43: consent, to a minimum
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A muted rustle of leaves, a howl from some miles away. The two of them stand in deadlock a meter away from the outside, uncaring of any predators that may come. Yang Rong has one arm propped on the wall and his other injured arm (still untended to) is lax by his side. Noah is merely staring at him with a blank expression on his face, not indicating anything else sans confusion.

“Hm? Did you hear me?” Yang Rong leans forward, intruding into his personal space. “I’d like to go with you.”

Noah snaps himself back to lucidity. “…Go with me? Your meaning is unclear.”

“It is quite clear, no?” The colonel rephrases for him. “If you’re unwilling to go with me, then I’ll go with you instead.”


“Isn’t that your decision?” Yang Rong seems to be getting more amused by the second, sadistically enjoying the confusion on his face. His grin grows wider as Noah struggles to process his words. “Little kitten, is your fever messing with your head for you to be so flustered or am I just that handsome? You’ve been staring at me for a while.”

Noah scrunches his eyebrows. “What are you plotting?”

“Consider it an escort mission,” he says in response. “Why would I leave an unsuspecting civilian to fend for himself out in the wild?”

Surely it’s a jest and if the grin on his face doesn’t indicate, then it’d be the twinkle in his forest green eyes. They seem to reflect the night stars, vibrant in a grayed-out planet, little pollution… and there is more to them than just amusement. Noah finds the emotion difficult to decipher.

“A mission,” Noah repeats. “I do not wish to partake in it.”

“So insistent on getting rid of me?” the man teases. “Your Rong-ge is actually quite popular – it’s a little hurtful for you to be this fickle. Many would’ve jumped into my embrace by now. Aren’t I particularly dashing when—"

“You’ve forgotten I tried to kill you,” Noah cuts him off abruptly. “You’re asking to travel with a human-hybrid.”

“And you’ve also forgotten that I am… coincidentally unordinary.” Yang Rong lifts his forearm for him to see. The splinter is now covered in some strange shell-like layer, similar to that other time when he’d gotten injured. “So little kitten, you’d need to try a little harder since you’re so lanky.”

Noah ignores the insult and studies the carapace – it’s jagged and hard, a bizarre coating on human skin. He frowns. “An old infection? Colonel Yang, you do understand that the radiation will eventually corrupt your body and…”

He raises his head and peers closer, trailing his eyes away from the colonel’s arm to the other scars on his body. Indents of off-colored lines on the biceps up to shoulders, some other cuts clotted dark red on the bulge of his muscles. His tee shirt does little to hide how sculpted he is – not majorly burly, but well-defined nonetheless. Noah’s gaze flits up to the man’s neck, where pinkish traces still remain from the delirious night.

“And it doesn’t seem like you can consciously control the morph,” he continues, his frown deepening. “Is it arbitrary?”

The handprint is faded but still unmistakable. Blood vessels dot the sides and disperse by the nape, visible even on Yang Rong’s thick skin. The longer he stares, the more vividly the memories come back to him. Noah is very aware of his irrationality, very aware of how he’d led the man astray through heat – and Colonel Yang, top alpha stereotype, leads him with so much comfort it’s almost manipulative.

Hesitance and distrust, his nature preening into the colonel’s grasps, but Noah wants nothing more than his own freedom.

“…I am leaving,” Noah states in finality. “It would be good if I don’t see you again.”

“Why are you talking like we’ve broken up?” Yang Rong says to him, his tone wholly relaxed. “We haven’t started dating—though, Noah, I wouldn’t exactly be opposed, only if you confess to me cutely and—"

“—Is it in your nature to be absolutely infuriating?” Noah tells him darkly. He adjusts the straps on the backpack and turns around. “Goodbye.”

To his dismay, before he can walk another step, Yang Rong reaches to grab his forearm. Overbearing as per usual, the colonel tightens his grip so he can’t leave. Warm breaths can be felt on the back of his neck and then he’s enveloped in pungent alpha musk, some lingering pheromones which, now that he’s less inebriated again, has small hint of bleach and ammonia – some very distinctive odor. Unmistakable.

Noah narrows his eyes and is about to slug the man in the face when—

Yang Rong opens his mouth to say, “The backpack is mine.”

“…” Noah turns to look at him stoically. “There’s nothing in there that is of use to you.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that it’s mine,” the man says with a lift of his brows. “Isn’t this pilfering right in front of my eyes?”

