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Trial and Freedom

Here's the second part of Trial and Freedom
See the first part for notes and warnings.

Part 1

The first day of the trial started off easy, which didn't seem like a bad omen at first. Taewoon came downstairs to find everyone up and ready to go, looking as haunted as he felt, and he hoped this would help put some of their ghosts to rest.

He met Chaerin outside the courthouse and followed her inside, through security, and into the courtroom. He caught sight of Hakyeon and DooJoon, LeeTeuk, and a few others, all sitting behind the prosecutor's table. He caught sight of his group with them, and SungMin and TaeHa in the back with the rest of the audience. Sitting near them he could see a couple of people he'd talked to in person, were-tigers who wouldn't testify. He couldn't blame them.

The trial started, and he could tell it would be long. It seemed more tigers had come than he'd recognized, because as soon as Mr. Han and Dongil came in, a low rumble of combined growls sounded through the room. One of them didn't come from SeJoon, probably only because JongKook held his hand and squeezed. He did snarl, silently, almost as soon as the door opened.

The judge called for order, of course, and the growling stopped. Taewoon glanced at Chaerin as she shivered, and she smiled wanly back at him. "I can feel the hate rolling off them," she said. "It's pretty disturbing."

"Yeah," Taewoon said. "It is."

It took a couple of days for things to really get started. The first thing that made people sit up and take notice was the video of JongKook and SeJoon, walking through their days in the underground pit during LeeTeuk's testimony. It took over an hour, and Taewoon relived it with them, glancing at them to see them huddled together. He couldn't tell who comforted who more.

"Are the two who did this recording here?" the prosecutor asked.

"Yes," LeeTeuk said. "They're right there."

The lawyer turned. "Stand up, please," he said.

They did, hands still clasped. The jury peered at them, then back at the images on the screen.

"Thank you."

That meant, of course, that they were next up, and separately. The grilling, between the two lawyers, went on for days, and then Taewoon came under fire. His testimony and the resultant questions from the opposite side took nearly as long as the two before.

It seemed to go on forever. They went home exhausted, slept like the dead - JongKook didn't even complain of nightmares anymore - and went back. It seemed to go on and on and on. The jury sat there, took notes, showed not a single expression of feeling, one way or the other. Taewoon kept from looking at them to keep his anger in check. He didn't understand, mostly, why they didn't see... but then, they had to see both sides, and soon enough, they'd have to listen to people praising these two demons that had destroyed so many lives. The weekends were hardest, if only because he felt almost normal by Sunday, and on Monday they had to go back to it.

Watching Chaerin give her testimony only made him more proud of her. He sat quietly, hands fisted on his knees, as the defending lawyer tried to poke holes in her story. She answered each question, careful to keep to the facts she could prove. They'd gotten her files from the office before this, gone over each of the records for the tigers she'd treated after that mess. Eventually, he dismissed her, and Taewoon sighed as she settled down next to him again.

They called in the EMTs, the people who'd helped keep JongKook alive, the other vets who'd helped with the tigers, and, to JongKook's obvious surprise, the medics that had worked for Mr. Han. Eventually, they even talked to Hakyeon, which made things almost surreal as he described the way his boss had blocked him, and how and why he'd left the investigation to Taewoon and his.

"That doesn't make sense," the lawyer said.

Hakyeon shrugged. "I know. I thought that when Shin JongKook disappeared, obviously linked to the disappearance of Park SeJoon, I'd have more leeway to work on the missing tigers, but he told me to ignore the tigers and focus on Mr. Park."

"Did you?"

"Yes," Hakyeon said, making it clear that he hadn't liked it.

"And you told Taewoon about that?"

"Yes. I asked him to keep looking for the missing were-tigers. I was convinced they weren't just leaving, especially after Mr. Shin disappeared. When he agreed, I did as my superior asked."

Finally, the prosecution rested, and the defense began their side. Taewoon found it even harder to watch as people got up to testify of the character of Mr. Han, to testify of his upstanding deportment in the community, the people that worked for him.

After Mr. Han, they went on to testify for Dongil. More than once, a low growl - singular - sounded in the courtroom, but try as they might, no one could figure out who did it. The judge finally put an end to it by declaring that if they couldn't stay quiet, he'd clear the room. It didn't happen again.

Finally, the defense rested as well, and the jury went to deliberate. Taewoon stood up, stretched, and looked at Chaerin. "I need a drink," he said. "Join me?"

