Michael knows he is ordinary. He is not particularly gifted by the gods that distribute power, but he is not particularly disadvantaged either. He is athletic, but not brawny. Average height. Average build. Not significantly attractive, but not unattractive either. When his scent came in, it had been no surprise he was a beta. He is unassuming- ordinary. A background person. Not that he minds. When people don’t pay special attention to you, you become very observant. You learn to listen more than talk. You learn to pick up micro-expressions that go unnoticed by most.
He had expected to be assigned the scout position. He figured it's the role most advantageous for a background person. So he had been pleasantly surprised when he got the flashier position of wave controller.
The miracle of shinsu smiled on him back then, but he was still utterly ordinary. When a willowy, blonde, beta woman extended a hand, he accepted. He passed the positioning test in third place. He climbed the tower with the team Apple put together. He wasn’t an ace wave controller, but he pulled his weight. For years, they climbed. He wasn’t particularly close with any of his teammates, but he wasn’t socially inept. So he wasn’t surprised when most of them decided to stop climbing on the 20th floor.
Then one day, Apple returned announcing she would keep climbing as an agent of FUG. When she extended her hand, once again, Michael accepted. And once again, he played the role of average guy. He performed decently enough, but never fully applied himself. When Apple suggested he do some basic medic training, he agreed. When Apple recommended him to join her on an assignment, he agreed.
For a wave controller, he sure is content to drift wherever the current took him. After all, he is just ordinary.
“Well? What do you think of him?”
Michael muses about words to describe Khun Aguero Agnis. Cunning, vicious, spiteful, cold, beautiful. “Extraordinary.”
Apple smiles knowingly under the glow of her lighthouse. She changed since they had last seen each other. Her hair is short and she now wears heavy makeup. It’s a mystery how she crunches on apples without getting lipstick smears everywhere.
“By the way....about the slayer candidate...”
Apple looks up from her reports and her expression turns quizzical. “What about him?”
“When they met...was he the same as him? I mean...Special?” Michael holds back a cringe. It’s not like him to be inarticulate. It’s not like him to ask unnecessary questions.
His companion takes a bite from her snack and chews tentatively. “No,” she replies, “I’m sure boss had reasons for befriending him. But at that time, the slayer candidate was weak and naive. Nothing special.”
Something twists in Michael’s gut.
Michael had been puzzled about Apple’s drastic appearance change, but meeting the Rachel girl had cleared that up.
He has many words to describe Rachel. Jealous, pitiful, greedy, entitled, ugly. But ultimately, she is a painfully ordinary person driven mad by her desire to be extraordinary. Bemused, he wonders if that could’ve been him had he not accepted being mundane.
The burly spear bearer and the other Khun kid are easy as picture books to read. Climbing the tower for power and freedom. Exhilarated and motivated by the thrill of battle. Bending the knee for Khun Aguero Agnis in return for future wishes. How boring.
The soft voice jarrs Michael out of his thoughts. He hadn’t noticed the presence creep up on him despite being a damn practiced wave controller. He plasters on an easygoing expression and turns to face his temporary leader.
“Novick tosses and turns like a madman. You’re lucky Ran’s rooming with you.” He gestures at the liquor bottle in front of him. “Join me for a drink?”
His boss pulls a chair for himself at the kitchen island and pours a glass. In the dim city lights spilling in from the floor-to-ceiling windows, he looks softer than usual. His wavy, unstraightened hair is in a messy ponytail and he is dressed in oversize sleep clothes. Michael notices the dark circles under his eyes when he takes a swig of the cheap vodka. His gaze follows the bob of his throat. “I know our current living arrangements are cramped, but we won’t be on this floor for long.”
“The test in three days and I’m certain we can pass on the first try.”
“No, I know that. I’m just surprised you’re calling this place cramped.” Michael gestures around at the spacious living room and kitchen area. At the high ceiling and obnoxious chandelier.
“Is it not?” He gets a curious expression in return. Head tilted and eyes wide...like a confused kitten. “We can’t stay in a house this time since we have to be close to the city center to gather intel. And a four bedroom apartment was the biggest available. It’s only proper the ladies get their own rooms, so us gents unfortunately will have to share. Well...at least I negotiated the price down to practically nothing.” He flashes his trademark devious smirk. Though it doesn’t have the same effect outside of the battlefield and strategy meetings. With the gentle lighting and his comfy appearance, it looks...almost cute?
“Anyways,” his boss continues, “we’ll be back to having our own rooms on the next floor. Ran leaves his clothes everywhere. I nearly tripped on his dirty shirt!”
Michael chuckles. “Well, thank you kind leader,” he teases. No time better than a 3am conversation to break the humor barrier with your boss.
“You don’t have to call me that.” Michael finds himself looking into earnest, cobalt eyes. “You don’t have to call me boss because Apple and Novick do.”
“Won’t you get accused of favoritism?”
Aguero’s quiet laughter sounds like spun silk. A pretty laugh, but fake. “I knew you had a sense of humor somewhere in there. Call me whatever you want.”
Michael watches him drop his glass in the sink and retreat into his shared room. A merciless genius who had come from wealth attempting to feign friendship with his employee. How amusing.
They pass the floor test with ease. They pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate. It tastes like liquid gold on his tongue. His glass shatters in his hand. Novick bemoans the wasted booze. Aguero raises a concerned brow at him.
Michael had never thought much about beauty. Even witnessing the mess of courtship in the tower, he never gives it much thought. The handful of times other betas approached him, he had been flippant. The threat of dying any day makes people impulsive and horny. So in that sense, courtship and sex are pointless and shallow.
He had assumed his team thought the same way. They are all logical people with ambitious goals and no time of day to give to distractions. It is said that an all beta team is ideal for efficiency. Aside from Novick, they are all betas. And stoic, expressionless Novick never indulges in flings.
So imagine Michael’s surprise when he seeks out Apple in her room to see her lounging on her bed surrounded by enough beauty products to fill half a store. Even more surprisingly, she is accompanied by none other than their strict leader. There is a half empty box of chocolates on her nightstand.
“Umm,” Michael announces his presence sheepishly, “I needed a second opinion on something, but it seems you girls are having a slumber party.”
Apple lowers her hand mirror...and wow....Michael comically lets his jaw drop.
“Boss was showing me how to do my makeup so it doesn’t look as heavy.”
Aguero leans back smugly while twirling a brush with nimble fingers. The same way he had twirled a knife before plunging it into an opponent’s jugular during their last test. “A bonus for exceptional work.”
Michael continues to stare slack jawed. “So...Apple, does this mean you have a date?”
Apple puts down the hand mirror and frowns. “Do I need that reason to want to look nice? I’ve been trying to change up my look, you know.”
“I thought you cut your hair back then and started wearing makeup cuz you wanted to look less like Rachel...since you know...you’re both blonde and she never does anything with her appearance-”
He is interrupted by a laugh that sounds like butter melting on their morning waffles. “Oh my god, Michael!”
“Don’t be mean A.A.!”
Aguero snickers behind a manicured hand. Had those two even painted each other’s nails?! “We may be betas, but Apple is still a woman! Some of us find it worthwhile to keep up appearances.”
Michael never gave appearances much thought, but even he could admit that Aguero is devastatingly beautiful. He had witnessed several occasions when Aguero weaponized his looks like a knife. Charming whoever needed to be charmed, getting whatever he needed, and discarding them like filth afterwards. Appearances huh...
As if sensing that train of thought, Aguero sits up straight and looks Michael in the eye. Michael had met those eyes many times during more serious conversations, but he feels pinned to the spot. “It’s not just about manipulating people or courtship. Things like skincare and hair and dressing nice...it doesn’t have to have a purpose. Sometimes, it’s nice to have something that’s in your control no matter what.”
Apple snorts while reaching for the chocolates. “Of course our control freak boss sees it that way. For me, it’s more like stress relief. The tower demands a lot, so it’s nice to do some little things for myself.”
They end up talking about the thing Michael needed Apple’s opinion on. Despite falling into easy conversation, Michael feels like he had stepped into unknown waters.
Beauty and appearances huh...he had never given them much thought. But he knows one thing for sure. Somebody like Apple or himself, try as they might, can never compare to somebody born blessed.
Michael muses in the shower that night. Reaching for the body wash, he pauses to examine the various other products on the in-shower shelf. Novick’s 3-1 shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. The kid’s shampoo that was bought for Ran as a joke. A pair of sleek, expensive-looking bottles. He contemplates for a moment.
Deciding that Aguero won’t notice a bit missing, he reaches for the fancy shampoo.
Grocery bags in hand, Michael trudges up the hill leading to the team’s cottage. The environment on the 12th floor is quite down to earth and rustic. Or as Ran bitches, it is out in the boonies. They are lucky enough to have gotten a place with running water at all.
“Don’t be so spoiled,” Novick reprimands. The spear bearer carries the bulk of the supplies without any sign of fatigue.
“It’s because we’re in the middle of nowhere that the only store is so far away! Our pockets ran out of space and we’re carrying our shit like hoodlums!” Ran has his arms full with an old air conditioning unit. The summer heat is insufferable.
“Okay but now we have enough supplies for the next month,” Novick reasons. He is usually less patient when it comes to bickering with Ran, but Michael supposes it’s alpha instinct to console.
