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these false appetites of life

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Two hours. That’s all it takes for Jaehyun to be rid of the only world he has ever known. Just two hours on three trains, and the air that Jaehyun breathes now already feels foreign in his lungs.

 

His toes dip over the threshold, still disbelieving in his sneakers. Jaehyun glances up at the building’s sign. Seoul National University, Student Residence 919 Building

 

“Hey kid, are you gonna just stand there?” 

 

Jaehyun looks over his shoulder to see a senior waiting patiently behind him, a thick stack of paper forms in his arms. He feels his skin heating. 

 

“Oh.” He coughs, then dips his head slightly. “Sorry, sunbae. I’m still a little in shock. I guess I got carried away.”

 

The senior grins. “I’ll forgive you if you help me out here.” He nods toward the door. “Open it for your sunbae?”  

 

Jaehyun nods furiously, fishing out his brand new Student ID from his back pocket and pressing it to the sensor. The door beeps and Jaehyun rushes over to hold it open. 

 

The senior laughs, thanking Jaehyun while he ducks into the lobby. “So, first-year, what’s your name?”

 

“Jung Jaehyun,” He chirps back. “Sunbae, can I help you with some of those papers?”

 

The senior stares at Jaehyun incredulously; the kid has duffel bags in both arms and a backpack slung over his shoulder. “With what hands?”

 

Jaehyun laughs awkwardly in return.

 

“I’m third-year Seo Youngho.” His formal introduction unexpectedly dissolves. “But you can call me Johnny-hyung,” Youngho- Johnny- says as they settle in front of the elevator.

 

Jaehyun hums as he presses the up button. “Johnny? Did you go to an English school?”

 

“No, no. I grew up in the states. For 18 years, I was only ever called Seo Youngho  when my parents wanted to kick my ass, so it doesn’t exactly yield pleasant memories.”

 

“Got it, Johnny sunbae.”

 

“Johnny hyung. Come on, be friendly.” 

 

Jaehyun swallows, nerves fluttering on his skin, but remains unwavering in his bold smile. “Okay, okay. Johnny hyung.”

 

The elevator lights ping to life and the doors slide open before them.

 

Jaehyun lets Johnny in first. “Where to?” He asks, thumb hovering over the grid of floor numbers.

 

“We’re going to Floor 2.”

 

Johnny grins at Jaehyun's gape.

 

“How did you know?” 

 

“I’m the RA for this floor, Jaehyun.” 

 

The elevator opens to the second floor, as if on his cue.

 

“So, do you know who I’m rooming with?” Jaehyun prods, following his hyung out into the hallway. 

 

Johnny snickers. “I can say that know is a severe understatement for one of them.” He stops, then kicks the bottom of the door on his right. “This is you right? 203.”

 

The door swings open, revealing a boy who looks to be Jaehyun’s senior as well. “You asshole,” He greets Johnny in English.

 

Why do you have to greet me so rudely?

 

Jaehyun understands a bit of their banter, from both watching American movies and his parents’ pressure to speak English with the foreign visitors to their farm. He watches in curiosity, hoping to understand the animosity between his RA and his new suite mate.

 

Because you’re such an annoyance,” the boy whispers loudly at Johnny, “Texting me such things when I’m trying to accommodate my first-years here.”

 

“Aish. Shouldn’t you miss me more? You didn’t even visit me over the summer, Jagiya.” 

 

Jaehyun chuckles in the back of his mouth, the realization that he’s witnessing a lover’s quarrel finally dawning on him.

 

“Jaehyun-ah,” Johnny calls to him, “This is Chittaphon. He’s one of your second-year suite supervisors, he’s Thai, and he’s mine.”

 

The boy rolls his eyes. “You can call me Ten. Disregard Johnny hyung 60% of the time and you’ll survive his friendship. Unfortunately, I’m stuck with this dirty-minded oaf around the clock.”

 

“I love you too,” Johnny teases. He sticks his fingers into the stack of forms and peels out three sheets to hand to Ten. “Take care of Jaehyun, okay? Don’t forget you have activities with your B-Suite in an hour.” 

 

Ten nods, then steps inside so Jaehyun can force his luggage-laced silhouette through the narrow door frame.

 

“Bye, hyung!” Ten calls out before shutting the door. “You’re in that double,” he tells Jaehyun, motioning to the end of the hall.

 

“Thanks, Ten hyung.” 

 

In the twelve paces between him and the door, Jaehyun hypothesizes about who his roommate might be, as well as the rest of his mystery suite members. He was ready to expect just about anybody in that room; Jaehyun had checked every single box on the residence application form.

 

Below, please mark the gender and/or subgender identities of students you are comfortable living with:

Male Identifying

[ x ] Human

[ x ] Hybrid Omega

[ x ] Hybrid Alpha

Female Identifying

[ x ] Human

[ x ] Hybrid Omega

[ x ] Hybrid Alpha

[ x ]  Other

 

As a gay boy who grew up with seven girl cousins, he’s never really been intimidated by the opposite gender. He is particularly intrigued, however, at the prospect of living with a hybrid. Hybrids make up approximately 2% of the world population, and while several visited his family’s farm- mostly hailing from Seoul- the only hybrid Jaehyun knew in his hometown graduated soon after he entered high school. Jaehyun’s heart always aches knowing that there are approximately 152 million hybrids in the world and he has never had the chance to befriend one. This could be the Universe giving him his chance.

 

And oh God, is the Universe smiling on Jaehyun today. 

 

Sitting on the bed opposite Jaehyun’s, idly scrolling through his phone with empty luggage beneath his feet, is the answer to Jaehyun’s (admittedly, scarce) prayers.

 

“Hi,” Jaehyun barely breathes out, as if he doesn’t have functioning vocal cords. 

 

The phone clicks off and drops onto the duvet. Its owner stands and moves to greet Jaehyun, who is frozen in place like a victim of Medusa.

 

“Hi! I’m Taeyong.” He takes Jaehyun’s hand in his, and up close, Jaehyun can see two pale cat ears peeking over the fluff of Taeyong’s pink hair.

 

He has to fight to break the seam where his throat has decided to sew itself shut. “I’m Jaehyun.”

 

“Here, I’m pretty much settled in, so I can help you unpack.” Taeyong takes one of Jaehyun’s duffle bags and sets it onto the bed, unzipping it and pulling out the folded clothing.

 

“No!” Jaehyun shouts.

 

Taeyong startles. “Oh, I’m sorry. Force of habit, I guess. I didn’t mean to invade your privacy.”

 

“No, no, thank you for your kindness, I would really appreciate your help. Just, you don’t have to. If you don’t want to.”

 

Taeyong smiles, eyes crinkling and cat ears flicking in delight. “I wouldn’t have started rummaging through your boxers if I didn’t want to help.”

 

Jaehyun pales, suddenly realizing which bag the boy is unpacking.

 

It only takes emptying three bags of clothes for Jaehyun to know that he’s going to fall in love.

 

* * *

 

“Listen up, kids!” Someone shouts outside. “We’re going to the B-Suite in five minutes, so look how you want to look when you meet your partner suite for the rest of the year!" 

 

Taeyong sighs, sitting up on his bed. “Guess we better get out there.”

 

Jaehyun nods, pocketing his phone and standing up.

 

“How do I look, Jaehyunnie?” Taeyong's ears perk up as he coats saccharine over his words.

 

“Great- Good. Fine.” 

 

Taeyong hums innocently, a secret self-satisfied smile on his lips.

 

He opens their door gingerly, while their neighboring room’s slams open.

 

“Doyoung,” Ten whines at the boy shouting orders. “You lost rock, paper, scissors to Yuta again ? Their suite is so cramped, I am not squeezing onto that two person sofa.”

 

Doyoung is another second-year, Jaehyun guesses, with long black rabbit ears draped over the side of his head. “Ten, the suites are exactly the same size.”

 

“But Yuta absolutely hoards decorations, there is never space to breathe in his room!” 

 

“Ten, come on. Set a good example for our dongsaengs,” Doyoung warns with a stern glance.

 

Ten grunts, “Okay, fine.” He follows Doyoung out the door, which allows Jaehyun to finally see the boy who had been standing behind him the entire time.

 

“Donghyuckie!” Taeyong calls, immediately wrapping the smaller in a tight hug. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard we’d be living together!” 

 

“Your dad probably had something to do with it,” Taeyong’s friend mumbles wryly into his shoulder.

 

“Oh, I know, but just let me believe in fate!” Taeyong noses at his fluffy hair, then pulls back. “Jaehyun, this is my younger cousin, Donghyuck.”

 

“Nice to meet you.” Donghyuck greets, bowing slightly at Jaehyun.

 

“You too.”

 

“So, how was your gap year?” Donghyuck asks Taeyong as the trio exit the suite together. 

 

“It was a valuable experience, sir. A great opportunity for me to learn under our overseas partners.”

 

Donghyuck giggles, high and lilting. “Okay, but really, how was Tokyo?”

 

“Hyuck, it was so fucking fun. I must’ve spent 30 million won,” He mutters thoughtfully, as if that isn’t fucking absurd. Taeyong’s voice drops as he turns conspiratorially to Donghyuck.

 

Jaehyun may or may not shamelessly eavesdrop. 

 

“You would not believe some of the clothes I brought back.”

 

Jaehyun’s ears turn pink. He's suddenly grateful that they’ve reached their so-called “B-suite” down the hall.

 

It turns out, the room that Ten was so viscerally dreading is Room 204; a room both directly adjacent and completely identical to their own. 

 

Inside, three boys are squished together on the sofa, while two are sitting at the common table. One of the pair stands, immediately greeting Ten and ruffling his hair hard.

 

Ten grumbles, swatting the hand away and then pinching the boy's ear.

 

“Hey, don't hurt the messenger! That was from Johnny!” He yelps.

 

Jaehyun assumes this is Yuta.

 

“Doyoung, nice to see you,” Yuta adds, perfectly polite.  

 

“Mark!” Taeyong and Donghyuck both burst out, before squeezing through the impossibly slim doorway as if their combined substances are a liquid. 

 

Mark looks on in horror, utterly defenseless as they attack with a slew of loud, wet kisses on his face. 

 

“Aish, get the fuck off me!” He shouts in return, nearly falling backwards in his chair at the table. 

 

Yuta chuckles. “I see some of you are already well acquainted. Everybody, find a seat so we can start getting to know each other.”

 

Yuta, Doyoung, and Ten end up kicking the boys off of the sofa and squeezing into it themselves. The rest of them fit into the six chairs around the table, Donghyuck and Mark sharing one.

 

“I’ll start.” Doyoung announces. “Kim Doyoung. Second year.”

 

The boys go around the circle, which is when Jaehyun learns the rest of their names: Yukhei, Sicheng, Jungwoo. 

 

Ten steers the conversation next. “How about we all share where we grew up and one fun fact about ourselves?” 

 

“Majors too? And hybrid species, if you want,” Doyoung adds. “I grew up in Guri. I’m in Vocal Music and English, but my fun fact is that I’m not great at English. At all. I’m also a Korean Hare.”

 

The way Ten’s eyes roll makes Jaehyun think species pride might be seen as a little ostentatious.

 

Ten’s turn. “I grew up in Bangkok and I’m a dance major. Fun fact: I’m a suite supervisor because my RA boyfriend guilt-tripped me into it.” 

 

Ten nudges Jaehyun to go next. 

 

“Um, I grew up in Yangsu-ri, in Yangpyeong, on my family’s strawberry farm.” Jaehyun chuckles. “I suppose that’s my fun fact. And it probably isn’t a surprise that I’m majoring in Horticultural Science and Biotechnology.”