"Yes, please," she said, almost too fast, and they left the courtroom. By the time they reached the steps of the courthouse, the rest of them had gathered in as well, including TaeHa and SungMin. Chaerin shrugged at his look, and so he invited them all.

They didn't feel like celebrating - it wasn't that sort of a drink. Taewoon needed it just to clear the bad taste out of his mouth that the whole thing had given him, and the first drink did that admirably. They didn't stay long after that.

Hakyeon caught them on the way out, and pulled Taewoon aside. "They're already starting to gather more evidence against my superiors," he said. "They have other people to charge, too, and I thought you might like to know who they found were connected to him."

"Oh?" Taewoon asked, glancing at the others, where they waited for him at the corner.

"SungMin's grandparents," Hakyeon said. "My superior and Mr. Choi are old schoolmates, and it's just... the kind of schoolmate that means they'll do whatever they can for each other."

"That explains what they meant when they said they'd never see the inside of a courtroom," Taewoon said.

"Probably," Hakyeon said. "I know you have been, but keep an eye on SungMin. I'm afraid of what they might do when their empire comes crashing down around their heads."

Taewoon nodded. "I will," he said. "We all will. So if your superior goes down, so do they?"

"It's likely," Hakyeon said. "What's more, it will be interesting to see what I find out when I start really investigating SungMin's mother's death."

Taewoon frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I don't think it was an accident. I don't think it was what they said it was, and I want to go find out for sure." Hakyeon frowned. "I think SungMin's grandparents had her killed."

Taewoon stiffened. "Don't tell him," he said.

"I won't. I'll let you decide if he should know that, and when."

"Thanks," Taewoon said.

Hakyeon smiled. "I'll let you go. They'll call you as soon as the jury is ready, and if you haven't heard, I'll make sure you do."

"Thanks," Taewoon said, bowed to him, and went to join the others.

"What did he want?" Chaerin asked as she took his hand.

"He just told me about the case they're putting together against his superior," Taewoon said. "He suggested that I be careful." He glanced at SungMin, who talked with TaeHa and YooHwan, hands moving as he tried to explain something.

"His grandparents?" she asked softly, following his gaze.

"Apparently, there wasn't much of a case... no one looked into the death of SungMin's mother, because they assumed it was drug related," Taewoon said. "Hakyeon is going to look into that. I guess it means that he's back in an official capacity."

"Good," Chaerin said. "I want to check in at the clinic, and see if any of the tigers have stopped in to ask about the trial or anything. Come over for dinner?"

"Unless they want us both there," Taewoon said. "Then we'll be at my place."

"Either way, I get time with you," she said, kissed his cheek, and went to catch another bus.

"You should have gone with her," SeJoon said when Taewoon joined them again.

"And what, get in the way?" Taewoon asked as they boarded their own bus. "She's going to work. Did you hear anything from any of the tigers that attended?"

SeJoon shook his head. "No, but I didn't really expect to. We didn't have much time to talk. They all have your number, not mine."

"True. I don't really expect them to call me, though," Taewoon said.

"They might," SeJoon said. "As soon as they realize you're dating Chaerin. Most of them trust her more even than me."

"Because he can't really help put them back together if something goes wrong," JongKook said.

"I can't either," Taewoon said.

"No, but they know you'll fight for them," SeJoon said. "And they trust her to know who to tell about any injuries they might have - not to people who will abuse their weaknesses."

Taewoon thought about that. "Does this mean that some of them will stay around here now?" he asked.

"I don't know," SeJoon said. "I think they're more likely to come to Seoul more often, maybe. Depending on public reaction to the verdict. And the verdict."

"I'm afraid of what will happen if they're acquitted," JongKook said.

SeJoon hugged him. "Those two won't hurt you."

"They will hurt others," JongKook said. "I don't want them to be able to do that. Besides, Dongil has as much as promised that he'd get you."

"He can try," Jungwoo said, at the same time SeJoon did. "It won't happen," Jungwoo went on. "He won't even be able to get close without SeJoon knowing it."

"And without you knowing," TaeHa said, looking at JongKook. "And without both of us knowing. We have spells ready for you if they do get free, something like we have with SungMin. Only if you want them."

"If they get free, I do," JongKook said.

"I don't know how long they'll be alive if they do get to walk out of the courthouse not in cuffs," SeJoon said.

"I hope that doesn't happen. I hope the tigers don't get too angry," Taewoon said. "It won't be good."