“We have to deal with that rotting shack of a cottage and these freaking outbacks for the next month!”
“You’ll get used to the heat. It’s lucky we’ll have air conditioning.”
Damn Khuns and their fancy mansions with servants to attend to their every whim.
At least Aguero hadn’t complained. He is probably too caught up devising strategies for this floor’s test. If Michael recalls correctly, it has something to do with hunting in the woods? Speaking of Aguero...as the trio nears the cottage, they discover that their leader is decidedly not cooped up with his lighthouses.
Instead he’s hunched over in the front yard next to what looks like targets made out of cardboard. Novick and Ran stop their banter to see what the heck their leader is doing. After a few deep breaths, Aguero pulls himself back up to his full height and holds his hands out in front of him. He looks like he’s concentrating very hard.
Just as Michael begins questioning if their genius leader has finally cracked under the pressure and lost his mind, a swirling orb of shinsu forms in his hands.
“Holy shit.” They all stop in their tracks.
Even from a good distance away, they can see the steely look on Aguero’s face. Slowly, carefully, Aguero raises his arms to aim at the target. Michael holds his breath. The shinsu shoots like a command. But before it reaches the target, it fizzles out in a spray of pale blue. The same pale blue as Aguero’s hair, which looks so silky despite the frizziness from humidity and-
“Don’t just stand there guys!”
Like an unpaused video, the trio clambers on over.
“You’re already a light bearer! You’re going to be so overpowered!”
“That was impressive! Ran and I haven’t even gotten that far with creating baangs!” Novick commends. His usually level face lights up in awe.
Michael lowers his face to hide a scowl. Is the blockheaded alpha going into rut again or something?
“Thank you Novick,” Aguero replies tensely. “Think you can help me, Michael? I’ve been training for two weeks already. I thought I needed to build more endurance, but I must be doing something wrong with the technique too.”
Michael can’t completely mask the surprise from his face. Two weeks?! It had taken him and all of the wave controllers from his class a month to get that far!
“Heat must be getting to him,” Ran snickers. “Anyways, I’m going to install the air conditioner, have fun.”
“S-sure, I’ll help you A.A,” Michael replies. “Just let me put our supplies away first.” He makes a beeline to get indoors.
Okay, calm down, he’s from the 10 Great Families. Of course he’s going to be stronger and more talented. That’s only natural. Because Aguero had been born extraordinary while Michael had been born ordinary.
Rachel is in the kitchen sipping on a glass of iced water. “It’s not fair isn’t it?” Although her voice is soft, it drips in snake poison. “It’s not fair how some of them are born gifted and beautiful while the rest of us...” She trails off looking at her legs in the wheelchair even though there is no need to keep up pretenses when they are alone.
Michael wants to tell her that’s just how the tower works. Accept your mediocrity and it’ll get easier. The bitterness will fade. Aguero’s image flashes through his mind. His flawless alabaster skin as he emerges from fights unscathed. His eyes defiant and mocking in the face of challenge.
“No, it isn’t.”
“I know- Of course I do! That’s not why- I’m not being paranoid. If she finds out we’re there- Well what else do you want me to do?”
Michael halts outside the master bedroom. He has never heard Aguero sound this agitated. Not even when Ran and Novick pulled unplanned moves during the tests.
“Look, I’ll have to call you back. Just get it done for now.”
The master bedroom door swings open. Michael expects narrowed eyes, a deep frown, a snippish request for him to go do something at the other end of the house. Instead, Aguero looks at him with tired eyes. His tie is loosened and his hair is wavy and mussed.
Those eyes...they look a bit sleepy although it is only early evening. Even the striking shade of blue seems dull. For all his posturing about controlling his looks, Aguero seems like he sure doesn’t give a damn right now.
Is this supposed to be a show of trust? How amusing, let’s see where this goes.
“There’s a package downstairs. From a guy named Shibisu? It doesn’t seem urgent though. Can I...can I come in?”
Aguero’s face remains neutral as he gestures for Michael to enter. This is the first time seeing the inside of his leader’s room, but he’s pretty sure the guy’s usually a neat freak. Papers are strewn all over a glass coffee table, some on the floor. Five lighthouses are whirring simultaneously. Empty cans of energy drinks are strewn about. Interestingly, the bed is still pristine and made. When’s the last time he had slept?
“You know...if you drop dead from stress, the rest of us will be screwed.” Michael chuckles sheepishly, playing the part of a caring friend. “We’re a team right? If there’s something wrong, we should figure it out together. Is it about the test coming up?”
Aguero crosses the room to flop on his bed with a sigh. Seems like the act is working.
“There’s no problem with our strategy for the test. This is...I got some concerning news about...someone....someone I really don’t want to run into on the next floor.”
Michael continues to stand awkwardly in the middle of the room wringing his hands. “Someone even you would avoid? Must be a real demon.”
Although he can’t see his expression, Michael would bet Aguero is smiling bitterly. “I told Ran about it of course...but I’d rather not worry the rest of the team before the floor test. I was going to tell everyone the plan after.”
Ah, so this is about some Khun family drama. He had expected to have a brush with aristocratic bullshit eventually.
“So you’ve been planning.”
“Yea, I’ve been running simulations. And you heard me call in a favour, but we’ll be okay.”
Michael pretends to pick at his fingernails. “Is she that dangerous?”
“I’d rather her not see the team I’m climbing the tower with. She only has a grudge against me, but she’s unpredictable. I have a contingency plan to get you guys to safety if the worst happens.”
So he’s been thinking himself into a corner for the sake of his team as well? How precious. “Well, if it’ll be okay now, get cleaned up and come down to dinner. Apple ordered in instead of cooking. We shouldn’t start without our fearless leader.”
“Not tonight,” Aguero answers tiredly. “I don’t feel like playing fearless leader tonight.”
Another manipulation. Another attempt at making himself seem weaker for whatever reason. “Okay,” Michael answers in a deceptively warm tone. “Get some sleep then. We’ll save a plate for you.”
Michael thinks that would be the end of the bizarre conversation, but Aguero speaks again as he reaches for the doorknob.
“The package from Shibisu...it’s a bunch of trinkets and snacks from the vacation he’s on with Hatz. You guys help yourselves. It’s for all of us.”
He had seen doting pocket messages from this Shibisu guy. How he makes Aguero blush indignantly. Must be nice having a friend who cares so much they send you shit even when they’re on vacation. Maybe Shibisu is in love with Aguero. Michael wouldn’t be surprised. That little act of vulnerability tugged at even his own heartstrings.
Michael barely evens out his sneer in time to meet Ran’s inquisitive gaze. What the hell was that kid doing lurking around in the hallway?!
“H-hey Ran, he sounded really tired. We should let him rest, okay?”
“It’s not easy for him,” Ran deadpans. “People think it is, but it’s not.”
“Yea...he’s carrying heavy burdens.” The words taste like sour venom on his tongue. It doesn’t show on his face. Michael is a skilled liar after all.
Satisfied by his answer, Ran turns his back and starts walking down the hall. “Let’s go eat before Novick hogs all the egg rolls.”
Climbing the tower is not a matter to take lightly. If you’re not strong, you die. If you don’t think ahead, you die. The tower is not an environment that forgives distraction.
However, despite being a control freak and workaholic, Khun Aguero Agnis understands the importance of taking breaks.
The 17th floor is known for its grand entertainment complex. It is a paradise with every sort of recreation imaginable. Shopping malls, hot springs, gaming facilities, water parks, even an indoor skydiving area! And the team has two whole days to enjoy themselves before buckling down for the floor test!
Apple had taken Rachel for a girl’s day of salons and shopping. Michael suspects Rachel is relieved she can badmouth Aguero freely.
Currently, the boys of the team are munching on pizza at a patio restaurant after catching a horror movie and hitting the rock climbing gym.
“A.A. tell Novick he’s stupid for wanting to go to a museum of all places!”
“Heh, really? I kind of want to see that exhibit.”
“Seriously? Didn’t you get enough of boring relics from father’s tacky estates?”
As his teammates banter over lunch, Michael is reminded of all times he had his meals in cafeterias alone. Although he knew Apple back then, he never considered her a friend until this assignment. Once people live together and fight together, walls do come down. Even though this is the team he’ll have to viciously betray one day, enjoying this moment with them is nice.
“A hair straightener is a totally viable weapon!”
“Yea, but if you were in the kitchen, you’d be around all the knives!”
“That’s predictable! You’d lose the element of surprise!”
“I’d be in the garage with a chainsaw.”
“The garage isn’t even a real room.”
Michael jarrs out of his thoughts. “I’m sorry, what are you guys talking about?”
“We’re debating the best room to be in if somebody broke into your house,” Novick explains while Ran and Aguero nod along sagely.
Michael doubles over in laughter. “Oh my god, in the kitchen where the knives are is obviously the way to go!”
His comment reignites the debate about the predictability of a kitchen ambush and the deadliness of a hair straightener. Yea, eating and laughing with this group is really nice.
Rachel has been antsy the past week as her scent grows increasingly sour. He pays it no mind. After all, what’s there to be antsy about when you’re sitting on your ass and having all your needs taken care of? She doesn’t even help gather information with her lighthouses for crying out loud! And she litters snack wrappers everywhere!
So no, Michael has no sympathy for Rachel.
