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leave the ruins where they fall

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“People shouldn't be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”

- V for Vendetta

 

_ _  

 

“Good afternoon, Marked citizens of Sector 10! I interrupt your regularly scheduled government propaganda to bring you an exciting program of news and essays. If you’re a first time listener, I’m Hope. Welcome to the revolution.”

It’s freezing in this fucking warehouse - cold enough for his breath to hang in the air and his teeth to chatter - and he hates how his voice sounds in the echoing space. The wind pushing through the holes in the tin roof rattles the metal rafters overhead, making them creak and groan. Fortunately, they’re too high up to be picked up by his shitty mic, but the persistent noise makes it hard to hear the police scanner he’s positioned next to him on the frigid concrete floor.

And fuck it’s cold. His threadbare scarf and patchy coat are doing almost nothing to combat it. There’s a hole that’s reopened in his sleeve recently and the chill seeping in has made his whole right arm numb. Even with gloves, he can barely feel his fingers as he carefully adjusts dials on his makeshift audio processor.

But if there’s one thing Jung Hoseok knows how to do, it’s adapt to circumstance. Raids pushed him out of his usual, much comfier broadcasting spot in the storage room of a shop, so he’s making do with abandoned warehouses at the edge of the sector for now.

Needs must.

“Weather, as you are all aware, is currently shit. We’re expecting snow later in the week, so make sure to stock up on blankets and do any needed clothing repairs ASAP. Buses are probably also gonna be down, like always, so prepare for that, too. Raids have been picking up across the sector and patrols have tightened near the border gates, which we can thank our illustrious new monarch for. So keep your heads down. Hopefully, he’ll get bored of picking on us soon and we can all breathe a little easier.”

The police scanner crackles to life, making him pause. Something’s up, but it sounds like it’s west of him - on the other side of the sector - so he’s safe for now. The mark on his neck still itches - a fucked up Pavlovian response or something. He resists the urge to touch the tattooed symbol and adjusts his sound again.

“Until then, I have a new essay from RM to read. This one’s a doozy, so settle in. Get a cup of tea.” He pulls up the encrypted email on his contraband laptop and takes a deep breath. They haven’t had anything new from RM - real name unknown - in nearly a month. He’d been worried, briefly, that their faceless revolutionary contact had been sanctioned like... - but this came in via Taehyung last night. Not everything is gone, it seems.

(Just the important things.)

“Right. Here goes. ‘Hope, as we all know, can be a difficult thing to hold on to. It doesn’t grant us the promise or the certainty of a better future. It requires us to rely on blind faith. That change will come, that suffering will end, that tomorrow will be better. Many would say, that after a hundred years of darkness, it is silly to believe that the sun will return. Our new king’s continued cruelty - the raids, the rising number of sanctioned, the increased rationing - makes our hope seem even more foolish. But we must keep believing. No night lasts forever. No injustice is eternal. And it is our hope, our continued strength in the face of overwhelming adversity, that will allow us to prevail. Don’t listen to the posters the monarchy plasters across the sectors or the messages that are broadcast to your radios. No matter what they say, we do not deserve this. No one should be punished for something that is not their choice, something they are born with and cannot help. The king and his chaebol court can tighten the noose all they want, but a time will come when -”

His phone buzzes on his knee, cutting him off mid-sentence.

He pauses, flips it open. One word: run.

Shit.

The scanners are crackling again and he wasn’t paying attention. Something else is up and this time it’s only a few blocks away, at another warehouse. He needs to move.

“Sorry, folks. It looks like I’m gonna have to cut it short today. I’ll be back, though, so keep your ears open. For now, this is Hope, signing off.”

He cuts his signal and begins packing up with practiced speed. The portable equipment - all painstakingly built out of scraps he’s been collecting since he was a teenager - goes into his bulky backpack: police scanner first and then his processor, antenna, mic, headphones, and transmitter. Two fake courier packages go on top of all that and then he’s forcing the ancient zip closed and heaving the thing onto his back. He’s got a courier band around his arm, courtesy of Jimin, so the police shouldn’t look twice at him, once he gets away from here and into the city proper again. He secures his face mask over his nose and mouth and tug his beanie low over his ears.

His phone buzzes again.

Clear?

Moving now, he types back, and does just that.

He bolts the warehouse doors behind him, re-secures the padlock he picked to gain entry, and sets off at a jog. This part of the sector is mostly just a maze of active and inactive warehouses - some still used for resource distribution and some, like the one he commandeered, long fallen into disrepair. The elites of Sector 1 have never really cared about upkeep out here on the fringes and it shows. He checks his watch as he turns a corner, weaving his way towards the taller buildings in the distance. The face of it cracked two weeks ago and he hasn’t been able to scrape together enough funds to get it repaired, but he can still read the time, at least. Seven p.m., which means he has two hours to make it back to the apartment before curfew.

Should be plenty of time, provided the buses are running.

Noise to his left. He stops, pressing his back against the wall of another warehouse. It sounds like police radios, voices, but they’re still three warehouses over, probably interrogating the distributors. They like their surprise inspections, and the new king has given them even more freedom to conduct them.

Hoseok drops into a crouch and quietly sneaks his way past, wincing as the voices raise: one in anger, one in fear. He forces himself to keep moving. Stopping to help would only get him sanctioned.

Eventually, he’s clear of the warehouse district and back in the main city, amidst the tall, run-down apartment buildings and the shops that struggle to stay open even with increased resource restriction. He enters the stream of pedestrians, most of them on their way home from work, and keeps his head down. There are police here, too, but they don’t seem to be actively searching for anything, just conducting their regular patrols while everyone gives them a wide berth.

His usual bus stop is empty, with a sign that says “Currently out of service.” And next to it is a brand new, shiny government poster.

REMEMBER: THE ABILITIES OF MARKED CITIZENS ARE DANGEROUS. REPORT ANY SUSPICIOUS ACTIVITY TO POLICE IMMEDIATELY. UNCHECKED MARKED CAN CAUSE LARGE AMOUNTS OF DAMAGE AND BODILY HARM.

Beneath the message is a picture of cracking ground - like the earth is being split in two - and a man with the Marked symbol tattooed on his neck, his mouth open in a furious, feral roar.

“Great design, isn’t it?” a familiar voice says from behind him. “They really went all in.”

He spins around to see Taehyung standing on the curb. He’s got a scarf around his neck and a hat pulled low over his ears, as well. Face mask in place and usual battered leather bag slung over his shoulder. The patch on the arm of his coat is coming loose and Hoseok makes a mental note to do some mending soon. At least all of their boots are still in relatively good shape.

“They really did,” Hoeseok says.

There have been a new wash of posters across the city in the last two weeks. Probably because of the Marked man whose powers went haywire in spite of the seals tattooed on all of their necks. It was a tiny earthquake he created - barely enough to rattle the walls on two buildings - but it was all the monarchy needed to begin fresh crackdowns in earnest.

Hoseok wants to rip this stupid poster down, but that’s ground for sanctioning as well, and there are police still around. He shoves his hands in his pockets, but Taehyung has none of his hesitation. Just marches up and tears the thing straight from the wall.

“Tae,” Hoseok hisses in warning.

“I don’t care,” Taehyung snaps back, shoving the remnants of it into his pocket.

It’s useless to fight him on this, so Hoseok sighs and changes topics. “What’re you doing all the way out here?”

Taehyung nods his head towards a cluster of government administration buildings up the street. “They have the best wireless in the sector. I was borrowing it.”

And this is another battle they’ve been fighting for the past year. “Kim Taehyung, if they catch you-”

“I know,” Taehyung cuts him off, gloved fingers tightening on the strap of his bag. “I know what will happen, hyung, okay?”

They all know. It’s a threat that’s hung over them their whole lives. Ever since they were tested and tattooed and deemed less as fucking children . It’s haunted them through crowded orphanages and into tiny apartments and menial jobs. It breathes down their neck, hotter and hotter with each infraction - each strike that gets tattooed as a line beneath their Mark. Until they reached sixteen and now all it takes is one slip up and you’re gone forever, whether you’re on your third strike or not. You’re sanctioned into government service. To the factories in the industrial sector or the farms beyond the city, trying to yield food from a devastated earth. Or to the auction houses in Sector 1. To be sold and bought by the elite like … like pets.

They sanction you and you never come back.

And Taehyung, with two strikes on his neck and fire in his eyes, knows this as well as breathing. He just doesn’t care.

He hasn’t cared since -

Hoseok cuts off that train of thought before the wound in his chest reopens, and shakes his head. “Just be careful.”

“I am,” Taehyung insists. Hoseok isn’t sure whether to believe him or not. It’s really not like he can talk, either, with his underground broadcasts. They’re all playing with fire.

“C’mon,” Hoseok says. “We’re wasting daylight.” And it’s going to be a long walk home without the bus.

Taehyung falls into step beside him, long legs keeping up easily with Hoseok’s brisk pace. Somewhere in the last year, he’s grown up - twenty-one now and full of the fire and the fury that once was contained in Yoongi’s smaller frame, that made him tower and … and Hoseok isn’t thinking about Yoongi. Not right now.

“Have you heard from Jimin? And how did you know about the warehouse inspections?”

“Nothing from Jimin,” Taehyung says and neither of them comment on the worry in his voice. “And I was piggybacking off their server, remember? I saw the orders come up. Thought I’d give you some warning.”

“Thanks,” Hoseok says. Then, more hesitant. “Any luck?”

“No,” Taehyung grits out - the clench of his jaw visible even beneath the black fabric of his mask. “But I’ll keep looking.”

Hoseok has no doubt of that. Taehyung will probably never stop looking. Not until he’s dead or taken, too. Or, miracle of all miracles, he succeeds.

“I’ll find them,” he adds, and now he sounds like the boy Yoongi brought in off the streets four years ago - determined, brave, but still so young, too.

Hoseok squeezes his shoulder, and the rest of the journey home is spent in silence.

 

_ _

 

Home is a tiny apartment on the fifth floor of one of those rundown buildings. Their heating is spotty and their electricity even worse. Hot water happens once in a blue moon, when their ancient heater feels like cooperating. Their bed is two mattresses shoved into a corner; their kitchen table has uneven legs and wobbles constantly; their appliances are always on the edge - coaxed back to life over and over again by various patchwork repairs; and the only light available is from a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. The floors are wood and scuffed beyond any hope of repair and in the winter the cold seeps up from them and through the walls and the cracks in the window that won’t close all the way, chilling them to bone even beneath their mountain of blankets.

It’s been five of them crammed into it for years, eking out a living as best they can.

Well, five until a year ago. Until -

But he isn’t thinking about that. It’s three now, and they still make do, even with a gaping hole in the center of them.

“He’s late,” Taehyung says from the kitchen table, drumming his fingers against the rough surface. Hoseok adds a little more water to the soup - they have to stretch it for three days, since with Yoongi and Jungkook no longer contributing to the household income, ration cards have been harder to come by - and checks the clock.

Five minutes until curfew. His stomach knots.

God, he can’t lose anyone else.

“He’ll be here,” he says and turns the burner down to simmer. “He’s always made it before.”

“Yeah, well so did Yoongi and Jungkook,” Taehyung snaps and their names hit like the thunder in the small apartment. Loud enough to hurt.

“I know,” Hoseok says quietly, as Taehyung winces and sags in his seat. “He’ll be here.”

And as if summoned, the front door bangs open, letting in a gust of wind, a flurry of rain, and a very drenched Park Jimin.

“Fuck,” Taehyung says, lurching up to help Jimin wrestle the door closed and peel his sopping coat off. “Two minutes, Chim, you’re gonna give me a heart attack.”

Jimin scrubs a hand through his wet hair, dark strands clinging to his forehead and cheeks. He looks exhausted, but he still tries to smile. “I made it, though. I’m fine.”

“What happened?” Hoseok asks, pulling three cracked bowls down from the cupboard. Jimin begins shedding clothes as Taehyung goes to retrieve blankets.

“Raid,” he says shortly. “Close to us. We had to take the long way back to avoid patrols.”

“Did they find anything?”

“No.”

But it was a close call - Jimin’s face says that, and the tension still bleeding out of his spine. Four years of smuggling goods in from the other sectors, and they’ve never had anything major intercepted. A few items lost here and there, but nothing to link back to Jimin and the others. Yoongi built the network well, built it to last and run like a well-oiled machine, and it does. Even without him. Even with Jimin desperately trying to live up to his legacy and shoulder the burden of responsibility.

Agust, Yoongi went by, and now the name is Jimin’s, and all the weight that comes with it.

“All these raids,” Jimin says, accepting a fresh pair of underwear from Taehyung and pulling it on. Taehyung drapes a blanket over his shoulders and pushes him into a chair. “I feel like I can hardly breathe.”

“New king is trying to prove himself,” Hoseok says with a shrug.

“Yeah, by picking on easy targets,” Jimin huffs, scratching at the tattoo on his neck. He has only one strike - pickpocketing, when he was a starving orphan on the streets of Sector 10. Before Yoongi and his bleeding heart came along. “As if life wasn’t shit enough already….” he shakes his head.

Hoseok sets the bowls in front of them and takes his own seat. The chair requires careful balance, since one of the legs is slowly breaking, and he braces a heel on the floor to keep it steady. The apartment feels too empty without Yoongi and Jungkook, and he’s still not used to it. To having room to put his elbows on the table instead of being wedged in between the two of them - their warmth on either side.

“Did you find anything?” Jimin asks Taehyung, and Hoseok almost can’t stand the hope in his voice.

“No,” Taehyung says, eyes on his soup. “But I will.”

Jimin smiles again, wan, and turns to his own food.

Later, as Taehyung and Jimin get ready for bed, Hoseok adjusts the bucket under their leaky window and stares out at the city lights. From this high up, he can almost see the gleaming skyscrapers of Sector 1 on the horizon.

Hope, RM wrote. Hope, the moniker he uses for his broadcasts. Hope, the flicker he holds in his chest that somewhere out there, in that distant sector, Yoongi and Jungkook are still alive. A year now, since they were ripped away, and a hundred since the Old World ended in famine and devastation and the New rose in its place - filled with authoritarianism and brutality in the name of survival.

So much time in darkness, hoping for the light.

He puts a hand over his tattoo, almost able to feel the phantom ache from when he got it as a child. It’s infused with something - he’s never known what - designed to keep his supposedly destructive powers dormant.

It was the Marked, the government posters say, that destroyed the world.

That caused the famine, the natural disasters, the poisoned Earth that still struggles to yield enough to feed everyone. And he’s never wanted to believe that, but sometimes, the tattoo burns and he wonders at what sleeps inside of him. How great and terrible it might be.

You’re just Hoseok, Yoongi would tell him. Stop brooding.

But Yoongi is gone, and it’s Jimin that closes a hand over his shoulder. Says, quiet, “come to bed, hyung.”

So he does, Jimin and Taehyung on either side of him, huddled together for warmth. The rain drums steady outside, dripping in through the edges of the window, and Hoseok closes his eyes, missing the two bodies that should be occupying space around them. Death and change are constants out here on the fringes. People die, people disappear - loss is as common as breathing. But somehow, for some reason, he never thought he was going to lose either of them.

How naive he’d been.

Like most nights lately, sleep is a long time coming.

 

_ _

 

It’s raining, loud enough to sound like drums on the roof of the car, to nearly drown out the buzz of Namjoon’s thoughts. He can’t ignore the anxiety knotting in his stomach, though, and it’s hard not to fidget - tug at the sleeves of his expensive jacket, brush imaginary lint from his pant legs. Across from him, Seokjin is as composed as always, looking every inch a noble in his fine clothes. His cousin has always fit well in their glittering world while Namjoon prefers the shadows and the safety of his own apartment.

Seokjin has a file open on his tablet, flipping through the pictures and info forwarded to them by their usual auction house. Men and women, all artfully styled and beautifully made up with the finest cosmetics. Companions is the official term. Slaves, is what they really are. Once purchased, anything is permitted. Hurt them, kill them, no one bats an eye.

It makes Namjoon sick.

“I think this one would be good,” Seokjin says, holding up the tablet. It’s a woman, Namjoon’s age, with soft features and short-cropped hair. Three previous owners, three strikes on her record - destined for the boarding houses unless bought by someone benevolent enough to give her a final chance.

Or someone like Kim Seokjin, who buys the unsellables so he can have the pleasure of torturing and murdering them in the privacy of his own home, instead of some grimy boarding house. At least, that’s what the rumors say. About both of them.

“What’s on her record?” Namjoon asks, shoving down a fresh wave of nausea.

Seokjin flips the tablet back around. “Three escape attempts. Nearly got out of the sector last time. No violent behavior, though. Just lazy owners.”

Oh. “That’s good. She sounds perfect.”

Seokjin sighs and his calm mask drops a fraction - enough for Namjoon to see a flash of weariness underneath. He recognizes it as the same feeling weighing down his own bones. They’re both so tired. They both hate this part.

“I wish I could buy them all,” Seokjin mutters, swiping to the next picture. A young man this time, with cat-like eyes and smooth, pale skin.

“Too much attention,” Namjoon reminds him. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten away with their operation for the past three years - they can’t do anything to jeopardize their already precarious position.

“I know,” Seokjin says. Then, “you should pick one.”

Namjoon shrugs. He hates looking at the files, seeing another person’s life and agonies spelled out in uncaring black and white. “I’ll decide when we get to the auction house.”

Seokjin shakes his head, but doesn’t press the issue. Namjoon acts more on impulse than Seokjin’s careful planning, but his instincts haven’t steered him wrong so far. Or maybe it’s his bleeding heart that guides him. Or his guilt - that he is a member of a powerful chaebol family, cocooned from the hardships of their difficult world, while the Marked that get paraded out for him are destined for cruel lives and ignominious ends, and it is merely an accident of birth that’s placed them in these two opposing positions.

“You’re brooding too much,” Seokjin tells him, reaching over to adjust the sit of Namjoon’s jacket. “Lighten up. This is supposed to be a fun activity, remember?”

Namjoon grimaces at him and Seokjin laughs, though there isn’t much humor in the sound.

“We’re here, sirs,” their driver announces, and Namjoon peers out the window at the large auction house, with its gleaming facade. It’s the biggest in Sector 4, one of the biggest in the whole city, and it plays at opulent elegance: valet parking, a fountain out front and dark, tinted windows for privacy. A greeter at the door who takes their coats and ushers them into the foyer, with marble floors and two large crystal chandeliers glittering overhead. There is an open bar and comfortable seating and, Namjoon knows from experience, an auditorium to their left, where the occasional large auction is held. Lots of companions at a discounted price. Or a promoted event - a companion desirable enough the auction house believes they can rack up even more of a profit by turning their sale into an experience: a presentation and alcohol and lots of greedy elite, competing for ownership.

There is rare art on the walls and flowers in vases scattered around - all designed to give off a welcoming feel, and to hide the darkness at the heart of everything that happens here.

Every time Namjoon sets foot in this place, he wants to burn it.

But he plasters his mask on instead. Kim Namjoon, of one of Seoul’s eight powerful chaebol families that sit in the king’s court. Not an heir, true, but still an important figure - worthy of deference - whose family oversees all the energy and transportation services in the city.

This is why the woman who meets them inside, immaculate in a cream-colored suit, bows to them, fixing them with her most beatific smile. Though he frequents this auction house a lot, he’s never seen her before. There tends to be a large turnover among auctioneers - perhaps guilt gnaws at them, too.

“Welcome, sirs,” she says. “Let me escort you to your viewing rooms.”

Upstairs, ringing the foyer. Where potential purchases can be evaluated in private. They’re given separate ones and Namjoon takes a moment to breathe as he sinks onto the leather sofa lining one wall. There’s a bottle of chilled champagne on the side table that he’s too nauseous to drink, but he pours himself a glass for appearances sake. Glances at the modern art hung on the walls - shapes in a pattern he doesn’t understand, all various hues of blue. Maybe it’s meant to be soothing.

The door on the opposite side of the room opens - the one they bring companions in through. It’s the same auctioneer as before. She hasn’t given her name and he doesn’t care enough to ask for it.

“Did you have a chance to look at the files we sent, sir?”

Namjoon relaxes against the couch and drapes arrogance around himself like a cloak. “No. But bring me your most difficult one.”

“Ah,” the auctioneer says with a knowing smile on her red lips. Namjoon’s reputation always precedes him. “Looking for a challenge, sir?”

Namjoon smirks. Swirls his champagne in one hand. “Naturally. I always like a challenge.”

“I have just the one. Please wait a moment.”

She exits with swift and silent grace. Namjoon stares at the ceiling. There is another, smaller chandelier in the middle of it, and he watches dots of light reflect from the crystals across the cream-colored surface, steeling himself.

This is the part he hates the most.

Too soon, the door clicks open again and the auctioneer enters with a guard and the boy from the file that Namjoon briefly glanced at. He’s as pale as the photo and as pretty. They’ve applied liner to his eyes and blush to his cheeks and his mouth is red red red. In another world - a different, better one - Namjoon might have felt a flicker of attraction. In this world, there is nothing but sadness and anger at the boy’s downcast eyes, at the bruises visible where the loose black robe they have in him is falling open, exposing his chest. At the seals circling his thin wrists, marking him a sanctioned. At the initials of all his past owners tattooed up his arm - three in total and each with a line through them.

“This is Gloss,” the auctioneer says with a wave of her hand. The boy bows obediently.

Namjoon crosses his legs and spreads his arms along the back of the sofa, every inch an imperious elite. “And why will he be a challenge?”

“Three escape attempts on his record,” the auctioneer explains. “And one violent incident. If you don’t want him, he’ll be bound for the boarding houses.”

Where he’ll probably fetch a decent price. Those hellholes, who take sanctioned no one wants to buy any longer and cater to the most cruel and sadistic tendencies, love frail and breakable things.

“Violent incident?” he asks with an arched eyebrow.

“He … attacked his last owner in an escape attempt. The man suffered a concussion.”

Damn. They weren’t kidding about a challenge.

“But there shouldn’t be any repeat incidents,” the auctioneer continues. The boy (Namjoon refuses to call him Gloss, even in his own head) keeps his head down and his shoulders bent. Namjoon stands, holding onto his steel, and tilts the boy’s chin up with a rough hand.

Dark, dark eyes - made even more fathomless by the liner. And beneath the studied blankness, there’s still fire. Enough to burn if Namjoon isn’t careful. Which, perfect. He always wants the fighters.

“He’s certainly beautiful,” Namjoon allows, taking a step back.

The auctioneer snaps her fingers and the boy unties the robe, lets it hang open so all of him is on display. He’s predictably naked underneath and Namjoon uses the opportunity to do a quick catalogue of his still-healing injuries. Mostly bruising, along his stomach and arms, with some fading welts on his thighs and back. He’s favoring his left leg slightly, enough that he’d probably have a limp when walking, and he’s too thin, but not alarmingly so.

He’ll heal. Nothing life-threatening here, or that would require a doctor’s assistance.

“You were thorough, I see,” he says mildly, gesturing at the largest of the bruises, blooming across the boy’s right side.

“A more severe rehabilitation was necessary, sir,” the auctioneer demurs. “Considering the nature of the offense.”

“Of course,” Namjoon inclines his head in understanding. His stomach is churning.

“He should heal completely in a few weeks,” the auctioneer adds. “If you don’t mind being patient.”

“Not at all.” Namjoon twists his lips in his ugliest smile, dripping with arrogant cruelty. “It’s better that way - breaking them all over again after.”

The boy doesn’t flinch, but tension flickers briefly through his jaw. At Namjoon’s nod, he fastens the robe again, securing it tightly around his waist.

“I’ll take him,” Namjoon decides.

The boy meets all the criteria - young, but not too young, shallow wounds, unbroken spirit - and Namjoon doesn’t think he can handle many more “inspections.” His inner armor isn’t as good as Seokjin’s. Too much leaks out onto his face.

“Excellent!” The auctioneer declares with a clap of her manicured hands. “We’ll have him prepared and delivered to you tomorrow morning, if that would suit you, sir?”

“That would be perfect,” Namjoon agrees. It gives him time to prepare, as well.

The guard removes the sanctioned from the room and Namjoon is escorted back downstairs to fill out all the necessary paperwork. There’s no sign of Seokjin - so either he already finished and is waiting by the bar, or his inspection took longer than anticipated. Namjoon hopes it’s the former, as he scrawls his signature on yet another document. He can’t wait to get out of here.

At last, with a final signed release form, granting him total ownership, Gloss is officially his. He reminds himself for the thousandth time tonight not to throw up. It’s been years, he should be more used to this by now.

“Congratulations,” the auctioneer says, handing him a datacard. “This is his full file and all his medical information. If for some reason he doesn’t suit, we will accept him back for a small fee.”

“I’m sure that won’t be an issue,” Namjoon assures her. After all, no one leaves the ownership of the Kim cousins alive. That’s what the rumors say.

The auctioneer bows a final time and Namjoon leaves the office for the open foyer, trying to keep his pace slow and casual. Mercifully, he spots Seokjin by the bar, nursing a glass of whiskey.

“Ready?” Seokjin asks when Namjoon stops beside his stool.

“Yeah. Have them bring the car around.”

Seokjin nods and calls for the bartender to bring his check.

 

_ _

 

It’s still raining outside and Namjoon watches the water run in rivulets down the car window, catching the gleam of the passing city lights.

Seokjin whistles, flipping through Gloss’ file. “He attacked his last owner with a vase, wow.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Namjoon promises.

“You’ll have to,” Seokjin agrees, setting the tablet aside. His expression softens, then, into one Namjoon is only allowed to see. “You okay?”

“I need to take a shower,” Namjoon replies, grim. “But I don’t think that will stop me feeling like a fucking monster.”

“This is a necessary evil,” Seokjin says quietly.

“It’s an evil,” Namjoon argues. “It’s not necessary. And we’re not doing enough to stop it.”

“We’re doing what we can, until the time comes when we can do more.”

It’s a mantra he’s heard from Seokjin for months, but it never really eases the weight inside of him. They’ve been planning for years, trying to align pieces on a complicated board. At the end of, supposedly, will be a better world, but who knows when that end will come. They keep running into walls and complications and so for now they purchase companions no one wants and give them something of a future beyond the boundaries of Seoul, and it will never, ever be enough. Because for the handful they manage to save every year, hundreds die in captivity - in factories and farms and boarding houses and the penthouses of the powerful.

And the blood in Namjoon’s veins burns.

“I know,” he says to Seokjin, who doesn’t need any of his doubt or his fear. “I know.”

Seokjin squeezes his knee and leans back in the seat. “I’ll start getting paperwork together. How long do you think it will take your boy to heal?”

Gloss. Namjoon wonders what his real name is.

“A few weeks, the auctioneer said. Probably three, I would guess. Maybe two at the earliest.”

“That’s a good window,” Seokjin agrees. “Just be careful.”

“I will,” Namjoon reassures him. He can handle a few weeks, surely. He’s done it numerous times before.

He picks up the tablet from where it’s resting next to Seokjin on the seat and pulls up the file once more. Twenty-four years old; sanctioned due to an altercation with the police; three owners, all reporting troubling and defiant behavior, along with the numerous escape attempts, though he never got far; statistically healthy, even after two rehabilitations. 

But it’s the flicker in the boy’s eyes that Namjoon can’t get out of his head. Pure fire, if only for an instant.

Hopefully, it will be enough. For now, Namjoon sets aside his fears and worries and the ever-present guilt and watches the city glide by through the rain-blurred windows.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

“People often forget the true purpose of fire: not just destruction, but cleansing. In the wake of a forest fire, it is said that plants often grow back stronger than before. In the Old World, fires were used to clear away dead vegetation so fresh forests could flourish. Sometimes, to get to the new, you first have to burn away the old.”  

- Excerpt from the writings of Suga, underground resistance leader.

 

 

_ _ 

 

It’s September 1st and Taehyung is crouched on a rooftop in the rain. It’s been raining all week, and he remembers, once upon a time, hearing stories about how the rain used to be welcome. It would help things grow, the early remnants of the Old World thought. It would bring back the forests and the rolling fields and the green that used to blanket over 63% of the country, if statistics are to be believed.

But nothing changed. The ground still killed almost everything planted in it. Now there are the farms - massive complexes that do everything they can to cultivate food and other necessary fauna - but it’s still a battle. And if you believe the government posters, that’s Taehyung’s fault. Anyone born with the mutated gene. Born with these strange powers that turned the Earth against them.

The details are fuzzy. The records gone. No one knows exactly how Marked destroyed the Old World, only that they did.

But that’s not important, or that it’s raining again. The important thing is this: it’s September 1st.

It’s September 1st and his whole heart is burning in his chest. This rooftop was special once, last year. It’s one of the tallest apartment buildings in the sector and the lock is always broken on the access door, meaning that it’s easy to sneak up here and get a view of the whole city - all the way to the gleaming skyscrapers of Sector 1.

Jungkook used to stand on the ledge, arms outstretched and the wind blowing in his hair.

Get down, Taehyung used to insist, stomach in knots. Before you fall.

Jungkook would smile over his shoulder, all scrunched nose and bunny teeth. I’m not going to fall.

But Taehyung would still pull him back, fingers tangled in his patchwork jacket, and they’d kiss instead - his hands moving to Jungkook’s hair while Jungkook’s bracketed his waist. They’d kiss until they were breathless with it, until Taehyung could feel the burn in his lungs and his blood, but they never went further. It was a comfort thing - an intimacy so rare out here, where they carted away the dead by the dozens every winter and people disappeared without warning.

It was … just something they did.

(Though he was lying to himself, even back then.)

September 1st, last year, he brought Jungkook here. Gave him a little cake he’d scraped together a week’s worth of ration cards to buy and kissed the grin stretching his mouth.

Tae, you shouldn’t have.

I wanted to, he said. You’re twenty. That’s special.

It’s just another year.

Eat your damn cake, he said and kissed him again. The scar on his cheek this time - a nick from a knife when he was sixteen and reckless. When he didn’t know how to back down from a fight and Yoongi-hyung would yell at him even as he pressed warm cloth to whatever part of Jungkook was scraped up and raw and bruised.

There is anger in all of them and it comes out in different ways. Taehyung wasn’t really angry back then, not in the way he is now. Furious enough to choke on it, for it to push his ribs against his fragile skin and make his chest rattle.

Because it’s September 1st and Jungkook isn’t here.

I wonder what it’s like out there, Jungkook said once, nodding at the glittering lights in the distance. In Sector 1.

And now he’s imprisoned there. Somewhere so far out of Taehyung’s reach he might as well be on a different planet. But Taehyung is still trying. Hacking auction house after auction house using his contraband, cobbled-together laptop and government wireless. They got so close four months ago: a record of Jungkook at a small auction house in Sector 6, a rescue operation that took several weeks to plan and then failed completely. They arrived just in time to see Jungkook being loaded into a transport van and driven away, like something out of the Old World movies Hoseok used to talk about.

The roar in the back of his head started then and hasn’t calmed since. He doesn’t care what it takes. How much he has to give or what the risks are or how many times Hoseok tells him to be careful. He’ll get them back, both of them. Even if it’s the last thing he does. Because he …

He shakes his head and pulls the hood of his coat further down. The rain is mostly a light drizzle, but Hoseok will still be angry if he gets himself sick. He’s been out here long for the chill to start seeping into his bones, so he figures it’s time to stop wallowing and do what he came to.

He fishes around in his pockets for the stick of incense he purchased with some rare, leftover cash from a courier job earlier in the week. Incense, Yoongi-hyung said once, used to be a big part of the Old World religions. People would burn it for comfort, healing, and as offerings to their gods in long-gone temples. It was a waste, Taehyung’s always thought, it didn’t save them in the end.

But sometimes, Hoseok buys sticks from a vendor up the street and burns them in the apartment. Just to get rid of the smell of mildew that creeps in during the wet season and the odor that comes from five people living literally on top of each other. Jungkook always found it soothing. Would purchase his own sticks and set them in a little glass jar by their bed, until their whole apartment smelled of jasmine.

So Taehyung lights one for him now, in spite of the lingering rain. The little plastic lighter is Yoongi-hyung’s - from back when he used to smoke to relieve his stress, before Hoseok made him quit. It sits in a drawer in their kitchen now - just one of the many small pieces of Yoongi left behind, scattered across their lives.

(It hurts, still, that Yoongi and Jungkook’s clothes take up space in their shared dresser; that one of Jungkook’s sketchbooks sits on the shelf by their bed, next to Yoongi’s notebook, full of future essays scrawled in a shorthand only Yoongi can decipher; that their spare, taped-together sneakers sit side by side near the door, collecting dust. Taehyung keeps tripping over remnants of them and it hurts. )

“Happy birthday, Kook,” he whispers, holding up the burning stick in the direction of Sector 1. “I love you.”

(He’s never said those words to Jungkook’s face and it’s one of the biggest regrets in his life. Right behind not going on the smuggling run that got Jungkook sanctioned.)

“I’ll find you, I promise. I’m sorry it’s taking me so long, but just … keep holding on, okay? I’ll find you both.”

He lifts the stick higher in a silent toast, watching as the wind gathers up the smoke and carries it away.

 

_ _

 

Yoongi’s whole body hurts and his head feels like it’s been stuffed with cotton. Not a new sensation, really. He’s been drugged enough times now to recognize the effects: muddy thoughts, heavy limbs, dry, aching mouth. He breathes out slow and keeps his eyes shut, utilizing these few minutes of peace to assess his situation. He’s on a bed - can feel the softness of a mattress against his back and a pillow tucked under his head - but he isn’t tied down or restrained in any way. The seals on his wrists ache, as does the fresh tattoo on his arm, both signs of a new owner. He’s dressed, surprisingly, and the clothes are loose and comfortable. Someone has wrapped gauze around his torso and thighs, spread healing salve over his lingering welts and bruises.

He thinks back, struggles to remember through the fog of the drugs. The auction house again - his third time there - and the rehabilitation that he stubbornly skips over. Then a man, with aristocratic features and a powerful aura. A man who likes a challenge, likes to heal his companions so he can break them all over again.

Kim Namjoon, said several of the other sanctioned that night. I’ve heard of him.

So has Yoongi.

The Kim Cousins - no one purchased by them comes back alive.

They film it, another companion whispered to him, everything they do. Keep libraries.

They torture companions to death, another one said. Get off on it.

Worse than a boarding house, someone else insisted. If you ever get bought by them, find a way to end it.

Yoongi can’t end it, though, not when Jungkook is still out there somewhere. (He wakes, sometimes, with arms that ache from the memory of Jungkook being ripped from them, like internal phantom pain.)

I’ll find you, he promised, their last night together.

Not if I find you first, Jungkook fired back with a smile that didn’t reach his grief-stricken eyes.

Three masters, three failed escape attempts, eleven months of what feels like never-ending horror, and he wants to break. Wants to let go of the threadbare strings holding him together and sink into oblivion. He’s seen other companions do it, to cope. Their bodies are present, but their minds are long gone - cocooned somewhere safe, where the pain can no longer be felt.

That’s a form of ending it, though, even if it’s less final. Jungkook is waiting and Yoongi isn’t going to stop trying until there is no more life left in him. So if Kim Namjoon wants to kill him for sport, well … Yoongi will just have to kill him first.

You’re getting ahead of yourself, says the voice that always sounds like Hoseok. Get more intel first.

Right. Opening his eyes would be a good start.

He does so slowly, blinking around as the room comes into focus, bathed in warm, dim light. It’s larger than his apartment back in Sector 10 and decked out in the elegant, Old World style all these ridiculous elites seem obsessed with. Paneled walls, with paintings of long dead forests, an expansive window covered by gauzy curtains, a large bed and stately furniture made of dark wood (a rarity these days, a sign of wealth), a far-too ostentatious light hanging from the ceiling above him, and a faux wood floor covered by what appears to be a massive midnight blue rug.

He’s been left alone, he realizes as he gingerly sits up, gritting his teeth against the sharp twinge in his side, and there’s a glass of water on the bedside table.

It might be a test. He’s been punished for taking liberties before, far too many times - crossing lines in the sand he didn’t even know had been drawn there. But god he’s so thirsty and no one is around. If Kim Namjoon has hidden cameras up, then fine.

Pain is something Yoongi is used to.

He picks up the glass with unsteady fingers and makes himself drink it slow. It’s cool and fresh, so different from the water they try hard to filter in Sector 10, and he savors it. It will probably be his last in a while. Though if Kim Namjoon wants him to heal first…

 

He pushes the thought away, glancing over at the closed door. He doubts he’s supposed to leave the room, but no one’s tied him down. Maybe the door locks from the outside? That’s common.

Taking a deep breath, he pushes himself off the bed and limps over. His leg still hurts, but it isn’t the sharp, visceral pain of before ( when a boot came down hard and he heard the crack of bone and tasted blood in his mouth as he tried not to scream ) and he makes it to the door fairly easily. There’s … there’s no lock at all. The handle gives beneath his hand, turns, and … he steps back. Presses his ear to the fake wood instead, trying to pick up any signs of life beyond.

It’s quiet. He can’t hear anything so maybe - wait. Footsteps. Getting closer.

He scrambles back, sinking onto the bed just as the door opens and Kim Namjoon steps inside.

“Oh,” he says, blinking. “I thought I saw the handle turn. Good to see you’re awake. How do you feel?”

Dizzy. This is … this boy is different from the one at the auction house. The expensive suit has been replaced by an oversized sweater and the arrogance evaporated in favor of an almost nervous expression. He’s wearing fluffy house slippers and glasses and his once carefully styled silver hair is now falling onto his forehead. He looks completely non-threatening - and is this another test? Another game?

He films it. There won’t be anything left of you when he’s finished.

You need more intel, Hoseok reminds him. Play along.

“Fine, master,” he says, ducking his head respectfully.

Kim Namjoon, in his periphery, winces. “Please don’t call me that.”

Yoongi blinks. “Master?”

“Yes. Just Namjoon is fine.”

Fuck, his head is spinning. “Namjoon,” he says carefully and Kim Namjoon smiles instead of hitting him.

Maybe he’s dreaming and he’s actually still drugged out on the bed.

“Sorry,” Namjoon continues, leaning against the dresser. He’s tall, that hasn’t changed, and a little broad, and could probably pin Yoongi down without much of a fight, at least when he’s injured like this. “I know you’re nervous. And confused. And probably won’t believe me, but I’m not going to hurt you.”

“... you’re not?” Yoongi asks and Kim Namjoon nods instead of hitting him for speaking out of turn.

“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors, but they’re just that. I … cultivate them on purpose. But you won’t be hurt here. I just have a few rules, but we can go over those later. First, you must be hungry.”

He is, but that’s another thing he’s used to. From long before he was sanctioned.

He still inclines his head, because it seems like the right thing to do, and then he’s following Namjoon out into the main living room (just as elegant and dripping of wealth as the bedroom - there’s even a piano in the corner and his fingers twitch with half-remembered longing), and being seated on a stool at what appears to be a breakfast bar. He got a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the way across the room, and his makeup’s been removed, as well. He looks … almost like himself. Like he was before - Yoongi, instead of Gloss. It makes him feel strangely vulnerable and he pulls the silky robe he’s been put in tighter around himself, cherishing the layers of clothing while he has them.

“I can’t cook at all,” Namjoon is saying, digging around in his fridge. “But I have some leftovers I should be able to heat up without burning anything.”

Namjoon is … actually making food for him? Instead of ordering him to do it? (“ And remember what the price is for ruining it, boy.”)

A test. It has to be. Or a dream.

“I-” he says, starting to stand again. “I can, mas-Namjoon-”

“No, no, you’re still injured,” Namjoon insists, motioning for him to sit down.

A few minutes later and a steaming bowl of tteokbokki is set in front of him. His mouth waters. It’s a big portion. In Sector 10, they would have had to split this much between two of them for a meal. In the past year (“ you’re so thin and pretty, aren’t you? Delicate.”), well most people haven’t been big on feeding him.

But Namjoon is looking at him expectantly, and passing over a pair of chopsticks, so…

He eats. He eats and it’s the best thing he’s ever tasted - has to be careful to pace himself so he doesn’t choke or get sick. And maybe Namjoon will make him throw it up later, but he doesn’t care. Right now, in this moment, he’s going to enjoy this unexpected comfort.

“Thank you,” he manages when he’s finished - somewhat surprised Namjoon also didn’t take the food away halfway through. That’s another favorite game.

“You’re welcome,” Namjoon says and actually dips his head. Like he’s talking to an equal.

It’s unsettling.

“So,” he continues as he wipes down the marble countertop. “Rules.”

Right. The most important part.

“You have free run of the apartment - I’m not going to lock you up or confine you. The only places off limits are my study and bedroom. They’re passcode locked. The elevator outside and the front door will also only work with my fingerprint, so I’d advise against any escape attempts. You can help yourself to as much food as you want, just let me know when we’re getting low. Books and other things, too, just please don’t damage them.” He sets the rag down and runs a hand through his hair. The nervous air is still here, even as he’s trying to be commanding. “Don’t call me master or bow or anything like that. And like I said, I won’t hurt you.”

Yoongi struggles to take all this in. “What … what will you do with me, then?”

Intel, he needs intel.

“This is only temporary,” Namjoon says. “Just for a few weeks. Until you’ve healed up. Then, I’ll send you to Busan. But we'll talk more about that later, too.”

A chill runs down Yoongi’s spine. Send him to Busan? That sounds like euphemism if Yoongi's ever heard one. Which must mean …

He gets it now. What a fucking game this is. A few weeks of being treated almost as a person - fed and allowed clothes and books and a small measure of freedom - until the injuries have healed and maybe there is a sense of security. Then Namjoon gets to rip it all away. Gets to kill the hope, break the trust, shatter everything he’s cultivated and watch his poor, pathetic companion fall to pieces.

And then, after it’s all over and there’s nothing left of them, he “sends them to Busan.”

Why the warning, though? Hoseok wants to know.

Maybe he thinks Yoongi’s stupid. That’s the general assessment of companions: pretty, with empty heads. Maybe he’s offering it now and then he’s going to make Yoongi forget it and then, then, at the end - when Yoongi’s tied to a bed or a table and bleeding out - he’ll lean in close and whisper I told you.

No, Yoongi decides. No, that isn’t going to happen. He won’t let it. Jungkook needs him, he has to try again. Namjoon said a few weeks - he just has to plan, play along until he’s healed enough for a fight.

And then he’ll strike before Namjoon has a chance to.

“Okay,” he says now, ducking his head in submissive understanding. “Thank you.”

Namjoon smiles at him. He has dimples. “Good. And … what’s your name?”

Wait … what?

Maybe he didn’t read the file.

“Gloss,” he says, hating the way it sounds on his tongue.

“No,” Namjoon insists, shaking his head. “No, your real name.”

His real …?

No one’s ever wanted that before.

It’s another thing he’s going to take from you, Hoseok warns, but honestly what does it matter? Most days, it already feels like there is so little of Min Yoongi left. What’s another piece?

“Yoongi,” he says, and it comes out cracked. A little broken. “My name is Yoongi.”

“Yoongi,” Namjoon repeats and smiles again. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“You too,” he says on autopilot and reminds himself to breathe.

 

_ _

 

Back at the apartment, Jimin is waiting for him. Clucks in quiet disapproval at his wet clothes. Hoseok-hyung is already fast asleep, and Taehyung frowns at the dark circles bruised under his eyes. He tries so hard to stay cheerful for them, to keep smiling, to the be the head of their little family unit in the way that Yoongi once was, but Taehyung can still see the fracture lines of grief in him. When he wears Yoongi’s scarf sometimes, even though the smell has long faded, or when he stops and adjusts Jungkook’s sneakers on the rack, straightening them as if Jungkook had just put them there.

Jimin tucks a quilt over his shoulders and urges him outside onto the covered balcony. They’ve set up two rickety chairs here and a small table - clotheslines strung across the ceiling for drier days and a small plant that Jungkook had been trying to grow, now barely kept alive by Jimin and Taehyung.

“You know what day it is?” he asks as Jimin presses a bowl of watery soup into his hands.

“Of course I do,” Jimin replies quietly. They all do. That’s why Hoseok is in bed at 8pm. Probably drank himself there with the disgusting, contraband alcohol he insists he doesn’t buy.

“I went to our roof,” Taehyung continues, swirling the soup around with his spoon. He isn’t hungry, but he knows better than to let food go to waste. “Lit some Jasmine for him. With Yoongi-hyung’s lighter.”

Jimin rubs the back of his neck - a familiar, soothing gesture. It’s been him and Jimin for so long - years before Yoongi plucked them off the street and offered them a home, since the orphanage when Jimin gave Taehyung a portion of his food even though Taehyung was being “punished” and not allowed to eat. It was Jimin who planned their escape and Jimin who held him after he got his first strike and yelled at him after he got his second. Jimin, who got in trouble to keep them fed and stood up to Yoongi when Yoongi was a stranger and dangerous and they didn’t believe that he actually wanted to help.

Jimin, who sat with him as he downed nearly a whole bottle of soju after Jungkook was taken. Who listened as he whispered, I love him.

Of course you do. We all-

No.

And in that moment, it was Jimin who understood immediately, without him having to spell it out any further, and who held him when the tears finally came. Rocked him as he wept and sobbed and finally fell into exhausted, grieving sleep.

And it’s Jimin that takes his hand now, squeezing tight. “I miss him, too. Both of them.”

“He’s twenty-one today.”

“He is.”

“How did that happen?” Taehyung huffs. “I still remember when he was shorter than me.”

A tiny wisp of a thing, already part of Yoongi’s makeshift family for over a year when Taehyung and Jimin joined. Fifteen years old and the bravest kid Taehyung had ever met.

“Me too,” Jimin says and Taehyung smirks at him.

“Please, he was never shorter than you.”

Jimin predictably smacks him on the arm and they giggle together, for a moment, until tears start to flood Taehyung’s eyes. He lifts a hand to wipe them away, angry at himself. Jungkook doesn’t need his tears.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Jimin says, pressing a kiss to his temple. “He’d understand.”

“He’d tease me,” Taehyung mutters.

With that infuriating smirk of his, that ridiculous arched eyebrow. Tears again, Taehyung-ssi?

(Jungkook never cried - he got that from Yoongi, Taehyung thinks. Unflappable, both of them.)

“He would,” Jimin agrees. “And then he’d hug you. So here.”

Jimin pulls him close and he doesn’t even care about the plastic arm of the chair digging into his side. Jimin is warm and home and an anchor, like always.

“Thank you,” Taehyung whispers into his shoulder. “For always taking care of me.”

Jimin strokes a thumb over the mark on Taehyung’s neck. “Of course. You take care of me, too. We’re a family.” He stands, the chair creaking. “Now, c’mon. We should go to bed.”

“You go ahead. I’ll come in a minute.”

“Tae…”

“I’m fine,” he insists, wishing he could wipe the pinched, worried look from Jimin’s face. “Go to bed, Chim.”

Jimin sighs and goes, ruffling Taehyung’s hair on his way past. Alone in the dark, Taehyung folds his legs under him and wraps the quilt tighter around his shoulders. If he squints, he can almost see the outline of Jungkook in the seat next to him - long legs sprawled out in front of him, head tilted toward Taehyung’s, big eyes on the city lights.

I’m getting old, Tae, he would say. And you’re practically ancient.

And then they would bicker until Yoongi-hyung ducked his head out to huff at them for being too loud.

“Fuck, I miss you,” Taehyung says now, to the void where Jungkook should be. “I miss you so much.”

He hopes, desperately, that at least for tonight Jungkook is safe. Isn’t in pain.

Knows that, in spite of everything, there are still people who love him.

 

_ _

 

There is a clock on the wall of Namjoon’s living room. A fancy one, that also lists the day and the temperature outside: 9:52 p.m., 7.2 degrees celsius, September 1st.

September 1st.

Fuck.

It hurts - like a blade between the ribs: absence and memory combined. Somewhere out there, Jungkook is twenty-one today. Yoongi can only hope he doesn’t have the scars that Yoongi does, or still-healing wounds like the ones on Yoongi’s skin. But he also knows not to be naive. Jungkook was a big deal at their first auction house - young and beautiful and … and untouched. The sale of him was a massive event, bidding through the roof. A couple bought him. One of the Eight, he thinks - members of the king’s court. It was the man’s birthday gift to his wife and there was no kindness on their faces when they looked at Jungkook or in their hands when they touched him.

He doubts the past year has been free of horrors.

Happy Birthday, Jungkook-ah, he thinks and tries not to remember the way Jungkook cried on their last night. The salt of his tears on Yoongi’s tongue when they -

No. It doesn’t matter. He can’t let it matter yet. He needs to focus on the man on the sofa across from him, who is arching a confused eyebrow. He’s probably been staring at the damn clock for too long.

“Yoongi?” He’s still not used to his real name out of Namjoon’s mouth, either. “Are you okay? Do you need to lie down again?”

He really is convincing, Hoseok remarks dryly, with all this concern.

Ha.

“I’m fine,” he says, careful to keep his voice quiet. Respectful. “Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Namjoon assures him. Then waits.

Oh shit. He must have asked a question.

“I … I’m sorry … what did you want to know again?”

Any other elite and this would be grounds for punishment. A blow to the face, a belt to the back, no food for two days - the list feels endless and usually starts with him on his knees. He’s ready to slide off the couch ( play along, play along ) but Namjoon seems … embarrassed? He scratches the back of his neck like he’s nervous, still. Around Yoongi. What a fucking novelty.

“Ah, sorry. I just wanted to know - your last master. You hit him with a vase?”

Two vases, actually. And neither killed him. Tragically. Also, he’d miscalculated the guard rotations and gotten caught before he could even leave the building. Not one of his greatest attempts but he’d been desperate. And not exactly in his right mind.

That’s another thing he isn’t thinking about, though.

“Yes,” he says because Namjoon has clearly read his file and will know if he lies.

He expects Namjoon to press for more details, to ask him why. Instead, Namjoon stares at the patterned rug beneath their feet, strange tension ticking through his jaw. “He must have been awful, then.”

“He was,” Yoongi whispers, deciding he’s too tired to worry about whether or not this is a test, too.

Namjoon nods and gets up from the couch. Yoongi stiffens on instinct, but Namjoon is gesturing towards a door that Yoongi assumes is the bathroom. “I should probably check your bandages, if that’s alright with you?”

He’s … being asked for an opinion? He almost wants to say no, just to see what will happen, but the gauze is starting to itch. “Okay.”

The bathroom is large - a far cry from the tiny closet they crammed into back in Sector 10. But the features are simple and now hardly the most luxurious Yoongi’s been in. One of his previous masters - CYJ on his arm - had a fucking gold bathtub and sink.

Namjoon pulls a surprisingly well-stocked first aid kit from beneath the porcelain sink, and Yoongi hadn’t given it much thought before, but he supposes Namjoon was the one to bandage him up in the first place, since that isn’t a service the auction house usually provides. Too many masters like their companions marked up.

“Um,” Namjoon says, looking strangely uncertain again. He motions towards the robe, and the loose shirt and pants Yoongi has on underneath. “Would you mind…?”

Yoongi takes a deep breath and strips. Nakedness is another thing he’s used to, but his fingers still itch with the urge to cover himself and his mind still clings to the potentially foolish hope that the clothes will be given back after this is over.

“Sorry,” Namjoon mutters and fuck, could this get any weirder? An elite, standing in his own bathroom, apologizing to his Marked companion. “Sorry, I’ll be quick, okay?”

“Yes,” Yoongi says, for lack of anything else.

Namjoon’s hands are soft, unmarred by hardship, and shockingly gentle as he unwraps the bandages wrapped around Yoongi’s torso, then his skinny thighs. There is nothing sexual about the way Namjoon touches him - he doesn’t linger anywhere, doesn’t let his hands drift to intimate places - and Yoongi finds himself relaxing, just a fraction.

Namjoon also talks, trying to walk Yoongi through what he's doing. “Okay, it’s looking better,” he says as he examines Yoongi’s back. The bruises, Yoongi notes, are fading to a sickly green now and the welts on his thighs are closing. “I’m going to wash your back, and then put on some more salve, alright?”

Yoongi nods.

Namjoon is … good at this. Practiced, in the way he carefully runs a rag down Yoongi’s aching back, over his shoulders. Yoongi’s fingers curl into fists where they’re braced against the counter. It would be so easy to hurt him like this - grab the back of his neck, shove him down until the edge of the marble digs into his stomach and Namjoon can take what he wants - but Namjoon moves on to the salve quickly.

“This might sting a little, I’m sorry.”

It does, but it’s a good pain. The healing kind.

It’s been a year, Yoongi realizes, since anyone has touched him in a way that doesn’t make his skin crawl.

Keep your guard up, warns Hoseok, and Yoongi closes his eyes as Namjoon wraps fresh bandages around the wounds. Moves down to Yoongi's thighs and his touch there is even lighter, trying so hard not to be intrusive.

This is an illusion, a game, a play at kindness, and Yoongi  knows that, he does. He won’t forget it.

But he still thinks it’s going to hurt when Namjoon takes it away.

“There,” Namjoon announces, straightening. “All done.”

Yoongi blinks his eyes open and glances down at the new gauze covering his thighs, too, from the tops his knees all the way up to just below his groin.

“Thank you,” he murmurs.

Namjoon dips his head in acknowledgment as he starts to pack up the first aid kit. Yoongi stands awkwardly, unsure of what to do. Is he supposed to get dressed again? Or does Namjoon want to keep him…?

“Oh,” Namjon stammers, glancing at him then darting his gaze away quick. “You, um, you can put your clothes back on, sorry. And I’ll have some more for you this week. Clothes, I mean. I just need your measurements. And they won’t all be pajamas, I promise. I just thought these would be good while you heal, you know? Less chance of aggravating your wounds when they’re loose.” He scratches his cheek and shakes his head. “Uh, anyway. You can put your clothes back on.”

Yoongi obeys, trying not to rush, to seem too overeager ( as few weaknesses as possible, remember?), but he can’t help a small sigh of relief when he’s fully dressed again and tying the robe tight around his waist.

“Right,” Namjoon says, returning the kit beneath the sink. “You probably want to sleep some more?”

The drugs are still leaving his system, and he does feel tired. Sluggish. Even after nearly a whole day of unconsciousness.

“Yes,” he agrees. He wants his head clearer. He wants to be left alone because it’s September 1st and he wants to … he wants to mourn, maybe. For himself. For Jungkook. For Hoseok and Jimin and Taehyung - left behind in Sector 10. He tries so hard not to think about them, to wonder if they’re eating enough or if they’re warm enough now that winter is creeping in or who has taken over the network now that he’s gone. Is Hoseok still broadcasting? Are the kids safe?

Stop it, says the Hoseok that’s taken up residence in the back of his mind. This isn’t helping.

Even if ( when) he gets Jungkook back, they’d have to flee the city, most likely. Or start over in a different part of it. Going back to Sector 10 would put Hoseok, Taehyung, and Jimin in too much danger.

“Let me know if you need anything,” Namjoon says and Yoongi realizes that they’re in front of the bedroom door now.

He doesn’t remember crossing the apartment. Leaving the bathroom at all.

“Okay,” he says, swallowing down his unease. It’s just the drugs and the drugs will wear off. Besides, he doubts Namjoon will stay here the whole time with him. If he really means to give Yoongi free reign of the apartment, then there will opportunities to investigate later. For now, he needs sleep. “Thank you.”

Namjoon nods and retreats back into the living room. Yoongi shuts the bedroom door and collapses back onto the too-soft bed.

The city lights are bright through the curtains and Yoongi clutches the fabric of his shirt. Above his aching heart.

Hold on, Jungkook-ah. Just a little longer.

He’s getting out. Even if he has to kill Kim Namjoon to do it.

 

_ _

 

His hands are shaking. It doesn’t happen often, anymore. The once crippling fear has faded in the face of necessary numbness, and besides … there isn’t much left, he thinks, that hasn’t been done to him. Why fear what you’ve already endured? 

So it isn’t fear, tonight, that’s causing the tremors. Dread, maybe, that he’s having trouble ignoring. It’s coiled in his stomach like a snake, reaching up to choke the air from his lungs, and his unsteady hand is making it hard to apply the liner to his eyes. Usually he can do this without any issues but …

Deep breaths, he reminds himself. You’ll survive.

It will be in pieces, probably, all cracked and jagged inside of him, but it’s okay - he’s gotten good at stitching himself back together again. At least enough to keep going, to keep fighting. There are three sets of initials on his arms, after all, and two crossed out. He takes pride in the fact that he at least hasn’t made this easy for any of his owners. Yoongi-hyung taught him to fight, and he’s fighting as hard as he can.

He has to tread carefully, though, with this third master. If the man returns him like the other two did, then the auction house will pass him off to the boarding houses. And no one escapes from there. So he isn’t fighting tonight, in spite of the dread.

(He’s not sure which is worse, the unknown, or knowing exactly, intimately , how much this is going to hurt. )

Deep breaths. Deep breaths.

His hand evens out, gradually, and he finishes putting the liner on - follows it up with mascara. Then lipstick, the kind that makes his mouth look pink and a little swollen. Contouring on his cheeks, and powder that makes him seem pale and doll-like. Delicate earrings made of crystal that could pay for three month’s worth of food in the outlying sectors.

He runs his hands over the sheer, glittery shirt he’s been told to wear. Down to his thighs, encased in too-tight pants. A small, desperate part of him that he refuses to acknowledge, wants to weep.

The door to the bathroom opens and his master is standing there, resplendent in his purple suit. Objectively, he’s handsome, even as he grows older in years, as gray hair lines his temples and crows feet branch from the corners of his eyes. Women fawn, Jungkook knows, though he’s refused them all since his first wife died. Perhaps it is the loss of her that makes him cruel. Or perhaps it’s something in his blood - a mutation like the gene Jungkook was born with, that warranted the tattoo on his neck.

The seals on his wrists twinge and the snake in his stomach coils tighter.

“You look perfect,” his master says, sliding a possessive hand up Jungkook’s back, over his neck - touch light but still full of promise. Disobey, move back, and the gentleness will evaporate. “Here, I have a gift for you.”

A choker, made of the same crystal as the earrings.

“Thank you, master,” Jungkook says and forces himself to tilt his chin up. The choker is too tight, but he knows that’s intentional. A reminder, of who he belongs to. (As if he could ever forget, even without SGH tattooed on his arm in ugly black ink.)

Hands land on his shoulders, fingers digging in. “Do well for me tonight, pretty,” his master says.

Tonight. A party, full of elite, even members of the Eight. To celebrate … something, it doesn't really matter what. Jungkook is part of the entertainment - a party favor for the guests, a way for his master to make connections: offer up his pretty companion in exchange for a favor here, a good word there.

It’s a dance Jungkook knows well now.

Deep breaths.

“Yes, master,” he whispers.

His body is not his own - it’s one of the first lessons he learned.

And he doesn’t let himself think, as he rises on wobbly legs, about the fact that he knows it’s September 1st. That this time last year, he was kissing Taehyung on a rooftop with what felt like the whole world at their feet - just for those few moments. With Taehyung’s hands in his hair and Taehyung’s body pressed against his and what might have been, could have been, would have been love stirring in his chest.

He isn’t thinking about Taehyung at all. Or Yoongi-hyung. Or Jimin, or Hoseok.

You’re getting out, he reminds himself. Just hold on. Just a little longer.

His master holds out a hand. The smile on his face is sharp enough to draw blood. Jungkook gathers all the chipped and battered armor he has left, sealing it around his shivering heart.

Then he allows himself to be led into the lion’s den.

 

Chapter Text

In light of recent incidents in Sector 9, we remind all citizens of Seoul that in spite of the suppressors placed on their abilities,  those who have been Marked are still dangerous, and capable of large amounts of destruction. Please continue to report any suspicious activity to city police. There will also be a heightened security presence in the outer sectors while we deal with the aftermath of these incidents. All Marked citizens, please be aware that your curfew has been shortened to seven p.m. for the time being. Failure to comply will result in sanctioning.”

- Excerpt from a government radio broadcast to all Seoul sectors

 

 

_ _ 

 

Two years ago

Taehyung doesn’t think he’s ever run this fast in his life. His lungs are screaming for air as he skids around another corner, following Yoongi through the maze-like streets. This close to the city walls, most of the buildings are dilapidated and crumbling, making traversing through them dangerous. Which is exactly why Yoongi’s brought them here.

Ahead of him, Yoongi twists to the right, vaulting through a broken window into what used to be an apartment building. Taehyung scrambles after him, gasping when Yoongi’s hand fists the front of his shirt.

“Climb,” Yoongi says, shoving him towards the rickety staircase. “Don’t stop.”

Taehyung’s been out here less than Yoongi, but he still knows what steps to avoid. To ignore the ominous creaking and groaning beneath his feet and keep moving towards the roof. Below him, he can hear Yoongi and the shouts of city police. Beyond that is a distant perimeter alarm - set off by their haphazard trespassing into a condemned zone. Normally, Taehyung can disable it in two minutes.

Today, they didn’t have that kind of time.

The access door to the roof looms before him, loose on its hinges, and he shoulders his way through it back out to the frigid winter air. His panting breaths billow in clouds of mist in front of him and he pauses for a precious moment, trying to suck air back into his heaving lungs.

“Keep moving,” Yoongi snaps from behind him, urging him forward.

The police might not be brave enough to try the steps, but they can’t take any chances.

They stay low, out of sight. The perimeter alarm usually means drone surveillance, but they’re harder to operate in weather this cold. Plus the fog hanging over everything is going to make visibility a challenge.

Of course there’s still infrared to contend with.

They reach a narrow gap between two buildings and hurl themselves over, landing clumsily. Taehyung catches himself with gloved hands and grits his teeth against the flash of pain, staggering back to his feet. Yoongi’s already moving, heading for the next jump. A few of the buildings sag and lean into each other, moving between them easier. Presuming they don’t give way and send you plummeting to your death.

The second gap is wider, requiring a fast sprint and all the power Taehyung can channel into his legs to make it across. Jungkook can clear these like he’s walking through the park, but Taehyung doesn’t have his stamina, agility, or muscles. It’s even harder for Yoongi, who lands in a rough-looking roll, tumbling across the slanted roof to crash into the concrete ledge. Pieces break loose, falling into the fog-covered void below, but the part supporting Yoongi holds.

“Hyung,” Taehyung still gasps in alarm.

“I’m fine,” Yoongi mutters, standing. He’s got a bloody scrape high on his cheekbone and across the bridge of his nose, visible above the mask still secured on his face. “Keep going.”

Crossing another roof and then a third and final jump places them near the edge of the condemned zone. Since the alarm was already triggered, they should be able to slip back through unnoticed, especially since it seems they've lost the police. 

Yoongi guides him back down to ground level, carefully picking his way through debris and rubble. Some of the stairs have broken off completely, forcing them to hug the wall and shuffle carefully across the narrow ledges left. Taehyung’s heart is hammering so hard, he’s amazed it’s still in his chest. He’s never been a daredevil like Jungkook, or even Jimin. He’d rather be somewhere safe with his computer, not picking his way through ruined buildings, inches from a nasty death.

But this is his fault, so he can’t really complain.

Finally, they’re climbing out of another shattered window and into what used to be an alley. No sign of the police.

They still stick to the shadows as they approach the boundary - a towering fence covered in flashing warning signs. Fortunately, the government doesn’t have the resources to electrify it like they probably want to, meaning it’s a relatively simple climb up and over. Yoongi urges Taehyung up first, then scrambles after him, landing in a crouch in the quiet street beyond.

It’s almost completely dark now - only a few hours until curfew - and they head towards the bus stop in silence. Board in silence and take their seats in the back. Fortunately, their driver is a Marked, so they don’t get overcharged. The bus is also empty except for a woman and a small child near the front. The child is crying and the woman - his mother, Taehyung guesses - is trying frantically to shush him.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung whispers, just audible above the noise.

Yoongi takes off his ratty baseball cap and runs a hand through his dark hair. He doesn’t yell, Yoongi never yells, but his voice is cold when he asks, “what the fuck were you thinking?”

Taehyung cringes, old fear bubbling in his belly. That this is going to be the last straw - that Yoongi is going to throw him and Jimin out of the apartment they’ve been lucky enough to call home for the last two years.

Sorry, we don’t want this kind of trouble in our family anymore. Get lost.

“I was just trying to help,” Taehyung says. “The delivery schedules changed. You needed to know when to intercept.”

“We have people we bribe for that, Taehyung,” Yoongi snaps. Taehyung - no nickname, no familiar “ah.” He’s really in deep shit. “You didn’t need to try to hack the fucking government. You’re lucky you didn’t set off more alarms and special forces didn’t fucking descend on us.”

Taehyung winces again. It had been a stupid idea, he’ll admit that. He’d been overconfident. Sure of his skills. Thought he could help Yoongi gather information for the smuggling network, stalled over the last few weeks because of raids and schedule changes. Winter is critical - people need extra goods to survive. He hadn’t anticipated that the government would be able to track his signal to his location. Hadn’t anticipated getting Yoongi - who believed Taehyung was just doing routine surveillance from their hiding place while he spoke with a contact nearby - caught up in it, too.

Lucky for them both, Yoongi’s an expert at shaking the police.

Still, it had been far too close of a call. And Taehyung’s equipment probably would have led the police back to the others, too, meaning sanctioning for all of them.

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung repeats, hating that he’s close to tears and his hands are shaking. “I’m sorry, hyung.” Please don’t kick me out.

Yoongi looks away, shoulders tense, and Taehyung bows his head. They spend the rest of the journey in silence. And Taehyung wasn’t going to say anything at all - feels pathetic about groveling even though that’s what he wants to do - but as they approach their apartment building he can't help blurting, “are you gonna kick me out?”

Yoongi, two steps ahead of him, freezes in the middle of the street.

“Because,”Taehyung continues, “it should just be me. Don’t punish Jimin for this, too.”

Even if Jimin would probably come with him in solidarity.

Yoongi turns around. All Taehyung can see under the fizzling streetlights are the wounds on his face and his dark eyes. They’re both still wearing masks, but even without one, Yoongi’s always felt like something of an enigma.

“Taehyung-ah,” he says quietly. “Why would I kick you out?”

“Because I fucked up,” Taehyung mutters, scuffing his boot along the cracked asphalt.

Yoongi sighs. “We all fuck up. Hoseok nearly caught the apartment on fire yesterday. And Jungkook was two minutes away from being arrested last week.”

He closes the distance between them. Taps Taehyung’s chin up. “I’m mad at you for being careless, but that doesn’t mean you’re not still family. When I asked you and Jimin to stay, that offer was permanent, kid. Nothing you do would ever make me revoke it.”

“And if I got us sanctioned?” Taehyung whispers around the fear still knotted in his throat. “Got you sanctioned?”

“Then I’d try to protect you,” Yoongi replies without hesitation. “And if it was just me…”

“I’d find you,” Taehyung interrupts. “I swear I would.”

Yoongi’s eyes have softened. “I know,” he says. “Even if I wouldn’t want you to.” He squeezes Taehyung’s shoulder. “Just … be more careful, Tae-yah. I don’t want to lose any of my family.”

Family, he’s family, and even though he still feels bad for what happened earlier, warmth is slowly diffusing through his veins in place of the fear.

“I will,” he promises, and means it, in that moment.

Yoongi nods, then gestures towards their building. Towards home. “C’mon, the others are probably worried.”

He sets off, a brisk pace, but like always Taehyung is content to follow him. Knows that Yoongi does his best to look after them and -

Now

- a pinging alert on his computer startles Taehyung from his thoughts. He jerks upright in his chair, quickly silencing it.

He’s back in the condemned zone, right on the edge, because no one looks here and it’s easy to piggyback off the government’s wireless. He’s afraid of making any place permanent - too much risk - but he’s got some equipment stored on the third floor of this long-abandoned office building, along with a blanket and some spare food. Outside the filthy, cracked windows, the rain has turned to snow.

His computer is still flashing. He’s been trawling through auction house records for the last few days and fuck, there’s finally, actually a hit. A good hit. The government does what they can to erase sanctioneds’ former identities, but they usually don’t have Taehyung to contend with. He figured out Yoongi’s and Jungkook’s chip numbers months ago, but there are over a dozen auction houses in the city, with hundreds of sanctioned moving through them, and records aren’t kept for long. Meaning, actually finding evidence of them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Of needles.

But this is Yoongi, he’s sure of it. The chip number matches, as does the physical descriptors and the blood type. This is Yoongi and he was sold five days ago. To -

Oh fuck.

Taehyung’s stomach crashes down to the vicinity of his shoes. He’s seen this name before, in records and underground chatter, always with a level of fear attached to it. Like it belongs to a monster instead of a man.

Kim Namjoon.

From a lesser branch of the Kim family, one of the Eight. Responsible for transportation and energy throughout Seoul. But no one cares about that. It’s the dark rumors that swirl around him - the ones that whisper about how Kim Namjoon kills companions. How no one bought by him is ever seen again, or resold.

He murders them, the whispers say, brutally.

Sometimes, it can apparently take him months to slowly torture a companion to death, until they’re begging to be put out of their misery.

And he’s bought Yoongi.

Taehyung slams the laptop closed and shoves it in his backpack with timorous hands. Hides everything else.

Then runs towards the bus as fast as his legs can carry him.

 

_ _

 

Kim Namjoon is still a mystery.

He lives, by all accounts, a very boring life. Gets up at seven on the dot just about every morning. Dresses in a suit for his mysterious job he never talks about. Has cold noodles for breakfast, or sometimes a banana. Leaves at exactly 7:45 a.m. and locks the door behind him. Returns at exactly 5:30 p.m. and disappears into his locked wing of the house to change into softer clothes and don his glasses - musses up his hair as he reemerges and sighs, like he’s coming unstarched piece by piece. Reheats dinner or calls in for takeout. (Which, Yoongi thought that was a myth - restaurants that will actually bring food to you - but it’s apparently common in Sector 1.) Reads for a few hours. Then goes to bed.

But a week in, and he’s also kept his word - hasn’t touched Yoongi except to change his bandages, has provided him with more than enough food, and doesn’t seem interested in restricting his movements around the apartment. The clothes Yoongi is wearing (after Namjoon took his measurements and disappeared for an afternoon) are soft and expensive. There are more in the dresser in his room and Namjoon lets him pick whatever he wants, says nothing when Yoongi makes sure as much of him is covered as possible. In fact, he seems content to mostly ignore Yoongi apart from a few stilted conversations.

But the clock is ticking. Busan, Namjoon said, as soon as Yoongi’s wounds healed. They almost have, nothing but faded bruises and scabbed over sores now, and Yoongi is running out of time.

Hurry, Hoseok whispers to him almost daily. You have to hurry, love.

So far, though, a search of the apartment hasn’t turned up any evidence of Namjoon’s intentions. He was expecting a room hidden somewhere, maybe, or tools. Records of past companions. Photos.

More than likely, it’s all in Namjoon’s office or bedroom - beyond the passcode locked door - and Yoongi hasn’t been able to crack that yet, either. He watched, surreptitiously, one evening as Namjoon opened it to retrieve something and it’s a six digit code, but he wasn’t close enough to make out the numbers.

Today, he’s pulling books off the wall to wall shelves in the living room, ignoring the way his bruises twinge as he stretches to reach the higher ones. His first master had a hidden room only accessible by a button on his bookshelf, so maybe that’s a trend among elite. Yoongi isn’t taking any chances.

He’s got two sections finished - no luck - and has started on the third when the front door clicks open. Shit, Namjoon's back almost two hours early and there are books dumped haphazardly all over the sofa. Which Yoongi is balanced on the back of, in the middle of wrenching several more off the shelf as Namjoon rounds the corner and sees him.

He pauses. Blinks.

Yoongi swallows down fear and excuses. Keeps himself still. This would be ridiculous, even funny, if Namjoon didn’t have the power to hurt him.

“What … what are you doing?” Namjoon asks after an excruciating moment of silence.

He sounds more baffled than angry, but moods can flip easily and abruptly. Like a sudden shift in the current of the wind.

“Rearranging,” Yoongi blurts, trying to keep his own voice calm. He doesn’t want to think about what a normal master would do if they caught him in this position. “I was … I was bored, I’m sorry, ma-Namjoon.”

Namjoon’s brow furrows. “But they’re already in alphabetical order?”  

Shit fuck.

“I’m-I’m sorry, I didn’t realize-” Yoongi stammers, trying to play up the empty-headed companion stereotype. “I’ll put them back.”

“Please do,” Namjoon says, still without any detectable anger. He loosens the tie around his neck. “And please don’t rearrange them again. I like them how they are. If you’re bored, maybe try reading them?” He freezes. “Wait … can you read?”

“Yes,” Yoongi mutters, then kicks himself. It probably would have been better for Namjoon to think him illiterate. But he still has some pride and he worked hard , teaching himself to read and write when the orphanage refused to provide any kind of education.

Namjoon actually blushes. “Oh. Right. I’m sorry.”

He apologizes so easily. Yoongi hates it - the burst of warmth it gives him.

“I’ll finish putting these back,” he says, ducking his head. He still manages to catch Namjoon’s nod in his periphery.

“I’ll go change,” Namjoon says. “Then we should have a look at your bandages.”

Normally, this is an evening ritual of theirs and Yoongi’s trepidation at the change in routine must show on his face because Namjoon smiles grimly. “I have a dinner tonight. So we have to do it now.”

Oh. Right.

Yoongi nods and bows for good measure, just in case Namjoon is still upset about the books. Namjoon shakes his head but doesn’t say anything else, retreating behind his locked door. Yoongi breathes into the stillness of the living room for a long moment, trying to soothe his jangling nerves. His fingers are still trembling slightly when he starts stacking books back on the shelves, careful to keep them in alphabetical order, but he ignores it. Fear sometimes leeches out of his body in ways he can’t control and it’s something he’s grown used to.

Too soon, Namjoon returns to the living room and beckons him down the hall to the now very familiar bathroom. Yoongi strips, shoving the usual extra rush of terror down deep, and Namjoon carefully checks his various bruises and welts.

“They’re healing a lot faster than I thought,” he says, fingers skimming gently over Yoongi’s ribs. “I actually think we can move up the timetable.”

Fuck.

“What…” Yoongi ventures carefully, “what does that mean?”

Namjoon rubs some cream onto the bruises, keeping his touch light. “It’s better if you don’t know too much right now, but I’ll explain everything soon. We should be ready by the middle of next week.”

Five days. That’s five days from now.

Yoongi keeps his face blank as he dresses again. Namjoon smiles, but it mostly looks hesitant and a little pained - washed out in the glow of the bathroom lights. “Everything will be okay. Trust me.”

Unlikely, Yoongi thinks darkly, but he merely nods. Says nothing as Namjoon putters around the apartment, getting ready for his night out.

“I should be back pretty late,” he says, shrugging on a dinner jacket made out of what looks like midnight blue velvet. His hair is messy, but artfully so, and in another universe, Yoongi might feel a rush of attraction.

In this one, he just wants to slit Namjoon’s throat.

“So don’t bother waiting up, okay?” Namjoon continues, securing a very expensive-looking watch on his wrist. “And of course feel free to help yourself to any food.”

Yoongi nods again. “Have a good evening,” he murmurs.

Namjoon’s smile is a little brighter now, showing off his dimples. Yoongi hates that someone so cruel wears innocence and kindness so well. “You, too. See you tomorrow.”

And then he’s gone. Yoongi waits a for a minute. Five. Just to make sure Namjoon doesn’t suddenly return. When the door remains closed and the apartment empty, he moves, darting over to the only locked drawer in the kitchen.

The knife drawer, but this one Yoongi can pick easily. And he doubts Namjoon, who only uses the kitchen to reheat food in his fancy microwave, will notice if one goes missing.

It takes him three minutes to spring the lock, using a safety pin from a different drawer full of random junk. And bingo. Lots of knives, all of them sharp and gleaming.

He pulls out the largest one - a wicked-looking steak knife - locks the drawer again.

Plan B, Hoseok’s voice says, grim and determined.

He has five days, he thinks as he slides the knife under his mattress. That’s enough time to strike first. And once Kim Namjoon is dead, he’ll be free to run.

 

_ _

 

God, he’s tired. A bone-deep exhaustion that hit when he took over the smuggling network and hasn’t abated since. It’s hard, without Yoongi. The identity of Agust was designed to outlive him, but though Jimin has the moniker and the cap and the mask now, he’s missing Yoongi’s authority - the larger than life quality of his presence. And then of course, the increased raids - courtesy of their lovely new king - means the network has once again stalled and Jimin doesn’t see a quick or easy way to restart it.

With winter fast approaching, he can’t help feeling as though he’s failed. People need goods, and Jimin can’t deliver them.

And he misses Yoongi beyond that. With Yoongi at their head of their makeshift family, it was easier to believe that anything was possible if you fought hard enough. He can almost see Yoongi across the table from him now, leaning forward to flick his face. Saying in that gruff, affectionate tone of his stop beating yourself up, kid.

A hand lands on his shoulder and squeezes tight. Hoseok, who is trying so hard, too.

“You should eat,” he says quietly, nodding towards Jimin’s untouched bowl of stew.

It’s dark outside and there still isn’t any sign of Taehyung. Jimin’s trying not to panic - not to think about the fact that he’d go mad if he lost Taehyung, the one constant in his life, on top of Yoongi and Jungkook.

“I need to go back out soon.”

Being out after curfew is dangerous, but it’s the only time his contact was willing to meet. Heechul is paranoid even on a good day, and with police eyes everywhere he’s only gotten worse. Soon, he probably won’t be willing to pass information on to Jimin at all.

There isn’t a lot you get out of helping a Marked.

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Hoseok grumbles, like he doesn’t spend half his days making illegal radio broadcasts.

“Desperate times,” Jimin says and shovels a spoonful of stew into his mouth. It’s too salty. Hoseok isn’t the cook Yoongi was, even if that thought makes Jimin feel horribly guilty.

He’s halfway done with the salty stew when the door opens so hard it nearly comes off its hinges and Taehyung barrels into the apartment like the city police are on his heels. Jimin jolts to his feet and Hoseok pauses in the middle of gathering laundry to hang up on the wires strung across the ceiling.

“Tae?” Jimin asks as Taehyung pauses to catch his breath, yanking his face mask down, and closes the door against the frigid air now rushing in.

His eyes are bright, almost manic. “I found Yoongi,” he gasps out and it’s like a bomb going off in the middle of the apartment. “I found Yoongi-hyung.”

“What?” Hoseok demands when his shock wears off, marching over to grab Taehyung’s shoulders. “Are you serious?”

Jimin is still frozen by the table, trying to comprehend this. They’ve gotten close to Jungkook once, but they’ve never been able to locate any trace of Yoongi - not even a cold trail.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, kicking off his boots and dropping his gloves on the table. “He was sold five days ago. Sector 1 elite.”

Hoseok deflates. “So there’s nothing we can do,” he whispers.

“Are you kidding?” Taehyung asks - and god, he used to be the most timid of them, content to hide behind Jimin and his machinery, observing the world from a distance. What would Yoongi and Jungkook think, seeing him on fire like this?

“We’re gonna rescue him,” Taehyung continues, finally dumping his backpack on the floor with a loud thud. “As soon as possible.”

That’s … fuck that’s crazy. If Jimin didn’t know Taehyung, he would think this is some kind of sick joke. They barely managed to make it to an auction house in Sector 4 and even then they still were too late for Jungkook. Rescuing someone from Sector 1? Where Marked are strictly forbidden to go and is crawling with the best security in the city? They’d probably be dead before they got two feet inside the boundary. That is if by some miracle they managed to make it past the checkpoint.

“Rescue him?” Hoseok repeats with the same disbelief Jimin is experiencing. “Taehyung-ah, that’s impossible.”

“It’s difficult,” Taehyung counters. “It isn’t impossible.”

“Difficult is an understatement,” Jimin grumbles.

“They’d do it for us,” Taehyung says, crossing his arms over his chest. “You know they would.”

Of course they would. Yoongi would move mountains, shake the earth, rattle the fucking stars to keep them safe and Jungkook has always been too willing to risk his own life for the few people in this world he considers precious. But fate or cruelty or the universe - whatever you want to call it - took the best of them. Jimin, Taehyung, and Hoseok don’t have that kind of power or strength or determination.

“Taehyungie,” he murmurs, trying to figure out how to explain all that without sounding like he’s giving up.

“We have to try, Chim,” Taehyung says, leveling him with look so fierce that for a moment Jimin swears he’s looking at Jungkook. “We owe it to them to try.”

“And if we get caught?” Hoseok presses. “Killed? What good are we, then? We should wait until he ends up back at an auction house and-”

“There won’t be another auction house,” Taehyung interjects.

“What?” Jimin asks, horror twisting his stomach. Taehyung couldn’t mean the boarding houses. If Yoongi or Jungkook were sent to one of them, there wouldn’t be enough left to save.

“I’ve heard of the man who bought him,” Taehyung says. “He’s … he kills his companions. It’s why he buys them. No one ever comes back alive. Not in years.

“Fuck,” Hoseok hiccups, scrubbing a hand over his face, then raking it through his dark hair. “Fuck.

“So we have to try,” Taehyung says, glancing back and forth between them with a mixture of desperation and determination. “You know we have to.”

“Fuck,” Hoseok repeats and sinks down into the chair. It groans beneath his weight and Jimin shifts to rest a hand against his back. It was Hoseok and Yoongi before any of them, and the love that Hoseok holds for Yoongi is a different kind than what Jimin and Taehyung have. A dangerous kind, because it hurts far too much when it ends - when it’s cut short.

Just looking at him, Jimin knows he’s going to say yes. No matter how terrified, he is. No matter the odds stacked against him.

If it’s this or let Yoongi die, there isn’t really a choice at all, is there?

“Okay,” he says to Taehyung with far more bravery than he feels. “We need a plan.”

“How long do we have?” Hoseok asks, pulling his head up. Familiar fire is slowly replacing the fear and despair on his face.

“I don’t know,” Taehyung says. “A month? Maybe two? Rumors say he likes to take his time.”

Jimin’s heart quakes at the thought of Yoongi in the hands of such a monster. Even though Yoongi’s the strongest person he’s ever known, there are some things that are impossible to fight.

“Fuck,” Hoseok says a third time. “Okay. We need to start moving.”

He gets back to his feet and he’s Hope now - the resistance figure who keeps defying the government, no matter what they try to throw at him. “Jimin-ah, talk to Heechul tonight, we’ll need papers to get us past the Sector 1 and 2 checkpoints. I have some ration cards saved away, so offer those if you need a last resort. Taehyung-ah, find out everything you can about Kim Namjoon, especially where he lives. I’ll talk to Jisoo about train passes. We have to do this fast, but the plan needs to be airtight or we’re all dead.”

“On it, hyung,” Taehyung says, picking his bag back up. He’ll probably go to one of his usual boltholes with supplies and good wireless. He’s been known to hide out for days sometimes, until the worry gets to be too much and Jimin finds him and drags him home.

“Stay in contact,” Hoseok says, nodding toward his contraband cell phone sitting on the kitchen counter. They all have one, but use is normally reserved for emergencies.

Well. Jimin supposes this probably classifies as an emergency.

“We will,” he promises Hoseok.

God, they’re actually doing this.

With that thought clanging around in his head, he follows Taehyung out into the night.

 

_ _

 

Every few months, Namjoon dines alone at a five star restaurant in the heart of Sector 1. A place so upscale a dinner jacket is required for all male patrons, and an evening gown for all women. A live pianist draws haunting notes from the ostentatious piano in the center of the circular dining room and one entire wall is a curved fish tank full of the most exotic fish money and limited natural resources can buy.

Namjoon’s table is always in the corner, close to the tank. He positions himself so that his watch and silver earrings catch in the light, reminding everyone of his wealth and status, and makes sure to keep his most imperious mask on as he orders wine and steak from a flustered waiter. He picks this table because it’s fairly out of the way, but also because he identifies with the fish swimming behind him, also caught in a glass cage.

Maybe that’s him being melodramatic, but really he hates this place. The sparkling crystal chandeliers and plush red carpet and pristine tablecloths. The dazzling and shallow patrons who laugh over luxurious food and make plans to stab each other in the back as soon as dinner is done. He’d much rather be reading at home, or sitting in a quiet, hole-in-the-wall noodle place. But it’s important to make public appearances every once in awhile and this is the place Jackson chose for deliveries.

Probably because he knows just how much Namjoon hates it.

He always times it perfectly, too - a waiter breezing up to deliver a glass of champagne just as Namjoon is about to take a bite of his steak.

“Compliments from table seven,” the waiter says and sets the glass delicately down by Namjoon's plate.

Namjoon nods and stands, fishing the packet of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket. “Watch my table for me.”

“Of course, sir,” the waiter says and positions himself like a sentry, probably hoping for a tip for his efforts. (Which - Namjoon would tip regardless, always does, but he isn't about to let the man know that and risk him slacking off.)

Namjoon exits the restaurant, lighting his cigarette as soon as he steps outside. He hates smoking, too, but it’s a good cover. The best reason he could think of to be ducking into the alley next to the restaurant. There’s a skip parked here, nearly full, and Namjoon takes one last drag of his cigarette before lifting the lid in a show of dumping it and the pack inside.

A familiar manila envelope is tucked in the corner, on top of a garbage bag - a heart scrawled across the front because Jackson is also ridiculous - and Namjoon tucks that into his suit jacket. In the empty cigarette box is a chip with money loaded onto it that Jackson will collect as soon as Namjoon’s back inside.

It’s a system they’ve had in place ever since Namjoon started this little operation. Jackson’s one of the best forgers in the city and Namjoon’s fortunate to have known him since childhood.

He salutes the shadows where he knows Jackson is probably watching the drop and heads back inside to finish his steak.

 

_ _ 

 

Later, in the safety of his car, he opens the envelope and pulls out the documents inside: a new ID card, new birth certificate, travel papers that will get Yoongi from Seoul to Busan, an assigned apartment for when he makes it to the city, a work permit so he can find a job - everything needed to start a new life. There's a second set as well, for Seokjin's companion.

If everything goes according to plan, Yoongi will be Namjoon’s thirty-fifth relocation in the past three years.

It’s far too small a number.

Namjoon sighs and thanks the driver when the car slows to a stop in front of his apartment building. He pauses outside, shivering in the winter chill, and dials Seokjin’s number.

“Everything go okay?” Seokjin asks as soon as he picks up.

Namjoon hums. “Yeah. Jackson always comes through. I have documents for you, too.”

He can hear the sigh of relief that Seokjin lets out. He trusts people far less than Namjoon does, which is probably a good thing, in the long run.

“How’s your guest holding up?” Namjoon asks.

“Fine,” Seokjin says. “She’s skittish, but I think she’ll be fine relocating. She’s still got fire in her.”

They always try to go for the fighters - you have to be one, to be willing to live a lie in a new city in exchange for a measure of freedom.

“Yours?”

“About the same.” He thinks of Yoongi’s constantly averted gaze, the hunted bend of his shoulders and spine, the way he flinches sometimes when Namjoon gets too close - not even aware he’s doing it. But then he was clearly searching through Namjoon’s books today and blatantly lied to Namjoon’s face about it, so that’s a good sign. “He’s going to leave earlier than expected, though. Heading out next week.”

“Oh, I see,” Seokjin says, sounding a little surprised. “Well mine will be staying until the week after.”

They usually try to stagger relocations by a few weeks, safer that way, and normally they talk about it before deciding who goes first, but Namjoon feels uneasy with Yoongi around. More so than the normal awkwardness of keeping a companion and having to act like a master. He’s used to his skin crawling and the guilt that haunts his sleep, but with Yoongi there’s an itch in the back of his mind that he can’t rid himself of.  Almost like he’s missing something.

As crazy as that sounds.

“Keep me posted?” Namjoon says instead of trying to convey all of this to Seokjin on an unsecured phone call. “I’ll run the papers over to you in a few days.”

“I will. Take care of yourself, Joon-ah.”

“Always do,” Namjoon says softly. “You take care of yourself, too, hyung.”

“Always do,” Seokjin parrots and hangs up.

He never says good-bye. Insists it’s bad luck.

Namjoon shakes his head and pockets his phone. The night guard nods in greeting when Namjoon enters the lobby and swipes his card on the elevator. It’s glass, allowing the occupant to see all of Seoul spread out beneath them as they ascend. Namjoon’s always liked the lights of the city at night, even as he wonders what the stars look like. He’s seen picture of them, in books and online - Old World research documents still floating around from an era where mankind supposedly walked among them - but never in real life.

He thinks they must be breathtaking.

The elevator dings, dragging him out of his thoughts, and he presses his thumb to the pad on his door. The apartment is quiet, but he's surprised to see Yoongi on the couch, a book open in his lap. The Calamity, about the supposed death of the Old World.

Namjoon’s always hated it - the unfounded accusations it makes against the Marked in particular - but he doesn’t believe in throwing away books. Especially ones most elite are expected to own.

“Welcome back,” Yoongi says. He rarely raises his tone above a whisper and tonight is no exception.

“Thank you,” Namjoon murmurs, softening his voice to match Yoongi’s volume. He takes off his watch and the itchy dinner jacket. Rubs at his gelled hair. His contacts are starting to burn, too, and he wants nothing more than to go stand in a hot shower for at least twenty minutes, but he feels bad just ignoring Yoongi. “Liking the book?”

Of all the companions Namjoon’s had, Yoongi is certainly the boldest. Most usually prefer to stay hidden in the guest room as much as possible. A few have insisted on trying to serve him in spite of his protests. One had selective mutism and wouldn’t speak at all in his presence. And sure, none have been the damaged wrecks that Namjoon sometimes sees in the houses of other elite, but Yoongi….

Namjoon gets the feeling that Yoongi’s observing him, sizing him up, trying to get under his skin and behind his armor to see what he’s hiding. It’s unnerving and Namjoon doesn’t really know what to make of it, or if it’s all just in his head.

Seated on the couch with his legs tucked up under him, Yoongi hardly seems threatening. He’s small and delicate-looking - black hair falling messy across his forehead and around his ears, drowning in almost three layers of clothing (Namjoon bought everything a little big on purpose, sensing that Yoongi found comfort in it), auction house issued earrings glinting in his ears and swaying whenever he turns his head.

But people are rarely what they seem. Even companions.

“Are you going to bed?” Yoongi asks. He keeps halting awkwardly at the end of his questions, like he wants to tack on “master” out of reflex and has to stop himself.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. “You should get some rest, too.”

Yoongi nods, amenable as always, and maybe Namjoon is being paranoid. It’ll all be over in a few days, anyway. Once he gets the go ahead on a train ticket from Jackson, he’ll explain everything to Yoongi and send him off to Busan to hopefully find a better life.

“Goodnight, Yoongi,” he says.

“Goodnight, Namjoon,” Yoongi replies.

Namjoon heads for his bedroom door. Quickly enters the passcode for the lock.

He can feel Yoongi’s dark eyes on him the whole time, boring into his back like twin daggers. He swallows at the strange chill that runs down his spine and closes the door hard behind him, only breathing again when the lock beeps.

Chapter Text

“...I know you feel tired. Scared. Hopeless. We look into our future and there is only bleak emptiness. But you have to keep fighting. Nothing changes on its own. Even when they kick you down, get back up. Get back up. No empire has ever lasted forever. They can’t hide that fact, no matter how many Old World records they burn.”

excerpt from a broadcast by revolutionary figure, Hope

 

 

_ _ 

 

Seokjin calls him a day before Yoongi is set to leave. Namjoon was planning on sitting down with him tonight and showing him the papers. Explaining everything that’s going to happen in the next twenty-four hours - all the moving pieces. He’d been looking forward to it with something close to relief. The last few days have been tense and he can feel Yoongi watching him constantly - gaze drilling deep into his spine, right to the marrow. He wants the peace of his apartment back. Wants to be able to finally breathe.

But Seokjin opens their conversation with: “my guest is leaving earlier than expected. This morning, actually.”

And all the relief evaporates.

“What? Why?”

Seokjin sighs, a crackle over the phone. “I think she’s a flight risk. And I need to attend a party tonight.”

“A party? You hate parties, hyung.”