 

“That leaves me next. I’m from Seoul, from Gangnam. And I love strawberries,” Taeyong nearly purrs at Jaehyun. Unless he’s imagining that, which he might be. “I’m majoring in Aesthetics and Fashion Design. My hybrid species is the Korean Bobtail.”

 

“Okay. I grew up in Vancouver. I’m a Business major. I’m a Canadian Lynx hybrid.”

 

“What’s your fun fact?” Yukhei asks.

 

Mark gives him the evil eye in return. “Taeyong and Donghyuck are my cousins.”

 

“How exactly did you all end up rooming in the same block?” Sicheng asks curiously. 

 

Doyoung smirks. “Donghyuck, wanna explain to our unknowing foreign friends?”

 

Jaehyun eyes the three cousins with confusion. He’s Korean through and through- he was raised on a farm in a village and everything-  and he has no idea who they are.

 

Donghyuck makes a whining noise. “Why must you torture me on the first day we meet?” Nevertheless, he sighs and obliges. “I’m from Seoul too. I’m a Vocal Music major and a soccer player too. My fun fact is that I’m part of the Lee family.” 

 

“Which means…”

 

“Doyoung hyung!”

 

The two stare at each other for a moment, before Donghyuck suddenly relents and stands up. He introduces himself in monotone. “Annyeonghaseyo. I am Lee Donghyuck, son of Lee Sanghoon, Director of Finances at SM Corporation. This is Mark Lee, son of Lee Seokchin, President of SM Chemical. This is Lee Taeyong, son of Lee Sungmin, President of SM Food. We are the great nephews of Lee Sooman, Chairman of SM Corp.” He bows deeply, back at a ninety degree angle with his legs. Without another word, he takes his seat at the table.

 

“Woah,” Sicheng gasps under his breath. “You guys are real chaebol.”

 

The boys are quietly impressed, but move on unfazed. 

 

Jaehyun is the only one who still takes pause, as Yukhei reveals he’s a Social Welfare major from Hong Kong and a Tibetan Mastiff hybrid (“Dog. Just say Dog, Bunny, Cat, Cat,” Ten nags the four hybrids). Jaehyun is the only one who remains speechless as Jungwoo reveals he’s in the same major and sport as Donghyuck, and as Sicheng and Yuta share they are from Wenzhou and Osaka, respectively. 

 

Jaehyun is hesitant to even breathe because he’s fucked. Absolutely fucked.

 

Lee Taeyong, the boy Jaehyun knows is a ticking time bomb for his affections, is the son of Lee Sungmin.

 

The same Lee Sungmin who presides over the company to which Jaehyun’s family supplies strawberries. The same Lee Sungmin who hinted to Jaehyun about personnel changes at SM's Biotechnology branch in five years. The very same Lee Sungmin who wrote Jaehyun's damn recommendation letter to Seoul National University.

 

Oh God, is the Universe truly cruel to Jaehyun. 

Chapter Text

After Yuta wraps up their activity, Taeyong reaches over the table to grab Mark’s exposed hand. “Marky, we haven’t seen you in ages. Why don’t the three of us grab tea and coffee? Catch up?”

 

Mark feels it in the microscopic hairs raising on his forearm. Yet another trap that his cousin draws him into.

 

He chuckles. “You guys act like you don’t FaceTime me every weekend.”

 

“You act like you don’t press Decline every weekend,” Donghyuck deadpans.

 

“Minhyung-ah,” Taeyong begs, jostling Mark’s arm in his shoulder socket. “Please.”

 

It’s always like this. Mark drowns himself in an alternate reality, one where he can watch the stars change position in the night sky and still forget the passage of time. He lives his delicate narrative of false autonomy, hidden away from the evidence of its mirage. Eventually, his cousins beg him to catch up with them in New York, Paris, Bangkok, Dubai- never Korea. They drink, fuck around at fashion shows, blow their cash, and indulge in the superficial existence that Taeyong and Donghyuck will know for all their lives. Mark returns to Canada just a little shorter on his allowance, just a little more aware of the looming contract he’s signed. Wash, rinse, repeat.

 

Only this time Mark is here, in Korea, and he’ll get to see it up close; the days will shift into months, the tiding seasons into years, and Taeyong and Donghyuck will continue slipping into their carefully crafted fantasy while Mark disappears to a burden of actuality they will never know.

 

“Okay, okay,” Mark concedes. 

 

* * * 

 

The cafe is already bustling in advance of the academic year, packed with students who are reconnecting with friends after the term break or starting their reading for the quarter.

 

Mark ignores the hushed whispers about Taeyong’s Burberry coat and his own Gucci sneakers. He isn’t blind to the phones being pulled up, no doubt occupied with Naver searches to just place their faces

 

He doesn’t mind. He knows a hybrid walking around wearing 10 million won will never be discreet.

 

Mark hasn’t detached his mouth from his straw since they sat down, fielding each of his cousin’s questions about his home-coming with either a wave or a thumbs up. 

 

These conversations are always easier with alcohol burning his throat; it’s a searing alibi for any remarks on the wrong side of lethal.

 

Donghyuck sighs, giving up on cracking his stubborn cousin. He turns his attention to the older cat instead. “Hey, Taeyong hyung.”

 

Taeyong hums, still drinking his Americano. He’s resorted to scrolling through his phone, probably browsing another sinkhole for his excessive fortune, or window-shopping medieval torture devices to use on Mark.

 

“Your dad really is behind this, right?” Donghyuck asks, subtly reinforcing the hierarchy of their three fathers. Taeyong’s was promoted to president three years before Mark’s, and Donghyuck’s father is a title below them both. The elder two feud and the younger steps into line with the winner.

 

Taeyong nods, setting the cup down. His tongue pokes out to wipe coffee from his lips. He shrugs, still zoned into his screen. “It didn’t take much begging.”

 

“Then why are you rooming with Jaehyun? You can’t stand to stay with me?” Donghyuck teases.

 

Mark suddenly abandons his drink to whine, “And why am I rooming with an Alpha?”

 

Taeyong glances up at him.

 

Yet again, Mark accidentally shows his hand. Rather, he’s thrown his entire deck into the air and allowed his cousin to play 52 pickup with his deficiencies. He can’t blame it on Dom Perignon now.

 

“Shouldn’t that be illegal?” Mark adds, meekly.

 

“Not since the university passed the Subgender Anti-Discriminatory Residence Policy last year, no,” Donghyuck answers.

 

“If I get my heat early, I’m suing the school,” Mark mumbles into the straw, lips curled into a pout around it.

 

Taeyong shuts off his phone, setting it down on the table with the LV-embossed pocket facing up. He leans forward. The thin pupils of his eyes expand like a camera aperture, absorbing the scene before him.

 

Now he’s done it. Mark is due to spend an extended, sober, period of his life with these two, and it’s quickly becoming hopeless to maintain the facade that he is anything other than human.

 

Just as Mark feared, Taeyong locks in on Mark’s clumsy admission, as if he is the predator species between them two. “You like him, don’t you Mark?” 

 

Mark groans, raising the plastic cup to his face just so that he can hide his flush behind it. “It’s not that. His pheromones are just insane, I bet the psychopath doesn’t even take blockers. I can’t access oxygen in our room.”

 

Taeyong smirks, slowly dragging a stirrer in circles around his coffee, painfully deliberate. “Yukhei, right? He’s cute. What's his scent like?”

 

Mark’s face scrunches up. “You couldn’t smell it? It was clogging up the suite.”

 

Taeyong shakes his head no, ever the picture of innocence.

 

Donghyuck makes a game of churning his whipped cream back into liquid, silently flattening it with his spoon.

 

“It’s cinnamon,” Mark spits out, splattering his cousins with venom. 

 

Mark wants to reach back in their family lineage, strangle the ancestor that wronged a begrudging shaman, and lift his curse of speaking too quickly. Does he have no dignity?

 

Donghyuck laughs in disbelief. “You love cinnamon. You’re drinking a cinnamon latte right now, Mark.” 

 

“The bastard has ruined it for me. Besides, I’m here to get my degree, not get knocked up by a dog.” Mark’s plastic cup falls to the table, empty. “Just answer Donghyuck’s question.”

 

Donghyuck takes mercy, swinging the spotlight back to the oldest. “Yeah, hyung. Why aren’t we all rooming together?”

 

Taeyong crosses his legs, then rolls his shoulders back. The tartan plaid collar folds around his neck. “First of all, Mark, you have your dad to thank for your future husband. He didn’t want you staying in the same suite as us-”

 

If Mark and his father can scramble to agree on anything, it is admittedly the nature of his cousins’ influence.

 

“And he really wouldn’t budge, Mark, so appa compromised and put you in the suite next door. Second, it’s not you, Donghyuck, it’s Jaehyun.” 

 

Mark scoffs, suddenly recalling the character from their icebreakers. “Actually, if anyone should be harassed, it’s you and Jaehyun. The way you leaned over and said Jaehyun-ah, I’m going to go out with my cousins, but you’ll wait up for me right? made me want to vomit on him.”

 

“That might’ve been fun,” Taeyong mumbles, half-committed to even replying.

 

“It’s Jaehyun? What do you mean?” Donghyuck persists. “I thought you just met him today.”

 

“I did, but he’s practically appa’s pet.” Taeyong’s pupils cinch closed at this, dark slits in amber-green eyes. “It’s always Jung Jaehyun this, Jung Jaehyun that. The Jungs’ son is so humble and hard-working, you could stand to learn something from him.”

 

Say what you want about Lee Sungmin, at least he has some sense. Oh, the money Mark would pay to actually see Taeyong get chewed out. In reality, it’s always Mark’s tail that ends up between Taeyong’s teeth.

 

“I mean, what does appa expect? The kid grew up on a farm, it’s not like there’s soft work to be done there.” Taeyong is chewing something, a comment that might be better off swallowed. “You know, appa’s the reason why Jaehyun is even here.”

 

Donghyuck’s jaw drops. “No kidding.”  

 

“If you don’t like the kid, why are you seducing him in front of my poor, virgin eyes?” Mark asks, rattling his straw in the cup. 

 

At this point, Mark is just giving Taeyong everything he has. He’ll offer anything humiliating up-front and call it precautionary damage control.

 

“You could just switch rooms with me,” Mark mutters. A glow rapidly colors his face. “Oh my God, switch rooms with me! You can fuck Yukhei- you do think he’s cute, right?”

 

Taeyong chuckles, lightly nudging Mark’s shoe beneath the table. “Thanks for the offer, but I can get to Yukhei later if you really want me to. My first order of business is Jaehyun.” Taeyong grins, leaning onto his elbows and lowering his voice. “I guarantee that I can have the kid on his hands and knees, begging to let him have me by the end of the term. Then appa will see that even his wunderkind isn’t immune to temptations of the flesh.”

 

Donghyuck blanches. “Won’t that really screw up your dad’s perception of him?”

 

“God, I hope so. Then he’ll stop nagging me all the damn time about how I should be more like Jaehyun,” Taeyong hisses softly, but successfully smothers it into a sip of his coffee.

 

“Hyung,” Mark interrupts without anticipating his next move. 

 

“Hmm?”

 

He frowns. “This is Jaehyun’s way out of Yangsu. You could flee to any other capital in the world and fuck someone who’ll still have a future after.”

 

“But that wouldn’t teach appa a lesson, would it?” Taeyong sits back in his chair. “Besides, I’m not exposing anything that’s untrue. I mean, you saw the way he was looking at me, right? It was reverential, he probably has a cat fetish or something already.”

 

“Or maybe he has a crush,” Donghyuck chastises, pushing on Taeyong’s forehead with his thumb, “and you’re about to manipulate a naive farmer boy who doesn’t know better.”

