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Because she (and you) give me none | Kim Namjoon x Black Reader

Chapter Text

Prince Kim Namjoon of the Tuhan Kingdoms is an important and special person destined for great things. Well, at least that’s what his hyung Seokjin says; and if Seokjin says it, then it has to be true.

 

But right now, Namjoon doesn’t really feel like an important and special person. No, right now he feels like a big dummy. Seokjin had been super protective of him ever since their parents were killed during the Vampire/Shifter wars when Namjoon was four years old. Seokjin was forced to become King at sixteen years old which meant that he was busier than ever and that he didn’t have time for Namjoon.

 

Namjoon didn’t mind, not really. Although he missed his Eomma and Appa so much that it hurts sometimes, he made a vow himself that he would be the best prince in the history of princes. Also, he would help his hyung in any way he could. He does this by being obedient and doing his lessons (most of the time).

 

He really can’t complain. He has everything he needs and if God forbid, he didn’t have it, he only has to say the word and it’s his.    

 

In truth, he really has nothing to want for.

 

Except… one thing.

 

Namjoon had never been outside the palace walls before.

 

Namjoon had been born during the wars and his parents had kept his birth a secret from the world so that he would be protected. He has never left his castle until now.

 

It had taken a lot of nagging on Namjoon’s part but when Namjoon’s sixth birthday had finally rolled around, Seokjin had given him the okay to tour the village center on the condition that he would not for one second, leave his nanny’s side while she did her own personal errands.

 

They had taken his nanny’s car to get around and Namjoon was sure he was in heaven. His nanny had to nudge him along several times because he got stuck staring at everything. From the big skyscrapers to the crowded supermarkets, even the tourist kiosks held some element of wonder for him.

 

It was that same wonder that got him into his current pickle.

 

It’s not like Namjoon planned to disobey his hyung’s orders, but when they got to the florist’s shop. His nanny would not stop talking. It’s like every time he thought the conversation was over, she and the florist would find something new to talk about.

 

Luckily for Namjoon, the florist’s shop was connected to her house and she let Namjoon go play in her garden. She gave him a bouncy lime-green ball to play with. Namjoon didn’t find the ball that interesting, but manners demanded he takes the ball with exaggerated enthusiasm. And Namjoon had been dutifully playing with his ball for a good three minutes before he got tired of it. He then decided to explore the florist’s, whose name he could not remember, garden.

 

Although it was nothing like the greenhouse he had at home, he looked at multi-colored sweet peas, carnations, and bellflowers with vague interest, but it was the humongous Adonis Blue butterfly that caught his attention. It was lying almost motionless on a white carnation, consuming its nectar. He had seen it in picture books and wildlife documentaries but never in the flesh like this. Namjoon fumbled with the new phone Seokjin-hyung had gifted him today to take a picture when the butterfly suddenly flew away.

 

Namjoon had pouted in disappointment, ready to give up on the spot. But then he remembered his hyung talking about golden opportunities and how you had to grab them when you can.

 

This was clearly one of those times, Namjoon thought as he watched the butterfly fly into the woods over the low fence. Readying his phone and tilting his chin up in determination, he climbed over the fence and followed its trail.

 

The butterfly was putting up quite the chase and leading Namjoon deeper into uncharted territory. But Namjoon just had to capture a picture. Just when Namjoon was about to give up and head back to the florist’s house, the butterfly had settled onto a nearby bush. Namjoon, out of breath but triumphant, took several pictures. When he was done, he smiled so hard his left dimple threatened to dig a hole into his cheek. He was already imagining showing his hyung his new discovery.

 

Satisfied with his prize, he turned around to go back when he finally realized something: he didn’t know where he was.

 

Trying not to panic, Namjoon took unsteady steps in the opposite direction of the bush, hoping that he would get somewhere. But he just encountered more trees and unfamiliar sounds, which only succeeded in making him more terrified than ever.

 

Great. He was lost in the woods. If he gets out of this mess, his hyung will probably never trust him again. Seokjin-hyung had trusted him and he repaid that trust by acting like a dumb, little kid who can’t follow the rules. What if he ran into a wild animal? An actual animal, like a bear or even a mountain lion? What if the light from his phone runs out? What if he never sees his hyung again?

 

Namjoon’s fear and confusion was so great, he started to convulse and he did something he hadn’t done in years: he lost control and shifted. The shift itself didn’t really hurt anymore. It was like ripping off a band-aid, but Namjoon’s shame made it painful. When the transformation was complete, instead of a skinny boy with chubby cheeks and short silver hair disappeared and in its place was a tiny black wolf cub with scared gray eyes.

 

Negative emotions like anger or fear could sometimes trigger a shift, especially in young children. But Namjoon was supposed to be a big boy now. He learned how to control shifting when he was five. In Namjoon’s mind, losing control like this was the same as peeing his pants. Whimpering, Namjoon shuffled out of his slightly torn clothes and scurries into the base of a nearby tree trunk opening. He hid his face in his paws, hoping and also not hoping someone or something would find him.

 

And that’s when he hears someone call out.

 

“Is somebody there?”


 

The girl is having a shitty day.

 

She knows that’s the type of language that would give Father Sebastian the excuse to withhold dinner from her, but she doesn’t really care right now.

 

She heard the older kids say it and it describes how she feels to a T.

 

Today had been adoption day and the girl had done something immensely stupid: she had had hope.

 

Hope, that some nice couple would look beyond the fact that she couldn’t shift and love her anyway. Hope, that her unusual scent wouldn’t make their noses curl in disgust.

 

She had made a big effort this year too: she wore her best dress, fixed up her hair the best she could, and had been on her best behavior.

 

This year, they had the kids sit at tables and look and the adults were to supposed come and examine them and talk to them. It was basically a contest of “who looks more house-trained?”

 

She had her eye on this nice honey-badger shifter couple and made sure to “sell” herself to her potential parents. The girl’s sharp eyes had detected the high-profile designer labels on their crisp clothing and the expensive smelling scent of their perfume said that they had money, which meant they could afford plenty of food and a warm bed, which was extremely important to the girl.

 

In the end, the couple had chosen a sweet, little tiger shifter with big brown eyes and shaggy brown hair and the girl had ended up alone at her table. He was nice enough whenever he was around her and always shared his food with everyone. The girl knows that if this couple has any sense, they’ll cherish the boy with everything they have.

 

She’s happy for every boy and girl that gets to leave the orphanage.

 

But still…

 

She knows by now that she’s just setting herself up for disappointment; she doesn’t stand a chance. The majority of the children at the orphanage are shifters with the minority being human, with her being the outlier.

 

If she is being completely honest, she has no clue what she is.

 

She’s not human, that’s for sure. Her senses are too acute to be human. Couldn’t be a vampire because she didn’t crave blood the way vampires did. But she can’t shift, no matter how hard she has tried.

 

But latency happens all the time. It’s her scent that really deters potential guardians.

 

The sickly-sweet aroma of apples mixed with the pungent earthiness of fresh moss seemed to discourage people from wanting to adopt her. At least that’s what Sister Ailene tells her when she’s been bad. That, along with her unwillingness to listen.

 

She’ll probably end up staying here till she is old enough to be out on her own. But that wasn’t so bad a fate. She could spend her days protecting the little ones from the greedy fakes that run the orphanage. She could accept that.

 

But no one can judge her if she needs to take a moment and just let herself be sad for a moment. But she had learned a long time ago that crying in front of the nuns and priest just got her a lecture on how undeserving she was of their time and affection.

 

She already knows that.  

 

That’s how she found herself in the woods.

 

She had snuck out after the whole adoption debacle and walked a good distance before letting out tears of frustration and defeat. She was just about to take the end of her dress to scrub her face and nose clean when she saw it: a baby blue casing that could only belong to an iPhone.

 

Fearing that someone that one of the adults would jump out and scold her, she quickly snatches up the phone from the forest floor and does a quick scan of it.

 

The girl is left slightly astonished when she realizes that this model isn’t even in stores yet. The triple-lenses on the back of the phone gave away the advanced tech. The girl could feel her foul mood lifting as she calculated how much money she could make off this new gadget.

 

I gotta show Hoseok, she thinks as she turns the device over in her hands again. Hoseok is a fourteen-year-old leopard shifter and he knew everything about making money. He would know what to do wit—

 

The scent stops her thoughts. Maybe if it wasn’t so potent, she could’ve ignored it, but she couldn’t possibly ignore the fear souring the naturally citrusy scent. When she heard the whimpers, that seals her decision to investigate.

 

She follows the sound of the mewls and comes across clothes suited for a young boy. The girl takes a whiff and confirmed it was the current scent clogging up her nostrils. She gathers up the clothes and treads carefully to the burgeoning noises. Her search leads her to the opening of a tree trunk. It’s dark inside but the cries are louder.