Especially the ones Seokjin is referring to. They’re merely chances for the elite to engage in rampant hedonism and backstabbing, and Namjoon has avoided them like the plague since he was eighteen and could refuse his uncle’s constant invitations.

“I know. But this is Yoo Minseok throwing a party, and he never throws parties.”

Yoo Minseok - a member of the Eight. The Yoo family has been in charge of the city’s police force for near a century, as well as vetting the king’s own guard. They’d be a powerful connection, if Seokjin could get close to one of them. Especially their current heir.

“Do you think he’ll be able to help us?”

“The opposite, actually,” Seokjin says, sounding tired. “He’s a monster, but I think he’s getting ready to take over from his father - you’ve heard the rumors about illness - and he’s decided to have some fun. Either way, it’s worth going.  Are you okay to keep your guest a little longer?”

Namjoon glances to the closed door of the guest bedroom where Yoongi is either sleeping or trying to eavesdrop. “I’m sure a few more days will be fine. I’d just … rather get a move on things, you know? Things are tense right now. It would be better to have him gone.”

“Three days,” Seokjin says. “Can you wait that long?”

"Three days,” Namjoon agrees. “Have fun tonight.”

Seokjin lets out a dry laugh. “Let’s just hope the alcohol is good.”

“Take care, hyung.”

“You, too.”

He hangs up. Namjoon glances at the closed door and sucks in a deep breath. Three days shouldn’t be too bad. Yoongi’s been quiet so far - complacent, kept his head down - and Namjoon doubts he’ll try anything major. Escape would be foolish and end in disaster. He’s just being overly paranoid, that’s all. This strange dread that’s taken up residence in the pit of his stomach is from so many years of secrecy.

Three days, he tells himself. Everything will be fine.

 

_ _

 

It would be better to have him gone - the words ring in Yoongi’s head as he backs away from the door. Better to have him gone.

He wasn’t sure when Namjoon was going to make his move. Wanted to wait a little longer before striking - make sure he has a way out. There was a half-formed plan in his head about cutting off Namjoon’s thumb to access the elevator and then disguising himself as a member of the building staff to get outside. From there, it would be easier. He knows how to get through a checkpoint, even one as heavily guarded as Sector 1, and he still has connections that could hide him in a different sector until the inevitable witch hunt ended. Help him look for Jungkook.

Of course, he’d also have to cut the tracker out of his neck, but that’s a minor detail. Easily handled.

It looks like he doesn’t have time to fine tune anymore. Three days, Namjoon said, but fuck that. Yoongi isn’t waiting that long, especially if he changes his mind. Namjoon’s clearly tiring of his presence - probably impatient with Yoongi’s healing and this charade of kindness. He wants to have his fun.

Yoongi crosses the room and crouches by the bed, reaching a hand under the mattress to brush against the handle of the knife.

Fuck that, fuck Kim Namjoon. He’s fucking done being someone’s plaything. Isn’t going to just roll over and die for anyone.

Tonight, he decides as he gets back to his feet. He’ll strike tonight.

 

_ _

 

“You’re sure about this?” Hoseok asks, for what feels like the fifth time today.

It had taken longer than Jimin anticipated, to get the papers from Heechul: nearly a full week. During that time, as least, Taehyung was able to procure an address for Kim Namjoon. Or at least, a suspected address. Elite records are kept very hush hush, so all they have is speculation and the few breadcrumbs Taehyung managed to follow with a shitty Sector 10 connection. It’s going to have to be enough. They’re on a clock that’s ticking down faster and faster and Jimin refuses to be late this time.

“Yes,” he says, sliding the forged papers into his wallet. “I’m sure.”

It should be him, it needs to be him. Hoseok and Taehyung are too valuable to lose, and besides he’s the best at this. Has always been an expert at camouflaging himself, putting on whatever mask he needed to blend in and survive. It’s how he kept himself and Taehyung alive on the streets for so long and it’s the reason Yoongi tapped him to take over the smuggling network if anything happened.

Tonight he has on his best coat and a scarf carefully tied around his neck. Beneath that is contraband foundation concealing his mark. He styled his hair with gel, slicking it back off his forehead. Every speck of dirt and grime he could find has been meticulously washed away and with the coveralls and a messenger bag, he looks like any outer sector worker, on his way to a job in a Sector 5 factory.

Hoseok’s face is still pinched with worry, lips turned down in a triangle frown. He’s scared, Jimin knows, of losing him or Taehyung. Scared, always, that he’s going to be left alone. Jimin can’t do much to reassure him - not when they all constantly put their lives at risk - but he still steps around the table and folds Hoseok into a tight hug.

“It’s going to be okay, hyung,” he murmurs. Hoseok tries so hard to be strong for them, to look after them, that sometimes Jimin forgets he needs comfort, too. Needs soothing words, no matter how empty they might be. They all have to hold on to hope, somehow. “We’ll get him back.”

Hoseok returns the hug tightly, petting the back of Jimin’s head. “Just be careful. Please. Come back in one piece.”

“I will,” Jimin promises and is determined not to make it a lie. “I will.”

Hoseok steps back with a nod. A smile that’s a little watery at the edges. “I’ll hold you to that, kid.”

Jimin shifts his bag higher over his shoulder. He would say good-bye to Taehyung, but he hasn’t been home in two days - busy chasing various wireless hotspots around the city. And besides, this is only supposed to be a one day trip. He’ll see Taehyung tomorrow, as long as everything goes according to plan.

“See you soon,” he tells Hoseok and slips out the front door.

It’s easy, out on the street, to fall in with the crowd on their way to the train station for work. Marked occupy much of this sector, and aren’t allowed to leave it unless under special circumstances, but the ordinary citizens, blessed to be born without mutated DNA, usually have jobs closer to the inner city, where the pay is better and the working conditions not so grim. Poverty is everywhere here, true, for Marked and unmarked alike, but those who can find jobs beyond the sector usually stand a better chance of eventual escape.

People like Jimin? They’re supposed to live and die out here - far away from the eyes of the elite.

He’s been to other sectors before, but never by train. There are other ways to slip through, if you’re clever enough. If you’re Yoongi - who showed him all the cracks in the boundaries. A delivery truck that takes stowaways here, an old gate there - they’ll get you into 9, 8, and maybe even 7 - with its massive greenhouses. But for Sectors 5 and up, where security is tighter, it’s the train or bust.

He takes a deep breath as he gets in line for the security checkpoint, making sure to keep his face schooled into a bored mask. Heechul’s good. The papers and travelcard should hold up. It’s his fucking neck he’s the most worried about.

“Next,” the guard calls, bored, and Jimin realizes that he means him.

He moves forward, hurried but purposefully casual, and hands the man his work permit, clearing him for a factory job in Sector 5, and his travelcard. The guard scans them and the light on the machine beeps green.

“Scarf,” he says, pointing.

Jimin tugs the scarf down to expose his neck, silently praying that the foundation has held.

Apparently it has, because there’s no call for backup or motion to arrest him. The guard just nods and hands him back his papers, waving him through the gate to the train platform.

He keeps his head down as he goes, clutching his bag tightly. The next train is due in five minutes, so he finds a spot at the end of the platform to wait, watching it slowly fill up with workers. Most of them look tired and washed out, staring blankly straight ahead, and Jimin slowly relaxes his guard. Without the Mark, he’s just another face in the crowd, nothing to force him to stand out.

It’s early dawn, so he stares up at the sky lightening overhead - gold steadily chasing away the black - until the train rattles up. It’s a scramble for the doors and he ends up crushed against the far wall between two burly looking men in similar coveralls to him. They chat, ignoring him completely, and he listens to them ramble about their wives and children; complain about the cost of heating now that winter is setting in; contemplate what it would take to move. Even Sector 8 or 9 would be better, surely.

Jimin doubts that’s true. Just another lie the elite have fed to everyone. Someday, you’ll work your way in. Someday, you’ll make it to the gleaming center. All it will cost you is most of your life, if not all of it.

It’s sad. It makes his blood boil.

The journey to 5 is over half an hour, with a stop in each sector between, so he pretends to doze with his head tipped against the frigid glass of the window. He’s never been on a train before, and the rattle and shake of it around him is strangely soothing. He’s almost sad when the Sector 5 station appears outside the windows and the train slows to another stop. The men exit, along with several dozen others, and Jimin keeps them between him and security as they leave the station.

The buildings here are cleaner, he notices immediately, and far less ramshackle - like they actually get repaired instead of being left to rot. They’re modest, sure, but all the stores seem to be well-stocked and the streets also free of debris. In the distance, the factories near the city wall loom, their smokestacks stretching towards the sky. That’s where the men are going, undoubtedly, but Jimin heads in the opposite direction, towards the second train line. This one is an express, reserved for government business only, and runs almost directly into Sector 1.

Heechul gave him coordinates for an alley nearby and a dumpster with an envelope in it - supposedly from one of his contacts in Sector 1. Someone who goes by the moniker of J and is apparently one of the best forgers in the city, according to Heechul. Who is actually the best forger Jimin knows by far, so that’s high praise.

He finds the alley fairly easily, just two blocks from the station, running behind a series of furniture stores (amazing - that people can just go out and buy new furniture when old stuff breaks, instead of having to cobble it back together), and the blue skip. Sure enough, tucked inside, between some trash bags, is a plain manila envelope with a smiley face drawn on it.

Jimin snorts as he extracts it. No wonder Heechul, with his flair for drama, likes this guy.

Inside is a fresh set of documents, this one for an auctioneer. Sometimes, they travel into Sector 1 and 2 to have private consultations with clients and that’s supposed to be his cover. Butterflies flutter in his stomach, but Heechul trusts J - and Heechul doesn’t trust anyone. So here goes nothing.

First, though, he needs to finish step two. He shoves the envelope into his bag and picks a busy-looking store that will hopefully have a public restroom he can use without attracting too much attention.

Sure enough, the harried clerk at the counter nods to a door in the corner as soon as he asks. He thanks her with a short bow and slips inside, locking the door behind him.

In his messenger bag is a new change of clothes - far nicer than any he’s worn before. A member of the network secured them for him from Sector 4 and he can’t help running his hands over the soft fabric - free of holes and patches and fraying threads.

How the other half lives.

He changes quickly, then looks at himself in the mirror and has to fight the urge to gape. The pants are tighter than he usually wears and the shirt is made of what feels like white silk, draping elegantly over his frame. A heavier, midnight blue coat goes over it, falling to his mid-thigh. The heeled boots are shiny leather, neatly covering the ends of the black pants, and a red silk scarf goes tight around his neck, once again covering any traces of the Mark.

He re-styles his hair, once again parting it and sweeping his bangs off his forehead. Fishing around in the bag, he pulls out the rest of the makeup and applies a little kohl and shadow to his eyes. It’s common, apparently, among elite and residents of Sector 1, and it’ll further help alter his appearance.

When he’s finally finished, he takes another look at himself in the mirror and finds a near-stranger staring back.

He looks poised. Rich. Important.

It’s amazing, he thinks, what clothes can do.

He carefully folds up his coveralls, shoes, shirt, and coat, and stuffs them back in the bag. There was also a shiny, expensive phone in the envelope, with a note that says it doesn’t actually have any service but will still help make him look more legitimate. Out here business is often conducted by phone.

He takes one last deep breath, watching the stranger in the mirror do the same. Imagines Yoongi’s voice in his head - a little gruff, but always so loving.

You can do this, Jimin-ah. You’ve always been brave.

Yoongi plucked him and Taehyung off the streets as near-starved teenagers and gave them a home when he could have easily left them to die. Treated them like family from day one, even though Jimin was wary of him and his intentions - half-convinced he was luring them back to his apartment to assault and kill them. Instead, he offered them food and a place for the night. And then all the nights after that.

Said so easily, you’re my kids, even though he was only a few years older than them and trying hard to be strong.

And god how Jimin misses him. So much that he aches with it - his insides scraped raw and hollow, like there’s empty space where Yoongi and Jungkook once were.

I’m coming, he promises the Yoongi in his head. The Yoongi out there in the city, in the clutches of a monster. Just hold on a little longer.

He needs to get a move on, though, if he’s going to make the next train. So he shoulders his bag again and slips out of the bathroom. Thankfully, the clerk is busy and doesn’t notice his radically different appearance. He stows the bag in the skip in the alley, burying it deep beneath a trash bag where hopefully no one will find it, and heads for the station.

There are less guards than he was expecting, but perhaps here they don’t have “dangerous Marked” to contend with and so don’t feel the need for stringent checkpoints. The line also moves much more quickly - everyone hurried and important-looking. Jimin does his best to blend in with them, throwing his shoulders back and tilting his chin up and making his strides long and purposeful. He doesn’t have the ability to tower like Taehyung can, but he’s learned how to be intimidating - make himself seem far larger than his compact frame.

Just another thing he has Yoongi to thank for.

“Please make this quick,” he snaps to the guard as he pulls his forged ID, permit, and travelcard out of his coat pocket. “I have an important meeting with a client I’m late for.”

The guard sneers at him, but doesn’t protest, doing a quick scan. The machine beeps green and just like that Jimin is through.

(It feels almost too easy.)

This time, the train is at the station, forcing him to run in order to slip aboard before the doors hiss shut. Inside, he marvels at the padded seats and shiny, pristine floors. The flashing display that shows a map of the city and each stop on their route.

Shit. He’d move here just for how clean everything is.

A pleasant female voice announces that they’ll be arriving in Sector 1 in twenty minutes, and Jimin sinks into one of the plush seats, trying to pose himself as arrogantly as possible. He pulls out the phone and clicks it on, blinking with internal awe at the large display and array of icons. Their burner phones just have a keypad and a tiny, pixelated screen.

He chooses one called “notes” and begins randomly typing, hoping it will make him look busy. There’s a woman sitting next to him, fiddling with her purse on her lap. She keeps glancing at him, and he braces himself for when she works up the courage to talk to him.

It doesn’t take long.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt, but I saw on your work permit that you’re an auctioneer?”

“That’s right,” Jimin says, looking up with a cold, polite smile.

“Wow,” the woman says. “That’s fascinating. I just - I’ve never actually seen a Marked? Since they’re confined to the outer sectors. But I’ve always wondered, are they really how people say? Feral?”

I’ll show you feral, Jimin thinks, but keeps the anger off his face, going for a disinterested shrug instead. “They can be. I deal with those who have been sanctioned - so the troublemakers. They’re often … difficult. But many of my clients like the challenge.”

He feels sick, imagining someone buying Jungkook or Yoongi just to break them, but focuses on the way this woman’s eyes go wide and amazed. “Oh. Wow,” she repeats.

“Sorry,” he says, nodding to his phone. “I have a meeting I need to reschedule…”

“Of course,” the woman says, dipping her head and clutching her purse tighter. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“It’s fine,” he demurs and returns to typing, angling his phone away so she can’t see that he’s drafting a random list of objects in his apartment.

Too quickly, the pleasant voice announces that they’re approaching Sector 1. He forces himself not to peer out the window at the gleaming skyscrapers that fill the horizon. To act like this is a place he’s seen hundreds of times before.

He can’t help pausing once he’s left the station, though, and doing a slow turn to take in the wide, immaculate streets and green spaces and the buildings that stretch into the clouds. How fancy everyone is dressed and the shops advertising jewelry and gourmet food and expensive clothing. It feels like a completely different world than the one he’s used to. Like a dream.

If only it wasn’t so full of monsters.

He fights off the shiver that runs down his spine and pulls the card from Taehyung out of his pocket. There’s an address scribbled on it - what they hope will be Kim Namjoon’s apartment complex. His job is to just observe. Make notes. What security is like and if Kim Namjoon actually does live there and what it would take to get themselves inside.

This may be the only chance they get, considering they can only travel with forged papers for so long. Considering the effort it took to get those papers. Considering that if he gets caught, he’s pretty sure the penalty will be immediate execution.

Courage, Jimin-ah, comes Yoongi’s voice from long ago.

He square his shoulders and heads in the direction of the apartment, according to the maps he studied, slipping seamlessly into the crowd of pedestrians.

One chance.

He’s going to make it count.

 

_ _

 

It’s quiet in Namjoon’s apartment, almost peacefully so. Yoongi said he was tired and ostensibly went to take a nap in the guest bedroom. For once, Namjoon didn’t retreat behind his locked door on the other side of the apartment, instead choosing to remain in the living room and read. That’s a rare occurrence, but the perfect opportunity.

Now, Hoseok whispers, you have to do it now.

He slides the knife out from under the mattress. Watches the blade glint in the dim light. He’s never killed anyone before. His previous owner - that was a desperate bid for escape, not planned murder. This feels different, sits heavier in his gut, and his hand trembles as he tightens his grip on the hilt.

You can do this, Hoseok murmurs. Yoongi can almost picture him, crouched next to him on this plush rug - his gaze earnest and serious. You have to do this.

For Jungkook, Yoongi reminds himself. For his own freedom.

He refuses to die as a fucking plaything.

He gets up and opens the bedroom door, careful to be as quiet as possible. Namjoon’s on the couch facing away from him, perfect. All Yoongi has to do is walk up and slit his throat.

He crosses the over to the couch in three quick strides, grateful that years in a smuggling ring and eleven months as a companion have taught him to move quietly - keep his steps light and barely audible. Once he’s close enough, he doesn’t give himself time to think. Just sinks his fingers into Namjoon’s silver hair and wrenches his head back. Namjoon makes a startled noise, eyes blowing wide and stunned. Yoongi brings up the knife, intent on raking it across Namjoon’s throat, but he underestimated Namjoon’s strength, or overestimated his own. Namjoon yanks himself free, jerking sideways so the knife cuts across his collarbone instead.

Fuck.

“What the hell are you doing?” Namjoon gasps, surging to his feet.

Right. Plan B.

Yoongi snatches a decorative vase off the edge of the counter and hurls it at Namjoon’s head as hard as he can. Namjoon makes another stunned noise and scrambles sideways - the vase shattering against the far wall. Yoongi takes advantage of Namjoon’s momentary distraction to close the distance between them and knee Namjoon hard in the solar plexus. He may have lost the window of surprise, but he knows how to fight. Dirty, if he has to.

He doubts Namjoon has the same experience.

Sure enough, Namjoon wheezes as all the air rushes from his lungs and he doubles over. Yoongi tangles his fingers in the shoulder of Namjoon’s fancy shirt and shoves him to the floor. Namjoon manages to catch himself on his hands and knees but a kick to his side has him rolling over onto his back, gasping for air.

Yoongi straddles him, putting every once of his strength into keeping him pinned.

“Stop,” Namjoon chokes out, trying to throw Yoongi off of him. “Stop.”

“Shut up,” Yoongi snaps. He’s held onto the knife and he shifts to drag it across Namjoon’s throat again, but Namjoon manages to get his hand free and grab Yoongi’s wrist, stopping the knife from lowering any further.

“I’m - I want to help you,” Namjoon says. “Don’t … do this.”

Yoongi ignores him, trying to get free of Namjoon’s grip. He jerks his arm sideways, loosening it enough to sink the blade into Namjoon’s shoulder. Namjoon screams and punches Yoongi hard across the face, knocking him sideways. Then Namjoon bucks his legs and fully frees himself from Yoongi’s hold.

“Fuck,” he rasps and pulls the knife from his shoulder with a pained groan. Blood soaks the pale blue material. Drips onto the rug. “Fuck.”

Yoongi’s cheek is aching where Namjoon’s ring connected, but he can’t give up now. He’s dead if he gives up now.

He staggers to his feet, glancing around the room for something else he can use as a weapon. There. A heavy looking decorative bowl on the bookcase. He starts towards it, but doesn’t make it more than a step before Namjoon tackles him. They both crash to the ground, breaking the coffee table on their way down, and Yoongi’s head connects hard with the floor, making his ears ring.

Fuck fuck fuck.

“Enough,” Namjoon says, pinning him. “Enough.

“Fuck you,” Yoongi snarls, thrashing in Namjoon’s hold.

Namjoon snags one of his wrists. “I’m sorry.”

Oh god. Namjoon presses his fingers down hard on the seal and it activates, shifting from black to glowing red. Pain immediately follows as Yoongi’s nerves light on fire in an agonizing wave, wrenching a scream from his mouth. Namjoon keeps his fingers there, keeps the seals activated, and the room spins. Black creeps in at the edges of his vision and everything hurts. Every cell in his body.

“I’m sorry,” he hears Namjoon say right before he loses consciousness. “I’m so sorry.”

His last coherent thought is: Jungkook-ah, I’m sorry I failed.

Then everything goes dark and silent and cold.

 

_ _

 

Seokjin forgot, somehow, just how much he loathes parties. They’re full of backstabbing gossip and fake pleasantries and stupid, overly fancy horderves. This suit is stifling and starting to itch, as well, and the live band Yoo Minseok got to play in the corner has started to sound more screechy than pleasant.

At least the wine is good.

He’s on his second glass of that, trying to figure out if it’s worth staying much longer. He’d rather not partake in any of the “entertainment” on offer and he’s schmoozed with his fair share of fellow elite - most of whom were surprised to see him out of the dark cave he apparently is rumored to live in.

Yoo Minseok himself clapped Seokjin on the back two minutes ago and grinned, sharp. Said it was good to see him and asked if he wanted some time alone with one of the companions or if he had to be torturing them to get off.

So that was fun.

He sighs and knocks back the rest of his drink. Minseok is an asshole and a rumored sadist, but he’s also smart and very much ready for the power he’s about to step into. Seokjin half-suspects the man’s hastening his father’s death somehow, just so he can claim the title of family head sooner. Knowing how elite can be, it wouldn’t be a shocking revelation at all. Thank god he was born into a lesser branch of his own family, and that most of them have been content to stick their noses up at him and Namjoon and leave them in peace.

He sets his drink on the tray of a passing butler and decides to find the bathroom. Then he can hopefully slip away without anyone noticing. It isn’t as though many people are in a rush to talk to him. He isn’t important, comparatively, and the rumors that he murders people in that cave of his tend to be off-putting. Which is just as well, honestly.

He turns down a hallway that he hopes contains the bathroom, gradually wandering further away from the party. This mansion is a maze and he can feel himself slowly getting lost. After a few minutes of twisting corridors and rooms that are not the bathroom, he stumbles across some kind of indoor garden. Fine. He gives up. He’s turning around to try to find his way back to the ballroom when he hears the awful, unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh, followed up by a quiet sob.

Oh he shouldn’t. He knows he shouldn’t. He doesn’t stick his nose in other people’s business and he just put his previous companion on a train this morning. Picking up another one would be a strain. Might even arouse suspicion.

But his heart bleeds too easily and it takes control of his feet and marches him in the direction of the noise.

Ducking deeper into the garden, he finds a man he vaguely recognizes. Shin Gunho, if his memory serves him right. From a lesser family, not one of the Eight, but still powerful. Shrewd businessman.

Seokjin’s much more interested in the boy kneeling at Shin Gunho’s feet, though. He’s a companion, judging from his sheer clothes, and young. Can’t be more than early twenties, god. His face is bleeding, makeup smeared by his tears, and he’s curled in on himself defensively.

“You little shit,” Shin Gunho snarls. He’s got his belt in one hand, and he’s clearly hit the boy with it more than once. “How dare you embarrass me like that?”

The boy whimpers. As he gets closer, Seokjin can see a ring of bruises around his throat.

“I should kill you,” Shin Gunho continues, too caught up in his rage to notice Seokjin’s approach. “Save me the trouble of paying a return fee for such a fucking useless bitch.”

Well.

Seokjin reminds himself, with very forced calm, that he cannot murder Shin Gunho in the garden of someone else’s mansion.

“Or you could sell him to me,” he says lightly.

Shin Gunho whirls around, startled.

“I like the look of him,” Seokjin continues. “And I’m in the market for a new companion. Though I am curious to know what brought…” he waves a hand to encompass the scene in front of him “… all this on.”

Shin Gunho snorts. “He refused a guest. A good connection, too. Clawed the man’s face, the brat.”

Seokjin mentally cheers for the boy even as he makes a tsking sound. “Remarkable disobedience. I can break him of that. Kim Seokjin.” He extends a hand.

Shin Gunho has specks of the boy’s blood on his fingers, but Seokjin forces himself not to recoil and finish the handshake. “Shin Gunho. I’ve heard about you.”

“Many people have,” Seokjin says with his most charming smile. “What do you say to a little business transaction? You get rid of him without a fee and I get a new toy.”

The boy makes another broken sound. Shin Gunho kicks him in the ribs and Seokjin once agains contemplates murder. Surely he could conceal the body in this garden for at least a few days. No one would know it was him and asssholes like Shin Gunho are bound to have enemies.

“I’m open to it,” Shin Gunho says. “What do you say to ten million?”

“After you just told me how disobedient he is?”

A shrug. “Thought you’d like a challenge.”

How presumptuous of you, Seokjin internally sneers.

“I do, but not for ten million. Eight.”

The return fee to most auction houses is over three million and Shin Gunho can’t have bought the boy for more than fifteen, even as pretty as he is. This is an incredible deal and the asshole knows it. Seokjin can see it all over his slimy, greedy face.

“Fine,” he says after a tense pause. “Eight.”

“Excellent,” Seokjin claps his hand. “I’ll take him off your hands tonight. Just transfer the contract over to me and I’ll send the funds. I’m sure someone here is willing to serve as a witness.”

These kinds of transactions aren’t that uncommon, after all.

Shin Gunho nods and pulls out his phone. It’s got a gold case and Seokjin struggles not to roll his eyes. Instead, he calls his driver to bring his car around and be ready for an extra passenger. The man, bless him, doesn’t ask any questions.

It takes a half an hour after that to make their way back to the party - Shin Gunho dragging the boy along with a bruising grip on his arm while Seokjin slowly sees red - and find someone to witness the contract exchange and transfer of funds.

Then the boy is his. A part of him still can’t believe what he’s done, how impulsive he’s being, but when he sees the boy’s bloody back through the tatters of his shirt, he can’t bring himself to regret it.

He shrugs off his suit jacket once they reach the main entrance, away from most of the prying eyes, and carefully drapes it over the boy’s shoulders. It’s cold outside and he’ll freeze in his torn, gauzy shirt and thin pants. He looks even younger up close, beneath his smeared makeup and bruised face. Hasn’t said a single word during his sale and won’t meet Seokjin’s eyes. Just gnaws at his split lower lip with his teeth. With their slight protrusion and his large nose, he reminds Seokjin a little of a scared rabbit and a fierce wave of protectiveness swells in him - unlike any he’s felt before.

He leads the boy into the car and tells his driver to take them home before rolling up the partition. The boy cringes back against the seat, clearly thinking something is going to happen, but Seokjin just kneels on the floor in front of him and takes his trembling hand.

“It’s going to be okay,” he murmurs. The words feel empty in his mouth, but they’re all he has to offer at the moment. Usually, he tries to keep something of a distance from the companions he buys - uncomfortable with the role of master and not wanting them to depend on him or think he expects anything.

But he can’t do that now. Not with this broken, shaking kid who looks so scared and lost.

“I promise, tokki,” he says gently - the nickname slipping out unbidden. “I’m going to take care of you. Nothing is going to hurt you anymore.”

The boy doesn’t answer verbally but he shifts to hold on to Seokjin’s hand, squeezing tight and desperate.

Seokjin squeezes back, silent reassurance. “It’s going to be okay,” he whispers again as the car glides through the dark night, on its way back to safety. Hopefully for both of them. “It’s going to be okay.”

The boy’s eyes slide shut, bruised with exhaustion. Seokjin will need to call someone from the auction house to have the boy’s seals changed to his fingerprints and his initials tattooed - they will be the fourth ones, he notes with a glance at the boy’s bare arm - but all of that can wait until tomorrow. Or maybe even the day after that.

For now, Seokjin lets the boy rest and tries to stop the bleeding of his heart.

 

Chapter Text

“...a reminder to all Marked citizens that travel beyond Sectors 9 and 10 is strictly prohibited. Those in violation will be immediately sanctioned, regardless of age and amount of previous strikes. Those found to be carrying forged papers will be met with harsher penalties, including execution.”

- Excerpt from a government broadcast to all Seoul sectors

 

 

_ _ 

 

“I want you to do it,” Jungkook says to him on their last night together at the auction house, laid back on his sleeping pallet with his legs spread like the trainers taught him. His voices shakes and there are tears in his eyes, but he isn’t backing down. “Please, hyung, I want it to be you.”

No, Jungkook-ah, Yoongi wants to tell him, but the denial is ash on his tongue. What other choices are left? They sold Jungkook tonight - paraded him on a stage and stripped him down for hungry eyes and told the crowd the highest bidder would get his virginity - and tomorrow his new owners will come to claim him. But in these last few moments, locked together in a room with no guards or cameras because the chips in their necks make escape futile, Jungkook still has a semblance of a choice.

And he’s choosing Yoongi.

“Please,” he says again. “Please … I want it to be someone who loves me. Please.”

“I don’t … Jungkook…”

This is the boy he raised. The boy he pulled off the streets at thirteen - a starving, spitfire kid who clung to Yoongi like a lifeline. The boy he promised to protect, to look after, to give a better life - and he’s failed at all of it. And now here they are, at the end of everything, and the boy he raised is asking for one last favor. For Yoongi to break his own heart by taking something from Jungkook that shouldn’t be his to have.

“My body’s still mine,” Jungkook whispers. “For tonight. So please, do this for me? Let me choose.

This doesn’t feel like a choice, but Jungkook is right. What can Yoongi do but give him this one last thing?

“Okay,” he whispers back and crawls forward, over Jungkook’s prone body. “Okay.”

When he kisses Jungkook, it tastes like ash and ruin and salt. Jungkook hiccups into it, but lets Yoongi lead, lets Yoongi touch him. It’s feel wrong, it hurts, but Yoongi tries to make it good for Jungkook, as good as he can considering the circumstances. They don’t have anything, none of the supplies that are usually needed for this, so he uses his mouth - gets Jungkook  wet with his lips and tongue, until Jungkook is gasping, his tear-streaked face pressed into the thin pallet beneath him - and then a spit-soaked finger.

“I’m sorry,” he hiccups at Jungkook’s soft whines of pain when he adds a second one. Jungkook’s body is tight and unyielding -  from fear and stress and inexperience - and Yoongi doesn’t know what to do. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Jungkook whimpers. “It’s okay, I love you.”

It’s something they’ve started saying, when the trainers use them against each other, when they’re punished for each other’s mistakes. I love you, as Yoongi takes Jungkook’s trembling hands, uncaring of the welts on his back. I love you, as Jungkook presses kisses to Yoongi’s hair, bruises blooming across his ribs from the trainers' boots. It’s a declaration, that nothing will make them hate each other, nothing will tear them apart.

Hearing it now almost breaks Yoongi.

He kisses Jungkook, nuzzles his salt-smeared cheeks, anything to distract him from the pain. The burn. “I love you,” he says, wishing it was enough. “I love you.”

Jungkook wraps an arm around him and clings and it hurts. God, how it hurts.

Pushing in with his cock instead of his fingers is even worse. They don’t have enough time and Jungkook’s still too tight and he cries out against Yoongi’s shoulder, forcing Yoongi to slide a hand over his mouth to shush him. His body is barely cooperating, unwilling to stay hard in the face of Jungkook’s trembling and the little whines that keep slipping out against Yoongi’s palm.

“I can stop,” he half-pleads to Jungkook, feeling his own tears starting to slide down his cheeks. “I’ll stop, Kook.”

Jungkook shakes his head and rocks his hips, takes Yoongi in deeper in spite of how much it must hurt. “No,” he says when Yoongi removes his hand. “No … it’ll be worse. Whatever they do. I have to - I have to get used to it. Finish it, please … just … just fuck me.”

So he does. He forces his hips to move and he keeps kissing Jungkook’s neck and jaw and mouth. Murmurs as many loving platitudes as he can - how good Jungkook is being, how this will be over soon - and they all feel wrong against his lips, but they seem to help, to soothe a little. He hates that his body has gotten back on board, hates that it feels good being inside Jungkook, and hates most of all the familiar knot he can feel forming in his lower stomach as release approaches.

Jungkook’s tears have stopped, at least, and he reaches up to brush Yoongi’s away.

“‘S’okay,” he whispers, voice a little slurred. “S’okay, hyung.”

It isn’t. It isn’t, and Yoongi knows, logically, that this is going to be the first agony of many. But he’s not sure anything is going to break him more than this and -

- he wakes up, body aching and ash on his tongue. Jungkook is a year gone, he remembers, and he’s tied to the bed in the guest room of the man he failed to kill. Who is probably going to torture him to death now.

One last failure, he thinks bitterly, blinking up at the ceiling that’s slowly coming into focus. Maybe Jungkook will forgive him one day, if he makes it out alive.

The door clicks suddenly, jarring Yoongi from the tangle of his memories, and Kim Namjoon enters. He’s dressed in one of his ridiculous sweaters - bangs falling onto his forehead in a way that makes him seem much younger - and Yoongi can see bandages peeking out from beneath the collar, the stiff way he’s holding his right arm.

Good. Yoongi hopes it fucking hurts for weeks.

Good job, love, Hoseok’s voice murmurs and Yoongi can’t even think about how much he misses him. His touch, his warmth, his steady presence by Yoongi’s side.

Maybe one day Hoseok will forgive him, too.

“You’re awake,” Namjoon says, stopping by the side of the bed.

Yoongi braces himself and nods. There’s little use fighting now - Namjoon’s already won and Yoongi is so tired.

But Namjoon doesn’t make any move to hurt him, just reaches up and unknots the rope tying Yoongi’s hands together from the headboard. Namjoon’s arm slides between Yoongi’s shoulders and the mattress and he levers Yoongi carefully upright.

“You going to attack me again?” he asks, frowning.

Yoongi swallows, staring down at his still-bound hands, and shakes his head. Namjoon doesn’t look like he fully believes Yoongi’s submission, but he doesn’t say anything, reaching instead for a glass of water from the bedside table and holding it up to Yoongi’s chapped lips.

“Drink,” he says, all authority, and Yoongi has little choice but to obey. The cool liquid soothes his aching throat, though - still sore from screaming - and Namjoon doesn’t stop until Yoongi’s finished half the glass.

He takes a deep breath once he’s set it aside. “Why did you attack me?” he asks. “I was going to help you.”

“You were going to send me to Busan,” Yoongi forces out, voice a croaking whisper. “I know a euphemism when I hear one, master.”

Namjoon winces at the title and shakes his head. Yoongi watches as he picks up a manila envelope from on top of the dresser. There’s a heart scrawled across the front of it and Namjoon dumps the contents in Yoongi’s lap.

Papers, Yoongi realizes as he sifts through them. A new ID card with his picture on it and a worker’s permit and a travel pass and a letter of recommendation for housing - everything he’d need to relocate. Fuck, Namjoon was actually going to send him to Busan? What is this - some kind of underground railroad?

That would make sense, Hoseok points out and Yoongi turns the ID card over in his trembling fingers, rapidly connecting the dots in his head. Of course - it’s so simple it’s almost brilliant: buy a companion the conventional way, secure paperwork, put them on a train to one of the only two other Old World cities left, where no one will look for them and laws aren’t as stringent, and then tell everyone you killed them. Companions die all the time in their owners’ houses and it’s unpleasant, not often talked about, but no one really cares. Eventually, you have a reputation cultivated that no one will question and you can keep purchasing companions - one or two a month to avoid too much suspicion - and giving them new lives. Or a chance at a new life, at least.

He wants to laugh, maybe, at the ridiculousness of this. Of an elite, using all of his wealth and influence to help Marked companions. Who would have thought something like that could exist in the world?

He looks up at Kim Namjoon, watching him so carefully from the foot of the bed.

“So this is how you get off?” he asks. “Instead of killing us you save us? Get to play the knight in shining armor?”

Maybe that’s unfair of him, that accusation, but fuck he’s still angry. One or two companions a month doesn’t make up for an entire system of oppression that Namjoon still benefits from. Doesn’t make up for starvation in Sector 10 - five people crammed into a rundown apartment half the size of Namjoon’s living room - while Namjoon eats like a king. Doesn’t make up for the auction houses or Jungkook’s tears or the scars on Yoongi’s body. Doesn’t make up for a year of violation and over two decades of despair before that.

One or two companions a month isn’t enough and Namjoon doesn’t get to be fucking proud of it. Expect Yoongi to grovel on his knees in thanks.

Namjoon flinches like Yoongi’s landed a blow. “No,” he stammers. “No that’s not-”

“What?” Yoongi snaps, wishing he could reach out and wring Namjoon’s neck. He’s never spoken to an owner like this before but he’s done giving a shit. “You reach down from your gilded perch and pluck a few of us out of the ruin whenever you deem fit and you expect me to thank you? Have you been to the outer sectors? Have you seen how people live there? Have you been to a fucking boarding house? You think this is enough?

No,” Namjoon snaps, cool facade cracking. “No, I know it isn’t enough. Of course it isn’t.” He scrapes a hand over his face. “I have been - to the outer sectors and the boarding houses - because I-” he cuts himself off with a shaky inhale.

“Fuck you,” Yoongi hiccups, wanting suddenly to scream. “Fuck you, you think you can buy me papers to Busan and ship me off to a new life and that will erase everything that’s been done to me? Will make me forget the first master who raped me? Who liked to beat me until I couldn’t stand? Or the one who gave me drugs that made me beg to be fucked like … like a bitch in heat because he liked to pretend that I wanted it? Liked to call me slut and whore while he fucked me in the bed he shared with his wife? Or … or the man who bought me before you and didn’t want me to talk at all? Who silenced me for months with a muzzle when I couldn’t keep quiet, when the pain was too much - and he’d hurt me for crying, hurt me so bad I’d bleed for days - who decided that a fitting punishment was glass inside of me and-”

Stop,” Namjoon gasps out, horror etched on every line of his face. “Please, stop.”

Why? ” Yoongi half shouts, bound fingers clutching the ID card so hard it digs a line into his skin. “Does it make you fucking uncomfortable, master? Just because you haven’t done any of those things to me doesn’t make you better.

Namjoon looks ready to cry. “I know that,” he says. “God, I know that, I…” He shakes his head and moves again, this time leaving the room entirely.

Yoongi struggles to get his breathing under control, wondering if Namjoon will come back in with some kind of weapon and finding it hard to care at this point. Instead, Namjoon brings more documents - a journal of some kind and what looks like medical records. He hands Yoongi the journal first.

Yoongi opens it to the first page and freezes. He recognizes this writing. He’s seen this paragraph in a pamphlet in Sector 10, being passed out by a couple of street kids. Seen it in an email Taehyung got from they mysterious RM, that he passed on to Hoseok to read on air. RM, who writes so eloquently and with so much passion, but has managed to dodge all of Taehyung’s attempts to uncover his identity. RM, the revolutionary. RM, the elite, standing once again at the foot of Yoongi’s bed.

Yoongi opens his mouth and Namjoon shakes his head, pointing to the medical records. “Those first. Then you can yell at me some more.”

Yoongi picks them up. They’re genetic test results for Kim Namjoon, age five. The same test Yoongi got done at five years old, too - that all children get because it will determine their future. Do they have the mutation that will label them as Marked?

Kim Namjoon does.

“Fuck,” Yoongi whispers, staring at the positive on the paper, printed in bold, damning ink.

“You think elite are exempt?” Namjoon asks softly, playing with the hem of his sweater. “The doctor expressed his condolences. Said that he could make it quick. One injection and it would be over. My medical records would say illness.” His mouth twists, bitter. “So many elite children die of illness and everyone knows better than to ask for the truth.”

Yoongi struggles to wrap his head around this. It makes a twisted amount of sense. You would lose them either way, so better to kill your child than risk scandal - of course those at the height of power would think that.

“My parents loved me,” Namjoon continues. “Enough to say no. To find a different doctor who would prescribe pills that could hide to effects of the mutation. They buried my records. Destroyed everything but that copy. And no one ever knew - they took it with them to their graves. The rest of my family suspected, enough to ostracize me, but better to let a scandal remain buried, right?”

Yoongi doesn’t know what to say. There is only so much sympathy that he can muster. “An accident of birth saved you,” he whispers, still harsh.

“Yes,” Namjoon agrees easily. “That’s why I went to the outer sectors when I was teenager. Because that … the people there, starving - I should have been one of them. I know that, Yoongi. I’ve never let myself forget. And when my cousin took me to a boarding house at eighteen….” he shudders. “I knew I had to do something. To … to make up for it. For everything I had handed to me that shouldn’t have been. And I know this isn’t enough. Writing as RM isn’t enough. There’s more I want to do but-” he cuts himself off again.

“What’s stopping you?” Yoongi presses, glaring up at Namjoon. “What the hell is stopping you?”

“It’s not as simple as you think it is,” Namjoon bites back. “And it’s safer if you don’t know. I’ll … the papers are all ready. I can put you on a train first thing tomorrow morning. I know it isn’t enough, Yoongi, but it’s what I can do, I-”

“No,” Yoongi snaps. Like hell is he running away to Busan when Jungkook is still out there. When Hoseok and Jimin and Taehyung are still out there. “You want to help me? Cut out my tracker and let me go.”

“I can’t do that,” Namjoon protests. “They’ll kill you if they find you.”

“I have resources,” Yoongi insists. “Connections. I’ll be fine.”

Namjoon tilts his head slightly, gaze going assessing. “I always felt that you were different,” he says slowly. “Who are you?”

“I’ve had many names,” Yoongi dodges. “None of them matter anymore .”

But Namjoon is smart and Yoongi keeps forgetting. Namjoon narrows his eyes and says, “Suga,” and it isn’t a question.

“It doesn’t matter,” Yoongi says, instead of trying to deny it.

“It does,” Namjoon insists quietly. “I’ve read everything you’ve written. We were … we were on the same side.”

“I thought we were,” Yoongi says. He’d looked up to RM, a little - awed at his ability to create such incredible, thought-provoking words. But RM is an elite and he still doesn’t know how to feel about that. About Kim Namjoon reaching out to untie him completely, a nervous expression on his face.

“We still are,” Namjoon says. “We still can be.” He hesitates, coming to some kind of internal decision. “The … the more I want to do - I’ll tell you about it, if you’ll listen. And after, you can decide what your next move will be. Whatever it is, I won’t stop you.”

“You won’t?” Yoongi asks dubiously.

Namjoon frowns. “I won’t.” He turns back to the dresser one more time and Yoongi catches a glint of metal that he missed before. It’s the kitchen knife, clean of blood now and reflecting the city lights beyond the window. Namjoon grasps it by the handle and Yoongi stiffens on instinct, ready to fight or flee, but all Namjoon does is set the knife down in front of Yoongi, on top of the journal and the damning medical records.

“I won’t,” he repeats, voice steady now.

Yoongi curls his fingers around the knife handle, feeling the absurd urge to laugh again. “Okay,” he says, looking up at Namjoon. “I’ll listen.”

 

_ _

 

From what Jimin can tell, Kim Namjoon’s apartment complex is a veritable fortress. He’s spent most of the day walking around it, noting the vast array of security cameras, the fingerprint pads on the elevators, the security desk in the lobby with a guard posted at all hours, and the ID scanners required just to get through the front door. Maybe, Taehyung would able to hack some of it, with the right equipment, but it’s a long shot.

They do accept outside deliveries, though. He watches several people in uniform arrive with various packages throughout the day and get buzzed into the building by security. Normally, they sign something and leave the packages at the desk.

It isn’t much, but maybe it’ll be a way in the first door, at least. If they can get their hands on uniforms and some fake packages. He has a head full of half-formed plans, most of them insane, and he’d like a week here, to really learn the patterns of the building - the delivery schedule and guard rotations and camera blind spots - but he’s running out of time to get back to the train station. It’s after dark and curfew is in less than two hours.

So he reluctantly locks his phone, now full of various encrypted notes, and starts the journey home.

It goes smoothly all the way back to Sector 5. He locates his bag and wipes off his makeup. Streaks dirt on his face like he came from the factories and messes up his hair and pulls back on the coveralls. The guards at the Sector 5 station stamp his papers without a second glance and he finds a seat in the last car to curl up in. He’s starting to drift off, lulled by the clatter and rock of the train, when the speakers chime overhead and a pleasant female voice begins an announcement.

“Citizens of the outer sectors, due to an incident earlier today, His Majesty the King has a declared a lockdown in effect for Sectors 8, 9, and 10. Trains will operate under a reduced schedule. If your job is deemed essential, you will be granted temporary travel papers. All other citizens are expected to remain within the boundaries of their home sector. Buses will also run under a limited schedule and are no longer open to Marked citizens at this time. Curfew has been changed from nine p.m. to seven p.m. until further notice. All Marked in violation will receive a strike or be immediately sanctioned. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Jimin’s heart plummets into his stomach. A lockdown? Now of all times?

The man across from him swears. “It’s hard enough, working in those fucking factories,” he snaps. “And now they want extra papers? Or us to not work at all?”

“In the middle of winter, too,” another worker says, shaking his head.

“Fuck this new king,” the first one replies with dark fury.

The second man shushes him. “Idiot. Be careful how loud you’re saying that.”

The first man snorts and goes back to glaring at the floor in silence. Jimin surreptitiously checks the time on his contraband phone and his heart moves from his stomach to his shoes. It’s seven thirty. If he’s caught in the streets trying to get home…

Shit shit shit.

But there’s no time for panic. The train is pulling into the station. Jimin nervously adjusts his scarf around his neck and keeps his head down as he exits, making sure that he’s swallowed up by a large group of factory workers, all headed home together. They mostly shield him from the assessing gazes of the station security - at least until he’s back out on the lamplit street, his breath hanging misty in the air.

It’s over a mile home without the buses running. He has a vague map planned out in his head, but if he’s stopped by a patrol it’s over.

A hand lands on his shoulder, jolting him out of his thoughts. He jerks, whirling around, and gapes at the site of Taehyung standing there - familiar courier bag over his shoulders and brow furrowed beneath the rim of his knit hat.

“Fuck, Tae,” Jimin gasps. “What the hell are you doing out?”

“Making sure you get home,” Taehyung says, handing him a face mask. “I figured you’d be on the last train in. You heard about the lockdown?”

“Yeah,” Jimin says, securing the mask in place and following Taehyung towards a darkened alley. “There was an announcement on the train.”

“It’s been crazy here,” Taehyung says, shaking his head. “Raids everywhere.”

As if to prove his point, there’s shouting from further up the street and Taehyung presses him into the wall, keeping them both in the shadows. They listen there, holding their breath, as the crack of a stun gun going off echoes and the voices fall silent. Some poor soul is probably getting sanctioned only a few hundred yards away and there isn’t a damn thing they can do about it.

Jimin’s just selfishly glad it isn’t him.

“What happened?” he whispers to Taehyung when the coast seems clear.

Taehyung starts moving again, further into the maze of alleys. Jimin knows the sector like the back of his hand, but Taehyung knows it even better, and Jimin relaxes a fraction because Taehyung will get them both home safe. He always has in the past.

“Someone got caught with contraband goods,” Taehyung explains. “Not one of ours,” he tacks on when Jimin’s eyes go wide and frantic. “Someone else. Different network. Or maybe just someone trying to make some money. Either way, they caught him and now we’re all paying for it.”

He sounds furious and Jimin doesn’t blame him. Lockdowns are horrible. The Network is going to grind to a complete halt until it’s lifted - and the one before this lasted for over a month. 

By that time, it will be far too late for Yoongi-hyung, but Jimin can’t think about that yet. Taehyung turns a corner and then motions him to a stop as another patrol passes by on the main street, their weapons glinting sharp and intimidating in the fog-diffused light. A winter storm is rolling in - Jimin can practically feel it in his aching bones - and it’s only going to make everything worse.

This new king doesn’t even have to sanction them, Jimin thinks darkly, he can just sit back and wait for them all the starve.

 

_ _

 

Kim Seokjin’s apartment is nice: reeking of wealth without being ostentatious about it. No gold fixtures or elaborately patterned walls like his other owners have favored. The lock beeping behind them as the front door closes still feels ominous, though. He remembers the smile on Kim Seokjin’s face when he said he was looking for a new toy, and even though he was gentle in the car, Jungkook has learned that most kindnesses are a facade - just another way to break him.

The name Kim Seokjin also sounds familiar, but he can’t place it. Just knows that it’s been whispered in fear by other companions, which means he’s unlikely to be more merciful than Shin Gunho was. Jungkook can’t really bring himself to care. The welts on his back ache and his throat hurts and he can feel blood smeared down the insides of his thighs from where he’s raw and torn inside. Can close his eyes and see the man above him at the party, the ceiling swimming as his air was cut off - the terrible knowledge that he was dying racking through him.

So he fought, just like Yoongi always taught him to. He thinks he might be done fighting now.

“Right,” his new master says, throwing his suit jacket over the back of the sofa.

He’s much younger than Shin Gunho and far more handsome - aristocratic features that manage to be sharp and gentle at the same time. His eyes are piercing but kind. Maybe, he’ll be inclined to mercy if Jungkook cooperates - shows him that the incident at the party was a one-off and not a pattern of bad behavior. He sucks in a shaky breath and sinks to his knees on the tiled floor of the entryway, ignoring the protest of his battered body.

Knees apart, keep your head down, don’t meet his eyes, hands where he can see them….

“Oh,” Seokjin says, sounding surprised, “oh no, tokki, you don’t have to do that.”

Tokki. Hobi-hyung used to call him that sometimes, all tender affection, and hearing it now twists something in Jungkook’s stomach. He keeps his head bowed.

There’s a rustle of fabric and Seokjin’s knees come into view. He’s kneeling, too, Jungkook realizes, and reaching for Jungkook’s shoulders. Soft fingers cup his chin and tilt it up. Seokjin’s face is serious, but not without gentleness.

“You don’t have to bow to me,” he says. “You don’t have to kneel. Let’s … let’s get you fixed up, okay?”

Fixed up. That’s … that’s good. Maybe, then at least, it won’t hurt quite as much when Seokjin decides to use him.

He nods, because it seems like Seokjin is expecting some kind of answer and his voice is gone. Seokjin smiles at him and it brightens his whole face - makes him look even younger. Then he stands and reaches out a hand to help Jungkook up, too. Jungkook bites his lip as he gets to his feet, trying to keep the pain off his face. Seokjin still sees and immediately curls a careful hand over Jungkook’s hip.

“Hey, I need you to be honest with me, okay? Do you have any internal injuries? Any bleeding?”

Face flushing in shame, Jungkook nods and gestures to his inner thighs, hoping Seokjin will understand. He feels filthy, standing here covered in blood and bruises and the marks of someone else’s hands, but that’s another feeling he’s gotten used to.

“Okay,” Seokjin says and squeezes his waist. “Okay, thank you for telling me.”

No master has ever spoken to him like this. It’s making his head spin.

Seokjin leads him into what he realizes is the bathroom. It has a massive tub, deep and wide, and Seokjin kneels to start filling it. He doesn’t seem to have any household staff and another spike of nerves stabs Jungkook’s stomach. He always hated the pitying looks of the staff, but some of them were kind to him - would sneak him food or help him clean up his wounds. He’s not sure what it means - that it’s just Seokjin in this apartment.

He seems uncaring of his fancy clothes as he kneels on the bathroom floor and gets his sleeves wet testing the temperature of the water. He shifts up into a crouch and rummages around in the bathroom cabinet, pulling out a bottle of strange liquid that he also pours into the water. Jungkook bites his torn lip, the fear rising.

Has he messed up somehow already?

“Okay,” Seokjin says, standing. “Let’s get you out of those clothes.”

Please, Jungkook wants to say as Seokjin begins unbutton his gauzy shirt, shifting it off his shoulders. Please don’t.

One of his mistresses, she used to put bleach in the bath - or salt when Jungkook had fucked up particularly badly - and then make him get in, make him stay there until he was close to passing out, and god the pain he doesn’t want -

“Hey, hey.” Hands cupping his face. Seokjin’s kind eyes. “Hey, tokki, nothing is going to happen. I promise.”

Jungkook’s eyes dart fearfully to the water and Seokjin follows his gaze. Understanding dawns on his face.

“Oh, oh, it’s salve. It’s salve, okay? I made it myself. It’ll help with the wounds.” His hands move, seemingly unconsciously, to pet Jungkook’s hair - tender affection unlike anything Jungkook’s felt since his last night with Yoongi, who held him close and whispered love into his skin.

“Believe it or not,” Seokjin continues as he eases the shirt away from Jungkook’s bloody back and tosses it to the floor, “I was going to be a doctor. Emergency medicine. But my family didn’t approve, especially after my parents died. Said a profession like that was ‘beneath me,'" he pitches his voice higher there, adopting a mocking aristocratic accent. "And since another family controls all the hospitals in the city, I probably wouldn’t have been able to find a job, anyway.” He shrugs and his hands go to the clasp on Jungkook’s pants. Jungkook tries to keep himself relaxed.

“It’s okay,” Seokjin still says. He seems to like to talk, but his voice is soothing and Jungkook finds he’s glad for it. “It’s okay, I’m just taking these off. I won’t do anything.”

Somehow, Jungkook believes him.

The pants come off, and Jungkook wasn’t wearing any underwear (it’s never allowed at parties, at least from his old master). Seokjin’s gaze drifts to the red on Jungkook’s thighs and something like grief or fury flashes across his face, but he doesn’t offer any pointless apologies or reassurances. Just takes Jungkook’s hand and helps him into the tub.

Jungkook braces himself, expecting the sting of bleach in spite of Seokjin’s reassuring words. (“Oh you thought I was serious? Stupid slut.”) But it is salve and he gasps at the soothing warmth that washes over his bruised hips and the welts on his back. Seokjin’s hand cups the back of his head and he pours more water over Jungkook’s back.

“I guess an almost medical degree is good for something, right?” he asks, seemingly rhetorically. Jungkook still hums in the back of his abused throat, so relieved that he could cry.

Seokjin washes him, including his hair, and runs a cloth gently over his upper body and down to his legs. “Tokki,” he says as Jungkook is starting to drift, lulled by this unexpected gentleness. “Inside, how bad is it? On a scale of one to ten?”

Jungkook blinks, tries to asses. He feels raw inside and he was bleeding, but it’s far from the worst pain he’s had. He’s grown used to the hurt of sex, to patching himself up afterwards if an owner didn’t want to be bothered. And he can still move right now - it isn’t a sharp pain, for the most part, just a familiar ache. After a moment of deliberation, he holds up four fingers.

“Okay,” Seokjin says. “Okay, thank you. If I … if I give you some more salve, will you put it on the wounds? I won’t watch.”

Jungkook nods, glad that he’s being allowed to do it himself. He knows how to minimize the pain of it.

“Okay,” Seokjin says again and stands. “I’m going to get some fresh clothes, I’ll be back.” He sets a towel and a small, round container on the edge of the tub, different from the bottle before. “Use as much as you need.”

Jungkook waits for the bathroom door to click shut before he hauls himself out of the bath and dries off with the towel. He unscrews the lid on the container to find a paste inside. Also salve, Seokjin said. Jungkook tests it out on his bruised hip and discovers he wasn’t lying - this is soothing, too. Jungkook wonders briefly how Seokjin made it, then decides it doesn’t matter. He coats his fingers in it and grits his teeth as he spreads the salve inside of him, trying to keep his motions quick and efficient - touch light against the sore edges of his hole.

Once that’s done, he wraps the towel around his hips, desperate for a small semblance of protection. There’s a knock at the bathroom door.

“Can I come in, tokki?” Seokjin calls. “Just rap once for yes. Twice for no.”

Jungkook leans over and raps once against the door. The handle turns and Seokjin slips back inside. He’s still dressed in the same clothes as before and carrying a small bundle of fabric in his arms.

“All good?” he asks and smiles faintly at Jungkook’s nod. “Then let’s get you bandaged up.”

He digs around in the cupboard again and comes back out with a very professional-looking first aid kit, opening it up on the counter to reveal everything from bandages to disinfectant to what looks like a suture kit and surgical tools.

“I bought it all in my med school days,” Seokjin says when he catches Jungkook looking. “And I’ve kept it stocked since then. It’s come in handy.”

Why? Jungkook wants to ask. He wonders if maybe he isn’t the first companion Seokjin has patched up in this bathroom. He wonders what’s happened to all of them and if he wants to know.

For now, he focuses on Seokjin winding bandages around his torso. His touch is light, almost comforting, and he moves with experienced efficiency. Jungkook’s forgotten what it’s like to be touched like this - his last memory is of Yoongi and that’s faded and worn at the edges, pulled up again and again over the past year when he’s desperate for some form of comfort. Yoongi, who loved him, who made him feel loved even in the middle of an auction house.

Yoongi, who’s long gone.

Now there is Seokjin, tying off the last of the bandages and humming in satisfaction at his work, and Jungkook wishes desperately he knew what to make of him.

“I think that’s good for now,” he says. “Let me just…” he dips his fingers into the salve and spreads it carefully over Jungkook’s bruised cheek and eye. “There we go.” 

Jungkook dips his head in silent thanks, hoping Seokjin understands. He seems to - if his answering smile is anything to go by. Seokjin packs up the medical kit and the salve, pulls the plug on the bath, and then picks the bundle of cloth off the counter and hands it to Jungkook. “For you. Go ahead and get dressed. Then come find me in the kitchen.”

Jungkook clutches the clothes and nods. Seokjin runs affectionate fingers through his hair before disappearing back through the door, closing it behind him. Alone, Jungkook unfolds the clothes with trembling fingers, letting out a faint, awed sound when he realizes they aren’t sheer or skimpy. They’re just … normal clothes. A baggy sweater made of some of the softest material Jungkook’s ever touched and lounge pants, equally soft. Seokjin even included a pair of house slippers and socks. And underwear.

Jungkook has gotten used to his body being on display over the last year - learned how to make himself appealing and desirable and sexy - but it’s a relief to be able to cover up most of his skin. He feels safer once he’s dressed and he wraps his arms around his middle for a moment, drinking in this rare luxury.

He can be hurt, he can be scared - Seokjin isn’t demanding he be anything else, for now.

He glances at his reflection in the mirror, wincing at the harsh shadow of his bruises and the swell of his split lip. He doesn’t really recognize the person staring back, even though logically he knows he must not look that different. He’s actually gained a little weight, since his previous owners like him thin but healthy, and his skin is softer than it used to be. But the shape of his face is the same and the fall of his black hair is the same.

It still feels a little like looking at a ghost.

He shudders and leaves the bathroom behind, shuffling towards the kitchen. The clock on the wall reads one a.m., but Seokjin is at the stove. Whatever he’s making smells delicious and Jungkook swallows around his watering mouth. Not starved still doesn’t mean he’s been allowed much food - usually either a restricted diet or scraps. No one is going to cook for their companion.

Except maybe Kim Seokjin.

Seokjin glances over his shoulder and smiles when he spots Jungkook. “I know it’s late, but food always helps me feel better,” he says gently as he spoons what looks like ramyeon into two steaming bowls. “So I figured we could eat and then you could get some rest. We’ll take care of everything else tomorrow.”

Right, the tattoo and the seals. Jungkook decides not to think about them as he carefully accepts the bowl Seokjin offers.

“You don’t have to sit,” Seokjin says when Jungkook glances dubiously at the stools lined up beneath the counter. “It’s okay.”

He stays standing, too, and it feels terrifyingly informal, leaning against the cupboards and eating ramyeon with his owner at one in the morning. But Jungkook hasn't had anything to eat in hours and the noodles are delicious, so he focuses on stuffing his face as much as he can without making a disgrace of himself. His throat hurts, but he pushes that ache aside, too. When he’s finished, Seokjin takes his bowl and washes them both in the sink, like it’s nothing.

There’s a moment of silence when the tap turns off and Seokjin stays by the sink, head bowed. Jungkook watches the curve of his shoulders and wonders if he needs to try to say something. All his words feel dead and gone, ruined voice or no, and he’s not sure when he’s going to get them back. Or if he even wants to. It’s easier, being mute - keeping words that could get him into trouble locked away.

Seokjin turns around and his face is so kind - Jungkook almost hates that, how kind he seems. When he touches Jungkook his hands are still gentle, too. So achingly gentle as they curve over Jungkook’s shoulders and squeeze.

“I know you don’t believe me,” Seokjin says quietly, “and that’s okay. But I’m going to take care of you, tokki. I swear.”

And then he pulls Jungkook in. It takes Jungkook a moment to realize that Seokjin is hugging him - cradling him like he never thought he’d be held again - and he has to bite back a sudden sob at the feeling of it. He buries his face in Seokjin’s neck instead.

Kindness is so often a facade, an illusion, but right now Jungkook clings to Seokjin and allows himself to pretend.

“I’ve got you,” Seokjin murmurs, petting the back of his head. “I’ve got you, I promise.”

And Jungkook, against his better judgment, believes him.

 

_ _

 

Yoongi stares across the small expanse of the living room to where Namjoon is perched on the sofa, trying to wrap his head around what he’s just heard. The clock on the wall says it's two a.m. so maybe this is just a fever dream.

“You … you want to kill the king,” he repeats, echoing Namjoon’s own words back to him.

Namjoon nods, mouth a grim line. “It’s the only way. Change has to come from the top down.”

Yoongi scrubs a hand over his face, still feeling blindsided. “And who would assume the throne in his place? You?”

Namjoon shakes his head. “No, Seokjin. He’d make a better ruler. And then someday, no kings at all.” He stares down at his hands, a contemplative expression stealing over his face. “In the Old World, people used to elect their leaders, can you imagine that?

No, Yoongi can’t. It sounds like a beautiful, impossible dream. “You want to stage a coup d’etat,” he whispers. “Why haven’t you tried yet?”

Their current king is new and relatively untested. Unpopular, from the whispers Yoongi’s picked up during his time as a companion, and nowhere near the man his father was. The time to strike would be now, before he’s finished amassing and securing his power.

Namjoon grimaces. “I need more help. More people on our side. And I have no way to get leverage over other families. Here … there is so much wealth, so many resources. People want for nothing. So currency to bargain with is … hard to come by.”

“You can stop beating around the bush,” Yoongi says, a little harsh, because he knows what Namjoon is getting at. Here, where people have everything, they bargain with hedonism. A favor, information, for time with a pretty companion. Yoongi’s had so many secrets and blackmail paid for with his flesh, he’s lost track of them all. 

“I wouldn’t do that to someone,” Namjoon says, hands curling into fists. When he glances up, his gaze is uncharacteristically fierce. There may be a revolutionary in him, after all. “I couldn’t.”

Yoongi takes a deep breath, hardly able to believe he’s doing this. “And if a companion offered?”

The fierceness fades as Namjoon’s eyes blow wide in shock. “You … you can’t be serious…”

Yoongi shrugs. Escape is a long shot, even with his connections, and he refuses to spend the rest of his days wasting away in Busan. Namjoon is serious, he can tell, and call Yoongi crazy but he almost believes that Namjoon can do it. Can kill the king. And Yoongi wants to be there when that happens. Hell, he’ll hold the blade himself if that’s what it takes.

“Everything has already been done to me, Namjoon. At least this time around it would be worth something.”

Namjoon shakes his head. “No. You’re not some … some bargaining chip for me to trade around for information-”

“I am,” Yoongi interrupts, blunt. “That is exactly what I am. And I’m fucking offering. I’m … I’m choosing this. So use me, Namjoon.”

Namjoon looks torn, looks sick, so Yoongi gets up, adjusts his shirt so it hangs off his collarbones and tries to muster some of the seductive power he’s learned to wield. “Think about it,” he says, stopping in front of Namjoon. “You kill companions, right? And yet you keep this one alive? Why? People will be curious. Will want a piece of me. You’ll have a lot of leverage, right away.”

“Yoongi,” Namjoon murmurs, sounding devastated.

“These things always come with a cost,” Yoongi points out, shifting his shirt back into place. “You know that. If you’re serious about this, I want in. Pay me back by overthrowing the king.”

His body, already so used up, feels like a small price to pay in exchange for that.

Namjoon takes a deep, shaking breath. When he looks up there is an odd mixture of despair and steel in his eyes. “Okay,” he says and holds out of his hand. “Okay, agreed.”

Yoongi snorts at the absurdity of it - sealing something like this with a handshake - but reaches out and takes Namjoon’s hand. Namjoon’s palm is warm and soft against his scarred skin.

They shake.

Chapter Text

We all know the narrative, right? About how the Old World ended. The Marked and their powers brought chaos.  They rent the earth, made the land shrivel and die so that no crops would grow. The forests died, too, and the oceans roiled and humanity barely survived. But what if the stories are wrong? It’s been three hundred years and I often wonder if something got lost in translation. If things were hidden. By the people who became the elite. By the men who became kings. It is convenient to label someone else as a villain, while you grab power for yourself.”

Excerpt from the writings of RM, revolutionary leader

 

 

_ _ 

 

Two years ago

Are you sure about this?” Yoongi asks him, hovering in the doorway. This used to be an office once, maybe, in the Old World. The building has crumbled steadily into decay, abandoned decades ago and they’ve been using it to store smuggled supplies, and the radio equipment Hoseok has slowly been assembling.

“Yes,” he replies to Yoongi, adjusting the dial on his transmitter. “Besides, you run a smuggling network, hyung. I don't think you're allowed to call me out on dangerous choices.”

Yoongi grimaces. “I know, but…”

“This is different?” Hoseok prompts with a hint of bite in his tone. He didn't protest when Yoongi decided to start the network two years ago, or when the kids inevitably got involved last year. Hell, he's even done a couple runs himself. But he’s long wanted to make his own contribution to their burgeoning cause and this feels right. Feels like something he could be good at.

“It is different,” Yoongi insists quietly. “You’re putting your voice out there, Seok-ah. Painting a massive target on your back. What if they figure out who you are and catch you?”

“The same risk applies to you,” Hoseok says, standing to face Yoongi. “To all of us. But I think I can actually help people with this.” He crosses over to the door and cups Yoongi’s face in his hands, thumbs swiping across the bones of Yoongi’s cheeks. “So you have to let me do this, love.”

Conflict flickers briefly across Yoongi’s face, but Hoseok knows that this is a battle he’s going to win. It isn’t even really a battle at all - Yoongi’s always supported him. Ever since they were kids in the orphanage and he schemed of running away. Ever since the first time he gathered all the courage he had and kissed Yoongi in the dark and Yoongi kissed him back.

A love like this is unwise, in a world surrounded by death and loss. They grew up learning about the dangers of attachments - why open your heart to someone when they could be gone tomorrow? When they could be sanctioned or taken by illness or starvation or the cold, furious grip of winter? But Hoseok never had a chance to guard his heart. He was seven years old when Yoongi crawled into his bed one night with a hot towel he’d stolen and soothed the bruise on Hoseok's cheek from a matron’s hand. Wiped up his tears and whispered, “it’s going to be okay, Seok-ah.”

Hoseok loved him then, from that instant onwards - there was no going back, and in the years since the love has only grown and adapted. Now, he knows the feel of Yoongi’s body beneath his hands, what Yoongi looks like, sounds like, in the throes of pleasure. The taste of Yoongi’s mouth and the weight of Yoongi’s fears whispered to him in the quiet hours before dawn. He has nursed Yoongi through one of those terrible illnesses, praying he’d come out the other side alive. He’s fought with him through over a dozen winters, weathered starvation at his side, expanded their apartment to include the kids. Yoongi taught him to read and write and he taught Yoongi how to build tools from a heap of discarded parts. A piece of his heart beats in Yoongi’s chest and there is a piece of Yoongi’s in his.

It’s probably going to kill him, when Yoongi’s gone, but he refuses to think about that. They’ve had sixteen years together. They can have more.

“I can do this,” he tells Yoongi now and rests their foreheads together. “Let me do this, love.”

"Okay,” Yoongi whispers and kisses him, deep and a little desperate. “Okay, just please don’t get yourself killed?”

“Same goes for you,” Hoseok says. “You have to stay with me, remember?”

“I will,” Yoongi promises, and it doesn’t feel like a lie, in this moment. It won’t become a lie until Jungkook -

Now

-- but he shouldn’t think about that. He shouldn’t think about Yoongi at all, but that’s gotten harder, as the months have worn on and Hoseok’s failed to find him.

“I miss you,” he says to the empty shed. To his blinking radio equipment. There is a storm gathering strength outside and it was a risk, coming here. Trying to broadcast. But he had to try. People need hope right now, more than ever. “Fuck, I miss you so much.”

He leans back in his creaking seat, listening to the howl of the wind. Sometimes, he does this when the kids aren’t around to hear him. Stops pretending to be strong and talks to Yoongi like he’s still here, perched on the table with his legs kicking back and forth, teasing about how sexy Hoseok’s radio voice is.

“Taehyung said that your current owner kills companions. God, god , love I hope that isn’t true. I hope you’re as safe as you can be.” He can’t think about someone hurting Yoongi in the ways that Hoseok used to love him. Can’t imagine someone else’s hands on Yoongi’s bare skin or pain where there should be pleasure. “We’re trying, we are. The fucking king isn’t making it easy.” He laughs, rasping and jagged. “But I’m sure you know that.”

He shifts forward again and flips the dial on his transmitter. He may not be able to get a signal out because of the storm, but he’s damn well going to try. “Just hang in there,” he says as he pulls the microphone closer. “Remember that I love you.”

His phone buzzes on the table next to him. Have Jimin. Headed back. Be careful of patrols.

Another lockdown - so much for the king getting bored of them. But at least the kids are hopefully safe.

He takes a deep breath, cupping the microphone in gloved hands. The wind throws itself against the thin walls of the shed like a furious banshee. “Good afternoon, folks,” Hoseok says, trying to keep his voice light. “Welcome to another day in hell.”

 

_ _

 

Morning dawns bright and snow-filled and the furious ache in his shoulder reminds Namjoon that yesterday wasn’t a dream. Yoongi stabbed him. Yoongi is Suga, prolific anti-government writer who disappeared last year. Yoongi now knows that he has the mutation, that he’s RM, and Yoongi sat on his sofa and offered himself up for Namjoon’s cause.

His chest still feels twisted and strange at that thought - at what Yoongi’s willing to give. He’s been meaning to call Seokjin and update him with the news, that the plan is finally going to be moving forward. But apparently Seokjin bought a companion on a whim at a party and has had his hands full for the last twenty-four hours, so Namjoon decides that it can wait until this afternoon, at least.

For now, he focuses on getting himself up and figuring out how to change the bandages covering his shoulder. It was a messy patch-up job, and he needs Seokjin to look at it and probably stitch it properly, but that’s another thing that can wait. He settles on the guest bathroom, instead of his en suite, because that’s where he keeps the first aid kit.

It takes a long time, getting his shirt off and trying not to cringe at every fresh stab of pain through his shoulder as he moves. His fingers are still clumsy as he tries to unwind the bandages, fumbling for the haphazard knot holding them in place.

“Let me do it,” Yoongi says suddenly from the doorway, nearly making Namjoon out of his skin. His ability to move silently is both incredible and infuriating.

“It’s fine,” Namjoon tries to insist, but Yoongi’s grown a lot more assertive since yesterday and ignores him, knocking his hand aside to reach for the knots himself. He thinks he’s probably lost what little authority he had as Yoongi’s owner and can’t bring himself to mind at all.

Yoongi’s quick and efficient and practiced. “Do you want me to stitch this up?” he asks as he examines the wound, which is still raw and open even though it’s finally stopped bleeding.

“You know how?” Namjoon asks in surprise and Yoongi snorts.

“Of course I know how,” he says as he rummages around in Namjoon’s first aid kit. “A lot of doctors won’t see us unless we’re actually dying. I learned as much first aid as I could when I was twelve. Needed to be able to patch myself up.”

There is so little he knows of Yoongi, and suddenly Namjoon wants all of these details. Wants to understand this boy who became Suga, now that Yoongi is staying. Now that they’re in this terrible thing together.

“You weren’t in an orphanage?” he asks quietly, watching Yoongi pull gloves on and hold the needle over a match to sterilize it.

“I was,” Yoongi says, tone flat. “They separated me from my parents when I tested positive at five. I ran away when I was ten.”

“Why?”

“The streets were better. Now hold still.”

Yoongi smears numbing agent around the wound before starting, but it still hurts - forces Namjoon to grit his teeth and grip the sink hard enough to feel the strain in his knuckles.

“Sorry,” Yoongi mutters and Namjoon wants to say don’t apologize because the seals hurt worse. Instead he bows his head and focuses on breathing, on keeping still for Yoongi.

What has to be only a few minutes later, but feels like hours, Yoongi says, “I’m done,” and ties off the thread. Then comes disinfectant and fresh bandages and Yoongi helping Namjoon back into his shirt.

“Thank you,” Namjoon says and Yoongi just nods. His hair is sticking up in little tufts, like he just got out of bed, and Namjoon has the sudden, strange urge to smooth them down.

Yoongi stuffs the first aid kit behind the sink. “You have almost no food in this goddamn apartment but I’m making stewed fish and cucumber soup for breakfast.”

“You don’t have to wait on me,” Namjoon insists and Yoongi pauses, an unreadable expression flickering across his face. Surprise, maybe?

“I’m not waiting on you,” he declares after a moment. “I’m hungry and you can’t cook.” He shrugs and steps through the door, Namjoon trailing after him. “After that, we should go shopping. You … you need to buy clothes for me. For the parties. And makeup and jewelry.”

“I … I haven’t really gone to any parties in years,” Namjoon stammers. “Or any social functions. I don’t know what to buy.”

Yoongi nods, biting his lip. He looks soft in his baggy clothes - hair just a little too long, falling into his eyes - but there is steel in his spine and the set of his shoulders. “It’s okay,” he says, not looking at Namjoon. His jaw clenches and relaxes again. “I’ll show you.”

He starts towards the kitchen, but Namjoon reaches out and snags his hand. Yoongi flinches at the sudden contact. Doesn’t pull away.

Namjoon squeezes. “Thank you. Hyung.”

Yoongi’s eyes blow wide and shell-shocked. “What … what did you just call me?”

“Hyung,” Namjoon repeats, determined now. “You’re older than me. I saw it on your file.”

“That still doesn’t mean you should call me that,” Yoongi says with a shake of his head. He’s still clutching Namjoon’s hand. “You … I’m beneath you. You shouldn’t call me that.”

“In this apartment you aren’t beneath me,” Namjoon says, squeezing Yoongi’s hand again. “We both have the mutation. We’re equals.”

“That’s not how this works,” Yoongi argues.

“It’s my apartment. Don’t you think I can decide what happens in it?” He takes a step closer, lets his earnestness creep onto his face. “Let me do this, please. Let me … let me give you this one stupid little thing. This one thing in exchange for everything else.”

Yoongi deflates slightly. Enough. “Okay,” he says. “Okay, fine. Call me what you want.”

Namjoon smiles at him. “Thank you. Hyung.”

Yoongi huffs and drops their hands, shuffling his way over to the fridge to pull out ingredients. Namjoon’s never been the biggest fan of fish, but it’s by far the easiest meat to come by. It’s hard, keeping other animals alive in large quantities. The seas are one of the few unscathed things left from the Old World, where there used to be farms that stretched as far as the eye could see - full of thousands and thousands of cows. At least, according to some of the books he’s managed to dig up from his family’s crumbling collection.

He leans against the counter, well out of the way as Yoongi works. He’s as efficient in the kitchen as he was mending Namjoon’s wounds, seemingly able to do a dozen things at once: boiling water, chopping vegetables, salting the fish, adding spices Namjoon didn’t even know he owned.

“Shit, you’re good at everything,” Namjoon blurts before he can stop himself.

Yoongi snorts again. “Lots of practice.”

They leave it at that, neither willing to stay too far into the shadows of the past.

 

_ _

 

After possibly one of the best breakfasts Namjoon’s had in awhile, he changes and swallows several pain pills and braces himself for a day of shopping. He usually doesn’t mind shopping - even occasionally finds it soothing and enjoyable. But this is different. He has a whole list of stores written down that he’s never visited before and he’s already trying to wrap his mind around the character he’ll be required to play - the same one that goes to the auction houses, arrogant and cruel. 

Yoongi slips out of the guest bedroom quiet as always, but he doesn’t duck his head immediately at the sight of Namjoon - doesn’t seem as small and skittish anymore. Namjoon can’t tell if the early submissiveness was always just an act or if they’ve actually made some progress on trusting each other.

“You ready?” he asks Yoongi, who nods. He’s dressed in slightly more form fitting clothes - a jacket Namjoon vaguely remembers buying for his journey to Busan and pants that he’s had to roll up at the ankles. His earrings glint in the morning light as he brushes his hair out of his eyes and holds out one slender wrist.

Namjoon blinks in confusion. Yoongi blinks back.

“You need to … a tether?” Yoongi says, voice dropping down to past whispery levels. “You need to tether me.”

Shit, he’d forgotten: all companions must be tethered to their owners when out in public. Namjoon supposes there have been one too many escape attempts, even with the tracker designed to prevent them. Panic wells in his chest - he’s never taken a companion outside; he has no idea how to do this, no idea where to even begin.

“The auction house should have included one,” Yoongi elaborates when he notices Namjoon’s frozen, probably half-terrified expression. “It’s a cuff that goes on my wrist and a … a leash. For you to hold.”

“Ah,” Namjoon says and tries to remember where he dumped the courtesy packet from the auction house.

The office, he thinks, and motions for Yoongi to wait while he enters the code and slips inside. Normally, he throws out the courtesy packets - full of tips for keeping your companion docile and return policies and a bunch of sickening language designed to dehumanize the person you’ve just bought - but he vaguely remembers keeping Yoongi’s, intending to get rid of it after he’d put Yoongi on a train.

Sure enough, he finds the box shoved into one of his desk drawers and opens it, wincing at the leather cuff and leash curled up inside. He picks them up and blows out a deep breath, reminding himself to stay calm. He won’t make it through today, otherwise. Or all the days after that. Yoongi is calm and he’s the one who’s going to be wearing it.

He’s waiting patiently when Namjoon returns to the foyer, holding out his wrist again and watching, impassive, as Namjoon slides the cuff on, cinching it tight.

“You can buy nicer ones,” he says as Namjoon awkwardly holds the leash. “Ones that look like jewelry.”

“Is that more common?” Namjoon asks, realizing for the first time how little he actually knows about this world that he’s supposed to live in. He spends too much time shut up in his apartment, closed off from the rest of his fellow elite.

Yoongi shrugs. “Somewhat? A lot of owners like to be discrete and flaunt their wealth at the same time.”

“Oh.”

An uncomfortable silence. Yoongi nods to the door. “Should we go?”

Namjoon straightens, grips the leash tight. “Right. Yes. Let's go.”

 

 

_ _

 

There is an order to this apparently: clothes, then makeup, then accessories - all at shops specializing in dressing up companions.

“I didn’t realize,” Namjoon says as the car pulls up in front of the first place: a tailor, with elegant gold lettering across the glass storefront, “how … involved this all is.”

“People take pride in it,” Yoongi murmurs. “We’re currency, remember? So everyone wants to have the prettiest, most stylish and desirable companion in the room. It’s a status symbol.”

Namjoon’s stomach churns. “I hate this world.”

The corner of Yoongi’s mouth twists in a bitter smile. “That makes two of us.”

“Sorry,” Namjoon says automatically, guilt coiling along with the nausea. “I shouldn’t be complaining so much I-”

“No,” Yoongi says, quiet but firm. “I’m glad. That you hate this.”

Namjoon grips the door handle tight. “I do. I hate it.”

“Then let’s get it over with?”

“Yeah.” He pauses, in the middle of opening the car door and pulls it closed it again. “Wait - I … what should I choose for you? For - for a style?”

Fuck, he’s so far out of his depth.

Yoongi chews on his lip, thinking. “Elegant,” he decides after a moment. “Understated, but meant to highlight my … my delicateness.” He gestures to his body. “I’m small, right? Thin. People like that - me looking breakable. Especially men. Go more feminine, too. For the men. For the women, still delicate. Easy to overpower, to subdue.” He sucks in another breath, fingers curling into fists on his skinny thighs. His gaze is far away, turned towards the leather seat instead of Namjoon’s face, but his voice is steady. “Highlight my waist, especially. My legs. Straps that can go around them. Something gauzy and a little more sheer for my upper body. But nothing too overly-complicated - that still allows … easy access.”

“Okay,” Namjoon whispers and carefully puts a hand on top of Yoongi’s, feels the knobs of Yoongi’s knuckles dig into his palm. “I’m -”

“And stop apologizing,” Yoongi mutters, glancing up at him. “I offered. Stop - it’s okay.”

It isn’t, nothing about this is. But Namjoon can’t change it yet, so he squeezes Yoongi’s hand and guides him out of the car and into the shop.

The tailor is a man who looks at Yoongi like a decorative piece. He coos over Yoongi’s pale skin, commenting that it’s like pure sugar, before measuring Yoongi’s waist and hips and legs, turning his head this way and that with rough fingers underneath his chin, murmuring about the angles of his face.  He picks out pants that hug Yoongi’s thighs and gauzy, clinging shirts that dip low across his collarbones. They’re mostly darker colors, to contrast with Yoongi’s skin, but also some patterns and some greys and whites. (“It’s an innocent color,” he says of the white, winking, and Namjoon breathes slow through his nose.)

Namjoon forces himself to examine Yoongi in each outfit, to let his gaze linger before he nods his approval or shakes his head. He always latches on to Yoongi’s eyes last, trying to ask what the answer should be, but after the first few outfits he senses that Yoongi’s tucked himself away somewhere safe and is just letting his body be poked and prodded and dressed. So Namjoon chooses for himself, trying not to feel disgusted when he finds Yoongi pretty in some of the outfits - understands their twisted appeal.

He leaves with almost two dozen items that will be custom-fitted and delivered to his apartment, a tight grip on Yoongi’s tether, and a lead weight in the pit of his stomach.

The most recommended cosmetics shop is only a short drive away, spent in silence, and two women in sharp suits and flawless makeup greet them. They, too, remark at Yoongi’s skin, shifting the sleeves of his shirt up to run their fingers down his arms. One of them pokes at Yoongi’s cheek and comments that it’s looking a little too round - a more restrictive diet, she suggests, to bring out the bone better. Perhaps even surgery, though that’s an expense rarely spent on companions. Yoongi holds himself still for them as they test out a range of products Namjoon’s never heard of.

They brush glittery eyeshadow on Yoongi's lids and line his eyes with dark liquid; apply gloss that makes his lips shiny and red; blend power on his cheeks that somehow sharpens them. Once again, Namjoon is forced to choose the colors and shades that he prefers, though he mostly listens to their recommendations.

“You know how to do this, yes?” the second woman asks Yoongi.

Yoongi nods, keeping his gaze respectfully lowered. “Yes,” he whispers. “I was taught how to apply everything.”

She hands him a makeup brush and Namjoon realizes this is a test. “I don’t think-” he starts but first women politely quiets him.

“We want to make sure he can replicate these looks, sir,” she explains with a bow. “Before you purchase any products.”

“Companions lie sometimes,” the second women remarks casually. “To avoid punishment. Most owners prefer to witness a test of their skills.”

“Right,” Namjoon manages and inclines his head. “Of course, I’m sorry. I’m fairly … new to this.”

The women smile beautifically and offer him refreshments while Yoongi is positioned in front of a mirror. He reluctantly accepts a glass of wine and an offered chair, waiting Yoongi sort through the products. It definitely looks like he knows what he’s doing, and though he moves a little slower, a little more carefully than the women did, by the time he’s done, he looks almost the same as when they first made him up - eyes dark, cheeks sharp, lashes long, and lips red red red.

“Excellent,” the first women says and begins packing up products for Namjoon to buy. “I believe these to start with.”

“Please come back any time, sir,” the second women says. “If there’s anything you’d like to experiment with.”

They’re talking to Namjoon - like Yoongi is a dress-up doll he can mould and change to suit his whims. “Thank you,” he says, hoping he still sounds polite.

They bow and hand Namjoon back Yoongi’s leash.

One more to go, Namjoon tells himself as he swallows more pain pills, and that’s accessories, also close by. This time it’s a man and a women, also in suits, also with immaculate faces and hair. Once again, Namjoon is offered refreshments and a plush chair and Yoongi’s dragged to the middle of the room. Namjoon shows them some of the clothes he’s purchased and Yoongi’s made to put them on, with instructions not to smudge his makeup. Then the game of dress up begins again.

“I think he’d look best in silver,” the man says, holding up several long earrings to Yoongi’s ears. “The multiple piercings were a good choice, we can try out a few different styles at once.”

“He has a nice neck,” the woman says, curling her fingers around it while Yoongi’s breath hitches subtly. “We have a lovely selection of collars that would be perfect.”

“And his waist,” the man says, big hands pressed against Yoongi’s ribs, “would be good to accent. I’d recommend some corsets. We also have harnesses that are easy to take on and off.”

“I’m open to your recommendations,” Namjoon says with an arrogant wave of his hand. He’s getting better at this, he thinks. “Though I agree on the silver. Bring me out some collars?”

They come in velvet boxes, and he watches as several different kinds are fastened around Yoongi’s neck in succession. All of them are tight, meant to be slightly restrictive. Some are made of sturdy fabric, some have a loop where a leash can clearly be attached, some are thick and heavy, and some are sparkling and delicate.

Namjoon chooses two cloth ones and two thin, silver ones, hoping desperately they’re the least uncomfortable. He also selects a dozen various earrings, two corsets, and a leather harness. The man also insists on including one that straps around Yoongi’s thigh, as well. Just another form of restraint, Namjoon supposes bitterly, marveling at how ordinary things can be become so sinister depending on the meaning attached to them.

In another world, he’d look at all this and think Yoongi beautiful. In this one, none of it is Yoongi’s choice and all of it is meant to create a picture of submission and desirability - entice people to touch, to take.

Namjoon wonders when he’ll stop feeling nauseous.

“We can also recommend a different tether, sir,” the woman says, dragging Namjoon out of his thoughts. She’s holding up Yoongi’s cuffed wrist. “This is auction house issued, correct? We have a nice selection.”

“Okay,” Namjoon says. “Show me.”

These cuffs could pass for bracelets almost, if they weren’t a little too thick and a little too chain-like. Namjoon chooses the simplest looking one and a leash made of a strong, almost cloth-like material and hopes that this is the end of it.

Fortunately, it seems to be. He’s handed half a dozen shopping bags and Yoongi’s leash and ushered out with bows and requests for him to come back any time. He all but runs to the car once they’re out on the street, throwing the bags inside and slamming the door closed once Yoongi’s seated.

“Home, please,” he instructs the driver and rolls up the partition so he can slide forward and grab Yoongi’s hands, ignoring the ache in his shoulder and hating the way Yoongi’s hunched in on himself in a tense ball.

“Please talk to me, hyung?” he asks. He hasn’t heard Yoongi speak in hours beyond a few responses to questions asked by the various shop workers.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Yoongi says after a moment, lifting his head. He still has his makeup on, though it’s been a little smudged by the shop workers’ hands. “This isn’t the worst part.”

“No,” Namjoon agrees softly.

Yoongi blinks down at their joined hands and Namjoon flushes in embarrassment, wondering why his first instinct was to touch, wondering if he overstepped a boundary. He goes to pull away, but Yoongi makes a low noise of protest and clutches on.

Namjoon settles and twines his fingers with Yoongi’s, palms pressed together tight.

 

_ _

 

There are many things that Seokjin hates in the world - too-salty food, pretentious people, traitors (though perhaps he isn’t one to talk in that department), his grandmother and her constant disapproval, this gilded cage that grows tighter every year - but the biggest one is seeing people in pain.

He wants to remove himself from the room when the representatives from the auction house arrive and strap Tokki (he really needs to learn the kid’s name somehow) to the bed, but he owes it to the frightened boy to stay.

“Would you like us to drug him?” a woman asks, already assembling her tools for a tattoo.

Seokjin glances at Tokki’s wide eyes, sees the terror increase at this prospect, and shakes his head. When he was young and a little more reckless and a lot more arrogant, he took pills at his cousin’s party and watched the whole evening turn liquid and elastic. It was awful, and he doesn't want to put anyone else through a loss of senses and control if he doesn’t have to.

Sometimes, pain is preferable.

And there is pain: Tokki bites his lip as the tattoo gun whirs, as Seokjin watches his own initials appear on the boy’s skin with a mixture of awe and horror. The seals are worse. He’s never understood how they work - nanotechnology or something fancy like that - but they’re meant to be coded an owner’s fingerprints, to release some sort of burning agent into a companion’s nerves to quell any resistance.

And of course the bastards have to test it.

He presses his fingers to the seal once they’re done and watches it flare red. Listens as Tokki cries out and jerks on the bed, instinctively trying to get away.

God, he’s a horrible person, he thinks, waiting for the signal from the representative to withdraw. He’s a horrible person for this.

At last it comes and at last the representatives leave, handing him a courtesy packet on their way out the door. He dumps it into the trash as soon as the lock clicks and rushes to untie Tokki.

“I’m sorry,” he says as he soothes the tears away from the boy’s cheeks. “I’m so sorry.”

Tokki shakes his head, dark bangs falling into his eyes. He pushes them back with one hand as he sits up. He looks older, with them swept off his forehead, but still so heartbreakingly young.

“Will you accept food as a better apology?” Seokjin offers, already knowing he’s in danger of overfeeding the kid. He could honestly stand to gain a pound or ten, though, if the slight gauntness in his cheeks is anything to go by.

Tokki stares at him, seemingly surprised, and then nods. He trails after Seokjin into the kitchen, looking a little like a lost puppy. He’s still moving stiffly and he avoids sitting down. Seokjin remembers the blood on his thighs last night - the shamed curl of his shoulders - and has to tamp down a fresh wave of fury.

Too many things are acceptable in this wretched world of theirs.

He was planning on cooking for himself, but Tokki (god, he really needs to figure out his name) hovers, still looking scared and uncertain. Seokjin finds himself narrating what he’s doing as he prepares bulgogi and then pulling Tokki in to help, instructing him to watch the pot and add various ingredients when they’re ready. He looks relieved, to be of use, and while Seokjin is sometimes a big believer in the power of denial, he refuses to shy away from why that is. What this boy has been trained to do and what he expects that Seokjin will still demand of him, no matter how many times Seokjin tries to reassure him otherwise.

“Here, what do you think?” he asks, holding up a piece of meat with his chopsticks.

Tokki tentatively takes it into his mouth. He chews for a moment and then nods, a pleased expression momentarily chasing away the nervousness. Seokjin smiles around the sudden, unexpected swell of affection that balloons in his chest.

“Good,” he says gently. “Let’s eat, then.”

They once again do it standing up in the kitchen, but Tokki seems a little less afraid this time, not flinching with every shift of Seokjin’s weight like he’s expecting a blow.

Once they're done, Seokjin washes up, waving off Tokki's noise of uncertain protest. “I like doing the dishes,” he says. “I find it soothing. Sometimes I just wash everything in my cupboards whether it’s dirty or not.”

Tokki blinks and points to himself. It takes Seokjin a moment, but he smiles when he gets it. “You do that, too, huh?”

A shy nod.

“Then you can dry,” Seokjin decides and hands him a bowl.

After they’ve finished, he changes Tokki’s bandages and helps him dress in fresh clothes, careful of the wrapped tattoo that is still angry and raw. He hates seeing his initials on Tokki’s skin - add that to the list of things - but he’s careful not to show it.

He needs to get the boy papers, which will be hard so close to his last relocation. He may need to wait a week or two before tapping his usual contacts. One thing at a time, anyway. Right now, the first thing is setting Tokki on the couch, locating a notebook and a pencil, and placing them in Tokki’s lap.

“Do you write?” he asks as Tokki’s fingers trace over the cover.

Fortunately, Tokki nods.

“Then will you tell me your name?”

A flinch.

“Not the name the auction house gave you,” he clarifies. “Your real name.”

Another flinch. Tokki’s eyes dart nervously to the notebook.

“You don’t have to tell me,” Seokjin amends quickly. “Just … what do you want to be called? I shouldn’t keep calling you a rabbit.”

Tokki swallows. Hesitates. But then he picks up the pencil and cracks open the notebook. Scrawls two letters in it: JK.

