Chapter 1: beginnings
With the bright yellow notice pasted to the door of Gavin’s apartment comes the realization that he should have talked to his landlord much, much sooner.
“Eviction? What does that mean?” Elliott, standing beside him with a bag of groceries in her fists—white bread, a carton of six eggs—asks with all the persistent curiosity of a seven year old. Gavin drops his own bags on the carpeted hallway floor and feels his stomach fall with them.
“It’s nothing, El,” he says distantly, not having enough time to think of a more suitable response with all the sudden stress rocketing through his mind. “Let’s get the food inside.”
He doesn’t let the suddenness of the notice deter him from keeping a brave face for his daughter, can’t let her know that there’s a problem. They unload the plastic sacks and put the groceries away just as they always have, Ellie demanding that they listen to her music and Gavin joining in on every children’s song because he’s heard them all an immeasurable amount of times before. She waits patiently at the kitchen table set for two while Gavin makes her lunch, a peanut butter and banana sandwich and a green plastic cup of milk. He turns the music down and joins her with his own plate as she’s taking her second bite.
It isn’t much, but it’s enough.
“Tomorrow’s Monday,” Gavin says after swallowing a mouthful of bread. “Have you finished your homework?”
“Would you like some help on it?”
She shakes her head furiously. “No, I can do it by myself.”
Smiling slightly, Gavin taps the table near her plate. “Okay, well when you finish eating I want you to do that. You can go and play after it’s done.”
“But— But I thought— But you said that when we get home I could play all day!”
He pauses, eyebrows raised at her tone. “Finish your homework first, okay and then you can play. It’s not gonna take long just make sure it gets done.” He chooses to ignore the exaggerated groan as she goes back to her lunch, and they finish quick.
Elliott rifles through her backpack for her math folder and goes to the desk in her room while he cleans up. Once she’s fully out of earshot and he has the plates set to wash, he finally allows himself to react.
Gavin isn’t going to call it a breakdown, an attack, but he gets very close to it. He grips the edge of the sink and shuts his eyes tight, feeling the burn of tears threatening to spill over. Teeth gritted, he hisses around what was supposed to be a sob, shoulders shaking silently. He gives himself one long minute to wallow in shitty despair before taking a deep breath and returning to his chore. He wipes away his watery vision and sniffs, letting the tap run hot and putting the stopper in the drain.
He needs to talk to Lou. The landlord knows him personally by now, for as long as Gavin’s been renting here, nearly as long as Ellie’s been alive. Surely, if they just have a conversation about this, surely something can be done to help Gavin keep his apartment, because outside of his pup it’s all he truly has.
It’s the rent, he knows it is. For every month this year he’s been at least a few days late on getting the money to him, and once again it’s over a week into November and Gavin has yet to send over the check. He’s still short, too, about five hundred or so from the nine bills he needs to have, but recently he hasn’t been able to pull many johns, or at least not ones that want to splurge on a whole night with him.
Gavin sighs and scrubs at the inside of a glass, thinking.
If he can get a few more days, he might be able to make that last five hundred. It’d mean absolutely busting his ass off on the streets for about three nights straight, but there really isn’t anything else for him to choose from. Maybe he’ll even take up that dude’s offer from a couple nights ago, if the pay is good. It isn’t really what Gavin usually does, but he’d be up to a little experimentation with a group, they always seem to fawn over a lone omega. He’s sure he still has the number in the back of his wallet.
Set with a plan in mind, Gavin feels a little better. He sets the last dish to dry in the rack and wipes his hands of the soapy water, intent on talking to Lou immediately.
“Hey, Ellie?” he calls down the hall while heading to her room.
She’s still finishing the worksheet on comparisons, penciling in some of the last problems when Gavin pokes his head into the doorway. “I’m going down to talk to Lou, you stay up here okay? I’m gonna lock the door behind me.”
She looks up at him, frowning. “No, I wanna come too.”
“What? No, just stay here, I’m not gonna be long I just need to ask him a question.”
“I don’t wanna stay, dad!”
Gavin tosses his head back and sighs irritatedly up at the ceiling. There isn’t much he can say when El gets this way, knowing it’s usually easier to give in and let her do what she wants. It’s just, he really doesn’t want to have to take her into Lou’s office, not when they’re going to talk about the eviction notice. He isn’t exactly sure what he’ll do if his landlord doesn’t allow him to make the money up. Scream, curse, there’s only a number of things that could happen and he doesn’t really want Ellie to witness any of them.
“I want to come with you. Please.”
At least she remembers some form of manners.
“Are you gonna behave and let me talk to him?”
She smiles. “Yep!”
Gavin stares at her with an amused shake of his head, unbelieving that there would ever come anything he’d have the heart to tell her no to. He points with a thumb at her closet. “Alright, get your shoes back on then.”
Stepping into the alpha’s office, Gavin is glad to find Lou sitting at his desk typing away at the computer. “Hey Lou,” he says.
The landlord stills upon seeing them, then rubs the back of his neck and leans back in his chair. “Gavin, and hello Miss Ellie, what are you in for?”
“I just wanted to know if we could talk.”
“Not really. Kinda busy right now, wanna come back later?”
Gavin narrows his eyes, already annoyed. “Not really,” he parrots back at him. “Kinda need to talk to you now, that’s why I came down here.”
“Guessing you saw my note?”
“Yep, which is exactly what we’re gonna talk about.”
Lou folds his arms over his chest and tilts his head at him. “What exactly is there to talk about? You saw the notice, it’s pretty final.”
“Are you serious, no, listen,” Gavin says. “I can make it up, you don’t even have to worry, I just need like a few more days and I can give you the check alright?”
“What the hell are you talking about, man?”
“What am I—?” Gavin shakes his head. “I know I’ve been behind on my payments this year, I know, but I’ve always been on top of it before. You know me, you know I’m good for it, just don’t evict me! Seriously, I— I can’t be, I’d have nowhere to go, not with Ellie with me like this.”
“Listen, Lou, just give me three more days and I promise I’ll have this month’s rent.”
“This month’s?” Lou’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline, and he laughs humorlessly. “Hell, I’m still waiting on last month’s! But it doesn’t matter, this isn’t even about that.”
“The hell’s it about then?”
Lou none too subtly directs a look at Elliott half hidden behind him, pressing his lips together.
Gavin quiets, confusion pulling his brows together before he clenches his jaw and smooths his face out in understanding. “You’re not serious,” he growls lowly.
“How many times have I told you I can’t just let this shit go by without anyone saying anything, huh?” his landlord asks, hands outspread. “It’s classified as child endangerment, man, not just something that I can exactly overlook. She needs a pack, Gavin, one that will actually take care of her instead of bringing home a different stranger every fucking night.”
“Fuck you, don’t you dare talk about shit you aren’t a part of. Don’t act like you know what’s best for my daughter okay she is my. pup. And I think we do just fucking fine on our own.”
The alpha sighs, looking defeated, but turns a pitying frown to Ellie and back up again. “Doesn’t matter,” he shrugs. “I’ve already called the ADS, they’re coming up here to take you both down to their center.”
“Listen, there wasn’t much I could do.”
“The fuck? You called the fucking displacement services? The hell is your problem, Lou!”
“This’ll be good for your daughter! For you, too! You know just as well as I do that having the support of a pack is the best thing you can get in life, and they’ll help you find that. I’d hate to see you loning it forever.”
“What if I like being lone?” Gavin asks just to spite him. He doesn’t, in fact, like being lone, but it’s a struggle between his terribly strong pride and independence of anyone else and the annoying yearn for social interaction with an extended family. But nobody needs to know that, and when the hell has he ever asked anybody to start caring about their well-being. He points a finger at Lou, presses it right into his chest with a sneer and gets loud. “You have such a fucking sense of superiority, I cannot fucking believe you! That wasn’t your decision to make!”
A tiny whimper comes from beside him, and Gavin suddenly feels how tightly El is clinging to his right leg, pressing her face into the denim at his hip. He lets his hackles drop out of their defensive posturing and kneels down to face her, holding her hands in his own. Her warm, sandy scent is spiked with nerves.
“Hey, Ellie, hey, you alright? I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to yell, I…” Gavin doesn’t have a way to finish the sentence, just kneads the backs of her hands with his thumbs and waits for her to meet his eyes with her hazel own. “This is why I wanted you to stay home,” he tries to laugh. “I didn’t want you seeing this.”
“It’s okay,” she whispers, only for him to hear. “I wanted to be a grownup for you… You smelled scared, dad. You still do.”
Lou, from behind the desk, clicks his tongue. “They should be here within the hour, Gavin,” he says. “I’d pack some of my things if I were you.”
Gavin scoffs without looking at him. “And if I can’t bring everything? What are you gonna do, toss my shit to the curb?”
“You’ll have a month to give me an address to send anything you can’t bring with you,” he says. “If you don’t do that, it goes into city storage and you’ll have to pay a fine to get it back.”
“That’s awesome. Real nice.” He stands up and pulls Elliott with him, letting her lock her legs around him and hold on to be carried out of the office. “Hope you got your fucking rocks off, asshole.”
He slams the door once they’re back in the safety of the apartment that’s no longer theirs, regretting it when El flinches in his arms.
“Sorry,” he says and sets her down in the living room. “Okay, so here’s what we’re gonna do, are you listening El?”
She nods. “You said a lot of bad words.”
“Yeah, well, that’s what happens when your dad gets angry, but you can’t repeat any of that, okay? Those are grownup words,” he adds in an afterthought.
“Yeah, I know.”
“Okay,” he says, hands on her shoulders, “I know this isn’t gonna make sense, but I need you to go and pack some of your favorite outfits in your school bag, and any toy you absolutely need. Anything you wanna bring on a trip, because in a little while we’re gonna have to leave.”
She turns to skip over to her room, the light still on from before, and calls over her shoulder, “Okay, but why?”
Gavin rests his hands on his hips and wonders if he should tell her the truth, if she’ll even fully understand what the truth is.
“Because we’re moving,” he calls back. “Now pack, we don’t have a lot of time.”
He roots through his closet for that large backpack he knows is in there, the old brown one that’s supposed to be able to carry a laptop and hiking gear and the entire city of Detroit, according to the ad. He finds it under his bag of work equipment and starts prioritizing all his shitty belongings to try and get the most out of here.
There isn’t much, once he gets right down to it. Clothes he doesn’t care to pick favorites from except for his only jacket, which he’ll wear when they’re forced out, and a shirt that Elliott made for him in kindergarten with finger paints and supervision. He packs a book he’s read countless times and the charging cord to his phone, his headphones wrapped along with it. He grabs the folder in his closet that holds their birth certificates and social security cards, slides that into the back pouch where it won’t get folded over. There’s a mug that has a band logo on it and Elliott’s green cup, dried from lunch. A pack of gum, his baseball cap, a winning scratch-off for ten dollars he’d completely forgotten to turn in. The rest of the bag is filled with toiletries, pills, and shots.
Grunting comes from the living room, and Gavin finds Ellie dragging her backpack with both hands fisted around the top loop. She’s panting by the time she makes it to the door and lets go.
“Oh man, that’s really heavy.”
“You gotta take some stuff out then, you gotta be able to carry it yourself now,” he says.
“Well, no, I can’t take anything out I have to bring all of it! You said to pack my favorites and I have a lot of favorites, okay.”
“Yeah, I get that,” Gavin sighs. “But listen, anything you can’t fit in there right now we’ll be able to get later, sound good? Just make sure you can carry it right now.”
Ellie slumps her shoulders and mumbles what he assumes is an agreement, and sits down right in the middle of his door to start unzipping the bag and pulling things out.
“Do you have your blanket?”
“Umm… Where is it?”
“I don’t know, where’d you put it?”
“I don’t know, oh wait yes I do!” she says and jumps up to run and grab it from where it hangs off the arm of the couch, white with little pink and blue and yellow bears printed across it. It gets shoved into the bag after she’s pulled out all her non-essentials.
Gavin picks up the heavy metal airplane model from the carpet. “You’re gonna bring this? You haven’t touched it in forever.”
“Yeah, well, I think it’s pretty,” she says, and Gavin hands it back to her before she zips up the backpack.
He’s just setting aside the bags to take when someone knocks on the door four times, and before he goes to open it he tells El to stay put on the couch while he talks with them, that these are just the people that are helping them move.
Gavin opens the door to find two social workers standing with their hands behind their backs on the other side, a regular, soft beta scent coming from the both of them. Still, he eyes the tall one that looks like he could crush him one-handed warily.
“Hi, my name is Lucy Wandera, this is Luther Parke, we’re with the American Displacement Services. Are you Gavin Reed?”
“Yeah,” he drawls, meeting her dark eyes. “And I know what this is about so just, do what you gotta do, I’m not gonna fight you on this.” Because if he does, he’s pretty sure they’ll just take Elliott and leave the police to deal with him.
“Well. Thank you for making things simple, Mr. Reed. If you’d like to get your pup now, we can go ahead and take you down to our center, get things underway.”
They don’t waste much time, he finds. They stop by the landlord’s office where Gavin has to drop off his apartment key, ruefully glaring at Lou who just gives him a thin-lipped, apologetic smile, and that’s it. No exchange of information, nothing but trailing between the social workers that flank them as they head down to the parking lot.
He nearly refuses to get inside the car once he sees the plexiglass separator between the front and back seat, where he and El are meant to sit. They aren’t fucking criminals, it’s not like Gavin’s gonna snap and try to attack them from behind, but with a glance at Luther who waits with his hand resting on the open door, Gavin slides El in ahead of him before joining her on the leather seats.
“So what gives,” he says once they’ve been on the road for a while. Lucy has filled the silence with what he should expect upon arriving at their center, what their goals are, and what he should do in order to make sure he doesn’t end up going lone once again. But Gavin knows what the ADS does, has looked into it once before when Ellie was first born, so he understands that he’s meant to try and find a foster pack for both of them for the time being. It just really isn’t easy to hear her through the barrier. “What’s with the plastic?”
From behind the wheel, Luther replies, “Many of those who end up displaced from their packs are in danger of becoming feral. Not all, and certainly not ones that have kids, but more than enough to where the precaution is necessary when relocating them.”
“Damn, okay, light topic.”
“You are the one that asked.”
Gavin, truthfully, can’t deny that.
Gavin brings the sample to his nose and scents. “It’s not terrible,” he decides after a moment of breathing in something that reminds him of tree bark and concrete. He holds the vial out for Ellie.
“Agh, gross!” she scrunches up her nose and tries to rub the scent off of it. “No way, that’s not good at all.”
Exhausted from the process, he sighs, “El we have to pick one of them. Even if it isn’t perfect, if you can be strong and handle it then things will be so much better.”
“But it was awful.”
“It wasn’t awful.”
“It was to me, dad.”
After checking in to ADS Detroit, which took a solid hour of pulling up records and creating new patient files and a whole fucking mess of paperwork that he hopes to never see another sheet again, Lucy had guided them alone back to a separate room for what she called the selection process. He’s heard about it, vaguely, but was still a little weirded out when she pushed in a cart filled with trays of glass vials, all with pieces of white cloth inside.
Pack-smells, apparently, that are embedded into the fibers and sealed until a patient needs to test them. The goal is to find one that they like, a scent they’d feel comfortable surrounding themselves with, in order to qualify for the center’s foster program. If none could be found here, they’d be transferred to another ADS facility to test different scents, and that’s certainly something he’s been trying to avoid. After the eleventh tray of samples goes by without a match, however, he’s starting to lose that hope.
Gavin runs a hand through his hair. “Okay, we’ll just have to keep looking to find one you like, yeah?”
“You don’t need to worry, Mr. Reed, there are still plenty left to choose from,” Lucy says and hands him another set of scents to try.
It goes like this three vials into the set, where Gavin can end up tolerating it but Elliott can’t help being a young kid with her own inflated sense of self-importance that anything she doesn’t like gets rejected. It’s irritating, but he doesn’t want to force his daughter into something she’s going to hate.
He picks up the next sample and hopes for the best. Immediately upon opening it his top lip curls instinctively, the scent such a powerful and overwhelming mess of odor that it has him shoving the vial away with a growl before El has a chance to get at it herself. So, definitely not that one, he knows to stay away from someone that smells like something rotting.
With perhaps all the luck in the universe, the pack-smell after that, however, is powerful and overwhelming in all the right ways. He holds the sample labeled #313 and doesn’t expect much of anything when he uncorks the top, but nearly sinks in his seat at what he finds. Pleasantly clean, not in the way that soap-linen-wax is, but more of a storm-sea-petrichor. Morning dew, fresh and slightly metallic, not like iron but something rather like stone. It gives him a memory of a day that’s never happened, of finding pebbles at a cliffside shore and launching them into the white-tipped waves, the skies grey and dark. He opens his eyes without knowing he ever closed them and passes the sample to his pup without voicing his thoughts, a bit embarrassed at his reaction. If it had been just him sitting before this advocate, Gavin would have already made his choice.
He watches El take a cautious sniff before her mouth forms a little ‘o’ and she takes another. “Dad, this one is really good!”
“It is, isn’t it?” he says as he pries the little glass tube out of her palm and sets it down on the table in front of them. It’s certainly a downplay of what he really thinks, but it’s enough to catch their advocate’s attention.
Lucy smiles hopefully. “Have we decided?”
“I, uh, I guess so, yeah.”
“Okay, and just so we at the center have it on record,” she slides over a clipboard to rest in front of herself and hovers a pen over the blank form pinned in the clasp. From here, Gavin can’t read what it’s supposed to be. “How did that pack-smell make you feel?”
He snorts. “What is this, a questionnaire?”
“Something like that, I suppose.”
“Ah. Alright.” He pulls his jacket tighter around himself and tries not to shuffle in his seat at being put so on the spot. “Well, it’s good, yeah? Clean, uh, and everything kinda went together. Wasn’t just everyone’s scents all mixed with each other, it actually smelled like, like unified or whatever.”
