“No please. I didn’t do it! I didn’t tell them!” He struggled as rough hands shoved him into a room that smelled like metal and antiseptic. Anything but this room.
Seunghoon, the team leader pushed him back with a snarl.
“How did they know our exact location then? Who could have told them? Not even the client knew of our plan.”
“I don’t know! I—,” He looked towards Jinwoo who was standing behind Seunghoon, but his face was also a mask stern disdain. His heart started beating erratically, the effects of the room already sending his anxiety through the roof.
“You have to believe me, I had nothing to do with it.” He tried to look for Mino. Mino will understand. Surely Mino will believe him.
Mino wasn’t there.
“Where’s Mino?” He asked, forgetting his own situation, he grabbed the flap of Seunghoon’s coat, heedless of the consequences. It earned him another shove that he fell to his side on the metal coated floor.
“Funny you should ask.” Seunghoon sneered. It made his blood go cold.
“Seunghoon.” Jinwoo warned.
“Mino was shot by the leader of your tribe.”
He didn’t know how many days have passed, he was locked in the “damp room” with a single tiny lightbulb. No window or anything to tell what time it was. He only knew time has passed when food arrived.
The damp room was made with layers of copper, aluminium and lead, all with the purpose of “dampening” radio signal, preventing anything from tracking the device that was implanted into his spine when he was just a child. He did not even know this until they did an xray to locate it.
They couldn’t take it out without killing him. They locked him back into the damp room again.
At least it was a small mercy that they didn’t kill him.
But he was dying anyway.
He was a bastard child, born of adultery. His mother who was then the chieftain’s wife got pregnant by the chief’s second in command.
His real father was executed on the spot.
But because of the strict rules of the tribe that did not allow the termination of a pregnancy, they allowed his mother to give birth to him and then they executed her too.
All of this was told to him in sordid detail when he was just a child. A wretched story of how he came to be, how his very existence undermined the pride of the current chieftain, the blemish in his long history of success.
No one wished to be associated with the son of an adulteress. He lived in the servants’ quarters where an old nanny took pity on him and taught him how to read. She snuck him books from the library. A place he was not allowed to go. One of the multiple places that were forbidden to him.
He was never allowed to attend tribe meetings and functions. Was not allowed to serve as a soldier or any position that could gain him rank. He was forbidden from going to school with the other children.
All in all, he was lower than a servant.
He was merely allowed to live because he had done nothing to earn death.
That was his existence until he met this boy during his fourteenth year. His name was Jaebum. The son of the blacksmith Im. A well respected man. A wolf.
Seungyoon didn't know what the boy saw in him, but he befriended Seungyoon. Jaebum wanted to take him around, introduce him to his other friends, but Seungyoon knew that wasn't going to go well. He wasn't going to risk Jaebum being shunned as well.
So they stayed in hiding. The little ray of happiness in Seungyoon’s otherwise miserable life. They had to run further to play in parts of the forest not frequented by their tribe or meet at night when everyone else was sleeping, just to talk about anything and everything. Seungyoon was finally able to shift to his fox form without fear of being preyed on by larger animals. He had Jaebum. His wolf friend.
Jaebum was Seungyoon’s secret friend.
Until Sana, Jaebum's sister discovered their friendship. She didn't like Seungyoon. At all.
"You will ruin him. You should know to stay away. You're so selfish." Barbs that he could not ignore. Because it was true. The guilt that plagued him each time they met up, mounted until Sana piled it on him that it was insurmountable.
He tried to avoid Jaebum after that. But the more he tried to avoid him, the more determined Jaebum was. It was unfair, he said. Seungyoon didn’t deserve to be an outcast, he said.
But Seungyoon never really believed that the clan could ever accept him. For a few years he had Jaebum. That was enough. He couldn’t be selfish anymore.
"Why are you doing this? Why won't you just leave me alone?" He cried, pulling his arm from Jaebum's grip, his chest aching. Please. Don’t leave me. “You’re making it so hard for me.” You are my happiness. “Why are you so damn persistent?” I don’t deserve you.
"Because I love you!" Jaebum yelled.
After seven years of friendship, Seungyoon finally saw Jaebum. Steadfast, loyal and honorable, he always was. But even Seungyoon knew what he wanted was impossible. It was so impossible that Seungyoon never even entertained the idea.
“Jaebum. Don’t be stupid.” He said coldly, the shards of ice literally ripping his insides as he forced himself to hurt the only person who probably loved him. “You are your father’s son. I am no one.”
“You are Seungyoon. My Seungyoon. I’ve loved you ever since I saw you sneaking around to read a book from the library.” Jaebum took his hands that were as cold as he felt and started chafing them. “It doesn’t matter to me who you are. You are someone to me.”
Those dear words. Words that carved their way into his heart. He was so thankful. Grateful.
I don’t deserve you.
For the last time, he yanked his hands away, steeling himself against Jaebum’s expression. Before Jaebum could even compose himself again, Seungyoon delivered the last blow. To Jaebum’s pride.
“And what can you do? Claim me? You? You have no power in this tribe.”
Jaebum flinched. Seungyoon knew it was a sore spot for him because he complained for years that he won’t hold a position of power because while the blacksmith was respectable, he was not a blood of the chieftain. Unless he formed a tribe of his own, he will never have power within the one he was in.
“Just leave me alone. Find another girl. I don’t want any part in this.” He turned his back to his only friend.
The very next day, he was seized by the chieftain and his men. Thievery they said.
For stealing a gold medallion meant for the chieftain.
Made by the blacksmith.