“JK?” Seokjin says, surprised by the romanized letters instead of Hangul. Who taught this boy? That’s more of an education than most Marked get.

JK nods.

Seokjin smiles, aiming for reassuring. “Okay. JK, it is.”

JK swallows. The pencil moves again, Hangul this time: 고맙습니다.

Thank you.

Seokjin’s chest tightens. It’s such a simple thing. It doesn’t deserve thanks, but JK’s eyes are shining with gratitude, just because Seokjin let him choose his own name.

“You’re welcome,” Seokjin murmurs and reaches out to squeeze JK’s hand. “And you can keep the notebook. Talk to me whenever you want that way.”

JK ducks his head. Taps his pencil against the thank you again and Seokjin is helplessly endeared. This boy has been through a hell he can’t even imagine and yet there is still so much self left, shining through all the wounds and scars. What a brave, brave kid.

“I have to go out for a few hours,” he continues. “For a meeting. Will you be okay here? You can help yourself to any of the food, though I should be back for dinner. And anything else you like - the books, anything.”

JK nods. Fidgets.

“And … I’m going to help you, alright?” Seokjin says. This is a speech he’s given nearly forty times, but he amends it a little - adds more than he usually would because he’s never had someone like JK before: so young and raw and freshly hurt. “I’m … I have ways, to make sure you’re safe. I can’t tell you everything yet, but I’m going to try to give you as much freedom as I can. Just be patient with me. Don’t try to escape. This building - the security is tight and they might kill you for trying. I don’t want that to happen. Please.”

It happened once. Just once. Seokjin’s never let himself forget that failure.

JK nods again, eyes wide. Writes: I won’t next to the thank you.

“Good,” Seokjin says and hopes JK means it. “Thank you. I’ll see you tonight.”

JK lifts his hand in a shy wave as Seokjin heads for the door.

 

_ _

 

It’s rare that they all sleep in until the afternoon, but with the storm still raging there’s very little that they can do. Sectors 1 and 2 are rumored to have technology in place that keeps the worst weather at bay, but the outer sectors haven’t been granted that particular luxury. So the power’s out and it’s fucking freezing and Hoseok has been huddled up with Jimin and Taehyung on the mattress all morning, buried under every threadbare blanket they own while snow piles up from the gap in the window.

“I hate winter,” Taehyung whispers, teeth chattering. “I hate it so much.”

“Apparently there are places that don’t snow,” Jimin says, tucked between him and Hoseok. “Or freeze.”

“We’ll find one,” Hoseok mutters, rubbing Jimin’s back. “When we get Yoongi and Jungkookie back.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees, a sad edge creeping into his voice.

“Yoongi would hate it,” Jimin declares, purposefully keeping his own voice light. Bless him. “He always gripes more in the summer than the winter.”

Taehyung actually manages a wheeze of a laugh. “You’re right. He’d melt away.”

It hurts and heals, hearing the kids joke like this, skirting around the edges of the hole still sitting in the middle of them. Hoseok is about to suggest they try to get some more sleep - if they freeze to death, then at least it will be a peaceful end - when he hears it: shouting from somewhere beyond the front door.

“Shit,” Taehyung says.

“That doesn’t sound like a domestic argument,” Jimin says, starting to sit up. Taehyung, closest to the door, beats him to it, clambering to his feet and wrangling the door open to peer out into the hallway. The wind howls inside, making Hoseok shudder from head to toe. Taehyung steps further past the threshold, peering over the railing to the floors below.

“Shit,” he exclaims as more shouts echo up and scrambles back inside, slamming the door shut behind him. “City police. It looks like they’re going from apartment to apartment.”

Hoseok sits up now, too, alarm trilling down his spine. “What?”

They’ve dealt with raids before, but never in this building. Everyone here keeps their heads down as much as possible, and many of their neighbors are elderly - just waiting for something to take them.

“I think they’re looking for someone,” Taehyung says grimly.

“One of us?” Jimin asks, because that’s always a possibility.

“I haven’t heard anything, but maybe.”

Either way, they can’t take any chances.

“What floor were they on?” Hoseok asks as he gets up.

“Three floors down,” Taehyung says, hovering by the dining room table.

“Right. Pack up everything you think we need. Let’s go.”

Both Taehyung and Jimin explode into motion. They’ve practiced for this - needed to, with their various underground occupations - and it’s a swift and efficient dance around the apartment, pulling food from the shelves and stuffing it into courier packs. A change of clothes for each of them, Taehyung’s laptop, Hoseok’s radio equipment, Jimin’s forged papers - anything else that might be incriminating.

The shouts are getting louder, Hoseok notices as he zips his pack closed. The police are moving fast, only a floor below them now.

Jimin has opened the door to their rickety balcony, snow pouring in. Taehyung makes the bed, trying to erase all signs of recent occupation. Hoseok secures his face mask and then a scarf for good measure, heaving the pack onto his shoulders. He spares a last glance for their apartment: Yoongi’s and Jungkook’s coats on the wall pegs, Jungkook’s plant drooping and forlorn on the kitchen table - all these scattered ghosts of life.

Somewhere on their floor, a door breaks on its hinges and someone screams.

“Hyung,” Taehyung says, pulling at his sleeve. “Hyung, let’s go.”

They may never come back here. Over five years in this apartment - Hoseok isn’t sure whether he’s relieved or devastated. It was a home, in spite of everything.

But sentiment like this is a waste of time.

He follows Taehyung out onto the balcony. There is a fire escape that runs the length of the building, but police are no doubt watching the ground level so they make for the roof, clinging tight to the rattling railings and battling the wind with every step.

Fortunately, all the buildings here are squashed close together and it isn’t too far of a jump from this roof to the next one. Jimin goes first: a running start. They’re facing away from the wind now and with it against his back, he makes it across safely. Taehyung follows. Then it’s Hoseok’s turn. He backs up a few steps and sprints, battling the frigid air like shrapnel in his lungs and the adrenaline pounding through his veins. His feet leave the edge, hundreds of meters of empty space below him, and then he’s crashing onto the other roof, folding his body into a roll to absorb the impact. Jimin tugs him to his feet.

“I’m okay,” he says in response to Jimin’s questioning look. “I’m okay, keep going.”

Before the police decide to check the roof, too.

They descend this building’s fire escape safely, ducking past balcony doors in the hope that no one catches sight of them.

“The condemned zone,” Hoseok tells them on the street. There is always a risk of decaying Old World buildings falling on you there, but at least the police don’t patrol it nearly as much.

Taehyung nods and takes point - head down, hands shoved into his pockets, blending in with the crowd.

There are police everywhere, it feels like, searching multiple buildings along the street. And as he passes a bus station, Hoseok catches sight of a fresh poster plastered to the board. A silhouette of a man and beneath that, in big, screaming letters: WANTED, BY ORDER OF THE KING. DEAD OR ALIVE.

And beneath that, one familiar word: HOPE.

So, Hoseok thinks grimly, the king has finally come for him.

Well. Bring it on.

Chapter Text

“The powers possessed by those who would come to be known as the Marked were beyond the realm of human possibility. Their mutated DNA gave them the ability to manipulate the very earth itself, and they used this to their advantage. They toppled whole cities, rent the earth so that nothing would grow [...] They ended the Old World, in their determination to rule it, and it was only through the bravery of those who rose up in resistance that they were subdued.”

Excerpt from The Cataclysm, about the end of the Old World

 

 

_ _ 

 

Namjoon reaches out to an old classmate for his first party invitation, Cho Doyun. They’d been something like friends in university, even if Doyun’s family owned the campus (and oversaw all schools in the city), and so he sailed through three years with minimum effort while Namjoon struggled to prove he was worth something to his skeptical family. These days, he’s on the board of that same university, Namjoon’s heard, but spends most of his weekends hosting lavish parties at his parents’ mansion.

“I have a plan,” he tells Yoongi when he gets an acceptance back, unfurling a long piece of parchment that he’s rolled up like a scroll. Yoongi arches an eyebrow at him and he shrugs. He only trusts technology so far - paper is easier to conceal.

On it, he’s scrawled the names of each of the Eight families of the king’s court and notes next to them:

  • YOO - defense (city police, king’s security detail, oversight of Marked/sanctioning)
  • LEE - agriculture (city greenhouses, farms in the south, food distribution)
  • HAHN - commerce (factories, auction houses, import/export with Gwangju/Busan, distribution of non-perishable rations)
  • KIM - energy/transportation (city power grids and buses/trains)
  • KWON - housing/construction (apartment complex maintenance, building/demolition as necessary, Marked lodging allocation)
  • CHO - education (all schools and universities)
  • KANG - labor/immigration (labor laws, Marked job allocations, processing of all citizens moving between cities)
  • CHI - health/human services (orphanages throughout the city, hospitals, emergency services)

“Quite the list,” Yoongi says as he eyes it. “All this power on one piece of paper.”

Namjoon nods grimly. “And they’re our main problem. We topple the king, they’re going to fight for the crown. And that's if someone doesn't try a coup before us. The old king - he had their loyalty, or maybe they were afraid of them. Not his son.”

“So how do you think you’re going to subdue them?” Yoongi asks dubiously. “This much power isn’t going to come to heel because of some secrets.”

“No,” Namjoon agrees.

He remembers hours with Seokjin, pouring over this short list, trying to think of weak spots to exploit, chinks in the armor - any way to bring these powerhouses down. These families are old, formed from the ashes of the Old World centuries ago, and their wealth and influence is even more widespread than the royal family's in some areas. But there was a quote Namjoon remembers seeing, tucked away in an Old World book on the back shelf of a city library:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

“We need to make them fight each other,” he says to Yoongi. “Take their attention off the crown. These families are more like … like clans. Or a corporation. Full of branches and divisions and warring factors who want power. Rumor has it that Yoo Minseok is poisoning his own father for a place as family head. And just last year, Kang Hajoon died under mysterious circumstances and his younger sister conveniently took his place as head of the family. The foundation is already cracked, we just need to … widen those cracks, if you will.”

Yoongi’s eyes are on the list, gaze sharp with understanding as he nods. “Use their secrets against each other, instead of other families.” He looks up at Namjoon. “Are there any others like you?”

“With the mutation?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know.” He’s thought about trying to look for others, to see if they could form an alliance, but he was always too afraid of exposing himself to the wrong people and ending up dead as a result. “We tend to stay purposefully quiet.”

“Understandable. But making the Eight fight won’t be enough,” Yoongi points out. “We need at least one or two of them on our side. And our best bet is people like you, who have an interest in seeing the current system break down, even if it means losing wealth and power. Are there any rumors, at least? Somewhere we can start.”

Namjoon chews on the tip of his pen, thinking. He remembers hearing something in university. Whispers, nothing more, but whispers often have a grain of truth to them - especially amongst the elite. “There have been some vague ones, about a boy from the Yoo family.” He leans forward to scratch a star next to YOO on his list. “I think his name is Kihyun. Third in line for family head. He’s even more reclusive than me, though. Doesn’t go to parties and I don’t think he owns companions.”

Yoongi shrugs. “It’s still a potential place to start.”

He’s right about that. Namjoon adds Kihyun to the bottom of the page and rolls it up again. “Let’s get through a party first,” he declares and the corner of Yoongi’s mouth twitches in a sad smile.

“Yeah.”

Before he can say anything else, there’s a knock on the door.

Seokjin.

Namjoon stands, giving Yoongi a reassuring gesture in response to his questioning look, and goes to open the door. His cousin looks exhausted and far less put together than usual, wearing simple clothes and hair a mess. Namjoon knows better than to ask, knows that Seokjin keeps his vulnerabilities close to his chest and rarely shows them to anyone, even Namjoon. So he settles for patting Seokjin on the shoulder and beckoning him inside.

“Thanks for coming on such short notice, hyung.”

“My companion’s settled a little now,” Seokjin says, pausing to eye the numerous shopping bags Namjoon hasn’t cleared from the living room yet - neither him nor Yoongi really wanted to deal with them after getting home. “I can spare a few hours.” His gaze moves to the bandages poking out of Namjoon’s shirt and narrows. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Namjoon hedges. “Just a small misunderstanding.”

Seokjin’s brow furrows, frown deepening. “With your companion?”

“We’ve sorted it out now,” Namjoon assures him, herding him towards the living room. The last thing he needs is Seokjin getting angry at Yoongi right now, when he’s trying to make sure everyone is on the same side. “It’s okay.”

“You should still let me look at it,” Seokjin insists, then stops when he catches sight of Yoongi rising from the sofa, a carefully blank expression on his face.

“Seokjin-nim,” Yoongi says and bows respectfully.

Seokjin glances at Yoongi, then the paper on the table, then at the shopping bags again - and Namjoon watches him put the pieces together, understanding dawning on his face. “You’re … he’s helping you?”

“This is Suga,” Namjoon says quietly and Seokjin’s lips part in surprise. “He’s agreed to help us, yes.”

“Why?” Seokjin asks, turning his attention to Yoongi again.

“Because I want a different world,” Yoongi says. “And Namjoon says you can deliver it.”

“You trust him that much?” Seokjin asks dubiously.

“No,” Yoongi says and Namjoon pretends it doesn’t sting. Reminds himself that Yoongi has no real reason to trust him - it isn’t something he’s completely earned yet, and he needs to keep that in mind. “That’s why I asked you here.” He looks hesitantly at Namjoon. “Can I talk to him? Privately?”

Namjoon suspected that he would request something like that and nods, grabbing his coat from where he’s laid it on the kitchen counter. “I’ll take a walk. Text me when you’re done.”

Seokjin gives him a dismissive wave, focused on Yoongi, and Namjoon leaves them to their discussion, closing the front door quietly behind him on his way out.

 

_ _

 

Kim Seokjin, Yoongi thinks, would look like a typical elite if not for the rumpled appearance and tired eyes. He’s handsome in an aristocratic way: features perfectly symmetrical, skin smooth and flawless - the type of face that would turn every head in a room, men or women. With his broad shoulders and the confident, elegant way he sinks down onto the sofa, he feels like a king. Yoongi could picture him holding court.

The idea worries him.

“Why do you want this?” he asks, also taking a seat. “To be king?”

“Did you hurt Namjoon?” Seokjin asks, ignoring Yoongi’s question.

Well. No use lying, really. “I stabbed him with a kitchen knife.”

Seokjin’s expression remains calm. “Why?”

“I thought he was going to kill me, so I tried to escape. You have to know the reputation you both have.”

Now Seokjin grimaces. Strangely, it makes him look younger - more human. “I’m aware. But now you’ve decided to help him?”

“He told me who he was,” Yoongi says, smoothing his hands over his knees.

“He told you he has the mutation,” Seokjin guesses grimly and sighs at Yoongi’s nod. “Of course he did.”

“I want to help,” Yoongi insists. “I … we’re on the same side, I guess. If you’re not just trying to grab power for yourself.”

“What would you do?” Seokjin asks, leaning forward. “If I was.”

“Kill you,” Yoongi says without hesitation. “Let the rest of the elite fight amongst themselves. Lead a revolution from the ground up instead.”

“Burn us all?” Seokjin asks with a wry smile.

“Do you blame me?” Yoongi challenges, gesturing to the tattoo on his neck.

“No,” Seokjin says softly. “No, I don’t.”

“So answer my question. Why do you want to be king?”

Seokjin sighs, shoulders dropping. His smile grows, turns rueful and a little sad. “I don’t, to be honest. But I do want a better world, and I know that can’t happen overnight. Someone needs to lead the transition. Make sure the rest of the elite don’t try to grab power. This plan … it requires two players. One to sit on the throne and one to pull the strings. As soon as I declare myself king, I’m painting a giant target on my back. At least several other families are going to try to have me assassinated, and one of them might succeeded. So … I can’t be the most important player.”

“Namjoon will be,” Yoongi guesses, putting more pieces together. “You’re the public face, Namjoon is the mastermind.”

Seokjin shrugs. “He’s better at this than I am. Planning, governing. But I know how to work upper society in a way he doesn’t. I’m charming.” He bats his eyes and then laughs under his breath and it feels like another layer peeling back, allowing Yoongi to see him more clearly than before. “And not unintelligent, either, I’d like to think. I’d make a good figurehead, don’t you agree?”

“It’s a big risk to take,” Yoongi says. “Why do it? You’re … you have everything you could want, why give that up? Namjoon, I understand. But you? Unless you have the mutation, too?”

“I don’t,” Seokjin says and pauses for a moment, mulling over his words. “When I was eighteen years old, my cousin took me to a boarding house. He said I needed to become a man and this was the best place to do it. They ... they brought me a woman for the evening. They told me that I could - that I could do anything I wanted to her. Anything. I could cut off her limbs, they had tools for that. I could torture her to death with at least a dozen provided instruments and it wouldn’t matter. No one would care. She was crying, I remember that. They’d strapped her down to this bed and she was crying. I … I couldn’t do it, obviously. I told them I wanted to buy her. Kill her in the privacy of my own home. My cousin was so fucking proud of me.”

Seokjin curls his hand into a fist against his thigh, fingernails scraping the expensive fabric of his pants. His jaw is clenched tight and quivering. “I tried to help her, but too much damage had been done. She … killed herself. While I was at work. I found her when I came home. I didn’t even know her name.” He looks up at Yoongi, gaze fierce and wet. “That’s why I want to do this. I don’t care what I have, I don’t want to live in a world where life is meaningless. Where someone is less than human because of a mutation they can’t help. This is an ugly, horrible world and I want to change it. For Namjoon. For you. For everyone.”

Yoongi blows out a long breath, watching Seokjin compose himself. Thinks: he’ll make a great king. Thinks: he isn’t lying. Thinks: this is enough.

He can see the raw, bloody mess of Seokjin’s heart, pinned to his sleeve and dripping all over the sofa. Perhaps, there is still some good in their rotten society - people who look around them at all the horror and death and pain and think I won’t stand for this.

“Okay,” he says, voice a raspy croak from the chaotic swirl of his own emotions. “Okay, I believe you.”

Seokjin gives him a watery smile. “Thank you. And Yoongi … you don’t have to do this. We’ll find another way, eventually. You … you shouldn’t have to do this.”

“Namjoon said the same thing,” Yoongi murmurs. “It’s why I offered.”

Because this isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. He knows it’s going to hurt. His skin crawls at the idea of getting on his knees again, spreading his legs, forcing his body to take it and his mind to shut down - no matter how painful it is. He hates the burn of the no he isn’t allowed to say in his mouth, hates even more when they make him beg and each plea tastes like acid against his tongue. But he’s already endured it once. He’ll do it again and again and again, until there’s nothing left of his body, if it means that someday soon Hoseok and the kids will be free, everyone will be free.

Seokjin still looks pained.

“It’s okay, Seokjin-nim,” Yoongi says. “It’s only my body.”

“You know that isn’t true,” Seokjin whispers. “And please … we’re equals here.”

So much like Namjoon, Yoongi thinks.

“Build me a better world, then,” he says. “And it will be worth the cost.”

Seokjin lowers his head, then stands and with a deep breath, bows. Ninety degrees, at the waist, like he’s addressing an elder or a member of the royal family. All the air punches from Yoongi’s chest. No one’s ever…

“I will,” Seokjin says. “I promise, Yoongi-ssi. And if I fail, I’ll hand you the blade myself.”

A great king, Yoongi thinks, helplessly.   He’ll make a great king.

 

_ _

 

Seokjin is gone by the time Namjoon returns, and Yoongi is staring off into space with a contemplative, conflicted expression on his face that Namjoon can’t begin to decipher.

“Everything alright?” Namjoon asks, worried. They only have a few hours to get ready for the party tonight, but he’ll cancel the whole thing if Yoongi asks him to. His stomach is already roiling at the thought of going out and kissing up to his fellow elite - playing the arrogant sadist, tugging Yoongi around like a toy.

Yoongi nods and focuses back on Namjoon. “Yes. I like your cousin.”

That’s a relief, though Namjoon wasn’t worried about Seokjin winning Yoongi over. Few people have as good a heart as Kim Seokjin does, including Namjoon. “Good. I'm glad.”

“We should get ready,” Yoongi continues, glancing at the clock.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says, though he doesn’t move. Yoongi crosses the distance between them, stopping right in front of Namjoon. “Do you … do you need help with anything…?” Namjoon asks hesitantly, so out of depth it’s almost laughable.

Yoongi shakes his head and then takes Namjoon’s hands and puts them on his hips. Namjoon jolts in shock, but Yoongi keeps them pinned when he tries to move away. “Yoongi - w-what?”

“You need to get used to this,” Yoongi says. “You own me. You can’t flinch every time you touch me - they have to believe you’re fucking me.”

Namjoon flinches again, but Yoongi’s right. Fuck, Yoongi’s right. So he sucks in a shaky breath and moves his hands, tightening his grip on Yoongi’s hips and backing them up towards the sofa. He lowers himself down, pulling Yoongi into his lap, and hopes Yoongi can’t hear just how fast and loud his heart is beating - he can almost feel it pressing against his breastbone, trying to escape his skin.

“There we go,” Yoongi murmurs. “Now put your hand in my hair.”

Namjoon obeys, though he’s pretty sure his fingers are trembling. Once again, he takes a stuttering breath and tightens his grip, forcing Yoongi’s head to side.

Yoongi’s eyes flutter closed and he hiccups softly, but doesn’t try to get away. Namjoon feels sick sick so fucking sick. But he moves again: mouths at Yoongi’s neck, then his jaw, and finally kisses him on the mouth. It’s awkward, uncertain - Namjoon can’t remember the last time he kissed someone, trusted someone enough to bring them back here for a brief tryst. It’s been years, probably. Yoongi moves, though, deepening the kiss and parting his lips, coaxing Namjoon’s tongue into his mouth.

I own him, Namjoon thinks through the spark of heat that trills down his spine. I own him.

He can never let himself forget that.

He’s not sure how long they kiss before Yoongi pulls away and guides Namjoon’s head back down to his neck. “Mark me,” he says - tone commanding but voice timorous.

Namjoon sinks his teeth in, right over the tattoo, and sucks, trying not to think about what he’s doing, about the fact that he can feel Yoongi shaking in his arms, even as he shifts his hips closer. He makes sure the mark covers the whole tattoo - knows that it’s going to bruise dark later, knows that it will hurt and fights down another rush of bile. When he pulls back, Yoongi is breathing hard and he leans back in to lick gently over the forming bruise, trying to soothe as much as he can.

Then he shifts again and tugs Yoongi forward until their chests are pressed together, wrapping his arms around Yoongi’s back to hold him. Yoongi huffs and tucks his face into Namjoon’s neck. “You can’t treat me like this at the party.”

“We’re not at the party yet,” Namjoon says. “So just … give me a moment, hyung.”

Yoongi huffs again, but settles, relaxing against Namjoon and they stay like that for five minutes, ten - until Yoongi finally says, “we need to get ready,” and Namjoon reluctantly lets go of him, refusing to think about how nice the closeness was, or acknowledge the part of him that would have been happy to spend the night on his couch, just holding Yoongi.

Yoongi picks through the shopping bags, choosing an outfit and makeup, and vanishes into the guest bedroom. Namjoon forces himself off the couch, tells his protesting body that they are not throwing up, and shoves his jangling nerves out of his mind. In his own room, he slicks his silver hair back off his forehead and puts in the colored lenses that so many elite favor, shifting his eyes from brown to green. He chooses an intricately embroidered jacket - silver thread in swirling patterns across black cloth - and shrugs it on over a silky black dress shirt. Elegant, but understated, he thinks. He’s never been one for flash, even back in his university days, and it would be pointless to start now.

He chooses simple diamond earrings to go with it and puts silver rings on his fingers. His boots are silver, too, matching the design on his jacket. Lastly, he puts a hint of blue shadow on his eyelids, and then stares at himself in his full length mirror.

He certainly looks the part, he thinks darkly, even if he feels like a stranger in his own skin.

When he returns to the living room, Yoongi is still getting ready. He tries to sit and read while he waits, but the words blur on the page and he gives up after repeating the same paragraph five times without comprehension. Settles for aimless wandering instead - from the living room to the kitchen and back again, until Yoongi finally emerges.

He looks … stunning. Fucking stunning.

Smoky eyes; glittering earrings; delicate bracelets; a black harness over a sheer white shirt that shows off his skin and the smooth lines of his body; hair slightly curled and lips red and pants hugging every inch of his legs. He’s fastened a shiny black strip of leather around his neck and he hands Namjoon a glittering leash.

“At parties, we wear collars,” he explains. “Not wrist tethers.”

Namjoon swallows thickly. “You look …”

“Fuckable?” Yoongi asks dryly and Namjoon winces.

“Beautiful.”

Yoongi actually flushes a little at that, glancing away. He shifts his weight, suddenly nervous, and won’t meet Namjoon’s eyes as he says. “Do you, um, do you have any oil? Or lube? I’d … I’d like to prepare myself. It makes it easier….”

They’d agreed that the target for tonight would be Cho Doyun himself, as a thank you for inviting Namjoon to the party - and perhaps earning them more invitations in the future.

“No,” Namjoon blurts, stunned at Yoongi’s request, and Yoongi flinches.

“Oh,” he says in a small voice. “Right. He likes it when it hurts? I … I understand.”

Shit, shit, shit.

“No,” Namjoon repeats, hating the awful way Yoongi’s curled in on himself in shame, gaze on the floor and arms wrapped around his middle like he’s trying to disappear. “No, I mean … no he’s not - you don’t have to do that. He doesn’t get to do that to you.”

Now Yoongi’s head wrenches up, eyes widening. “What?”

“No one … no one fucks you,” Namjoon says. He’s already decided this and he doesn’t care if it hurts their cause. The idea of someone using Yoongi in any way still makes guilt and nausea twist inside of him, but at least this should take away some of the potential pain. Some of the worst of the violation.

“And if he wants to?” Yoongi asks, still in disbelief.

“I don’t care,” Namjoon says and affects an arrogant tone - the one he normally reserves for the auction houses. “You’re mine, remember? No one fucks you but me.”

Yoongi shifts again, crossing his arms over his chest. Mercifully the shame seems to be gone. “Maybe you’ll be able to pull this off after all,” Yoongi says with something close to admiration coloring his voice. “How far can they go, then?”

The character evaporates. Namjoon doesn’t want to be the one to decide this - shouldn’t be the one to decide this - but the world they live in…

“Your mouth,” he says, stepping closer to press gentle fingers to the corner of Yoongi’s pink mouth. “They … they can have your mouth… no more. And if they go further, tell me. Please. I want to - I don’t want you to hurt….”

Even though all of this hurts, he knows. Below the skin, where it’s harder to see.

Yoongi nods, features soft. “Okay,” he says, and reaches up to take Namjoon’s hand. “Okay, thank you.”

“Please don’t thank me for this,” Namjoon insists, hating that the horrible decision he’s just made is considered a mercy in Yoongi’s eyes. “Not for this.”

Yoongi doesn’t say anything in response, just tilts his head back for Namjoon to fasten the leash to his collar. Namjoon does and the soft clink of the metal attaching to the silver ring feels louder than an explosion in his ears, reverberating all the way down through his bones.

 

_ _

 

Cho Doyun’s family estate is on the outskirts of the sector, tucked away behind a towering fence and a maze of artificial gardens. No real plants will grow in the barren earth out of carefully cultivated greenhouses, but the Cho family has poured their wealth into fake ones that look remarkably similar to pictures Namjoon has seen in Old World books, back when the forests were still alive.

Inside, the party is already in full swing in the main ballroom - men in dazzling suits and women in glittering gowns dancing and laughing and drinking, surrounded by pretty companions on sparkling leashes. It feels gaudy to Namjoon - all the bright hair colors and ostentatious jewelry that hangs from necks and wrists and drips from ears. It’s a beautiful facade hiding terrible darkness and he can feel those shadows when Doyun approaches with a bright smile and hunger in his eyes. When he claps Namjoon on the back and thanks him for coming, then looks at Yoongi like he wants to devour him.

Doyun's gained some weight since Namjoon saw him last, plumping up his cheeks and rounding his stomach - evidence of the lavish lifestyle he’s been leading - but he’s still as boyishly handsome as Namjoon remembers: a charming grin and a mischievous sparkle in his eye. He’s dyed his hair a pale lavender to match the embroidery on his jacket and there is glitter in the corners of his eyes.

“Namjoon-ssi! I haven’t seen you in ages,” he says. “Didn’t think you'd ever leave that apartment of yours.”

“I’m trying to branch out again,” Namjoon says with a disinterested shrug. “I’ve been told I’m missing too much fun. And limited companions can only entertain for so long.”

“Especially since you keep killing them,” Doyun points out with a grin, laughing at his own joke. His cheeks are already flush with alcohol. “Which is why I’m surprised to see this one here.”

He rakes a hot gaze over Yoongi again, who keeps his own eyes respectfully lowered, lashes fanning across his pale cheeks.

Namjoon shrugs again. “He’s beautiful. And well-trained. It seemed like a waste to get rid of him so quickly. I decided I’d try out the social scene for awhile.”

“Until you get bored of him, you mean?” Doyun teases and Namjoon forces a smirk on to his face.

“Exactly,” he says and takes a sip of his bright green drink, trying not to grimace at the saccharine taste.

Doyun laughs again, boisterous. “Well, enjoy yourself! We have plenty of entertainment.”

Namjoon inclines his head. “Thank you, Doyun-ssi. And come find me later.” The smirk widens. “I’d love to offer you a proper thank you for the invitation.”

Doyun glances at Yoongi again, even hungrier than before. “Of course. I’ll be back to check on you again, soon.”

He floats away, heading for another group of guests, and Namjoon sighs under his breath. Yoongi sidles closer to him, pressing into his side. Namjoon shifts to pet him, the motion allowing him to lean in so Yoongi can whisper in his ear, “you’re a better liar than I thought.”

“I’ve been lying for years,” Namjoon whispers back and then tilts Yoongi’s chin up. Says louder, “go get me another drink, pet,” and kisses Yoongi briefly on the lips.

Yoongi dips his head demurely and heads for the refreshment table. Namjoon occupies himself with locating the bathrooms. Just in case he needs to throw up later - the alcohol isn’t helping the state of his stomach at all.

Time blurs a little when Yoongi returns. Namjoon moves through the crowd, exchanging greetings with a few familiar faces from his school days, and many he only recognizes from magazines. His family keep him holed up in a remote office for work, which only furthers his isolation from the rest of his supposed social circle. Many of them have heard rumors about his "activities," though, and it brings out wariness in some and curiosity in others. But most of them dodge around the topic, instead inquiring about his family and his health and lavishing praises on his “pretty pet.”

“He really is quite the specimen,” one young woman from the Chi family says, reaching out to stroke her nails lightly down Yoongi’s cheek. “I can see why you wanted to keep him.”

Namjoon smiles and puts a possessive hand on Yoongi’s neck, making sure to rub his fingers over the love bite visible even with Yoongi’s collar on. “Yes. And he performs excellently, as well.”

“Really? I’d love a demonstration sometime,” the woman says. Her own companion is a girl with long pink hair braided into an intricate updo and clothed in a small, mostly sheer dress that leaves little to the imagination, including just how thin she is. She hasn’t looked up once during the entire conversation, and lets her mistress tug her harshly forward by her collar with no resistance.

“We could trade,” she says, gesturing to the poor companion.

Namjoon hums and consciously keeps his teeth from gritting. “Yes, I’m sure that can be arranged.”

He switches the conversation to the woman’s work next, inquiring about the new orphanages her family is building, and watches out of the corner of his eye as Yoongi subtly drifts closer to the female companion and reaches out, letting his fingertips brush her palm in a silent, fleeting gesture of reassurance. She returns it without looking up, trailing her own fingers over Yoongi’s palm.

Namjoon wonders, aching, if this happens often: companions trying to offer what comfort they can to each other in the middle of this hell.

Too soon and not soon enough, Doyun returns to interrupt his conversation with the woman, making more small talk for a moment before politely but firmly dismissing her. She heads to different group, pulling her companion along behind her, and Doyun graces Namjoon with another charming smile.

“Now I don’t mean to press Namjoon-ssi, but I believe you promised me a thank you?”

Right. This is it.

Namjoon gathers all the steel he has and pushes Yoongi forward. “Yes, I did. The rest of his body is mine, but you’re welcome to his mouth. He’s very good with it.”

“Excellent,” Doyun says and presses a thumb to Yoongi’s lips, forcing them to part. Yoongi opens his mouth willingly and flicks his tongue over the pad of Doyun’s thumb. “Eager, isn’t he?” Doyun asks.

“He likes to please,” Namjoon says, amazed that his voice is still calm. He gives the leash to Doyun with a hand that remarkably also doesn't shake. “Have fun, Doyun-ssi.”

“I’ll return him to you soon,” Doyun promises. “Come on, pet.”

He leads Yoongi away to one of the private rooms and Namjoon’s skin scrawls. Bile climbs up his throat again, but he can’t make a scene. Can’t start unnecessary rumors about Kim Namjoon showing up at his first party in years only to vomit in the bathroom. So he heads for the refreshments instead, grabbing his third glass of sweet green liquor and trying not down it all in one go.

He feels disgusting. He feels like a monster. Like he’s become the very thing he’s wanted to fight against for so long. Right now, Yoongi is getting on his knees for Doyun and Namjoon allowed it to happen. Is a world really better if it’s built on sacrifice like this?

The glass creaks in his grip and he forces himself to relax. Breathe.

Yoongi offered to do this. Yoongi agreed to this -

(It still doesn’t feel like consent.)

-and it’s too late to turn back now.

Waiting is still agony, though. It feels like years before he spots Doyun approaching him through the crowd, Yoongi trailing along behind him. Doyun’s face is flushed with more than alcohol now and his posture is relaxed and happy. Yoongi’s hair is a mess from Doyun’s fingers and his mouth is red and swollen, lipstick smeared in the corners and down his chin.

“You weren’t lying,” Doyun said, handing the leash back to Namjoon with a pleased laugh. “He really is excellent.”

Namjoon dips his head. “I’m glad you’re satisfied, Doyun-ssi.”

“More than. Bring him back soon. In fact, Kwon Jiwoo is hosting a charity gala next week. You should come.”

“I’d be honored,” Namjoon says with a grateful smile.

“I’ll make sure you get an invitation,” Doyun says and trails a hand down Yoongi’s cheek, winking at Namjoon as he departs.

Namjoon waits until he’s out of sight before leading Yoongi into a secluded corner of the room and handing his half-full glass over. “Here,” he murmurs. “For the … for the taste.”

Yoongi drinks it in one long swig and refuses to look at Namjoon when he hands it back. They could stay longer, mingle more, but Namjoon doesn’t think he’d be able to bear it without combusting.

“Let’s go,” he says and texts his driver to come pick them up. “Let’s go home, okay?”

Yoongi nods, still apparently fascinated by the floor, and Namjoon leads him out of the room, making sure to keep plenty of slack on the leash, because Yoongi’s throat is already showing signs of bruising.

In the car, Namjoon fishes out a handkerchief and gently wipes Yoongi’s mouth, making sure all the lipstick is gone. Some of his liner has run, too, and Namjoon’s gut clenches at the realization that it’s probably from tears. That Doyun was rough enough to make Yoongi cry.

(So much for limiting the pain.)

He doesn’t offer pointless apologies, though. Just lets Yoongi stay quiet through the car ride and up into the apartment. There, Yoongi stops in the middle of the living room, staring out at the city lights beyond Namjoon's expansive windows. Namjoon can't see the expression on his face, but his spine in bent with his exhaustion. 

“I was wrong,” he says, voice hoarse from misuse. “It doesn’t get easier.”

“Hyung,” Namjoon says, his own voice breaking, “please, what can I do?”

He wants to soothe, to help, but he’ll understand if Yoongi shuts him out.

Yoongi hesitates for a moment, two. Then says, small, “please could you - please will you hold me? Just … just hold me.”

Namjoon crosses the distance between them and does just that, folding Yoongi into his arms - Yoongi’s back against his chest, his cheek resting on top of Yoongi’s head. He presses a kiss to Yoongi’s hair for good measure, knowing it’s not enough but wanting him to feel loved, in this moment. To feel worth something. To feel human and know that his body isn’t a toy, but something worth cherishing, worth gentleness.

Yoongi hiccups and twists around so he can lead Namjoon to the sofa. Then he curls into Namjoon’s side again, feet tucked under him and head in the crook of Namjoon’s neck. Namjoon rubs his back and strokes a gentle thumb over his hand in soothing sweeps, listening to Yoongi’s breathing gradually calm.

 

_ _

 

They stay like that for a long time.

 

_ _

 

It’s been nearly three weeks and Seokjin still hasn’t touched him or tried to force him to speak. He cooks food and doesn’t expect Jungkook to help. He lets Jungkook scratch answers in the notebook he’s started carrying around with him everywhere and he’s always patient if it takes Jungkook some time to find the right words. He doesn’t comment when Jungkook dresses in as many layers as he wants or scold Jungkook for eating too much or ask him to clean while Seokjin is out during the day.

It’s driving Jungkook crazy. There must be a reason that Seokjin bought him and it can’t be for him to sit around and eat and let Seokjin practically wait on him. He’s so kind - the kindest elite Jungkook has ever met - but no one does anything for free. Especially when they’re an elite and the one they’re looking after is a mere companion. Seokjin must be expecting something back, eventually - now that Jungkook’s wounds have healed.

Maybe, Jungkook thinks, because he’s so kind, he doesn’t want to force anything. Maybe he’s waiting for Jungkook to come to him. That’s … unusual, but not unheard of. Some masters preferred Jungkook to take the initiative - to show them that he was eager and he wanted it (even if that was always a lie). He quakes at the thought of doing that now, of ending these blissful three weeks free of unwanted touch.

But maybe Seokjin would be kind in this, too? Maybe it wouldn’t hurt. Maybe Jungkook could even learn to like it. Want it.

Either way, he has to do something. He’s tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop - so stressed and afraid trying to imagine various outcomes that it’s messing with his ability to think. He wants a clear head and some semblance of normalcy back, even if that brings pain. At least then he’ll recognize the ground beneath his feet again.

So when the clock says Seokjin is due back from work in an hour, Jungkook ducks into the bathroom to clean himself up. He styles his hair for the first time in weeks, pushing it back off his forehead with a little borrowed gel because he Seokjin seems to prefer it that way. He doesn’t have any makeup, but he washes his face and tries to arrange his clothes to hang a little better off his body, leaving the robe open and tugging the shirt down to expose his collarbones. His earrings are little hoops that Seokjin provided him with - three in each ear. One of his previous owners had a double helix piercing put in his right ear and the current studs are plain, as well, but it will all have to do.

Next he tries to talk, to force words past the mental block that has taken up residence in his head, in the back of his throat. Nothing comes out except a weak croak, but he tells himself that’s okay, too. He doesn't need to talk. Most masters prefer his mouth occupied with other things, anyway, and he doubts Seokjin is really that different, no matter how kind he chooses to be.

He goes back into the living room on bare feet, hoping that will add to the image of vulnerability, and tidies up the kitchen and the living room, heart somewhere in his throat when the lock clicks on the front door and Seokjin enters the apartment.

He looks tired. He hasn’t been sleeping well, Jungkook knows, and he disappears several nights a week for long meetings with his cousin that he doesn’t discuss when he gets home. He still smiles when he sees Jungkook, though: a tender thing that makes Jungkook’s stomach flutter.

“Hey, JK,” he says, shrugging off his coat and hanging it up in the hall closet. “How are you?”

Jungkook nods to indicate that he’s good and hurries into the kitchen to collect the food he cooked earlier that afternoon. Seokjin’s eyebrows jump in surprise when Jungkook sets the bowls on the table and gestures him over.

“You cooked? You didn’t have to cook.”

Jungkook shakes his head and indicates that Seokjin should sit.

“I’ll clean up, then,” Seokjin insists as he obeys, already reaching for the bowl. “You’re not allowed to help.”

Jungkook smiles in spite of his nerves, nodding. Dinner is spent in comfortable silence. Seokjin talks a little about his day, in vague terms as always, and Jungkook writes out the name of the book he was reading: an adventure story, about space. Then, as promised, Seokjin washes the dishes in the sink and goes to change. Jungkook waits in the living room, trying not to fidget too much.

It’s going to be okay. Seokjin won’t hurt him.

(He hopes.)

Seokjin comes back out in the loose clothes that he normally wears around the apartment and sinks down on the couch with a tired sigh. Jungkook takes a deep breath, then another for good measure, and moves closer.

He can do this.

“Everything okay?” Seokjin asks him.

(He’s so kind. A part of Jungkook wants to give him this, in spite of the fear. Wants to make him feel good, to thank him.)

Jungkook nods and shifts again, settling in Seokjin’s lap and leaning down for a kiss before he can let his nerves get the better of him. Seokjin makes a startled sound and Jungkook rocks his hips gently into Seokjin’s, trying to convey: I want this and: I can be good for you.

Seokjin’s hands slide over his waist, but they push him away instead of pulling him closer. “Stop,” Seokjin gasps. “Stop.

He doesn’t sound happy and his face is pinched in displeasure and oh god, oh no, he didn’t want this Jungkook overstepped and now he’s going to get punished. He should have waited for orders, for Seokjin to take what he wants instead of trying to assert some control oh god oh god oh god-

He tries to say he’s sorry, but all that comes out is a battered wheeze as he scrambles off Seokjin’s lap to kneel on the floor, pressing his forehead to the rug in a gesture of submission. The couch rustles and then he feels hands on his back, pulling him up. He whines in the back of his throat, bracing himself for a blow, but Seokjin just tucks him under his arm.

“Shh, it’s okay. I’m not mad, I’m not mad,” Seokjin says, petting Jungkook’s hair. “Well, I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at myself. For making you think I still wanted this from you.”

Jungkook makes another noise of distress, because that isn’t Seokjin’s fault. He’s been so good.

“Shh,” Seokjin says again. “Shh. It’s okay. I’ll … I don’t want this from you, JK. You don’t need to pleasure me or serve me. I won’t demand that of you and I’m not expecting you to offer it. I … you want to know the truth? I bought you to get you away from that monster and I’m working on … on a better life for you, I promise. But I like having you here. This apartment isn’t as lonely with you in it. So that’s what you give me, kid. That’s all you have to give me.”

A kiss to Jungkook’s temple that reminds him so much of Hoseok he nearly cries. “And if you want to cook sometimes, that’s fine. But I don’t want anything else from you, I promise.”

And he wasn’t expecting it, but tears flood Jungkook’s eyes at that and sobs claw up his throat immediately after, pressing insistent against the back of his teeth. He tries to hold them down, but the first one breaks free and then the next and the next and the next - until he’s weeping on the floor in Seokjin’s arms.

“I’ve got you,” Seokjin says as Jungkook’s tears soak his shirt, rocking him back and forth. “I’ve got you, kid.”

Please don’t be lying, Jungkook thinks through his tears. Please, please don’t be lying.

His tattered heart wouldn’t be able to take it.

 

_ _

 

Later, after he’s dried his tears and washed his face again, Seokjin hovers in the doorway of his bedroom.

“JK,” he says, “my cousin has a companion. I think maybe … would you like to meet him? It might help you, I was thinking. To talk to him. I can bring you over there tomorrow.”

A knot forms in Jungkook’s stomach, but he nods. Knows better than to refuse a request, no matter how good Seokjin has been to him. Seokjin smiles, looking relieved, and bids him goodnight. Alone, Jungkook curls up under the covers and tries to figure out if Seokjin just meant talk, or if talk is a euphemism. If Seokjin doesn’t like to touch, but he likes to watch.

Plenty of elite like to watch. He was the entertainment at many smaller, private parties. His second owner often invited friends and their companions over to her house so that Jungkook could put on a show.

He presses his face into the soft pillow beneath his cheek and tells himself he won’t start crying again. He doesn’t know for sure that’s what Seokjin meant. Maybe Seokjin really does think having another companion around will help him.

And at least Seokjin said he. That might make it easier, especially if Jungkook’s going to be the one required to submit. He prefers that to playing the role of the aggressor, to feeling like monster with a woman or a smaller boy under him, trying their best not to recoil from his touch.

It’ll be okay, he tries to reassure himself. It won’t be anything you haven’t lived through before.

Still, it’s a long time before he falls asleep.

 

_ _

 

Sometimes Taehyung thinks the Universe really does have it out for them, personally. Why else would they survive for three fucking weeks on the run - from the condemned zone in Sector 10, all the way to the abandoned factories on the edge of Sector 5 - only to be surprised by a routine patrol? A routine patrol who was completing their shift twenty minutes late, which Taehyung failed to calculate. Meaning that instead of being where they usually are, according to the maps Taehyung's built over the last week, they were three blocks over and right in the middle of their fucking escape route.

I'm sorry," he says for what feels like the thousandth time, watching Jimin put pressure on Hoseok's bleeding leg.

They got away, somehow - mostly down to quick thinking on Hoseok's part with a makeshift firebomb and even better shooting from Jimin with the stolen rifle they picked up a week back in Sector 8 - but not without cost. Hoseok is panting, clinging on to consciousness by a thread, and the bullet in his leg isn't life-threatening, but the one in his side, dangerously close to vital organs, might be.

"It's okay," he wheezes to Taehyung, because he's never blamed him for anything, not even Yoongi and Jungkook.

They're camped out in the corner of what used to be a factory but is now little more than a husk of metal and dust. A sign on the front door warned that this site was scheduled for demolition, but the date was two years ago and the sign itself has begun to rust at the edges. They should be safe for a little while longer.

"It isn't," Taehyung says. "I should have predicted this. I should have factored it into my calculations and-"

"There's no point in should haves," Jimin points out firmly, cutting off the rest of his rant. The cloth in his hands is soaked with blood when he pulls it away from Hoseok's leg, revealing a deep hole, ringed in torn flesh. "We need to focus on what we do now."

Their supplies are running low, especially food, and the cold has been a persistent problem. Taehyung doesn't even remember what it was like to be warm - the cold has sunk through every single one of his layers and then through his skin so that it could burrow into his bones. The chatter of his teeth has become a normal accompaniment to his daily routine - just another ambient sound that he tunes out - and coaxing technology to work properly remains a constant challenge. With Hoseok losing blood ... it doesn't look good. He's already shivering in the blanket Jimin wrapped around his shoulders, lips turning blue and eyes unfocused. The bandages on his side are close to soaking, too, even though Jimin tied them tight in an effort to stop the blood flow.

"You go," Hoseok says, like the fucking martyr he is. "Y-you run and you l-leave me. I'm the one on the w-wanted posters anyway."

"Like hell are we leaving you," Jimin snaps.

"We're not losing another member of this family, hyung," Taehyung insists, appalled at the very idea. He'd lie down and freeze to death alongside Hoseok before willingly abandoning him.

Hoseok looks frustrated. "W-we barely have enough food left and I can't w-walk anymore," he argues. "It's pointless ... for y-you to st-stay."

"Well we are," Jimin says, starting to wind bandages around Hoseok's leg, "so shut up, hyung."

Hoseok wheezes out a pained laugh and leans his head back against the metal wall. All of their faces are streaked with dust and grime. Taehyung can't remember the last time he showered, either, or ate enough food to feel close to a meal. They've just been trying to stay alive, taking it one day at a time, but now he knows they need a plan.

They need fucking help, too. But it was Yoongi who had all the contacts - Jimin is running the network at only half the capacity it used to be because Yoongi was sanctioned so abruptly, before he could pass on the full extent of his information. If he was here, Taehyung bets he'd know what to do. And if Jungkook was here, he'd have no problem carrying Hoseok, either. Would probably insist on it and refuse to admit when he got tired, stubbornly carting Hoseok on his back across the whole damn city if he had to.

Taehyung feels so lost without them.

“Rest now, hyung,” Jimin is saying, coaxing Hoseok onto his back and adding an extra blanket. “We’ll figure things out in the morning.”

It speaks to Hoseok’s exhaustion that he doesn’t even protest, just sinks straight into sleep. Jimin pets Hoseok’s hair for a moment before turning to Taehyung.

“We need Yoongi,” he says, as if he can read Taehyung’s thoughts. “He’s our best chance of getting out of the city.”

“Jimin,” Taehyung says, because it’s been over a month since Kim Namjoon bought Yoongi. “Jimin-ah, he’s probably gone.”

“We don’t know that,” Jimin says, eyes burning.

“How are we going to get to him?” Taehyung presses. One of them needs to be practical. “He’s in Sector 1. In a fortress. We can’t leave Hoseok here and we don’t know that your papers will still work. It’s suicide.”

“What are our other options?” Jimin asks. “Stay here and wait to die? I can get to him, Tae. I know I can.”

“Chim,” Taehyung says helplessly. “I don’t want to lose you, too.”

“You won’t,” Jimin says, and there is nothing but stubborn determination on his face now - an expression so reminiscent of Yoongi. “You won’t lose either of us. You just need to keep Hoseok safe, just for a little while. I’ll find Yoongi and bring him back and … and we can go from there. Please, Tae, I don’t know what else to do.”

“And if he’s dead?” Taehyung asks, even though he knows he won’t be able to change Jimin’s mind, not once that expression has emerged.

“Then I’ll come back,” Jimin says. “And we’ll keep running until we can’t anymore.”

Taehyung closes his eyes. Tries not to picture himself as the last one standing - his whole family gone. He’d put a bullet in his own head, then, he thinks. Fuck a revolution. He doesn’t want to live in a world without Jimin or the others, even if he’s free.

“Okay,” he whispers in defeat. “Okay. Come back to me, though. You have to promise that you’ll come back to me.”

Jimin lets go of Hoseok and shuffles forward, pressing their foreheads together. Taehyung wraps his arms around Jimin, feeling the solid weight of him: the one constant in Taehyung’s life.

“I’ll always come back to you, Tae,” he says softly, his fingers digging into the back of Taehyung’s flimsy jacket. “I promise.”

“Good,” Taehyung says, swallowing down his growing tears. “I’ll hold you to it.”

Jimin kisses him on the cheek and stands. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he says, reaching down to collect his pack. “Look after Hoseok.”

“I will,” Taehyung says and watches him leave. For the first time, there is no certainty that he’ll return, in spite of his promises. Only terrible dread in the pit of Taehyung’s stomach. He scoots closer to Hoseok’s prone form and takes his hand, pressing it to his forehead and feeling the cold even through the scratchy wool of Hoseok’s fingerless gloves.

“We’re gonna be okay,” he says, more for himself than for Hoseok. “We’re gonna make it.”

Maybe if he repeats it enough, turns it into a mantra, he’ll actually start to believe it.

Chapter Text

“Did everyone hear the news? I’m sure you did, it’s everywhere. On the side of every building and in every newspaper - even the shitty, redacted ones they print out here. The king is dead. Long live the king. His youngest son has been named the new king, since, you know, his older brother died of illness last year. Well “illness.” With quotation marks. Never know with these elite, right? Anyway, I doubt any of us will be invited to the coronation. And I bet everyone’s as curious as I am about what kind of ruler he’ll be. Probably not a kinder one. We can be sure of that, at least.”

- Excerpt from a broadcast by revolutionary figure Hope

 

- - 

 

Namjoon wishes, certainly not for the first time, that he knew what to do. That he didn’t feel so helpless in the face of this world he’s supposed to know and understand. That there was an easy way to fix the heaviness of Yoongi’s breathing, the dilation of his pupils, the sweat slipping down the sides of his face.

The words pouring from his mouth.

“Please,” he says, whines, and tries to move again, to get closer to Namjoon who’s got him at arm’s length in the confines of the car, fingers digging into Yoongi’s shoulder to press him against the seat. “Please, please, I’ll be good, I promise, I swear…”

Namjoon doubts Yoongi even knows what he’s saying at this point. Even knows who Namjoon is.

“No,” he still says. “No, hyung…”

Yoongi makes a broken sound in the back of his throat and thrashes. He’s hard, in the confines of his tight pants, and his hips rock instinctively, seeking friction he isn’t going to get.

It was going okay, is thing. It was, it has been, for the past three weeks. The charity gala was a success and then the birthday party of another old university acquaintance after that. People have started to talk, to notice him and Yoongi, to be curious, and it’s exactly what they were hoping for, even if no blackmail material is forthcoming yet. They knew they needed to work their way farther into the circle first, choose targets carefully - this was all according to plan. Until tonight. When someone drugged Yoongi.

And Namjoon doesn’t even know who. The man he loaned Yoongi to insisted it wasn’t him and by the time Yoongi was returned, he wasn’t coherent enough to tell Namjoon himself. Or what exactly the drug might be. It’s an aphrodisiac, Namjoon knows that much. A fucking powerful one - and they’re common at parties and events. Guests like the illusion of consent, like to buy into the false idea that all companions are eager for sex, and what better way to do that than to pump a drug into them that sets their bodies on fire to the point of begging for release?

“I’m sorry,” he says to Yoongi now and gets a hiccuping sob in return.

Fuck, this is his fault. He should have been paying better attention - not let himself get so distracted with conversation. Should have grilled the man harder. Should have never let Yoongi do any of this in the first place.

“Please,” Yoongi says again, so unlike himself. It’s as though the drug has stripped away every ounce of personality and independent thought and replaced it with manufactured need. “Please, master, please fuck me, please…”

Namjoon remembers Yoongi a month ago, telling him about the master who drugged him and tied him to a bed and let the drug eat away at his defenses until all he could do was beg to be fucked. He remembers the fire that burned in Yoongi’s eyes and the disgust in his voice when he said it. When he hurled words at Namjoon like they were knives. He understands now. God, he understands and he still doesn’t know how to fix it.

“No,” he says again and Yoongi whimpers. Tears are starting to spill down his cheeks and his skin is so hot to the touch it’s terrifying.

Can this kill him? Would sex actually provide any kind of relief?

He needs Seokjin. He has no idea how aphrodisiacs fucking work.

“I’ll be good,” Yoongi promises for what feels like the hundredth time. “Please, master, I’m sorry, I’ll be good, I’ll be good for you, please I need you, I need it, please fuck me, master….” he hiccups, words slurring, and presses his face against the seat, panting into the leather.

Namjoon is so fucking scared, so stupidly helpless. He scoots closer still and rubs gently at the back of Yoongi’s neck, hoping to soothe him at least a little. Hoping this won’t just make it worse. Yoongi whines and sobs again, squeezing his eyes shut, but he doesn’t try to get closer to Namjoon and he’s clamped his mouth shut - probably sensing the begging isn’t working and hoping being quiet will.

Namjoon cards gentle fingers through Yoongi’s dark, sweaty hair. “It’ll be over soon,” he says and hopes that isn’t a lie. It’s been about half an hour and he has no clue how long these drugs typically last. Would getting Yoongi to throw up work? Probably not, this far into it. The drug’s too saturated into his system now - nothing to do but ride it out.

Yoongi’s shaking by the time the car pulls up in front of Namjoon’s apartment building, barely able to walk. Namjoon guides him into the elevator with a firm hand on his shoulder, ignoring the questioning look from the security guard. The man knows not to pry - has probably seen far worse in the two years he’s been working here.

“We’re almost home,” he tells Yoongi - not sure if Yoongi’s actually listening to him - and gets no response beyond another faint whimper. He keeps Yoongi upright as he enters the passcode for his front door and half drags him across the threshold. Yoongi crashes to his knees as soon as Namjoon lets go of him, catching himself with his hands and staying there: on all fours in Namjoon’s entryway, the sound of his labored breathing loud in the stillness of the darkened apartment.

“Please,” Yoongi rasps again and moves, shifting onto his knees so that he can dig his fingernails into his arms. Namjoon watches in stunned horror as Yoongi claws at his own skin through the thin fabric of his shirt, the gossamer cloth ripping easily. “Please, please, it hurts…”

Fuck, how much was he given? Is he overdosing? Is this normal for whatever this drug is?

“Stop it,” Namjoon says, crashing to his knees, as well, and reaching out to grab Yoongi’s hands, prying them away from his reddened arms. “Stop, Yoongi.”

“It hurts,” Yoongi sobs, swaying in Namjoon’s grip. “Please, master, it hurts….”

“I know, I know, I’m sorry. Stand up for me, okay?”

He manages to get Yoongi back to his feet and walks him towards the guest bedroom, a horrible idea forming in his mind. He hates the thought of it, but he isn’t going to have sex with Yoongi and he doesn’t know what else to try. Once they’re both inside, he closes the door and gives Yoongi a gentle push towards the bed. Yoongi, still trembling, goes far too willingly, sinking down onto the mattress and watching Namjoon with wide, unfocused eyes.

“Take off your pants,” Namjoon says quietly. “Leave your underwear.”

Yoongi complies without hesitation, shimmying out of his black pants and dropping them to the floor, then laying back on the bed and spreading his legs - a clear invitation. Most any other elite would take advantage and it makes Namjoon want to burn the whole fucking city to the ground.

“That’s it,” he says instead, trying to make sure his voice is calm. “That’s good. Stay there.”

Yoongi’s breath hitches, but he doesn’t fight - keeps himself still as Namjoon goes to the wardrobe and pulls out the rope he used on Yoongi before. He doesn’t like keeping a method of restraint when this is meant to be a safe place, but he’s dealt with companions before who were violent towards themselves, who were risks of suicide, and tying them down temporarily was necessary.

“Put your hands above your head,” he says and watches Yoongi do it, watches the rapid rise and fall of his chest and wonders if there's a small part of Yoongi that’s still coherent. That’s watching this happen and feeling helpless to stop it.

He ties Yoongi’s arms to the headboard with ropes around his wrists. Yoongi whines - a mixture of fear and desire in the sound - and still doesn’t fight or try to get free, just squirms and pants, keeping his legs open.

Namjoon takes a deep breath of his own, leans down and presses his lips to Yoongi’s temple - the only comfort he can offer. “I’m sorry,” he says and leaves the room, closing the door behind him. It does little to muffle Yoongi’s desperate wail or garbled pleas.

He staggers into the living room and drops onto the couch. His hands are so timorous that it takes nearly three tries to fish his phone out of his coat pocket and dial Seokjin’s number.

“Hello?” Seokjin says after the third ring. He sounds exhausted and strung out, voice rough and a little wet - like he’s been crying. “Joon-ah?”

“Hyung,” Namjoon says, the edge of the phone digging into his palm from the tightness of his grip, “hyung, someone drugged Yoongi - an aphrodisiac - and I don’t know what to do.”

Seokjin curses under his breath. “You didn’t see what it was?”

“No, but it’s really strong. He doesn’t know who I am and he’s running a fever and he - he tried to hurt himself. Clawing at his own skin. He said it hurts, but I don’t know what he meant.”

“Shit,” Seokjin says, the weight of understanding in the word.

“What is it? Do you know?”

“I can’t remember the exact name, but yeah. It gets passed around at parties. It’s technically illegal, I think, because of how strong it is, but no one cares if you give it to a companion. It’s chemical based, not organic. I don’t know who manufactures it.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Namjoon asks, not bothering to keep the desperation out of his voice.

“No,” Seokjin says wearily. “No, you just have to let it run its course. It’ll be out of his system in a few hours.”

“Hyung … does it help? Does sex help?” Namjoon’s afraid of the answer - knows he can’t, but Yoongi is crying now, weeping, and it’s breaking his heart one piece at a time.

“No.” Seokjin’s voice is firm - fierce, even. “No. That’s a lie they all tell themselves, but it doesn’t. Even if Yoongi begs you for it, it won’t actually give him any relief. His body has just convinced his brain that sex is what he needs - that’s all that fucking drug does. It’s awful, but there’s nothing you can do.”

“Okay,” Namjoon whispers, hating how relieved he is. “How many hours is a few?”

“Two or three? But that’s just a guess. It depends on how much he was given.”

Two to three hours. They can get through that, surely. “Okay. Okay, thank you.”

Seokjin sighs. “Just … look after him, Joonie.”

“I will.” Better than he did at the party. “And, hyung, are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Seokjin deflects, like Namjoon was expecting him to. “Something unexpected with my companion but we’ve cleared it up. I was actually going to ask if - if I could bring him over to meet Yoongi tomorrow - thought it might help him to have another companion to talk to - but it depends on how Yoongi’s feeling, of course.”

“I’ll let you know tomorrow,” Namjoon says. First, he has to get them through the rest of the night.

“Of course,” Seokjin repeats. “Call me if he gets worse, please.”

“I will,” Namjoon promises, knowing that Seokjin also cares about Yoongi - wants to help him as much as possible.

They hang up without saying goodbye. In the guest bedroom, Yoongi has fallen silent except for the occasional, gut-wrenching whimper. Namjoon drops his phone onto the couch and buries his face in his hands, willing himself not to cry.

That won’t help anyone.

 

_ _

 

Two hours pass so slowly they feel like two decades. Namjoon wanders the apartment, randomly pulling things out of place and putting them back. He cleans out his fridge; washes all of his dishes even though most of them are clean; paces in a useless loop from the front door to the guest bedroom and back again; checks on Yoongi once, but his presence seems to set Yoongi off, makes him thrash and beg, so he forces himself to stay away after that.

Finally, finally - two hours and thirty-eight minutes after leaving the party - he hears the creak of the bed shifting and Yoongi’s hoarse voice call his name.

He rushes into the bedroom so fast he nearly trips over his own feet. Yoongi’s head turns when he comes tumbling through the doorway and his gaze is mercifully clear. 

“Namjoon,” he repeats and doesn’t seem capable of much beyond that. “Namjoon.”

“It’s okay,” Namjoon says, hurrying over to the bed to untie Yoongi’s arms. His wrists are red and raw, even with the softness of the ropes, and his makeup from the party is smeared under his eyes. Namjoon helps him sit up. “I’m so sorry.”

Yoongi shakes his head and stays silent. Adrift, Namjoon brushes tentative fingers through his hair. “I’ll get you water.”

He darts back out to the kitchen to fill a glass, then wets a washcloth in the bathroom sink and grabs antiseptic cream from the first aid kit before returning to Yoongi - who is still sitting in the middle of the bed with his head down, looking almost like a doll with its strings cut. The comparison chills Namjoon so he shoves it aside.

“Here,” he says, holding the glass out for Yoongi to take.

Yoongi drains it one long gulp before handing it back so Namjoon can set it on the bedside table.

“I brought a cloth,” Namjoon says, leaning closer. “It’s warm.”

Yoongi nods and lets Namjoon wipe the makeup from his face until his skin is bare and shiny. Lets Namjoon rub cream carefully over his damaged wrists. Namjoon helps Yoongi out of the ruined shirt next, dropping it on the floor next to the pants. The pajama set Yoongi usually wears to bed is folded carefully at the end of the mattress, but when Namjoon reaches for it, Yoongi grabs his wrist.

“Wait,” Yoongi says. “I… I … need….”

He glances down. Namjoon follows his gaze and realizes that the front of Yoongi’s underwear is damp and the room smells faintly of sex. Yoongi’s cheeks are red with humiliation and he won’t meet Namjoon’s eyes as he squeezes his legs together, clearly trying to hide.

It’s not your fault, Namjoon wants to tell him, but settles for silently getting up to retrieve a new pair of underwear from the dresser. He turns his back as Yoongi changes, staring up at the ceiling and trying to figure out how to ask if the sheets need changing, too, without making this even more embarrassing for both of them.

“Okay,” Yoongi murmurs. “You can look.”

He’s standing by the bed, clad in the pajamas - his sweat-stiffened hair shoved off his forehead.

“Do you want a shower?” Namjoon asks him gently and Yoongi bites his lip. Nods. “And … and the bed?”

Yoongi winces and swiftly looks away again, focused on the floor. “Yes.”

“Okay. I’ll do that while you shower.”

“I can-” Yoongi tries to protest.

“No,” Namjoon insists. “It’s okay.”

“Okay,” Yoongi whispers and practically flees the room. 

Namjoon takes a deep breath, then another for good measure, and sets to work. He strips the bed and decides that he’s just going to throw the sheets out. No need to keep any reminders. The discarded clothes go in the trash bag, too. That done, Namjoon lights a candle to get rid of the smell and puts fresh sheets and a new blanket on the bed. Throws the ropes back into the wardrobe where they can be forgotten, then mindlessly fluffs the pillows, just for something to do.

He’s not sure how long it’s been when Yoongi slips back into the bedroom - at least twenty minutes. Yoongi’s skin is flushed and pink, like he had the water turned up to near scalding.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “That you had to see me like that.”

“No,” Namjoon argues, shaking his head. “No, I’m the one who should be sorry. I never should have let this happen. I’m - I’m supposed to be looking out for you.”

“I was careless,” Yoongi mutters. “The … the elite who had me. There was someone else with him. They made me drink. I didn’t think anything of it - just that they wanted to loosen me up, maybe. It makes it easier sometimes, being drunk, so I didn’t fight it. Didn’t even realize they’d put drugs in it until they kicked in.”

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon repeats, wishing he’d punched that rat-faced bastard back when he had a chance. “And I - I didn’t do anything. I promise.”

“I know you didn’t,” Yoongi says, finally meeting his eyes. “You wouldn’t.” The last part is almost a whisper, like Yoongi’s talking to himself instead of Namjoon.

“I wouldn’t,” Namjoon agrees. “Ever.”

Yoongi wipes a hand over his face. “I’m … I’m going to sleep. If that’s okay.”

“Of course,” Namjoon says. “Do you want me to go?”

“Yes,” Yoongi says, a little sharp - probably still embarrassed - and Namjoon tamps down on his stupid disappointment. Yoongi doesn’t owe him anything.

“Okay,” he says and heads for the door.

He only makes it two steps before Yoongi says, “no. Wait. Stay.”

“You’re sure?”

Yoongi nods.

Which is how they end up on the bed together, under the covers - Yoongi in his pajamas and Namjoon still wearing his clothes from the party. At first, there’s a foot of space separating them, but Namjoon inches his way across it in starts and stops until he’s draped carefully across Yoongi’s back, arm sliding over Yoongi’s waist.

“Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Yoongi murmurs and shifts back, relaxing into Namjoon’s hold.

They lie in silence for a few moments, but everything they’re leaving unspoken is slowly suffocating Namjoon. “Did you think I was going to do something?”

A long pause.

“No,” Yoongi says at last. “Not logically. But I can’t always … react logically. Not when memories are clouding my judgment. I’ve been drugged a lot - all of them - something happened every time. Someone used me or hurt me and I had to wake up and remember it, in pieces. Or put it together from the ways my body was in pain. I knew you weren’t going to do anything, but I was still scared you would.”

Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut and doesn’t apologize again, just pulls Yoongi a little closer. “Yoongi … did you have anyone? Before?”

They’ve never talked about Before. Namjoon’s been afraid to pry, to open up wounds, but tonight… there was so little left of Yoongi when the drugs took hold and he knows that’s how most of his fellow elite see him: not a person, just a pretty, eager thing to use and throw away. And Namjoon doesn’t ever want to see him that way, wants to know him - all the pieces of him.

Yoongi’s quiet again for a long time - long enough that Namjoon almost retracts his question, blurts out you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. But eventually Yoongi sighs and whispers, “yes. I had … had a family. Not blood, but still mine. I loved them.”

“Did you have a partner?” Namjoon asks.

Yoongi’s shoulders hunch, but he doesn’t pull away from Namjoon’s hold. “Yes. I … yes. He was my - I loved him. Love him.”

Namjoon doesn’t ask for a name, not when Yoongi’s voice is already raw with grief and longing. Yoongi sucks in a hiccuping breath and keeps talking, “and there was a kid … three kids, but one - I found him when he was so young. I raised him. And he got sanctioned with me. I’ve been looking - at all the parties - but I haven’t found him. A part of me … a part of me hopes he’s dead. I think about everything that’s been done to me, and imagine it happening to him and it … he would be better off dead.” His breath hitches and he turns his face into the pillow. “That’s terrible of me, I know.”

“No,” Namjoon murmurs, aching. “No - I … we could try to find him.”

“How?” Yoongi asks. “Records are sealed and they even take our names. We have no place to even begin looking. I’ve come up with a thousand plans in my head - none of them would work.” He sighs and shifts, clutching his pajama shirt, right over his heart. “He’s gone. I know that, but my heart….” he trails off with a shattered, pained sound, and Namjoon holds him tighter.

“What about the others?” he asks, desperate to offer some kind of solution. “Your partner? I could contact them, send a message or -”

“No,” Yoongi cuts him off. “No. They’re … it’s better if they stay far away from this. I don’t want them involved and I’m not - I’m not the person they remember, anymore. I don’t want them to….”

 He trails off, but Namjoon can hear everything he’s leaving unsaid: see me like this, see how much has changed, see how much was broken…

“Okay,” he says, swallowing all of his shallow, pointless reassurances. “Okay, but if you ever change your mind, I’ll help. I promise.”

Yoongi laughs softly, a sad sound. “I know you will.”

There’s another lull in conversation, as Namjoon tries to figure out how to word his next request. “Hyung,” he says and gets a sleepy hum from Yoongi, “Seokjin’s companion - the one he rescued from a party. He isn’t - I don’t think he’s doing too well. Seokjin was wondering if he could bring him over tomorrow, to talk to you. He thinks having another companion to interact with might help. Would that be okay?”

“Of course,” Yoongi mumbles. “I want to help him.”

“Okay, I’ll talk to Seokjin. Thank you.”

Another hum, even more sleepy than the first. Namjoon listens to Yoongi sink into sleep and presses a careful kiss to the back of Yoongi’s shoulder, thinking that this might be good for Yoongi, too. He should have someone else he can draw comfort and support from. Someone who understands him better than Namjoon could ever hope to.

Someone who doesn’t fucking own him.

 

_ _

 

Jungkook tells himself not to be afraid as he gets ready. Seokjin hasn’t provided him with any makeup or different clothes, so he’s taking that as a sign that this is going to be just a talk and nothing else. He’s never spent time with another companion outside of sex or the auction houses, where everyone keeps to themselves and keeps their heads down. His second master owned several others, but they weren’t allowed to speak to each other - only brought together for parties. And Jungkook was her favorite, which means the others resented him for getting special treatment - even though Jungkook would have gladly traded with any of them. His place in her bed, as far as he could tell, earned him little more than some extra food and a lot of pain. She liked games, liked messing with his head, liked making him struggle to please her - struggle to earn a reward that was impossible to get. That she would always, always withhold from him while telling him he just wasn’t good enough - was never good enough, why didn’t he try harder-

He shakes his head, trying to get rid of the memories. It’s just going to be a talk, he tells himself again as he holds out his wrist for Seokjin to put the tether on. And if it isn’t, maybe the other companion will be kind, at least. Maybe he’ll be given something to make it easier, to carry his mind far away so his body can enjoy what’s happening.

It’s strange, stepping out of Seokjin’s apartment in the afternoon light, wearing plain clothes. If it weren’t for the tether and the tattoo and the seals, he’d almost look like any average pedestrian, on their way to whatever fancy places Sector 1 residents frequent.

He follows Seokjin obediently into the car, trying not to think about the last time he was here: raw and shaken from the party and the guest that almost killed him.

Seokjin’s been quiet all morning - quiet since last night - and it’s making Jungkook nervous. Seokjin promised he wasn’t mad and he doesn’t seem angry. Just … sad? Sad, Jungkook thinks, and doesn’t know why. Doesn’t know how or if it’s even his place to ask about it. He has his usual notebook and pen resting in his lap (another good sign - that Seokjin asked him to bring them), but he doesn’t write anything. It probably isn’t his business, anyway. He should just stay obedient, especially after his screw up last night.

“Hey,” Seokjin says as the car glides down the street, reaching out to lay a hand on Jungkook’s knee. “It’s going to be okay.”

Only then does Jungkook realize he was bouncing his leg up and down with nervous energy and he winces. Those tics - the auction house made an effort to beat them out of him, and it’s a testament to how comfortable he’s gotten with Seokjin that they’ve started to come back. He stills his leg with an apologetic dip of his head and purposefully keeps his hands folded, as well. He doesn’t want to annoy Seokjin by drumming his fingers against his notebook like he’s itching to.

Be good for him, he orders his body - the tense coil of fear in his gut that won’t completely dissipate. It’ll be okay.

Too soon, the car is pulling into the parking deck of another towering apartment building - all shiny glass and modern fixtures and bristling with security. Jungkook watches as Seokjin signs him them both in at the front desk, then obediently puts his free wrist on the counter so the security guard can scan his seal, tagging him in the building’s security system. Now, alarms will activate if he tries to leave without being cleared.

The guard escorts them to the elevator and presses the button for the thirty-sixth floor. Seokjin’s cousin must be as wealthy as he is, to occupy one of the upper level apartments. Seokjin takes his hand in the elevator, seemingly uncaring of how clammy Jungkook’s skin is, and squeezes in silent reassurance. Jungkook blows out a shaky breath.

(Just talking. It’s just going to be talking.)

The elevator dings and the doors slide open smooth and almost soundless. There are only two apartments on this floor and Seokjin goes for the one furthest away, rapping on the door. A man answers a few seconds later. He’s taller than Seokjin, but not as broad. His hair is silver, contrasting his honey-toned skin, and he’s handsome, Jungkook thinks, in a very different way than Seokjin. It’s hard to even tell they’re related, except for their eyes: the same compassionate brown.

“Hey,” the man says, his voice a deep rumble. “Come in.”

His apartment is like Seokjin’s, too - wealthy, but without being ostentatious. There’s a piano in the living room, and Jungkook is abruptly reminded of Yoongi. Of the rundown store at the end of their street that sold cast-off instruments no one wanted to buy. Of the owner who would let Yoongi play in exchange for smuggled goods, and Jungkook would sit with him on the bench, enraptured by the way his hands drew music out of the battered keys.

So many memories today, and they all hurt in different ways.

Seokjin takes the cuff of his wrist and guides him towards the couch.

“This is Namjoon,” he says with a wave towards the tall man. “Namjoon-ah, this is JK.”

“JK,” Namjoon says, dipping his head in acknowledgement. “Would you like anything to drink?”

He’s so polite, just like Seokjin. Doesn’t treat Jungkook like a companion, and that eases the fear another notch. He still shakes his head, clutching his notebook tighter.

“He doesn’t talk,” Seokjin explains quietly, in response to Namjoon’s questioning look, and Namjoon seems to accept this easily.

“Okay. Just wait here, then, all right? I’ll go get Yoongi.”

The name hits him like a gunshot, like a bullet right between his ribs, but no. It can’t be his Yoongi, can it? There are other Yoongis in this city - he’s even met one, at a party, and felt all his hopes shatter. He won’t let that happen again.

Namjoon disappears into another room and Jungkook wrestles his breathing under control, aware of Seokjin’s worried gaze on him.

“Everything okay?” Seokjin asks and he nods.

There’s a low murmur of voices from what Jungkook guesses is a bedroom. He can make out some of what Namjoon’s saying but not the other person. Something about making Jungkook comfortable, about privacy, and his stomach knots itself right back up.

Then Namjoon is coming back out into the living room, a smaller man trailing behind him. It isn’t until Namjoon steps aside that Jungkook gets a good look at him and when he does, he swears the entire world grinds to a halt, suspended and silent. Because that is his Yoongi, only a few feet away from him, stopping to stare in shock.

That’s his Yoongi, who looks tired and a little pale, but alive. Alive, and here, and oh god. Is this a dream? Is Jungkook still asleep at Seokjin’s apartment? Is Jungkook still at the party, kneeling in the garden at his master’s feet?

“Jungkook-ah?” his Yoongi says, voice cracked and wet, and Jungkook can’t move or speak or even breathe.

Oh please let this be real. Please please let this be real.

The world lurches, time stutters forward, and Yoongi’s hands are cupping Jungkook’s cheeks - big and callused, just like Jungkook remembers. There are tears dripping down Yoongi’s face, falling off his trembling chin.

“Jungkook-ah,” he’s saying over and over, like he can’t believe this is real, either. “Jungkook-ah, baby.”

And the wall, the stone, the block finally shakes loose in Jungkook’s throat. “Yoongi,” he rasps, barely recognizing his own wheezing voice. “Yoongi.

“My baby,” Yoongi hiccups, pressing their foreheads together. “Jungkook-ah.” He’s sobbing now, deep and gut-wrenching, kneeling in front of Jungkook, and Jungkook falls into him, marvels at the solid weight of him as his arms go around Yoongi’s shaking shoulders and cling with everything he has.

He tucks his face into Yoongi’s neck, feels Yoongi hold him back just as tight, just as fierce, and the tears come then like a flood. He weeps, body trembling with the force of it. Tears of joy and grief and shock. If this is a dream, he never, ever wants to wake up. Let him stay here forever: back in Yoongi’s arms where he never thought he’d be again, where he’s always felt more safe than anywhere else in the world.

“I’m here,” Yoongi’s saying, rocking him back and forth like a child. “I’m here, baby. I’m here.”

“Me too,” Jungkook whispers. “I’m here.”

Yoongi laughs, though it sounds more like a sob, and shifts even closer, like he wants to climb inside Jungkook’s skin and stay there forever. Jungkook doesn’t think he’d be opposed.

“You are,” Yoongi says. “You’re here.”

Jungkook remembers, then, Namjoon and Seokjin. He lifts his head from Yoongi’s shoulder and sees them hovering in the middle of the living room, near matching expressions of surprise on their faces. They didn’t know, then, about him and Yoongi. And he has to be sure - because he can’t bear the thought of having sex with Yoongi for their entertainment. Not Yoongi: who gave him one time where he felt loved, felt like his body was important and worth something. He won’t let them cheapen that, won’t let them take it away. He pulls Yoongi closer to him, trying to shield him, and forces more words out.

“I w-won’t,” he says, hoping they understand. He’ll fight this, fight them, if he has to. Anything for Yoongi. “We won’t…”

Seokjin and Namjoon flinch, but it’s Yoongi that answers him. “It’s okay,” he murmurs, fingers combing through the hair on the back of Jungkook’s head. “It’s okay, baby, we’re safe. You’re safe.”

“We won’t hurt you,” Namjoon says, sounding sincere.

Jungkook nods, so relieved he could start crying all over again, and buries his face back in Yoongi’s neck, unwilling to let go of him any time soon.

Yoongi. His Yoongi.

His miracle.

 

_ _

 

Yoongi doesn’t think he’s ever cried this much, even counting when Jungkook was first taken from him and he wept in despair on the floor of his auction house cell. His whole body feels wrung out and sore and empty and his hands won’t stop shaking. Jungkook’s cried himself into exhaustion, too. Is lying on the couch now with his head in Yoongi’s lap, fast asleep. Yoongi runs trembling fingers through Jungkook’s hair, petting him, and tries to stop his brain from cataloguing too many obvious signs of past injury: the thin, white scars on Jungkook’s shoulder, peeking out from beneath the collar of his baggy shirt as it slips; the fading red on his neck, the opposite side from his tattoo; an old cut near the corner of his mouth; the scar bisecting his right eyebrow. There are more, Yoongi knows, beneath his clothes. Even more than that beneath his skin.

It hurts - like a blade twisting its way into his heart - but Jungkook is alive and Yoongi takes back his words from last night, spoken in a haze of his own pain and fading shame. He’s so fucking glad Jungkook is alive. That Jungkook is here.

“I’m sorry,” Seokjin says, startling him out of his thoughts. He pulls his gaze from Jungkook to Seokjin’s nervous face. “If I’d known, I would have brought him over here right away.”

“I know,” Yoongi says quietly.

He’d wondered, briefly, if Namjoon and Seokjin orchestrated this - to get him into their debt somehow, to make themselves seem like saviors - but he knows that’s his paranoia talking. The part of his brain that the last year of horror has turned into a frightened, skittish animal - unwilling to trust anything or anyone.

“You saved him at a party, Namjoon said.”

Seokjin nods.

“What did you save him from?”

Because he needs to know. He can’t help Jungkook bear the weight of all this pain if he doesn’t understand the depth of it.

Seokjin winces, hesitates.

“Tell me,” Yoongi says. “Please.”

“He refused a guest,” Seokjin says, wringing his hands. “The man was choking him, I think, and he fought back instinctively. His master was furious. Was beating him, when I came across them. Threatening to sell him back to the auction house. I … intervened.”

Fuck.

Yoongi curls over Jungkook, wanting to go back in time and protect him. From that moment of abuse and all the others. Wants to rewind all the way to the moment city police caught them on a smuggling run and make Jungkook leave him behind.

“Thank you,” he says to Seokjin. “For saving him.”

“Common human decency shouldn’t warrant thanks,” Seokjin says.

“In this world it does,” Yoongi points out. “Especially for us. So thank you.”

Seokjin nods, not arguing further, and glances down at Jungkook. He cares about him, Yoongi can see that clearly, and it eases some of the ache, knowing that Jungkook has been safe. Has been loved, at least in these past few weeks.

“I’m trying,” Seokjin says, “to get him papers. To get him out of the city. If he wants to go.”

He won’t want to, Yoongi knows. Jungkook would never leave any family behind, especially now that him and Yoongi been reunited. He’ll want to fight, he always wants to stand and fight, even when Yoongi wishes he didn’t. And as if Jungkook can read Yoongi’s mind, he stirs. Murmurs, “no, ‘m staying.”

“You’d be free,” Yoongi says gently.

Jungkook looks up at him, into him, and clearly sees everything that Namjoon and Seokjin can’t - every moment of violation, from the very first training session in the auction house to the drugs last night.

“You wouldn’t,” he says, reaching up to run his knuckles down Yoongi’s cheek. Yoongi leans into it instinctively, craving familiar touch so much it surprises him.

“That’s my choice,” he argues.

“Then let me make mine,” Jungkook says, just like Yoongi knew he was going to.

It’s a relief, in some ways, seeing that Jungkook’s stubbornness hasn’t evaporated completely.

He sighs and rests his forehead against Jungkook’s, clings to him. He doesn’t have any arguments, not when he never wants Jungkook to leave him again.

“Kook,” he says helplessly and Jungkook sits up, shifts into Yoongi’s lap to hold him properly.

“I’m not going anywhere, hyung,” he says. “Whatever you’re doing … I’m not letting you do it alone.”

And Yoongi is too tired to fight him. He doesn’t want to do this alone. He thought it would be easier, knowing this is for a cause, knowing that he’s choosing it, but something in him still feels like it’s breaking every time he gets on his knees. Every time he lets someone touch him. Every time he opens his mouth and lets them use him like a toy. Namjoon doesn’t see him that way, he knows, and neither does Seokjin, but Jungkook knows him. Has been there for so many years, through so many trials and heartbreaks. This is the boy who wormed his way past all of Yoongi’s defenses and thawed out his heart. He didn’t think he was capable of loving anyone but Hoseok until Jungkook came along and pried his chest cavity open. Showed him that all the walls he’d built were worthless. That survival meant nothing without others by your side.

Loving Taehyung and Jimin had been easy, a few years later. Because Jungkook had taught him how.

“You’re not alone,” Jungkook whispers, as if he can hear Yoongi’s inner turmoil. His fingers dig into Yoongi’s back like anchors. “I’m not letting you go again.”

He brings his arms up to return the hug. “Me neither,” he says and wills himself not to start crying again.

“I’ll tell my contacts,” Seokjin says quietly, not sounding upset about it. Maybe, he didn’t want to say goodbye to Jungkook, either.

Then, he retreats to the kitchen and Yoongi hears him tell Namjoon to help him with dinner, but tunes out the rest. Jungkook slides off his lap to curl up next to him, head on his shoulder.

“I can’t believe you’re real,” he whispers, clutching Yoongi’s hand. “I’ve dreamed of you so often, but I never thought I’d see you again.”

“Me too,” Yoongi murmurs back.

It’s getting dark outside, the sunset brilliant over the city, reflecting off all the buildings. Here, you can almost forget about the chaos of the Outer Sectors. No wonder the elite seem so blind to it.

“I hate how beautiful it is here,” Jungkook says. “I always have.”

“Someday, it’ll be beautiful for all of us,” Yoongi says, because it feels like the only hope he has left, most days.

“Namjoon and Seokjin … they’re planning something.” It isn’t a question, because Jungkook has always been smarter and more observant than people give him credit for. “And you’re helping them.”

“Yes,” Yoongi says. “But can we talk about it later?”

He just wants to be with Jungkook right now, and pretend that nothing else matters. Just for the rest of today. He has a member of his family back and even though the ache of longing for the others is still heavy in his ribs, he’s happy.

“Okay,” Jungkook says and burrows closer to him again, reels him in, and Yoongi goes willingly, sliding his arm around Jungkook’s shoulders. “Later.”

“Later,” Yoongi agrees and presses a kiss to Jungkook’s temple.

Jungkook is here, with him, and for these fleeting moments, Yoongi is happy.

 

_ _

 

Hoseok knows, distantly, with detachment, that he’s dying. Slowly, yes, but dying all the same. He’s dying and Taehyung, trying so desperately to take care of him, is afraid.

“Where’s Jimin?” he asks Taehyung as Taehyung changes his bandages. He might have asked before, but time has become an unfocused and muddled thing. He has no idea if they’ve been hiding in this factory for a day or a week or a month. A year?

Taehyung shakes his head, lips clamped together. Hoseok thinks, through the fog clouding his brain, that this is the same non-answer Taehyung gave before. Which means Jimin has probably gone to do something stupid and reckless.

“He’d better not get himself killed,” he mumbles, sinking back onto the pallet that Taehyung has fashioned for him. He’s too weak to stand, to even sit up. His life is trickling away with each bloody bandage Taehyung changes and it won’t be long now.

Taehyung hiccups, a mixture of fear and despair, and his hands are unsteady as he wraps fresh gauze around Hoseok’s leg.

“Hey,” Hoseok murmurs, because it will always be his job to reassure them. Yoongi was their leader, but Hoseok is the glue. And Yoongi’s gone, two of his kids are gone, but he can help Taehyung, at least. “It’s gonna be okay.”

“I should be telling you that,” Taehyung insists.

“No … ‘m the hyung. My job.”

Taehyung shakes his head but ties off the bandage without arguing any further. Then he lies down next to Hoseok on the pallet.

Hoseok shifts enough to press a kiss to his grimy hair. “We’ll be okay,” he says, even though he doesn’t believe it. “We’ll be okay, Taehyung-ah.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, also full of doubt. He wraps an arm around Hoseok’s torso, high above the bullet wound that’s killing him. “Course we will.”

Hoseok closes his aching eyes, Taehyung’s body heat keeping his teeth from chattering too badly,  and wonders if he’ll see Yoongi on the other side.

Chapter Text

“Proclamation from the new king: winter has affected the greenhouses more than expected and resources are at a historical low. Effective immediately, all Marked citizens will receive one daily ration card instead of three, and only be allowed to use two daily per household. The illegal theft or trade of goods will result in immediate sanctioning, regardless of strike status. For regular citizens of the outer and middle sectors, ration cards will decrease to three daily. We apologize for these harsh measures, but if we work together, the king believes that we will all survive the winter and reap the harvest of spring.”

- Excerpt of a government radio broadcast to all sectors in the middle of “The Starving Winter.”

 



_ _ 

 

One year ago

His stomach feels like it's going to eat itself, which he figures probably means that it actually is. He's been hungry before, been hungry his whole life, but never like this. So hungry he can barely think straight, so hungry that it's made him weak to the point where even something simple like standing and walking across the apartment feels like a herculean effort. He thinks that maybe, they're all going to die. One night, they're just going to curl up on the mattress and the hunger and the cold are going to take them in their sleep. Which, honestly, wouldn't be a terrible way to go, in the grand scheme of things. There are many, many worse ways to die.

"We're not going to die, Jimin-ah," Yoongi tells him, and the fire in his eyes hasn't gone out in spite of how sunken and hollow his cheeks have become. His fingers are shaking as he cuts up their meager portion of vegetables into tiny pieces, trying to stretch them as far as he can. They've had watery soup once a day for the past week - just barely enough to keep them sustained.

One fucking ration card a person, only two a house - not enough to live on by any means. And they're always last in line, behind regular citizens - left to pick over the meager scraps like vultures. Yesterday, Hoseok managed to snag a loaf of bread that was only a little stale and Jimin almost cried at the sight of it.

"This feels like dying, hyung," he tells Yoongi now, staring down at his own bony fingers.

"I know." Yoongi wobbles to his feet and puts a hand on Jimin's shoulder, which is just as bony as his fingers. If he lifted his shirt, Jimin knows he could count each individual one of his ribs easily. "I know, Jimin-ah, but we'll get through this, just like we've gotten through everything else."

He says it with such certainty, that it's almost easy to believe him. It's always been that way with Yoongi, ever since Jimin tried to rob him when he was eighteen. He was starving, then, too and so, so desperate. Desperate enough to put a knife to the back of Yoongi's neck and demand all the ration cards he had on him. Yoongi was small, like him, and had seemed like an easy enough of target. Except he hadn't flinched or trembled, hadn't seemed scared at all. He'd just told Jimin that he didn't have any ration cards, but how would Jimin like a hot meal instead? He had ramen back at his apartment that would stretch to accommodate another person. Jimin was wary of this offer, of course. Pressed his knife harder into the back of Yoongi's neck - enough to draw blood. Yoongi barely flinched. Asked if Jimin was hungry, and he was. God, he was.

So he'd said yes and he'd followed Yoongi to his apartment like a skittish cat, ready to bolt at any moment. He kept the knife close by, half expecting that Yoongi was going to get him somewhere private and either assault him or imprison and sell him or both. But instead it was actually ramen and Yoongi let Jimin have his portion, too, and didn't seem disgusted when Jimin practically inhaled both bowls. He asked if Jimin wanted to come back tomorrow and Jimin had asked if he could bring Taehyung, who was currently waiting behind in their makeshift home.

Yes, Yoongi said and that was the start of a new chapter in Jimin's life.

He holds Yoongi's hand tightly now, bowing his head. "Maybe it would be better if we separated again? They're punishing bigger households. We'd do better on our own."

He feels sick at the thought of leaving - this is his family and this little apartment is the only place in his life that's felt like home - but he'd do if it meant they all got to eat, all had a better chance of making it through the winter.

"No," Yoongi says predictably. "No, Jimin-ah, we're a family and we stick together, no matter what. We'll get through this. It's just another month until spring. And the network is still running."

Sluggishly, but they were still getting some goods through. Because Jimin suspected that Yoongi was magic.

"Okay," he says, closing his eyes and feeling his chest warm. He's loved Taehyung all his life, but even after a few years in this makeshift, expanded family, he's not used to hearing this sentiment from others. Having people who care about him, want to look after him and support him, and would miss him when if he was gone. "We stick together."

Yoongi kisses the top of his head, uncharacteristically affectionate, and Jimin's heart twists even more.

He tries not to think about how much he would miss Yoongi if he was gone. Would miss any of them. He'd burn worlds to save them, he knows that, and it's a terrifying truth. He closes his eyes instead of contemplating it further, listening to the sound of Yoongi breathing and the distant rattle of the train as it -

Now

- hums and shakes around him, bound for Sector 1. He's curled up in the corner of the last car, trying to be as invisible as possible, in spite of his fancy clothes. The papers worked, and he took that as a sign that perhaps this is possible, after all. He shoplifted the rest of the outfit - black pants and a high-collared black shirt under a patterned silver jacket - and snuck into a jjimjilbang in Sector 4 to clean himself up. His tattoo is once again covered with stolen makeup, and he's lined his eyes in dark kohl, as well, hoping that will help him look more intimidating. At least enough for people in Sector 1 not to bother him.

He still has the contraband phone, too, and he's scrolling through his notes, trying to remember what he can about the security in Kim Namjoon's building. Guard at the front desk and another one probably in a security booth somewhere. Security cameras watching all the entrances and exits. Special badge required to get through the front door. He imagines there's plenty of fancy tech inside - getting up to Namjoon's apartment will be just as much of a hurdle as gaining access to the building itself, but he has to try. Hoseok's life is on the line.

The thing is: he lied to Taehyung. He doesn't believe that Yoongi is still alive. Of the two of them, Jimin's always been the more pragmatic one. He accepts the truths that Taehyung cannot, so that Taehyung won't have to bear the burden of them, and this truth is that Yoongi is mostly like dead. It's been well over two months since Kim Namjoon bought him and none of his past recorded behavior suggests he keeps companions alive for only half that time.