Lucy jots something down on her sheet. “Okay, that’s good, but those are just facts about the smell. I need to know how it actually made you feel, when you scented.”
Gavin’s quiet, thinking, for enough time to where the beta gives him suggestions. “Did it make you feel happy? Calm? Giddy? Loved—?”
“It made me feel safe,” he murmurs, but she doesn’t catch it.
“It made you feel…?”
She writes the word down, turns to El who’s been doing well at paying attention to everything. “And you, sweetie? What did you feel when you smelled it?”
“Umm, safe?” she glances over at Gavin as if to make sure that’s right, and he gestures in support for her to go on. “Yeah, and happy. Like, when I get to go to recess and play jumprope with my friends and my teacher gives us fruit snacks on Friday.”
Gavin tilts his head at his pup. “That’s what it made you feel?” he asks, curious, and she nods her head with wide eyes.
“Mm-hm! Because those days are really fun and I don’t know, it just minded me of that.”
Marking down probably all of that, Lucy nods along and then blinks up at them once she’s done. “That all sounds great, I’m glad we were able to find a match for you two. So, if you’ll give me just a minute and wait here, I’m going to go return the samples and grab that pack’s file for you to look over.”
She isn’t gone for long, arms full of folders when she steps back into the room. She sets them atop the table and lays them out.
“A fairly recent addition, I remember this pack. They had insisted that they didn’t have an elected authority, but since it’s our center’s policy to register a pack lead…” she trails off while shuffling through the files before handing several over to him, the one on top titled K-1 Form: Pack Lead. “They decided on him. A beta male, aged 53, owner of the Blue Pines over on the other side of Kent Lake.”
“It’s kind of a hotel, but smaller, reminds me of an old bed and breakfast type of place. It’s a nice one, some of us have been there to check in on our applicants. We do thorough inspections of anything a pack reports in their file, so if you have any questions about all this, don’t be afraid to ask.”
Gavin nods and murmurs, “Okay.”
“The rest of the pack’s files are under that form,” she says with a point at the stack of papers in front of him. “They all work and live at the inn, so you’d be staying there as well for as long as you want to foster with them. They do have separate living quarters that don’t interfere with their customers renting out the rooms, so you shouldn’t have to worry about you or your daughter encountering frequent strangers if that’s an issue.”
“No that’s, that’s good,” Gavin says.
At the same time, Ellie huffs, “I know what to do with strangers.”
Lucy smiles down at her. “Oh really?” she says. “You must be very smart.”
“Yep!” Ellie says, bouncing in her chair a little and leaning against him with her tiny arms around his neck. “My dad tells me to never talk to strangers, not even if they look nice and smell good! And definitely don’t talk to the ones that leave us money, they’re not nice at all.”
“Elliott Lee,” he warns in a scolding tone, jaw clenching in the embarrassment of reminding the social worker that he couldn’t even keep his own daughter from knowing of his line of work. He had tried to be careful, especially in the beginning, but as El grew older she gained the curiosity and intellect to know of what went on in their tiny apartment. Even if she doesn’t understand the entire intricacy of his occupation, to infer is a hell of a way to learn.
At the mention of her full name, El withers slightly. “Sorry, but that’s what you say!”
A light and true laugh comes from the advocate, who thankfully continues on.
“It’s fine, Mr. Reed, there’s nothing to be ashamed about here. But anyway. The pack is fairly sized, there are five members in total. In addition to the beta lead there are two alpha males, another beta male, and an omega female. None are registered mates, only two are related. Currently, they don’t have any pups.”
Gavin scans the forms as she talks over the details, looking at names and ages and personal background checks. He doesn’t recognize the names he finds, which he supposes is for the best. Though reconnecting with old friends is a recommended step according to the center’s dazzling brochure, he doubts meeting any of them through the foster program is the best way to go about it.
It’s a bit odd, he thinks, to find a pack lead by a beta with more than one alpha in the ranks. Gavin bites the tip of his tongue, mulling.
He isn’t worried about the alphas. For someone with his background, you’d think he’d throw more caution to that line, but by now he knows how to deal with them. What’s more, he highly doubts the ADS would willingly allow anyone into their system if they had a history of being too aggressive for social stimulation. No, if push comes to shove with either one of those two, he’d make sure they left a whole lot bloodier than they came.
After the drawing silence catches his attention, he glances up and meets Lucy’s eyes, who looks at him patiently. He realizes the social worker is waiting on him, waiting for a confirmation or disapproval. Perhaps further questions.
He doesn’t have any questions. Really he just wants to be done with it, to get Elliott and himself out of this sterile center even if it means putting themselves into the hands of a pack he’s only just met through paper and secondhand scents. So, if saying yes to this can do that for them, he’ll gladly take it.
“I guess… uh.” Gavin pauses for just a moment, then shrugs. “When can we head over there?”
A call is placed, a voicemail left on the phone of the beta lead known as Hank Anderson, letting him know of a confirmed foster match and reminding him that through compliance with the center’s guidelines and regulations that if a pack remains on file they maintain their status of prospective fosters and are unable to turn down a match. Gavin listens intently until Lucy ends the voicemail and turns to him with a smile that seems to never drop from her face.
“Don’t worry, it’s hard to reach anyone on the first try. In the meantime, let me show you to a temporary room you can stay in while you wait.”
It’s becoming apparent that not everything has fully sunk in yet, even after Lucy leaves them at the door to the room with the news, “Once I hear back from Mr. Anderson I’ll inform him that he has until the end of the day to come and meet with you two. He’ll be taking you back to his pack tonight, so please make sure you have all your belongings before you leave the center.” Gavin remains in this familiar state of unnatural calmness, where the stresses of the day have grown so great that the only way he can reliably deal with them is to force himself to act like their world as he knows it hasn’t just completely turned on its head.
He takes off his backpack and lets it drop to the floor, uncaring. There’s a cot shoved into the back corner of the room, and he sits down on it and holds his head in his hands, unable to do much of anything but stay put and wait. Wait for some fucking stranger he’s being asked to blindly rely on to come and take them away from the place that El has lived her whole life. The one constant Gavin had desperately wanted to keep for his daughter and now that’s being ripped away from them. A low, frustrated growl rolls out of him at the thought.
“Dad? Are you okay?”
A soft weight settles on the mattress beside him, and Gavin jerks his head up with a startled breath and refocuses on the present. Elliott isn’t looking at him, instead keeping her eyes on her shoes kicking through the air every so often. They’re the white with pink trim ones today, with the velcro so she doesn’t ruin the heels like she does with the laced ones, because she never unties them and ends up just trying to shove her feet in the shoes and breaking the heels back.
“Yeah, El, I’m okay,” he says. “Come here.” Gavin reaches over and pulls her into his lap, and she wastes no time wrapping her arms around him and hugging him tight. She dips her nose into the side of his neck to search for comfort, and he lets his scent wash over his pup with as much reassurance as he can possibly give. He just hopes it isn’t coming out tinged with the anxiety he holds.
The room they’re in is small, much less than anything they ever had at the apartment, and barely even furnished. There’s a desk and chair near the door, with a few art supplies on top that he assumes were left for Elliott’s benefit, and the cot that they rest on now, but nothing else. The walls are grey, the floor is cold, and the only light comes from the window recessed into the far wall, a tiny rectangle set up near the ceiling. Gavin has a feeling this wasn’t originally used as the typical displacement quarters, but he’d rather not think too far into it.
“How do you feel about having a pack?” he asks after a while of running a soothing hand over her back.
She leans away and slides off to sit back down on the mattress, picking at the thin white sheets, and shrugs. “I’unno,” she mumbles. “I don’t know what it is, not really. Some of my friends at school have them, I think. Like a lot of people that come in and my friends always know all of them. They seem to get really happy.”
Gavin nods along with her telling. “Yeah, that sounds right.”
“Harper has a lot of people that come and eat with her sometimes,” El continues. “I think they’re her parents. Or… are they her parents? If we go to this pack am I gonna get more dads?”
Despite how adorable she asked the question, Gavin can’t help but to feel his heart drop at the fact that he’s let El grow up without the social support a pack brings throughout the most vital years of her life. She has little to no knowledge of such a staple, common idea that Gavin wonders if, for all he’s been trying to protect her, he might have turned them down a wrong path.
He used to have a pack, when he was much younger. His immediate family and some of his parents’ friends, along with their own pups. The kids were all older than him, enough to where it was easy to lose touch once they moved on to their own families and lives, and Gavin can’t quite remember anything truly remarkable about being a part of a pack, just that he constantly had somebody there to talk to. But, after he chose to leave he lost any sort of will to try and find that again. It never really seemed worth it.
It still doesn’t, but with the ADS on him there’s no possibility where he’s able to turn down the offer, to say he’s fine with following a lone life. Not with a pup, and there’s no way in hell he’s willing to part with her.
“No, baby, that’s” —he chuckles and runs a hand through his hair— “that’s not really how it works. Well, that’s not how this one is gonna work. A pack is your family, yes, but I’ll always be your only dad.”
Gavin scoffs lightheartedly. “Well don’t sound so sad.”
“No, I’m glad you’re my dad. I don’t need anyone else,” El says and rests her head against his bicep, and Gavin has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from cooing and embarrassing her. He kisses the top of her dark head of hair and lets them sit there for a while, back to quietly waiting in the dull grey cell.
The fluorescent lights turn on automatically when the sun starts going down, illuminating Ellie in harsh white light where she sits on the desk chair with her knees tucked underneath her. She’d found the art supplies soon after growing bored just resting with him, and has yet to stop filling in the complementary coloring sheets that now lay scattered across the desk and the floor around it.
The crayons are dull and worn and some are broken in half, but his pup doesn’t seem to mind, thoughtfully coloring inside the lines of a cartoon cat sitting in a pot of flowers.
Gavin had tried to sleep earlier, once an hour had passed with no update and he figured he might as well rest his eyes while Ellie remains safe inside the room with him. The cot, however, was way too stiff against his back, and every time he tried to close his eyes and shut everything out he ended up snapping them open in a rush to search for a danger that wasn’t there. He knows he doesn’t do well sleeping in new and unfamiliar environments, but he never thought it could be this bad.
Exhausted now after the day he’s had, Gavin lays with his hands propping his head up and passes the time watching El entertain herself.
A soft knock sounds on the door.
“Ye—” Gavin clears his throat when the word comes out thick. “Yes?”
From outside the room comes the clear voice of their advocate, asking, “It’s Lucy, may I come in?”
He stands from the bed at her return, smoothing down the front of his shirt as best he can and hoping it isn’t too noticeable that he’s been tossing and turning for a while.
“How is everything?” she asks.
“We’re fine,” he says, and Elliott hands her one of her finished pieces, the one of the spaceship in the night sky.
“For me?” El nods. “Well it’s lovely, thank you Elliott. I’m glad to hear you two are okay, I hope this room hasn’t been too uncomfortable for you, we haven’t had a chance—”
Growing impatient, Gavin cuts in, “Did you ever hear back from that guy? Or are we gonna have to stay here for the night?”
His snappish demeanor doesn’t change her placid expression, most likely out of years of dealing with people just as bad or worse off than a huffy omega and his curious kid. “I did in fact hear back from him, a few hours ago, but I was waiting for him to show up before coming to let you know.”
“Here now, yes. Would you like to meet him?”
Lucy leads them down to the main floor and into a hall labeled Visitation. Turning into one of the open rooms, bare except for a table with six chairs, a whiteboard on one wall and posters with supportive slogans on another, Gavin stops just inside the entry. Noticing the stranger standing at the far window with arms crossed over his chest, he pulls El closer against him.
Lucy doesn’t seem at all on edge, stepping further into the room and holding one hand palm-up to gesture at the newcomer. “Gavin, Elliott,” she says calmly, and the man turns to face them. “This is Hank Anderson, owner of Blue Pines and assigned lead of your proposed foster pack.”
Hank Anderson isn’t exactly what Gavin had pictured when he’d skimmed over his file. He’s large for a beta, tall and with an air of someone who could do a bit of damage, not like Luther from before, but with the kind of look like he’d have the balls to react if threatened. Lengthy silver hair pulled away from his face which settles naturally into a weathered frown, clothed in one of the most horribly patterned shirts Gavin has ever seen underneath the black coat hanging off his shoulders. Scent familiar only in the vaguest of ways, a small note in the general pack-smell of the sample earlier. The storm scent, like lightning against heavy clouds.
He holds a hand out to Gavin. “Nice to meet you.” Gavin doesn’t do much in the way of accepting the handshake, choosing to glare at Hank and keep his mouth shut. “Ah… okay,” the beta mutters and drops his arm back to his side, stepping back a few feet. “Guess you’re a little on the cautious side, hm?”
“No,” Gavin says too-quick. “‘m not cautious, just don’t know you.”
“That’s kinda the def—you know what okay, yeah, whatever you say.”
There’s a tense silence then, where Gavin has yet to move further into the room, keeping El behind him, and Hank waits with an obviously growing uncertainty.
“Gavin,” Lucy breaks it. “Why don’t you let Elliott and Mr. Anderson meet?”
Because he doesn’t trust him. Because just because they matched pack-scent doesn’t mean shit if this Hank or anybody else in that pack does anything to force his guard up. He can feel safe by a smell all day long, but like hell that’s ever done anything to protect them.
But. Gavin still has enough self awareness to know that, at the moment, this guy hasn’t yet done anything he should be wary of. He’s calm, he greeted them, and he isn’t presenting authority like other leads Gavin’s met, Plus, he’s a fucking beta, what harm could he possibly try and pull.
Hank stays where is as Gavin lets go of El’s hand and allows her to inch out from behind his legs, kneeling down to meet her eye level with a warm smile that completely changes his face. A welcome. He’s far enough away that he can’t reach her, and for that Gavin is glad.
“Hi Elliott, my name is Hank.”
“I know,” Ellie says without so much as a blink, and Hank laughs with a nod.
“I guess you would, alright. Uh, let’s see, how old are you?”
Hank puts on an impressed face. “Wow, seven, huh? You’re very grown—”
“My birthday is May twenty-eth,” she continues on in an interruption, over pronouncing the date in a way she has since she learned it. Gavin grins despite the circumstances.
He looks to Lucy. “Thought you said this pack didn’t have any pups.”
“We don’t.” Hank says it before the advocate has any time to speak, tone firm, defensive. A topic perhaps that he should leave well enough alone, if the sudden stiffness to the man’s shoulders is anything to go by.
Gavin crosses his arms. “Just seems like you know how to deal with kids, what of it?”
“Look at me, son,” Hank says. “Think in all my life I’ve never had to interact with a pup before?”
Gavin merely shrugs.
“How old are you?” Ellie asks unexpectedly, pulling the focus back in to their little back-and-forth. She’s staring straight at Hank, waiting for an answer with her lips pursed.
“I’m fifty-three,” he responds, voice calm once more.
Elliott widens her eyes and makes a noise like she wants to laugh, and then brings her hands up to cover her smile as she lets out the softest giggle. “Oh man, that’s a lot!”
Gavin crouches down next to her and nudges her with his elbow, smiling. “Bit of an old man, huh sweetheart?”
“Okay, okay,” comes Hank’s inevitable attempt to curb that train of conversation, but the beta’s grinning too, which is good.
Lucy stands from where she had taken a seat at the table, a pleased look on her face. “Well,” she says, “How do we feel, gentlemen? Should we move ahead with the foster?”
Gavin pulls in a deep breath and glances at Hank. A stranger, remember, but one that his pup feels safe enough to laugh with. He guesses that’s a good enough ringer for him to at least try.
“How much more paperwork is that?”
Turns out it’s only a few more forms. Releases for Gavin’s time here, taking Hank’s pack out of the matching system until they’re ready to foster again, and the bill, upon which Gavin balks at and the lead pays without a fuss. His ears are red with shame by the time El shouts a goodbye to Lucy as they follow Hank out the front doors.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he gripes at the man’s back.
“Those were my release fees, I shoulda been the one to take care of them.”
Hank shoots him a doubtful look. “Sorry, son, but I know you don’t have the means to do that right now.” Gavin opens his mouth to say something else, curse probably, but the beta continues on with a hand raised in reassurance, “And that’s not me trying to make you feel inferior, so don’t snap at me, I just know that the kind of guys who end up with the ADS usually don’t have the funds to meet their fees. It’s actually pretty shitty, if you ask me.”
Gavin rolls his eyes but lets it go, not wanting to admit that he’s right. He’ll make up the money and pay the guy back eventually, otherwise he’s just going to feel indebted, but he won’t bring it up again.
There’s a booster seat in the back of Hank’s suburban, which doesn’t surprise him, and he straps El in even when she tries to argue that she doesn’t need one.
It’s mostly silent on the drive, Gavin staring out at the dark roads illuminated by headlights and the occasional streetlamp. He hopes El will fall asleep during the near-hour they have ahead of them, but he doubts she will. Though she didn’t have a nap earlier, from all the excitement of the day he’s sure she’s still running on adrenaline.
He’s proven right when he hears her shuffling in her seat and leaning forward enough to make her words heard over the roar of the road.
“I like your hair, Mr. Anderson.”
“You can call me Hank, kiddo. And thank you.”
“It’s so silver. I like silver.”
Hank glances at her in the rearview mirror and knits his bushy brows together. “You ever seen someone with gray hair before?”
“Um, yeah, but they’re normally gone when I wake up.”
Gavin can feel eyes on him at that moment, and he turns from the windshield to meet them with a challenge, daring Hank to say anything.
He doesn’t, and that’s that.
It’s just gone ten o’clock when Hank turns the car down a side street into the woods that surround them, and Gavin has a split second of panic before noticing the Blue Pines marquee at the corner of the road.