Colonel Yang stands proudly before him with his disheveled hair plus poorly fitting shirt and all, unwilling to let him part. Noah can really hand it to him for his persistence if not for the fact that he’s already annoyed and tired.

“Are you dense or are you just that attached to your backpack?” he snaps at him. “It’s hardly a family heirloom.”

“It’s designer,” Yang Rong retorts. “It went through forty forest fires, twenty snowstorms and fifteen sandstorms. I jumped off a helicopter with it eleven times and I also dove underwater with it five—six times counting yesterday. As such, I have a rather fixated attachment to it.”

The proclaimed designer bag, with its front zipper missing, its threads sticking out from overuse, its side pockets ripped off, is just about the worse quality item he’d ever seen. It’s even surprising that it can hold the dozens of pill bottles Noah had stuffed inside. The colonel, however, remains unyielding on his stance.

“Then I’ve also jumped down a tree with it,” Noah retorts, also uncompromising. It’s in his nature to be recalcitrant, especially when the person he’s holding the dispute with is the colonel, someone he has very little patience for. “I’ve traveled hundreds of miles with it on my back.”

“A good portion of your hundreds of miles were spent unconscious,” Yang Rong reminds him flippantly. “It doesn’t matter how you distort your narrative – the truth holds that it is more appropriate for the original owner, me, to have complete and irrevocable ownership of it.”

“Colonel Yang,” he says with a cantankerous lift to his syllables. “For a man your age, you are incorrigibly childish.”

“Well then, Noah,” Yang Rong replies (Noah swears he hears a small tinge of amusement in his tone). “You should know I am very persistent.”

Colonel Yang is just about the cockiest person he’s ever met and the smirk snaking on his features isn’t helping his case. The dimwitted dolt is making him angrier by the second – he just wants to leave, damnit, but Yang Rong is here to stall for reasons unknown.

“I am well aware of your idiocy,” he replies, throwing the backpack at him. “Fine. Take it and get away from me.”

The contents rattle as the bag smacks Yang Rong on the chest – Noah lets out a sigh at the suppressants and drugs he’d have to sacrifice because the colonel, for whatever braincells he’s lacking, is wholly insistent on having his way.

And Noah still can’t leave because this twenty-seven-year-old man (mentally five) has a firm hold on his forearm, snaking down to his wrist. “Wait.”

Noah looks angry. His pale eyes are almost murderous in the dark, narrowed and slated to kill.

“You are—"

“—I concede,” Yang Rong says suddenly. He holds the world record for the quickest shapeshift, his expression turning from cocky to pensive, as though he’s measuring a trillion heavy thoughts in his mind. He is visibly thinking, his green eyes blinking twice more than the usual, his mouth parted for some speech that seems to carry the weight of the world. Then, some agonizing five seconds later, he clears his throat and decides on saying, “You can have the backpack.”

“…” Noah is both confused and unamused. “I don’t want it anymore.”

“…” Yang Rong thinks about his next line too. “Then are you still coaxed to stay with me?”

“I was never.”

A low sigh followed by another one that evokes bittersweet emotion – uncertain what – and then the man loosens the ironlike grip on his wrist. Two steps away from the exit of the cottage, under dark skies and a gleaming moon, Yang Rong wraps both arms around the younger man’s body lightly and hesitantly, lacking any of the arrogance that he had prior.

Noah flinches slightly. The embrace is foreign to him and he is a tad uncomfortable, but he doesn’t move. Yang Rong doesn’t take it further either, simply resting his muscular arms on the slender of his waist, purposefully gentle so they won’t graze his stitched wound. The colonel tests his reaction – there is an imperceptible twitch of his eyelids – and then lowers his voice to appease.

“Rong-ge won’t do anything you dislike…” the man says close to his ears, “so don’t leave just yet.”

His words travel in a low vibrato, (purposefully) magnetic and catered to pleasantry. Noah thinks Yang Rong is runner-up for biggest narcissist but takes top spot for the most confusing dimwit when he begins to justify his actions in rigmarole, his mouth chattering in excess.

“Why have you gotten more fierce?” Yang Rong continues to say. He leans forward and taps their foreheads together. A nuzzle. “Are you still shy about earlier? It was only a little skin on skin – it’s a normal physiological reaction so this little episode is nothing to get hung up over. Could it be that you’ve never had s—"

If looks could kill, Colonel Yang would be pummeled onto the ground, stabbed through his arteries and thrown overboard (a second time) to the sea as fish bait. Noah doesn’t move from position – his spectral eyes are enough to convey exactly what he’s thinking. The colonel leans back again (still wrapping him in an embrace) and looks to him for affirmation.