They told him it was found under his bed. He knew he was being framed but he couldn’t tell them that he was out in the fields with Jaebum that night and that he couldn’t possibly be the one to have stolen the medallion.
So he kept quiet.
The normal punishment for petty theft was ten strikes with the striking rod. A theft this magnitude was left to the discretion of the chieftain. Seungyoon was not spared.
He was taken to one of the punishment cottages, hands tied and hung above his head to a stout wooden beam. His shirt was stripped off him. He was so terrified. He only heard of what happened within these cottages and none of them were ever pleasant.
“Ungrateful runt.” Was growled behind him. He was blindfolded. “Just like your father. A thief.”
The pain he went through then was unimaginable. The rod that was used to punish was specifically made with certain metals that would inflict the most pain on their kind. Injuries that would have normally healed fast lingered. His body tried to shift but couldn’t. They broke his ribs, his left arm, both of his legs. All of his fingers.
He wanted to scream but he was locked within his own body, trapped by his mind, unable to move or speak.
And to them, his silence was tantamount to admitting guilt.
But even through this, his one clear thought, Jaebum. Jaebum. No one must know. He must protect him.
The punishment went on and on, his mind begging for death. He was sure that it was soon to come.
Just when the steady trickle of life was draining out of him, gentle hands unbound him. The sounds of crying sifted through his fog.
“I’m sorry.” Soft words, repeated over and over.
Who is this? His blindfold was taken off. Through the slits of his eyes he could see the worn brown skirt he was familiar with. Nanny.
There was another person with him. Young, pale hands.
“Seungyoon.” She whispered.
He would remember that voice for the rest of his life. What was left of it.
Why was she here? She hated him.
“I will help you escape.” A cup of water was pushed to his lips, the liquid slowly trickling to his throat. It wasn’t water. It was something bitter. He coughed. Was he being poisoned?
“It’s healing potion.” Nanny explained, her voice garbled. “It won’t do much, but you need to survive.”
He didn’t understand why they were helping him. They might get in trouble too.
“Please, you need to shift. I cannot carry you like this.” Sana said urgently, wiping at his face, the only place that probably wasn’t as painful as the rest of him.
Shift? He didn’t know if he had enough power to do it.
“I will help you.” His nanny, a raven, hasn’t been able to shift since Seungyoon had known her due to her old age. He felt her palm cover his forehead, and immediately felt some power course through him.
Painful. It was painful. His broken bones that transformed into smaller broken bones. He was going to die.
He must have fainted. The next thing he knew, he was in Sana’s arms and she was running far into the woods heading towards the river.
Every step jarred his injured body until finally, they stopped.
Breathing hard, Sana set him down on the ground. Seungyoon could do nothing but watch her as she untied the rope that secured a small boat to the edge of the river.
When she was done, she picked up Seungyoon again, so gently that he closed his eyes.
“I will take you to widow Han down the south river. She can keep you until you’re well enough to go on your own.”
Widow Han? Another helpless old lady who could get caught harboring a criminal? Also Sana was taking him? She was in enough trouble already.
Using animal communication special to their kind, he sent impressions of words to her.
Sana’s eyes widened.
“Go back home before they look for you. Leave me.” He repeated.
Her lips trembled. Tears fell on his fur, wetting the silver tips that were molting because of his dying body.
“I’m sorry.” She brought him closer to her, in a soft hug. “It was my fault. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“I thought they would only cast you out. I didn’t know they would do this to you.” She sobbed.
Of all the things, he really did not expect that.
“Send me downstream.”
“I can’t leave you.” She protested, he could feel her body trembling. She was also afraid. Rightfully so. Even her father wouldn’t be able to protect her if she was caught. “I’ll take you there.” Her misplaced sense of responsibility would get her in trouble someday.
Seungyoon made up his mind. The moment they were close enough to the boat, he gathered all of the strength that was left in him and leapt into the water.
“Seungyoon!” She cried.
But her voice was swept away by the current that came over him, carrying his body under and over. If that was what his death was going to be, at least the icy water numbed him from it.
And he was gone.
He didn't know why he couldn't just let himself drown. He eventually drifted ashore, caught up within branches that brushed the water. He had nothing left.
"Oh. What do we have here?" Dead leaves crunched under solid boots.
“Hey there little guy, are you stuck?” A hand pulled at the branch closest to Seungyoon that he caught a whiff of his scent.
He bared his teeth and growled. He never encountered a human before, but he read about what they did to shifters like him. It wasn’t pleasant.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
Scared. He was so scared. If he was going to kill him, he hoped he did it fast.
“Hush, it’s okay.” Hands went around his ribs, pulling him out of the water.
Immediate pain assaulted him, making him yelp and whimper. Unable to help himself, he bit at the wrist nearest to his mouth to get away from the pain.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He was wrapped in a thick coat, swaddled firmly.
The next time he woke up, he was curled up under a warm light, a soft blanket under him radiated heat and all four appendages were heavily bandaged. He sniffed the air, trying to make sense of where he was, all he smelled was iodine solution and plaster.
He whimpered. What was this place? Why did they patch him up? Will they sell him once he’s healed? Did they want his fur? The more these thoughts came to him, the more his whimpers intensified to actual cries.
“What in the world is that infernal noise—,” A tall man strode into the room, his brows knitted in annoyance and found Seungyoon. “Oh, it’s you.”
The tall man approached. He instinctively backed away, heedless of his injuries which started to hurt even more. Still he scuffled back in the most ungraceful way.
The man’s stern narrow eyes softened as Seungyoon’s whimpers continued. He didn’t realize how little control he had in his fox form when he was in pain, but fear had him baring his teeth again, hissing at the man.