 

The girl half debates just leaving the poor kid alone and leaving his clothes where he can find them. She could just take the phone and go cash in on her good fortune.

 

But something, maybe her conscience or her gut, tells to try to help the kid.

 

So she clears her throat and cries, “Hello? Is somebody there?” 

 

Chapter Text

The whimpering stops and the world stands still.

 

The girl frowns, already getting impatient. Doing the right thing is exhausting and she would much rather take her bounty and leave the little wimp to work out his problems alone.

 

Instead, she tries to beckon the kid out again.

 

Namjoon doesn’t know what to do.

 

He had half hoped someone would find him and now that someone had, he’s not sure what the best course of action is. For all he knows, it’s a vampire mimicking the voice of a little girl. Namjoon had watched enough TV to know that. But then again, it could be real.

 

But if it is, then the girl could be lost herself. Or perhaps she even escaped from kidnappers. Oh no, what if she led them straight towards Namjoon? What if—

 

“Um, okay. Is this your phone? I found it, along with some clothes and I just… I heard you and I um… look, I’m not gonna hurt you! I swear I won’t. Why don’t you come out so we can figure this out?”

 

The girl has to admit that if she were the kid right now, she wouldn’t really be convinced, but she did the best she could. Now it was up to the kid to decide.

 

A minute or so later, a small black dog proceeds slowly from out the shadow of the tree trunk. You’d have to be blind to the way the pup is shaking. He moves tentatively like he’s afraid something will jump out and snatch him up.

 

Finding sympathy for the shaken kid, the girl sighs and steps towards him. Once she is standing right in front of him, she crouches down. Now that the first part of her mission is complete, she is now preparing to talk to this kid like he’s one of the younger orphans that have just been “disciplined”.

 

But every “it’s okay to be scared” or “I’ll help you find your mom” escapes her once she looks into the pup’s pale gray eyes.

 

The girl feels as if the pup’s piercing eyes are lancing straight through her physical body and can see inside her soul.

 

Every thought of how she could this work to her advantage was replaced with this tsunami-like wave of emotions. She feels the strangest urge to wrap her arms around the scared pup, pet him, and growl at anything that dared to hurt him. But along with the protectiveness, she feels thousands of questions trying to burst their way out of her mouth: she wants to know to his name, his passions, fears, and also hopes that he likes comic books just as much as she does.

 

And why does he smell so good?

 

Namjoon is going through a similar crisis.

 

He wasn’t sure what to expect when he decided to crawl out of the tree. But he is instantly put at rest when he sees a girl about his age.

 

The girl he observes has skin the color of burnt cinnamon and curly, fuzzy black hair tamed into two twisted pigtails. Namjoon is captivated by her eyes. They’re the color of unripe lemons with their tints of green surrounding the yellow pupils. They have an eerie glow about them. The color reminds Namjoon of the beautiful yellow foliage trees that appear in the fall.

 

The only difference is that while the girl is hung up on Namjoon’s eyes, it’s the girl’s scent that has Namjoon in a stupor.

 

Namjoon has never encountered a scent like this before: candy apples and something sharp like fresh cut grass but not quite. It definitely wasn’t a fragrance one could easily forget. How could you? Once it hit you, its potency held you in a chokehold.

 

Namjoon doesn’t mind it. In fact, he’s spellbound by it. Before this girl had come along, Namjoon had been on the verge of a panic attack. But now, as Namjoon inhales the girl’s scent, a sense of calm overtakes him and something tells him he’s safe around this girl. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the girl’s odor is calming down his muddled mind. Enough sweetness to soothe his panic, but also enough sharpness to remind him to be brave.

 

A good amount of time passes before the girl starts to feel uncomfortable with the scrutinization, drops the bundle of clothes in front of the pup.

 

“Hurry up and change back,” she grunts as she turns her back.

 

The girl hears a sharp gasp as the boy changes back, then the rustle of clothes and when she dares a peek, the boy has just finished.

 

The girl likes that she is taller than the boy and that he retained his eye color. She knows that some shifters’ eyes change when they transform. His face scrunches up in thought as he stares at her.

 

Shifting from foot to foot, the girl decides to question him.

 

“You’ve never been out here before, have you?” The girl had been able to tell by the boy’s preppy Tommy Hilfiger clothes.

 

The boy’s cheeks flush an adorable shade of pink. The girl wants to pinch the boy’s pink cheeks to see if they are as soft as they look.

 

Namjoon knows that telling the truth is important, but he really doesn’t want to admit to this pretty girl that he got lost in the woods. Admitting the truth will make him look like a total baby. So instead, he decides to deflect.

 

“I had a good reason for being here,” he shoots back in irritation. For extra measure, he puffs up his chest to show he’s not intimidated by her.

 

The girl wants to squeal from how cute the boy is. But she keeps her face uninterested for appearance’s sake.

 

She raises her eyebrows and puts her hands on her hips, just like she’s seen some of the nuns do. It makes her feel grown-up. “Oh yeah? Why then?”

 

“Give me my phone and I’ll show you,” the boy implores. The girl realizes then that she’s still gripping the boy’s super cool phone in her hand. She does have intentions to give it back, but she also wants to hang on to it for a little while longer.

 

“But it’s so pretty!” The girl has never been one for pouting, but she juts her lip out as far as it’ll go.

 

“But I got it for my birthday.” Although the girl’s pouty face is note-worthy, Namjoon wrote the book on getting his way. He puffs his chubby cheeks out a bit, makes his eyes go sad and wide, and pushes his bottom lip down to his chin.

 

The showdown lasts all of ten seconds before the girl concedes and hands the phone back to Namjoon. Namjoon, ecstatic with his victory, smashes his thumb to the home button of the phone with excessive vigor. Once he gets to his photo gallery, he swipes through the pictures he had taken of the butterfly with jittery fingers.      

 

“It’s so pretty!” She gushes. “I’ve never seen a blue butterfly before. I’ve seen brown ones (but I think those were moths) and green ones. I didn’t know that butterflies could be blue. And so big, too! I’ve been in this forest a thousand times and I’ve never seen a butterfly with this color. How did you find it?”

 

Before today, Namjoon had never given much thought about girls. But if all girls were like this one, he might have to start paying attention. He takes extreme pleasure in relaying the story to the girl.

 

“I chased it for hours,” he brags, “I knew going into the woods was dangerous, but I had to do it. It may have been my only chance! I may never be able to one again. I watched a docu… a docu… um. Well, I once watched a show where they talked about rare butterflies and one of the ones, they showed was this one and…”

 

The girl only half-hears what the boy is saying. She’s too focused on copying the image of the butterfly into her brain. For the girl, a happy event like this was too rare in her world; so, she wanted to remember every detail as best as possible.

 

Once she’s satisfied, she glances away from the screen and fixes her gaze on the boy. He has dimples in each cheek, but she notices that the left one is deeper than the other. Her earlier urges come back and she quickly pinches his cheeks without warning.

 

They are soft, she thinks with a giggle.

 

Namjoon flinches away, color once again darkening his cheeks. The girl is about to apologize when she notices the boy trying to hide the pleased grin on his face.

 

“Your phone is so cool!” The girl exclaims. “When did you get it?”

 

As if it were even possible, Namjoon’s beam becomes brighter. “It’s my birthday today!” he squeals. “It’s a gift from my hyu— I mean, my big brother.”

 

The girl nods. She had already figured that based on the phone and the clothes; the boy came from money. But she wonders how much money and influence this “big brother” had if he was able to have access to tech that wasn’t even on the market yet.

 

And could the boy maybe hook her up if she asked nicely?

 

As soon as the question enters her mind, the girl feels guilty for even thinking it; which is strange seeing as how Hoseok and the older kids had basically trained her and the younger kids how to see the dollar value in anything.

 

Instead of asking this though, the girl chooses to go with a safer route. “How old are you?” Namjoon hastily shoves his phone into his pocket.

 

“Six. How old are you?”

 

Shoot.

 

The girl should’ve known that if she asked that question, the obvious question to ask back would be “and how old are you?”

 

The truth is that she doesn’t know her exact age. None of the kids at the orphanage really do, unless they came to the orphanage as kids with dead families or guardians. Father Sebastian and the nuns know because they keep a list, but they purposefully don’t tell them. That way, when they want to kick a resident out early, they could do so without the kid raising too big of a fuss.

 

To compensate, the kids just started giving themselves ages based on their own guesses. So, although Hoseok says he’s fourteen, he could be twelve for all he knows.

 

For the girl, she knows that she’s younger than a human girl named Amari. Amari has started to do that weird thing human girls do when they reach a certain age. And she’s definitely older than a calico cat shifter named Christopher, who still needed help going to the bathroom. The girl reasons that she is around the same age as the boy.