Yoongi is dead, but Kim Namjoon isn't.

And Kim Namjoon is an elite with vast resources and influence, more than enough to save Hoseok. So Jimin is going to force him to help and then, as revenge for Yoongi, Jimin is going to kill him.

Slowly. Painfully. Without a shred of remorse.

The train pulls to a stop in the main station of Sector 1 and Jimin stands with fluid grace, taking a deep breath. It seems like only yesterday when he last did this: exited the train onto the gorgeous main thoroughfare of the inner city and let himself be absorbed into the flow of the crowd. It's a few hours until dark, plenty of time to stake out Namjoon's apartment complex and gather more information. Put a plan in motion.

Jimin keeps his head down and walks with purposeful strides, hoping that no one care hear how loud his heart is pounding in his chest

 

_ _

 

Jungkook dreams - hazy and distorted sensations of hands on his body and a voice whispering cruel insults into his ear - and wakes with a start in an unfamiliar bed. For a moment, panic claws at his throat as his brain insists that he's been drugged again, but no. He's fully clothed and he doesn't feel sluggish or hazy. And there is someone curled up next to him that he recognizes without even looking.

Yoongi.

He's at Namjoon's apartment, he's with Yoongi, who led him into this bedroom and told him to get some sleep, folding Jungkook into his arms like he used to when Jungkook was thirteen and smaller than him. Yoongi's still got an arm draped over his stomach, and Jungkook lifts it gently, looking at the initials tattooed in a column from his wrist towards his elbow. Four sets, three scratched out, just like Jungkook. He wonders, darkly, which one was the worst. For Jungkook it's the second set - the woman who bought him after the married couple deemed him too rebellious. She had been beautiful and cold and had hurt him so badly that he's walled off some of the memories for the sake of his sanity ... but there were times when she called him beautiful and good and touched him without any pain. He felt pleasure in her bed and he'd come to crave it from her, wanted to please her, and that, he thinks, is what he hates her for most of all.

Yoongi stirs and Jungkook watches him go through the same jolt to awarenesses and moment of panic, watches him assess where he is and that he's still dressed and his body doesn't hurt. It's painful, knowing that Yoongi - who has always seemed invincible in Jungkook's eyes - has had the same fear forced into him.

Yoongi's head turns, hair sleep-mussed, and his dark gaze lands on Jungkook's face and widens briefly before softening into something more familiar. "So," Yoongi says, raspy, "not a dream, then."

Jungkook shakes his head. He wants to answer back, but his throat is raw and sore from talking yesterday and from such a long silence before that. Yoongi's fingers touch it gently, concern in his expression. "Baby?"

Jungkook shakes his head again and sits up. "Hurts," he manages, patting his throat, and then he switches to the language Yoongi taught all of them after finding a book about it, tossed in a dumpster. You speak with your hands, and it's become a vital asset in their world - where you never know when someone might be listening in.

I'm okay, he signs. Just recovering.

Yoongi relaxes a fraction, sitting up, too. Was your throat damaged? he signs back.

Yes, but not ... Jungkook pauses. It was easier. Not talking. So I didn't. Even after my throat healed. Seokjin didn't force me.

Understanding dawns in Yoongi's gaze and he presses a soft kiss to the back of Jungkook's head. "It's okay. My last master, before Namjoon, he didn't like it when I talked. Said objects should be seen and not heard."

Yeah. Jungkook's heard that one before. He closes his eyes and relaxes into Yoongi's hold, trying to decide if he should ask about the things he wants to: the fresh wounds on Yoongi's wrists and the bruises around Yoongi's throat, clearly from a collar. If Namjoon isn't hurting him, who is? Is Namjoon still taking him to parties? Bartering him around in exchange for ... whatever it is that elite trade amongst each other. Power, secrets, favors - Jungkook's never paid much attention to it. The cost of it all is still taken out of his body, so what does he care about the reasons?

"I can hear you thinking, Jungkook-ah," Yoongi says, and Jungkook winces. Gently picks up one of Yoongi's wrists and shifts so Yoongi can see the question on his face.

"Ah," Yoongi murmurs and pulls his hand away. There is shame in the bite of his teeth into his lower lip, in the hunched curve of his shoulders, and Jungkook aches. "I ..."

Tell me, Jungkook begs. Hyung.

"This was my choice." Yoongi sighs and blinks down at his wrist. "Namjoon ... has a plan. That could save all of us, if we can pull it off. And for it to work, we need certain people on our side. Information, too."

So he's paying with you? Jungkook asks, fury rising. He doesn't care that Namjoon is Seokjin's cousin, if he's using Yoongi like this, Jungkook will find a way to put a stop to it. To run and get out of the city, even if his heart rebels against the thought of leaving Jimin, Hoseok, and Taehyung behind. He has to believe that they'll be safe, that they'll stick together. (They might not want him back, anyway, after he's been so ruined. Especially Taehyung...)

"I offered," Yoongi says. Shudders. "I offered. It's okay."

O-offered? Offered? What plan could possibly be enough for Yoongi to willingly submit himself to this? His thoughts must be showing too much, because Yoongi cups his cheeks and whispers, "it's better if you don't know too much yet, Kook-ah. Not yet. But ... please trust hyung, okay? I know what I'm doing."

"But..." Jungkook rasps and Yoongi shushes him. He bats Yoongi's soothing hands away so he can sign. It's hurting you.

"It's nothing I haven't been through," Yoongi counters grimly. "Nothing that hasn't already been done to me."

Jungkook wants to say that doesn't matter, but he doesn't think it will help. Yoongi is as immovable as a mountain when he's set his mind to something, and this is probably no different.

"And..." Yoongi hesitates here, folding his knees against his chest so he's curled into a tiny ball. "He isn't ... no one is actually fucking me, so that helps."

Oh. That would probably help. Jungkook hates when someone uses his mouth, especially men who are rough and shove all the way down his throat so harshly that he thinks he's going to tear or vomit. Who don't let him breathe and like the sounds of him choking around them, like it when he shakes and cries - reflexive, messy tears streaming down his cheeks as he struggles not to pass out. But nothing is more terrible than the pain of having someone inside. It's such an ... intimate violation. The second owner, the worst, CNY on his arm - she used to tell him after parties, did you know, baby, that fifteen people fucked you tonight? Such a little slut, aren't you? And he would feel sick and shameful and small, presented with that staggering number. With the knowledge that even the most private places of his body belonged to someone else. In the showers, cleaning himself up after, he'd touch where he was sore and aching and try not to weep. She always wanted to have him, at the end of the night, summoning him to her bed as soon as he was finished in the shower. There, she would make sure to slip her fingers inside him and rub harshly, making him whine and jerk his hips to get away while she laughed. While she slapped him across the face and told him to be good for her, guiding his mouth between her legs with a rough hand in his hair.

"Good," he whispers to Yoongi now, scooting closer to hug him tight. He has scars on the insides of his thighs, from where nails have scratched and whips have stung, and he wonders if Yoongi does, too.

Both of them are just battered messes, barely taped together.

I love you, he traces against Yoongi's back and feels Yoongi's breath hitch.

"I love you, too," Yoongi says softly. "You stay safe with Seokjin for now, Kook-ah ... please?"

I want to help, Jungkook insists.

"Not like this," Yoongi says and it's more of a plea than a demand. "We'll ... we'll figure out other ways you can, but not like this."

Jungkook wants to argue, but they're so tired and emotionally raw and that's enough for him to bite his tongue. They're finally together, and they'll have time to discuss this later. For now, it looks like the sky is lightening beyond the curtains and soon he'll need to go back to Seokjin's apartment with him.

Be safe, too, hyung, he signs.

"I'll try," Yoongi says, which isn't enough of a promise, but Jungkook accepts it as all he's going to be given.

Yoongi is here, that's all that matters. The rest will come.

 

_ _

 

Seokjin lingers in the hallway to Namjoon's front door, eyes darting back and forth between Yoongi and Namjoon. "We'll be in touch," he says, his hand on Jungkook's back. "I can invite you over to my place soon, so we don't attract too much suspicion."

Namjoon nods. He sees Seokjin fairly often, but not several times a week, and while their family has been fairly content to ignore their private comings and goings, he doesn't want to take any chances. "Sounds good," he says, glancing at Jungkook.

God, he looks so young. Eyes big and almost innocent in his face, teeth protruding just a little. He can see why Jin called him Tokki. Can see why both of them love him - he seems easy to love. There is steel in him, too, though. Namjoon can see it lurking beneath the surface - sharp edges that remind him of Yoongi, probably honed by years of scraping and clawing a living out of the rubble of the outer sectors. Jungkook is young, but he's a fighter, and Namjoon is glad for that.

"Hold on," he says now. "Before you go, can I talk to Jungkook for a minute?"

Yoongi's gaze snaps to him, suspicious and questioning, and Namjoon smiles in what he hopes is a reassuring way.

"Okay," he agrees and Seokjin nods.

Namjoon leads Jungkook back into the guest bedroom, shutting the door behind them. He half expects Jungkook to flinch or fidget, but he just straightens his shoulders and stares at Namjoon head on, one eyebrow arched in a silent question.

So much like Yoongi.

"You ... seem like you know how to take care of yourself," Namjoon begins awkwardly. "So will you look after Seokjin for me?"

Jungkook blinks, his confidence melting into confusing.

Namjoon scratches his cheek, feeling awkward and uncertain. "Just ... he works really hard and he struggles with a lot, up here." He taps his temple. "He'll never show it to anyone, not even me, but I think you being there helps. Just make sure he eats and gets enough sleep and doesn't run himself into the ground. Could you do that for me?"

Jungkook hesitates for a long moment, still looking taken aback, but eventually, slowly, he nods.

"Thank you," Namjoon says, fighting the urge to reach out and squeeze his shoulder. He's gotten used to touching Yoongi, and he has to remind himself that he doesn't have the same permissions with Jungkook.

Jungkook takes a deep breath, rocking back and forth on his heels like he's gathering strength. Then he says in his raspy, croaking whisper, "please ... take care of ... Yoongi, too."

"I will," Namjoon promises him. "I swear I will."

He doubts Jungkook trusts him fully, but he gets another nod and that will have to be enough for now. He leads Jungkook back out in the main room, continuing to ignore Yoongi's stare, and smiles at Seokjin.

"I'll see you soon."

Seokjin nods. His eyes flick to Yoongi again. "Get some rest," he says, voice gentle, and Yoongi starts slightly.

"Okay, Seokjin-ssi," he says and a smile takes over Seokjin's face - the one Namjoon knows he reserves for private interactions, for people he trusts.

"One of these days, you're going to call me hyung, Yoongi-yah," he says and laughs when Yoongi's lips part in shock.

Jungkook snorts quietly, clearly amused, and Seokjin leads him out of the apartment by the hand - the door clicking loud behind them.

"Hyung," Yoongi mutters, sounding almost offended. "I've never fucking called anyone 'hyung.'"

"He'll win you over eventually," Namjoon says. "He always does."

Yoongi huffs. He looks tired, Namjoon notices. Dark circles bruised under his eyes and hair messy and eyes still a little puffy from all the crying he did yesterday.

"What can I do?" Namjoon asks him, still feeling a little rattled himself. He didn't know that Yoongi was capable of crying like that. Didn't know that Yoongi has that much love in him - that much desperation and fear. The image of Yoongi on his knees, clutching Jungkook like he was afraid Jungkook was going to disappear, loops over and over again in Namjoon's brain, unsettling him. "What do you need, hyung?"

Yoongi hesitates, looking torn in the same way he always does when he wants to ask Namjoon for something but isn't sure if he should. He doesn't speak this time, just shuffles forward and hesitantly wraps his arms around Namjoon's waist.

Namjoon's breath hitches but he immediately folds protectively around Yoongi, resting his chin on the top of Yoongi's bent head, feeling Yoongi trembling against him.

"He's safe," he promises, rubbing a soothing circle across Yoongi's back. "Seokjin is going to keep him safe, I swear."

Yoongi makes a wordless noise of agreement and doesn't move.

So Namjoon holds him and tries not to examine the feeling that's blooming in his chest - the ache and wrench that he thinks might be love. It can't be, though. Not in this world: where his initials mar Yoongi's arm in black ink, where parties are waiting, where they are planning to drench their hands in blood. For a moment, Namjoon allows himself to imagine a different world, a kinder one. Where they were born as equals. Where there are no kings and no Marked and no tattoos or seals or auction houses.

The Old World, maybe, where the legends say that people used to elect their leaders and no one went hungry and owning people for pleasure was illegal. He could have loved Yoongi in that one.

Here, now, he takes the bloom and he crushes it beneath his heel, determined not to examine it again.

 

_ _

 

Jimin can hear the clock ticking in the back of his head, louder and louder with each hour that rushes by. It's been nearly two days since he left Taehyung, and he's acutely aware of the fact that Hoseok is running out of time. Which why he's going forward with this half-baked plan he's connected in the past twenty-four hours of watching Namjoon's building. It's one that Yoongi, if he knew about it, would scold him for, but ...

Yoongi isn't here.

And Jimin is desperate.

You're going to get yourself killed, Jimin-ah, the ghost of Yoongi still whispers in his head. Jimin stubbornly ignores him.

The plan is simple, perhaps too straightforward, and gambles a lot, but he's learned that his greatest leverage is going to be the fact that people in Sector 1 are soft. They're used to their safe and comfortable existence, their quiet jobs, and a world without danger. They know nothing of the violence Jimin grew up with, or death lurking around what felt like every corner. They haven't had to lie to save their own lives, or run from police through darkened streets, or steal just to survive.

Which gives Jimin an advantage: they'll never see him coming.

Specifically, the night guard who arrives for his shift at eight p.m. and parks his little moped up the street, clearly preferring that to the hassle of the secure parking garage. Last night, he ambled up to the front door and punched in a code on the keypad: 6781. He greeted the day shift guard with a wave and small talk, then took his badge and his gun, and proceeded to sit at the front desk for the next eight hours - almost without moving and looking constantly like he was trying not to dose off.

Tonight, Jimin intercepts him as soon as he climbs off the moped, grabbing him by the back of the shirt and yanking him into the nearby alley with a hand clamped over his mouth to muffle his shocked protests. Fortunately, this is also a quiet street, designed for privacy. There is no one nearby to hear as Jimin gets the guard in a chokehold and begins tightening his grip. He thinks, briefly, about killing the man. It would be cleaner and safer, but there is a prick at his conscience that feels a lot like Taehyung and Jungkook. They wouldn't approve of him murdering a man who is just here to do his job and probably has a family waiting for him at home. So Jimin holds on until he feels the man fall unconscious and then lays his body carefully on the pavement.

He strips him of his uniform, then heaves him into the nearby dumpster. He should be unconscious for a few hours and that will hopefully keep him from being discovered long enough for Jimin to do what he needs to. His fancy clothes go in the dumpster, as well - encased in a plastic bag and tucked into the back corner, in case he needs to retrieve them later. Fortunately, the man wasn’t that much bigger than him and so the uniform fits well enough. He has to cinch the belt to the tightest notch and the pants are just a few centimeters too long, but he has a story in mind if someone points it out. He checks to make sure his tattoo is still adequately covered and adjusts the cap on his head so the cameras will only see the lower half of his face.

He can do this.

For Hoseok, he’ll do anything.

He runs in place for a minute, trying to work up a bit of a sweat, get himself out of breath. Then he jogs up to the front door of the building and punches in 6781. A loud beep and the door gives beneath his hand, swinging open to let him half walk, half tumble into the gleaming front lobby.

“Oh my god,” he says as the day shift guard looks up. “I’m so sorry I’m late!”

The guard frowns, a tight furrow between his bushy eyebrows. It accents the crow’s feet etched into the corners of his eyes and the wrinkles curved around the edges of his mouth. “Who are you?”

Jimin straightens, adopting a puzzled expression. “Sorry, I’m Lee Dongwun-ssi’s substitute. He had a family emergency. The agency didn’t tell you?”

The guard, whose name tag labels him as Koh Jinsun, snorts. “The agency never tells me anything.”

Jimin blinks, trying to make his eyes as wide and innocent as possible. “Oh! I’m sorry Jinsun-nim, do you want me to call them?”

“Don’t bother,” Jinsun says with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m late enough home as it is. You know what to do? You’ve been in other buildings before?”

“I-” Jimin stutters fidgeting. “Well, this is only my second week, but I’m sure I can figure everything out.”

Jinsun sighs, like Jimin is the greatest inconvenience he’s ever encountered. There might even be a mutter of “stupid kids” under his breath that Jimin chooses to ignore. “Okay, listen up.” He holds up a white card. “Badge for the whole building. It will get you in the main elevators and the service elevator, as well as the security booth and all the entrances and exits. Minchul is already in the security booth on the second floor and he’ll watch the cameras. You stay here, at this desk, unless it’s an emergency. Residents may sometimes call on this phone.” He waves Jimin closer and points to a black phone situated on the desk. “Always answer promptly and be polite. Any arriving guests must be buzzed through the front doors and sign in. All companions must have their seals scanned, then scanned again before they leave.” He hands Jimin his holstered handgun. “I’m assuming you’ve all the firearms training.”

“Yes,” Jimin says, taking the holster and cinching it around his waist and leg. “Is there anything else, Jinsun-ssi?”

“That should be it,” Jinsun says. “Call Minchul if you need anything. I’m off tomorrow but Taewon will be here at eight a.m. to relieve you.”

“Thank you,” Jimin says with a brief bow. “Have a good night.”

“You, too,” Jinsun huffs and leaves without a backward glance.

Jimin sinks into his seat behind the desk, well aware that Minchul can see him through the cameras positioned in the corners of the room. Therefore, he keeps his expression politely bored and pretends to check messages on his phone. Half an hour ticks by with no calls from phone at Jimin’s elbow and no one coming or going. He spends that time looking at files on the computer (the password to log in was written on a post-it stuck to the monitor, he almost can’t believe the complacency), including a registry of all the tenants in the building. Kim Namjoon is in apartment 21902 on the 36th floor.

Jimin figures that half an hour is long enough. There isn’t a camera behind the desk, so Jimin feigns like he’s reaching for a pencil and subtly presses a button on the phone to get it to ring. He jolts in surprise as the shrill tone echoes through the lobby and fumbles for the receiver.

He has no idea if the cameras have sound, so he talks like he’s taking a call. “Yes, Namjoon-nim?” A pause for effect. “Of course, I’ll be right up.”

He “hangs up,” then picks up the receiver once more and dials the security booth. “Minchul-ssi?”

“New kid,” Minchul replies, deadpan.

“I got a call from Kim Namjoon in 21902 and I’m going up to talk to him quick. Can you watch the desk?”

“Sure,” Minchul says, still sounding half-asleep. “Whatever.”

(Oh this is almost too easy.)

Jimin grabs the badge from the desk and puts up a placard he finds that states he’ll be back in a few minutes and asking guest to please sign in. Then, he makes his way to the elevator - keeping his pace hurried, but not a suspicious degree. He waves the badge over the sensor inside what has to be the fanciest elevator he’s ever seen - that’s fucking gold trim lining the back wall - and gets an answering beep. Sucking in a fortifying breath, he presses the button for the 36th floor and watches a little halo of light ring the number. The elevator makes a smooth and swift ascent, fortunately free of any obnoxious music, and in what feels like a blink, the doors are opening again, revealing a silent hallway that ends in a floor-to-ceiling window and the stunning vista of a neon-lit Seoul spread out beyond.

Apartment 21902 is the one closest to that window. Jimin starts at the nondescript door for a long moment. Do the building staff know that Kim Namjoon tortures companions to death here? Probably, and they don’t care. Better to look away, keep your head down, especially over objects meant to die, anyway.

God, his blood is boiling. But he keeps his expression pleasant as he raps on the door and says, “security.”

The door swings open after his third knock, revealing a tall, willowy man with a small face and silver hair. He’s handsome, Jimin supposes. A nice veneer for a monster.

“Is everything alright?” he asks. His voice is deep and almost mellow.

“Good evening, Namjoon-nim,” Jimin says with a polite smile. “Can I come in?”

 

_ _

 

Namjoon makes a point of knowing the face of everyone who works in the building - from the regular security guards, to the cleaning staff, to the maintenance crew. When you participate in so many illegal activities, it’s important to pay attention to the people best positioned to watch you. The man in front of him isn’t someone Namjoon’s ever seen before, even though he’s wearing a familiar uniform. He’s young, with pretty features, and his smile is bright and professional. His small stature is reminiscent of Yoongi, but he has muscle definition in his arms that Yoongi lacks. There isn’t a name tag pinned to the front of his dress shirt and his uniform looks a little too big - maybe he's a substitute guard?

Wary, but seeing no reason to cause a scene, Namjoon steps back and gestures for him to enter the apartment. “Is there a problem?” he asks, as the guard stops a few steps into the foyer. The door clicks shut behind them both, and something about it feels ominous.

He’s only had security in his apartment once before, after his neighbor called insisting that his companion was causing a disturbance. It had been a very young, and very frightened woman, who screamed when Namjoon tried to show her into the guest bedroom, and the guard who showed up had been dismissive of the problem - merely suggested that Namjoon needed to train his companion to be more obedient.

This is different. This man carries himself differently, with an air of danger.

Idiot, he thinks, why did you let him in?

The guard’s eyes flick around the apartment, as though checking for something. Cameras, maybe? Namjoon doesn’t have any installed, but he regrets that choice when the guard suddenly spins to face him and reaches for his gun. Before Namjoon can move to retaliate, his has a pistol pointed directly at the middle of his forehead.

“Only going to be a problem if you make one,” the guard says, his pleasant tone and soft voice contrasting the threat of his words.

Shit. Namjoon forces himself to stay still, not do anything stupid, but his eyes flick unconsciously towards the guest bedroom where Yoongi is asleep, and the guard notices.

“Do you have a companion here?” he asks. “Or is it just you?”

“It’s just me,” Namjoon insists. “I’m in between companions at the moment.”

“I don’t believe you.” The guard glances at the closed door and then back at Namjoon. “Show me that room.”

Stay calm. Stay calm.

“Okay,” Namjoon says, pitching his voice just a little louder in the hopes that Yoongi hears. “But if you’re here to rob me or something, that’s just a guest room. I can give you the code to my safe-”

“The guest room. Now.” He gives Namjoon a shove to get him moving and Namjoon stumbles a step before regaining his balance. His mind is spinning, trying to come up with some kind of plan, any plan, to gain back the upper hand in this situation. He needs to separate the guard from the gun and he has no idea how to accomplish that.

Play along for now, he decides. Wait for an opening of some kind.

He turns the knob of the guest room, glad that Yoongi’s stopped locking it in the last week or so, and throws the door open. The bed is … empty.

“See?” he says, stepping fully in the room so that the guard can enter and have a look for himself. “Just me here.”

The guard’s head turns, examining the bed and the wardrobe, and in Namjoon’s periphery a dark blur darts out from behind the door.

“Drop the gun,” Yoongi says, pressing Namjoon’s kitchen knife against the fragile skin of the guard’s neck. “Now.”

Namjoon expects several potential things to happen next: the guard to shoot him, to elbow Yoongi or try to get him to drop the knife, to maybe even surrender. What he wasn’t anticipating is the man tilting his head and whispering “Yoongi?” like he’s just encountered a ghost. Or for Yoongi’s eyes to widen and him to answer “Jimin?” in the same tone.

“Oh my god,” Jimin says, “oh my god you’re still alive.”

He still hasn’t dropped the gun, but Yoongi lowers the knife now. “You can stop pointing that at him,” he says. Namjoon keeps himself very still as Jimin shakes his head.

“No, no, I-”

Yoongi curls a hand around Jimin’s shoulder and for the first time, Jimin looks very young and very lost in his baggy guard’s uniform. “It’s okay. He won’t hurt us. Put the gun down, Jimin-ah, and tell me what the hell you’re doing here.”

Jimin eyes Namjoon warily, then looks at Yoongi still holding the knife, gaze searching. Namjoon thinks he might be checking for wounds, for any hint of deception. He lingers on Yoongi’s bandaged wrists and the faint bruising around his neck, but slowly, slowly, he lowers his arm, and Namjoon lets out a shaky exhale when Jimin finally holsters the pistol.

“There we go,” Yoongi says and then reaches out to pull Jimin into a tight hug. Jimin clings to him, shock still written all over his face.

“Hyung,” he says, fisting both hands in the back of Yoongi’s sleep shirt. The words crack as his voice pitches towards a sob before recovering. “Hyung, I thought you were dead.”

“I’m okay.” Yoongi presses a kiss to Jimin’s temple, affectionate in the same way he was with Jungkook. “I’m okay, Jimin-ah, I promise. And it’s a long story, but Namjoon’s on our side.”

Jimin pulls back from the hug, frowning. “Our side?”

“Jimin, meet RM,” Yoongi says, nodding his head towards Namjoon. “RM, meet Park Jimin. He ran the smuggling network with me.”

Pieces rapidly click into place. This must be one of the family Yoongi mentioned - who he was hoping would stay far away. So much for that, it seems.

You’re RM?” Jimin asks in disbelief. 

“I am,” Namjoon says.

“And you fucking bought Yoongi?” Jimin continues, his voice starting to ice over again. Namjoon stiffens, half-expecting the gun to make a reappearance.

“And saved my life,” Yoongi cuts in before tensions can escalate further. “But none of that’s important right now. What the fuck are you doing here, Jimin-ah? How did you even get here? Why are you dressed as a security guard? Where the hell are Taehyung and-”

“Hoseok,” Jimin says. “It’s Hoseok.”

Terror unlike any Namjoon’s ever seen before seizes Yoongi’s face. “What? What about Hoseok? What happened?”

“The king put out a search warrant,” Jimin says, small hands curling into fists at his sides. “They’ve been tearing apart the outer sectors and we’ve … we were okay until we ran into a patrol. He got shot.”

Yoongi makes a sound like he’s been punched in the gut.

“He’s dying,” Jimin continues. “He’s dying and I - we can’t get him out of the city, it’s too dangerous. I thought I could force an elite to help. To get him medical care and then I’d figure the nexts steps out but-” he laughs, a shattered sound. “I didn’t really have a plan. I was desperate.”

Another wounded noise escapes Yoong’s throat and he sways, looking ill. But it’s only for a moment. Then the armor comes up and the steel clicks into place and the fighter Namjoon knows is back.

“Where is he?” he asks.

“Sector 5,” Jimin answers. “Tae is with him.”

The crackle of Jimin’s radio interrupts whatever Yoongi was going to say next and a voice Namjoon vaguely recognizes as belonging to another of the security guards says, “hey, kid, you get lost or something?”

“Shit,” Jimin curses. “I faked a call to get up here. He’s going to get suspicious if I’m gone for much longer.”

“What did you do with the owner of this uniform?” Yoongi asks, gesturing to Jimin’s clothes.

“He’s unconscious in a dumpster a few streets over,” Jimin says. “He didn’t see my face.”

“But other guards in this building have,” Yoongi points out and swears under his breath, raking an agitated hand through his hair.

Here, though, Namjoon knows he can be useful. “I’ll make sure they stay quiet,” he says. “And the guard who got assaulted. For now, you should find a way to get out of here and go to this address.” He rattles off Seokjin’s apartment number and the street, figuring that Jimin will be able to memorize it. Retaining information definitely seems like a skill in his arsenal.

“What’s at that address?” Jimin asks, suspicious.

“More help,” Namjoon says. He retrieves his wallet from its usual place near the front door and pulls out handful of won to give to Jimin, who accepts it with a questioning frown. “Take a cab. We’ll meet you there.”

Jimin nods, tension flickering briefly along his jaw. He doesn’t look like he wants to leave Yoongi, which Namjoon can understand, but the clock is ticking.

“How bad is it?” Yoongi asks Jimin.

“Bad,” Jimin murmurs. “He … we haven’t got long.”

Yoongi closes eyes, absorbing that like another blow. “Go, then. Be safe. We’ll see you soon.”

Jimin gives Yoongi one last hug and then heads for the door, flicking on his radio to apologize to the other guard and assure him that he’s on his way back to the desk.

“Fuck,” Yoongi says after the door closes behind Jimin. “ Fuck.”

There is so much grief and fear on his face - like someone has stripped every scrap of armor away and left him raw and bloody and exposed, and there is only one thing strong enough to do that. Namjoon has never heard Hoseok’s name before, but he knows. This is the partner Yoongi talked about in the quiet hours of the night. The one that he admitted to loving.

And now he’s slipping through Yoongi’s fingers.

“I’ll get dressed,” Yoongi says, clearly trying to reassemble himself and put all that iron and steel back into place. “You should call Seokjin. Tell him Jimin’s coming and to get his medical kit ready. We’ll need a plan to get Seok back here - we can’t take him to a hospital, no one would treat a Marked who’s had a run-in with city police-”

“Yoongi,” Namjoon says, stepping forward to take Yoongi’s trembling hand in his own. “We’ll save him.”

“Don’t make promises you can’t fucking keep,” Yoongi snaps at him. “You think death cares about your fucking promises?”

But Namjoon is going to keep this one, even if he has to move heaven and earth to do it. Yoongi’s given him so much, given up so much, and here is one thing that Namjoon can give back to him. All this wealth and power and influence has to be good for something, right?”

“We’ll save him,” he repeats, squeezing Yoongi’s hand. “We’ll save him.”

Yoongi doesn’t believe him, he can see that, but Yoongi is a fighter above everything else, and Yoongi doesn’t just give up, no matter how terrible the odds are, or how impossible the outcome seems. Namjoon has admired that in him from the beginning, even when it resulted in a knife in his shoulder, and he admires the fire burning in Yoongi’s eyes now, hotter than the sun.

“Call Seokjin,” he says and steps back to tug his sleep shirt over his head. His back is a mess of scars - lashes from various whips, burns, scratches, a few cuts that probably predate his companion days - but his shoulders are strong and rigid.

Namjoon goes to call Seokjin, heart hammering in his chest as adrenaline begins to flood his veins.

They have one more Marked to save.

Chapter Text

“Have you ever thought about what we might be capable of? They seal off our powers before they ever have a chance to manifest. They tell us we’re dangerous but they never explain why. Just the Cataclysm, centuries ago. One event - that the decided the rest of our futures. We hear stories of Marks failing, allowing our powers to escape, and all the property destruction that comes with it - but they still never explain. Are they really that afraid of us? It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? They chain us and hurt us and subjugate us, but they’re still afraid.”

- Excerpt from the writings of Suga, underground resistance leader

 



_ _ 

 

It’s easier to get out of the building than Jimin was anticipating. He merely fakes a family emergency, not having to work too hard to sound frantic and out of sorts as he shouts down the radio at Minchul that he’s just gotten word that his grandfather was in an accident and he has to go now. Then he just … leaves. Right out the front door, dumping the radio and the badge at the front desk on his way past, but keeping the gun. Yoongi may be alive, and he may say he trusts Kim Namjoon, but Yoongi had bruises on his throat and marks on his wrists, and Jimin isn’t going to take any chances. He could be walking right into a trap and he wants to be prepared.

Yoongi is alive. That’s the thought his brain keeps looping back to, even as he hails a cab - still in his stolen guard’s uniform - and rattles off the memorized address. He gets an arched eyebrow from the driver and a very judgmental glance at his outfit and glares back in response.

“I’m late for work and my bike broke down,” he snaps. “Do you have a problem?”

The driver shrugs and merges into traffic. The clock on the dash reads nearly nine p.m. Jimin feels like it’s been longer, since the start of all this.

Holy shit, Yoongi’s alive.

Under any other circumstance, he would give in to the tears he can feel burning at his eyes and the sobs coalescing in the back of his throat. He’d allow himself to shake like his hands want to. He’d march back into that apartment building and pry Yoongi from Namjoon’s grasp and never, ever let him go again. But Hoseok is still dying, back in Sector 5, and he needs Jimin to be strong.

(I think you’re the bravest of us, Jimin-ah, Hoseok told him once, an affectionate smile on his face. So determined to keep us safe.

Someone has to, hyung, Jimin said, back then. Eighteen and so determined to be more. Older, stronger, faster - because for the first time in his life he had a proper family, and he wasn’t about to let that be taken from him.

He still won’t.)

He shifts his weight and wills his hands to still. Occupies himself with surreptitiously checking the gun and watching the immaculate city slip by in a blur of lights. Everything here feels pristine and new - so different from the crumbling decay of Sector 10 - and he still can’t wrap his head around it. Around the fact that people can live so differently in the same city, only a few hundred square kilometers apart from each other but in opposite worlds.

He keeps an eye on the clock, too, and seventeen minutes pass before the driver pulls up to the curb outside another high-end apartment building. It looks very much like Namjoon’s, except perhaps even taller - same artful landscaping around the front, though; same glass doors leading into an ornate lobby boasting floors of polished tile and intricate chandeliers and paintings that probably cost a fortune; this one even has what looks like a fountain, holy shit.

He’s not sure how he’s supposed to do this - Namjoon hadn’t mentioned any instructions for getting inside and he really doesn’t want to just march up to the security desk. He pays the driver with the borrowed money and climbs out into the frigid evening. Somewhere during their journey, it started to rain and the drops are near-freezing as they land on his shoulders and sink through the thin fabric of his shirt.

There is a man standing outside the front doors, holding a large umbrella and draped in a long coat. He starts forward as soon as the cab pulls away and it’s hard to see in the dim light, but he’s handsome and every bit as regal as Namjoon. Another elite, then. Jimin stiffens, dropping his hand to rest near the gun.

“Park Jimin-ssi?” the man asks in a pleasant voice, higher than Namjoon’s but authoritative.

“Who are you?” Jimin asks, thrown by being addressed so respectfully.

“Kim Seokjin. Namjoon’s cousin. And resident doctor. Or as close to one as we’re going to get.” He takes another step closer, shielding Jimin from the rain with the umbrella. Standing together like this, Jimin is completely hidden from the view of anyone who might be in the lobby and the sidewalk is nearly deserted.

“Take off the hat,” Seokjin says, “and your shirt. And put this on.” He digs into the deep pocket of his coat and pulls out a crumpled shirt - red and made of silky material. “Hurry.”

Jimin huffs but obeys, tossing the hat into the bushes, followed by the uniform shirt. He has a pretty good idea of what Seokjin’s play is going to be, so he musses up his hair for good measure and leaves the top two buttons of the new shirt undone, showing off his chest. Seokjin hands him a silver scarf to wind around his neck next and he adjusts until it until he gets a nod of approval that his tattoo is completely covered. Then he loops an arm through Seokjin’s and leans into his side.

“You’re a quick-study,” Seokjin mutters under his breath as they start for the doors.

“I guarantee I’m actually better at this than you,” Jimin fires back with a coy smile and allows Seokjin to hold the door open for him.

Inside the lobby, he shoves all his fear and worry out of his head and lets himself go loose and giggly, like he’s drunk. Keeps his head down and stays mostly behind Seokjin, too. The less the guard at the desk sees of him, the better.

“God,” he says when they’re almost to the desk, pitching his voice a little too loud for this hushed space, “I can’t wait for you to fuck me.”

To his credit, Seokjin doesn’t even bat an eye, just sighs and admonishes, “please, for the last time, dear, be more discrete.”

The guard at the desk is predictably looking anywhere but at them and Seokjin leads Jimin straight past, towards the elevators.

“Sir-” the guard calls nervously. He seems young, and very out of his depth. “You need to sign-”

“No, I don’t,” Seokjin says and slaps a handful of won on the desk. “Have a good night.”

The guard stutters, but doesn’t try to stop them as they continue on to the elevators. Jimin keeps himself draped against Seokjin’s chest once they step inside, face tucked away from the cameras. Seokjin pushes the button for the fortieth floor and the elevator begins its rapid, eerily smooth ascent. Neither of them speak, but Seokjin’s hand comes up to pet Jimin’s hair, as casual as if they’ve known each other for years. His fingers are crooked, Jimin notices, and isn’t sure why he feels almost endeared at the sight of this imperfection.

The doors open with a cheerful ding and Seokjin hurries him down the hall, gripping on to his hand now - the umbrella clutched in the other. Jimin has no idea if there are cameras here, so he keeps giggling through Seokjin entering the code into the front door keypad and ushering him inside. As soon as the door clicks shut behind him, he drops the act, straightening his shoulders and turning to face Seokjin.

“Okay, you said you were ‘as close to a doctor as we’re gonna get.’ What exactly does that mean? Are you a licensed medical-”

“...Jimin?”

Jimin freezes at the achingly familiar voice coming from behind him. No. He has to be dreaming now. It would be impossible, wouldn't it? To find Yoongi and Jungkook all in the same night. That kind of luck doesn’t exist in his world.

“Jimin?” the voice repeats, a rasping whisper but still unmistakably Jungkook’s. “Jimin … is that…?”

Jimin takes a deep breath and turns around and … there he is. Somehow, impossibly, here, in Kim Seokjin’s apartment. He’s almost exactly how Jimin remembers him - annoyingly taller, big eyes sparkling, dark hair brushing his forehead, impossibly young and earnest in a way that Jimin never knew how to be. He doesn’t carry himself with the strength and confidence he used to. This isn’t the boy that went up against several armed strangers to protect Taehyung when he was only seventeen. This boy is timid and hunched and clearly scared. There’s a fresh scar near his eyebrow and another in the corner of his mouth and he looks as shocked as Jimin feels.

For over a year, Jimin never allowed himself to truly hope. Not in the way that Taehyung did, or Hoseok, and especially not after their failed rescue attempt - where they got so close but not enough to matter. There was a brief flare when they found out where Yoongi was, but Jungkook? He said his goodbyes privately and then shamefully tried not to think about him again. Because his love hadn’t taken the same shape Taehyung’s did, but it was still fierce and deep and losing Jungkook felt like something vital had been ripped straight from his chest.

And now here is, alive and whole, and it’s almost enough to make Jimin start believing in miracles.

He moves without thought, closing the distance between them in three fast strides, and then Jungkook is in his arms and he’s gasping, trying to get air into his spasming lungs and still fighting the tears that want to fall. He won’t show weakness in front of Kim Seokjin, whom he isn’t close to trusting.

“Kook,” he chokes out, leaning back to cup Jungkook’s cheeks. Unlike Yoongi, there are no obvious wounds on him. He looks healthy - perhaps even more than he did in the outer sectors, soft and well-fed. “Jungkook-ah.”

“Jimin-ssi,” Jungkook whispers, and Jimin hiccups a laugh at the old joke between them.

“Over a year apart and you still refuse to call me hyung?” he teases, wiping at the tears that are slipping down Jungkook’s cheeks.

Jungkook just shakes his head and leans down, pressing their foreheads together. Something is wrong with his voice, Jimin can tell, and doctor or not, if it’s Kim Seokjin’s fault he’ll be paying for it after Hoseok is safe.

“Can’t believe you’re here,” Jungkook murmurs and Jimin coaxes him down further, pressing a kiss to his temple.

He wants to tell Jungkook how much he’s missed him, how relieved he is to see him alive and safe, how Jimin is never going to let go of him again, even if the world burns down around them, but he can feel Seokjin’s eyes on them. All that sentiment will have to wait until they’re somewhere private.

“Love you,” he settles for whispering in Jungkook’s ear. “Love you, Kook-ah.”

Then he steps back, dropping his arms.

“It looks like it’s a night for reunions,” Seokjin remarks lightly.

Jimin positions himself carefully between Jungkook and Seokjin. Seokjin is bigger than him, broad in the shoulders and clearly muscled beneath his patterned shirt, but Jimin doubts Seokjin knows how to fight like he does.

“You’re going to help?” he asks, refusing to acknowledge Seokjin’s earlier remark.  

Seokjin nods. “I’m not officially licensed, but I finished medical school. I know what I’m doing.” He glances at Jungkook, over Jimin’s shoulder, and his expression is far more tender than expected. “We’ll save him.”

Jungkook nods. Signs thank you and presses a hand to Jimin’s back, fingers curling into his shirt. Like he needs an anchor - solid proof that Jimin is real. Jimin could use some of that proof himself so he leans back into the touch.

“Namjoon is on his way,” Seokjin says and moves past them towards the kitchen. “I’ll make us all tea and then we’ll talk about a plan.”

 

_ _

 

Hoseok is dying, Jimin told him and the words won’t leave him alone. The fear in his chest is visceral and nearly all-consuming, because part of what kept him going all these months was a foolish belief that at least Hoseok, Jimin, and Taehyung were safe in Sector 10. At least they would be okay.

But now Jimin is here, fierce and desperate in equal measure, and Hoseok is dying. He lets himself feel the terror one more time, the creeping beginnings of grief, and then he ruthlessly tamps it out. He needs a plan. The best one he’s ever come up with.

“The person who got you papers for me,” he says to Namjoon on the ride over to Seokjin’s, “how quickly could he forge a distribution license?”

Namjoon frowns, brow furrowing. “A few hours, maybe? I’m not sure.”

“Contact him,” Yoongi says, pieces continuing to fall together. “We’re going to need one. It’ll be for you.”

“For me?” Namjoon asks in surprise.

“The hard part isn’t getting into Sector 5,” Yoongi explains. “It’s getting Hoseok back out. We’ll need transportation that can hide him. That’s where you’ll have to come in. It’s too dangerous for Jungkook or I to go. Our trackers and seals make it impossible for us to move between sectors without owners present.”

This is one thing he admires about Kim Namjoon: the way his eyes immediately sharpen in understanding and he draws himself up, already casting off his surprise in favor of determination. The sight of it makes something twist in Yoongi’s stomach that he refuses to examine.

“Okay, so we’re going to use a distribution truck?” Namjoon asks. “Hide them in the back? How do we get one?”

“I know a man who works at the main center in Sector 4,” Yoongi explains. “Jimin can get word to him that you’re coming. Just say the pass phrase and he’ll give one, under the pretense that you’re picking up goods from the factories.”

He pulls up a map of the city in his head, tracing routes from the abandoned part of Sector 5 where he guesses Taehyung will be hiding with Hoseok to the main factories. It would be feasible for Namjoon to stop there first and load up the truck, as if he were on a normal delivery run. Then he could make a detour to pick up Hoseok, Jimin, Taehyung, and Seokjin and hide them with the goods in the back. They’ll have to get through an inspection checkpoint on the way back in, but those usually aren’t too thorough.

Then, they could make another quick stop to transfer everyone into a car before Namjoon goes back to the center and drops the truck off to be unloaded as normal.

It’s harebrained, but it could work.

“You think we can pull this off?” Namjoon asks dubiously.

“We have to,” Yoongi says through gritted teeth.

Namjoon nods and opens his phone, no doubt texting his mysterious contact.

Yoongi bows his head and wills the car to go faster.

 

_ _

 

To Yoongi’s relief, Jimin is waiting for them in Seokjin’s apartment - now half in a guard’s uniform and half in a silky shirt and scarf. He glares at Yoongi accusingly. “You could have warned me about Jungkook.”

“I had other things on my mind,” Yoongi huffs back at him. Jungkook rolls his eyes at both of them and it’s a little surreal, the ways they’re all naturally fitting back together into their old unit, as if they’d never been apart.

“What’s the plan?” Jimin asks him as they all take seats in the living room. “I know you have one.”

“You have a map of the city?” Yoongi asks Seokjin, who retrieves one from his bookcase and spreads it out on the coffee table. “Okay.” He taps a finger against Sector 5. “Hoseok and Taehyung are here.” He traces his finger across to Sector 4, situated next to Sector 5 and also bordering Sector 2. “The distribution center where you’ll pick up the truck is here. Namjoon, you head there first, as soon as you have the license. There’ll be a man waiting there to meet you, goes by Zelo. Refer to him specifically by that codename when you address him, say the pass phrase, and tell him that you’re here for your first shift. He’ll get you a truck.”

He glances over to Jimin, who is clutching the contraband cell phone that Yoongi was hoping he’d managed to sneak in. “I’ve already sent word,” Jimin says. “He’ll be ready.”

Yoongi nods and turns back to the map. “Once you have the truck, you’ll drive to Sector 5,” he traces a line across, through the checkpoint dividing Sector 4 and 5. “You’ll go to whatever factory you’ve been assigned and load up the truck as if you’re doing an actual supply run. Then you’ll head over here,” he draws a circle in the northern corner of the sector, close to the boundary between it and Sector 9. “These are abandoned factories. Send a message to Seokjin to let him know when you arrive. You won’t be able to stay for long in case a patrol comes across you, so move fast. Get Hoseok to the truck and hide him and the others in the back.”

He takes a deep breath and turns his attention to Seokjin. “While Namjoon is getting the truck, you’ll need to take a car and drive to Sector 4. Whatever excuse you can make up at the checkpoints for Sector 2 and 4, do it. Jimin’s forged papers should still hold up, especially if you’re vouching for him. From Sector 4, you’ll need to go on foot to Sector 5 - Jimin knows a way through.”

Jimin nods sharply.

“Once you’re all back in the truck, Namjoon will drive it to Sector 4. You’ll have to pass through a checkpoint, but as long as you’re all hidden from view, the guards shouldn’t check too thoroughly. In Sector 4 is where it’s going to get hard. We have to dump the truck - can’t take into Sector 1 without special authorization, which I don’t think we’ll be able to get on short notice. So we’ll need to transfer Hoseok and Taehyung to your car and make sure they aren’t seen by anyone at the checkpoints. Namjoon can take public transportation back.”

Seokjin hums contemplatively, and Yoongi’s glad that he’s clearly been following along so far. “I would be too nervous to put them in the truck, especially if we’re dealing with bullet wounds. This is already going to be strenuous enough on Hoseok, being transferred so many times. There are some nice stores in Sector 4, I could purchase something they could hide under. A rug perhaps?”

“Whatever you need to do that can also be done fast,” Yoongi agrees, amazed to find that he trusts Seokjin on this - on his ability to both look after Hoseok and find a way to get him safely back to Sector 1.

“Rugs,” Seokjin decides. “That way we have an excuse to use the service elevator in this building and we can roll Hoseok and Taehyung up inside them." 

“Good, do it,” Yoongi agrees.

Namjoon makes a sound in the back of his throat and Yoongi glances at him, gets a look he can’t decipher back. “What?”

“Nothing,” Namjoon says quietly, a little rueful. “I’m just … I understand now. How you ran a smuggling operation.”

“Yoongi-hyung is very good at this,” Jimin agrees and Jungkook nods.

“Not always,” Yoongi mutters, because he wasn’t good enough to save Jungkook or himself from sanctioning. But he’s going to be good enough to save Hoseok - there are no other options.

Namjoon squeezes his shoulder, silent comfort - the kind of touch that Yoongi has come to almost crave from him. It’s worrying, how much he likes it when Namjoon holds him or takes his hand or drapes protectively around him in bed, but he doesn’t know how to shut himself off from it - his body craves positive contact too much.

Seokjin stands up, pulling out his phone. “I know a shop that I’ve been to before. I’ll call them now and tell them to expect me. They’ll stay open for the kind of money I can give them.” He flashes a beatific smile and turns away. Namjoon’s phone buzzes on the table and he scoops it up.

“Jackson says he can have the documents ready in two hours. He’ll drop them in the usual spot.”

Two hours. Not as fast as he was hoping for, but better than nothing. He nods again and looks across the table to Jimin and Jungkook. They’ve squished together on the floor, drawn to each other like magnets. Jungkook has an arm draped over Jimin’s shoulders and Jimin’s hand is curled protectively around Jungkook’s knee. They’ve always been inseparable, them and Taehyung, almost from day one - and he’s more emotional than he expected, seeing two members of his scattered family back together again.

“We’ll save him,” he tells them, because he’s always been strong for them and that isn’t going to stop now.

“Yes,” Jungkook whispers and Jimin nods.

“Whatever it takes,” he agrees.

Yoongi closes his eyes.

Prays.

 

_ _

 

When Seokjin went to medical school, he’d intended to spend his future working in one of the inner sector hospitals, not following a virtual stranger through the shadows of Sector 4, on his way to perform a life-saving rescue on someone dying of bullet wounds. Life is always full of unexpected surprises, isn’t it?

Park Jimin moves like a ghost along the street, his footsteps light and his eyes darting warily down every side-street and alleyway. There are always patrols out, late at night, but so far Jimin’s avoided all of them. The guards at the checkpoints had barely spared him or Jimin a second glance once they handed over their papers, looking tired and cold and more focused on the end of their shifts and returning home. The owners of the rug shop had mostly fawned, expressing their delight at both his choice to conduct business with them again and the generous tip he offered in exchange for them accommodating him. So now there are two massive rugs crammed into the back of his car, which is parked in a lot not far from the distribution center, and he’s dressed in his most inconspicuous clothes, medical bag slung over his shoulder.

“We’re getting close,” Jimin says. Seokjin is ninety percent sure he still has the gun he was sporting earlier concealed beneath his borrowed jacket. “The royal family is so focused on maintaining the integrity of the inner sectors that everything in the middle or outer edges is slowly starting to decay. Only positive side of this is that it leaves a lot of holes in the dividing barriers.”

They round a corner and sure enough, this part of Sector 4 looks far more rundown than the bustling center of it. Nowhere near the level of disrepair he knows the outer sectors have fallen into, but the buildings are old and the pavement beneath their feet is cracked and faded. Jimin leads him down an alley into a side street, then through another alley, and there it is: the division fence. It sits a few meters away from the nearest building, running left and right as far as Seokjin can see. It’s also incredibly imposing -  at least ten feet high, with barbed wire spun across the top. But, after a minute, he spots a conveniently person-sized hole that’s been cut into it where some of the metal has rusted and weakened, partially concealed behind some old construction materials that look like they’ve been abandoned here for at least a decade.

There is one glaring problem, though.

“Jimin-ssi,” he says, “this fence is electric.”

“Yes,” Jimin says, starting towards it.

“You want us to climb through an electric fence?” Seokjin asks, just to be completely clear on this madness.

“Yes,” Jimin says. “Just don’t touch the fence itself and you’ll be fine.”

“And if I do touch the fence?”

“You’ll die, probably.”

He sounds incredibly blasé about this, but he’s probably actually made this journey numerous times. He’s still alive, which is reassuring, but he’s also tiny and compact in a way that Seokjin is decidedly not . Therefore, as Seokjin watches with continued disbelief, he slips through the gap with no problems at all.

“Come on,” he says impatiently from the other side, “we need to keep moving.”

Right. Okay. This is for someone’s life. Someone’s life (other than his) is on the line here and Seokjin may not be an actual medical professional but he still believes in the tenants of it - in doing everything in your power to save what life you can.

So he takes a deep breath and he holds it and he carefully, carefully, carefully maneuvers through the hole in the fence, biting into his cheek hard as he feels buzz of electricity make the hairs on his arms stand up, tastes it like acrid ash against his tongue.

The glance Jimin gives him is almost approving.

Almost.

 "Let's go," he says, picking up a rapid pace again. "We're almost there."

Their surroundings get worse as they continue - buildings gradually moving from rundown to abandoned and decrepit, and then finally giving way to the massive husks of old factories, long ago abandoned. They might be Old World - this city is a patchwork of structures that survived the Cataclysm and ones that were built in the decades, and then centuries after - but Seokjin supposes it doesn't really matter. As long as they don't collapse while he's inside. Jimin heads for one in the back, near what is probably the boundary of Sector 9. It creaks ominously and Seokjin pauses at the threshold, peering suspiciously up at the rusting beams overhead and the ceiling already pockmarked with holes.

 "What are you waiting for?" Jimin asks, impatient.

 "I don't want to die like this," Seokjin says flatly and Jimin huffs at him, actually reaching over to grab his sleeve and pull him inside.

 "You won't. Hoseok and Taehyung have been camped out here for two days. It'll hold for a few more hours."

"Says you," Seokjin gripes but lets himself be led further back into the darkened recesses of the crumbling building. It's freezing in here, vastly different from the relatively controlled temperatures of Sector 1 and his breath hangs in the air in thick puffs.

At least the holes in the ceiling provide enough light for them see and navigate around the rusted shells of ancient equipment. They round a corner and approach what was probably once an office. Jimin stops a meter from the closed door and says, in a loud, clear voice, "it looks like it might snow tomorrow."

 Ah. More pass phrases. Probably a standard in any underground network.

 After a moment, the door handle turns and it opens with an ear-grating screech of old metal to reveal another boy. Probably Park Jimin's age but taller and broader. There's dirt and what looks almost like soot smeared across his face and his hair is tucked beneath a beanie. His clothes practically hang off his thin frame and look worn so thin they can't be providing much protection from the cold. His eyes are sharp and alert, though, and they widen when they land on Jimin.

 "Hey, Tae," Jimin says. "Told you I'd be back."

 "You did," Taehyung agrees in a surprisingly deep voice and then that penetrating gaze is shifting over to him. "Who's this?"

 "Help," Jimin says. "Where's Hoseokie-hyung?"

 Seokjin is half expecting another standoff, like the one he weathered with Jimin, but Taehyung merely steps aside and gestures for them to enter.

There is a pallet in the middle of the cramped space, fashioned from what looks like old equipment and a few blankets. Buried beneath them, only his face and shoulders visible, is Hoseok. Even on first glance, Seokjin can tell he's dangerously close to death. His skin is so pale its almost translucent, stretched against gaunt cheeks, and his lips are blue from the cold. Taehyung's done a good job of trying to keep him warm, but he's still shivering almost uncontrollably. His breathing is shallow and stuttering but he is still breathing, and that's what Seokjin is going to focus on.

He kneels next to the pallet, uncaring about the filthy floor but wincing at the cold that immediately leaches through his pants. "Where was he shot?" he asks Taehyung and Jimin, who take up positions on either side of him.

"Leg," Taehyung says, helping Seokjin peel back the blankets, "and his side. It didn't hit anything vital, but it got close."

Seokjin is a professional (sort of) so he doesn't swear, even though he wants to. Or let on that he's never done emergency surgery in a dilapidated factory on a fugitive and dying Marked. (They might be able to guess that one, though.)

Fortunately, in addition to keeping him warm, Taehyung's also done an excellent job of keeping the wounds bandaged and as clean as possible. As Seokjin works off the layers of clothing, he's relieved to see that there are no signs of infection. The cold probably also helped, working to almost seal off the bullet holes. They still need stitching, though, and disinfecting.

 "Right," Seokjin says, opening up his bag. "I'm going to need you to hold him down."

 

_ _

 

Namjoon doesn't know why he's so nervous. So far, everything has gone relatively smoothly. He'd gone to the restaurant - this time dressed in purposefully plain clothes - and found the distribution license in an envelope in the dumpster out back. This time good luck was  scrawled in the corner instead of a heart. He'd taken the train out to Sector 4 and passed through the checkpoint without issue - the guard even giving a deferential bow when he realized that a member of the Eight was in front of him. From there, it had been a short walk to the distribution center, where he'd met the tall, thin man called Zelo.

He'd recited the pass phrase ( how long until spring, do you think?) and was handed a uniform and pointed in the direction of a truck with instructions to have it back before midnight. Though trucks come and go at all hours, each delivery run is given a time limit to keep things moving.  Which means he has less than three hours to go to the factory, pick up his goods, drive to the abandoned district, pick up Hoseok and the others, return to Sector 4, drop them off, and return the truck as normal.

 Easy. Ha.

He doesn't think he'll be recognized at the Sector 5 checkpoint - he is from a lesser branch of his family, after all, and he doesn't go out much - but he still keeps his provided baseball cap pulled low over his eyes as the guards examine his forged license. His stomach is full of angry butterflies, but Jackson's never let him down in the past, and he wants to trust that it'll be the same now.

Sure enough, the guard hands him back his papers and ushers him through, bidding him goodnight as he goes. He grips the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles bleach white, grateful for the first time that Seokjin forced him to learn how to drive when he was a teenager.

( What's the point? he remembers asking, petulant. We'll never use it.

The point, Seokjin huffed at him, is that you never know when you might.

Like always, he'd been right.)

The factory he's been assigned is fortunately close to the edge of the district, meaning he doesn't have to navigate the maze of buildings to find the right one. He has no idea exactly what the goods are, but the boxes are huge and unwieldy, taking several men to load each one. They still complete the task within fifteen minutes, though, and then Namjoon is handed a sheet to give to his supervisor back at the center and told to be on his way.

Right. Now for the difficult part.

He waits for the right moment to deviate from his set route, turning into the abandoned district along a relatively quiet side street. It's been officially fenced off and condemned but even the fences are crumbling, and he finds that if he gets out and pries some of it away, he can actually drive the whole truck through the gap without much of a problem.

God, this city needs so much help.

Jimin gave him a set of coordinates for which factory they'd be hiding in. It's close to the boundary of Sector 9, far into the abandoned district, and Namjoon holds his breath as he carefully navigates the truck down pot-hole laden roads and past gradually collapsing buildings. He thinks he stops close to the right one, but there's only one way to find out.

It's a big risk, that he's about to take, but none of them had seen a better way to alert the others to his presence without wasting precious time. So he grits his teeth, jaw clenching, and sounds his horn. It echoes almost like thunder in the quiet, dead world around him. But no sirens start and no patrols come running and after a few agonizing minutes, a familiar figure appears at the broken door of the factory.

Jimin.

 Behind him are Seokjin and the boy who must be Taehyung, carrying a body wrapped in blankets.

 Namjoon jumps out of the truck and runs around to the back, throwing it open.

"Hurry," Seokjin says as Jimin clambers up into the truck and begins pushing boxes aside, clearing a small path to the back of the truck. Namjoon hops up beside him and kneels down to loops his arms under Hoseok's. He's as limp as a rag doll, but his chest is still rising and falling and there are fresh bandages peeking out from beneath his ratty clothes. Seokjin holds his legs while Taehyung climbs in and then helps lifts Hoseok all the way into the truck. Hoseok makes a distressed sound when he's jostled but doesn't wake.

"It's gonna be okay, hyung," Taehyung still whispers as they carefully lay Hoseok down in the back. He reaches forward and brushes Hoseok's grimy hair off his forehead. "You'll be okay."

 Namjoon wants to comfort him, but isn't sure how so he just moves aside to let Jimin and Seokjin in, then shifts the boxes to hide them from view.

"Hang on," he tells Seokjin. "I'll make it as fast as I can."

Seokjin nods, most of his attention on Hoseok, and Namjoon sets out to get them all back safe.

 

_ _

 

Taehyung keeps hold of Hoseok's limp hand as the truck rattles and shakes around them. It's cramped in here and pitch black and the stale air is difficult to breathe, but he has hope for the first time in what feels like days. This Seokjin cleaned and stitched up Hoseok's wounds as good as any doctor Taehyung's ever seen, and he was careful doing it. Treated Hoseok like a patient, instead of something expendable. Something to fix because you're being bribed, but you don't actually care if the Marked on your operating table lives or dies.

And then there's what Jimin whispered in his ear as the truck set off: Tae, Yoongi and Jungkook are alive.

Both of them alive. And together. It's more than he could have ever dreamed of. He'd always worried, in spite of his determination, that they'd only be able to save one of them, sacrificing the other in the process. But it seems as though the Universe is apologizing for shitting on them so endlessly in the past year by granting them this one, miraculous thing.

His whole family is going to be back together.

The truck gives a particularly violent lurch and Jimin curses under his breath, steadying himself against Taehyung's shoulder. Taehyung's been trying to keep track of how long they've been moving, but it's almost impossible. Maybe ten minutes? Which means that in another five, they'll be approaching the checkpoint to Sector 4 and their next major hurdle.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, he feels the truck slow to a stop with a drawn-out screech of brakes, and the distant murmur of voices. Namjoon's and two unfamiliar ones, who must be the border guards.

"Quiet now," Seokjin whispers to them. "Don't make a sound."

Footsteps, coming around to the back of the truck. He hears Jimin suck in a soft breath and hold it, feels Seokjin go completely still on his other side. Hoseok, though, is restless in his pained, unconscious state and he shifts on the makeshift bed, a whimper falling from his mouth. Taehyung moves quickly, draping himself over Hoseok’s torso to pin him to the floor and sliding a hand over his mouth.

“Shh,” he murmurs as the back door of the truck opens and light floods in.

Jimin and Seokjin curl closer together, trying to become as small as possible as they huddle behind the boxes. The guards are shining a flashlight into the truck, and Taehyung watches the beam move along the wall above their heads, over the tops of the boxes only centimeters from where they’re hiding. He buries his face in Hoseok’s sweaty neck, lungs burning from the breath he’s holding.

Don’t make a sound, don’t make a sound, don’t make a sound, don’t-

“All clear,” one of the guards says and the door rattles shut again, plunging them back into darkness.

“Oh my god,” Jimin mutters weakly, sitting up. Taehyung lifts himself off Hoseok, petting Hoseok’s hair to soothe him.

“I never want to do this again,” Seokjin mutters and Taehyung agrees, especially since the most difficult part is yet to come.

It arrives quickly, though, less than ten minutes later - when Namjoon parks the truck once more and ushers them out.

“We’re transferring to a car,” Jimin explains to him as they lift Hoseok again. “To get into Sector 1.”

That’s a bit of a surprise. Even though everything about Seokjin screams elite, for some reason Taehyung hadn’t anticipated them going all the way into Sector 1. Jimin must catch his nervous expression before he manages to wipe it off his face, because he murmurs, “it’ll be okay, Tae. I promise.”

What Jimin fails to mention is that “transferring to a car” means rolling Hoseok up in a giant rug and laying him in the backseat, then squishing Taehyung into the trunk. It’s a fairly spacious trunk, but Taehyung’s long limbs still ache as he folds them up to fit and he has to count his breaths when the lid slams closed and he’s back in cramped darkness. He’s never liked confined spaces and he staves off the panic attack he can feel mounting by turning his thoughts to Yoongi and Jungkook.

God, Jungkook.

With all the focus on Yoongi in the past two months, he’d forced Jungkook completely from his mind. Crushed all the what could have beens beneath his heel, because he’s learning when he needs to be practical, when he needs to let go, but now Jungkook is back within his reach again and all the feeling is flooding the inside of his chest like a river breaking free from a dam and refilling a once-empty basin. Taehyung aches to see him, hold him, kiss him - confirm that he’s actually real, actually alive, and not the ghost Taehyung’s been clinging to for over a year.

It’s that desire that keeps him going all the way through the checkpoint of Sector 2 and 1, cheek pressed to the rough mat and teeth sunk into the inside of his cheek to keep himself quiet as he listens to Seokjin talk to the guards up front. Someone raps on the trunk during the second exchange, making him jump and then force himself still again, but doesn’t actually open it and they’re allowed to carry on unhindered.

Eventually, what feels like a decade later, there’s a more familiar tap and the lid opens, revealing a blur of city lights and Jimin’s silhouette. Taehyung gulps in a lungful of fresh air and crawls from the trunk like some kind of swamp creature he’s seen in Old World books - his limbs jellied and unsteady.

“We’re almost there,” Jimin informs him, petting the back of his head. “We just need you to get in the second rug.”

Right. Okay. He can do that.

He lets Jimin lead him over to the rug and lies down against the plush carpet of it. Lets himself be rolled up, head spinning and once again fighting off claustrophobia. He feels it when he’s lifted into a bridal carry, probably by Seokjin, and then they’re moving. The sounds of the city fade as a door closes and then he hears the rumble of what must be the service elevator as it begins its ascent.

More walking, footsteps against the tile of a hallway. The beeping of a code being entered on a keypad, the click of a front door opening, and then he is being lowered to the floor.

“Help me with this,” Jimin’s voice says, muffled, and hands land on the rug, rolling him free from it. As it unfurls, he squints against the sudden rush of light. Someone leans over him, blocking the worst of the glare, and even though his eyesight is still adjusting, he’d know the presence anywhere.

“Jungkook,” he breathes and reaches up, brushing his knuckles against a scarred cheek.

Wet drops land on his face, sliding down his nose. Jungkook is crying.

“Taehyung,” he whispers. “Taehyung.”

Taehyung moves on instinct and over a year of longing and grief, shoving himself up and pulling Jungkook down so he can connect their mouths. Jungkook gasps into the kiss and doesn’t relax like he would have fourteen months ago. When Taehyung pulls back, Jungkook is shaking his head and crying even harder.

“Sorry,” he says. “‘M sorry, I-”

“No,” Taehyung insists, every part of his chest aching. “No, I’m just so glad you’re here. I’ve missed you so much, Kook.” He sits up all the way so he can wrap his arms around Jungkook and this seems to be better - this time Jungkook melts into his embrace, tucking his face in Taehyung’s neck.

“Missed you,” he murmurs, voice raspy, and his arms wind around Taehyung’s skinny waist to pull him closer, until their chests are pressed together and Taehyung almost thinks he can feel the beat of Jungkook’s heart against his own.

He glances over Jungkook’s shoulder to the rest of the room. It’s the fanciest apartment he’s ever laid eyes on - the kind he thought only existed in pictures in the magazines they sometimes sell in Sector 10 - and Hoseok has been unrolled from his rug. Seokjin, Jimin, and the man who drove the truck (did Jimin say his name was Namjoon?) are carrying him into what appears to be a bedroom, with a very anxious Yoongi supervising.

He focuses back on Jungkook, rocking him back and forth as he feels his own tears finally shake loose and slip down his cheeks.

 He doesn’t care what happens after this, he has his family back. And the boy that he loves.

 Right now, that’s all that matters.

 

_ _

 

What comes immediately after is a shower in the fanciest bathroom he’s ever stepped foot in, with actual hot water that doesn’t run out after two minutes, and he sighs as he feels weeks of grime washing from his skin and down the drain. There’s a fresh change of clothes sitting on the counter for him, probably put there by Jungkook, and he marvels at how soft and clean they are as he slips them on.

When he gets back to the kitchen, Yoongi’s at the stove, making ramen. Which is predictable, because Yoongi’s always handled stress by being active and if his hands shake a little while he stirs noodles, Taehyung isn’t about to comment on it. Instead, he merely hugs Yoongi from behind - arms around his waist and chin on Yoongi’s shoulder. Yoongi stiffens at the first moment of contact, but relaxes immediately once he realizes who it is.

“Hi,” he says quietly. “Hoseok’s still out, but Seokjin says he’ll pull through.”

Taehyung makes a relieved noise, though he refused to consider any other outcome but this one. “I tried to find you, hyung,” he says. “Both of you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t.”

“That was never your job,” Yoongi insists. “And it doesn’t matter now. We’ve found each other. You don't need to carry any guilt, Taehyung-ah.”

“And you’re okay?” Taehyung asks. “You and Jungkook?”

Yoongi hesitates and that’s enough of an answer. Regardless of what Jimin sometimes thinks, Taehyung isn’t naive - he knows what being a companion means, knows why Jungkook probably didn’t want to kiss him back, knows why Yoongi flinches at touch.

“Nevermind,” he says, squeezing Yoongi tighter. “You don’t have to tell me.”

“I’m just glad you’re all safe,” Yoongi says. “I don’t want to lose any of you.”

“Me neither,” Taehyung agrees, closing his eyes. “Not any of you.”

Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, Fate will continue to be kind to them.

At least in regards to this.

Chapter Text

“As we mourn my father’s passing, I would also like to offer hope for the future. I know that I am not my father, who was a great and just man, but I will make every effort to both honor his legacy and continue to carry us a people forward into more prosperous lives. Let me prove myself to you in the coming months and years - that I, too, can be a great and just king, one worthy of your loyalty.”

- Excerpt from a speech given by Yi Seojun, Seventh Ruler of the city-state of Seoul, after the death of his father

 

 

_ _ 

 

Hoseok is here. Yoongi almost can’t believe it as he watches the rise and fall of Hoseok’s chest, perched in the chair he dragged from Seokjin’s kitchen to the guest bedroom. He hasn’t woken up yet and might not for a few more hours, according to Seokjin. The last few days have put so much strain on his already wounded body, he’s going to need time to heal. But he’ll have that time now - Yoongi almost lost him without even knowing, but he’s here and alive and …

Yoongi wishes he knew what to feel.

Part of him is elated, so full of joy and relief that he can barely contain it. That part wants to climb onto the bed and hold Hoseok and never let go again. But another part is scared, and that one whispers about the scars on his skin, hidden beneath his clothes; reminds him of the fact that he used to be just Hoseok’s and now he can’t even count the number of people who have fucked him; points out that he’s filthy and Hoseok will take one look at him and see all this ruin and be repulsed. He never wanted Hoseok in this world, never wanted him to truly know. And what happens the next time he goes to a party? The next time he comes back with a swollen mouth and bruises?

He shudders and stands up, wrapping his arms around his middle. He’s not sure what he needs, but he can’t stay in this room any longer so he tamps down on his guilt and slips through the door. It’s late - he’s not sure of the exact hour, but the city lights gleam through the curtains as he approaches the couch where Taehyung and Jimin are curled up, Jungkook cradled between them. His heart swells at the sight of them all together, at the tender way Jimin and Taehyung are both holding Jungkook - providing comfort and protecting him all at once.

It’s Jimin he kneels next to and gently shakes. Jimin’s eyes snap open immediately and latch onto his, a worried question in them.

“It’s okay,” he whispers. “Can you just sit with Hoseok for a little bit?”

He doesn’t want to risk Hoseok waking up alone in a strange place.

“Of course,” Jimin whispers back and carefully untangles himself from Jungkook and Taehyung. Jungkook whines faintly at the loss of warmth against his back and Jimin pets his hair, humming to soothe him. Once he’s settled, Jimin presses a kiss to his cheek and stands, joining Yoongi.

“Hyung?” he asks, gentle, and Yoongi wonders how much Jimin can see, too. Decides he doesn’t really want to know.

“I just need a minute,” he says, unsure how to explain the restlessness churning in his gut and not wanting to expose his fear. He’s always been strong for Jimin and he doesn’t want to stop that now, doesn’t want to crumble. “That’s all, Jimin-ah.”

“Okay.” Jimin shuffles forward and wraps his arms around Yoongi and it’s nice, being held, even briefly. “Let me know if you need anything.”

He promises that he will and watches Jimin disappear into the bedroom. There aren’t many places left to go in the apartment, so he finds himself in the bathroom, quietly shutting the door and climbing into the empty tub. He wraps his arms around his knees and stares at the white marble backsplash, tracing the black swirls that run through it. He hates feeling like this - hates this fear that is gnawing at the inside of his ribcage, hates that he cannot love Hoseok in the uncomplicated way that he did before, hates that so much has been taken from them that they may never get back.

The creak of the door handle turning startles him out of his brooding thoughts and he jerks his head up to see Namjoon’s silhouette hovering hesitantly on the threshold.  Of course. He wonders, sometimes, if Namjoon has a sixth sense when it comes to his emotional distress.

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon whispers. “Jimin said….” he trails off, awkwardly. Shuffles his weight from his left foot to his right and back again - and Yoongi thinks about asking him to leave, but he doesn’t actually want to be alone with his spiraling brain.

“It’s okay,” he says and beckons Namjoon closer.

Namjoon shuts the door, throwing them back into darkness, and crosses over to the tub, sinking down beside it. The distant city lights cast gold lines across his face as he reaches out a hand and cautiously puts it on Yoongi’s knee. Yoongi’s chest feels drawn tight and compressed - bones pushing against his heart and skin too small. The initials on his arm burn with phantom pain, but he shifts to put his hand over Namjoon’s.

“What’s wrong?” Namjoon asks him, gently (gentle, gentle, he’s always so fucking gentle).

Yoongi swallows, not sure if he can put it all into words, not sure where to even start. “I love him,” he says. “I still do, but … I’m not the same. I’m not the person he remembers. I don’t know if I can love him like I used to and I don’t know if he’ll want this me. If he’ll want something - someone so fucking ruined.

“You’re not-” Namjoon immediately starts to protest.

“I can’t even count,” Yoongi cuts him off. “I tried, in the beginning. To remember the number, each person that fucked me, but I stopped after I hit forty. Forty, Namjoon. And that was months ago. I - sometimes there would be twenty in a single fucking night. There are some I’ll never remember because I was unconscious or drugged out of my mind and some that were so - so fucking awful I think my brain just deleted them. I am ruined, don’t pretend like I’m not. You live in this world and you’ve seen it - you think any of us aren’t ruined? Aren’t used up and broken and-”

He trails off, a little shocked to realize that there are tears slipping down his cheeks. His lifts a hand to wipe them angrily away, furious at himself for crying over this. For being so weak.

Fingers touch his cheek, then the soft sleeve of Namjoon’s cotton shirt. Yoongi leans into it, feeling pathetic, but it’s nice when Namjoon’s hand moves to the back of his neck and rubs, soothing.

“Do you know what I thought, when I first met you?” he asks after a moment of silence.

God, Yoongi remembers that night: Namjoon, tall and arrogant, talking about how fun it would be to break him. The bruises and welts on his skin when he opened the robe to let Namjoon appraise his body, and the shame of that, of being on display like an object - something he’s never gotten used to.

He stays silent now and Namjoon’s hand stills but doesn’t leave. “I thought you were a fighter. You had fire in your eyes, even in the middle of all that pain, and I knew you were strong.” Namjoon pauses and Yoongi watches a rueful smile tug at the corner of his mouth. “You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met, Yoongi. I don’t think there’s anything broken about you.”

Yoongi swallows back the sob trying to claw up his throat and squeezes his eyes shut. “This is the only me you know,” he forces out. “You don’t have a … a before to compare it to. He does.”

“If he loves you, it won’t matter,” Namjoon insists. “You’re still you.”

“It isn’t that simple.” Yoongi hiccups and bends forward, resting his forehead on his knees. “Before this he was the only one. The only to - to ever have me and now … I don’t know if I can let him touch me like that again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to give him what I used to and-”

He can feel himself starting to panic and he sucks in a heaving breath, trying to stave off the spiral, fingernails digging into his legs to ground himself.

“Hey,” Namjoon says in concern, “hyung.” He stands up and then he’s climbing into the tub, folding himself around Yoongi like a protective blanket. Yoongi shudders, but he feels safe like this - in Namjoon’s arms - and he’s not sure he can examine what that means. “If he loves you, really loves you, then that won’t matter to him. He’ll figure out a new way to be with you.”

And Yoongi wants to believe Namjoon, rest in the sincerity lacing his voice, but he also has to be practical. “I’m still a companion,” he whispers. “We can’t be together. Not until the coup is over. And in the meantime, he’s going to have to watch other people touch me and treat me like a … a thing. I never wanted him to see that and I don’t know if he’ll be able to bear it. Or if I will.”

Namjoon’s breath ghosts across the back of Yoongi’s neck and he shifts to brush his fingers over the tattoo. This time, he doesn’t try to offer any reassurance or solution. “I’m sorry,” is all he says, genuine grief in his voice.

“A better world,” Yoongi murmurs. Maybe him and Hoseok will have a new place in that one, if Hoseok can accept this damaged and scarred up version of him. For now, he sinks back into Namjoon’s hold, face tucked into Namjoon’s shoulder.

He’s glad, at least, that Namjoon is here. That Namjoon makes him feel safe.

 

_ _

 

Jungkook still worries he might be dreaming. The last twenty-four hours certainly feel like a dream, with Jimin crashing back into his life followed so rapidly by Taehyung and Hoseok. He can’t quite wrap his head around the sight of all of them here, in Seokjin’s fancy apartment. They looked washed out and tired in the light of day and he wonders, briefly, if they’re ghosts. If Taehyung’s knuckles brushing carefully across his cheek are a phantom touch from a better time - what feels like a decade ago instead of merely a year. They were different people, the last time Taehyung touched him. He’s not sure who they are now.

“Hey,” Taehyung says, voice still a still raspy with sleep.

He’s got an imprint on one cheek from the couch and his hair is sticking up on the right side, like it always tends to when he first wakes up. He looks the same, except he doesn’t, too, because there is darkness in his eyes that wasn’t there before, and next to that is fear and exhaustion that even their starving years couldn’t instill. Jungkook wonders if it’s all been caused by his sanctioning, if Taehyung really loves him that much.

It’s a terrifying thought.

“Hey,” he whispers back. His voice is getting better, and he’s glad for that, at least - hates the worry in Taehyung and Jimin’s eyes whenever he tries to talk. He’s never liked worrying them, or any of his family, and he knows now that when Taehyung looks at him, he’s searching for wounds, both physical and not, which is another terrifying thought.

Too much has happened, he thinks helplessly. We don’t fit anymore.

Except Taehyung is pushing Jungkook’s hair off of his forehead like he always used to in the mornings, radiating affectionate warmth. Except that Jungkook’s stomach still twists like it did back then - a rush of longing and love and uncertainty. Except that when he scoots forward on the couch to hug Taehyung again, it feels like long-lost puzzle pieces connecting.

It’s confusing and he wishes he knew what to feel.

“I’m so glad you’re alive,” Taehyung says. “I can’t believe you’re alive.”

Alive … what a strange term. Is he still alive, if it doesn’t feel like all of him has survived?

This isn’t helping, he decides. He needs to do something. He can hear clattering in the kitchen, probably Yoongi again, and he untangles himself from Taehyung. “Breakfast,” he croaks as he stands from the couch. “Okay?”

Taehyung doesn’t push him, or call him out on his distancing act, just nods and accepts the hand that he offers. “Okay,” he says, squeezing and lets Jungkook lead him.

It isn’t Yoongi in the kitchen, but Jimin. And Seokjin, who is mostly hovering nearby with a bemused look on his face.

“This is my kitchen,” he says. “I’m capable of cooking in it.”

“I was up first,” Jimin says, swaying up on his tiptoes to grab a skillet from a hanging rack. There is already what looks like soup simmering on the stove in a large pot.  “And I was hungry.” He shoots Seokjin a dark look. “Besides you’re probably used to people cooking for you, right?”

“I cook for myself,” Seokjin insists, a frown on his face, and Jungkook feels nerves trill down his spine. It’s instinctive, to want to intervene, to soothe any potential anger - and it’s only Taehyung’s hand still clasped in his that keeps him from falling into fawn mode.

A noise still escapes him, and Jimin and Seokjin’s heads whip around. It’s Seokjin that moves first, rounding the counter with a hand outstretched, probably intending to comfort. What Jungkook isn’t anticipating is to be pulled behind Taehyung, who levels Seokjin with a protective glare.

“Don’t touch him.”

Seokjin freezes in the middle of the kitchen, eyes widening slightly. “I’m not going to hurt him,” he says quietly.

“Your initials are on his arm,” Taehyung snaps. “You saved Hobi-hyung, and I’m grateful for that, but you-”

“Taehyung,” Jungkook interjects, forcing the word out as loudly as he can. He doesn’t like this - this assumption that he needs defending. He’s scared, yes, and there are landmines in his head that he seems to keep tripping over, but he’s still capable of looking after himself. That hasn’t changed. “It’s okay.”

He glances to where Jimin is still watching by the stove, an uncertain expression on his face. “He … saved my life. He’s okay. Stop.”

Taehyung and Jimin exchange a long look, having one of their wordless conversations, and then Taehyung steps to the side. “Sorry,” he mutters and Jungkook squeezes his hand in silent thanks.

The tension lessens slightly, after that. Jimin reluctantly asks for Seokjin’s help cooking fish to go with the soup while Jungkook shows Taehyung how to set the table. He’s informed by Jimin that Yoongi is in with Hoseok, who still hasn’t woken up, and Namjoon left to get more groceries. (Taehyung marvels to him, privately, just how much food there is and Jungkook wants to say you get used to it, but that would be a lie. He’s still amazed every time he gets to eat until he’s full.)

When breakfast is almost ready, he slips into the guest bedroom. He hates seeing Hoseok lying so pale and uncharacteristically still on the bed - it feels like looking at a corpse - so he focuses on Yoongi perched in the chair. His head is bowed, spine curved with exhaustion, and he has a hand resting near Hoseok’s on top of the blanket, positioned carefully so that he’s close but not actually touching Hoseok.

“Hyung,” Jungkook says and Yoongi’s head lifts.

“Hey, baby,” he murmurs, and he’s been calling Jungkook that a lot since their reunion - much more than he used to in the outer sectors. Jungkook isn’t sure if it’s the shared trauma or the long separation that’s brought out this sentimental side of Yoongi, but he doesn’t really care. The pet name makes him feel warm and comforted either way.

“Breakfast,” Jungkook says, drifting closer to the bed so he can touch Yoongi’s shoulder. “Hungry?”

“No,” Yoongi says and Jungkook frowns.

You should eat, he signs. Please.

Yoongi sighs, starting to cave, and Jungkook says, “please,” just for good measure - as a finishing blow.

“Okay,” Yoongi relents, standing and rolling the tension out of his shoulders. “Okay, real quick.”

Jungkook squeezes his hand in thanks and then reaches out to gently smooth Hoseok’s hair off his forehead - a silent assurance that they won’t leave him alone for long. He notices that Yoongi copies him, the motion far more cautious than it would have been a year ago, and swallows through the sharp prick in the back of his throat.

They’re all together again, but it doesn’t feel like they quite fit in the same way they used to. He’s scared they may never fit right again. But for now, Yoongi is nodding to him and murmuring, “lead the way, Kook-ah,” and right. One step at a time and step one is breakfast.

He leads Yoongi out the door, closing it gently behind them.

 

_ _

 

He wakes up. He wasn’t expecting that, and he thinks that maybe there actually is an afterlife, just like the matrons at the orphanage used to try to tell him, because he’s blinking up at a white expanse of ceiling above him and he can feel something soft beneath him, and both of those things are impossible. Last he checked, he was bleeding out in a frigid abandoned warehouse - Taehyung’s hand clutched tight in his own and Taehyung’s worried face filling his vision.

So … did he die?

He tries to sit up and groans at the immediate stab of pain radiating out from his side, fuck. Okay, not dead, then. Ouch. His brain feels muddled and sluggish, and he tries to think as he flops back onto the mattress. Gather data, it’s what Yoongi would do.

So, Observation 1: he’s in a room. This is a bed beneath him, a bed, holy shit - no. Focus. Observation 2: someone’s bandaged his wounds. He can feel the faint pull of stitches when he shifts, so he’s received actual medical attention. Observation 3: this isn’t a hospital, though. Far too fancy. That’s a wardrobe made of wood and he’s pretty sure the paintings on the wall cost a fortune. Which means, Observation 4: he’s in the inner sectors, maybe even Sector 1. Observation 5: he’s high up - he can see the expanse of the city in the gap between the curtains. So he must be in an apartment.

He glances frantically down at his wrists, but there are no seals or tattoos. Observation 6: he hasn’t been sanctioned. Officially. Could someone have found him? Decided to sell him off independently? It happens, he knows, and if an elite has enough money they’ll just bribe an auction house to put a Marked on their records, as if they’d been legally sanctioned. That seems like the only logical explanation: a patrol found them in that warehouse and instead of killing them decided to make some money - oh god.

Taehyung.

Hoseok grits his teeth against the pain and hauls himself upright, then to his feet. His leg shrieks in protest and he grips the footboard to keep himself standing. His heart is hammering in his chest and all he can think about is Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung - the last member of his family, his only remaining kid, he can’t let anything happen to him, he can’t.

He’s dressed in soft, loose clothes, and there doesn’t seem to be anything in the room that would make a good weapon. He settles for the lamp from the nightstand, hefting it through the burn in his side that travels down to his leg and back up - setting what feels like his whole body on fire. It doesn’t matter. He needs to find Taehyung and then he can collapse again.

He can hear voices drifting from the main room, but it’s impossible to make out what they’re saying or how many of them there are. Injured to this extent, there aren't any good odds if he needs to fight them. He doesn’t know what else to do, though. Pressing his ear to the door doesn’t provide any further insight into who the voices might belong to. His leg is trembling from the effort of staying on his feet and he can feel that it’s close to giving out. He shifts his grip on the lamp, heart still pounding, and reminds himself to be rational about this. What if he goes out there, ends up in a fight, and they kill him? Or move him? Should he wait for more information? Figure out exactly who has him and where they’ve taken Taehyung, and then plan an escape? That’s what Yoongi would do, he knows that.

But goddamnit, he isn’t Yoongi and he’s so fucking tired of running.

So he lets himself fall against the door - loud enough for it to create an audible thud - and listens as the voices cease and footsteps approach. He backs up a wobbly step and raises the lamp, watching the door handle turn. It’s a man, but that’s all he sees before he swings as hard he can. He feels his stitches tear, blood gush down his side, and his vision whites out from the agony of the reopening wound. Faintly, he hears the person swear and drop to the floor before his own legs give out and he ends up on his back, gasping.

“Seok-ah,” a far, far too familiar voice says, “what the fuck?

Hoseok wants to laugh. Or cry. He’s heard Yoongi in his head for a year and it seems he’s finally gone mad enough (or is close enough to dying a second time) that now he’s hearing him outside of his thoughts, too.

And then Yoongi’s face fills his vision - Yoongi bent over him and frowning, panic in his eyes and a bruise forming on his temple. Holy shit, he’s officially lost it. He’s gone batshit or he’s going to die in the next few seconds and Yoongi’s come to guide him into the afterlife. Either way, it’s so good to see him again that he can feel tears welling up immediately. Yoongi’s eyes widen.

“Oh god,” he says, almost frantic, and then familiar hands are cupping Hoseok’s face, “oh god, hold on, okay? You tore your fucking stitches, you idiot, but you’re gonna be okay. Keep breathing for me, Seok.”

Wow. This hallucination is really intent on keeping him alive - how typical Yoongi.

Yoongi sits up, hands dropping from Hoseok’s face, and bellows “Seokjin!” which is odd - who is Seokjin? Hoseok wonders if he’s going into shock and tries to focus on his breathing, like Yoongi told him to. That seems like the most productive option at the moment, since his brain’s gone off the rails.

(He’s really glad Yoongi is here - that he gets to see even just a hallucination of Yoongi, at the end.)

There is a commotion above him, sounding tinny and distant in his ringing ears, and suddenly a stranger’s face appears next to Yoongi’s. Except he seems … kind of familiar? Where has Hoseok seen him before?

“He tore his stitches,” Yoongi is saying and the-Stranger-Who-Must-Be-Seokjin swears quietly, confirming his status as likely another hallucination - because why else would he respond to Yoongi?

“What did he do?” Seokjin asks, pushing Hoseok’s shirt up.

“Brained me with a lamp,” Yoongi says. “Fuck, I knew I shouldn’t have left him alone.”

“Not your fault,” Seokjin says.

Someone else appears above Seokjin and Hoseok’s brain really must be shutting down now, because he swears that it’s Jungkook.

“JK,” Seokjin says, glancing up at the wide-eyed hallucination wearing Jungkook’s face. “Get my med kit, please. Quickly.”

The hallucination vanishes and Hoseok sucks in another rasping gulp of air. His side is on fire, pain flaring even more when something presses against it, and his leg is a seething mess from just below his knee all the way to his toes.

“Hey,” Yoongi says and the hands are back, fingers stroking along his sweaty, tear-stained cheek, “stay with me, okay?”

Hoseok’s not sure that’s possible - black is already bleeding in - and he licks his lips. Opens his mouth to say I love you, because Yoongi should hear that one more time, even if he’s just a hallucination, but nothing comes out of his parched throat but a weak wheeze. And then the black wrenches him under swift and final and he -

Wakes up.

Same bed, same room, same soft clothes, but the light outside is different - the warm glow of afternoon instead of the pale of early morning - and there is a hand clinging to his own, a head of dark hair resting on the bed next to him.

Yoongi, he thinks, heart stuttering and mind reeling. Yoongi.

He’s still here and now that some of the panic had receded, Hoseok notices that his hair is longer and his face is fuller than the Yoongi of his memories. So does that mean…? He shifts, the bed creaks, and Yoongi’s eyes snap open. He lifts his head from the mattress and Hoseok’s breath catches as he stares into familiar, fathomless brown.

“Am I dead?” he croaks out and Yoongi shakes his head.

“You got close, twice, but no. You’re alive.”

Hoseok lifts a trembling hand to touch Yoongi’s cheek. “And so are you?”

Yoongi’s expression softens, melting into a reflection of all the grief and love and awe Hoseok can feel battering his insides. “Yeah,” he says, laying his hand over Hoseok’s, keeping it pressed to his cheek. “I am.”

“Oh my god,” Hoseok hiccups. “Oh my god, Yoongi.”

“Shh,” Yoongi says, gently pushing him back down to the mattress when he tries to sit up. “Don’t tear your stitches again, please, just-”

Hoseok makes a distressed sound and tugs on Yoongi’s hand because even a chair by the side of the bed is too far away right now, he needs Yoongi closer. As close as possible. Yoongi swallows the rest of his words and complies, climbing onto the bed and laying down carefully next to Hoseok - arm around Hoseok’s waist and forehead pressed to Hoseok’s temple. Hoseok can feel the wet of tears on his skin, but he’s not sure if they belong to him or Yoongi or if it even matters.

“You’re alive,” he whispers, squeezing Yoongi’s hand as tight as he can. “You’re alive.”

“So are you,” Yoongi whispers back. “You scared me so much, Seok.”

Hoseok laughs and it fades into a wheeze as his side protests. His head is spinning with questions - how he ended up here, how Yoongi ended up here, where here is - but one is far more important than the rest.

“Taehyung,” he says. “I was with Taehyung.”

“He’s safe,” Yoongi assures him. Runs his through through Hoseok's hair, which he just now realizes has been washed. “He’s here.”

Hoseok exhales in relief and sags back against the pillows. “And … where’s here?”

Yoongi opens his mouth, but before he can answer the doorknob turns and someone peeks their head into the room. Jimin, Hoseok realizes with a jolt. Jimin is here, too.

“Sorry,” Jimin says, “we were just checking.”

And now he can see Taehyung peeking over Jimin’s shoulder and he manages to prop himself up enough to extend an arm and rasp, “come here.” Two of his kids and Yoongi - this feels like a miracle.

Jimin and Taehyung exchange a glance and then step into the room. Jimin’s hand is clasped in someone else’s, pulling him through the open door, and Hoseok sucks in a sharp breath when he sees exactly who it is.

He … wasn’t hallucinating?

“Jungkook-ah,” he hiccups and tries to sit up, further - barely registers Yoongi shifting to steady him. “Jungkook-ah, is that really you?”

“Hyung,” Jungkook whispers, letting go of Jimin’s hand so that he can rush to the bed. He scrambles onto the mattress, slippers falling to the floor, and then his arms are around Hoseok and Hoseok is being pulled against his chest.

“Careful,” Yoongi cautions, but it isn’t very heartfelt, and Hoseok tucks Jungkook’s face into his neck, holding on for dear life and shaking down to what feels like his bones. His whole family … his whole family is together again.

The bed shifts as Yoongi’s chest presses against his back - Yoongi’s arms reaching around to cradle both him and Jungkook - and Jimin and Taehyung take a spot on either side of them. In the corner of his eye, he can see Jimin pressing a kiss to Jungkook’s head and Taehyung resting his temple against Yoongi’s, eyes closed and tears slipping down his cheeks.

“I can’t believe it,” he murmurs, shifting a hand up to stroke Jimin’s hair. “You’re all here.”

Jimin nods and Jungkook makes an affirmative sound against his skin and fuck, Hoseok isn’t ever going to let a single one of them go again. After another few minutes, though, his side starts aching too badly to ignore and the last thing he wants to do is tear his stitches again so he says, “need to lie back down.”

Their tangle of limbs and bodies shifts. He ends up on his back with Yoongi tucked on one side and Jungkook on the other and Jimin and Taehyung framing them. Yoongi extends an arm across Hoseok’s chest to pet the back of Jungkook’s head, brush fingertips along Jimin’s cheek. He looks like he can’t quite believe any of this, either.

“Missed you,” Jungkook whispers, hand fisted in the loose fabric of Hoseok’s shirt. “Missed you so much, hyung.”

Hoseok blinks back another round of tears and mimics Yoongi, stroking gently through Jungkook’s hair. “I missed you, too, tokki.” He looks up to meet Yoongi’s red-rimmed eyes and wants to kiss him with what feels like every aching fiber in his body, but it will have to wait. There are walls in Yoongi that weren’t there before - he can see them, tall and impenetrable. “Missed you both.”

