On the morning of the first Saturday the humans were to spend in Lirim, they did not take breakfast in the kitchen. Brín immediately picked up on the atmosphere around Seon, who led them to the lounge. Something was wrong but he didn’t want to alarm Tommy and Finn so he kept his mouth shut. Alfie wasn’t with them. As Seon escorted them, she stared one of her lectures, perhaps to try and rid the air of the tense atmosphere that had began to blossom, ‘’weekends are special. Instead of lessons, yer free to have some time to yerself and from lunch, yer to spend the rest of the day with yer bond. Phase one is coming up and after that, youse will be allowed a little bit more of freedom...’’ her talking did nothing to relieve the bad atmosphere. If anything, the mood turned even darker as the cook led them down the staircase.
In the lounge, the humans uncertainly joined their beasts at the table in the dining area, sticking to the opposite end of the table. There was no food laid out. Clearly, they were about to have a ‘serious talk’, ‘’what’s going on?’’ Brín demanded, ignoring all the hours of ‘politeness and respect’ that had been drilled into him by Napoleon.
‘’Jordan called,’’ Eric said calmly. He didn’t seem surprised, ‘’Alfie has run away.’’
Finn gasped and Tommy, despite himself, grinned. Finally, one of them was out. Chase glowered, ‘’I’d wipe that smirk off your face. Jordan’s going to catch him.’’
‘’Unlikely,’’ Tommy told him with a venomous smile.
‘’I suppose that’s what he gets for taking him outside before the adjustment period is over,’’ Eric said casually. Alt gave him a look but said nothing.
‘’Wait,’’ Brín’s eyes flicked up to his bond, ‘’Alfie went outside?’’
Eric didn’t bother answering, ‘’we didn’t think it was necessary to remind you that running away from your bond is not only a criminal offence, but also an insult.’’
Brín snorted, ‘’we should probably remind you that what Jordan and Chase did is a criminal offence, since you didn’t seem to realise that the first time we said it.’’
Again, Eric didn’t react, though his voice grew colder, ‘’while we may be lenient with punishment now, when you are changed that won’t be a case. You’ll be formally recognised in the beast community and we will not tolerate disrespect that can mar our reputation.’’
‘’You should hear yourself talk sometimes, Eric,’’ Finn said in a voice so deadly quiet even Brín and Tommy looked at him in surprise. He stood from the table and looked square at the beasts opposite him at the other end of the table, ‘’all of you should. The things you say. Half the time they are disgusting, entitled demands, the other half its asshole remarks. Don’t look at me like that, Alt, you know it’s true. And while you and Jordan may think you’re so much ‘better’ to us, because you don’t treat us like we’re something nasty you happened to step on, you’re in no position to demand our affection and our bodies. Newsflash, being decent does not mean you deserve anything from anyone else, and you’re barely decent. The truth is all four of you are kidnapping bastards, and no amount of flowers and trips out of this goddamned valley will change that. You should probably be on your knees begging for forgiveness and wondering how the hell you’re going to fix this mess of a situation. And you two,’’ he pointed to Chase and Eric, ‘’I don’t know if it’s a family thing, but I feel so sorry for Brín and Tommy because Jordan and Alt are at least a little bit decent. You two are just two pieces of shit. And I actually feel a bit sorry for you, too, because you fucked your chances to have a normal relationship with Brín and Tommy and if they ever stop trying to run from you, they’ll concentrate on making your lives a miserable nightmare.’’
‘’Enough, Finlay,’’ Eric said coldly.
Finn gave him a condescending smirk and walked towards him, chin raised. Eric didn’t back down, ‘’or what, Eric? You’ll lock me up in a mansion in the middle of nowhere and act offended when I try to run away? The truth is your entire community, your traditions and expectations stem from this massive idea that you are so much better than humans. And fine, maybe you’re stronger and faster and more powerful than we are, but you’re also impulsive and fucked up. You’re literally messing up our lives to suit your own purposes and what’s so messed up is that you expect us to accept it and adapt. What makes you so special, hm?’’ Finn stopped right in front of Eric, who gazed down at him in contempt while Finn stared up without a hint of fear in his violet eyes, ‘’because all I’m seeing is four psychopathic animals without a scrap of decency who have been sheltered their whole lives from the truth of the world. And the truth is – you’re not that great. There’s nothing I’ve seen that would make any normal human like you, much less respect you. So get off your high horse, Eric, because you ain’t shit.’’
Eric’s eyes were flashing, his jaw locked as he stared at Finn with so much anger Finn thought he’d reach out and hit him. But he didn’t. He just stared Finn down, hoping to get him to back down. But Finn wasn’t about to. He’d said his piece and he was going to drive the point home. He wasn’t going to lower his eyes for nobody anymore, not for Alt and certainly not for Eric.
‘’Eric,’’ Alt said in a quiet voice. When Eric didn’t move, Alt repeated his name, this time with a growling edge that told Finn his words had hit home with him, too, for better or for worse. Finally, Eric backed down. He turned on his heel and stormed from the lounge. Finn waited for him to leave the room before he turned and walked up the stairs, away from Chase and Alt and their shocked stares.
‘’Are you going to be okay?’’ Bobby asked, glancing uncertainly at Alfie and his mom, holding a baseball bat loosely in her hand. She was taking it with her on the drive to the airport, where Alfie would fly to Ireland with, hopefully, no complications.