Noah gives it plainly. “You don’t seem to comprehend the concept of personal space nor do you have any knowledge of social cues.”

“…” Yang Rong slowly lets go and then, after a moment of consideration, puts his hands into his pockets. Feigned harmlessness. He’s hellbent on defending himself, however. “No knowledge of social cues? Your Rong-ge is exceptionally keen at seeing through people – for instance, I can spot an infection from a mile away, blindfolded and tied down. Do you know how many merits I’ve gotten on the battlefield? It is precisely my acuity that’s awarded me my status. Not only am I exceptionally keen, but I am also exceptionally—"

“Exceptionally arrogant,” Noah finishes for him. “As expected from an alpha of your hierarchy. You are the most arrogant Neanderthal to exist.”

“And you are the most sharp-tongued person I’ve ever—”

“It seems you are more fitted to live in the Stone Age, considering how adept you are at absolutely nothing sans fighting off pterodactyls with your bare hands. A fitting skill for your stereotype as a prehistoric mammal missing a functioning frontal lobe.”

“…” Yang Rong is at a loss. “Can you put it in words I can understand, little kitten? I know for a fact you are insulting me, but it is difficult to refute when we don’t function within the same wavelength.”

“You don’t function within any wavelength.”

“Well I—”

“Your mannerisms are akin to an ape’s—and to that, I believe it is more of an insult to the ape than to you. You must be some unevolved species with how incapable you are at socializing.”

“I am very social—”

“’Socially inept’ is the term.”

Noah is full-on capitalizing his wit now. His eloquence is brought out the more heated he gets, and the colonel can only stand speechless. After a minute of one-sided provocation, Noah had completely forgotten what he had set out to do. The both of them are still steps away from leaving the cottage and the fireplace is still flickering madly behind them – there will be a blazing fire if they don’t fix the disarrangement of wood.

Yang Rong stays silent without much contribution and the only signs of pique are his increasingly wrinkled brows. It’s an interesting change for Noah to take charge like this, for him to be able to stand on a taller field, to be able to kick the colonel off his high pedestal – he’d be lying if the feeling weren’t reinvigorating.

He takes a soft breath and says in conclusion, “So Colonel Yang, if you understand what I am trying to convey, it is very aggravating for me to be in the same vicinity as you.”

The winter night gradually gets colder. When the rain ceased, the temperature drops to below freezing, and the two young men are dressed in too-thin shirts, standing a mere inch apart, engaged in a strange banter that is finally coming to an end. As conversation ceases, they remain in standstill.

Puddles of water around them have condensed into ice-crystals. The asphalt ground is still soaked in cold rain, and the blistering wind only makes the temperature colder. Noah’s shirt is too big on him and it flaps with each gust, not covering his body at all. The colonel, cognizant at the strangest times, angles himself slightly to block the brunt of wind.

Odd silence. White noise. Leaves rustling. The colonel’s body radiates much needed warmth.

A while later, Colonel Yang breaks the lull. “…I did give it some thinking, but I cannot come to a conclusion.”

His voice is preternaturally quiet. It comes off sotto voce in the dead of night and even Noah isn’t sure why he’d remained here to listen. His throat is parched, and his next words come out unsteady. “A conclusion for what exactly?”

“For why you are afraid of me.” The man looks at him. The white moonlight contrasts with the subtle flickers of flame, adding more mystery to his undefinable eyes. “Until I figure it out, I will settle that I’ve made you angry again and I will admit to my wrongs.”

Noah thinks there are very clear reasons why he’d be afraid – the man so ruthless with a knife strapped onto his belt, so dangerous it makes him instinctively recoil, but also magnetic enough to lure him in. His mind supplies that it is pure genetics to be allured by an alpha, and it is exactly this dynamic that makes Noah more distrusting.

His breaths are visible in the frigid night. His ears have turned red from fever. Yang Rong taps him lightly on the shoulder, beckoning for his attention. Heterochromatic eyes meet moonglow green.

“Come back in with me?” Yang Rong says it like a question – and that’s even more dangerous, because he’s giving Noah a choice for once, throwing him into a million loops of complication. Yang Rong is supposed to be an overbearing, cocky dolt and not a sensible human being. He continues with a soft smile, “You can yell at me more after you’ve warmed up.”