 

So, with a confident smile, she proudly declares, “I’m eight!” The boy’s dimples disappear as a frown mars his adorable face. “No, you’re not,” he pouts, “You can’t be.”

 

“Why not?” The girl questions in a smug tone. “I’m taller than you.”

 

“Prove it! Let’s stand side by side.” They do so and Namjoon discovers with much chagrin that the girl is, indeed, taller than him by a few inches. The girl giggles in triumph, but Namjoon isn’t ready to give up yet.

 

“Just because you’re taller than me doesn’t me you’re older. How many baby teeth have you lost?” He questions, positive that this particular piece of info would prove her false seniority.

 

The girl has to think for a minute, but after quickly rooting her tongue among her teeth, she confirms, “Two!”

 

“Ha! I’ve lost four!” He opens his mouth, which shows the big gap where is his two front teeth should be.

 

“Did I say two? I meant… uh, six! No! Seven!” The girl might’ve actually been believable if not for the big smile bunching up her cheeks.

 

“Then I lost ten!” Namjoon shoots back, heart pounding with excitement. “I lost twenty!”

 

“Forty!”

 

“A hundred!”

 

“A billion!”

 

Namjoon pauses then grins an evil grin. “Prove it!” He shouts. He proceeds to lunge for the girl’s open mouth with his hands. The girl’s eyes almost bug out of their sockets. But she backs up before Namjoon can accomplish his goal.

 

Before too long, the forest echoes the sounds of two children gaily screaming as they chase each other for seems like a lifetime to them. Unfortunately for them, the moment ends the minute the both of them get too tired and fall back on the green ground. Both of them lay panting from the loss of energy they exerted and the force of their giggles.

 

Suddenly, the boy sits upright so fast, the girl hears the wind whip from the force of it.

 

“Ki-Jong Noona!”

 

The girl blinks, perplexed. “What?”

 

“My nanny! I’ve been gone so long; she must be worried about me!” So, he has a nanny too, the girl thinks. Just another piece of evidence that confirms her theory about this boy.

 

The boy scrambles up and states, “I have to find my way back. Do you know how to get the florist’s shop?”

 

The girl thinks about lying and saying she doesn’t. Earlier, she had been certain that today was the worst day of her life, but this boy had made her day (and her world) a little brighter with his camera, his talkative nature, and his cute flushed cheeks. And because he was rich, this she might never see him again after today.

 

But the panic-stricken glint in his eyes makes her stomach tighten in knots. With a sigh, she reveals, “Yeah. It’s actually not that far.” She motions him with her head. “Come on.”

 

They walk in silence. The girl strides ahead while Namjoon lags behind, silently dreading the trouble that was most assuredly waiting for him when he gets back. To keep himself calm, he focuses on the girl’s scent and the steady rhythm of her pigtails bobbing up and down.

 

Once they reach a familiar low fence, Namjoon’s palms go clammy and he has to resist the urge to run back into the forest. He knows that there’s no way that his nanny won’t keep this a secret. But as he and the girl climb over, he hears something: laughter. Specifically, the florist’s and Ki-Jong’s laughter.

 

Because they had been too busy in their mindless chatter, they hadn’t noticed Namjoon’s disappearance.

 

He’s safe.

 

Feeling victorious, he turns to the girl, only to see that she’s already heading back towards the forest. Namjoon’s euphoria vanishes as he calls after her.

 

“Will I see you again?” The girl stops and looks back. She contemplates whether she should lie or be honest.

 

She chooses the latter. “I’m don’t know,” she shrugs.

 

Namjoon, wanting to stay in the girl’s focus a little longer, exclaims, “My name’s Namjoon! What’s yours?”

 

A name?

 

The girl fights against the sudden bitter bubble of laughter threatening to climb out of her throat.

 

The girl doesn’t have a name.

 

Well, technically, she does. But somehow, she doesn’t think Number 4518685 will suffice as a proper name. She does have other titles.

 

Freak.

 

Rat.

 

Unholy vessel.

 

Ungrateful, filthy child.

 

But once again, not suitable.

 

Why is she even entertaining this when she knew that she would never see him again? It would be better to just ignore him and head back to her dim and uncolorful reality.

 

But because of that feeling that refuses to let her ignore this boy, she tosses out, “Eight!”

 

Namjoon giggles.

 

That obviously isn’t her real name. He’s about to call her out on it when Ki-Jong chooses that time to announce, “Namjoon! It’s time to go, sweetie!”

 

Namjoon turns his head and yells back, “Okay!” and quickly focuses his attention back on the girl.

 

But the spot where she had been standing is now vacant.

Chapter Text

Namjoon doesn’t see Eight again until a few weeks later.

 

Namjoon thinks he deserves a medal for the consistent amount of begging he had to do to go outside the palace again.

 

Seokjin-hyung had intended for Namjoon’s outing to be a one-time thing and maybe to do again when he was a little older. But what didn’t know is that he was in mental combat with a determined six-year-old. A six-year-old who was experiencing puppy love.

 

After a week or so of endless pleading and negotiating, Seokjin-hyung relented. Every Monday and Thursday afternoon from now on, Namjoon will accompany Ki-Jong Noona as she did her errands.

 

Luckily for Namjoon, Ki-Jong Noona has a strict schedule that always ended with them at the florist’s shop for at least an hour or two. Namjoon would anxiously wait at the corner of where the low fence showed the edge of the forest, waiting for Eight to come back. And for a few weeks, Namjoon’s patience was rewarded with sunburns and mounting frustration.

 

He was puzzled about what he could when it hit him: of course, Eight didn’t know he was there. She had no way to know that he was there. So, when Thursday of the third week rolls around and Namjoon still had no luck, he’s ready this time.

 

Before he left home, Namjoon spent all morning making the perfect picture. Frankly, Namjoon was a little worried because his strong suit had never been drawing. He went through three sheets of paper and his fingers and wrists were sore by the time he was finally satisfied with the picture and the message he made. He was even proud of the dye that rubbed off from the crayons onto the sleeves of his favorite sweater. In his eyes, it was a sign of his hard work.

 

He would show off his new creation to Seokjin, but that would mean telling him about Eight and how he met her, which would then mean having to tell his hyung that he had disobeyed his direct orders. He could’ve lied, but his hyung would’ve seen right through him. That was a can of worms Namjoon preferred not to open.    

 

Right before Ki-Jong Noona said it was time to go home, Namjoon tacks his picture, with really sticky duct tape he had brought from home, right on the tree where Eight had last been standing. Hoping that she will see his message.


 

The girl’s heart is pounding as she sneaks up to the florist’s garden. She has to remind herself that what she is about to do is for a good cause.

 

Once again, there hadn’t been enough food to eat. Father Sebastian had determined that the donations made to the church could not possibly be “squandered on the little heathens”, or so he said.

 

In the end, majority of the funds had gone to investing in a brand-new priestly robe for himself and new habits for the nuns. Father Sebastian had claimed that between the war and the vast number of children they “cared” for, he and the nuns deserved a treat.

 

What money had been left had gone largely to buying formula and baby food for the infants. The older kids, five and up, were forced to get creative.

 

The teenagers had elected to sneak out and take low-level jobs to earn a little money. Whether the job required them to scrub toilets, work at grocery stores, or even occupations that demanded that they utilize their animal egos, they did it.

 

The girl, motivated by a whining stomach and the tiny, gaunt faces of the toddlers constantly haunting her dreams, had boldly offered her services. She usually wouldn’t dare talk to the older kids, aside from Hoseok (he was nice to all the little kids. It wasn’t like she was special). They always seemed so cool and exclusive. She would usually feel too shy to even look them in the eye, much less talk to them.

 

But her resolution and her hunger gave strength to her voice.  

 

She had been so sure with the urgency of their situation, surely the older kids would take her seriously. The older kids usually hung out in groups (cliques) in the dining hall. The girl had decided to approach them one afternoon. It was right after the kids had finished their morning chores.

 

As she walked up to their table, her razor-sharp ears caught them reaffirming their hate and resentment for the vile priest. She thought then had been good a time as any to get in on the action. She swallowed a heap of phlegm down her throat and stood in front of their table. 

 

“Can I help?” What had been meant to be a bold, clear question had come out as a squeak. Definitely not getting onto a good start. Unfortunately, a male gray fox shifter heard her and got everyone from their table to quiet down.

 

Realizing that it was too late back out now, the girl took a deep breath and continued.

 

“I-It’s just that,” She stammered, “I heard that you guys got jobs to help pay for food and… and I wanna help too. I thought that maybe I could get a job…” Her appeals were drowned out by the sounds of laughter.