‘’Yeah, I think so,’’ Alfie offered Bobby what he hoped was a reassuring smile and embraced his best friend quickly, ‘’thanks for everything.’’
‘’Sort it all out and come back as soon as you can,’’ Bobby patted Alfie’s back. The omega had told him all about his plan to pursue a lawsuit against the beasts in Ireland and get the other humans out.
‘’Alfie, we need to go,’’ Mrs Dawn said, her curly hair illuminated in the slowly rising sun.
Alfie nodded, clasped Bobby’s hand briefly. Bobby opened his mouth to say a proper goodbye when suddenly there was the sound of a car door slamming, and Bobby’s eyes shifted above Alfie’s shoulder before widening, ‘’uh...whose that?’’
Alfie whirled around and took an involuntary step back. A pissed-off looking Jordan was storming towards Alfie, a borrowed car parked haphazardly behind him. Before Alfie could react in any way, Mrs Dawn stepped in front of Alfie and raised the baseball bat, ‘’one more step towards him and you’ll find that pretty face caved in and your brain splattered on the pavement,’’ she said viciously.
Alfie stared at her in shock. There weren’t many people who would stand up to a beast, especially not a high-ranker. Alfie half expected Jordan to grab the bat from Mrs Dawn and snap it in half, but instead he stopped and gave her a long, tired look full of contempt, ‘’ma’am, please lower the bat,’’ he said politely, ‘’I’m here to retrieve Alfie.’’
‘’Oh, I know what you’re here for,’’ Mrs Dawn did not lower her bat, ‘’Alfie, get in the car.’’
Jordan beat Alfie to moving, side-stepping Mrs Dawn. With a furious roar, the woman brought the bat down. Jordan caught the impact with his arm and the bat smashed to a thousand pieces. Mrs Dawn looked at the jagged stump in her hand in shock, ‘’ma’am, please,’’ Jordan said, ‘’if you cause any damage, you could get into serious trouble,’’ he turned to Alfie, ‘’let’s go.’’
‘’I’m not going anywhere with you,’’ Alfie took a step back, ‘’Jordan, I’m serious.’’
Jordan ran his hand down his face and through his hair. He’d clearly not slept for more than twenty four hours and even if he was a beast, it still wore on him, ‘’what do you want me to do, Alfie? It’s done. We’re bonded, forever.’’
‘’I don’t care,’’ Alfie took another step back.
‘’You won’t be able to be with anyone else, ever. You’ll have no freedom – you won’t be able to travel, to buy anything, to even have a goddamned medical check up without being questioned about whom you are bonded to and if you have permission, and I don’t want you to have to live like that.’’
‘’How is that different to now?’’ Alfie fisted his hands to stop the trembling in his fingers. He’d been so close.
Jordan’s dark blue eyes were pleading. Mrs Dawn turned and ran around the house to the garden but the beast didn’t even seem to register the movement, ‘’I know it’s hard for you now. But all you need to give me is those three months. After that, you’re free to move back here if you want, to do as you like, as long as you give me a chance. I know I messed it all up so far, but I’ll do better. Please. That’s all I’m asking.’’
‘’Oh, you’re asking now?’’ Alfie said bitterly, ‘’I don’t want to be made into a beast, Jordan. I don’t want to have sex with you or kiss you or have kids with you,’’ with each word, Jordan looked like he’d break down but Alfie kept on jabbing at him, ‘’I don’t think you can ask for anything at all. I think all you can do is take what you want.’’
Jordan marched up to Alfie, who had, essentially, nowhere to go. The hedge separating the Dawn house from their neighbours was at his back. Bobby was looking around wildly in panic, searching for a weapon, ‘’maybe you’re right,’’ Jordan said quietly, ‘’maybe that’s been true up until now. But I swear to you, I will ask your permission for every little thing from now. After this,’’ and then, without a warning, he grabbed Alfie around the waist and threw him over his shoulder. Alfie struggled but Jordan’s arm around his waist was like an iron bar on a rollercoaster ride. He didn’t budge, not even when Alfie beat his back with his fists and screamed obscenities at him.
Mrs Dawn came charging back from around the house, a metal crowbar glinting in the rising sun as she raised it with every intention of hitting Jordan. But the beast was faster. He grabbed the crowbar before it hit its mark and wrenched it from Mrs Dawn’s hands. The impact sent her sprawling backwards in the dirt. Jordan turned, ignoring Alfie’s protests, and stabbed the crowbar straight through the tire of Mrs Dawn’s car. It deflated and sunk down miserably. Jordan tossed the crowbar out of reach and walked to his borrowed car, ‘’I’ll send someone to pick up my motorcycle,’’ he told the stunned woman and opened the doors of his car, tossing Alfie inside. He slammed the doors shut and jumped over the car quickly. He was in the driver’s seat, yanking Alfie back inside the car before he was fully out of the doors which he promptly locked.
‘’Jordan, stop! I don’t want to go back! I don’t want to!’’
Jordan ignored him, pulling out of the driveway. Alfie desperately reached out and turned the ignition off, yanking the keys out. Jordan snatched them back and as he turned the ignition back on, Alfie grabbed the steering wheel and swerved it harshly to the left. The car skidded and nearly flew into a tree, ‘’whoa!’’ Jordan grabbed Alfie’s hand and yanked it off the steering wheel, fighting to keep the car under control.