The trees thin out to show a gravel parking lot with two tall light poles shining down on either side, leading up to the hotel that’s frankly a lot nicer than what he’d been anticipating. It looks like any other house you’d find out on some land, comfortable and familiar. Keeping to the name, it’s painted white with blue shutters and porch railings, and Gavin counts three stories.
“This is it,” Hank says once he’s put the car in park, but he doesn’t move to get out. Gavin watches him turn to rest his elbow on the seat shoulder and look between the two of them. “I expect the pack will be right in those doors. They know you’re coming, so they’re a bit excited about it.”
“Yeah. They’re nice people, Gavin, and they really wanna help, but I was just gonna ask,” he says, “Would you like me to go in there first, warn them to keep it down for you and the pup? I wouldn’t want you to snap at them for just bein’ friendly.”
In all honesty, Gavin has to hand it to the guy. He’s acting real fucking thoughtful to someone he doesn’t even know. Though perhaps that’s a nice side effect of being a functional person of society instead of a dead end that contributes nothing but a child to the world. Gavin looks Hank up and down before nodding.
“Sure, yeah. We’ll wait out here.”
As Hank makes his way up into the hotel, Gavin takes the opportunity to step out of the car and open the back door of Elliott, who’s already unbuckling herself.
“Come on, Ellie,” he says. “You got your bag? Good.” He helps her down to the ground and starts to step away, but she reaches for his hand and tugs, wanting him to look at her. “What’s up?”
“This place is really nice,” she says quietly, like she’s embarrassed. “It’s a lot bigger than our old house.”
He exhales in lieu of a laugh and agrees. “If things are good, we might be here for a while. You gonna be okay with that?” Elliott nods and kicks at the gravel road.
Gavin’s just shutting the trunk, backpack slung over his shoulders, when Hank opens the front door again and calls across the lot, waving his arm for them to come inside.
He holds El’s hand tight as they walk up the steps and past the open door, into a lobby that’s filled with a spiral of scents and four others waiting in varying states of attention. Two sit at the edge of a couch pressed against the side wall, one is stationed at the counter, and another, with nearly the same face as the last, leans against the corner where a set of stairs lead up to the next floor, his back partway turned toward Gavin. They’re all clothed in semi-matching uniforms. The hotel staff. The rest of the pack.
Gavin tries not to let his nerves show.
“Hello,” says one of the men, the one standing behind the reception desk and leaning his elbows on the top of it. “You must be Gavin.” Gavin nods in the pause he’s given. “I’m Connor Stern, it’s nice to meet you.”
“Yeah, thanks,” he mutters, not too keen on meeting all the eyes on him. He can’t quite discern specific scents from the mess in the lobby, but he does remember from the forms that this one, Connor, is one of the alphas.
“And are you Elliott?” Connor dips his head to catch Ellie’s stare, and his pup raises her chin and nods. She seems braver than when meeting Hank earlier, despite there being far more people around, thought it might have something to do with the warm atmosphere this place gives off. A far cry from the impersonal white halls of the center.
Speaking of, Hank comes up from behind them and steps around the counter to clasp a hand on Connor’s shoulder. “Everyone else wanna introduce themselves?” he says to the room. It’s elementary, doing this roll call, but Gavin needs faces to the names he’s read only in text.
He learns that the two on the couch are Tina Chen—the only woman and the only omega, save himself—and Chris Miller, the other beta. Tina has her hair pulled back into a bun and a thermos resting on the cushion beside her thigh. Chris has his hands folded atop his lap and leans one elbow against the arm of the couch. They both have kind eyes and respectfully don’t attempt to stand and shake his hand or something equally as ridiculous.
So that leaves Richard, the other Stern and the other half of the pair of alpha brothers that Gavin still doesn’t understand why they’d let an old beta head their pack. He gets the whole saying of with age comes wisdom, sometimes sure, but he’s never seen the dynamic before. “And you?” Gavin addresses him where he still stands turned partially away. “Are you Richard?”
Richard looks at him over his shoulder before pushing off from the wall to face them. “Yes, but please call me Nines.”
Quicker that her dad, El pipes up, “Nines? Like the number? But you’re way older than nine, because I’m seven and that’s only, um, two years away and you’re too tall for that.”
That garners a laugh around the room, and El shies away by dipping her chin into her chest and bringing her fingers to tap at her mouth. Gavin knows the sign, smooths out her hair and says, “El, hey, they aren’t laughing at you, what you said was cute, that’s all. And you’re right, I don’t think he’s nine years old, that’d be really weird, huh?”
Thankfully she smiles to where her eyes crinkle at the corners and snickers, too. “Yeah, that’s weird.”
“Elliott?” Nines grabs her attention once more. “You’re right, I’m much older than that, Nines is just an old nickname that I seem to like better than Richard.”
“Oh.” She shrugs, accepting it. “Okay.”
Gavin takes the resulting pause to gesture between the two brothers. “So what, y’all twins?”
“You’d be surprised,” Connor says, “But no. Nines here was born a little over two years after me.”
“God whoever had you must have had a strong pair of genes.”
“You have no idea,” Chris adds in, and he sounds so discouraged that Gavin can’t help but grin. “Just wait, man, you’ll end up coming up behind one of them fully sure you know who it is? No. You’re always wrong.”
Gavin dips his head at Chris while Tina laughs behind her hand next to him. “Good to know.”
The phone at reception rings then, and Tina sobers up to bounce over to the counter, saying, “I got it, my shift now anyway,” as she bats Connor’s hands away from the receiver.
“Well Gavin,” Hank says when Tina answers the guest call, “You guys wanna head upstairs, get settled in? We’ve already got a room set up for you. Nines, you got the key, right? Wanna show them the way?”
Gavin pulls his daughter along to follow the alpha up a couple flights of stairs and down a few hallways. Away from the lobby drenched in scents, he catches the same petrichor from that pack-smell sample in this one, but files that away for later. Now that he’s got one of them alone, he can’t help but open his dumb mouth.
“So why you letting a beta run your pack?”
It has the potential of being a loaded question, putting such a seemingly capable alpha in the place of inferiority among the ranks, but Nines doesn’t appear to even react to the jibe.
“I don’t. We don’t have any one authority here.”
“Yeah, that’s what the social worker said, but I didn’t exactly believe that.”
Nines hums. “Well, it’s not a lie.”
Gavin scoffs when he doesn’t say anything further and throws his hands up behind the guy’s back. “Okay, so? Why? I’ve never really heard of that before.”
“Maybe— maybe that’s just how they like it,” Ellie joins, and Nines turns to look at her, then at Gavin.
“She’s right, you know,” he says.
“Got it. So you all just live in harmony up here, then? Is that right?”
“In a way.”
Gavin blinks and shakes his head, muttering under his breath, “Jesus fucking christ.”
“We’re all adults, making our own decisions. Why should any one person be able to have control over that?”
“Yeah, I said I got it,” he bites. “But so why Hank? Why register him?”
“Well, he’s the owner of this place, he pays the bills. It just seemed a natural choice.”
Nines stops them at the last room on the left side of the hall before he has a chance to say anything back to that. He hands Gavin a key that hangs off a ring with a pine tree charm looped on next to it. “Here,” he says. “This floor is just for the pack, and there’s an ice machine at the other end of the hall should you need it.”
“The doors up here don’t automatically lock like the guest rooms, but you can still deadbolt it if you want. Though I assure you, nobody will bother you.”
Unlocking the door, it squeaks a little when he opens it. “Oh I’m definitely locking it, you don’t gotta worry about that. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go put my pup to bed.”
“Of course, we’ll see you two tomorrow.”
El waves as he ushers her into the room, and Gavin doesn’t shut the door soon enough to avoid hearing the soft, “Goodnight, Elliott,” that Nines returns.
Chapter 2: carving a new niche
It’s… he’s still settling in. Ellie has taken remarkably quick to the new environment, but she’s young. Easily adaptable. Gavin’s the one that needs an extra push, something that can show him it’s okay to stay, it’s okay to allow himself to fucking relax for once in a while.
He just has to wait.
me, writing scenes that won't happen for much, much longer: hee hee fun
also me, hitting myself with a bat: fill in the gaps of chapter two you have to post today!!
hi. i'm back, and really hoping to stick to this sunday schedule. i work on this every day, but i do have a full time job that i frequently work overtime at, so my only times to write are evenings and (sometimes) the weekends. nevertheless, this is out! i hope you enjoy
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Gavin does not sleep at all during the night. He wants to, his entire body screams for it and his eyes are dry and it’s almost painful to keep them open, but he mentally cannot shut down. Already avoidant of sleeping anywhere but his own bed, he stares into the dark of the room and tries to ground himself to the weight of Elliott beside him instead of the constant what if, what if, what if, that runs through his head.
Every noise gets his full attention, every creak in the floorboards, every muffled thump from the other guests in the rooms below, every time the stupid AC unit clicks on and off. All of it is nearly thunderous with how much it’s out of place in Gavin’s mind.
He’d tried to scent the room, once he’d finally managed to get El to go down and had been left to snoop around quietly alone, in an attempt at making the unfamiliar a little less so. He’d tried to, had gone around alternating his palms between cupping over the joint of his neck and grabbing onto drawers, curtains, and bedposts. He’d sat in the chair tucked into the corner for as long as it took him to read through the first few chapters of the book he’d packed, scenting all the while.
None of it, in fact, has kept. This room is stale, has sat too long as an unoccupied, untouched box, and his scent has nothing to cling to. Gavin is left with the cycle of wanting to leave as soon as he can and knowing that the longer he stays, the better it will be.
With a sigh he reaches for his phone resting on the nightstand and blinds himself with the screen.
Perhaps there is some good to this bout of insomnia, for when Gavin reads the lockscreen’s 05:09 Monday, November 11 he feels a spike of alarm at the reminder that El has school today.
He could tell her she’s taking a long weekend, could postpone finding a way to get her to the elementary all the way back in the city, but he doesn’t actually want to do that. He doesn’t want to have that discussion with her teacher, doesn’t want to disturb her schedule more than it already has been. He wants her back in a comfortable environment with people she knows, people she’s happy with.
The issue of transportation is certainly the most pressing matter, and he has a half hour to figure it out if he wants to get her there on time.
That Anderson had driven them here, would he be willing to offer his chauffeuring services again? Would Gavin even have the courage to check every room on this floor looking for which one is Hank’s, and risk waking the others?
No, he doesn’t think he would.
However he knows there has to be at least one member of this pack awake, manning the front desk or at least nearby enough to hear the phone if it goes off. That’s like, hotel policy, right?
It was Tina when he’d left, he thinks, but he’s not exactly sure if she’ll still be the one down there. He doesn’t know this group well enough to want anyone specific, just to hope that they’ll be kind enough to either a) let him borrow one of their cars, or b) drive one of their cars themselves the hour and a half round trip into the city and back.
He’ll pay for the gas.
Another debt, and one that’s really going to add up if he doesn’t find another solution.
It’s not ideal, but for now this has to do.
Gavin takes a deep breath, nods to himself in the dark of the bedroom and, as quietly as he can, rolls off the bed to retrace his steps back downstairs.
It is not Tina. It’s one of the brothers, dressed in the grey and white and blue of the staff uniform, lounging in a chair behind the desk. Gavin steps over and knocks on the counter. “Nines, right?”
“Yes?” he says, and okay, it actually is Nines. Wild guess, totally nailed it.
“Cool, hey, um…” he starts, but then merely stands there trying to word his question correctly. Nines quirks a brow.
“Did you need something?”
What he wants to say, what’s in his head, is, “Hey, my daughter really needs to continue going to school, and I need a way to get her there. Is there something you guys can do?” but that isn’t what comes out of his mouth.
“So, Vernor Elementary doesn’t exactly send school buses out this far,” is what Gavin ends up saying. Which is just a statement, and without context makes absolutely no fucking sense. He deserves the stare of someone who doesn’t know what to say back.
“No, no I don’t think so,” Nines says slowly, a little crease forming above his nose.
“Yeah, you know, ‘cause this isn’t like, even in the area. Of the school.”
“Again, no, it’s not. Why do you need to know—?” He cuts himself off and takes a moment. “Oh. I see.”
Gavin tsks, “Can’t just walk my daughter to class now, can I?”
“I… don’t think we thought about that.”
“Yeah, I can tell,” he says. It’s a little snippy.
“So you need to borrow a car.”
Gavin shrugs with a, “Or one o’ you guys could drive, I’m not picky.”
Nines pushes the chair back from the desk and stands, then makes a motion like he’s about to move away, an aborted half-step. He sighs out of his nose and meets Gavin’s eyes. “Do you have a car you could get, if you were driven down there?”
“Nah.” Too expensive, wasn’t necessary, city bus had a stop right across the street from the apartment. There’s a whole slew of reasons why he’s unknowingly marooned himself to this place.
“Do you have a license on you?”
Nines holds out a hand. “Let me see it.”
“What, you don’t believe me?” Gavin scoffs at the same time as he pulls out his wallet and roots around for the ID.
“No I don’t doubt you have one, I just expect it to be expired.”
He sneers. “Oh yeah? And why’s that, asshole?”
The alpha just glances at him, then hands him back the drivers license that certainly is not expired, and says, “You should probably change your address.”
Gavin stands there, in the lobby of a hole-in-the-wall bed and fucking breakfast after being forced out of his own home and tossed into a whole pack of strangers in the span of less than twenty-four goddamn hours, and narrows his eyes way, way up at the passive face opposite him. “You know, that old man said you all were excited to have me here.”
“It’s five in the morning, Gavin,” is all Nines says, and god trying to talk to this guy is like pulling fucking teeth. What the hell does that have to do with anything?
“Whatever.” Gavin drums his fingers against the desk. “So what are we doing here, big guy? You gonna let me drive myself down there or what?”
Nines opens one of the drawers behind the counter. “Why don’t you go and get Elliott, here, you can take Connor’s car, I don’t think he’ll even realize it’s gone,” he says and tosses over a set of car keys, which Gavin just barely manages to catch out of the air.
“That easy, then?” he asks. “Just, handing over your brother’s keys to me? Trust me that much already?”
He doesn’t think he’s going to get an answer at first, almost thinks Nines ignores him. But as he’s huffing back toward the stairs a low voice says, “I wouldn’t call it trust, not yet, but you’re probably smart enough to come back. Am I wrong?”
Oh, this guy can fuck right off.
When Ellie watches him crawl into the front seat of Connor’s car—a small grey sedan with leather seats—and start up the engine, she asks, “Is this our new car?”
She had been awake once Gavin made it back to the room, sitting against the pillows biting her upper lip and staring off into space, and had lighted at his arrival. Wanted to know if she had to go to school today, or if she could stay and play with all the new people she met last night. Gavin didn’t know how to explain everything that wouldn’t end in her grumpily pouting all the way to the elementary, but she’d accepted that they were all busy right now, and she’d get a chance later on.
The lobby was empty on their way out the door, which he thought was for the best.
“No, actually,” Gavin says and turns out of the back of the lot to get on the road, the maps on his phone directing through the speakers. He’s just a little rusty on the whole thing, had only really driven anything back during driver’s ed, and then that one time in college, but that shouldn’t really count because he’d absolutely ended up denting the car that was not technically his. This one’s apparently a little touchy on the pedals. “It’s, um, Connor’s?”
He snorts and says, “Okay,” under his breath.
“I didn’t even think you knew how to drive, you never drive, and I can really, really tell.” Damn, alright then. Two minutes down I-96 and his seven year old is really calling him out, huh?
Gavin looks over his shoulder at her, sitting in the far right seat with her long hair pushed back by a sequined headband, and teases, “For that, no donut.”
Elliott whines out a long and way too dramatic no at the injustice she’s just been dealt until Gavin has to yell over her, “I’m kidding! I’m kidding oh my god, just stop doing that, please.”
The bedroom they’ve been given is similar to his old one only in its size. Other than that it is completely novel, and Gavin hates it. The walls are a shade of cream that’s just a little more yellow than it should be, the carpet is too flat, as if pressed by a roller, and even the ceiling is all popcorned. There are blackout curtains hanging over the window, a deep red with little golden floral designs that prevent any daylight from coming in, and just a few too many pieces of furniture.
It’s almost nauseating, and the constantly stale scent makes it seem like he’s back in that waiting room of the center. He is a creature of habit, and does not take well to change. This is truly a test of what’s stronger—his unending stubbornness or his desire to prove people wrong.
A bet worth throwing some in the pot.
Still, it’s the only area of the entire inn where he knows he will not be bothered. He’d been promised that, and for an unexplained reason he actually believes it. The deadlock on the door is also a big plus.
It’s locked now, as it will stay, while Gavin sits at the desk with the orange-yellow lamp turned on and scrolls through apps mindlessly on his phone. He’d briefly entertained the thought of staying in Detroit during the day and waiting there for Elliott to be released from school, but didn’t know what he’d do if he drove back and Connor was frantically searching for his car. That wouldn’t be a great way to start his little trial run here in the Pines.
If he was back in the apartment, he’d sleep away the day, burn through hours he’s too bored to actually live through and catch up for his outing during the night.
Now he just sits with a thumping headache and a growling stomach and two hours before he even needs to be heading to pick his daughter up, tense. His right leg won’t stop shaking up on its toes.
Even with his earbuds in, playing the same songs he always fucking listens to, Gavin still hears the abrupt knock on the door, loud and maybe like they’d been trying to get his attention for a minute. He nearly yanks out the earbuds with how it startles him.
“Uh… yes?” he calls.
“Lunch is on,” comes Tina’s voice, muffled a bit through the wood.
Gavin doesn’t move from his place at the desk. “What?” he asks before the words even register. When they do, just as the question leaves his mouth, he winces.
“Lunch?” she repeats with an upward lilt. “I mean just, if you’re hungry, it’s in the kitchen.”