 

Taeyong rolls his eyes. “Maybe.” He stuffs his phone into his coat pocket and stands, stretching his arms above his head. 

 

Even though Taeyong’s charm has rarely been used for his own personal good, Mark understands his appeal. Taeyong could be a forest nymph, with hypnotizing colored hair, kittenish facial features, and a lithe body that is capable of weaponizing seduction.

 

Matters of sex are where Mark feels powerless, but Taeyong commands them to his advantage. That is one distinction between the two omegas.

 

Taeyong yawns, flicking his wrist up to turn on his watch. “Ready to head out?”

 

Mark stands from his chair and Donghyuck follows suit.

 

On his way out, Mark drops his plastic cup in the bin and stuffs 20,000 won into the donation box.

 

* * *

 

“Uncle’s really making you go into Business,” Taeyong cuts into the silence, directing the comment at Mark.

 

Mark nods, scuffing the soles of his shoes against the pavement as they walk back to the dorm.

 

“The U.S. headquarters, is that still the plan?” Taeyong sounds almost uncertain. He glances at the younger boy, head lowered.

 

Mark kicks his heels to the ground. “I’m not sure. Appa’s talking about me staying in Seoul now, just in case he and eomma want to utilize their insurance.”

 

Insurance has always been his father’s special term for the nature of his hybridity. Hybridism itself is a result of multiple genes, a recessive polygenic trait that hides well within non-hybrid families. However, the subgender and hybrid species are both expressed in epigenetics, meaning they both heavily depend on the nurturing environment. This also means that chemical triggers artificially simulating an environment can determine them. 

 

Mark and Taeyong are both “bottle hybrids.” Their genes had expressed hybridism naturally, but their epigenetic tags were later altered to their parents’ choice of subgender and species.

 

Taeyong’s parents wanted an omega domestic feline because a docile child is lower maintenance than an aggressive one. A natural inclination to housework, they thought, would also prevent Taeyong from becoming spoiled.

 

Mark’s father selected a Lynx because an heir with predator blood is more suited for the relentless pursuit involved in their business. Lucky for him, an omega cat is also a pretty thing - an easy sell to other chaebol heirs when a merger deal needs to be irresistibly sweetened. The latter case, of course, is only if Mark fails to utilize his predatory instincts in an effective manner; it is simply a way to still reap a benefit from him if he becomes a professional disappointment and thus, it is his father’s insurance.

 

Donghyuck hugs Mark to his side, their strides becoming uneven as they tangle together. “I’m sorry, hyung.”

 

“Do you even want to stay at the company?” Taeyong only cares to ask now, years and years too late.

 

“Not that I want to, but more that I have to stay.” Mark sighs. “It really doesn’t matter now. I knew what I was agreeing to when I boarded that flight to Canada.”

 

Donghyuck scoffs. “You were eight, hyung.” 

 

Mark hums, reaching for his ID as they approach the dorm.

 

Donghyuck pauses, breath stuttering from his chest. “Oh my God, you were eight. ” 

 

Mark steps up to the door of their building and presses his card to the sensor. He can feel the unspoken tragedy between the two behind him. 

 

“Have you really tried to tell your dad you aren’t interested?” Taeyong pushes, sending battering rams at the doors Mark has cemented shut. “I know he knows, but have you really-”

 

Mark turns around. “I’m not like you, hyung.” He drags his palms down his face, trying to wash his skin from words that do not wish to be conveyed. His fluffy ears, usually turned-out and tall, droop to his hair. “I can’t just bat my eyes and ask for anything I want. In your mouth, please is an enchantment. In mine, it’s morse code.”

 

Donghyuck’s gaze changes. Mark watches himself become a stranger in his eyes. 

 

“I don’t know,” Taeyong drawls, “I think that Alpha would give you anything if you just asked him for it.”

 

Mark swallows, harsh and unnecessarily. 

 

The other two don’t follow him inside.

 

* * *

 

Mark stumbles through the door to his bedroom, moaning in anguish as he immediately plants his face into the bed.

 

This one’s mine,” Yukhei points out in English.

 

Mark looks up, finally identifying Yukhei sitting on the other end. He tosses himself across the room and onto his own covers. “Sorry. It’s hard to tell what’s yours when this entire room smells like you.”

 

It really shouldn’t, ” Yukhei mumbles, combing his messy brown hair with his fingers. He scoots forward, just on the edge of his bed. “Doyoung-hyung didn’t smell anything when he walked around here.”

 

Mark frowns. “I don’t know. My nose is sensitive,” he complains, stuffing the pillow against his face. He smothers his cheek against it and inhales. A deep purr rolls through him.

 

Yukhei is smiling at Mark’s fuss. “You’re cute.

 

“Beat it, Mutt.” 

 

Mark diffuses, the tension from his altercation with Taeyong leaving his body as the scent envelops him. He peels his outer layers up and off. 

 

Yukhei huffs, “Fine, I’ll go sleep on the sofa then.” 

 

No!” Mark blurts in English. 

 

The mastiff is staring at him, completely bewildered. His large ears flop above his bangs in curiosity.

 

“I don’t want to be alone,” Mark admits quietly.

 

Yukhei leans back in his bed. “Okay. You won’t, then.”

 

And you don’t have to hold my hand like this. I’m perfectly fine in Korean.”

 

It’s not for you, it’s for me, ” Yukhei assures.

 

Mark lets himself believe this, but he doesn’t ignore the relief he feels at the easiness of English on his tongue. He appreciates the refuge of someone who speaks your language.

 

The two settle into a harmless exchange: what’s your first class, are you actually excited or are you puking butterflies, do you miss being home?

 

“I am home,” Mark argues in turn. 

 

“Unless you were raised in this dorm, I don’t think you are.”

 

Yukhei is a big dog, with an even bigger mouth. He is the definition of clumsy, with limbs far too long and a mind far too bold; he doesn’t mind saying the wrong things. Yukhei is taller than Mark, smells stronger than Mark, and feels braver than him too. Mark expects that each of these things- Yukhei’s size, his scent, his courage- will eventually consume him.

 

“I miss Vancouver,” he answers while putting out tomorrow’s clothes. “Maybe not so much the place, but the time I spent there.” 

 

“I’ve never been. Tell me about it.” Yukhei responds as if his words have no consequence.

 

Mark covets that, the ability to believe in the impermanence of communication.

 

“You’d probably like it. You can go up into the mountains and find lots of forest for a big furry mass like you to explore.”

 

Mark flops backwards onto his bed, wondering what the sky looks like behind their ceiling.

 

“I should visit one day.” Yukhei’s eyes droop with a nearing slumber, words evaporating on his lips. 

 

Mark keeps staring through the white drywall, picturing the sparkle of summit snow when the sun beats it down in early spring. If he shuts his eyes tight, he can imagine himself throwing his consciousness across the North Pacific. He becomes weightless, an entity that could toe across the ropes of the Capilano bridge, could leap into the evergreen air and gracefully drift down the rapids below.

 

“Do you think my cousins are good people?” He asks the silence.

 

Breathing out his last words before sleep steals him, Yukhei replies, “Would you be asking me if they were?”

Chapter Text

Jaehyun always thought that an out of body experience was a cliché, not a fate that he would suffer before the age of 20. He’s currently staring into his own eyes and there is absolutely nobody at home in there.

 

He watches as Taeyong sweetly leans over his deserted body, a translucent smile probably hanging off of his pink lips. Taeyong’s fingers are pressing past his shirt collar and flitting onto the bare skin of his neck. “Wait up for me, okay? ” Jaehyun hears his light voice sing, just a breath short of reality.

 

Jaehyun strains to feel the nerves in his face and uses his renewed strength to blink in shock. 

 

Taeyong smirks, ducking his head and holding Jaehyun’s gaze for a moment past casual. The older boy pushes his chair out from the table and stands, twirling his index finger to signal his younger cousins to follow.

 

As he passes behind him, Taeyong slides his fingers through the tangled mess of Jaehyun’s train-seat-matted hair. He pulls back, hard, so that Jaehyun is forced to meet his eyes. “See you,” he whispers, before formally bidding goodbye to the other boys. 

 

Jaehyun wonders how much a coffin will set his family back. Two, maybe three, million won to send their only son to the pearly gates of heaven?

 

Donghyuck and his sunny disposition are next to shout, “Take care of us, hyungs!” (To which Mark, wearing an invisible storm of cumulonimbus clouds, responds, “Hey, they don’t all deserve honorifics!”)

 

When the door clicks shut, the temperature cools and the air pressure finally plummets with it. 

 

“Holy shit,” Yukhei guffaws, “You look like you saw a ghost, Jaehyun!” He’s tumbling to the floor, clutching his side like he just ran a marathon.

 

Jungwoo snickers. “No, he looks like he is a ghost. Dude, your blood drained when Taeyong hyung touched you.”

 

Jaehyun rolls his head to the side, transferring the energy used to support his neck into glaring daggers at the two. 

 

Sicheng seems to take pity, lightly pinching one of Yukhei’s dog ears and muttering a Mandarin phrase that elicits both confusion and hurt from the hybrid.  

 

“Don’t tease him,” He scolds. “Jaehyun just left the farm life and now he’s being seduced by a college student with a multibillion won trust fund! Let him be a little surprised.”

 

Jaehyun groans, flattening his palm against his bangs and pulling the hair back. He pushes out a strangled exhale. “He’ll be the death of me,” he mutters.

 

“Mmf,” Yukhei hums in agreement, lips busied with downing a carton of strawberry milk. “If so, you’re a goner, bud. You’ve already got that fated love spark in your eyes.”

 

Sicheng lightly kicks Yukhei’s calf. “Yeah, the same one you get when you look at your roommate?”

 

Jaehyun also didn’t know you could physically taste a migraine. He rolls his tongue in his mouth, the bitter weight of nausea washing over it. “Oh God, I’m gonna be sick.”

 

“You're okay,” Doyoung shushes, rubbing Jaehyun’s back with his palm. He suddenly retracts his hand. “Wait, you’re not contagious, right?”

 

“It’s called falling-for-an-heir disease,” Yukhei says while shaking the last drop of milk onto his tongue. “And you’ve already been in contact with two potential carriers.”

 

Ten smacking the carton out of Yukhei’s hand is the last thing Jaehyun sees before the lights go out.

 

* * *

 

The double rooms at SNU are very ill-suited to hosting four other visitors. 

 

Jaehyun knows this because a group of elbows are practically digging into his spleen as his suite supervisors, and Johnny, crowd around the bed.

 

Another man is kneeling by the headboard, pressing a cold water bottle to the side of Jaehyun’s face.

 

Interesting how he’s able to fit all of his limbs in here without puncturing one of my internal organs, Jaehyun thinks.

 

“You guys are closer than necessary,” He croaks at the older boys, voice hoarse as he sits up.

 

The man with the water bottle pulls it away from Jaehyun’s cheek, then twists off the cap. “Here, drink.”

 

Jaehyun accepts the bottle, immediately swallowing half of its volume. “Thank you,” he says without looking at the three boys draped over his covers. He squints at the unfamiliar figure. “Forgive me if it’s the loss of consciousness, but I don’t think I know you, sunbae.”

 

The man turns to Johnny and grins. “You were serious about this kid!” He nods, giving Jaehyun his attention again. “You’re right. I’m Moon Taeil, your other RA for this floor.”

 

“Thank you, hyungs.” Jaehyun finishes off the last of the water. “How long have I been asleep?” 

 

“Long enough for us to have to carry you over here, bridal-style,” Johnny teases. “If you wanna marry one of us, Doyoung’s been single for a while.”

