him. “Oh…”

And with no patch in his way, Namjoon buried his face against Seokjin’s neck, his hips moving, seeking the pleasure of how Seokjin took him in. Seokjin’s head tilted back more, and Namjoon mouthed over the bruised neck, Seokjin’s breaths more laboured. It made sense, with the two of them. God, this made sense, and –

And Namjoon followed his nose, pressing to the newly exposed patch of skin where he kissed the scent gland – softly, reverently. Seokjin shivered, the scent of Seokjin so strong there, familiar in countless ways, but always making him ache.

“Yeah,” Seokjin breathed – encouraging. And so he kissed the gland, tongue tracing over it, sending a thrill of dark need straight to his core; his thrusts faster, his hands on Seokjin’s behind holding on firmly. It felt like worship as Seokjin sounded close to orgasm, and Namjoon would do anything for Seokjin – now, in the future, always. He was Seokjin’s, all his intentions and plans entwined with what Seokjin did, where Seokjin would go – it was so clear to him in that moment.

Seokjin was close, hand pushing through Namjoon’s hair, keeping Namjoon pressed to his neck, an edge of surrender to him. Namjoon faltered. He pushed into Seokjin’s neck with a hint of intent, and Seokjin shuddered before relaxing utterly in his arms, in a way no one had ever done, and then –

Then Seokjin fully offered his throat.

There was no mistaking the gesture for a teasing tilt or as access to kiss or bruise – Seokjin pushed closer, neck offered, body relaxed – staying still and on offer. A jolt of purpose and clarity cut through Namjoon, and he let out a pleased growl and poised his teeth against the scent gland, every cell in his body wired up with intent. Seokjin keened, the scent of Seokjin spiking as he rasped out, “Oh god, Namjoon-ah…”

Namjoon couldn’t stop.

But with a half second of foresight, he tore himself away from the gland and lunged for Seokjin’s shoulder to bite – catching skin between his teeth, blood soaring in his ears. Seokjin came with a sharp cry, and Namjoon didn’t let go, teeth breaking skin as he thrust in hard, driving his cock deep inside, lifting Seokjin off the counter with the force of his movements. Seokjin didn’t pull away from the bite but shivered under him, and as Namjoon came Seokjin didn’t clench around his cock like he did in heat, didn’t try and get Namjoon to knot and spill. It wasn’t heat sex – this was the other kind, except now Namjoon had a faint taste of iron in his mouth, and it changed everything.

When he returned to himself, breathless and out of it, he was already kissing over the bite to soothe it. Blood had risen to the surface, indents of his teeth pressed into the skin. Seokjin’s pale, perfect, flawless skin. It wasn’t a full-on bite – not bleeding and permanent, and not at Seokjin’s neck to claim a mate – but a bite nevertheless, much more suggestive than sucked in bruises could be. He stared at it, thrilled, content – shocked.

He put Seokjin down on the counter, too roughly, pulling out – and Seokjin gasped and winced. His hands remained on Seokjin’s waist, and Seokjin’s voice came like through a stage curtain, murmuring, “Oh, hey hey hey…” Seokjin’s lips were pressed against his mouth, both hands in his hair. “You’re okay,” Seokjin said, “I’m sorry, I – Fuck, that was- God, you’re okay.” Seokjin kissed him again, but he felt dazed. His hands ghosted over Seokjin’s bruised hips, the faint smell of blood in the air pleasing him even as it alarmed him.

“Did I –”

“No,” Seokjin said, a quick shake of the head, hand brushing down Namjoon’s chest. “No, I – I got carried away, but I’m not hurt. That was- was stupid, god I – I don’t know what came over –”

Namjoon pushed closer, relieved, the pheromones pulsating in him still as he nosed towards Seokjin’s neck – and Seokjin offered it again, not in the way he had before but he still let Namjoon to his throat, breath hitching, like he couldn’t help it. “Fuck,” Seokjin whispered, Adam’s apple bobbing as Namjoon kissed him there – but it was apologetic.

He returned to himself further, the rush of hormones fading, Seokjin gently touching his shoulders and chest, but the possessive pulse remained as Seokjin sat on the counter, Namjoon’s hands caressing Seokjin’s thighs and stomach.

Seokjin snaked his hands under Namjoon’s arms to hug him. Namjoon hugged him back, both of them still naked and warm, the bathroom air humid around them. Seokjin’s mouth pressed against his hair, and Namjoon breathed him in – enthralled, captivated. God, to kneel at your feet and worship, Namjoon thought feverishly. Now, tomorrow, until the end of time…

“Sorry,” Seokjin said, voice rough, and Namjoon frowned. But they continued to hug, Namjoon breathing in Seokjin’s scent, both of their racing hearts calming. Seokjin pressed into him. “Thank you.”

Namjoon hesitated, trying to follow. “Don’t thank me. Not for this.”

“This what?”

“This. Taking care of you.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin said quietly, the single word scattering across his shoulder. “Yeah, you did. Of course you did.” Seokjin swallowed. “Instincts, huh? Hard to fight them at the end of the day.” Seokjin pulled back from the hug, flushed and sweaty, a bite on his shoulder. Namjoon reached out to lift Seokjin’s chin, but Seokjin placed a hand on his chest and pushed him backwards. “You should get going. We’ve indulged enough, right?”

And Seokjin closed his legs, sliding off the counter, gaze averted. Namjoon, stunned, opened his mouth to say that –

To say what?

Loose threads, all of it.

They got dressed in silence.

Seokjin pulled on fresh pyjamas and Namjoon found his clothes from days earlier before he followed Seokjin to the guest room, not knowing what else to do. “I’m just gonna get some sleep,” Seokjin explained, pulling covers aside, sitting on the bed. “I’m fine now. You can go.”

But he lingered. His instincts had never dominated him to this extent before: the bite was still on Seokjin’s shoulder, hidden by the pyjama top. No, it wasn’t a mating bite, but it signalled ownership. And they hadn’t conceived, of course they hadn’t, but he couldn’t shake off the notion. Okay. Okay, this had to stop now. The tour and the pack and the fans and this, whatever this was, had to stop.

But to leave his omega at a time like this – what the hell was he doing?

“Come to the dorm once you’ve slept?” he requested, and Seokjin nodded. Good, okay. Well…

“Hey listen,” Seokjin then said, rubbing, ironically, at his neck. “This doesn’t have to be as… as huge as it seems right now. I’m not in control when I get all… I just. I don’t want you to think less of me just because you’ve seen how –”

“Of course I don’t,” he said, mystified by the suggestion. Think less of Seokjin? That was the opposite of everything pulsing through him. Perfect, Seokjin had been perfect, like a missing puzzle had been added to all he knew of Seokjin: it fit, completed the picture.

“Okay,” Seokjin exhaled, but he looked uncomfortable. Seokjin motioned between them. “Maybe it was just a matter of time before… you and me. Those instincts lurk.”

He managed to nod. “Maybe.”

“We shouldn’t judge ourselves for that,” Seokjin said, taking him in stood near the door. “So… So promise me we won’t change because of this.” Seokjin turned to push the pillow to the middle of the bed, back turned. “Let’s not change, Joonie. Alright?” Seokjin’s shoulders were tense with none of the heat’s release on him. “You mean too much to me.”

Namjoon felt the two years Seokjin had on him then: Seokjin seemed graver and wiser than just days earlier.

He nodded. “I promise. Of course I promise.”

What he wanted to say was that Seokjin meant too much to him too.

But even as he said it he knew that a mistake had been made, but he wasn’t sure what it was. But it felt wrong, leaving Seokjin behind. It felt wrong to return to the world as it was.

But that was what he did: he left, confused and lost, struggling to remember where he was going. The days of such intense proximity left him in need of Seokjin’s touch, everything in him filled with the way they had kissed and entwined, the way he now intimately knew the expanses of Seokjin’s body and the music of Seokjin’s pleasured sighs, and god, the addictive, sweet taste of him – and the way Seokjin offered his neck, truly offered it.

Seokjin had been his for a few days. Hours. Minutes.

He entered the quiet dorm in a daze, pushing his shoes off. It was too early for anyone to be up yet, and so he showered a second time that morning and then changed clothes again just to be safe. No trace of Seokjin on him remained after he had finished – like he’d lost a mate. He’d read a book once where the alpha’s mate had died – a heart attack, mundane and boring – and the alpha had bought vacuum seal bags for all of her mate’s clothes. She’d taken out one item of clothing per month – to scent. Inhale. Nuzzle. She’d run out of clothes after five years. Losing her scent forever was worse than a thousand of her deaths, the book had said, and the line had always stuck with him.

He felt like she must have, somehow.

He stood in his bedroom, exhausted, directionless and dumbfounded. Lost. He’d been gone for what? Four and a half days? He found a t-shirt that belonged to Yoongi amidst his own clothes, the beta’s understated scent on it clear. He slipped it on but remained listless. Yoongi wasn’t in his bedroom, the bed cold and the curtains drawn, but Yoongi sometimes slept at the studio so Namjoon wasn’t entirely surprised.

He missed Seokjin.

He headed to Jimin and Hoseok’s room, quickly knocking before stepping in. The room was large and neat, with two king-sized beds and a tall shelving unit dividing the spaces – but only Hoseok’s bed was occupied, with Hoseok asleep on his back and Jimin curled to his side.

His pack.

Thank god for his pack.

Namjoon pulled the covers aside and slipped in.

Hoseok jerked, half-opening an eye. “Wha – Namjoonie? Ungh, you’re heavy.” Namjoon ignored this and pressed into Hoseok’s chest and settled in, nosing in the familiar, sleepy scent of him, Jimin fast asleep on Hoseok’s other side but Namjoon reached over to brush Jimin’s hair affectionately. Jimin sniffed in his sleep, hummed in clear approval, and continued to sleep. Cute – so cute.

“Why have you washed us off?” Hoseok then asked, confused but scenting the top of his head already. “You never wash us off.”

“Stupid,” he admitted. And the second he said it, for some inexplicable reason, he felt like crying.

“Yeah. Yeah, that is stupid. Is everything okay?” But Namjoon couldn’t speak, so he just nodded. Seokjin and the heat and the pull and the push and the taste and then his, all his, but then lost, and – “Are you gonna tell me what happened?” And Namjoon shook his head as Hoseok smoothed over his back. “The things you do…”

“I missed you all,” he managed.

“Look at you admitting it,” Hoseok said, voice fond. “Just don’t snore, okay?”

“Yeah sure,” he mumbled and fell asleep like that, head resting against Hoseok’s heart.

He was briefly awakened by Taehyung’s excited voice an indeterminable time later – “Guys, are we scenting?” – and the addition of Taehyung on the bed, clinging onto his back like a baby sloth. “Don’t leave me for so long, alpha-hyung,” Taehyung said, already rubbing his scent into Namjoon’s shoulder.

“Shh,” Jimin whispered. “I think his withdrawal’s been bad.”

Taehyung let out a sympathetic sound and snuggled closer. Hoseok’s bed really wasn’t big enough for this, he thought, but he was too tired to even consider moving his dozing pack elsewhere.

Some hours later he cracked open an eye and saw that Jungkook was fast asleep along Jimin’s back, one leg draping over the omega, Jungkook’s hair long and fluffy and smelling of the stale air of an airplane. Jungkook looked knocked out cold, mouth agape and breaths steady and deep, and Yoongi was stood by the bed, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.

As their eyes met, Yoongi mumbled, “Ah, so this is where you all are… I was just checking…”

Namjoon lifted his arm to motion for Yoongi to join. Yoongi sighed, mumbled, “Honestly, aren’t we too old for this?”

Which was true, because they didn’t do this often – very rarely, if something bad had happened, when someone’s grandparent had died or they’d been apart from each other for too long.

Yoongi climbed in, pressing against Jungkook’s back, and was asleep instantly, like Yoongi hadn’t slept in a day or two – and probably hadn’t.

Namjoon had them all back.

He tried to fall back asleep, but failed. Not safe. Not intact. Not happy. He counted them all in his head, catching their scents – all five except for Seokjin.

All five, yet somehow that didn’t measure up to anywhere near enough.

* * *

As the pack reunited after Seokjin’s heat, Namjoon couldn’t shake off the feeling that something fundamental had come to an end. Seokjin was right: it was hard to fight instincts, and that was what Namjoon had to do constantly, some part of him absolutely convinced that Seokjin was as good as his now – not as a packmate, no, but as more than that – but the uncertainty of it left Namjoon testy and aggressive to the point where he felt like he was losing himself.

Seokjin’s return to the dorm was of course scandalous: purple, yellow, blue bruises marked Seokjin’s neck.

“What happened to the rule of no obvious bruises?” Taehyung asked in alarm, Seokjin’s ears turning bright red as the others kept crowding him. Namjoon usually never minded his packmates touching Seokjin – it was family, so of course not – but that afternoon he wanted to snarl at the way they barely let Seokjin get some air.

“You’ll need a turtleneck for the airport,” Hoseok said worriedly, examining the damage.

“He’ll need a turtleneck for the entire tour,” Jimin said, sounding envious and pulling on Seokjin’s collar. “Did you want to elope with him?” Jimin accused.

“No! And get off me!” Seokjin complained, squirming to get away.

Jimin then gasped, up on his toes, tugging on Seokjin’s shirt. “Jin-hyung, you let him bite you?!” This renewed everyone’s interest and doubled the shock.

“Wow, he must’ve been super hot,” Jungkook said.

Taehyung said, “Or persuasive.”

“He was both,” Seokjin snapped, fending off the kids. Namjoon’s guts tightened with warmth, but Seokjin was decidedly not looking his way.

Hoseok said, “Hyung, you barely knew him!”

In the midst of the welcome hugs and gossip, Namjoon excused himself to the kitchen, getting out a bottled water as he tried to stay calm. The others hadn’t seen Seokjin in days and wanted his scent back, and Namjoon had to have the patience to let them. But soon Seokjin walked in and their eyes met – and Seokjin had no trace of a smile on his face at first, but then he seemed to summon one from a place so deep that Namjoon had no knowledge where it came from. The empty, reserved expression turned into a smile, a light and humorous one, that was so convincing it scared Namjoon because at first he believed it. He believed it. He couldn’t tell a fake smile from a real one – since when? When had Seokjin gotten this good at deception?

Seokjin gave him a boisterous, “There’s my pack alpha! Look at you. You’ve gotten taller, haven’t you?”

Namjoon, for his part, pulled Seokjin into his arms – but not like he wanted to, tight and fierce and desperate, but more familiarly with the impatience of a pack alpha in withdrawal. And he was, for the record: a half day and he had withdrawal.

The greeting was automatic, years old and familial, his head dipped into Seokjin’s neck to press in his own scent – amidst the bruises and the scents of others. Seokjin returned the hug but was stiff, not scenting back like Namjoon wanted him to. “You okay?” Namjoon asked.

“I’m fine,” Seokjin said. “Why wouldn’t I be? Took some painki –”

“Painkillers?”

“I’m fine. Of course I’m fine, don’t be silly,” Seokjin said dismissively, but in a way that sounded like Seokjin could be talking of a post-practice muscle pain and not a heat they had shared together.

And as others came into the kitchen, Seokjin instantly pulled back without looking at him. “So, what did everyone else get up to?” Seokjin put distance between them in a way that was obvious to Namjoon. “Taehyungie, you had your hair cut!”

But as they settled in the living room to devour the chicken Yoongi had ordered, with Seokjin sat on the couch with Jimin and Jungkook still pushing into Seokjin needily, still seeking his scent, it became clear that the pack didn’t want to discuss haircuts.

Hoseok asked, “Is heat sex as good as they say?”

“Hoseok-ah!” Seokjin objected, loud and indignant, nearly dropping the drumstick from his grip. “You can’t ask your hyung things like that!”

Hoseok touched his chest with faux innocence and looked around. “I’m a curious person! Is it a crime to be curious?! And you’re the only one here who’s had it!”

“That’s not true,” Yoongi dead-panned from the other couch, and Namjoon felt his blood freeze. “I had heat sex last year.”

This was a revelation to most of them although not Namjoon (it was one of their omega assistants in the camera crew, a three-day heat during a schedule free week, a friendly arrangement for both), and because the pack couldn’t understand when Yoongi possibly could have vanished to be someone’s heat partner without them all noticing, Yoongi’s admission trumped, practically, Seokjin’s heat break.