Then one morning, Aguero comes to the breakfast table smelling suspiciously of...nothing. Nothing at all. His natural lavender scent is subtle, even for a beta. But now it is completely erased. He must’ve doused himself in scent dampening spray to hide any tells his scent could give off. But erasing his scent in first place is already a tell.
Ran frowns. His rainwater and mint scent spikes in worry. Michael watches as the two Khun siblings seem to have a conversation with their eyes.
Apple types away at her lighthouse while Novick remains captivated by his crossword puzzle. Seems like those two are none the wiser. After all, they don’t pay as much attention to Aguero as he does.
The day goes on as normal. There is training to be done, information to be gathered, and plans to be drafted. Michael forgets all about the incident until a couple days later. He had been staying up late reviewing footage. Blinking his tired eyes, he decides coffee is a good idea. As he silently makes his way to the kitchen, he notices he isn’t the only person who had that idea.
The two Khun siblings are seated at the table illuminated by the blue glow of a lighthouse. Seems like they’re too focused to notice Michael in the shadows. Ran has a steaming mug of hot chocolate while Ageuro sips on a can of energy drink. Why the hell is he drinking that heart attack in a can at-
Michael checks his pocket for the time. What the hell are those two talking about at 2am? He strains to catch snippets of their conversation.
“- eventually get harder. We could always use more people.”
“Yea, but do you think there’s anyone worthwhile around?”
“I’ve been doing some research into regulars in this area. There’s a few from dismantled teams I think are worth meeting.” So Aguero is looking into growing the team? It has been a few years since he himself joined on Apple’s recommendation.
“What? You look like you’re thinking about something else.”
Ran drinks from his mug, buying time to gather his thoughts. Although the kid is observant, he sometimes struggles with words. “I know it’s hard for you around this time of year. It’s tomorrow right? Or technically today.”
“And it’s like any other day. Honestly, I don’t know why Rachel’s so upset this year considering she’s the one who killed him.”
“Don’t divert to her. I’m talking about you.”
Aguero chuckles humorlessly at being called out on. “You don’t need to worry so much.”
“Really? Last year, you looked tired and sad, but it’s gotten worse. You haven’t been sleeping again, there was the scent erasing thing you did the other day, and now you’re distracting yourself by looking for a new team member when we’re still doing completely fine.”
There is a long pause.
“Look...A.A...I trust you. But as your family, I can’t help worrying. You should be able to mourn with your team from back then. But you’re here with us, and none of us understand how much he meant- means to you.”
Another pause. Rustling of clothing as the brothers embraced.
“I know,” Aguero murmurs into his younger brother’s hair. “I promise I’ll talk to someone if it gets too much. You know Shibisu still blows my pocket up around this time of year? That guy should worry about himself more.”
“Gee, I wonder who else should worry about themselves instead of hyperfocusing on work and shouldering everything alone.”
“I’m not alone right now am I? I’m sorry for worrying you this past week. I'll make it up to you.”
“If you’re really sorry, find us a teammate who can actually cook.”
Hours later, the Khun brothers come down to breakfast looking slightly bleary, but relaxed. As Aguero pulls up a chair beside Michael, he notes that the lavender scent has a particular note of sweetness to it...
The brothers share a conspiratorial smile as Apple complains over Novick burning the pancakes again. Michael excuses himself early.
He finds himself staring at a calendar. Right...this is the death anniversary of Aguero’s most precious friend. Michael had never bothered to remember the exact date. It’s irrelevant to his assignment after all. And speaking of his assignment...
“Any news from the higher ups?”
“Nothing in particular,” Apple replies flippantly, typing with one hand and crunching an apple obnoxiously.
The late night must be making him irritable. “It’s been years and all we’ve done is play house with two spoiled brats and that spear bearing knothead. When are we going to get some solid plans?”
Apple stops typing and gives him her full attention. There is a crease between her brows. “What’s gotten into you? You’ve been on longer assignments.”
“Not undercover though. Is this going to be our lives from now on?”
She sighs as if dealing with an intern. “We need to gain their full trust. You know that will take time. The higher ups will deal with him eventually since they won’t let him run free. And why does it matter how long it takes? It’s not like we don’t have the time. And the longer we work, the more we’re paid. Why are you so agitated out of nowhere?”
Michael who has a logical answer or a sarcastic reply for everything is stumped.
“Have you grown to like him? Is that it?”
“No!” Michael shoots back. “He just...confuses me.”
Apple crosses her legs and rests her hands on her lap. “And why is that?” Oh god, she’s playing therapist.
“He loves the slayer candidate, doesn’t he? At first, I thought he was doing all this to spite Rachel. I thought Viole was just another friend he lost, as we all lose people. And the real reason he hates Rachel so much is because she had the gall to blindside him. I thought him doing all this...carrying his sworn enemy up the tower, leading the team....I thought this was for his ego.”
“That’s understandable. Khuns are known to be petty and egotistical.” Apple nods patiently.
Michael is reminded of how the said Khuns held each other last night. As if they are ordinary brothers instead of gifted prodigies born into a life of deceit and betrayal. Trying to be something they’re not. What a joke.
“I thought he was doing it out of ego. But it’s actually out of love. He loves Viole that much. He fell in love with a weak, naive, useless boy and I don’t know why.”
“You can’t fathom why someone as strong, intelligent, and beautiful as boss could love somebody inferior. You can’t understand what boss sees in him.”
Michael clicks his tongue.
“You think that if boss should want someone, he should want someone just as impressive as him. Instead, he fell in love with someone who should have been a speck of dust.”
“I don’t even know what love is. And that’s the way it should be because it’s meaningless. In the tower, strength is the only thing that matters.” He clenches his fist until his knuckles hurt. “An abandoned son should know that strength is the only thing.”
Apple is silent for a long time, searching his expression for something. “You’re sure you’re not conflicted because you like him? You wouldn’t be the first or last person to fall for their target.”
“You should finish your report.” Michael stands from his chair and turns to leave the room.
“I’ll let you figure it out on your own,” Apple concludes. “As long as you can bring yourself to go through with it when it’s time.”
Michael shut himself in his room for the rest of the day. He doesn’t even go downstairs when Novick announces they ordered pizza for dinner.
That night, Michael dreams of warm blood running down his hands as life drains out of brilliant blue eyes.
“Why did you choose to die for him?”
“Because it’s him.”
A few weeks pass by. They advance to the next floor with some difficulty, but nothing concerning. Since his outburst with Apple that afternoon, Michael has kept a low profile.
He goes down to the breakfast table in the morning. He trains for a few hours before lunch. Then, he goes into town to gather intel. After all, it’s the most advantageous job for an average-looking background person. Some days, he picks up a few supplies on the way back. Dinner is always on the table by the time he arrives home. The team would welcome him back, and they would talk about their days and joke around.
“Are you kidding? That movie was so dumb!”
“It’s not that bad if you actually read the book instead of using it as a paperweight!”
“The leads were practically shoved together for being alpha and omega! It made no sense!”
“If you paid attention to the finer details, you’d see they liked each other all along.”
“Yea, you would’ve noticed if you weren’t staring at the actress’s chest the entire time!”
“Hey, you don’t get to make fun of me when you’re the one who actually cried at the end!”
“No I didn’t! My eyes watered because you got Cheeto dust everywhere!”
Michael laughs nonchalantly. “Now now guys, let’s just agree that Novick and Ran are blockheads, Apple has questionable taste in romance movies, and A.A. totally cried.”
The table erupts in more shouting and several pieces of food flung.
After the lively affair of team dinner, everyone would disperse into their own activities before bedtime. It’s routine. Easy. Ordinary.
One day, Aguero arrives home with a yellow beta chicken-person in tow. So even chicken-people can have secondary genders....learn new things every day. Apparently, this Gyetang character is supposed to be a backup spear bearer. More importantly, he is an actual cook.
Novick uses a new member as an excuse to have a team battle royale and challenge Ran. Unsurprisingly, everybody opts to sit out and let the two brutes fight. Aguero looks proud of Ran’s victory for a split second. He evens out his expression to not show favoritism.
Turns out, Gyetang is a fantastic cook. Over dinner that night, he announces that his motivation for joining the team is to meet Princess Endorsi one day. Michael isn’t sure if the chicken-person is playing stupid or actually stupid. He does enjoy how Gyetang quivers in fear as Aguero gives a villain speech about betrayal and his plans to kill Rachel. It looks like another fly has been caught in the web.
That evening, Aguero looks over reports in the common room instead of the study. Michael steals glances from where he busies about, cleaning the kitchen. Illuminated by the blue lighthouse glow, against the backdrop of tasteful furniture, Aguero looks every inch royalty. He had been born for this. For a position of command, for luxury, for such ethereal beauty.
Michael can’t wait to see the look on his face when he realizes that he had also been a fly caught in a web all along.
Michael is no expert on feelings and emotions. But even he knows that sometimes, thoughts turn into poison. And the poison will keep festering and festering until you’re unrecognizably hideous. Rachel is proof of that.
Before he knows it, months have passed since Gyetang joined. Michael expects him to be getting impatient about meeting Princess Endorsi, but it seems like he’s having fun with the team. Again, what an idiot.
