Waking up next to a flower had been strange enough but when on Friday, exactly one week after being dragged to Lirim, Finn realised that waking up next to a tree branch was definitely stranger. As always, by the time he naturally woke, under the persistent sunrays falling through the ceiling window, Alt was long gone, his side of the bed straightened out. It had been a couple days since the last flower had been given to him, and he’d almost forgotten about it. The humans had been busy with their lessons and pretending they were adjusting, in hopes the beasts of Lirim would let down their guard enough for them to mount another escape. Finn scratched his silvery hair, frowning at the branch. It was prickly, like the arm of a Christmas tree, and now Finn was truly intrigued. He snatched the branch off the pillow. It shed prickly needles everywhere. Finn got dressed quickly and jogged downstairs to the kitchen. Brín, Tommy and Alfie were long gone, Seon busy drying the dishes with a cloth while Vicky sat cross legged on the table in just her socks and a t-shirt, munching on yoghurt. Finn had hoped she’d be there.
‘’What time do ya call this, wein?’’ Seon tutted, leaving the plates alone to go find Finn some breakfast.
Vicky jerked her chin at the branch in Finn’s hand, ‘’the heck’s that?’’
‘’I was hoping you’d tell me,’’ Finn said, approaching the beta, ‘’Alt’s left plants on the pillow twice for me to find when I woke up, and he randomly gave me a yellow hyacinth when we were on a walk. Does it mean something?’’
‘’Probably,’’ curiosity sparked in Vicky’s blue eyes as she scraped the rest of her yoghurt from the plastic pot, ‘’Alt might not talk much and he might appear like he’s an animated rock, but he’s actually really intelligent. Second only to Eric, probably. He’s got all sorts of trivia knowledge cause he reads a lot, and gardening is his passion.’’
Finn stared at her, ‘’Alt. Giant Alt. Likes gardening,’’ he reiterated, ‘’like an old grandma from the 60s?’’
Vicky snorted and nodded, ‘’it’s true, wein,’’ Seon added, ‘’master Alt always gives me flowers on me birthday.’’
‘’Where does he get it from?’’ Finn wanted to know. The valley was pretty much grass and nothing else.
‘’Who knows,’’ Vicky shrugged in a way that told Finn she knew, but wasn’t going to spill, ‘’Alt is pretty old fashioned. If you put a laptop on his lap he’ll spend half an hour trying to figure out how to work Google, so most of his research comes from books. My best bet is that you’ll find the meaning of these flowers in the library.’’
Finn found himself gaping, ‘’this place has a library?’’
Vicky raised a golden eyebrow, ‘’are you really surprised?’’
‘’First floor, wein,’’ Seon said helpfully, passing Finn a plate of buttered croissants and a mug of tea.
That Friday was calm. Alfie learned quickly that keeping his mouth shut during lessons allowed him to space out easily and ignore the tirade of duties, expectations and social constructs that were tossed upon him. On Fridays, he was largely alone for most of the day. Bob, a mostly silent man nearly as large as Alt, with a bald head and sunglasses always perched on his nose, was not only Alfie’s bodyguard but also his teacher. He was excellent at that, Alfie had to admit. He had an extensive knowledge on a variety of subjects that Alfie was supposed to learn. He was feeling a little as if he was being fashioned into a trophy wife; after breakfast he was taught violin which, in addition to Chinese if he could master it, would make him pretty skilful. After lunch he had something called ‘paternal classes’ with Finn, who didn’t show. It was like parental classes for a couple expecting a child, but it was weird because Finn and Alfie weren’t in the least pregnant. The lesson consisted mostly of child-care workshops and lectures on what to do to one’s body to make it most liable to conception, starting with a balanced diet and ending on some strange, medieval remedies.
Only Alfie and Finn were forced to take the class as they were considered the most likely to get pregnant, being in the perfect 21-22 bracket. Brín was considered too old to bother with and Tommy was much too young, so the two were expected to do an extensive workout to improve their chances of bearing children after they were changed, outside, under the totalitarian regime of Miss Medrano. They usually had to change and shower before dinner. Dinner had been...muted. Sometimes arguments broke out, especially between Chase and Tommy. Finn still didn’t show up and Alfie was getting faintly worried; Alt sat stiffly as if he, too, was wondering where his bond was. Eric didn’t come, either, apparently too busy with work which Vicky criticised loudly before digging into her food. In her opinion, Brín should be is priority. Alfie was relieved to see that Brín, at least, was thriving – with proper food, exercise and a warm shed to sleep in, his freckled skin glowed, his hair became lustrous and his extremely thin body started putting on some muscles. Alfie worried for him, too; after they finally got out of Lirim, what would happen to Brín? Would he go back to living on the street?