After the meal they all rushed to finalise their packing for the tour, Hoseok not finding his favourite essential slippers nor Yoongi the right laptop cable, Jimin stopping in everyone’s rooms to get ratings on his airport outfit before going public with it, changing bucket hats three times.

Namjoon, for his part, was working on autopilot, but he felt thrown off-balance. Seokjin was acting like it hadn’t happened – that was the plan, right? What they’d agreed.

But Namjoon felt like a cheat and a liar – and lonely. At a loss.

The days they had spent alone vanished further when their staff arrived, going over schedules, fixing their hair, carrying their bags out – they were a throng of twenty in minutes, and that was large enough for him and Seokjin both to hide in. Sejin pulled him aside and Namjoon said everything was just fine! The pack was doing great!

Sejin believed him.

The entire pack had learned how to pretend to be fine, Namjoon realised. They were all professionals at this.

As they got to the airport, their assistants and security around them, it seemed impossible to think that Seokjin had still been in heat only a day earlier and that Seokjin’s heat partner was now at his heels, trailing behind Seokjin from a distance too short. Seokjin wore a large black coat with a beige turtleneck. The round glasses he’d worn when the heat started were low on his nose, and he was clutching the usual RJ, had a cap on his head, and the pack scent was back on Seokjin after everyone had launched on him, their various degrees of withdrawals waning.

Namjoon stayed close to Seokjin like a shadow, but his gaze was not on his packmate. No, his eyes were fixed on the press that greeted them, his shoulders tense, eyes narrowed, jaw clenched beneath the dust mask as cameras flashed and photographers called their names. It was too public, too dangerous – he stayed close.

On the plane he sat across the aisle from Seokjin, who fell asleep before they even took off, wrapped up in blankets provided by the airline. Of course Seokjin was exhausted – Namjoon was too. But did he sleep? God, how could he? Private plane or not, they had staff with them: outsiders, non-pack members. Why couldn’t they catch a private plane with just the pack and no one else? He’d have to talk to management about this.

Jungkook was draping over the back of his seat, offering him a small tub. “Hyung, you want peanuts?”

Peanuts.

Namjoon took a look around the private plane, his pack scattered on the chairs, bundled up, snacking, bickering, sleeping. Nothing had changed.

“No, I’m fine. Get some rest, alright?”

Jungkook nodded, settling back into his seat.

But Namjoon didn’t sleep, not even as their managers and the pack did. He sat on the plane for hours, nodding off, jerking awake in alarm, looking over to Seokjin over fears of predators, thieves, omega snatchers – some combination thereof. He checked his phone some hours into the flight and saw that the airport pictures had already circulated: why does Namjoon look so murderous?! someone commented, while another replied, man that’s alpha mode – airport must have been chaos :(

But the airport had, in fact, been civilised.

Someone else said, it’s been SIX DAYS!! since we last saw our leader! i nearly died! and another quipped, well as my grandmother always used to say… missing alpha, pretty omega XDDDD, followed by your MIND SKSKSKSK where do i sign my omega ass up

He put the phone away.

He did not sleep until over half a day later, in a Paris hotel where he practically collapsed from exhaustion. Being in endless fight and protect mode left him with nothing, and he passed out in his clothes, knowing that at last Seokjin was at the hotel, in his room, safe.

He dreamt of Seokjin – a dream of absolute filth: Seokjin slowly riding his cock, head thrown back and tilted to the side, mimicking the way Seokjin exposed his throat when he wanted to be bitten, hips moving in sinful, steady beats, like body rolls from their choreography. Seokjin was moaning, breaths ragged, muscles tensed, hips moving and chasing pleasure, cock flushed and leaking, and even though Seokjin had him straddled, Namjoon felt in control.

“So pretty,” Namjoon said, “so good for me…” His palm pressed to Seokjin’s chest, the skin warm and sweaty, Seokjin’s heartbeat firm. “Say it again, go on.”

And Seokjin, getting closer, stared down at him with a far-gone look, expression one of complete trust, and whimpered, “Alpha…”

“Yeah,” he encouraged, one hand on Seokjin’s hip, urging him to go faster, the other hand sliding up to Seokjin’s throat. “Your alpha, come on – fuck yourself on me, that’s it…”

And that was when his dream-self noticed the mate bite on Seokjin’s neck and knew that he had left it there – a jolt of joy spread through him, dark and pleased – but that was not all, not even close, because Seokjin had a soft curve to his belly, was swollen, swelling, maybe three or four months in, god of course he was, of –

Namjoon woke up covered in sweat, confused and achingly hard, reaching for the other side of the bed but finding no one. He breathed heavily, hands pressed to the sides of his face – a rut? Holy fuck, was he going into a rut? But he kept breathing until he calmed down, the sensation passing.

One extremely cold shower later, he stood in the cubicle, water rippling down him. Nothing had changed.

He towelled dry, pulled on fresh boxers and returned to bed – and resisted the urge to call Seokjin, make sure Seokjin was okay, fed, well-rested, warm. Make sure Seokjin was scented and his. Protected. Both of them, Seokjin and the –

It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real, it wasn’t real.

He repeated it to himself until he fell back asleep.

And before he knew it, a new day had come and they were at the venue, going over the first Paris show. Hoseok kept berating them when they messed up the choreo – not just Namjoon, thankfully. “You have to pow with your chest on the beat,” Hoseok was explaining to them all. “Move your shoulders back, one, two – then pow, make it big, it has to show. No, do it more. Bigger. Cleaner! More pow!”

Namjoon sometimes wondered of a world where Hoseok was an alpha – a somewhat scarier world than the one he knew – as they all powed and powed.

Hoseok wiped his forehead to the back of his hand and said, “Alright. Now let’s do another –”

“Hoseok-ah,” Namjoon interrupted, sweaty and out of breath. He glanced at Seokjin, who was talking to Yoongi but looked pale and tired – and Hoseok followed his gaze and frowned. But Seokjin was still recovering, physically, and too much stress was bad for Seokjin right then for a variety of reasons. Namjoon was trying to stop himself from finishing such thoughts.

“Okay. Okay, fine,” Hoseok said. “Just one more time then!”

Jimin groaned.

Afterwards they all spent longer than usual testing their outfits for the show. Their staff had done what they could to hide the tell-tale signs of heat on Seokjin, altering Seokjin’s clothes by adding collars and neckties, and not only for Seokjin but for the others too to make it look less suspicious. Their fashion coordinators hadn’t slept all night as they’d hand-sewn the alterations in, and Seokjin apologised to them a dozen times.

Namjoon couldn’t say anything as he prowled around the dressing room: he wasn’t sorry.

But of course Seokjin wasn’t the only one carrying bruises: Namjoon had some marks on his waist and arms, from the places where Seokjin had held onto him. He signed it off as their PT having been too rough helping him figure out a new routine – and besides, who cared for Namjoon’s bruises when across the room Seokjin was pulling on a shirt over the marks on his belly, chest and throat, over the sucked-in bruises on his shoulders? What were some scratches compared to the bite, which had a plaster over it now, much to Namjoon’s frustration?

He hated Seokjin on display for everyone like that – hated it when he couldn’t claim the marks for himself.

Predictably, Jimin and Taehyung were teasing Seokjin, asking if Seokjin and the alpha had exchanged numbers since they clearly got on so well. Their staff, too – nondisclosure agreements on all of them – commented on Seokjin’s heat bruises. To be honest, most of them had seen worse.

“Aww, Jinnie, was the alpha very handsome?” one of their noonas teased – she was an alpha herself and went years back with them all. Seokjin flared bright red, causing her to grin as she kept fixing his hair. She petted the top of Seokjin’s head. “They did a good job, I can tell you that. Look at you all grown up!”

“You mean chewed up,” Taehyung offered from across the dressing room, mischievous, and Namjoon had to summon all of his inner strength not to growl. An entire room full of people snickering about Seokjin in the arms of an alpha. Not him – of course not him.

“Yah, don’t make me come over there!” Seokjin warned, with Taehyung grinning – and Namjoon sat in the corner like this was nothing, like it was fine for them all to tease and speculate – about Daewon, about a stranger.

Their makeup artists smoothed over Seokjin’s bruises with foundation, powder, and whatever magic, painting a new skin onto Seokjin entirely, while Namjoon testily watched the many people surrounding Seokjin, touching up Seokjin’s neck, shoulders, face… He’d learned years ago to accept their staff in the space of his packmates, touching their necks, leaving faint traces of scent on them accidentally. But god he hated it now, loathed anyone who wasn’t a pack member being that close to Seokjin.

And as they got dressed, the staff touched Seokjin’s back, sides, belly…

He looked away then. He couldn’t do this.

But the thing was that he and Seokjin weren’t really talking.

Or interacting.

Co-sharing stages, dressing rooms, airport lounges, but there were seven of them and dozens of staff and they could stop interacting almost completely without people necessarily noticing.

Yet he didn’t even consider a scenario where he hadn’t shared Seokjin’s heat – no alternative made sense. He wanted to march up to Seokjin and say: do you regret it? Just tell me – talk to me, god talk to me. Are you okay? Do you keep thinking that you’re carrying our- or is that just me? Is that just me?

What are you thinking?

That we burned up the allowance too fast?

We burned it up too fast.

Seokjin. Jin-hyung.

Can we ever recover?

He walked out without having said any of it.

With ten minutes to go and them all limbering up below the stage, loud chants echoing, his gaze finally met Seokjin’s, and he realised that they had been avoiding looking at each other since- since Seoul, probably. Yes, they’d been scenting – friendly pack exchanges with the others around – but they were avoiding each other, no question about it.

Now Seokjin was in stage clothes, had warmed up his voice, was in makeup and had his hair perfectly styled, an ethereal, angelic look to him, jaw sharp, gaze calm – Jin. He was looking at Jin.

God, it felt so far removed from his Seokjin, all warm and post-coital, hair messy, skin flushed and blotchy, covered in Namjoon’s scent and bruises, gazing at him with half-shut eyes and a soft, knowing smile. And Namjoon kissing him, scenting him, and them talking, laughing – touching. Happy. Seokjin offering his throat.

Seokjin looked away from him and started speaking to Hoseok, who was excited and smiling widely, ready with his memorised French greetings. Jungkook was with them, and like always Seokjin was goofing off with Jungkook, making their youngest giggle and laugh, but even as Seokjin did so Seokjin was careful not to look his way.

And Namjoon knew then that it was too late: “Let’s not change, Joonie.”

They had.

“Gather ‘round,” he called out, and his pack flocked to him, their hands meeting in the middle of the circle. Namjoon heard his voice: “First show in Europe this year. They’ve waited a long time for this and –”

He sounded professional and determined, was astonished that he did when something had dislodged in him painfully. Maybe the stadium of sixty thousand viewers was the safest place for them right then.

They did their cheer, pushed in their earpieces, got their makeup fixed one final time: some lip gloss and more concealer. He didn’t look at Seokjin. Seokjin didn’t look at him.

He’d ruined it.

He’d ruined the best friendship he’d ever had.

They got on the platform that would lift them onto the stage, with them all crouching, tensed up and full of adrenaline. Hoseok’s eyes were fierce and focused, Yoongi was nodding with tightly pursed lips, Jimin’s expression was one of deep intensity, Jungkook was visibly excited, while Taehyung looked pensive, and Jin’s eyes were fixed on the floor.

Namjoon took in a breath. This was not about him. This moment was not about him even a little, as the sound of tens of thousands chanting filled the air. Very few things in his life, he thought, were about him.

Go time. It was go time.

The platform began to rise, music blaring, the crowd responding instantly – but it still ached inside of him. It still ached. What was it? Did it have a reason or a name, and how could he get rid of it? And was this how it ended, he pondered as sudden shock settled in – no, that was the wrong question.

Was this how it started?

A new era, but not one which they shared, but the one without. The one apart. His, but not his. A new era where he ousted Seokjin from his pack because having Seokjin be there every single damn day became too hard for him.

They all stood up, Namjoon in the middle, their collective stage presence filling up an entire stadium with ease.

Was this how he finally lost Seokjin?

He jutted out his chin. Screams sounded. He brought the mic up to his lips.

Was this the end?

He inhaled and began to spit fire.

Chapter Text

Πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει.
Everything changes and nothing remains.
- Heraclitus (6th-5th centuries BCE)

Everything goes (지나가).
- RM (2018)

VI

“You never forget. That’s what no one tells you.”

PD-nim’s words cut through the noise of the party celebrating their biggest international tour to date. It was the only time PD-nim had ever opened up to Namjoon like that, after too much to drink the year before Namjoon found himself joining Seokjin for the heat, when they were all already more famous than they’d ever thought they’d become.

The pack and the staff celebrated the tour announcement at the rooftop terrace of the label’s new building, with views of Seoul stretching in all directions. The label had put some money into the summer night’s festivities: a bartender mixed cocktails on request and servers kept the buffet table laden with snacks while music blared. There had been speeches – Namjoon had given one of them. We’ve all worked hard for years, let’s take this moment to recognise how far we’ve come!

PD-nim let loose and towards the end of the night he had Namjoon sat in the corner of the terrace, the two of them having a bit of a heart-to-heart as they sat on the outdoor wicker chairs. And, without any prompting whatsoever, PD-nim said it: that you never forgot. That no one tells you that.

“What don’t you forget?” Namjoon hiccupped – he was heavy on the beer for once, a half-empty bottle in his grip. The sun had set and the fairy lights lining the rooftop glimmered around them.

“Their scents,” PD-nim said. He’d been downing gin, a glass in his hand – and was staring into the space between them, unseeing. “Your former packmates’ scents.”

PD-nim had headed a small pack at some point in his twenties, but the drama of it was obscure to Namjoon. Hoseok thought that the two packmates had fallen in love and abandoned PD-nim in an act of rebellion, but none of them knew for sure.

“Look over there,” PD-nim then said, pointing to where Taehyung was slow-waltzing with one of the web designers, making the man laugh. Maybe a bit flirty. “What is he to you?”

“Like grass. Earth.” Permanent, warm – that was what Taehyung was to him. So clever, so creative – his favourite, in the way that they all were.

PD-nim looked satisfied and said, “Thirty years from now, you will know his scent.” Across the rooftop Taehyung’s smile was wide, his eyes sparkling – forever young. “Thirty years from now, even if tomorrow he disappears, you will know his scent.”

Namjoon jerked, alarmed and a little buzzed. “Where’s Tae going?”

“Nowhere,” PD-nim said, waving a hand. “Nowhere now. But when he goes, kid, when you all- all settle down, find mates, the usual song and dance. And when that happens, you will do what I did: you let them go. And this is what I’m telling you, so it doesn’t catch you unaware, alright? This is what you need to know: that you will keep looking for them for the rest of your life. You understand that, don’t you? You will keep looking for them.”

Namjoon frowned, looking over to Jimin and Jungkook doing a silly dance together with lots of arm waving and butt wiggling, of Hoseok laughing and filming them with his phone, of Yoongi sat on one of the chairs with a glass of wine, observing the chaos with a bemused smiled, while Seokjin was making the biggest racket of all, trying to teach five of their staff the choreography to their latest MV, herding them like sheep and loudly complaining they weren’t getting it right. Their tour manager observed from the side with her mate and child, shaking her head.

“You already do it, I’m sure,” PD-nim said, “with the way your schedules sometimes split you up. We try to keep you together, you know, but it’s not always possible.”

There was a lump in Namjoon’s throat. “What do I do?”

“Try to locate them. It’s that moment of asleep and awake that gets me, anyway – when you try and catch their scents to check they’re there.”

Namjoon did do that, he realised, stirring from sleep and trying to listen to the sounds of Nonhyeon-dong, thinking they were all at the old dorm and that any of the pack could wake him up at any second by tugging his covers aside and pushing into his neck while he groaned in faux protest. But then he awoke and was in a hotel room alone in a foreign land, and his packmates were somewhere close by, but the relief was not the same. No one had ever told him how lonely hotel rooms could be – and were.