It’s in the kitchen. Where the fuck is the kitchen? It’s not like he’s been given a grand tour of the place; he saw the lobby and the stairs and the hall the bedrooms are in, but otherwise it’s like a maze in here, and he hasn’t been exactly interested enough to explore away from the safety of his assigned room.
He hesitates, places his hands on the chair either side of him as if he’s about to push off and stand. “Where is that?”
Silence. Nothing but the AC unit clicking.
She isn’t there when he opens the door, and he steps halfway out into the hall. Which is empty. Gavin sucks his teeth.
There are voices coming from around the corner, faintly. He guesses that’s the best he’s got at where to go, and he shoves his shoes on before shutting the door and locking it behind him.
He turns onto the main hall, the one that the stairs branch off of, but finds himself standing at the mouth of another he’s never been down before, listening to the clear conversation between Tina and who he’s pretty sure is Chris. He follows further and stops at what he finds.
There’s a kitchen on the third floor. More specifically, there’s a kitchen on the third floor that looks like someone gouged out and opened up a few of the bedrooms that used to be in its place, and opposite it, on the other side of the hall, is a family room of similar array.
“What the hell…?” he mutters as Tina catches sight of him.
“Hey,” she waves him over where she’s stood at the island. “I didn’t actually think you’d come out, you’ve been in there all day.”
He shrugs. “Yeah, well. You’re right, I’m fucking starving.”
Chris, drying his hands off with a towel, says, “Okay, that’s my cue to go. You guys talk.” Gavin tenses his shoulders when the man starts walking toward him, but Chris just brushes by without another word.
“So I didn’t know if you were a vegetarian or anything, so the chicken’s separate.”
Tina sets a plate down in front of one of the stools propped up at the side of the island, some sort of pasta on top, and prods him to sit and eat. He inches into the tiled room and relaxes a bit when she hops up on one of the stools herself.
“I’m not,” Gavin says, taking the proffered fork. “Talk about what?”
“He said ‘you guys talk.’ Okay, about what?”
“Well,” she pauses while she chews, making a pleased grunt at the taste. “Tell me about yourself.”
She can’t be serious.
“Oh I don’t know, just talk about yourself. We don’t really know much about you.”
Gavin snorts disbelievingly. “Alright. Uh, my name’s Gavin, I’m thirty-six, a Libra, and I love long walks on the beach.” He ends it with a self-satisfied bite of penne, which he has to admit is really fucking good.
He doesn’t think he deserves the eye roll, that response was well-crafted. Tried and true. “So you’re sarcastic, is what I’m getting from this. Come on, you’re not getting away without telling me at least one deep, dark secret.”
Oh, so she’s serious.
Leaning back and crossing his arms, Gavin says, “I never read the terms and conditions before accepting them.”
Tina doesn’t even bat an eyelash, just nods along and takes a sip of water. “Okay. What grade is Elliott in, Nines mentioned that you had to take her to school this morning?”
Gavin stills. “She’s… she’s in second grade.”
“She’s really adorable, I’m sure you’re proud of her.”
“I am, yeah,” he says, and can’t help but to smile. He can tell Tina’s pleased, her soft omegan scent drifting over the island. It’s like the breeze that winds over the sea, and the only one that doesn’t immediately put him on edge. He’s not sure if that’s solely because she’s an omega, not having spent much time around any others in his life, but perhaps it stems from an innate sense of parallel identity. A type of social bond that’s supposed to form, but that Gavin’s never had a chance to experience.
He’s given a few moments of respite to enjoy the meal she prepared, unknowing if he’ll be shown this kindness again, before Tina comes back with another inquisition.
“So where’d you get the name Elliott from?”
It’s his mother’s middle name. “Saw it in an ad, thought it sounded cool.”
She laughs. “Thought it sounded cool, oh my, and here I was thinking maybe there was some deeper meaning behind it. Okay, um, what’s her favorite color?”
“Green.” Like her green plastic cup that’s still sitting in his backpack, half forgotten about back in the room. “But I don’t think she’s picky about the shade. She’s really into art right now, coloring and drawing whatever comes to mind, and uh… I always put her favorites on the fridge.”
“That’s really sweet.”
“It’s covered in terrible, terrible drawings. I love the kid, but she definitely needs some more practice.”
He realizes, near the end of the half hour he spends with her, that Tina is smart, and that the rest of the pack most likely sent her to be the one to talk to him. Because what started out with Gavin having the chance to spill his praises on his pup seamlessly turned into him giving the smallest amounts of detail about himself. He catches his mouth traitorously doling out the fact that he visits the library every month to check on any new books he hasn’t yet read with El, but the words are out before his brain has time to intercept them.
It goes like this until Tina has the mercy to relinquish him with a, “Well thank you for spending lunch with me, Gavin, I had a nice time.”
“Yeah, sure,” he says, unsure of little else.
“I think your social skills could use some work, but we’ll get you there!” She holds out her hand for a formal handshake. “Glad to meet you.”
Well. What can he do, but meet her halfway.
Gavin fully believes his daughter has a memory capacity unmatched by anyone, but only when it comes to promises he’s made with her that she’s looking forward to. He believes this because the first thing she says to him when climbing into the car, completely ignoring his question about her day, is, “So when we get back can I play with everyone?”
“We’ll have to see if they’re busy, El.”
“But they were busy this morning! They’re definitely done now.”
How does one explain the concept of running a nearly 24-hour business to a seven year old, besides, “You don’t know that, let’s just get back there and see, okay?”
When El pulls open the front door before he’s even had time to make it to the porch, she nearly runs over a group of guests checking in with her haste.
“Hey! Okay, come here,” Gavin goes to pick her up and ignores the family trying to reassure him that she’s fine, just skirts past and up the stairs. “Don’t—do that, please, god.”
“Sorry, I wasn’t doing anything!”
“How many times have I said not to run off ahead of me?” Gavin asks, unlocking the last door on the left one-handed. “I mean here, too.”
He lets her down only once they’re back in the room. Sits her on the edge of the bed to take off her velcro shoes, and she hands him her windbreaker. “Can I have a snack?”
“Um,” Gavin says intelligently. “Let’s see.”
Now that he knows where to go, he leads Ellie by the hand to the wide kitchen and sets her up in one of the stools, keeping an eye on her in case she decides to lean too far backward or tries to get down by herself while he quietly searches for something for her to eat.
There’s no one up here besides them at the moment, and he’d really like to keep it that way just in case the pack doesn’t want a stranger going through their food. By pure luck he finds some string cheese in one of the fridge drawers, which is exactly what he gives El back home, and hands her one. “Here, you want anything else?”
“Mm, red crackers?”
Ritz crackers, that come in a red box, but he can’t find anything like that. She settles on a yogurt, which they have plenty of, and is licking the lid just in time for Connor, Chris, and Nines to round the corner and notice them.
For all that she’s been going on about wanting to play with everyone, El shrinks in her seat at the new arrivals, learned shyness taking over.
“Hey, so, she wanted a snack, I wasn’t just gonna tell her no,” Gavin says without prompting, already on the defensive.
He’s met with three quizzical expressions, and while Nines shakes his head and goes to sit on the other side of the hall, throwing the television on with the volume muted, Connor says, “And I’m glad. We did buy some of what’s in there for you two, you’re allowed to help yourself.”
“Yeah, you live here, man,” Chris adds, keeping a distance while searching the bottom cupboards. He pulls out a few pots of various sizes and one skillet. “Also, we’re gonna start to make dinner pretty soon, if you wanna stay.”
Gavin’s still trying to process the him living here part, because he’s not sure that’s accurate, not at the moment. He has a single backpack stuffed with a mere portion of his belongings and has yet to spend a full day here, but maybe these guys just have an easier time accepting someone else into the fold than he does. Still, he only says, “Dinner? It’s 4:30.”
“It might take a while,” says Connor, closing the pantry with a bottle of olive oil in hand. “We have plenty to make.”
At the insistence of his daughter, Gavin lets them stay in the kitchen and watch, only occasionally breaking the awkward air to talk. El does enough for the both of them, once she’s out of her shell enough to realize there’s nothing to worry about, and Chris and Connor do marginally well at meeting her antics and answering the questions that don’t actually make sense.
Connor starts looking around for something, makes a frustrated noise. “Nines, come over here and stir this for me,” he calls. “I need to start boiling the potatoes.”
“What’s Chris doing?”
“I’m rolling out like, three cans of crescent rolls, or would you like to do that instead?”
“You’re supposed to be helping, anyway.”
Nines turns off the television despite it having been muted the entire time and comes to join them. He takes the wooden spoon with only a glance in Gavin’s direction.
He might be a little tense. A little expectant of him to say something about their conversation earlier in the morning. It was weird and Gavin is irritable like, all the time, so he knows he can’t have been an easy person to talk to after a long night of overthinking and before the sun had even come up.
He does say something, but not exactly what Gavin was waiting for.
“How was the drive? Was Connor’s car good enough for you?”
“Was Connor’s what now?” said alpha interjects.
“I let him drive your car to take Elliott to school and back, I wasn’t going to let him take mine.”
“You didn’t tell him?” Gavin says, to Nines.
“He didn’t tell you?” Chris says, to Connor, then laughs.
Elliott, savior that she is, chirps, “I really liked your car better than the bus. Um, can I ride in it again tomorrow?” Okay, so he might actually get out of this one unscathed, thanks to her unmatched cuteness.
Connor presses his lips into a thin line and completely forgets about the stove for a moment, choosing to turn and give El a smile that looks a little forced and say, “Give me just a minute, Elliott, I have to talk with Nines first.”
Nines doesn’t seem startled to be physically pulled away and out of sight around the corner, just points to Chris in a way that makes the beta go and keep stirring whatever sauce they’re making.
They must not move away far enough beyond the corner, for Gavin hears nearly every word.
“—let him take my car? Were you—thinking, Richard?”
“What else was I—?”
“Could have taken off—how that would look?”
“But he didn’t.”
It’s quiet after that. If they’re still talking it’s too low for him to hear anything else. He’s so caught up in straining to try and listen further that when they come back in he has to hurry and act like he hadn’t just overheard all of that. Or at least the gist of it. He’s pissed, naturally, but this is the second time one of them has mentioned him taking El and running off now that he has access to a vehicle—in so many words—and he really doesn’t get why. Do these guys think he’s an idiot, or do they just not have enough faith in someone who’s just got out of being lone? You know, now that Gavin thinks about it, it probably is the latter. Maybe they have a point. A small point. He never thought about taking off, not seriously.
“Yes, Elliott,” Connor finally answers her question. “You may ride in it tomorrow.” He looks at Gavin. “The keys should always be in that first drawer on the left, behind the front counter. You can use them to take her to school.”
Gavin really doesn’t think it should be that easy, but he’ll take it. He’ll show them that he’s capable, would love nothing more than to prove his worth. It’s what he does best.
They go back to something not exactly normal, but maybe a little calmer, after that.
Dinner is odd.
It’s the first time Gavin has been on the bottom floor that isn’t the main foyer, and he’s reluctantly intrigued. For an area set aside primarily for the guests, it’s much the same as the setup upstairs, if altered slightly for a more professional look. Not as comfortable, but still familiar.
There’s a sitting area off to the right, couches and chairs and ottomans all matching and shit, a pile of magazines on the middle coffee table. On a side wall a television is mounted, volume quiet and playing the evening news, and on another a large bay window juts out.
Divided only by a portion of half-wall, the quote unquote dining room that Gavin stands just outside of is merely a set of two round tables and a counter-cupboard combo spanning the left wall, a coffee maker and little cereal dispensers some of the things atop it that catch his eye.
“We close all this off from the guests at 7:30,” Tina says at his shoulder, “So that even those of us who are on call have a chance to eat with everyone.” She has the brass to punch him in the bicep, and he has the restraint to not react instinctively. As in, yelp.
“What the hell was that?”
She snickers and ignores the question. “Just letting you know now, we do things together often.”
Gavin raises his brows. “Got it, awesome.”
The tables are large enough to fit eight individually, and he waits until the rest have filed in to gently nudge El forward. “Go find a seat, sweetie, I’m helping bring the food over.”
“I know, it’s just right around the corner I’ll be right back, I’ll hear everything.”
She thankfully acquiesces without any more prompting, sliding over to crawl on top of the empty chair beside Hank. He nods at her when she meets his eyes and turns to follow Tina to the kitchen.
Dinner is odd.
It’s the first time Gavin has had the opportunity to see all of them together under something like normal circumstances, and he feels very much like he should not be here. He shouldn’t be in their home, taking up their space, shouldn’t be under their care, taking up their time, and he certainly should not be sitting at their table acting like he can magically hop in to their nice, cozy life with all his own shit.
The last time he ate with people like this, he was still having trouble tying his own shoes, and he keeps mostly quiet. Stubbornly so, frowning consistently.
They don’t ignore him, but he is decidedly an outsider, especially during moments where they go off on tangents of stories obviously meant to be understood through sheer “you had to be there.” Sometimes they try to include him, ask him questions or make comments about Ellie, only the latter of which he responds to, short and to the point.
All of this is lost on Elliott, who is perfectly content to poke at her peas and try to form a mountain out of her potatoes.
“Hey, take a few more bites, please,” Gavin says after watching the process for a few minutes.
“But I’m full.”
“You’re not full, look,” and he moves some of the food around on her plate to show her, “You’ve barely eaten any of this. Come on now.”
She sighs loud enough to garner some attention.
“Hey Elliott,” and that’s Connor, leaning forward to look around Hank with a kind smile. “I don’t think your dad will let you have dessert if you don’t finish your food.”
El perks up at that, obviously. “Dessert?”
Hank chuckles, “Did we forget to tell you? We’ve got ice cream upstairs.”
Oh, great. Gavin already knows how this is going to go. His pup turns to him with a gasp, already asking with her eyes before she’s gotten the begs out, and what is he supposed to do, tell her no? It’s already late, she needs to be in bed soon, but now he has to say yes lest he want a very unhappy, whining Ellie on his hands. She’s already gotten permission from the others, he wouldn’t want to lose her favoritism so soon.
Dinner is odd, but the afterparty is undoubtedly worse.
Chris stays downstairs, his night to do so he says to Ellie, who asks after him, but Gavin is ushered upstairs along with everyone else and into the renovated family room.
He takes a seat on the very end of the L couch and pulls Ellie up to sit on the outside of him, attempting to leave enough space between them and everyone else, not wanting to risk being pressed all together.
“What ice cream do you want, Elliott?” Hank asks from the kitchen.
Needing a translation, Gavin explains, “She means strawberry, if you don’t have it she’s good with vanilla.”
“And you, Gavin—?”
“Nothing.” It’s out before the question’s even asked, but Hank must accept it.
For some god-cursed reason, Nines keeps attempting to talk to him while Gavin fights to keep Elliott’s clothes clean from the inevitable half-melted ice cream dripping off her spoon.
“I do hope this day hasn’t been too overwhelming for you.” He doesn’t have a bowl, either.
“Oh yeah?” he says. “And who told you to say that?”
Gavin’s not looking at him, but he doesn’t hear a, “Nobody,” or a, “I’m attempting niceties at my own discretion,” so he glances over. The guy’s just kind of staring at him, index finger half-raised and mouth open as if he’s actually going to say a name, and Gavin shakes his head with a short humorless laugh.
“Wow. That’s rich.”
“Is it?” and oh, there’s a little bite to that one. Fun. “Sorry for checking in on our foster, would you like me to stop?”
It’s sarcastic, rhetorical, but Gavin still says, “Absolutely.”
Nines startles him by standing from the couch, but he just turns to the oblivious trio sprawled on the other cushions and bids them goodnight before stalking off.
Because he just has to, Gavin calls to his retreating back, “Guess I really was smart enough to come back, huh?”
Gavin finds it unexpectedly easy to get on with his own day. They’ve been here for a few now, and after a handful of strained ones where he solely kept to the bedroom unless he was eating or running Elliott into the city and back, he’s now taken to his own little corner of the Pines. It happens to be outside, but throw on jeans and a jacket and he’s just fine.
The inn has a backyard, sort of. It’s more of a large expanse of grass, dry from the incoming winter frost, that fades out into the woods surrounding. Gavin likes to while away his downtime sitting underneath the only tree brave enough to stand alone in the center of the yard. He brings his book, or only his phone if he’s feeling particularly bored, and listens to the only playlist he has through the headphones.
Nobody ever comes to bother him, not when the pack is usually busy with their own work and the occasional guests don’t necessarily want to spend time in a cold, empty field. It suits him well.
For all that social worker had said about keeping away from the “frequent strangers” of the inn, he hasn’t noticed too much. It’s not a large enough space for the amount of people something like the fucking Marriott could house, he guesses there’s no more than like twenty rooms on that second floor. They’re just east of Brighton and too out of the way of downtown, the only ones staying here are those that have family nearby.
He sees mostly older couples, or young trios and quartets with even younger children on their way to visit old packmates.
(Sometimes he overhears them, passing by on the stairs or on the occasions where he sprawls in the bay window before too many people start to occupy the sitting room and he shuts himself back upstairs. He never means to do so, he just happens to be nearby enough to listen.
His favorite unintentional eavesdrop has been, to date, a middle-aged omegan and her husband bitching about anything and everything first thing in the morning. Obviously cranky, obviously very accustomed to the constant bickering. Gavin waits in the lounge for Ellie to come downstairs dressed for school and catches bits and pieces, mostly about how the milk here tastes funny or how the man’s shirt is missing its top button.
They’re a bit quiet for a moment, then he hears, “Well damn it, Kathleen, I don’t know! Why don’t you go over, ask that young man there and see what he says?”
A mild slap on his arm, then a scoff and a, “Will you just shut up already? I’m not interested in ruining someone else’s day just because you don’t want to fix your own problem!”
The man had sat and grumbled, and then El had jumped on into the room with a smile, and Gavin had left.
It had briefly reminded him of his parents.)