‘’Jordan, stop...stop!’’ ignored again, Alfie grabbed the gear stick and started shifting it around. Anything to make the car slow down. Losing his patience, Jordan grabbed both of Alfie’s wrists in his grip and continued driving. No matter how hard Alfie struggled, he couldn’t free himself. For a good ten minutes, Alfie screamed, cursed and struggled. Jordan was impassive as a stone wall. Finally, when they pulled out onto a nearly empty high way, Jordan let go of Alfie, who immediately lunged for the steering wheel.
Jordan shoved Alfie back into his seat and pulled a seatbelt quickly across his chest. Then, without a warning, he gunned the engine. Alfie pressed himself into his seat as the car shot between the others, the rumble of the engine loud in his ears. Still Jordan went faster, the knuckles of his hand white as he held onto the steering wheel, eyes stormy, ‘’slow down! Jordan, slow down, we’re going to crash!’’ Jordan’s dark brows furrowed. Still he went faster. Cars beeped at them as they zoomed past, barely avoiding crashing into anyone else, ‘’Jordan, please! Please, slow down!’’ and then Alfie burst into tears. He couldn’t help it. He was frustrated, angry and heartbroken and now, on top of all that, he was also scared as all hell. Whatever breaking point Alfie had driven Jordan to, it made him reckless.
But as soon as Jordan saw his bond dissolve into tears, he lifted his foot off the gas pedal and the car slowed to acceptable speed. He was breathing hard, still clutching the steering wheel, as he looked at Alfie, who had now curled in on himself and was sobbing into his knees, ‘’I’m sorry,’’ he panted out, ‘’I’m sorry, Alfie,’’ but he didn’t stop the car. And Alfie didn’t dare try and sabotage their journey back to Lirim again.
Finn locked himself in the library again after his little outburst. The library was quickly becoming his sanctuary and with the meaning of the gloxinia still unknown to him, at least he had something to concentrate on. By lunch, he had scanned through every flower book twice and eventually just settled for reading The Language of Flowers in one of the armchairs. It was an old, old book, half as ancient as Lirim itself. The pages were yellowed and curling on the edges, the illustrations slightly faded. It had been used by lovers back in the Victorian era as a way of exchanging messages discreetly. It would seem Baltasar Narvaez was a hopeless romantic. Now that he had time to think about what he said, Finn felt the slightest pinprick of guilt amongst the sea of satisfaction and self-congratulation. Alt wasn’t as bad as he’d made out. Sure, based off their first meeting he was a ruthless kidnapper, but the more Finn found out about him, the more he realised that that event had been a big mistake on Alt’s part. He didn’t know if that changed anything.
As dinner time loomed closer and closer, Finn finally closed The Language of Flowers and unfolded his legs from where they had been tucked under him as he read. He could barely feel them. He wondered if hunger would drive him out of the library at some point. He didn’t feel like facing anyone, not even Seon or the other boys. But, as if the universe had a sense of humour, just as the thought left his head a polite knock sounded throughout the library and the doors opened. Alt shuffled inside, shoulders hunched. For once he was out of a black shirt, wearing instead a navy Aran jumper that made him look softer. He carried a large, heavenly smelling box but Finn folded his arms over his chest defiantly, ‘’what do you want?’’
To Finn’s utmost shock, Alt walked up to the armchair and went on his knees in front of Finn. The most powerful beast in the world. On his knees. In front of a human. Even Finn understood the magnitude of the gesture, ‘’forgive me,’’ Alt said gruffly, ‘’for everything.’’ Finn realised what he was doing – he was begging for forgiveness, literally, as Finn said all the beasts should be doing. Alt shyly set the large box on Finn’s lap.
Finn raised an eyebrow, ‘’you’re trying to bribe me with pizza?’’
‘’I thought you might be hungry,’’ Alt said quietly.
Finn studied him for a moment. Alt was trying his best to keep up his expressionless mask, but his eyes exuded misery. It still blew Finn’s mind how such a small, simple guy like him could make such a powerful beast look like a kicked puppy. Eventually, Finn kissed his teeth and opened the box, ‘’I didn’t know they delivered to the middle of nowhere,’’ he said, nodding his head at the armchair next to Finn’s. Alt got up and sat down in it. The armchair, comfortably large for Finn, was dwarfed by Alt’s hulking shape.
‘’You drove out?’’ Finn asked mouth full of cheese and toppings. Alt had chosen spicy chicken supreme with double cheese – a wise choice.
‘’I didn’t think you’d want to see me,’’ Alt’s voice was quiet, as always.
‘’Yeah, I didn’t,’’ Finn said bluntly, ‘’did Jordan come back?’’
Alt noticed The Language of Flowers at the foot of Finn’s armchair and picked it up, ‘’oh,’’ was all he said, clearly recognising the book.
Finn devoured the first piece of the pizza, not as hot as he would have liked but greasy and full of calories that Finn desperately craved, and started on the second, ‘’what did the gloxinia mean?’’ he asked with his mouth full.
He could have sworn Alt’s brown-gold cheeks flushed, ‘’it didn’t mean anything,’’ Alt put the book down quickly.
Finn raised an eyebrow, ‘’liar. I’ll find out, eventually.’’
The corner of Alt’s mouth curled up in a smile and Finn paused mid-chew. Alt looked...nice, when he smiled. He was pretty handsome generally. He had a killer jaw-line, nicely shaped eyes and thick eyebrows, plus the literal body of a Greek god, but when he smiled...he looked approachable. Younger, more open. Finn quickly looked away and continued chewing his pizza, ‘’...phase one is coming,’’ Alt said eventually.
