When Finn woke up the next morning, Alt was long gone. His pillow was carefully plumped up and his side of the mattress cover was smoothed out, but the green covers were still securely wrapped around Finn. Sunlight fell through the ceiling window, directly onto Finn’s face. The omega winced and sat up, noticing something on Alt’s pillow. It was a flower, small, with red petals edged in white. Pretty. But Finn had no idea what it was doing on Alt’s pillow. Did the man leave it there for him? Finn frowned but decided not to touch the flower, in case Alt had put it there as part of some weird beast ritual. He slid out of bed. The day prior, he had been woken up by Irena squishing his cheeks and muttering in Polish, but today no one had come to bother him. He went to the en suite bathroom, washed his face and brushed his teeth. After returning to the room, he went for his clothes, discarded at the foot of the bed, but spotted a pile of new, neatly folded ones on the desk below the watercolour painting of the stormy sea, with a post-it note atop it reading ‘FINN’. He shrugged and picked the clothes up.
Finn was shocked to find that the clothes on the desk were not new. They were his. From his little room in Lincoln. A striped blue t-shirt, khaki cargo pants and his old army jacket. Even his trainers were tucked under the desk. The first thought that hit Finn was that oh shit, Alt had ransacked his home. But then he realised that this was probably a way of getting Finn to feel a little bit more comfortable in Lirim and he...appreciated the gesture. He dressed quickly, ran a hand through his silvery-blond hair and sneaked from the room.
The others were finishing breakfast in the kitchen when he entered, ‘’mornin’, wein,’’ Seònaid said, setting down a bowl of fruit salad and a plate of eggs at the table next to Brín.
‘’How come no one woke me up?’’ Finn asked, sliding into the chair next to Brín, who looked half alive. He gave him a sleepy smile. Alfie was busy trying to steal Tommy’s eggs.
‘’The big guy,’’ Tommy waved a hand, ‘’what’s his name again?’’
‘’Baltasar,’’ Finn said with a mouth full of eggs.
‘’Yeah, he came in and said not to wake you up. Said you were allowed to sleep as long as you liked.’’
‘’Lucky! I’m so jealous,’’ Alfie complained, fork sneaking closer to Tommy’s plate, ‘’Brín barely looks alive and- OUCH! TOMMY!’’
‘’Drama queen,’’ Tommy said mildly, grinning at Alfie who cradled his hand, which Tommy had slapped as it got an inch too close to his eggs, which he now finished in a gulp.
‘’Alt left a flower next to me in the bed,’’ Finn said thoughtfully and glanced at the cook, who was bustling around the kitchen, ‘’Seon, do you know anything about that?’’
‘’Nothin’ at all, master Finn,’’ Seon said a little too quickly, with a knowing smile.
Finn sighed and glanced at Brín, hoping for some compassion. But Brín was asleep, the hand propping up his face squishing his cheek up adorably. A snore broke from his parted lips and Finn cracked up so loudly he startled the man awake.
That day, during bonding time, Alt was late. Really late. Finn was sitting out in the patio, waiting for the giant, but eventually he got bored and wandered off. None of the humans had the time to explore the massive ground of Lirim yet. Finn took a stroll around the house and towards the east end of it, accompanied by the soft sound of wind chimes. He was basking in the warm April sun when the peaceful sound of the chimes was interrupted by a rumbling bark of an engine. Finn recognised the sound immediately and he sped up. Soon enough he stood at the easternmost end of the mansion, an extension that had been made into a garage. The doors of it were open and three separate motorbikes stood inside, amongst scattered tools and bike gear. Jordan was kneeling on the gravel in front of the garage, working on a fourth bike. He spotted Finn before he could sneak away and gave him a smile, ‘’hey, you.’’
‘’O-oh. Hey,’’ Finn hadn’t interacted with other beasts aside from Alt. He only saw Eric during joint dinner, and Chase was so scary-looking Finn didn’t dare approach him. Jordan seemed to pretty nice, but he was always busy, too – now at least Finn knew where, ‘’isn’t Alfie supposed to be with you?’’