He’s outside now, twiddling a long piece of brittle grass between his thumb and forefinger, breaking off pieces of it with his other hand intermittently. His book, The Maltese Falcon, rests face down on his crossed knee, holding his spot in the story, at the part right before Brigid O’Shaughnessy begins to weave her tale about Kemidov. It’s nice out for the middle of November, his jacket off and tied around his waist. He thinks he’ll wait here until two o’clock rolls around and he has to be getting down the road again.
Gavin doesn’t know if anyone is aware that he comes out here. If they do they let him sit in peace, and it’s a testament of their good will and kind fucking hearts.
It’s… he’s still settling in. Ellie has taken remarkably quick to the new environment, but she’s young. Easily adaptable. Gavin’s the one that needs an extra push, something that can show him it’s okay to stay, it’s okay to allow himself to fucking relax for once in a while. But just because that tiny part of his brain is railing against the rest of it doesn’t mean the larger part, the stronger part, will submit that easily. Years of an ingrained caution won’t go away overnight, no matter if it’s logical or not.
He just has to wait.
Gavin goes inside at 1:59.
Despite settling, it is not enough for him to sleep throughout the night. He’s spent five here already, unconscious only in quick spurts of lapsed attention and his mind yielding to his body, and feels a slowly growing guilt reach its head on this sixth night. It is a very obvious distinction to notice, when being surrounded by a pack that is constantly running their own inn, that Gavin has not been to work in a much longer time than he would ever have taken back home.
Because, well, he can’t quite do what he used to. He can’t just take a walk around the block and stroll through the seedier niches of Detroit looking for a nice place to pull. He could head down to the highway now, stand against the Blue Pines’ lit-up sign and hold his thumb up for any passing car, but that’s the best way he can think of to get into a whole host of trouble, so that’s out.
The ADS center had tried to make it seem like Gavin would never have to go back to his work, not when under the care of the fosters, but on what planet, exactly, could that ever be true? He doesn’t pay rent anymore, there’s that, but it’s not like they took care of his phone bill, or El’s school lunches, or even their own dumb fucking release fees. And he knows that soon enough he will get the eventual bill of everything he owes Lou, on top of everybody else he’s in fucking debt with. At this rate, Gavin doesn’t even have enough to last a month, so he’s getting a bit stressed.
A bit desperate.
Perhaps too desperate, if his current situation has anything to say about it.
Gavin thumbs the edge of the business card with the hastily-scratched cell number in his right hand while the call dials in. It’s late, El has been out cold for four hours now, and the inn is distractingly silent.
“Who the hell is this?” is the hello he gets.
“Wow, is that just, like, how you greet everyone? It’s Harley,” Gavin says. He’s in the bathroom, sitting on the closed lid of the toilet with the door shut to mute his words.
A muffled scramble of motion precedes the, “Oh shit, hold on, I’m—” and the john must drop the phone for the words cut out. The guy has a name, it’s right there on the card, halfway scribbled over with a 7 and a 2, but Gavin chooses to ignore the unnecessary information. The voice comes back closer, less like he’s sitting at a noisy bar.
“Harley, you mean the same one from Harkened Oyster?”
“The very one.”
“I’m. Sorry, I didn’t think you were actually gonna call. It’s been like two weeks, man.”
Gavin inspects his cuticles. “Oh, don’t be like that. I said I would, right?” He’s already putting on his best voice, a drawl, coy and simpering.
The john breathes out a laugh over the line, like he can’t believe what’s actually happening. “So, okay, you wanna meet up? I can let the others know, they should—”
“Of course, but here’s the little problem we have.”
“I’m not in the city right now, and I don’t have any way to get back,” he pushes as much faux sorrow into his words as he can. “I would love to be there for you, but I need someone to come and get me.”
“Shit, yeah, of course—”
“And bring me back once we’re done.” He’s not going to risk them throwing him out once he’s been paid and leaving him to crawl back to the Pines with his metaphorical tail between his legs.
The john must really not get out much, for he doesn’t waste a second in agreeing to the trip. Gavin relays the address off to the guy and rolls his eyes once he cuts the line.
Dumbass ruthead who sends him a quick outside text about forty-five minutes later and secures Gavin’s plans for the night.
He is inexplicably relieved to encounter not a single soul in his tiptoed trek downstairs, not even at the front desk, where whoever’s on must be in the back office at the moment. It’s all the best for Gavin, who would rather keep questions of why he’s heading out in the middle of the night in thirty degree weather wearing only a tank and shorts to a very low minimum of zero.
Aside from Hank, he doesn’t think any of them know of his occupation, doesn’t think the old Anderson would spread his business around. He doesn’t seem the type to gossip, probably has tons of shit in that brain he’s kept quiet about over the years. He gives off the kind of parental air of wanting Gavin to be the one to tell his own story, which isn’t happening. If Gavin isn’t shouting it from the rooftops, he’s keeping it deep in his heart.
Standing on the covered porch and slowly closing the door behind him, he shivers. He knew it was cold before heading out, but damn is it fucking freezing out here. Gooseflesh runs all down his arms and legs, a chill trails through him, and Gavin barrels on.
He strolls up to the only car in the lot that has its headlights on and steam billowing from the tailpipe and leans against the rolled-down passenger window in a practiced, cliched way. It always seems to make the johns think they’re getting the full experience from the start, which is just better business.
“Hey alpha,” Gavin smirks against the nauseating line. “Where you takin’ me?”
“Why don’t you get in and find out?”
Jesus christ, okay. Does this guy think he’s in a fucking porno? Leave the sultry, shameful talk to the professionals, please.
He shouldn't be too surprised, though. From their brief interaction at the club, blurred by everything else that night, he doesn’t actually remember the guy, but looking at him now, he’s kind of young. He might even be younger than himself, which Gavin’s encountered before but it isn’t his usual clientele. It isn’t often a twenty-something goes for an older omega, but he’ll take the indirect compliment. At least he can say he’s still got his looks.
So: eager, eager to please and eager to get started, probably has a ton of stamina stored in there somewhere, not too bad to look at. Gavin can work with that. He hopes the rest of the group is much the same.
Gavin holds up one finger. “First, before I do, I’m gonna need to see some payment up front.”
The john loses his steam at that. “What?” he bites. “Dude, what happened to a buck twenty-five!”
“And… hm, maybe fifty after? As a little consolation gift.”
“Fuckin’ a, man, I shoulda got you when you were cheap.”
Gavin shrugs and gives him a pitiful look. “I wasn’t in debt then, alpha. I’m gonna need someone to take care of me, and you seem very capable. Are you not gonna do that for me? I really need some help.”
At least he can say he’s telling the truth.
He knows he’s got him, then, because the scent that’s permeating from the open window turns just that tiny bit dark in arousal. “Fine,” the john sounds annoyed, still, but shows Gavin the money and tosses it on the passenger seat. “I’m already here, just, this better be worth it.”
He counts the bills quick before nodding and slipping them into the side of his boot, then gets into the car. Everything is absolutely drenched in the heavy, bitter scent of this alpha, and he just knows he’s going to have to scrub his skin twice over after tonight.
Gavin is not as lucky slipping in to the hotel—four hours later and just in time to make the whole trip again to drop El off at school—as he was slipping out.
Chris is there, hidden halfway beyond the partition of the front desk where he’s leaning back in the chair with his feet propped up on the counter. There’s a magazine in his hands, one which he drops when he hears the doors creak and opens his mouth to say something, noticeably bemused.
Gavin does not want to hear it. “Went for a run,” he says, short and clipped. He doesn’t know if Chris will believe him, but at least his outfit is mildly athletic.
“Gavin, hey,” the beta stands and steps forward. “Are you… okay? I mean, are you getting enough sleep? You look… well, um.”
He knows how he looks. Disheveled, shoulders tight, exhausted. He has bags like cinder under his eyes. Still, he hadn’t thought that it would be too much for anyone to notice. Hadn’t thought he’d be asked so directly. The question makes him falter at the foot of the stairs, and only for a second does he think to answer honestly.
“I’m fine,” he says to the wall. “Can you leave Connor’s keys on the desk? I gotta take El to school.”
El is not in the room. The initial, cold shock of panic is nothing compared to the relief he feels in the very next second at the sound of her laugh in the other hall. The quick juxtaposition wakes him in the worst of ways, leaving him heady with adrenaline and scrambling to go find her.
She’s in the living room, unharmed, scent undisturbed, curled underneath one of the throw blankets with Hank at her side. The television is playing early morning cartoons and there’s a glass of milk nearly finished on a coaster on the coffee table.
She looks for who called her name, then brightens with recognition and jumps up from her place on the couch to run over to him. Gavin gets an armful of energized pup at six in the morning and doesn’t have an answer to, “Where did you go this time? They smell so gross.”
He scents her briefly before setting her down. She’s already dressed for school, hair brushed and shoes on her feet. “Why are you out here? Did you do this all yourself?”
Hank, sitting sideways with an arm thrown over the back of the couch to watch them, answers for her. “She came downstairs looking for you about an hour ago, saw her trailing around from the office.” He doesn’t sound scolding, or disappointed, just stating the facts. “Said you were gone but would come back at some point, but that she needed to get ready for school. I, uh, gave her some cereal, hope that’s fine.”
He doesn’t really know if it is. Generally, yes, he’s very glad that El is secure and she’s fed and that, presently, he has nothing to worry about. Still, he’s not yet comfortable with the thought of her being around the pack without him there. He can’t watch over her that way, can’t be there to protect her if anything should happen, doesn’t want to put that into the hands of people who don’t even have pups of their own.
Instead of voicing any of that, he chooses to mostly ignore Hank. Glances over at him once in a quick show of acknowledgement, then begins to lead Ellie out of the room. “Come on, we gotta go.”
“Hey Gavin,” Anderson calls before he can turn the corner, and he hesitates. “Glad you’re safe.”
Later, Gavin finds himself eating alone in the third-floor kitchen, spooning microwaved chicken and rice out of a tupperware container he found in the fridge with his and Elliott’s names on the lid.
He’s noticed a pointed absence of the pack this morning. There’s usually at least somebody milling around off call, getting into his shit and acting all friendly. He’s used to it now, waits with resigned acceptance of the whole ordeal, so it’s easy to realize that something is suddenly missing.
No Tina propping up beside him loud and insistent that he come and spend time “you know, not alone?” or anything. No Connor wandering in to sit on the other end of the couch and watch whatever show Gavin’s put on, silently observant. Not even Nines, though he doesn’t think he’d have anything to say to him.
Gavin doesn’t go looking, because he doesn’t care what they do. He might take his time putting what’s left in the tupperware back in the fridge, washing his spoon, drifting off back to the last room on the left side of the hall, but he’s pretty sure he’s the only one up here.
It’s apparent as to why when he gets to the bedroom door, stopping abruptly with the key in hand.
There’s a note on it, a sheet of college ruled paper torn out of a spiral spine and taped right below the peephole, black marker letters in a looping font.
you don’t have to say you’re okay if you’re really not
is there anything we can do to help you sleep better?
Gavin feels his chest grow tight. He really should have known, after Chris had pointed it out, that this would be coming. Everyone here is so fucking concerned about his well-being that trying to slip under the radar of some particularly nosy packmates is damn near impossible.
He takes a deep breath, and his eyes sting.
Wordlessly, he peels the note as gently as he can off the door, folds the tape over so it doesn’t stick to anything else, and enters the room.
He deadlocks himself inside and flips the page over to write a response, his words in purple colored pencil from Ellie’s scattered supplies. Once he’s satisfied he slides it out under the door and tries to forget about the whole thing.
Perhaps they’ll shut up about it, if he actually gives them an answer.
Gavin nearly cries with relief when Saturday morning rolls around and he doesn’t have to get up and make that drive. He’s had to put gas into Connor’s car once now, and he’s pretty sure it’s getting low again. At least the kid’s been real understanding about the whole thing—now that he’s proven to be trusted with it—no matter that Gavin’s single-handedly going to wear that car down.
Elliott still wakes up at exactly six in the morning and forces him out of bed, because she’s on her own circadian rhythm and Gavin’s the parent that has to be up with her. Just because he’s already awake does not mean he’s in any mood to be a human being right now, thank you child.
“Dad, can I play a game on your phone?” is what he’s pretty sure those muffled words were.
“Look up, I’m trying to finish brushing your teeth.” She laughs even though he’s not kidding, but does tip her head back so he can reach her top molars. “And I don’t know, show me your planner first.”
Gavin’s settling back underneath the warm covers fresh faced with his phone already unlocked to his own apps, turning on the bedside lamp to its brightest setting. He knows for a fact that kid’s gonna come up to him brandishing her nice school planner with all the homework she has over the weekend penciled in with her scraggly pup handwriting, and he’s going to have to once again remind her that only once she’s finished doing all that important learning shit can she dick around on his phone. In nicer terms, of course.
“Ugh, here,” she huffs like it’s the worst thing she’s ever had to do, and the little spiral book hits his arm.
“Did you just throw that at me?”
“No?” El asks in a tone that makes it seem like the answer is obvious. “I just tossed it on the bed!”
Gavin stares at her, waiting, because that’s a lie.
“Thank you for apologizing,” he says formally, always trying to drill into her brain that these are the type of words we use with people, stick to your manners. He might not follow these rules himself, far from it, but he’s not letting his pup turn out just like him. She’ll grow up kind, civil, and actually adapted to society, if he can pull it off.
El does, predictably, have a couple things to finish before Monday—a new list of vocabulary words and three-digit addition tables. Gavin will have to help her with the vocab, knows her prowess lies more in the numbers department than language right now. She’s not very happy when he tells her to go ahead and start on the tables—she can knock that one out quick and be fine to play until after lunch—and gets real close to pitching a fit, one he hasn’t seen her act out for a while.
Okay, so she’s definitely having a nap today. He’s not going to try and deal with her short fuse when she gets this cranky.
“When you’re done with all that,” he gestures to her sitting on the floor with her arms crossed and her face all scrunched up in an angry pout, “Let’s go down and eat breakfast. Are you hungry?”
She just grunts, glaring.
“Well, alright then, guess I’ll just go down by myself, since you don’t wanna eat.”
“No! No, no, I wanna go!”
El does end up sitting down and completing her addition tables, but only after Gavin bribes her with the promise of asking if they can go find a park tomorrow. She must be getting a little restless if she’s agreeing to the deal that quickly.
Otherwise, their Saturday is slow. Gavin relinquishes his phone to his pup and lets her play the one game he doesn’t actually know the name of, just that it has little dog mascots that guide you through some learning exercises. It’s just a game to her that, fortunately for a parent, has at least some redeeming qualities. He sticks to sorting out their bags, which he hasn’t yet taken the time to do, and trying to fill the space with their own belongings. Make it that much more livable. It isn’t much, and he’s reminded that he still needs to somehow get the rest of their stuff back from the apartment.
He pushes that thought away for right now, not wanting to deal with it presently.
El goes down for a nap easily enough, which leaves him sitting in the dark trying to catch a break himself. He still can’t, not fully, body still jerking him awake and making his heart race every twenty minutes.
So he doesn’t. He listens to some music and thinks about how half the day is already gone and nobody has come to check on them. It’s just enough of a similarity for him to find the pattern.
The last time he hadn’t heard from them, just yesterday, he’d gotten a worried, helpful note pinned to the door. He wonders now, after receiving his own message, just what the fuck they’re planning.
None of them will let him help, as if he even wants to. He’s perfectly content to watch from the sidelines and keep El out of the way, even when Hank and Chris nearly scrape the dumb yellow-cream paint off the wall trying to slide the heavy desk all the way to the other corner of the room. Gavin certainly does not rush forward to steady it and push all the drawers back in where they’d slowly fell open in the process.
“We got it, go sit down,” says Chris, and Gavin reluctantly returns to sit in the middle of the bed beside his pup. It’s the only thing that isn’t getting rearranged, mostly because it really can’t without fucking up the space, but also because it’s in a similar enough spot as his old bed had been to be skipped over through all of this.
Not long after El had woken from her nap, there’d been a knock at the door, and when Gavin had inched it open to peer through the gap, he’d nearly floundered at the scene. Tina, with his purple-penciled note held up in her hand as if to remind him that yes, he wrote it and sent it out to them, and now they’re all here. Because behind her had been everyone else.
Even though he was caught off guard at the magnitude of it, he’d been a bit proud that he’d guessed an intervention was coming.
“You could have told us sooner, you know,” Tina had said.
Chris, leaning against her, added, “It’s not that hard to move some furniture around, we can definitely make it look like your old room.”
When Gavin had hesitated, had nearly shut the door in their faces because he didn’t know what to say, Hank set everything in motion with his patient, “Just tell us what we need to do.”
Gavin had stepped back and let them in.
“You sure you guys got it?” he goads the betas at least somewhat lightheartedly. “Because I’m not gonna be paying any damage fees if you mess up my room, I plan on getting my security deposit back.”
Hank at least has the wherewithal to ignore him, while Chris slips a little with his laugh of, “Shit, now I’m thinking maybe we should have made you pay a deposit, jackass.”
“Language around my kid, man,” Gavin says. “I try to keep it clean, for the most part.”
Elliott tilts her head at Chris. “What’s a jackass?”
He’s laughing, all of them are, but Gavin still points at the young beta and warns, “Don’t start teaching her that just because it’s funny,” through a wide grin. “Elliott, don’t repeat that. It’s another grownup word, if you say it again you’re in trouble.”
Ellie, no longer a spectacle, returns her focus to her colors, and everyone else sobers up and gets back to moving. Gavin sits there and observes, realizing how unnaturally light and secure he feels in this moment, to witness this group’s charity.
Connor is taking down the blackout curtains that had shut this room off from any natural morning light filtering in, folding the red fabric up until they’re just a wrinkled pile in his arms. He twists open the venetian blinds and, from where Gavin sits, gives him a view of the sky, silver with snow clouds. Tina mans the task of pushing that extra bedside table out the door, the one that he’d purposefully left bare in what was most likely a dumb, spiteful thought at the piece of furniture that’s not sentient and therefore wouldn’t care that Gavin ignored it, because who the fuck needs two bedside tables? He hears her call back from the hall that the living room is looking in dire need of a little desk.