 

They were laughing at her.      

 

The girl felt her face heat up as she became painfully aware of how loud they were being. As if that wasn’t bad enough, almost everyone was in the dining hall and it seemed like everyone was focused on her. If the girl had more courage, she would tell everybody to mind their business, but humiliation had wired her jaw shut.

 

Just when she thought it couldn’t get any worst, it did.

 

Once the teen shifters’ laughter had died down, one of them spoke up.

 

“Can you read?” The question had come from a striking female green python shifter named Astrid. Her clear, bell-like voice carried throughout the room, causing the lingering chatter to simmer down.  

 

The girl had always thought Astrid was so pretty with her white-blonde hair and moon-kissed skin. Especially her eyes that both welcomed and warned you away with their alluring absinthe color. Her looks and her attitude forced you to pay attention.

 

And although the question sounded harmless enough, the girl understood its implications; knew Astrid did too.

 

Father Sebastian only allowed those who he thought had a good chance of being adopted could be allowed an education. Influential people often came for adoption day and they needed to have their pick of the litter.

 

While one-half of the children spent endless mornings and afternoons doing chores, the other half spent that time learning Grammar, Logic, Mathematics, and even learn a musical instrument, if they felt so inclined.

 

A child’s worth was often determined by three things: scent, subservience, and comeliness. And if the child was truly deemed as extra exceptional, they would give them something that the girl personally thought was priceless: a name.

 

Yes, some kids didn’t care as much as she did and gave themselves names, but the girl always believed that a name was something sacred.

 

To her, it meant a sense of identity, individuality, belonging; Not just another faceless ID number in a sea of children.  

 

Astrid herself had been given her name because of her beauty and supposed meekness around the adults. She had come to the orphanage when she was ten years old and only two years later, she held serious influence amongst the kids.

 

Up until recently, Astrid, and the teenagers she was sitting with at the moment, were served extra helpings of food (Didn’t want potential parents to think that they were too skinny) and had been given the little to no chores. They were too busy with their lessons. 

 

The girl couldn’t but compare her hands with Astrid’s, noting how soft and dainty they appeared compared to the girl’s callous-ridden palms and finger-tips.

 

“No.” The girl’s her armpits gave a painfully prickle in response to her shame at her lack of worth.

 

“Sorry, could you speak louder? Couldn’t hear you just now.” Although her tone and facial expression were pure stone, her green eyes held a gleam of barely contained glee. The girl digs her fingernails into her hands, trying hard to ignore the low-pulsing headache starting in her head.

 

“No,” she said louder, wishing this whole day would be over.

 

“Can you write?” The girl’s legs began to shake. She didn’t understand why Astrid was doing this.

 

“I… I-I don’t know how to write words, but— oh!” The girl’s voice brightened when a thought occurred to her. “I know how to write my ABC’s!”

 

It was her proudest accomplishment.

 

When the adults weren’t looking, she had looked through old phonetic textbooks and practiced drawing the letters on any surface she could use: paper, dirt, mushy pea stew.  

 

“I even… I… uh…” her brow furrowed as she tried to think of the word that meant to learn something by heart. She knew that she heard it before, but it wasn’t coming to her.

 

It was a big word too. She would’ve sounded smart if she had said it.

 

Oh well.

 

“I remembered every letter. I practice every day. Well, at least, I try to practice every day. But—"

 

Astrid’s charming chirps of laughter once sullied all of the girl’s burgeoning excitement. Her face turned carnation pink from how hard she was laughing. “Oh yes,” she gasped out between chuckles, “because potential employers’ top requirement these days is someone that knows their ‘ABC’s’,” she said, mocking the girl’s voice.

 

The headache that had been like a gnat buzzing in the background had progressed to a silverback gorilla pounding on either side of her head. Her migraine only made worse by her groaning stomach and Astrid’s too sweet, too sophisticated voice that refused to shut up.

 

“Do you even know basic Arithmetic?”

 

The girl blinked. What the hell was Arithmesit or whatever she just said?

 

So, she promptly asked, albeit cleanly and meekly, “What’s that?”

 

This time, it wasn’t just Astrid who laughed at her: everyone did. Although the girl did wish she was a mouse or maybe even a rat shifter so that she could sink into the floor, she also wanted to chuckle too. She’d bet at least a dozen iPhones 11’s that half of the kids in that dining hall didn’t what arith— what that thing is either.

 

But unfortunately for her, Astrid was the Pied Piper and the children were her loyal listeners. The howls only proceeded to make the girl’s migraine worse. Her eyes became ultra-sensitive to the flickering light bulb in the room, making her squint. Her nose, which was usually able to instinctually filter scents that came up her nostrils, was having the odor of everyone, everything, being shoved up her nose: The resulting sweat of nearly everyone working like slaves, bleach and disinfectant coming from the nearby kitchen, and everybody’s natural aromas all came at her like a rushing current violently beating against a set of boulders.

 

It took everything she had not to upheave what little was in her stomach onto the white vinyl floor. Only the constant pressure of her fingernails digging into her palms allowed her some semblance of control at that moment.  

 

“So,” Astrid called out. Everyone instantly quieted down at her voice, unexplainably memorized by her voice. But the girl’s focus was solely on Astrid. Struggling not to avert her gaze and squint away the pain in her head, she gazed right into Astrid’s eyes.

 

“So, what you’re telling me,” she proclaimed again, “Is that you can’t read, write, or do the simplest of mathematics but you somehow think that you’re not a burden?” Her eyes narrowed into slits and her pink tongue flicks out to wet her lips, very much like the snake she is.

 

Then all of a sudden, one of Astrid’s followers, a beautiful female splendid starling shifter with toffee-toned skin and aquamarine eyes, touched Astrid’s shoulder.

 

“Come on, Strix! There’s no need to be tough on the girl. Besides, You and I both know a job that would be perfect for her.” Astrid, along with her friends, who had been silently gloating, looked at her like she had a third eye appear in the center of her head.

 

The girl momentarily took her gaze/glare off of Astrid to look at the girl sitting behind Astrid. The smattering of freckles on her cheeks and nose and the friendly smile on her lips made her seem kind.

 

A fragile flame of hope rose in the girl’s chest. Did she finally have an ally?

 

Although Astrid’s expression was neutral, her eyes were wedges of ice. “No Naya,” she bit out starkly, “I don’t think I know what you’re talking about.”

 

Naya rolled her eyes, winning smile still in place. “Come on girl, you know what I’m talking about,” She stared into the right into the girl’s eyes then. That was when the girl finally noticed that Naya’s impossibly beautiful blue/green eyes were devoid of any emotion.

 

“Anders’ place on Wicker avenue. I know she’d be exactly what they’re looking for.”

 

Astrid’s confused irritation went back to smug triumphant once she caught Naya’s meaning. The girl’s hope died as quickly as it had been born and was replaced with icy horror. 

 

All the kids knew about Anders.

 

He was known in the black market for taking two (sometimes even more) actual animals of completely different species and forcing them to mate; all in the hopes that they would create a whole new species that he could sell in underground auctions.

 

It was a disgusting practice. He puts them into small cages and forces the poor animals on each other by drugging them, with something that tampers with their mating instincts. Often, exotic creatures like big cats, wild dogs, or other aesthetically pleasing animals were the focus.    

 

There was even a rumor that Anders trafficked shifters, adults and/or children, that society deemed… undesirable.

 

The girl briefly imagined herself in one of those tiny, cramped cages. Millions of invisible eyes trained on her.

 

Naya’s dead eyes and cloying smile bored into the girl’s psyche. “Just look at her,” she continued, “she’d be a shoo-in for that place. Plus, I know some of the girls she rooms with and I know they’ll be relieved. The girls are always crying about how those freakish peepers of hers give them nightmares.”

 

The girl flinched. Nightmares? She knew that she wasn’t friends with the girls she roomed with, but she had thought at least thought they were on good terms.

 

Unfortunately, it didn’t escape Astrid’s notice. She smirked and added, “And God knows that nobody is going to miss that god-awful odor she emits all over the damn place.” As if her words were some type of signal, everybody started laying in their two cents.

 

“…This may be the only time that I agree with Father Sebastian: there’s something not right about that girl…”

 

“…Be a relief if I don’t have to see her roaming the halls at night; got up one night to go use the john one night and she was there! She didn’t say anything, just smiled and I swear her eyes were glowing in the dark…”

 

“…Selling her doesn’t sound so crazy; no one would miss and I’m pretty sure he’d make a pretty penny to whatever sick fuck wants her…”

 

“Not normal…”

 

“Not one of us…”

 

“Better if she was gone…”

 

The words were said in whispers, murmurs, and spouted off from sneering lips. The only thing the girl wanted at that moment was to be human; because if she was, she might’ve been spared from hearing the barbed words thrown at her.