"There's nothing we can do?" SungMin asked.

"There's no way to control the tigers like with wolves," SeJoon said. "We're very solitary creatures, except when we find a mate. Even then, this sort of thing - like I have with you guys - is really rare."

They all fell quiet at that, sitting in their seats and watching for their stop.

The jury took forever. JongKook hung out with SeJoon, the urge to know where he was at all times fading completely away. It had started doing so when the trial started, and by now, he no longer worried when SeJoon was out of his sight.

He still preferred it when they lay out in the sun in the backyard, although it had started to get cold. SeJoon's coat had started to thicken - which had a weird effect of also thickening his hair. JongKook didn't understand it, but he didn't question it, either. It was just part of his partner.

"What are we going to do for Halloween this year?" he asked idly one afternoon. They sat on the covered porch, watching the rain fall.

SeJoon laughed softly. "You want to break from the black tiger with orange stripes?" he asked.

"I don't know. We had a lot of kids last year because of you."

"Not because of me," SeJoon said, squeezing him gently, "because of Taewoon's choice of candy."

"Maybe, but I doubt all of them were there because of that." JongKook sighed. "I wonder if we can bring these kids up to believe that tigers aren't so... horrible. I don't mean bring them up, obviously, but...."

"I don't know," SeJoon said. "I think you not being afraid of me does a lot, and showing them how to act, those that want to be near, is doing a huge favor to the tigers."

"You're helping," JongKook told him. "It's not like I could do any of it without you."

SeJoon snorted and squeezed him. "You sound contented."

"I am," JongKook said. "We have people who like us, who support us, who don't look at us funny because of our choice of partner. I have a job I love, with someone I love, and I am making a difference, even if it's just one person at a time. It can't last, obviously, especially if Taewoon and Chaerin get married or even decide they want to live together, but it's good now, and I think that even if we do end up having to find another place to live... It won't be bad."

SeJoon grinned at him, then kissed him, making everything he'd just said go out of his head.

"You're right," SeJoon said a while later, after a truly wonderful make-out session, something they hadn't had in far too long. "It's the best place we could be, and we can keep making a difference for the rest of our lives."

JongKook smiled and nestled closer. "Now if they'd just find them guilty, we'd have so much more to celebrate."

"And I think the celebration would go on for days," SeJoon said, grinning at him. "Separately, and together."

JongKook smiled. "Oh, yeah. Most definitely. We'll have to see about having something big for everyone involved."

"And if they find them innocent?" Taewoon asked from over their heads.

They both twisted to look at him. "Then we start looking into how to keep the tigers free," JongKook said. "And hold a wake for the death of justice."

Taewoon barked a laugh. "You are pretty literal there,"

"You don't think that'd be the problem? No matter what, they had pictures, they had our testimony, and they had witnesses that you just can't ignore," JongKook said. "Any word yet?"

"None at all."

"I don't see how that can be good," SeJoon said.

"No," Taewoon said. "But we can only hope."

"I wish we could do something," JongKook said.

"Yeah," Taewoon said. He turned to go inside, and as he closed the door, his phone rang. He answered it, and they saw him stiffen. Both of them got up, walking to the door hand in hand.

Before they reached it, Taewoon ripped the door open again. "Come on. They want us down there. The jury is reassembled, and they won't wait long."

"Why do they want us?" JongKook asked as they scrambled for their shoes.

"I don't know, but we have an hour to get there." Taewoon went to grab his keys, then shook his head. "Let's get taxis. We won't have to worry about parking."

Within minutes, they'd gotten three taxis to take them all down, and found Chaerin waiting on the steps for them. They went inside, hands clasped, Jungwoo's arm around SungMin's shoulders. They slipped inside just before the door closed, and found seats. JongKook held tightly to SeJoon's hand, sitting close to him. "Are there any other tigers here?" he asked softly.

SeJoon shook his head. "Not that I can tell," he said. "Just Dongil and a couple on the jury."

"You didn't tell me that!"

"Sorry. I was too focused on other things."

JongKook squeezed his hand and they both looked to the front when the bailiff told everyone to stand. The judge came in, and the jury filed in as the audience sat down. Silence reigned as the Jury foreman stood.

"We find the defendants guilty on all counts," she said.