Nines has his hands on the dresser, cleared out for ease of sliding across the carpet, near the foot of the bed. He raises his eyebrows in a silent yes?
“Remind me where this is going.”
“Hm. You wanna ask?” is his response, intentionally difficult.
“Just tell me where you want the dresser.”
They haven’t exactly spoken since that dinner, and during that night Gavin had still been running on the irritation of their interaction prior, had still been tense and guarded and wanting absolutely nothing to do with sitting down and eating a meal with everyone like they were one big happy pack. They haven’t exactly spoken, and though Gavin holds the barest sliver of ease with the others, he does not know where this alpha stands.
It is vaguely daunting. Gavin doesn’t know how to deal with that like an actual person, and so leans into his terrible defense mechanism of being a blatant ass.
“Don’t make me repeat myself, big guy,” he drawls and rests back on his hands. “I’m sure the answer’s up there somewhere in that head of yours.”
He’s never seen any of the pack get frustrated before, but he’s pretty sure he’s about to. That is, until dashing old Hank passes by and puts a hand in between them, saying, “On the wall next to the bathroom door. There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Gavin picks at his cuticles. “Ehh, he would have got it eventually.”
“You are being,” Nines says in between pushing the tall piece of furniture, “almost pointedly difficult. When I am doing the same as everyone else. Why is that?”
“Maybe he just doesn’t like you,” comes Tina’s voice, laughing, and she returns to join Gavin on the bed, sitting just on the edge of it. Respectful.
Connor, attempting to unscrew the curtain rod, tacks on, “That would make sense, I don’t even like Nines.” Gavin snorts at the deadpan, unamused expression on the younger alpha’s face.
Elliott looks up then, at their words and at the fact that Tina’s extra weight on the bed has just made all her colored pencils roll down the comforter. “My dad likes everybody,” she says, treason in her eyes. “He told me!”
He had told her, in a moment of weakness that included El staring up at him with her fucking doe eyes until he could say, “Yeah, okay, I guess I like them too, then. Now get off, you’re crushing my sternum.”
Nines hums lowly. “Well, perhaps he needs to be reminded.”
Gavin shields Ellie’s eyes while he throws his middle finger up at Nines, though he can’t help the slight uptick of his lips, just the one corner fighting to keep down a grin. He enjoys a good back-and-forth, at least when it isn’t fueled by serious ire. A fine line between entertainment and resentment.
He thinks, maybe, this could be his new entertainment.
“How’s this?” Nines asks, and Gavin purses his lips and rubs his chin like he’s really thinking about it.
“Two inches to the left.”
Gavin chokes, feigning irritation, and puts a hand on his chest. “No? I’m sorry, I guess I’ll just never sleep again.”
He’s honestly kidding, but it does bring up the reason they’re all doing this in the first place. It isn’t merely an exercise in familiarity, but an attempt at making sure he’s no longer looking like death on legs. The bags dragging his eyes down probably help, but he’s still a little cowed when Nines’ face smooths over and he does, in fact, move the dresser that little bit to the left.
“Can you get that color, Nines?” Elliott points off the bed where a green pencil rests near the alpha’s foot.
Gavin prods her. “Please,” he reminds.
Nines is handing her back the pencil, El grabbing the end of it with a satisfied smile and a thanks, when Hank claps his hands together.
“Alright,” he says. “Gavin, is there anything else we should do?”
They shouldn’t do anything, they shouldn’t have even felt obligated to rearrange his room in the first place, so Gavin shakes his head. “Nah, it’s good,” he says.
“Okay. Well… good, then.”
El will not stop poking him in the ribs.
“Dad! Say thank you, please.”
Shit. Felled by his own teachings. Gavin doesn’t meet any of their expectant stares directly, but he knows they’re there. He puts on a farce of nonchalance, shrugging and scratching at his beard. “Yeah, sure, thanks or whatever.”
“You’re welcome, Gavin,” says Tina, and she sounds incredibly sincere, enough to where he doubts the actual indifference of his gratitude.
They filter out, then, respectful of his space and his need to keep it now that there’s no reason for anyone else to be in the room. Tina pats him on the knee before standing from the edge of the bed and trailing after her pack.
Gavin turns to Nines, who has yet to move, watching the others walk away, waiting for them to leave.
“The hell are you doing?”
Nines doesn’t give him an answer, not really. He blinks back at Gavin and Elliott and Gavin again, then takes a single step toward him and looks earnest when he says, “We are excited you’re here, Gavin. We all want you and Elliott to stay.”
It almost seems out of nowhere, but Gavin remembers.
There’s his reply. There’s his confirmation.
Better late than never. Much better.
Gavin can only watch him turn and leave after a beat of silence he can’t begin to fill, shutting the door behind him with a soft click.
For once, he does not go to deadlock it.
Come nightfall, when Elliott starts to wind down and he hears a series of goodnight wishes from outside his door, to which only El replies to, Gavin leans one knee onto the mattress in a cautious anticipation. He wants to sleep, more than he’s ever wanted anything before, but doesn’t want to get his hopes up.
He catches El yawning deep.
“Ready for bed?”
She mumbles something unintelligible, then asks after her blanket. How she loses track of it in the span of an hour he doesn’t know, and silently drags it out from under the covers she’d been resting in earlier.
“Okay, me too,” he says once she’s climbing up to join him. He reaches over and clicks off the bedside lamp.
After all of today, the room feels a little better. A little more familiar. It’s been aired out, kept open for the day, and the flurry of motion and moving everything around has kicked up the previously stale feel and replaced it with an occupancy.
It’s laden with that safe pack-smell, with Elliott’s scent, with his own scent, and it looks just enough like the old apartment that he kind of can’t believe it. Sighing with something he doesn’t want to call anticipation, Gavin tightens the sheets up underneath his chin and settles further in beside his pup, who’s already asleep with her mouth hanging open. He blinks heavy once, twice, and closes his eyes.
so if that little time gap somewhere near the middle is a bit jarring, sorry? i just didn't quite feel like dragging both you and me through multiple days of gavin being a bitch about everything. we need to see some progress!
Chapter 3: no rash decisions now
“Hey, just say I have shitty taste and be done with it,” he says just as quiet, leaning over in a semblance of secrecy.
Nines huffs out of his nose, but behind an impassive face Gavin’s unsure if it’s in a laugh or a declaration of annoyance. Then, “How does 9:30 sound?”
so this chapter was incredibly fun to write, it has some of my favorite interactions in it, and it also features a heavy amount of both nines and tina
also, i had meant to mention previously that while this is not really supposed to be a super serious fic (like literally the way i write chapters is i have the idea either in the shower or falling asleep and if i enjoy writing it and it fits in the context then it goes in, baby. this is just fun for me tbh, ANYway) i want to specify that my word choices are very, very specific. it's mostly small stuff, and it's actually much more prevalent in the last chapter than this one, but yeah. you can end up learning a lot about subconscious thoughts of a character (i.e. gavin, since he's our pov here) by the words i use. not just like, nouns or whatever. mostly articles, actually.
anyways, just thought i'd share! enjoy!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
December 10 is a Tuesday. Exactly a month from the eviction, exactly a month from leaving ADS Detroit. Exactly nineteen days from now, where Gavin stops short of hanging El’s jacket up and remembers he has a decision to make.
In nineteen days, Lucy is coming down to check on them, to see how the foster is going along and if they need to be relocated or not. In nineteen days, Gavin needs to call Lou with an address, otherwise his landlord is going to have to put everything he couldn’t take from the apartment into city storage, and Gavin definitely doesn’t have the means to pay the fine for that. In nineteen days, he needs to have figured out if he’s going to stay here or not.
He understands that, generally, ADS is in place to make people’s lives better, but it is not a perfect system. If it was, they’d give fosters much more time in deciding if the pack they’re with is the place they want to stay. A month living with strangers after seven years of being lone seems like a bit of a miscalculation, but until restrictions change there’s nothing he can really do. Leaving is an option, but how long would he even get before he was reported again, before someone caught on to the signs and alerted ADS? And, when that happened, because it certainly would, he wouldn’t just be thrown into the fostering system again. He’d probably be charged with some offense, neglect, endangerment, whatever they’re calling it now, and only Elliott would get another chance at a pack. If his only choices are to stay or to run, it becomes less of a choice and more of an instruction.
Not that Gavin is completely against staying. Don’t get him wrong, he’s not exactly happy with it, but it isn’t as bad as the media makes it out to be. He doesn’t have any pissy pack lead trying to show their dominance in the ranks, he isn’t getting punished into obedience, and he definitely doesn’t have any rutheads on his ass. Maybe his expectations were a little skewed before coming here, but the news rarely reports on anything positive.
Still. He won’t make any rash decisions until he absolutely has to.
Caught out of his thoughts, he moves. Finishes hanging the coat in the closet, answers, “What’s up?”
“Umm, can we play hide and seek?”
Gavin wonders what it’s like living in her mind. How she can accept things how they are, without doubts, and continue on as normal as she’s ever been. There is much in his life that he is envious of, money, friendship, a correct body are the big three, but as of late he’s most envious of the kind of stress-free paradise where Elliott resides.
Perhaps it’s an attempt at matching her insouciance, but he still shrugs and says, “Sure.”
She’s already moving to the closed door. “Okay let’s go!”
“Hey, no, we’re not going out there. You can play in here.”
“What!” Her hands slip off the door handle. “But there’s nowhere to even hide in here!”
“Sure there is,” he waves a hand around the room vaguely. “Come on, if you wanna play we’re doing it in this room.”
She crosses her arms. “That’s stupid.”
“Don’t say that word,” he scolds, frowning deep. “You know that’s ugly.”
“My friends do all the time.”
“Okay well I’m your parent, and I’m sure their parents don’t want them saying that either, alright? And I’m not discussing it,” he gets a little louder when she opens her mouth as if to say something over him, holding a hand up, “I’m telling you, don’t say that, it’s rude.”
Elliott slumps, her little bout of anger dissipating at being scolded. “Fine,” she mumbles. Then, unable to take no for an answer, asks, “Well why? Why can’t I play out there?”
“I just don’t want you running out there without me.”
Gavin falls to rest on the bed, sighing a frustrated, “Elliott, stop asking why. You’ll just be in everyone’s way, you know they’re working out there.”
“They don’t work out there.”
“Oh really? Where do you think they work then?”
“Downstairs.” When Gavin doesn’t say anything else, she continues, “They don’t work upstairs, only down at the bottom floor, and I’m not even going down there.”
“What— How do you know that?”
“Because up here is the house, okay?” She talks with her hands when she gets to explaining things, and it’s endearing to watch. “And down there is the work because every time they go downstairs, they say ‘Oh I’m going to work now’ because Con tells me that all the time, and then they come up here when they’re done working. Okay? So I can play hide and seek up here ‘cause it’s the house! And that’s where you play.”
Gavin just blinks at her in the wake of her fast-talking presentation, and she puts her hands on her little hips and grins up at him all smug, like she’s bested his reasoning.
Which, well. He really doesn’t mind if she keeps up here, just to know she’s sequestered somewhere that she can’t get into trouble with guests he doesn’t know.
“You… are… insufferable,” he says slow, shaking his head.
El scrunches up her nose. “What’s insufferable mean?”
He’s already starting to push himself back off the bed, groaning out, “It means your dad is gonna go in that corner and count to sixty.”
When she gets it, when she gets that she’s once again having it her way, she brightens with a gasp and is once again racing to get out the door.
“Woah okay hey, wait! Rules, rules first!” Gavin says. “Don’t go downstairs, don’t go into anyone else’s room, and if I find you then you have to look for me next, okay? You’re not gonna hog being the hider like you always do.”
El giggles. “Okay.”
It’s undignified, childish, and a little embarrassing, but he has to scream out the whole ready or not here I come bit otherwise El likes to nag him for cheating. Somehow. When he does, and he turns out from the corner, the door is open and Elliott is gone, and he has to briefly remind himself that that’s the whole point.
Gavin’s started to get in touch with his old contacts after that one-off new guy (group?). He has many, but for now keeps to the reliable ones, the repeat customers he knows won’t mind the drive, or the cost. Ones he knows a bit more personally.
Sometimes they take him back to their own place, but more often than not they grab a seedy motel room on the outskirts of the city, away from their families at home. He doesn’t mind either way, wouldn’t care if they fucked off ten feet down the interstate in a car on the side of the road, trusts them enough to get him back to the inn. They never show up before two in the morning, and Gavin never lets them past the front door.
He tells himself it’s to avoid the pack seeing the type of shit he does, but he feels strangely uncomfortable at the idea of any of the johns and janes stepping foot inside the Pines.
Every time Gavin returns, he begs the overly citrus bathwash is enough to cover the way he fucking reeks of others. So far he hasn’t had to answer any questions, but every once in a while Anderson will check in on him. Never overbearing, always careful. It’s both a relief and a tumultuous shame when the old beta takes him to his monthly checkup ten days into his stay here, under the guise of grocery shopping. Everything fortunately comes out negative on Gavin’s end, and they bring back ingredients for the next day’s roast.
Nobody says anything except for Connor, who just chides Hank for getting parsley instead of cilantro again.
He’s a little pissed, and has no idea what the fuck is going on. That’s not too different from the norm, but right now, at this point in time, in the current fucking scheme of things, it’s extremely prevalent.
It may have started with Chris. Gavin’s innocently making himself some toast, just before six in the morning with his hair not yet brushed and his socks still on, not at all primed for someone to come up next to him and clap a hand on his shoulder with a loud morning greeting. He’ll deny his jump, but does slip out from under the touch with a, “Fuck, what’s with the ambush?”
Chris grabs the orange juice from the fridge. “We’ve plans to watch a movie tomorrow night, still figuring out which one,” he says. “Don’t feel obligated but, we wouldn’t mind you being there, too.”
“Uh, okay?” He scratches at his stomach, frowning. Tomorrow night is fucking weeks away in his mind. “I’ll see if I can make it.” Make it those thirty feet down the hall. Make it, as if it’s more than lounging across the couch like he already does. Gavin, by nature, is a liar.
“Alright, well, looking forward to it,” Chris says over the rim of his glass, and walks back down the hall.
Though, it more than likely started with Connor, a day later and that early morning conversation completely forgotten. Gavin’s remaking the bedsheets after getting them from the laundry, trying way too hard to make sure the fitted sheet is even on every corner when someone right fucking behind him says his name.
Whipping around to come face to face with a seemingly indifferent alpha does nothing but startle him. “What the fuck are you doing in my room?” he very nearly yells.
Connor makes a face. “Your door was… wide open.” He says it with a short pause in the middle, as if trying to articulate that the answer is obvious. He even points his thumb over his shoulder to show Gavin that, look, it’s open right now.
“Well that’s not an invitation!” He looks down. “What the hell is in your hands?”
Gavin, immediate hotheadedness dwindling, gives Connor a deadpan, unimpressed, purely aggrieved look when the man sets the box he’s holding down on the half-made bed and the corner of the fitted sheet slides off.
“Thanks,” he bites. “What is this?”
Connor fixes the sheet easily. “Pick which one you want to watch tonight.”
“You… Chris told me he invited you.”
“What?” Gavin says at the exact same time as the memory comes back to him and oh, why are they insisting upon this? “Oh, uh…” Connor doesn’t say anything, just tilts his head a little, waiting. Gavin sucks his teeth. “Don’t think I’m gonna make it, so.”
“Well…” Connor shuffles through the movies that sit in the box that’s sitting on Gavin and Elliott’s bed. He manages to catch some titles—old one-offs, classics, Disney, new titles he surely hasn’t seen. “Could you still pick? We’re having some trouble choosing. Don’t want to make any rash decisions.”
Gavin doesn’t know how he knows, but that sounds like a shitty excuse from someone fully aware of what they’re doing. He narrows his eyes and grumbles nonsense under his breath. Still, he actually takes his time, finds something he recognizes and is pretty sure he liked the one time he saw it, and tosses the case over. He’s a little disappointed when Connor just catches it with ease.
“There, now get the fuck out of my room.” It doesn’t have as much heat behind it, but he does add a half-hearted sneer when Connor smiles at him and takes his leave.
So it might have started with those two, but he knows it certainly, definitely, positively ended with Nines.
Hours after Gavin’s resigned himself to keeping his pride instead of getting to watch Dirty Dancing, he’s sat once more at a lovely family dinner desperately trying to get El to eat more than two fucking bites, please for the love of god. It’s not even that she doesn’t like the food, she just wants him to feed her, and he just wants her to realize that she’s not four anymore. Gavin’s woefully spooning macaroni for her when there’s the slightest of touches at his elbow.
Nines says, “Gavin,” before he even has time to snap at him for the unwanted contact. He says his name in an aside, off in a quiet away from the jovial conversation of the table. Gavin deigns to face him. “We won’t start the film until you’ve managed to get Elliott to bed. I assume you wouldn’t want her staying up late, or watching your… interesting choice.”
“Hey, just say I have shitty taste and be done with it,” he says just as quiet, leaning over in a semblance of secrecy.
Nines huffs out of his nose, but behind an impassive face Gavin’s unsure if it’s in a laugh or a declaration of annoyance. Then, “How does 9:30 sound?”
“It sounds great.”
“I mean by then I’ll be in bed, away from everything. Sounds awesome.”
The fucking five stages of grief play over Nines’ face, which in and of itself is something like its own feature length film, and Gavin bites the inside of his cheek. The man doesn’t say anything more, not at first, so Gavin thinks that’s it. He focuses back on Ellie who has at least managed to start on her green beans, but Nines has the god damn audacity to murmur, “Well. I have a feeling we’ll see you by tonight’s end.”