“Seems like you’re doing better.” It shocked him to no end that the man actually patted his head, fluffing his ear a little. “Wanna eat something? Preferably not my hand.”
Seungyoon whined. He felt like crap, but he was hungry.
“Oi, Mino, your pet is alive.” The tall man called outside the door.
Running sounds of padded feet echoed through the hallway, and another man with bleached blond hair barreled through the door. It was the man who picked him up.
Seungyoon cowered into the corner of the crate. This was it. They were going to skin him. They—
The man’s tearful eyes grabbed his attention. “It was touch and go there, buddy, but I’m so glad you made it.”
His smile made Seungyoon want to cry. He had never been regarded with such affection before. Not even Jaebum.
The man cautiously offered the back of his fingers for Seungyoon to sniff, assuming that is how one approached unfamiliar animals, and to indicate he meant no harm.
Seungyoon eyed the bandaged wrist, probably from his previous bite, and felt bad. Maybe… just maybe humans were kind to animals.
So he obliged and gave the proffered hand a small sniff. He smelled nice. His heightened sense of smell was able to identify a lot of the things associated with the man’s scent. Cigarettes, turpentine, paper, mint, lemon, leather, musk, coffee and more.
The man smiled. What a handsome human. “Good boy.”
Seungyoon couldn’t help it. He gave his knuckles a lick.
It took a month for his bones to finally heal. He did not know about his human state, since he never dared to shift back into his original form, but all in all, only a mild soreness was left, and a slight limp when he ran around too much.
Three humans took care of him. They seemed as close as brothers, but the older two, Jinwoo and Seunghoon were lovers. He knew this because they were actually quite open about it. Shamelessly kissing in front of him. Of course, they both thought there was no harm in kissing in front of an animal, so that was normal.
“I swear your dog is always judging us, Mino.” Seunghoon stared right back at Seungyoon when he caught him staring at them necking in front of the stove.
His owner, as he had taken to think of him since he treated Seungyoon as his personal pet, was Mino.
“He’s not a dog.” Mino complained, affectionately rubbing Seungyoon’s ears. He lived for those pets. “He is a pretty, silver fox.”
Pretty. Seungyoon closed his eyes. He liked that word.
“And besides, he probably is judging you two, because so do I.” Mino picked him up and draped him over his shoulder, continuing to pet the scruff of his neck and his back.
Yes. More pets. More.
He liked being in that position, so close to Mino’s face. He loved the way he smelled, his hair, behind his ears, his shoulders and armpits. He smelled nice. He put his chin on Mino’s shoulder, watching Jinwoo cut vegetables, as his tail swished with contentment.
“Don’t be so salty about not getting any, Song Mino.” Jinwoo smirked.
“One of these days, I will barge in your room while you two are doing the dirty and crash your party.” Mino grumbled.
“You can always join us.” Seunghoon offered.
Mino actually shuddered.
Seungyoon didn’t understand. What party? A dirty party? What wasn’t Mino getting? His ear twitched.
“Let’s leave these dirty old men, fox.” Mino said. “Call me when food’s ready.”
Mino’s quarters, now also Seungyoon’s den, was situated on the opposite side of the big house on the second floor.
Seungyoon had his own bed, a huge cushion that was so comfortable, placed in front of a window where a patch of sunlight shone through each morning. But lately, he had taken to joining Mino’s bed, he often got woken up by his own dreams and the itching need to shift back. It was the longest he had gone in fox form, and it was getting uncomfortable.
Mino was probably one of the kindest people Seungyoon had known. Jinwoo and Seunghoon were also kind, always petting him gently, giving him food and treats.
Jinwoo sometimes would even carry him around in his arms like a baby and talk to him as if he understood. Well, he did, but Jinwoo didn’t know that.
Seunghoon always tried to teach him tricks. Once in a while, Seungyoon would oblige and give him his paw, but he would never fetch. Ever.
Mino gave the best hugs. He would wrap Seungyoon up in his jacket or sometimes, he would stuff Seungyoon under his oversized hoody and let his fox head pop out next to his, just because he knew Seungyoon shivered sometimes.
He let Seungyoon burrow up under his blankets whenever the rain got too loud or the thunder scared him.
Seungyoon lived like that for weeks, his mind was able to come to terms that his old life was behind him. Nanny, the servants, Sana and Jaebum.
He accepted that he won’t see him again.
He shifted back to human in his sleep.
He was jerked into consciousness when a hard hand pressed hard against his throat restraining him.
His heart beat so fast, he couldn’t breathe, he was choking. He wanted to scramble free but his hands were powerless and painful.
He struggled weakly. His human body was barely healed.
He opened his eyes to see his captor.
The hand squeezed tighter.
He was going to die.
He should have escaped when he had the chance.
Black dots appeared in his vision. Pain. It was so painful. Mino.
All of a sudden, the pressure was gone. Air trickled back into his lungs as he coughed, his ribs that just bonded protesting the jerky movement. So painful. He slowly curled to his side, holding himself, all of the bones that were previously broken were aching unmercifully.
He was being bound. His feet were bound together with something cold and unyielding.
Mino grabbed his hands to tie behind his back, but the excruciating pain made Seungyoon cry out. He tied his wrists with another leather belt close to Seungyoon’s chest instead.
When Mino was done, Seungyoon lay there, shivering and in pain.
All the tying was useless, he wouldn’t have been able to move. His bones just reformed. Just because they were pieced together didn’t mean they would function normally. But Mino didn’t need to know that.
“Who are you?” Mino asked coldly.