All in all, the atmosphere at the dinner table was as tense as ever, even without Eric’s opinion about Brín hanging above everyone’s head. Alfie was more than happy to sneak back to Jordan’s (he refused to think of it as his) bedroom. Jordan came up a moment later. He had one of his tight shirts on, stretched over the sculpted panes of his chest and the muscles of his stomach and arms, with an old letterman jacket thrown over. Vicky told Alfie once at breakfast that Alfie had been sent to high school to America, when he was fifteen, which resulted in his rather liberal view of society. For fifteen years he grew up with most of the same ideas Eric did, but in America, where beasts and humans were considered equal, his view point changed a little. The jacket was his memoir from his time on the basketball team.
‘’Well, that was awkward,’’ Jordan stretched and kicked the doors shut with his foot. He winced, rolling his shoulder; for most of the day he had been pimping his motorcycles.
Alfie shrugged, ‘’better than usual,’’ he had no desire of making friends with Jordan. Well...had Jordan been human...well, maybe. He was a cool guy, Alfie had to admit. Exactly the type he would befriend at university. Easy to laugh, fun, reckless. But in this scenario, he didn’t even let himself think about it, although his positive attitude in Jordan was vital. He had to control it. Too much and Jordan might thing he was enjoying being bonded to him...that could result in a number of things Alfie didn’t want to think about. Too little and Jordan might transform from a cool guy into a cold, strict piece of shit like Eric. Alfie had to give him just enough to keep Jordan’s fragile trust. Until a chance came for him to escape.
Which, Alfie hoped, was tonight.
He had thought about how to get out the other boys, whom he had grown pretty close to. But Chase had proven fast enough to catch Tommy and he’d probably gut Alfie if he caught them running together. Alfie had not seen a bad side to Alt but he worried there could be one – and that him trying to get Finn out would trigger it. And Brín...well, Brín would probably be the easiest to get out of Lirim. But...Alfie didn’t want to. No matter how awful Eric was, Lirim meant a chance for Brín to thrive, to learn things that would mean he wouldn’t have to live out on the streets when he finally got out. Plus, Alfie had been analysing the situation in the days since his trip with Jordan to Brecon. He’d talked to Vicky and dragged some vital information from her, innocently for her not to suspect he was going to pull a runner – like that she wouldn’t drink alcohol because it muted her beast senses to a large extent. And he’d sussed out where Jordan put his keys to his bike automatically when he finished using it (back pocket). His best shot, right then, was to run by himself and he needed to be out at Brecon for that to happen. From there he’d go to one of the countries that didn’t recognise bonds – Ireland or Spain or South Africa or Japan or Norway or the Czech Republic... and he’d kick up an international scandal because Tommy and Brín had been illegally taken. And Finn...he’d find a way to get him out of Lirim, too.
Baby steps, though.
‘’What do you want to do?’’ Jordan asked, ‘’it’s bonding time, after all. Movie? Or we could go for a walk?’’
‘’A-actually,’’ Alfie did his best show of meekness, keeping his eyes down on his nervously laced fingers. Half of his nerves weren’t even faked, ‘’I was wondering if we could go out again...to that town? It was fun before.’’
Jordan paused. He looked at Alfie. Alfie kept his eyes down. Shit. Had that sounded suspicious? ‘’What would you want to do out in Brecon?’’
Alfie shrugged, ‘’do they have a cinema?’’
‘’Then let’s see a movie,’’ Alfie said. Jordan remained silent. Shit, he was definitely catching on. Alfie raised his eyes, ‘’I just...you’re right. It is awkward. And between those awkward, tense dinners and the quiet of this mansion, I feel like I’m suffocating. I need to be out where things feel...normal. Please, Jordan.’’
Whatever suspicion had been building up in Jordan crumbled away, ‘’’kay,’’ he said with a worried smile. Vicky had been right. It was easy to control your bonds, when they so clearly worried about your well being, ‘’get your jacket. I don’t want you to catch a cold.’’