 

The words were nothing new. She often heard the adults talking in hushed whispers when they didn’t think she could hear them. Over the years, she learned to block out their brutal words because, at the end of the day, they were all hypocrites just using religion to turn a profit.

 

Somehow, that fact made every word hurt less since she knew where they were coming from.

 

But…

 

Is this what they thought of her all along?

 

The girl didn’t even have the strength nor will to hold back the devastated tears as they leaked from her eyes.

 

These were the kids who were suffering right along with her; who faced the same stinging rejection as she did on adoption days and, right now, were just as desperate and hungry as she was.

 

Yes, she knew that they weren’t her friends, but she had thought that they were at least her comrades; all coming together to fight against a common enemy.

 

But perhaps the simple truth was that there was no true sense of unity among the children. Yes, they’ll flock to a kid who seems like the Alpha of the pack, but everyone was ultimately looking out for themselves.

 

A prime example of this fact was how easy it was for the other kids to turn on her the way they did. No loyalty whatsoever. Everyone was wanted to align themselves with whoever seemed more powerful.

 

The more the girl thought about it, the angrier she got.

 

Through her tears, she glared holes through Astrid, who still wore a prissy simper on her lips, as if she had just accomplished a great feat.

 

The girl wondered how triumphant and smug Astrid would be with the girl’s hands wrapped around her perfect snow-white neck. How her serpent eyes would bug out of her skull and how she would plead for mercy that would never come. The vision was so clear in her mind. Astrid couldn’t use her honey voice to ridicule her if she couldn’t breathe.

 

Just the thought alone brought a serene smile to the girl’s cracked lips.

 

And maybe if she had been wrapped up in her fantasies, she would’ve noticed the way the ground had begun to shake.

 

The kids’ tittering was cut off as their tables shook violently. One kid, who had been sitting on a table, fell onto the floor. They shot nervous glances among themselves, then to Astrid, as if she somehow knew what was happening and could do something about it.

 

Astrid wasn’t paying attention to any of them. All of her attention was stuck on the little yellow-eyed demon. For the first time since the little runt dared to come to her table, she felt unease turn in her gut.

 

The girl stood in front of her with this demented smile on her face as the world continued to shake around her. She had to sit on her hands so that no one would see them shake. All while her yellow orbs held Astrid in place with their intense focus.

 

Except, no, they weren’t their usual piss-colored yellow. It was like the yellow was being seeped out and being replaced with… green?

 

“Astrid!” The sound of Hoseok’s (when did he walk in?) voice caused Astrid to break eye contact with the girl and focus on the leopard shifter. “What did you do this sometime?” His glare made Astrid feel small.

 

If there was one person the kids all unanimously respected, it was Hoseok. He didn’t do anything special. He was just unfailingly kind to everyone. It was one of the reasons why Astrid hated him so much. He didn’t have to intimidate or act aloof for them to revere him like she constantly had to.

 

Astrid pulled her hands from under her thighs, ignored how they had gone numb and used one to toss her hair behind her shoulder in what she hoped projected nonchalance.

 

“Just reminding someone of their place.” Astrid chanced a glance at the girl. That was when Astrid noticed that the quaking had stopped and the girl’s eyes had turned back to a faded yellow. If not for the skittish expressions on the other children’s faces, she would’ve sworn that the experience was a fever dream.

 

The smile on the girl’s face was gone. She looked like she was millions of miles away from here.

 

Hoseok did a quick scan of the room and mentally hypothesized what had happened. Hoseok’s heart-shaped lips turned down into a frown.

 

He shook his head in disgust and remarked, “You’re so pathetic, I almost feel sorry for you.” And before Astrid could reply, Hoseok guided the girl out of the room.


 

Although it was technically forbidden for girls to be over in the boys’ dorm rooms, Hoseok didn’t even want to entertain the idea of being caught in the girls’ bathroom.

 

Hoseok briefly lifted the girl by her armpits and set her down on the toilet seat.

 

“Show me your hands,” he softly commanded. The girl gave no visible sign that she heard him. Her eyes just stared blankly into space.

 

Just when he was about to ask again, the girl unfurled her balled up fists. Hoseok’s eyes widened in shock.

 

Jesus.

 

Her palms were bleeding; wounds were deep too. Just how hard did she dig her nails into palms? Not to mention, her hands are still tiny and chubby-like. Where did she even find that type of strength?  

 

Resolving not to give it too much thought, Hoseok grabbed a pack of cotton balls, a box of Band-Aids, a near-empty bottle of peroxide from the cupboard, and crouched in front of the girl. She remained still.

 

This time, Hoseok gently held one of the girl’s hands in the palms of his own. After wetting a cotton ball, he dabbed at the crescent-shaped scars on her palms. Aside from her face twitching occasionally, the girl was still.

 

It was only when Hoseok moved onto the second hand did the girl speak up.

 

“Hobi?”

 

Hoseok grinned slightly at the nickname. He was dubbed “Hobi” by the toddlers because they couldn’t pronounce his name and soon everyone was calling him that.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“Do you… do you like me?” Her voice broke off so he almost didn’t hear her if not for his leopard senses. “Of course, I like you, sweets.” In truth, he didn’t really know the girl, but it seemed like she needed the positive affirmation. Plus, she seemed like a good kid from the little he did know.

 

Her big yellow eyes grew impossibly wider as she asked, “You mean it?” She sounded so unsure and miserable, Hoseok didn’t hesitate to reassure her. “Scout’s honor.” He goofily saluted, hoping that would make her giggle. She did, albeit weakly.

 

“A-And you wouldn’t sell me off to Mr. Anders’, would you? Even if it did mean you get money for food?” It took all Hoseok had to keep the grin from melting into an enraged snarl.

 

This was Astrid’s idea of putting someone in their place?

 

Hoseok was already envisioning what he was going to do to that bitch next time he caught up to her (A harsh talking to, mind you!). As much as he would’ve loved to indulge in his musings, he had an extremely distressed child on his hands.

 

“Not even for all the cherry cheese brittanies in the world!” His favorite desert.

 

“One girl said that I’d fit right in with the monsters Mr. Anders’ has and everyone else thought she was right…” Tears roll onto the girl’s messy face as she recounted what happened. Hoseok was sick to his stomach. He didn’t understand why people like Astrid, Naya, or even Father Sebastian thought it was cool to assert their dominance on those who were smaller and weaker. Only a coward did that.

 

Yes, the kid was a little… unusual with the yellow eyes and her scent was an acquired taste. Other than that, Hoseok didn’t think she was any different from any of the little kids he interacted with.

 

“Do you really wanna help?” The girl’s watery eyes brightened. Her plats shook violently due to the girl’s eager bobs of her head.

 

How could anyone hate this kid? Hoseok thought in disbelief. She was so endearing in her enthusiasm.

 

“Tell you what,” he said after cleaning the dried blood caked underneath her fingernails. “If the opportunity comes up, you can help me.” He did plenty of odd jobs that just required plenty of stamina and he could always an extra hand.  

 

“Really?! I can help? Even though I’m not smart and pretty like Astrid?”

 

Ok.

 

Maybe instead of a harsh tongue lashing, he could somehow sweet-talk this tough female sun bear shifter he knew into giving Astrid an ass-whooping she wouldn’t soon forget.

 

“Being smart isn’t just about knowing how to read and write, y’know. Some of the smartest people I know have never picked up a book in their entire lives.”

 

The girl adorably scrunched up her nose in thought. “Really?”

 

“Yeah,” Hoseok answered. “And just to let you in on a little secret, I already think you’re pretty smart.” The girl gasped and then her face broke into a broad grin that showed off the two side teeth she was missing. She latched two chubby hands onto his wrists.

 

“Honest?” Her scent grew stronger as her mood lifted.

 

Hoseok chuckled in pure delight, wondering once again how could anyone hate this baby when she was so loveable. He lightly pinched her cheek. “Honest.”

 

She squealed and smacked a big kiss on Hoseok’s cheek. “Love you, Hobi!” She slid off the toilet seat and dashed out the door. Hoseok’s heart melted.

 

Later, he would wonder how he ended up with tiny bruises on his wrists.


 

The incident in the cafeteria had happened exactly three days ago. The children were subtly keeping their distance, not that she noticed. Since then, the girl had been thinking. She still planned on helping Hobi, but she also wanted to prove that she could do something all by herself.

 

That’s when she had thought of the florist’s garden. Although she primarily grew flowers, the girl remembered that she occasionally grew vegetables as well.

 

It wouldn’t hurt just to take a few, wouldn’t it?

 

Hence, the girl’s current location.