PD-nim was leaning back in the chair now, sipping on his gin. “They’re like little ghosts or spirits,” he said, mostly to himself. “Ghost memories, ghost instincts – you get them for the rest of your life, even if you haven’t seen the people in years or decades.”

“Why would- Why would I not see them in decades?” he managed, tongue thick.

“Because life will take you to different places. Don’t be naïve, not you – you’re too smart for that,” PD-nim said impatiently. “The seven of you are one of the most remarkable packs I have seen, but even you will end up on different continents at the end of all this, don’t you know that? And people always warn young alphas, and I know I warned you plenty. But you didn’t listen, of course you didn’t. So I’m telling you what I’ve learned: that losing them never leaves you. You’ll think you see them on the streets, you’ll think you catch their scents, you’ll think they’re just an arm’s length away – but it will be a stranger who reminds you of a time when they were yours.”

“Okay,” he managed – was all he could say. He couldn’t think about losing his pack. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t.

“You carry them until the day you die,” PD-nim said, looking at his drink. “And that is what I believe. You celebrate your success decades down the line, on rooftops with beers and glittery lights, and you wish they were there with you, but they’re not. Will never be.”

He nodded. “Thank you for telling me.”

“Ah, you’re welcome,” PD-nim said, sounding pleased, but Namjoon was neither grateful nor pleased. PD-nim stood up and clutched his shoulder for support, but hid it as a paternal gesture and not drunken wobbliness. “Us alphas, you know – we carry our losses deeper than they know. Don’t let them in on that. Don’t let them know that all this time it was you who needed them more. Okay?”

And PD-nim tapped his cheek and waddled off.

People were now dancing in the middle of the rooftop – Seokjin had somehow ended up carrying their choreographer’s toddler while the parents were taking the opportunity to dance, and the kid, a year-and-a-half-old boy, stared at Seokjin with a distrusting face until Seokjin blew up his cheeks and said, “Huh? What you looking at?” The kid slowly began to smile so Seokjin did it again, and soon the kid was laughing so hard he twitched and jerked in Seokjin’s arms, and Seokjin flashed the kid a wide, winning grin.

Meanwhile Taehyung was dragging a reluctant Yoongi to dance while Jungkook was draping all over Hoseok and scenting his favourite hyung, and nearby less innocently Jimin had an arm slung around the waist of one of their makeup alpha noonas and was practically grinding on her – and she looked mortified but also like it was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

And PD-nim hadn’t said anything Namjoon didn’t know really, but for the first time he asked the question without avoiding it: who first?

Would it be Jungkook, who often talked about having his own pack one day? Or Taehyung waltzing away from him into the arms of some other alpha? Or Jimin perhaps who would be unable to wait for Namjoon to finish conscription, too used to a pack to endure such long absence? Would it be Hoseok, would it be Yoongi? Would it –

Seokjin appeared, face flushed, eyes shining, black hair a little messy, with the toddler still propped on his hip, and Namjoon felt both more focused and confused at the same time, insides tightening, belly pulsing warmth. Too much beer, far too much beer.

But god, how could so much beauty be condensed to a single person like that?

Seokjin scoffed at him. “Yah, no brooding in corners when there’s a party happening!” Seokjin bounced the giggling kid, who had decided in just a few minutes that he loved Seokjin, of course he did. When Namjoon didn’t move, Seokjin spoke to the child conspiratorially. “What do we say, hmm? Should we say Namjoon-oppa, come dance with us? Namjoon-oppaaaa,” Seokjin said mischievously, which sounded all kinds teasing and wrong, and Namjoon very much wanted it to stop instantly.

He put his beer down and quickly stood up, obliging. Seokjin nodded his approval, and Namjoon admired the certain hold Seokjin had of the child, the way the lights around them immersed everyone in a soft surreal glow – like the party could go on forever, all of them young, happy, and together.

Still together.

Seokjin reached out to grab his hand while keeping the kid securely pressed to his side, pulling Namjoon with them, and said, “Come on, let’s show them what good dancing really looks like.”

This night would end. It had to.

He asked it again: who would leave him first?

* * *

Kicking out a packmate wasn’t necessarily a dramatic act: you simply stopped scenting them, sending both parties into withdrawal. But you sucked it up, suffered the symptoms, didn’t give in to the urge to call them, find them, reclaim them. No, you shunned them: ignored any calls or pleas, signed up to a rehab centre just to get it over and done with, left abroad for a few months without a forwarding address, and changed the code to the apartment as necessary.

Okay, fine – perhaps that was a little dramatic.

But eventually the symptoms went away: your former packmate was no longer embedded into the scent of your skin, the claim having faded. You were clean of each other, on the surface anyway. People did it all the time if they unmated or if they decided they were better off without pack claims.

To Namjoon, however, the thought of proceeding with such tactics felt impossible, like someone was tugging at the end of a thread that would make the whole tapestry unravel. Seokjin left out of the pack? What about their fans – how would they explain it to anyone? Would anyone ever forgive Namjoon for this? Would Seokjin?

The only certainty he had was this: the pack would never forgive him.

He sat on it.

After the Paris shows they had a day to themselves, and Namjoon spent it trying to regain his inner calm, trying to be Namjoon From Before, admiring impressionist and realist paintings with the two staff members who sometimes accompanied him around museums. Yoongi was sleeping at the hotel, Hoseok and Jimin had gone shopping, and Seokjin, Jungkook and Taehyung had invaded Disneyland Paris.

The staff with him shared his passion for art and they usually analysed the works they saw together, but Namjoon was taciturn that day, which attracted a couple “Namjoonie, is everything okay?”s.

“Yeah. Everything’s fine,” he insisted as they moved around the galleries, with him trying not to call the other pack members.

He missed Seokjin. He missed the way Seokjin’s eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed, the way Seokjin would find something so funny that he’d smack Namjoon’s arm as he hollered – and then leaned into him, a little. He missed the pursed, pouty lips when Seokjin was displeased. He missed the quiet moments when Seokjin was lost in thought, a million miles away. He missed them being so comfortable with each other that it was like air, and not – guilt. God. Was this guilt?

Everything felt wrong, a possessive streak lurking in him constantly, upset that Seokjin wasn’t in his bed even as the more rational side of him knew he had a serious problem with a packmate that could in the long run ruin everything if he didn’t get the hell over it.

They stopped to examine one of the paintings: Après l'accouplement, 1883, Toulouse-Lautrec, which showed a female youth of twenty or so, sat naked on a bed amongst laid out fabrics, and on her neck was a bleeding mate bite. The hues of the painting were brown and orange, autumnal and warm, with her auburn hair hung loose and long, her cheeks rosy and her face in side-profile, a hint of a smile visible, and there was bliss and release in the way she was seated. Contentment.

No shame – no guilt. No silent agreement never to talk about what had happened.

But where was the alpha or beta who had claimed her? Why were they not there?

One of the staff said, “Ah, yes. You know he was a cripple, this alpha painter? He painted all these romantic scenes – bedroom scenes, mating scenes. He hired prostitutes to model for him. It’s funny, isn’t it? Painted things like these with such tenderness that they feel real, but he never had any lovers himself.”

“Why not?” Namjoon asked, feeling ill at ease.

A shrug. “No one found him particularly attractive – because of how he was crippled, I think. People have always been cruel that way, huh? Brilliant art, though – it’s got such warmth, don’t you think? Such a- a wealth of intimacy to it all. Makes me miss my mate, really. Gosh, I should call her.”

Namjoon was still looking at the artwork, at the painted omega’s flustered ease. And as he looked he realised why the alpha wasn’t in the painting: the alpha was Namjoon himself, the viewer. This was how Toulouse-Lautrec dreamt of seeing his beloved: youthful and beautiful, loved, mated and his own. And as Namjoon examined each curve, the way the omega had been crafted with careful strokes, he recognised that the painting wasn’t love, it wasn’t contentment. It was agony – agony of absence. Agony over the impossible. The painting was screaming, and all the while the woman sat on the bed with the most beautiful, coy smile he’d ever seen.

“Let’s keep going,” the other staff member then said, and Namjoon realised a handful of teenagers from across the gallery were filming them on their phones.

He ducked his head and moved along – they thankfully weren’t followed, while the security guy hired to trail them at a distance was already dispelling the small crowd.

That evening the pack convened at a restaurant that reportedly served the best steak in France, and they liked their meat. Yoongi had finished working on a song that afternoon and was pleased; Jimin and Hoseok showed up carrying ten high-end boutique bags between them; Taehyung and Seokjin appeared with Mickey Mouse headbands and arguments about which rides were safe or too scary; and behind them was Jungkook with a beaming smile, high on cotton candy. They all seemed happy to be reunited, quick hugs and exchanges of scent, while Namjoon dared a tentative smile at Seokjin, who returned it. Namjoon felt far more relieved than he liked.

When the seven of them were together like this, Namjoon believed in most miracles. He even believed that perhaps he and Seokjin could overcome the heat and the wedge that it had forced between them. They’d struggled before, but been stronger for it. Maybe this time too. Maybe –

Jungkook had won a Donald Duck plushie from a shooting game and gifted it to Seokjin, proclaiming this happily to them all. Seokjin had said duck under his arm, the toy’s inanimate fabric eyes staring at nothing, but Namjoon knew instantly that the gut reaction of a suppressed snarl and the sour taste in his mouth was jealousy. The relief of their reunion vanished in an instant: Jungkook giving Seokjin gifts? Jungkook following Seokjin around all day? He took in the wide smile that Jungkook was giving Seokjin and tensed up. Jungkook had offered himself as heat companion, hadn’t he? A rival. A threat. Jungkook was challenging Namjoon and –

Namjoon excused himself and then simply stood outside their cabinet for a minute, trying to calm down. He’d been fine most of the day – had been trying very hard to move on, to get over it, to ignore the instincts leading him astray. He’d only called the Disneyland team twice to make sure everyone was fine and now they were reunited and within minutes he wanted to snarl? At Jungkook of all people, convinced that their youngest harboured intents to court Seokjin?

Was he having a breakdown? Were Sejin’s fears right and he was heading for cocaine and knuckle tattoos? God, he couldn’t keep going like this. He couldn’t be on edge and aggressive for all days to come, and if that was all he felt around Seokjin now, if this was all he’d become, then he –

It was Taehyung who came to find him, poking his head out the cabinet door. “Hyung, we can’t understand the menus or the waitress.”

“Yeah, okay,” he nodded, clearing his throat. “Just need a minute.”

Taehyung frowned and stepped out, sliding the door shut behind himself. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he said, jaw set tight. Taehyung didn’t buy it, of course, brows furrowing in concern. Namjoon hesitated, then gave in. “Nothing, but- but can I get a hug?”

Taehyung’s surprise lasted only a second before he’d already engulfed Namjoon in a firm bear hug like he’d been waiting to give one for weeks. Namjoon returned it, exhaling away the frustration and confusion, taking in the earthy scent of Taehyung – the beta was a lot taller than he’d used to be, a lot taller than the day Namjoon had initiated him at an arcade. Taehyung’s familiar scent was bittersweet somehow, perhaps because Namjoon’s talk with PD-nim had been on his mind lately. Of course Namjoon would spend the rest of his life looking for this – trying to locate it again. Of course he would.

He clutched Taehyung tighter to him, too wound up to be embarrassed.

“You wanna talk about it?” Taehyung asked against his shoulder, but he shook his head. Taehyung tsk’ed. “There’s seven of us, hyung, you don’t have to carry it all by yourself.”

“Yeah I know,” he said, still clinging onto Tae. He hated feeling so possessive and aggressive, yet that was all he’d been since the heat, like exactly the type of alpha he’d always loathed. No wonder Seokjin wasn’t talking to him. “Am I an asshole?” he then asked.

“No,” Taehyung said, “I checked just now and the global consensus is that no, you’re not an asshole. Did someone say that? I’ll kick their ass!”

Namjoon pressed his nose to Taehyung’s hair. “Just me.”

Taehyung stepped back, surprised. “But you’re the best person I know.”

There was nothing but sincerity in the statement, and Namjoon had to look away. But Taehyung remained where he was, studying him carefully and squeezing his arm. “Be kinder to yourself, hyung. Haven’t you spent a few years preaching that to the rest of the world?”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

Of course Taehyung was right. There were still just a lot of times when Namjoon didn’t like himself, but he’d always liked himself around Seokjin – nearly always, some incidents aside. Now he hated how he behaved, and it drained him of all self-belief.

“I just- just hate getting tangled in my head and affecting all of you because of it. I hate us not being okay.” And as he said ‘us’, he realised he meant him and Seokjin.

“We go through rough patches,” Taehyung admitted. “And we’re all stressed, I think – you, me, Jin-hyung…” Taehyung then grabbed his hand. “Come on, you need food and the company of packmates who support you.” And he let Taehyung pull him back into the cabinet, Tae declaring, “Alpha-hyung is a little blue today so we’re ordering extra steak.”

Namjoon felt embarrassed, but Jimin was already up on his feet and hugging his side – because they had all been there and you didn’t need to explain yourself if you didn’t want to: it was okay not to be okay sometimes. Even Yoongi squeezed his hand as Namjoon made his way back to his seat, their seating order having changed while he was outside. Now Seokjin was sat next to him, eyes full of concern.

But Namjoon nodded as he sat down – fine, it was all fine – but Seokjin nudged Namjoon’s knee with his own like a question, and Namjoon couldn’t look at him. It was easier when he ignored Seokjin the little he could.

“Let’s order food,” he said, clearing his throat.

His pack argued for an appropriate twenty minutes on what to eat, their private cabinet filling with chatter, Namjoon quieter than usual but he was smiling at the jokes. Seokjin, uncharacteristically, was mostly quiet too, but it felt like the others were working harder to fill in those gaps. Yoongi ordered wine while Jungkook kept craning his neck, looking for the steak to be brought in, and somewhere in the midst of it all Seokjin grabbed Namjoon’s hand under the table.

Namjoon stilled, surprised. Seokjin slotted their fingers together and gave his hand a squeeze. Had they touched each other that day? He wasn’t sure, but the warmth of Seokjin’s palm against his radiated through him. Seokjin’s Mickey Mouse ears were now slung around his neck, while a white turtleneck hid the bruises from the heat. Seokjin was snacking on a breadstick, eyes on Hobi across the table – but Seokjin held his hand, even with a growing flush on his cheeks.

Still there. Hanging on even at this late hour. Were they both fools, he wondered.

But he squeezed back, even as something else lurked in the connection – an instinct that was urging him to close the distance between them, to get Seokjin to turn his head so that Namjoon could press a chaste kiss to Seokjin’s lips. Let it linger. Exhale and give in – finally, at last.

“Food’s here, food’s here!” Taehyung gushed, and Seokjin’s hand slipped from his as waiting staff came in.

The next hour and then some was spent on food, and the steak was amazing, the bechamel sauce worth crying over, the asparagus better than anything Taehyung was able to do at home while Yoongi complained that everything was too salty and he wanted kimchi fried rice. Even so, at the end of the meal they had a happy, overstuffed Taehyung on their hands, a mildly chardonnay-buzzed Yoongi, a crashing-after-sugar-rush Kookie, a still-jetlagged Hoseok, a giggly Jimin making moon-eyes at the beta waitress, and a fussy Seokjin ushering them all out and checking for leftover belongings as the Donald Duck dangled from his grip.

They filed into the large nine-seater outside, their security accompanying them, with fans waving and shouting because someone had spotted them coming in a few hours earlier and word had gone around.

“That one was on me,” Yoongi said amicably as they reached the hotel, referring to the two-thousand-euro bill that Yoongi had pocketed in spite of “not getting French food”. Yoongi petted Jungkook’s hair. “Hyung’s treat.”

“Thank you, hyung,” Jungkook mumbled tiredly, draping over Yoongi.

As they got to the hotel lobby, Yoongi suddenly said, “Let’s go have a drink at the hotel bar! A night cap!” Yoongi was on a roll. “Best view in Paris, they said!”

Jimin was instantly game, peer-pressuring Jungkook and Taehyung into joining them, their security guard looking long-suffering as he carried Jimin’s shopping bags and followed the quartet after looking to Namjoon for approval – and he granted it with a tired nod. He, Seokjin and Hoseok wanted to sleep, however, and as the three of them got to their floor and passed the hired security monitoring the lifts, they tiredly reached for their key cards and tried to remember their room numbers.