After dinner, Brín was meant to go to his history lessons, instead of going to bonding-time, except he was skipping, as usual. Napoleon must have felt a bit sorry for him, because he never told Eric and he never got mad. Finn was still nowhere to be found and Alfie was doing his bonding time with Jordan. Usually Brín hanged out with Tommy, but tonight he was nowhere to be found, so Brín decided to occupy his time with one of the things he had been meaning to do since he arrived in Lirim – explore it.
The mansion was larger than life and it took Brín a good hour to navigate the bottom floor. There was Jordan’s garage, which Finn had told them about, in the east wing, next to the lounge-dining-room. Brín looked around the lounge for a while. Other than the classroom, bedrooms and kitchen, this was the only other place the human bonds frequented. After he got bored of inspecting it, Brín walked through the large oak doors that led further into the house that he had never gotten the chance to open. He was surprised to find a ‘game’s room’ inside. It was modern, decorated in blues, with a massive pool table in the centre, one of those fake fireplaces on the wall and a home-bar in the corner, with four blue stools. Brín made a mental note to drag Tommy here during their free time.
The first floor also held a guest bedroom, a pantry (from which Brín stole a tube of cookies) and, surprise, surprise – a ballroom. It was probably the biggest room Brín had ever been in, decked out with half a dozen crystal chandeliers, a white dance-floor, a raised stage and four floor-to-ceiling watercolour paintings of cherry blossoms. Brín didn’t even dare step within the ballroom. He slipped out, not letting his brain catch up with the grandeur of Lirim – the grandeur that signified just how important and influential the beasts owning it were.
He was tense from that realisation until he reached the last room on the first floor. As he stepped into the music room, he relaxed. Here was something he understood, something that was a part of him. There was a massive piano in the middle and a bunch of instruments hanging on the walls above black armchairs for spectators. Brín’s heart sped up as he gazed up at an acoustic guitar, shining and brand new. He wanted it. It was nothing like his old beat-up guitar, which he had no hope of retrieving, but he wanted it nonetheless. It looked abandoned, unused, like some painting on the wall. He wanted to play it but he did not dare. That guitar had been bought by one of the beasts and he wasn’t about to steal from them. He didn’t have that big of a death wish.
Brín left the music room quickly, before the temptation of the guitar became too much. He returned to the lounge and climbed the spiralling staircase to the corridors of the first floor, exploring the rooms systematically. It held, of course, Chase’s bedroom as well as Eric’s room and office, which Brín steered, clear of. There was a whole massive separate bathroom, and the boudoir. Brín was beginning to be able to navigate the labyrinth of corridors on the first floor, as he spent the most time here. The only place he hadn’t been to was the library but as he peeked through the doors at the multitude of books, he quickly snuck back out. Reading had never been his forte and he found too many books imposing, especially now that his education was getting upgraded.
And then, of course, came the second floor, connected to the one below it with another winding staircase. As Brín emerged onto the second floor, he spotted a set of stairs leading to a single door up in the attic. It looked pretty creepy but Brín couldn’t hold in his curiosity and he climbed up. He rested a hand on the handle, wondering if he should open it. Maybe there was nothing in there, but maybe...well, this seemed an awful lot like the chamber of dead wives Bluebeard told his newest love conquest not to open, a literary story Napoleon had been forcing Brín to read in his English lessons. Still, Brín pushed the handle down.
The doors were locked.
Now Brín felt irritated, his curiosity hitting its pinnacle, but after a moment of struggling with the locked door he gave up and descended the stairs from the attic. He wasn’t very familiar with the second floor. Alt and Jordan had their bedrooms here, Brín knew, and he snuck out of those quickly as soon as he realised where he had walked in. The second floor held another guest room and a series of small staff rooms. Brín was close to giving up on the second floor holding anything interesting when he pushed open a door and gasped.
It was as if he had been whisked back to the fifteen-hundreds. Brín gaped at the long, corridor-like room, painted white and hanging with portraits of every size and width, all in expensive, ancient frames. Brín slipped into the room, closing the doors behind him. The air was stale and dust-filled, though the dust was disturbed, floating through the sunrays falling through the high windows, spaced in-between the portraits. Brín looked at the closest one – an oil painting of a man in satin blue pants and jacket with puffy sleeves, in black curls hilariously styled down his shoulders. The man looked to be in his early twenties and the relatively new plaque under his painting read:
Nicholas Fredriksen, circa 1200
Brín figured he was looking at the first owner, if not the builder, of Lirim and the man who started the ruling Fredriksen house. He continued walking down the corridor of portraits, taking them all in. There was a painting of a golden haired woman from the 1400s, her cloak extended out to shield five little girls. Brín shuddered at the idea of having one child, much less five. Another painting, of another blond woman, painted one hundred years later, depicted a stern face and dull red dress as well as a lamb cradled in her arms – Brín frowned at the constant ‘child’ motif, and not only for women. A painting from the 1600s depicted two young men, both holding infants in their laps. They were sitting on chaises dragged out into the garden and the valley of the Beacon spilled out behind them. The further Brín walked, the more modern the paintings became, but the image of the children was still frequent.