“I have a feeling,” he starts to mock, pauses. He’s sat sideways in the chair, turned away from him to focus on his pup, but decides to lean back into Nines’ space just enough to where he can continue to help Ellie with her fork while keeping his voice down. Out of the very back corner of his eye he can see Nines, sitting with one elbow on the table and turned fully to talk to him. Gavin’s pretty sure his chin is right over his shoulder. “I have a feeling… you’re a bitch.”
“You seem to think that I care. You also seem to think,” he continues before Gavin can even come up with a response to that, voice right at his god damn ear, “we’re still under the impression that you want to keep to yourself. You don’t.”
Gavin sits up just a bit, just enough for him to glance over his shoulder at a pair of smug blue eyes without it being weird. Instead of anything meaningful in reply, he redirects, saying, “You know I would say don’t be a dumbass, but it oddly suits you.”
He thinks he sees Nines roll his eyes, a short look upward under closed lids, and the man’s shoulders sag with his sigh. “Hm. I’m not sure why I thought a well-rested you would be more agreeable.”
A sharp bark of rude laughter. “This is all me all the time,” he says, but he’s grinning. “Sure you still want me sticking around?”
“You, specifically? Not really. Elliott can stay, though, she at least knows her manners.”
“I would love to see you try and take care of El without me,” he scoffs.
He means it in a general you, a pack you, but Nines still takes it personally, still says, “Don’t think I’m not capable.”
“God— what on earth are you two gossiping about over there?” Hank says from across the table, drawing everyone’s attention to the here and now. “You missed my whole story about these guests today.”
“Sorry. But I did get Gavin to agree to tonight.”
Excuse me what now?
Gavin feels two drastically different things simultaneously at those words, which never leaves him making very sound choices. On one hand he’s relieved, grateful even, that Nines at least had the forethought not to mention the word movie, because if El heard that she would not do well knowing that she was missing something fun. On the other, well. He really has to hold himself back from fiercely denying that, from yelling in the face of a fellow liar, because what the actual fuck, asshat? Because now, with everyone all pleased and shit, and with Gavin unable to say much of an argument without El digging her curious nose into things, he realizes he’s undeniably been had.
He kicks Nines’ calf under the table for lack of anything else, unsatisfied when he doesn’t get any sort of reaction. Fucking asshole.
Hank nods with an impressed frown, a silent not bad. “Nice for you to join us, I’m surprised.”
“Yeah,” Gavin says slow, eyeing the alpha beside him. His tone is pointedly flat. “Me too. Really didn’t see it coming.”
Nines only blinks at him before going back to his plate, and Gavin shoves his foot into his space just to be a nuisance for the rest of the meal.
Which is why after that, after the actual injustice of it all, Gavin finds himself waiting in the dark of their room for Elliott to fall asleep so he can creep back out of it and fucking, he doesn’t know, join the pack in watching a movie? What kind of bonding shit…?
He’d been told to wear bedclothes, by Tina who’d stopped him before he had a chance to bolt upstairs, so here he fucking stands in flannel pants and an oversized tee with a few holes in the collar, because that’s all he has, feeling exposed despite being clothed. Gavin looks at himself in the bathroom mirror, really looks at himself, not like the quick once-over he does in the mornings just to make sure everything’s where it’s supposed to be. He looks… tired is the only word that comes to mind, though it isn’t the most accurate description. More just the word he uses to describe everything about himself. He’s tired, all the fucking time. Existing in that state between insomnia and, you know, actually getting some god damn sleep for once, he’s still recovering from his bout of wakefulness the previous week, can still see the hint of it hiding in the creases under his eyes, the vaguest shadow. Gavin does not like to look long.
Elliott only turns onto her back when he sidles out of the room, not daring to open the door more than he needs to slip out into the bright lights of the hallway. The sound of muted chatter leads him forward.
Most are in the kitchen, backs turned and milling, doing whatever the fuck. Tina, from her nestled place in the corner of the L couch, is the only one to see him, looking up from her phone at his entrance and waving him over without fanfare.
“Wanna share?” she offers the other half of the throw blanket covering her lap, the zebra print one where most of the fleece has faded over the years, when Gavin falls down beside her. It’s one of El’s favorites, the one she grabs in the mornings when she has the want to watch the latest remake of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and has a hint of her sandy scent not yet smothered over again by the pack-smell.
“Thanks,” Gavin mutters, but it’s a genuine appreciation.
“You want anything to drink? Eat?” she asks, gaze already back to her phone. Despite Gavin turning the offer down, she tosses her head back onto the top of the couch and calls out, “We’ll just have some water,” in an answer to a previous question he wasn’t privy to.
When the microwave starts up and he gets the first hint of that overly sour-sweet-disgusting, unfortunately familiar smell, Gavin curses and pulls the collar of his shirt up over his nose and mouth. He tries to avoid the holes as best he can, to breathe in only the scent of himself and the detergent they use.
“Who the hell is making popcorn?”
Tina raises an eyebrow. “Uh, Chris? He likes to have it during movies, it’s just a habit, why?”
Gavin sighs and readies himself for the whole fucking song and dance of explaining to people his weird fucking tendencies. “The smell of popcorn makes me nauseous, no I don’t eat it, I also think it tastes bad, yes I realize everyone loves it, movie theaters would suck, if I ever had the opportunity to go to one.”
“Okay,” she says. Then, “I have a feeling you’ve had to do this before.”
“If I hear ‘But it’s so good!’ one more time, Tina, I really think I’m gonna go ballistic.”
At least that gets her to laugh.
He’s scrolling through his phone at want for something to do while they wait, eyes down, so he doesn’t see anyone else there until two glasses of water are set on the coffee table, coasters underneath them.
“What are you doing?” Nines asks, frowning. When Gavin just raises an eyebrow in answer, he mimes pulling his own shirt collar up over his nose.
Gavin responds with, “What’s it to ya?” helpfully.
“Popcorn,” Tina explains, just as helpful.
Nines blinks at them, somehow looking so done despite his expression changing exactly zero percent. “Hm?”
Tina, sticking to her single words, says, “Nauseous.”
“I’m sorry, are you saying the popcorn is making him nauseous?” he asks. “The smell?”
“Yep,” Gavin pops the p. “Always has always will. It’s fucking awful.”
He keeps his eyes on the alpha as he heads back into the kitchen up until Nines lays a hand on Chris’ shoulder and says something to him that Gavin can’t hear, then he looks pointedly away when Chris calls out, “Dude, you don’t like popcorn? But it’s like, so good.” Gavin stares at the television screen, holding on to the main menu of the movie, with his arms crossed and his nose still covered by his ratty old shirt.
“Please don’t go ballistic,” Tina whispers with such a serious air that he chokes out an honest fucking giggle at the unexpected comment.
“Oh wow,” she draws the words out slow, still only for him to hear, being his eyes on whatever they’re doing in the kitchen behind him. “Can’t believe you’re taking Chris’ precious snack away from him.”
“Huh?” he asks, then the words process. “He can eat it I don’t care, what?”
Tina gives a wan smile, humming. “Well, too late, Nines is already taking it downstairs. Chris just get some chips or something!”
Gavin doesn’t feel bad, per se. Just, right on the border of guilt, staring at the line in the sand and willing himself not to cross into it, but he’s very close. Still, when the young beta does come in with a bowl of something else, something that doesn’t smell, he still mutters out both an apology and a thanks. He’s rude, but he’s not ungrateful.
Nines, back from doing the fucking most, sits at his left, saying, “Is that better?”
“Get a hobby.”
“I have several, would you like me to list them?”
Gavin finally pulls his collar back down, breathing in air that isn’t laden with body heat, and bites, “Smartass.”
“I thought I was a dumbass,” Nines says as he pulls another blanket up from the floor, the red one that feels like it’s supposed to be some fake velvet shit.
Gavin snorts. “You’re just an ass. Dumbass, smartass, everything. The whole thing. All of it. That’s you.”
“Would you like to stop talking now?”
Someone turns the lights off, someone presses play on the remote, and Gavin narrows his eyes even as he snaps his mouth shut. He dares to shove a palm against Nines’ shoulder, who does embarrassingly little in the way of moving, and steals the other half of that red blanket to throw on over the one he already has atop his lap. Fuck him, right?
Gavin settles back against the couch once the movie formally starts, that slowed greyscale opening with Be My Baby playing over top pulling him in, and relaxes.
The last thing he fully remembers is Johnny and Baby practicing the lift in the lake, and he only catches glimpses of the rest of the movie through slow blinks, half-lidded eyes, and short dips into sleep. A kind of blurry attention to anything that isn’t the cushions underneath him, the cover pulled over him, and the warmth of those either side of him. Gavin’s certain he didn’t intend to fall asleep, but with Hank’s need for all the lights to be off and Tina yawning at his ear and his own body pulling him to recharge, he really should have known the inevitability of it all.
He’s drifted to resting on his side, feet curled up on the couch and head supported by a few of the throw pillows, chin tucked into his chest. He’s awake now, but keeps his eyes closed just in case he can be lulled back into sweet unconsciousness. There is no longer the drone of the film in the background, must have ended, damn did he really sleep through most of it?
“If you’re sure you’re good with it, I’m headed off,” someone—Hank?—says in a very quiet tone for his usual brash. He sounds far, though, across the room maybe. Who’s he talking to?
It becomes apparent when a voice comes much closer, a harsh whisper, like she’s trying to scream the words but doesn’t want to wake anyone, saying, “We’re good, thanks! Goodnight!” Tina must still be on the couch then, next to him, maybe. It doesn’t feel like it, though, no weight on his right side where she’d been before. He doesn’t care, eyes too heavy to look and see.
“Are you just going to wake him?” says another voice, quiet still and deep, on his left where the weight still remains. “Is that a good idea?”
“Well, yeah, he’s not a fucking bomb, Nines, I’m just waking him up.”
“He’s a bit brutish, though,” and god, can’t this guy just go already? Gavin kind of wants to kick him for that, his feet in the perfect spot to do so, but also kind of wants to keep up the charade of sleep just to see if he can learn anything else they like to say when he can’t hear.
Tina scoffs, “Jesus he isn’t brutish,” she mocks the word as Nines had said it, and Gavin figures he’s got a good defense team going. “Just… touchy?” And Gavin rescinds that thought just as soon as it came because no, he absolutely is not touchy, what the fuck Tina? Where’d that omegan loyalty go?
“I don’t know,” Nines muses. “Maybe we should just try to carry him back.”
Okay, nope, fuck the charade because there is no way in hell he’s gonna play limp and be carried back to his room like a fucking child. It’s incredibly rewarding to hear Nines’ surprised outburst at being kicked in the hip so forcefully.
“You’re awake?” Tina asks, no longer in a whisper.
Words muffled by the blanket at his chin, Gavin growls, “Of fucking course I am, what with you guys not being able to keep your mouths shut.”
“Was it necessary to kick me?”
He opens one eye, taking in the lovely scene of Nines rubbing his hip with a highly displeased look on his usually stoic face. “Yes.”
Tina snorts, leaning on the back of the couch. “How long have you… been awake?”
Taking his time to answer, leaving them in the silence, Gavin stretches out then pushes himself to sitting. “Long enough to know you think I’m a brute, and you think I’m touchy so, uh. Go fuck yourselves.”
The packmates share a look over his head, and Tina sucks her teeth.
“Touchy,” Nines says, and Tina laughs loud enough to be shushed for it at Gavin’s overly offended expression.
“Go to hell?” he suggests.
Nines thinks about it, then nods. “Absolutely, I’ll meet you there.”
He has just a little over two thousand dollars saved up, sitting hidden inside the bag with all his pills and shots because that’s the one place he can think nobody will dare to check. He’s never had this much money at any one time before, and to him it seems like a lot, like he’s set. But it’s not yet enough, and it goes quicker than he wants, and he knows he just has to keep to these unsavory nights.
He doesn’t yet know if this side of things will get any better.
Gavin’s days are very different, after that. It isn’t a drastic, overnight change, but he notices the pack seems much more comfortable around him. Acting less like every other word is fuel to set him off, less cautious in approaching Elliott on their own accords. It’s… acceptable.
Because, if he could for one second take a step back, Gavin has to know that just as he’s growing used to them, they have to do the same with him, with El. He is not the only one that’s getting a new kind of life here, they’re all sort of forming this experience together, and isn’t that just a fucking bizarre thought.
The date for their ADS visit is not exactly close, not quite, but it is looming, and he can tell that he’s not alone in being just a bit stressed, a bit restless. He realizes why not of his own volition but through a conversation overheard between Anderson and the others mentioning the pack’s inspection, and that had never been a though in Gavin’s mind. Why would it? He’s never cared before about anyone else’s problems, they weren’t his to deal with, but. But.
He… doesn’t mind these people.
He would like them to pass whatever bullshit displacement investigation ADS has to conduct. He would like them to be recognized as a place where fosters are safe and accommodated for, because he’s comfortable enough in his pride to admit that he is, and that his daughter is especially.
He wouldn’t want them to be taken away. Doesn’t. Can’t.
Gavin has never wanted to rely on anybody, loathes it, feels a sense of inferiority by doing so. That isn’t present here, and he has no fucking clue why.
It’s getting colder as the days wear on, but that doesn’t seem to thwart a young mind very intent on spending her Thanksgiving break hounding anyone and everyone to finally fulfill Gavin’s old promise of taking her to the park.
On Monday, her first day off from school, she asks Gavin, who tells her, “Yes, but not right now, maybe tomorrow.” She asks Hank, who tells her, “I don’t see why not. What did your dad say?” which just brings her back to Gavin, and she’s not getting the answer she wants there.
On Tuesday she asks Chris, who says, “Oh I’m so sorry Elliott, I really want to but I’m about to go down and work now. Why don’t you go see if someone else will?” She asks Connor, who is the least helpful in all of it, because he says, “Let’s go ask Gavin if we can,” immediately, and Gavin tells her the same as the day before.
On Wednesday, she gets her answer, the one she’s been waiting for. She asks Nines, and she asks Tina, the latter of which tells her, “Of course we can, let’s go tell your dad you’re going to the park.” So he gets told, isn’t asked, and Gavin is a little helpless with that one.
Which leaves them where they are now, a mere ten minutes after washing up from lunch. Elliott is dressed in both her windbreaker and her jacket and will not stop running around their room in her excitement of finally going to the park. Wherever they can find one close by, that is.
“You’re gonna make yourself hot if you don’t stop doing that,” Gavin warns, stepping into a pair of jeans.
She stops and scratches at her cheek, which is already peaking a little red in the exertion, and says, “I’m gonna go find Tina.”
“Okay, tell her I’ll be right out.”
Gavin doesn’t take long, grabbing whatever long sleeve shirt he managed to pack and throwing that on, shoving his shoes over some mismatched socks, and grabbing his own jacket on the way out the door. He’s just making sure he actually remembered to grab his wallet when he turns the corner into the main room and finds Tina sitting on the arm of the couch, phone in hand. Wildly pupless.
She glances up and frowns. “Um, she’s not with you? You know, the one place she always is?”
Gavin scoffs, “She said she was gonna go find you, I didn’t see the harm in that.”
“Well, I haven’t seen her yet, sorry.”
“Damn it, Elliott,” he says under his breath. Then, “Alright, she’s probably just waiting downstairs. You ready to go?”
Tina slides off the arm and claps her hands together. “Yeah. Oh, also, Nines is gonna tag along.”
That gets Gavin to pause. “Nines is coming?”
“Yeah, I mean, he asked if he could? So…”
“He asked?” Apparently Gavin’s speaking ability has degraded to repeating phrases in questions that continually get higher in pitch.
“What’s the problem, why you being all weird?”
“I’m not, no, it’s fine,” he shakes his head and keeps walking. “Just can’t really see him being the type to actually wanna join in on this.”
“Well it’s not like it was some rash decision or anything,” Tina says. “El did ask him to go, she seems to really like him.”
“Eh, but you can’t base off that, she likes everyone.”
“Yeah. But Nines is the only one she’ll let cut her sandwiches if you aren’t there. Apparently he does it better than anyone, which, ouch. I know how to make triangles! What does he do differently?”
Gavin snorts and side eyes her. “Well I don’t care, he can do what he wants I’m not gonna stop him. He’s the one signing up for this.”
She shrugs. “At least he’s driving.”
Elliott is, luckily, downstairs, standing on the seat of one of the lounge chairs and saying some nonsense to Nines, who sits in one opposite.
“Elliott get down off there,” Gavin chides soon as he steps through the doorway, making a shooing motion with his hand. She jumps once on the leather cushion before falling to sit on a chair the way you’re supposed to. “What, she can just walk on chairs now? Those shoes definitely aren’t clean.”
“I didn’t see the harm, she seemed to be having fun.”
“Yeah, well, I’m trying not to teach her that it’s okay to step all over furniture, so. Bad call, big guy.”
“Are we ever gonna go?” El groans from where Tina has her held at her hip, hanging off the omega’s neck and making her impatience readily known.
“Can’t even take two seconds to talk, damn,” Gavin says under his breath, and Nines hums an assent.
Gavin watches from the sidelines, sitting at one edge of the cold metal bench bolted to the ground, as El expends all her pent up energy across the woodchips. She’s giggling and running circles around the play equipment, Tina chasing at her heels with her arms out to try and catch her. Every so often the woman will start running the other way and El, oblivious to the fact, always screams through her laughter when they come face to face and changes direction quick as a dime. Gavin’s just glad she’ll sleep real well tonight.
They’d driven down to the sprawling neighborhoods in search of somewhere El deemed satisfactory enough to stop at. It was kind of… nice? Nice, surprising, some one rare emotion that likes to needle inside his sternum, to see that as much as El has taken to the members of this pack, they—or at least, the ones with them now—have taken to her just as well.