Although Gyetang has an air of skittishness around the men, he gets along cozily with the women. He watches movies with Apple every couple nights. That woman finally has someone else to gush about romance flicks with, good riddance! Gyetang gets on so swimmingly with Rachel that Aguero pulls him aside for a very firm conversation. Apparently, Aguero had gotten concerned whether or not the chicken-person would be able to betray Rachel when the time is right.
Only a Khun can be arrogant enough to believe they will lead a weakling like that all the way up the tower. At least the guy’s a good enough cook. If Gyetang dies before his and Apple’s eventual betrayal, the food would be missed.
Michael is an unassuming person. A background person. People tend not to pay special attention to him. Which means he can conceal his thoughts better than most. He smiles and laughs with Gyetang before turning around to trash talk him to Apple.
That day starts ordinarily enough.
The birdsong outside had woken him up earlier than usual. Fucking horny little shits. Well...might as well get up. He plods his way downstairs, using shinsu to conceal his steps. He had been practicing using it for stealth.
Gyetang hums as he mills around in the kitchen. Aguero is sitting at the table with a cup of coffee. Both their backs are turned and nobody else is up yet. Michael decides to give them a good scare. It’s always fun watching their cook startle and break something.
As he gets closer, he notices Aguero’s slumped posture. He’s in rumpled pajamas and his hair is in its natural wavy state. Uncommon, but not weird. He usually comes downstairs fully dressed and ready for the day, but sometimes doesn’t bother when he’s preoccupied.
“I was thinking salmon for dinner,” Gyetang chirps, “there’s a good seafood market in the area.”
“Maybe we can stock up on seafood!”
“But that could be pricey...but it’s not like we’re short on points and good food will make everyone happier...”
“So you agree?” Michael can imagine Gyetang’s eyes lighting up at the prospect of indulgent ingredients.
“Whatever you think is best.”
“Umm...” Gyetang’s excitement falls. The fuzzy yellow beta’s scent spikes in anxiety. “Are you okay? You look sad.”
“I...I think so...” Aguero trails off.
“When I’m sad, I cook. It’s like taking those feelings and turning them into something delicious.”
“What helps you when you’re sad?” Gyetang asks slowly.
Michael can imagine Aguero’s eyes glazed over, lost in the image of chestnut hair and golden eyes. Ironically, that boy is also his source of sadness.
“I guess...” Aguero murmurs. “I try to deal with whatever is making me sad...but that’s not possible in this case...”
Wow, what stellar acting. He may have talent as a script writer. Gyetang eats it up.
“I know!” Gyetang exclaims. “I’ll make a suuuper delicious dinner tonight and we’ll all sit around the table and eat and laugh! And then we’ll open a bottle of wine and make a toast to how far you’ve brought us! That’ll cheer you up!”
Aguero’s soft laughter sounds like fairy bells. “Thank you, Gyetang.”
“We’ll make another toast when we’re at the top! So cheer up okay?”
Michael’s shinsu senses their teammates rustling upstairs. He decides to drop the stealth and announce himself. “Morning guys!”
The day proceeds as usual.
“He certainly improved since he started training with Novick.”
Apple continues to clack away at her lighthouse keyboard. Michael is once again in her study (since when does she get a private study?) pacing restlessly as he bitches (since when has he become such a bitch?).
“Okay, mayyybbeee he got a little better at hurling a spear,” Michael refutes, “but he’d still be toast in an actual fight.”
“It’s a little late to have a problem with Gyetang being on the team.”
“I don’t have a problem with him! I just can’t imagine him going all the way to the top! Can you imagine him as a ranker?!”
Apple sighs deeply but doesn’t look up from her screen. “Why do you care?”
“Because A.A. seriously thinks he can bring that chickadee to the top! Do you even know how ridiculous that sounds?” Michael flails his arms in frustration. “Sure, I get it if he mainly recruited that guy as a cook to make his little brother happy. But don’t go deluding yourself into thinking you can actually bring him up the tower!”
“I’m pretty sure Gyetang will try to jump ship if he meets Princess Endorsi’s team.”
“That’s not my point!”
Normally, around this time, Apple would put the lighthouse away and give him her undivided attention. But it seems she’s out of patience. “Then what is your point?”
“Someone like Gyetang doesn’t belong next to someone like A.A. That’s my point.”
“So this is about boss again.”
Michael stops his agitated pacing. “No, it’s about what it takes to climb the tower!”
The clacking of Apple’s keyboard doesn't falter. “Look, I have a lot of work to do today. And I don’t mind hearing your grievances because you’re my friend. But we can’t keep having the same conversation about your complex with boss. You can’t keep barging in every day, talking at me, and not listening to a single word I say. It’s getting toxic. If you don’t need anything else, I’ll see you at dinner.”
He must really be becoming insufferable if easygoing, pleasant Apple is sick of listening to him. Unlike a certain someone, Michael knows when to swallow his pride. “I’m sorry. I’ll...try to sort it out for real this time. See you at dinner.”
Apple considers his apology. “Just keep it together until we kill him and get paid. If Gyetang annoys you, kill him too when it’s time. You're a professional, let this shit go.”
Apple is wrong. The thing about thoughts is that they can’t always be brushed off. Sometimes, they have already taken root so deeply that you can’t pull them out without pulling parts of yourself out too. And Michael has many thoughts about the beautiful, blue-eyed demon.
“There’s a pretty famous bakery on this floor. Apparently their macarons are well known all over the tower.”
“They’re a chain store! How could their macarons be better than homemade?”
“Hmm how about we do a blind tasting contest? Gyetang versus famous bakery.”
“You’re so on!”
Michael stops venting to Apple as much. Their working relationship recovers without a hitch.
“Psst, Novick, they’re totally checking you out.”
“Look, they’re coming over! You should get their pocket numbers.”
“Why would I do that?”
“Why else? Are they not your type?”
“I don’t quite follow.”
“Oh my god, you’re such a blockhead!”
Rachel seems happy that he’s visiting more. Must be boring cooped up in her room or confined to her hovering wheelchair all day.
“You chose the movie last time! It’s my turn!”
“No, it’s my turn!”
“Guys, it’s Apple’s turn.”
“Glad you remembered! My pick is...Sex and the City!”
“Oh god...call Novick and tell him to pick up more booze on his way home. This is going to be insufferable.”
Their last floor test was tricky. They’re finally facing some challenging opponents.
“That’s butter side down again.”
“That makes the score three to five.”
“What are you guys doing?”
“Proving that toast is more likely to land butter side down.”
“You’re both idiots.”
The tough time of year for Aguero and Rachel comes and goes again. Ran watches his brother like a hawk. The mood in the house remains tense for a week before resuming to easygoing liveliness.
“So we got the protein powder, the vitamins, a new blender...oh wait, should we also get that instant coffee on sale?”
“Uh...sure, it’s pretty cheap.”
“A.A. why are you shuddering?”
“Bad memories associated with instant coffee.”
“You’ve killed people and you’re shaken by instant coffee.”
“You’ve literally gotten drenched in your enemies’ blood but instant coffee makes you uncomfortable.”
Aguero wins a lofty bet against another regular from the 10 Great Families. They start looking at listings for a private bunker.
“Then what happened?”
“So Endorsi nearly slipped on a potato chip bag, saw all the trash and banana peels everywhere, broke down Rak’s door, and threatened to skin him and turn him into a purse.”
“Oh my god, did he try to explain it wasn’t him?!”
“He did, but nobody believed him because we were all sick of his trash everywhere!”
“The look on his face must have been priceless!”
“It was! I still have the footage saved somewhere. So that’s how I trained the gator to pick up after his damn self.”
“Damn, I wish we could train Rachel.”
The Shibisu guy mails over a gaudy purple tracksuit with orange stripes. It comes with a note that read “Khun my love! Don’t knock tracksuits until you try them!” Also attached is a photo of Shibisu hugging a furiously blushing, fair-skinned young man with a mole under his eye. The two are in matching tracksuits. The whole team howls with laughter.
“Why do products that supposedly appeal to omegas have to be marketed like that? It’s total gender bias.”
“Total oversight in market research.”
“Are you even listening to me?”
“You’re just upset because they plastered Yura Ha’s face on your favorite shampoo brand and now it’s sold out everywhere.”
“...you’re a little shit, you know that?”
While they are unwinding at a bar one night, a drunk alpha tries starting a fight with Gyetang. The Khun brothers exchange one glance before Aguero punches him in the face while Ran knees him in the groin. Novick drags everyone out of the bar before they start a bar riot and get arrested. Apple hacks the security footage afterwards.
Michael finds himself thinking about his solitary years more often. It’s nice to have a team even if it’s just for now.
Eventually, the impossible happens. They fail the test to advance past the 25th floor. They’ll be stuck here for six months before they can take it again.
The team had been training hard. The plan was supposed to work.
Aguero, predictably, takes it the hardest. He shuts himself in his study to pour over the footage. The rest of the team, minus Rachel, sits around the dining room table picking half heartedly at the food Gyetang made.
Michael honestly blames himself a little. He had been right there beside Aguero. Light bearer and wave controller. The two of them were supposed to be the strongest pair possible. But somehow, their opponents predicted their location and set up an ambush. They got surrounded and their teammates had to come save their skins.
All things considered, this isn’t the worst that could’ve happened. The team took no concerning injuries and there are worse places to be stuck six months for.