A roar of celebration broke out, and JongKook could barely breathe for the kiss SeJoon had laid on him. He didn't care, pressing himself into SeJoon as relief washed over him, and by the time the judge had gotten order, he had to wipe the tears from his eyes. He couldn't see well, but he could hear fine as the judge handed out sentencing. The two would be gone - off the streets - for a long, long time. He would bet that Mr. Han wouldn't get out of prison before he died, in fact.

As soon as the judge and jury left, the celebration went on. Taewoon gathered the group of them together, a smile on his face that JongKook couldn't help but mirror. "We did it," he said. "You guys were great. I want to get the news out as soon as we can."

"I've got a sign ready at the clinic, I'll have Sooyin put it up," Chaerin said. "Any tiger there or who drops by will see it."

"I can call people," SeJoon said. "I know people who can let others know."

"Do that," Taewoon said. "Come on, let's get outside and get the word out."

JongKook stuck close to SeJoon as he called the businesses he knew, and JongKook had to smile at the cheers punctuated with tiger roars that he could hear over the phone.

"I see you're spreading the good news," Hakyeon said, stopping next to Taewoon. JongKook turned to look at him, not sure about the tone in his voice.

"Yes," Taewoon said. "How are things going on your end?"

"Getting close," Hakyeon said. "I... you might want to warn him what we might find. It's looking more and more like it."

Taewoon looked at SungMin, then back at Hakyeon. "Okay," he said. "I will."

JongKook wondered what that was all about, but then SeJoon kissed him again and he stopped paying attention.

Taewoon pulled SungMin aside before they went into the bar, waving the others on when they all paused as well. "We'll be in shortly," he said, and waited until they'd all gone inside before turning to SungMin. He really didn't want to talk about this now. He felt it needed to be said, and now was better than later.

"What's up?" SungMin asked, looking like he wanted to go in and celebrate with the rest of them.

"I have something to talk to you about, and I wanted it to be now," Taewoon said. "What do you know about Hakyeon's superior? And DooJoon's?"

SungMin frowned, turning his complete attention on Taewoon instead of the door. "He's the guy that thought investigating anything to do with were folk or anyone not human wasn't worth it, right?"

"Yeah, him. Turns out, he knew your grandfather. Knows your grandfather."

SungMin stared at him. "How …. He knows my grandfather?"

"They went to school together," Taewoon said. "Because of that connection, they are looking into your mother's death."

SungMin's lips twisted. "That sounds really ominous, putting them together like that."

Taewoon nodded. "Yeah," he said. "I just... I wanted you to know. I don't know how much they told you - anyone told you - about the case."

"I don't know that anyone did," SungMin said.

Taewoon took a deep breath. "Officially, the cause of your mother's death was decided to be drug related." He held up a hand when SungMin opened his mouth to protest. "I know. I told Hakyeon as much, and he talked to you and you told him that much. The problem was, he got transferred before he could finish that case, and the people who took it up didn't know me, or you, or her, and... probably did what they were told. Called it a drug deal gone wrong, whatever, and closed it."

SungMin paced away from him, then back again. "So... you think it was Hakyeon's boss that got the case closed before anyone looked really hard into it. Do you think my grandparents were the reason he closed it so fast?"

"I don't know. I, well, I have my opinions, naturally, and I have ideas, and I have my biases. Hakyeon has none of those, and he'll be able to tell us without reservation who did it." Taewoon waited as SungMin paced again, then leaned against the building.

"I wish it were over," he said.

"Yeah, so do I," Taewoon said, and then grinned and clapped him on the back. "You have a perfect reason for forgetting about it, because we are celebrating. Worry about it later. Hakyeon will take care of it. And he'll let you know, as soon as he knows."

SungMin sighed. "Okay. Thanks." Then he smiled. "That sounds amazing, actually," he said, and Taewoon reached around him to open the door and ushered him in.

The party was already well underway. The group greeted their arrival with cheers and a call for another round, and Taewoon took the offered drink, nursing it.

"You aren't getting drunk," JongKook said sometime later. "Is everything okay?"

"Yes," Taewoon said, and gestured with his glass to Chaerin, who sat next to YooHwan, both of them looking remarkably sober. "I am going home with Chaerin, and I don't want to be too drunk."

JongKook grinned at him, then his eyes slid past Taewoon and he burst into laughter. Taewoon turned to see SeJoon sprawled on the floor, although not, thankfully, with glasses around him. Chaerin moved, pulling his attention off SeJoon and onto her. "They're hopeless," she said, slipping her arm through his.