‘’Yeah, but some days he’s got Chinese instead of bonding time,’’ Jordan set down the wrench and stood, dusting off his knees, ‘’truthfully, I think he needs space away from me anyway. Being around him all the time isn’t the best idea right now, for me,’’ he smiled at Finn. He was quick to smile. It came easily for him. He slid his hands into his pockets, ‘’did Alt lose you or something?’’
‘’He got held up,’’ Finn said vaguely and finally glanced at the bike, eyes shining as he took in the vintage, red leather seat, the low front and massive front light, ‘’is that a benelli?’’ he asked before he could stop himself.
‘’750,’’ Jordan’s grin grew as he patted the black handle bars, ‘’just finished patching it up. You like bikes?’’
‘’Uh-huh,’’ Finn said dumbly, getting closer to admire the model. The bike had its age, but that was part of its beauty, ‘’from the sixties?’’
‘’Sixty nine,’’ Jordan nodded excitedly, recognising a fellow motorbike enthusiast, ‘’you really know your shit.’’
‘’Not really,’’ Finn said but blushed at the compliment, coming around to admire the benelli, ‘’you’ve done a good job with it.’’
‘’Thanks,’’ Jordan gestured to the bike, ‘’want to try it out?’’
Finn’s eyes actually sparkled, ‘’can I?’’
‘’Sure,’’ Jordan went to fetch his helmet, ‘’stick to the path, the wheels aren’t great on the grass.’’
Finn nodded as Jordan settled the helmet on his silver blond hair, ‘’uh, by the way,’’ he said, mounting the bike and revelling at the feel of the handlebars in his hands, ‘’sorry about...hitting you...with my bike...’’
‘’No harm done,’’ Jordan said easily. He stopped himself from actually thanking Finn for doing it. Otherwise he wouldn’t have met Alfie and as awful as he felt for kidnapping the boy, he was still everything Jordan imagined his bond would be, when he finally got one.
A moment later Finn was speeding down the road winding around the hills that the cars used, whooping with joy. He had missed riding his motorbike the most; he rode at least once a day back in Lincoln. His bike was probably so wrecked by Jordan’s massive beast form that it’d be scrap if Finn ever tried to reclaim it. But he tried not to think about that, or anything else, as he sped up, doing a neat turn and zapping back the way he came from. He had to admit riding along the beautiful scenery of the Beacon was breath-taking.
He was halfway down the path back towards the hills for the second time when it happened.
The ground rumbled as if an earthquake was rolling through the hills and Finn came to a sudden stop to avoid toppling over. He turned sharply and sped back towards Lirim. As he approached, he spotted Alt’s massive shape looming over Jordan. Finn parked so violently he uprooted grass and mud. He slammed the brake down and jumped off the bike, ‘’...could have gotten hurt!’’ he heard Alt roar at Jordan as he ran over. He’d never seen Alt mad and the very sight made Finn falter. Jordan had his head down, revealing the nape of his neck in submission even if his fists and jaw were clenched. Finn snapped out of it and ran to Alt, grabbing his hand before he got into a fight with Jordan, which the bear-beast would undoubtedly lose. Even as Finn tugged, Alt didn’t even budge, but at least he looked down at his bond.
‘’It wasn’t Jordan’s fault,’’ Finn said levelly even as he quivered at being targeted by Alt’s stormy brown gaze, ‘’and I know how to ride. I’ve had a bike longer than I’ve had a licence, alright? I’ve driven in places more dangerous than a path between some hills,’’ that wasn’t the right thing to do. Finn easily read Alt’s expression – he was angry he hadn’t been there at those points of Finn’s life, ‘’stop yelling at him, Alt,’’ Finn thought back to what Vicky had said, about how much power the humans held over their bonds and gave Alt’s hand a gentle squeeze.
Alt’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly and the anger went out of his eyes, ‘’sorry,’’ he mumbled and glanced at Jordan, who peeked at him, ‘’sorry, Jordan,’’ he said again.
Jordan gave a laugh, though there was a nervous edge to it, ‘’it’s fine. I should have asked permission-‘’
‘’No, you shouldn’t have,’’ Finn said, letting go of Alt’s hand, ‘’I’m an adult and Alt is not my parent. I can do what I want without a permission slip. This isn’t a primary school field trip,’’ he lifted his chin and stared Alt down which, really, must have looked hilarious considering their size different, ‘’d’you hear, Alt? You are not in charge of me.’’