Still, the mood at the table is solemn. They had all taken victory as a given with Aguero leading them.
Novick is first to break the silence. “We took always winning for granted. He’s just so...undaunted. Twenty steps in front of everyone else. But I suppose that’s too much expectation.”
“Of course it’s too much,” Ran snaps bitterly. “He’s not a god of victory.”
The table lapses back into silence.
“If he’s not a god of victory, he shouldn’t be this upset,” Michael says. “It’s impressive as it is that we got this far so quickly. He should stop moping.”
A sharp scrape of utensils makes everybody flinch. “You don’t get to say that,” Ran hisses at him. “You don’t get to say he shouldn’t be upset when you have no idea what kind of pressure he puts on himself. You don’t get to invalidate how he feels.”
Michael feels a vein bulge in his temple. “Maybe I’d better understand his little feelings if he actually talked to us and treated us like an actual team!”
“HOW is he not treating us like a team?!” Ran is standing up now. “Do you have ANY IDEA how hard he works to take us up the tower?! Do you have ANY IDEA how much of the burden he carries so we don’t have to?!”
“We’re not his team! We’re his PUPPETS!!” Michael is standing up now as well, chest heaving. Everybody is quiet.
Apple frowns at him. Her lips are drawn thin and tight. Novick glances back and forth between the two, probably thinking of how to diffuse the situation like a responsible alpha. Gyetang looks like he wants to crawl and hide under the table.
“Maybe not you, Ran, since you’re his brother,” Michael continues after too much silence. “It must be nice to be special to him.”
“Michael,” Apple says sharply.
Novick releases a wave of his calming forest scent. It smells like pine needles, moss, and tree bark. Several shoulders begin to subconsciously un-tense. “Guys, stop.” He scrubs both hands down his face. “We’re all tired and high strung. Let’s just go to bed and start again tomorrow. Fighting will get us nowhere.”
Apple releases her own mild, fruity scent to help calm down the betas locked in a stare-off. “Also, you two are scaring Gyetang.”
When nobody moves for several minutes, Novick begins to usher Ran out of the room. Ran’s rainwater and mint scent is stormy. Like clouds before a thunderstorm.
“You’re just like the rest of them,” Ran says, not looking back. “You’re like the rest of the assholes who think it must be sooo wonderful to be from the Great Families. You see all the good shit that comes with it, but you have no idea what our lives have been like.”
After Ran and Novick leave, Gyetang shakily stands from his chair. Apple places a hand on cook’s shoulder and leads him out of the room as well. She doesn’t meet Michael’s gaze. Somehow, that feels worse than if she had cursed him out as well.
Michael stands alone at the dining table.
“Nobody cares what my life’s been like either.”
3:30 am...he glares at his pocket. At this point, he might as well give up on sleeping.
Michael decides to wander out of his room and risk running into another sleepless teammate. He creeps down the hall, towards the small library, when the sound of soft conversation catches his attention.
There is light coming from under Aguero’s door. He’s talking to someone. Drawing on shinsu, Michael approaches silently and amplifies the sounds.
“- for the last time no, you don’t need to call in favours for us. I mean it, just focus on your team. We’ll be fine.”
He is on a pocket call? At this hour?
“I didn’t freak the hell out when your team failed that test, Shibisu.”
Ah, it’s the doting, tacky, tracksuit guy. Why the hell does he keep going this far for someone so out of his league?
A humourless laugh. Shibisu must be trying to cheer him up.
“Yea, you’re right. If Rak knew, he’d hang this over my head forever....but if he were here, he’d know what to say to them. The damn gator is good with things like that.”
So he does have begrudging respect for Rak.
“I didn’t tell them anything! I got straight to work figuring out what the hell went wrong so we can pass for sure next time. And then I hear them screaming at each other!”
Well, guess it is unreasonable to hope that Aguero won’t care about the team’s first actual fight. He’s too much of a control freak.
“No, this isn’t like how Rak and I yelled at each other! They never argued like that before and Ran never loses composure like that. I’m concerned okay?”
“No, I don’t need you to call Ran like a dopey uncle.”
“No! Don’t send us matching tracksuits!”
“Stop, just stop! Don’t call Ran, don’t send us any shit, and for the love of god, do NOT ask HANSUNG YU of all people for advice!!”
Hansung Yu? The advanced ranker pulling strings for FUG? Curious, Michael increases his shinsu output to catch what Shibisu is saying as well.
Shibisu’s voice is deep with concern. “Then how can I help? Khun, you can’t just call me in the middle of the night, sounding like you’re about to cry, and not tell me how I can help.”
Both men are quiet. Michael holds his breath. He can hear the sound of waves lapping gently at the docks outside.
Shibisu caves in first. “If you don’t want me to call Hansung, would you at least consider talking to Lero Ro? He helped you back then with the administrator’s test. He’s a ranker and also your instructor. I’m sure he can shed some light on your situation...hehe shed light, no pun intended there, my love!”
Michael feels sick. So not only does Aguero have the loyalty and admiration of his friends, he’s also held in favor by multiple rankers?! The world is truly unfair.
“Isu, I...I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I don’t know what to say to them or what else to do. I really tried to do what Bam would want.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m really trying to be the kind of leader Bam would’ve wanted me to be. Remember how we were back on the floor of tests? I’m a cold-hearted bastard and I can’t change that about me, but I really try to be a little different for them. We eat together and laugh together, and I really try to be a friend because that’s what Bam would want me to do!”
“So I tried to be more approachable, I forced myself to show some damn vulnerability now and then instead of being perfect all the fucking time! I let Ran make fun of me in front of everyone. I let Michael see me a mess. I let Gyetang cheer me up with food. I pretended to cry at one of Apple’s romance movies, for fuck’s sake!”
Shibisu hums. “And doing all that makes you feel like you’re honoring Bam?”
“Sometimes...sometimes I feel like I haven’t completely lost the only thing in this tower that is pure and good. But most of the time, it feels fucking hollow...like everything is pointless without him. I think about slitting Rachel’s throat already and ending this cursed charade. The tower just takes and takes. It never stops. Ran wants me to let go of him, but year after year, it just gets heavier.”
“If you’re this drained and unhappy,” Shibisu says in a slow, careful tone. “Why don’t you come back to us? You and I can tell the others about Rachel so you won’t have to carry this weight alone anymore. Just come back and it’ll be like the floor of tests again!”
“Isu, we’ve had this talk before. You know I can’t do that.”
“Because you want to finish the revenge plot that you started? Don’t you think Bam would rather you be happy?”
Michael hears a muffled sob. So he’s actually crying for real? He wonders what Ageuro looks like crying. He’s probably one of those people who still looks pretty with a flushed face and snot tracks.
“You know in the mornings when you’re half asleep and half awake? When you’re in that in-between, you can convince yourself anything is possible.”
“Sometimes...in the morning, I think about Bam in bed beside me. We’re just cuddling. He’s in my arms, where I can protect him. Then I wake up alone, and it feels like I’m trapped in a nightmare.”
Shibisu draws a sharp intake of breath.
“Isu, I can’t move on and I can’t be happy without him. So the least I can do is get justice for him. I’m going to take Rachel up the tower and make her feel the exact same thing she made him feel. No matter how long it takes or how heavy it gets.” Aguero’s tone is steely, leaving no room for argument.
“Well damn...” Shibisu concedes. “If you’re set on climbing with your team, I’ll tell you this. Stop trying to lead them like Bam and lead them like you.”
Aguero pauses. “What does that mean?”
“For starters, stop the fake vulnerability,” Shibisu says patiently. “You can’t have it together all the time, so show vulnerability if you want to. But don’t do it just because you think Bam would want you to be relatable. Just be yourself because he would love you as you are. You don’t know who you are without Bam, but you will find out.”
A long pause before Aguero speaks again. “Since when did you become such a wise leader?”
“Since Annak presented as an alpha and I’ve been wrangling three of them!”
“Damn, that makes four of you. I can’t imagine.”
Michael is just as surprised as Aguero. Four alphas on one team? How are they still functional?! Does this mean tracksuit guy is an alpha as well? He swallows bitterly.
“Oh my god, you have no idea! They wrecked the last place we stayed in and we lost the security deposit! Every night I pray for you to come help me with them.”
A sarcastic scoff. “Yea...you and Hatz have fun parenting them.”
“My love! So cold to my woes!”
“...I could give them each a call and yell at them for you. I wouldn’t mind yelling at the seppuku swordsman if he’s not pulling his weight.”
“Hatz listens to me more than you’d think...you know, the main reason he was like that with you at first is cuz he had a crush on you right?”
Michael stalks away, not wanting to listen to any more. He doesn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
It seems like Aguero has taken Shibisu’s advice and is dealing with the problem his way.
The team comes downstairs the next morning to a set breakfast table with a note. “Be back in a week, there are shovels in the shed if you kill each other. P.S, expect a new teammate.”
Three days after Aguero runs off on his own, a package arrives. Shibisu had sent awful matching tracksuits after all. Novick makes them pose for a group photo in an attempt at peace making.
True to his word, exactly one week later, their leader returns. He returns dressed like a girl scout and carrying a whole human being inside a lighthouse. Aguero’s complexion looks better, his eyes look brighter with no traces of dark circles. Even his lavender and molten sugar scent is noticeable instead of barely-there.