“None of you are allowed to leave,” Jimin says, pressed up against Jungkook’s back. “We’re never doing this again.”

“No, never,” Taehyung agrees, fervent and teary.

And Hoseok knows it isn’t that simple and the world isn’t that kind, but for now he lets himself sink into the warmth of the family he never thought he’d see again, and drift to sleep.

 

_ _

 

Namjoon has spent the last twenty-four hours sleeping on Seokjin’s couch and trying to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. It’s strange, having this apartment so full of people. Jimin is as prickly as ever, eyeing him and Seokjin warily and probably still armed, but he softens around Jungkook and Taehyung, especially. Taehyung is quiet, almost blank - Namjoon finds it impossible to decipher what he might be thinking - but his eyes are alert and observant, cataloguing them and the apartment and everything happening in a way that’s almost unnerving. Jungkook sticks close to them and Yoongi, but he’s also fallen into the role of something of a peacekeeper. He clearly cares about Seokjin, and is quick to defend him, and that warms Namjoon’s heart, especially knowing how much Seokjin cares right back.

And Hoseok. Well, until now, Hoseok’s been little more than a body in a bed, which is why it’s perhaps the most surreal of all to see him slip into the living room in the middle of the night. He’s limping badly, balancing himself on furniture, but he’s up and moving, which he isn’t supposed to be.

Namjoon clambers off the couch, frowning.

“You shouldn’t be up.”

He’s not sure how Hoseok managed to extract himself without waking Yoongi or any of the others, but they’ve had enough scares in the last day - they don’t need him collapsing again.

Hoseok shrugs and carefully lowers himself into the nearby armchair. “I needed to understand, and Yoongi didn’t want to tell me.”

He glances around the living room and then back at Namjoon, gaze assessing. This is the man that Yoongi loves - Namjoon isn’t sure why that’s his first thought, but it is, rising unbidden. This is the man that Yoongi loves and he seems small and washed out by pain and the silvery light of the city, but he’s strong. Namjoon can feel it in the air, almost, see it in the way he holds himself - he’s every bit the survivor that Yoongi is.

“We thought you were gonna kill Yoongi,” Hoseok continues. “That’s what all the rumors said would happen.”

Namjoon winces. “I’ve … cultivated that reputation on purpose. To avoid suspicion. Seokjin and I - we get companions out of the city, to Busan or Gwangju. Give them fake papers, help them start over.” He’s not sure he should mention the coup, doesn’t know how much of this is his to tell and how much needs to come from Yoongi.

“But Yoongi’s still here,” Hoseok says. “And Jungkook.”

Namjoon nods. “They both … chose to stay.”

Hoseok’s eyes narrow. “Why?”

“They didn’t want to leave you,” Namjoon says, and that isn’t the whole truth, but he figures it’s close enough for now.

Hoseok is quiet for a moment, mulling this over. “And now that we’re here … you’d let them go?”

“Yes.” He would, without hesitation, even though he’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that it would hurt. But he also knows that Yoongi doesn’t want to leave, and he wonders now how Hoseok will take that news. If he’ll be understanding, accepting, or if he’ll be angry.

He supposes it depends on what kind of love is between the two of them.

Hoseok blows out a long breath and sags back against the chair, eyes slipping closed. Namjoon waits while he seems to rally himself, fighting off exhaustion so they can keep talking. “It must have been risky, bringing me and Jimin and Taehyung here - why take that chance?”

“Because it was the right thing to do.”

And maybe that isn’t the whole truth, either. Maybe there are messy parts of Namjoon that he doesn’t want examine - landmines in his ribcage, feelings he isn’t allowed to have - but once again it’s close enough. Namjoon’s a good liar, keeps everything off his face, but Hoseok still laughs in disbelief.

“No one’s that magnanimous.”

“Why is it so impossible? You’ve risked your life because it’s the right thing,” Namjoon points out.

Hoseok huffs. “Yeah, and because I’m angry. And selfish enough to want something better.”

“It was the right thing to do,” Namjoon insists. “Yoongi … Yoongi loves you. I couldn’t let you die.”

Hoseok’s eyes widen slightly and Namjoon curses himself for revealing so much. He hates the curious way that Hoseok is looking at him now, like he’s a puzzle Hoseok is trying to solve, like Hoseok is trying to peel back layer by layer, just like Yoongi at the start of all this. But Hoseok doesn’t push him on it, doesn’t demand answers, just nods slowly.

“Thank you, then,” he says. “For saving my life.”

“Thank Seokjin,” Namjoon deflects, uncomfortable. “And Yoongi. And the others. I just drove a truck.”

“More than any other elite would do,” Hoseok insists.

“That’s a low bar to scale.”

Hoseok laughs again, then winces. “Yeah,” he says grimly. “It really is.”

Silence stretches on long enough to feel heavy and uncomfortable. Namjoon has so many questions boiling on his tongue, but he’s not sure if he’s allowed to ask any of them. At last Hoseok says softly, “you haven’t hurt him.”

It doesn’t sound like a question, but Namjoon still shakes his head. “I would never hurt him.”

“If you did, I’d kill you.” Hoseok says it mildly, almost pleasantly, but Namjoon knows he means it. Knows that if anything happened to Yoongi at this point, and it was his fault, he’d let Hoseok do it without complaint. Which should terrify him, but it doesn’t. There are far worse things for him to focus on.

“I understand,” is all he says now and Hoseok nods at him.

The door to the guest room opens, then, and Yoongi darts out, looking frantic. He freezes when he spots Namjoon on the couch, then his gaze slides over to Hoseok in the armchair. Namjoon can’t read the expression on his face, the one lurking beneath the worry. Fear? Nervousness? Is he afraid of what they might be talking about? Of the secrets they might reveal to each other?

Don’t worry, Namjoon wants to tell him, they’re safe with me.

Everything that Yoongi’s whispered to him in the dark, every vulnerable piece of him that’s been wrenched to the surface against his will - Namjoon will guard it all.

“Seok-ah,” Yoongi says at last, coming over to the armchair to sink fingers into Hoseok’s messy hair. “What the hell are you doing up?”

“I wanted to meet our host,” Hoseok says simply, with a polite smile in Namjoon’s direction.

“Well, you’ve met him,” Yoongi says, glancing at Namjoon before turning his attention quickly back to Hoseok. “Now come the fuck back to bed before you pull your stitches again.”

Hoseok makes a face at him, but it’s affectionate, as is the smile tugging at Yoongi’s lips. Namjoon has never seen Yoongi look at anyone like that.

“C’mon, Seok-ah,” Yoongi says gently, helping Hoseok to his feet.

Hoseok groans softly, fingers digging into Yoongi’s shoulder as he tries not to put too much weight on his bad leg.

“Do you need help?” Namjoon asks, already starting to rise, but Yoongi waves him off.

“I’ve got him, thank you.”

Hoseok glances back and forth between them, that slightly calculating look in his eyes again. But all he says is: “It was nice meeting you, Namjoon-ssi.”

Namjoon watches Yoongi carefully guide Hoseok back into the bedroom, watches the door click shut behind them, and puts a hand over his stomach, wanting to ease the strange churning in his gut. Everything is changing once again, shifting on a new fulcrum, and he hates the unknown future sprawled out before them. That he doesn’t know where they’ll go from here, if Yoongi will cave to Hoseok and leave; if any of them will want to help. There are too many possibilities, too many unpredictable moves on his mental chessboard.

Calm, he tells himself. One step at a time.

There are seven of them now. Who knows what they might be capable of?

Chapter Text

“Raids are increasing across the outer sectors in the wake of the new king’s coronation. He’s really flexing his muscles, isn’t he? We’ve had three in the past week and they don’t look like they’re gonna slow down any time soon. But keep your chins up. We might be easy targets, but we’re not breakable. Look out for each other. Donate ration cards where you can. Network operations are going to continue as regularly as possible. We’ll get through this, and if this is our new normal, then we’ll adapt. It’s what we’ve always done, right?”

- Excerpt from a radio broadcast by revolutionary figure, Hope, one month after the coronation of the new king

 

_ _ 

 

This feels surreal: six people in Seokjin’s living room, spread out on his couch and kitchen chairs and even on the floor. It makes his apartment feel small in a way it never has before, when it was just him in this space. He’s always been solitary by nature and necessity, preferring the safety of his own home even as he got good at playing Sector 1’s elaborate social chess game. Now he feels … suffocated is the first word that comes to mind. Especially because all six pairs of eyes are on him. Yes, he was the one that called this meeting after a long, private discussion with Namjoon and Yoongi - both of them deciding that it was time to share the plan with the larger group. He’s regretting listening to them now.

He should have just let Yoongi handle this.

“I’m sorry,” Park Jimin says imperiously, looking commanding even from his spot on the floor. “I thought you said that you want to kill the king.”

“That is exactly what I said,” Seokjin says and ignores the astonished ripple that runs along the couch from Taehyung to Jungkook to Hoseok and back again. They all glance at Yoongi next - stone-faced in a kitchen chair. Never has it been more clear that he’s the head of their little family.

“But with a slight amendment,” Seokjin  continues and everyone’s gaze shifts back to him. “I’m going to kill the king.”

Hoseok laughs, pure disbelief. Taehyung looks contemplative. Jungkook looks caught somewhere between sheer terror and determined acceptance. And Jimin’s eyes narrow, piercing him like two bullets. Of all the people here, Jimin is the one he knows he needs to truly convince. The one that trusts him the least.

“And do what?” Jimin asks now, biting. “Put yourself on the throne instead?”

“Yes,” Seokjin says, fighting to keep his tone even.

Jimin scoffs. “So one elite for another? How is that any different?”

Seokjin arches an eyebrow. “Well, to start - I’m a much nicer person.”

“You’re still an elite,” Jimin says, curling his small hand into a fist on top of the coffee table. “How do we know you won’t just turn into a tyrant as soon as you’re on the throne? ‘Oh, thanks for your help - now I’m going to publicly execute all of you!’”

“He wouldn’t do that,” Jungkook whispers, shifting nervously on the couch, and Seokjin feels a rush of gratitude and affection towards him.

Jimin shifts his glare to Jungkook. “But how do you know?”

“Because…” Jungkook’s face scrunches in a grimace and his voice fails, trailing off into a weak cough. Seokjin shifts forward, unsure if he should intervene, but Hoseok moves before he can, reaching up to pet Jungkook’s hair and pull him into Hoseok’s side.

“He saved Jungkookie’s life,” Yoongi speaks up for the first time in several minutes, arms crossed over his chest.

“That’s just one life,” Jimin argues. “We’re talking about millions of lives.” He pins Seokjin with a frown. “So tell me: why do you want to be king?”

Well. This is deja vu.

Namjoon and Yoongi yield the floor to him with twin nods of their heads. Jungkook is watching him with big eyes, Hoseok and Taehyung with steely ones, and Jimin’s might as well be spitting fire. He’s starting to think that if he can win these human pillars of stone over, then the rest of the city will be a metaphorical walk in the park.

Ha.

He shifts his weight, listening to the kitchen chair creak underneath him. Tries to sort out words in his head. He’s never been very good at speeches, but he supposes this is important practice - he’s going to need to get better, just in case Namjoon refuses to write ones for him.

“I have a comfortable life, you’re right,” he says. “My parents died when I was young, but my family has always looked after me. Made sure I had enough money, got me a quiet job where I’d stay out of their hair. Pretty much let me do as I please. I have plenty of food and that coffee table’s made of real wood. My closet is full of fancy clothes. But peel all that back - all the gold and the parties and the wealth - and there’s this … this seething mass of poison underneath. I saw it in the boarding houses when I was eighteen and my cousin told me that I could kill a woman there and it wouldn’t matter because she was a sanctioned. At the auction houses where they parade people in front of me like objects. At the parties where they don’t bat an eye at my reputation, just make jokes about the murders I supposedly commit. Because it isn’t rape to them. Or murder. Because a man can beat a boy half to death in a garden in the middle of a party for … for fighting back against someone assaulting him and it’s acceptable.

He digs his fingers into his thigh, surprised at the level of emotion churning in him - bubbling hot just beneath his normally cool surface like molten lava.

“And that makes me angry. Makes me fucking furious. We’re all monsters, every last one of us.” He locks eyes with Jimin, who will burn this city to protect the people he loves. “And I want a better world. One where none of this is okay. Where elite don’t kill their children over a mutation that isn’t their fault. Where there are no Marks or companions or sanctioning. I want to build that world. And I can only do that from a throne.”

A long pause. Seokjin tries not to fidget as he watches them, attempting to pluck clues from their impassive expressions.

“That’s a nice speech,” Hoseok says at last. From the tone of his voice, it’s impossible to tell if he’s offering a serious compliment or not.

“But only a speech,” Jimin says.

Seokjin shrugs. “My words are all I have right now. I’ll tell you the same thing I told Yoongi: if I fail, or it looks like I’m becoming a tyrant, then kill me. I’ll hand you the knife or the gun or whatever tool you want to use.”

“This is the only way, Jimin-ah,” Yoongi chimes in when Jimin opens his mouth, looking ready to offer up a scathing retort. His voice is quiet, serious. But it commands attention. He looks at each of them in turn: Hoseok, Taehyung, Jungkook, Jimin - and his gaze is close to pleading. “This is the only way. If we were to revolt, then we would still have the Eight to contend with and we’re not strong enough for that. Throwing the city into chaos isn’t going to solve anything. But this can. We put a king on the throne who’s on our side and we enact reforms that way.”

“You would still have the Eight to contend with,” Taehyung says, speaking for the first time since all of this started. He taps a random rhythm on his thigh. “They’ll come after you before the king’s blood has even dried.”

Yoong winces. “We’re working on that part.”

Hoseok sits up straighter, using Jungkook’s arm for support. “What do you mean?”

Namjoon has his head bowed, shoulders hunched inward. Seokjin sucks in a breath and holds it, feeling his lungs begin to burn as Yoongi whispers, “I’m good currency. For information. And we think there might other members of the court who are sympathetic, if we can find them.”

All the blood drains from Hoseok’s face. “Currency?” he says and sounds like he’s been shot again. Taehyung makes an equally wounded sound and Jungkook just closes his eyes. Jimin’s are burning, fixed on Namjoon. “Yoongi, what-”

“You know how this works,” Yoongi whispers, staring at his lap instead of looking up at Hoseok’s ashen expression. “Don’t make me spell it out for you.”

“No,” Taehyung says, swaying to his feet. “Hyung.”

“This was your suggestion,” Hoseok says to Namjoon and it’s a furious statement, not a question. Seokjin wonders exactly how he’s going to get this situation back under control before Jimin pulls out the gun that he’s almost sure is hidden under his clothes and shoots either him or Namjoon with it.

“No,” Yoongi interjects, standing. Shoulders back and jaw clenched in defiance - a leader. “It was mine.”

Hoseok looks stunned and then betrayed. “Your suggestion? Why?

“Because I believe in this, Seok-ah,” Yoongi replies. “Because my body’s already … already used up. This is a small sacrifice.”

Hoseok shakes his head. Namjoon hasn’t moved a centimeter; Jungkook’s eyes are still closed and he’s curled up into a ball against Taehyung’s side; Taehyung’s gaze is darting between various distraught faces, even as he puts a comforting arm around Jungkook’s shoulders.

“How can you say that?” Hoseok asks. “You’re not-”

“I am,” Yoongi cuts him off, harsh, and both Taehyung and Hoseok flinch. “And it’s my choice. You don’t get to make it for me. You weren’t even here.”

“I’m here now,” Hoseok argues, still looking like he isn’t sure if he wants to cry or scream or just vomit onto the floor. Seokjin dearly hopes he doesn’t choose that last option. “And no plan is worth you being hurt. Even something like this. You can’t just … just let people do this you in exchange for information.

“Too late,” Yoongi snaps. “You’re too fucking late, Seok-ah, so don’t make protests now. Don’t-”

Namjoon reaches up, not looking at Hoseok, and threads his fingers with Yoongi’s, squeezing tight. And Yoongi … calms. All the fight drains out of him as he squeezes back and leans against Namjoon’s chair. Seokjin watches Taehyung’s gaze turn contemplative, Jimin’s catch on fire again, and Hoseok’s just … freeze. Yoongi might as well have slapped him in the face, Seokjin thinks. Or shot him again.

“Please,” Yoongi says, eyes wet and tired. “Please, Seok-ah, I just got you back. I don’t want to fight with you about this. It’s done already. It’s okay.”

Hoseok shakes his head again, seemingly speechless, and Seokjin claps his hands in the ensuing silence. “Right. Time for a break, everyone take five. Talk amongst yourselves and keep any weapons concealed.” A pointed look at Jimin, who smirks back at him.

Taehyung shifts closer to whisper in Jungkook’s ear while Yoongi lets go of Namjoon’s hand so he can crouch by the sofa with his fingers curled around Hoseok’s knee. Namjoon watches them and Seokjin feels a twinge of sympathy at the kicked puppy expression on his face, even if there’s nothing but trouble and heartbreak down that path. Then, he excuses himself and slips to the balcony, sucking frigid night air into his lungs. He isn’t surprised when the door opens behind him only a few moments later and Jimin joins him, walking right up to the railing and resting his arms on it.

“It looks so pristine from up here,” he says, staring out over their sprawling city - bathed in light from the skyscrapers surrounding them to the distant hills of the outer sectors, slowly giving way to the black of barren earth beyond the walls.

Seokjin hums. “That’s what’s so deceptive about height. Climb up far enough and you can’t really see the world below you.”

Jimin’s mouth curls. “Now you’re talking in metaphors.”

“Maybe.”

A snort. “Don’t bother. It’s just hard to trust that you won’t have the same problem, when you get high enough.”

“That’s the difference between me and the king.” Seokjin mimics Jimin’s pose, folding his arms over the railing and staring at the ground over thirty stories below them. “I’ve had my feet on the ground - he never has.”

Jimin stays quiet long enough to be agonizing. “Yoongi believes in you,” he says when Seokjin is actively considering just fleeing back inside and pretending that this day never happened. “He believes in you enough to….” A broken sound spills from his mouth and his grip on the railing turns white-knuckled.

“Yes,” Seokjin says softly and then shoves the rest of the nervous words back down his throat.

“I don’t.” Jimin turns to look at him properly, and in this moment there are enough cracks in his armor that Seokjin catches glimpses of the fear underneath - vast and and all consuming, like an abyss in the corners of Jimin’s sad smile. “But I would follow Yoongi anywhere. So I’m in.”

Seokjin breathes out, shaky and relieved. “Thank you.”

Jimin just nods and heads back inside without another word. Seokjin takes a moment to collect himself, slot every piece of steel he can back in place. Then, he turns and follows.

The lion’s den awaits.

 

_ _

 

Kill the king. The words echo in Jungkook’s head like city bells. Kill the king. Seokjin wants to kill the king. And once upon a time, Jungkook would have been ready to pick up the knife himself, but that person belongs in another life now. That person died, he thinks, when his first pair of masters forced him into their bed, and he’s buried so deep in the earth that Jungkook will never be able to exhume him again.

Now there is only the churn of fear in the empty expanse where he thinks courage used to be. Courge like the kind he can see in the bow of Yoongi’s head and the unyielding wildfire in his eyes when he looks up at Hoseok, visible even through the black of his grief.

“Please,” he hears Yoongi whisper. Watches Yoongi’s fingers curl desperate over Hoseok’s knee. Yoongi never used to beg for anything, but Jungkook thinks that the Yoongi of Before is buried in the earth, too - that his grave sits right next to Jungkook’s. “Please, Seok-ah, I….”

“You decided to stay,” Hoseok says and he doesn’t move away from Yoongi but he’s stiff beneath his touch. “You chose to join this … whatever this is and stay and you never told me. Never reached out to me. I thought you were dead.” Those last words crack like Hoseok’s ripped them unwilling from the core of him, the very center of the bloody mess of his heart, and it hurts. Hoseok and Yoongi always felt like bedrock to him - a love so unyielding and strong that it could withstand anything. But he was wrong about that, he’s seeing. Like he was about so many things.

“I’m sorry,” Yoongi says, sounding as though Hoseok’s driven a fist into his stomach. More than once. “I’m sorry, I wanted to keep you safe. I didn’t want you to see this. To … to look at me like you are now.”

“How am I looking at you?” Hoseok asks in a hushed, small voice.

“Like you don’t recognize me,” Yoongi whispers and Hoseok flinches, finally pulling away from Yoongi to curl onto the couch. He hisses at the pull of his wounds from the motion and Jungkook wants to reach for him but isn’t sure if he should. Isn’t sure of which side he needs to take on this rapidly widening faultline or if there should be sides at all.

“I don’t recognize you,” Hoseok says.

The pained sound Yoongi makes scrapes bloody furrows into Jungkook’s heart and he stands before he can stop himself, pulling free of Taehyung’s grip. “Help Hobi-hyung,” he murmurs and then goes to Yoongi’s side, gently tugging him to his feet. Namjoon disappeared somewhere, probably to give them privacy, and Jimin’s out on the balcony with Seokjin, so Jungkook takes Yoongi to the safest place he can think of: the guest bedroom, with its lock on the door.

He flips that lock and then gathers Yoongi into his arms. Can feel the tremble of him as he tucks his face against Jungkook’s neck and knows the vicious mantra that’s probably clawing at his mind: filthy, broken, worthless, wrong filthy filthy filthy-

There are things Jungkook could say: you aren’t or he doesn’t understand or I’m here, but all of them seem inadequate and all of them are knotted up in a hopelessly tangled ball somewhere under his tongue. They don’t come when he wants them to, they rarely ever have, so he settles for tilting Yoongi’s chin up and dragging his lips across Yoongi’s temple, down to his cheek. They’re softer with each other than they used to be, but that feels like a small, beautiful consolation for all they’ve endured. So he kisses across the bone of Yoongi’s cheek and then he bends down a little further and kisses Yoongi on the mouth. Maybe it’s wrong, that he can kiss Yoongi so easily and not Taehyung, but there is nothing sexual about this. Nothing romantic, either. He’s never loved Yoongi that way, but he does love him. So much it breaks him, sometimes. And no one kisses them - their mouths are for other things and their bodies aren’t worth this kind of gentleness, so he presses his lips to Yoongi’s in defiance of that, to say all the things he can’t with his voice: you’re valued worthy special loved. Feels Yoongi’s arms tighten around him and Yoongi shift up to meet him, but the kiss stays slow and languid. Relatively chaste, considering everything that Jungkook’s done and had done to him over the last year. Perfect and comforting, nonetheless.

When he pulls back, he doesn’t let Yoongi go far - just moves his lips up to the center of Yoongi’s forehead and lets them linger there, pushing Yoongi’s hair carefully out of the way so that he can touch skin.

“I love you,” he says quietly. “So much, hyung. And I’ll follow you. I believe in this, too. Hobi-hyung just … doesn’t understand. Give him time. This is your choice - he doesn’t get to invalidate it.”

Yoongi hiccups out a stuttering breath and squeezes Jungkook’s waist. “I love you, too, Jungkook-ah. Thank you.”

A knock on the door prevents Jungkook from saying anything further. He shuffles over and flips the lock back, watching as the door creaks open to reveal Taehyung. He looks worried, some of the stony facade that he’s been wearing to face Seokjin chipped away, and Jungkook steps aside to let him go to Yoongi. He does, quickly, and wraps his arms around Yoongi in much the same way Jungkook did.

“It isn’t right,” he says over Yoongi’s shoulder, fierce and shattered.

“No,” Yoongi agrees, eyes slipping closed. “It isn’t.”

“You shouldn’t have to do this.”

“But I do,” Yoongi counters.

Taehyung clutches at the sides of Yoongi’s shirt. “Then I’ll help you. Whatever it takes, hyung. I’m here.”

Yoongi’s face scrunches up like he’s about to cry, but no tears actually come. “Thank you,” he murmurs. “Thank you, Taehyung-ah.”

Jungkook glances out the open door into the living room and sees Hoseok standing near the couch, using the arm of it to support his weight. He blinks back at Jungkook with wet eyes, looking more lost than Jungkook’s ever seen him. And Jungkook knows that this must hurt - to have someone that you love, someone that’s been yours while you’ve been theirs, and suddenly none of that is true anymore. Suddenly, you’re different people. He knows, because he feels it with Taehyung. Because he’s terrified that someday soon, Taehyung will look at him like this, too: without recognition, full of fear and uncertainty. Like Jungkook has became alien, like there is something else wearing Jungkook’s skin.

He’s still Yoongi, he wants to say, but maybe that isn’t true. The Yoongi Hoseok knows is in the earth, gone forever.

The Yoongi of Now brushes past Jungkook on the way out of the guest bedroom, stopping in front of Hoseok with an equally uncertain expression.

“I’m sorry,” Hoseok says and reaches out a hand, runs tentative fingers over Yoongi’s cheek. “I didn’t mean it.”

“You did,” Yoongi counters without anger. “But I understand. We’re different people now, aren’t we, Hoseokie?”

Hoseok doesn’t argue with him, because he’s right. Jungkook can see it in Jimin and Taehyung and Hoseok - all these fresh shadows carved by long months of separation, by grief and loss and the harsh cruelty of survival. All of them are different people, all of them will never be the same again. They can’t go back to that apartment in Sector 10 with the mattress they piled with blankets and the faulty shower and the plant Jungkook was carefully trying to cultivate. But he hopes, desperately, that they can still fit together. That this is still a family.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do if it isn’t.

“We are,” Hoseok says. “But you’ll always matter to me, Yoongi. And if you believe in this - if you think we can do this … then I’m in. Of course I’m in.” He laughs, broken and wet. “I’d follow you anywhere.”

“Thank you,” Yoongi breathes and shifts forward to fully hug Hoseok. Jungkook thinks it’s the most the two of them have touched since they brought Hoseok here. Hoseok presses a hesitant kiss to Yoongi’s clothed shoulder and Yoongi’s fingers gather fistfuls of Hoseok’s loose shirt, and it’s a long time before they step apart to smile tearfully at each other.

Jungkook feels something in his chest expand in relief at the sight of that, a band of anxiety loosening. They’re a family, even if all the fault lines are still visible.

 

_ _

 

Seokjin declares that they all need a breather and they’ll reconvene this little tribunal tomorrow to discuss plans for the seven of them moving forward. Jimin is glad for a chance to catch his breath - find his feet in this new and uncharted world they’ve been suddenly submerged in. Hoseok hobbles back to the bedroom with Jungkook’s help and Taehyung follows after squeezing Jimin’s hand in a silent we’ll talk later. Namjoon and Seokjin also exchange a wordless conversation of their own - one that results in them retreating to the other side of the apartment, towards what has to be Seokjin’s bedroom. But not before Namjoon stops to talk to Yoongi. Jimin watches the way that he puts a hand on Yoongi’s shoulder and the way that Yoongi leans into the touch, tilts his head so Namjoon can murmur in his ear. He watches and feels … conflicted. An angry, terrified part of him wants to march over there and tear them apart - make sure that Namjoon can never put his hands on Yoongi again - but another part acknowledges the gentleness with which Namjoon treats Yoongi. How Yoongi seems comforted by it - like Namjoon is a rock in the middle of a storm. It doesn’t make sense, but so many things feel that way right now.

So he does nothing. Holds himself back until Namjoon is gone and he can follow Yoongi back out to the balcony, just like he did with Seokjin (who has so many pretty words, but Jimin’s never fallen for those) what feels likes only minutes ago. Or years?

“Sometimes I imagine I can see our apartment from here,” Yoongi says, gaze on the distant hills of the outer sectors. “Even though that’s stupid.” He sinks down against the glass windows, legs splayed out in from of him, and looks so exhausted that it aches. Jimin wishes he could reach inside and pull out everything in Yoongi that is hurting - every drop of poison and darkness and blood.

“It isn’t stupid,” he says, also sitting. He feels ridiculous in these loose, too-big clothes from Seokjin’s closet that feel too soft and expensive against his skin. “I miss it, too. It was home.”

“What do you think?” Yoongi asks, cautious in a way that Jimin isn’t used to. “About what I’m doing?”

“I hate it,” he replies, because they’ve never lied to each other. “I want to burn this sector to the ground - everyone who thinks it’s okay to treat you like … like currency. But I understand, too. Why you made this choice. We have to play the game to win, don’t we?”

Yoongi laughs, a wet sound, and wipes a hand across his face. “Yeah, we do.”

“We’ve always been alike,” Jimin continues, reaching out to take Yoongi’s hand and thread their fingers together. “Haven’t we? We’re pragmatic so that other people can hope. If it were me, I’d do the same thing.”

And he already has plans forming in his head, churning in the back of his thoughts.

“Sometimes I think I taught you too well,” Yoongi murmurs, looking at Jimin sadly.

Jimin smiles. Squeezes Yoongi’s hand. “No, I’ve been like this since I was a kid, remember? You and Hoseokie-hyung and Jungkook - you taught me how to love. And Hoseok still loves you. More than anything. You just need to give him time.”  

“God,” Yoongi mutters. “Stop just saying shit like that.”

“Not a chance,” Jimin fires back. “Get used to it.” Then he pauses, playing with Yoongi’s fingers, turning his hand over. He has little scars across his knuckles that are old and one across his palm that’s new. Abrasions on his wrist that will never completely fade. Jimin can see the outlines of where ropes have been tied, over and over and over again - visible even beneath the black ink of the seal.

“Just … we’re here now,” Jimin continues. “All of us. Please remember that. You’re not alone anymore.”

Yoongi shifts to rest his head against Jimin’s. “I know. I just don’t want any of you to get hurt.”

“The feeling’s mutual,” Jimin says. Hesitates, because he hasn’t wanted to bring this up, but he thinks it’s unavoidable. “What about Jungkook? Is he-?”

“No,” Yoongi says immediately. “ No. I won’t … that isn’t happening.” It sounds more like that can’t happen with the desperation lacing Yoongi’s voice. “He’s suffered enough.” Yoongi drops into a whisper. “He’s still just a kid and he’s suffered enough.”

What about you? Jimin doesn’t ask because he knows what Yoongi’s answer would be: the same as Jimin’s own, if their positions were reversed.

“Good,” he says instead. Bites his lip. “What about me, then?”

“What?” Yoongi asks, straightening in alarm.

“What if I went in with you,” Jimin says, because this is part of the plan that’s been formulating - one small piece of it. “As a companion.”

“No,” Yoongi snaps predictably.

“Just listen to me.” Jimin turns so that he’s facing Yoongi, their knees touching. “Listen, hyung, okay? Not a real companion. Not one that would be traded, but … the elite treat you - us - like objects, right? That means they ignore us. People talk in front of a potted plant and don’t think anything of it, and I’m sure it’s the same for Marked. So all kinds of information is just waiting to be eavesdropped on. Or shared from other companions.”

“Companions are usually forbidden from talking to each other,” Yoongi says, but his tone has turned contemplative. Jimin can see the gears turning. “At least in theory.”

“Are they ever left alone?”

“Sometimes. If their master decides they want other entertainment for the evening. Not everyone likes to make use of us - sometimes we’re literally just there as a pretty decoration.”

“So I’ll be a pretty decoration. Seokjin’s. He’s going to need to enter the playing field soon, isn’t he? He won’t have to loan me out to anyone. I’ll just … make connections. Eavesdrop. I might not get as much information as you, but I’d still be useful. And it would keep Jungkook safe.”

It makes sense to him. He’s good at this - at subterfuge and deception and sleight of hand. At donning a dozen different masks and moulding himself to them. It’s why Yoongi chose him as a successor, entrusted the network to him. Jungkook is smart and capable and strong but he cannot lie in the same way Jimin can.

And Yoongi sees all of that, Jimin knows, but his expression bleeds sadness and uncertainty. “It’s such a horrible world,” he says. “It’s a horrible world, Jimin-ah. I never wanted you to see it. Or … or me in it.”

Jimin cups Yoongi’s face. “I know it is. That’s why you shouldn’t be alone in it. You think seeing you there is going to make me love you less? Sorry, but you’re stuck with me, hyung. I’m here for life. We all are. So let me help you. I’ve never cared about the danger. I wouldn't be here if I did. And if you think we have a chance at this, then I’ll fight with you until we win or we can’t fight anymore. I thought you knew that.”

Yoongi’s eyes gleam, reflecting the city lights. It’s cold, Jimin can feel it starting to numb his mouth and hands, but the prinpick of it in his lungs is invigorating.

“I told you not to just say shit like that,” Yoongi grumbles and Jimin leans forward to kiss him on the cheek.

“And I told you to deal with it.”

“Brat.”

“You love me.”

Yoongi softens. “I do.”

“I love you, too, hyung,” Jimin says. “We’ll survive. We have so far.”

"Yeah.” Yoongi stands with a faint groan and extends a hand to help Jimin up. “For now, let’s get some sleep.”

Sleep. Sleep sounds good. He hasn’t been doing much of it for a long time, even on Seokjin’s too-soft guest bed and too-soft couch - worry over Hoseok and the future keeping him up into the small hours, writing imaginary plans on the ceiling until his mind was spinning and sick. The same thing will probably happen tonight, but Jimin is certainly happy to try to get a decent rest, at least.

“Yes,” he agrees, threading his fingers with Yoongi’s. “Sleep sounds good.”

 

_ _

 

“Well,” Seokjin says, seated on the end of his bed. He loosens the collar of his shirt and then ruffles his hair, looking a bit more like the cousin that Namjoon has known his whole life, instead of the starched and perfect version Seokjin always presents to other people. “That could have gone better. Or worse.”

“Do you think they’ll help?” Namjoon asks from his spot in Seokjin’s desk chair, long legs folded under him.

“Yes,” Seokjin answers without hesitation. “They believe in Yoongi, even if they trust us about as far as they can throw us.”

Namjoon hopes that Yoongi trusts him a little more than that, after all this time, but it’s hard to know for certain, especially now that Yoongi’s real family is in the picture - protective and sharp and loving all in equal measure.

“Do you really think we can do this?” Seokjin asks suddenly and Namjoon starts. It’s rare, seeing vulnerability like this - Seokjin exposing his tender underbelly, even around Namjoon who knows him best.

“Yes,” he says honestly. “Or well, I hope we can. I’ve always clung to hope.”

Seokjin smiles at him, affectionate and tinged with sadness. “You’ve always been such an idealist, Namjoon-ah.”

“One of us has to be,” Namjoon quips even as something sharp slides between his ribs - knowledge, shaped like a knife, that Seokjin may not last long on the throne. That a part of Seokjin he doesn’t address isn’t planning on lasting long.

“Yes,” Seokjin says. “I guess you’re right.”

“Do you remember when all this started?” Namjoon asks, wanting to think about something other than their yawning and uncertain future.

This time, Seokjin’s laugh is a little more genuine - louder and squeakier. “You were crying.”

“That wasn’t the detail I wanted you to focus on,” Namjoon gripes.

“You were eighteen,” Seokjin continues, ignoring him. “And you came to me after the boarding house. Crying. I’d never seen you cry like that before.”

“And you told me, after I’d spilled my guts to you about how horrible the whole experience was, well do you want to do something about it?”

He can almost feel the old weight of Seokjin’s hand on his shoulder, the scrape of the cloth soothing away his tears - see the uncharacteristic seriousness in Seokjin’s expression, hear the unyielding steel in his voice. It had been a precipice, a fulcrum, but Namjoon had known instantly that he wanted to fall.

“I didn’t expect you to say yes,” Seokjin says with another, quieter laugh. “You were just a kid.”

“I was eighteen,” Namjoon points out.

“Still a kid.”

“I’m only two years younger than you.”

“Still a kid.”

“Shut up.”

Seokjin leans over and ruffles his hair, just to be obnoxious, a rare grin on his face. It fades quickly, though, replaced with something more tender. “I’m glad.. That you said yes. I wouldn’t have made it this far without you.”

“We’re going to go further,” Namjoon insists. “Especially now that we have them.”

“Yes,” Seokjin muses, glancing at his closed bedroom door. “Provided that they don’t just kill us.”

“They won’t.” Of that, at least, he’s certain. “They’ll be a good asset. We’ll stand an even better chance now.”

“Yah,” Seokjin says and flicks him on the forehead. “I can hear the wheels turning in there. Enough speculation for tonight. Put away your plans and your big brain and get some sleep.”

Namjoon huffs, swatting Seokjin’s hand away. “I’ll sleep if you sleep. Instead of just pacing or getting up when you think I’m asleep and sitting alone in the dark.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I sleep perfectly. Every night.”

“Sure you do.” But Namjoon leaves the pending argument there, before it can fully form. They rarely fight, him and Seokjin, but when they have it’s gotten ugly. Led to long, painful periods of silence and chasms they had to build bridges over until they closed.

So instead, Namjoon watches Seokjin retreat into the bathroom to get ready for bed and tips his head back, staring up at the patterned ceiling. Trying not to think.

 

_ _

 

They recovene in the living room the next morning, and Seokjin thinks they all must look at least at little ridiculous, for how over-serious the atmosphere feels - the tension on almost every facial expression. The fact that they’re in nearly the exact same positions as before only adds to the strangeness: him at the front, Jimin on the floor, Taehyung, Jungkook, and Hoseok on the couch, and Namjoon and Yoongi off to the side like a weird peanut gallery.

“So,” he says into the tense silence, clapping his hands together for emphasis. “Now that we’ve all presumably gotten a decent night sleep, how is everyone feeling about the Plan?”

“That’s a very nice word for coup d’etat,” Taehyung says. Again, it’s nearly impossible to tell if he’s being sincere or not. Seokjin might need to get better at reading people - or rather, people who aren’t elite.

“I thought so,” he says. “Nice and vague. Less treasonous. So?”

“I’m in,” Jimin says, backing it up with a firm nod.

“In,” Taehyung agrees.

“In,” Jungkook whispers - a lot of determination in his big eyes.

“In,” Hoseok says with a furtive glance towards Yoongi. Yoongi’s mouth twitches in a tired answering smile.

“And I know you two are in, no need to contribute,” Seokjin says to Namjoon and Yoongi, ignoring Namjoon’s snort. “Excellent, I’m glad it’s unanimous.” Another clap and he segues right into the important part of the meeting, why they’re all here - scattered across Seokjin’s living room like impervious statues. “So, the Plan. Right now, our target isn’t actually the king. It’s the Eight. We need allies amongst them if we’re going to pull this off and not get immediately assassinated after. There are rumors, of elite children who have the mutation and have survived into adulthood, like Namjoon.” A startled murmur rises from the couch section and ah, they might have forgotten to mention that part amidst all the emotional chaos of the last few days. Well, they’re aware now, and he’s sure Namjoon will provide test results if anyone still has doubts, so he just soldiers on.

“They’re going to be our first target. If we can get some of them on our side, they might be able to sway their families. Or take control of them. And we also need to work our way closer to the inner circle. Namjoon and I have been on the fringes for a long time - we’ll need to cultivate social favor if we’re even going to get close to the king. Therefore, those are our three main missions: information, allies, and social currency.”

“Sounds fairly straightforward,” Jimin says.

Sounds being the operative word,” Taehyung chimes in.

“I’d like to point out that there are seven of us now,” Seokjin interjects and he can feel the electricity rising, crackling through the room.

They’ve all been rebels for years, in one form or another, and he can tell they’re ready to fight - read it in the set of their shoulders and the blaze in each pair of eyes gazing back at him. He leans forward, meets each pair of eyes in turn, and lets a smile creep slow across his face.”

“So let’s get started.”

 

Chapter Text

“The source of their abilities remains unknown, lost to the Old World. When did the mutation start? Centuries before the Calamity? Decades? A generation? Two? These are questions that may never be answered. Perhaps, they are not truly important. What does it matter when these terrifying powers evolved? The focus should be on the damage they wrought. Canyons carved into the earth and quakes on ocean floors that flooded whole continents. At the hands of the powerful, the Old World died. And only because the Marked now remain subdued does our current world continue to live.” 

- Excerpt from The Calamity, about the end of the Old World 

 

 

_ _ 

 

It’s snowing outside, soft flurries that look like they’re going to melt as soon as they touch the pristine buildings of Sector 1. Nothing like the drifts that pile up in the hills of the outer sectors, shutting down buses and accumulating on apartment floors because of broken windows. It’s strange, watching the snow while warm and safe indoors. 

A lot of things about Sector 1 are strange to Taehyung. 

This apartment feels both too big and too small, and he’s afraid to touch anything because it all looks expensive and so clean. The temperature is always perfect and the fridge is full of so much food that he’s opened the door twice to just stare in disbelief — rage sitting somewhere low in his stomach that the elite eat so well when hundreds are starving in Sector 10. 

And then there are the others. In the last two days, Namjoon and Seokjin have hovered on the edges of every room they’re in like restless ghosts. Yoongi and Hoseok are ships passing in the night, suddenly unsure of how to speak to each other — like they’ve become unmoored and are drifting further and further apart on a dark sea. Jimin watches everything like Jimin always does: eyes sharp and brain calculating. Assessing openings and weaknesses and escape routes and fault lines and shadows. Jimin has always been a bit of dark and seething creature in ways that Taehyung couldn’t understand until they lost Jungkook and Yoongi. Now he thinks that same darkness has coiled up inside of him, too, just waiting to strike. 

It’s here now, watching Jimin pace the length of Seokjin’s guest bedroom — snow still falling picturesque beyond the large window. Jungkook stands with his back to the window and his arms crossed over his chest. Taehyung traces the tense curve of his jaw and the furrow of his brow — old, familiar anger that Taehyung wasn’t sure he’d see again. 

“I don’t like this,” Jungkook says in his whispery voice. It’s still laced with fire. 

“I know you don’t.” Jimin turns on his heel near the wardrobe and starts back towards the bed in his continuous line. “But it’s the best option, Kook.” 

“No it isn't,” Jungkook snaps. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.” 

“I do,” Jimin says stubbornly, stopping to frown at Jungkook.

“You don’t.” Jungkook is practically trembling. 

Taehyung bites his lip, trying to decide if he should intervene and whose side he needs to be on. He shares Jungkook’s anger. When Jimin told them that he wanted to become a companion in order to gather intel at parties, Taehyung wanted to grab him and shake sense into both him and Yoongi for encouraging this idea. But he can also see the practicality of it. Why Yoongi agreed and why Jimin suggested it in the first place. He’s good at this, in a way no one else except maybe Yoongi is, and he could be invaluable to this little revolution of theirs. 

But he could also be so terribly, horribly hurt. 

“I-” Jimin starts. 

You don’t,” Jungkook repeats, voice rising. He coughs immediately after, massaging his throat. Jimin’s stubborn expression collapses towards concern, but Jungkook just takes a deep breath and continues talking, softer than before. “A man choked me, at a party. Held me down while he was fucking me and choked me until I started to pass out. I-” another cough, another slow breath. “I fought back and I was punished for it. That’s how Seokjin found me. But do you want more? At another party they drugged me so I could barely move, tied me up in a room, and let guests come in and do whatever they wanted. They liked … liked making me scream. Or another party, I was given to one elite all night and he was so rough with me I could barely walk when he was done. He made me bleed. They had to get a doctor because I had internal damage and…” 

Jungkook wheezes, voice starting to fail. Taehyung rushes to his side, focusing on wrapping a soothing arm around his shoulders instead of the horrific mental images playing in his head. Jimin’s face is ashen, a study in rage and grief and heartbreak. 

“You don’t know,” Jungkook whispers, leaning into Taehyung’s side. “You don’t.” 

“I’m sorry,” Jimin whispers back. He takes a careful step closer, then another until he can rock up on his tiptoes and cup Jungkook’s face. “You’re right, but I still have to do this. It’s the best way.” 

Jungkook shakes his head. “It should be me-” 

“No,” Taehyung blurts, cutting Jungkook off. 

Jungkook frowns at him. “I’ve lived in this world. I know it — like Yoongi-hyung said this wouldn’t be anything that I haven’t dealt with before.” 

“You shouldn’t have to deal with it again,” Taehyung insists, fingers digging instinctively into the fabric of Jungkook’s shirt. 

“And it isn’t about being a companion,” Jimin adds. “It’s about being a spy. And I’m sorry, Jungkookie, but we both know I’m the better spy.” 

His lips twitch, aiming for levity, but it’s fleeting. Jungkook blows out a long breath and puts a hand on Jimin’s shoulder, squeezing tight. 

“Just promise me,” he says soft, “that you’ll be careful, hyung.” 

“I promise,” Jimin replies immediately and shifts to hug Jungkook — arms wrapping around Taehyung, as well, drawing them all into a close tangle of limbs. 

“I don’t want anything to happen to either of you,” Jungkook whispers, voice a tired croak. Taehyung takes a gamble and kisses him on the temple while Jimin hugs him tighter. 

“Nothing will,” he says and it’s a blind declaration, even a foolish one, considering everything that’s already happened to them. But Taehyung understand Jimin’s desire to protect Jungkook. He’s still their youngest, in spite of how much they’ve changed in the last year, and they will always try to shield him from the crush of the future — from the worst of their lives, as silly as that is. 

Instincts are hard to change. 

Jungkook straightens, determination pushing aside the fear but not the hints of grief. “Then we need to get you ready.” 

Taehyung lets go of him, swallowing down his protests. He’d been hoping to talk to Jungkook — clear some of the air between them before they commit themselves wholly to this coup — but it can wait, he decides. 

For now, he’ll talk to Namjoon and Yoongi. 

They’re easy enough to locate: seated together in the living room, talking in low voices. Hoseok has been forced back into bed by Yoongi’s worry and paranoia over his injuries. And after Seokjin gave him tea laced with a sleeping agent and painkillers, he sunk into blissful sleep and hasn’t woken in the last few hours. According to Seokjin, he’ll sleep for a few more. Taehyung still checks on him before continuing on his mission — his fear impossible to shake even now that they’re in a safe environment with a semi-medical professional. He’s spent days checking Hoseok’s breathing every handful of minutes, so terrified that he wouldn’t find a heartbeat and Hoseok had slipped away without him realizing it. 

But Hoseok’s chest is rising and falling softly now — his face turned into the pillow and his messy hair in his eyes. He looks peaceful, which he hasn’t been since Yoongi and Jungkook were taken. Taehyung pets his head gently then creeps back out of the room, closing the door softly behind him. 

Yoongi and Namjoon are still talking, but they stop when Taehyung takes a seat on the sofa next to Yoongi. He can tell that Namjoon doesn’t know what to make of him, and there’s some satisfaction in that: watching this poised elite fidget like a nervous child in the orphanages, blinking at Taehyung like he’s trying to solve a challenging puzzle. 

He won’t succeed — not unless Taehyung wants him to. He’s never really considered himself that complicated or puzzling, especially with his heart so close to the surface of him, ready to project emotions all over his face at any given moment. But he knows how to wear masks, just like any Marked in the Outer Sectors, and right now he keeps his impassive one firmly fixed into place. 

“I need a computer,” he says to Namjoon. “With a network connection and encryption software. Also, the name of the contact who gets you fake papers.” 

Namjoon blinks. “I’m sorry?” 

Taehyung taps his fingers against his leg, impatience rising. “A computer,” he repeats. “Encryption software. And your contact.” 

“Why?” 

The weight of Yoongi’s questioning gaze is heavy, but Taehyung ignores it. He doesn’t want to explain this to Yoongi until he’s certain. Right now, he’s just chasing rumors and whispers he’s picked up through his various channels in the Outer Sectors — that there are secrets about the Old World at the heart of Sector 1 if you know where to look for them, and the best place to start is the Seoul Institute. It used to exist in the Old World, the rumors go, and it survived the Cataclysm, coming under the jurisdiction of the the new monarchy in the immediate aftermath. Though it claims to be invested in professional research to “improve the quality of life in Seoul,” there is more lurking under the surface that it keeps hidden from the public. It was a branch of the Institute that developed the suppression of Marked powers and the nanotechnology in seals for companions. And if the whispers are true, they’re also sitting on a treasure trove of Old World secrets — things the monarchy doesn’t want the public to know. 

Taehyung’s wanted to go digging for years, to find answers to the mystery of his existence and this unknown power sleeping inside of him, and now he’s finally close enough for a chance.

“I’ll tell you if I find anything,” he says to Namjoon, glancing at Yoongi too. “Trust me.” 

Yoongi frowns, but he doesn’t argue. Just looks at Namjoon and nods. 

And apparently that’s enough for Namjoon, who returns the nod and says, “okay, Taehyung-ssi. I’ll have a computer for you in a few days and I’ll reach out to my contact about papers for whatever you need.” 

“Thank you,” Taehyung says — wheels already turning in his mind. 

 

_ _ 

 

“Absolutely not,” Seokjin says and Jungkook feels a strange sense of deja vu, watching Jimin jut out his chin defiantly and straighten his spine to make himself seem taller. Seokjin is him only a few hours ago and now he’s Taehyung, playing the role of observer to a verbal sparring match.

“You know it’s a good idea,” Jimin snaps. “And you said yourself that we need to get closer to the king’s inner circle. You’re not going to do that without a companion to help quell all the unsavory rumors about you.” 

“It won’t stop them,” Seokjin says, crossing his arms over his chest. “People will just start asking when I’m planning on killing you.” 

“Having a companion will still help.” 

“I’ve gotten this far without one.” 

“Because you haven’t actually tried to make any social connections.” 

“Plenty of people know who I am.” 

“Because they think you murder people in this apartment.” 

Seokjin blows out a frustrated breath — his usually poised facade cracking, just a little. Jimin seems to have that effect on him and Jungkook isn’t quite sure what to make of it. But he knows that Seokjin trusts his opinion, perhaps more than any else hear. So he forces words out past the ache in his throat. 

“I agree with Jimin.” 

It’s only half the truth. He would still rather it be him making this sacrifice — he can’t handle the thought of Jimin hurt in the ways that he’s been — but he also knows that Seokjin would approve of that idea even less and Yoongi might actually lock him in a room to prevent it from happening. And Jimin is right. He’s the better spy and he always has been. It’s why Yoongi chose him as a second-in-command even though Jungkook had been a part of Yoongi’s family longer, and Jungkook never begrudged Yoongi for that decision. He prefers a fight to all of Jimin’s illusions and deceptions. 

Seokjin looks pained. “We would have to put seals on you. Real ones. Create records of sale. Tattoo initials. Dress you up like a doll. Do you understand what that means?” 

“I’m not a child,” Jimin says. “Of course I do, and I accept that if it means eventually getting to slit the king’s throat.” 

“Fine,” Seokjin says, relenting. “Fine, I’ll call in some favors at an auction house. JK…” he pauses, frowning. “I mean, Jungkook.” 

“JK is fine,” Jungkook interjects. He didn’t mind being JK with Seokjin, or tokki — not when Seokjin managed to make him feel so loved. 

A smile flits across Seokjin’s mouth as he nods. “JK-yah, I don’t want to ask this of you, but…” 

“I’ll help,” Jungkook agrees. He understands why Seokjin doesn’t want to be the person making these decisions. 

“Thank you,” Seokjin says and reaches out — eyes darting briefly to Jimin before he puts a hand on Jungkook’s shoulder and rubs his thumb along the blade, simple and comforting. Something in Jungkook’s chest pulls tight like a bowstring, but he brushes it aside, focusing instead of Jimin. 

“What do I need to do?” Jimin asks. 

Jungkook reaches out and touches the black bangs that Jimin’s swept off his forehead. “We should dye your hair. To start.” 

Jimin doesn’t protest, just nods, and Jungkook ignores the weight in his stomach, making him sick. 

 

_ _ 

 

They choose silver, after some deliberation and quiet input from Yoongi, and Jungkook spends the following afternoon bleaching Jimin’s hair in Seokjin’s bathtub. 

“Normally we get taken to a stylist for this,” he explains in a whisper. He’s talked too much today and his throat aches, but less than it did even a week ago. The pain, he thinks, is mostly psychological at this point, but he doesn’t know how to change it — if there is ever going to be a way to fix these fractures inside of him. “But we can’t do that right now. Not until we get the seals done.” 

Someone is coming tomorrow, Seokjin said a few hours ago, and Jungkook watched Yoongi’s jaw clench at the announcement, felt his own wrists ache. 

He tips Jimin’s head forward, watching bleach-laced water run down the drain. 

“Did you get your hair dyed?” Jimin asks, tentative. 

“Once,” Jungkook replies, a little amused at Jimin’s hesitation. Though he supposes he’s a walking minefield now — maybe Jimin and Taehyung are going to be cautious about everything. “My second owner wanted it red. Like … cherry pink? But my third dyed it back to black. Said he preferred it that way. It, um, made me look younger.” 

Jimin’s eyes squeeze shut but he doesn’t say anything, just leans further forward so Jungkook can get the hairs at the back of his neck. 

It takes several hours, several rounds of bleach and toner, and two rounds of dye, but at the end of the ordeal, Jimin’s hair is a stormy silver. It suits him, Jungkook thinks, as Jimin examines himself in the mirror. It accents his features, making him look older and more refined — a little bit ethereal. He’ll be the talk of the parties, an object of desire, all according to plan. 

“I don’t look like me anymore,” Jimin says, an unidentifiable emotion lacing his voice. 

“That’s the point,” Jungkook replies. “We don’t get to keep anything of ourselves.” 

Jimin meets his eyes in the mirror. “But you still do. You have, Jungkook-ah. You’re still you, and I’m still me.” 

“No.” Jungkook shakes his head. He feels like an amalgamation — an assortment of broken pieces wearing the face of someone that is never coming back. He barely remembers being the Jungkook that went up against a knife for Taehyung, or drove illegal goods across sector lines, or ran messages in forbidden territory, dodging patrols in Sector 3 and 4 like he was made of shadows. And what are they going to be, at the end of all of this? He doesn’t know, and that scares him too. 

“We can’t go back,” is all he says to Jimin. This world is going to change him in ways he can’t anticipate and perhaps won’t even be able to see, but that’s something he will have to discover for himself. 

“No,” Jimin agrees, gaze flicking back to his own face. “We can’t.” 

A knock on the door breaks the strange hush that’s fallen over the bathroom and Jungkook steps aside to let Yoongi in. He’s carrying a bundle of clothes and he sets them on the counter, pausing to take in Jimin’s new hair. 

“We’re the same size,” he says. “These should fit you, to start. I had Namjoon bring them over.” 

Jimin takes the clothes with a nod and pulls his loose-fitting shirt over his head. Jungkook averts his eyes, as absurd as it feels to do so when he’s spent years living in a tiny apartment with Jimin and sharing showers because there was never enough water. Yoongi doesn’t, he notices, just leans against the sink and waits for Jimin to finish changing. 

The clothes are simple, but elegant — a black shirt with floral embroidery on the collar and across the back of the shoulders, and black pants that accent Jimin’s narrow waist and strong legs — and contrast well with Jimin’s new hair. Yoongi even included a pair of intricate silver earrings that Jimin replaces his old, worn ones with. They sway as he turns his head back and forth, examining his outfit in the mirror. 

“There,” Yoongi says, a sad smile on his face. “Just add some makeup and you’ll be ready.”

Jimin turns to face them both and reaches for their hands. “I’ll be okay,” he promises. “You need to trust me.” 

Jungkook swallows and looks at Yoongi, taking in the tired expression and the storm raging underneath. “We might be at the same parties,” Yoongi says. “Whatever you see … you can’t interfere, okay? And they might … sometimes they ask companions to do things with each other. Sex —though Seokjin and Namjoon won’t let that happen — or touching and kissing. You need to be okay with that too. Being … close. Even if … even if it’s me.” 

Jungkook flashes back to the auction house — to Yoongi above him, moving in him, and kissing along his neck, whispering tender reassurances in his ear — and then to all the parties that followed where it was his turn to murmur it’ll be okay just stay with me it’ll be over soon, low enough that the audience couldn’t hear. He imagines Jimin and Yoongi in that situation and shudders, squeezing Jimin’s hand tight. 

Jimin rocks forward to hook his chin on Yoongi’s shoulder, still clutching Jungkook’s hand. “I’ll be okay,” he repeats gently. “And I’ll still love you.” 

Yoongi blinks at the wall over Jimin’s head, eyes wet. He doesn’t cry, though, or offer any more protests. Just kisses Jimin’s hair and reaches up with his free hand to cup the back of Jungkook’s neck, fingers stretching to rub over his tattoo in slow, soothing strokes. 

 

_ _ 

 

The next morning, Taehyung, Yoongi, and Namjoon all hide in the guest bedroom with Hoseok and Jungkook watches nervously as Seokjin double-checks that the door is locked before ushering in two representatives from the auction house — both women and different from the ones who changed over Jungkook’s seals. Neither are in uniform, and they look just as nervous as Jungkook feels. 

In contrast, Seokjin and Jimin are calm. Jimin's seated in one of the dining room chairs, dragged away from the table while Seokjin hovers close by. "You remember what we discussed?" he asks the taller one, whose long blonde hair is piled on her head, making her look regal in spite of her simple dress. 

She nods, gesturing to her lavender-haired companion, and together they begin laying various tools out on the dining room table: a tattoo gun, a vial full of dark blue fluid, two large syringes. A shiver runs down Jungkook's spine and for a moment he's back at his first auction house, handcuffed to the table while they prepped him for his first owners and he tried not to cry at the force of the terror gnawing through his stomach.

Seokjin's hand lands on his shoulder, anchoring, and Jungkook shoots him a grateful look. Jimin is also eyeing the instruments, but his impassive mask remains free of cracks.

"How many initials do you want?" the blonde woman asks. “And should we sedate him?”

"Three before mine." Seokjin's voice remains light and airy, contrasting the subtle clench of his jaw. "And no need."

Both women nod, almost in sync, and begin to prep Jimin, instructing him to roll up his sleeve and place both arms on the table. Once he's obeyed, they pin him down to the polished stone surface with several weighted bands. Those, too, are familiar and Jungkook takes a steadying breath. Seokjin's fingers dig in deeper through the fabric of Jungkook's sweater.

Time goes elastic as the tattoo gun whirs and the women work. The initials are invented, to correspond with the records of sale that the auctioneers will be faking. An uncommon practice, folding an illegally sanctioned companion in with the usual records, but always available for those willing to pay the right price. Jungkook can't imagine how much money Seokjin must have offered, but steadily three sets of initials appear on Jimin's arm, mirroring Jungkook's own. After each one, the women draw a line through them, until they've reached the fourth and final set: Seokjin's

At this point, as they trace out KSJ, Jungkook notices that Seokjin finally looks away.

Jimin remains stoic and silent — only a subtle twitch near his eye giving away the pain he must be feeling. Once, only a few months after coming to live with them, Jimin got slashed across the ribs by a would-be mugger and they only found out when he couldn't hide the bleeding anymore. Yoongi was livid, but Jimin only apologized for worrying them, not trying to conceal the injury. 

In this, he's always been strong.

"We're done," the blonde woman announces while Lavender wraps plastic and gauze around the tattoos. "Now for the seals."

The worst part, that makes the tattoos seem like a pleasant stroll through a riverside park. Jungkook reminds himself not to be sick as Lavender fills one syringe and Blonde takes the other. They double-check Jimin's restraints and then simultaneously inject him, pressing the needles into the veins near his wrists. Jimin shudders and gasps, hunching in on himself as his skin begins to darken and ripple. Jungkook closes his eyes when the first scream pours out of Jimin's mouth, feeling Seokjin's fingers gripping him hard enough to bruise.

Another scream and the bang of the chair against the tile as Jimin thrashes. The women shout to each other — instructions to hold him down and a third scream rakes bloody against Jungkook's ears before Jimin finally settles, wheezing brokenly.

"There," Blonde says, still clipped and professional. "We're ready for you to test it, Seokjin-nim."

Seokjin takes a quiet, steeling breath — only audible to Jungkook — and crosses over to Jimin's side. Jimin doesn't look up when Seokjin' presses his fingers against the seal and the first one shifts from black to angry red as the nanotechnology responds. This time, Jimin doesn't scream but Jungkook can see his grimace, his gritted teeth. The other wrist produces the same result and the women nod in satisfaction.

"I have one more request," Seokjin says before they can pack away their tools. "I'm willing to pay more for it. Whatever's necessary."

Blonde and Lavender exchange a wary look.

"What ... kind of request?" Blonde asks.

"I want you to deactivate his seals," Seokjin says, gesturing to Jungkook.

Jungkook sucks in a surprised breath. They never discussed this. 

Lavender’s eyes blow wide while Blonde struggles to maintain her composure. “Seokjin-nim … that is a very unusual request.” 

“Unheard of,” Lavender blurts. 

Seokjin hums contemplatively. “You’ll add a companion to your books, what’s so different about removing one? Name your price.” 

The women continue to hesitate. 

“Three hundred thousand?” Seokjin offers and Jungkook chokes on air. “Five hundred thousand? Ah, you’re considering now.” 

And the women are — trying to have a silent conversation with just twitches of their mouths and furrowed brows. After a moment, Blonde turns back to Seokjin and squares her shoulders. “One million won,” she announces, though her voice wavers slightly. 

Seokjin’s mouth curves into a smirk. “Not so hard after all, is it?” 

Lavender looks a little guilty, shifting her weight from one heeled foot to the other, but Blonde merely purses her lips and gestures for Jungkook to sit in a chair next to Jimin. Jungkook obeys, heart in his throat, and steals a glance at Jimin as Lavender cuffs his arms to the table. He has his eyes closed, head still bent and hair in his face, but his breathing is evening out and the tight lines of pain have faded from his expression. 

At least, Jungkook thinks to comfort himself, Jimin will only have to go through this once. 

Blonde appears at his side, holding a strange little device in her hands. It almost looks like some kind of scanner, but there are two prongs at the end that Jungkook has a feeling are going in his arm. “We cannot remove the seals themselves, but we’ll be able to deactivate the nanotechnology inside.” 

“Do it,” Seokjin says, light but commanding. 

Blonde punctures his skin with the device and he breathes out against the sudden flare of pain. It builds as the seal turns red — the nanotech flaring to life one last time before it’s shut down — and Jungkook clenches his teeth against the scream clawing its way up his throat from the pit of his stomach. His nerves feel like they’re on fire, spreading up his arm and across his sternum, but then it’s over. Blonde removes the device and swipes away the small dots of blood with a strip of gauze. Jungkook blinks reflexive tears out of his eyes as Blonde moves to his other arm and Lavender starts bandaging the puncture wounds. 

The process repeats and this time Jungkook tips his head back to stare at the ceiling, panting through the burn of the dying tech as his feels tears drip down his temples from his watering eyes. 

“There,” Blonde says — in the same tone she used when speaking about Jimin, though her voice wobbles now. “Please test them.” 

Seokjin’s fingers press against Jungkook’s wrist but there is no pain this time, no fire. The seals are dormant and Jungkook shudders in amazed relief.  

“His tracking chip too,” Seokjin says. “And I want proof you’ve erased him from the database.” 

“Of course, Seokjin-nim,” Blonde agrees pleasantly. Jungkook supposes that one million won will get you all kinds of courtesy and acquiescence. Jungkook cannot fathom that kind of money, though he has vague memories of Seokjin purchasing him for eight times that amount. 

Lavender presses a different device against the side of  his neck, opposite his mark, and a loud beep echoes through the room — the tracker deactivating. He looks over at Blonde, who taps on a portable tablet with perfectly manicured nails. It only takes thirty seconds, then she presents it to Seokjin.

“He’s been cleared from our central database, Seokjin-nim. No auction house will have any records of him.”

Seokjin takes the tablet to examine it and nods. “Perfect.” His own fingers move, typing out a new series of commands. “And I’ve transferred the funds, as requested. I’m sure you’ll share them equally between the two of you.” 

Blonde and Lavender look at each other again, more charged than before, but when they bow it’s in perfect, practiced unison and they pack up their tools with quicky efficiency — releasing both Jimin and Jungkook from their restraints, throwing away syringes, and stowing the tattoo equipment and other devices in their inconspicuous leather cases. 

Jungkook rubs his sore wrists, marveling at how faded the seals look now that the nanotech is no longer active, and isn’t sure if he wants to laugh or weep at how easy this was. Just one million won, two devices, and a few clicks on a tablet and he’s as close to free as he’s been in a year. 

“A pleasure doing business with both of you,” Seokjin says, ushering the women out the front door and closing it firmly behind them. As soon as the lock clicks into place, the door to the guest bedroom wrenches open and Taehyung stumbles out, rushing to Jimin and Jungkook with a wild-eyed expression. 

“I’m fine,” Jimin croaks as Taehyung wraps an arm around his shoulders. “I’m okay, Taehyungie.” 

“I heard screaming,” Taehyung says, staring down at the fresh tattoos and seals on Jimin’s skin. “You screamed.” 

“It hurt,” Jimin says. “But it’s over.” 

“And you, Kook?” Taehyung asks, clearly searching Jungkook’s face for any sign of distress. 

“I’m okay too,” Jungkook says, pushing himself to his feet. “I … my seals…” He turns to Seokjin, who is standing off to the side, looking uncomfortable — hands shoved deep in the pockets of his pressed pants. “ Thank you. ” 

“It was the least I could do,” Seokjin insists and Jungkook shakes his head, moving to pull Seokjin into a hug. 

“It wasn’t.” 

“It was only money, JK-yah,” Seokjin insists, but his arms encircle Jungkook, hugging him back. “It was nothing . ” 

“Not to me.” 

“What did you?” Yoongi’s voice, coming to join them. When Jungkook looks up, he sees Namjoon crossing into the kitchen and Hoseok leaning on the bedroom door frame — pale but on his feet. 

“Deactivated his seals,” Seokjin says, and Yoongi makes a startled sound. “And erased his records. He should be able to move around the city now, as long as he keeps the Mark hidden.” 

Jungkook squeezes Seokjin’s waist in a final, silent thanks before letting him go. Seokjin’s attention turns to Jimin. “And let me get you some water.” 

“I’m fine,” Jimin insists, standing. He sways, slightly, and Taehyung puts a hand against his back to steady him. “I don’t need your pity.” 

Seokjin shakes his head, stalking over to the sink. He fills a large glass with water and holds it out to Jimin. “It isn’t pity. Just drink the damn water.” 

Jimin makes no move to take the glass, staring at Seokjin with open defiance. It’s almost hilarious — Jungkook wants to laugh at their stubborn ridiculousness and he sees Yoongi’s mouth twitch in a faint smile, because they both know who the victor is going to be here. And as predicted, Seokjin finally sighs and puts the glass in Taehyung’s hand instead. 

“Please give him water,” he says, voice clipped, and vanishes into his study. 

Taehyung shakes his head and holds the glass up to Jimin’s lips. “Here, Chim.” 

This time, Jimin drinks. 

 

_ _

 

“We’re going to need to separate soon.” Namjoon’s been expecting Seokjin’s announcement and he hums in agreement as he watches Yoongi help Hoseok down onto the sofa. “It’s too conspicuous to have so many people in my apartment.” 

Namjoon’s already thought about this, mapping out plans in the back of his head ever since it seemed like it was going to be the seven of them in this together. Yoongi needs to stay with him, and Hoseok will undoubtedly insist on coming with Yoongi. Jimin will need to stay with Seokjin now, and he imagines Jungkook would be more comfortable remaining here, as well. Taehyung … seems to have plans of his own that he hasn’t let anyone else in on yet, which means he could choose either option. 

He outlines this for Seokjin, who sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “That’s what I was thinking. I’ll still pass Jungkook and Jimin off as my companions — that won’t arouse any suspicion. Taehyung’s a different story.” 

“So is Hoseok.” 

“Hmm, Hoseok can be a sick relative, perhaps. That you’ve agreed to take care of.” 

“And Taehyung?” 

Seokjin looks off to the side and Namjoon follows his gaze to where Taehyung is rubbing cream on Jimin’s fresh tattoos, the two of them murmuring softly to each other while Jungkook stands close by — one hand on Jimin’s back and one on Taehyung’s. 

“Somehow,” Seokjin says, tired amusement lacing his voice, “I think he’ll tell us when he wants to.” 

Namjoon thinks back to Taehyung’s request. He’s already put the order in for the laptop and the necessary encryption software, but a meeting with Jackson? That’s more difficult. Namjoon can’t even remember the last time they’ve seen each other in person, operating on the mutual agreement that as little contact as possible was necessary in their current line of work. The less people can connect them, the better. Would Jackson agree to meet with an unknown person? Expose himself like that? Namjoon pays him, but he’s never been driven by money — not like almost everyone else in this Sector. Sometimes, Namjoon thinks Jackson makes forgeries just for the hell of it. 

But whatever Taehyung is planning, Yoongi trusts him, and that has to be good enough for Namjoon. As far as he knows, the people in this room are the only ones Yoongi trusts in the whole world. 

“Fine,” he says to Seokjin. “I’ll make arrangements to get Hoseok back to my apartment.” His driver is good at being discreet. With enough won lining his pockets, he’ll pretend the injured man in the back of his car is completely invisible if Namjoon wants him to. 

“You should probably go tonight,” Seokjin says. “You know how nosy my neighbors get.” 

Namjoon sighs. So many eyes in this city, all waiting for you to slip up. Even in glittering towers, someone is always watching. “I’ll let them know, I think Hoseok should be strong enough for the trip.” 

He sends a quick text to his driver, asking to be picked up in twenty minutes to half an hour. Yoongi’s clothes should fit Hoseok for now, until they can order more, and he assumes the two of them will be fine sharing the guest bedroom. If not, Yoongi can have Namjoon’s bed — it’s not like Namjoon has any secrets left that need to be kept behind his locked door. 

Once he receives confirmation from his driver, he touches Yoongi’s shoulder gently. “Can we talk?” 

Yoongi nods and stands and Namjoon tries to ignore the weight of Hoseok’s gaze — still afraid of what Hoseok might see buried beneath the thin mask Namjoon is still trying desperately to keep in place. What would Hoseok do, if he learned of the traitorous love that keeps trying to take root in Namjoon’s chest? Namjoon can’t imagine the reaction would be a positive one. But Hoseok doesn’t protest, merely sinks back against the cushions and lets Yoongi climb to his feet. 

Namjoon leads Yoongi into the vacant bathroom and closes the door. “We need to move Hoseok. Back to my apartment.” 

Yoongi displays no surprise at this announcement, merely nods like he was expecting this, like he’s five steps ahead of Namjoon, as always. “He should be fine if we’re careful. Your driver won’t get nosy?” 

“No,” Namjoon promises. 

“I don’t like leaving the kids,” Yoongi admits, wiping a hand over his face. There are bruised circles under his eyes that Namjoon sympathizes with. It feels like they’ve barely slept in days, since Jimin came crashing into the apartment and upended everything. 

“Seokjin will take care of them,” Namjoon tries to assure him. “And if he doesn't, I have a feeling Jimin will gut him.” 

That gets a tiny smile from Yoongi. “Yeah, Jimin’s always been both an indestructible force and an immovable object when he wants to be.” 

“So they’ll be okay.” Tentatively, Namjoon reaches out and rubs a thumb across Yoongi’s upper arm, attempting to soothe further. To his mild surprise, Yoongi relaxes into the touch with another tired sigh. He wants to stay here like this — maybe coax Yoongi further into his arms — but the driver will be arriving soon and he’s trying to remember what he is and isn’t allowed. 

“We’ll need to take Hoseok down the service elevator,” he says and Yoongi hums. “I can carry him.” 

“He won’t like that,” Yoongi says.

“Can he walk on his own?” 

“No,” Yoongi huffs. 

“Then I’ll carry him and I’m sure he can get revenge later.” He pauses. Slides his hand slowly up to cradle the side of Yoongi’s neck, knuckles against Yoongi’s mark. “Are you okay?” 

“I’m better than I have been,” Yoongi says and Namjoon supposes that’s enough of an answer, especially for a question as silly as the one he just asked. 

He nods and drops his hand. His phone buzzes in the pocket, probably his driver informing him that he’s getting close. “We should go.” 

“I’ll talk to Hoseok,” Yoongi agrees, turning to open the door again. “He’ll take the news better if it comes from me.” 

And Yoongi’s right. Hoseok still isn’t happy about leaving the kids or being carried out of the building, but whatever Yoongi says convinces him not to put up too much of a fight. Seokjin packs them some food and makes Namjoon promise to let him know when they’ve arrived safely. Taehyung decides that he’s going to stay with Jungkook and Jimin for the time being, though he pulls Namjoon aside and says, “please let me know when I can meet with your contact, Namjoon-ssi. If it helps, tell him Ghost is asking.” 

“Ghost?” Namjoon asks. The codename sounds vaguely familiar. 

Taehyung nods and doesn’t offer any more information, just turns to wrap Yoongi up in a parting hug. 

After additional hugs from Jungkook and Jimin, Hoseok and Yoongi are ready to go and Namjoon carefully lifts Hoseok onto his back, working hard not to strain his wounds and shocked at how light Hoseok is. He feels delicate in Namjoon’s arms, terrifyingly breakable, even as his grip on Namjoon’s shoulders carries a surprising amount of strength. 

“Let’s get this over with,” he says, tense with pain or discomfort or both. 

Yoongi opens the door for them and Namjoon walks as quickly as he can through the winding corridors to the service elevator. It’s agonizingly slow to arrive and even slower to descend, floors ticking by in what feels like slow motion. Hoseok’s breath is hot against his neck and he’s still tense, even as he rests his head against Namjoon’s shoulder, clearly exhausted. 

“Just a little longer,” Namjoon assures him as the indicator creeps towards the second floor and then finally the first. 

“I’m fine,” Hoseok rasps insistently, every bit as stubborn as Yoongi and Jimin. Namjoon swallows back a retort and adjusts his grip. 

The doors open with an ominous groan and Namjoon spots his car parked exactly where he instructed, idling with its lights off in the alley. His driver steps out as they approach, a question on his face. 

“You’ll be compensated for the extra cargo,” Namjoon assures him and the man bows, opening the back door so that Namjoon can lower Hoseok inside. 

Hoseok slumps against the window with a faint wheeze and Yoongi slides in after, taking Hoseok’s hand. Namjoon climbs in last, allowing the driver to shut the door behind him. The partition is already raised, granting them privacy, but Namjoon wishes he didn’t feel so off-balance. 

“So,” Hoseok says into the oppressive quiet, surprising him, “is your apartment as nice as Seokjin’s?” 

“Nicer,” he says before he can stop himself and Hoseok snorts, but it sounds amused. 

“He has a piano,” Yoongi adds. Namjoon flushes. He’d bought it in a moment of vanity, thinking he could learn how to play, but abandoned lessons after only a few weeks and now it sits gathering dust, even though he pays someone to come tune it every few months. He didn’t think Yoongi would have cared about it, but Hoseok is staring up at him with a soft expression. 

“You’ll have to play me something,” he says. 

“You play?” Namjoon asks, thrown once again. 

Yoongi shrugs, and the gesture would be dismissive if not for the tension in his back and shoulders. “I used to. In another life.” 

“He was really good.” Hoseok’s eyes slip closed and the passing lights cast shadows on his wan face. “Used to sneak away to play in the shops, when he could.” 

“It made me feel more human,” Yoongi whispers and Namjoon’s chest pulls tight and aching. 

“You can play whenever you want,” he says, reaching over to rest his hand on Yoongi’s knee. “I don’t know how so it’s yours, hyung.” 

Hoseok’s eyes open again at the honorific, a little startled, and Namjoon quickly looks away. 

“Thank you,” Yoongi says, putting his on top of Namjoon’s — a warm weight. 

Outside, the city lights blur as the car continues to glide through the night. 

 

_ _ 

 

Taehyung can’t stop staring at the marks on Jimin’s arm and wrists, even as Jimin has sunk into sleep, curled up in a ball in the middle of this too-big bed.  The sight of them is wrong, in a visceral, gut-churning way that Taehyung suspects will never dissipate. It’s the same punch he weathers whenever he sees Jungkook’s exposed arms too. Ownership , written in black ink. 

“Taehyung,” Jungkook murmurs from the bedroom doorway, backlit by the light from the living room. “Can we … can we talk?” 

Ah , Taehyung thinks, ruefully, all this time and Jungkook is still making the first move. 

“Of course,” he says, checking one last time that Jimin is still peacefully asleep. Jungkook steps aside to let him through the door, closing it behind them with a soft click.

The living room is quiet — bathed in golden, dim light from several lamps artfully arranged on side tables and in corners, each boasting an ornate shade that looks hand-painted. Seokjin is missing, probably retired to bed, and it’s the first time Taehyung’s been alone with Jungkook in what might be over a year. He reminds himself not to touch as he joins Jungkook on the couch, to keep his hands to himself in spite of the yearning inside of him, hollowing him out. 

Jungkook licks his lips, taps his fingers against his knee in an anxious rhythm. “I’m sorry,” he says, still in a raspy whisper. He’s stretched his voice too much today, but Taehyung knows better than to point it out. “That I haven’t — that I’ve been — I’m sorry that I didn’t kiss you.” 

Well. That wasn’t what he was expecting. 

He absorbs it — the shock, the ache — and pushes forward. “You don’t have to apologize.” 

Jungkook shakes his head. “I still — I think I still want to be with you? But I’m not … me. Anymore. There’s been so much. Buy maybe — is that a good thing? If we were to — I’d be — I’m experienced now. I’d make it good … for you.” 

“Jungkook,” Taehyung says helplessly, unable to keep the devastation out of his voice. 

Jungkook keeps his eyes on his lap, refusing to raise his head. His fingers have shifted to wringing the hem of his shirt between his hands, twitching and nervous. “I just — wanted to let you know that. To … offer. Because I know we were — we would have been…” 

“Jungkook,” Taehyung repeats, leaning forward but stopping himself just shy of putting a hand on Jungkook’s coiled back. “Jungkook, do you think I — I don’t — I love you. Then and now. And tomorrow. No matter what happens.” 

Finally Jungkook looks up, and the disbelief on his face is heartbreaking. 

Do you think so little of me? Taehyung wants to ask, but knows it isn’t that simple. Nothing is simple anymore

“I wanted us to be more,” Taehyung continues. “But maybe that’s over now and that’s okay. Guess what? I still love you.” 

“You do?” Jungkook whispers. 

“Always,” Taehyung says. “Always, Kook, okay?” 

He dares to scoot closer, until their knees are pressing together and to his surprise and relief, Jungkook instantly leans in, curling around him like he used to in Sector 10, tangling up together until Taehyung couldn’t define where his body ended and Jungkook’s began. 

“Okay, then,” Jungkook says, though he doesn’t sound like he quite believes it yet. “Always.” 

Taehyung kisses his cheek, pushing the plans he wanted to share with Jungkook to the back of his mind. They can keep waiting. 

“There’s more I need to tell you,” Jungkook continues. “But I don’t know how.” 

“That’s okay,” Taehyung assures him in spite of the prick of fear down his spine. “I’ll listen whenever you’re ready.” 

Jungkook nods and pulls away, getting to his feet. Taehyung watches him walk to the expansive windows and push back the curtains, letting in the city light and framing him in dark silhouette. “Taehyung … do you think we can do this?” 

“I don’t know,” Taehyung answers honestly. Statistically, the odds are terrible — every algorithm he runs would probably end in a failed result — but he has never wanted to believe in those. “But we have to try.” 

Otherwise, what will this all mean? Jungkook’s wounds and Yoongi’s grief and Jimin’s determination and Hoseok’s heartbreak and his own rage. And beyond the four of them — the secrets, the police raids, the Marks, the strikes, the auction houses, countless deaths … he wants it all to matter, and the only way it can is to shred everything apart. Tear it down, burn it, and rebuild without forgetting or erasing. 

He wants a new world that remembers this one and never lets it happen again. 

“Yeah,” Jungkook says, though it’s more of a sigh. “And besides, what can they do? Kill us? I don’t think I’m afraid of that anymore.” 

Taehyung isn’t sure what to say in response to that, so he stands and joins Jungkook in front of the window, taking Jungkook’s hand and lacing their fingers together. Below them, the pristine city carries on — never slowing or stopping, hurling forward in an endless rush as the lights glimmer and the shadows stretch and lengthen, consuming everything in their path. 

Chapter Text

“Pay attention. Things are not what they seem. It’s been centuries since the Cataclysm, what secrets do you think the monarchy is hiding? In their vaults and their treasure rooms? In plain sight? We all know the narrative, we’ve heard it a thousand times. The Marked destroyed the world. But who made the Marked? 

Pay attention.” 

 

- Encrypted message from Ghost, an underground hacker 

 

 

 

_ _ 

 

Jimin thought, when he first stepped into Seokjin’s apartment in Sector 1, that it was the height of wealth and luxury: real wood; a fully stocked fridge; Old World books and art carefully preserved; soft beds that feel like lying down on a cloud; jewelry made of actual gold. Now, though, he sees that he was painfully naive. The woman whose party they’re attending resides in the penthouse of a towering skyscraper—an entire floor to herself that could easily fit five of Seokjin’s apartment inside. The elevator is operated by a man in a crisp tuxedo with white gloves on his hands, like something out of a book, and the wallpaper inside of it glints with gold lining. 

“By Sector 1 standards you’re poor, aren’t you?” Jimin says as he watches the floors tick by. 

Teasing Seokjin is easier than dwelling on the fresh seals and tattoos on his arms, or how strange his silver hair and makeup looks in the polished reflection of the elevator doors. The black fabric of his shirt is so sheer that he feels as though he’s naked and he has to resist the urge to put his arms around himself for protection. The collar around his neck and the leash attached to it are a heavy weight, though he knows that’s all in his head. 

“Practically living in poverty,” Seokjin replies, adjusting his tie. The floral pattern on his suit is outlined in glimmering silver and he dyed his hair a soft pink yesterday. The combination, along with his flawless skin, makes him seem ethereal, but Jimin can see glimpses of nervousness underneath the placid mask. 

They’re almost to the top floor. 

“Remember,” Seokjin says, “keep your head down and follow my lead. This is an old classmate of mine with connections to the royal family. She … likes pretty things. She owns three companions of her own—they should all be here tonight.” 

“I remember,” Jimin murmurs. 

“I won’t let anything happen,” Seokjin says right before the doors open, cutting off Jimin’s chance to reply. 

More uniformed butlers are waiting to greet them with twin bows and a glass of complimentary champagne for Seokjin. Jimin ignores them in favor of surreptitiously observing his surroundings. The main room of the apartment is an open floor plan and decorated with small islands of furniture amidst oceans of empty black tile. The far wall is all windows, boasting a truly stunning view of the city—all the way to the hills of Sector 10 and the distant walls that keep out the ruined outside world. Like the elevator, the wallpaper here is lined with gold and silver glints in the tiles beneath Jimin’s feet. 

The room is already almost full—guests clustered together in colorful groups. All the women seem to be wearing floor-length dresses of various hues while the men favor tuxedos and suits adorned with intricate patterns, similar to Seokjin’s. Several heads turn when they step further into the room and Jimin spots several people lean close to whisper in each other’s ears. Like he warned, Seokjn’s reputation precedes him. 

Jimin reminds himself to keep his gaze respectfully lowered and goes back to his observations. The kitchen is probably through those double doors where a stream of penguin waiters are coming and going, carrying trays of fancy food. Butlers stand at all the other doors, most likely to subtly keep guests from wandering too far. A live band plays soft music in a corner, situated between two towering fake ferns. Overhead, chandeliers made of thousands of crystals bathe the whole space in ambient light. 

It would be stunning, honestly, if not for all the other people he can see wearing leashes. One is even on all fours next to his master’s chair, like a fucking dog. Jimin wants a knife, a gun, a match—anything. 

“Steady,” Seokjin whispers to him, squeezing his wrist. “We need to find Namjoon.” 

They agreed to attend this party together, as so many important people will be here. Apparently, Seokjin only got an invitation because the host, Kang Sohyun, wasn’t just a classmate, but an ex-girlfriend. 

(We parted on good terms, he said in the car, but didn’t look completely sure of that.)

Fortunately, Namjoon’s height makes him relatively easy to pick out in a crowd and Jimin quickly spots him hovering near the windows, a glass of champagne in his hand. He’s chatting with a short, red-haired man gripping the leash of a male companion that seems even younger than Jungkook in his bony fingers. It takes Jimin a moment to recognize Yoongi next to Namjoon. His black hair has been artfully curled at the ends and his face painted in makeup similar to Jimin’s—dark shadow, white power to increase the paleness of his skin, and pink on his lips. He looks like a delicate doll with his glittery jewelry and the silky collar tied tight around his neck. 

Jimin forces himself not to react as Seokjin stops and hovers nearby, pretending to admire a massive painting on the wall. It just looks like a weird jumble of colors to Jimin, but Seokjin feigns intense appreciation remarkably well. 

“...well let me know if you change your mind,” the short man is saying. “They’d make for a lovely show, if you ask me. My boy’s good with his mouth and I hear yours is too.” 

“I’ll think about it,” Namjoon says with stiff disinterest, barely meeting the man’s eyes. Clearly this isn’t someone important enough for them to bother with. 

Fortunately, the man takes the hint and drifts away, dragging his poor companion along behind him and leaving enough space for Seokjin and Jimin to quietly start a little huddle. Jimin focuses on Yoongi instead of Namjoon, checking him over. They’ve been at the party longer, which means more opportunity for … his eyes stop on Yoongi’s slightly swollen lips and he has to swallow back rage that burns like lava in his throat. 

“The hostess is taking her pick of companions,” Namjoon says softly, sounding tired. “She’s going to ask for Jimin, if you’re not careful.” 

“I’m always careful,” Seokjin answers back, scanning the crowd. “Any other important people we should be aware of?” 

“Half the inner circle seems to be here,” Namjoon says, adjusting his grip on Yoongi’s leash. He’s leaning slightly into Yoongi’s space—like he wants to touch Yoongi but isn’t sure what he’s allowed. “And getting drunker by the minute. I saw two members of the king’s court, besides our gracious host.” 

“Excellent. Take care of yourselves.” Seokjin’s gaze lingers on Yoongi before returning to Namjoon. “We’ll go announce ourselves to Sohyun-nim.” 

Jimin shifts forward, unable to help himself, and touches Yoongi’s shoulder. The fabric of his shirt is as sheer as Jimin’s, and his skin is warm through the thin layer. His lips twitch, an approximation of a smile, a silent I’m fine, look after yourself, and then he’s looking away again. Seokjin clears his throat softly and as frustrating as he is, Jimin’s glad that he doesn’t tug on the leash as he turns back toward the crowd, leaving Namjoon and Yoongi behind. 

Kang Sohyun is holding court near the center of the massive room—her gold dress sparkling like a beacon in the midst of a black sea, gathering ships to her orbit. She’s beautiful, Jimin can admit. Her dyed blond hair nearly matches her dress, and rubies glitter in her headpiece, woven through her updo. Everything about her seems golden, right down to her nails and eyeshadow. She’s petite, only coming up to Jimin’s shoulder, even in her heels, but her presence towers and her smile is as sharp as cut glass. 

“Kim Seokjin,” she says, sounding delighted. “You actually came.” 

“Of course,” Seokjin replies, his high society mask in place. He bows at the waist and Jimin mirrors him. “I would never pass up the chance to see an old friend.” 

“Is that what we’re calling me these days?” 

“It sounds better than ex, don’t you think?” 

Sohyun laughs, and that’s sharp too. “Ah, you haven’t changed a bit. Though I never took you for the ruthless type.” Her gaze finally strays to Jimin and he suddenly feels like a bug pinned to the wall. “Changed your mind about this one? Or are the rumors exaggerated?” 

“My family told me I needed to be more social,” Seokjin says with a dismissive shrug. “And he’s pretty enough.” 

“He’s very pretty.” She takes a step closer and Jimin focuses on keeping himself still as her claw-like nails brush his cheek. “I wouldn’t mind a few minutes with him. I assume you’re willing to provide such a gift to your hostess?” 

“Of course.” Seokjin hesitates. “Well, I would love to present a gift, but I’m still working on this one.” Now he tightens his grip on Jimin’s leash, yanking him back a step and nearly choking him. Jimin gasps, hands twitching, and reminds himself not to fight. “He’s a biter.” 

Sohyun’s pretty face twists in disgust. “Why keep him, then?” 

“I like a challenge.” Seokjin winks and smirks, the perfect picture of arrogance. He’s still holding on to the leash so tight that Jimin can barely breathe. “But we have so much catching up to do, Sohyun-nim. Is there a place I can put him for the moment where he’ll be kept in line?” 

“Of course.” Sohyun gestures with a manicured hand and one of uniformed men, who Jimin notices are definitely carrying short canes, tasers, and what look like tranquilizer guns on their belts, steps forward. 

“I’ll take him, sir,” he says, holding out a white gloved hand for the leash. “When you’re ready, you can retrieve him from the room there.” 

He gestures to a door to the left of the kitchen, where another uniform is standing guard. 

“Perfect,” Seokjin says, already dismissive. “Feel free to discipline him if he acts out.” 

“Thank you, sir,” Uniform says and drags Jimin away, yanking so hard that Jimin nearly faceplants before he regains his balance. His lips bare in an instinctive snarl, but he wipes it off quickly when he sees Uniform’s free hand hover near the taser. That’s an experience he’d rather avoid. 

“That’s right,” Uniform says, mouth a grim line slashed through his narrow face. “Behave.” 

His companion punches a code into the door and opens it, allowing Uniform to shove Jimin in. He catches himself on the wall as the door closes behind him and blinks slowly as his eyes adjust to the darkness. This looks like a pantry of some kind, only one nearly as big as Jimin’s old Sector 10 apartment and with only empty shelves. At first Jimin thinks that he’s been locked in here alone, which means that his and Seokjin’s gamble didn’t pay off, but then his eyes adjust further and he realizes that someone is huddled in the far corner. 

A woman, maybe about his age, though it’s hard to tell. Her hair is cropped short and slicked back from her face, giving her a severe look even though glitter has also been rubbed into the dark strands and her eye makeup matches. She frowns up at him when he approaches. 

“Hi,” Jimin whispers and the frown deepens. 

“No talking.” 

Jimin sits down next to her, keeping some respectful space between them. She’s clad in a sleeveless dress that barely comes down to mid-thigh, leaving lots of pale skin on display. Jimin spots bruises in the shape of fingerprints running up her right arm and swallows back a fresh wave of anger. 

“Why?” he presses. “No one is listening and there aren’t any cameras in here.” 

“Talking is not permitted.” 

Her voice is clipped, leaving no room for argument, but Jimin is stubborn and has time to kill. He doesn’t care if he’s locked in here all night, he’s going to get through to her. 

Whatever it takes. 

 

_ _ 

 

Yoo Kihyun is a ghost, that is Yoongi’s working theory. He’s gotten on his knees three times tonight, and a dozen times before this at other parties, and yet not a single person can give them any information on his whereabouts. It seems like they don’t even want to speak his name. Namjoon keeps glancing at him in concern, and Yoongi knows that any minute he’ll say they should leave, enough for tonight, but he doesn’t want to give up. Someone must know something—maybe they’re just not offering the right incentive. 

“I think we should let someone fuck me,” Yoongi murmurs to Namjoon after they’ve retreated to a corner to fix Yoongi’s hair from the last pair of hands to sink into it. He can still feel the faint burn of sharp nails against his scalp but he ignores it, and the wide eyes he can feel Namjoon leveling at him.

“What?” Namjoon hisses. “Yoongi, no.” 

“This isn’t enough,” Yoongi says. “We’re getting nowhere.” 

“We got invited here.” 

“Because of Seokjin.” 

“We just need to be patient.” 

“We don’t have time for that,” Yoongi argues back. He frowns up at Namjoon. “It’s nothing I haven’t done before.” 

“You keep saying that,” Namjoon says, something almost like devastation in his voice that Yoongi can’t dwell on. 

“Because it’s true,” he argues stubbornly. “So let me do this.” 

“Hyung—” Namjoon starts, still in a low whisper, when a voice from their left cuts him off. 

“Kim Namjoon, I thought that was you.” 

Yoongi glances around Namjoon to the stranger that’s just arrived. He’s slight of build, though still a little taller than Yoongi, and sporting a boyish face framed by light silver hair that he’s swept off his forehead. He smiles, bright and friendly, and Yoongi’s immediately on alert. The nice ones are usually the most dangerous, he’s learned that the hard way. 