 

Doyoung laughs. “I think someone else has got his eye on him.” He pushes himself off of the bed- releasing Jaehyun’s insides from their bony confinement, thank God- and picks up Jaehyun’s phone on the nightstand. He holds it out for him. “Someone called you earlier, but your phone was in your back pocket. I didn’t feel like groping a dead man's ass, so I thought you could figure it out yourself.”

 

Jaehyun hums, turning his phone on. A notification slides to the top: Lee Sungmin-ssi (SMFood) - Missed Call.

 

“Fuck!” He blurts.

 

“What?” Ten cranes his neck to read the screen, recoiling only when Johnny swats at him.

 

 “It’s Taeyong’s dad,” Jaehyun sighs.

 

The four boys stare back at him.

 

“It’s too hard to explain, just pick your jaws up off the floor and give me some privacy.”

 

“This isn’t like a…” Ten leans in close, whispering in a way that anyone south of the 38th parallel could hear, “A sugar daddy thing, right?”

 

“No! What? God, no!” Jaehyun’s face burns like he just vacationed in Jeju for a month.

 

“Because Taeyong fighting his dad for you would be amazing .”

 

“My family sells strawberries to SM Fresh Produce. Taeyong’s dad has been visiting the farm for the past few years, and he said he would check on me once I arrived at SNU.” Jaehyun mumbles, “I didn’t even know Taeyong was his kid until the rest of us did too.”

 

“What, did you live under a rock?” Doyoung asks.

 

“On a farm,” Ten corrects.

 

“Alright, alright.” Johnny stands, pulling Doyoung and Ten up by the backs of their shirts. “Let’s go, toddlers.”

 

The group exits quietly, leaving Jaehyun alone with the discomfort of his soon-to-be-had conversation.

 

He breathes in, 1 2 3 4 5, and out, 5 4 3 2 1. Jaehyun calls and waits for the phone to pick up on the other end. 

 

Within a few minutes, the speaker crackles alive.

 

Jaehyun fixes his hair, for no other reason than to feel presentable in spirit.

 

“Jaehyun!” Mr. Lee greets warmly.

 

Jaehyun shifts in his bed, trying to find a position that minimizes the tension on his end. “Annyeonghaseyo, Sajang-nim.”

 

“Kid, how many times have I told you you can just call me ahjussi?”

 

Jaehyun laughs awkwardly.

 

“Alright, alright. How is the university? Are you all unpacked?”

 

“Yes, Taeyong helped me with that a lot.”

 

“Oh, I’m glad! By the way, I probably should have mentioned that the Taeyong you’re rooming with is my Taeyong. I’m sorry, it must have slipped my mind. Forgive me.”

 

Jaehyun relaxes at that. “It’s okay, ahjussi. It didn’t take long to figure out.” He laughs. “The other boys knew all about him.”

 

“I’m sure. Taeyong is always a magnet for attention- has been since he was little. I really hope he takes a liking to you, I think you’d be good for him.”

 

Jaehyun’s nerves decide to short circuit. “He’s very nice,” he manages to squeak out.

 

“Is he there right now?”

 

“Ah, no. He went with Mark-ssi and Donghyuck-ssi to get coffee.”

 

“Well, you’ll have to forgive him for not being the most hospitable. You see, Mark’s been living abroad for the last 10 or so years, so the kids are probably catching up now.”

 

“It’s no problem. I enjoyed getting to know my other suite mates.” Jaehyun chews his lip, turning the phone’s speaker off and pressing it to his ear. “Thank you, ahjussi. I really think this will change my life,” he confesses.

 

“You don’t have to thank me. Just get good grades and keep Taeyong out of trouble. If you come work for me, that’ll be more than enough.”

 

Jaehyun doesn’t know what to say. He settles on “I’ll study hard.”

 

“Jaehyun-ah, I’m between meetings right now- I have to go. Just text me if you run into any problems you can’t fix on your own. Tell Taeyong I said hi too, will you?”

 

“I will.”

 

“Thanks. Bye, kid.” 

 

Before Jaehyun can answer, the call drops. 

 

He tosses his phone onto the end of his bed, then swings his legs over the side. The carpeted floor feels rough against his bare feet. He has to wonder when the boys took off his shoes and socks. 

 

When he closes his eyes, Jaehyun can almost feel the scratch of burlap under his toes. Since he was a kid, he’d play the role of nuisance in the farm’s greenhouse, hiding under the rows of strawberry planters. In unfortunate encounters with the harsh material they lined the ground with, Jaehyun usually escaped with a bloody knee. He got scolded, but it never dulled the glint in his eyes. It wasn’t his fault that the environment was just so attuned to his imagination.

 

The farm was its own planet. In the winters, the light frost turned the surrounding fields into an ice cream wonderland. The springtime let Jaehyun see the quilt of stars above. Tucked between his father’s legs on their creaking roof, he saw a night sky unmarred by city lights. The summers brought him a kingdom, and the wealth of golden sunlight that he could collect in a jar filled with water. When his parents picked the already-overripe strawberries, Jaehyun would shove his little fingers into the bucket dragging behind them and store the berries in his cheeks. The fruity juice dribbled down his chin, further coloring his pink-stained shirts. 

 

“Yah, Jung Jaehyun! You’re a mess,” his mother always fussed, before squishing his baby fat cheeks together. His lips were coated in a faux-rouge. “But you’re eating so well! Yeobo, look at your kid. We’d never survive the summer without a strawberry consumption machine like him.”

 

His father would scoop Jaehyun into his arms, and then the pair of them would attack.

 

Strawberry flavored kisses were the sweetest memories of his childhood.

 

As Jaehyun grew, the farm seemed to shrink. He was choked by the air that he lived to breathe. It wasn’t like his family was struggling to eat, they were fine, but Jaehyun didn’t want to be just fine, didn’t want his children and grandchildren to be just fine. Especially since being just okay hinged on every member of his family working on that farm. They could afford to be strawberry farmers, not artists, or teachers, or doctors. 

 

When Mr. Lee took notice of their only son, Jaehyun’s parents tried not to get their hopes up. He made sure that Jaehyun finished high school and suggested he apply to some universities in the city. 

 

Jaehyun's parents were wary. Between the horror tales of loan sharks and debt collectors, borrowing such resources from someone of unequivocally high status seemed dangerous.

 

On his 18th birthday, Mr. Lee sent Jaehyun a contract in the mail, freeing him from any obligation to both the man and his company, regardless of the sponsorship on Mr. Lee’s behalf. It promised partial financial support for his education and a safety net for emergencies, no strings attached. While Jaehyun still considered working for SM, the message was clear to him and his family: the opportunity was real, and at no-hidden cost.

 

Despite the legal standing, Jaehyun still feels indebted, which twists his stomach further. 

 

He stares at the empty bed across from him. “I’m sorry, Taeyong.” Jaehyun really, really can’t entertain him. 

 

“For what?”

 

Jaehyun’s heart stops. His eyes dart to the door, now cracked open to reveal Taeyong’s silhouette.

 

“Nothing.” Jaehyun might go into cardiac arrest before the quarter ends.

 

“Okay,” Taeyong answers, a little weirded out. He shoulders off his long coat and drapes it across the chair in his corner before falling back onto his bed and kicking his feet up onto the covers. He’s still wearing his shoes.

 

“Your dad says hi.” 

 

Taeyong’s glare is searing. Jaehyun’s hair might be on fire.

 

Does he,” Taeyong answers flatly. “How nice.” He stretches, arms and legs pulling taut. His ears flick down, a new sense of calm painting his expression. Taeyong sighs. “Sorry. Mark and I got into an argument, I’m still a little cranky.”

 

Jaehyun nods along. “It’s okay. What happened?” He leans back in bed, situating himself so that he can still see Taeyong’s face in the faint light filtering through the window.

 

“Just some dumb bickering. Mark’s upset that he’s rooming with an alpha- that kid, Yukhei.”

 

“He’s an alpha?” 

 

Taeyong hums, then lets his head fall against his pillow. He’s finally looking at Jaehyun. “What, you couldn’t tell?”

 

“Uh, no.”

 

Taeyong laughs. It’s surprised, but still joyful. “Well, apparently Yukhei is a little too big and his scent is a little too strong for Mark’s liking. If you ask me, Mark’s just horrified because his roommate is exactly his type.”

 

“Is Mark an omega?” Jaehyun wonders aloud. 

 

“Yes, and so am I. Our 2nd year friend Doyoung is an alpha, and so is Yukhei.”

 

“How do you know?” Jaehyun scrunches his nose. Actually, he’s not sure if he wants to know.

 

Taeyong rolls his eyes. “Oh, relax, it’s nothing gross. You just do. Hybrids figure it out as soon as we meet, because we feel the hierarchy between us. Obviously, as people, we can choose to act dominant or submissive in life, but we feel the natural urge to submit, dominate, or bond as equals. As for the rest of you, you learn to pick up on behavioral cues. Or you just wait until they get their heat, or rut.”

 

Jaehyun’s eyes bulge.

 

“Their what ?"

 

“Their heat or rut.” Taeyong sits up. “Have you never learned this? Didn’t you go to high school?”

 

“In my small town high school, no, I never learned this. I just thought some people had animal ears.”

 

Taeyong chuckles dryly. “Ignorant.”

 

Jaehyun pouts. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t know. I’ve never had a proper conversation with a hybrid before.”

 

Taeyong turns his head to give the younger an unimpressed look. A biting remark dies on his tongue when he sees Jaehyun jutting out his bottom lip, heartbreak evident in his eyes. “It’s okay,” he mutters quietly in response. What the fuck?

 

“You really know nothing about heats?”

 

Jaehyun shakes his head no. “Just that the stray cat on our farm had them.”

 

“A heat is when an omega cries until someone fucks them.” Taeyong smiles at Jaehyun’s pale face. “I’m just joking.”

 

“I knew that.”

 

“That does actually happen.” Taeyong shakes his head, an amused smile brightening his face. “But a heat is really just a period of restlessness- usually accompanied by a literal fever- that can be relieved by sexual stimulation or medication.”

 

“How often do hybrids get them?”

 

“Only omegas do. It depends on their species. I get mine every three months or so, for a couple days. Mark gets his once a year, but it can last for a couple weeks.”

 

“So if omegas get heats, alphas get-”

 

“Ruts.” Taeyong plays with his phone, dangling it above his face by the corner. “Am I really giving you hybrid Sex-Ed right now?”

 

Jaehyun blushes.

 

“What the hell, it’ll be better for society if you’re informed. And better for any hybrids you hook up with in the future.” Taeyong winks.

 

Jaehyun is glad he’s already in bed, because he might black out again.

 

“An alpha’s rut is just the reverse. They don’t heat up physically, but they get hot-headed. Where omegas get affectionate during pre-heat, alphas will get aggressive in pre-rut. This can mean more than just violence, it could even be something like asking for a job promotion, but it usually indicates a coming rut.” 

 

“What's the point of them?”

 

“Babies,” Taeyong answers with the blankest stare. “You truly know nothing.”

 

Babies? ” Jaehyun is going to hyperventilate.

 

“Yes. Theoretically, all omegas can get pregnant during heat, and all alphas can impregnate during rut. Of course, there are the modern factors of birth control, infertility, what have you, but that’s the evolutionary trait of hybrids.” Taeyong drops his phone onto his chest. He glances at Jaehyun to make sure the kid isn’t asleep.

 

“It’s actually really interesting,” He insists. “Scientists are studying hybrid breeding patterns to determine how it can be applied to humans. You know, so maybe one day same-sex human couples can have natural pregnancies together too.”

 

Jaehyun hums in appreciation. “That is interesting.”