Hoseok stopped quickly, however, feeling his pockets. “Ah! I gave my key to Yoongi-hyung for safekeeping! Too much wine, too much wine…” Hoseok turned on his heels. “See you tomorrow!” he called over his shoulder, heading back to the lifts around the corner.

And then Namjoon and Seokjin were alone.

They both stilled, stood in the quiet corridor together. Namjoon had not expected this challenge yet, but no – it was an opportunity for them to talk, to fix things, for Namjoon to show they were going to be okay because the thought of forcing Seokjin out of the pack made Namjoon sick to his very core.

“What number are you?” Namjoon asked.

“Uh, I have no idea,” Seokjin admitted, holding his key card.

“I’ll show you to your door.”

“Sure. Tap until I get lucky?” Seokjin asked, trying to joke – and that was what Namjoon needed.

Their throng of staff had taken up the entire floor, but moving around past midnight still felt sneaky. They stayed close to each other, nearly bumping together whenever Seokjin paused at a door to test the reader.

After silently testing a few doors, Seokjin said, with an air of forced casualness, “Oh, I got my lab results back this morning, from the hormone check. I thought about texting you.”

He tensed. “Oh. And?”

“And a considerable increase,” Seokjin said, not looking at him. “It’s balancing out still, but the trajectory is, ah, remarkably fertile, I believe they phrased it. So, go team?”

Somehow the news didn’t surprise Namjoon: the entire heat had felt like taking a bath in intense mating hormones, where nothing made more sense and no one could be more compatible with him than Seokjin. Remarkably fertile – the words trickled down his spine, Seokjin’s scent in the air, calling out to Namjoon since the first day when he’d what? Literally walked into a door. God, that had been a lifetime ago. He’d perhaps learned to ignore the effect Seokjin had on him or had begun to recognise the pull of Seokjin as home – but lately that comfort had changed.

“That was all?” he then asked, heart beating a little faster. Would it show yet in the blood work? “I mean did it show if you’re preg –”

Seokjin turned to him with a look of surprise. “No.” Fast. Sharp. Rosy cheeks getting redder. “I mean no,” Seokjin then repeated, and the silence that followed felt awkward, both of them flustered. Seokjin looked down the corridor, avoiding Namjoon’s fixed stare. “I mean I- I know I- I said things, during, but… that was just…”

“Right.” Namjoon clenched his teeth and looked away, nodding. Of course, he’d been a fool thinking otherwise, for hoping for two lines. For thinking Seokjin wanted that too.

But ten years from now Seokjin would be mated to someone and they’d have a slew of kids, and Namjoon would in some warped way have helped with that. Seokjin would carry a mating mark on his neck while bouncing a toddler against his hip – a small girl, black-haired and button-nosed, no dimples in sight – and say, “Guess she wouldn’t exist if you and I hadn’t, you know, back then”, and Seokjin’s mate would always dislike Namjoon by default because Namjoon had beaten them to it, meaning that inevitably he and Seokjin would talk less, and then Namjoon would leave Seokjin to his bright family home, on another continent, scattered to the winds, and return to his empty Seoul bachelor pad and watch concert recordings of his former pack while helping himself to too much soju.

Was that where he was heading at the end of all this?

And yet Seokjin was right in front of him, still young, still unmated, like the promise of an entire life to be lived, and Namjoon’s gaze lingered on Seokjin’s neck hidden by the white turtleneck, Mickey Mouse ears around it and a Donald Duck still in Seokjin’s grip. He thought back to the painting of the stunning omega freshly claimed, but the alpha wasn’t there. Why? Because they were scared? That was no excuse.

“Anyway…” Seokjin muttered and then decided on the opposite direction just as confidently as before. “My room is definitely this way!”

He snatched the key card from Seokjin’s hand. “We have to be systematic.”

Seokjin rolled his eyes. “Oh, sure. Let’s be systematic.”

But they were hovering, it felt like, around each other. Namjoon pressed the key card to each door they passed, on both sides of the corridor, zigzagging as Seokjin trailed him.

“What’s French for ‘help me, I’m too pretty to sleep on the floor’?” Seokjin asked.

“Merde, I’m pretty sure.”

“Maybe I’m stranded.”

“I’d never let you be.”

“You wouldn’t?”

“Hyung, you know I’d never –”

Just then a card reader flashed green with a clicking sound.

“Ah,” Seokjin said, pushing the door open before the mechanism locked again. Namjoon handed him the card back, Seokjin’s fingers curling around it with one foot stuck between the door and the doorframe. “Look at you, my alpha in shining armour.”

A spark of pleased fulfilment instantly spread in him – a task well done for Seokjin. He thought back to his dreams of late, filthy as they had been, but in the dreams he’d had such clear purpose, had known exactly where he stood with Seokjin: as a mate.

But they weren’t mates.

And Seokjin had flared red. “I meant- I mean, I didn’t mean it like – Aish, you know what I meant.”

“Do I?” he asked in spite of himself, taking a step closer. Seokjin’s eyes widened, the scent of him stronger: pulse picking up. Little giveaways. Little handholds. The immediacy of the reaction was pleasing – god, why had it taken them this long to realise the effect they had on each other? And now knowing how good it was…? How did you ignore something like that, deny yourself that?

“Should we- Should I come in?” he then blurted out, in a single sentence ruining all the psyching up he’d been doing all day, all tour. He steadied himself. “You should invite me in.”

Seokjin stared at him, the air around them thicker, warmer. “Okay, say that I…” Seokjin said slowly, but he was tense. “Say that I invite you in. Then what?”

He fidgeted, a little frustrated. “You know what,” he supplied – smooth as ever, a true wordsmith.

But he knew the way they’d undress and the way they’d kiss each other like two people who had gotten good at it; he knew the warmth of their bodies pressed close and the scents of the two of them mixed together; and he knew how good it felt to have Seokjin come apart in his embrace, shivering with release and pleasure. He knew the deep sense of purpose it gave him and how he himself felt found when Seokjin pulled him in.

And so he stepped closer, ready to dive in, to give in – to push into Seokjin’s hotel room and reclaim, consequences be damned. Enough with the guilt, enough with the distance. Let him be in the painting.

But as he approached, Seokjin sidestepped, putting distance between them. Namjoon stopped – a refusal? His omega refused him and –

“Sneaking around in hotel rooms?” Seokjin said, nervously glancing down the corridor. “That’s not a solution to anything, that’s just- just stupid.”

Namjoon bit back the frustration, confusion. “Maybe I want to be stupid, want to risk it.”

“You?” Seokjin asked, almost bemused. “Unlikely, Namjoon-ah.” Namjoon frowned at this, but Seokjin added, “All of this? This stuff with you and me? It’s impossible. Always has been.” Seokjin clutched the Donald Duck, shrugging but visibly embarrassed. “So this, what you’re trying to do right now? It’s the heat withdrawal, that’s all.”

“You think that’s what this is?” he asked, taken aback. Was it just typical alpha brain where he’d bedded an omega and now he couldn’t keep his hands to himself?

“Yes,” Seokjin said. “It’s just gonna take a bit more time for that instinct to fade, for us to forget about what we did. Because whatever you think you’re feeling right now, we both know it’s not worth risking everything over.”

He nodded slowly, unsure. “You’re right. I guess you’re right.”

Forget about it. Let it fade.

But he thought of how he couldn’t relax unless Seokjin was in his line of sight, how he kept thinking of Seokjin carrying their child, and how stood with Seokjin in the corridor now he felt such loss and desire in equal measure that he didn’t know what to do with it.

Seokjin stood up taller and said, “Of course I’m right. How long have you known me?”

“A long time.”

“And do I often err?” Seokjin asked with a single raised eyebrow.

“You never err, hyung.”

“So whatever I say is correct?”

“It is.”

“So I am infallible, would you agree?”

“Yes, I suppose I would.”

“There you go then,” Seokjin said, but Namjoon faltered, something sad in him persisting, something that perhaps had always been there in how he regarded Seokjin: that he couldn’t have this one – move on because you’ll never have him.

It turned out that Namjoon hadn’t learned a single lesson on Seokjin since the age of seventeen. He was still just as stupid – just as smitten and foolish.

Seokjin scratched the side of his neck absently, foot still keeping the door propped open. The sleeves of the white turtleneck were rolled up from the wrists, the long-sleeved shirt underneath showing: Breton striped, soft cotton. Namjoon had been wearing the shirt for some interviews just a day earlier, hadn’t even noticed it missing yet.

Namjoon stilled. Seokjin was keeping Namjoon’s scent close, right on Seokjin’s skin, even now – perhaps especially now when they weren’t talking, when everything hurt. Something awakened anew in Namjoon that had been so clear during the heat: who they both belonged to.

But before he could express his approval and relief that Seokjin was keeping Namjoon’s scent on him, Seokjin said, “Yeah. Yeah, I’m always right. It’s a curse, this much knowledge.”´

As Namjoon tried to place why that sounded so bitter, Seokjin’s phone started ringing, startling them both. Seokjin fished out the phone and read the caller ID. “Oh, I gotta –”

“Yeah, sure,” Namjoon said and quickly moved in to scent goodnight because of course he did.

But Seokjin had already turned away from him, phone pressed to his ear as he stepped into the hotel room. “Hmm, yeah? Right, that outfit, sure. Oh, you want me to try it on tonight?”

The door shut behind Seokjin, who didn’t look at him again – whose shoulders were tensed, who moved away from him quickly, whose smile was strained whenever he looked at Namjoon.

Namjoon stood outside for far longer than he should have, unsure which of the feelings circling in him were real. He couldn’t tell anymore. But in that moment Seokjin reminded him of the sea: crashing against him with benevolent force before eventually retreating, and there was nothing Namjoon could do to stop it.

And so this was where they ended, he realised: amidst this confusion of what the two of them could take from each other, amidst all the instincts they had to suppress, amidst luxury hotel rooms and VIP cabinets and Michelin restaurants, amidst private escorts and bodyguards. They had gained all this and now could no longer find each other.

Was it worth it? No. No, it wasn’t.

But at least he finally knew: Seokjin would be the first one he’d lose.

* * *

Seokjin joined the pack only a week before their debut. The label wasn’t pushing a bond of course, but Namjoon was told that it looked odd: a six-piece pack was debuting, and oh there was Seokjin too.

“Don’t you get on with him?” PD-nim asked, worried because it was too late in the game for personal issues.

But they got on just fine – in fact, they had started getting on really, really well. Outside of Namjoon’s pack, he hung out with Seokjin the most beyond them obviously living together, and because Seokjin wasn’t in the pack Namjoon had gradually started to vent to him about how stressed he was about the responsibility. Seokjin always listened, patient and doe-eyed, and offered sage advice. Namjoon couldn’t go to his pack and admit that he was overwhelmed: a hormonal, Jimin-shaped omega; an all-over-the-place Taehyung; a bouncy Jungkook running on alpha pheromones; a stressed-out and self-doubting Hoseok; and a stubborn, determined Yoongi. They were killing themselves with practices, resolute to make this debut really something, but Namjoon still feared that it wouldn’t be enough.

Seokjin was such a constant for them through it all that Namjoon sometimes pretended that Seokjin was in his pack. The illusion was eased by Seokjin’s breakup with Chiwon the autumn before their debut; and as Seokjin no longer carried the scent of another alpha on him, Namjoon found it easier to pretend. Seokjin had started seeing a girl alpha from the university around November, just a couple of dates that had left Namjoon on edge, but nothing had come of it. The debut was too close: Seokjin wanted to focus on the group. Around the same time Namjoon had fooled around with the brother of one of his rapper friends – his age, a beta – but nothing had come of that either.

When the debut was only a week away, the label finally took note of them falling asleep in the practice studios and meeting rooms and gave them the Sunday off: enjoy it because you’re not getting another one for a long, long while.

God, a day off! They could do anything at all, absolutely any –

They slept.

The morning fog lifted with the June sun coming out midday, and by mid-afternoon it was too hot to sleep or stay inside the small dorm. They rolled out of bed and dressed in shorts and tank tops before they headed out from the gridded maze of Nonhyeon-dong to the river for their last day of leisure in a good while. Taehyung carried a boom blaster while Hoseok ran to a 7-Eleven for melon-flavoured ice lollies, and Seokjin fussed with the sun lotion and smeared it on all of their faces: “We’re not debuting sunburnt!”

They found a sloping knoll by the shoreside cycle path, with joggers running on the lane next to the cyclists. The respectable breadth of Han River glistened in the sun and high-rise buildings arose on the other side, marking messy clusters of one-bedroom apartments and billion-won luxury schemes, with the mountains beyond Seoul glooming ever behind them. Did Namjoon love or hate this city? He had never decided. In the distance the cars of Hannam Bridge hummed.

“I want to live there,” Yoongi told him, sat next to him on the towels they’d laid out as picnic blankets. Hoseok and Taehyung were engaged in an ill-advised dance-off on the cycle path while near the bushes Jungkook and Seokjin were trying to find any kind of pebble to test on the water. Yoongi motioned at one of the more expensive developments. “I want us all to live there.”

“Yeah, me too.” He and Yoongi had lived together for years already – Jimin, who had fallen asleep on the grass beside them, a baseball cap shielding his face, had lived with them for just over a year. “Do we want too much?” Namjoon then asked, watching Jungkook’s black and Seokjin’s reddish-brown hair disappear amidst the bushes and branches, then reappear.

“If you want a lot and don’t work for it, then yes,” Yoongi said thoughtfully, “but we work for it.”

That was all Namjoon wanted: for his pack to be safe, successful enough to be financially secure, and for them not to agonise if they could splurge on the seven ice lollies they’d bought on the way over. For his music to have listeners, too. For someone to listen.

“One day we’ll live over there,” Yoongi said. “We have to.”

Big house, big cars, big rings.

God, these were precarious times, Namjoon thought, before he too fell asleep in the warm afternoon sunshine.

It was Seokjin who shook him awake, the sun having dropped lower in the sky. Namjoon stirred and was instantly alerted to the absence of his pack: he sat up, abruptly.

“They wanted to let you sleep,” Seokjin said with a smile, standing surprisingly tall and squinting down at him. “You’ve barely slept for weeks now, so we figured you needed some rest.”

“Did they head back?” he asked, feeling betrayed as Seokjin nodded. How long had he slept? How long had Seokjin stayed there, waiting for him to stir?

Seokjin shielded his eyes from the sun, smiling, and then reached out to touch Namjoon’s forehead. “You need more lotion.”

“Aish, I can do it,” he said when Seokjin attempted to apply some on him. Seokjin shrugged and sat down, but seemed amused as Namjoon rubbed at his face haphazardly, spreading the lotion blindly. “Am I good?”

Seokjin grinned, then reached out and brushed a thumb over Namjoon’s eyebrow. “There.”

The breeze caught Seokjin’s hair – beautiful. Always beautiful. Namjoon dropped his gaze to his knobbly knees, kids speeding on the cycle path and hollering at one another. “Suga-hyung wants us to live there,” he then said and motioned across the river. “In one of the nice buildings, in a big apartment high up.”

Seokjin leaned on the backs of his hands, looking across, the wind rustling Seokjin’s loose tank top, showing collarbones and toned arms, skin golden and smooth. “That’d be nice,” Seokjin said. “I’m sure you guys will.”

“You too,” he said instantly, confused – Seokjin too.

Seokjin smiled, ducking his head. “If you can afford a nice apartment for your pack, you won’t have to put up with outsiders anymore.”

Namjoon frowned. “But you’re not.”

“Well I’m not a pack member either.”

Namjoon stared, crestfallen. Move to a bigger apartment in a well-off part of town one day – without Seokjin? What was the point without him, with his admittedly bad jokes and wild laughs and his endless fussing over them? It’d break Jimin’s heart, Jungkook’s, Tae’s – it’d break all of their hearts.

But Seokjin was meant for some other pack: Namjoon knew that. An omega that smart, handsome, and talented? Who knew which alpha could ever dream of catching Seokjin’s attention? Namjoon certainly didn’t.

“Should we go?” Seokjin said after a silence far too long.