Alt nodded. He kept his eyes down, as if Finn was the powerful beast; he looked so miserable Finn actually felt a little sorry for him, ‘’thanks for the ride, Jordan. It’s an awesome bike,’’ he tipped his head towards the valley, ‘’come on, Alt. Let’s go for a walk.’’
Alt readily fell into step with him and when they were a good distance away, Finn asked, ‘’what’s the deal with the flower on the pillow?’’
‘’Mmmh, that,’’ Finn noted the name of the flower in his head, in case it was important.
Alt didn’t reply, instead producing another flower form his pocket, crumpled from being kept in confines. It was a hyacinth, Finn knew that much by the oval shape and the tiny flowers, but it was yellow. Finn plucked it gingerly from the beast’s hand when it was extended towards him. He raised an eyebrow; the valley was just grass, and there was no flower garden in Lirim. Finn wondered where Alt got all the flowers from, ‘’you sure like flowers, huh?’’
Alt just shrugged.
All day it looked like it would rain, and all day Brín racked his head for a way to sleep through the night without being woken by an icy downpour on the couches of the patio. So he ventured into the shed, which stood within the ‘garden’ of Lirim and looked more like a little brick house than anything else. Brín had seen it before but hadn’t thought about going inside, deeming the couch more comfortable. Now he opened the doors, located under an archway that hid the little slab of concrete that was the porch from the elements. Brín would have killed for the shed when he had been homeless. It looked like the perfect little home. He pushed open the doors, which were not locked.
Inside, the shed was surprisingly...shedy. There were boxes of tools and trinkets set on the floor, the little wooden table under the window and on the shelf in the corner. An old suitcase lay in the corner, upon which stood a stack of old, worn comics, at least fifty years old. There was a land mower in one corner and a kiddie bicycle missing a wheel in the other. Evidence of a childhood spent in Lirim. Brín wondered who had ridden the bicycle as a child.
He looked around. It was cluttered and dusty; there were cobwebs in the corners, but overall, it wasn’t bad at all. After some looking, Brín found a broomstick. He was meant to be at his additional lessons but for the next half an hour, he swept the dust and cobwebs from the hut and out through the doors. Then he set about clearing the space. When he re-stacked all the boxes, chests and the old suitcase, they took up only one third of the space they had previously occupied. He set about organising a sleeping space – for the purpose, he shoved the shelf against the wall.
Something fluttered to the floor. Brín glanced at the yellowed piece of paper, curled around the edges, that he had dislodged from between the shelf and the wall. He picked it up and flipped it over.
It was a photograph of a bunch of children.
Brín recognised Alt straight away. Even as a teenager he towered over everyone else. He looked different from now, black hair hanging in his face, hunched over – his seventeen year old self in the pictures was clearly awkward as hell, and self conscious. He stood next to Chase, who was recognisable by his golden brown skin and blond hair, though he was only about nine years old. He was grinning broadly at the camera and showing a peace sign. Jordan had both his arms around Vicky and Eric. Though he was only about thirteen in the picture, he had already outgrown a perfectly groomed Eric, though now Eric was taller. Vicky looked about ten, had an awful pixie cut and was also showing a peace sign like her brother. Behind them, Lirim loomed.
So they were childhood friends. No wonder the pack now lived together.
Brín put the photo gently back onto the shelf.
Tommy clutched the pills – six, in a little plastic square – like they were his lifeline. Which they were. He hoped he’d never have to use the contraceptives, but ever since Napoleon’s lovely lesson on a collapsible womb, the thought of having a child had haunted Tommy. After negotiating cigarettes with Seon, it wasn’t that hard to coax her into smuggling him the contraceptives. ‘Just this once’ she had said. Tommy hoped he’d never even have to use them. Chase didn’t seem interested in him at the moment. Hopefully it would stay like that. But he wasn’t going to risk it.