A woman in a puffy pink dress and a massive hairstyle from the 1700s, sitting on a bench under a tree and cradling two young boys to her side; a painting from the 1800s of just children, funny, chubby cherub-like girls and boys; a ‘pack’ photo from the same century, black and white, of adults and children alike standing again in front of the hills of the Beacon; a wedding photograph of two women, one heavily pregnant, from around world war I... the last photo, as big as Brín himself, hung close to the doors at the end of the corridor of portraits. It was a photo of a stern looking, blond man, startlingly similar to Eric, and a blonde woman next to him, unsmiling. A young Vicky and Eric were at their sides, but Chase was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he wasn’t born yet.
Suddenly feeling as if the young Eric in the picture was staring at him, Brín hurriedly walked through the doors at the end of the corridor.
‘’Oh shit, sorry!’’ he blurted as he stumbled straight into the leopard’s den. Or, in this case, into Chase’s study.
For a second, before Chase looked up sharply, the room had been the very image of serenity. It was so different from the forgotten, eerie corridor of portraits. The walls, painted a light, warm brown, hung top to bottom with watercolour and oil paintings of landscapes, both finished and unfinished. There were more paintings propped up against the walls and a small bookcase holding books about painting styles and famous artists. There was a large canvas propped up on an easel in front of a stool Chase was perched on. Everything, from the wall to Chase’ forearms to his t-shirt, face and hair was speckled with colourful flecks of paints. Before he looked up, Chase looked calm. Peaceful, almost.
‘’Oh,’’ Chase said, surprised to have someone burst into his study. He set down his paintbrush.
‘’So, uh...’’ Brín cleared his throat awkwardly. He didn’t know if he should run away or explain himself. He thought about all the watercolour paintings hanging all over Lirim, ‘’so you’re the one who paints them...’’ he murmured to himself, surprised. Who would know someone as explosive and impulsive as Chase would be so skilled with the paintbrush.
To Brín’s eternal surprise, Chase’s cheeks and ears turned red, ‘’...yeah,’’ he said gruffly.
Seeing Chase so meek made Brín feel a little more comfortable, ‘’do you mind if I...sit here for a while?’’ he didn’t know why he asked. Maybe he didn’t want to walk back down that creepy corridor with all those eyes peering at him anytime soon. Or maybe the art room looked normal and inviting and warm, unlike the rest of the silent, suffocating Lirim. For all its splendour, Lirim was a prison, and the art room was like a bubble of freedom.
‘’Sure,’’ Chase shrugged, though he looked a little uncertain as he scratched his paint-flecked, light brown cheek and swivelled on his stool to face Brín, who hadn’t expected the beast to be this...accepting. After all, with Tommy, he was like a living, breathing tornado.
‘’What you painting?’’
Another blush, ‘’n-nothing...’’ it looked to be another landscape but from the scraps here and there Chase had completed, Brín couldn’t tell what it was, ‘’you’re the singer, right?’’
Brín nodded, ‘’not much of one without my guitar, though.’’
‘’I’d tell you to take the one in the music room,’’ Chase shrugged, relaxing a little as Brín leaned against the wall between two paintings of a canal and a forest, ‘’but it technically belongs to Eric, so...’’
‘’Ah, yeah. Thanks,’’ Brín offered him a tentative smile, ‘’Finn is an art major, you know?’’
‘’Yes,’’ Chase perked up a little, ‘’with all the chaos I didn’t have time to...um...’’
‘’Drag him into a conversation?’’ Brín raised an eyebrow, his smile growing a little. In the small space, the age difference was showing. For once, Brín didn’t feel like he was being talked down on – more like he was talking to a teenager self-conscious about his work.