‘’Yeah,’’ Finn said vaguely, starting on his third slice.
‘’I...it’ll be fine,’’ Alt cleared his throat awkwardly, ‘’...it won’t hurt, or anything. It shouldn’t. I’ll try to make sure it won’t. Um...’’ Alt trailed off, unsure of what he would say. Finn didn’t react, continuing to munch on his pizza. Finally, Alt stood and surprised Finn by gently ruffling his hair. Then, just like that, he left the library, even though weekends were ‘special’. Finn was quickly realising that as easy as Alt was to read, he was also very good at reading others.
A moment before dinner Jordan finally arrived back in Lirim. Eric, Brín, Chase, Tommy and Alt were at the table in the lounge as Jordan banged the doors open and, ignoring them and their surprised stares completely, dragged Alfie up the winding staircase up to the first floor and then up to the second. Alfie was limp, trailing his feet, so Jordan literally dragged him along. His eyes were puffy from crying and he didn’t even bother protesting as Jordan pulled him into his bedroom and closed the door. Alfie kept his eyes glued onto the opposite wall as Jordan set about preparing the bed for sleep, ‘’want me to take my clothes off?’’ Alfie asked in a quiet, bitter voice, ‘’make it easy for you.’’
Jordan stopped, ‘’that’s repulsive,’’ he said in a very quiet voice, ‘’don’t talk like that.’’
‘’Like you beasts don’t do it all the time,’’ Alfie’s voice was a low hiss.
Jordan ignored the remark, pulling back the covers, ‘’rest.’’
‘’I don’t want to.’’
‘’Fine,’’ Jordan impatiently let go of the covers, ‘’I’ll have Seon send up dinner.’’
‘’I don’t want to eat.’’
‘’Well, you have to,’’ Jordan snapped and left the room, closing the doors behind him. When Alfie heard the lock click, he whirled round. Suddenly, the room felt suffocating. He lunged at the doors and rattled the handle. They were locked.
‘’Jordan, let me out!’’ Alfie yelled, slamming his fists into the doors, ‘’Jordan! Jordan you asshole!’’
But Jordan didn’t come back.
Seeing Alfie dragged across the lounge like that triggered something in Tommy. He had to calm down, first and foremost. And then he had to get out there. Because it would only get harder from here. If Alfie failed after only having to run from the town, then it would be near impossible to get out of Lirim itself and the window of opportunity would only get smaller and smaller. Plus, once phase one came around and Tommy was made into a beast he’d be registered as Chase’s bond. He’d never get past any border control.
He’d have to wait for night to fall.
He left the dinner table rather fast after Jordan’s unseemly interruption and found himself wandering the halls of Lirim. There was one room he’d never gone into. He talked about it with Brín and wondered what was behind it – if it held one of the beasts’ many dark secrets. Now Tommy went all the way up to the second floor of Lirim and jogged up the stairs leading to the mystery attic room that was always locked. This time, he came prepared – he had one of the hair pins Seon had dropped off for Brín, to keep his long bangs out of his face. Tommy straightened it out and plonked it into the lock, nudging around. He was pretty good at picking locks. In the first years high school, he wanted to be a spy and he spent many breaks and lunchtimes picking the locks on the lockers of his friends before presenting them proudly with their textbooks, newspaper cut outs or PE socks in their next lesson together. And, like most locks, this one wielded under Tommy’s skilled fingers. Curiously and a little nervously, Tommy propped his glasses up his nose and opened the doors.
It was as if he’d been teleported into a different dimension.
Tommy gasped as he suddenly found himself in a garden. A garden that shouldn’t have existed in an attic, but did thanks to the ceiling made from glass, letting in the late afternoon sunlight. All sorts of plants, flowers and greenery grew from pots, rows and clumps of earth. There were trees curling around the walls, bushes of berries and groupings of colourful flowers that only bloomed in summer but were now open and soaking in the sunlight. Birds fluttered in the trees, singing the last songs of the day, free to come in and out through the ajar windows. In awe, Tommy walked through the garden, peering at the colourful, sweet smelling plants. He wished he had his camera with him. There were a hundred specimens here that he could use for his personal projects.
‘’What are you doing here?’’ a surprised, deep voice broke Tommy from his admiring and he scrambled back from a bush full of yellow roses to stare at Alt, standing in the doorway to the attic. Tommy’s blood froze. Shit. He’d intruded on a beast’s personal space, and he’d been caught. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit...
‘’I-is this garden yours?’’ he asked nervously, taking a step back, ready to run anywhere if Alt lost his temper.
But then all the fear went out of him. Because Alt blushed a little and rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, ‘’um...yes...?’’
‘’Oh...’’ Tommy blinked at him from behind his circular glasses, ‘’I would have thought it’d be Vicky tending it, or something...’’
Alt nodded, ‘’I’m painfully aware of that...’’
Tommy gave the beast an uncertain smile, ‘’it’s a very pretty garden.’’
Alt blushed a little harder, ‘’thank you...’’ he mumbled.
‘’I like taking pictures of nature,’’ Tommy started walking around again, feeling a little bit more comfortable. He bent down to admire a row of potted aloe vera plants. The closer he got to the walls, the warmer they got. They must have been heated internally for the more tropical plants located closer to them, ‘’this is the first time since I came that I’ve wanted to take pictures of something.’’