"Yes. And they'll all regret it in the morning."

"We'll have hangovers, but I don't think we'll regret much," YooHwan said, sounding quite sober. Only the red on the tips of his ears and in his cheeks gave away how much he'd been drinking. He wasn't as sober as he looked, then. Taewoon almost regretted missing the next morning. Almost.

He raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure?" he asked.

"I can only speak for me," YooHwan said.

TaeHa laughed. "I have the feeling they don't care much," he said. "I think that they're going to ask us to leave soon, though," he added, gesturing to where the bartender spoke to one of the bouncers.

It took some work to get them all out and into taxis. Taewoon sent them all off, and then joined Chaerin in the last taxi. "You look like you had a nice evening," she said, leaning against him, warm and beautiful.

"It's about to be better," Taewoon said. "I had something to help with the alcohol, but I don't know how well it went. You looked like you had fun."

Chaerin laughed. "How could I not? Watching those boys get so plastered was hilarious, and they really didn't care - don't care - how they'll feel in the morning."

"I guess it's a good trade off for how they've felt the last few weeks," Taewoon told her. "I think they'll be better off after this, too, able to settle down and actually focus on working, that sort of thing."

The taxi stopped and they climbed out. Taewoon paid the fare and then followed her to the elevator. Instead of talking, though, once the doors closed on only them, he kissed her like he'd wanted to all night. Only the ding of the bell, alerting them they'd arrived on her floor, broke them up. He offered her his arm and escorted her to her door.

"You really think they'll be okay?" she asked, getting her keys out of her bag.

"I hope so. I think it'll be wild for a while, just out of reaction to the relief that those two are in prison."

"What about SungMin?"

He sobered for a moment as they both took their shoes off and put on slippers. "I don't know," he said. "I told him about Hakyeon opening his mother's case again, and he seemed okay with it. Eventually. I'll talk to him in the morning and make sure he is."

Chaerin nodded. "If he's not, let me know if there's anything I can help."

"I will." Taewoon kissed her again. "And now, I am yours to command."

Chaerin laughed. "You are quite... a different person when you're tipsy," she said, took his hand, and led him to the bedroom. "Once in awhile, this could be fun."

"Only once in awhile?"

"I don't want you this tipsy all the time. I like you better sober."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense."

She laughed again, turned off the light, and led him to the bed.

His phone woke him, one of those rings he'd set on purpose to be irritating. He usually didn't count on dealing with whoever called at the same time as a hangover. With a groan, he fell more than climbed out of the bed and tried to find his phone in the pile of clothes on the floor. It stopped - probably went to voicemail - then started up again. Whoever called hadn't left a message. He finally found the phone and pressed the answer button. "Yeah."

"You had a long night last night," Hakyeon said.

"Yeah, I did, and it was fun. What's up?"

"We found the men who killed her. They definitely fingered Mr. and Mrs. Choi as the people who hired them."

Taewoon sighed. "Okay. I'll let him know. We'll know to guard against them, more."

"Go back to sleep. You don't make sense."

"You woke me up," Taewoon said, and he didn't wait for an answer before hanging up. He dropped the phone and crawled back into bed.

"Who was that?" Chaerin asked, her words slurred with sleep.

"Hakyeon," Taewoon mumbled. "They found the people who killed SungMin's mother. And who sent them."

Her arms went around him. "Want me to be there when you tell him?"

Taewoon sighed and cuddled her closer. "I'll let you know," he said.

She smiled, kissed him, and then fell asleep.

Taewoon lay there for a while, trying to think, and finally slept when he got no answers.

Taewoon decided to talk to SungMin alone, and sat down next to him at the kitchen table a couple of days later, where SungMin studied for the entrance exam he'd take in a couple of weeks. "Have time for a break?" he asked.

SungMin looked up at him, then sighed, stretched, and closed the book on the paper he'd been taking notes on. "I'm about done, actually,"

Stroke of good luck. "I... found out something the other night," Taewoon said. "About your mother."

SungMin froze, then turned to look at him. "What?"

"Do you remember me telling you how the police put her death down to being drug related?"

SungMin frowned. "I... vaguely. Before the celebration about those guys who had SeJoon and JongKook, right?"

"Yeah," Taewoon said. "Hakyeon, knowing us, reopened the case. He found the men who attacked you, and found out who sent them."

SungMin took a breath, nearly gasping. "And... does he know who did it?"