Seungyoon shut his mouth. He tried shifting back to a fox, but it felt like his bones were contracting against each other that he couldn’t hold back the whimper that escaped him.
“Mino, it’s your fox.” Jinwoo’s hushed voice came from the door, another set of footsteps approached the bed. “See these ears?” Soft fingers gently rubbed his partially shifted fox ears that Seungyoon mewled a little.
“He’s covered in bruises.” Seunghoon’s voice sounded nearby as well.
Seungyoon opened his eyes and met Jinwoo’s kind ones.
“Who hurt you, pup?” Jinwoo asked, tracing the ugly black bruises of his broken fingers.
His eyes stung.
He never told them the actual story. His life. The barrenness of it. He never told them how he washed up to the riverbank.
They never really asked.
It wasn’t that they weren’t interested, but Jinwoo said that he could tell them when he was ready to tell them. Seungyoon wasn’t ready to tell anyone how shameful his life was.
“Now I know why you never chase the ball when we play fetch.” Seunghoon scratched his nape while cooking eggs one morning.
Seungyoon was seated at the breakfast island, sniffing the air appreciatively while he waited for their food.
“Sometimes I wondered if I was playing fetch with myself, with how much I chased after that damn ball.” He glared at Seungyoon.
Seungyoon looked down. He was a little afraid of Seunghoon. While he was playful back when he thought Seungyoon was a pet, he was more intimidating to Seungyoon now that he was human.
“And stop popping out your fox ears each time you’re shy. It’s criminal to be that adorable. You’re a grown man.” Seunghoon plopped a healthy heaping of bacon and eggs in front of him.
“Eat up Yoonie. Seunghoon makes the crispiest bacon on this side of the world.” Mino ruffled his hair.
His ears twitched.
No one ever called him that. His ears twitched again.
Of course Mino would notice.
"Yoonie?" He said again.
Seungyoon ducked as he nibbled at a piece of bacon, trying to pretend that his cheeks weren't burning.
"Yoonie." It was Jinwoo this time.
He squirmed in his seat, his ears standing up to sharp tufts.
"You like that." Seunghoon pointed out.
"Stop teasing him. I'm hungry." Jinwoo, ever so kind, took a seat next to him and gestured for Seungyoon to eat some more.
Seungyoon still slept in Mino's room on Mino's bed. The first night after he shifted human, he was going to curl up in his cushion by the window.
"You don't have to sleep on the floor." Mino said stiffly. "You can sleep with me."
He didn't know why Mino's face was so red that night, but Seungyoon shrugged it off, just glad that he could still bed down surrounded by his scent.
They didn't treat him any different than when he was a pet. The same affection and teasing. For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.
“What kind of fox are you, Yoon?” Seunghoon asked one afternoon while they were in the work room.
They were a trio of mercenaries. Retrieval operatives for hire. Something was stolen or needed to be acquired, they were the ones to call. He gathered they were paid very well since it wasn’t often they went on mission. They only worked when needed, as what Jinwoo said one time Seungyoon asked.
“My mother was a silver fox and my father was a gray wolf.” He said nervously. That was one of the things that was held against him. His fox blood. The treacherous blood. His mother’s.
“Oh cool!” Mino was sitting beside him carving some sort of creature with a plastic knife and a lump of clay. Seungyoon watched him curiously. Mino had a lot of hobbies, most of them creative. He showed Seungyoon how to use a camera and let him borrow a small one that he had been using to take pictures of everything that he wanted a memory of. Jinwoo tending to his plants, Seunghoon cooking, Mino on the sofa, Mino drawing, Mino strumming his guitar.
He liked taking pictures of Mino a lot.
“You take after the fox more then, since you’re so small.” Jinwoo smiled.
“He’s taller than you, you know.” Seunghoon said dryly.
“You know I meant his shifter form, dummy. Most of the shifters we know are big animals.”
Seunghoon froze. They knew other shifters? Did they know his tribe? His heart started beating hard. His ears flattened closer to his head, his nape bristling.
“Hey.” Mino threw his arm around Seungyoon’s shoulders, startling him. “It’s okay. You don’t have to meet any of them.”
It still made him apprehensive that they actually knew other shifters. What if they were like his tribe? Will they eventually turn him over?
“Don’t look so terrified.” Seunghoon threw a red ball at him, the one that he used to try and play fetch with Seungyoon. He reflexively caught it and clutched it in his fingers. “If they come close to you, Mino will bite them. Like a dog.”
“Arf.” Mino obliged. Seungyoon relaxed a little.
The humans discovered that Seungyoon had a knack for cracking codes.
Seungyoon happened to look over Seunghoon’s shoulder while the older pored over his notes.
Pinned to the corkboard in front of the desk was a piece of paper that had a bunch of notes attached to it. A mess of shapes and numbers and odd words. Seungyoon tried to make sense of it.
It was like a puzzle. The longer Seungyoon stared at it, the more he realized that each number and letter has a corresponding shape next to it, that if multiplied to how many sides the shape had, the number series looked like coordinates.
“Hyung, I think these are coordinates.” He pointed excitedly. He loved puzzles. His nanny once lent him a book from the library that had an entire passage about them. He begged her to get more books from the same section and he liked to pass time solving and making ciphers for fun.
Seunghoon paused and turned, his face unreadable.
“Why do you say so?” Seunghoon asked mildly.
Seungyoon explained, writing the details on a sheet of paper.
Seunghoon showed him a piece of paper tucked under his notebook that had the exact same numbers Seungyoon wrote.
“Grab a chair.” Seunghoon ordered. Seungyoon obeyed and sat next to Seunghoon as the older showed him another piece of paper, this time it was all letters. He recognized the pattern.