“Welcome back,” Michael greets with an easy smile.
“I see you’re all still alive,” he replies. “Novick! Come help with our new scout!”
Novick pinches the bridge of his nose. “I don’t even want to know.”
Similarly with Gyetang’s arrival, introductions are made, a team battle royale is held, and a villainous speech is staged. This time, the speech is given against the backdrop of the setting sun. Khuns are so damn dramatic.
Michael decides that Edin Dan is far less irritating than their resident chicken-person. At least Dan has one indisputable, remarkable talent. That’s more than what can be said about most people in the tower.
In the weeks that follow, Michael realizes that Dan may have another talent aside from his speed.
The lingering tension from the failed floor test disperses like morning fog in Dan’s presence. Their new scout is chatty, a touch awkward, and an overall sunny person. Despite his abysmal performance in the team battle royale, Dan fit in seamlessly.
He doesn’t mind being the butt of Novick and Ran’s jokes. He raises Apple’s spirits enough for her to start talking to Michael again. He makes Aguero laugh! He makes the ice prince genuinely and wholeheartedly laugh. Not that fake laughing he used to pull. Most of the time, Aguero laughs at Dan instead of with him. But Dan doesn’t mind. When Aguero is happier, Ran is happier. And when the youngest teammate is happier, everybody else is happier.
Dan is another beta addition to their team of mostly betas. But his warm personality and lack of social boundaries brings the team closer. If Michael and Apple aren’t FUG spies, it would feel like an actual pack.
He can tell Rachel secretly holds disdain for Dan. Michael doesn’t particularly like or dislike him. He’s not fond of sunny personalities, but it is thanks to Dan that he and Apple are talking again and Ran had stopped glaring daggers.
“I wasn’t just upset about you sabotaging the trust we built with the team,” Apple confides while they are having lunch in her study.
“Why else were you mad?”
“You lose your rationality when it comes to him. I told you to figure that out, but you clearly haven’t. Don’t even try to deny it.”
Michael fiddles with his coffee mug. “I want to stop. I want to go back to how I was before all this.”
Apple sighs resolutely and steeples her fingers. “Then listen very carefully, because this is the last advice I will ever give you about him.”
He senses that this is a make or break point in their friendship. “Okay, I’m listening. I promise.”
“You think I don’t know that you label everyone as either ordinary or special?” Her intense scrutiny feels like drills. “Some people are just born smarter, stronger, richer, prettier. That’s how the tower works. And all we can do is try our best with our circumstances. That’s it. I know it sounds unfair, but that’s how it is.”
“I used to be okay with that...then I started this assignment and met him.”
“Your obsession with him isn’t about HIM. It’s about YOU.” She enunciates every word sternly. “It was never about how skilled or pretty he is. Or about how his family is rich. Or how people fawn over him. His life isn’t as perfect as you think it is. Our assignment is proof of that for fuck’s sake!”
They were both quiet for a few moments to let the words sink in.
“Your problem with him is that he’s the first person who makes you feel truly shitty about yourself. But here’s the thing. No matter how great someone is, there will always be someone greater. So even when you feel shitty, all you can do is keep working on yourself. It’s either that, or stop climbing the tower.”
“I don’t want to stop climbing.”
“Then finish this job and apply what you’ve learned to the next job. I don’t care if your convoluted obsession follows you forever. You keep this bullshit out of your professional work.”
Apple probably swore more in this conversation than her whole professional career combined.
Two months before the 25th floor test was the day that changed everything. All their easy laughs, shared meals, and outings so far were in the eye of the storm. And they were all about to be blown away.
Michael and Apple are in the common room reviewing reports while Gyetang hums in the kitchen preparing lunch.
Without warning, a pale, wide-eyed Novick busts open the backyard door with an equally pale and wide-eyed Dan in tow. Michael is about to tease them about the security deposit until he notices two things.
First, a much stronger scent of lavender and candy. Second, their leader is being carried in Novick’s arms. He and Apple are on their feet in an instant. Gyetang, in his haste, knocks over a pot and spills their lunch across the floor.
“We were training and he suddenly collapsed,” Dan spouts in a frenzy. “And he’s shaking and he looks like he’s in pain, and oh god what if he’s having a HEART ATTACK!? Aren’t heart attacks super serious!? What if he fucking dies, oh god OH GOD -”
“He’s presenting,” Novick’s quiet murmur cuts through all the commotion.
“HE’S WHAT?” Ran’s scream nearly takes out all their eardrums. Where had that kid even come from?
No-nonsense Novick shoulders past Apple and Michael to set their leader down on one of the couches. “He’s presenting. He’s an omega.”
“HOW THE FUCK IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE?!”
Novick tears off his windbreaker and drapes it across their shivering leader. “Late presentations happen. Call a doctor, you can give him anything from my laundry basket, the scent of a familiar alpha helps.”
“Novick, where are you going? Why are you leaving?” Dan looks dazed and unsteady.
Floral lavender and sweet candy continues to fill the room like a scented candle. Novick’s pupils are blown wide and every muscle is rigid. “Dan, I know you’re scared and need a friend, but I can’t stay here. As an alpha and his friend, I can’t stay. I’ll go to a hotel for a few days.” He clambers out the front door attempting to cover the tent in his athletic shorts.
“He’s burning the hell up!!” Ran is panicking beside his incapacitated brother.
Michael takes a few steps towards the couch. He might as well put his quack doctor skills to use. “Apple, you call someone! I’ll keep an eye on him.”
As he nears the two brothers, Ran lunges like a viper and throws him across the room snarling, “GET AWAY FROM HIM!”
“Umm,” Rachel speaks up from the staircase. “What’s happening? What’s that smell?”
Apple claps her hands together sharply. “Rachel honey, go back to your room. I’ll explain everything to you later.” She turns towards Michael, who is picking himself up from where he landed in the puddle of soup coming from the kitchen. “Family tends to get very protective. Go outside and call a doctor. I need to get Ran to calm down enough to let someone near. Dan, Gyetang, go outside and take some deep breaths.”
So this was what has become of their great team. Novick had bolted off...probably to a rut hotel, Rachel is useless as always, Dan is hyperventilating, Gyetang is cowering in a corner, and Ran is too panicked to let the only person with medical knowledge help. And the mediator holding the situation together is a FUG spy. The irony is not lost on Michael.
Turns out, it was a late presentation.
“It’s uncommon, but it happens,” the doctor said, “he’s healthy as far as I can see.”
“Aren’t omegas supposed to be...you know...when they present?” Dan questioned sheepishly. He was still looking pale.
Ran kicked him for asking such a crass question.
The doctor chuckled. “Normally yes. But in the case of late presentations, the symptoms are much more painful than anything else. You must’ve all been through a fright, but there’s nothing amiss. Get him to make an appointment with the specialist so he knows where to go from now.”
Apple, Michael, Gyetang, and Dan are now sitting around the dining room table. Dan fiddles with the contact card and bottle of vitamins the doctor had left.
Aguero is upstairs sleeping off whatever the doctor gave him to alleviate the pain. Ran had staunchly refused to leave his side.
“I kind of had a feeling since day one,” Apple thumbs along the rim of her mug.
“He’s oddly pretty. And his scent was very light, even for a beta. Makes sense that it was so light because he hadn’t fully presented yet.”
Dan twiddles his thumbs. “He’s still our leader right? We’re going to keep climbing together. This doesn’t change anything.”
Apple sighs and rubs her eyes, her makeup is smeared anyways. “It’s not that simple. Male omegas are rare, and he’s from the Ten Great Families too. If word gets out, this will change things for him. And it will change things for all of us too.”
“But word won’t get out!” Dan reassures. “He’ll make sure nobody else finds out and nothing will change. Right? Right??
Apple stands up to drop her mug in the sink. “I don’t know.”
Ran camps out in Aguero’s room that night. Seems like their genius light bearer can’t even present like a fucking normal person. Michael hears muted whispers from behind the door, but he’s not in the mood to eavesdrop this time. He strides past.
“Yes Michael?” Apple answers her door dressed in a long nightgown.
Michael opens and closes his mouth several times, gaping like a fish. He’s not sure what he even wanted to talk to her about. Maybe he just doesn’t want to be alone in the wake of the bombshell.
“Please excuse me if you don’t need anything. We’ve had a long day and it’ll be another long day tomorrow. Good night.”
Michael receives a pocket message from her minutes later. “Don’t worry, FUG won’t go soft on him.” He’s not sure if that makes him feel better or worse.
Things do change. Subtle things, small things like ripples in a pond.
Rachel is more bitter than ever. She snaps at her helpers and rants to him for hours about how nice being a pampered omega of a rich family would be.
Apple gets busy with FUG. Apparently the latest development had motivated her to try taking a more proactive role with the planning.
Novick doesn’t stop sparring with Aguero, but it’s clear he had started pulling his punches.
Ran hovers around his brother more often than not.
Determined not to let things change, Dan doubles down on his clownery to keep the team in high spirits. He’s well intentioned, but it’s starting to get a little insufferable. Not that anyone has the heart to tell him.
Gyetang becomes fidgety and anxious, as if the team could implode at any second.