 

She knows that stealing is wrong by all accounts. Especially since the florist was an older lady. But she can’t think of anything else to do. She and the other kids were getting hungrier by the minute.

 

Besides, a florist sells flowers, not vegetables. It’s not like she would be stealing her livelihood. Unfortunately, those thoughts did nothing to clot the cold cramping her stomach.

 

After clearing the fence, the girl sneaks into the garden. She gets on her belly so that that florist wouldn’t easily see her. She’d worried about the grass stains later. She frowns, only seeing flowers of all colors and sizes. Beautiful, but not edible.

 

Hurry up! Hurry up! Her heartbeat chants. Every second of no progress increases the trembling in her hands. Just when she decides to give up, she notices a small potato patch and an oval-shaped planter that houses tall vines of cherry tomatoes.

 

The girl doesn’t hesitate.

 

In preparation, she borrowed a small tote bag to collect the food. Careful not step on any flower beds, she quickly plucked some potatoes and tomatoes shoved them into the bag. She scurries out of the garden and back into the woods. The girl was already thinking about the fresh-cut fries that could be made with the potatoes.

 

It’s not that she doesn’t feel guilty, but it was hard to feel remorse when her stomach was finally going to be filled properly. As she heads back to the entrance of the woods, a faint scent catches her attention.

 

Its citrusy aroma instantly brought an image of a boy with silver hair and eyes and dimpled cheeks.

 

The girl lit up like a Christmas light. Namjoon!

 

Although her current troubles kept her occupied, she had often thought about Namjoon. She had banked on never seeing him again; chalking it up to a chance encounter.  But if he is here, she most certainly isn’t going to pass up the opportunity.

 

Unfortunately, she quickly realizes that Namjoon isn’t here. She must’ve just missed him, given how fresh his scent is.

 

The girl pouts but recognizes that it’s for the best. She didn’t want him to catch her stealing. Just the thought has her cringing in shame. She’s about to resume her trek when she sees the blue construction paper lying a few feet away from the tree facing the garden. Namjoon’s scent is practically bathed in it.

 

The girl picks it up and turns it around. On the other side is a drawing of a boy and a girl holding hands. The boy is obviously Namjoon with his trademark silver hair. The girl in the picture can’t be anyone but her: the dark skin and big yellow eyes kinda give it away.

 

A flush of pure joy washes onto the girl’s cheeks as she imagines Namjoon thinking enough about her to draw a picture of her. Her euphoria quickly fades when she notes the words written under the drawing.

 

Right. She can’t read.

 

She sulkily thinks that if it were a comic book, she could piece together what was happening by just looking at the pictures. Even though it was a setback, the facts are this: Namjoon had left a message specifically for her. He had been thinking about her.  

 

She dusted off the dirt and neatly folded it so it would fit in her pants pocket. She would somehow figure out what he had written for her and then she would see him again.

 

One way or another.

Chapter Text

Admittedly, when the girl started her journey into deciphering Namjoon’s message, she had originally pictured herself in a movie-montage setting. She’d be just like Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider movie. She’d figured out the message in no time.

 

It wasn’t till she actually sat and tried to figure it out did she remember some key differences between her and Lara Croft: Lara could read, write, and could face down rabid bears. Meanwhile, the girl could barely sound out the word “cup” without getting tripped up. She couldn’t even stand up to her bullies without getting overwhelmed, much less stand up to a bear.

 

It had taken all she had just to approach Astrid and her crew and look how great that turned out.

 

Before, the children her and kept it moving. Now, she constantly feels eyes drilling a hole through her back. Furthermore, it also seemed like every time she entered a room, all the children were giving her a wide berth of the room. She would think that they are secretly mocking her after the public-shaming she endured if not how sour their scents are every time she dares to give them direct eye contact. Almost like they are afraid of her.

 

Why? If anything, she’s probably the biggest coward there.


 

It isn’t long before the girl finally admits to herself that she needs help. At the rate she’s going, it would take months. She can’t wait that long.

 

But who would she ask? She doesn’t know personally know anybody that can read. Plus, she’s not too eager to share Namjoon’s message with anybody. Heck, she doesn’t wanna share Namjoon period.

 

Namjoon is a rare, exquisite flower that is strictly hers. Nobody else’s. They don’t deserve to be anywhere near him.

 

Well, neither does she if she deeps it…

 

Finally, a week after she discovered the note, the girl ultimately decides to see if Hobi can help her.

 

She knows that it’s a long shot. Hobi never publicly proclaimed if he could read or not. But, he’s the only person in this place that she trusts to help her. Also, he always knows the know about everything. He must’ve picked up some reading chops.

 

It’s just after one in the afternoon when the girl approaches Hobi. Having cataloged his refreshing pine scent into her brain, she has no trouble tracking him down.

 

She finds him outside, lounging in a massive oak tree. Since he perched himself on the highest branch possible, she has to crane her neck to see him. Except, instead of the chestnut-haired, lanky boy, she finds a breathtaking leopard gracefully hanging from the tree. His long, spotted tail swishing from side to side.

 

This is the first time the girl has seen Hobi in his animal form. If she was feeling more patient, she would take in the striking rosettes dotting his fur. Alas, the girl is on an impervious mission, that requires all of her attention.

 

“Hobi!” She calls out. His tail stops its rhythmic rocking. The leopard gazes down in her direction. Instead of the usual warm brown color they, his eyes are a pretty shade of cornflower blue. He chuffs out a greeting.

 

“Hobi, could you come down? I need your help with something.” The leopard does nothing but stares at her for a minute; as if he is contemplating her words. Then with no warning, he maneuvers his way down the tall oak. Unsurprisingly, he lands gracefully on his feet. He trots behind the tree. The girl assumes that’s where he left his clothes. The girl hears the loud exhale he makes from the brief metamorphosis from cat to boy.

 

He appears a second later, clothes somewhat askew due to him throwing them on in a hurry. He gives her his trademark heart-shaped beam.

 

“Hey, kid! Let it be known that Jung Hoseok is a man of his word!” He waves his arms in a dramatic gesture. “Got a gig coming up from a local supermarket. Nothing glamourous, mind you; just helping to sort the fresh fruits and vegetables from the rotted. I won’t lie: it’s a lot of work, especially for a little kid. But I know the owner wouldn’t an extra pair of hands and it’s easy to figure out. The bigger amount we sort, the higher the pay. You interested?”

 

Momentarily forgetting her purpose for seeking Hoseok, she can’t help but hop around in pure joy. “Sounds great! I promise I won’t let you down. I’ll do my best. Pinky swear!” She holds out her tiny pinky finger to confirm her vow.

 

Hoseok has to stop himself from clutching at his chest from the utter cuteness the girl is displaying. Struggling not to plant kisses all over her face, he diplomatically hooks his much longer pinky around hers.

 

“Then it’s a deal! We gotta be there at six, tomorrow morning.” The girl’s face nearly falls to the grassy Earth. She nearly has lost count of how many times her palm has been hit with a ruler because she overslept.

 

But she’d just have to suck it up and get used to it if she wanted to help Hobi.

 

Speaking of help…

 

“Oh! I nearly forgot! I was wondering if you could help me with something, Hobi. But you have to promise that you won’t tell anybody.”

 

Hoseok is taken aback by the sudden urgency in the girl’s voice.

 

He raises his eyebrow, “Okay?”

 

The girl takes a folded piece of blue paper out of her back pocket and gently unravels it to its original size. She hugs it to her chest with such tender care.

 

The girl firms her mouth up in what she hopes is a brave, resolute expression. Unfortunately for her, the fragile hope shining in her eyes has the opposite effect.

 

“Can you read?” she breathes. Now, both of Hoseok’s eyebrows raise. “I know enough to get by.” He doesn’t mention that he hasn’t read or written anything in months so he may be rusty. He doesn’t think that is what she needs to hear.

 

Her face brightens a fraction. “Oh good! It’s just that I was kinda wondering if you’d uh… if um…”

 

The girl is irritated with herself. Why can’t she just say it? It’s no big deal. It’s just a stupid note.

 

Except it isn’t just a stupid note. Not when Namjoon wrote it.

 

Especially when she knows that he wrote just for her. No one had ever made something just for her. And that makes it all the more precious. Heck, he even drew a picture for her, which she thinks is pretty darn good.

 

Just thinking about it makes her clutch the drawing a little closer to her scrawny little chest.

 

“You know I can’t read,” she reminds him with no short amount of self-loathing. “I was hoping that you could read this to me…” Her eyes dart in every direction except his eyes.

 

Hoseok shrugs. “Sure.” It seems to be important to the kid and besides, what harm could one little note do?

 

The girl feels her spine relax. She doesn’t know why she thought he would say no. It’s Hobi after all.  Still, that doesn’t stop the didder in her hands as she passes the picture off to him.