After only a few more minutes of the chase, Tina tires and leaves Elliott to her own devices. She falls onto the bench next to him out of breath. “Jesus that kid is fast, what the hell.”
His laugh is no more than a short hum, more a simple acknowledgement, his eyes never leaving his pup.
Her nose is starting to pink with the cold while she climbs up ladders and jumps down the steps, because it’s entertaining for a reason only logical in her mind. Nines stands near, in the shadow cast by a plastic wall of dials and marble maze games, and every time Elliott passes by on her way back to the ladder she waves at him and laughs when she gets one in return. Knowing her, she might just be doing it to see how long it takes for Nines to stop.
He doesn’t, and she doesn’t have the attention span long enough to keep going after something like twenty times through, so she gives up.
There’s one of those wooden rope bridges that bounces with every step, and El finds it quickly after that. Nines keeps an eye on her there, too, one hand gripping the rope as if he’s worried she’ll fall. El runs back and forth across the bridge and jumps onto every slat of wood, but growls out a frustrated noise at the lack of movement and stomps one foot.
“Nines,” El draws out the vowel in a not-very-pleased complaint. “You’re making it not shake!”
Gavin doesn’t think the man is used to being chastised by a child, if the way he frowns in clear puzzlement is any indicator. “Oh, sorry,” he lets go of the rope but doesn’t move away. “I didn’t know.”
She sits down cross legged in the middle of the bridge, facing Nines at his own height through the gaps in the railing, back turned to the bench so Gavin can’t quite see her face. “I’m taller than you now.”
Nines tilts his chin up. “So you are.”
El taps her shoes, humming out a nonsense tune, then sticks her hand through the ropes and holds it palm up. “Want to slide with me?”
There are cheap plastic slides attached to the playplace, short and not at all large enough to fit an adult. Nines tells her so.
“Well…” she drags out the sound and stands up, bouncing on the bridge as she looks around. She finds the tall slide, the metal one separate from the rest of the equipment. “I’ll just go on that one, then.”
“Hey, woah, watch her Nines, that’s real high!” Gavin calls once his daughter starts to climb up the rungs of the slide that’s at least seven feet off the ground. Nines turns his hands up as if to say, obviously.
It’s a grey afternoon. The clouds overhead have loomed for the last couple of days, threatening to spill over at the slightest disturbance, and he can already smell rain in the air. The kind of soft anticipation for a coming downpour, it’s something familiar and calming.
They’re the sole occupants of this neighborhood park, everyone else smart enough to stay in the warm and dry of their homes, but Gavin’s relieved to be out. He needs the air, needs to be away from the Pines for a minute, if every time he sees that damn turkey in the freezer and scowls at the reminder of tomorrow’s familial holiday is any exhibit. But he’s… Gavin bites his tongue at the admission, even to his own self, but he’s glad he didn’t come here alone. He hasn’t been around many others in his life, not for this long and certainly not for this near 24/7 bullshit, but in small groups, small steps, he’s starting to think it’s preferable to keeping to himself.
Taking on the whole pack at one time, however, that’s a mountain he’s only started strapping gear on for.
“He’s really good with her.”
Tina’s words bring him out of his thoughts, and he refocuses to the present.
Gavin watches as Nines reaches out a hand for El to hold at the very top of the large slide, then race to the bottom of it to steady her when she inevitably falls off the end with how fast she goes. Ellie squeals and says, “One more time!” after every single one, and Nines doesn’t even say anything when she accidentally kicks him in the chest more than twice. For the miniscule amount of time he’s known the guy, he’s picked up on the fact that Nines doesn’t smile very often. Now, however. Gavin thinks, sure, if that’s all it takes to be good with children, the man’s got it down pat.
But, well, it’s not.
The thought keeps pestering him, having had the time to observe how this pack works; with the lack of power dynamics, the almost unnecessary closeness between them all, it’s an unusual group. In mostly a murmur, as if he’s not sure if he even wants to voice it, Gavin says, “Your guys’ files said none of you were a mated pair.”
It’s so quiet beside him that Gavin wonders if he even spoke at all, but finally turning his eyes from his pup he meets Tina’s own, and she’s just kind of looking at him. She says, “Yeah?” An affirmation to that fact and an acknowledgement for him to continue.
“Why? Do you just not want to?” he asks, then in an afterthought, before she can answer, adds, “I mean you, specifically.”
Tina shuffles in her spot on the bench, crossing one leg over the other. Her breath comes out in a freezing cloud with her sigh. “No, of course I do. I think that’d be…” she searches for a word, mouth stuck half-open, then smiles small and soft. “I think that’d be amazing.”
Gavin wishes he could agree with the sentiment.
“So why have you never…” he finishes the thought with a little head tilt in Nines’ direction and a, “You know.”
Tina’s eyes get wide. “With Nines?” She sounds so bewildered that he wonders if he’s missed something. “Oh, honey, no, that’s just… Wow, no, nope, that’s not—” she cuts herself off with a little laugh.
“What?” Gavin snaps, cheeks red, the word coming out more of a statement than an actual question.
“Hoookay,” she draws out, palms flat on her thighs as if she has to brace herself for the conversation. “So first off, Nines—and Connor, naturally—is practically my brother, we’ve grown up together and there could never come a time I’d ever see either of them as anything different.”
“Alright fine, sorry I asked, damn” he says. “And second off?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah, second off um, well, Nines isn’t really, I mean he isn’t like, okay how do I…?” Tina bites her lip trying not to laugh again. “Nines isn’t really into all of… this.” She gestures to herself, head to toe.
Gavin doesn’t get it. “Omegas?”
“What’s that face for?”
“Huh?” he says, a picture of intelligence, and Tina leans over to touch the skin right above the bridge of his nose.
“Your nose is all scrunched up.”
He smooths his face out at that, not even having realized he’d pulled one, and looks away. “Actually, that’s just my natural look whenever Nines is around. Or mentioned, or thought of. You’ve never seen it before?”
“Hardy har, alright, whatever,” she drops it as the sound of tiny hurried steps over woodchips precedes Elliott running straight into Gavin’s knees, hands reaching for him.
“Yes?” he asks, just looking down at her with a soft grin, expectant.
“Dad, can you come help push me on the swings?”
“What happened to sliding with Nines?”
The man in question follows in the wake of El’s trail, hands in the pockets of his coat. “She has unending energy, and I cannot compete with that.”
Gavin stands and holds on to El’s outstretched hands, walking her backward in wide sidesteps while she tilts her head back and giggles. He snorts, “You’re tired,” in a doubtful half-statement.
“No,” Nines frowns, defensive. “She asked for you.”
“Oh, well why didn’t you just say so?”
The park swings aren’t necessarily the best, but they’ll do. He has to wipe some frost off the blue plastic seat before Elliott jumps her way up there, and she has to use the ends of her sleeves to hold on to the bare chains, but at least they aren’t broken and dangling like the ones they used to visit.
Even as he’s starting to help her, he teases, “Why do you even need me? You’re a big girl, thought you could swing by yourself.”
“Well duh!” she throws her hands out and Gavin wonders who in the hell taught her that. “But I can’t get really really high unless you push me!”
“Oh, I see. Well you make a fine point there, Miss Reed, you’ve won me over.”
He hears just the lowest rumble of thunder before it starts to rain. A light sprinkle at first, hitting his nose and his cheek and not being much of a nuisance before, in the second it takes him to turn and call to Tina and Nines, the fucking skies open up.
Ellie squeals with the sudden shock of cold and jumps off the swing, yelling, “Dad, hurry!” and grabbing at his wrist before taking off to the play equipment. It’s no use to run, the heavy rain has already soaked them through by the time Ellie pulls him down underneath part of the park, shielded from everything by the plastic and metal surrounding them. He’s glad enough that she chose to hide in a space he can actually fit.
But, “El, what are we doing?” he asks around an admittedly confused laugh. “Let’s go get to the car, come on—”
“No!” she drags him back down before he can put a single foot underneath himself.
“We can’t! Are you blind? Look how crazy it is out there!”
“Yeah, I know, that’s why I wanna go.”
Elliott pushes her bottom lip out a little, the barest of pouts. “No,” it’s one of her disappointed, sad whines, not the ones where she’s getting on his nerves. The cute one he can’t ever deny. “I’m still just playing, it’s fun, like— like we’re hiding from the rain.”
“I…” Gavin turns back toward the bench to see Tina gone, the headlights of the car on and streaming through the rain, and Nines headed over with both hands shielding his eyes, unhurried despite the circumstances. Great.
“What are you two doing?”
Ellie gasps when she notices him. “What are you doing, Nines, you’re letting the rain get you!” She wildly waves for him to come down. “Get inside! Our fort will protect you.”
“Um,” Nines says eloquently, keeping to his roots outside and glancing over at Gavin. For admittance, refusal? Gavin just shrugs. He’s just getting soaked the longer he stands there waiting on some unmoving fosters.
“Hurry, hurry!” is the backdrop of Nines kneeling down and attempting to fit under the square roof with them, Elliott pulling him in by his forearm. He does, barely. Where Gavin can rest easily cross-legged with the top of his head just brushing the plastic, Nines’ll probably get a crick in his neck if he stays awkwardly bent as he is for very long.
El lets out a dramatized, relieved breath once the alpha is tucked in with them. “Oh boy, thank goodness you’re safe!” she says with a hand against her chest. Nines looks to Gavin again, understandably uncertain at whatever story El’s pretending to play out. He’s got water beading all over his fucking face. He looks fucking ridiculous. “I was so. worried. you have no idea.”
“Hey, El.” She makes an inquisitive noise. “How long are we staying here for?”
“Um… ten minues.”
“No, I didn’t mean ten I meant, uh, two minutes.”
That’s a bit better. Gavin picks up some of the woodchips gone damps from their clothes. “Okay, and then we can go to the car? Back with Tina?” Back somewhere warm where he doesn’t have to sit on the ground.
“Yeah but we have to run really really fast because the rain’s gonna turn back into acid if we walk, then all our skin is gonna fall off and we’ll just be skeletons.”
Nines looks so taken aback by her words, the expression incredibly out of place, that Gavin feels a laugh bubbling out and over his tongue too quick for him to catch. He’ll admit that was kind of an odd thing for a seven year old to say, but hey, she probably learned it in science or some shit, she’s always watching those online classroom clips.
“Elliott,” Nines says, almost aghast, but doesn’t continue.
“What?” When he just shakes his head, she gets more fervent. “No, what! What! Whaaat did I do?”
“Oh my god nothing,” Gavin says softly, wanting to stop that repetitive line of questioning right in its tracks. “What you said was just really creative, babe.”
El mulls over the explanation then nods, as if agreeing with the statement that why yes, she happens to be very creative, thank you for noticing that.
Two minutes is a long fucking time to be squeezed underneath a children’s playplace in cold, wet silence. At forty seconds Gavin’s already met his limit, fidgeting and undoubtedly drawing attention to it. He’s putting faith into El’s lack of accurate time telling to say, “Okay, you ready to go? I think Tina’s getting worried for us over there.”
“We gotta run, Dad.”
“Yep, we’re gonna.”
“You have to run, Nines. You have to.”
Tina’s observation comes back to him. He’s really good with her, she’d said. Looking at the guy now, he’s really not. Or, no, he barely is, Gavin will give him some credit at the very least. He’s clueless about what to say, how to talk to a pup that doesn’t make him sound stilted or like he’s fucking reading off a script. Gavin can tell by how Nines doesn’t usually say anything in return to El’s antics, instead choosing to merely go along with whatever she does silently. It makes sense, of course, how can he expect anyone with no experience to suddenly know how to deal with a rather high-energy kid, but he thinks it might be nice to…
Gavin frowns. He doesn’t know where he was going with that, the thought abruptly just. Gone.
He shakes his head to clear it.
“Of course,” Nines says, and Ellie smiles wide.
Running through harsh rain along slippery peals of grass and puddles that just toss dirt onto his shoes and jeans is not Gavin’s ideal day out, but at least his daughter’s laughing, holding tight onto his hand and fucking cackling like a madman. It warms his damn heart is what it does, and his cheeks hurt, why do his cheeks hurt? Why is he smiling so god damn much today?
Tina’s already in the backseat, door open with her hands held out into the downpour. She yells, “Come on, Ellie, hurry, get in!” with a playful smile and Gavin snickers as his pup races off without him and climbs up into the SUV quick as she can.
He struggles for a second with the passenger door, hands slipping off the handle at first, and he grins out a curse before being able to take shelter from the fucking forces of nature.
Inside the relative warmth of the car, Gavin can’t help but laugh, just, purely laugh. He doesn’t know why, not when he’s panting from the run in the cold, or soaked to the bone through every layer of clothing, or here willingly spending actual fucking quality time with these people, he just has to let it out somehow. It, being something yet undefined.
But he sets off El, who giggles high-pitched and kicks her little feet dangling off the seat, looking up at Tina who has a hand at her mouth and her eyes half-closed around the silent kind of laugh. Even Nines, who must have enough dignity to keep his stellar composure, is smiling once more. He doesn’t look at anyone, keeps his eyes out the front windshield and runs a hand through wet hair, but Gavin has a feeling that the petrichor is not just from the storm outside.
With nearly a startle, sobering him up enough to breathe unencumbered by laughter, Gavin realizes that he, himself, his almost too-vigilant ass, is scenting. Not just generally, not trying to mark his place, but scenting out his mirth for anyone to read. Well no fucking wonder everyone’s all happy and shit, with that kind of thought in the air.
Gavin stops, then, and entertains the idea of clamping his hands down at the glands in his neck, but the damage has already been done.
He has to wonder how long he’s been at it. All day, just at the park, the last couple minutes? He could ask, but that’s both awkward and woefully intimate. Instead he just clears his throat and shuffles in his seat, wet clothes squeaking against the leather. “We gonna go or what? Freezing over here.”
He’s forever ignoring the knowing rub at his shoulder that Tina gives him.
Nines has the heat blasting the whole time, but it does very little on the short drive back to the inn. They turn into the gravel lot and not one second passes after the SUV’s in park before Tina’s bolting out the backseat in a race against the rain.
“Tina don’t leave the door open, what—!” he stops himself when it’s clear there’s no way she’s hearing him, already at the covered porch by the time he gets the words out. When Elliott slides out of the car herself, Gavin says, “See, that’s exactly why.”
It isn’t like she goes far, just runs around in the slowing rain and splashing in the large puddles that collect in the dips of the ground. He unbuckles the seatbelt but stays put for a moment, collecting himself.
“She seems fine.”
“Not if she gets pneumonia, dumbass.”
Nines looks at him. “You know that’s not true, right?”
“You can’t catch pneumonia from just being out in the rain, it’s caused by bacteria—”
“Do I care?” Gavin holds a hand up to stop him from trying to fucking explain damn illnesses to him, real interesting stuff, you know. “I’m just saying, she gets sick easily, I don’t want the rest of her break to be spent getting over a cold or some shit.”
Nines turns the car off. “Then we should get her inside.”
Elliott accepts taking a shower easily once Nines promises her some hot chocolate afterwards, with Gavin’s approval for once. He leaves the bathroom door open while she does so, dragging her drenched clothes into the sink to wring them out and lay them flat on the counters. Her shoes are a lost cause for now, leaving them sitting in the corner with his own sopping sneakers until he can persuade Tina into letting him use her hair dryer.
Gavin joins her when he’s called in to help with her hair, and jesus it got tangled over the afternoon. El yells that he’s hurting her every time he tugs out one of the knots with the comb, but once they’re finished and warmed up by the spray and the fluffy hotel towels wrapped around them, she’s snuggling against his neck, content.
He dresses them both in the warmest clothes they have and brushes her hair out once more. It’s getting long and slightly uneven, the straight dark strands reaching just below the middle of her back, and he makes a mental note to go ahead and cut it again.
There is a steaming mug already sitting in front of one of the island stools when El speeds ahead of him into the kitchen, and a showered, dry-clothed Nines stands at the counter pouring himself some coffee.
“There’s your hot chocolate, Elliott,” the man says at the sound of her quick bare feet against the linoleum.
“Hey, thanks,” Gavin says, and he means it.
Nines offers him coffee while he settles El onto the stool, her excited hands already pulling the mug closer to her, but Gavin turns it down. “Actually,” he amends, “Do you guys have, like, tea?”
Instead of answering verbally, Nines walks over to the far right cupboard and opens it to a respectable three-shelf stock of variously colored and flavored boxes of exactly what Gavin is looking for. “Oh,” he says. “Cool.”
“Go ahead and pick.”
Once he knows El is secure and completely occupied with her drink, he goes to look. Or, he goes to stand there and stare at a single spot on the side of a box with the fucking bold ass nutritional facts and get caught up in his dumb fucking thoughts again, and he has no idea why he’s getting fucking emotional about some stupid tea.
“Are you still looking?”
He sniffs and rubs his knuckle on his cheek, avoiding eye contact. He says, rough as ever, “Can it, I’m god damned spoiled for choice over here.”
Nines hums and steps close to drum his fingers on the marble countertop. “Yes, well, wouldn’t want to make any rash decisions now, would we?”
Fuck. If only he knew.
Gavin finally points to a red box of some apple cinnamon bullshit too high in the cupboard from him to reach, and Nines silently obliges in handing it over.
The very next morning, before he joins the pack in this shitty holiday, before Elliott can ask after breakfast, before he’s even pulled a shirt over his head, his phone is in his hand. The very next morning, twelve days from December 10, Gavin calls Lou. His old landlord answers on the second ring with a single question.
“You got an address for me?”
oh i know, a gavin that drinks tea instead of coffee, it's practically blasphemy!
i've actually always had the thought from playing the game in the beginning was that the reason he never took the coffee from connor is that he doesn't actually drink it he just wanted to see what connor would do okay bye
also that popcorn stuff? yeah that's real, because it's me lmao i love projecting about the dumbest stuff