‘’W-well I wasn’t going to drag him into one...’’ Chase said gruffly, rubbing the back of his neck, ‘’just thought it would be nice to have someone who likes art around.’’
Brín knew it was dangerous to mention it, but he felt like he should, especially since Chase seemed inclined to listen. During dinner he mostly brooded and didn’t talk, ‘’Tommy does photography,’’ he tried to make it sound casual, ‘’that’s art, too.’’
As expected, Chase’s eyes shuttered, ‘’I don’t want to talk to him.’’
‘’Why not? Aren’t you supposed to be at bonding time now?’’ Brín asked gently, even though he knew it was dangerous.
‘’He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him,’’ Chase said bluntly, swivelling back to his painting and grabbing his paintbrush, ‘’I’m not going to run around trying to find him. He always disappears after dinner,’’ he started painting again.
‘’So do you,’’ Brín said casually, though he didn’t know why he was pushing it so much. Perhaps he saw a fracture of his own unhappiness in Chase’s posture, ‘’you’re supposed to be bonded for life. Maybe you should try-‘’
‘’Ah!’’ Chase pulled his paintbrush sharply from the painting and sighed, slumping, ‘’ruined it,’’ he mumbled to himself, hopping off the stool and picking up the painting, where a smudge was now visible against the white. He carried the massive canvas to set it against the wall, ‘’I might fix it later,’’ he said.
Brín felt like that was his queue to go. But he wasn’t going to apologise, not for trying to fix the situation, ‘’thanks for letting me hang out here,’’ he said.
Chase nodded and then, as if an afterthought, he added gruffly, ‘’you can come back sometime. If you need it.’’
Brín blinked, surprised, but smiled at Chase’s back, ‘’thanks,’’ he slipped from the room. So Chase wasn’t always a bratty, violent beast. If only he showed this decent-ish side to Tommy, maybe the atmosphere at the dinner table wouldn’t be so awful anymore.
But at least the walk down the corridor wasn’t as daunting as Brín had thought at first.
The cinema in Brecon was old and tiny and only played a few movies, but once Alfie was settled in his seat with a massive box of popcorn, for a good hour and a half he forgot all about the situation he was in. When he and Jordan emerged from the cinema, Alfie felt much more relaxed. The sun had set. It was maybe eight pm. Jordan made small talk as they started walking towards where his bike was parked by the tree and Alfie decided it was time to put the second half of his plan into action. He swivelled around Jordan and perched on the seat of the motorbike before the beast could reach it, smiling up at Jordan, ‘’let’s not go back yet.’’
Worry immediately clouded Jordan’s dark blue eyes. He reached out and Alfie let him tuck a curl behind his ear, ‘’do you still feel...uncomfortable?’’ he asked softly.
‘’No,’’ Alfie assured, trying to ignore the finger Jordan now brushed gently against his cheek. His touch was warm and not entirely unpleasant. Alfie figured Jordan’s touch would feel disgusting, like a bug scuttling across his skin, considering what had happened, but instead it was just soft and warm and reassuring, ‘’I’m just having a lot of fun with you.’’
Beasts were really just too easy to manipulate. Alfie saw Jordan’s eyes light up before the smile tugged on his lips, ‘’yeah?’’ he asked, a little hopefully.
‘’Mmmh,’’ Alfie stood, let himself be toe-to-toe with Jordan for just a moment, let his head be tilted up as if he was going to kiss him, before he danced around his bond, grabbing his hand, ‘’come on, let’s find a bar.’’
‘’A bar?’’ Jordan asked, but let Alfie tug him back towards the centre of Brecon.
‘’Yeah! If we get smashed, we can just call one of the boys to come pick us up,’’ the ease with which he said it calmed Jordan’s nerves – he didn’t like drinking. No beast did. It reduced their senses down to human-level, if enough alcohol was consumed, made them muted. But if it made Alfie happy...
Brín was back in his shed, two hours before the allocated ‘bed time’ on his schedule at eleven, when Eric entered. He knocked politely beforehand but as he entered he was anything but polite, wrinkling his nose in distaste as he glanced around and zeroed in on Brín on his pile of blankets, ‘’this is beneath you,’’ he said with a sigh. He looked as tired as ever.
Brín raised an eyebrow, ‘’oh, now it’s beneath me? And here I thought I was a walking trash can.’’
Eric pinched the bridge of his nose as if he had a headache, ‘’I admit I was...unkind.’’