Tommy didn’t look up to see Alt’s reaction to that but a moment later the beast was by him, and something bumped against his shoulder. Tommy stared at the phone Alt was extending towards him – his phone, ‘’sorry, I don’t have an actual camera.’’
Stunned, Tommy took the phone from Alt’s hand. For a second, he wanted to call the police, but then he reminded himself it would be futile, so he swiped against the screen, pulling up the camera, and angled it at the aloe vera plants. He then pulled back to adjust the settings, and finally started snapping photos. For the next hour, Tommy snapped pictures of the attic garden while Alt walked around, watering his plants before planting a couple seed in an empty space in the corner.
Tommy didn’t mind Alt’s presence and Alt didn’t seem to mind his, either.
Chase felt...guilty. He hated feeling guilty. He’d promised himself long ago that he would be unapologetic about everything he did. If someone didn’t like it, tough. But...his actions had never directly impacted someone as negatively as they had Tommy. And after what Finn said, Chase had to admit that even if he didn’t plan on pursuing any kind of relationship with the human, an apology was in order. Chase hated apologising, too. And Tommy was infuriating. Everything, from his face to his voice to his actions pissed Chase off. But bonds were for life and the shitty thing was, once you bonded with someone, you couldn’t physically stomach being with anyone else. If they had to live together forever, Chase couldn’t deal with feeling this nagging guilt every time he saw Tommy. But his bond was nowhere to be found. With each empty room Chase came upon, his irritation grew. He was probably smoking somewhere where Chase hadn’t caught him yet. Chase lacked control of the situation from start to finish and that made him feel vulnerable.
He was stalking around the second floor, when he picked up Tommy’s voice. As a leopard-beast, his hearing was better than that of a human. He stopped in the middle of the corridor and turned in disbelief towards Alt’s private room. They all had those. Chase had his art room, Jordan his garage, Eric the music room and Alt...his garden. The garden he barely let Tommy, Eric and Jordan enter, much less a human omega he barely knew. Chase’s blood boiled. Tommy was slowly but surely infiltrating the life in Lirim how Chase knew it, and the beast didn’t like that.
‘’Calm down,’’ he mumbled to himself, ‘’just say sorry and get out of there,’’ he stomped up the stairs, took a deep breath and pushed the doors opened. He stopped dead at what he saw. Tommy was grinning, swiping his finger across Alt’s phone, showing him something while Alt peered over his head curiously. Alt was a pretty shy guy and he could barely deal with being close to strangers, so why was he...why were he and Tommy...
Tommy looked up with sparkling, bright hazel eyes that immediately dimmed when they fell on Chase, ‘’oh,’’ he said, as if he was looking at a pile of trash, ‘’it’s you.’’
‘’What are you doing here?’’ Chase demanded.
‘’Avoiding you, Firecracker; do you have to snarl at me like a pissed off ferret all the time?’’
‘’I don’t know, do you have to piss me off every time you see me?’’ Chase snapped, ‘’besides, you started with the tone, Flame-Brain.’’
Tommy rolled his eyes, ‘’fuck you want, Sparky?’’
Chase felt rage cloud his vision at Tommy’s insolence. He wasn’t apologising. No way. He’d feel stupid. Tommy would probably laugh at him saying sorry in this scenario, ‘’nothing anymore,’’ Chase grumbled, turned around and stormed out of the attic garden.
Alfie froze, the makeshift rope he was trying to make from the bed-sheets hanging from his hands, as the lock in the doors clicked and Jordan walked in. He froze, too, taking in the rope, the open window...then he just sighed as if he was dealing with a persistent child, crossed the room and snatched the rope from Alfie’s hands, ‘’you didn’t touch your food,’’ he said in a colder voice than Alfie was used to, nudging his chin at the dinner tray lying untouched on the low bedside table. Alfie didn’t reply and Jordan undid the rope quickly, laying the blankets and covers back on the bed, ‘’don’t try running again. All the guards are keeping a special eye out for you.’’
Alfie turned away from him, towards the window, and crossed his arms over his chest. Jordan paused, then straightened, ‘’what, are you ignoring me now?’’ the silence that answered him was a confirmation, ‘’oh my god, please, how old are you? What do you think you’re going to achieve by not speaking to me?’’ when Alfie didn’t turn around, Jordan went to him and touched his shoulder. Alfie shrugged him off violently. Jordan sighed again, ‘’are you mad because I locked you in here?’’ he asked softly, ‘’I’m sorry. I didn’t want you running off again. We need to talk, Alfie. Properly. About what we’re going to do. You can’t keep trying to run from me and avoid speaking with me. We’re bonded,’’ he reached out and brushed a finger against the side of Alfie’s neck, where the small birth-mark like patch bloomed. Alfie brushed his cheek against his shoulder as if some kind of bug had scuttled against his neck.
‘’Fine,’’ Jordan said quietly, hurt. There was absolutely nothing he could do about Alfie refusing to speak to him and the helplessness made his eyes sting, ‘’you can stay here and brood, then,’’ he quickly left the room, locking it behind himself.
Brín spent most of the day worried about Alfie, and then his worry intensified when Alfie was dragged back and locked in Jordan’s bedroom. When Brín was sure Jordan was downstairs, he sneaked to the second floor and tried futilely to open the doors. He’d have to get Tommy to come and pick the lock later. For now, he knocked softly on the doors, ‘’Alfie? You in there?’’