 

“I can’t believe my dad let you come up here without any education on this. When I’m his kid!”

 

Jaehyun scratches his head, unsure what to say. “How does he feel about you being a hybrid?”

 

“I don't know, I think he’s fine with it. You know my family's loaded, so once they found out I’d turn out as a hybrid, they messed with my genes so they could choose what kind I'd be. I feel like having that control made him accept it more.”

 

“So he chose for you to be an omega?”

 

“Yeah, because I’d be even more of a handful if I were an alpha.” Taeyong chuckles. “The only downside is that the boys in high school kept trying to knock me up so they could marry into the family.”

 

Jaehyun doesn’t laugh.

 

Taeyong clears his throat, turning on his phone and shifting his attention to his Twitter feed. “You’ve really never met a hybrid?” He asks, not caring for a reply.

 

“I mean, of course I’ve met them, but I’ve never had any sort of relationship with one.”

 

Jaehyun smiles at the ceiling. “Actually, I still remember the first time I met a hybrid. It was on the farm, when I was like six or seven.”

 

Taeyong’s ears perk up, but his eyes don’t leave the screen.

 

“I was running around the farm with a fistful of strawberries in both my hands. It was dripping everywhere- my arms must have been red for a couple days. There was this kid in the common area, maybe a couple years younger than me, sitting on his dad’s lap. I remember stopping dead in my tracks and dropping the cold clumps of my self-made strawberry jam. I ran to my mom, absolutely freaking out because there was this kid with dark black pointy ears over his hair. I had only ever seen ears like that on foxes around the farm, never on people. My mom gave me the brief, some kids have a little animal set of ears over top, spiel. Obviously, she must have been too embarrassed to give me any more context.”

 

Taeyong switches to Instagram now, washing the images over his eyes without reading the captions. 

 

“I think the reason I remember him is because of the ridiculous getup he was wearing. It was this bright pink cape with strawberries peppered all over it. After I got over the fact that he was half animal, I was totally enamored . He was kind of small, so I was scared of hurting him, but I asked his dad if he could play with me and we ended up running around the farm together. We must have cost my family at least fifty thousand won in strawberry losses.” Jaehyun laughs. “At some point, he tripped on a snag in the burlap on the floor, and tumbled straight into a puddle of mud. When he got up, he was all scratched up and muddy, and his dad was really unhappy. But the only thing the kid was worried about was the stupid cape. He said he didn’t want it to stain.”

 

Taeyong’s breath hitches.

 

“So, obviously, I asked him to give it to me and I ran it down to the wash basin. I scrubbed it so hard, I can’t remember ever having done such strenuous labor again in my life. It wasn’t exactly brand-new after its trip to 6 year old Jung Jaehyun’s laundromat, but the mud was pretty much gone. I remember parading the cape back to him and his dad- and this thing was sopping wet, just dripping water everywhere- and the kid… He scooped it into his arms like it was a treasure, and he hugged it. Like, he actually hugged the cape.”

 

Jaehyun’s eyes crinkle. His face radiates adoration. Taeyong gags to himself.

 

“And then he hugged me.” Jaehyun's cheeks heat up. “Actually, he kissed me. Both of our lips were coated in strawberry juice, so it just tasted like I’d eaten my way through the patch again.” 

 

The moonlight has widened its beams now, inviting Jaehyun’s skin into its glow. He looks so different to Taeyong, hopelessly untouchable, illuminated by the white glimmer of night and a genuine fondness for his childhood.

 

“He was completely covered in mud, with these nasty cuts and scrapes on his knees, but he was so happy just to have that soaking cape in his hands. Like the rest of it didn't matter. I really wanted to see him again,” Jaehyun admits bashfully, “but even though I saw his dad talking to my parents after, we never had a playdate or even met again.”

 

“Wow,” Taeyong mumbles.

 

Sounds like a dumb kid.”

 

Chapter Text

Mark figures that these next four years at SNU are something like a purgatory: not quite free, but certainly not imprisoned. He might as well savor it while he can, which is why he is reluctant to acknowledge the tension between him and Taeyong, or even attempt to explain why he is growing so distant from his cousins’ world. Despite a lifetime of trying, Mark has never been able to fully convince them of how different they are from him. 

 

Regardless, Taeyong doesn’t seem to remember their tiff the other day, and Mark is content with giving it a quiet death. He doesn’t like grieving anyway. Mark's brain, filled with a reel of infinite memories, serves as an open-casket for his own personal mourning. He would rather let a relationship choke in a ditch than give it a proper burial.

 

This half-reconciliation the two have settled on is especially ideal because every morning since orientation, Taeyong and Donghyuck have made a habit of grabbing breakfast with Mark before splitting off for the day. He never had the time, or heart, to make lifelong friends, so he’ll take what he has before he loses the privilege of socializing.

 

When Mark slips out of his bedroom this morning, the dorm isn’t as empty as he hopes.

 

Where there is usually the glaring absence of his suite mates, Sicheng and Jungwoo are slapping at each other while bickering over who gets to hold Sicheng’s phone. Yukhei is unaffected sitting beside them, silently reading a document on his laptop. His eyes flick up to Mark, then back at the screen.

 

What isn’t out of the ordinary is Yuta’s presence. He’s always around when Mark leaves to meet his cousins. More often than not, Yuta is also shoulders-deep in library books and printed drafts (“I prefer the hard copy,” he explained when Mark didn’t ask). Today, Doyoung is with him, effortlessly leaning against the table while chatting in a hush. So that’s why it feels extra packed today.

 

“Morning,” Yuta calls out as Mark clicks the door shut behind him.

 

“Hi, hyung.” 

 

Doyoung waves Mark over, so he obliges. It’s not like Mark is intimidated by alphas, or even seniors, but he despises the awkwardness that accompanies ignoring orders.

 

Doyoung flashes a warm smile. Bright, white teeth press into his bottom lip.  “How are you settling into life here?”

 

“Oh, you know. It’s different.” Mark rubs the back of his neck. He’s suddenly suffocated with the scent of caramel. He might be having a stroke. Oh my fucking God.

 

The doorbell rings, but to Mark, it could be the chimes of Heaven's chariot. He’s so ready for angels to retrieve his cursed soul. 

 

“I’ll get it,” Yuta says because he wants Mark to die early. While he skips off to answer the door, Doyoung slides along the table’s edge, a little closer to Mark. Not enough so to freak him out, but enough for him to realize it’s deliberate.

 

“You know, in the wild , lynxes hunt hares,” Doyoung starts. 

 

Mark swallows.

 

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to see it the other way around?” 

 

And the door suddenly swings open for Taeyong, who is greeted with the image of Mark flattening his ears as Doyoung teases him. Unlike Mark, Taeyong also sees Yukhei at the table, teeth sinking into his cheeks like he’s keeping something feral from rumbling through his throat.   

 

“Marky!” Taeyong waves, stepping into the suite.

 

For saving him, Mark will never be rude to his cousin again. He will never again bemoan their unending inequality or how Taeyong will always be Mark’s unmatchable predecessor. 

 

“Coming, hyung!” Mark clambers over the table, to the wheezing laughter of Doyoung- and subsequent scolding of Yuta- and pushes Taeyong out into the hall with him.

 

“You’re wide awake,” Taeyong jokes. “Shall we go?”

 

Donghyuck isn’t waiting outside for them, so the pair continue on alone. 

 

Taeyong excuses him casually, “He’s probably at the field practicing for soccer tryouts." At Taeyong's explicit demand, no doubt. It’s glaringly obvious to Mark, and gives him a little more anxiety than Doyoung’s earlier remark.

 

They step into the elevator. As soon as the doors slide shut, giving them temporary privacy, Taeyong cheerfully says, “ Someone’s an alpha magnet,” like that is even close to appropriate. 

 

“Says you,” Mark bites back. “You’ve always had everyone doting over you, alpha or not.” 

 

“Jealous?” But Taeyong doesn’t need to ask.

 

Mark’s lynx ears fold again. He never liked sizing up with the older omega, but every trip to Korea turned into yet another round of the competition. Not necessarily of Taeyong’s doing either. It was just so natural for his cousin to earn praise for his exemplary poise or enviable beauty, without equivalent compliments to appease Mark.

 

“Obviously not,” Mark finally answers as the elevator doors slink open. 

 

Taeyong hums, eyeing the way Mark’s head sinks. He might as well ask now, since the impending commotion of the cafeteria might skew the reply he receives. “Minhyung, are you really a virgin?”

 

Mark sighs. This is what he gets for coming back to Korea.

 

Taeyong rocks on his heels, juggling Mark’s business in his greedy paws like it’s public property. “What about that older guy all over your SNS?” He makes a puzzled face, tapping his finger against the clear skin of his forehead. “What was it? Donghae? No, something in English... Derek? Oh!” He slips a hand onto Mark’s head and pats him hard, like a child does a stuffed puppy. “Daniel, right?”

 

If Mark could sum up his love life, Vancouver, and the last three years in a single name, it would be that one. Taeyong knowing it is already too dangerous.

 

Taeyong watches him in wait. His smile stretches as Mark hesitates to answer. He might be happy with himself, since it was a wildly unsupported guess on his end. Taeyong might also be pleased for Mark, since he really did fear that his little cousin might have been all alone in Canada for so long.

 

Try as Mark does to conceal reminiscence, while the words don’t come out, the memories flood in. A blush is burning into his skin, swallowing it in color the same way a developing photograph blossoms to life. It certainly paints a picture.

 

“Fuck, Mark. Baby.” Daniel’s hands had tangled into his hair, pulling without regard for Mark’s appearance in the aftermath.

 

Mark’s eyes were shining with innocence, heart strung open to the boy heavy on his tongue.

 

“You’re so beautiful,” Daniel had muttered, one of his palms finding Mark’s cheek. He stroked his thumb against the swell of it, under Mark’s pretty eyes.

 

They wetted under his touch.

 

“To a certain extent.” Mark is not as guarded as expected, but still enjoys the protection of vagaries.

 

Taeyong rolls his eyes, then tugs on Mark’s arm to get them moving again. “ What to a certain extent? Being virginal, Daniel, what?” 

 

Mark gives him a pleading look, as if to say you know, both . “I did some things. Not all things.” He laughs nervously. “Honestly, what is virginity, anyway?”

 

Taeyong has half a mind to slap Mark for his deflections, but he knows that would only make him clam up more. “How would I know? I’m not the one who confessed that I was a virgin last week.” 

 

Mark’s ears redden. He lowers his voice. “I liked him, but we both knew we’d probably never see each other again after I left Canada.” Mark doesn’t smile, but Taeyong hears its lilt in his voice. “He said, ‘ hyung is too sappy for his own good .’ He was worried that if we had sex, his heart wouldn’t want to let me go.”

 

“You are very different from me,” Taeyong observes in amusement. He also notices that Mark never says the name out loud. Taeyong isn’t quite sure if it’s to push Daniel away from his mind, or to keep him hidden in his heart.

 

Mark shrugs, then proceeds to the counter to order. “I guess I am.”

 

Taeyong starts thinking.

 

* * *

 

“Do you actually dislike Yukhei?” Taeyong asks suddenly, risking Mark’s life for the second time today as he nearly swallows tofu into the wrong partition of his throat.

 

“What is that supposed to mean?” Mark leans away from his bowl, sensing an oncoming loss of appetite.

 

“I mean, he’s tall, handsome, and older than you. What makes him so different from your beloved Daniel?” 

 

Mark’s eyebrows furrow, in that oh-so- adorably -threatening way that makes Taeyong want to squish him until he stops scowling. “Don’t compare them.”