“This is a Ceasar cipher!” He beamed and started deciphering it. It was the very first one he learned how to do. He once tried to teach Jaebum how to cipher so they could pass each other messages, but Jaebum laughed it off, saying he could see Seungyoon anytime.
When he was done, he showed it to Seunghoon.
“Well done.” The older patted his head. Seungyoon ducked his head a bit, but Seunghoon’s gentle hand ruffled his hair slightly.
“Your ears are out again, pup.”
So he had a job within the group now. He was their official decoder. With Seunghoon’s supervision, they deciphered messages for the government. Apparently that was another way that they made money.
“Such a smart puppy.” Jinwoo beamed proudly and peeled a soft boiled egg for him.
Ever since they found out the foods that Seungyoon liked, they seemed to appear often during meal times.
One time they were having grilled beef and Seungyoon casually mentioned that he never had beef before, Jinwoo almost dropped a bottle of wine. Beef was an expensive cut of meat. Seungyoon was only ever fed fish and vegetables. His nanny snuck him eggs once in a while. Fruits he learned how to forage in the woods. Wild berries, plums, oranges. He liked those.
But he knew that shifters needed a lot of protein to sustain all the muscles and energy used by their animal forms. That was also one of the reasons why Seungyoon was an undersized fox. Enough protein unfortunately just wasn’t available to him.
Back at the tribe, he wasn’t allowed to ask for seconds. He ate what he was given and he should be grateful to have been given anything at all.
These humans were so kind to him. No one ever cared enough that Seungyoon didn’t seem to eat much. No one ever bothered to ask him if he had eaten. But these humans, these predators depicted in the books he read from the library, they treated him with so much kindness that sometimes when he was alone, he hugged his knees, thanking God that Mino found him. If only he could stay with them forever.
“Seungyoon, you wanna come with me to the market?” Jinwoo asked him one day, donning his coat. He was curious but also scared. He wanted to see what a human market looked like. “You’ll be fine, just make sure to keep your human ears, okay?”
The ‘grocery’ was a magical place. It happened to have everything? From food to home goods, they even house slippers! Jinwoo took care to stay close to Seungyoon, explaining to him all the ingredients he was getting, what they were for, letting Seungyoon push the cart around.
His favorite place by far was the stand that sold frozen cream. ‘Soft serve’ as Jinwoo called it, was piped out of a machine into an edible brown cone. The first lick was like an assault of delight to his taste buds. It was sweet, soft and cold. The fat of the cream coated his tongue and made the taste linger. It was so good that he closed his eyes involuntarily.
“This kid.” Jinwoo muttered good naturedly and pulled up the hood of Mino’s (Seungyoon borrowed his clothes a lot) jacket over his head. His ears probably popped out again, but he was too happy to care.
It was raining heavily and the sound of thunder scared him.
He was hiding under Mino’s bed shivering. He hated thunder. He wished he could block his ears but his anxiety made him even more hyper aware. With the lights shut off, every streak of lightning creepily illuminated the big room, causing him to whine mournfully.
A pair of feet stopped by the bed, and they became a pair of knees, until he was face to face with Mino.
“Hey there, pup.” He greeted, taking one of Seungyoon’s hands that was clawed into his arm. “The weather sucks huh.”
He whimpered as another flash of lightning filled the room with an answering thunderclap.
He felt fingers combing through his hair and petting his ears warmly. They all seemed to like to touch his ears weather human or fox. He didn’t mind. They were sensitive and ticklish but slowly got used to the humans that liked the feel them.
“Your bruises are almost gone.” Mino said conversationally, inspecting his fingers that were previously purple and yellow. “Do they still hurt?”
He shook his head. Sometimes there was a twinge from where they were broken, but at least he didn’t go around limping anymore. He wouldn’t dare shift into a fox yet at the risk of rebreaking the healed bones again. It was the mid transition to a smaller creature that can cause damage, not the transition from animal to human. Something about the bones compressing.
“I heard from Jinwoo that you like ice cream.” A smile could be heard from Mino’s voice. Seungyoon’s hand squeezed Mino’s.
“Did you know there is a store in the city that sells thirty three flavors?”
Thirty three flavors? What could those be? That’s so many.
“There’s cookies and cream, strawberry, chocolate, melon, birthday cake—,”
“What does birthday cake taste like? I’ve never had a birthday cake.” Seungyoon was curious. He saw a recipe book once and there were a bunch of instructions for a birthday cake with drawn pictures. It seemed like a fun concept. But he never really celebrated his birthday so he kinda just forgot about it.
He didn’t realize how close he was to Mino until the older pulled Seungyoon to him and started stroking his back. “We’ll make you a birthday cake on your birthday, okay?” His voice sounded tight.
“Okay.” He smiled happily into Mino’s shirt. He smelled so nice.
Mino had a way of asking him questions that made Seungyoon want to tell him everything. They were simple questions, but he unintentionally reveals more about himself than he intended.
“What are the two red dots on your forehead? Fox markings?” Mino touched the skin between his eyebrows, smoothing over them with the pads of his finger. Seungyoon shivered, relaxing in Mino’s hold contentedly.
“Nah, they’re tribe marks. They appear in random places, mine just happen to be there.” He sighed.
“Do they do anything?” Mino kept stroking the marks that Seungyoon shut his eyes in appreciation.
“They’re probably as useful as moles.” Seungyoon squinted and pressed his finger on the small mole on the tip of Mino’s nose. He liked finding those moles on Mino. There were so many of them in hidden places. He had one behind his ear, on the curve of his spine, under his shoulder blade, under his left armpit, by his elbow, a lot.