For a long moment, there was no response. Brín wondered if Alfie was asleep, ignoring him or if he’d sneaked out again. But then he heard Alfie’s timid voice, ‘’Brín?’’
‘’Hey,’’ Brín said with a relieved smile, putting a hand against the door. At least Alfie was okay. At least Jordan hadn’t done anything weird, ‘’you okay, smudge?’’
Alfie’s chuckle was faint and unstable, but at least it was there, ‘’smudge?’’
‘’Yeah. Cause you’re so skinny. I figured it was a good nickname.’’
‘’Whatever, whisky truffle.’’
Brín chuckled, too, then bit his lip, ‘’did Jordan...hurt you? After he dragged you back, I mean.’’
‘’No. Not really,’’ Alfie’s voice was muffled by the doors, ‘’I’m not speaking to him. I think I got him angry.’’
‘’Good,’’ Brín said, ‘’don’t make this easy for him.’’
Alfie was silent for a moment, ‘’he’s not a bad guy,’’ he said finally, ‘’he just...fuck, he royally fucked up at the beginning. And now. If only he’d let me go...we could bloody hang out or whatever. Why are all of them...’’ Alfie’s voice cracked, ‘’so messed up?’’
‘’I don’t know, Alfie. Upbringing, I guess. Society. Tradition.’’
Alfie sighed, ‘’I’m sorry. I shouldn’t even be complaining. You and Tommy have it much worse.’’
‘’Which doesn’t mean you have it bad,’’ Brín patted the doors as if he could pat Alfie’s shoulder, ‘’I’ll...try to get you out of here, one way or another. Get some sleep.’’
Brín could have sworn he heard a sniffle from the other end of the doors, ‘’thanks, Brín.’’
‘’Always, smudge,’’ Brín smiled, but the smile quickly disappeared. He could get Tommy to bust Alfie from the room but that wouldn’t guarantee Jordan wouldn’t toss him right inside. No, he would have to go talk to Jordan directly.
He found him in the lounge, sitting with the lights off, with only moonlight falling through the windows illuminating his face. He was drinking dark auburn liquid from a crystal glass and he looked nearly as tired as Eric. He managed a miserable smile as Brín came to sit opposite him. Brín reminded himself that he had to be assertive. He was three years older than Jordan; he could talk the beast out of his stupidity, ‘’did you forget Alfie’s still locked up in your room?’’
Jordan took a healthy gulp of his brandy, ‘’no.’’
‘’Are you going to let him out?’’
‘’When he decides to speak to me.’’
Brín gave him a look, ‘’Jordan. You kidnapped him once. Then you kidnapped him again. You need to stop looking at this situation through a cloud of self entitlement,’’ Jordan didn’t reply and Brín sighed, ‘’what if he decides never to speak to you again? Are you just going to keep him in that room forever?’’
‘’No, of course not,’’ Jordan finished his drink, and Brín realised it wasn’t his first, or even his second, even if beasts hated alcohol. Jordan must have been at the edge of desperation if he was resolving to drinking, ‘’it hurts. That he doesn’t want me. It hurts a lot,’’ Jordan whispered, ‘’I didn’t think it would feel...like this.’’
Brín looked at him for a long moment. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t lie. In his head, this all ended with the four of them running away. He couldn’t bring himself to assure Jordan that it would all work out, ‘’look, just...however bad this situation is, locking Alfie up is only making it worse.’’
Jordan hung his head and after a moment reached out to pour himself more brandy, ‘’sorry, Brín,’’ he said quietly, ‘’but I don’t think I can talk about this right now.’’
‘’Whatever you’re feeling, I can assure you, Alfie feels ten times wor-‘’
‘’Stop talking about it!’’ Jordan exploded suddenly, ‘’he’s my bond! Not yours! So just...’’ he trailed off miserably, his voice becoming choked, ‘’just...leave me alone...’’
‘’Sorry,’’ Brín said dryly, standing, ‘’I just thought we lived in the same century.’’
He hurried up the stairs back up to the first floor but he wasn’t about to give up. He had one more option.
And that option was Eric Fredriksen.
Brín found him in his office, even this late in the evening. He even knocked, trying to start his case positively. If Eric essentially told him to fuck off, he’d have to put all his hopes in Tommy’s lock-picking skills, ‘’come in,’’ came Eric’s tired voice and Brín slipped into his office. Eric’s ash-blond hair was tied in his custom knot at the back of his head and he forgot to shave again. He wore a long sleeved black top, pulled over his wrists. He was reading one of the papers, resting his pen against his temple but at least he looked up at Brín, ‘’still working?’’ Brín tried to keep his nerves at bay.
‘’Did you need something?’’ Eric asked mildly, glancing back down at his papers.
‘’I...uh...Jordan locked Alfie in his bedroom.’’
‘’I’ve heard,’’ Eric murmured, propping the spectacles he wore for reading up his nose. Brín was losing his attention.
‘’Can you please do something about it.’’
Eric rubbed his temple and sighed but nodded, ‘’yes, fine, I’ll try,’’ he said. In a tone that signalled he’d forget about it in the next three seconds.
But Brín was not going to let Alfie be locked in that room over night.