‘’Oh, really,’’ Brín plopped back in his nest with a lazy smile, folding his arms behind his head, ‘’I’d love to hear all about that but...oh, wait, no, I actually don’t care. You can see yourself out,’’ he closed his eyes and shuffled in his nest as if he was going to go to sleep right there and then.
Eric sighed, ‘’Brín...’’
‘’You even remember my name! Well done you.’’
‘’It’s the twenty-first of April,’’ Eric said, trying to ignore the bite in Brín’s voice, ‘’phase one will come around soon.’’
‘’Ah,’’ Brín opened his eyes, ‘’sorry, but if you want a trophy wife, order one on eBay. Or from Russia! Pornhub always used to have those ads ‘cute Russian girls looking for a husband...’’’ Eric cringed and Brín grinned, ‘’do you find that offensive? Well, you should know, I used to wank off at least three times a day back when I had a laptop...’’
‘’You are being vulgar-‘’
‘’And after I left home, it went up to five because, you know, boredom gets to ya. Later I became the favourite man of the female population of the homeless community,’’ Brín wiggled his eyebrows at Eric, ‘’bet I have more experience than you, kitty cat.’’
Eric gave a low, irritated groan, turned on his heel and left the shed, slamming the doors shut behind him. Brín chuckled, settling down for real, glad to have gotten on Eric’s nerves. It was proving to be quite the de-stressor, and it was very, very satisfying. He glanced at his bond’s name etched into the wood and flipped it off, ‘’you’re a dick,’’ he said, imaging saying it to Eric’s face, before closing his eyes and going to sleep.
Finn spent the entire day in the library which was big and cosy. The walls were covered with massive bookcases filled to the brim and one of them had a sliding ladder so you could reach the top shelves. In the centre of the room, under the old carpet, was a couple of plump armchairs and a real fireplace was set within the wall between two big, French windows. Finn took his lunch and dinner, between multiple cups of tea delivered by Seon, on one of the armchairs, flipping through a stack of books of flowers he found. He was uninterrupted, except for Brín, who poked his head around the doors at one point but didn’t notice Finn and disappeared quickly. Spread on Finn’s lap was a notebook, also courtesy of Seon. The flower books disagreed a lot on what each flower meant and there were two dozen books to file through – finding them alone took until lunch time. Finn eventually found a book that seemed the most reliable – it was cited often by the others and the meanings it presented were often agreed on by other books.
Using the book – The Language of Flowers, published back in the time of Queen Victoria – figured the meaning of fir was ‘time’. That made sense. Was Alt trying to tell him that with time, being bonded to each other would work out? Probably. Or maybe he was reminding him that the time was coming for Finn to be changed into a beast, but judging by Alt’s personality, it was probably the first one. It wasn’t hard to guess that Alt was too shy to tell Finn face-to-face that all they needed was time.
The meaning of the yellow hyacinth was ‘jealousy’. Finn blushed at that. Alt had given the flower to him right after he started talking to Jordan. Had that made him jealous? Or was he jealous of something else? Finn would probably never know, if Alt was too shy to say it to his face. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to know. If he initiated the conversation, Alt could lose his temper...though it didn’t look like he had much of a temper in the first place.
But the gloxinia...well, the books disagreed on its meaning and the trusty Language of Flowers did not have it within its translations. Finally, when Finn grew tired, he put the books back in their place, tucked The Language of Flowers under his armpit and made his way back to his and Alt’s bedroom. Alt was already sound asleep on his side of the bed. Finn propped open the flower book on the page describing the fir and tucked the small branch inside. He did the same with the yellow hyacinth, which had managed to dry by now. The gloxinia, dry and withered, he put at the very front and closed the cover, pressing down. It would stay there till Finn figured out what was the first thing Alt wanted to tell him when they met.
During bonding time, Tommy had gone into one of the guest rooms and fell asleep on the bed. He woke up around nine pm, when it was already dark, feeling like he needed a smoke. He only had twelve out of twenty left. He would have to cherish them. He snuck outside to the patio and perched on the top of the back of the couch, overlooking the dark valley. He inhaled the smoke of his cigarette and blew it out into the night. He was halfway through his cigarette when he heard footsteps. A second later Chase rose up in front of Tommy and grabbed his face, ‘’I told you not to do that!’’ he barked.