“I can’t believe you actually left your apartment,” the man continues, and even his voice is soft and pleasant. 

“Byun Baekhyun,” Namjoon replies, matching the pleasant tone. The name is vaguely familiar to Yoongi and he dredges up the facts he remembers: life of the party, popular, has never owned a companion, from a noble family but not one of the Eight. “It’s been a long time.” 

Baekhyun’s gaze flits to Yoongi and lingers, appreciative. “Nice companion.” 

“I thought you usually didn’t bother with companions,” Namjoon says. 

Baekhyun’s eyes stay on Yoongi and it’s an effort for Yoongi keep his own respectfully lowered. “I make an exception once in awhile. What do you say, Namjoon-ssi? For old time’s sake? I’m sure I could trade you something.” 

“What kind of thing?” 

Baekhyun shrugs. “Information? Isn’t that what we usually pass around? Word is you might be looking for someone.” 

Namjoon stiffens subtly and Yoongi begs him not to panic. This could be their chance. He’ll endure whatever this Baekhyun decides to throw at him if it means they finally get to take a step forward. 

“Alright,” Namjoon says, handing Yoongi’s leash over. “Bring him back to me when you’re done.” 

“Of course.” He grins at Namjoon and actually winks at Yoongi. “Let’s go. I’m sure you’ll show me a good time.” 

He leads Yoongi to one of the private rooms off the main one—bedrooms and studies that have been converted into places where companions can be enjoyed away from curious eyes. The one Baekhyun chooses looks like a personal library. All the walls are lined with bookshelves, but a green chaise lounge has been strategically placed for people to make use of. There’s even an elegant basket that no doubt contains supplies for sex and cleaning up after, because no one wants to ruin their expensive clothes. 

Yoongi wonders what type of person Baekhyun is. There are other tools over there—things that Baekhyun could hurt him with, instead of actually having sex. Normally, Yoongi is good at reading what an elite might want: his mouth or his tears or his general submission. But Byun Baekhyun is an enigma, even as he locks the door behind them and smiles again. This one is a little softer—warm in a way that makes Yoongi’s stomach swoop uncomfortably. 

“Don’t bother with that,” Baekhyun says when Yoongi’s eyes instinctively dart back to the lounge. “We’re just going to have a chat.” 

And he actually steps closer and unclips Yoongi’s leash from his collar, setting it aside. His expression is serious now, making him seem older than Yoongi first guessed. 

“A chat?” Yoongi whispers cautiously. No one wants to just … chat. 

Baekhyun nods and ambles over to the sideboard, where there is an assortment of alcohol laid out. He pours himself a glass of wine and does the same for Yoongi. Yoongi fights the urge to gape as Baekhyun hands it to him. 

“How long have you been a companion?” 

“A year,” Yoongi answers after a moment of hesitation, watching Baekhyun sip the wine and figuring that it’s okay for him to do so, as well. He’d rather not drink, but he also knows not to risk being impolite. 

“So you know how this sector works.” Baekhyun sits down on the lounge and crosses one leg over the over, swirling his wine in the glass. “Everything here is an elaborate chess game, and if you want to survive, you have to stay one step ahead of everyone else.”

Baekhyun doesn’t seem to require an answer from him, but Yoongi inclines his head anyway, waiting for the point. 

“I’m good at the game,” Baekhyun says, with another smile. “But I have to admit that I was surprised when a piece that’s been collecting dust in a corner suddenly has a companion he’s kept alive and is moving around the board.” 

He finishes off the wine and sets it aside, regarding Yoongi with a curious look. Yoongi feels like his carefully constructed mask is being peeled away, centimeter by centimeter. “So what I want to know, Yoongi-ssi, is what Kim Namjoon is after. What does he want with Yoo Kihyun?” 

Yoongi’s skin prickles at the casual use of his name, but he keeps his voice firm. “I can’t tell you that.” 

Baekhyun stands, closing the distance between. “If you’re scared of him, don’t worry. I can get you away from him. Give me information, and I’ll make sure you’re safe.” 

He seems earnest—an open, honest expression on his face. Yoongi realizes, with a large degree of internal shock, that perhaps Namjoon isn’t as alone as they first thought. “You’d do that for a companion?” 

“Of course.” Baekhyun’s mouth twists. “I’ve always hated this.” He touches Yoongi’s collar, light and fleeting. “It’s disgusting.” 

“I still can’t tell you.” He won’t betray Namjoon to someone he isn’t sure they can trust. 

“I swear on my life you’d be safe,” Baekhyun says, making an X over his heart. 

“It’s not that. It’s … you need to talk to Namjoon.” 

Yoongi swallows, pausing to search Baekhyun’s face again. His brow is furrowed in confusion, but it doesn’t seem like he’s playing games. Yoongi is good at this, too, and he knows what masks look like, even the nice ones. Baekhyun took his off the minute he locked the door. 

“Kim Namjoon, killer of companions,” Baekhyun says dubiously. 

“Yes. There is … more here. Things that can’t be discussed in a place like this.” 

Baekhyun hesitates, eyeing Yoongi the same way Yoongi just assessed him. “Alright, Yoongi-ssi, that I’ll believe.” He turns and picks up the leash, clipping it back on Yoongi’s collar. “Let’s get you back to Namjoon.” A squeeze to Yoongi’s shoulder. “But my offer stands, if you ever need help.” 

“Thank you,” Yoongi whispers, still shocked. Has Byun Baekhyun been sneaking companions out of the city, too? Yoongi never considered the possibility that there could be more elite in this network, working independently of each other. This could change everything. 

Baekhyun pauses in front of the door. “Hold on.” He reaches up and musses Yoongi’s hair, then his own, just slightly. Pats his cheeks so they redden to give off the impression of a blush. Then, he leans forward with a murmured apology and slots his mouth over Yoongi’s, kissing him thoroughly enough to make both of their lips swollen and a little red. 

Yoongi’s still reeling a little when Baekhyun pulls away with a muttered, “there, good enough,” and guides him through the door back to the party. Namjoon is waiting in the same corner by the plants that they left him in, staring into his untouched glass like it holds all the secrets of the universe. 

“He really is excellent, Namjoon-ssi,” Baekhyun says as they approach—mask back in place. “I can see why you decided to keep him.” 

Namjoon tries to smile, but it’s stiff at the edges. “Have fun?” 

Baekhyun hums, handing Yoongi’s leash back. “I also think you should invite me to dinner.” 

Namjoon freezes. “What?” 

“Dinner,” Baekhyun repeats with a smile bordering on sly. “Your place. I think we have some things to talk about.” He fishes a slip of paper that looks like a business card out of his suit pocket and hands it to Namjoon. “Here’s my number. I’m free this weekend.” 

Namjoon takes the card in a limp grip, struggling to get his obvious shock under control. Baekhyun winks at him and then directs his smile to Yoogi. “See you around, Yoongi-ssi.” 

Namjoon’s mouth drops open at the use of Yoongi’s name, but Baekhyun slips away before he can say anything, vanishing into the mingling crowd like a wisp of smoke. 

“...he knows your name,” Namjoon murmurs, turning the card over in his hand. 

“You should invite him to dinner,” is all Yoongi’s willing to risk saying here. “And we should go home.” 

Namjoon glances at him, probably checking for any visible injuries, and he nods slowly. “I’ll get my coat.” 

 

_ _ 

 

“I’m Jimin, what’s your name?” 

His fellow companion stares straight ahead, seemingly determined to ignore him. It’s been ages of stony silence, but Jimin isn’t giving up. 

“I’m on my fourth master,” he lies, stretching his legs out. It’s cramped in here and the lack of light is making him claustrophobic, which he tries to ignore. “And he’s clearly getting tired of me already. So I figure it’s probably only a matter of time before I end up in a boarding house. Or he kills me. That’s more likely, knowing his reputation. What about you?” 

He can’t see well enough to make out how many sets of initials are tattooed on her arm. Her only response is more stony silence. 

“It can’t be good, if you’re locked up here with me instead of out there.” 

Silence. 

“Do you think ignoring me is going to win you reward points? No one is listening. They have no way of knowing to punish us.” 

That earns him a glare. “You’re very bold,” she snaps, then quickly looks away again. 

“Ah, see was that so hard?” Jimin says, smiling and scooting closer. She crosses her arms, refusing to look at him. “And it isn’t boldness. It’s that … what have I got left to lose? My master is getting bored with me and I’m going to die. One way or another. And it won’t be a comfortable end, whatever I do. So what does talking matter?” 

He sighs, tilting his head up to stare at the dark ceiling. “We’re all doomed, aren’t we? How will obedience help?” 

He can feel her resolve cracking and he waits, this time. A long breath, then another. 

Then: “Kang Sohyun is my only master.” 

“Oh?” Jimin shifts to look at her and finds her staring at the wall, her knees drawn up to her chest. 

“I’ve been with her for a very long time. But she doesn’t sell companions when she’s tired of them. They go to the boarding house she secretly owns.” 

Jimin’s stomach twists and he tries to keep the horror out of his voice when he replies, “She … actually owns a boarding house?” 

The woman nods. “It’s very lucrative, but she keeps it a secret. Too … distasteful, even though most of her clients are her fellow elite. Plenty of other companions have vanished from her care. We all know where they go.” 

“And you think…” 

“It’s only a matter of time. Like you said, I’m locked up in here. I’m old and boring and she’s grown sick of me.” 

Jimin almost reaches out to offer a comforting touch, but restrains himself, remembering Yoongi’s and Jungkook’s flinches whenever someone puts an unexpected hand on them. “What’s your name?” 

“I don’t remember. I’ve been here since I was young. Illegally sanctioned from Sector 9. She calls me Blue.” A shrug. “I’ve never known why.” 

Blue. Jimin files that away to remember, even if he never sees her again. “She got any other secrets, Blue?” 

Blue eyes him suspiciously. “Why should I tell you? So you can gain favor with your master and mine can punish me?” 

“No.” Jimin pauses. “Well, yes about the favor part. Maybe if I bring him good information, he won’t kill me as quickly.” He feels a twinge of guilt for the lie—for his relative safety compared to hers. “But I’ll make sure it can’t be traced back to you.” 

“We’re locked up together, it would be obvious.” 

“My master is terrible in many ways, but he’s good at being discreet.” 

He watches the internal war play across Blue’s face in the dark. After a long moment of silence, her shoulders slump in resignation and she leans closer. “Fine. If I can help you … she’s planning something. To do with the new king. Her family’s been feuding with the court and—” 

The door swings open. Blue snaps her mouth shut and jolts back, curling away from Jimin. One of the Uniforms strides into the tiny room and backhands first Blue across the face, then Jimin—hard enough to send him crashing into the wall with a gasp. 

“No talking,” Uniform says, clipped and calm in contrast to the physical violence. “You.” He bends down and grabs Jimin’s leash, hauling him to his feet with a choking grip. “Come with me.” 

Jimin swallows down his angry protests, twisting in the Uniform’s hold to look at Blue, but she’s facing away from him, huddled against the wall in a protective ball. The last glimpse he gets is the taut curve of her bony spine before he’s wrenched outside to the opulent main room and Seokjin waiting nearby. 

“Here you are, sir,” Uniform says, handing Jimin’s leash over. 

Seokjin’s eyes land on Jimin’s cheek, which feels swollen and tender. “He misbehave?” 

“He was talking without permission.” 

Seokjin’s lips press into an angry line that’s convincing enough Jimin feels a shiver run down his spine and wishes for a knife. “I see. I’ll be sure to discipline him further.” He spins on his heel and drags Jimin towards the elevator. “Come on, you useless bitch.” 

Jimin catches himself against the wall when Seokjin shoves him inside and the doors close behind them with a cheerful ding. The camera positioned in the corner doesn’t allow them to relax so Seokjin tugs on Jimin’s leash and says, cold, “I’ll deal with you when we get home. You should know the rules by now.” 

Jimin closes his eyes and keeps his mouth shut, playing the part of stubborn disobedience even though a part of him wants to offer useless apologies and a part of him wants to slit Seokjin’s throat. He’s not sure which one is screaming the loudest. His head feels muddled from the dark and the backhand and the blackness of despair in Blue’s eyes. 

He has no idea how Yoongi and Jungkook have survived in this glimmering horror show for over a year. 

The elevator spills them out into the main lobby and through the revolving doors, Jimin spots Seokjin’s car parked on the curb, waiting to take them home. He allows Seokjin to push him inside first and makes a show of curling up in a ball against the far window, mimicking the defensive pose he saw from Blue in their makeshift dungeon. Seokjin slides in neatly after him—one finger already on the button to roll up the partition. 

As soon as it clicks into place, Seokjin slumps against the seat and his icy mask cracks from his face between one breath and the next, leaving exhaustion and what might be guilt behind. 

“Are you alright?” he asks Jimin, reaching up to quickly undo the entire collar and throwing it on the floor of the car like it’s a live snake. “How hard did he hit you?” 

Jimin’s weirdly glad that Seokjin isn’t apologizing for shoving him around. He’s not here to be treated like glass and they both know the roles they have to play. 

“Hard,” Jimin says, not seeing the point in lying when his cheek is most likely bruised and red. “But I’ve had worse.” 

“I have salve back at my apartment,” Seokjin says and touches Jimin’s neck where bruising has also undoubtedly started to form. The gentle press of his fingers sparks through Jimin’s nerves in a way he refuses to examine. 

“Did you learn anything?” he asks to distract himself from the strange mixture of relief and disappointment he feels when Seokjin pulls his hand away. 

“No,” Seokjin says, weary. “Mostly I dodged Kang Sohyun’s attempts at flirting. You?” 

Jimin nods. Flits his gaze to the partition. How much can the driver hear? It seems Seokjin reads his mind because he leans back in the seat and says soft, “when we get home.” 

Jimin nods again and slumps against the leather, avoiding his reflection in the glass of the window. He doesn’t want to see the smeared makeup or the echoes of violence on his skin. 

Not yet. 

 

_ _ 

 

Hoseok has always hated feeling useless. One winter, he was so sick that he couldn’t even get out of bed for three weeks, forcing Yoongi to look after the kids and the apartment and the network by himself, and guilt churned in Hoseok’s stomach every day until he was back on his feet. It’s worse now, gnawing at his ribcage like a starved dog. 

Yoongi’s out there with Kim Namjoon at some party, letting elite use him, and Hoseok is stuck in this too-fancy apartment with an aching side and a busted leg. 

It makes him want to scream. 

He’s tried reading some of Kim Namjoon’s books, but his skill level has never been anywhere near Yoongi’s so it’s a struggle to comprehend a lot of the dense passages, leaving him feeling even more frustrated and small. Now he’s just lying on the couch, staring up at the apartment’s pristine ceiling and pretending that each tick of the wall clock’s second hand doesn’t echo like a bell inside his head. 

He’s managed to sink into something of a trance when he hears the door open with a faint click. He sits up so fast that his side burns in furious protest, but he ignores it in favor of twisting to peer over the edge of the couch at Yoongi and Namjoon staggering their way into the living room. His gaze focuses on Yoongi first, taking in his mussed hair and the red swell of his mouth. He remembers when Yoongi used to look like this for him —a satisfied smile on his lips as he rested his chin on Hoseok’s stomach and Hoseok trembled through the last aftershocks of his orgasm, muttering praise about Yoongi’s mouth, Yoongi’s clever tongue, Yoongi’s—

He slams the lid shut on those brimming memories as a rush of bile climbs up his throat, burning when he stubbornly forces it back down. 

“Seok-ah,” Yoongi says, voice raspy. “Why are you up?” 

Like he could sleep knowing what was happening out there. 

“Waiting for you,” he says simply, fingers tightening on the couch when Namjoon reaches over to undo the awful collar around Yoongi’s neck, revealing a band of reddened skin.

He watches Namjoon’s fingers brush careful over it and wants to cut them off, then sees the way that Yoongi clearly leans into the comforting touch and doesn’t know what to feel. 

“You should rest,” Yoongi says with obvious worry, leaving Namjoon behind to sink down next to Hoseok on the couch. “Or you’ll never heal, Hoseokie.” 

Hoseok knows this is true, but it doesn’t make accepting it easy. He wants to ask how the party went. A selfish, terrible part of him wants to know just how many elite had Yoongi’s mouth, but he quashes that too. It’s unfair to Yoongi, even if it’s Namjoon Hoseok really wants to interrogate. 

(Do you watch? Do you care? He says this was his idea, how quickly did you decide to go along with it?) 

“We should take care of your neck,” Hoseok says, touching the same place Namjoon did and feeling his heart wrench when Yoongi flinches slightly. 

“I can—” Namjoon starts but Hoseok cuts him off with a glare, stubbornly pushing himself off the couch and taking Yoongi’s hand. 

He needs to do this—to feel useful in some small way—and maybe Namjoon understands that because he doesn’t protest further. 

“I’ll heat up some food,” he says instead and heads for the kitchen. 

Yoongi doesn’t protest, either, just allows Hoseok to guide him into the bathroom and points him in the direction of the first aid kit under the sink. Hoseok finds what looks like homemade salve inside and washes his hands before carefully spreading it around Yoongi’s neck. 

“I’m sorry,” Yoongi whispers, staring at the wall over his shoulder. 

“You don’t have to apologize to me, love,” Hoseok says—the old endearment slipping out before he can stop it. 

“I can tell you’re still angry.” 

“Not at you.” Hoseok sighs. “I hate just sitting here.” 

Yoongi's hand comes up, sliding over Hoseok’s good side and holding on. “I know, but I … you have to heal, I can’t lose you.” 

Hoseok hates the tremor of fear in Yoongi’s voice. In another life, he would have bent his head and pressed his mouth to Yoongi’s, trying to channel assurance he was bad at voicing into the intimate act. But he knows that wouldn’t be welcome now, so he settles for wrapping his arms around Yoongi, once again ignoring the twinge in his side as he hooks his chin on Yoongi’s shoulder. 

“Was it worth it?” he asks.

“It was,” Yoongi answers, hands moving to return the hug. They feel big on Hoseok’s back, grounding. “I promise. We might have a lead.” 

Hoseok just hopes there is enough left of them at the end of all of this, but he doesn’t give voice to those concerns, just pulls Yoongi closer. 

 

_ _ 

 

When Namjoon sent a message to Jackson, asking to meet, he honestly wasn’t expecting a response. But one comes in the form of a text from an unknown number: la fleur tomorrow night 8pm ;).

The restaurant isn’t one that Namjoon has ever been to, but he trusts Jackson’s ability to find somewhere discreet. A quick online search informs him that La Fleur is an upscale rooftop restaurant, catering to the richest of the richest. Entry in anything other than formalwear is not allowed and each dish on the menu has a truly staggering price tag attached. He wonders, for a moment, if Jackson is actually just fucking with him. But then he sees that La Fleur also boasts private rooms for rent, as well as secluded sections of the open roof terrace for those willing to pay enough money. 

So he texts Seokjin to select a suit for Taehyung and to have him ready by 7:30pm on the designated night. 

“You’re sure you can trust Jackson?” Yoongi asks as he watches Namjoon get ready from his spot in the bathroom doorway. He's still recovering from yesterday's party—tired bags under his eyes and a slightly sallow pallor to his skin—but his voice is back to normal, at least. 

“Yes,” Namjoon promises, adjusting his bowtie. “He’s never let me down before and we’ve been working together for years.” 

Yoongi chews on his lip and runs a thumb over the seal on his right wrist. “I should be coming too.” 

Because the leader in him hates being left out of the loop, but Namjoon doesn’t point that out. “No companions. It’ll attract too much attention. And Jackson refuses to play along with that kind of act.” 

Yoongi sighs. “Be careful, then.” 

“I will,” Namjoon promises and heads out to pick up Taehyung. 

It’s strange, he thinks as Taehyung climbs into the back of the car twenty minutes later, seeing him in a suit. He cleans up well. With his already striking features accented by makeup, blue lenses in his eyes, black hair perfectly styled, and earrings that match his glittery suit jacket, he seems like a natural member of Sector 1. 

“These clothes are awful,” he says in his deep rumble, frowning down at the pants that hug his legs. "And I can barely see anything through these things." He blinks, trying to get used to the lenses.

“Comfort and fashion rarely go hand in hand,” Namjoon says and Taehyung shakes his head, adjusting the scarf concealing his Mark. 

“This sector just gets more ridiculous,” he mumbles, and turns his attention to the blur of city lights outside the window.

Of all of Yoongi’s makeshift family, Taehyung by far remains the most enigmatic. Namjoon has been playing metaphorical chess for a long time, but he gets the distinct feeling that Taehyung is several steps ahead of him and no move he makes is going to change that. For better or for worse, Kim Taehyung came here with his own plans in mind and he doesn’t seem eager to share them. 

“How do you know Jackson?” Namjoon still tries to ask. 

“I know of him,” Taehyung corrects, gaze not moving from the passing scenery. “He’s one of the best forgers in the city.” 

“And what exactly do you need him for?” 

The car pulls up in front of the restaurant. The wan smile that crosses Taehyung’s face is cryptic but tinged with a strange sort of sadness. “Something you’re not gonna like, Namjoon-ssi. But you’ll have to trust me.” 

He exits the car before Namjoon can answer, forcing Namjoon to hurry after him, slipping inside the elevator just before the doors close. 

“I don’t know why you just can’t tell me,” he complains to Taehyung as the elevator begins its swift, silent ascent. It’s glass-walled, offering a stunning view of the city that he notices Taehyung is now stubbornly ignoring the higher they get. 

“Because you wouldn’t have brought me,” Taehyung says with a shrug. 

Namjoon frowns at him, wanting to protest further—he doesn’t like being left out of the loop, either—but the elevator doors open to an austere waiting area, manned by a bright-eyed, pink-haired hostess. Like in so many upscale places, one wall is a giant fish tank, stocked with the brightest, most exotic fish that could be shipped in from Busan. The floor is polished granite tile that Namjoon’s shoes squeak faintly against as he approaches the hostess, and the ceiling above them is painted with a replica of the night sky, including the moon and several planets. 

Once Namjoon provides his name, he and Taehyung are ushered to a far corner of the open terrace. Fake plants have been strategically placed around the large table to provide a modicum of privacy, and heating lamps ward off the worst of the winter chill. Seated at the head of the table is a familiar figure, lounging casually in his chair. He grins and waves when he spots Namjoon, beckoning them closer. 

It’s been several years since Namjoon has actually seen Jackson in person, but he remains largely unchanged. His hair is the same reddish brown he had in college, his smile has the same rakish edge—even the silver hoops in his ears are the ones he’s always worn. Looking back, Namjoon can barely remember how they met. Jackson comes from a wealthy family, but they’ve long been shut out of elite social circles due to their non-Korean heritage. He’s not someone university Namjoon would have willingly sought out and yet they ended up friends, anyway. And several years later, Namjoon looked back and remembered Jackson’s late-night rants about the injustices of sanctioning and gambled, reaching out to him for help relocating a companion. Which is how he found out about Jackson’s side job as a forger. Though it's now become more of a main profession, to Namjoon’s knowledge. 

“Kim Namjoon, look at you,” Jackson says, standing to envelope him in a friendly hug. 

Namjoon returns the hug, accepting several hard pats on the back in the process, and then Jackson steps back and gestures to the table. “Please, sit, I’ve already ordered for us.” 

Namjoon fights back a grimace, already knowing that he’s going to be footing the bill. Taehyung takes the seat closest to Jackson, sitting down with casual grace that reminds Namjoon of Jimin. The two of them often seem like strange mirrors of each other. 

A bottle of red wine has already been placed on the table and Jackson pours them both a glass. His attention is mostly directed at Taehyung—open curiosity on his face. “So, you’re Ghost?” 

Namjoon had mentioned Ghost in his initial message, still unsure of the significance behind the moniker. But Jackson clearly isn’t. 

“I am,” Taehyung says, leaving his wine untouched. “And you’re Vasters.” 

Jackson hums, tilting his head. “You’re not what I expected.” 

“You aren’t, either.” 

Namjoon gets the distinct impression that he’s been forgotten and sits back to listen. 

“Well, how can I help you? I don’t see how my set of skills can be of any use to a hacker.” 

“Some things can’t be hacked.” 

Jackson’s eyes narrow. “What kind of things?” 

Taehyung drums his fingers against the table in an idle rhythm. “The Seoul Institute.” 

Namjoon sucks in a sharp breath and Jackson sits up straighter in his seat, surprise taking over his face before he gets his calm mask fixed on again. Now Namjoon understands why Taehyung didn’t want to tell him anything. The idea of breaking into the Seoul Institute bypasses harebrained and falls right into the realm of clinically insane. 

“You’re crazy,” Jackson says with a laugh, giving voice to Namjoon’s own thoughts. “That place is a fucking fortress.” 

“Yes,” Taehyung agrees easily. He still seems so calm. “But no fortress is completely impenetrable.” 

“This one is,” Jackson insists. 

“Not with the right tools. And people. All you have to do is connect me with them. You have contacts in this sector I don’t.” 

“And none of them would be crazy enough to…” Jackson trails off, a thoughtful expression on his face. “Actually, there are a few who would be, for the right incentive. Why the Seoul Institute, though?” 

Because it’s a fortress,” Taehyung says. “Because the monarchy guards it so well. There are secrets in there. Important ones.” 

“I’ve heard the rumors,” Jackson agrees, crossing his arms over his chest. “Doesn’t mean they’re true.” 

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t.” 

“And you’d risk your life for the possibility?” 

“Yes,” Taehyung says, no hesitation. Namjoon almost wants to laugh at the sheer insanity happening in front of him. 

Jackson whistles, low and impressed. “You’re fucking bold, kid.” 

Taehyung leans forward, intent. “So will you help me?” 

Namjoon recognizes the glint in Jackson’s eyes—the one that always comes before the proposal of a scheme or a challenge—and thinks about protesting, but he doubts his opinion would hold any weight. If Yoongi or Hoseok finds out about this, though, he’ll probably be a dead man. 

“Alright,” Jackson agrees, “I’ll help you. Just don’t get us all killed.” 

“Not planning on it,” Taehyung says, extending a hand. 

“Doesn’t mean it won’t happen,” Jackson fires back, but he takes Taehyung's hand. 

They shake. 

Chapter Text

“I have always wanted to believe in a better world. That someday, the monarchy will fall from its golden tower, and Sector 1 will burn, and the tattoo on my neck won’t matter anymore. I’ll stand in the rubble finally equal to all of them. But belief is fickle, easily snuffed out like a candle in a drafty room. What if that better world doesn’t exist? What if all of this blood is for nothing? What do I do then?” 

 

- Excerpt from the private journal of revolutionary figure, Suga

 

 

 

_ _ 

 

The cracking edge of the skyscraper roof groans beneath his boots—small chunks of concrete breaking off to tumble into the dark abyss below. This high up, he can’t see the ground, doesn’t know how many stories he would fall if he jumped. There is only inky shadow that yawns like the black holes he read about in an Old World book—gravity wells that can even swallow stars. He backs up a terrified step and more cracks spiderweb through the concrete, widening rapidly like breaking ice on a frozen lake. 

“It’s pointless,” a rasping voice says from behind him and he whirls to see … himself. Or rather a version of himself. One whose hair has been dyed a soft pink, whose face has been adorned with makeup, whose clothes are pretty and shimmering. 

(Whose jaw sports bruises in the shape of clenched fingers, whose neck is encased with a metal collar, whose eyes are terrifyingly empty behind blue decorative lenses.)

“You can’t escape. Don’t you know that already?” the illusion(?) asks, cocking its head to one side. The metal of the collar digs into its pale neck and a trickle of red blood spills down across the gold. Yoongi feels the echoing pain of it beneath his own skin. 

“I have to try.” Yoongi backs up another step. A large piece breaks free from the roof, but makes no sound as it falls. Perhaps there isn’t any ground below at all. 

“Why?” the illusion asks. “You’ll never be free. Shouldn’t you just accept your fate?” 

“I’ll die first,” Yoongi snarls, turning towards the edge. 

Behind him, the illusion laughs, loud and almost manic. “Don’t you know?” it asks, voice twisting dark and furious. 

Yoongi gasps as pain flares in his veins like an explosion, emanating from his arms out through the rest of his body. It brings him crashing to his knees, staring down at the red bands encircling his wrists. He sobs—a useless, instinctive action—and curls further into a ball, trying to escape the agony even though he knows it’s futile. Dimly, he feels metal digging into his neck, the ache of bruising along his jaw. 

Boots step into his view and he tilts his head up, blinking through tear-blurred eyes at the illusion. Or is this the real him? This one dressed in the same clothes he had on the day he was sanctioned: worn black combat boots, black pants with a patch on one knee, a black coat mended over and over again, hair free of dye and skin clear of wounds. 

“Don’t you get it?” the illusion, the real him, says, crouching down. His face twists in loathing, then settles into sadness. “You’re already dead.” 

 

_ _ 

 

Wait. Rewind.  

 

_ _ 

 

He wishes he was dead. He wants to die. To close his eyes and never fucking wake up again. Then he wouldn’t have to face the bloody sheets twisted around his body, or the ache so deep inside of him, he doesn’t think it will ever heal. He wouldn’t have to struggle to breathe through the stench of bile that’s heavy in this room or the mess on his skin from a combination of vomit, blood, and someone else’s come. His head aches from the drugs, his arms feel like they’re about to fall off—still tied to the headboard with two lengths of rope—and he wants to die. 

(Please, gods, why can’t he die?)

Approaching footsteps, and he lets out an instinctive, horrified whimper at what is probably about to happen. 

(No more—he can’t take any more, it hurts so bad already, please...) 

But the man who comes into view isn’t Third Master, with his handsome, sneering face, just his master’s head servant, who oversees the house. The eyes that peer down at him contain only distant pity, set in a too-thin face. He doesn’t have a name to go with this face—one has never been offered, because why should pets know the name of someone above them? So he’s taken to referring to the man as Scarecrow, because of his height and his long, almost spindly limbs. 

“You vomited again,” Scarecrow says with a sigh and he cringes back against the bed in shame, hoping he won’t be punished. Sometimes, Scarecrow hits him for disobedience, but the worst is when Scarecrow tells Third Master and then the real horror starts. He knows better than to apologize, though. Pets don’t talk. 

However, Scarecrow merely shakes his head and reaches up to untie him. His arms flop to the bed like dead fish and he wheezes in a grateful breath. 

“Get up, boy,” Scarecrow orders. 

He hurries to comply, swallowing back all the sounds of pain burning in his throat as his battered body protests. The pain is nearly enough to make him vomit a second time, but he forces that down too—terrified of what the price might be for such an indiscretion. Once he’s finally upright, he subtly leans against the bed to steady himself and ignores the horrible sensation of fluid trickling down the insides of his thighs. He feels filthy, standing here naked with all his wounds and mess on display, and the disgusted curl of Scarecrow’s upper lip just reinforces how awful he must look. 

“Come,” Scarecrow says, gesturing for him to follow. Third Master usually demands that he crawl, but Scarecrow doesn’t care for such displays, so he merely limps forward, stumbling across the tiled floor to the adjacent bathroom where Scarecrow has already turned on the shower.

The water pressure is high and the temperature is freezing. He can’t help the pained, sobbing cry that finally escapes when he’s shoved under the spray. 

“Quiet,” Scarecrow hisses and he grits his teeth to obey, pressing his hands against the glass so he doesn’t fall as his body trembles. 

Scarecrow reaches up and removes the showerhead from its holder. Yoongi (that’s still his name, right?) flinches as it’s aimed at his face, then down his chest, and finally between his legs. It’s so cold, it hurts so much. He’s still bleeding inside, he can feel it—can see the red water swirling down the drain as the shower finally turns off. He’s glad for the fog of the drugs, at least. He doesn’t remember what happened last night or who used him and he hopes it stays that way. 

“Out,” Scarecrow says, continuing his usual stream of one-word commands. 

Yoongi wobbles out of the shower and lets himself be roughly toweled down. He isn’t given anything to cover himself with, but at least he’s clean. He’ll take small mercies. 

Scarecrow leads him back into the bedroom and orders him to his knees in the corner. He sinks down slowly, careful not to make any noise, and watches through the damp falls of his bangs as Scarecrow efficiently strips the bed of the ruined sheets and opens the curtains to let the weak morning light in. There are other staff in the household, but for some reason Scarecrow always insists on performing these cleanup duties himself. Yoongi knows not to ask why, it’s not something an object needs to know. At least Scarecrow doesn’t touch him like Third Master does. 

(Small mercies.) 

Once Scarecrow has finished with the bed, he goes to the closet and retrieves a familiar black object. Yoongi shudders at the sight of it, flinching back against the chair. Pity once again radiates from Scarecrow’s eyes, but he merely says, “hold still,” as he fits the muzzle over Yoongi’s face. The attached gag slips securely between Yoongi’s teeth, silencing him, and the straps dig into the back of his skull. 

Please, he thinks as he feels reflexive, helpless tears drip down his cheeks, let me die.  It would be easy to suffocate him, or strangle him with the new bedsheets. Scarecrow could tell Third Master that the poor little companion choked to death on his own vomit, it’s happened before—happened to the boy that used to be here with him, months or weeks or years ago. 

But he knows better. He’s only going to die when Third Master decides to kill him, and it will be agonizing and slow and cruel—just like his current existence. 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind. 

 

_ _ 

 

“You’re lucky,” the Wife says as she glares at him, “that I don’t just kill you.” 

She hates him. Hates that Second Master so often fucks him instead of her, that’s him in their marriage bed several nights a week while she retires to a guest room to stew in silence. The sight of her furious face makes him want to laugh—at her, at her pathetic anger. Can’t she see that her husband simply uses him? That it’s her he touches with love and devotion and it’s Yoongi he keeps as a canvas to vent his anger and violence onto? 

Probably not. She’s spoiled and arrogant and blind to so much. 

(She hates him, but Yoongi hates her too.) 

“Do it,” he whispers, meeting her eyes just to see her flinch. Her husband isn’t home—out for a business meeting this afternoon—and Yoongi’s own anger makes him bold. “Kill me.” 

Her pretty face contorts in a grimace of rage and she surges up from her seat on the couch. She has so many silver bracelets on her wrists that they jangle when she moves and he listens as she stalks to the kitchen. When she returns, she’s holding a knife, and now it’s Yoongi’s turn to flinch, berating himself for his moment of recklessness. She probably won’t actually kill him without Second Master’s approval, but there are still so many ways to hurt him. 

“Maybe,” she says, wrapping her fingers around his collar to hold him still and pressing the blade of the knife to the corner of his mouth, “I should just cut out your tongue instead.” 

Panic roars through his brain, sweeping everything else away. He shakes his head, quivering when he feels the blade actually cut his skin and blood drip down his chin. 

“That’s right,” the Wife says, gleeful. “Not so brave now, are you?” He whines, trying to appease her. She laughs and tightens her grip. “Apologize, pet.” 

“Sorry,” Yoongi gasps, trying not to move his mouth too much and let the knife cut him further. “Sorry, mistress, I’m sorry, please don’t, please….” 

He hates himself for begging like this, but tells the seething, furious voice in his head that they have to survive. Whatever it takes. 

She pauses, pretending to contemplate, and he plays her game, letting more words spill out of his mouth, “I’ll be good, I promise, I’ll do anything you want, please, please—” 

“Quiet,” she snaps and he clicks his mouth shut, tasting blood. “I suppose there are still some good uses for your tongue.” 

Mercifully, she sets the knife aside and unties his leash from the leg of the armchair. He lets himself be dragged across the room to the couch without protest, already knowing where this is going. So he tucks his mind away somewhere safe: a construction of the apartment back in Sector 10. Hoseok is there, asleep on the mattress with a peaceful expression on his face. In his mind, Yoongi lies down beside him, even as he hears the sound of a zipper and manicured nails dig into his scalp, tugging him forward. 

Hoseok opens his eyes and smiles, lifting an arm so that Yoongi can press against his side. He’s warm and safe and familiar and Yoongi burrows into him. Focuses on his scent instead of the flesh beneath his tongue as he does his best to pleasure the Wife like she wants. 

“That’s it, pet,” she says, voice already a little breathy. He’s not sure if it’s his mouth or his submission that has her so easily riled up, but it doesn’t matter. 

In his mind, Hoseok presses a kiss to his temple and murmurs, it’s okay, love. I’m here. 

Don’t be afraid. 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind. 

 

_ _ 

 

He tugs on the chains that have him secured to the wall, hating the fear settled in his stomach like a boulder, pressing down. He knew this was coming, ever since the auctioneer typed sold next to his name in the house’s database. Ever since a needle in his neck and his arm—one to sedate him, one to bleed initials into his skin in black ink. 

You’ll earn a bed, his new master said when he woke up in this windowless room, already naked and chained to the wall. When you’re good. 

He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to scream, fight, rip the man’s face off with his fingernails if that’s what it takes. He won’t go quietly, he doesn’t care what the other companions advised him at the auction house. 

He won’t, he won’t. 

The door clicks open and his new master enters. His hair is tinged with gray and his body has softened from years of opulence. Perhaps he was handsome once, but he seems grotesque to Yoongi as he crosses the room, a limp to his step. He has a long stick with a pronged end and Yoongi bares his teeth as he recognizes it as the same electric prod the trainers liked to use in the auction house. 

“My, look at you,” the bastard says, crouching next to Yoongi’s prone body. “Such an animal.” 

He stabs the prod into Yoongi’s side and Yoongi hisses through the electric jolt of pain, twisting away. The shithead laughs. 

“Like a worm on a hook,” he says, delighted, and touches the prod to Yoongi stomach. Yoongi snarls and kicks out, managing to slam his heel into the motherfucker’s knee hard enough to stagger him. 

That earns him another shock to his thigh and a backhand across the face, but he doesn’t care, just kicks out again, kneeing his “master” in the stomach when he leans over Yoongi. The asshole absorbs the blow and shakes his head. 

“Fight all you want now, little bitch,” he says and presses his foot to Yoongi’s neck, cutting off his air. Yoongi wheezes and jerks at the chains, trying to free himself from the wall on pure instinct. “You’ll submit, eventually. I’ve got plenty of time.” 

Black bleeds into Yoongi’s vision, but the pressure lifts before he can fully pass out, leaving him gasping and coughing, desperately drawing air into his lungs. He knows he’ll probably lose, eventually. He isn’t naive, or stupid, but every fight means that the bastard punishes him with the prod or a whip or a blow and doesn’t touch him beyond that. 

He’ll take this pain over being fucked. For as long as he can. 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind. 

 

_ _ 

 

(“Fuck me,” Jungkook begs, cupping Yoongi’s face with trembling hands, and Yoongi’s heart burns to ash in his chest.) 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind. Rewind.

 

_ _ 

 

Fingers in his mouth that taste like ash and nicotine, even though they’re sprayed with expensive perfume. The auction house representative hums as he examines Yoongi’s teeth and forces his jaw open. Yoongi gags as the fingers press down on his tongue, eyes watering. Mercifully, they withdraw without pushing in any further, and the representative wipes his hands on an embroidered handkerchief before gripping Yoongi’s chin and turning his head to the left, then the right. 

Yoongi can’t imagine he looks very appealing. The police beat him in an attempt to get information and he’s been locked up in a cell for several days without access to a shower or even a toilet that wasn’t a bucket in the corner. One eye is swollen shut and the stench of himself is pugnant in his own nostrils, but doesn’t seem to be fazing the representative. 

“Hmm, he’s pretty enough,” the representative says, eyes raking down Yoongi’s bare body like he’s assessing merchandize in a store. Yoongi fights the urge to cover himself, keeping his spine straight and his gaze defiant. “Small, too, that’ll sell well. We’ll take him.” 

“Excellent,” says the police captain, relief clear in her voice. “I’ll get his papers.” 

Yoongi hopes, desperately, that Jungkook has been chosen for the factories or the greenhouse district instead. It’s backbreaking work, with a short life expectancy, but it’s better than where Yoongi is headed. Better than life as a companion at the feet of sadistic elite, an object for their pleasure and their violence and nothing else. 

But there is no one listening to his prayers, it seems, because Jungkook is huddled in the back of the auction house van when Yoongi’s thrown inside, already chained to the bench by his wrists. He looks just as battered and the grief on his face is a reflection of Yoongi’s. 

“Hyung,” he murmurs sadly, once Yoongi has been chained in place and the doors slam shut, sealing them inside. 

“I’m sorry, Jungkook-ah,” Yoongi rasps, shifting forward. There isn’t much give to the chain, and the handcuffs cut into his wrists, but he manages to close the distance between them enough to press his forehead to Jungkook’s. “I’m so sorry.” 

“It’s okay,” Jungkook whispers. “We’ll be okay.” 

Yoongi knows it’s a lie, but he doesn’t correct Jungkook. Maybe they both need something false to believe in right now.

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind, rewind. 

 

_ _ 

 

“Tell me the truth,” the police captain snaps, slamming his head onto the table hard enough to knock the breath out of him. “What were you carrying before you were arrested? How did you obtain it?” 

Yoongi presses his lips together in stubborn silence. They won’t get anything out of him and the sooner they accept that, the better. 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind, rewind, rewind. 

 

_ _ 

 

Yoongi skids to a halt at the edge of the roof, gasping as he realizes that the gap between crumbling buildings it too big to jump. There’s no way down, no way out—at least not for him, but… 

“Go,” he says, turning to Jungkook. “You can make it.” Jungkook is faster and stronger than him, a jump like this should be nothing. “I’ll distract them long enough for you to get away.” 

Jungkook’s face is a study of horror beneath the dirt and grime from their mad dash through the rotting condemned zone. The info about the guard rotations that Taehyung passed along to them was wrong and they walked right into a patrol, right into a fucking trap, and now...

Go,” Yoongi repeats, desperate. He can hear boots on the rickety stairs, angry voices getting louder as the city police make their way to the roof. “ Now, Jungkook-ah.” 

“I’m not leaving you,” says Jungkook. Stubborn, stupid Jungkook—and Yoongi watches in shock as he throws the bag of contraband equipment off the edge of the roof, into the tangled ruin below. 

“Jeon Jungkook, if you don’t fucking run,” Yoongi snarls, terror welling up in his chest like a howling storm. 

But it’s too late. It’s already too late. The door they flimsily tried to barricade crashes open from a well-placed kick and the police stream on to the roof like angry bees, their weapons raised. Jungkook lifts his chin in defiance and Yoongi wants to scream—at him, at the police—but he knows better. This is about survival now. 

“On your knees!” The officer in front says, her voice distorted by her helmet mic and her face obscured beneath a black visor. 

Jungkook goes down first and Yoongi follows, the rough concrete digging into his skin through the thin barrier of his pants. He raises his hands in submission, moving on autopilot as another officer stalks forward and sinks a rough hand into Yoongi’s hair. Yanks his head to the side to expose Yoongi’s neck to the glare of his flashlight. 

“Two strikes,” the officer announces, pressing a thumb against Yoongi’s Mark and the lines inked into his skin below it. 

Next to them, Jungkook gets the same treatment. “Two strikes here too.” 

“Take them in,” the police captain says, her weapon still raised. 

Yoongi grits his teeth as his arms are yanked behind his back and handcuffs snap around his wrists. The officer pulls him to his feet with a tight grip on the sleeve of his coat, shoving him so hard he nearly falls over again. 

“Move,” he snaps. “Try to run and we put a bullet in both your brains.” 

Yoongi wonders, with a mixture of fury and despair, if that would be preferable to what’s about to happen. 

 

_ _ 

 

Rewind…

 

_ _ 

 

Yoongi stares down at the man groveling at his feet with dispassion. His pleas and denials echo through the empty warehouse, bouncing off old, rusting metal with no one to hear. 

“Stop lying, we know the informant was you. Do you know what you’ve cost us?” Yoongi asks, hands in the pockets of his coat. With a mask over the lower half of his face and his hood pulled up, he knows what kind of intimidating figure he makes, in spite of his smaller stature, and it’s gratifying to see the rat flinch. “Do you know what you’ve done? ” 

“Four people sanctioned,” Jimin says from his left, flicking a knife open and closed in a motion that would be casual if not for the angry tension in his jaw and neck, visible even behind his face mask, and the steel in his eyes. “Two of them with families.” 

“All because you wanted to make a few extra won,” Yoongi finishes, letting his own fury bleed into his voice. 

It was only a matter of time before someone betrayed them—he’d been expecting it. But not like this. Not in the middle of one of the coldest winters on record and a sector-wide crackdown that’s already making smuggling goods in hard. Not when there are several families in desperate need of the medicine and supplies he promised to bring them. Not with such a bad fallout, either. Four people he cared about and trusted, four of his fellow Marked—gone between one breath and the next because someone got greedy. 

He would have understood, if the man sniveling in front of him had people that he needed to protect. He’s scared, thinking about what he might do if it was Taehyung or Jimin or Jungkook or Hoseok on the line. But this coward has no one but himself to look after. He’s not even a fucking Marked —just someone who got on the wrong side of the crown and was banished to poverty in Sector 10. His information was useful, which is why Yoongi decided to recruit him, but he’s kicking himself now for that mistake. 

“Please,” the man says, raising his bound hands in supplication. He looks pathetic, with tears and snot all over his face. All Yoongi can think about are the children that no longer have parents, left alone to face the harsh reality of Sector 10. “Please, I’m sorry.” 

“Because you got caught,” Yoongi snaps. If Jimin hadn’t dug out the source of the leak, this asshole would have happily spent the winter in his upgraded quarters, living off the luxuries of his betrayal. 

“What do you want to do with him?” Jimin asks, snapping the knife open again. 

The rat whimpers at the clear implication. 

“Kill him,” Yoongi says without hesitation. He doesn’t want more blood on his or Jimin’s hands, but they can’t let the informant live with what he knows, or what he’s done.

 Jimin nods and Yoongi forces himself not to turn away as Jimin stalks forward and slits the man’s throat, silencing him with brutal efficiency. 

“I’ll deal with the body,” Jimin says when the man’s dying gasps have faded into quiet, his voice still tight with anger. 

“I’ll get us those supplies,” Yoongi says, finally turning towards the warehouse door. 

“Hyung.” 

“I’ll be careful,” Yoongi promises, smiling faintly over his shoulder at Jimin, trying to assuage the worry evident on Jimin’s face. “But we can’t stop now.” 

Or more people will die. 

With that thought in his mind, he shoulders his way outside into the snow. He knows where to go to get what he needs and he has the information Taehyung passed along to him tucked into his pocket. Hopefully it will be enough to encourage their contact into moving the goods as promised, in spite of the raid. 

He finds the woman in Sector 4, on her usual smoke break between deliveries. She likes to drift away from the factory pick up area and the prying eyes of her supervisors to a quiet spot near the boundary fence, which fortunately makes it easy for Yoongi to talk to her. She doesn’t look surprised when he materializes out of the shadows, still wearing his mask, just shakes her head at him. 

“Absolutely not.” 

“We had a deal,” Yoongi presses, crossing his arms over his chest. 

“That was before the police decided to crack down on everyone. I’m not getting arrested over this.” 

“You wouldn’t get arrested,” Yoongi says. “All you need to do is park near the condemned zone in Sector 5 for ten minutes. You can tell your supervisors you were robbed. It’s happened before, plenty of times. At the most, you’ll get a fine, and what we’re paying you will already be more than enough to compensate for that.” 

It hadn’t been easy, acquiring the money, but Taehyung was able to carefully sift it out of a sector official’s bank account and then turn it into cash that was then exchanged for ration cards, the true gold of the Outer Sectors. The cards will be more than enough to let this woman and her family live in relative comfort through the winter, as long as they’re careful about concealing just how many they have. 

“It’s too dangerous,” she insists with a shake of her head and Yoongi sighs. 

He likes her, she’s tough as nails and she doesn’t look down on him because of his status. He didn’t want to have to resort to this, but desperate times. 

“I’ll sweeten the deal, then.” 

“With what?” 

“Information.” 

She arches an eyebrow at him, blowing out a stream of smoke from her cigarette. 

“Your husband’s having an affair,” Yoongi says without preamble and watches her eyes widen and her mouth drop open. “Has been for months. But you already suspected that, didn’t you?” 

“How do you know that—” 

“There are pictures on here,” Yoongi says, handing over the flash drive from Taehyung. Her husband hadn’t been exactly careful, and it was easy for Taehyung to locate CCTV footage of him entering an apartment building with a woman not his wife on his arm. “And I’ll give you more information once you deliver the supplies.” 

She turns the flash drive over in her palm and shakes her head. “Fucking bastard.” When she looks up at him, her eyes blaze. “Fine. You’ll get your supplies. Just give me everything after so I can go kill him.” 

“Deal,” Yoongi says and reaches out to shake her hand. 

The already agreed upon rendezvous is in a few hours, giving Yoongi enough time to round up Jungkook and a few other trusted members of the network. They wait in the shadows of the crumbling Old World buildings, tension thick in the air. 

“Do you really think she’ll show, hyung?” Jungkook asks from behind his own mask. He has a baseball bat loosely held in one hand, to break the windows of the truck when the time comes to stage their “robbery.” 

“She’ll show,” Yoongi says with a confidence he doesn’t entirely feel. He’s gambling that the driver’s anger will hopefully be enough for her to take the risk, but there are no guarantees. 

He crouches in the snow, rubbing his hands together to warm them up. Hopefully there won’t be any backlash in Sector 10 for what they’re about to do. It helps that they’re already under a crackdown and that there are gangs operating in Sector 8 who have nothing to do with the Marked and this will easily be blamed on them. 

Whatever Jungkook might have said in response is drowned out by the rumble of an approaching truck. As promised, it parks only a few meters away, right on the edge of the condemned zone. 

“Go,” Yoongi whispers as the truck turns off and Jungkook darts forward like a shadow, followed by the others. 

Yoongi picks up his own bat and moves at a more sedate pace, double checking that they’re alone. Patrols shouldn’t be headed this way for at least another hour, but caution is always important. Thankfully, no one raises any alarms as the driver steps out of the truck, her eyes a little wide. 

“It’ll be okay,” Jungkook tells her. “Open the back.” 

She complies, unlocking the back of the truck and allowing Jungkook to hope inside. He immediately begins passing down boxes to the others, who carry them into the shadows to be loaded onto their own borrowed truck. The driver watches off to the side, wringing her hands nervously. 

Yoongi taps her on the shoulder and hands her a second flash drive. “Everything’s on here,” he says. “Who he’s been seeing and when, what he’s withdrawing funds from your joint account for—all of it.” 

She nods and pockets the drive, still keeping one wary eye on Jungkook. 

“Do you remember the plan?” Yoongi asks. 

“Yeah,” she says, calmer now. “I had a flat tire to I pulled off here to take a look at it. Got attacked by a gang from Sector 8—recognized the insignia on their jackets. They knocked me out and broke open the truck, took everything inside. I called it in as soon as I came to.” 

“Good,” Yoongi says. “And I’m sorry.” 

“Just do it,” she snaps, bracing herself. 

He knocks her out fast, a swift and calculated blow to the head, and catches her as she slumps toward the ground, laying her down next to the driver’s side of the truck. 

“We have everything,” Jungkook says from behind him and Yoongi nods, picking up his bat. 

Together, he and Jungkook smash the windshield and both the driver and passenger side windows of the truck. They leave the back open and the key in the lock, making it look like they stole it from the driver’s unconscious body. Lastly, Jungkook spray paints a gang insignia on the side of the truck for good measure: a serpent, coiled and ready to strike. It’s one of the more prominent Sector 8 gangs, but Yoongi knows their current leader and has made sure that she owes him several favors, so there shouldn’t be any retaliation for this. She has half of that sector’s police in her pocket, anyway, and it isn’t a big enough theft to alert the crown. They should be in the clear. 

“Let’s go,” Yoongi says. 

The others have already scattered—know to make their own way back to avoid suspicion—so Yoongi follows Jungkook to their truck and clambers into the passenger seat. It’s an Old World model, so rusted and old that it barely runs, but a merchant was willing to loan it to them for a few extra ration cards, no questions asked. Plenty of trucks like these rumble around Sector 10, transporting various goods, as well as salvage from the condemned zone, so hopefully none of the police will check on them. 

Jungkook starts the truck, curling gloved hands over the steering wheel. It rattles to life with a painful roar, vibrating around them like a living thing. 

“At least we don’t have to drive too far,” Jungkook mutters and eases out of their hiding spot, heading for the boundary. 

They take a winding, backwards route to Sector 10 and the rendezvous point in an alley behind several shops. Marked aren’t allowed to own businesses, but the proprietor of the convenience store, Jang Dahye, illegally married a Marked woman, and so has been sympathetic to their cause for years. She’s waiting for them when Jungkook pulls up, relief clear on her face. 

“Thank god you made it,” she whispers, rushing forward as they climb down from the truck. “We caused a distraction in the next district so that should keep the police off our backs for a few hours.” 

We probably means her wife, Chungha, Taehyung, and Hoseok. 

“I thought Chungha was sick,” Yoongi murmurs as they start unloading boxes. She’s one of the people they promised medicine to. 

“She is,” Dahye says with a snort and a shake of her head. “But she refused to sit this out, of course.” 

Yoongi vows to pay her back for the help somehow as he follows Dahye into the shop and down the steps concealed by a secret trap door into the cellar. Dahye has never told them just how she managed to put a basement in her shop and he’s never asked. It could be her own doing or a leftover from the Old World, but either way it isn’t on any archived building plans and so no city officials know of its existence. It’s the perfect place to store contraband, considering the trap door is located behind the register and almost always concealed with a mat. 

As quickly as possible, they load the boxes on the shelves, sorting them by categories of food, medicine, blankets, and other goods. Yoongi is eternally grateful for the city’s practice of throwing numerous different kinds of supplies onto the same truck when delivering to the middle and Outer Sectors, even if it’s the product of constant shortages. At least this one thing makes their work a little easier. 

“I’ll get the message out through the usual channels,” Dahye says once everything has been sorted. “We’ll prioritize anyone sick and with small children.” She puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezes tight. “Thank you, Suga-ssi. I … we can’t thank you enough.” 

Yoongi shifts his weight, uncomfortable with the gratitude. It’s not why he does this—he didn’t start the network for recognition, or even to stir up a revolution, even though burning Sector 1 to the ground remains a dream. He did it because he looked around at his fellow marked, all starving and sick and downtrodden like him, and decided that he was going to help them. Whatever it fucking took. 

“Don’t thank me,” he murmurs to Dahye now. “You’re risking a lot, too, Dahye-ssi. Just please make sure all of this goes where it needs to.” 

“I will,” Dahye promises. 

Jungkook bows to her, ever polite, and together him and Yoongi climb the steps back out into the night. 

 

_ _ 

 

Pause. Listen. 

 

_ _ 

 

Every Marked in the Outer Sectors knew Suga. Perhaps not what he looked like, or his real name, but they heard his writings broadcast over underground radio channels and stories of him spread by word of mouth like a quiet wildfire. Suga, who kept people from starving in the winters. Suga, who saved a group of children from illegal sanctioning. Suga, who took a strike for a fellow Marked so that he could stay with his family. Suga, who shut down police servers during a crackdown, allowing everyone time to hide or prepare for searches of their apartments. Suga, who has so far dodged all attempts to arrest him or uncover his identity. 

Suga the protector. 

Suga the revolutionary. 

Suga the hero. 

But as spring dawns, another quiet wildfire is spreading, whispered from Marked to Marked where prying eyes can’t hear: Suga has been sanctioned. The police don’t know who they’ve captured, or he would have been executed, so he is a prisoner now—stuck in the factories or the greenhouses or Sector 1. Hope makes one broadcast with subtle allusions to a rescue mission, then begs everyone to remain quiet. 

The monarchy can’t know, or they will lose Suga forever. 

So the Outer Sectors mourn in secret, with their heads down. Gradually, hundreds of drawings begin to appear on the sides of buildings throughout Sectors 8, 9, and 10—small, barely noticeable unless you’re looking for them, but all of the same thing: 

A magpie. 

A symbol of good fortune, often associated with Suga’s network by those that he worked so hard to help. Suga himself may be gone, but his legacy survives—the Marked of the Outer Sectors are going to ensure it. 

And one summer morning, a mural that is impossible to miss appears on the side of an apartment building in Sector 10, starting at the ground and extending up nearly two stories. It’s of a man, standing with his back turned and looking over his shoulder. He has a hood pulled up over his head and a face mask obscures most of his features, but across the back of his black coat is a magpie in flight—its blue and white wings spread to catch an invisible wind. 

(Suga the immortal.) 

“Hyung,” Park Jimin whispers, snagging the sleeve of the man next to him. “Hyung, look.” 

“I see it,” Jung Hoseok says, eyes watering. Jimin takes his hand, threading their fingers together, and Taehyung snags his other one, squeezing tight. The tears spill over, catching on the fabric of Hoseok’s mask. 

“I see,” he whispers with awe and grief. “I see.” 

 

_ _ 

 

Forward.

 

_ _ 

 

Remember, says one of the trainers at the auction house, digging a boot into Yoongi’s vulnerable stomach, you are nothing. 

You’re mine, the first master snarls as he pressed Yoongi’s tear-streaked face to the concrete floor. Never forget that. 

Beg me, slut, the second master demands as Yoongi shakes from the drugs burning in his veins, beg me for what you need. 

I wonder, the third master contemplates, flicking a knife open with an ominous click, what would happen if I fucked you with this? (And a desperate, panic-fueled fire rages to life in Yoongi’s blood, strong enough that he turns to grab the closest weapon he can—ready to at least die on his feet.) 

Get up, dog, sneers the auctioneer at Yoongi’s battered form, curled up on the cot of his cell, it looks like someone might still want to buy you, as much as I’d rather send you to a boarding house. 

One more fight, Yoongi tells himself as he obeys, accepting the robe that’s thrown at him. Just one more. 

“You’re already dead,” Suga says, fingers knotted in Yoongi’s hair as the roof slowly collapses around them. “Why keep protesting? There’s nothing left of you. You’re just a used up, rotting shell.” 

“Stop,” Yoongi hiccups as the bands on his wrists continue to burn. “Stop…” 

The agony is blinding and he wheezes as Suga wrenches his head back, blinking up at the dark expanse of sky overhead—gathering storm clouds blot out the moon and the stars, just like they did the night he and Jungkook knelt on this roof and let the police take them. He can feel a scream building in his throat, bile rushing up in response to the pain of the nanotech and—

He sits up in bed, vomiting onto the blankets. His throat burns and he gasps and coughs as he tries to get air back in his lungs, stop the hyperventilating. Someone’s in bed with him and they’re sitting up, too, making a shocked sound. His panicked brain scrambles for an identity—First Master? Second? Third? Does he apologize? Grovel in silence? Beg?

Hands land on his shoulders and he flinches violently, trying to brace himself for a blow. Someone’s speaking, but the words are muddled and murky—he can’t make them out over the ringing in his ears and the loud wheeze of his own breath. 

The hands pull him back against a warm chest and arms wrap around his waist but nothing else happens—no blows, no fingers around his throat. Second Master, then? He likes to wait, likes to listen to Yoongi beg before he doles out a sufficient punishment. 

“I’m sorry,” Yoongi croaks through his aching throat. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I—” 

The arms tighten. The voice speaks again—the words a little clearer now. “Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay, hyung. Just breathe.” 

Hyung? 

That can’t be… the others aren’t here. They haven’t been for so long, he must be hallucinating still. 

“Yoongi,” the voice says and it sounds familiar. Fourth Master … no, wait, that isn’t right, he's not supposed to call him that it's... 

Namjoon. It’s Namjoon. 

“Yoongi, I need you to breathe with me, okay?" Namjoon says. "In.” Yoongi sucks in a stuttering breath, listening to Namjoon count slowly. “And out.” He lets the air slowly spill past his parted lips. “That’s good, hyung. Now in again.” 

Namjoon keeps going until Yoongi’s breathing normally, then he reaches over and flicks on the lamp. Yoongi flinches at the sight of the ruined bed covers and the state of his own clothes. 

Pathetic, Scarecrow hisses in his mind. 

But Namjoon doesn’t seem angry, just keeps holding him close as he continues to calm down from the panic attack. Slowly, he puts the pieces together: a party, drugs, Namjoon tying him to the bed. Fuck, this is the second time tonight Namjoon will have to change the sheets. Yoongi’s not even sure what set off a nightmare this bad—if it was the high dose of drugs he was given or just his brain deciding to fuck with him for the hell of it. Either way, he feels small and disgusting and wrung out. Also for the second time in a single night. 

(At least he’s used to that.) 

“Hey,” Namjoon says with his usual gentleness, “let’s get cleaned up, okay?” 

He nods on autopilot and lets Namjoon help him out of the bed and across the apartment to the bathroom—Namjoon’s hand warm in his own. 

Not Scarecrow, he tries to remind himself as Namjoon turns on the shower, but it’s hard with everything boiling so close to the surface—all these ghosts hissing in his ears. 

“Do you want to be alone?” Namjoon asks, sounding dubious about the prospect. Probably because Yoongi is holding himself up with a hand on the counter and can feel how badly he’s still shaking, wracked by his own private earthquake. 

“No,” he rasps, scraping his nails against the granite. 

“Okay,” Namjoon replies, infinitely patient. “Can I help you, then?” 

Yoongi nods and squeezes his eyes shut as Namjoon shuffles forward and carefully helps him out of his stained sleep clothes. He leaves Yoongi’s underwear, though, and Yoongi’s grateful for small mercies. Still has to grit his teeth and brace himself as Namjoon guides him under the shower spray, eyes flying open when he realizes that it isn’t freezing. 

“Okay?” Namjoon asks him, hovering just outside and still holding Yoongi’s hand. 

“It’s warm,” Yoongi whispers. 

“Too hot?” 

Yoongi shakes his head frantically and reaches for the sponge with his free hand, cleaning his torso and face. Mercifully, nothing got in his hair, so he doesn’t bother with shampoo, just signals to Namjoon that he’s done and lets Namjoon wrap him in a giant fluffy towel before ducking under the spray to rinse himself off, as well. Yoongi leans back against the counter and continues taking calming breaths, trying his best to stay grounded. 

He isn’t bleeding. Namjoon isn’t going to hurt him. There is no muzzle or chain waiting. He’s safe, for the time being. 

“Okay,” Namjoon says, stepping out of the shower and wrapping another towel around himself. “I’m going to go remake the bed and I’ll bring a set of clothes back. Just wait here, hyung.” 

Yoongi nods. Namjoon leaves the door open as he goes and Yoongi’s grateful for that, too. This way he can see out into the living room and hear Namjoon moving around. This way he doesn’t feel locked up. 

He drifts in and out of awareness and isn’t sure how much time has passed once Namjoon materializes again, fully dressed and carrying a bundle of clothes for Yoongi. He respectfully turns his back when Yoongi changes out of his damp underwear and puts the rest of the layers on. The soft fabric feels good against his skin and he blinks at the sudden pinprick of tears in his eyes, refusing to start crying on top of everything else that has happened tonight. 

“Okay?” Namjoon asks him softly, still facing the wall. 

“Yeah,” Yoongi murmurs, setting the towel on the counter. 

Namjoon turns around, a hesitant expression on his face. “Do you want to go back to bed?” 

Yoongi’s exhausted, drained, but the idea of lying down again doesn’t feel appealing. He lets his body carry him instead—lets his feet shuffle him forward until he’s pressing his forehead against Namjoon’s shoulder. Namjoon makes a surprised sound, but he wraps his arms around Yoongi anyway, holding him close. Yoongi feels cocooned, safe, and he doesn’t examine it. Not yet. Not until he's finished stitching himself up. 

Namjoon’s hand comes up to cup the back of his head and Yoongi tangles his fingers in Namjoon’s sweater. The living room clock ticks loud in the strange stillness, sounding off seconds one after the other in an endless march. 

One more fight, Yoongi tells the seething specter of Suga waiting for him on that rooftop. Just one more. 

 

_ _ 

Forward.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Per royal decree, please contact the Seoul Institute with a list of any unwanted sanctioned that would otherwise be regulated to the boarding houses. We will pay competitive price for all those in good physical condition.” 

 

- Communication from the Seoul Institute, to all the premiere auction houses in the city 

 




_ _ 

 

“Jungkook-ah,” Jimin says for the fifth time today, a steely set to his jaw, “I’m fine.” 

Jungkook doesn’t care how often Jimin keeps insisting on it, he can’t look past Jimin’s swollen cheek or the slight tremor in his fingers that he’s trying to hide, but is sloshing the tea in his cup. Seokjin has barely spoken to either of them since the party yesterday—just retreated to his wing of the apartment with a muttered excuse and locked the door. It’s been a full night and nearly a full day, and he has yet to emerge. 

All after just one party. 

“I’m not a child,” Jungkook fires back, shoving his half-eaten bowl of soup away. He hasn’t been very hungry since the two of them came back last night, either. “I’ve been in this world longer than you. You don’t have to keep trying to hide bad stuff from me.” 

He doesn’t say that just from looking at the pattern of bruising on Jimin’s face, he can tell exactly how Jimin was hit and the amount of force used—because he’s been struck in a similar way so many times. That will only cause Jimin to skitter further into his shell like an angry crab. 

“You shouldn’t have to bear it.” Jimin stares down at his cup of tea that long ago stopped steaming. “You’ve dealt with enough.” 

“And I’ll deal with more,” Jungkook snaps, losing patience. “I’m not gonna just sit here and let all of you fight this without me. When have I ever done that, Jimin-hyung? I’m not made of glass! Not back then and certainly not now.” He sighs and sags back in his chair. “Yeah, my head’s not a fun place right now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t handle things. Or that I don’t want to be here for all of you.”  

Jimin is quiet for a long time. The remnants of his eye makeup are still smeared under his eyes, giving him a tired, haggard appearance. “I thought it would be easier than this,” he finally admits in a soft voice. “That was naive of me.” 

Jungkook watches as he pulls up the sleeve of his sweater and swipes a thumb over the black seal around his wrist, gaze focused somewhere inward. 

“It gets easier,” Jungkook says, not sure what other comfort to offer. “You become numb eventually. It’s the only way to survive.” 

Jimin nods absently and stands, letting his baggy sleeve slip back down over his hand. “I’ll be okay, Jungkook-ah.” He manages a thin, wavering approximation of a smile. “I’m not made of glass, either. You can stop worrying about me.” 

“Impossible,” Jungkook insists and Jimin’s smile softens into something a little more genuine. He comes around to Jungkook’s side of the table and wraps his arms around Jungkook’s neck, resting his chin on top of Jungkook’s head. 

It’s a familiar embrace—one Jimin has offered dozens of times over the years they’ve known each other. Jungkook clearly remembers the first time, though, about seven months after Jimin and Taehyung moved in with them. He’d been sick for two weeks, wracked with a fever and chills from the poor insulation in their apartment and the freezing winter nights. Yoongi and Hoseok were out, trying to scrounge up some warm food and more blankets, and Taehyung was off doing Taehyung things that he never really liked to explain. So Jungkook was curled up on the mattress alone, shivering, while Jimin sat at their rickety table. 

Jimin reminded him of a feral alley cat, back in those days—prone to bite and hiss at you if you got too close, all sharp teeth and defensive spine. Jungkook wasn’t afraid of him, per se, but he knew to be cautious around jagged things, jagged people. Jimin kept his distance from them, too, in spite of Hoseok’s attempts at gluing them all together into a makeshift, expanded family. Jungkook had always figured that Jimin would bend eventually or simply vanish again, but he wasn’t expecting to hear the shift of a kitchen chair when his next coughing fit started, or the soft patter of Jimin’s feet as he crossed the small room. 

Jungkook’s breath caught as Jimin laid down behind him, curling around him like a protective blanket even though they were pretty much the same height, back then. Somehow, Jimin made himself seem large, just like Yoongi always did. 

He didn’t say anything, didn’t offer any meaningless words of comfort, just shifted up so he could rest his chin on top of Jungkook’s bent head and held on until Jungkook finally fell asleep. 

It was then that the ice finally began to thaw and Jimin retracted his claws. Now, Jungkook reaches up to squeeze Jimin’s hands, holding on just as tight as Jimin is to him. 

The beeping of the front door startles them both, and Jungkook looks up to see Taehyung crossing the threshold, still dressed in the fancy clothes that Seokjin loaned him earlier this afternoon. He quickly kicks off the shoes and unwinds the scarf from around his neck, dropping them both in the entryway with a carelessness that makes something in Jungkook shiver. He’d been cryptic about where he was going—just that Namjoon was taking him to meet an important contact—and Jungkook doesn’t like that, either. Doesn’t like looking at Taehyung and seeing an enigma. There were always pieces of Taehyung he didn’t understand—things that Taehyung wasn’t willing to share with anyone, except maybe Jimin—but Jungkook still knew him. Knew all the vital and important parts that made Taehyung tick. Now, though, it’s like those clockwork innards have been shielded from view by opaque glass. 

Jungkook can only see the smooth surface now. 

“Taehyung-ah,” Jimin says, letting go of Jungkook. “How’d it go?” 

“Good,” Taehyung says. His eyes linger on Jimin’s cheek like they have all day, and it seems like he gets stuck there for a moment before tearing himself away. “Really good.” 

Jimin arches a questioning eyebrow—a clear signal for Taehyung to elaborate, but all Taehyung does is shake his head. “Not yet, Chim, okay? It’s better if you don’t know.” 

Jimin frowns, but doesn’t argue. They all know how stubborn Taehyung can be. “Fine. I’m going to bed, then.” 

No one comments that it’s barely seven in the evening, and the guest bedroom door echoes in Jungkook’s ears like a clap of thunder, the sharp crack of a gunshot. 

Taehyung doesn’t ask if Jimin’s okay—that would be pointless with the answer in front of them. Jungkook’s half-expecting him to either go to the kitchen for leftover food or curl up in one of Seokjin’s armchairs with the contraband computer Namjoon managed to get for him, but he does neither of those things. He rounds the dining room table and takes Jungkook’s hand, as easy as he always used to. 

(Their fingers still lace together the same way.) 

“Jungkook-ah, can I talk to you?” Taehyung asks, a serious expression on his face.

Jungkook nods, forcefully ignoring the familiar wrench of fear in his gut. It won’t be anything bad, he has to trust Taehyung in that. 

Taehyung leads him out onto the balcony, in spite of the cold, and closes the door behind them. Below them and around them, the city is nothing but a sea of lights. Even the Outer Sectors look beautiful from this high up. The wind snatches at the ends of Taehyung’s hair immediately, whipping it around his face. He still has the blue contacts in that Namjoon lent him, and they give him an ethereal quality Jungkook isn’t sure he likes. 

“Jungkook-ah,” Taehyung says again, voice pitched just high enough to be heard, “I need your help.” 

“My help?” Jungkook asks dubiously. No one’s wanted his help in weeks, just to put him in an invisible case for safekeeping. 

Taehyung nods. “It’s gonna be really dangerous, but I don’t think I can do it without you.” 

“What are you planning?” Because Taehyung is always planning something. Brilliant, beautiful Taehyung, whose mind is full of spinning calculations that no one else can follow. 

Taehyung still hasn’t let go of Jungkook’s hand and he squeezes it tightly now. “I want to break into the Seoul Institute.” 

Jungkook almost laughs—has to swallow back the burst of it that knocks against his teeth. Of course Taehyung’s target is the Seoul Institute, why pick anything less than the most formidable building in the city after the royal palace? Sometimes auction houses sell companions there, instead of to the boarding houses, and both are terrible fates but the whispers about the Seoul Institute make it seem somehow worse. It’s a cipher and a specter and a monster all rolled into one unassuming building tucked away in a corner of Sector 1. It existed before the Cataclysm, one of the few functioning remnants of the Old World, and Jungkook wonders if it was just as feared and respected back then. 

“Are you going to call me crazy?” Taehyung asks. 

Jungkook looks at him, this boy he loves (though he’s still not sure of the shape of it). He’s shivering from the bite of the wind, hunched in on himself all small like folded paper, but there’s a mixture of nervousness and defiance radiating from his eyes, burning right through the lenses. Jungkook took a knife to the face for him at seventeen. Kissed him on rooftops and felt like he was flying. Would have followed him to the edge of the earth and back, if need be. 

They’re not the same people, and Jungkook’s afraid of falling in a way he wasn’t before, but there is still something to be said for the jump, isn’t there? He’d rather die with the sky around him than tucked away in a cage. 

“No,” he says. Taehyung’s eyes widen slightly—a crack in his unaffected facade. “I haven’t always understood you, Taehyung-ah, but you’ve never been crazy.” 

“I won’t get you into trouble,” Taehyung says earnestly. His fingers slip under Jungkook’s sleeve to press against the underside of his wrist—right in the center of the seal. 

“I never blamed you for that,” Jungkook says softly. Nothing crossed his mind except relief that none of the others got discovered or taken. It had been his choice to stay on that rooftop with Yoongi. 

“I did,” Taehyung replies, equally soft, nearly lost to the wind. “So it won’t happen again.” 

Jungkook doesn’t bother arguing with him. Maybe Taehyung does have the ear of some kind of deity and he’ll be able to ensure that everything to come will work out in their favor. Jungkook wouldn’t put it past him, honestly. 

“Okay. Let’s break into the Seoul Institute.” He feels a giddy rush of terror and adrenaline uttering the declaration, nearly enough to make him break into laughter again. 

And Taehyung smiles, almost like he used: boxy and bright, all puffed up cheeks. It fades far too fast. “Yeah. Though … there’s some people we have to meet first.” 

 

_ _ 

 

It’s strange, Namjoon thinks, seeing Byun Baekhyun standing outside his door. They’ve crossed paths briefly over the years—both apparently the black sheep of their respective families—but Baekhyun’s always seemed to be in a layer of the atmosphere above Namjoon. Bright and loud and the center of attention. He moves through life like he doesn’t have a care in the world, and everyone adores him, even when he refuses to bow to their conventions. 

He looks uncharacteristically serious now with his face free of glittering makeup and dressed in simple black street clothes, hands tucked into the pockets of his coat. Namjoon still feels nervous about letting him into what has become a sanctuary, free of anyone else from Sector 1 except Seokjin. But he trusts Yoongi, so he steps aside and watches Baekhyun cross his threshold, pausing to take off his boots just inside the door. 

“Welcome,” Namjoon says, a little stiff, and Baekhyun laughs. Without foundation coating his skin, Namjoon realizes with a jolt that he has a long, thin scar across his face, stretching from one cheek to the other, across the bridge of his nose, still a fading red. 

“We’re not at a party, Namjoon-ssi,” he says. “You can cut the bullshit.” 

Namjoon blinks, but drops his pleasant mask in favor of an annoyed frown. “Fine. Why did you want to come here?” 

Baekhyun glances around the empty apartment. “Where’s Yoongi?” 

“I thought we weren’t at a party? And how do you know his name?” 

The look Baekhyun levels him with is withering. “Bring him out here and then we’ll talk.” 

Namjoon originally thought, considering Baekhyun knows Yoongi’s real name, that it would be best to keep him out of tonight’s proceedings, in case Baekhyun wanted to use him for leverage. Hoseok also grumbled about being sequestered away into the guest room like a stowaway, but Namjoon isn’t taking any chances with a fellow elite. The bedroom door clicks open, though, before Namjoon can deflect further or refuse Baekhyun’s demand, and Yoongi slips into the living room like a ghost. 

He’s dressed casually, too, in the baggy clothes he prefers whenever they’re back in the apartment. Baekhyun’s eyes rake over him, but they lack the desire they held at the party. He almost seems to be … scanning Yoongi for injuries—the same way that Hoseok does every time they come home. 

“I’m fine,” Yoongi says, rolling up his sleeves to expose his scarred arms and tugging the collar of his sweater to the side to show that there are no hidden bandages anywhere, or fresh wounds. “I told you there was more going on here.” 

Baekhyun makes a contemplative sound. “So you did.” His piercing gaze returns to Namjoon. “Have you ever actually killed companions, then?” 

Namjoon crosses his arms. “I don’t see how that’s relevant to—” 

“No,” Yoongi cuts in. “He hasn’t.” 

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Namjoon presses, not as ready to trust Baekhyun as Yoongi seems to be. “How did you know his name?” 

Baekhyun shrugs. “Auction house records are easy enough to hack. But I’m sure you know that, don’t you, Namjoon-ssi?” 

“Why him, though?” 

“Because you kept me alive,” Yoongi answers, glancing at Baekhyun who nods in confirmation. “That was an anomaly.” 

Namjoon figured it would stir up rumors, but not make people go digging through auction house records. Annoyingly, Baekhyun appears to read the worry he’s trying to keep off his face because he sinks down into one of the arm chairs and smiles. “Don’t worry, Namjoon-ssi. Most people don’t care, or look closely at things like I do.” 

Namjoon joins him, sitting opposite on the couch, and Yoongi takes the seat next to him. He’s in Leader Mode—keeping his feet planted instead of curling up like he normally would, leaning forward slightly to make himself seem bigger and broader than his small stature. 

“Why do you care?” he asks. 

“You haven’t given me any reason to tell you that,” Baekhyun points out. 

“And you haven’t given us any reason to trust you,” Namjoon says. 

Baekhyun hums in the back of his throat, crossing one leg over the other. “Seems we’re at an impasse, then.” 

“An exchange of information,” Yoongi says. “Isn’t that what you promised at the party?” 

“You give me information and I’ll give some back to you. How does that sound?” Baekhyun glances at them both in turn. 

It’s not necessarily ideal, but they’re running out of options. They can’t just ignore the best potential lead they’ve had in months. 

“Fine,” Yoongi says. “But you can go first.” 

Baekhyun grins. “I like you. Okay, I know how to get you to Yoo Kihyun. But you have to tell me what you want with him.” 

“We want his help with something,” Namjoon says. “Or to ask for it, at least.” 

Both of Baekyun’s eyebrows nearly disappear beneath the sweep of his silver bangs. “Help from a recluse who hasn’t been seen in public for years? What help could you possibly want from him?” 

Namjoon looks at Yoongi in silent question: do we tell him? It would be risking everything. Yoongi’s mouth tightens and he looks away. 

“I think it’s your turn,” he says firmly. 

Not yet. But it feels inevitable. 

“It isn’t easy,” Baekhyun says. “Usually, you just have to go through Lee Minhyuk, but now there’s Kihyun’s older brother to contend with.” 

“Yoo Minseok,” Namjoon murmurs. The man who supposedly killed his own father in order to take the place of family head. A cunning sadist whose cruel predilections are whispered about in the same breath as Namjoon’s, but aren’t mere rumors. 

“That’s the one,” Baekhyun says grimly. “A monster wearing human skin.” 

“Is he the one keeping Kihyun in seclusion?” Yoongi asks. 

Baekyun’s answering smile is lined with sharp glass. “Your turn.” 

“You’re right,” Namjoon admits and feels Yoongi stiffen slightly beside him. “I’m not killing companions, I’m smuggling them out of the city. I get them false papers and put them on a train and the auction house marks them as deceased.” 

“Smart. Very smart. I underestimated you, Namjoon-ssi.” 

“That’s how I prefer it.” 

Baekhyun’s gaze slides to Yoongi. “But you didn’t go?” Yoongi opens his mouth and Baekhyun lifts a placating hand. “Yes, yes it’s my turn. Kihyun’s family have kept him in seclusion on and off for most of his life, especially in the last couple years. I’m worried that his brother plans to take it a step further.” 

“Kill him?” Namjoon asks, though he can’t say he’s surprised. Yoo Minseok seems to have no problems dispatching family members standing in his way. 

Baekhyun nods. In the golden light of the living room, his scar seems an even darker red, like spilling blood. 

“I didn’t go,” Yoongi says. “Because the fight is here.” 

“And you want Kihyun for it.” 

“Why do you care?” It seems strange to Namjoon. Elite don’t actually care about each other outside of family, and even then. Love and loyalty are rare things in this world of chessboards and blood-soaked ladders. 

Baekhyun draws in a breath and here is the fulcrum, Namjoon can feel the edge of it beneath his feet. “Because,” Baekhyun says, all quiet ice, “I protect my own.” 

Realization hits Namjoon hard and he can’t keep it from his face—feels his mouth go slack and his fingers twitch against the arm of the sofa, trying to curl into a fist. He’s always known, logically, that there are others like him. That there have to be, statistically, parents that let their mutated children survive. But he expected them in the shadows, like himself, or in isolation, like Kihyun. Not in Byun Baekhyun, who walks through parties like he owns them. 

(Who covers his scars with makeup.) 

He can feel Yoongi’s eyes on him, but he keeps his focus directed at Baekhyun. “That’s why I wanted to ask for his help,” he says. Takes a steadying breath of his own. “I figured he’d be willing, considering that he’s like me.” 

He’s surprised Baekhyun, he can tell, though Baekhyun is good at hiding it. It’s in the twitch along his jaw, the subtle widening of his eyes. He’s quiet for a long moment, staring at the floor. Namjoon lets the silence hold, waiting for the verdict. 

“I should have considered that,” Baekhyun says at last. “My oversight.” He looks up again, a rueful smile flitting across the corner of his mouth. “So, who do you want to put on the throne?” 

Namjoon and Yoongi trade an involuntary, startled glance, and the smile returns. “Oh come on now,” Baekhyun says. “Give me a little credit. You’re right, the fight is here, and only one fight is actually going to change anything. You have to topple the house of cards if you want to rebuild it as something better. You figure that people like me and Kihyun would be more willing to participate in treason because we have a personal investment in the system changing, and you need the resources we can give you. Am I wrong?” 

“No,” Namjoon admits. “Am I right? About you and Kihyun?” 

Another pause, more weighted than the last. “You’re right,” Baekhyun admits. “But I’d like to know who my new king would be.” 

“Take us to Kihyun and we’ll tell you,” Yoongi says. 

“I can only take you as far as Minhyuk, probably,” Baekhyun says. “And there might be a price for going through Minseok.”

“We’ll pay it,” Yoongi says before Namjoon can interject. 

“Don’t say that before he names it,” Baekhyun warns. 

“We’ll pay it,” Yoongi repeats. 

Baekhyun frowns but doesn’t argue further, just rises to his feet. “I’ll text you a time and place, then,” he says to Namjoon. “And Namjoon-ssi, Yoongi-ssi,” he shoves his hands back into the pockets of the coat he never removed, “I’m trusting you with a lot.” 

Namjoon wonders what it took for him to come here without his usual armor on. Wonders if leaving that scar uncovered was an important choice too. 

“We’re doing the same, Baekhyun-ssi,” he says. 

Baekhyun smiles. “Well, as long as we stay even.” 

Namjoon shows him to the door and tries to figure out the strange roil of his own emotions as it clicks shut in Baekhyun’s wake. Others like him … it’s always been a sound theory. To have concrete proof now? 

He knows they cannot trust Baekhyun completely yet, but he suddenly feels less alone. 

 

_ _ 

 

Once upon a time, Kim Seokjin was a different person. He never bought entirely into elite society—couldn’t bear the sight of people on leashes, didn’t want what companions had to offer, thought that all the power-grabbing and backstabbing was ridiculous, radiating out from his own family to elite society as a whole. But he cared more about playing along, back in college and as a teenager. Making sure that his mask fit just right and no one could see behind it. 

He attended the social events he was expected to; he got the useless degree his family insisted on; he dated the people his grandmother approved of. And one of them was Kang Sohyun. She lasted longer than most of the others, because Seokjin could tell that his family desperately wanted him to marry her. She was beautiful and cunning and powerful, with excellent connections—everything his grandmother wanted in an addition to the family. The fact that he broke off the relationship was just added to his already lengthy list of sins when his final day of reckoning came. 

He never loved her, and he doubts she loved him. Relationships are contracts and mergers, just like everything else in their world. But it’s still strange to sit down across from her now, with all these years and change between them. This restaurant and its sweeping marble floors, its towering chandelier-dotted ceilings, feels like the set of a macabre play. He and Sohyun, in their artful clothes and perfectly-styled hair, are the heroes or the villains and only time will tell which. 

Today Sohyun’s dress is green like the long-dead forests and gold drips from her ears and her fingers. She smiles at him with blood-red lips and he remembers a time he thought she was beautiful, when he was blind to the rot beneath the facade, taking root in all of them. 

“I have to admit,” she says, teasing, “I didn’t think you’d come.” 

Well. Two can play this game. He leans forward with a well-practiced smirk.  “And pass up dinner with you?” 

Admittedly, he’d been surprised by her invitation, especially so soon after the party, but he knows from Jimin that she has Big Plans, and he hopes she’ll tell him more about them. Plus he’s glad to be out of the apartment for a few hours and away from the somewhat suffocating presence of the others. 

(From the bruises on Jimin’s face and throat.) 

Sohyun laughs, light and airy. She’s good at seeming dainty, delicate, but Seokjin has learned from experience not to underestimate her. Every word he utters and expression that crosses his face is going to be measured on a scale only she can see. 

“Don’t flatter me,” she says with a wave of her hand. Her bracelets tinkle like small bells. “Neither of us are sentimental enough for old time’s sake.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with a little sentimentality, surely.” 

You’re the one who ended things, if I remember correctly.”

“I just ended them first,” Seokjin says with his most disarming smile.  “You would have done it eventually if I hadn’t.” 

She hums. “True. I’ve never been the marrying type.” 

“I’ll toast to that.” He raises his wine glass before taking a sip. 

“I suppose your companions are enough company,” Sohyun says, running her fingers along the edge of her own glass. “That new one is very pretty.” 

“I would suppose the same about you,” Seokjin counters. 

“I don’t kill mine, though.” 

He arches an eyebrow. “Have you really brought me here to judge me for my methods of private entertainment?” 

That earns him another laugh. “Calm down, I could care less.” 

“Why have you brought me here, then?” 

“Didn’t I tell you?” It’s her turn to raise her glass. “Old time’s sake.” 

She’s toying with him, seeing if he’ll play along. He grins and clinks his glass against hers. 

They drink in companionable silence for a moment, before Sohyun laces her fingers together, resting her elbows on the table, and regards him with an assessing look. “Are you content with your place in the world, Seokjin-ah?” 

He maintains his casual smile. “Who is, noona?” 

“I seem to remember your family shoving you into a dusty corner a few years ago.” 

“Mm, they did,” he agrees. Lets his smile turn bitter. “My grandmother has never appreciated defiance. Or veering from a pre-planned trajectory meant to carry you from cradle to grave.” 

“Would you like to get out of the corner?” 

“Very much so.” 

“I might be able to help with that.” 

“Oh?” he feigns surprise. “Are you going to propose to me, noona?” 

She shakes her head, but her gaze is amused. “Not yet.” 

“Do I have to sufficiently prove my devotion?” 

Another elegant sip from her glass. “Something like that.” 

“Well, if you can stop me rotting away, I’m all ears.” 

He’s played her game well, he can tell by the approval in her eyes and the quirk of her lips. She gestures for a waiter. “In good time, Seokjin-ah. For now, let’s enjoy dinner.” 

Seokjin relaxes back in his seat, content to let her order for them. This is going to be an intricate dance—she’s probably looking for support, as well as someone to have on her arm when she assumes the throne. She’s always liked his face and his wit, and often berated him for his lack of ambition when they were together. He would make the perfect candidate for a loyal subordinate, if she can win him over. 

He has to admit, he’s very interested in seeing her try. 

 

_ _ 

 

It’s so weird and terrifying, being out of Seokjin’s apartment and on the streets of Sector 1 without Seokjin present or a tether around his wrist. He keeps anxiously checking that his seals are properly covered and the scarf around his neck hasn’t slipped to reveal his Mark. The cab driver barely spared him or Taehyung a second glance when they climbed in and Taehyung rattled off the address that was sent to him by his mysterious contact, but he doesn’t know how to settle the anxiety steadily tying his stomach into complicated knots. His leg starts to bounce with nervous energy and he forces it to still, not wanting to attract too much attention. 

Suddenly, Taehyung’s big hand slides over his knee and stays here—a comforting weight after Jungkook’s first, instinctive flinch has passed. Jungkook exhales slow, like Yoongi taught him once, and tries to focus. To drag the person he used to be out of his grave and shake the dirt off—fit back into that skin. 

Beyond the tinted windows of the cab, the city is just waking up, and the rising sun catches the buildings on fire, turning them all to spun gold. Taehyung left a note on the counter for Jimin and Seokjin (who got back late last night smelling of wine and didn’t say where he’d been) before they left, and sneaking out felt weird, too, even if that isn’t really what they’re doing. 

(He also grabbed a knife from the kitchen that he slipped into his boot, and it was reassuring, being armed again.) 

Jungkook’s expecting them to go to a restaurant or some other public place, but the cab pulls to a stop in front of an apartment complex very similar to Namjoon’s and Seokjin’s. Taehyung climbs out, paying the driver with a handful of won that Jungkook has no idea how he procured. 

“Are you sure about this?” he asks as the cab pulls away from the curb, leaving them lingering in front of the building’s glass entry doors. Though unlike most Sector 1 buildings, this one doesn’t seem to have a front desk or any guards stationed. 

“No,” Taehyung admits and takes Jungkook’s hand again. “But let’s see what happens.” 

 Jungkook reminds himself of his knife. “Lead the way.” 

Taehyung keeps hold of his hand all the way through the lobby and to the unmanned elevators. Jungkook doesn’t spot a single security camera, which is also strange. Even the elevator is devoid of them, though there might be some hidden in the faux-wood paneling. Taehyung keys a code into the pad just inside the doors and presses the button for the top floor. As it ascends, he finally releases Jungkook’s hand to adjust the silk scarf tied around his neck. 

(He didn’t wear lenses this today, and Jungkook is grateful for it.)

The elevator opens directly into a spacious apartment. It looks like it’s been copied and pasted directly from the magazines that sometimes sat on his second master’s coffee table—minimalist furniture, modern art on the walls, a weird spherical sculpture in one corner and fake plants in another, but no signs of occupancy or other life. The white sofa and chairs are immaculate, and the man rising from one of them seems out of place in this polished, pristine room. 

He’s Sector 1, though. It’s in the confident way he carries himself and the expensive fit of his black suit, clearly tailored. Not a single reddish brown hair is out of place on his head and when he extends a hand to shake Taehyung’s, the watch on his wrist catches the light streaming in from the wall of windows. 

“Ghost,” he says, all easy friendliness, “good to see you again. You didn’t tell me you’d be bringing someone.” His eyes cut to Jungkook and then light up with unexpected recognition. “Wait, you’re JK, aren’t you? Seokjin wanted papers for you.” 

Oh. Small world, it seems. 

“Yes,” Jungkook whispers, unable to stop his voice from failing, just a little, in the face of this elite stranger. 

“I’m Vasters,” the stranger says and doesn’t reach for Jungkook’s hand or offer his own. Jungkook’s respect for him ticks higher.  

“Nice apartment,” Taehyung says, squinting in the direction of one of the strange sculptures. 

Vasters laughs. “It isn’t mine. I just borrow it once in awhile for … important events.” He gestures to a set of closed double doors to the right of the living room—made of the same faux wood as the panels in the elevator. “Please, this way.” 

Jungkook trails after Taehyung towards the doors, clenching and unclenching his fist to keep himself calm as Vasters pushes one of them open to reveal a dining room almost entirely taken up by a massive black table and sporting walls covered in frankly hideous black and white geometric wallpaper. But Jungkook’s attention is immediately drawn to the three figures seated around the far end of the table. 

They all look about his age, though it’s impossible to know for certain. They’re young, at least, in a way that reminds him of himself before he was sanctioned. The one closest to him is leaning back far enough in his chair that it’s tilted partially off the ground—his long legs sprawled out carelessly in front of him and his arms behind his head. In contrast to the ostentatious environment around him, he’s dressed in casual street clothes: faded jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt, battered sneakers. The red-brown of his hair strikes Jungkook as similar to Vasters, though lighter in shade. 

He radiates casual confidence, like nothing in the world could fluster him. 