He marched up to Eric’s desk and slammed his hands on either side of the stack of papers, rattling the various stationary pieces on the desk. Eric glanced up, surprised, and Brín snatched the paper out of his hand, slamming it atop the stack. His voice remained steady and firm as he said, ‘’this is not something to sigh over. My friend, on top of being locked up in this house, is also locked in Jordan’s bedroom. You’re my bond so I’m coming to you hoping you can fix this, so don’t sigh at me as if I’m a child. You already got lectured by Finn today and I doubt you want me to repeat what he said. You think I’m useless. I think you’re pretty useless, too, and frankly this is one of the few opportunities you have to prove that there’s something resembling a decent human being in the husk of a man sitting in front of me.’’
Brín waited for Eric to say something akin to ‘why do you think I want to prove myself to you?’ that would end the conversation, but instead the beast dropped his pen, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. His blue eyes, framed by pale lashes, were serious as he said, ‘’when did you get this assertive?’’
Brín gave him a stare, ‘’go talk to Jordan.’’
‘’Fine,’’ Eric rose and Brín stumbled back as he came around the desk, surprised.
‘’Where is he?’’
‘’Downstairs in the lounge. He’s drinking.’’
‘’Fantastic,’’ Eric said sarcastically, leaving the office and then the bedroom. Brín followed him but stopped as Eric made his way downstairs. He’d just let the beast deal with it from now.
Jordan sat with his head hung low when Eric entered the lounge. He came around the couch, pushing Jordan’s head down in an almost playful manner, like he used to when they were younger, ‘’what are you doing, Jordie, hm?’’
‘’I don’t know,’’ came Jordan’s quiet reply, ‘’I don’t want to be lectured by you of all people.’’
Eric leaned on the back of the couch Jordan sat on and crossed his arms, ‘’in the end, I’m not the one locking up my bond in my bedroom.’’
‘’In the end I’m not the one telling my bond he’s defective because he’s past the ideal age for bearing children,’’ Jordan bit back bitterly.
Eric groaned, ‘’you’re the third person to give me that talk today. One of which was my bond,’’ he rubbed his temple, ‘’you need to sort yourself out, Jordan.’’
Jordan was quiet for a long while. When he spoke again, his voice shook, ‘’it feel like my heart is breaking.’’
‘’How very dramatic,’’ Eric said, gently. He wasn’t good at comforting people. He sank his hand into Jordan’s black hair and ruffled it slowly, ‘’there are many things you can do and not do right now, but keeping Alfred in that room is one of the worst decisions you could make. Whatever trust he has for you has already frayed because you brought him back here-‘’
‘’He didn’t trust me. At all,’’ Jordan whispered, ‘’it was all an act. And I thought...’’
‘’Fine. Then everything you worked for so far has essentially been destroyed. So what. Being bonded has never been easy. Start over. Start it right. Make sure he trusts you for real this time. For that to happen, you have to unlock that door right now, Jordan.’’
Jordan snorted bitterly but stood, ‘’you should take your own advice, Eric,’’ he mumbled but walked, albeit a little unevenly, towards the stairs and up to his room. He dug the key out from his pocket and unlocked the doors. He pushed them open, half expecting Alfie to be mounting another escape. Instead, his bond was curled up in the middle of the bed, asleep.
Jordan felt a pang of hurt in his chest. In the end, he left Alfie fall asleep thinking Jordan would force him to stay in the room until he did as Jordan wanted. And maybe he would have, if the boys hadn’t talked sense into him. He never even expected to be bonded. He had no idea what he was doing.
In the end, he left the door ajar so that when Alfie woke up he’d know he could leave, and went to sleep in one of the guest rooms.
Everyone, even Miss Medrano, seemed to be concentrated on Alfie that night. It was the perfect chance for Tommy to try and run. He did what he had before – sneaked out of one of the windows in the corridor. This time, he didn’t even dream about going for one of the vehicles. If Alfie had Jordan’s motorcycle when he ran and Jordan still caught him, then Tommy would never make it out of the valley and the sound would only alert Miss Medrano and the other beasts of what he was doing. No, his hope lay in going quick and fast in a random direction that the beasts wouldn’t expect him to go in. They’d think he’d follow the path out of the beacon. So Tommy would go into the valley.
As soon as Tommy’s feet hit the ground in front of Lirim, he was off. He didn’t sprint. He would need his energy. Instead, he settled for a fast jog, running into the darkness. He had no idea where he was going but the moonlight illuminated the valley enough for him to spot the rise of the valley in the distance to the left and go for that.
When half an hour later, tired, lungs and thighs burning, he reached the side of the beacon and heard no one following him, he grew more confident. He inspected the valley side. It was steep, but he could probably climb it. What he found on the other end would mean success or failure of his escape.
Nearly two hours after he set out from Lirim, Tommy was halfway up the laborious hike and was beginning to regret his decision. Dawn was a couple hours away and he didn’t know the way out of the valleys. They were in Wales; everything looked the same here. But Tommy wasn’t about to give up. Drenched in sweat, thirsty and tired, he prowled on.
He heard it ten minutes later, when he crouched on the steep hill for a breather. A roar all the way from Lirim, where lights began flickering on, ‘’shit,’’ Tommy whispered to himself. Because Chase had just found out he was gone and the hourglass had been turned. In the best case scenario, Chase would go towards the town. In the worst case scenario, he was already sprinting to where Tommy was. Tommy got up, adrenaline pumping in his veins, and began climbing up the hill at twice the speed. He was close to the top when he heard Chase’s growl, much too close. Below him. The leopard was climbing up the valley, like Tommy was, and with his claws, he’d make it to Tommy in minutes. Breathing hard with panic, Tommy scrambled further up, earth and grass knocked lose under his fingertips as the valley became almost vertical before he finally reached the top.