"Yes," Taewoon said. "He told me. Do you want to know?"

SungMin nodded shortly, then hesitated, eyes distant. After a couple of moments, he nodded again, slower. "Yes, please."

"It was your grandparents."

SungMin let out his breath. "I wondered," he said. "Was I... was I supposed to die, too?"

"I don't know," Taewoon said, and set his hands on his knees. He hadn't thought to ask that, and tried not to let it show angry even the thought made him. "I don't know if Hakyeon asked them."

SungMin snorted softly. "I don't know if I'd believe anything they said," he said. "I don't know what to believe."

"Believe we love you and will keep you safe," Taewoon said, and hugged him. SungMin leaned into the hug, but didn't cry. Taewoon didn't try to figure it out. "Chaerin was worried about you, too," he added. "She likes you."

SungMin pulled away and smiled. It wasn't his best smile, but it looked real, and that was enough for Taewoon. "I like her," he said. "Is she ever going to be part of this insane group?"

"She is a part of this group," Taewoon said. "Unless you mean something else."

"Will she ever move in here?"

Taewoon laughed. "I doubt it," he said. "I'm afraid to ask her, in fact, in case she tells me I'm out of my mind."

SungMin laughed. Taewoon liked that even better than the smile. "She hasn't told you that yet?"

"Why, because I have the good taste to have fallen in love with her?" Taewoon asked.

SungMin stared at him. "You love her?" he asked.

"Yes," Taewoon said. "You doubted it?"

"No," SungMin said with a smile that looked so much better than his first one. "I just... never heard you say it before."

"Why would I tell you?" Taewoon teased.

SungMin opened his mouth to say something, and apparently changed his mind. "She hasn't told you that you're crazy for putting yourself and the rest of us in danger."

"Not without your consent," Taewoon pointed out.

"That's beside the point," SungMin said.

"That IS the point. She'd have called me crazy if I made any of you do something you didn't want to. And then she'd dump me. You know she'd find out, too, because JongKook and SeJoon report on us, I swear."

SungMin grinned, unrepentant. "So do I," he said. "I talk to her sometimes."

Taewoon blinked at him. "I... didn't know that."

"Well, I figure that if you're my dad, pretty much, I might as well get close to the woman who's likely to be my mom. I'm glad, now that I know that's going to be more certain than I knew before."

Taewoon blinked at him, too stunned to react to that. "So you report to her, too. Do the others?" he stammered.

SungMin shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I just know she asks me questions and I answer them."

Taewoon sighed. "Huh. Well, maybe I'd better ask her, and see what she says."

"We'd feel better with her here," SeJoon said, poking his head in from the back door. "If only because then no one can get her, either."

Taewoon looked at him. "You haven't been listening the whole time, have you?"

"Nope," JongKook said, pushing SeJoon into the room so he could come in as well. "Saying Chaerin's name tends to get his attention if he can hear it. He's really proprietary."

"I guess," Taewoon said. "So, you wouldn't mind her here?"

"No," JongKook said, closing the door behind him. "We'll have to change sleeping arrangements around some, but I bet TaeHa and YooHwan wouldn't mind it if we finished another of the rooms in the basement for them to live in."

"Whoa, let's not get ahead of ourselves," Taewoon said. "What if she invites me to move in with her?"

"That would require a staff meeting," SungMin said, sounding perfectly serious, even if his eyes danced in humor. "To discuss whether we'd allow it."

Taewoon clapped his hand to his forehead. "I'll make sure she knows this," he said wryly.

SeJoon grinned at him. "If you need someone to tell her, let me know. I'm sure we can do it for you."

"No, thank you. I would like to tell her myself."

"That takes all the fun out of it!" JongKook protested.

"You guys are already too involved in my love life," Taewoon retorted. "I don't need you in any more than you are. At least right now."

SungMin grinned at him. "It's fun, though."

"Oh, good, I'm glad I could entertain you." Taewoon got up, then pressed SungMin's shoulder. "Are you okay?"

SungMin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Yeah," he said. "I am. I mean... I sort of guessed it. Will they go to jail for it?"

"I hope so. I know Hakyeon will do his best to make that happen."

SungMin nodded. "That's all I can hope for," he said.

Taewoon squeezed his shoulder. "I'm going to inform Chaerin of this new development, and see what she thinks." He headed for the stairs, pausing at the bottom long enough to hear SeJoon and JongKook asking SungMin about what he'd meant, and to hear SungMin begin to explain.