Before he could stop himself, Tommy blew out the smoke into Chase’s face. It was disrespectful as hell to do that but he couldn’t stop himself, not when Chase nagged him all the time. Chase jerked back and grabbed Tommy’s wrist, squeezing till Tommy yelped in pain and dropped the cigarette, ‘’you’re fucking crazy-‘’ Chase’s eyes were glowing gold, his canines elongated into points that could rip Tommy to shreds. Tommy panicked. His free fist shot out and made impact with Chase’s jaw, sending the surprised beast stumbling back and clutching his jaw in shock.
Tommy knew he screwed up when a pissed-off Chase stormed back to him, grabbed him by the collar and send him sailing back with more force than he intended. Tommy cleared the couch and crashed right into the table before it, breaking glass and wood, ‘’CHASE!’’ came Victoria’s horrified screech from the doorway leading into Lirim.
But Tommy was up in a heartbeat. Maybe he didn’t have a beast’s strength but he had all the rage of hell burning in his veins. He ran for the couch, jumped on top of it and propelled himself at Chase. The beast fell back, Tommy atop him, and they crashed into the grass surrounding the patio. Tommy straddled Chase and slammed his fist into his face. Chase’s nose spurted blood but he didn’t seem to register the pain, grabbing Tommy’s wrist before he could deliver the next blow and slamming his free fist into Tommy’s stomach.
‘’STOP!’’ Vicky yelled, jumping over the couch neatly and hauling Tommy off Chase before the fight could escalate, ‘’what the hell is wrong with you!?’’ she bellowed as her half brother scrambled to his feet, canines retracting, the gold of his eyes dulling, ‘’he is your bond!’’
‘’He is nothing to me!’’ Chase yelled back, voice rough with anger, wiping at his bloody nose.
Vicky snapped. She let go of Tommy and stormed over to her brother.
It happened very quickly. Tommy nearly missed it. Victoria raised her hand as if to slap Chase.
And Chase recoiled, raising his arm automatically to shield himself from Vicky, at least half a head shorter than him.
Vicky snatched back her hand back as if she had touched a flame, her eyes widening, ‘’oh...oh, Chase, I’m sorry, I-‘’
The sound of clothes ripping filled the air as Chase shifted into his beast form. A leopard, gold and imposing, stood on the patio for a second. Then Chase was gone, sprinting into the darkness of the valley.
Jordan was the beast equivalent of wasted. He and Alfie were sitting in the corner of a crowded bar, in a booth lit intimately by faint red light. They were having a race as to who could finish their massive fish bowl first. Of course, Alfie was letting Jordan win, barely drinking himself. Jordan was drunk enough to think the whole thing was a real challenge and chugged the mad amount of alcohol through his straw at record speed, ‘’I win!’’ Jordan cheered when he finished his fish bowl. Had he been human, he would be passed out on the table. Instead, he was adorably tipsy – enough that his goofy, happy state would not permit any thought of Alfie running away.
Alfie chuckled, ‘’not bad.’’
‘’I want a prize,’’ Jordan leaned on his hand over the table and gave Alfie a dopey grin. He looked dangerously like a love sick puppy.
‘’Kay,’’ Alfie agreed.
‘’Alright,’’ Alfie’s amused smile was only half faked, ‘’but I need to go to the toilet first.’’ And he had no intention of coming back. He stood and edged his way out of the booth.
Jordan’s hand shot out and he grabbed Alfie’s wrist, tugging him towards his end of the booth, ‘’no~’’ he whined, ‘’I’ll come with you.’’
Alfie laughed, ‘’that’s weird, Jordan. We’re not girls.’’ Jordan pouted. He didn’t look like he’d let go of Alfie’s wrist any time soon. Alfie didn’t have any idea at how quickly beasts sobered up – probably rather fast – so he had to go. Now or never, ‘’fine. You can have a little prize now, but only if you let me go take a piss after.’’
Jordan nodded eagerly and Alfie put a finger under his chin, tilting his head up. He took a deep breath, not letting his brain catch up with what he was doing as he bent down and pressed a quick peck to Jordan’s lips. Jordan grinned at him goofily, ‘’more later?’’ he asked, taking Alfie’s hand and pressing it to his cheek. He leaned into it. He had just enough alcohol to get him sleepy. Now was Alfie’s perfect chance. He brushed a thumb over Jordan’s cheek to placate him.