Tommy collapsed atop the valley for a precious few seconds, catching his breath. Then he scrambled up to his feet and looked at what would be his escape route, ‘’shit,’’ he whispered, ‘’shit...shit...’’ the landscape before him was flooded in moonlight but it was not pretty. More valley. Green stretching as far as Tommy could see. And below him, down a steep hill...a massive lake. He could run and risk tripping and falling and breaking something – his wrist or his neck, depending on his level of luck. He could go down the top of the valley and try his luck there. Or he could jump and hope falling into the lake from this height wouldn’t kill him. And he had to make his choice fast.
Because Chase in leopard form jumped onto the top of the hill and growled at Tommy.
Tommy backed up as far as he could. The drop was behind him now, and a pissed off beast in front of him. He didn’t know what was worse, ‘’stay back,’’ he barked at Chase, who began stalking closer, like a predator observing its prey, ‘’I’m serious, Chase. S-stay back...’’ his panic was making it hard to breathe. Another step back. The end of his toes met nothing. His heart hammered in his chest, ‘’Chase, seriously-‘’
In one second, there was ground beneath Tommy’s feet. In the next, the unstable grass and mud fell lose under Tommy’s weight and Tommy was tumbling backwards. Chase reacted immediately. He pounced and in the air he shifted from beast to human. Tommy’s scream lodged itself in his throat as Chase grabbed his forearm, he himself dangling from the edge of the valley by his other hand, ‘’oh my god, you’re naked!’’ Tommy shrieked.
‘’That’s what you’re worried about!?’’ Chase screamed down at him. His muscles were pronounced from the effort of keeping both of them up.
‘’Oh, this is not happening,’’ Tommy tried not to look down at the black mass of the lake, ‘’this isn’t some goddamned movie!!’’
‘’Stop...talking...’’ Chase growled out.
Tommy was shaking. Even with his mad strength, Chase couldn’t hold them up for long, especially not after a rather tiring run across the valley and up the hill, ‘’C-Chase...’’ Tommy gripped his forearm, his only life line, ‘’I know we hate each other but fuck, please, don’t let me go!’’
‘’Wasn’t...planning...on it...’’ Chase managed. He forced his claws out, digging them into the earth for better purchase. Bad move. The already unstable earth crumbled a little and the two dropped an inch in the air. Tommy screamed, ‘’it’s not gonna...hold...’’
Tommy stared up at the edge of the valley. Chase was right. Tommy tried to concentrate on the positives. Cats couldn’t swim. If he let go, he could drop into the lake. Maybe he’d break something but Chase definitely wouldn’t go after him. This would be his chance to escape. He tried not to think too much about broken bones as he took a deep breath and let go.
But Chase just gripped his forearm tighter.
‘’Let go!’’ Tommy yelled at him, ‘’or we’ll both fall!’’
‘’You won’t survive, idiot! You don’t... heal as fast as a beast!’’ Chase yelled back, confirming Tommy’s worst fears. He gripped Chase’s forearm again.
‘’Shit, shit, shit...just let go! Just let go, Chase, cause I won’t be able to!’’
‘’I can’t! My instincts...won’t...let me...’’ Chase kind of wished he could shrug Tommy off. Deep water scared him to death. On the other hand he wasn’t that much of an asshole to let someone just die. But as the earth moved under his hand again, he knew they were hanging on a strand. And there was nothing to do but let go, ‘’deep breath, Flame-Brain!’’
Chase let go. Tommy shrieked as they hurtled through the air. Chase shifted in the air, grabbing Tommy and dragging him against him in the air. It was harder than he thought, but he managed to twist so that when they finally hit the lake, he took the brunt of the hit with his back.
Every part of Tommy’s body screamed as he went underwater, the impact reverberating down his bones. It was darker here than above surface, murky and terrifying. As soon as they hit the water, Chase lost his grip on Tommy, who turned to swim to the surface. But then something prompted him to look around – and he just glimpsed the lighter patch of Chase’s blond hair as he floated deeper. Shit, he can’t swim, Tommy reminded himself. And maybe he was just a decent person, or maybe some instinct linked to the bonding mark on his neck prompted him to do it or maybe it was because Chase had just let go to voluntarily fall into a lake to make sure his bond made it out alive, through some weird instinct of his, but Tommy cut through the water after Chase. His bones and skin and muscles hurt, but he did it. He grabbed Chase’s arm before he completely disappeared into the darkness and tugged him up. He was heavy as hell and his closed eyes indicated that he was unconscious. Tommy barely managed to haul Chase to the surface of the lake.
It was difficult swimming towards shore while holding up a dead weight but, somehow, Tommy managed. He crawled onto the shore of the lake, coughing water and feeling sore all over. He dropped Chase unceremoniously as soon as he was out of direct water. One of his arms was twisted at a gross angle and there were bruises blooming all over his naked body already, at which Tommy tried not to look. He was in a bad shape, but he was also a beast. He’d heal.
More importantly, he was still unconscious. Tommy heaved himself up on his elbows. He had to go. If he was going, it had to be now. But as he struggled to his feet, darkness flickered at the corners of his vision and he collapsed back on the ground. Everything hurt. He was tired and cold. He tried to tell himself to get up but as he heard footsteps approaching – of whichever beast found them first – everything went completely black.
And Tommy’s attempt at getting away failed once again, because of a stupid, stupid wild cat.