They talked some more while they lay under the bed. Anyone coming in would probably think it was weird that they were just under there. But animals instinctively hated thunder and lightning and Seungyoon was no different in his human form.
He knew that he will still hate storms for the rest of his life, but somehow he also knew that as long was Mino was there to hold his hand, he could weather any storm that crossed him.
It was a simple mission they said. They just needed to retrieve a book from his tribe’s library. Seungyoon was of no help since he never set foot inside the library. He told them this when they asked him about it.
His instincts were prickling. He wanted to tell them to just don’t go, but he couldn’t think of a good reason why. Animal intuition?
He knew the library wasn’t so heavily guarded back then, but that was months ago.
“Don’t worry too much. We’re experts.” Mino played with his tufted ear. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
He knew he was about to die when his nose started bleeding. His body didn’t know anymore whether it was fox or human. Even Seungyoon didn’t know. His days blended together, once a day let out by a human named Bobby to use the bathroom. His meals were brought in trays, simple meals meant to keep him alive. He started to eat less and less as his system couldn’t tolerate any more chores, even for sustenance.
Even knowing this, he always asked about Mino, where he was, if he was okay. Bobby got fed up with him and actually answered through the locked door. His voice was muffled by Seungyoon’s sensitive ears could hear him clearly.
He was still in the hospital in critical condition. He was shot twice one in the shoulder and his side. Seunghoon and Jinwoo were with him.
Critical condition. But he was still alive right?
He prayed and prayed. He prayed more for Mino than he ever prayed for himself. Because Seungyoon knew that he wasn’t going to survive the damp room any longer.
The damp room was made with the same metals as the striking rod that was used on him before. The striking rod that was made to inflict so much pain and prevent healing.
His animal side was trying to protect him, attempting to shift, but the metals pulled at his human side too. It felt like the very particles of his bones were rubbing against each other, going crazy. He wanted to scream. The scraping was driving him insane.
He wanted to beg Bobby to let him out. Or just kill him.
Anything to escape the pain. Anything to escape his life.
Most of it was miserable and painful, but the last few months were his happiest.
It was enough. He wasn’t going to be greedy anymore. God saw fit to give him a little happiness before he died.
It was enough.
Mino woke up with his body all taped up and attached to various tubes and wires. Next to his bed was Jinwoo, eyes red rimmed, looking pale.
“Hey.” Jinwoo gave him a watery smile.
All at once, he was able to recollect everything that happened, from the start of the mission up to when he was shot.
“Did we succeed?” He asked.
“Yeah. We got enough evidence.” Jinwoo said. “They arrested the chieftain and his closest men on charges of treason and illegal arms dealing. Seunghoon just delivered all of the intelligence we gathered today, he’s on his way home.”
“Okay.” Mino was exhausted. His body was still thankfully numb from all the anaesthetics that were pumped into him, but he knew the more he got better, the more pain he was going to feel.
He wanted to go home, in his own bed. He wanted to see Seungyoon. He must be so worried.
Before he could ask about him, he slipped into unconsciousness once more.
“Your pet is sulking, I think.” Yunhyeong remarked. Seunghoon shrugged. He was starting to feel bad about how he treated Seungyoon. But he was angry. Mino almost died from the ambush. Until he was sure that there weren’t any more rebel shifters that would come after them, he couldn’t let Seungyoon free. He had his colleagues run by the house to give him food and water on rotation while Seunghoon and Jinwoo did mission clean up.
All in all it was successful. They managed to capture the majority of the rebel factions against the government. As soon as they gathered the evidence that proved the treason, the soldiers closed in on the rebels.
Seunghoon would never forget the moment he heard two gunshots and seeing Mino jump into their getaway vehicle covered in blood. The drive to the hospital was the most nerve racking thing he had done, trying to separate his worry for his friend and navigating through miles of unpaved woodlands.
He was barely even able to attend Mino at the hospital since he and Jinwoo were called in to debrief. Luckily Jinwoo was allowed to leave shortly, but they kept Seunghoon longer because he had the most information.
“I think he is innocent though.” Yunhyeong continued, “He never stopped asking about Mino and you guys.”
Seunghoon felt a pang in his gut. He should let the kid out soon. As much as his logical mind was suspicious of him, he just couldn’t believe that the terrified wounded fox Mino picked up who got scared at everything could ever betray them.
“You should check on him.” Yunhyeong lit a cigarette, handing a stick to Seunghoon.
“He’s barely eaten anything in three days.”
The room smelled like blood and despair. Seunghoon found him before his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. Something was very wrong.
Seungyoon was curled up in a corner, facing the wall. He looked so small. He didn’t even move when the door opened.
“Seungyoon.” He dropped to his knees, putting his hand on the shifter’s shoulder that was all skin and bones. No response. His heart pumping double time, he picked him up in his arms, the boy’s head loling limply to his chest. He was so frail.
Seunghoon brought him out, and the natural light showed him the extent of the damage.
The bruises that already healed resurfaced, red, black, angry bruises. Blood sluggishly trickled from his nose.
“Seungyoon.” He said again, wiping at the blood that tracked across the gaunt cheek.
He was able to breathe when Seungyoon cracked his eyes open slightly, his pupils dilated. “Seunghoon…” He whispered weakly. “You’re back.”
His small body seized, caught in a paroxysm of coughs. Seunghoon didn’t think he could feel any more scared until he saw the bright red of blood that stained Seungyoon’s mouth.
Seungyoon fell limp, a dead weight in his arms.