The more of them that knew about this the better, Taewoon thought as he climbed the stairs. That way, SungMin had more than one person to go to for help, and they all cared enough to be willing to help him any way they could.

Chaerin laughed at his description of the conversation. "Yes, I talk to all of them," she said. "They fill me in pretty well, the holes you leave out."

"Not on purpose," he protested.

"Most of the time," she said. "What brought all this up?"

Taewoon hesitated. "I'd rather not do this over the phone. Can... will you come to dinner tonight?"

"Just you and me, or all of them?"

"Everyone," Taewoon said. "If that's okay. I'll make them leave us alone after so we can talk."

She laughed. "You will, or I will."

Taewoon grinned. "Yes," he said.

Chaerin laughed again. "I would love to."

"Good. six?"

"Six sounds perfect. See you then."

Taewoon hung up and went to figure out what they'd have for dinner.

Chaerin enjoyed the chance to spend time with them, although she'd never had them all around like this, in such a casual environment. Even in the bars, when they went out, they seemed on their best behavior, or at least reserved. Tonight...

Tonight, what she saw made her happy. SeJoon and JongKook each stole kisses throughout the meal, she saw more concrete evidence that TaeHa and YooHwan were dating - not as open about their relationship - and more obvious indications about how loyal all of them were to Taewoon. And, if she were honest, how he felt about them. It stunned her, as she watched from the outside, to realize that she was included in all of it. So maybe not so far outside as she thought. That thought warmed her and made her even more sure than before that she'd made the right choice in deciding to get involved with Taewoon. And by extension, all of them. She leaned against Taewoon's arm and relaxed, smiling.

The table cleared in something like record time when they'd finished, if the amused look on Taewoon's face were anything to go by. Then they all seemed to evaporate, waving goodbye as they scattered through the house.

Taewoon chuckled at her bemused expression. "Come on, they've left us the porch."

Laughing softly, amused and stunned at the whole thing, Chaerin followed him outside and took the chair he ushered her to. "Are they listening?" she asked.

"I wouldn't be surprised," Taewoon said. "I don't want it to change anything, though."

Chaerin laughed. "I won't change anything I'll do," she said, and relaxed when he pulled his chair around to sit next to her and took her hand.

"We were talking," he said, sounding hesitant, "and you came up."

"The conversation about how I talk to all of them?" Chaerin asked.

"Yes," Taewoon said. "It turns out that SeJoon and JongKook are worried about you living off site."

Chaerin blinked at him. "Off site?" she asked.

"Not here." Taewoon shook his head. "That's totally getting off track. Let me start over again."

Chaerin laughed softly and squeezed his hand. "Take your time," she said.

"Oh, don't say that, I might never get around to anything," he said, but then took a deep breath. "I..." He stopped again, took a another breath. "What would you think about moving in with me? With all of us, really, but into my room?"

Chaerin stared at him. It took her so completely by surprise that she didn't know how to answer. Mostly because she'd been contemplating asking him the same thing, but hadn't wanted to take him away from the rest of the group. Well, okay, mostly SungMin. "What... brought this up?" she asked.

"It was part of the conversation that I didn't tell you about, because I wanted to talk to you face to face." He looked so strangely somber. "I didn't want to scare you. Well, any more than a house full of men and elves and tigers could."

Chaerin laughed. "Which is why the comment about SeJoon and JongKook and them wanting me on site."

"Yes," Taewoon said. "They all like you. They've all helped with... well, getting me moving on asking you out. I just..." He sighed, and smiled wryly. "They tell me that if you don't want to move in, and ask me to move in with you, that there would be a staff meeting involved to discuss it. As in, whether they'd allow it."

Chaerin laughed. She couldn't help it. "That's good to know," she said. "I was thinking about asking you just that, in fact," she added. "I just wasn't sure if you could... I mean, if SungMin would be okay without you."

Taewoon shifted and reached for her other hand. She gave it to him, without reservation. "So you think this is the next logical step?" he asked.

"I do," she said. "I don't know how well it will work out to have all of us here, but I'm willing to test it out."

A muted whoop answered the question about whether anyone listened in on them, and Taewoon smiled, a dangerous glint to his eyes. "I may have something to say to that tiger and his boyfriend," he said, his voice quiet.

Chaerin smiled. "They're cute," she said. "And TaeHa and YooHwan are darling."