They picked up the towels and dusted themselves off. Namjoon got out his black sunglasses – and snapped them in two as he tried to put them on. “What…?” he managed, staring at the broken halves.

“Aish, this kid,” Seokjin sighed, but he was smiling as he took the broken pieces and dropped them in the first bin they passed. Namjoon huffed, but said nothing.

Usually they talked when walking together, whether to the label, the dorm, the shops. Those were the few times they had a slither of privacy, but in the late afternoon that day they were quiet. The tarmac felt hot through Namjoon’s flip-flops, and they sought shade, shielding their eyes – first in the wider, cleaner streets with high-end boutiques, then reaching the narrower, rickety lanes of their neighbourhood.

When they eventually reached their building, Seokjin thumbing in the code and them entering the small lobby with mailboxes and recycling bins, Namjoon had a lump in his throat and wasn’t sure why. They both stopped there in the small space instead of bouncing up three steps at a time like they usually did. A lump in his throat, an ache in his chest, a sickening feeling at the pit of his stomach, Namjoon stilled.

“Hyung,” he said, voice thick, “I don’t think I want to make it without you.”

Seokjin shrugged – small, like it was announcing defeat – but he looked broken, a deer with a broken limb, mouth downturned. “Me neither, I don’t think?”

In the next second they were hugging like it was the air they breathed, Namjoon tightening his arms around Seokjin firmly, and Seokjin pushing right into him. Seokjin felt sun-kissed and smelled of light sweat, sun lotion, melon ice lollies and honey, and Namjoon buried into the scent of it fiercely, unwilling to let something so important go. Seokjin nuzzled against the side of his neck, full of comfort – and Namjoon stilled for a brief second. The hug changed, then, from just a hug: it changed to them scenting each other, at first dissipating the dread that they’d be torn apart, but then continuing because Seokjin was catching Namjoon’s scent in a way that made Namjoon’s heart soar.

Seokjin had to take a step back from the change in force when the scenting became less subtle, more intentional. Namjoon was about to pull back, knowing he’d pushed his luck to its limits, but Seokjin’s arms around his back tightened, stopping him. “You can keep going if you like,” Seokjin said against his shoulder.

It sounded like a question. What came after some friendly scenting?

Namjoon was bewildered but in that instant didn’t question his dumb luck: he dove back into the scenting. And the hug that had turned to scenting turned to claiming, a sharper edge to Namjoon’s scent as he began to nose against Seokjin’s skin with sudden excited intent. Seokjin’s breath hitched – and then Seokjin hummed, gratified, offering his neck for Namjoon, who let out a pleased growl, the bridge of his nose rubbing against the soft skin of Seokjin’s neck.

It felt like coming home, like the most important discovery Namjoon had ever made – and was different from before, from the five others. Initiating Seokjin was like a drug, dizzying, blood-soaring. They staggered, nearly losing balance, both scenting each other – electric, it was electric – and Namjoon slipped an arm around Seokjin’s waist, while Seokjin’s arms wrapped around his back even tighter. The tip of his nose brushed by Seokjin’s scent gland – he’d never done that, not with anyone, not even with Jimin, and Seokjin’s breath hitched. He had fistfuls of Seokjin’s loose tank top, and Seokjin stayed where he was.

Namjoon stalled before pushing in closer, the honeyed musk so close and right there under his nose, right there for Namjoon’s mouth and – and he stilled, and Seokjin stilled, and Namjoon nudged at Seokjin, nudged for better access, and Seokjin relaxed, sighing, tilting his head, exposing his neck and gland, and –

Somewhere above them, a door slammed and echoed steps filled the stairwell. They broke apart instantly, both of them flushed – from the sun? From the –

Seokjin was rearranging his clothes, eyes wide and surprised, and Namjoon wanted to say sorry – was he sorry? He hadn’t been about to kiss or to…? But no, he –

“You’re back!” Jungkook’s voice came, bright and happy, Jungkook hopping down the stairs. Then Jungkook stopped on the last step, looking at them stood in the lobby awkwardly, somehow caught red-handed. Jungkook frowned, sniffing, before a mad grin appeared on his face. “No! Hyung! Did you two really?!”

And then Jungkook leaped to Seokjin – Namjoon didn’t take this personally – saying, “Hyung, finally!”

Seokjin grinned at Namjoon from over Jungkook’s shoulder, the air between them filled with the faint scent of Namjoon’s claim on Seokjin. Namjoon felt shy again – shy, bewildered, but happy. Seokjin as his packmate! How lucky was Namjoon? How undeserving was he?

The evening was chaos: his pack crowded in on Seokjin, all of them seeking a new pack scent that included them all, and Seokjin kept pushing into Namjoon’s neck, too, friendly and happy, just like the rest of his pack often did, but Namjoon’s heart skipped at least four beats each time. This could be fatal, he thought.

At the end of the day he sheepishly gave one of his sleep shirts for Seokjin to wear, to reinforce the new scent even more.

And lying in bed, with six – six – packmates around him, Namjoon was too excited to sleep. Butterflies skirted in his stomach, his heart so full somehow that he couldn’t get it to calm down. He had to get that apartment. He had to get that nice apartment and all the ice lollies any of them could ever want, he had to keep his promise and his word.

Turning in bed, he caught a whiff of himself, and he found Seokjin’s scent there, on his skin and mixed in with everyone else.

How had he ever, even for a day, gone without it?

* * *

Just as Namjoon feared that the end had come, that the ache inside his chest was going to ruin the pack forever, he learned its real name and purpose.

He shouted the name to sixty thousand people in London and then was backstage again for a quick outfit change, and soon was back to performing with all of his pack, the seven of them hyping up the crowd.

And then, mid-song, as Seokjin was singing his part to tens of thousands of people, an endless sea of glittering lights sparkling around the stadium and illuminating Seokjin’s hair and face, Namjoon stilled watching Seokjin from across the stage and thought how fucking desperately in love with Seokjin he was. And he flinched because hang on, what? But he kept watching and knew it to be true: he was devastatingly in love.

Oh.

And so there wasn’t a specific moment, Namjoon learned, when love happened. Sometimes people had wholesome anecdotes like “On our fifth date she held the door open for me, and that’s when I knew…” or “He showed up with balloons when I was ill, and I realised that…” or “When we met her family and she scented all of her baby cousins so gently, my heart exploded with…” What those stories showed wasn’t that the acknowledgement or certainty had erupted in one’s heart, but that the love had already been there, unbeknownst.

For instance: “He was my packmate and best friend for eight years, and one day I looked at him and knew that he was the foundation on which I wanted to build the rest of my life.”

Or something like that – give or take.

The force nagging at Namjoon like a sledgehammer was possessive, sure, and a little angry because it was fearful and hurt and confused after everything that had happened – but when he took away the negatives what was left was love, and that love was full of pure adoration and awe.

All the warnings bells Namjoon had ever let pass through his mind – not this omega, not Seokjin, anyone but him – had been wrong: he’d never been in danger of falling in love. He already was.

He managed to finish the concert – he was a professional.

And Seokjin, who had been trying very hard to be somewhat normal with him again while completely refusing to even acknowledge what they had done, approached him backstage with, “Was it good tonight? Were we good?” Namjoon looked at Seokjin, weakened to the centre of his soul, and he was so sure of what he felt that he was floored by the strength of it. Seokjin frowned. “What? What do I have on my face?”

So that was why he wasn’t getting over the heat – so that was why. And as for the ache and sorrow? Heartbreak. Simple, old-fashioned heartbreak.

Namjoon took Seokjin in, amazed, and then Jimin launched on Seokjin, anyway.

At the hotel he searched the internet for ‘I’m in love with my packmate, what do I do?’ because you could be an award-winning musician-cum-pack alpha at the age of twenty-four and still be kind of fucking clueless. Step 1: Do you have your pack alpha’s blessing? Well, he supposed he did… Step 2: Be respectful of your packmate’s current relationship if they are in one. Seokjin was single, thank god. Step 3: Weigh the different outcomes: happily ever after or pack permanently destroyed.

And even more so: their careers damaged, their public images tarnished. They had always been cited as an example of how betas, omegas, and alphas could share packs without getting it mixed with love and hormones – get your mind out of the gutter, not everything was to do with mating!

And then Namjoon turned around and was to be found in Seokjin’s bed? He’d seduced one of his omegas? They’d lose fans, prestige, endorsements… They’d lose a hell of a lot.

Step 4: Get perspective.

He knocked on Yoongi’s door, Yoongi opening it for him with bleary eyes and messy post-shower hair, already in pyjamas. Namjoon stood in the hotel corridor, annoyed at himself, and sighed. “I need to talk to you about something important.”

Suspicion crossed Yoongi’s face before Yoongi held the door open. “I think I’ve been expecting you.”

Namjoon sat at the end of Yoongi’s hotel bed while Yoongi poured them giant glasses of chianti, the bottle having been already a quarter empty. Their London rooms were a handful of floors up and Yoongi had the window open, late evening traffic and honking sounding, the air smelling of early summer and traffic fumes and just a little foreign to Namjoon. Yoongi sat down on the large armchair by the window, and Namjoon examined the contents of his glass, letting the wine swirl slowly.

“So I’m in love.”

Yoongi stared at him intently. “That,” he said, punctuating the word, “would explain a lot.”

He lifted his head. “It does?”

“Yeah,” Yoongi said, intelligent eyes observing him. “And that’s what this is about, right? You want to include them in the pack?” Yoongi nervously went to sip his wine and –

“It’s Jin-hyung.”

– Yoongi choked and spilled red wine all over himself. “Goddammit!” he swore, blotting at his top uselessly, wine glass hastily put on the side table. “What the hell do you mean it’s Jin-hyung?”

But Namjoon didn’t really know how to explain it to Yoongi, that he had acknowledged something that had been in him for a very long time, far longer than the past week or month. And Namjoon had to give credit to both himself and Seokjin when Yoongi choked on his chianti a second time upon learning they’d spent the heat together.

“You two what?” Yoongi said, slapping at his chest to get air in.

“We shared his heat,” he said, a tad wistfully.

“You shared his- What, just now? You two…? Holy fuck, you two had sex?!” Yoongi yelped, voice rising to the point where Namjoon worried it carried through the walls and out the window. Yoongi lowered his voice and hissed, “Shit, Joonie. He showed up so ravished – that was you?”

“He wasn’t that bruised…”

Yoongi stared at him, astonished. “Well, that’s a content alpha’s response.”

“Yeah, I guess,” he admitted, still sat on the end of Yoongi’s bed, feeling useless. It was practically miraculous that the pack hadn’t figured them out, but then who was able to share a heat and avoid each other like they had? Post-heat instincts were clingy and needy, but they had forced a distance between them that sickened Namjoon.

“Hang on,” Yoongi said, “I need to process this.” Yoongi went to his open suitcase to change shirts as Namjoon fidgeted at a loss.

When Yoongi sat back down in a stain-free black tee, he said, “I just thought you couldn’t handle it, him having his heat. That’s why you vanished, washed us off, that whole thing – having one of us submit to another alpha was too much for you so you took off, and that’s why you’ve been so goddamn weird.”

Yoongi sucked in a breath, pouring himself more wine – generously. He lifted the glass to his mouth, stopped. “Wow. Okay.” And then he took a huge gulp before wiping at his mouth. “How did I not see this coming? And with the- Hang on. Hang on, hang on. You were smart, right? You didn’t- He’d had the heat shot, right?”

Namjoon shrugged in response but nodded – disappointed.

“Joon-ah! Are you kidding me?” Yoongi asked with wide eyes, but Namjoon didn’t want to apologise when he didn’t feel sorry – because he’d failed, he knew that. His task had been simple: breed Seokjin. He hadn’t. Of course that was a failure, a missed opportunity. God, in nine months they could have held her for the first time, but no. No. Heat shots. Modern medicine.

“They mess you up,” he said slowly, thinking back to Seokjin in his dream: carrying. Expecting. The surge of joy and excitement it sent through him. “Heats, they get to you. You know that yourself.”

“Yes, but when Eunsun and I…” Yoongi began, trailing off before estimating Namjoon slowly. “Well, the bite makes sense now. Strong heat hormones, I thought, but it didn’t add up. And look at you – were you all baby feverish like this for the heat?”

He frowned. “What? I don’t have baby fever.”

“Oh sure you don’t,” Yoongi said, but it sounded more fond than accusatory. “That whole vibe can be hard for some omegas to resist, you know, and hyung moons about having a mate, like, all the time. God, of course he let you bite him. Hang on – he offered. God, he offered himself, didn’t he?”

Yoongi looked mildly victorious as Namjoon nodded with, “Yeah. Yeah, and… I made a mistake, maybe, when I didn’t go for it. I mean I shouldn’t have, of course not, not like that but…”

“Yeah,” Yoongi said: but omegas didn’t offer themselves to just anyone, heat or no heat. Namjoon was relatively sure Seokjin had never offered before either, not to Chiwon or Jaebong or any of the others. The moment had been new for both of them. Intoxicating. Yoongi frowned. “He read it as rejection?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Although when I- I bit him, he… ah, you know,” he said, and Yoongi frowned. “He came.”

Yoongi reeled back in his chair. “Ahh, spare me, come on!”

“Sorry.”

“Mental bleach, mental bleach!”

“Sorry!” he said, placating, but a possessive thrum in his guts was pleased.

“New rule: no details, never give details,” Yoongi said, holding up a hand before lowering it. “And warn a guy next time – goddammit, alpha-yah.”

“Yeah, sorry.” But in truth it felt good to tell someone, anyone – how Seokjin had briefly been his, how in sync they had been and how magical that had felt. How right. “But it’s been awful since, everything’s been awful,” he admitted, knowing Yoongi was the only person he could ever admit this to. “I’m so unhappy all the time, on edge and angry and- and just unsure of everything somehow, and Jin-hyung will barely speak to me, except now I realised that I –”

“Love him?”

“Aish, of course I love him,” he said, annoyed. “I’ve always loved him. But now I- I feel.” And he rubbed at his own chest in frustration. “And he told me we should stay the same, but we’re not. We’re not the same anymore.”

Both of their phones beeped with a notification then and they dug them out: Jimin had started a livestream like he’d told them he would, and habitually they clicked to view it.

But Jimin wasn’t alone: Seokjin was with him, wearing a black hoodie zipped all the way up, keeping Seokjin’s neck hidden from view. Most of the bruises had faded, but some remained around the scent gland. No one should see what remained – and yet Namjoon desperately wanted everyone to see them as testaments of his devotion.

Jimin and Seokjin had noodles and chicken and were chattering happily, sat at a table in Jimin’s hotel room just a few doors down, saying they would start their delicious meals after more viewers joined them. They already had three hundred thousand viewers which was a nice start, and Seokjin was explaining to Jimin about a croissant he’d had for breakfast in Paris – unexpectedly with chocolate filling that had drippled all over Seokjin’s shirt – and Jimin covered his mouth laughing, eyes disappearing as he did so. Seokjin had on a goofy smile, cheeks round and warm looking – and was charming and personable, the way Seokjin always was. Namjoon stared fondly, aching.

“Are you sure it’s not just heat brain?” Yoongi then asked, phone in his lap, Jimin’s laughter echoing from the speakers. “Show me someone who didn’t think they were in love after a good heat or rut. I mean even I thought Eunsun and I were soulmates for a solid day or two but the delusion faded with the hormones.”

“This isn’t the same,” he said, eyes lingering on Seokjin on his phone screen. “This is more than that. I think it’s been more for a while.”

“The last few months?”

“Longer,” he said. “I don’t know from when, but much longer. Years, I think. Maybe even before we ever debuted, maybe… God, I don’t know.” And Yoongi looked genuinely sorry for him. “Having him here has been enough, but I- I don’t think it will be anymore, not after we…”

“And Jin-hyung?” Yoongi asked, glancing down at the phone.

He shook his head. “He thinks I was only interested in the sex or saw it as a… a duty of some kind, I don’t know. He said that it’d be impossible. And he thanked me too when we were done.”

Yoongi smiled at that – crooked. “He always is so polite, huh? But I can tell you he’s not unaffected – he’s been out of sorts all tour too.”

“He hides what he feels even more than you or me. More than Hobi, even.”

“That’s true,” Yoongi agreed.