And Michael...well Michael carries on as usual. He carries on as if the freak late presentation had never happened. Aguero certainly doesn’t acknowledge it with anyone other than his brother. He starts using scent dampening soap. It doesn’t completely erase his new, stronger scent, but dulls it enough to be barely noticeable again.
The team had been slowly reclaiming a sense of stability when the second bombshell drops.
Apparently, an associate of the doctor had leaked the information to tabloids. And so, news of the abandoned Khun child’s late presentation became hot gossip.
Apple breaks the news to the team by storming into the dining room and slamming her lighthouse on the table as they were having breakfast. Plates rattle and food flies. Article after article flash across the screen.
Michael drops his coffee in his lap, Gyetang breaks a plate, and Dan does one hell of a spit take. Ran disintegrates the table, along with Apple’s lighthouse, with lighting shinsu.
“Goddamn vultures,” Novick mutters, scent turning muddy.
Aguero slowly stands up, face expressionless as a zombie. He trudges upstairs to his study and screams as if he’s dying.
The following days pass in a restless blur.
Immediately after discovering the tabloid articles, the team packs up and moves to a hotel. It’s likely that the address of their hut was leaked as well. Sure enough, the little seaside town gets swarmed with paparazzi and tabloid reporters mere hours after they bail.
They spend the next two weeks hidden in their hotel rooms, eating takeout for every meal, and doing what little they can to prepare for the floor test.
Ran’s pocket gets blown up from the family. He was only hovering before, but now, he’s glued to his brother’s side.
Shibisu calls in tears begging Aguero to rejoin his group for good.
“Please just come back! Don’t you see how serious this is? Come back to us and we can help you sort this out!”
“It’ll never be sorted out! This is my fucking life now and the last thing I need is pity help from an ALPHA of all people!” And that escalates into a whole new shit show.
Even more concerning, a greeting card is slipped under their hotel room door in the dead of night. It’s a congratulations signed by Hansung Yu. Ah that’s right, Hansung Yu is one of the few prominent male omegas in the tower. His mating with the monster Evankhell surely plays a part in his successes. No matter, the card is immediately tossed in the fireplace.
Considering what a wreck they are, it is nothing short of a miracle that they pass the floor test. Or maybe it’s Dan’s dumb luck. Aguero angrily pulls the said scout aside afterwards to have a long, private conversation.
Finally. Finally, after the first failed floor test, half a year of waiting around, gaining a new teammate, and the trainwreck of the last two months, they are moving up at last.
They buy a private bunker. The tabloids eventually find other people to hound. Things seem good.
Aguero never talks about his new secondary gender, but it’s obvious that he detests it.
He returns from a doctor’s appointment looking grim. He must have gotten on suppressants, but he never takes them in front of the team. He doesn’t pick up any of Shibisu’s calls. Michael catches him one morning dotting concealer over bruise-colored dark circles. Their eyes meet in the mirror. Neither of them say anything.
Despite Aguero’s anxiety and irate temper, he seems to be holding up. The team is also holding up, and no longer by a thread anymore. Plans for the floor test are going well.
Things seem good.
“- seriously think I wouldn’t find out?”
“It’s harmless, you don’t need to get so worked up about this.”
Were the Khun brothers fighting? Well, it's bound to happen eventually with Ran glued to Aguero’s side. Even the best of friends get sick of each other now and then. Michael conceals his presence with shinsu and leans his ear against the training room door.
“You’ve been sneaking around, messaging this THING! You don’t even know what it is! You got it from Dan!” Seems like Ran found out what his brother has been asking the Emily device.
“They never found a body, the circumstances didn’t feel right, and now this! Don’t tell me this is all a coincidence.”
“You’re hoping for something nearly impossible! You’re setting yourself up to get hurt again!”
Aguero’s reply is surprisingly steady. “So what? If he’s out there, I’ll do whatever it takes to bring him back and never let him go this time. If it turns out he is dead, I’ll spend the rest of my life mourning him. It doesn’t matter which it is, my life is his.”
“It’s always Bam, Bam, Bam with you isn’t it?” Bitterness tinge Ran’s voice.
Michael silently agrees. All he ever cares about is the slayer candidate. All of his fears and desires lead back to that naive, golden-eyed boy. Everything and everybody else is just trash to him. Even his own brother’s concern.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Do you know,” Ran’s voice drops venomously low, “how I feel watching you around that time every year? Every year, I hoped it would get easier for you, but it never does! Do you have any idea how I felt the night you presented?! I held you in my arms as you cried for HIM in your sleep! After the scariest fucking day of your life, after scaring the living hell out of me, you were crying for HIM! How do you think that makes me feel?!”
“So this is about my presentation, the tabloids, and the family making you anxious. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to stand back like a good little omega when there’s something I could be doing!!”
“Don’t make this about secondary gender because you don’t want to face the real issue! You did that with Shibisu and now you’re doing it to me!”
Silence hangs heavy. The brothers are no doubt in an intense stare-off. Blue glare against glue glare, resolve against resolve. Aguero’s resolve when it came to matters involving Bam may be higher than the tower itself.
Unsurprisingly, Ran caves. “If we don’t find him using Emily, you have to accept that he’s really gone and try to move on for real. I so much as suspect you’re bullshitting me, I'll drag you back to father myself. I’ll let Maschenny marry you off to the Poe Bidaos. I’m dead serious.”
“Okay...we’ll see this through. Thank you, Ran.”
Michael barely has time to dodge into the adjacent changing room before Ran storms out of the training room. A few minutes later, Aguero’s lighter footsteps exit the room and echo down the hall.
With the training room free, Michael steps in and begins the shinsu meditation he came here to do.
He closes his eyes, summoning his shinsu. His wave controller instructor had told him that shinsu is an extension of one’s soul. It can’t be more true.
“It’s not fair isn’t it?” The water around him whispers.
It’s not fair how he betrayed his own family, got abandoned as a result, and now they want to accept him back into a life of prestige.
It’s not fair how people keep forgiving his single-mindedness for Bam.
It’s not fair how people can’t stop themselves from loving him.
It’s not fair how he experienced the privilege of loving another.
The shinsu hums. It agrees, it understands.
When Michael opens his eyes, deep gouges are littered all across the walls.
He has decided. If Aguero won't appreciate what he has, he will take it all away. He will take everything, crush his spirit, and rip him to shreds.
“The higher ups have a plan.” Apple is seated on her desk wearing sweatpants and a loose t-shirt. Her skin looked sunken. “It’s not a very good plan in my opinion, but it’ll happen soon. Here, this is your copy.”
Michael takes the documents from her and skims through them. “You’ve got to be kidding me. This is the best they could come up with? What about all the other strategies you suggested?”
He knows the strategies Apple has been working on are more foolproof. More vicious and guaranteed higher success rates. She had spent six years learning from Aguero to turn his own knives against him.
“They’re afraid his family will get to him first. He’d be harder to kill shut away in some Khun estate. The higher ups want to act fast and they took the slayer candidate into account as well.”
“Blowing up the Hand of Arlene...what do you suppose the odds are that he’ll die?”
“The simulations I ran are rough, but I’d say fifty-fifty.” Apple chews her bottom lip. “To be honest with you, I think boss would be of more use to FUG alive. Their only reason for killing him is to humor the Rachel girl. I’ve kept my mouth shut because they don’t pay me to challenge them.”
“You sound like you’d rather he live.” He keeps his tone carefully un-accusing.
“He could be useful down the line. That’s all.”
“He’ll never work with FUG considering what we did to Bam.”
“People can change, Michael. Situations change.” Apple lights a cigarette. A habit he thought she had kicked a decade ago.
“Not him, not when it comes to Bam.”
One week. In one week, the object of his ire will either be either chasing after the love he lost or dead under rubble.
The odds are evenly stacked. Let’s see if fate is fair.
He knocks on the door to Aguero’s study with the latest intel report in hand. The report is basic and just for show. The reckoning is tomorrow after all. The door creaks open. Weird.
“Hey, you left the door open.”
Michael is surprised to find Dan nosing around the room. No Aguero to be seen.
“We’re not supposed to be in here without him.”
“What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Dan grins. “Besides, he doesn’t lock the door.”
Michael has no patience for Dan’s antics tonight. “Do you know where he is?”
“Oh, Khun’s sleeping already.”
“What? It’s only ten o’clock.” Their leader is known to be a night owl.
“It’s a big day tomorrow.”
Michael frowns. “Yea, I know that. Just surprised he can fall asleep this early.”
Dan, being a gossipy, chatty, dimwit, begins to blab. “He’s been taking pills. The doctor said that if he doesn’t sleep more, there will be...complications. That’s why he’s been so moody lately if you’re wondering. But don’t tell anyone because we’re not supposed to know. You see, what happened was-”
Michael tunes out. “Okay...well I’ll just give these to him tomorrow.”
You see, Apple did tell him to get his shit together. She did tell him to not let whatever he feels for Aguero affect the job. But Michael is only human and Dan had unknowing slipped him a juicy piece of information with the worst timing possible.
He tells himself that this will be the last time. He’ll be controlled by his twisted feelings for Aguero one last time. After all, tomorrow is the day this cursed assignment has led up to. All he has is tonight. So he waits for the rest of the bunker’s inhabitants to fall asleep. He doesn't have to wait long since nobody stays up as late as their leader.