"I can't guarantee that you'll never be in danger," Taewoon said, sobering, and she sobered as well. "I do know that no one can get you while you're here. I can guarantee that if you disappear without any notice, we will all come after you."

"I have no doubt of it," she said, and leaned closer. "When do you want me to move in?"

"As soon as we figure out SungMin's living arrangements," Taewoon said. "He's rooming with me. Or... any time after we get that all figured out."

Chaerin nodded and kissed him, trying to convey everything in her full heart.

How had she managed to find this man who cared so much about so many people, much like she did, who could and would spare some of that love for her? She knew this wouldn't be easy, would take work, and she wanted it enough to work for it.

"Thank you," Taewoon said a few minutes later, when he broke the kiss and pulled her as close as he could without hurting either of them. Stupid chairs. "Thank you for... putting up with me, with them, with this crazy life, for taking this chance."

She cupped his cheek and smiled. "Thank you, for the same thing," she said, and barely caught her breath when he kissed her again.

It took almost no time at all for everything to come together. Jungwoo didn't mind having SungMin as a roommate, and he heard both JongKook and TaeHa tell him that he was welcome to come into their rooms if he needed comfort more than Jungwoo.

TaeHa and YooHwan began finishing one of the empty basement rooms, consulting together on what they wanted. Taewoon left them to it. Whatever they did would work out just fine. He hoped.

Hakyeon showed up in the middle of the construction downstairs, meeting Taewoon out on the porch because the noise inside made it impossible to think, never mind have a conversation.

"You guys are busy," Hakyeon said, relaxing in the warmth of the sunlight.

"TaeHa and YooHwan are moving downstairs," Taewoon said. "They're working on their bedroom now."

Hakyeon's lips twitched. "What brought this on?"

"Chaerin is moving in next month. We hope," Taewoon added. "It's still up in the air with her landlord, etc."

Hakyeon laughed. "You guys don't wait, do you?"

"Wait for what?" Taewoon asked. "It's about time for both of us. And they've been pretty vocal about having her here."

Hakyeon shook his head. "You are the weirdest lot I've ever met." He grinned. "I'm glad to hear it, though. How's SungMin?"

Taewoon sobered, eyeing him. "You're not asking about how he's taking this, are you."

"No," Hakyeon said. "How is he?"

"He's good. He's happy. Are you going to change that?"

"I don't think so. His grandparents are being held without bail, and the sorcerer they had, when they were trying to get the tracking devices off him, he turned on them. Apparently, having a white tiger in your face is rather uncomfortable."

Taewoon chuckled. "No, it's not the most comfortable thing, especially when he's growling and looking like he wants to eat you for dinner. I'm glad something good came of that."

"SungMin's kidnapping wasn't the only thing he helped them with, and he turned on everything. A lot of those had to do with my former superior, too." He sounded viciously glad.

"Good," Taewoon said, understanding that feeling. "And so... now what?"

"Now, I've got a good enough reputation, and enough experience, not to mention an open mind and some serious contacts in the were-tiger community, so they gave me his job."

"You got a promotion? Congratulations!" Taewoon told him.

Hakyeon smiled. "Thank you," he said.

"We should have a celebration for that, too," Taewoon said, and got to his feet.

In short order, the whole group was out there, paused from various projects, toasting Hakyeon and wishing him well. He thanked them, and after a round of drinks and hugs from all of them, Taewoon saw him out. "Give us a couple of weeks to get everything settled, and then give us a call. On anything," he said.

Hakyeon nodded. "I will. Thank you."

"You're welcome," Taewoon said, and went back in to clean up and go down to see if anyone wanted or needed any more help.

The whole group pitched in to finish the bathroom in the basement, finishing the day before Chaerin moved in.

She didn't bring everything, of course; they had discussed her keeping her apartment at first, to see what she might want to bring over. She still had a month on her lease anyway, so they had time.

Taewoon looked around them at dinner - something Jungwoo had ordered in celebration that she'd finally come - and sighed in contentment. Chaerin talking with SeJoon and Jungwoo about... something he couldn't quite follow, SungMin and JongKook looked like they were in some sort of competition, although he couldn't tell about what or who was ahead, and TaeHa and YooHwan were in their own world, talking about something that had TaeHa gesturing as he emphasized a point.

It felt complete, and Taewoon smiled. Life was good, and he would enjoy every minute of it he could.


Dec. 27th, 2016 04:52 am (UTC)
this is good. brb reading the first part

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