‘’Yes. More later,’’ he promised in what he hoped was a reassuring, gentle tone and let go. This time Jordan didn’t grab his wrist, ‘’finish this,’’ Alfie added, patting the seat he vacated in front of his mostly full fish bowl, ‘’by the time you’re done, I’ll be back,’’ he lied.
Jordan obediently got up and slowly shuffled forward. Alfie put an arm around his waist, slipping his other hand into the back pocket of his jeans. He fished out Jordan’s keys in a second and Jordan didn’t notice, his senses muted. Alfie hid the keys behind his back as Jordan slid into Alfie’s seat and started draining the fishbowl.
Alfie forced himself to walk to the bathroom but once he was inside, he glanced around wildly. He exhaled, relieved, when he spotted the window, just big enough to squeeze through. He opened it. The guy washing his hands gave him a weird look but Alfie ignored him, throwing a leg over the windowsill, then the other. He dropped to the ground and was off, sprinting from the pub, through the town centre and towards the tree where they had parked Jordan’s bike. The fact that he didn’t know when Jordan would sober up, or even realise that Alfie was gone, made his heart pound fast. Thankfully he didn’t get lost and he barely undid the chain of the bike before he was atop it, turning the keys in the ignition.
Alfie’s hand shook as he tried again. This time the engine roared to life and Alfie had the sense that Jordan could hear it all the way in the pub. Did he realise Alfie was gone by then? He could have half an hour, or he could have seconds, ‘’just keep it straight,’’ Alfie whispered to himself, putting his hands on the handlebars, ‘’you’ll do fine,’’ he had observed Jordan as he rode the bike before, on the way back, and the few times over the last days when he had taken Alfie on a trip around the valley. He pressed the gas and the bike shot forward. He forced himself to slow, despite everything. He wanted to get out, not to kill himself.
He had a four hour journey ahead of him and his only shot at making it was if Jordan didn’t find a replacement vehicle.
In the dead of the night, Mrs Dawn opened the front door of her house in Lincoln in just her robes and gaped at the person who had rang her doorbell, ‘’Alfred William Crow, where in the name of God have you been!?’’ she pulled Alfie into her house before he could answer.
Alfie was bone tired, thirsty, hungry and terrified and he was more than grateful when Mrs Dawn, having awaken Bobby, fixed him tea and toast and sat him at the table in the kitchen. Both she and her son slid into the chairs opposite him, ‘’where have you been?’’ Bobby demanded, ‘’your parents have been sick with worry!’’
Alfie cringed, ‘’sorry, I...it’s a long story, I didn’t want to get them into trouble...’’ he looked between Mrs Dawn and his best friend guiltily, ‘’sorry. I’m probably getting you into trouble.’’
‘’To the point,’’ Mrs Dawn demanded.
‘’A beast bonded with me,’’ Alfie said quietly, setting his toast down. Mrs Dawn inhaled sharply.
‘’But you got home safely!’’ Bobby protested.
‘’Yeah, it was...illegal. He’s powerful enough that the authorities will let it slide, though. Anyway, me and three other guys are held in this mansion in Wales-‘’
‘’In Wales!?’’ Bobby bellowed.
‘’Yeah, and he’ll come for me. I managed to get away but he’ll be pissed and if he catches my scent he’ll follow me here...I’m sorry. But he won’t hurt you. He’s...kind. And gentle. He wouldn’t hurt anyone, not even me but I just...’’ Alfie’s eyes stung, ‘’I can’t...’’
Mrs Dawn reached out to squeeze his hands, ‘’it’s alright, Alfie. I’m glad you’re safe.’’
Alfie nodded in thanks, blinking back tears, ‘’I can’t see my parents. Not yet. I need to get out of here, Mrs Dawn.’’
Mrs Dawn rose, and nodded, ‘’I’ll get you on the first flight to Ireland in the morning,’’ neither of them wanted to think about what would happen if Jordan had registered Alfie as his bond already. Usually that happened once the omega human was made into a beast but if Jordan had done it as soon as he and Alfie bonded, that would mean he’d be stopped at the airport and escorted back to Lirim if he didn’t have a special permission from his bond to travel without him. If they had more time, they could get in touch with one of the many smuggler rings that took a lot of money to ensure a dangerous, dodgy way of travelling to ‘safe’ countries for bonded humans, that not always ended in success. But they didn’t. So their only hope was that Alfie was unregistered. Mrs Dawn, seeing Alfie’s distress, put a hand on his arm, ‘’we’re getting you out of here, Alfie.’’