 

Hoseok quickly scans the picture, taking in the motley drawing of the two children. The girl in the picture is recognizable enough, yellow eyes, and all. He can’t say he recognizes the boy. He’s memorized every face that comes and goes from the orphanage. Hoseok is pretty confident he would’ve remembered a boy with a shock of silver hair.

 

“Where did you meet this boy, sweets? I’ve never seen him around these parts.” The girl is rapidly losing patience as she’s eager to find out what Namjoon had written.

 

She stomps her foot and whines, “Hobi, c’mon!”

 

“Okay, okay!” He chortles. “I’m reading.” Coupled with the fact that it’s been a while since Hoseok has read anything and the sloppy handwriting that only a child could make, it understandably takes Hoseok a minute to decode the message.

 

Hi, Eight!

 

It’s me, Namjoon! You know, the boy you met in the woods a while ago. I was hoping that we play together again. My big brother helped me download some really fun games on my phone that we could play. And maybe we could explore the forest together. It’ll be so much fun. It will be like a big adventure! Let’s meet again at the flower lady’s garden next Thursday afternoon, okay?

 

See you soon!

 

Hoseok frowns. Although he could discern from the letter that Namjoon was probably around the same age as the girl (the spelling errors), he hesitates to relay the message. He’s never seen this Namjoon around these parts and Hoseok doesn’t trust anything that he can’t see. He has come to care for the little girl and he doesn’t want her to be hurt; especially by no snot-nosed brat.

 

“So… what does it say?” Hoseok’s head snaps up at the girl’s hopeful tone. Her tiny fists are clenched up and she bites her lip, as though preparing for disappointment.

 

As it always does when it’s around the girl, Hoseok’s heart tightens.

 

Aside from Hoseok, the girl had no friends in this place. He’d lost count how many times he has spied the girl sitting by herself while watching other kids her age play and laugh with each other.

 

Always an outsider looking in.

 

Always alone.

 

Hoseok sighs in defeat. How could he deny her this?

 

As Hoseok reads the message out loud, he can’t deny that witnessing the sheer elation on the girl’s face quells some of his worries.

 

She begins to pace back and forth.

 

“Oh boy. Oooooooohhhhh boy! I’m gonna see him again! Can you believe it? What am I gonna wear? I only have one dress and it’ll take too long wash. Should I bring a board game? Or maybe I should…” Her pacing becomes more frantic as her thoughts begin to race. Hoseok is content to watch her freak out over her “date” when a thought occurs to him.

 

“Kid, when did you get that note?” The girl stops pacing long enough to glance at Hobi.

 

“Last week,” she confirms, “Why?”

 

“Namjoon said that he wanted to meet you a week from that time. Well, it’s been a week and today is Thursday and it’s…” He briefly looks at his beat-up iPhone 7 that he bought through an “anonymous” source, “1:27.”

 

The girl’s eyes widen as she realizes what Hobi is trying to say.

 

“Shoot!” She turns around, ready to dash to the forest.

 

“Hey! Don’t forget your picture.” Hobi hands it back to her.

 

The girl grins. “Thanks.”

 

“Be careful and have a good time.”

 

“I will!”

 

Hoseok watches her dart into the woods, wishing that his gut would quit churning.


 

Namjoon is nervous.

 

When he had come back to the florist’s shop on Monday and saw that his note was gone, he was ecstatic. Surely that meant that she found it and read it, right?

 

Since that time, he’s been antsy, impatiently waiting for Thursday to come. Maybe he could’ve done a better job of hiding his excitement/frustration. All through his lessons, he daydreamed about all the fun he and Eight could have together. His tutors, of course, scolded him for being distracted.

 

Namjoon didn’t care though. How could he when he knew that in just a few days, he was gonna see her.

 

For all the grandeur and the privilege of being in the royal bloodline of the most prestigious Wolf shifter clans, Namjoon is lonely.

 

Since his conceivement and birth were kept on a need-to-know basis to keep him safe from the threat of war, the number of people he was allowed to interact with was limited. It didn’t matter to Namjoon at first. He had his Eomma, Appa, and his Seokjin-Hyung.

 

They were his world. His paradise.

 

Then his parents were murdered, his Hyung was suddenly thrust into the role of king, and Namjoon’s tiny paradise crumbled underneath his feet and he’s been trying to stay afloat ever since.

 

Because Seokjin-Hyung wasn’t willing to take any chances with his little brother’s life, he limited the number of people who knew of Namjoon’s existence to his nanny, his tutors, advisors, any other personnel that was essential to the Kingdom.

 

Thanks to that tight circle, Namjoon has never interacted with children his age. It was too risky.

 

Namjoon is ashamed to admit that for a time, he resented his Hyung.

 

Since his parents were public figures and Namjoon isn’t, Seokjin had forbidden him to attend their funeral since the press was covering the event. During his Hyung’s coronation ceremony, he had had to watch the entire thing from the family room on the widescreen TV.

 

He had felt so… detached.

 

It didn’t help that Seokjin-Hyung seemed like he wasn’t even phased by their parent’s murder.

 

Every time Namjoon saw him, he was always shining his winning smile at him or someone else, laughing his infectious, high-pitched laugh, and cracking his ridiculous jokes. Coupled with that, he never had any time for Namjoon anymore.

 

Namjoon had begun to suspect that he was the only one that was truly grieving. Unspeakable thoughts began to plague his mind:

 

Seokjin-Hyung was secretly glad their parents were dead.

 

He was only pretending to love Eomma, Appa, and Namjoon so that he could be king with no problem.

 

He was enjoying the power.

 

Then one night, Namjoon’s eyes were opened to the cold reality.

 

He had snuck down to the kitchen to grab a popsicle from the freezer. Having completed his mission, he was running back to his room before one of the guards caught him when he heard something coming from his Appa’s office. He turned around and crept up to the door leading to his Appa’s study. Because his ears were already sharper than the average human’s, he was able to immediately recognize that someone was crying.

 

Despite him knowing that it was bad manners to spy, Namjoon couldn’t help himself.

 

As quietly as he could, he eased the door open.

 

At first, he didn’t see anything aside from his father’s massive, mahogany desk taking up almost the entirety of the room. It was when he turned his head to the corner of the room did he see his Hyung.

 

His proud, confident, cheerful, attention-grabbing Hyung was lying in a corner, curled up in a ball, sobbing. His shoulders were shaking from the force of his wails.

 

Seokjin-Hyung must’ve been able to sense his presence because he lifted his head and drilled his dark eyes through Namjoon.

 

Unlike Namjoon, Seokjin had acquired his dark hair and eyes from their father. He was handsome in that classic debonair way. His strong, masculine face had always attracted male and female attention from every corner of the world. On Twitter, he had fanbases dedicated to him. People wrote Y/N fanfictions about him.

 

But when he lifted his head, he didn’t look like what magazines called “A face carved by the Archangels”. His face and eyes were red and puffy, snot was coming down his nose. He sniffed and it was clear his sinuses were filled with snot at the moment.

 

“Ah, Namjoonie,” he rasped, “Don’t be scared, Hyung’s just having a moment.” He tried to smile, but the effect was ruined by the tears trickling down his face.

 

Namjoon’s red freezy-pop was melting as it dropped from his hand, but he didn’t even notice as he rushed over to his Hyung’s side. He wrapped his arms around him.

 

Namjoon will never forget the way his big brother sobbed into his arms. He kept moaning “I’m sorry, I’m sorry” into Namjoon’s ear. Namjoon didn’t know what to say to cure his Hyung’s anguish, so he just kept rubbing his back and fighting the stinging in his own eyes.

 

When Seokjin finally calmed down, he removed his face from Namjoon’s shoulder and looked him dead in the eye.

 

“I know I haven’t been around much and I’m sorry about that. You’re too young to be going through something like this. Hell,” he murmured, “I’m too young to be going through this. But Namjoonie,” Seokjin placed both of his hands on Namjoon’s shoulders. “Just because I’m busier than I used to be doesn't mean I have forgotten about you.”

 

“The truth is that you are the sole reason that I get out of bed and do my job. The throne, the media, keeping up appearances; it would mean nothing if I didn’t have you as my “why”. Because at the end of the day, all that really matters is that we’re together. And I promise you right now, we will be okay. It may feel like the sad days will never end, but the hurt will fade eventually. In the meantime, I will dedicate myself to being a better king than Appa was, and being a better Hyung to you.”

 

Seokjin then brought Namjoon into his arms and hugged him.

 

“We’ll get through this, Hyung promises you that.”

 

Now, keep in mind that Namjoon was only four years old. He didn’t understand a lot of what Seokjin was saying, but he recognized that his Hyung’s pain matched his. He was hurting just as bad. His Hyung was depending on him the same way Namjoon depended on him.