 

Oh, Minhyung, you’re so typical. Taeyong has to wonder about Mark’s childhood. Was it really so westernized that he’s become a Hollywood cliché?

 

Mark, in turn, wonders if he could drown Taeyong in his stew. Then again, for a cat, Taeyong has always been annoyingly nonplussed at the threat of getting wet.

 

His cousin hums in defeat, “Okay, okay. Have it your way, kitty.” 

 

Mark pouts. “I’m not a kitty.” 

 

He can bristle and complain all he wants, but Mark has a lifetime of previous circumstances to reference for the inevitable outcome. There is no way to satiate Taeyong. He is a beast that takes and takes and takes all he wants, flesh, organs, and bone. Mark has never won against him, but this is something he will perish with. This is his. 

 

Taeyong pushes Mark’s dish forward with his forefinger. “Eat. You’ve looked close to fainting twice already, and I won’t have malnutrition be what finally topples you.”

 

“You’d rather kill me in perfect health like a sadist,” Mark grumbles, before gingerly spooning the sundubu jjigae back into his mouth after checking it for razors. 

 

Taeyong chuckles, scraping a wooden chopstick against his empty dish. “You’re so obsessed with ethics.”

 

“No, if I was obsessed with ethics, I’d be scolding you over Jaehyun right now.”

 

“Oh my God .” Taeyong clicks his phone on and withdraws his attention from Mark. “Have you forgotten that you already did?”

 

“Come on, hyung. You seriously don’t feel bad at all?” Mark questions after another spoonful. “You can resent your father’s misplaced affections, but Jaehyun is just trying to grow his stupid fruit like a good country boy.”

 

“Excuse me! I will not let my dad prance around acting like Jaehyun’s sugar daddy without exercising my right to make the kid feel uncomfortable.”

 

“You’re a real piece of work, Yong.” Mark smiles at that, a secret display of relief to be shared between little boys who lament having too much. 

 

Taeyong snorts. “We both are.”

 

* * *

 

Mark feels weirdly enthralled after his Econ class. Maybe he just begrudges the topic because it’s an educational stepping stone to living a lie, but he finds himself interested in the material against his will.  

 

It’s possible he actually is well-suited for it, and that’s why his father is so uniquely unforgiving when it comes to entertaining other paths for himself. Is it nature or nurture , Mark ponders. Is he really skilled by his father’s design, or by his father’s teaching? He’ll never know. 

 

Mark doesn’t allow himself to feel pride at the idea that Taeyong and Donghyuck might simply be worse than him at business affairs. For them, it never mattered. Their value lies in a plethora of other facets of identity. He has just the one.

 

Now that Mark is finally done with his class schedule for the day, he debates whether or not he should seek out Donghyuck to make up for their missed breakfast. By the time he’s squeezed into the lobby of his building, Mark decides that it’s in his best interest after all and resolves to stop by after he drops his bag off at his own dorm. In reality, he’s still psyching himself up to face Doyoung again. Mark doesn’t scare easily, but encountering such blatant affections from strangers is new territory. 

 

When Mark arrives at his suite, he cracks the door open and surveys the interior first. Yuta has finally left, and it doesn’t seem like the murder twins are anywhere to be seen. He squeezes hot air from his lungs and lets his backpack tumble down his arm to the floor. 

 

Mark slinks down the hallway, bag dragging behind him. He’s unsure about letting himself into his bedroom. Mark can barely turn the knob before Yukhei is opening the door for him.

 

“Hi, Mark.” Yukhei steps back, inviting him into the space like it’s not his room too.

 

What makes him so different from Daniel? Taeyong’s taunting is like an ear worm in Mark’s brain. He sets his bag on top of his covers and hesitates to face Yukhei. 

 

When he musters the courage to turn and meet the boy’s eyes, Mark thinks, everything. Daniel was effortlessly cool, an ultra-suave God that he could never resist worshipping. Daniel was the unattainable who still chose Mark every time. Even with only words and minutes at his disposal, Daniel always gave and gave and gave whatever he had.

 

Standing before Mark now, Yukhei is the equally irresistible clumsy-gorgeous kind, but Mark sees right through him. Yukhei’s the type who can convince you to pour yourself out until you exist only in his memory. He has the power to disappear you quietly, and he doesn’t even realize it. 

 

Yukhei rubs the back of his neck. He has something to say, but Mark doesn’t seem to be all there. “Uh, Mark? Are you okay after the whole Doyoung situation?”

 

Mark’s eyes grow into saucers. “You heard that?”

 

Yukhei nods. 

 

“It was just a dumb alpha joke,” Mark dismisses. “It’s whatever.”

 

That socks Yukhei’s gut in a not-entirely-pleasant manner. “You seemed uncomfortable, I just wanted to ask-”

 

Here it is, that predictable territory-marking between alphas. It is the infinite push and pull of hero, villain, hero, villain - until it is unclear who is who. In reality, neither will really care unless the omega escapes unclaimed. That’ll probably piss them both off to no end.

 

“Yukhei.” Mark is ice.

 

He nearly whimpers in reply. “I just wanted you to be okay,” Yukhei defends.

 

Mark glares, before delivering a blow. “I’m not Doyoung’s to take and not yours to either. Don’t pretend to save me from him so you can direct me into your trap instead.”

 

Yukhei blinks his big, confused eyes at Mark before the door slams shut on his nose.

 

Mark is fuming to the next dorm down, and he knocks furiously on its door.

 

“Hey, kid,” Doyoung- because of course- greets. “Sorry I teased you earlier.”

 

Mark isn’t sure why he feels indifferent. He just lost his temper on Yukhei for basically being born as an alpha, and here he is now, acting friendly with the one who actually came onto him.

 

“I’m a cruel hyung,” Doyoung sheepishly disclaims, “But you’re irresistibly adorable.”

 

Mark stammers. “Thanks, but-”

 

Doyoung cracks another grin. “Sorry, that didn’t help. You can ask Yuta how often I turn bad pick up lines on him, and we’re far from ever getting together. I’m just a pathological flirt.” 

 

Mark feels a laugh bounce out of him. “Understood, hyung. Just get used to me ignoring your advances from now on.”

 

Doyoung nods and lets him inside. “It’s only fair,” he agrees before returning to his book at the table. Ten, beside him, offers Mark a courtesy wave.

 

“Donghyuck,” Mark coos at his cousin, who is folded into a pretzel on the sofa. “Missed you at breakfast.” 

 

Donghyuck rolls his eyes and smiles. “I’m sure you and Taeyong hyung both did.”

 

Mark hums before collapsing onto the couch cushions himself. He buries his face in Donghyuck’s shoulder. “Of course.”

 

“So,” Donghyuck presses, “What did Yong torture you over?”

 

Mark pretends to gasp. “How did you know?”

 

“It’s Taeyong hyung.”

 

“It was an ex-boyfriend interrogation.” Mark ignores the curious glance he receives and leans his head down into Donghyuck’s lap. “Where is he anyway? Off with his poor Jaehyun, I suppose?”

 

Donghyuck bites his lip. “No, he’s in the room.”

 

Mark returns a salacious grin.

 

Alone, dumbass.”

 

At Donghyuck’s cue, Taeyong slips through the previously closed door with his phone at his ear. He’s bowing his head, like the person on the other end will reach through the speaker and slap him if he does otherwise. “Thank you, Jageunabeoji. Yes, see you soon. Be well.”

 

Mark turns up to look at Donghyuck. “Is your dad coming?” He whispers.

 

Donghyuck stares straight ahead. From below, Mark sees his chin wrinkle. 

 

Mark's gaze darts to the older boy, now pocketing his phone like it’s illicit drugs. Taeyong clears his throat. 

 

Shit .” Mark sits up faster than you can fold a lawn chair, almost knocking Donghyuck’s jaw out with the top of his head. “You’re kidding.”

 

Taeyong laughs uncomfortably. “No.”

 

“When?”

 

“He’s coming up the elevator now.”

 

Mark groans, rolling off the couch onto the floor. “There were so many chances to kill me today, why didn’t you?” He asks the universe above Taeyong and Donghyuck, who are staring down at his lame body at their feet.

 

“Come on, it’s not that bad.” Donghyuck nudges Mark’s cheek with his shoe.

 

“Yes, it is.” Mark leaps to his feet suddenly, surprising both of his cousins. “I gotta go.” He sprints out of their suite without even closing the front door. Luckily, it makes an easy exit for the other Lee cousins and Doyoung and Ten, who follow the boy’s whirlwind into the next dorm over.

 

Onlookers might call this response dramatic and, from the raised eyebrow Mark earns from a hallway passerby, he knows they probably are, but he has invested time, money, and energy into avoiding contact with Lee Seokchin. He only ever steps foot in Seoul when he has reputable confirmation that Seokchin is out of the country. At 14, he convinced his mother to buy him a secret condo in UN Village, so that he would never have to stay at the family home. He might have even anonymously tipped off journalists at the Seoul Shinmun about unethical practices of middle-managers at SM Chem, just so that Seokchin would be sucked into a corporate firestorm during the Chuseok he was going to spend in Canada. (According to the attorneys he spoke with, Mark had no definitive role in this.) 

 

After everything, if Mark has to see Seokchin’s face outside of the board room even once, it will have all been a waste. It seems like it already is as Mark pushes open the door to his suite. He can hear heavy footsteps clicking behind him.

 

“Minhyung.” 

 

There it is. Why would Mark hope it to be any different?

 

Mark turns on his heel, slowly pivoting to greet his father. “Abeoji.”

 

Seokchin waves a couple of fingers toward the suite, signaling for Mark to let him in. While Mark hangs his head and shuffles inside, Doyoung, Ten, and Yukhei gape at Seokchin’s appearance. Tall, stone-faced, and almost robotic in movement. The boys are completely taken with the grandiosity of Mark’s father, nearly stumbling over each other as they tussle to distribute themselves around the common area. Donghyuck and Taeyong lag behind, peering at their uncle from behind the doorframe.

 

Seokchin remains standing, despite being offered several opportunities to sit. Without giving mind to any of his spectators, he finds Mark’s dazed point of focus and snaps his fingers in front of it.

 

To their credit, Mark is similarly entranced by seeing Seokchin in the flesh. It’s the first time in almost a decade. Age has chiseled into his father’s bones and skin, carving deep lines in his gaunt cheeks, but he still exudes the kind of eternal radiance one would expect from a blood-sucker. Mark clenches his fist in his lap, outfitting himself for what hellish reunion awaits.

 

Seokchin sighs and adjusts his sparkling white Pasha de Cartier timepiece, before pulling his right hand up through his hair. Raking it back exposes both his forehead and his hidden middle part, but something else it reveals astounds the other boys. As Seokchin’s hair flattens under his rough palm, two round ears spring up. They are tipped in black, with the faintest stripe of gold at the base. 

 

Although the way Ten stifles a scream says otherwise, it’s not a well-hidden secret. Seokchin only resists disclosing it publicly to maintain support from both pro-hybrid and anti-hybrid lobbyists. It's convenient too- his ears’ shape and dark color make them easy enough to tuck under his locks, especially with gel. In his personal life, however, Seokchin finds discretion unnecessary. Even the loudest anti-hybrid campaigners have little to say when met face-to-face with an alpha tiger.

 

With the perfect combination of towering stature and piercing expression, Seokchin, somehow, is not a bottle hybrid like Mark and Taeyong. His predator inclination and dominant personality are apparently just born of Earth's will. This mindset has only been hardened by Seokchin’s fanatic obsession with the old Legend of Dangun.