As opposed to the boy next to him, at the head of the table, who is practically vibrating with energy—to the point that he seems to be holding himself still by sheer force of will. Even then, his slender fingers are tapping a light, random rhythm on table. He’s small, compared to the first boy, and he has a wide-eyed look of innocence about him that feels completely out of place in this harsh city. His black hair contrasts against the pale hue of his face and his clothes are casual, too, but infused with more color—red and black stripes instead of gray. Plus a telling black scarf wrapped around his neck. 

And finally there is the third boy. Immediately, he strikes Jungkook as the most dangerous. He holds himself the same way as Jimin does: all coiled up like a springboard, a snake seconds away from striking. With his elegant features and the neat sweep of his black hair, he gives off the most stereotypical Sector 1 image, but it’s obvious there is far more to him than meets the eye. Unlike the other two, he’s also dressed entirely in black—right down to the boots he has propped up on the table, blending in with the shiny surface. 

“Right,” Vasters says, breaking the brief, but tense silence. “Introductions. Ghost, JK, this is Johnny.” He gestures to the tall boy. “Mark.” The nervous one waves awkwardly. “And Ten.” The dangerous one smiles. “Johnny, Mark, Ten, this is Ghost and JK.” 

“Ten like the number?” Taehyung asks with an arched eyebrow. 

“Exactly like the number,” Ten says. His voice is higher-pitched and softer than Jungkook was expecting. 

“I think you all have plenty to talk about,” Vasters continues, clapping his hands together. “And I don’t want to hear any more of it than I have to, so I’ll be elsewhere. Text me when you’re done and don’t break anything.” 

He gives them all a jaunty salute and disappears back through the door, closing it behind him. Jungkook blinks at the table, wondering if him and Taehyung are going to sit at this end and the two factions will have a standoffish meeting like something out of an Old World film. But Taehyung simply marches down the length of the table and takes the seat next to Johnny. Not knowing what else to do, Jungkook timidly shrinks into the chair next to Ten—hyperaware of the eyes on him. 

“Are you really Ghost?” Mark asks, blinking at Taehyung with what Jungkook thinks is excitement. “I’ve heard about the stuff you’ve done in the Outer Sectors, you’re incredible.” 

Taehyung shrugs. “I do my best.” 

Mark shakes his head. “You’re, like, a genius. I would kill to be able to do the stuff you do with computers.” 

“You’re a hacker, then?” Taehyung asks. 

“Sort of? I’m not good at remote stuff, like you do. Hacking databases and all that. But I am really good at getting through security systems. Lots of different kinds of security systems.” 

“He’s good at hardware too,” Johnny chimes in. “Taking shit apart and putting it back together in new ways.” 

Taehyung absorbs this. Jungkook curls his fingers around the arms of his chair and hopes he won’t have to talk too much. 

“Vasters said you might be able to help me with a job. Are you thieves?” 

“Of a sort,” Ten says. 

“I can’t pay you. I want to be clear about that.” 

“Oh we don’t steal for money,” Mark says, then frowns. “Well mostly not for money. At least, we don’t keep all the money.” 

“We’d do this job for free, anyway,” Ten says. He reaches up and pulls down the choker he has around his neck, revealing a Mark with one strike below it. Jungkook swallows in surprise. What kind of Marked willingly operates in Sector 1? “Think of it as us supporting the cause.” 

“Oh yeah, me too,” Mark says and tugs aside his scarf to show off his own Mark. He’s free of strikes. 

“Is that how you got your code name?” Jungkook blurts before he can stop himself. 

Mark blinks at him, but just as Jungkook is ready to panic he dissolves into cackling laughter. “Yeah! It’s funny, right?” 

“You’re literally the only one who thinks it’s funny,” Johnny says dryly. His neck is bare and clean, and he shrugs at Jungkook and Taehyung when he catches them looking. “I don’t have one of those, but you can trust me.” 

“They’re, like, kinda a Thing,” Mark says, gesturing between Johnny and Ten. 

Oh. Oh. 

“Mark, shut up,” Johnny sighs. 

“That’s not relevant information,” Ten adds, exchanging a loaded glance with Johnny. The kind that reminds Jungkook of Yoongi and Hoseok—an entire conversation in a single look. 

“Right, right, sorry,” Mark mutters, ducking his head. 

Jungkook relaxes a fraction in spite of himself. Fellow Marked won’t hurt him, and these three seem alright. Taehyung looks amused, too, though he erases his faint smile quickly when attention focuses back on him. 

“So what’s the job?” Johnny asks. “I’m guessing it’s high profile, with how secretive Vasters was.” 

Taehyung sits up straighter in his chair, but otherwise is the picture of calm when he says, “I want to break into the Seoul Institute.” 

Johnny’s mouth predictably drops open and Mark chokes on air. “I’m sorry,” he practically squeaks, “I thought you said the Seoul Institute.” 

“I did,” Taehyung replies patiently. 

“The Seoul Institute,” Mark repeats. “As in that scary impenetrable building that no one ever comes back out of, you want to break in there?” 

“Yes.” 

“Like … why?” 

“Because it’s so secretive,” Ten chimes in and Taehyung snaps his fingers. 

“Exactly. It’s more heavily guarded than the Royal Palace. They must have secrets there—information that could affect all of us.” 

“You mean Marked?” Johnny asks. 

“The whole city,” Taehyung says. “They’re the only institution that predates the Cataclysm.” 

“You think they could have information on it?” Ten asks, gaze intent. 

Taehyung nods. “And a lot of other things. I think … there is probably information the monarchy has lied about since the end of the Old World, and finding out the truth is worth risking a lot. Everything. You came recommended by Vasters, so I trust you’re some of the best in Seoul. But I understand if this is too much—” 

“Do you know what will happen if we get caught?” Mark asks, surging up from his chair so that he can pace an anxious line from one garish wall of the dining room to the other. “We’ll be killed. And not, like, normal killed. Tortured-and-experimented-on-until-wishing-for-death killed.” 

“I’m in,” Ten says and Mark whirls around to gape at him. 

What ?” 

Ten shrugs. “I think it’s worth it. Ghost is right, this could change everything.” 

“Well I pretty much go where he goes so I’m in,” Johnny says, sounding impressively unbothered. 

Mark turns to stare at him in shock too. “Oh my god, you’re both crazy.” 

“He’ll be in, too,” Johnny adds as Mark goes back to pacing. “Just give him a minute.” 

“The Seoul Institute,” Mark mutters under his breath. “Oh my god.” 

“Maybe a few minutes,” Johnny amends. 

Jungkook takes a fortifying breath. They can’t do this without Mark, he’s somehow certain of that, so maybe … he rolls up the sleeves of his coat and then slides up the bracelets covering his wrists, so that his seals and scars are on display. 

“The things they do to us,” he whispers, watching Mark’s gaze land on the black bands and freeze in horror, “are beyond imagination. I can’t … I don’t have words for them. So even if the odds are against us, if there’s a-a tiny chance that we could change things, I’d risk anything for that. Wouldn’t you?” 

Mark’s hand drifts up, seemingly unconsciously, to press against the tattoo on his neck. “Yeah,” he says quietly. “Yeah, you’re right. I would.” He sucks in a noisy breath and throws his shoulders back. “I’m in.” 

“Told you,” Johnny says triumphantly. 

Ten shifts to look at Taehyung again. “I’m assuming you have a plan of some sort?” 

Taehyung grins. 

Chapter Text

“You have to wonder sometimes, at the state we’ve found ourselves in. Rich kids living off the money their parents hoarded from the crown working meaningless jobs to keep themselves occupied and spending the rest of our time engaging in all possible forms of hedonism. We’ve become aimless sadists, beautiful monsters. Or maybe we were simply born that way. Maybe there was never a chance we’d be anything else. Sad, isn’t it?” 

 

- Excerpt from a rare letter written by Kim Seokjin to his cousin, Kim Namjoon 

 



_ _ 

 

They go to another party, and then another, because what else can they do? Seokjin wishes he had a better plan. Wishes that something inside of him didn’t ache at every tug on Jimin’s leash, every poisonous word out of his mouth, every smudge of Jimin’s makeup and every slam of a door when they get home. Somehow, he thought he was stronger than this. That he fit his armor on better. Serves him right, he supposes, for having hubris. 

At least Jungkook is mostly occupied with whatever undoubtedly dangerous thing him and Taehyung are planning, flitting in and out at weird hours with barely a glance towards Seokjin or Jimin. Seokjin isn’t sure he’d be able to stand the oppressive weight of Jungkook’s sad eyes or his concerned hovering. Even worse, a part of him is afraid that the person he’s forged himself into will crack back into the person he was and Jungkook will hate him for it. 

Meanwhile, they aren’t talking much, him and Jimin. 

Sohyun is planning something big, Jimin said after the first party. 

She’s in league with several others, after the second, though he didn’t have any names. 

She got rid of her old companion, after the third. Accompanied by Jimin locking himself in the bedroom and not emerging for hours—long enough that Seokjin got desperate and left food in front of the door. When he did finally make an appearance, his face was pale and his eyes red-rimmed. Seokjin knew better than to comment on it, just reheated the now-cold food in silence. 

Party number four is on the enclosed rooftop of a fancy apartment complex that looks like all the others in this sector. Seokjin drinks too much wine and tolerates Sohyun’s hand on his arm—matches her razor-edged smile with one of his own. An hour into the hellish evening Sohyun proposes some entertainment and Jimin kisses her male companion to the tune of a lecherous crowd. Seokjin puts a stop to it before it can progress further than heavy touching, citing his own possessiveness as he hauls Jimin back to his side by his leash. 

Jimin is shaking in the car home but he bares his teeth when Seokjin reaches for him, like an angry alley cat with its hackles up. 

“Did you learn anything?” Seokjin asks. 

“No,” Jimin snaps. 

They return to the apartment. 

Jimin shuts himself up in the guest room. 

Seokjin throws up all the wine. 

 

_ _ 

 

There are things that Yoongi doesn’t think about. He has a box in his head labeled DO NOT OPEN and sometimes it rattles and roars and leaks, dripping black all over his thoughts, but he always stubbornly tapes it closed again, over and over and over. He suspects it’s the only way he’s managed to stay sane over the last year. 

Whatever Yoo Minseok could demand as payment for access to his little brother (as well as Yoo Minsoek in general— can’t go back, can’t let him out, focus focus focus ) all get shoved inside not long after the meeting with Baekhyun is done. Hoseok is skeptical when they relay the information to him (conveniently leaving out, by unspoken agreement, any mentions of a cost).

“And you really think we can trust him?” he asks from his spot on the couch. 

He looks … bad. That’s the only way Yoongi can think of it. Hoseok looks fucking terrible, all washed-out skin and dark-ringed eyes and lank hair and bandages that finally no longer come away bloody but remain visible where his baggy shirt is riding up. He isn’t looking at Namjoon when he asks the question, and Yoongi probably shouldn’t be surprised about that. It was foolish to think the two of them might get along just because Yoongi happens to be standing in the middle. 

“Yeah,” he answers when it’s clear that Namjoon is going to defer to him for this conversation. “I do.” 

Are you sure we can trust any of them? Hoseok’s answering expression says, but Yoongi doesn’t know how to assuage his doubts. 

You still trust me, right? He asks back and Hoseok sighs.

“Fine,” he says, rubbing his temple. “Just be careful. Please?” 

“I’ll try.” It’s all he can promise now, no matter how much Hoseok hates it. 

Hoseok sighs again, but doesn’t protest. Yoongi wishes he had more to give as he watches Hoseok carefully push himself to his feet and wobble towards the bedroom, still limping heavily. He wishes for so many things that he knows better than to dwell on. So he lets Hoseok go in silence, and after the bedroom door clicks shut Namjoon shifts and puts a warm hand on his shoulder, thumb rubbing gently across the back of his neck. 

Yoongi also doesn’t think about how good the touch feels, or the fact that he doesn’t know the right way to touch Hoseok anymore but he might let Namjoon kiss him, if Namjoon ever offered. 

Whore, a chorus of voices snarl. 

He squeezes his eyes shut. 

 

_ _ 

 

Warehouse 8 Sector 6 10pm, reads the message that pops up on Namjoon’s phone a few days after the meeting with Baekhyun. He wasn’t expecting a response so soon, and he stares at the characters with trepidation. Will Yoo Minseok be there? Why Sector 6? He’s never tried to take a companion outside of Sector 1 before, though he knows it’s allowed. And a warehouse? This only gives them a few hours to prepare and travel, is that too little? 

“We don’t have a choice,” Yoongi says when Namjoon shows him the message and expresses his doubts. “Tell him we’ll be there.” 

So Namjoon sends back an affirmative and reminds himself to stay calm. 

“I want to come with,” Hoseok predictably insists as soon as they’ve relayed the plan to him. 

“You can’t,” Yoongi counters. 

Namjoon hovers uselessly in the doorway, knowing better than to intervene. Yoongi is changing—a swift, methodical process that he doesn’t seem to care if either of them are present for. The soft baggy clothes he normally wears around the apartment get exchanged for form-fitting pants and a lacy shirt. Hoseok’s eyes narrow and his jaw clenches, though Namjoon can’t tell if it’s in response to the clothes or Yoongi’s refusal. 

“Why not? I can stay out of sight.” 

Yoongi crosses over to the dresser where makeup is laid out and starts lining his eyes. “You’re still injured, Seok-ah. You need to rest.” 

“I’ve been resting for weeks.” 

“You’re still limping.” 

A frown cuts across Hoseok’s mouth, darkening his features. “That doesn’t mean I need to be confined to bedrest, hyung.” 

“I don’t want you there,” Yoongi says, turning away from the mirror. “Alright?” 

Anger morphs into hurt and back again. Namjoon swallows, wondering if he needs to intervene. If it’s his place, considering the history here. If there’s anything quite as tragic as two people who used to love each other standing on opposite sides of a widening fault line. 

“Why?” Hoseok demands. 

“It’s better this way.” 

“Why?” Hoseok takes a step forward, hands clenching into fists at his sides. 

Yoongi presses his back against the dresser. The expression on his face is ugly—an echo of the rage he wore like armor the day he tried to kill Namjoon. “Are you gonna hit me, Hoseok?” he asks in a measured, challenging voice. His gaze drops pointedly to Hoseok’s fists. 

Hoseok freezes—all the anger evaporating instantly. “I … you think I would?” 

He sounds horrified and Namjoon wants to explain that Yoongi thinks anyone is capable of violence. It’s a paranoia etched into him by trauma and it ripples out into everything. All you can do is absorb it and stay calm, stay gentle. But he doubts Hoseok wants to listen to him right now, or Yoongi wants him sharing such vulnerable insights. 

Besides, guilt is already creeping into the corners of Yoongi’s expression and he shakes his head. “Never mind. Namjoon, let’s go.” 

Namjoon doesn’t know what else to do but follow him. The bed creaks behind them as Hoseok sinks down on it. Namjoon gets a last glimpse of his bowed head before he gently closes the door. 

 

_ _ 

 

It’s quiet on the drive out to Sector 6. Yoongi stares out the window while Namjoon navigates through the evening traffic, debating whether or not to say anything about what happened in the apartment. 

“Hyung,” he ventures carefully after the silence begins to feel too heavy. “About Hoseok…” 

“I don’t want to talk about him,” Yoongi says, a note of warning in his voice. 

Namjoon ploughs ahead, unable to just let this lie. “I know, I’m sorry. But … I think you’re pushing him away in an attempt to protect him and I’m not sure that’s the right thing, hyung. I know … I know you don’t want him to see certain things, but—” 

“I don’t want him to see any of it.” 

“I know, but that isn’t really an option anymore, is it?” 

Yoongi pulls his feet up onto the seat, curling into a defensive little ball. “I don’t care if he hates me, it’s better than …” A hitching breath. “Let him be angry instead of heartbroken, okay?” 

“Yoongi…” Namjoon starts, aching, but Yoongi shakes his head and looks away, signaling the end of the conversation. 

Namjoon sighs and focuses back on the road as it becomes more congested closer to the boundary checkpoint.  They’ll need to go through two, and Namjoon isn’t sure what will happen at either of them. 

“They’ll check my chip,” Yoongi says when he asks, voice emotionless. “And ask you to test the seals.” 

Namjoon flinches. “What?” 

“Standard procedure.” 

Namjoon curses softly. It’s too late to turn back now, though, they’re already in line for the first checkpoint. City police seem to be moving cars through quickly and efficiently, at least. Like everyone, Namjoon has a scannable sticker on his windshield designating his home sector. Because it’s Sector 1—and there’s an additional tag on his license plate labeling him as a member of the Eight families—he’s always been able to travel anywhere in the city largely unchecked. Tonight, though, Yoongi is in the passenger seat and the officer on duty gestures for him to stop the car. 

“I’m sorry, sir,” he says apologetically when Namjoon rolls down the window. “I need to scan him, it will be quick.” 

“Fine, get on with it,” Namjoon snaps, injecting his voice with arrogant impatience. The officer scurries over to Yoongi’s side of the car and reaches through the open window to press a scanner to Yoongi’s neck. It beeps and whatever information the officer has extracted seems to satisfy him because he nods and taps something onto his tablet. 

“Thank you, Kim Namjoon-nim. Now, please, I just need to verify the seals are active.” 

Namjoon sighs, put-upon, and reaches for Yoongi’s tethered wrist, pressing his fingers into the center of the black band. It flares red and Yoongi hisses in pain. Namjoon drops his wrist quickly, arching an eyebrow at the officer. “Good enough?” 

More tapping. Another nod. “Yes, thank you, Namjoon-nim, that’s all we needed.” 

“Let us through, then,” Namjoon says, placing his hands back on the steering wheel. “We’ve wasted enough time.” 

The officer bows in apology and raises the gate, allowing Namjoon to pass through into Sector 3. One checkpoint down, one to go. 

“Are you alright?” he asks Yoongi as they leave the guardhouse behind. 

“Of course,” Yoongi says. His lips twitch in a tired approximation of a smile. Namjoon squeezes his hand and braces himself for the next round. 

The guard on duty at the checkpoint between Sector 3 and 6 seems mostly tired and bored, though he snaps to attention when he sees the tag on Namjoon’s license plate and pulls his name from Yoongi’s chip. He also stammers out a request to check the seals and Namjoon once again grits his teeth and presses his fingers to Yoongi’s wrist, watching Yoongi jerk and gasp. The guard thanks Namjoon, just like the last one, and beckons them through into Sector 6. 

This is a quieter sector—far more rundown than 1 and 3. Only a few portions of it are residential while the rest, like Sectors 4-8, is dedicated to production and distribution. Which means a district that consists entirely of huge warehouses. Namjoon parks his car on the edge of it, in the shadows, and climbs out, rolling the tension from his shoulders. 

“Now what?” he asks Yoongi, reaching over to undo the cuff around his wrist. 

“We don’t get caught.” Yoongi pulls the coat Namjoon brought along over his thin shirt. Their mingled breath hangs heavy in the winter air. “There will be patrols stationed but this district is understaffed. If we’re careful we should be fine—might not even run into anyone.” 

Namjoon nods, buttoning up his own coat and handing a face mask over to Yoongi. “Baekhyun’s family runs one of delivery companies, so Warehouse 8 probably belongs to him. Still, better to stay out of sight. Information has a nasty way of getting back to Sector 1.” 

“Fucking tell me about it,” Yoongi mutters, adjusting the black mask so that it covers the lower half of his face. 

And just like that, it’s Suga standing in front of him—if he looks past the eye makeup. It’s … almost unsettling in a way Namjoon can’t define and doesn’t have time to dwell on. 

“Lead the way,” he says to Yoongi after double checking that his own mask is secure. 

Yoongi nods and plunges into the maze of warehouses, staying out of the halos of light formed by the towering lamps. He moves the same way he did in his early days with Namjoon: light on his feet, like a flitting ghost. Namjoon, far less graceful, keeps up as best as he can. Yoongi pauses briefly, crouched in the shadowed doorway of Warehouse 5, to let a patrol past them. It’s only two guards and they’re engaged in a lively discussion about some radio broadcast, not paying any attention to their surroundings. They walk right by Namjoon and Yoongi, less than a meter distance away, and don’t spare a single glance in their direction. 

Namjoon’s heart is still hammering in his chest by the time they finally turn a corner and their voices fade. He startles at the hand Yoongi lays on his arm. 

“Almost there,” Yoongi murmurs and starts off again, at a quicker pace than before. 

The light above Warehouse 8 is flickering, giving the area a strange, ominous feel. Yoongi darts around to the side door and tries the handle. It swings open noiselessly and he beckons Namjoon inside. The cavernous space is eerie, large shelves rising from the gloom like sleeping giants—cast in shadow by the silvery streams of light emanating from the glass panes on the warehouse ceiling. 

In the middle of the shelves is an open space that reminds Namjoon of a clearing in an Old World forest, occupied by a table and several chairs. Lounging in one of them is Byun Baekhyun. His hair almost glows and the scar across his face looks more black than red in the play of shadows across his skin. Another man sits next to him, clad in street clothes and sporting simple black hair instead of the dye elite usually favor. But he is an elite—Namjoon vaguely recognizes him as Lee Minhyuk, the youngest son of the powerful Lee family. 

Behind Namjoon, Yoongi lets out a shaky breath, heavy with relief. 

“Namjoon-ssi,” Baekhyun says, taking his feet off the table to sit up properly. “Glad you make it okay.” 

As Namjoon gets closer he realizes that once again Baekhyun has been concealing things from him. This time, it’s a deep scrape near his temple and one arm tucked into a sling under his coat. 

“What happened to you?” Namjoon asks, shocked. 

“Minor accident,” Baekhyun says with a dismissive wave. Minhyuk snorts and Baekhyun shoots him a quelling look that he ignores. 

“He can keep his lies to himself,” he says, standing. “They’re not important right now, anyway. Rumor has it you’re looking for Kihyun.” 

“Rumor has it you can help with that,” Namjoon replies and Minhyuk smiles. 

He doesn’t seem quite as interested in games as Baekhyun is—more blunt and direct and willing to cut to the chase. Namjoon’s grateful for it. Maybe they won’t have to jump through quite as many hoops as he was anticipating. Right now Minhyuk shakes his head, a disbelieving smile on his elegant face. 

“I still can’t believe you’re one of us.” 

“I can be a good liar,” Namjoon replies with a shrug. 

“No shit,” Minhyuk says with a grim laugh. “I’d written you off as being another bastard like Minseok.” His gaze slides to Yoongi, still hovering a little behind Namjoon, and lingers for a moment before cutting away. “And you really want to kill the king, huh? I hate to break it to you, but you’re not the only one.” 

“So I’ve heard,” Namjoon says smoothly. “But I think I might have some advantages.” 

Minhyuk arches a condescending brow. “Really? Like what? The city police? That’s what you want Kihyun for, right? Unfortunately, you have to remove his brother first and that isn’t going to be easy.” 

“No one’s immortal,” Yoongi says with uncharacteristic quiet. 

“He might be,” Minhyuk mutters grimly. “Sold his soul to some Old World deity for power.” 

“I’ve told you a thousand times,” a new voice suddenly speaks from the shadows, startling Namjoon, “that isn’t true.” 

Minhyuk sighs. “You were supposed to stay hidden.” 

A figure emerges into the moonlight, a little shorter than Minhyuk. He also has black hair and sharp, sophisticated features, but he doesn’t hold himself with quite the level of confidence that Minhyuk does. This is someone who has spent his whole life trying to be as invisible as possible. Who is used to folding himself up into the quiet corners of rooms and letting eyes pass over him. 

When he speaks, his voice is soft, too, but it holds authority. “I didn’t want to. I’m tired of chess games.” He takes the seat that Minhyuk previously occupied. “No one else is listening, so let’s put all the cards on the table, shall we?” 

“Yoo Kihyun?” Namjoon guesses as he approaches the table, taking another one of the empty chairs. 

“Yes. I do occasionally leave my apartment,” Kihyun says, wry. 

The chair next to Namjoon scrapes across the concrete floor, signalling Yoongi’s joining of the discussion. Like Minhyuk, Kihyun’s gaze flits to him briefly, but doesn’t linger, snapping back to Namjoon. Namjoon purposefully leans back in his chair and holds his silence. If they have some kind of problem with a companion being present, he wants to know now so he can reject this alliance before they lay too many of their cards down. 

Fortunately, Yoongi picks up on his body language and scoots closer, resting his arms on the table. “So, all the cards on the table. You know about what we’re planning?” 

“Baekhyun’s filled me in a little. I can guess the rest.” 

“Baekhyun also gave off the impression that we might have to go through your brother to get to you,” Yoongi says. 

Kihyun sighs. “Contrary to popular belief,” a pointed look at Minhyuk and Baekhyun, “my brother is not my jailor. Just because Baekhyun’s family is actively trying to kill him doesn’t mean mine is.” 

“What?” Namjoon says in alarm. Suddenly, the scape and the sling take on a far more sinister meaning. 

Baekhyun’s sigh echoes Kihyun’s. “It’s a long story. Not important. The short version is that for a long time I was the only heir because my parents couldn’t have any other children. Infertility in general seems to be a curse on our family. But now my uncle has a daughter, who just turned five and doesn’t have the mutation. Therefore, I’m no longer the only heir and he can sweep me out with the garbage like he’s wanted to do for years.” 

A chill runs down Namjoon’s spine, imagining his own extended family actively plotting his death. They’ve never liked him, true, but they’ve always been content to stick him in a corner and leave him be. Which has perhaps been luckier than he’s realized. 

“In contrast, my brother has always had a soft spot for me,” Kihyun says, voice tinged with sadness. “He protected me from my parents, who wanted to keep me locked away. He’s ensured that my isolation is comfortable and allowed me relationships, guarding their secrecy so my parents don’t find out.” He glances at Minhyuk and it’s a telling look, full of history. Minhyuk shakes his head and looks away, shoulders stiff. 

Namjoon can feel the tension radiating off Yoongi, stronger than he’s ever experienced. When Yoongi leans forward, Namjoon catches a glimpse of his clenched jaw in his periphery. 

“You know what he is, right?” he asks Kihyun, dagger-sharp. “What he’s capable of?” 

“I’m not blind,” Kihyun says softly. “Or naive. I know that my brother is a monster. That he’s brought great harm to many people. That he may love me, but that love or respect doesn’t extend to others with the mutation.” He takes a deep breath and when he looks up from the table, his eyes are a well of grief—deep and desolate. 

“Tell me what your plan is and I’ll help as much as I can. I won’t stand in the way, and when my brother is out of power, I guarantee the police and other city defenses will be on your side. No one in my family will challenge me—most of them aren’t aware of my mutation and I’m the next legitimate heir. But I won’t help you kill him. I … I can’t.” 

“I can,” Minhyuk says darkly, but softens when Kihyun frowns at him. Definitely history there, possibly a relationship, but it’s not important right now. 

Yoongi’s voice is, speaking in a low rumble. “We’re going after the king, as I’m sure Baekhyun informed you. The only way to enact true reform without the city falling into chaos is to put someone else on the throne.” 

“Who?” Minhyuk asks. “You?” A glance to Namjoon. “Or him?” 

“I doubt it,” Baekhyun says with a knowing smile. “No offense, but neither of you seem like the ruling type.” 

Namjoon isn’t insulted. He’s always known that he’s not cut out to be king. Yoongi might be—probably is—but the elite world would never accept a Marked on the throne. He’d have a bigger target painted on him that Seokjin will. 

“My cousin,” Namjoon says. “Kim Seokjin.” 

Baekyun’s smile only grows, suggesting he probably reached this conclusion already. Minhyuk’s eyebrows go up, but he doesn’t seem opposed either, and Kihyun is stone-faced. 

“He’s a good choice,” Baekhyun says. “We went to school together. Always knew there was more to him than he liked to let on.” 

“Anything is better than our current king,” Minhyuk says. “He’s a vengeful idiot, too afraid of losing his power.” 

“Still, killing him won’t be easy,” Kihyun says. “And there are others with plans for power, as I’m sure you know.” 

“Kang Sohyun,” Yoongi agrees with a nod. 

“And whoever’s helping her,” Namjoon adds. 

“My brother probably is,” Kihyun says. “But I can’t be certain.” 

“Can you find out?” Yoongi asks. 

“I can try. Minseok keeps a lot of things from me. He’s always considered me frail—which I suppose isn’t a lie, the medication I take to suppress the mutation makes me ill constantly.” And as if to prove his point, he coughs, hunching over slightly. Minhyuk instantly reaches over to rub Kihyun’s back in what looks like a well-practiced routine. The coughing abates quickly, though, and Kihyun straightens again, with a wry expression on his face. “As you can see. But I’ll do my best to get you more information. I can pass it along to you through Minhyuk and Baekhyun.” 

“Thank you,” Namjoon says.

Kihyun nods. Hesitates. Then looks at Yoongi when he speaks. “I know that death is the least my brother deserves for the things he’s done. But...if there is any way to spare him. I—he’s the only real family I have left. Lock him away, if you have to, but…” he trails off with a sigh, a shake of his head. 

Yoongi is uncharacteristically hesitant too. There is something here that Namjoon suddenly feels like he’s missing. Something important. “I’ll try,” he says at last. 

“Thank you,” Kihyun says with a dip of his head. Yoongi looks away. 

“Well,” Minhyuk says, standing. He raises an empty hand like he’s holding a cup in a toast. “To a better world.” 

“To a better world,” Baekhyun echoes, raising his own imaginary glass. “Let’s hope we all live to see it.” 

 

_ _ 

 

Seokjin regrets accepting Sohyun’s invitation to a more “intimate” gathering, even though he knows it’s a good sign—her welcoming him further and further into her good graces. But she’s stayed glued to his side almost all evening, keeping her arm looped through his and her fingers pressed against his skin like well-manicured claws. He knows what she wants, and he’s also not sure how to refuse her it. A long time ago, in another life, he was happy in her bed, but the thought of it now makes him sick. Still, he figures if it’s a price that’s going to be demanded, he’d better pay it, considering everything Jimin and Yoongi have sacrificed. 

Speaking of Jimin, that’s another thing that has him on edge. This “intimate” setting is still over thirty people all mingling together in Sohyun’s penthouse and five minutes after stepping through the door, Yoo Minseok swooped over like a particularly terrifying hawk and asked for some time with his companion. Seokjin tried to refuse, tried to lean into the possessiveness that he’s been showcasing for the last several parties, but Sohyun was waiting—the vulture to Minseok’s hawk—and she said, cheerful, oh, come now, Seokjin-ah, he isn’t going to do anything. Surely you can let him admire? 

And so, stuck between a rock a hard place, he’d handed Jimin over and hasn’t seen him since. It’s been nearly forty minutes, according to the ostentatious wall clock he can see over Sohyun’s shoulder, and fear is steadily tying Seokjin’s stomach into more and more complicated knots. 

Fortunately, the one silver lining in this whole nightmare is that he was able to secure an invitation for Namjoon, and he can see him and Yoongi hovering close to the refreshment table. 

“Would you like another drink?” he asks Sohyun, adding in a flirtatious touch to her waist in the hope that will convince her to release him for a few moments. 

“I would,” she says, smiling. Her hair has blue streaked through the blonde today, and as usual her glittering dress matches, as do the bracelets on her wrists and the gems around her neck and dripping from her ears. She’s turned every head in the penthouse tonight. Seokjin imagines a different life, where she is on the throne and he is on her arm forever, and the knots gain new intricacy. 

“I’ll be right back,” he forces out of his mouth and leans it to briefly brush his lips across her cheek, fleeting but still far too intimate. He tells himself her pleased smile is good—he wants her wrapped around his finger, if this is ever going to work—and extracts himself, making a beeline for the table while also trying not to look like he’s fleeing. 

“Have you seen Jimin?” he asks Namjoon and Yoongi as soon as he gets close enough, making a show of busying himself with making drinks. 

“No,” Namjoon says. “We caught a glimpse of him a little bit ago but nothing after that.” 

Seokjin curses under his breath. Yoongi, silent next to Namjoon, looks … terrified. That’s the only word Seokjin can think of. He’s seen Yoongi tired and sad and shaky in the aftermath of terrible drugs, but never like this. Never so pale and drawn, never so much … like a companion, even if both him and Namjoon have been a little on edge since their meeting with Baekhyun and company a few nights ago. He wants to ask if Yoongi’s alright, but there are too many eyes of them, and Yoongi, as a pretty decoration, shouldn’t be answering him. 

“We’ll do another sweep,” Namjoon offers. “I’m sure he’s—”

A pained shout suddenly echoes through the room, rising above the steady murmur of voices and soft strains of music. Seokjin turns, but can’t make out the source of it amidst the barrier of now alarmed party guests. But the awful, unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh follows the original yell and Seokjin’s stomach gives up on the knots and just starts trying to climb up his throat as he flashes back to the garden of a different party, and Jungkook bloody at Shin Guho’s feet. 

Jimin. 

He moves almost unconsciously, elbowing his way through the gawping partygoers until he’s at the epicenter of this unfolding disaster, where Minseok is pressing Jimin to the marble floor with a shoe on his stomach, his handsome face contorted into a snarl of rage and blood dripping from his arm. 

“You little bitch,” he seethes. 

Jimin snarls right back at him, writhing like a furious snake. Any second now this is going to escalate beyond repair and Seokjin reaches desperately for ice and calm as he steps through the last line of onlookers and says, “what’s going on here.” 

“Your fucking companion bit me,” Minseok snaps. 

“I did warn you of that,” Seokjin says mildly. 

“He made me bleed.” Minseok holds up his wounded arm and yes, those are definitely teeth marks in a red, bloody ring on his skin. Fuck, it looks like Jimin almost tore a chunk out of him. Seokjin would be proud under any other circumstances. 

Right now, though, he has to appease. 

He gestures for Minseok to step back and reaches down—calm, calm, calm apologize later—to haul Jimin to his knees with a grip on his hair. Jimin gasps and keeps right on fighting, trying to claw at Seokjin’s hand, then his leg. Seokjin isn’t even sure Jimin knows where he is right now. 

Forgive me, Seokjin thinks and shifts his grip, snagging one of Jimin’s wrists and pressing down on the seal. 

Jimin shrieks as it flares to life, coughing and doubling over in agony. 

“That’s right,” Seokjin says, all steel. “Stop fighting me.” 

He lets go and Jimin drops to the floor again, on his stomach, panting. 

“I apologize for his lack of discipline,” he says to Minseok with a bow. “I’ll be sure to punish him accordingly.” 

I want to punish him,” Minseok fires back. “That’s only fair, right?” 

Fuck, fuck, fuck. 

Seokjin can feel Sohyun watching him. Assessing him. This has become another test and if she’s in league with Minseok, then he doesn’t dare refuse. But there is no way on this barren earth that he’s going to hand Jimin over to this monster, even if right now he wants to shake Jimin and demand to know what the hell he was thinking, pulling something like this. 

On the floor, Jimin pushes himself up on one arm, fire still in his eyes. “Just try,” he rasps, glaring up at Minseok. “I’ll kill you.” 

Forgive me, forgive me, Seokjin mentally begs again as he coldly forces Jimin back onto his stomach with a kick to the ribs, then pins him there with a shoe against his throat. 

Enough,” he snaps to Jimin. “Stay. Down. Or I’ll cut out your fucking tongue and make sure you never walk again.” Jimin wheezes, but mercifully remains still, and Seokjin turns his attention to Minseok. “I understand your anger, Minseok-ssi,” he says. “But I’m perfectly capable of adequately disciplining my own companions.” 

“Seokjin-ah,” Sohyun says from behind him, and her voice is light but undercut by an unmistakable note of warning, “it’s a matter of courtesy, isn’t it? Minseok won’t permanently damage him.” 

Seokjin sucks in a quiet breath, trying to figure out what to do. How did they end up here? This wasn’t supposed to happen, what the hell is he supposed to do now except—

“What about my companion?” Namjoon asks suddenly, from somewhere to Seokjin’s left. 

Seokjin glances over to see him emerging from the crowd, pulling Yoongi along behind him. Once he’s in this small clearing with Seokjin, Jimin, and Minseok, he shifts to put Yoongi in front of him as if presenting him to Minseok. 

“I know he didn’t commit the wrong,” Namjoon continues. “But my cousin really is very proprietary and this companion is much more agreeable than his, anyway. You could do whatever you like to him, except permanent damage.” 

There is no way this will work, Seokjin initially thinks, except. Except something shifts on Minseok’s face. His expression morphs into a cold delight that Seokjin can’t understand but chills him to the bone. 

“That’s a generous gift, Namjoon-ssi,” he says, approaching them and stopping right in front of Yoongi. “Normally, I wouldn’t take you up on it—I want punishment where it’s due—but this one.” He reaches out and tilts Yoongi’s chin up, and there is the terror again, all over Yoongi’s face, but beneath that is fire and iron, like always. “We have some unfinished business.” He looks over Yoongi’s shoulder at Namjoon, who has remained remarkably stoic. “I want him for the night. I’ll return him to you in the morning, and no permanent damage, you have my word. And you can do whatever you want with your companion, Seokjin-ssi, but I trust you’ll train him better. Deal?” 

Seokjin’s heart is thudding in his chest so loud, he thinks the whole room might be able to hear it. Beneath his foot, Jimin makes a noise of horrified protest, trying to fight again. Seokjin presses down—self-loathing black and furious inside of him—until Jimin stills with another battered wheeze, air almost cut off.

And Namjoon … Namjoon hands over Yoongi’s leash. 

“Deal,” he says. 

Minseok takes the leash with a wolf’s grin, all fangs. “Let’s go, pet,” he says to Yoongi and hauls him away, towards the elevators. 

Seokjin brain restarts, reminding him of all the eyes still on him and Jimin, of Namjoon’s worried gaze and Sohyun’s assessing one. It also helpfully informs him that Sohyun’s apartment has access to a private rooftop terrace, which she usually leaves open. 

“Excuse me for a moment, noona,” he says with a bow towards her and drags Jimin upright, then through the crowd, following Minseok’s path to the elevators. He can’t look at Namjoon as he passes, doesn’t know how to face that yet. Or the enormity of what’s just happened. 

Instead, he focuses on shoving Jimin inside and pushing the button for the roof—finally letting out a shaky exhale when the doors close. Next to him, though, Jimin crackles with barely contained fury, like an encroaching lightning storm. Seokjin has a feeling that all he’s going to be able to do is weather it. 

The doors open onto the empty roof and Seokjin steps out, into the cold. He’s expecting the blow, braces himself seconds before Jimin’s fist connects with his stomach. It’s still enough to double him over. Gods, he can’t remember the last time he was in a fight. 

Not that this will be much of a fight. 

“How could you?” Jimin snarls and hits him again, sending him to one knee. “How the fuck could you hand Yoongi over to that monster?” 

“It was him or you,” Seokjin gasps out. 

“And we’re just pawns to you, right?” Jimin grabs his hair, forcing his head back. He blinks up at the winter sky, and the snow flurries starting to fall, deceptively peaceful. “You talk about a better world, but aren’t we really just helping put another tyrant on a throne? Do you actually care?” 

“Of course I care,” Seokjin says. “Jimin-ah—” 

“Don’t call me that.” Jimin knees him in the stomach this time and he collapses forward onto his hands and knees. “Stop pretending.” 

“You provoked him,” Seokjin points out, clutching his stomach, but making no other move to get up. This is the least he deserves, he figures, for what he did downstairs. “Why did you attack him like that?” 

Jimin’s anger lessens a degree, replaced by guilt. “Because he … he kept talking. He talked about all the things he did to his companions, that he wanted to do to me. And…” he shudders, clenches and unchlences. “And all the things he did to Yoongi. He wanted to know if Namjoon had done similar things. If you had and I…” Jimin’s voice cracks. “I couldn’t…” 

Pieces click into place to form a horrible puzzle. “He used to own Yoongi,” Seokjin whispers.

Jimin nods. “Before Namjoon. He said … he said he regretted selling Yoongi, but he’s glad that he ended up with Namjoon because then at least … at least he was suffering like he deserved. Fuck.” Jimin rakes an agitated hand through his hair, messing up the styling. He’s shaking, Seokjin realizes. “Fuck this is all my fault. I just—I couldn’t—” 

“Come here,” Seokjin says, because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Come here, please.” He snags Jimin’s sleeve and pulls him down and in, until Jimin is kneeling on this snowy roof, pressed against his chest like Jungkook was once. But this feels different: Jimin’s nails claw at his back, as though the rage in Jimin is still leaching out, in search of a target, and Jimin doesn’t sob like Jungkook did, just shudders in Seokjin’s arms. 

Seokjin lets him hold on as tight as he needs. “I’m sorry,” he says and means both for Yoongi and for the awful display, for the ways he hurt Jimin—evident in the increased bruising around Jimin’s throat and the fading reddish-tint of the seal on his right wrist. “It wasn’t … it was him or you, and Yoongi never would have let it be you.” 

“He’s a fucking martyr,” Jimin hiccups. “Hate him for it.”

“I’m sorry,” Seokjin repeats, because it doesn’t feel like there’s anything else to say. 

Jimin shakes his head and pulls back. Seokjin pretends not to see the tears he wipes away from his eyes as he rises to his feet. 

Seokjin stands more gingerly, still clutching his bruised stomach. 

“I’m not apologizing for that,” Jimin says, firm, and Seokjin manages a weak smile. 

“I wouldn’t expect you to.” 

Jimin shivers. Looks away to the night-lit city sprawled out around them. Snow is landing in hair, brilliant white amidst the darker silver. He touches his neck with careful fingers, pressing against the bruises left by Seokjin’s shoe. “You’re very good at this,” he says quietly, but with a subtle note of accusation. 

Seokjin sighs, staring down at his hands. “I know. I’ve always been good at masks. I think it’s a trait we share.” 

“I’m not wearing one right now,” Jimin says, still sounding scraped raw. “But I’ve never seen you take yours off.” 

Seokjin understands what Jimin is implying: how can I trust you if you continue to hide from me? It’s a valid question, and perhaps he’s always known this moment was coming eventually. He’d just been hoping for better circumstances. 

“You’re right,” he admits. “I’ll tell you all of it, if you want. The whole sordid tale of Kim Seokjin. You deserve to know, and you can decide if you want to gut me after.” 

“Would you let me?” Jimin asks. 

Seokjin looks at him—at the blaze of his red-rimmed eyes and the tired curve of his spine and the echoes of grief and rage and terror on his face. He thinks of Jungkook, curled up weeping on his living room floor and bleeding in his bathtub. Of his grandmother’s hardened face and cold tile beneath his knees and the only time he’s ever begged in his life. 

“Yes,” he says, and isn’t sure he’s ever been quite this honest. “I would.”

Jimin nods. Wraps his arms around himself. Their mingled breath hangs heavy in the air as Seokjin extends a hand. “There’s nothing more we can do right now,” he says. “Not until the morning. So let’s go home.” 

Jimin blows out a long breath in a puff of steam. Then he reaches out and takes Seokjin’s hand, threading their fingers together. 

 

_ _ 

 

Namjoon stares down at his hands and the tremors running through them, twitching along his fingers. They haven’t stopped shaking since he left the party, since he handed Yoongi’s leash over, and he—

The elevator dings, announcing the arrival on his floor. He staggers out into the hall, slumping against his front door, and wonders if he’s going to be sick. If he has that right. 

Give him me, Yoongi whispered urgently once they realized what was happening. He’ll accept. Do it now. 

And Namjoon hadn’t hesitated, trusting Yoongi the same as always—not even fully comprehending the situation, that there were things Yoongi hadn’t told him and now

Who silenced me for months with a muzzle when I couldn’t keep quiet, when the pain was too much - and he’d hurt me for crying, hurt me so bad I’d bleed for days

Now… 

Namjoon sucks in a ragged breath and fumbles his way through the code on his door, tripping his way inside. He kicks off his shoes without bothering to put them in their proper place and unbuttons the suffocating collar of his shirt with his still timorous fingers. It takes three tries before he gets it undone but the suffocating feeling doesn’t lessen, and he realizes that maybe it’s his lungs constricting all on their own. Maybe he’s never going to breathe properly again. 

“Where’s Yoongi?” a voice asks and he looks up to see Jung Hoseok standing in the middle of his living room, regarding him with alarm and the beginnings of fury. His lungs compress further. 

Hoseok. He forgot all about Hoseok, oh god. 

“Where is he?” Hoseok repeats, taking a limping step forward. “Why isn’t he with you?” 

Namjoon opens his mouth, but nothing comes out except for a wheeze. Maybe he’s never going to be able to talk again, either. He thinks he should probably get on his knees and beg Hoseok for forgiveness, but he can’t move. His limbs have locked up just like his lungs and he’s frozen here, halfway between the door and the living room, like a mute, helpless statue. 

Hoseok’s face twists. “What have you done?” he demands, closing the rest of the distance between them and grabbing a fistful of Namjoon’s shirt. The delicate cloth strains in his grip. “What the fuck have you done?” 

“I…” Namjoon tries. “I … I couldn’t….” 

Hoseok shakes him with surprising strength—hard enough that he can feel his teeth clack together. “Answer me.” 

Hoseok is going to kill him for this, Namjoon thinks, and it’ll probably be deserved. 

“Jimin provoked a party guest,” he finally manages to get out, voice still wobbling. “And he demanded payment and—” 

So you gave him Yoongi?” Hoseok half-shouts, shaking him again. “You fucking gave him Yoongi?” 

“Yoongi told me to,” Namjoon gasps. “We had to save Jimin, we—” 

Hoseok yanks him forward, spinning them around so that he can shove Namjoon further into the living room. Namjoon staggers and slips, crashing onto his back on the floor. Hoseok looms over him, a towering inferno, and Namjoon experiences a sudden sense of a deja vu. Will Hoseok go for a vase? A knife? His shoulder throbs with memory. His heart aches. 

We,” Hoseok spits. He’s shaking, too, just like Namjoon—seconds from shattering. “We like your initials aren’t on his arm. Like you couldn’t do anything to him and he wouldn’t be able to stop you, like anyone would care if you break him or kill him or hand him over like a fucking object to appease someone’s anger.” 

“I would never,” Namjoon insists, desperate. “Not willingly. I love him.” 

Hoseok freezes like he’s been struck and oh. Oh shit. Namjoon was never supposed to say that out loud. It was supposed to come with him to his grave. He braces himself for another round of Hoseok’s wrath—half-hoping that Hoseok will hurt him like Yoongi is undoubtedly being hurt right now, because who hands someone they love over to a sadist, no matter the circumstances? 

But instead of hitting him, Hoseok laughs and collapses to his knees. The laughter quickly dissolves into a gasp of pain and then a sob and then Hoseok is almost hyperventilating—a hand over his chest like he’s trying to physically keep his heart beneath his skin. Still aching, Namjoon crawls forward and grabs his free hand, absorbing his flinch. 

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon says. “I’m sorry, I never meant—I wouldn’t do anything about it. Ever. I—it was him or Jimin tonight and he made the choice, I just—I’m so sorry. I should have protected him, thought of something else, I—” 

“Shut up,” Hoseok says, but it sounds more tired than angry. He isn’t pulling away from Namjoon. 

What messes they are, Namjoon thinks, half-hysterical, broken here on the floor. 

Hoseok’s head remains bowed, black hair hanging in his face. “I spent so much time looking for him,” he whispers. “I never thought it would be like this when I found him.” 

“He still loves you,” Namjoon insists. “He’s just … he doesn’t want you to see him this way. All of this … horror.” 

Hoseok shakes his head. “You don’t have to pity me. I’ve seen the way he looks at you.” He sighs and finally looks up, exhausted and earnest all at once. “But you don’t understand, I don’t—I’m angry at you but I know you haven’t hurt him. I would have killed you if I thought you had. Or you would. And I don’t own him. He’s allowed to love who he wants. This isn’t about that. I just … I want him to be safe. I want all the people that I love to be safe. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.” 

Namjoon has no idea what to do with I’ve seen the way he looks at you so he sets it aside. It doesn’t matter, like Hoseok said. “I want that too.” He squeezes Hoseok’s hand. “Otherwise, what’s the point of all this?” 

“A better world,” Hoseok says, but it sounds bitter. 

He finally pulls away from Namjoon and wipes a still-trembling hand over his face. “I need a drink,” he rasps. “And then you’re going to tell me what happened. No more fucking secrets, okay? Yoongi might want to keep me out of this, but I have a say too.” 

“Deal,” Namjoon promises and helps Hoseok to his feet. 

 

_ _ 

 

They still end up on the floor again, this time slumped against the cabinets in Namjoon’s kitchen, passing a bottle of wine back and forth. 

“You didn’t know?” Hoseok repeats, frowning at him. 

“No.” 

“Would you have? If you’d known?” 

“I…” he’s not sure. Doesn’t want to contemplate that. 

“Never mind,” Hoseok mutters and takes another swig of wine. “Unfair question.” 

“It was him or Jimin.” 

“I know.” Hoseok sighs. “He’s always been that way—willing to do anything for someone he loves. When we were kids at the orphanage, he used to insist on taking all my punishments for me. ‘I’m the hyung,’ he’d say. And then when the kids came along … he’d lay down his life for them without hesitating. We both would. Even if you’d said no, he would have found a way to make sure it was him in Jimin’s place. I don’t blame you, as much I want to.” 

“I offered to get him out of the city,” Namjoon says, taking the wine from Hoseok. “Send him somewhere safe. He refused.” 

Hoseok laughs sadly. “Sounds about right. I’ve always loved and hated how selfless he is.” 

“He’s afraid that you’ll stop loving him, if you see too much.” 

“Never,” Hoseok says fiercely. “Not in this lifetime or the next. Never.” 

Namjoon nods. He knows that, but he suspects that convincing Yoongi is going to be difficult—especially after tonight. 

“It hurts,” Hoseok continues, clutching at his chest again. His cheeks are flushed from the drink, contrasting the grimace of pain contorting his mouth. “Knowing that he’s suffering and there’s nothing I can do. It fucking hurts.” 

“I know,” Namjoon whispers, because the pain on Hoseok’s face is familiar and it echoes between his own ribs. “But you can … just be patient with him. Be here. I think—or I like to think—that it helps. At least a little.” 

“You’re good with him,” Hoseok says and for once it’s without bitterness. Namjoon doesn’t know if the alcohol or the grief has softened him or if they’ve genuinely reached some kind of truce. “I’m … glad for that.” 

“I try. It feels like the least I can do.” 

Hoseok takes another long pull from the bottle and hiccups. “You’re a good person, Namjoon. Better than I wanted you to be.” 

“Don’t say that. Not tonight.” 

Hoseok settles the bottle down between them, shifting to face Namjoon properly. His eyes are like twin furnaces, boring into Namjoon, and when he speaks, there’s brimstone in his voice. “Promise me something: Yoo Minseok dies. I don’t care what it takes. Coup or not. He fucking dies.” 

“He dies,” Namjoon agrees with a level of fury and hatred that he doesn’t think he’s ever experienced before. “I promise.” He’ll cut the bastard’s throat himself if that’s what it comes to. “And we’ll take care of Yoongi,” he adds, shifting closer to Hoseok. “None of us are breaking from this. We’ll … whatever it takes to help him. Together.” 

The blaze shutters, letting sadness sweep back in, but Hoseok nods. “Together,” he whispers and holds out a hand. 

Instead of taking it, Namjoon pulls him into an embrace, holding him. Or maybe, he realizes—as Hoseok makes a wounded sound and clutches at the back of Namjoon’s shirt, bruising and grounding—they’re supporting each other. 

Chapter Text

“There are a lot of things I’ve done that I hope someday I can be forgiven for. If there are any gods left, watching life play out on the shambles of this ruined earth, maybe they’ll be kind whenever I pass into their realm. It’s the least they owe us, right? For sitting on the sidelines all this time. Don’t make that face, Namjoon-ah. Ghosts haunt all of us in different forms. I have my regrets, and then the things I wouldn’t change for all the money and status in the world. Helping you has always fallen into the second category. Please make sure it never switches over to the first.” 

 

- Excerpt from a letter by Kim Seokjin to his cousin, Kim Namjoon 

 



_ _ 

 

He takes Park Jimin home, a silent gulf hovering between them in the car and then the elevator ride up to his floor. He stares first out the window and then at the ticking numbers and tries to organize everything in his head—lay a timeline down that will give Jimin a coherent picture without straying too far into the painful, shadowed parts. Though, maybe, that’s exactly where he needs to go. Just dig up the fucking roots and get it over with. Does he trust Park Jimin that much? Does he trust anyone that much? 

The elevator dings—a cheerful sound he’s always loathed—and Jimin punches in the code to the front door, which Seokjin doesn’t remember ever teaching him. As soon as the door closes behind them, Jimin is reaching for his collar. Seokjin watches as Jimin practically tears the strip of leather from his neck and hurls it onto the couch. He doesn’t stop there, though. Next go the sparkly earrings, then the fancy shoes, then he reaches up with the sleeve of his white shirt and frantically wipes the makeup from his face, ruining the pristine fabric in the process. 

Seokjin doesn’t know what to say and can’t look at the bruising on Jimin’s neck for too long without wanting to throw up, so he stumbles into the guest bathroom and retrieves a bunch of wet wipes from a drawer. Jimin blinks at him when he returns to hand them over. 

“For your face,” he says, since Jimin’s makeup has smeared down his cheeks and under his eyes. 

Jimin nods and takes the wipes with a shaky hand. Seokjin leaves him again—scrubbing roughly at the remnants of makeup—to see what alcohol he can excavate from his cupboards and fridge. No law says he has to be sober for this conversation. His phone buzzes as he’s pulling out a bottle of whiskey. It’s Sohyun, asking why he left the party, saying that she was hoping to speak with him. He reads beneath the innocuous words to the demand underneath: come back. 

Come back. 

With hands shaking nearly as bad as Jimin’s, he unscrews the cap on the bottle and takes a large gulp of the whiskey, swallowing through the aching burn of it in his throat. 

Give me a few hours, he texts back. Dealing with my companion. 

It’s not even really a lie. He almost starts laughing at that, but he doesn’t think it would sound very sane at the moment, so he settles for another mouthful of whiskey. No law says he has to be sober to deal with Sohyun, either, or what she’s inevitably going to request of him tonight. 

Ha. Might as well break all the way, right? What the hell. 

“You should share the alcohol,” Jimin rasps, suddenly on the opposite side of Seokjin’s little breakfast counter. He startles, but dutifully hands over the bottle and watches Jimin swallow down even more than he did. 

Jimin sets the bottle down between them when he’s done, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 

“I don’t know where to start,” Seokjin admits and feels more vulnerable than he has all night. 

“At the beginning?” Jimin suggests. His silver hair has come free from it’s rigid styling, flopping onto his forehead. It makes him look younger. 

A punch of laughter finally breaks free from Seokjin’s mouth, knocking against his teeth and hitting the air in a staccato burst. 

“Yeah,” he says and reaches for the bottle again. “I guess so.” 

When he looks back through his life, he often sees it not as one continuous film but a series of moments. Like a flickering, Old World zoetrope that he read about in a dusty history book during his college days. 

Those, he supposes, he can let Park Jimin see. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Fourteen. 

A funeral with empty caskets because there is no room in the city to bury the dead. Now, elite or Marked, everyone burns at the end. Seokjin’s suit is perfectly tailored and steadily choking him—the collar so starched he feels like he can barely turn his neck. The urge to tug on it buzzes insistently in the back of his mind, but he keeps his hands rigid at his sides, aware of his grandmother’s continuous glances in his direction. He’s not sure what she’s looking for. Proper composure? Tears? 

He keeps expecting those to come. Two of those coffins belong to his parents. The other two are Namjoon’s parents and next to Seokjin, he’s crying softly—head bent and a hand over his eyes, but shoulders hitching, giving him away. Seokjin just feels hollow, like everything vital was long-ago scooped out of him and only this shell remains. 

He realizes, with detachment, that he doesn’t know if he loved his parents or they loved him. Maybe, none of them are really capable of love. Even Namjoon, in his grief, is only crying because he knows he’s supposed to. It’s unseemingly not to display human emotion, even if you’re not feeling it. 

But Seokjin can’t make tears come like Namjoon so he stares at the fake flowers filling the open caskets, thinking that there must be a metaphor in there somewhere. The emptiness inside of him howls like wind over the barren land beyond the city walls, echoing and endless and unsatisfied. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Sixteen. 

A party his cousin wasn’t supposed to bring him to. Everyone is adorned in beautiful clothes and beautiful skin and the drugs he took have turned the tacky wallpaper of this apartment into a whirling mass of color. He feels buoyant and weightless—his thoughts formless, inconsequential things that flutter away on moth’s wings when he tries to grasp them. 

His cousin smiles at him, all brilliant white teeth, and hands him a glass of something alcoholic that he drinks without question. Someone else approaches—a tinkling laugh heralding their arrival. He vaguely recognizes one of his cousin’s university friends, who is just as tall and handsome as his cousin is. His smile is blinding, too, and it takes Seokjin a moment to register the leash he has in his hand and the person on the other end of it. He’s seen many companions in Sector 1, but never this close. Never with his cousin whispering in his ear that they have a treat for him, laughter tinging the words. 

Seokjin stares, wide-eyed and from somewhere on the ceiling, as the companion kneels in front him. He can’t make out her face through the blur of the drugs and drink, but he thinks she must be pretty and her hands are practiced when she unbuttons his pants. A tiny, faded voice hisses urgently at him to stop this, but he bats it away. He’s floating and he feels good and this is what companions are for, isn’t it? So he lets her pull him out of his underwear, lets her get him hard with practiced strokes of her hand, then lets her swallow him down—all wet, perfect heat. 

He groans, tipping his head back to the ceiling, and his cousin laughs and laughs and laughs. He wishes he knew what the joke was. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Seventeen. 

The study of his parent’s apartment, which feels too quiet now that his father isn’t here to occupy it, and Namjoon’s terrified face. It’s just the two of them now, after Namjoon said he needed to speak privately and Seokjin dismissed the staff. He hates having them around, anyway. Doesn’t know how to talk to them or handle the pitying glances that they aim at his back when he thinks he isn’t looking. The poor orphaned rich boy. He wonders what they tell their families about him. 

“Why would you tell me this?” he asks Namjoon now, feeling almost hysterical. They don’t really have any kind of relationship, even though they’re close in age and bonded by the simultaneous death of their parents. Seokjin doesn’t know how to be close to anyone, these days, even his younger cousin who is also pretty much alone. 

(Who has been keeping a terrible secret that’s turned Seokjin’s world on its head.) 

Why?” 

Namjoon swallows, fidgets in the armchair. He looks ready to cry again. “I-I don’t know. I don’t have anyone else,” he hiccups. 

“You shouldn’t have told anyone,” Seokjin snaps and Namjoon flinches. His eyes are huge and watery in his too-pale face. 

Seokjin feels a pang of unwanted sympathy and ignores it in favor of trying to wrap his head around the enormity of what Namjoon’s just told him. 

His cousin has the mutation— the mutation—and instead of killing him as a baby, his parents chose to let him live and buried the medical records. Except for the single copy that sits on the desk between them. Seokjin’s hands twitch with the urge to tear it to pieces so they can pretend this never happened. 

“Who else knows?” he asks. Demands.  

Namjoon shakes his head. “Um … I think just you. My parents n-never told anyone else in the family.” 

And yet Namjoon’s chosen to bring him into this. To make him bear the burden of it because he was too weak and scared to carry it alone. Seokjin wishes he could hate him, but Namjoon looks far too young and pitiful for that strong of an emotion. Instead he takes a deep, calming breath and hands the medical report back to Namjoon. 

“Hide this. I never saw it. We never spoke about this.” 

“H-hyung,” Namjoon stammers, looking like Seokjin smacked him. 

Never, do you understand me?” Seokjin snaps and Namjoon nods quickly, pocketing the cursed medical report. “And don’t ever bring it up again. I won’t either. This stays hidden, you never should have brought it to me in the first place. Got it?” 

“Yes,” Namjoon whispers. 

“Good,” Seokjin says and sinks back into his father’s old chair. “Get out.” 

Namjoon hiccups on a sob and flees the room, slamming the door to the study shut behind him. Seokjin listens to him leave the apartment all together and tells himself that this is for the best. Namjoon needs to harden, needs to bury all those soft and fragile parts of him beneath several layers of steel, or he’s never going to survive. 

The hollowness in Seokjin still aches. He thinks that if he examined it long enough, that ache might turn into guilt, so he grinds it down beneath a mental heel and raids his father’s liquor cabinet. 

Maybe if he drinks enough, he’ll forget Namjoon coming to him entirely.

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Eighteen. 

A boarding house and a dingy room with stained carpet and a double-bed that’s all worn mattress and creaking springs. A single floor lamp and a flickering neon sign outside the window that tints the room in strange shades of gold and red. He stares at the sobbing woman on the bed and wishes he knew what to do. 

Nothing is off limits, the proprietor told him with a smile and a gesture to the array of horrifying tools in the cabinet on the wall above the bed. 

Have fun, his cousin said and slapped him on the back. Happy Birthday. 

He steps closer to the woman and watches her flinch away from him with a terrified whimper. Her arms and wrists are bound to the metal posters of the bed with lengths of rope and her lank hair fans across the pillow. She’s young, perhaps around Seokjin’s age, and bruising patterns already litter her arms and bare thighs. Someone whipped her across the stomach and breasts recently—the lashes still red—and when she opens her mouth to cry again, he notices that several of her teeth are missing. 

The sheets of the bed are red, but he thinks he can still make out the faded dark of old blood on the cheap silk. 

He can’t look at the tools on the wall—whips and saws and knives and other devices he doesn’t recognize—or her face, twisted into a grotesque mask of fear. Instead he stares at her trembling hands, the deep furrows from the rope around her wrists. Several of her fingernails are missing, too—clearly torn off—and oh god he’s going to vomit. 

He ends up back in the hallway, leaning against the tacky wallpaper with a hand over his chest as he struggles to breathe and his vision tunnels. He hasn’t felt this awake since before his parents died and he wishes desperately for drugs or alcohol or anything to bring the hollow, comforting emptiness back. 

This is what companions are for. 

He remembers the woman knelt between his legs at a distant party and has to swallow back a fresh rush of bile. He can still hear the woman crying. Not once has she begged him for mercy, already resigned to her horrific fate. 

“Is there a problem, sir?” a voice asks and he jerks his head up to see the proprietor frowning at him, accenting the wrinkles around her mouth and in the corners of her eyes. “Is she not satisfactory? We have others you can choose from, if—” 

“I’d like to buy her,” Seokjin blurts. 

The proprietor blinks. “I’m sorry?” 

“I’d like to buy her,” he repeats and pushes himself off the wall, reaching for confidence somewhere within his trembling heart and contorting it into a mask he can fit over his face. “This place is filthy, I’d much rather … play in the comfort of my own home.” 

The proprietor looks vaguely offended by the slight to her establishment, which is almost hilarious considering Seokjin can see a dirty smudge on his suit from the wallpaper and the carpet doesn’t look like it’s been cleaned in the last several decades. Are all boarding houses this seedy or does his cousin just like the horror aesthetic? 

“Name your price,” he says and the offense vanishes at the promise of more money. Predictable. 

The proprietor rattles off a number far too high for someone in the woman’s condition, but Seokjin agrees without hesitation—desperate to get away from here and the faint screams he can hear from behind closed doors down the hall, accompanied by the woman’s continued, endless sobs within the room he just vacated. 

“Excellent, sir,” the proprietor says with a bow and a polite smile. “Let me get the contract.” She begins tapping on the tablet Seokjin didn’t even realize she was holding. “Do you want us to arrange delivery?” 

“I’ll take her with me tonight,” Seokjin says and signs with his finger at the bottom of the contract that the proprietor has pulled up on her tablet. The brightness of the screen hurts his eyes in this dim hallway and his signature is wobbly from his trembling hands, but if the proprietor notices, she doesn’t comment on it. 

“Excellent, sir,” she says and waits while Seokjin transfers over the money with a few taps to the screen of his phone. 

Just like that, he’s purchased a human being. He watches, numb, as the proprietor pulls out her own phone and texts, one-handed and rapid, what looks like a series of instructions to what must be one of the employees in the building. The woman is to be untied and dressed and moved to Seokjin’s car immediately. 

The mysterious employee answers back with a confirmation. 

“I’ll wait by the car,” Seokjin says, unable to bear the idea of waiting here surrounded by so much misery. “Please pass my apologies on to my cousin and inform him I’ve left.” 

He’s with a different sanctioned right now and Seokjin cannot contemplate what horrors he might be committing without the danger of throwing up presenting itself again. He thinks of the bright, cheerful smile his cousin almost always wears and shudders, knowing that he’ll never be able to look at it the same after tonight. 

Perhaps nothing will be the same, because the woman cries nearly the whole ride to Seokjin’s apartment, curled up in the corner of the seat in an impossibly tiny ball and regarding him like a monster. His skin crawls. He wants a drink so badly he aches with the desire. For the first time in a long time he feels hopelessly young and out of his depth, and he doesn’t know how to remedy it. There is no one he can call for advice, and his parents never owned companions. He has no history to fall back on. 

So he puts the woman in the guest bedroom. 

“You can sleep in here,” he tells her as he sets a glass of water by the bedside table, trying to make his voice as kind and soothing as possible. He thinks it only sounds stern, judging from her flinch and the way she presses her body down against the white bed covers, trying to make herself even smaller. 

“I won’t hurt you,” he promises and knows she doesn’t believe him. “Please get some rest.” 

She won’t meet his eyes, so he retreats to the master suite that has become his after his parents died. God, he doesn’t even know her name. Is she hungry? Probably. He has no idea how to cook, though, and he’s not about to summon his family’s old chef in the middle of the night to feed his companion. She’s finally stopped crying, at least. Maybe she’ll fall asleep soon and they can deal with this in the morning. He’ll get her clothes and food and figure out what the hell he’s going to do with her. The thought of touching her is actually horrifying but the staff will ask questions if he just … keeps her locked up in his guest bedroom.

Maybe there’s a way to free her? 

He scrubs a hand over his face and shakes his head. His head is pounding and he still feels vaguely queasy—this can all wait until the morning. He’ll (hopefully) be able to think more clearly then. 

Not even bothering to take off his clothes, he falls asleep on top of the covers within only a few minutes, emotional exhaustion pulling him swiftly under. 

But when he wakes early the next morning, the apartment is too silent. He can’t hear any kind of movement from the guest bedroom as he emerges into the main living area, not even a rustle of sheets. A weird sort of dread settling heavy in his bones, he creeps down the short hallway to the door and pushes it open… 

And finds her. On the bed. His brain always stutters here, refusing to remember things clearly—piece it all together. Instead there are only a series of disconnected images that seared themselves in with vivid, terrible clarity: the red splatters all over the bed, like someone flung paint around; the white, lifeless pallor of her skin; the dark fan of her hair against the pillows, just like in the boarding house; the piece of glass clutched in her limp hand and the shards scattered across the floor—he didn’t even hear her break it, slept right through her—

His legs give out and he ends up on his knees in the doorway, hand clapped over his mouth. He watches blood drip to the floor from where one of her arms hangs off the bed and feels his eyes well with tears for the first time since he was a child. 

He’s awfully, painfully awake and he knows he’ll never be able to go to sleep again. Something vital in him has shifted and roared to life with an earth-shattering scream he thinks might always be lodged in the back of his throat from this moment on. 

I killed her, he’ll tell his cousin later, when he calls to ask about disposing of her body (he still doesn’t know her name, not even her name). Got a little too carried away. 

His cousin will laugh and call him a “sick bastard” like it’s a joke and the scream will build, even louder than before. Until all he’ll be able to hear is the ringing echo of it in his ears. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Nineteen. 

A new apartment, because he couldn’t stand to be in his parents’ anymore, after the bloodstains wouldn’t wash out of the sheets in the guest bedroom. It’s a smaller place, and he refuses to hire any staff, much to his grandmother’s disapproval. Instead, he learns how to cook his own meals and gets down on his knees to scrub his own floors, sometimes until his hands are chapped and raw from the bleach. 

I want to be a doctor, he told his grandmother and she called it a ridiculous idea but let him enroll in medical school because she loved Seokjin’s father more than she’ll ever love him and his death created a convenient soft spot that might not have otherwise existed. 

He still has no idea what to do about the scream, but his thoughts keep circling back to Namjoon, whom he’s barely spoken to in the past year. Namjoon, who could have been in that boarding house if not for an accident of birth and an act of parental compassion. Namjoon, who is seventeen now and still terribly alone after Seokjin pushed him away. 

Perhaps, this is where he can start. 

He never deleted Namjoon’s contact information from his phone, so he sends off a text, inviting him for dinner and gets an acceptance back faster than he was anticipating. Looks like maybe he still has some bridges he hasn’t completely burned. 

But Namjoon is wide-eyed and hesitant when he arrives for dinner the next night, hovering in the doorway like he isn’t sure if Seokjin is actually going to grant him entry. He’s gotten taller in the last two years and now he’s all long limbs and ill-fitting clothes—a boy struggling to shape himself into a man. He’s dyed his hair a platinum blond that Seokjin thinks makes his features a little too harsh, but he was the one who thought Namjoon should strengthen the protective shell around his heart so he doesn’t comment on it, just steps aside to let Namjoon in. 

“I wasn’t sure if I’m supposed to bring anything,” Namjoon says awkwardly and hands over a bottle of soju. Seokjin blinks, surprised that Namjoon is drinking. Legal age is sixteen, but… 

“Thank you,” he says, hating this awkwardness as he sets the soju on the table and gestures for Namjoon to sit. He tried to cook as much as possible, even procuring beef in spite of the astronomical prices, and his afternoon spent toiling in the kitchen is suddenly paid off by the shocked and elated expression that crosses Namjoon’s face. 

“You cooked all this yourself, hyung?” he says in awe as Seokjin gestures for him to sit. 

“Yes, I’ve been practicing.” 

Namjoon nods and the awkwardness lingers all the way through serving the food and the drink and taking their first bites. He could have cooked the noodles longer, he realizes immediately, but Namjoon doesn’t seem to mind, eating without any complaint. Seokjin knows that this is his rift to mend, in spite of how much he’d prefer to ignore the problem until it curls up and slinks away. 

“I’m sorry, Namjoon-ah,” he ends up blurting out when Namjoon’s in the middle of drinking.

Namjoon coughs, soju spilling down his chin. He hastily wipes it away with a napkin, shaking his head. “No, it was my fault—you were right, I shouldn’t have—” 

“No,” Seokjin insists, cutting him off. “No, you trusted me and I reacted badly.” He takes a deep breath. “We’re family and we need to stick together.” There are sharks in the water, he doesn’t say. He suspects Namjoon already knows. “I’ll keep this secret, Namjoon-ah. And any others you want to tell me. I’m your hyung and you can … you can always come to me. I mean that.” 

He tries to leave his face open, sincere—keep himself from closing off like he so desperately wants to. He’s not good at this, he thinks. This vulnerability. Exposing all these squishy, tender parts of him when he knows how easily they can be wounded, can be taken to use against him. But, judging by the watery sheen to Namjoon eyes, he doesn’t think he’s in danger of that right now. 

“Thank you,” Namjoon says, sounding a little strangled. He fidgets, like he wants to reach out but isn’t sure if he should. In the end, he settles for putting his hands on the table, fingers laced together. When he smiles up at Seokjin it’s a weak, trembling thing but it feels like a beginning. 

Seokjin returns the smile, uncertain of what to call the feeling gradually unfurling in his chest, pushing up against his lungs. 

He thinks it might be love. Or as close to it as he’s ever come. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Twenty. 

A course-load that’s drowning him slowly and Namjoon sobbing over the phone in the middle of the night, fresh from a boarding house. Seokjin’s barely slept in a week, but it’s easy to say come over, Namjoon-ah, as his chest constricts at the sounds of Namjoon’s terrified distress. He hasn’t spoken to the cousin that took him two years ago, but he suddenly wants to call him up and scream at him for doing this to Namjoon . Namjoon, who is soft in ways Seokjin has never been and feels so much. Namjoon, who has always known that such horrors could easily have befallen him, in another life. 

But that will only arouse suspicion he doesn’t need so he settles on making tea while he waits for Namjoon to come over, trying to figure out how he’s going to navigate this. He pulls up comforting words in his head: that will never happen to you, you’re safe, it’s horrible but it’s over and you never have to go there again. 

All of them feel too trite. Too dismissive of the nameless woman who died in his guest bedroom. 

In the end, they’re pointless, because Namjoon collapses into his arms as soon as Seokjin opens the door. Seokjin staggers back a step from his weight, socked feet slipping on the tile, but manages to right himself quickly and hold on. 

“Hyung,” Namjoon hiccups, shaking. He seems so young right now and Seokjin experiences an unfamiliar surge of protectiveness. Pulls him closer. 

“It’s horrific,” he says quietly. “Isn’t it?” 

“They told me … nothing was off limits,” Namjoon whispers. “ Nothing.” 

Seokjin cups the back of his head, fingers tangled in strands of blond hair. “It’s unforgivable.” He’s known that for a long time, even as he’s tried to bury his head in the sand. The scream is back, raging through the apartment, rattling the windows, clawing at the back of his throat. “Do you want to do something about it?” 

Namjoon pulls back to stare at him with stunned, red-rimmed eyes. “What?” 

A giddy, almost hysterical laugh is bubbling in his throat. “Let’s do something about it, Namjoon-ah,” he says. “Let’s change the world.” 

And as he says it, he realizes that he’s serious. The scream is shifting focus, direction. 

Tear it down, it roars. Tear it all down. 

Namjoon’s face hardens into determination, in spite of the remnants of tears streaked down his cheeks. “Yeah, hyung,” he says and sounds just as serious as Seokjin feels. “Let’s change the world.” 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Twenty-two. 

A bedroom in a penthouse apartment and Kang Sohyun’s fingers in his hair. He thinks sometimes that in a different world and as different people, he could have loved her. She’s beautiful, witty, smart—everything he could want in a partner. Except for the knife-sharp cruelty that lurks beneath her constructed facade. He’s stayed with her because it keeps his grandmother happy, which keeps her from examining his life too closely, or the plans he’s started to make with Namjoon. 

It’s not a terrible price to pay, he thinks, considering everything in this world is a game or a business transaction or somewhere between the two. Sacrifice is just as necessary as ruthlessness, if you want to stay alive. 

“We should have some fun,” Sohyun says tonight, a wicked smile curling in the corner of her mouth. 

That tone is always foreboding. Last time, it meant she wanted to tie him up and blindfold him. He hadn’t liked the tightness of the ropes around his wrists or the helplessness of being deprived of sight for so long or the spiky, painful toy she used on the inside of his thighs and his cock, but she’d at least let him come at the end of it. 

He braces himself for whatever she might suggest now and arches an eyebrow. “What do you have in mind?” 

She winks at him, even more foreboding, and tells him to get undressed as she leaves the room. He starts unbuttoning his shirt, trying not to chew on his bottom lip and let any visible signs of nervousness slip through. She’ll just pounce on that like a lion smelling blood. He doesn’t mind most of the things they do in bed together, he reminds himself, as he steps out of his pants and folds them over the chair in the corner of her spacious room. They’re even fun, usually, though he’d prefer some softness to go along with the rougher kink she favors. 

He has his fingers hooked into the band of his underwear when she returns, guiding a young man on a leash—one of her male companions, that he’s seen at parties before but always carefully avoided. A chill washes over him and he fights hard to keep it off his face. 

“Noona,” he says, playful. “I told you I’m not into sharing companions.” 

It’s been the one thing she’s respected so far, but he was foolish, thinking that would last. 

“Come on,” she says now. “What’s wrong with a little fun?” She instructs the companion over to the bed. 

Seokjin notices he’s barely wearing anything—dressed in only a skimpy pair of shorts—and his body’s been waxed of any hair. He’s young, too, perhaps around Namjoon’s age and his eyes have the familiar glaze of drugs over them, though not enough to make him completely unaware. Seokjin’s so focused on the companion that he doesn’t notice Sohyun crossing the room and has to fight down a flinch when her hands find his hips and slide down, knocking his own away from his underwear so she can play with the band, stretching it down to reveal more skin. 

“I want him to fuck you,” she whispers into the back of his shoulder. “And then I’m going to, while you fuck him.” 

No, Seokjin thinks, but he can’t force the word out past the block in his throat, past the knowledge that he can’t refuse this. She would ask questions and then his grandmother would ask questions and then… 

He laughs, tilting his head to the side to accept the graze of Sohyun’s teeth on his neck. “Okay,” he says, letting anxiety translate into breathy anticipation. “Why the hell not, he’s pretty.” 

“Isn’t he?” Sohyun says. “I thought you’d like him.” 

His stomach churns at the idea of having a preference, but it doesn’t matter. He tells himself that as he lays down on the bed and spreads his legs for Sohyun. As he stares at the ceiling and breathes through the intrusion of her fingers and then the companion’s cock. As he forces his own hips to move and his mouth to moan and his hand to find the companion’s hair and pull, a reminder of who’s in charge, in spite of their positions. 

He wishes he’d taken pills for this. He wishes he didn’t have to hear the hitch of the companion’s breathing or the filth Sohyun’s whispering in his ear. Didn’t have to feel trembling beneath his palm as he pushes the companion onto the bed after, as Sohyun says don’t bother getting him ready and he obeys her and the companion sobs into the pillows, which only makes Sohyun laugh and—

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker, flicker, flicker, flicker

 

_ _ 

 

“Seokjin,” Park Jimin says in horror and he hiccups, foggy with alcohol and memory. Fuck, he hadn’t meant to … he was going to skip over… 

“I know,” he croaks and wonders if he has more liquor stashed somewhere, the whiskey bottle’s empty. “I’m a monster. Do you want a knife yet or should I keep going?” 

“Seokjin,” Jimin repeats and he doesn’t look angry, when Seokjin finally works up the courage to glance in his direction. He’s perched on the edge of the sofa, hands fisted against the tops of his thighs, but his bruised face is full of raw sympathy instead of rage. “Seokjin, she—she raped you.” 

Seokjin blinks, thrown. Of all the reactions he was expecting, this wasn’t even close to being on the list. He chokes on a breath that’s trapped somewhere between a laugh and a sob and wobbles to his feet in search of another drink. He’s still too fucking sober for this or for the insistent buzz of his phone in his pocket. 

“Haven’t you heard, Jimin-ah,” he asks as he locates a bottle of wine in the fridge, “that word doesn’t exist here.” 

Jimin makes a furious, frustrated sound. “It does, it—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Seokjin drinks straight from the bottle, uncaring when red drips down his chin to stain his shirt.  

“Seokjin—”

“No,” he turns to frown at Jimin, who has risen to his feet. “It can’t matter. I can’t let it matter. Surely you have things like that too.” 

He’s always gotten the sense that Park Jimin was forged by an existence of blood and grit, surely he has ghosts he can’t look at—that he refuses to lend power to. Seokjin can see it on his face, even before he shakes his head in resignation. 

“People have tried,” he says quietly, staring down at his hands. “I’m small and pretty, I guess. Of course they—but I’m good at fighting. No one ever managed to ....” He takes a shaky breath and Seokjin wonders why he’s sharing this when he’s not the one who promised to cut himself open. Wounds for wounds, perhaps? It doesn’t feel like something Seokjin deserves, but he’s grateful. 

"The first time,” Jimin continues, “it wasn’t me. It was Taehyung. Someone tried to hurt Taehyung … when we were kids, in the orphanage. I heard him crying and I ....” 

“What did you do?” Seokjin asks, crossing back into the living room to hand Jimin the half-empty bottle of wine. Jimin takes it but doesn’t drink—eyes focused somewhere far away. 

“I killed him,” Jimin says and a chill runs down Seokjin’s spine, followed by a vicious satisfaction that takes him off guard. “I didn’t really mean to but … he hurt Taehyung.” Jimin’s gaze snaps back into focus, blazing. “I made him pay and I don’t regret it. Even if it got us kicked out of the orphanage. We were better on our own, anyway.” 

“Good,” Seokjin says. “You shouldn’t regret it.” He sinks back onto the couch. “I do.” 

Jimin’s face twists. “Seokjin….” 

“I’m not done yet.” 

He can’t keep dwelling on that room and Sohyun and the companion that curled up in a miserable ball when Seokjin was finished with him, eyes squeezed shut and dark hair falling over his face. Who trembled when Seokjin curled fingers around his neck under Sohyun’s instructions—holding him down until Sohyun was finished, as well—and then thanked them both in a watery voice, for using him. 

Seokjin quietly threw up in the bathroom that night while Sohyun slept and then stood in a boiling shower until his skin was red before cranking it to freezing because it was the only immediate punishment he could give himself. 

Never again, he thought back then. Never, ever again. 

“I’m not done,” he repeats, looking back up at Jimin. “Do you want to hear the rest?” 

“Yes, tell me.” And to his surprise, Jimin comes over to sit down next to him and takes his hand. Something is shifting between them, Seokjin can feel it and he wants to … but those are his initials on Jimin’s arm, stark black against the pale of Jimin’s skin where he’s rolled his dirty sleeves up. Slightly horrified at himself, Seokjin locks the burgeoning desire away and takes another drink. 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

_ _ 

 

Twenty-three. 

A coarse rug beneath his knees as he kneels in his grandmother’s living room, hunching himself down small. She watches him from the armchair that might as well be a throne, cold and impervious as always. 

“Please,” Seokjin says into the frigid stillness, “leave him alone. He’s never harmed anyone in this family.” 

“He’s an abomination,” his grandmother says, and her voice is calm—like she’s merely stating a fact. “My son was foolish to allow him to live. I’m going to correct that mistake.” 

Seokjin grits his teeth. He doesn’t know how she found out about Namjoon’s mutation, but he’s thankful that one of his idiot cousins blabbed about her plans to “take him out,” as the cousin so eloquently put it. And he can’t let that happen—not to the only person in this world he’s ever loved. He doesn’t care what he has to lay at his grandmother’s feet. 

There is one thing he knows she might accept, the biggest card he can play. 

"Spare him,” he says, looking up at her, “and I’ll give up my position as heir.” 

He’s taken her by surprise, he can tell, even if she manages to keep most of the reaction from showing. 

“You’ve never liked me, halmeoni,” he continues. “We both know that. This way, you can appoint whoever you want. I’ll step aside without any fuss, as long as you spare Namjoon.” 

She’s quiet for a long moment, contemplating. “And you’ll give up medical school. You’ll go to whatever backwater job I decide to appoint you to and you’ll stay out of our family’s affairs.” 

He figured she’d demand this too. She’s never forgiven him for breaking up with Sohyun and now she’s going to take the opportunity to dig the knife in as deep as possible, vindictive person that she is. He takes a deep breath and crushes his preemptive grief. Namjoon’s life is more important than a profession, than a dream, than anything else. 

“Yes,” he promises. He’s only a few months away from graduating but it doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter —“you have my word.” 

“Then I suppose I can spare him,” his grandmother concedes, and Seokjin bows again in thanks. “But if he causes any trouble, our deal is void.” 

“I understand.” He climbs to his feet, pauses on his way to the door. “And, halmeoni, if you ever go back on our deal and try to harm him, I promise that everyone in this city will know that your grandson had the mutation, and you murdered him in cold blood. You have my word on that too.” 

It would easily destroy her reputation, such gossip—even if murder is common in Sector 1, no one shines a glaring spotlight on it. 

He leaves before she can respond to him, uncaring of whatever her answer might be. For now, Namjoon is safe, and he succeeded. The reminder of that victory is what helps him through withdrawing from his final courses, citing family issues to his instructors and university administration—and if he gets spectacularly drunk alone in his apartment the night after the final paperwork goes through and his grandmother sends him a notice for a boring office job in Sector 2, no one will ever know. 

Not even Namjoon, who comes to him a few days later, buzzing with shocked outrage. 

“You dropped out? Why?” 

Seokjin’s already resolved never to tell him—he doesn’t need the guilt it might cause. “You know grandmother’s always hated me,” he says with a tired smile and a shrug. “She finally decided on revenge for Sohyun.” 

Rage twists Namjoon’s face. He’s always hated Sohyun. “By forcing you to give up med school? That’s … let me talk to her, I can—” 

“No,” Seokjin snaps, grabbing Namjoon’s shoulder as he turns to the door. “She likes you even less, remember? It’s fine, Namjoon-ah. Hyung’s fine, okay? It’s not the end of the world.” 

Namjoon doesn’t believe him, that’s obvious, but he also knows not to push.

“Besides,” Seokjin continues in response to his silence, “we have bigger things to worry about, right?” 

Some of the anger clears from Namjoon’s face, replaced by growing excitement. “Oh, hyung, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about, before I heard … I think I’ve found us a forger.” 

Another victory, and one a long time coming. Seokjin grasps it with both hands and holds on tight. “Someone you trust?” 

Namjoon nods. “He’s a classmate and he’s good. He’ll help us.” He reaches up and places his big hands on Seokjin’s shoulders. “Let’s change the world, hyung.” 

“Yeah, Namjoon-ah,” Seokjin whispers, chest tight. “Let’s.” 

 

_ _ 

 

Flicker. 

 

The years blink forward. 

He puts a former companion on a train in the middle of the night—the first of what will hopefully be many. She grasps his hands on the platform and whispers thank you over and over until it’s time for her to board. It does nothing to soothe the emptiness or settle the scream, but he breathes in slow relief on the car ride back home. 

Flicker. 

Namjoon graduates college and then accepts a job in the same dusty office where Seokjin occupies a tiny corner desk. 

You’re better than this, Seokjin says to him in dismay. 

So are you, Namjoon says with a shrug and accepts a stack of paperwork from their perpetually-grumpy boss—a second uncle who’s never liked either of them. 

 

Flicker. 

I hear you’ve developed some interesting tastes, Sohyun says at a party, smiling in delight. 

All thanks to you, really, he teases back and pretends the lie doesn’t sear his tongue. 

Flicker. 

Jungkook curls up small and scared in his bathtub, wounded back on display, and he sees another companion on a distant bed, trying to hide in the same way. Feels then and now collapsing into a single blade point buried in his gut. 

Flicker. 

Yoongi looks at him from across Namjoon’s coffee table and one glance feels enough to take him apart. This is a leader, he thinks, so evident in the way Yoongi holds himself, in spite of the seals and the tattoos and the weariness on his face. This is a revolutionary, and perhaps if anyone is most suited to the throne, it’s him. Not Seokjin, with all his shadows, trying so desperately to be kind to appease the endless bleed of his heart. 

All he can give is a promise, empty words, and it’s never enough, the scream just keeps building and building and—

Flicker flicker flicker flicker… 

_ _ 

 

His voice is hoarse from talking so much and his phone won’t stop buzzing as the hours tick by and Sohyun grows impatient. He’s dug it all up, every sharp-edge piece that no longer fits, every rotting root—no one has ever seen this much of him, he thinks, and it’s terrifying. He stares up at the ceiling instead of looking at Jimin and waits for judgment. 

“Thank you,” is all Jimin says. “For telling me. For … you’re a good person, Seokjin. You’ll make a good king.” 

He laughs. “Do you really believe that?” 

Fingers find his jaw and turn his head. For a moment, he gets lost in the dark of Jimin’s eyes—almost misses Jimin saying, “yes, I really do.” 

And then Jimin kisses him, hand cupping his cheek and body arched up over his. Seokjin gasps against Jimin’s mouth—his own hands instinctively moving up to grip Jimin’s sides. The warmth of Jimin’s lips is perfect, so easy to lose himself in as Jimin settles on top of him. He wants to stay here forever, cocooned like this—wants to open his mouth for Jimin’s tongue and his body for Jimin’s hands, but … 

“Jimin-ah,” he murmurs, shifting his head away. He’s not sure what protest he wants to give voice to—don’t do this because you pity me, because you think you have to, because you want to forget, because my initials are on your arm and the bruises I made are on your neck—so they all end up dying on his tongue. 

Maybe Jimin can still read them in his face, though. He pushes Seokjin’s hair off his forehead, wearing a soft expression that Seokjin’s never seen. “When was the last time someone kissed you and you wanted them to?” 

“Besides just now?” A tiny smile, and Jimin nods. “I … can’t remember.” 

“Me either,” Jimin whispers, like a confession. He shifts down enough to press his cheek to the top of Seokjin’s head. “I want this,” he continues. “I’m consenting. These marks on my arm don’t mean anything, okay? Not here, not to me. And…” He takes a shuddering breath. “I can’t think about … about Yoongi—everything’s breaking , so I just … we can have this, right? Just for tonight, if that’s all we get. Just, please, one night.” 

He leans back to meet Seokjin’s eyes. “One night, hyung,” he whispers and Seokjin’s chest contracts at the honorific—the last of the distance between them crumbling. 

He can’t think about Yoongi, either. And there is a sharp prick of guilt—that he is reaching for pleasure, for a way to soothe the shattering inside of him when Yoongi … but Jimin is moving closer again and Seokjin is weak, weak, weak. 

“One night,” he echoes back, and thinks that he might want far more than that. In another life, another world. A better one. 

His phone buzzes again, but he ignores it. Sohyun can wait until tomorrow. He’ll make it up to her then—pay the price she wants to be let into her schemes. 

For now… 

Jimin kisses him a second time, deeper and with more intent, and Seokjin allows his hands to wander—down Jimin’s back and over the tops of his thighs and up into his hair, careful to keep from pulling too hard. He avoids Jimin’s arms, where the tattoos and seals sit like mines, but it’s easy to pull Jimin into him, to rock up as Jimin grinds down and everything sparks with heat.  

Jimin is gentler than he expected, considering his capacity for violence. He isn’t Sohyun—always pushy and demanding and in control—and Seokjin enjoys the focus with which he moves as he shifts to kiss down Seokjin’s neck, intensity without too much roughness. 

“You can,” Seokjin rasps when Jimin hovers in silent question, then shivers as he feels Jimin suck a mark against his skin. He’ll explain that away later, too, somehow. 

Jimin’s fingers fumble with the buttons on his shirt and he pauses to help get them undone, leaning forward so Jimin can push it off his shoulders. There isn’t much room on the couch, but Seokjin isn’t sure he could bear to do this on a bed. He likes the golden light of the living room and the way it gives Jimin’s silver hair an ethereal glow. Likes the feel of Jimin above him, caging him in, and when Jimin slips his hands under Seokjin’s undershirt to touch bare skin, he has to bite his lip to keep a moan locked inside. 

He truly can’t remember how long it’s been since he wanted this from someone. 

“Here,” he says, reaching for Jimin’s shirt. “Here, let me.” 

He unbuttons it, then sits back to let Jimin shrug it off so he doesn’t accidentally touch the seals. It joins Seokjin’s on the floor and Seokjin runs his palms over Jimin’s shoulders, feeling wiry muscle beneath his fingertips. Jimin’s small, yes, but anyone who thinks he’s delicate is a fool.

Seokjin’s undershirt comes off next and he shivers at the slight chill in the air, but then Jimin is pressing against him, all glorious skin, and all he can focus on is the drag of Jimin’s mouth across his collarbones, the touch of Jimin’s tongue to his nipple that makes his hips jerk up. Jimin keeps going, kissing a searing line down his chest to his stomach and lower still, until Jimin is kneeling on the floor between his legs. 

“No,” Seokjin rasps, memory lancing through him. He can’t bear Jimin in that position, not right now. “No, please come back up here.”

Jimin obeys, a question in his eyes. “I want to,” he says and smooths Seokjin’s hair back again, mussing it. “It’s okay.” 

“I don’t,” Seokjin says. “Just stay here.” He reaches down with hesitant fingers and undoes the buttons on Jimin’s pants, then his own. “Stay here with me, okay?” 

Understanding replaces curiosity, followed by a surprising tenderness that takes all the air out of Seokjin’s lungs. “Okay,” he murmurs, cupping Seokjin’s face to kiss him again. “Okay, hyung.” 

Seokjin lifts his hips up to help Jimin tug his pants down, then does the same for Jimin, and suddenly all that separates them is two thin layers of underwear. Seokjin reaches past it to touch where Jimin is hard and hot, fingers curling around Jimin’s cock and eyes focused on Jimin’s face to watch his mouth drop open in pleasure. 