Mino was livid.
He demanded to be discharged from the hospital as soon as possible, against doctor’s orders. He was supposed to stay four more days, but Seunghoon told him what had happened, and he couldn’t think of anything else but get to Seungyoon.
He yelled and pleaded and angrily pulled at his tubes, until finally, Jinwoo came in with discharge papers that needed Mino’s signature. He signed everything. He didn’t care.
With his wounds tightly packed, and his shoulder secured in a sling, Jinwoo wheeled Mino out of the hospital and drove home.
Mino crumpled to the ground when he finally saw Seungyoon.
He was barely breathing, his skin was so white it was almost blue. Dark circles bruised under his eyes. His size was smaller. Not fully human. His ears were out and his hair seemed more like fur than human hair.
His bruises were all back. He could only imagine how painful they were. He cried when he saw them. He wanted to hold Seungyoon, but he didn’t want to make it worse. Seunghoon said that he was very fragile at the moment and they tried to avoid moving him.
They couldn’t take Seungyoon to a hospital specifically for shifters, given that Mino found him when he was probably escaping from his own tribe. Seunghoon made the right decision. He brought in Jiho, another fox shifter that looked eerily like Seungyoon who was a doctor that specializes in shifter healing.
To say that Jiho was angry when he saw Seungyoon was an understatement.
Claws erupted from his hands, sharp lupine teeth bared as he pinned Seunghoon to the ground. “What. Did. You. Do. To. Him.”
Seunghoon was no weakling, but he let himself be taken down by the shifter until Jinwoo yelled and pulled him back. By the time Jiho collected himself, it was as if he turned off all aggressive instincts and went full on doctor mode, Jinwoo said.
It was all just a waiting game now. Seungyoon was barely surviving on intravenous nutrition.
“I’m going to be honest with you, his chances of surviving are very low.” Jiho said frankly, his face unreadable.
Jinwoo’s sob could be heard, Seunghoon pulled him to his shoulder where the oldest shuddered.
Mino felt cold. The moment he laid eyes on the wounded fox, so hurt and frightened, he made a promise that nothing will ever hurt the creature again. And here they were a few months later, Seungyoon fighting for his life all because they didn’t trust him.
“Is there something we could do?” Jinwoo whispered.
Jiho’s face softened, but his answer was no less devastating. “Pray. Pray that he wants to live.”
Day and night they stayed by Seungyoon’s bed as the boy grew frailer and frailer. Sometimes Mino would sit on the floor and just talk to him all night, ignoring his own sore body. He told him stories about his childhood. He told him about the places he wanted to go, maybe if Seungyoon wanted to, he can come with him. He told him about the food they could eat. Warning him about chocolate, how it tastes very good, but might be bad for him.
Sometimes Mino would call his name over and over just to see his ears twitch.
He liked to think that Seungyoon heard everything, including his apology and explanation. They didn’t know that the damp room could harm him and that Seunghoon was very sorry for being rough with him.
Seungyoon’s body was so cold as if it couldn’t generate its own warmth, so Mino piled on his blankets over him. He also borrowed Jinwoo’s and Seunghoon’s jackets to surround him with their scent. He remembered that when Seungyoon was a fox, he used to jump in their laundry baskets at every opportunity.
He hoped that their combined scents would make him feel safe rather than the opposite.
Still the fox stayed unconscious, his faint but labored breaths were the only signs of life from his diminished form.
“It’s going to be winter soon, Yoonie. Jinwoo is going to make his famous christmas cakes. You really should try them.” Mino rasped one night, holding on to Seungyoon’s hand.
Was it his imagination or did the discolorations recede a little?
“We look forward to those cakes every year.” He continued. “So you have to be there, okay? Then we will bake you a birthday cake in January. You and Seunghoon.” He stroked the soft hair that was freshly washed and dried by Jinwoo that morning.
“Then we can go to the city and visit Baskin Robbins. We will try every ice cream flavor there.” His shoulders started shaking.
“My favorite flavor is coffee.” He whispered. How long was Seungyoon going to be like this? It seemed like every day, he deteriorated and they could do nothing about it.
“You can try all of them until you find your favorite. Just don’t tell Jinwoo that I let you do it, or he will beat the crap out of me.”
No answer. He was used to it. His lengthy monologues felt like he couldn’t think of anything else to say. But he kept talking and talking.
“Please.” He begged, pressing his lips against the fragile knuckles. “I know it’s been hard for you and I’m being selfish. But please.”
Seunghoon felt like absolute shit. All those sleepless nights taking turns watching as Seungyoon grew weaker by the day. It was driving him mad.
He didn’t like feeling powerless. He hated it when Mino was injured, he hated it even more now.
Because it was his fault.
Seungyoon was innocent.
He knew that even before he got evidence of it.
Seungyoon was spotted by another shifter when he accompanied Jinwoo to the market. The shifter happened to mention it in passing to another shifter of Seungyoon’s tribe. It wasn’t done with ill intent. Just mentioning a shifter with strange markings on his forehead.
They traced Seungyoon to the house, put a tracking device on one of the vehicles and that’s how they knew Seunghoon’s team was on the move.
They would have been totally ambushed had they not changed vehicles midway to the access point as was their standard procedure.
“You need to put a snooze button on your brain sometimes, Lee Seunghoon.” Jinwoo murmured.
Seunghoon pressed a kiss on Jinwoo’s bare shoulder and got up from bed.
“I’m going to check on Mino and the pup.” He said heavily.
Mino had been keeping vigil by Seungyoon’s bed in his room ever since he came home. He was heavily injured, but fought against his own pain just to be with Seungyoon.