 

Mark was raised on the myth, with Seokchin squeezing its narrative for as many bedtime stories, proverbial scoldings, and irrelevant metaphors as possible. There is even a commissioned painting of it hanging in the front room of their Apgujeong property, right above the last family portrait they ever took. Mark was six.

 

As his father told it, "A wild tiger and bear once prayed to the godly Hwanung that they might become human. Hwanung told them to eat only garlic and mugwort while hiding in a dark cave for a hundred days. While the tiger gave up, the diligent bear stayed, honoring Hwanung’s orders, and was rewarded with transformation into a human woman. The woman, called Ungnyeo, was grateful to Hwanung and wished for a husband to have a child with. Hwanung was so moved by her dedicated offerings and prayers that he made Ungnyeo his wife. She soon gave birth to a son, Dangun Wanggeom, who was the founder of the first Korean kingdom."

 

You can only imagine Seokchin’s disappointment when his own wife, whom he handpicked for her pious nature and bear hybridity, gave birth to a little runt like Mark. 

 

This is how Mark came to learn that his dad was moved first by emotion, not logic. In his fervor to replicate the creation of Korea’s first God-King, he forgot that Dangun was born of the bear and Hwanung, not her and the tiger. During his lectures about the story to little Mark, he neglected to recognize that the tiger was the tale’s bad example, who haughtily cut too many corners and paid for it. Seokchin spent countless hours teaching Mark about the tiger who wanted too much for too little in exchange and never realized he was warning his son against himself.

 

Even now, Seokchin seems to be pulled by his temper instead of his rationale, as he struggles to choose his words. Maybe he had wanted to keep the conversation private, which has long ceased to be an option since the group of listening boys only seems to grow in size. Maybe Seokchin never planned to say anything at all.

 

Without so much as an exhale, Seokchin reaches out for the skin of Mark’s nape and tilts his head back by it. Mark’s gaze is now forced up to his father’s face, but he keeps it below Seokchin’s eye level.

 

Seokchin inhales as he lets his fingers uncurl from Mark’s properly adjusted neck. He lets his amber eyes take Yukhei’s.

 

You ,” he growls.

 

Chapter Text

Family is simplicity to Jaehyun. Whether it emerged from the easy daily routine he carried out with his cousins on the farm, or the warmth of his aunties and uncles gathering around banchan and galbi after a long week in the winter, Jaehyun’s primal understanding of family has become a haven from his increasingly confusing life.

 

Jaehyun craves the familiarity he cultivated back home, despite his purpose in Seoul being to protect just that. The SNU campus has its own kind of monotony, but repetition in the city exhausts rather than comforts. Jaehyun valiantly tries to remind himself that he has a biased perspective. Maybe someone raised in Seoul can see the skyscrapers for the way the windows reflect the sky, the way Jaehyun can see the forest for the trees, but it still seems like a fantasy to him. He has a lot to learn if he wants to acclimate and survive here, and he knows. He’s only been out here for a week. It will get better.

 

Mr. Lee has been something of a saving grace. His voice through the tinny crackle of Jaehyun’s cell phone speaker is still a welcomed one after draining days. He’s even sent for Jaehyun on occasion; small baskets of peaches, hand towels, and bathroom essentials have all shown up outside his and Taeyong’s bedroom door. Jaehyun isn’t quite sure how Mr. Lee managed to have someone sneak them in, but he’s absolutely sure they’re from the man, even though he’s never asked him. The accompanying short letters have all been penned on his stationery, with the SM logo embossed across the top and the footing signature, “From the Desk of Mr. Lee.”  All of the mail Jaehyun received from Mr. Lee during his days back in Yangsu used the very same.

 

Taeyong is already gone in the mornings when Jaehyun discovers the baskets. Jaehyun's not sure how he would react to his father giving Jaehyun special treatment. Jaehyun is convinced that he would have said something affronting, had he known about it. Based on their sparse conversations about Lee Sungmin, it's probably more likely that Taeyong would have actually thrown the gifts out if he found them. While family is simple to Jaehyun, it’s painfully apparent that such isn’t the case for Taeyong, Mark, and Donghyuck. 

 

Jaehyun’s internal reflection of the predicament is interrupted by his phone buzzing in his pocket. He shuffles to the side and presses up to the wall to avoid the mob of students filtering out of the lecture hall behind him. It seems fitting that the call he answers is from one Mr. Lee. 

 

“Sajang-nim,” Jaehyun whispers into the mouthpiece. “It’s nice to hear from you.”

 

A deep chuckle rumbles into his ear.  “Hi, Jaehyun. I guess it will take time for you to adjust, but I insist you address me more casually. I have a rare lunch break today, would you like to join me for a quick meal?”

 

“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly-”

 

“Jaehyun, I insist .” Mr. Lee coughs, dispelling the assertiveness from his tone. “You won’t be imposing, I’m happy to offer. There’s something I’d like to talk to you about as well.” A long silence follows. 

 

Jaehyun draws the phone away from his ear, staring at it with uncertainty. He sighs. What’s the worst that could happen? He slips it back to his cheek, then replies in a low voice. “Okay, ahjussi.”

 

“Good. I’ll send you a car. The driver will text you when he’s arrived. Expect him no later than 15 minutes from now.”

 

“I understand. Thank you, ahjussi. Should I ask Taeyong along?”

 

“No. My brother is paying a visit to your campus later today. I’d rather see him with the rest of the family.” Mr. Lee hums to himself, then kills the line without another word.

 

Jaehyun can only hope for the best. He pinpoints the dot on the map where Mr. Lee has sent the driver and starts toward it. The clouds seem to run against him, flitting aggressively past in the sky. Ever since he arrived in Seoul, Jaehyun has noticed these moments more and more. The way the sun seems to set behind his back, and the rains only start when he steps out into the open, all creep under Jaehyun’s skin like the poison of an ex-lover’s jealousy. He wonders if the feeling isn't just imagined. After all, the guilt he feels for leaving his home is corrosive. Asphalt gravel has slowly replaced the dirt in his soles, and with it, the evidence that he had ever been away from this place. 

 

When he takes a seat at the bench nearest to the driveway, it isn’t lost on Jaehyun how astronomically comical the idea of him taking a car to a fancy lunch with SM Foods’ President is. Jaehyun can only chalk it up to luck and Mr. Lee’s unexpected kindness, but such arrangements always fail to remain certain. Maybe that’s why the wind blows violently above him now. It knows that Jaehyun must trade something in exchange for this favorable treatment and that it could very well be the thing he chooses to give away.

 

The driver texts Jaehyun to get ready, right as a mid-size black car rolls up to him. It stops a little past Jaehyun, allowing him to make out the silver letters above the back license plate: “ PORSCHE Cayenne”.

 

Jaehyun swallows as the driver door pops open. Can he even sit inside? 

 

The driver answers his question by coming around to the back passenger seat and holding the door open for him. “Jaehyun-ssi. Please, feel free.” He must be at least 30 or 40 years Jaehyun’s senior, most likely with a decade on Lee Sungmin himself. The hand propping the door open is covered with a fingerless racing glove. “Lee Sungmin-ssi looks forward to meeting with you.”

 

Jaehyun nods silently, then lets his backpack fall off his shoulder and into his arms. 

 

“You can set that down beside you,” the driver instructs.

 

Jaehyun ducks his head and climbs inside, wincing when his shoe scrapes the lip of the entrance and leaves a dust mark. The driver’s small smile tells him not to worry, but he still wipes it off with his sleeve after the door closes. 

 

The beige leather is stiff and cold under Jaehyun's ass. It’s like the seat is fighting against gravity as he tries to find a comfortable position. 

 

“Feeling well back there?” Mr. Driver asks, now nestled behind his steering wheel and starting up the car. “First time?”

 

Jaehyun smiles warily. “That obvious?”

 

“Most would be.” The driver adjusts his rearview, so that he can briefly catch Jaehyun’s eye, then rolls out of the lot. “Believe me, I was shocked when I first started driving for the Lees. I’ve handled cars worth more than my house.”

 

“Have you driven the Lee family for long?”

 

The driver chuckles, and it has a warm crunch to it, like fallen leaves in late summer. “Of course. I was hired by Lee Sooman-ssi when his first son, Sungmin-ssi, got married. Of course, I took him to and from work, but the bulk of my job was running the lady’s errands. The lady says my help with picking up groceries and dry cleaning is to credit with the birth of Taeyong, but it was certainly thanks to her own determination. I’m certain you will soon see it too, once you meet her. She went to work soon after Taeyong was born.”

 

Jaehyun hums into the fabric of his backpack, still desperately clutched to his chest. He rests his chin atop it. “Did you drive Taeyong too?”

 

The driver pauses to focus on a particularly tricky lane change. Then he lets his gaze fall to the mirror again. “Yes. I drove him and Donghyuck for most of their life. I used to take them out on day trips with their nannies, to the aquarium or Lotte World. Then as they got older, I shuttled them to school and hagwon.” He bites at a wry smile as soon as it spreads across his lips. “More recently, I’ve had to rescue them from a fair share of clubs in Cheongdamdong and Gangnam, but don’t remind the President of this when you see him.”

 

Jaehyun laughs a little more comfortably. “Sounds like Taeyong.” He lets his head fall to the side, against the window. “And Mark?”

 

“Ah, Minhyung. You probably know that he left while his cousins were still in primary school. Before then, I had driven him on a couple of occasions for playdates with Taeyong and Donghyuck. Unfortunately, Seokchin-ssi never took a liking to me, so when his son moved abroad, I stopped driving for his side of the family.”

 

Jaehyun watches as the city folds into view through the windshield. He hasn’t left SNU since he got to Seoul, and it’s much different from the heart of the city. The streets seem to lean into each other, rolling under and over like weaved straw.

 

As the car rolls to a stop at a curb, the driver puts it into park and turns back to Jaehyun. “I’m hoping it will be nice for the three to be together again. I expect that Taeyong will be driving himself from now on, so I might not get the chance to ask him.”

 

Jaehyun smiles. “I’ll ask him.”

 

The driver seems to appreciate that. He bows his head as Jaehyun disappears out the door and steps onto the sidewalk. 

 

The car rolls away behind him, leaving Jaehyun to stand alone before the restaurant's entrance. He inhales sharply, then slings the backpack back over his shoulders. Jaehyun is aware he must look like a dirt-poor student, but carrying the backpack in his hands won’t change that. When he finally manages to pull open the glass door and creep inside, he’s relieved to see that the establishment is small. He makes barely three paces toward the hostess stand when he sees Mr. Lee stepping out from behind a heavy wooden door. “Jaehyun-ah. It’s good to see you.”

 

Jaehyun returns his greeting with a deep bow. He braces his hands against his thighs when he feels his backpack slide up his shoulders and smack him in the back of the head.

 

The hostess looks between the two and quickly makes the connection. The restaurant is empty, which must be unusual for an upscale place like this during the lunch rush. Jaehyun doesn’t think about it too much.

 

She steps back and gestures for Jaehyun to pass her. He stands and tips his head down at her before following Mr. Lee into the private room. 

 

The table he finds inside probably seats ten, but there’s only four chairs pushed up to it now. Mr. Lee tells Jaehyun to set his bag on an empty chair and sit across from him.

 

Jaehyun bristles a little when he feels the white cloth rub against his sleeve. Is it possible for him to deposit the dust onto it by proxy? He rolls it up, just in case.

 

Sungmin leans back into his chair. “I trust that you’ve been enjoying your situation, so far?” 

 

Jaehyun nods profusely. “Of course, ahjussi. Everything has been wonderful.” 

 

“Oh, come on, you don’t need to be so polite. Are you sure everything is well? It’s okay to miss home.” 