“Fuck,” Jimin gasps as Seokjin begins to stroke, a little uncertain at first but quickly finding a rythmn that has Jimin rocking into his hand. He feels incredible, he’s so fucking beatiful with his head tilted back and his eyes closed, exposing the long line of his neck, and Seokjin doesn’t know when he’s going to be able to breathe again but he doesn’t care. 

For now, he lets himself take, lets Jimin touch him in return, and if he can feel his heart expanding to fit another person inside of its tattered chambers, then that’s another thing he’ll deal with later. 

For now, he has one night to feel alive and loved and he isn’t going to look further than Jimin moving above him and with him, both of them approaching a cliff together. Jimin’s fingers dig into his hips and he smoothes careful fingers down Jimin’s spine and their next kiss is mostly gasping into each other’s mouths. When Jimin finally comes, spilling between them with a sharp cry, Seokjin thinks it might be the best thing he’s ever seen, and he swiftly tucks it away for tomorrow and the next day, when this little cocoon they’ve built bursts. 

“You now,” Jimin murmurs to him, reaching down to stroke him again, and Seokjin gives himself up to the build and the fall, gasping into the sweaty skin of Jimin’s neck and clutching tight to Jimin’s back. 

Jimin collapses onto his chest after Seokjin’s come down from his orgasm, seemingly uncaring of the sticky mess across their stomachs, and Seokjin holds him close, stroking gentle fingers through his hair. 

“I won’t regret this,” Jimin says to him, fierce. 

Seokjin closes his eyes, presses a lingering kiss to Jimin’s temple. “Me neither,” he confesses. “Never.” 

They stay like that for a long time: tangled up together, skin to skin.

Chapter Text

“The Seoul Institute was considered the leading research facility in the city-state, one of the only institutions to pre-date the Cataclysm. It brings to mind a question that few ever dared to ask: was it the monarchy that reinstated the Seoul Institute once society began to stabilize after the Chaotic Years … or did the Seoul Institute create the monarchy?” 

- Excerpt from an article on the Seoul Institute, author unknown 

 

 



_ _ 

 

Taehyung has a plan. Sort of. The rough, outlined sketch of one that he’s not sure will bring success or ruin but desperation inspires boldness. Or recklessness, Yoongi and Hobi would say, if they knew. Which is part of why Taehyung has kept it from them. 

The Seoul Institute is a side project he’s been chasing for years, outside of hiding the network as best he could from the eyes and ears of the crown. Because he knows a truth he’s not sure the others have considered: burning a world down isn’t enough. If you truly want to rebuild, you have to reach into the earth and dig up every rotted remnant, so that the old plants don’t come back to choke the new growth. And the Seoul Institute, from all the whispers he’s gathered, is the base of the entire rancid tree. 

From them came the tattoo seared onto Taehyung’s neck, the seals on Jungkook’s wrists—so many dark and terrible things. 

They also guard their secrets well, which is the wall Taehyung has run into over and over. They use Old World tech—the kind not in circulation anymore—which makes it impossible for him to hack them remotely with his scraped together code and hardware. So few people go in or out that the layout of the building remains a mystery, as well. He’s heard rumors of an underground portion, where he suspects the archive will be, but has no idea how big that section is or how to access it. 

They’ll be going in blind.

“We’re gonna die,” Mark mutters when they convene the planned night of the break-in, after spending nearly a week taking turns surveying the building. So far they’ve located two hidden entrances that seem to serve as drop off for deliveries of supplies … and sanctioned. 

On the table in front of them is a crude map with the entrances and the main building marked. Notes scribbled in several sets of handwriting dot the edges: Ten chronicling delivery times; Jungkook noting the amount of guards stationed at each entrance; Taehyung calculating the typical number of sanctioned per delivery; Johnny making guesses at the kinds of supplies being delivered and the dimensions of the boxes. 

They’ve already scrapped one plan to smuggle themselves inside via cargo—each box is scanned upon entry into the facility. Which leaves the much riskier option that Taehyung was hoping would stay as a backup. 

“We’re not gonna die,” Johnny says to Mark with a shake of his head. 

It’s been strange, working with them in the past few weeks. Taehyung isn’t used to having a team, but all of them are capable and clearly experienced. Perhaps even more so than him, when it comes to actual breaking and entering. They keep their pasts guarded close to their chests—something Taehyung doesn’t blame them for, he still hasn’t told them his real name—and their walls up, yet there is a kindred spirit that Taehyung thinks all Marked share, born of the tattoos on their necks and the collective horror stories they could spend hours telling if they wanted to. 

“Says you.” Mark’s voice cuts through Taehyung’s thoughts. He’s got his elbows propped up on the table and his head in his hands—nervous fingers buried in his hair. “With the least dangerous job.” 

“We’re not going to die,” Ten says, seated across from them. He’s been sketching on the tablet Jackson provided them with and a glance over his shoulder reveals startlingly accurate renderings of the Institute guard uniforms. 

“Stop taking his side,” Mark huffs. Ten smiles serenely at him. 

It’s also weird, watching another makeshift family’s dynamics. Taehyung can’t help comparing their easy banter to the gulf still between him and Jungkook, or the fact that he’s barely spoken to Hoseok, Yoongi, and Jimin in days—too wrapped up in surveillance and planning to check in. 

(And maybe too scared of what he’d find if he looked too closely.) 

Speaking of Jungkook, he’s huddled in an armchair in the corner, staring off into space. They’re in another fancy apartment, since Jackson is both paranoid and seems to have an endless supply to loan out, and Jungkook’s dark clothes stand out against the colorful yellow of the wall behind him. He’s rubbing the seals on his wrists absently—a nervous tic he’s developed recently and doesn’t seem aware of—and he’s tucked himself up smaller than Taehyung thought him capable of. He still barely speaks when they’re in a larger group, and when he does it’s never above a rasping whisper, like he’s afraid of the sound of his own voice. 

Taehyung takes a fortifying breath and crosses over to him, letting the others’ continued bickering fade into the background as he crouches in front of Jungkook’s chair. Of all of them, this plan is going to ask the most of him. It’s why Taehyung never wanted to resort to it. 

“JK-yah,” he murmurs, aware of potential listening ears, and watches Jungkook’s eyes drag down to him, finally focusing again. “Are you—?” 

“Don’t,” Jungkook cuts him off with surprising command in his soft voice. “Don’t you dare.” 

“You don’t even know what I was going to ask,” Taehyung points out. 

Jungkook’s mouth twists. “‘Are you alright do this?’ ‘Are you sure you’ll be able to handle it?’ Right?” 

Right. 

Taehyung hides his wince. “I just want….” He’s not sure how to word this—has never been good at words like Yoongi. He wants to make sure he’s not asking too much. He wants to know that Jungkook won’t hate him for this. 

“I’m fine,” Jungkook says before he has a chance to form the sentence he’s looking for. “I’ve survived things you can’t even imagine, hyung, and I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to help. You don’t need to worry about me.” 

Of course I do, Taehyung also wants to say, but doesn’t know how to make Jungkook understand it’s a worry that comes from love and not pity or a lack of faith. So he clicks his mouth shut and nods. “Right. Sorry. Well, we’re getting ready to head out.” 

They have the fake auction house records loaded onto Ten’s tablet and the borrowed van waiting for them in an alley behind the apartment complex. Johnny’s already dressed in the standard delivery uniform of most drivers in the city, no matter what cargo they’re carrying. It’s a lot of beige, Taehyung thinks—beige pants, beige button-up shirt, brown boots, and a black jacket with yellow stripes down the sleeves and a patch with the symbol of the monarchy (the mugunghwa, rendered in gold) on the left arm. Johnny’s pulled the equally beige cap low over his eyes. He acquired the uniform a few days ago and Taehyung didn’t ask from where. 

The rest of them are dressed in auction house black—loose shirts and pants, soft shoes with no laces, low collars to make sure their necks are visible. Taehyung stares down at the fake seals around his wrists, painted by Ten, and ignores the shudder that runs through him. Jungkook unfolds himself from the chair with a nod. 

“You have your ID?” Taehyung asks Johnny. 

Johnny flashes him a smile and the forged ID card from Jackson, labeling him a certified driver for an auction house in Sector 4. “Good to go, boss.” 

Taehyung makes a face at him. This might be largely his plan, but he’s no one’s boss. 

Ten hands Johnny the tablet, all drawings erased and replaced by the records of sale. Taehyung was able to hack the auction house database to add this scheduled delivery to their system, and even list Johnny as the driver, while Mark modified the cameras in both the delivery van and the apartment building to erase all evidence of them collecting it and bringing it here. 

This is a reckless plan, but not a terrible one. Taehyung has to keep reminding himself of that to combat the endless flutter of nerves in his stomach. 

They lock the apartment behind them, after making sure no signs of life are visible, and take the service elevator down to the back entrance. Jackson gave them the passcode to the door, but told them he wouldn’t be here in person for “obvious reasons.” Taehyung can’t fault him for his paranoia. He might be the only one walking away from this unscathed. 

Johnny punches in the code for the back door of the van and slides it open to reveal two benches and several sets of chains and handcuffs. 

On either side of him, Taehyung hears Mark and Ten take deep breaths, blowing them out slow, but Jungkook brushes past him and climbs right in, jaw clenched and eyes hard. He glares at the side of the van as Johnny ties him in place, making sure the cuffs aren’t too tight. Taehyung takes a seat to his right and Mark and Ten across from them. 

Every sanctioned they saw delivered to the Institute had been drugged and deprived of sight by a hood over their heads. They’ll have to act the part of stumbling incoherence, but Johnny’s placed the black cloths within easy reach. 

“I’ll rap on the wall to let you know when to put them on,” he says as he backs out of the van. “Good luck.” 

The doors close and the keypad beeps, sealing them in. 

“I hate this,” Mark announces into the inky gloom. His chains rattle and clink with his anxious fidgeting. “Why are we doing this? Nevermind, don’t answer that, I know why. But this is still the most insane thing I’ve ever done. What if they catch us right away? We don’t even really know what the offloading procedure is and if they can tell that we’re not actually drugged, they might … ow! Why’d you kick me?” 

“Because you’re not helping,” Ten says. “At all.”  

“Sorry, sorry, I’ll shut up.” 

Taehyung can’t make out Jungkook’s features in the dark, but he can see the outline of his bowed head and hunched shoulders—hear the quiet, deliberate steadiness of every inhale and exhale. Jungkook is keeping himself from panicking by sheer force of will. And Taehyung can’t hold his hand like he wants to, but he is able to shift his body enough to rest his forehead on Jungkook’s shoulder. 

Jungkook lets out a faint sigh when he feels Taehyung’s weight against him and moves closer—as much as he can with the short chains keeping them locked in place. The van rattles and rumbles around them like a living thing as it crawls through the evening traffic towards their destination. The sun set several hours ago and Taehyung’s mentally given them until dawn to get in, get what they’re after, and get back out. 

A few minutes into the drive, Ten starts humming to himself—a folk song Taehyung vaguely remembers from his time in the orphanage—and Mark joins in. To Taehyung’s surprise, so does Jungkook, swaying slightly to the melody. It’s almost soothing, though not nearly enough to forget the cold bite of metal around his wrists. 

He figures they’ve been in the van for about half an hour when a series of short raps breaks the silence that’s fallen over them. 

“That’s the signal,” Mark says, unnecessarily, and Taehyung hears cloth rustling as everyone reaches for their hoods. 

Putting his on makes the claustrophobia even worse and he grits his teeth against the panic clawing at his throat. Across from him, Mark’s breathing clearly picks up as well and chains clatter as Ten presumably tries to calm him. 

“Almost there,” he whispers. 

“You act like we’re arriving somewhere cool,” Mark hiccups, but he sounds grateful beneath the sarcasm. 

They don’t know the entirety of the offloading procedure but from their limited surveillance, Taehyung knows that all arriving sanctioned are dropped off at what looks like a nondescript office building, not far from the Institute known headquarters. They’re taken around to the back and walked through a loading bay door, usually escorted by two to three guards, depending on the amount of people being delivered. Ten spotted several cameras inside and what he thought was a decontamination chamber. 

The cameras are going to be the hardest part, Taehyung still isn’t sure how to get past them beyond going with the flow and hoping for an opportunity.

The van stops with a lurch and a squeak of old brakes. Voices echo from the front as Johnny mentions his delivery and presumably shows the guards the tablet with the orders on it. Taehyung can’t make out actual words, but no one shouts in alarm, and the van starts forward again after less than a minute. Apparently, the guards stationed out here in the winter night don’t care about being thorough. 

The van stops a second time and now the driver’s door opens and closes as Johnny exits to walk around to the back, accompanied by a pair of different voices. 

“...I don’t know,” Johnny’s saying as he comes with earshot. The keypad beeps with each number punched in, and the door clicks open. “I just go where I’m told. If this was unscheduled, you’ll have to take it up with the auction house, not me. Filing complaints is above my paygrade, man. I just need you to sign on the dotted line.” 

A pause while someone presumably does just that. 

“Thanks, they’re all yours.” 

The door swings open and Taehyung holds his breath as several people climb inside. Foreign hands unchain him from the bench and drag him out into the cold. He can’t see anything through the thick fabric of the hood except for a few dim bursts of light. The hand on his arm keeps a tight grip, fingers digging in, and he purposefully stumbles, letting himself be half dragged along. 

“They never fucking tell us anything, do they?” an unfamiliar male voice grumbles as they leave the van behind. 

“Of course they don’t.” A woman, answering. “We’re lower than dirt to them up here, aren’t we? No need to warn us about anything.” 

It seems like there’s only two of them. Good. 

The ground beneath Taehyung’s feet changes from asphalt to concrete and the wind dies down, suggesting that they’ve moved inside. The hood is yanked from his head and he gasps at the blinding light, squeezing his eyes shut and swaying in place—only partially faking the disorientation now. 

“Listen up,” the female guard snaps. “Do as we say and don’t try anything.” 

“Like they can understand you right now,” the male guard scoffs. 

Taehyung blinks and the world slowly swims back into focus. He’s in a loading bay, just like the one Ten described—concrete floors, fluorescent lights, large decontamination chambers filling the cavernous space like strange fish tanks. Cameras blink from two corners of the room like all-seeing red eyes. The others are scattered around him, all of them forming a loose circle with the guards on the outside, dressed in gray uniforms and holding shock sticks. 

“They’re lucid enough,” the female guard says with a shrug at her partner. Both of them seem disinterested—even bored—by this entire affair. This process of ferrying in human beings like cattle. 

“Strip,” the male guard commands them and points to a table with plastic bins on it. “Clothes in there.” 

“Wha-?” Mark slurs, swaying. 

The female guard lifts her shock stick in obvious threat. “Take. Off. Your. Clothes. Now.” 

Jungkook stiffens, almost imperceptible but Taehyung can see the muscles of his shoulders tightening and his weight shift, ready to fight or flee. 

Not yet, Taehyung begs him silently. They can’t do anything with the cameras on them, but there is a service elevator on the far side of the room, past the decontamination chambers, and Taehyung suspects that’s their next destination. Where they can make a move. 

Jungkook must reach this conclusion, too, or Taehyung has spontaneously developed telepathy, because he forces his body to relax and starts to fumble at his clothes. He plays the role of drugged, disoriented prisoner too well. Taehyung tells himself not to think about it as he kicks off his shoes, tugs his own shirt over his head, and steps out of his pants and underwear. The air in here is still cold enough that he can see his breath and the goosebumps that immediately break out along his arms. He shivers, doesn’t try to stop the chatter of his teeth. 

Ten and Mark huddle together until the female guard threatens them again, prompting them to sloppily pick up their clothes and dump them into the bins. 

They’re all shoved into separate decontamination chambers and the cycles start automatically, triggered by motion. Taehyung gasps through the awful process of being hosed down with freezing water and then blasted by equally frigid air to dry him. Tries to remind himself that this will be worth it as he’s dragged out and nearly falls to his knees—body wracked by aftershocks. A pair of white scrubs are thrown in his direction and he dresses clumsily, struggling to get his bearings back. He still ends up on the concrete after he finishes, his legs too weak to support him. 

The elevator … they just need to make it to the elevator. 

A more familiar hand lands on his shoulder and he blinks up at Jungkook hovering over him, open concern on his face and skin red from the harshness of the water. 

“No touching,” the female guard warns and Jungkook swiftly shuffles backward, bowing in apology before she can shock him. 

Taehyung pushes himself to his feet. Keeps his head down as he’s shoved into line with the others—two and two, guards on either side. 

The elevator arrives with a faint groan, doors rattling open like a clatter of bones. It’s big enough to fit at least twenty people … and free of cameras. 

Taehyung holds his breath as the doors close and the elevator lurches into motion. There is only one stop it looks like. He shifts just enough to block access to the control panel and counts in his head. 

One. 

Ten adjusts his stance and next to him, Jungkook does the same. They trade a knowing look. 

Two. 

Mark subtly presses himself against the wall, pretending like he needs to keep his balance while he tucks himself out of the way. 

Three. 

Chaos. Ten and Jungkook explode into motion like bullets leaving a gun, slamming into their respective guards hard enough to throw them to the floor. The female guard shouts, but the sound dies in her throat as Ten snaps her neck with alarming ease. The male guard gurgles with Jungkook’s hands wrapped around his throat, clawing at Jungkook’s arms desperately. But Jungkook holds on and presses down down down until the man goes limp with a final rasp, limbs flopping lifeless to the elevator floor. 

“Fuck,” Mark says into the sudden, eerie quiet, still huddled against the wall. 

“I won’t ask where you learned to do that,” Taehyung says to Ten as Ten starts stripping off the guard’s uniform. 

He looks a little ashen when he glances up—eyes haunted and shadowed. “Good, don’t.” 

Mark moves to help Jungkook strip the other guard as the elevator continues its slow, rattling descent. Fuck, they’re going deep. Taehyung shakes off the last of his shock and crouches by the female guard’s feet to unlace her shoes. Ten and Jungkook rush to dress in the respective uniforms—Ten’s a little tight and Jungkook’s a little too big, but both fitting well enough—and transfer their own scrubs onto the guards. 

By the time the doors shudder open at the bottom of the long descent, Jungkook and Ten are each holding a body upright and gripping their shock sticks tight. 

They’re in what seems to be an Old World metro station and Taehyung forces himself not to look around in shock at the ancient tiled walls and the small train waiting for them, along with two more uniformed guards—both men this time—flanking the open doors. 

“Can you give us a hand?” Ten calls. “Two of them passed out.” 

The guards exchange an obviously frustrated look, but obligingly walk over to offer assistance. One, more astute than the other, glances at Ten’s neck and sees the edge of the tattoo peeking out from the gray collar. His eyes widen in alarm. 

“Wait—” 

Jungkook moves, dropping the dead guard and kneeing the one closest to him in the gut. As the man doubles over, Jungkook hits him on the back of the head with the shock stick so hard Taehyung hears an awful crunch of bone, and he crumples to the floor in a heap, blood pooling beneath him. The other guard scrambles back, reaching for his radio, but Mark kicks him in the shin, giving Ten the opening he needs to dart forward and sweep the man’s legs out from under him. He falls to the floor, hitting his head on the concrete, and Ten slams a booted foot down on his throat, crushing his windpipe in one fell move. Similar to Jungkook in the elevator, he stays there—boot digging in—until the guard’s dying, frantic wheezes have trailed into silence. 

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Mark gasps, clutching his stomach. 

Taehyung ignores him in favor of helping Jungkook remove the first guard’s uniform. 

“I think it will fit you,” Jungkook says and it’s strange to hear his voice after such a prolonged period of silence. Taehyung wants to ask if he’s alright, if all this killing is too much, but the hard lines of Jungkook’s face tell him that would be a bad idea. 

So he just nods and dresses in the stolen uniform. Jungkook’s right, it does fit. Mark practically drowns in the other guard’s uniform but it will have to do. 

They find a storage closet, not far from the elevator, and stash the four bodies inside. It’s strange, Taehyung thinks, as they move back into the main station area, that there are no cameras here. The elevator he could understand, but this? Maybe the Institute wants as few records as possible of the horrors they commit here. 

On one wall, a large screen projects a map of what must be the compound but… 

“Holy shit,” Ten murmurs. 

...it’s huge. Big enough to need train lines, to cover at least half of Sector 1 and a good portion of Sector 2, as well. 

“What the hell are they doing down here?” Ten asks. 

“We’re gonna find out,” Taehyung says and touches the screen. The map changes to show just train lines, of which there are four. Another tap brings up a list of areas: a cell block, a crew quarters (do other people actually live here?), a mess hall, several different wings of research labs, a section of offices, some kind of testing chamber that has its own station, and the central hub. 

“This is where security must be,” Taehyung says, tapping it. All the train lines feed to it, which means they can get there directly, but it’s probably going to be heavily guarded. 

Mark adjusts his collar, making sure his tattoo is fully hidden. “Somehow, I don’t think we’re gonna pass muster.” He’s had to roll up the pants of his uniform to keep them from dragging on the ground. 

“We don’t have a choice,” Jungkook whispers. 

He’s right and there’s no point in dwelling on their chances. Taehyung told Johnny they would be out by dawn and if they’re not, Johnny will try to cut the power to the building to give them a window to escape. Now, realizing how massive this complex is, that will probably be a lost cause. So the clock is ticking, ticking, ticking. 

Taehyung gets onto the train, trying not to gape at the technology around him. Old World—the kind he’s read about in books, from a time when people walked on other worlds and flew across the sky in crafts of metal. The train powers up at the touch of Taehyung’s feet to the floor, lights flickering on and engine humming to life. He swipes the guard’s stolen ID card on the pad and watches a foreign name flash on the screen, followed by a list of destinations. 

He presses the one of the central hub and the pad beeps in acknowledgement as the doors slide closed. A pleasant, robotic female voice asks them to please have a seat and a timer on an overhead display begins counting down. 

“Oh my god,” Mark says as they sink onto the plastic benches and the timer hits zero. 

The train rockets into motion—smooth but terrifyingly fast. Taehyung grips onto a nearby pole rising from the floor, heart in his throat, as the tunnel walls blur past outside. The clock now seems to be counting down to their arrival time: one minute and thirty seconds. 

“I can’t believe they just have all this technology sitting around,” Mark continues, shaking his head. 

“Of course they do,” Ten says, bitter. “Just like the elite hoard food. Why not this? I bet this is why we have so many blackouts in the outer sectors too. All the power goes here.” 

“When we arrive,” Taehyung says, dragging his and their focus back to the task at hand, “we’ll pretend to be arriving to take over a shift. I don’t know how many guards are stationed there but if we can get into the security room itself, we might be able to overpower them.”

“Great,” Mark says, looking a little nauseous. Ten squeezes his shoulder in sympathy. 

The train slows to a stop. Taehyung adjusts his own collar. Takes a steadying breath. The doors slide open, revealing a station similar to the first, but more modern-looking. No old, fading tile or dirty concrete floor. Everything here is clean and the walls are made of concrete too. It reminds Taehyung of a prison bunker—of the condemned buildings in the outer sectors crumbling to nothing but their metal and concrete foundations. 

The two guards by the train nod at them without a second glance, lulled into security by the uniforms and the ID badges. No one looks close enough to see if the pictures there match the faces of the people passing them by. This, Taehyung thinks, is their greatest weakness: they think themselves invincible. In three hundred years, who has ever tried to break into this place? Every Marked that comes through is drugged and helpless and already subdued. No one here knows what a real fight is or expects an intruder. 

Hopefully, that’ll be what keeps them alive. 

The station feeds into several corridors, and Taehyung follows the sign for the security center—the others trailing behind him. The path takes them to a nondescript set of steel double doors with a black card reader off to one side. 

Taehyung swipes his badge, holding his breath, and the doors unlock. He steps into the room and takes rapid stock: four guards, all seated in front of three walls of monitors and control panels—live security footage for the whole complex. A panic button near another locked door on the wall. No guns at any of the guards’ belts. No cameras in the room itself. Three of the guards are men and one is a woman. Two of them are tall and solidly built, potentially difficult to take out, especially with minimal fuss. 

One of them—the largest of the men—swivels around in his chair to frown skeptically at them. 

“Can I help you?” 

“We’re your shift replacement,” Ten says smoothly, and he really does remind Taehyung of Jimin with his ability to lie and his lethal grace. 

The other guards turn too, all obviously confused. 

“Our shift isn’t over for another two hours,” Guard Two, the woman, says. 

“Oh shit, really?” Mark squeaks, all wide-eyed dismay. “They just told us to come down here. Maybe we’re supposed to train with you? We’re new.” He tugs at his baggy uniform shirt. “Couldn’t even get me something that fits yet.” 

“They didn’t tell us about any scheduled training,” Guard Three says, brow furrowed. 

“They didn’t?” 

“No,” Guard One answers, then shakes his head. “But it could be they forgot. It’s happened before. I guess we could show you the ropes.” 

Taehyung feels a little bad for what’s about to happen to these people, but considering several of the camera feeds look in on cells where he can see imprisoned Marked curled up in corners or unconscious, not even provided with beds, the guilt doesn’t extend very far. They sit here, day after day, and watch horrific suffering unfold before them without batting an eye. 

“That would be so awesome, thank you,” Mark is saying, drifting closer to Guard One with Ten trailing behind him. “I’d hate to have to go all the way back to my supervisor. He’s a bit of a hardass, you know? Like yelling five minutes after I showed up that I was late, even though I was ten minutes early—who does that? And then he wouldn’t even let me ask questions—” 

He suddenly ducks down from where he had been blocking Guard One’s view of Ten, allowing Ten to loop a stolen power chord around the guard’s neck and pull. 

Everything blurs into frantic chaos after that. Taehyung ends up grappling with Guard Four, dragging the man out of his chair and onto the steel floor. He’s been in a few fights in his time in the outer sectors—knows how to hold his own—but he has nothing on Jungkook or Jimin and it takes a long time with his legs pinning the guard down and his hands wrapped around the other man’s throat before he finally, finally stops moving. 

He forces himself not to dwell on the fact that he just took a life and staggers to his feet, finally registering the calm that has settled back over the room. The other guards are dead and Ten and Jungkook are shifting them into the corner, propping them up against the wall and out of immediate view of the doors. Mark has moved back to said doors and appears to be tampering with the card reader, probably to temporarily disable it. 

“Okay,” Taehyung says and if it comes out a little shaky, no one comments on it. “They said they’re at this shift for another two hours, which means hopefully no one will come in to interrupt us, but we also need to be out of here before their actual relief shows up.” 

He crosses over to one of the control panels and pulls up the map of the facility again, flicking through until he finds the archives. They’re on a separate train line, near the opposite end of the facility. 

“Mark, you stay here. See if you can get control of the system and warn us if anyone’s coming. The three of us will go—” 

A gasp cuts him off, followed by Mark rushing past him to pull up a different camera feed. It’s one of the cells and a young man is huddled in the corner, staring at the wall with an empty expression on his face. He seems tall, long-limbed, even though he’s folded himself up small and he would be handsome if not for the sickly pallor of his skin and the limp fall of his dark hair into his eyes. 

“Ten,” Mark rasps out, fixated on the monitor. “Hyung, it’s Yukhei.” 

Ten looks up from where he’d been examining another control-panel. “What?” 

“It’s Yukhei.” 

Ten gets up, joining Mark to peer at the monitor. Taehyung watches the shock ripple across his face, followed by a mixture of awe and horror that he recognizes—is sure he’s worn himself several times in the past.

“Oh my god,” Ten whispers, lifting a hand as though he wants to touch the monitor and stopping himself short. 

“We have to get him out of here,” Mark says, sounding almost hysterical. 

“We didn’t come here to rescue anyone,” Taehyung reminds him. 

Mark shakes his head. “I know, I know, but it’s Yukhei. I can’t leave him here. I won’t.” 

And Taehyung sees it then: on Mark’s face and the white-knuckled curl of his fingers around the back of the chair—the tension coiled in his skinny arms and shoulders. This is Mark’s Jungkook, a long-lost member of his family. Taehyung would have fought anyone who tried to make him abandon a chance to rescue Jungkook, and he knows that Mark and Ten are the same. It might put them all in more danger, but he’s not heartless enough to stop them. 

“Okay,” he says, hands up to placate. “Okay, you and Ten go find him. I’ll stay here and JK can head down to the archives.” 

He glances at Jungkook, trying to assess if he’d be okay making that journey by himself. Jungkook dips his head, an imperceptible nod. 

“Are you sure?” Ten asks. “I can go with JK while Mark finds Yukhei.” 

“You’re breaking someone out of a cell block,” Taehyung points out. “That’s more than a one person job. I’ll keep an eye on you all from here, it’s fine. Go save him.” 

“Thank you,” Ten says, reaching over to squeeze Taehyung’s shoulder. “Thank you, we’ll be careful. In and out within the time limit.” 

Taehyung pulls up the map again. “The archives and the station where we came in are on the same line. There was minimal security in that section of the facility, so let’s meet back there. You’ll have to change lines again but it looks like you can do it at this sub station,” he taps a dot on the map near the testing chamber, between the cell block and the research labs, “without having to come all the way back here.” 

“Got it,” Mark says. He holds up an earpiece that he probably lifted from one of the guards. “We can stay in touch with these too. Close frequency so no one else should be able to hear us.” 

Taehyung takes an earpiece, as do Jungkook and Ten. 

Aware of the ticking clock, he shoos them towards the door. “Go, and be careful.” 

“You too,” Ten says, attaching the shock stick back to his belt. “See you on the other side.” 

Alone in the security room with Jungkook, Taehyung opens his mouth and feels around his upper gum, carefully dislodging the small device he’d secured there before they left. He wipes it off on his uniform shirt and hands it to Jungkook. 

“It’s a data drive,” he explains as Jungkook turns it over in his palm. “I built it and it looks small but it should be able to store a lot. Get as much as you can, we can sort through everything later.” 

Jungkook nods and tucks it into the front pocket of his jacket. Taehyung swallows around the grit in his throat and the sudden constriction in his lungs. So many things he wants to say and not enough time for any of them. 

“Please be careful,” is what he settles on. He hadn’t factored in this separation—being stuck here in a booth, only able to watch Jungkook from the monitors. 

“I will,” Jungkook promises. He puts the uniform cap over his head and checks to make sure the collar is hiding his tattoo. “You too, Taehyung-ah.” 

And then he’s gone, slipping through the door. Taehyung breathes out slow into the eerie calm and takes a seat in front of the main control panel. 

 

_ _ 

 

Jimin wakes up with jolt, needing a moment to remember where he is and why he’s only wearing underwear. It’s still the middle of the night, but he can tell that dawn is approaching beyond the windows of Seokjin’s bedroom. 

Seokjin. 

He turns, looking down at the man asleep beside him. He’s on his stomach, sheets slipped down to his waist from Jimin’s movement, and the long line of his back feels endless, so much skin. Jimin smooths a gentle hand down his spine, surprised by his own tenderness. By the depth of the feelings raging in his chest. He doesn’t do this. Doesn’t love like this, doesn’t take off his armor like this, and the logical part of his brain is already reminding him of all the ways this can go terribly wrong. 

But his heart remembers Seokjin shaking on the couch, horrible words falling from his mouth, and Seokjin kneeling in the snow, refusing to fight back even though he could have, even as Jimin buried a fist in his stomach. 

Stay with me, Seokjin begged him a few hours ago and refused to let Jimin get on his knees. 

Maybe they’re all owed a little tenderness. Maybe he can settle the furnace inside of him for just a little bit longer. 

He leans down and brushes his lips against the curve of Seokjin’s shoulder, feeling him start to stir. He kisses up to the back of Seokjin’s neck, lets his teeth scrape gently, and Seokjin shivers. Wakes up fully. 

“What time is it?” he asks, voice a sleepy slur as he turns over on his back. 

“Early,” Jimin says. 

Seokjin sighs and reaches for his phone, which finally stopped buzzing sometime during their migration from the couch to the shower to bed. 

“I have to go,” he says, sitting up. 

Jimin doesn’t bother asking where. He knows and the furnace dials back up a notch. “No,” he says, loathing the resignation on Seokjin’s face and the echoes of shame in the hunch of his shoulders. 

“This is what she wants,” Seokjin argues. “I have to give her what she wants, Jimin-ah. So she’ll give us what we want.” 

“Give her me,” Jimin tries because he can’t bear the thought of both Yoongi and Seokjin letting themselves be hurt while he’s safe. “I’m the one who fucked up tonight.” 

“It’s me she wants. She was always going to ask for this,” Seokjin says. “It’s a test, I have to pass it.” 

“Fuck,” Jimin snarls and wants a match, a gun, anything. He wants to pin Seokjin to the bed and keep him safe. He wants to reach into his chest and scoop out this bloody mess of a heart because anger is easier than this strange, aching mix of grief and desperation and the slow creep of things he hasn’t let himself feel in a very long time. Because not loving this man who has shared so much with him would be easier. 

Infinitely, painfully easier. 

It’s too late, a little voice whispers that Jimin struggles to ignore. 

“I’ll be okay, Jimin-ah,” Seokjin assures him and throws back the covers, climbing out of bed to start dressing. “I’ll give you my number and I’ll try to be back before Yoongi, but text me if anything happens.” 

Jimin gets out of bed too, snagging Seokjin’s arm. As Seokjin turns towards him, he rocks up to kiss him, not thinking about if it’s the last time. Seokjin kisses back almost desperately, wrapping an arm arm around his waist and pulling him close. 

Jimin watches, after that, as the mask slides back on Seokjin’s face and he smiles, all aloof, charming confidence. “I’ll be back before you know it,” he says with a wink and then he’s gone, leaving Jimin alone in the quiet of the apartment—heart seething and bloody and still pinned to his arm where he’s worried it might always remain. 

Exposed, vulnerable, dripping red all over the pristine floor. 

 

_ _ 

 

The train vibrates gently beneath his feet as it hurtles through the tunnel. Jungkook rubs his wrists and reminds himself to breathe, breathe, breathe. He’s not a prisoner and he won’t be one again. He’ll get the data Taehyung needs and he’ll get out and someday, this whole place and whatever horrors linger here will burn. 

He remembers the cool floor of his second master’s living room and the scratch of pen against paper as he gasped and shook against the tile—fire in his veins, his blood, his lungs… 

Breathe. 

The train glides to a stop and, same as before, he nods to the guards when he exits, striding quickly past them. This station is older and more cavernous, with only one path sloping slightly downward, even deeper into the earth. Several other corridors branch off once he’s turned a corner, but fortunately there is a sign pointing him in the direction of the archives. 

Jungkook-ah,” Taehyung’s voice crackles in his ear. “I see you on the cameras, you’re almost there.” 

Jungkook glances up at the blinking red light pointed down at him from the ceiling and nods in silent acknowledgement. 

There’s a big door ahead of you,” Taehyung continues. “You’ll need to scan your ID.” 

Sure enough, as Jungkook rounds another corner, there is a massive set of double doors blocking the path. Reminding himself to stay calm, calm, calm, he strides up to the door and touches his stolen ID card to the keypad. 

It flashes red. Then a message appears on the screen: ACCESS DENIED. LEVEL 3 CLEARANCE REQUIRED. 

I don’t have clearance,” he says and hears Taehyung curse under his breath. 

“Hang on.” 

Jungkook shifts his weight, feeling terribly exposed in this hallway with its cameras. This whole complex reminds him of a prison—all concrete walls and floors and steel doors and harsh fluorescents. Or a space station, like the ones he saw in an Old World book on Seokjin’s shelf. Everything economical and spartan, designed for functionality above all else. 

Yet one of the sections on the map was a private greenhouse of some kind, so perhaps whatever staff live here have it different. Probably. That’s the way it usually goes, and he can’t examine the dark satisfaction he felt killing those guards—a dangerous taste of long-awaited vengeance. 

“Okay,” Taehyung says, mercifully pulling his thoughts away from circling that abyss, “it looks like you’ll be able to get in through the ventilation system.” 

Jungkook looks up at the vent above his head. “The vents are bolted down.” 

"Not all of them. Go back the way you came and take a left. ” 

Jungkook pivots and walks quickly, keeping his head down. He gets back to the main intersection of corridors and follows Taehyung’s direction down the narrowest of the three, with a sign that informs him he’s headed for the hardware labs. Like the previous corridor, this one is also deserted. Most of the staff are probably safely asleep in their nice quarters on the other side of the complex. 

“Okay stop.” 

Jungkook halts in the middle of the corridor. Looks up to see another vent above him, but this one is dented and loose. 

“Someone put in a maintenance order for this one, but it hasn’t been fixed yet.” 

“Convenient,” Jungkook mutters. 

“Guess someone out there is on our side,” Taehyung says. 

Jungkook jumps and dislodges the vent cover with his hands, shoving it to the side. It rattles loudly and he freezes, listening for any approaching footsteps. 

“You’re still clear,” Taehyung assures him. 

On the next jump, he grips the edges of the vent opening and hauls himself up. The burn in his muscles feels good in a visceral way—he’s spent far too long cooped up in an apartment. Crouching in the narrow shaft, he replaces the vent cover. It’s cold enough that his breath clouds the air, but he pushes aside the discomfort. 

“Okay, hyung, tell me where to go.” 

Straight and then left.” 

Following Taehyung’s directions, Jungkook starts to crawl. Left. Right. Right. Left. Left. Left. Right. He passes over the hardware labs, all darkened, but through the slates in the vents he can see equipment laid out on workbenches, including models of the shock stick attached to his belt and vials of what is probably nanotech. 

He shudders and keeps crawling. 

Right. Left. Left. Right. 

“...then we’ll have to up the dosage.” 

He freezes at the female voice—the familiar voice. 

Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god oh god—

fire in his veins, his lungs, his nerves and a scream ripping his throat raw but stuck between his teeth and she peers at him over the top of her notebook and her glasses as he shakes on her floor he’s dying he’s dying oh god he’s dying and she’s just going to watch why he’s been good he’ll be good he’s done everything he can to—

Jungkook-ah. Kook!” 

Taehyung. That’s …. 

He crashes back into his body, realizing that he’s curled up on the metal floor between two grates and at some point he clapped a hand over his mouth to muffle his staccato, panicked breathing—

a trick he learned after she punished him for his weakness, for his inability to keep from hyperventilating when she—

the voice is still talking, passing below him. “Exactly. Then do it. I don’t have time for delays.” 

And Taehyung, still in his ear: “Jungkook, what’s wrong. Fucking talk to me, are you okay? Kook!” 

“I’m okay,” he whispers, squeezing his eyes shut as the footsteps of his second master retreat further down the corridor and her voice fades away. (He wants to laugh. So many people called her a doctor, he should have known what that really meant—all the files she kept he wasn’t allowed to look at and all the things she gave him that hurt or made him floaty for days...) “I’m okay.” 

“What was that?” 

“Nothing.” Jungkook grits his teeth and pushes up onto his hands and knees again. “I’m close, right?” 

Taehyung hesitates. 

“Taehyung-ah,” Jungkook snaps, harsher than he means to be. But they can deal with this later— have to deal with this later. The clock is still ticking. 

Take a left up ahead,” Taehyung says, voice calm again. 

Jungkook mentally thanks him for his understanding and keeps crawling, trying not to imagine shadowed memories nipping at his heels like angry wolves. 

A few more turns and he’s stopped in front of the grate that will let him down into the archives. According to Taehyung, they’re empty, so Jungkook doesn’t worry about noise as he grips the edges of the grate with both hands and braces his back against the frigid wall in order to pull it free from its bolting. It groans loudly and an edge digs into Jungkook’s palm deep enough to cut skin, but the grate comes off. 

“I’m in,” he tells Taehyung and drops down into the room. 

He’s not sure what he was expecting when he listened to Taehyung talk about the archives, but it wasn’t this. The room is huge, extending what must be at least thirty meters above his head—the ceiling actually lost to darkness. The walls are lined with hundreds and hundreds of databanks, glowing like stars, and on the ground level towering shelves rise out of the gloom, holding what look like Old World materials. As he drifts closer, he realizes that each box is labeled: books, photographs, scientific journals.... 

Thousands of years of knowledge and secrets, all stored in this single room. 

“Holy shit,” he breathes, turning in a slow circle to try to take it all in. “Hyung, you should see this. It’s massive.” 

“I knew it,” Taehyung breathes triumphantly. “Do you see a central console anywhere? Or any computers at all?” 

He moves past the first few rows of shelves and sees a circular space cleared out. Several consoles rise on pillars from the concrete floor and he stops in front of the closest one. 

“It’s password protected.” 

“Doesn’t matter. Insert the chip I gave you, it’ll do the rest.” 

Jungkook fishes the small data chip out of his pocket and sticks it into the slot on the front of the console. After a moment, complicated lines of code fill the screen and then a bar, indicating the drive is downloading. 

“It’s working,” Jungkook says in awe.  “How did you make this?” 

“It wasn’t easy. Got my hands on some Old World salvage. There’s a market for it in the outer sectors, if you know who to talk to. We won’t be able to get everything obviously, but I’m having it search via keywords, so hopefully we’ll still find some relevant information.” 

“I can’t imagine we wouldn’t.” 

Jungkook runs his hands over one of the metal boxes on the shelf. It’s locked with a keypad and the flashing label on the front says it contains film reels from 1965 to 1975, almost four hundred years ago. 

How were they able to preserve so much? 

He drifts back over to check on the drive. Just over fifty percent of its capacity downloaded. Hopefully—

An alarm blares, so loud and sudden that Jungkook jerks. It continues—red lights flashing somewhere above him and a steady, deafening drone that makes his ears ring. 

“Shit,” Taehyung gasps over the radio. “Shit, Mark and Ten tripped something in the cells, you have to get out of there, Kook. They’re locking down section by section. Run—” 

Jungkook is already moving, yanking the drive free of the console and sprinting towards the vent opening. He hauls himself up with a running jump as bars slide down over the walls of data banks, sealing them behind protective steel. 

Thanking the stars for a visual memory honed by years navigating the hidden pathways between sectors, Jungkook retraces his path through the vents as fast as he can crawl, uncaring of how much noise he’s making because even here the shriek of the alarm washes out everything else. Taehyung has gone silent, but Jungkook hopes that means he’s focused on his own escape and hasn’t been caught. 

The damaged grate comes into view and Jungkook shoves it to the side, swinging down into an empty corridor. But he can hear the approach of hurried footsteps and takes off at a sprint towards the substation, drawing his shock stick as he goes. 

The guards by the train are panicking, clearly unused to this kind of emergency. One is shouting into his radio while the other stares anxiously down the corridor. Jungkook doesn’t slow as he gets closer to them, even when the one not on the radio raises a hand. 

“Hey, we’re in lockdown, no train access until—” 

Jungkook hits him with the shock stick. He doubles over with a cry and Jungkook skids past him into the train, slamming the button to close the doors. The other guards bangs on them but Jungkook ignores him as he chooses arrivals from the destination menu and the timer starts counting down. He keeps his back to the doors, not wanting the guard to see his face, and grips one of the poles as the train glides into motion, leaving the shouting guard and station behind. 

“Taehyung-ah,” he gasps into the radio. “Taehyung, are you there?” 

Crackling static and Jungkook fights off a wave of panic. He can’t lose Taehyung now, after finally finding him again—not when there is so much he hasn’t said, so many things they need to talk about—this is the boy he loves and—

“I’m here.” 

Jungkook hiccups, pressing his forehead to the metal pole in weak-kneed relief. 

Oh thank god.” 

“I’m nearly to the substation.” 

“Have you heard from Mark and Ten?” 

“No.” 

He hates the prospect of leaving them behind, but he’s selfishly glad that at least Taehyung is alright. 

They’re still shutting down the facility,” Taehyung says. “The trains are probably going to be last because they’re moving people around. But we’ll need to go as fast as we can once we make it to the substation. The loading bay and elevator might be sealed off.” 

“We’ll make it,” Jungkook says. The timer tells him he’ll be arriving at the station in thirty seconds. 

“I’m here,” Taehyung announces. “And Mark and Ten are too. They have Yukhei with them. They lost their radios somewhere, but they’re okay.” 

Another relieved breath. Maybe they’ll all survive this, after all. 

Jungkook’s train pulls up behind Taehyung’s and he rushes out of the doors. No guards have arrived here yet and Taehyung is standing by the elevator, gesturing at him to hurry. He rushes inside and Ten smacks the button to close the doors. 

Him and Mark look a little worse for wear, Jungkook notices. The sleeve of Mark’s uniform is torn and he’s sporting a cut above one eye. Ten has a bruise on his cheek and a large tear across the front of his jacket. Next to them is the tall boy from the video feed, dressed in white scrubs and wearing an expression of shock that suggests he thinks he’s still dreaming. He’s holding Mark’s hand so tightly it looks like it might take a force of nature to separate them. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark pants out. “We didn’t even realize we’d tripped something. Got into a scuffle with some of the guards and didn’t take one out fast enough…” 

“It’s my fault,” Taehyung insists, also breathing hard. “I should have been paying attention.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” Ten says. “We made it—” 

The elevator screeches to a halt and the light goes out. Mark laughs in high-pitched panic. 

“You were saying?” 

“Fuck.” Ten presses the button again. Nothing. The lockdown has caught up with them. 

But Jungkook isn’t going to be captured again—never, ever again. 

“Come on,” he says to Ten and points to the maintenance hatch above their heads. “I’ll give you a leg up.” 

Understanding dawns quickly on Ten’s face and he puts one foot in Jungkook’s cupped hands, allowing Jungkook to lift him high enough to get the hatch open. He pulls himself through then reaches a hand down. Jungkook gives Taehyung a boost next, then Mark, then Yukhei, who turns around to help pull him up. 

“We’re pretty close to the top,” Ten shouts, peering up at the doors they can see maybe ten meters above them. 

“Start climbing,” Jungkook rasps, pointing towards metal rungs along the wall. “Hurry.” 

Taehyung goes first, scrambling up the ladder. Ten follows and Mark pushes Yukhei gently in front of him. “Go first, I’ll keep an eye out.” 

Good call, since Yukhei still seems shaky and off-balance. 

Jungkook takes up the rear, breath caught in his throat. The alarm is still going, though much more distant now. 

Come on, he thinks desperately as they climb. Come on, come on, come on…. 

Taehyung reaches the doors and pulls himself up, balancing precariously on the ledge as he tries to pry them open. Ten joins him and together they manage to force the metal back just enough to let Mark and Yukhei scramble through. Jungkook grabs the edge of the door when he makes it to the top, taking Taehyung’s position. 

“Go,” he gasps as he digs his heels in and presses his back against the heavy door. 

Taehyung lets go, rushing out into the loading bay. Jungkook waits until Ten is clear and then lets go, as well, jumping free of the closing doors. Mark and Yukhei are weaving through the maze of decontamination chambers at a full sprint, careening towards the loading bay door that is slowly lowering.

Jungkook pushes himself as hard as he can, snagging Taehyung’s hand to pull him along as he starts to fall behind—focused on the narrowing gap between them and the outside. 

Mark makes it through, Yukhei on his heels. Ten follows, dropping into a crouch to duck under the door. Jungkook shoves Taehyung in front of him, watching Taehyung scramble through the gap, then pitches himself forward into a roll, hitting the ground hard and tumbling free just before the door closes fully, sealing off the facility. 

For a moment, Jungkook lies on his back on the concrete, gasping up at the dark sky above him—just beginning to pale with the first blush of dawn. 

Get up, he tells his aching body and his tattered nerves. You aren’t done yet. 

He pushes himself to his knees, becoming slowly aware of a voice shouting at them. It’s Johnny, near the guard gate. 

“Come on!” he yells, gesturing towards the van behind him. “Come on, move.” 

With a battered wheeze, Mark staggers to his feet, bending down to help Yukhei up. “We’re almost there,” he gasps. “Come on, we got this.”

Jungkook stands, ignoring the tremors racking through his legs, and sucks in a heaving lungful of air. Ten has already helped Taehyung up and together, the five of them force themselves into one last sprint. As he passes the guardhouse, Jungkook notices the bodies slumped just outside it—Johnny’s handiwork, probably—and then the open door of the van looms in front of him and he hauls himself inside, yanking it closed behind him. 

The engine starts and the van lurches forward as Johnny rushes them away from the loading bay and back into the city. 

“Oh my god,” Mark says from Jungkook’s left, slumped against one of the benches. “Oh my god, we did it.” 

Ten laughs, breathless. “We did it.” 

Jungkook feels hysterical laughter bubbling in his throat. Lets it bleed out into a grin as Taehyung’s hand finds his in the dark and laces their fingers together. 

At last, after all this time … a victory. 

 

_ _ 

 

Johnny drives them to the border of Sector 1 and 2, finding a quiet parking lot to stop the van. When Jungkook climbs out, he isn’t sure if he’s going to be able to stand, but his legs hold him. He leans against the side of the van and watches Johnny hug Ten in what seems like a rare display of affection, stark and painful relief over his face as he bends down to press their foreheads together. 

“I’m okay,” Ten reassures him. “We’re all okay.” And he inclines his head towards Mark and Yukhei. They’re back to holding hands and Mark stares up at Yukhei with so much adoration that it makes Jungkook ache. He thinks he might have looked at Taehyung like that once. Maybe he will again, someday. 

Johnny shakes his head and wraps first Mark, then Yukhei up in a tight embrace. “I can’t believe you’re here,” he says over Yukhei’s shoulder. “We thought we’d lost you.” 

“Me too,” Yukhei croaks, eyes wet. 

Mark and Ten join the huddle, ducking under Johnny and Yukhei’s arms, and Jungkook watches them—this family reunited—with a full heart. 

“A lot of good things tonight,” Taehyung says, resting against the van next to him. 

“For once,” he agrees, shifting to look over at Taehyung. 

They’re both messes—uniforms dirty and marred, faces red, sweaty hair sticking to their skin—but for the first time since they’ve been reunited, Jungkook wants to kiss Taehyung so badly he’s shocked by the force of it. 

He sets the desire aside as the huddle breaks apart and Ten turns to face them. “Thank you,” he says. 

“I think we should be thanking you,” Taehyung says with a shake of his head. “This wouldn’t have been possible without you.” 

“We should probably debrief or something, shouldn’t we?” Mark asks. 

“Later,” Taehyung decides. “We should split up for now. Lie low. I’ll contact you.” 

“Whatever information I can give you,” Yukhei says, looking haunted. Jungkook can only imagine what he’s been witness to, been forced to endure. “I’ll share it.” 

Taehyung bows to him. “Thank you. It would be much appreciated.” 

“We’ll be in touch,” Johnny says. He hands Taehyung the bag of supplies they’d left in the van and heads for the driver’s seat again. 

Ten climbs in beside him while Yukhei and Mark get in the back, closing the door behind them. Taehyung takes Jungkook’s hand again as the van drives off, leaving them alone in the parking lot. 

“Thank you too,” Taehyung says softly. “For agreeing to this crazy plan. Believing in me.” 

Jungkook shrugs. Believing in Taehyung has always been easy. “Thank you for believing in me too.” 

Taehyung looks at him. Bites his lip. Jungkook can clearly see what he wants, what he’s holding himself back from, and decides to be brave. He shifts forward, closing the distance, and presses his lips against Taehyung’s. 

Taehyung makes a shocked noise, but then his arms wind carefully around Jungkook’s waist and he returns the kiss. It’s easy, in this moment, high off victory and survival. It won’t stay this way, he knows that, but briefly the monsters in his head are silent and all he can feel is Taehyung. It’s like they’re standing on a rooftop again, the world at their feet. 

When Jungkook finally pulls away, Taehyung is beaming at him—a smile Jungkook hasn’t seen in so long, the boxy kind that puffs Taehyung’s cheeks up and scrunches his eyes nearly closed. Taehyung doesn’t try to kiss him again, doesn’t push him for anything else, and Jungkook loves him loves him loves him. 

“We should change out of these uniforms,” is all Taehyung says. 

They leave the pants, but switch out their jackets and shirts for the ones in Taehyung’s bag. Wrap scarves around their necks to hide the tattoos. The data drive goes in a secure case in Taehyung’s pocket. 

As they leave the abandoned parking lot behind, Taehyung checks his contraband phone and frowns. 

“What’s wrong?” Jungkook asks, the high of their success already dissipating. 

“Jimin. He says to come back to Namjoon’s apartment, not Seokjin’s.” 

“Did something happen?”

Taehyung looks up at him, fear on his face. “I’m not sure.” 

Jungkook grabs his hand and squeezes. “Let’s go. We can catch a cab back.” 

Taehyung squeezes back and they hurry towards the main road. Above them, the sky continues to lighten—blue gradually chasing the black of night away. 

Chapter Text

“We are still compiling footage and assessments regarding the recent break-in. We’ve determined that there were four intruders, who were delivered supposedly from an auction house. We have them on camera but so far there are no matches within our database. They killed twelve personnel and stole at least one subject from the holding cells. The ventilation system shows some evidence of tampering, suggesting that they were in the archives, but at this juncture we do not know if they were able to access any data. As per your instructions, we are tightening our security measures and will also refrain from reporting this to the crown.” 

 

- Excerpt from a report by the Seoul Institute Chief of Security to its director, Choi Nayoung

 



_ _ 

 

He’s dying, he must be. The pain has eclipsed everything. It lances through his chest with each trembling inhale and his entire lower half is a mess of fire, sparking with each minute shift of his body against these stained sheets. A face blocks his blurred view of the ceiling and he recoils, trying to push a whimper back down his battered throat. 

Third Master smiles at him. “So obedient now, aren’t you?” 

Yes, yes, he is, he will be. There’s no use fighting back, he’s learned his lesson, please gods he’s learned…

Fingers in his hair, combing through the messy strands. “It’s good you’ve remembered your place. I don’t think Kim Namjoon’s been training you properly, has he?” 

Kim Namjoon? The name pings distantly as one he should recognize, but it’s not important. He doesn’t need to know—the emptier his head, the better. No more defiance, no more stupid notions of holding onto whoever he was before, only numbness now. If he keeps himself blank, maybe the end will come faster. 

The fingers tighten and pull. He gasps, tastes blood on his tongue from his bitten, torn lips. “I asked you a question, pet.” 

He shakes his head, hoping that’ll be enough. It isn’t, the grip tightens more, and he wheezes out, “no, no, he...hasn’t.” 

Third Master hums and releases him. He coughs, tries to stay as quiet as possible. Pets don’t make noise, pets don’t talk, pets don’t disobey. 

“It’s almost sunup, but we have a little more time left,” Third Master says and the fingers are moving—a hot trail that sparks more fire all the way from chest to stomach to the epicenter between his legs. He chokes on a sob. “I think you can take more, can’t you? Think you want more.” 

No no no no… 

“Yes.” 

The fingers dig into his upper thigh, pressing against a fresh wound, and lava erupts from beneath his skin. “Beg me for it, then.” 

“Please … I want….” stop stop stop stop… “ more. Fuck me. Use me...however you want, master, please....” 

“Good pet,” Third Master says with a cruel laugh and settles on top of him. 

He reaches desperately for a safe place, trying to construct the edges of an apartment and the contours of a dear face, of the man he loves who will hold him close and soothe the agony. But it dissolves as Third Master spreads his legs with rough hands, and there is only the fire, consuming everything. 

He screams. Third Master laughs. 

And the fire roars. 

 

_ _ 

 

Somewhere in the night, Hoseok moved to the couch with Namjoon and managed to sink into a fitful doze. He wakes with a start now, squinting at the sunlight streaming through the window onto his face. The city looks annoyingly pristine from this high up—all golden buildings and pastel sky. He wonders if Yoo Minseok has an apartment like this, a view like this. Does he show it to his companions to flaunt the freedom they’ll never have? Laugh at the fact that they can never escape from this tower unless he—

Stop. Stop. 

He sits up, running a trembling hand over his face. His mouth feels like something died in it and his head aches with the weak echo of a hangover. Namjoon is still asleep next to him, dressed in his fancy clothes from the party. Hoseok stares at the tear on the sleeve of his shirt, the tense lines of Namjoon’s face, and tries to figure out what he feels—what he needs to feel. 

Namjoon loves Yoongi, it was obvious even before he blurted it out last night, and Yoongi … finds safety in him. Comfort. Things Hoseok may not be able to offer him anymore, which stings, aches, but he isn’t going to cling to that pain. He’s not so selfish, he’d like to think. Yoongi comes first and it’s almost … nice, to be facing this impending dawn with someone by his side. 

Him and Namjoon are in this together now, united by grief and love and heartbreak. 

As if he can hear Hoseok’s thoughts, Namjoon stirs on the couch and sits up with a low groan. His shirt slips a little, exposing the vertical scar on his clavicle that he explained last night came from Yoongi stabbing him. 

“What time is it?” he asks, also glancing towards the windows instead of the clock on the wall. 

“Dawn,” Hoseok says, grim. 

Hopefully, Yoongi will be back with them soon. 

Namjoon nods and stands with another sound of protest, stretching out his long limbs. “I’m going to go change.” 

He retreats into his bedroom, closing the door behind him with a faint click. Alone in the gratingly peaceful living room, Hoseok carefully straightens out his bad leg and massages it, trying to work out some of the sharp ache. This wound and the one in his side have finally closed, but they’re red, angry scar tissue now, slowly ossifying. He might never have the same level of mobility he used to, and he’s filed that under Things Not to Think About. 

That box is starting to overflow, straining at the seams from everything he’s shoved inside: Jimin as a companion, whatever Taehyung and Jungkook are up to, Seokjin’s trustworthiness, Yoongi on his knees, his own uselessness, what might be happening in the outer sectors now… 

He just wants enough pieces of himself and the people he loves to survive this, and he hates how weak and flickering that hope has become. 

The bedroom door clicks open, signaling Namjoon’s return. “Do you want anything to eat?” he asks when he stops by the couch. 

Hoseok looks up at him—now dressed in rumpled, loose-fitting clothes with his hair free of product and all the makeup from the party wiped away. He looks exhausted, a sickly pallor to his skin, but Hoseok doubts he looks much better. 

It’s still strange to him: these casual offers of food. The idea that you can have as many meals as you want in a day and never run out. His stomach rumbles, reminding him that he can’t remember the last time he ate, in spite of Namjoon’s full cupboards, but he can’t really stomach the idea of a meal right now. 

“I’m fine.” 

“Hoseok—” 

A knock on the door cuts Namjoon off. He stiffens immediately, as though his spine has been pulled taught by an invisible string. 

“Hide,” he hisses and Hoseok is already moving, shifting off the couch to curl up on the floor, out of view. Risky, but he refuses to shut himself up in the guest bedroom again. 

He listens as Namjoon crosses the apartment and pulls open the door. 

“Good morning, sir,” says an unfamiliar voice, polished and free of the rougher dialect Hoseok hears in the outer sectors—that spills out of his own mouth in times of anger and distress. 

He chances a glimpse beyond the edge of the sofa and watches as Namjoon steps back to let the man enter. He’s tall and thin, bordering on gaunt, with a narrow face and stern features. Behind him is another man dressed like a driver and carrying what looks like a body bag. Hoseok’s lungs seize in terror and he’s halfway to pushing himself up to his knees when the thin man speaks again. 

“Please be assured, your companion is fine. This delivery method was for discretion only.” 

“I’m assuming your employer kept his promise?” Namjoon asks as the driver sets the body bag on the floor 

“See for yourself.” The thin man gestures to the bag. “I will admit my employer might have gotten … a little carried away, but your companion will recover. He’s resilient.” 

“Speaking from experience?” Namjoon’s voice is jagged, sharp like a knife. 

The thin man coughs and says nothing. Hoseok can’t see anything besides Namjoon’s back as he leans over the bag and unzips it, but he hears the subtle catch of Namjoon’s breath. Watches his head jerk back up like those strings are yanking him around again. 

“A little carried away?” he snaps and the thin man actually looks apologetic, if only slightly. 

“Minseok-nim … has never been good at controlling his impulses. I apologize for—” 

“Get out,” Namjoon cuts him off. His gaze has dropped back to Yoongi and Hoseok’s stomach is making a valiant attempt at climbing up his esophagus. “Get out of my apartment. Tell Minseok that he’s never allowed to touch what’s mine again.” 

The thin man has the sense not to argue further. He bows and leaves without another word, the driver scurrying behind him like a nervous ant. As soon as the door closes, Hoseok is staggering to his feet—the pain in his side and leg distant and unimportant as he rushes to Namjoon’s side, to Yoongi. 

Yoongi. 

A shocked sound escapes him, punched from his throat, when he finally sees the contents of the bag, the state of the man he loves—though Hoseok barely recognizes him beneath the mess of blood and injury. Dimly, he’s aware of the harsh floor against his knees as he crashes down beside Namjoon, and someone making an awful keening noise. It takes him far too long to realize the sound is coming from him . That Namjoon has gone silent from horror and he’s the one venting his fury and grief. 

Stop it, he tells his body, his shredding heart. Stop it. 

Rational. He needs to be rational, to think. Yoongi needs a calm head right now and Hoseok has to give that to him. 

So he shuts down as much of himself as possible and looks again, trying to catalogue with clinical eyes. Yoongi’s naked and Hoseok can barely find any unmarred skin. There’s even dried fluid in his hair that Hoseok suspects might be semen, and a strong smell of urine burns Hoseoks’s nose, further suggesting at the indignities Yoongi’s been forced to suffer over the course of the night. 

A scream lashes against his teeth and he clenches down harder, shoving it back. Tries to take stock of the injuries that they’re dealing with: 

  • Shallow cuts along Yoongi’s side, made by a knife. 
  • Burns on the inside of his arms, circular, like they came from a cigarette. More in his pelvic area, close to his cock. 
  • Bruising along his jaw, little tears at the corners of his mouth that are still smeared with blood. 
  • Deep red welts on his wrists, cutting into the black of the seals. 
  • Dark bruising around his neck, framing a red line that’s probably from a ligature of some kind. 
  • Marks sucked into his neck and collarbones, harsh enough for skin to have broken, showing off faint remnants of teeth sinking in. 

“Hoseok,” Namjoon finally rasps, pulling the edge of the bag back a little more. “Hoseok.” 

Hoseok freezes his macabre inventory and follows Namjoon’s gaze down Yoongi’s body to his thighs, which are covered in red lashes and … 

Another sound finally makes it out, something between a sob and a wail—oceans of grief and heartbreak compressed into a single note of agony. 

Because seared into the skin of Yoongi’s upper thigh, still weeping at the blackened edges, is a brand. The royal insignia, the mugunghwa, with a snake twisted through its petals. It’s nearly the size of Hoseok’s palm, were he to place it over the wound, and looking at it, Hoseok can feel something break inside him—irreversible, shards of glass cutting into his ribs and lungs. 

“I said no permanent damage,” Namjoon whispers, sounding just as broken. 

“And you expected him to listen?” His voice is cutting, all those shards lining his tongue, and Namjoon flinches, hiccups on a stuttered breath. Guilt rushes in. They don’t need to be fighting right now and blaming Namjoon isn’t going to help anything, Hoseok reminds himself. 

“Sorry,” he murmurs. 

He takes a deep breath and reaches for his calm again, sinking back into survival mode. They need to get Yoongi cleaned up and fully assess the damage. He’s probably going to need stitches and if the mess of blood and fluid between his legs is any indicator, he might have internal damage as well. 

“Come on,” he says to Namjoon. “Let’s get him into the bathroom.” 

His still-healing injuries prevent him from carrying Yoongi, so he leaves it to Namjoon to lift him gently out of the bag. Yoongi’s limbs flop and his head lolls lifelessly. If it wasn’t for the shallow rise and fall of his chest, Hoseok would think him dead. As it is, he still looks like a strange doll in Namjoon’s arms, and Hoseok looks away, unable to bear the sight of it or the blood that is seeping onto Namjoon’s shirt. He shuffles ahead of Namjoon to the bathroom and starts the bath running, shedding his clothes as the tub fills. Once he’s down to his underwear, he climbs inside and turns to face Namjoon, holding out his arms. 

Namjoon carefully lowers Yoongi into the tub, resting him against Hoseok. Hoseok gets a glimpse of his back and has to weather another lance of pain at the red welts covering it, along with more cuts and burns. There doesn’t seem to be a safe place to touch Yoongi, but Hoseok tries, cradling him against his chest—Yoongi’s head resting on his shoulder. Namjoon’s eyes are wet as he kneels next to the tub, though he seems to be stubbornly keeping the tears from falling. 

“Come on, Namjoon-ah,” Hoseok still says. “Help me.” 

“Sorry,” Namjoon says and forces himself into movement. He fishes a clean sponge out from a supply under the sink and slowly begins to wipe the dried blood and come from Yoongi’s skin, starting with his neck and shoulders and working his way down. 

Yoongi stirs when the sponge brushes his cock, startling Hoseok with the faint whine he lets out. 

“Shh,” Hoseok whispers, petting his still-messy hair. “Shh, baby, it’s okay. It’s okay.” 

Yoongi makes another low sound of distress, unlike anything Hoseok’s heard from him before, but doesn’t try to get out of Hoseok’s hold. He just eases his legs further apart for Namjoon, in spite of the tremors running through his thighs. Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut and presses a hand to his mouth, like he’s trying to force a sob back with physical pressure. Hoseok kisses Yoongi’s temple, wishing desperately that he could reach inside and scoop out every wounded, hurting piece of Yoongi in order to bear the pain himself. He’d bleed for years if it meant that Yoongi never had to suffer again. 

“It’s okay,” he says, not knowing what else to offer. “I’ve got you, jagiya, you’re safe now.” 

He doubts Yoongi can hear him. Wherever Yoongi has tucked himself away is far from here. 

Namjoon keeps going, cleaning down Yoongi’s legs and then back up with a muttered apology to brush gently around his hole. Yooni whines again, pure misery, and a few tears slip down his cheeks. Hoseok wipes them away with a shaking hand, kissing his cheek. 

“Jagiya,” he says helplessly. “Jagiya, I’ve got you.” 

Namjoon, clearly desperate to comfort, too, presses a hesitant kiss to Yoongi’s knee before he draws back to get the shampoo. He has to lean further into the tub to work the soap into Yoongi’s hair and Hoseok helps prop Yoongi’s head up so Namjoon can reach, kissing his jaw to soothe him when Yoongi lets out another distressed noise. His heart is still breaking, smaller and smaller pieces with each new crack. He’s never been this angry or this helpless, not even when Taehyung came home one night with haunted eyes and tear-stained cheeks and said they’re gone. 

Namjoon rinses the shampoo from Yoongi’s hair and sits back on his haunches. “We need to move him to the bedroom. I’m going to call Seokjin.” 

Right. Seokjin, the almost-doctor. The one who apparently saved Hoseok’s life in that dingy warehouse in Sector 5. 

“Okay.” He combs Yoongi’s wet bangs off his forehead. “Hear that, baby? We’re going to move you, but it’ll be okay.” 

Yoongi doesn’t respond and Hoseok stamps out the cold rush of fear that runs through him, focusing on helping Namjoon lift Yoongi out of the tub. Namjoon tucks Yoongi protectively against him, one arm hooked under Yoongi’s knees and the other braced beneath his wounded shoulders. 

“You’ll be okay?” Namjoon asks and Hoseok nods, touched by the concern. 

“Get him to the bedroom, I’ll be right behind you.” 

Namjoon disappears and Hoseok grits his teeth through the pain of levering himself out of the bath—side and leg protesting at the action. He sheds his wet underwear and redresses in the baggy pants and sweater, rolling the sleeves up to his elbows. When he reaches the bedroom, Namjoon has Yoongi toweled down and settled against the pillows. The wounds stand out even more starkly now that Yoongi’s skin is clean—red flares against pale flesh.

"I called Seokjin," Namjoon says without taking his eyes off Yoongi's prone form. "He'll be here soon, and he's bringing Jimin with him."

Hoseok winces. He doesn't want Jimin to see this, and he doubts Yoongi would either, if he was coherent enough to understand what's happening. But he also knows that it would take an act of the gods to keep Jimin away right now, and there's little he can do but accept it. He'd feel the same, if he was in Jimin's shoes. He'd need to see it all, every last painful thing, because that's one of the ways they've always loved each other. No hiding, no turning your face away from darkness or suffering. You bear witness to it, even if that’s all you can do.

Hoseok sits down on the bed and takes Yoongi's hand. Aware of Namjoon hovering, awkward and scared, he reaches out his other hand and takes Namjoon's, too, threading all three of them together.

"He's a survivor," Namjoon says, sounding like he's trying to convince himself just as much as reassure Hoseok. "He's the strongest person I've ever met."

"Me too," Hoseok says. "He always has been."

Even though he's never seen Yoongi hurt like this and he's terrified. He's believed in Min Yoongi since they were kids in the orphanage, dreaming of escape, and he's not going to stop now.

On the bed, Yoongi stirs and his eyes crack open. Hoseok sucks in a sharp breath and hears Namjoon do the same, feels Namjoon squeeze his hand.

"Jagiya?" he asks, leaning closer to Yoongi and watches Yoongi's gaze slide slowly to his face. It's unfocused, distant.

"Hoseok-ah," Yoongi slurs. "Seok-ah."

"I'm here, love," Hoseok says, letting go of Namjoon's hand so that he can cup Yoongi's cheek. "I'm right here."

"Hurts," Yoongi gasps. "Hurts so much."

Hoseok wills himself not to cry. "I know, my love, but it's going to be over soon. You're safe now."

Yoongi shakes his head—a tiny, almost imperceptible movement. "He'll ... come back. Always ... comes back."

"He won't," Hoseok promises. "He won't hurt you anymore, jagiya."

Namjoon steps closer, hovering over Hoseok's shoulder. "Hyung," he says and Yoongi flinches, cringes away. 

"No more," he whimpers. "Please ... no more, 'm good, 've been good."

Namjoon's mouth drops open and he looks like he's just been backhanded—eyes wide with shock and betrayal. Hoseok shoots him a sympathetic glance and focuses back on Yoongi, petting the side of his face and pressing soothing kisses to his forehead and temple. 

"Shh, shh, Yoongi-yah, he's not going to hurt you. It's only Namjoon." 

Yoongi's eyes unfocus further, stuck somewhere in the last twelve hours. "Namjoon ... he ... he didn't train me right."

Namjoon makes a distressed, heartbroken sound. 

"But 've learned," Yoongi mumbles. "I learned, please, 'm good, I'll be good...." 

"I know," Hoseok croaks, finally losing the battle with his tears, especially as he hears Namjoon trying to muffle his crying behind them—hand pressed back over his mouth and long fingers digging into his cheek. "You're so good, jagiya. I want you to sleep now, okay? Go back to sleep."

"Hoseok," Yoongi rasps but the rest of whatever he was going to say dies, compressing into a pained wheeze. 

"Sleep," Hoseok repeats. "Sleep now."

And finally, Yoongi listens, though it might just be his body losing the battle it's already been fighting to stay conscious. He sags back against the pillows with a faint sigh, once again going limp. Hoseok breathes out, shaky and wet, and hears Namjoon flee the room—door closing loud behind him in his haste. 

Left alone, Hoseok gives in to his tears, hunched over Yoongi and sobbing into his hair. What if Yoongi never comes back from this? What if he doesn't, either? What if all that's going to be left of them, after all these years and all these battles, are just two broken messes impossible to piece back together again?

What then?

 

_ _

 

Namjoon makes it to the kitchen sink before he throws up—alcohol and bile searing his throat. He wants to go back to that party, to a mere twelve hours ago, and hesitate. Ask Yoongi to find a different way. Hell, offer himself up instead—surely a sadist like Yoo Minseok would revel at the chance to break in a fellow elite. Anything to keep Yoongi free of his grasp. To prevent the weeping he can hear coming from the bedroom as Hoseok breaks down or the words echoing in his head like clanging bells, drowning out every thought he tries to form.

And since he can't dial back time, he wants to find Yoo Minseok and kill him. Slowly, painfully. He wants to replicate every cut and burn and lash and bruise on Yoongi's skin, right down to the horrific brand. He wants to watch the life drain from Minseok's eyes and doesn't think he's ever felt hate like this before.

It's the cost, maybe, of loving someone.

He stares down at his sweater and blanches when he realizes that it's still stained with Yoongi's blood. Here, at least, is something he can fix. He changes for the second time today in his bedroom, pulling on a black shirt and pausing to touch the scar on his clavicle. It seems like such an inconsequential thing now. He almost wants to hand Yoongi a knife and ask him to cut more, until Namjoon can share some of the pain.

So many desires, all of them pointless. He tries to tamp them down and focus on the things he can do right now. Seokjin is going to need hot water to sterilize his equipment, so start there.

He has a pot on the stove and is blankly watching bubbles slowly form along the bottom when the door chimes. Seokjin, thank god.

He hurries to open the door, gratitude on his lips, but freezes at the sight of his cousin. Seokjin  looks ...

His mouth is swollen and bruises are darkening along his jaw. A long, thin cut runs under his right eye—like a scratch from a nail—and he has a ring around his neck that nearly matches Yoongi's, just visible above the collar of his shirt. 

"Hyung," Namjoon says, stunned.

Seokjin shakes his head and brushes past him. Namjoon barely registers Jimin trailing behind him, looking like he's stuck somewhere between fury and despair. 

"Hyung," Namjoon repeats, reaching for Seokjin's arm. 

"It doesn't matter," Seokjin insists, cutting off all the questions Namjoon wants to ask before he can form them. "Not right now. Where's Yoongi?"

"Bedroom," Namjoon says, caving to his leadership as usual. And Yoongi is more important right now. Somewhere, it feels like a clock is ticking and with each drumbeat second, Yoongi might be slipping further away from them.

Seokjin adjusts the medical kit he's slung over his shoulder and nods, heading for the bedroom without a backward glance. Jimin rushes after him and Namjoon is left to trail in their wake—terrified of seeing Yoongi again but unable to remove himself. Still, he hangs back as he enters the room, in case he scares Yoongi.

From this vantage point, he can see everything. Can see the horror and rage and remorse tear across Jimin's face one after the other until Jimin is stumbling towards the bed, shaking. Hoseok catches him with an arm around his waist—dried tears on his cheeks and steel in his eyes.

"Stop," he says, tangling his fingers in Jimin's shirt. "Don't you dare feel guilty about this, Jimin-ah."

Jimin shakes his head. Namjoon's never seen him cry and it's strange to witness it now. It's a messy affair, just like he suspects that Hoseok's tears were. Jimin's face crumples and contorts and the sobs sound like they're coming from somewhere deep within him, wrenched from his core by an invisible hand.

Hoseok tuts, letting go of Yoongi to pull Jimin into his side. “It’s gonna be okay,” he murmurs with a voice full of so much confidence that Namjoon almost forgets about the breakdown he suffered only a short while ago. He’s as strong as Yoongi, Namjoon’s coming to realize, just in different ways. 

Jimin fists a hand in Hoseok’s shirt and squeezes his eyes shut, struggling to get himself back under control. 

Seokjin, though, is all business. “Namjoon-ah, where’s the water?” 

Shit. 

Namjoon rushes back out to the stove and sees that the water has started boiling. He turns down the burner as Seokjin joins him, unpacking his medical kit on the counter.

“He’s probably going to need stitches,” Seokjin says, in doctor mode. “Did you notice any internal bleeding?” 

“Some,” Namjoon says, remembering the red tint to the water and the torn skin he felt beneath his fingertips when he cleaned Yoongi up. “There were fissures around… around his rim.” 

Seokjin drops several needles into the water. “Let’s hope the internal damage isn’t too bad, because I can’t perform surgery in your guest bedroom.” 

Namjoon stares at the red band around his neck, stomach churning. “Hyung…” 

“We’re still not talking about it,” Seokjin cuts him off as he pulls antiseptic out of the kit and arranges it next to the salve on the counter. 

“You’re hurt.” In a way eerily similar to Yoongi, in a way that he’s never seen before. 

“I’ll get better,” Seokjin says, dismissive. “Yoongi’s more important right now.” 

Namjoon knows better than to argue, especially when Seokjin’s right, so he lets the matter drop, resolving to pick it up again later. Seokjin has never liked sharing the vulnerable pieces of himself, and it’s been that way for as long as Namjoon can remember. Whenever Namjoon’s tried to press in the past, Seokjin’s always made an excuse about how he’s the hyung and therefore he doesn’t need to burden Namjoon with his problems. Namjoon’s never managed to get it through Seokjin’s head that it shouldn’t always work that way. 

“What do you need me to do?” he asks now and gets a sad smile in return. 

“No offense, Namjoon-ah, but stay out of my way and don’t panic. You’ve done good already, cleaning him up. I’ll take it from here.” 

Namjoon hates the idea of sitting by and doing nothing while Yoongi’s injured, even if he also hates the thought of watching Seokjin stitch Yoongi up, listening to Yoongi in distress again. 

“Are you sure?” he presses. “You need a hand, his injuries are—”

“I’ll help him,” Hoseok says, materializing in the doorway. “I’m no medical student but I do have first aid experience.” 

And I won’t freak out, is the underlying message. It stings, but it’s accurate, so Namjoon can’t judge Hoseok for it. 

“Fine,” Seokjin says and nods to the sink. “Wash your hands and get a pair of gloves on.” 

Jimin slips back into the living room, gaze red-rimmed and face haunted. Seokjin glances over at him and his expression goes soft in a way that startles Namjoon. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Seokjin look at anyone like that, least of all Park Jimin. The last he recalls, the two of them were not speaking and before that were at each other’s throats. Something monumental must have happened last night. He wonders if it’s connected to Seokjin’s injuries or if it’s something else entirely, but he holds the questions in his throat. 

He doubts he’d be able to get them out past the chant of Yoongi Yoongi Yoongi still filling his mind, anyway. 

“You too,” Seokjin says to Jimin. “Stay out here.” 

Jimin’s face twists predictably. “I…” 

“Listen to him, Jimin-ah,” Hoseok says. He’s adopted Seokjin’s stoic manner and his voice is clipped and professional as he scrubs his hands in the sink and accepts the gloves that Seokjin hands him. 

And then they’re both gathering the medical supplies from the counter and disappearing into the bedroom, leaving Namjoon and Jimin out in the living room. Jimin lets out a frustrated noise as the door clicks shut and rakes a hand through his hair. Namjoon’s skin prickles uncomfortably. He hasn’t really been alone with Park Jimin since he got a gun pointed at his face, but he can sympathize with the guilt and anger that Jimin is radiating. 

He drifts to the cupboards and pulls out a plate. It’s fine china, passed down from his long-dead parents, and Namjoon doesn’t think he’s used it once in all his adult life. He suddenly hates the frivolity of it. 

He holds it out to Jimin, who frowns at him in confusion. 

“You can break it,” he explains. “You look like you need to break something.” 

To his surprise, Jimin laughs, short and sharp. “Yeah,” he rasps. “I really want to break something but I don’t want to startle them.” He nods to the bedroom door and right. Namjoon should have thought of that. 

He sets the plate on the counter (it’s useless, even in this) and drifts into the living room, sinking down onto the sofa. From the bedroom, he can hear the blended murmur of Seokjin and Hoseok’s voices, but fortunately no sounds from Yoongi. Maybe they’ve found a way to sedate him. 

The couch dips as Jimin joins him, folding himself up into a tense ball that reminds Namjoon of Yoongi. 

“Tell me about him,” he blurts. “About Yoongi.” 

Because he doesn’t want to think about the brand on Yoongi’s skin or the way Yoongi tried to placate him, tried to insist that he’s been good. Doesn’t want to think about makeup streaked down Yoongi’s skin after a party or the grit of his teeth as the seals flared or the way he shook in Namjoon’s arms in the aftermath of a nightmare. He wants to know the Yoongi of Before, the Yoongi that he’ll never get to meet. The Yoongi that someone as lethal and storm-laced as Park Jimin regards with so much devotion. 

“He saved my life,” Jimin says now, quiet and almost soft—a fondness creeping into his voice that surprises Namjoon. “When I was a teenager and me and Taehyung were starving on the streets. I tried to rob him and he took me in instead. Took us both in when he didn’t have enough already and he didn’t think twice about it. Didn’t demand anything in return.” 

Jimin traces his fingers over the seals. “I think … he taught me what love’s supposed to look like. Taught all of us. Maybe … maybe taught a whole sector. Do you know how they talk about him out there?” 

Namjoon shakes his head. 

“Suga is … he’s a hero and a legend, and he showed every Marked that they could be something. That we could pick our heads up out of the dirt and hold them up with dignity. That hope was important to cling to. He kept people from starving in the winters. He hid people from the police. Get back up, he told everyone until they did. He was incredible.” Jimin glances at the closed bedroom door again and his voice drops to a softer murmur when he says, “he is incredible.” 

Namjoon thinks of the Yoongi whose eyes still burned in the auction house, in spite of the wounds on his skin; the Yoongi who fought back when he thought Namjoon was going to kill him; the Yoongi who refused to run when the chance was offered; the Yoongi who said give him me without a moment of hesitation, fully knowing the nightmare he was about to endure. 

“He is,” Namjoon says, voice wet with renewed tears. 

“I failed him,” Jimin says, drawing his legs up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. 

“I don’t think he’d see it that way,” Namjoon argues. 

Jimin shakes his head. “It was my idea to do this. Be a companion. I had to convince him, assure him I could handle it. Only I couldn’t fucking handle it and now…” he trails off with a hitching breath. 

Namjoon wishes he knew what to say to comfort him. 

“I don’t think blaming yourself is going to fix anything,” he ventures hesitantly. “What’s done is done and we can’t change it.” 

Jimin snorts. “Easy for you to say. That’s … he’s my family. I love him.” 

So do I, Namjoon manages to keep from saying. Confessing to Hoseok was bad enough, and somehow he doubts Jimin will take it in stride like Hoseok did. He’d rather not be gutted like a fish in his own living room. 

So he sighs and leaves Jimin to his private storm, sensing that nothing he says is going to get through. Jimin doesn’t want advice from an outsider, from the person that handed Yoongi’s leash over like it was nothing. 

Needing something to do with his hands, he empties the pot of water into the sink and sets it aside on the rack to dry, then puts the useless plate back in the cupboards with all the rest of the finery he barely touches. That hardly takes any time at all, though, and now he’s adrift again. He floats, almost aimless, over to the piano in the corner of his living room. He can’t even remember why he bought it. He’d been a teenager and living in his own apartment for the first time, after his grandmother insisted that he could no longer stay at his family home. He didn’t mind in many ways—was tired of feeling the ghosts of his parents lingering in the empty rooms, seeing them move in the corner of his eye after dark. 

But maybe he still wanted a few tokens to remember them by. His mother used to play, in his distant, foggy memories. Maybe that’s why he bought it. Or maybe he made up that fact about her and he just wanted a stupid piano. 

He sits down at the bench now and lifts the lid covering the keys. They gleam, untouched. He played a few random chords when he first got the thing and then never looked at it again. He doesn’t even remember the chords now, or which notes are which. 

“Yoongi plays,” Jimin says from behind him as his hands hover uselessly over the keys. 

“He told me.” 

Jimin’s voice has gone soft again, laced with memory. “There was a shop, a few blocks away from our apartment. General salvage—things pulled from the condemned zone. All those Old World buildings crumbling into nothing. Anyway, one of the things the owner had for sale was this beat up piano. Somehow, he’d managed to tune it but who the fuck was going to buy a piano in Sector 10? So he just stuck in the corner to collect dust. But Yoongi, he was always finding things—out in the condemned zone. Him and Taehyung had a knack for it.” 

Jimin laughs, a little less bitter than before. When Namjoon glances over his shoulder, Jimin’s staring at the ceiling, clearly watching the memories play out across it. 

“He found a music book. Made from that special paper, you know? That doesn’t tear or decay? And he decided he wanted to learn how to read it. So he bargained with the merchant—a few extra ration cards here and there, exclusive look at any valuable salvage he managed to find, and in exchange he could play the piano.” 

Jimin drops his gaze back to his knees and shakes his head, a fond smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I don’t know why he was so adamant on learning. It wasn’t like Yoongi, to make deals like that. Waste time on frivolous things. But I think it brought him a sense of peace … playing that piano. He’d disappear there for hours sometimes, when things were really bad. When he needed to breathe. It was almost … sacred to him.” 

Namjoon looks back at his piano. In all the months Yoongi’s lived here, he’s never once touched it. Now, Namjoon wonders if a part of Yoongi—the cautious, skittish part forced into him by monsters like Yoo Minseok—was too afraid to take such a liberty, no matter how much he trusts Namjoon. 

… he didn’t train me right. 

Namjoon bows his head, willing himself not to vomit again. 

“I’ll let him have it,” he whispers, more for himself than for Jimin. “When he’s better. He can play as much as he wants.” 

Jimin makes a noncommittal noise of agreement and the silence stretches, prickling uncomfortably. Fortunately, Namjoon’s saved from having to fill it by the chime of the door. He frowns in surprise but Jimin stands and strides towards it expectantly. 

“Taehyung and Junkook,” he explains in response to Namjoon’s confused expression. 

Right. Jimin must have notified them and they’ve returned from … whatever adventure they embarked on last night. Namjoon gently lowers the piano cover and rises to his feet as he hears Jimin greet the new arrivals and usher them inside. 

They both look worse for wear. Not as bad as Jimin or Seokjin, but their faces are streaked with dirt and their bodies slumped with exhaustion evident even through their baggy, mismatched clothes. 

“What happened?” Taehyung asks in his rumbling voice, glancing over towards Namjoon before focusing on Jimin. 

Jimin’s facade begins to crumble once again, trembling at the edges. “It’s … it’s Yoongi,” he forces out. “Yoongi’s hurt. Bad.” 

Alarm immediately wipes out the exhaustion in Taehyung’s and Jungkook’s faces and spines. Taehyung jerks, starting for the closed bedroom door, but Namjoon blocks his path. 

“You can’t,” he says in response to the glare Taehyung aims at him. “Seokjin and Hoseok are … working on him. Patching him up.” 

“What happened?” Jungkook asks and Jimin crumbles further, wrapping his arms around his waist as his spine bows.

“You were right,” he rasps, eyes on the floor. “You were right, Kook, I didn’t know. I didn’t know and it’s my fault.” 

Jungkook’s eyes widen, but instead of pressing further, he closes the distance between him and Jimin and pulls Jimin into his arms. Namjoon backs up, watching as Taehyung crowds in, too, wrapping his long arms around both of them. He feels, suddenly, like he’s intruding. This living room is too small and he doesn’t want to hover at the edges of it, invisible, while Taehyung, Jimin, and Jungkook grieve together. 

But his own bedroom is too far away from Yoongi, too cut off. So he settles for pulling a random book from his shelf and folding up into the armchair near the window, trying his best to tune out the other three as they shuffle over to the couch and sink down in a still-tangled pile of limbs. None of them are speaking and the crackle of each turning page of Namjoon’s book seems too loud in this sad hush that’s settled over everything. 

None of the words register—he doesn’t even know what kind of book he’s selected—but he keeps going on autopilot as time crawls by with agonizing slowness. 

Finally, finally, the bedroom door opens and Seokjin emerges. He looks dead on his feet—wounds standing out stark against pallid skin and blood streaked across his shirt and arms—but he manages a weak smile as they all crowd around him, desperate for answers. 

“Is he going to be okay?” Jimin asks. 

“Physically, yes,” Seokjin says. “Fortunately most of the wounds are shallow and the internal damage isn’t bad enough to require surgery. We’ll need to be careful, but he’ll heal. As for the rest?” His face contorts briefly in sorrow. “I don’t know.” 

“Can we see him?” Taehyung asks and Seokjin freezes when his gaze slides over to him and Jungkook, as though he’s just now registering their presence. 

He rallys himself quickly, though, and shakes his head. “He’s sedated. Please just let him rest.” 

“What happened to you?” Jungkook blurts, staring intently at Seokjin’s bruises and the red indent around his neck. 

“Nothing important,” Seokjin dismisses and then continues to speak over Jungkook’s answering noise of protest. “It’s been a long night. I doubt any of us have slept. We all need rest, we can reconvene in the morning.” He blinks over at the sunlight streaming in through the window. “Or … later today, I guess.” He pushes himself off the doorframe. “Namjoon-ah, I’m taking your bed.” 

“Of course,” Namjoon says and watches Seokjin pause in the middle of the living room, eyes locked with Jimin’s. 

They seem to be having a silent conversation that Namjoon can’t interpret—doesn’t know what to make of the uncertainty in Seokjin’s expression or the sadness, almost pleading nature of the look Jimin is giving him. After a moment, Seokjin shakes his head again and continues on to Namjoon’s bedroom without looking back. Jimin sinks onto the sofa and buries his face in his hands. 

To Namjoon’s surprise, Jungkook darts after Seokjin this time, following him into the bedroom and closing the door. Meanwhile, Taehyung curls back up on the couch with Jimin—arms wrapped around him and forehead pressed to Jimin’s shoulder. 

Namjoon takes a fortifying breath and heads for the guest bedroom. The sight that greets him is an expected one, but still painful: Yoongi now dressed in soft pajamas and moved under the protection of the covers and Hoseok, slumped at his side. 

“You should sleep too,” Namjoon murmurs as he stops next to Hoseok, taking in the dark circles under his eyes and the tremble in his hands. He can’t look at Yoongi for too long, at the bandages and the bruises and how still Yoongi is. 

“Can’t leave him,” Hoseok whispers. He’s holding Yoongi’s hand again, stroking his thumb over the back of it in gentle sweeps. 

“Then sleep here,” Namjoon says, nodding to the bed. It’s big enough to squeeze three to four people on it, which means there should be plenty of room for Hoseok. 

“When we were in Sector 10 together,” Hoseok says, ignoring Namjoon. His voice is distant, flat, fills Namjoon with a strange, creeping dread, “and things would get really bad, sometimes we would kick the kids out and have the apartment to ourselves for the day. And Yoongi … he’d want to get out of his own head, you know? He carried so much inside of him that he barely let anyone see and I think it ate at him. And he wanted to be able to let go. So I’d…” Hoseok’s voice catches and stutters before he pushes on. “I’d be rough with him. I’d tie him up and…” 

“Hoseok,” Namjoon says urgently, sensing where this is going. He curls a hand over Hoseok’s bony shoulder, absorbing his flinch. “It isn’t the same thing. You’re not the same.” 

“It feels the same,” Hoseok hiccups, on the verge of tears again. “Right now, it feels the same. And I keep thinking that no wonder he doesn’t want me to touch him anymore, he…” 

No.” Namjoon squeezes Hoseok’s shoulder. “I’ve spent my whole life around monsters, Hoseok. Around people like Yoo Minseok. And you are not one of them. Yoongi doesn’t see you that way, either. I know he doesn’t. You’re the one he recognized today, you’re still a safe place for him. Don’t doubt that now—you can’t.” 

Hoseok wipes his free hand over his eyes and shakes his head, but doesn’t argue. “You’re right,” he croaks. “We should sleep.” 

He stands with a low noise of discomfort and then lays down in the space he was sitting, curled protectively against Yoongi’s side. Namjoon backs up a step, debating if he can manage to sleep in the armchair or if he should just camp out on the floor here. 

“Where are you going?” Hoseok asks, squinting wearily at him. 

“I was going to find a place to sleep.” 

Hoseok nods to the space on Yoongi’s other side. “There’s a place here.” 

Namjoon tries not to let too much of his shock bleed onto his face. “I … you’re sure? I don’t want to scare him.” 

“You’re a safe place too,” Hoseok murmurs. “He just needs to come back to himself a little more. And I … you should be here. I want you here. Lie down.” 

Namjoon has no idea how to cope with that declaration, beyond a sudden tightness in his chest, so he just swallows and shuffles around the bed, climbing in carefully and settling on Yoongi’s other side. He presses his face to Yoongi’s hair, ignoring the lingering sharpness of antiseptic, and then dares to drop a tender kiss to his temple, aware of Hoseok’s eyes on him. 

But Hoseok doesn’t call him out on the kiss, or get angry, just reaches across Yoongi to take Namjoon’s hand. He settles their joined hands gently on Yoongi’s stomach and it feels like they’re forming a shield together—anyone else who wants to hurt Yoongi has to go through them. 

Sleep, though, is still a long time coming.