He put the contraceptives into his pocket gingerly as he walked outside to the patio. He had Chase’s clothes on again. Brín was sprawled on the couch, arms folded behind his head, eyes closed, singing in his lovely voice, ‘’New York city please go easy on me, tonight...’’ he faltered and opened one green eye, hearing Tommy approach, ‘’I thought you’d be with the lovely Chase.’’
‘’I thought you’d be learning English or something,’’ Tommy countered, grinning, and dumped himself on one of the couches. Chase had disappeared off to somewhere as soon as the phrase ‘bonding time’ had been uttered after dinner. Tommy pulled out a cigarette.
He and Brín both looked out into the Valley, admiring their prison in silence.
‘’How was Chinese?’’ Jordan asked brightly, walking into his bedroom that evening, pleased to find Alfie already washed and in bed, flipping through a comic book Vicky must have given him. He looked positively huggable and it pissed Jordan off to no end that he could not embrace his bond.
‘’Nǐ shì yīgè pìgu‘’ Alfie said smoothly, though with the incorrect accent.
‘’Hey!’’ Jordan flicked his forehead with a grin, ‘’I know what that means. You’re an ass, too, by the way,’’ he sat down a safe distance away, giving Alfie his space as the boy put his comic down, ‘’sorry we didn’t get to spend any time together,’’ Jordan said gently, unsure if Alfie even wanted to be around him.
Alfie didn’t reply, just studied Jordan. Then, out of nowhere, he asked, ‘’can you shift into your beast from?’’
Jordan blinked, ‘’what for?’’
Alfie shrugged, ‘’dunno. I’m curious. I only saw you once.’’
Jordan gave him a long look but finally shrugged and pulled his t-shirt off, revealing a sleek body hard with muscle. Alfie glanced away as Jordan shuffled out of his jeans and underwear. Alfie expected the sound of bones crunching, some growling and maybe roaring. Instead, there was absolute silence in the room and eventually, too curious to wait, Alfie turned back to Jordan.
Except Jordan wasn’t there.
Or, rather, his human body wasn’t. Where Jordan had stood now sat a massive grizzly bear with black fur, staring at Alfie. And maybe it was the close proximity of the animal to Alfie, or the fact that it looked so much larger and more dangerous when Alfie could actually see him properly, because the boy scrambled back on the bed and screamed. The fear overtook him for a couple seconds so he couldn’t remember how Jordan shifted back into human form, but a second later he was on the bed, leaning over Alfie, face full of worry, ‘’Jordan you’re naked!’’ Alfie screeched.
‘’Sorry!’’ Jordan yelped, scrambling off the bed to grab his boxers, ‘’I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, I...’’ he hopped around, pulling his jeans on, ‘’I didn’t think I was that scary, honestly,’’ he did his button, paused and sighed, ‘’sorry, Alfie.’’
‘’It’s fine,’’ Alfie swallowed, ‘’I asked you to shift.’’
‘’I should have stepped away, given you space...’’
‘’It’s fine, Jordan. I was just surprised,’’ Alfie said, ‘’sorry if...if the scream was rude.’’
Jordan’s lips tugged up in an uncertain, gentle smile, ‘’it wasn’t.’’
Alfie dropped his eyes to his hands, resting in his lap. He didn’t know what to say, especially when Jordan stood there shirtless. Jordan must have picked up on that, because he grabbed his PJs and slipped into the bathroom. As the shower was turned on, Alfie slid into the bed and closed his eyes. He was still awake when Jordan emerged, but he pretended to sleep as the lights were flicked off.
‘’Good night,’’ Jordan said quietly before going to lie down on his couch.
Alfie didn’t reply.
Brín had hauled a whole bundle of blankets and pillows to the shed. Seon had even found him an old foam camping mattress which he now lay down on the cold brick floor. He arranged the pillows and covers in a sort of nest and lay down facing the brick wall. He was more comfortable and warm than he usually was out on the streets. He was ready to sleep, but before he closed his eyes, he spotted something. He’d thought it was a discolouring of the brick, or a mark left by the shelf he had moved, but now he realised that the white squiggle before him was writing. Brín touched the carved, jagged words, peering at them. It was as if someone had carved it in the brick, lying down just as Brín was now. With a claw, it seemed. Brín’s eyes scanned the words and then widened. Into the wall, a name was etched. A name he knew.