Namjoon hesitated. “He says that the stuff now is heat withdrawal.”

“It’s what?”

“Heat withdrawal.”

“That’s not a thing.” Yoongi’s nose scrunched up. “You don’t get actual withdrawal from sex.”

“No, you- you do. You do when- when you share a heat and feel really close afterwards, so any distance seems wrong, makes you ache, and nothing helps, and you’re just stuck daydreaming.”

“Fuck me sideways, that’s a crush,” Yoongi deadpanned. “Congrats, you two, it’s a crush.”

“A crush is for kids.”

“And heat withdrawal is made-up,” Yoongi said sternly. “Besides, you said what it is, right? Love or whatever.” Yoongi said it with just a hint of unease, eyes on the painting of the Thames on the wall.

“Love,” he said, an ache at the pit of his stomach. “When we’re barely talking.”

“Yeah, the kids have theories on that. Territorial pack alpha stuff mostly.” Yoongi glanced down at the phone again. “Maybe you two have had a thing for each other all along, now that I think about it.”

On the phones, Jimin and Seokjin were chatting and digging into their meals.

Yoongi carefully put his wine glass away, expression thoughtful before saying, “Look, the two of you carry torches for each other. You always have. And… the label discourages us from dating, but us agreeing to it was our own rule. It’s a commodity that we sell, us being single, it’s expected and it benefits our careers, but… You’re our pack alpha – is it time we make new rules?”

“What, for dating?” He shook his head. “We’d lose fans.”

“Then those aren’t the fans we want.”

“No, but- but you know what it’s like, how they bounce on any rumour like that, tear us and the other person to pieces. And I hate the thought of someone crying because, I don’t know, Kookie gets a girlfriend.”

“Okay, factcheck? Jungkookie could sneeze and someone would cry about it.”

He snorted – but true, that was true. “But how much do they love us? That much?”

“How long is a piece of string?” Yoongi shrugged. “You don’t know until you measure it. And- And there are days, most days even, that I live for the fans. What is my purpose in this world? The fans, beyond you guys. But- But it’s also a crutch, an emotional crutch and… and at some point you have to live for yourself instead. That’s the terrifying part,” Yoongi said thoughtfully, and Namjoon knew he was hearing something new, something that Yoongi had only said in therapy before. “But this love thing?” Yoongi then asked. “This is what you do for yourself – that I know for sure. Not the fans or the pack, but for you.”

What were they allowed? A heat, apparently. A maddening heat. And then…?

“Besides,” Yoongi added, “you wouldn’t have to go public with it.”

“No I would,” he disagreed instantly, “because – because if I… courted.” The word made him fill with disbelief and nerves. He pushed on. “If I- Then all of you should do the same, see people if you want to, and that would never work in secret. It would be unfair to force that into being secret.” He thought of what Seokjin had said: sneaking around in hotels wasn’t a solution, wasn’t an option. “You all deserve better, and we’ve all lost people before because of those restrictions.”

“Okay, so then you make it public,” Yoongi shrugged, a little too defiant like always. “Release a statement – you have ‘good feelings’ for each other.” Yoongi used air quotes and rolled his eyes. “We were the first pack in this industry and that worked out. Let’s be the first to date as well, inside and outside the pack – go wild, let them all have a meltdown over it. Hell, let’s unleash Jimin on the dating world.”

Namjoon fought off a smile before he leaned back and asked the real question: “But would I survive it?”

Because that was what them all dating really meant, after the repercussions, after the media chaos, the drama, the rumours, the scrutiny, the hate, the love, the fear. After all of that Namjoon would still be tugging at the string of a tapestry, unravelling, sending the seven of them to seven different continents.

Taehyung still talked about that makeup artist sometimes, the one who’d dumped him when the distance got too much but who had been texting Taehyung every now and then lately; and Jimin had told that omega girl that the timing was bad but maybe later they could try again; and at least three different acquaintances had told Hoseok to call the second he wanted to elope or buy a house or adopt eight dogs or have, like, a dozen children maybe, really whatever Hoseok wanted, they were in; and Jungkook had a soft spot for a guy he’d known as a kid in Busan, a family friend who’d presented as an omega and whom Jungkook always went on discreet coffee dates with when back home, Jungkook always turning bright red when the pack teased him about his ‘cute Busan friend’.

And if Namjoon told them to go ahead, knock yourselves out – not only would that negatively impact their careers when the general public attacked their romances, but Namjoon was opening up the chance that another alpha wanted to claim one of his packmates. Already. So soon. Too soon.

“You never forget,” PD-nim had warned him. “That’s what no one tells you.”

“Of course you’d survive us all dating, whatever that would lead to,” Yoongi then said, but Namjoon shook his head. Yoongi frowned. “Hey, listen to me. There are lives within this life we haven’t even begun to live yet – you understand? You and me? We’re young. I rarely feel young, trust me, but we’ve got at least fifty more years to get through. And it’s… it’s scary for something to end when the next stage hasn’t really started yet, or it’s uncertain and unclear, but in ten years when you and your mate are minding your disturbingly intelligent and beautiful triplets – as I can only assume you will be – then you will think you never knew what being a pack meant until then.”

Yoongi could be wise beyond his years sometimes, so maybe Yoongi was right. Yoongi had lived before, as a yew tree perhaps, and would be a rock in the next life as Yoongi so ardently wished: morphed at the bottom of an ocean, the earth spitting him out, and washed ashore much later. Taehyung would pick him up – take him places. Taehyung had promised. But –

“I know what being a pack means,” he objected, sternly. He might not know much, but he knew that.

“You do know,” Yoongi then amended. “Fine. But do you know what being in love means? How that is something different?” Yoongi’s voice was just a little teasing, but Namjoon felt overcome anyway, glancing down at his phone again – Seokjin slurping noodles, Jimin explaining about the day’s concert. Seokjin swallowed and then smiled at Jimin’s commentary, corners of his mouth upturned, cheeks puffed out and soft and round, and god, Namjoon had never seen anyone as perfect, as amazing. When he looked up again, Yoongi’s teasing smirk was gone. “Yeah,” Yoongi said. “Love, huh?”

He took this in uncertainly. “Do you have someone? Someone lined up, you know, like the others do.”

Yoongi’s mouth pursed and he scratched the back of his head. “Ah… Maybe.”

“Let me guess. A musician?”

“Might be,” Yoongi granted. “She’s a songwriter, very good too.” And Yoongi suddenly gave him a shy, smitten smile, gums flashing, before Yoongi filed this away – but that brief second of unfiltered joy on Yoongi’s face cut through Namjoon painfully. “But nothing might ever come of these things,” Yoongi then said evasively, “of course. But at some point, sooner or later…”

And Namjoon nodded – he knew. Yoongi was twenty-five now, Seokjin was twenty-six, and Namjoon was twenty-four. That distant idea they all had of Finding Someone was ever closer, had never felt as close, and it would leave Namjoon with nothing. Sooner or later they had to grow up: a young bachelor pack. It never could have lasted, but when Namjoon was made of building blocks in the shape of his packmates, he couldn’t fathom how to exist without any of them.

Thicker than blood, more than brothers, confidantes, soulmates, packmates, whatever word one used for it, the seven of them were more than that to each other. And they’d all been a complete pack for years, knowing and needing no one beyond it. How was Namjoon expected to let them go? But –

“Sooner or later,” he said thickly.

Everyone knew it, everyone from Yoongi to PD-nim. Namjoon had spent years in denial. In love, too.

Seokjin and Jimin’s livestream kept going, three million viewers by now. The comments were coming in with such speed that they were illegible, but Namjoon caught perfect omegas UWU, more frustratingly let me scent you jin-oppa!!! and even are you hiding your neck, seokjinnie…??!!

Of course it had always been like that and always would be, with the rumours and affairs, with Namjoon sat at his assigned seat while Seokjin continued to explore his romances, the successes and failures, the thousands of alphas who wistfully stared at him, from fans at concerts to billionaire Kim Jisoos. Namjoon would deal with the downfalls – the moments of fear in Japanese hotels, waiting for one line versus two – and the eventual success when Seokjin truly fell in love one day, when someone proved worthy of him. Someone would come and formally ask Namjoon’s permission to claim Seokjin for their pack, and Namjoon would let go. He’d have to let Seokjin go.

“And if you really feel this way about hyung,” Yoongi said, “I’d make it sooner rather than later.”

He sighed, restless. “Because all alphas want him, I know.”

“No,” Yoongi frowned. “No, not because of other alphas, but because this decade-long asceticism is a bad look on you, for fuck’s sake. Who are you trying to be, the Dalai Lama?”

“I’ve had flings.”

“Such great romances, Joonie, you truly are the modern Don Juan.”

“Hey!”

“Come on, you know you’ve never pursued anyone, not with any real intent,” Yoongi said. “And I mean, why would you? The one you wanted was right in front of you.” And as Yoongi said it, Namjoon knew it to be true.

He took this all in, wondering where it left him. So maybe being in love with Seokjin wasn’t something he could put on hold – not anymore. Not when it radiated in his chest like this. Not when they weren’t kids anymore.

“So what is the right thing to do?” he asked because he had no clue.

“You tell him,” Yoongi said, patience running thin. “You tell him all the shit you just said to me. What? Should we write him a letter? Should we tweet about it? Should we crash this livestream with a passionate rap about the heat and how you –”

“Okay, okay, I get it.” Wow, he really should’ve gone to Hoseok about this. “It’s not that simple, I have to think about the wider repercussions, about the fans, the media. About the pack too.”

“The pack adores you, you idiot,” Yoongi said, “no matter what you do.” And there was no bite to Yoongi’s tone anymore, Yoongi’s gaze on him steady – and trusting.

Namjoon managed a smile, but sadness clung to it. “Thanks.”

He stood up, dusting his hands against his jeans, pocketing his phone and cutting off the livestream feed because he could only handle so much in one night.

Yoongi offered his neck as Namjoon leaned down to scent goodnight – and he thought of the two of them at the cheap neighbourhood restaurant a decade earlier, with no awards to their names, never even having met the rest of the pack. Just two foolhardy kids with Yoongi fiercely saying that they were in it come what may as he first offered his neck for scenting. A decade. How lucky was he to have had Yoongi for a decade?

Because he knew, somehow, although Yoongi hadn’t said it. He knew: “That songwriter you like is an alpha.”

And Yoongi, still seated, didn’t look up at him but nodded. Guilt clung to the gesture.

Of course she was. And Taehyung’s ex, the makeup artist, was an alpha too, and Jungkook wanted to start his own pack one day. That left him at least three packmates down – at least three, and pain cut through him as he thought of Taehyung with his large doe eyes, tearful and lost-looking in an arcade. Such a slim kid, skin and bones like a fox cub. That had been, what – eight years ago now?

And Jungkook had been just a kid too, so much younger than Namjoon had ever understood at the time, Jungkook’s mother’s alpha claim barely faded from the kid before Namjoon stepped in. The best rash decision he had ever made, he thought, remembering the way his heart had clenched the first time Jungkook had ever called him alpha-hyung. There would be a final time for that too, he thought. He should have memorised those moments better, appreciated them more: Jungkook’s wild, happy exclamations of “alpha-hyung!” and Jungkook clinging onto him with a beaming smile.

Not to even mention Jimin whining for his attention and extra scenting, not to even mention how Namjoon always went in search of Hoseok when he thought he couldn’t handle the pressure and schedules a second longer – and then Hoseok was there, so patient, so solid, enduring all with a genuine smile, and Namjoon found yet another layer of strength within himself.

How lucky was he to have held onto any of them for as long as he had? To have them accept him as alpha, as home, for so long?

“She’s lucky,” he said quietly – those successful suitors who would steal Namjoon’s pack from him.

“Aish, I don’t know,” Yoongi said dismissively.

“Trust me,” he said. “Damn lucky.”

Those thieves would be the luckiest bastards in this world.

He’d hate them if he could, from those yet to come to Yoongi’s songwriter friend.

He’d hate her weren’t it for the way she made Min Yoongi smile.

* * *

Namjoon had never expected to find himself as the pack alpha of a chaotic bunch of fellow youths when only a kid himself, but he had learned on the job, with years spent agonising over how to be a better leader, a better alpha. He’d gradually grown into the responsibility and liked to think he’d improved, too.

And Yoongi was right: life was far longer than anyone living could understand, and by the time other pack alphas he knew – from his grandmother to PD-nim – reached middle or old age, their packs had undergone several changes with people leaving to mate someone, with people dying, with people being born. Packs were never stagnant if you lived long enough.

And no pack had ever filled out the largest stadium in Europe on a warm June evening like this. He admired the audience from the stage, marvelled at the endless extent of their supporters. Only his pack – only the very first version of his pack.

Maybe he’d set the standard too high from the get-go.

But even as they wrapped up their final show in Europe, Namjoon was busy – he always was. He’d been messaging Sejin bihourly: progress report?

sejin-hyung cannot come to the phone right now, Sejin typed, because he is dead from irrational alpha demands

Namjoon had huffed at that. But after the Barcelona concert, Sejin finally came up to him and said, “It’s all good to go.”

Namjoon was sat in the dressing room, exhausted from the show and pressing a cooling pack to his sore shoulder, one of their massage therapists rubbing his thigh – yet he perked up instantly, adrenaline rushing through him anew. “It is? You sure you got them all?”

“Yeah,” Sejin said, smiling at him a little fondly – and proudly, that was clear. It was a far cry from Sejin’s utter shock when Namjoon had first approached him. Surely this needed to be cleared by PD-nim! But no, Namjoon said. Not this.

Now Sejin said, “Look at you all excited. Reminds me of when I was being –” And Sejin motioned at his neck. “Time flies, huh? And the kids are right, too: just look at the alpha you’ve become.”

Namjoon mumbled, “Ah, I dunno…” But he was smiling.

The next day they filmed a Run episode at a vineyard somewhere in central Spain: a wine tasting that was Jungkook’s brainchild (supported by and perhaps truly originating from Yoongi). They were all buzzed by lunchtime, although Namjoon and Taehyung used the spittoon for their wines. The episode would be a classic no doubt with them all mildly intoxicated, Taehyung drippling wine on himself, Jimin getting outrageously touchy with them all, Hoseok lecturing that drinking too much was bad for you, and Seokjin offering flourishing observations on the wines: “A flexible and tender body, like a young go-go dancer, but with bubble-gum undertones.” The maknaes cackled, their dozen staff giggled behind the cameras, and the vineyard’s sommelier remained utterly baffled.

The day was long but finished at a hilltop villa with a large pool and seven actual bedrooms for them all, and they were not spoiled to the point where they didn’t appreciate the beauty and luxury of the place. The staff filled the fridge and left them to it – the crew had originally wanted to film them having dinner together, perhaps play some games too, but Namjoon had asked for a night off. He didn’t often pull the ‘we need private pack time’ card, but when he did he was listened to: the production team backed off, saying they had plenty of material from the day itself, anyway.

“We’ll stretch it out if we need to,” one of the film crew said.

“Yeah, and we’ll add slow-mo shots and baby sound effects,” another added.

“Mm, they like that,” their director agreed.

Jimin and Hoseok got stuck cooking while Jungkook and Taehyung hit the pool with Seokjin loosely supervising. Yoongi read a book in the shade with a glass of wine like he hadn’t had enough yet, and Namjoon settled one deck chair over. With the camera crew gone, they were enjoying the pool area shirtless but were still careful not to get tanned. Seokjin splashed in the pool with Jungkook and Taehyung, the three of them trying to fake-drown each other to Namjoon’s mild distress. Seokjin looked young and strong, however, skin smooth and toned everywhere. The bruises from the heat had faded completely now, but Namjoon ignored the loss that permeated through him. Marked or unmarked, he knew the scent of that skin, the feel of it, the touch of it, and that knowledge was calming, not maddening. A centre to weave all else around.

Jungkook launched on Seokjin’s back in an attempt to force him underwater, Taehyung defending Seokjin, Seokjin flailing – the three of them loud and ridiculous and Namjoon’s – and he took in Seokjin’s smile and laughter most of all. Yoongi cleared his throat from the sunchair beside him, arching an eyebrow at him. Namjoon quickly averted his gaze.