 

Jaehyun pauses as the door opens to a waiter bearing a glass pitcher of water. Sungmin shoos him away, after accepting the pitcher and asking for two orders of gimbap. This relieves Jaehyun to no end , as he caught the bold lettering of LOBSTER and IBÉRICO on the menu the hostess was carrying earlier.  

 

“I do miss home,” Jaehyun admits when the door shuts again. “But I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I know eomma and appa would be glad if I worked hard and did well.” 

 

Sungmin buries his hum into a sip of water. “And how’s Taeyong? Not a bother, is he?”

 

“NO! Erm, no! He’s perfectly lovely.” Jaehyun internally cringes. He’s practically giving himself away.

 

To Jaehyun's relief, this doesn't upset Sungmin, who smiles easily in response. “That’s good to hear. He’s always been a little bit of a handful, taking what he wants whenever he wants. His eomma used to call him ‘Kitty Caesar,’ when he was little. I’m hoping you two can become close. As I’ve said, you would be a good influence. You can bring some needed discipline into his life.”

 

Jaehyun blushes. “I’m not sure how.”

 

“You’re a hardworking, diligent young man. Taeyong is a bit airy and superficial. You would make a good match.”

 

Jaehyun nods without a hint of understanding. 

 

Sungmin detects the confusion in his expression, then leans down to his briefcase beneath the table. He pulls out a small envelope and sets it onto the table.

 

Jaehyun peers at the item, fingers flitting on the table, across from it. “Ahjussi, what is this?”

 

“Taeyong has no interest in succeeding me and that’s all fine. However, I’m interested in keeping the position in the family. SM is a chaebol, after all.”

 

Jaehyun’s brows furrow. He sinks down in his chair. “I don’t understand.”

 

“You’re a good kid. You’re smart, driven, and morally sound. I’ve been involved in your upbringing since you were little and because of this, I am confident in your ability to-”

 

“Wait, ahjussi-”

 

“I have a proposition,” Sungmin interrupts. He turns over the envelope and unfolds the flap. He pulls out the letter and passes it to Jaehyun.

 

Jaehyun’s eyes bulge as he gingerly takes the paper in his hands, the same SM logo and footing signature printed as on the stationery from his gift baskets. “Is this real?”

 

Sungmin nods. “You’ll trust that I have examined and reexamined this idea many times in the past decade. It is with the utmost meticulousness and care that I have drafted this offer.”

 

Jaehyun sighs, folding the paper and returning it to its place on the table. “Ahjussi… This is a lot to think about.” He takes his glass with a trembling hand, then sips. The water burns his raw throat. “You credit my moral compass for this decision, but I don’t know if I can accept it on that very basis.”

 

Sungmin shrugs. “It’s only an offer. You have to understand, Jaehyun-ah. I’ve always planned to give the position to Taeyong’s husband.”

 

Jaehyun’s breath catches. With the blankest stare he can muster, he reaches for the piece of paper and opens it so he can skim it once again. He did miss that part. “There’s no way I have the necessary experience, ahjussi. There are surely hundreds more qualified than me.”

 

“The issue that has emerged in recent years is that Taeyong will and has denied any introductions I give to my corporate peers, and even heirs from enemy conglomerates.” Sungmin speaks carefully, not allowing his voice to reveal his certainty. “However, he might not refuse you.”

 

“But…” Jaehyun lets his thumb slip along the paper, outlining the terms of the agreement. “Why the marriage clause?”

 

Sungmin smiles. “It’s a family business, Jaehyun. My successor should be part of the family, and so forth. The position should pass down from generation to generation, parent to child.”

 

Jaehyun’s stomach flips. “Parent to child? But I’m not your-”

 

“You’re not, but your successor will be. Taeyong’s child will succeed you.”

 

Jaehyun blinks. “You mean-”

Sungmin nods. “Your child. Yes.” 

 

It’s not that the picture is entirely bad to Jaehyun. Marrying, becoming a President of one of Korea’s largest food and chemical conglomerates, and having kids to carry a well-endowed bloodline are all traditionally appealing prospects. But beyond the way his blood is curdling at the mere thought of doing such a thing to someone he barely knows, Jaehyun isn’t entirely sure that it’s legal.

 

“Ahjussi, is this really-” Jaehyun shuts up as the door swings open, soon revealing a different waiter with their meals. He quickly folds the paper and returns it to the table, face down.

 

The waiter places the dishes on each side, smiling cordially as he recounts their orders. 

 

Jaehyun neglects to make eye contact with him or Sungmin, whose firm gaze he is sure will somehow manage to evoke a reaction from him that will embarrass them both.

 

As the door clicks shut, Jaehyun feels a wave of relief again. Soon, hesitation bubbles to the surface as well. “Ahjussi,” he murmurs, “Are you sure this is legal?”

 

Sungmin laughs good-naturedly. He sets down his chopsticks and stands to ruffle Jaehyun’s hair. He hasn’t done so since Jaehyun was young. “You’re such a good kid, Jaehyun. I assure you, it’s nothing binding. If you really dislike Taeyong that much, I’m not forcing your hand.” He points along a written line in the letter. “This merely states that marrying Taeyong ensures your eligibility to be considered for my position, as a new member of the Lee family. Your and Taeyong’s children, however, would be automatically eligible for the position.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“As you’ve noted, it’s a bit of a legal loophole. I can’t technically promise you the position in exchange for marrying Taeyong, but I can promise that I will personally give Taeyong’s husband my highest recommendation to succeed me.”

 

Jaehyun sighs. “I still don’t know.”

 

“I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to, least of all in affairs of your private life. I just want you to know that if you find yourself in a relationship with Taeyong, I won’t condemn it. In fact, I want to encourage you by being transparent about the fact that marrying into the Lee family will avail you the opportunity to take my place." He smiles. "To be honest, I have my own selfish reasons for wanting you to be Taeyong’s partner.”

 

Jaehyun finally meets Sungmin’s gaze in horror. The older man has a fire in his eyes, an unquestioned certainty that fuels his motive. 

 

“I just have a hunch that you two are compatible,” Sungmin says casually. “Eat.”

 

* * *

 

The car ride back is tense, to put it lightly. Sungmin insisted that they return to campus together so that he could greet Taeyong and his nephews, but sensing Jaehyun’s discomfort, decided to sit in the passenger seat by the driver.

 

Jaehyun hears the unintelligible murmur of pleasantries between them; the driver asks about Taeyong’s way in university and Sungmin responds politely.

 

While troublesome, the offer is just plain confusing to Jaehyun. Sure, Taeyong may not want to take the position, but Jaehyun can’t imagine that the feeling is uncommon among chaebol heirs who ultimately join the business. It feels weirdly like going over Taeyong’s head.

 

The hiccup of the car coming to a stop brings Jaehyun’s own head up to the window. They’re back already. He steps out in a daze, quickly thanking the driver before tumbling to his feet on the pavement.

 

The two chat about his parents during the walk back to Jaehyun's dorm, reminiscing on the meals they would share with Sungmin on occasion. Jaehyun finds delight in Sungmin’s honest fondness for his family. Suspicious as his motives for pairing Jaehyun up with Taeyong may be, it has never been questionable that Sungmin has truly cared for them these past years.

 

The block around their dorm is eerily barren as they stroll through it, with only a handful of rushed students passing them by. When the two find the building in their line of sight, Jaehyun understands why.

 

A tall raven-haired man is standing by the bulletin board, snarling insults at a kid pressed against it. His forearm is caging the student’s throat and Jaehyun thinks he might be choking. Jaehyun and Sungmin both start toward the scene in alarm, running to the small group gathered at the wall.

 

It’s Mark, Jaehyun realizes as they get closer. Taeyong and Donghyuck stand to the side of it all, hands clasped at their fronts and heads hanging in obedience. Taeyong has a coat bundled in his arms. 

 

Jaehyun understands now that the man must be Mark’s father.

 

“Lee Minhyung, I will not so easily give you away to some teenage alpha,” he spits. “We had a deal.”

 

Mark is red-faced, clearly alive and kicking, but struggling against his grasp all the same.

 

“You got to play in the Canadian Wilderness.” The man jerks his elbow forward and Mark’s head thuds against the felt board. “And I know you played a lot.”

 

Mark’s hands are strained against his father’s shoulders. The two teeter on their balance, gravity giving way to Mark’s force, then his father’s, and back again. 

 

“But now is not the time for playing anymore. Straighten out or I will make you.”

 

Mark spits on his father’s chest, which was probably a diversion attempt, but doesn’t seem to work as his father dives forward and clamps his jaw down on Mark’s neck.

 

Mark shrieks, “WHAT THE FUCK?” and Sungmin finally tackles his brother to the ground, pulling him off of Mark.  

 

Taeyong quickly pulls his younger cousin toward him and Donghyuck, and together the two swaddle him in the coat. Taeyong is hugging him so tightly Jaehyun can see the veins in his arms. His green-yellow eyes are turning an ice blue in the light.

 

Sungmin is standing above his brother now, a shaky foot supporting his weight. “Seokchin,” He offers with a hand.

 

Seokchin groans, taking it and sitting up. He rubs his head, where two golden ears flick in distress. “Hyung, you’re too harsh,” he grunts.

 

“Too harsh? You just bit your son!” Sungmin narrows his eyes, then yanks Seokchin up onto his feet. “You can’t keep giving in to those terrible animal instincts of yours.”

 

“You say that like it’s a disease,” Taeyong retorts from behind him. 

 

Sungmin swings on his heel, temporarily moving his attention away from his little brother and finally finding his son. “Hi Yong.” 

 

Taeyong grimaces as Sungmin presses a kiss to his hair. He flinches more when his father's hand falls on one of his cat ears in an awkward pat.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to say it like that. Your uncle just has to realize that he’s a human .” He glares at Seokchin. “Right, dongsaeng?”

 

Taeyong hums back. Jaehyun imagines he would say more on another day, but Taeyong seems to remember Mark in his arms, because he motions for Donghyuck to open the lobby door for them. “Thanks for coming, jageunabeoji. Appa.” He bows curtly at the two men, then disappears inside with his cousins.

 

Once the kids are out of view, Sungmin pinches one of the ears on top of Seokchin’s head. “You hybrids are all a handful .” He sighs, ignoring Seokchin’s pained whine. “I wanted a little brother, not an exotic pet.”

 

Jaehyun smiles uneasily. What is he to say?

 

“I’m not a savage,” Seokchin protests.

 

“Well, you certainly aren’t civilized.” Sungmin scoffs. He scratches at his head, ruffling the neatly styled hair there.  “How you and your cub sort matters is entirely in your own hands. Leave my kid out of it. He’s spent a healthy amount of time away from Minhyung. Let’s not taint it by having you excessively involved with him.”

 

Seokchin rolls his eyes, but hangs his head. “Yes, hyung.”

 

Sungmin finally brings his focus to Jaehyun, who is standing as stark as a board of plywood. He slings a friendly arm around Jaehyun's shoulders and whispers delicately into his ear. “You see, Jaehyun, there are certain improprieties that Taeyong is unfortunately prone to. Seokchin is a prime example of how they don’t manifest in befitting behavior for a company president.” He leans back, admiring Jaehyun’s innocence, and tips up the boy's chin to face the ashamed tiger.

 

“You see?”

 

* * *

 

About two stories above, Taeyong stares at the image on his phone, wondering whether he should delete it.

 

Mark whines in pain when Donghyuck presses the ice pack to his neck. The cloth around it is stained red, a mixture of blood and water dripping over his fingers.

 

Without deciding, Taeyong shuts his phone off and leaves it on the windowsill. He sits on the bed beside Donghyuck and joins in tending to their cousin.

 

Family, of course, is more important.