At least one of them was getting better.
He opened the door carefully. Mino was sleeping in the padded chair, his feet raised up on a stool, two pillows behind him.
It was so quiet in the room except for his own heartbeat that he felt in his throat.
Seungyoon wasn’t moving.
He went closer, his hands starting to shake, afraid of what he was going to see.
He fell to his knees, moving closer to Seungyoon’s insubstantial form. What if—
Seungyoon’s eyelashes fluttered.
Bright gold fox eyes regarded him solemnly.
“Yoonie.” He whispered. His ears, his lovely, fluffy ears twitched.
His eyes caught a small movement by the blankets and saw small, barely healed hand pop up and wiggle.
Seunghoon took it in his own hand, marveling at the size difference.
Seungyoon’s ears were twitching slowly in what looked like anticipation.
He gave Seunghoon his paw.
Tears gathered in Seunghoon’s eyes as his nose stung with emotion. He petted Seungyoon’s hair and scratched his ears. The shifter closed his eyes.
“Such a good boy.”
It took a very long time for Seungyoon to regain his original height.
Jiho said that since the metals affected his actual bone structure, he was lucky to even be alive.
It didn’t bother them if Seungyoon was permanently five feet tall and light as a bird. They just want him to be happy and healthy again.
The first few months, he couldn’t speak. Jiho said his vocal chords were probably still stuck between fox and human so he couldn’t articulate aside from whimpering or laughing. He didn’t laugh much then, so that was quite a difficult time for all of them.
Seunghoon stopped accepting missions and only did ciphers to support them. When Seungyoon found out about this, he frowned at the older, worried that they might be suffering if there was no income for them.
“Yoonie.” Twitch “You know how much each cipher costs to decode?”
He mentioned an amount that Seungyoon never heard of in monetary value. They definitely wouldn’t starve.
They carried him around the house, he was barely a hundred pounds in his height. They absolutely spoiled him rotten.
One time during dinner, Seunghoon brought up the possibility of them travelling.
“I actually have your birth certificate.” Seunghoon said casually.
Seungyoon froze. He didn’t even know he had one.
“A guy named Jaebum gave it to me.”
He missed his childhood friend dearly. But somehow the distance from the tribe and everything that happened in between dulled his feelings and prevented him from dwelling too much. Maybe later, he can think about him and it won’t hurt as much. But not right now.
A large tanned hand took his and held it to his knee warming his palm. Mino.
“We can get you an ID if you want. Even a passport. Then we can travel abroad.” Jinwoo said.
So many possibilities. Things that he only read about were becoming more real by the second.
“I— uhm…” Seunghoon scratched his head sheepishly. “I took the liberty of getting you both. I will give them to you later.”
Mino once mentioned that Seunghoon was the type of person that made things happen. He guessed this was one of those things.
“Since it’s confession time, I also set up a bank account for you for all the codes you helped me with.”
Seunghoon would later show a bank book to Seungyoon that had him flattening his ears in discomfort with how many digits there were in them. He assured Seungyoon that that was only a small chunk and that he wasn’t giving him money out of misplaced guilt. He really did earn that money for himself and he was free to use it as he wanted.
“I wouldn’t suggest using it all to eat ice cream. Remember that one time you ate too much and had a stomach ache?” Mino reminded. Jinwoo both scolded them for hours while Seungyoon puked out all of it. It was definitely more tasty going in than out.
It was Jinwoo who gently broached the subject.
“You can stay here for as long as you want, Yoonie. But if there was a place you’d like to go, or if one day you’d want to set up your own place— just know, our doors are always open for you.” The oldest said.
What did he mean? Did he want Seungyoon to leave? Was he telling him that he can find his own place now?
Seungyoon faced the wall that night, his back to Mino, while the other slipped into the blankets.
“Yoonie. What’s wrong?” His strong arms crept around Seungyoon’s torso and pulled so his back was to Mino’s front. So warm.
“D-do you want me to… leave?” He asked stilting, his voice not quite there yet.
Mino raised himself on his elbow. “What?”
“J-jinwoo said I can leave.”
Mino was silent. He gently turned Seungyoon to face him. “Do you want to?”
Mino watched as Seungyoon’s lower lip trembled and his eyes turn sparkly.
“No. I wanna stay with you.” He cried, clutching Mino’s shirt. Mino hugged him in relief. He was afraid that Seungyoon would wish to leave when he realizes that he could.
“Please don’t ask me to leave.” Seungyoon sobbed into his neck. It was quite painful to hear him cry like that.
“Never, pup. You’ll stay with me forever.” Mino held him tighter.
Mino was going to kick Jinwoo and Seunghoon’s asses sooner or later for stressing Seungyoon out like this.
“He didn’t mean it like that. He wants you to stay with us, but he doesn’t want you to feel like you’re stuck with us. Like you were with your tribe.” He explained.
“But you are my pack.”
Mino frowned. “Sorry?”
“My pack. Seunghoon is pack alpha. The leader. Jinwoo is his mate.” Seungyoon said.
“And me?” Mino was curious.
“You’re my mate.”
Everything in the universe stopped for Mino in that moment and in his chest, a seed that has been steadily growing, bloomed with warmth.
“Mate?” Mino asked again.
“Mhmm.” Seungyoon buried his nose in Mino’s neck, inhaling.
“Are you sure?”
While they share a lot of traits being in the same genus Canis, one of the most notable traits that silver foxes and gray wolves share is that they mate for life.
“It’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that are dried upon some line,
That keeps you on the back roads by the rivers of my memory
That ever keeps you gentle on my mind.”