Yoongi hadn’t bothered him about it, hadn’t pestered or probed, and seemed to be letting Namjoon figure it out on his own. He was nearly there.

Before dinner he stood in his bedroom on the first floor, nervously trying to decide what to wear: jeans or slacks? Shirt or tank top? Formal or informal? But to be underdressed…

He chose black shorts and a large white t-shirt, fixed his hair, and doubted every single decision he’d ever made in his life except this one (and perhaps six others). He looked at his reflection in the mirror: “Come on, Namjoon,” he said. “Fighting. Come on, you’ve got this.”

With one final calming breath, he headed downstairs.

As the pack settled around the large dining table, Taehyung observed Jimin and Hoseok’s food offerings. “Is there no Spanish ham? Jamón, I looked it up, it’s called jamón. Ha- Ha. You spell it with a J, but it’s a ‘ha’ sound. Do we have some?”

Namjoon sat next to Seokjin, whose black hair was still wet from the pool but Seokjin had changed back into navy shorts and a loose grey tank top. The humid summer air was warm, the pack chattering and eating.

The remaining European dates had been challenging, Namjoon knew that. He’d been trying to stay close but not too close, give Seokjin space but also not too much of it. Seokjin probably hadn’t known what to make of it, keeping him at a cordial arm’s length, and now –

Seokjin launched into a new joke he’d heard – with success because it made Jimin nearly fall off his chair, feet kicking in the air. Seokjin turned to him for a verdict. “A good one, right?”

“One of your best,” he agreed easily, knowing why he’d always gone along with the craziest or lamest of Seokjin’s antics. Now he stared at Seokjin intently and – as Seokjin had started doing at some point (when exactly?) – Seokjin seemed flustered and looked away.

They carried on eating, sipping on wine and beers and celebrating selling out the largest stadium in Europe, now in a luxury villa in the Spanish countryside, just the seven of them until the staff pick-up the next morning. Namjoon tried to stay calm but he was finally unravelling, one thread at a time, every now and then reaching to get some more food, but then just pushing the extra slices of meat onto Seokjin’s plate. Seokjin said nothing although he was starting to tense up, and Namjoon tried to calm himself. Seokjin kept eating, however. Namjoon felt gratified beyond words. Encouraged.

Jungkook said, “Hyung, where do you want to play next?” and Yoongi tilted his head, pondering. “Glastonbury headline?”

The rest tutted their tongues and shook their heads.

Intact. Safe. Happy.

Nothing pleased him more.

After the food was gone, they lounged on the couches in the patio area, the evening now fully dark with millions of stars above them. The lights from inside the house were reflected on the surface of the large pool while crickets sounded in the air.

Looking up at the stars Jungkook said, “It’s like one of our concerts.”

“It never feels like real numbers,” Hoseok said, likewise stargazing. “Sixty thousand per show – how can that be true?”

They were having melon and pear slices for dessert, Jimin mourning that another diet was imminent. Seokjin sat at the end of the rattan sofa with Yoongi and Taehyung, munching on a pear slice, with Jimin and Hoseok cuddled on a sunchair together. Jungkook was on the two-seater with Namjoon, showing videos he’d taken on stage the night before. “I’ll make a film with this!” Jungkook enthused.

But what time was it in Korea? Was it eight in the morning yet?

Just as Namjoon thought he couldn’t wait any longer, his phone vibrated with messages from Sejin. The first one was in English: live.

This was not a command – go and live! – but a status update: they had gone live. But Namjoon was fond of dualities, and he liked the first interpretation better. Go live. Live life. What else was it for? And that was happy even as it was somehow sad. Go live: when a door closes a window opens, was that the phrase?

The second message read good luck kid.

Stomach in knots and with a vague sickening feeling in his chest as the gravity of it all hit him – holy shit, he’d actually done this – he looked up from the screen. His pack was talking over each other loudly, arguing over whose fault it was that Yoongi had slipped on stage during their second Barcelona show: Seokjin’s for throwing water around in the first place (Yoongi’s argument), poor shoe and stage design (Seokjin’s counterargument), Yoongi’s innate poor balance (Jimin’s interference), perhaps both of their faults a little (Hoseok’s appeasement), divine intervention (Taehyung’s musings) or, simply, gravity (Jungkook’s conclusion).

Namjoon said, “I love you all.” This cut through the noise, and his pack ogled him in the dark of the evening. “I really love you. More than you know.”

Hoseok, sat on the sunchair with Jimin, covered his mouth and pointed at Namjoon. “He’s turning into Suga-hyung! Two sips and he’s off!”

“No, you say it back!” Jimin said fiercely, sitting up straighter in Hoseok’s half-embrace. “We have to be emotionally vulnerable with each other! It’s okay to be! It’s healthy! You don’t think I love you?” Jimin challenged Hoseok.

“Yeah!” Taehyung cut in from the couch. “You don’t think we’re proud of you?”

“Because we are!” Jimin declared, eyes still on Hoseok. “And I love you!”

Hoseok averted his gaze and muttered something under his breath as Jimin turned to Namjoon. “Alpha-hyung! I love you too!” Jimin made firm eye contact with Namjoon as he said it. Jimin then leaped up and went to the couch, climbing straight onto Taehyung’s lap, grabbing the front of Taehyung’s shirt and rattling him. “Taehyungie, I love you!”

Taehyung was already hugging Jimin back and declaring his own love, rubbing his scent to Jimin’s shoulder, as Yoongi said, “Aish, enough with sentimentalities!” Jimin reached for Yoongi next, and Yoongi inched back. “Fine, fine, I love you too!”

But Namjoon wasn’t done.

“I wanted to tell you that I no longer feel like I have to prove to anyone that I can lead you – you all prove that for me every day, even if we’re chaotic sometimes,” he admitted. “And as for me, well I… I know I haven’t been perfect, that as we’ve had our ups and downs I’ve let you guys down sometimes – too often, all of you.” At this, he looked at Seokjin who was studying him with an uncertain expression. Maybe he’d always let Seokjin down most of all. No more. “But… but when I look at you now, and not just in terms of how far we’ve come but the amazing people you’ve become, I know I must’ve done something right. And I love you.”

A silence settled on them – such speeches were for special occasions, carefully selected, usually highly significant if not life-changing.

Taehyung pushed Jimin off his lap and, sounding half-serious, asked, “Are you dying?”

“No,” he laughed, although the nerves were killing him. “No…”

It didn’t take long – perhaps a moment or two longer than Namjoon had anticipated, given how quickly everything trended and spread these days – because Jimin looked up from his phone and said, “Namjoon-hyung, what’s this statement?”

Taehyung peered at the screen of Jimin’s phone. “You made a food donation, hyung? You didn’t say anything.”

Hoseok had also gotten out his phone, the screen lit up in the dark. “No, you sent a food truck? For a week? Can’t be right, hang on. Wait, several food trucks…?”

“What? Who to?” Jungkook asked with a craned neck, just as Jimin read, “To the… the people of Seoul and Gwacheon…”

A pause followed. Jungkook then carefully said, “But Gwacheon is where Jin-hyung’s from…?”

The rest turned to look at Seokjin, who was sat on the couch with a melon slice in his hand, frozen to the spot and staring at Namjoon, face blank – the smile from earlier vanished.

Hoseok clutched his phone as he then yelped, “You’re donating a million churros?!”

Seokjin dropped the melon slice he’d been holding, the rind rolling under the patio table as Seokjin jerked – the blank expression changing into shock.

Namjoon fought for an ounce of serenity as he met Seokjin’s stunned gaze and said, “Yeah. I’m courting someone.”

A second passed, then two, three –

Jimin bolted to sit upright with a loud gasp just as Yoongi stood up with a “Let’s go, come on!” Yoongi grabbed Jimin by the collar and Taehyung by the arm, hauling both up with surprising strength. Hoseok’s mouth had dropped open but no words came out, while Jungkook was leaning back and looking between Namjoon and Seokjin like he had never seen them before in his life.

“You can all stay,” Namjoon said calmly. “It affects you too.”

“We can stay!” Taehyung protested, caught in Yoongi’s grip, being dragged towards the house.

“No, they need privacy,” Yoongi said.

“Since when is this actually happening?!” Jimin objected, scandalised.

Jungkook jumped up when Hoseok did, the two of them scurrying after Yoongi’s cohort and re-entering the house – Jimin’s voice still echoing through as the glass doors closed, with Hoseok shouting, “Really tired suddenly, see you tomorrow!”

The door slid shut with a click, and suddenly they were alone in the warm night air, the two of them and a thousand crickets chirping in the darkened grass.

Seokjin looked shell-shocked sat on the couch. “Namjoon-ah, I… The- The statement?”

“Confirms I’ve made a donation.”

Seokjin was frowning. “But the label…?”

“Don’t know. I didn’t ask. Sejin released the statement for me directly, that’s all.”

Seokjin spluttered, like getting in air was a challenge. “That’s all?! It’s to my hometown! In your name! They’ll take one look at it and know what- Speculate that you and me…!”

“Not just speculate,” he said, trying to be calm. “Know.”

That was the point: to let the world know.

It could be some other omega from Gwacheon, of course, but what were the chances? No, people would take one look at the whole thing and figure it out. Sejin had told him as much, warning Namjoon of what it would lead to: RM courts own packmate Jin headlines, worldwide trends, internet meltdowns, perhaps the breakdown of civilised society as they knew it. Namjoon was risking utter humiliation if this went badly, was risking the pack as they were (would they play it off as an elaborate prank if Seokjin turned him down?), but Namjoon had to show Seokjin that he meant it. That his heart was Seokjin’s, should Seokjin choose it.

“But that’s so stupid,” Seokjin said, even as Namjoon saw that none of this had sunk in yet. “God, that’s so… When you could just talk to me, not go crazy with a- a…”

“A courting declaration,” he said, slowly and clearly. “From me to you.”

Seokjin flinched. Namjoon had known this donation was coming. Seokjin hadn’t. Let it sink in, let Seokjin adjust. Accept. Please. “This isn’t – I don’t...” Seokjin managed, shaking his head like it was too much. Seokjin exhaled shakily, shoulders slumped. “Is this real?”

“Yes, it’s real,” he confirmed. “I want you to know what it meant to me to have you. What this means to me now and where I want this to go,” he said as gently as he could, heart aching. Seokjin was bathed in starlight and the light from inside the house. The simple tank top on him was loose, Seokjin’s hands twisted in his lap. They were at a luxury villa rented out purely for them, in a region Namjoon couldn’t remember the name of, in a country whose language they did not speak or understand, but it was home. It was home because Seokjin was there.

Focusing on that, he said, “Can I say something?”

“Yes,” Seokjin said, disbelief still on him.

He’d thought long and hard of what he wanted to say, but nerves bubbled under his skin. Out of all the speeches he had ever given, none had mattered as much.

“I’ve been struggling since the heat,” he admitted. “I’ve struggled being who I’ve always been around you, ever since we left Seoul, ever since I left your apartment.” He should have stayed – he knew that now. God, how he should have stayed, taken that plunge even if he hadn’t known what it was yet. Maybe they could have figured it out together but instead he’d painstakingly done it on his own.

He looked at Seokjin sat in the dark, heart heavy and hopeful. “And so I realised that going back to what we were before? That’s not an option for us anymore. We passed that point, and I think we both know that. I know I do, and I think you do too.”

At this, Seokjin gave the smallest of nods.

“Good. Okay…” He exhaled, fighting nerves. “And so when I… when I stopped to take stock of my life – to think of our lives – I realised that one day all of this will go. The stadium tours, the screams, the insane schedules and huge rented villas like this one. This will morph into something else, and what that is I’m not sure yet, and sometimes that terrifies me, but… but I can handle all of this ending.”

Namjoon pressed on to the hard part. “And I can handle them leaving me.”

Seokjin looked alarmed as he paused, clenching his jaw. “I don’t know how it will happen or when, but I will accept it when it does: when Jimin finds someone, when Jungkook forms his own pack. I’ll accept it when someone courts Hobi, Taehyung, or the other way around – I’ll handle all that. Even Yoongi. Even him.”

The first one who’d ever shown him what being a pack meant.

“I can handle it when one day they’ll all live elsewhere, and we’ll see each other sometimes and talk about- about our insane youth, and days spent at stadiums and vineyards and shared nights in Spanish villas, before they all outgrew me. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night thinking about it, like I’m being sucked into a black hole I’ll never get out of, because the fear of losing any of you is so tangible. But all of that, all of it I can handle, one way or another,” he said, looking at Seokjin. “But I can’t handle losing you.”

Seokjin looked like a statue perfected from marble, even sat in the dark, even with the unshed tears in his eyes.

Namjoon pushed on. “And so I… I need you to know that it wasn’t out of a sense of duty, or, or jealousy that I came to you. It wasn’t instincts, it wasn’t just desire, or any of what you think. It was because I realised that if I want you, if I ever attempt to claim you, then I need to step up and be the person you need me to be now. For years I’ve…” And he trailed off, unsure. “I never thought you were someone I could have in any version of my life, but I did. Briefly, but I did.”

He steadied himself, hands flexing on his knees. “Those four days, those… those insanely amazing four days are what I want to give to you every day from now on. Every day, because no one will ever come close to being what you are to me. And when it comes to my future and what happens next, the only certainty I have and know, deep down in my soul, is that you are there, and that when everything else is stripped away you are all I need. And that, to me? Is worth risking everything for.”

He stopped at this, adding, “That is what the gift means. What I am offering to you now.”

Seokjin began to speak but nothing came out. Namjoon had a lump in his throat, the sickening feeling in his guts pulsating. He had never known how awful this was: waiting to see if the offer was accepted, if he was accepted. He’d never offered before. Seokjin, however, had received offers in the thousands.

Seokjin tried again, faintly. “You’ve never said any of this.”

“No,” he admitted. “I don’t think I knew the extent of this until I allowed myself to know it. But now I… I look at you and see all of it so clearly.”

Seokjin wiped at his cheek quickly, not quite looking at him. “All of what?”

“Small things, big things.” The alignments of the planets, the changes of the seasons, the hundred different smiles of Kim Seokjin and what each of them meant. “Like where I’m going after this ends, like that you’ll carry my children one day, like that –”

“I’ll what?” Seokjin cut in.

“Yeah,” he said, taking Seokjin in, wearing plain shorts and a tank top, black hair messy, the warm scent of him distinct. “You will. God, you definitely will. Five,” he said. “It’s an odd number, but I like it. And –”

“We are not there yet,” Seokjin pointed out, efficiently shutting him up for good, but Seokjin was wiping at the corners of his eyes. Namjoon jerked, about to move closer but Seokjin motioned for him to stay where he was. “Goddamn you,” Seokjin said with an unsteady exhale of breath, wiping tears away, looking down at his hands before wiping them to his shorts. “You spew out lines like that like it’s nothing – goddamn you, you and your words.”

Seokjin breathed unsteadily, like he’d run a marathon and then some, but then cleared his throat. “God, okay. Okay...” But even then Seokjin took a few seconds, and Namjoon sat still, waiting for Seokjin’s call. Was it too late? Had he misread Seokjin entirely? Seokjin motioned around them vaguely. “How long did it take for you to plan all this? The donation, the gift.”

He hesitated. “A week and a half?”

Hiring enough food trucks and staff, synchronising the launch – details Namjoon did not know but simply paid for.

“A week and a half,” Seokjin repeated slowly. “That’s- That’s ten days. Ten days.” Seokjin sucked in a breath. “Ten days we’ve sat in hotel rooms and dressing rooms together, ten days of me agonising over this! What were you thinking?! That this is up to your convenience?”

Namjoon faltered. Mad. Seokjin was mad. “B-But I had to declare my intent – properly, fully. I had to… the pack and what this all –”

“Everyone’s been feeling like shit because you and I aren’t talking, and you’re sat there organising grand courting schemes at your leisure? Are you kidding me, Namjoon-ah?!” Seokjin snapped – and Namjoon saw his point.

“You’re right! You’re absolutely right, that was stupid, a miscalculation, that –”

"I’ve been courted hundreds of times!” Seokjin declared. “Hundreds, from the absurd to the lazy! You know that better than anyone! But I always thought that when you… If you ever, then you’d know all it had to be was something small, that it didn’t have to be more than a look or a kiss. A simple conversation. Why would I want more than that?”