Concealing his steps with shinsu, he creeps to the master bedroom. After willing his beating heart to settle, he soundlessly opens the door and lets himself in.
The room is faintly illuminated by several strings of fairy lights. It’s quite barren otherwise. Decorating is the last thing on the team’s mind. Step by step, Michael stalks over to the king size bed.
With his features relaxed in slumber, Aguero looks like a marble sculpture. The pale blue fairy lights make his skin look almost see-through. His silvery hair fans across the pillow like a halo. Is this what he’d look like preserved forever in formaldehyde? Michael inhales the scent of fresh cut lavender. Aguero is still very much alive. However, in about 20 hours, his fate will be in the hands of the cruel gods.
Michael slowly, slowly, reaches out a hand...
He thinks about Novick, who never even had a fling, but had lost his mind the moment Aguero presented.
He thinks about Shibisu, who is still madly in love with Aguero despite the poison that had been spat.
He thinks about the swordsman Hatz. He can imagine the guy taking one look at Aguero and stumbling over his words.
He thinks about how Dan looks at Aguero in awe and follows him like a puppy.
He thinks about how Aguero unraveled everything he knew about himself.
His hand stops barely half an inch away. No this isn’t right.
Aguero is an angel who had lost himself to vengeance and fell from the heavens. He is not anybody’s to touch or hold because he is not of this world.
No, instead, Michael will finish his job. He will then fish out the corpse from the rubble and keep the heart in a glass case as a trophy.
He is suddenly sure of Aguero’s death at the Hand of Arlene. The gods have been too kind to him his whole life. It’s time to balance the scales.
Apple doesn’t comment on his dark circles the next morning.
“Ran, did you drink the last of the coffee?”
“We still have the instant coffee left.”
“I hate this family.”
They spend the morning training.
“We should get actual shower curtains and bath mats.”
“We should also paint the walls since we actually own this place!”
“Please! The wallpaper makes this place look haunted as hell.”
Gyetang falls ill from the poison right on time.
“Does this mean we’re eating takeout for the next few days?”
“Or we could take turns cooking like before.”
“I’ve forgotten how to turn on the stove.”
“Don’t be spoiled.”
By afternoon, Aguero, Ran, and Novick are geared up for their hunt. Aguero is a little dismayed with the turnout, but he buys their excuses easily enough. Dan chooses to stay behind to look after Rachel. What an unfortunate choice.
“Go catch the devil and stick it to Hatz! We’ll be waiting!”
Michael savors the look of horror on Gyetang’s face as realization dawns. The pathetic whimpers of not wanting to die are music to his ears. He had waited so long to crush the bird in his hand.
Contrary to popular belief, Apple does know her way around combat. One second she was having a pleasant conversation with Dan, and the next second, she had bashed his head and proceeded to tie him up. After all, the best attack is one nobody sees coming.
“I think I’ll miss it,” Apple lights a cigarette as she taps away at her lighthouse. “FUG’s living quarters aren’t nearly this spacious.”
“You could buy a nice house with the job’s pay.”
“I know.” Smoke fills the air. “But it won’t be the same.”
Michael thinks of everything they shared. Not all of it was fake. “No, it won’t.”
Michael expects Dan to ask why they betrayed him. Instead, he asks why they betrayed Aguero.
It takes Michael by surprise, but if Dan wants to make his last conversation be about Aguero, then so be it.
“Because,” he drawls, “people like him who are born strong, and intelligent, and privileged will never understand what it’s like for the rest of us. Us ordinary people have to work twice as hard to get half as far. It’s not fair isn’t it? That’s why we did what was best for us.”
“What the hell are you talking about?!” Dan shouts incredulously. “You have NO IDEA how suffocated he feels and how hard he worked to keep this team together!! It’s not fucking easy!!”
“His life isn’t easy? EVERYTHING is easier when you’re blessed with strength, intellect, and beauty. Tell me something he doesn’t have.”
“He doesn’t have his team anymore! He built this team with six years of blood, sweat, and tears! He gave me another chance to climb the tower! You TOOK IT ALL AWAY!!”
Michael scoffs at the naivety. “It wasn’t for the team, it was for his little revenge plot. Do you seriously think you’re not a tool to him?”
“You two have been in cahoots with Rachel this entire time?!”
“God, you’re slow on the uptake.” Apple blows out a cloud of smoke. “Though it wasn’t easy to get his guard down.”
“Fuck you...you can’t do this. You can’t play around with people’s lives like this.”
“One last bit of parting advice,” Apple stubs out her cigarette and lights another. “This is how the tower works. Your fate will always be in the hands of those stronger than you.”
Michael chuckles. “She’s right. You work your whole life and nobody bats an eye at you. But the moment the pretty boy presents, he becomes a celebrity!”
Dan kicks wildly with his bound legs. “Are you for real?! His privacy was stolen while he was most vulnerable! All our privacies were invaded! Were you not there when we lived in that fucking hotel looking over our shoulders every five minutes?! Were you not there when he and his brother couldn’t sleep for two fucking weeks?!”
“Ah yes, that was rather unpleasant.” He keeps his tone mockingly pensive. “But correct me if I’m wrong here. He betrayed his family. He made stupid choices and got disowned. And now they’re willing to forgive everything because of a secondary gender that was just handed to him! Does that not sound convenient?”
Dan thrashes against his bindings like a rabid animal. “JUST HOW FUCKED UP ARE YOU?!”
“Michael,” Apple warns.
“Right, well, we don’t have forever,” Michael pulls his knife out of his belt holster. The blade is long and wickedly sharp. He glances over at the girl who had been lurking in the doorway.
“Rachel, come here. Take this knife and do whatever you want to him.”
He and Apple watch the news coverage from a FUG base. They watch the words slide slide across at the bottom of the screen. Presumed dead: Khun Aguero Agnis.
He wonders if the tracksuit guy is watching. Does he regret that the last conversation he had with Aguero was an argument?
He pays a scavenger to keep digging around the Hand of Arlene for remains.
Then, it's onto the next assignment.
When he sits alone in the cafeteria, he hears echoes of laughter and breezy conversation. When he goes to the department store, he hears ghosts bantering over the different brands. When he reports to his new supervisor, sometimes he expects to see blue eyes instead of brown.
Sometimes, he dreams of running his fingers through silky hair and a pair of soft lips against his own. Other times, he dreams of a voice crying from a dark place and his hands wrapping around a smooth, alabaster neck.
Time passes strangely when his days all look the same and there are no floor tests to prepare for.
He’s not sure if it had been weeks, months, or years when Apple shows up at his door. Her hair is grown out and dyed brown. She still wears her trademark red lipstick.
“Hey, I thought you were undercover.”
She wordlessly lets herself into his apartment and locks the door.
“Apple? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but you would have found out anyways.”
She shoves a photograph into his hands. Michael’s heart thunders in his chest.
Whoever said that the gods are fair is full of shit. The gods have never been fair. Not when people like him are compared to people like Aguero.
Michael honestly hadn’t been keeping up with the news. He used to be more on top of it, but maybe he got too used to hearing about everything from Apple.
The workshop battle had been a debacle and a half. They tried covering it up, but FUG knew what really went down.
The slayer candidate broke away. Teammates and friends were reunited. Nobody even died! They all made it out alive with everything they had hoped for!
The gods aren’t fair.
“They completely dropped off the map after the workshop battle. We suspect Wolhaiksong stepped in.” Apple nods her head towards the photo in Michael’s hand. “It’s a miracle we got that shot before they vanished again.”
No. Not a miracle. Khun Aguero Agnis rarely leaves things to chance. This is deliberate. This is his way of sticking his middle finger at FUG, as if to say “you can’t keep us apart”.
The photo shows a scene on a rooftop terrace cafe.
Aguero is leaning on the glass railings. His hair is pulled into a messy ponytail and he is dressed stylishly in a silky, low-cut blouse and black slacks. The claiming bite on his neck is on proud display.
Bam, taller and broader now, hugs his new mate from behind. His arms are wrapped protectively around Aguero’s waist and both their faces are lit up in easy laughter. There are shopping bags beside their feet and a cup of ice cream with two spoons in Aguero’s hands. A picture perfect date. A middle finger to anybody seeing this photo.
The memory of Aguero’s sleeping form the night before the ambush resurfaces in Michael’s mind. Michael is not a regretful person, but he regrets now. How he wishes he had killed Aguero right there, assignment be damned. How he wishes he injected him with the strongest poison, whisked him away, and preserved him in formaldehyde forever.
Apple is saying something to him. Something about Lord Karaka and another plan. Her words sound like static.
“It looks like you’ve woken from your nightmare,” Michael muses, running his thumb across Aguero’s face.
In the background of the photo, the tacky tracksuit guy is being fed ice cream by a young man in red. The young man is fair-skinned and dark-haired with two swords strapped to his belt. Seems like Aguero and Shibisu made up after their argument. He wonders if Shibisu is still holding on to hopeless love.
“Are you happy now, A.A.? You’ve won.”
Aguero has everything now. The lover he chased after for years and a perfect secondary gender match-up. Friends who follow and adore him. Remarkable power and beauty. Influential connections that will help him up the tower.
Regardless of the six year assignment...regardless of workings set against him the moment he started his revenge plot...he won.
Aguero won and Michael lost.
Because the extraordinary always win.