Seokjin looked frustrated but Namjoon caught each word. He caught them and picked them apart, and he was up on his feet before he knew it, crossing the distance between them because this was so much worse than he’d thought.

Seokjin wouldn’t look at him but still let Namjoon sit down next to him, Namjoon not daring to touch but he hovered anxiously.

Seokjin gazed at the house, throat bobbing and shoulders tense. “Now it turns out I was an idiot,” Seokjin said, “getting wistful every stupid time you passed me some food when I should’ve been waiting for a goddamn pastry parade. Ten days?” Seokjin shook his head. “Do you have any idea how worried everyone’s been? You obtuse moron.”

“I’m so –”

Seokjin hugged him, pushing against his chest and into his neck. Namjoon exhaled, heart at his throat as he wrapped firm arms around Seokjin, clutching the back of the loose tank top – but still terrified and bewildered. But Seokjin smelled of the pack, of home, sun lotion, honey and melon: and was still there. Was still there with him.

“I don’t need much,” Seokjin said against his shoulder, face buried against his t-shirt. “Why would I need much? I have everything. God, even a- a single wilted rose would do. Okay?”

“Okay. Okay, noted,” he said, hugging Seokjin to him tight. “I – Hyung. You haven’t told me if you accept.” He swallowed, tightening his hold of Seokjin. “Do you accept?”

Seokjin pulled back from their embrace, taking him in and then letting out a disbelieving laugh. “Oh, you’re nervous.”

He was dying, yes.

Seokjin looked at him steadily, grasping his hands. “Well, I guess on behalf of the people of Seoul and Gwacheon I thank you for the churros, but…”

No. No, no –

Seokjin tilted his head to the side, eyes thinning. “Pretty sure you promised a bazillion?”

He despaired. “So you don’t? Or you do?”

“Accept?” Seokjin asked, perhaps savouring the mild horror cursing through him. But Seokjin’s smirk faded, something more sincere taking over. Something raw, something of their own that Namjoon recognised. Seokjin caught the front of his shirt in his fist and pulled him closer, eyes full of depth and light as he nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” Namjoon stared at Seokjin, in awe. “I accept. I accept, but next time you realise you love me, you come and tell me, because no churros will save you from here on out, do you understand?”

God, that was the most perfect sentence ever strung together.

All he could think to say was, “Yes. Thank you.”

Then it was done. Then it was agreed.

Seokjin kissed him – and Namjoon pulled Seokjin into his lap and squashed their mouths together with a complete lack of finesse. Seokjin smiled into it, arms looping around his neck. Laughing with relief. Disbelief.

But there was no exact definition of how much a bazillion technically was. More than a million, yes they agreed on that, and Seokjin said that a bazillion was more than a billion, while Namjoon argued it was financially unfeasible and ill-advised to purchase a billion plus one churros, and Seokjin said all Namjoon had to do was feed the population of China, like, once, but Namjoon asked how he was expected to tend to his pack, let alone his intended mate, if he spent all of his earnings on feeding the Chinese?

Seokjin faltered – and Namjoon did too. Intended mate. They both had one.

Of course it was Seokjin. Of course it was.

He kissed his intended mate again.

The rest of the pack was still waiting when they returned indoors, nervously sat around the dining table. Seokjin instantly said that he did not want a scene but he’d said yes, and Jimin took one look at their clasped hands and burst into tears. At the sight of this, Jungkook and Taehyung teared up while Yoongi excused himself for a suspicious five minutes. Hoseok was hugging them both with teary eyes as he insisted he wasn’t crying.

After everyone had not-cried an appropriate amount, Jimin demanded that they say something because it had been a whole hour without confirmation, and frankly the internet and the world was having an absolute meltdown to the point they’d all switched off their phones. They thus authorised Jimin to tweet Yes he accepted ❤ #JIMIN. That covered it for now, right?

Confirmed. Declared.

As the shock of that settled in, Jungkook bit on his bottom lip and said, “Well... everything’s gonna change now, I guess.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it will,” Namjoon confirmed. It changed everything with the pack, with the fans, with their futures and careers. Yes. But maybe that didn’t have to be scary – something ending, something beginning. “You’re still my kid alpha, though,” he said, weakened by the evening, feelings at the surface.

Jungkook coloured. “Ah, that’s not what I meant, alpha-hyung…!” But Jungkook hovered close to all of them for comfort and a few minutes later was giving Namjoon a fleeting yet firm back hug, nose pressed to his neck for a quick exchange of scent. A few more years, Namjoon figured – Jungkook would still need him for a few more years at least. Thank god for small blessings.

Jimin poured them all celebratory champagne and passed glasses around. “I always knew, you know! I can sense these things! The heat Jin-hyung spent with that alpha really pushed you two together!”

“Yeah because I was the alpha,” Namjoon admitted, and Jimin choked on his champagne.

A moment of mild chaos later, Hoseok asked, “What are they saying? The fans?”

This thought always lurked on all of their minds, no matter what they did – a behaviour Namjoon doubted any of them could unlearn. Jimin took out his phone to check, tapping at the screen. “Well, uh – Why isn’t it... Wait. Hang on… Has- Has Twitter crashed? Uh. I think it’s crashed.”

They should have seen that coming perhaps.

But Taehyung wanted clarification too: “So you’re gonna start dating now?”

“A bit late after a near decade to be dating,” Yoongi said mildly, while Namjoon’s thoughts short-circuited with the endless options of taking Seokjin out on dates: simple dates, lavish dates, arcade dates, museum dates, (sex dates?), and, and –

Taehyung was not deterred. “Or are you together, would you say you’re together? I mean are you easing into this courtship, or would you say you’re –”

“Going to bed, yup,” Seokjin said – it was late already, far into the night, and the day had drained them all physically and emotionally.

Namjoon held Seokjin firmly to his side, unable to uncurl his arm from around Seokjin’s waist. “Yeah? You tired?”

Seokjin gave him a calm stare perfected by endless photoshoots. “I don’t know, alpha-yah. Am I tired?”

Namjoon’s brain jarred, halted, crashed. Seokjin was going to be extremely hazardous for his overall health.

Taehyung grabbed Yoongi’s arm. “Oh no.”

“Welcome,” Yoongi said and took another sip of his drink.

“Well, I’m exhausted!” Namjoon decided, tugging Seokjin to the direction of the stairs. “Don’t stay up too late!”

Wrapped around Seokjin’s little finger, they’d all say – some sniggering echoing behind them. Yeah. Yeah, he’d happily confirm it each time.

But, in Namjoon’s defence, it wasn’t a break-the-furniture, wake-up-the-neighbours event – but it was deep, long, needy. Excited and possessive. Slow too. Soft. Tender after they were done, and Namjoon whispered all kinds of nonsense during it: little confessions and admissions, Namjoon vowing up and down how devoted he was. It felt good to put all those fleeting thoughts into words – god, he’d never even known.

“I’ll make a donation to mark the big events,” he promised as they were locked away in Namjoon’s bedroom and he was kissing Seokjin’s newly bruised neck. He was marked too, felt the sting of scattered love bites on his throat: intended mates, and Seokjin had gotten possessive. God, was there any other world Namjoon wanted to know? “I’ll make a donation for when I claim you,” he vowed. Was it morning already? The light coming through the window was brighter. He pressed another kiss to Seokjin’s throat. “And for our firstborn, for –”

“No need for all that,” Seokjin said, bathed in Namjoon’s scent. Seokjin had a fresh bite on his shoulder, the skin red and punctured, but only superficially – yet the bite was closer to his neck than the last one. They were working their way up to that. “No need for any big donations because you need to hang on to your money. I expect star treatment at all times.”

“At all times?” he asked, nosing over the bite, hand brushing the sweat-slick skin of Seokjin’s inner thigh, soft, smooth, for his to worship. He could spend the rest of his days right there, amidst the warm sheets of the villa bedroom with Seokjin, both of them with stupid smiles on their faces.

“I’m high maintenance,” Seokjin said. “What did you expect?”

“Noted. Please list your demands.”

“Hmm, bring me refreshments when I’m gaming.”

“I will bring only the most delicious of beverages.”

“Offer me scent presents on a regular basis.”

“God, baby, nothing would please me more.”

“Go down on me in the mornings.”

“It would be my pleasure to – Every morning?”

“Once a week.”

“Twice. Let’s make it twice?”

“…The council approves the amendment.”

“What cou– Oh. You’re the council.”

“Yes, get used to it.” Why were they grinning into a messy kiss? Seokjin stretched against him, body long and warm and homey. “Also, leave little love notes in my lunchbox.”

“But you don’t have a dosirak box,” he said, and Seokjin stilled, an eyebrow raised. “…But I will of course buy one for the sole purpose of leaving eloquent love notes.”

“The council deems that acceptable,” Seokjin said, then squirmed as Namjoon tickled his side. “Stop it!” Seokjin pressed a wide smile to Namjoon’s hair, breathing him in. Seokjin’s fingers travelled up his spine, over his shoulders. “I love the way you smell,” Seokjin then said quietly. “Like honey, I always thought.”

Namjoon had been wrong thinking the heat was a high: this was better than that. This was endless wonder.

They returned missed calls from their parents because Korean news was blasting that their sons had entered a courtship and that was something they would like to be told directly, thank you. Even PD-nim texted them both with I’m somehow surprised yet completely unsurprised... Congratulations. And, more plainly, A heads up didn’t occur to you then?

“Do you think he knew?” Namjoon asked as he put the phone away.

“Sometimes I thought so,” Seokjin said as Namjoon wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling Seokjin to him as they lay together. “He gave me a whole speech back in the day, how he didn’t want me seducing any of you even if the touring life got hard.”

“Oh god, he said that?” he asked, second-hand embarrassment at the ready.

Seokjin snorted. “Something about omega hormones being unpredictable – I wasn’t impressed. Mainly it seemed to be about Yoongi? Shows what he knows.”

Namjoon took that in, hand brushing Seokjin’s back. “But you knew otherwise?”

“No. Not really. I mean, no.” Seokjin hesitated. “But sort of.”

Namjoon waited it out as he held Seokjin close, Seokjin’s head pressed against his shoulder.

“I remember…” Seokjin said eventually. “I remember the dressing room for Music Bank. Or M Countdown? One of them – god, I don’t even remember if we won. Probably. But I fell asleep waiting on the couch before filming, and when I woke up you were sat next to me with your arms around me.” Seokjin’s fingers brushed his bare stomach. “You had pink hair and were sleeping with your mouth open. You looked stupid.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” Seokjin said, but then took in a deep breath. “You were all clingy, sleepy and warm, and when I tried to get up you pulled me back like you knew I was there and didn’t want me to go. And you slept and held me, and it sounds stupid but I just. I felt different. Loved. And I- I sat there, suddenly in love. And then they woke us up and you left and after that I…” Seokjin paused. “I knew otherwise.”

“But I don’t remember that.” He didn’t remember that at all, couldn’t place the day, the event, the dressing room. “Why don’t I remember that?”

“Why would you?” Seokjin shrugged, fingers gently tracing the skin of his navel. “Even after that day it took a long time before that feeling made sense. And besides, our lives are subjective experiences.”

He blinked. “That... is true. And hot. I really like that.”

Seokjin smirked, hand moving lower, stroking the top of his leg. “And I like these thighs.”

The imminent public mayhem and the social media crisis felt utterly far away, with the next month yet to be lived and unimaginable: the first public appearance at the airport as they landed back in Seoul, Namjoon’s hand on the small of Seokjin’s back, Seokjin in agony because he hated the attention. Press had shown up in the hundreds, a sea of fans kept back by gates. Namjoon was stressed out and glaring, ready to fight should anyone challenge him or yell out a single offending accusation, and as people shouted their names Seokjin pushed to his side for comfort and eventually grabbed his hand, much to the delight of the hungry journalists.

And somehow Namjoon’s fight mode faded. Seokjin held his hand, and Namjoon relaxed even amidst the chaos, and moments later even found himself beaming – because look! Look at Seokjin, holding his hand, pressed to his side! He navigated them through the busy airport with his head held high, keeping count of the pack behind them, of Seokjin by him. Maybe even smirked at the cameras.

He didn’t give a flying fuck about the millions of alphas whose hearts were shattered that day, when Kim Seokjin was photographed with his intended mate for the first time: Namjoon felt smug as hell.

“But aren’t you forgetting something?” Seokjin asked him once they were in the back of the SUV together and Seokjin showed him a headline on his phone: Get tissues out, omegas! World’s most eligible pack alpha RM flaunts intended mate Jin!

He anxiously took in the headline, hand curling around Seokjin’s knee. “But I don’t care about those omegas. I only want you.”

Seokjin looked at him, disbelieving. “That is not even a little what I – But yes. Yes, that’s good. You passed this round. Cleverly done.” But Seokjin’s ears had turned bright red.

And it was not the two of them who were caught smooching on camera – although rumour had it that such a picture would be paid for extremely generously – but in fact Taehyung, who not even a month later was photographed kissing an unknown, hot mystery alpha in a Seoul park, the picture taken by a gifted paparazzi from the bushes. This finally derailed Seokjin and Namjoon’s monopolisation of global hashtags for a few solid weeks. And instead of the label yet again issuing a statement that the picture was out of context and misrepresented, the statement now said that Taehyung’s business was his own and that Taehyung himself or Namjoon would clarify Taehyung’s relationship status if they so wished. For now – buzz off. Twitter crashed again.

It would be chaos, all of it, to the point where they desperately wanted people to focus on their music and not their love lives. Whatever hate there was – and there was plenty of ‘I told you so’s and ‘unhealthy pack inbreeding’ and ‘Stockholm syndrome’ claims with a dose of abuse of power charges, all coming from people who had never met them and had no clue – all of it was thankfully drowned out by the positive reactions, the beach clean-ups and tree planting drives because his and Seokjin’s “future babies need a planet to live on, let’s get to it!”

The pack endured the pandemonium well, and Namjoon expected nothing less. That was how they had learned, after all, by them all keeping each other on their toes. That was how Namjoon learned, by Taehyung nervously bringing his alpha boyfriend home and the alpha formally asking Namjoon’s permission to court Taehyung – and Namjoon granted it, even as it hurt. He granted it because Taehyung’s smile was wild with love, which his new boyfriend seemed to return twofold, and as Seokjin nudged for Namjoon to stop glaring and to shake hands for god’s sake, Namjoon knew what it was like to be so in love.

He was, however, disappointed to learn that he still hadn’t grown up – because that was not a process one ever completed, but an on-going challenge where he would always judge himself harshly. But he had grown – after relentless work covering thousands of days, starting from the overcrowded, pack-filled dorm of Nonheyon-dong and ending with Seokjin beside him, still there as the most solid constant for Namjoon through all of it. He’d gotten lucky so young – luckier than anyone.

And on the first night of something new, in the spacious bedroom of a Spanish villa where Namjoon leaned down to Seokjin’s mouth with an “I love you” that was so different from the ones before and all the more precious for it, the whirlwind to come felt distant.

Namjoon stretched out over Seokjin, using Seokjin’s chest as a pillow as Seokjin played with his hair. Namjoon relished the attention, feeling sluggish but loved. Seokjin said, “Of course there will be monthly monitoring on your progress as my future mate.”

“Yeah?” he croaked sleepily, smiling against Seokjin’s chest. “Am I a trainee again?”

Seokjin pushed a hand through his hair. “Yeah, just like when I met you. I always thought you were cute, you know.” Seokjin’s fingers gently scraped his scalp. “And the shaved initials on your head, boy if that doesn’t get an omega going.”

“Joke’s on you,” he said, “because look where you are now.”

“Joke’s on me,” Seokjin agreed. “You grew up nice.”

He lifted his head and met Seokjin’s warm gaze. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, Mr. UN Speaker – much nicer than I thought. You don’t know that?” Seokjin asked, and Namjoon shook his head. Seokjin frowned. “Where the hell have you been the past decade?”

He reached up to kiss Seokjin and marvelled at having the kiss returned.

“Right here,” he said, “trying to live up to you.”

Seokjin was always two steps ahead of him, or three, even four: and that was the only path he ever intended to follow.

fin.