 

That confirmation was what Namjoon needed to release the tears he’d been holding in since he was told he couldn’t tell parents goodbye for the last time. He jumped into his Hyung’s arms and didn’t come out for a long time.

 

Seeing his Hyung so vulnerable melted Namjoon’s resentment away. Once his anger faded away, he began to see the chinks in Seokjin’s armor: the slight strain when he pasted on a smile for the cameras, the way he forced out a laugh around the royal officials.

 

He didn’t even have time to mourn their parents’ death because he also had to get ready to assume the throne. Namjoon could only imagine the doubts, panic, and stress his Hyung was under.

 

That was why he silently promised himself and his Hyung that he would do his best not to be a burden. He had to do his part too.

 

But he is awfully lonely.


 

She’s coming, he thinks to himself. She has to.

 

Although their afternoon together had been brief, Namjoon had never felt so free. He’d never talked to another kid before, much less the same age as he is.

 

Meeting Eight, with her sunflower-colored eyes, sweet scent, and outgoing personality was filling the gap inside Namjoon’s heart.

 

If he told her this, she’d probably never understand the pressure he faced and the depth of his loneliness.

 

It just a little after one when Namjoon decides that while he waits for Eight, he’s going to explore. If he’s lucky, maybe he can find another butterfly to add to his photo collection.

 

He wanders around aimlessly, trying not to stray too far from his starting point. He doesn’t want to repeat his mistake from last time.

 

Yet his resolve wavers when he smells something in the distance. There’s probably a flower patch somewhere around here. Sure, it probably isn’t a good idea to explore too deeply into the woods when Eight could come at any minute.

 

I’m a wolf, he reminds himself. This is a good opportunity to practice using his nose.

 

Because they are both wolf shifters, Namjoon and Seokjin were blessed with many attributes of the wolf, including a heightened sense of smell. Because Namjoon is still young, his senses would take some time to develop. Seokjin was always encouraging him to practice strengthen his five senses.

 

He takes off his jacket and wraps it around a tree branch. His scent is over his jacket and he could use that as a marker so that he won’t get lost.

 

He briefly considers peeing on it to mark the scent stronger but decides that might be taking things too far.

 

He closes his eyes and breathes in through his nose. He takes the pine of the trees, the fresh dung of some animal nearby, the earthiness of the grass and dirt and finally…

 

Namjoon grins and heads in the direction of the flowers.

 

He follows the sweet scent towards a grove with towering evergreens. Once he reaches the grove, he realizes that it isn’t a flower patch smelt, it was the evergreens.

 

Medium-sized, white flowers are growing on the trees and casting white petals onto the ground. Namjoon picks up one of the petals and observes the sturdy density of the petals. The syrupy scent of them is sweet, yet not overpowering like some flowers tend to be. He sticks a petal into his pocket for safekeeping.

 

He pulls his phone and snaps a few pictures of the evergreens, feeling like a true explorer. He couldn’t wait to tell Eight about his discovery.

 

No doubt she would be impressed with his findings. He visualizes the way her pretty eyes will light up when she smells how sweet the flower petal is.    

 

A branch snapping behind him brings Namjoon out of his head.

 

Namjoon’s heartbeat quickens and he flushes with excitement. Eight!

 

Beaming, he turns around.

 

His ruddy cheeks drain of color and his tan complexion loses its definition.

 

The creature standing in front of him is most certainly not Eight.

 

The lynx in front of him shouldn’t be so intimidating: Namjoon’s taller and the lynx doesn’t look like he wants to take a chomp out of him.

 

If he wasn’t so scared, he might think that the lynx was kinda cute with its stubby tail and short tufts of black hair at the tips of its ears.

 

Namjoon’s whole body begins to tremble. He knows enough about the lynx to know to not be fooled by its fluffy and harmless persona.

 

He’s never encountered a wild animal before. The lynx gazes straight at the boy with unblinking hazel eyes. It cocks its head to the side as if sizing the boy up.

 

Poor Namjoon is on the verge of tears at this point. He can barely get enough air to pass through his lungs. He wants to run, but he pictures his legs giving out on him and the lynx attaching itself to Namjoon’s back for the killing blow.

 

Namjoon feels the first tear course down his cheek.

 

Trying to get around his inflating panic, he struggles to think. An opaque memory of a documentary comes to his mind. He can’t remember exactly what the documentary was about, but he does remember that the narrator advising the viewer to not run away if they encounter a wild animal. It would only encourage them to give chase.

 

Namjoon’s legs are this close to buckling and he’s starting to see black spots in his vision. He tries to swallow past the bitter bile in his throat.

 

Maybe if he slowly backs away from the creature, it won’t feel the need to take a chomp out of his neck.

 

But before he can even lift his feet, a figure burst out from the shrubs. And Namjoon’s senses are overcome by the glorious scent of candy apples and fresh-cut grass.

 

“Namjoon!”

 

Eight doesn’t even give the lynx a second glance before she grabs Namjoon’s hand and yanks him out of the clearing, back into the woods.

Chapter Text

Today is the day.

 

Today is finally the day.

 

The girl dashes through the woods eager to get to Namjoon.

 

Oh boy. Namjoon.

 

Just thinking about him makes the girl run a little faster than usual. Usually, the prospect of running barefoot through the forest seemed terrifying. The one time she did it, she ended up getting a splinter in the heel of her foot; and adding insult to injury, she could feel it, she just couldn’t see it. It had taken her hours to pick it out.

 

The girl surmises that Namjoon must have superpowers because thinking about him makes her fear go away and only exhilaration remains. She even lets out a girlish giggle as she runs. She rarely giggles.

 

Or maybe he’s just an angel in disguise. The thought makes her heart flutter. Yeah, she likes the thought of Namjoon being her angel. She doesn’t know what she’s done to deserve his attention on her but—

 

The rotting stench causes the girl to trip over her own feet and land hard on her knees. She lays on the ground for a moment, not totally comprehending what just happened. When the smarting pain registers, she gets back up, wincing as she rubs her legs.

 

Out of all the things she could imagine breaking her runner’s high, she didn’t anticipate a funky aroma being one of them.

 

But the smell just… took her off-guard.

 

She wants and needs to do is ignore that foul odor and keep it moving. She has a play-date to get to.

 

But something inside her is yelling that is amiss and that they—she needs to get to the bottom of it.

 

She’d only be a few minutes, she promises herself. Namjoon could wait a little longer.

 

Already bracing herself for what she is about to do, she stops breathing through her mouth and takes a deep inhale through her nose.

 

If she had a weaker stomach, she might’ve thrown up in her mouth by now. Yes, maybe she is being a little dramatic right now, but the fusion of hot garbage mixed with rotting fruit that might’ve been sweet-smelling at one point is more than one girl could ta—

 

Wait. Fruit?

 

A sickening notion slithers its way into the girl’s subconscious.

 

What if…

 

Could it…

 

No, no, it couldn’t be.

 

He’s waiting at the florist’s garden; she tries to allay. He’s fine. He’s safe!

 

But the yelling inside in her head increased to an all-out roar of panic and her hands shake as the slippery cold creeps up her spine.

 

Once again, she sniffs the air, channeling all of her attention onto the fruitiness of the malodorous scent. Now that she thinks about it, she has smelled something like this before. It’s been some time, but it smells a lot like…

 

The girl goes motionless.

 

Then with nothing but the fear-mongering scent guiding her, she doesn’t just run.

 

She flies.


 

 

Please be okay, she chants as she tears through the forest vegetation.

 

She just needs him to be okay. She would never forgive herself if he wasn’t. She was the reason why he was out here. It was all her fault.

 

She has never given much thought to praying, but she pleads with God over and over again to let her friend be alive and well.

 

And if he is, she promises herself that she will never go near him again.

 

Her silent prayers cease when her eyes pick up on the distant figures up ahead of her in the clearing. Almost as if on command, her vision sharpens and everything is in high-depth. Everything seems so much brighter than it was a few seconds ago. It takes her off-guard. She blinks as if an eyelash finds its way into her eye.

 

However, the figures in front of her help her focus immediately: a wild cat slowly easing onto its hind legs, readying itself to pounce. The other figure is a boy with a head of coconut-styled silver hair, glassy silver eyes wide with fear.

 

“Namjoon!”

 

The girl cuts in long enough to grab Namjoon’s hand and pulls him back into the woods.

 

Namjoon doesn’t understand what is happening for a second.

 

One minute, he was wondering if this was the moment he would see his Appa and Eomma again, and the next Eight is pulling him away from the terrifying beast threatening to eat him.

 

“Come on!” Eight gasps, urging him to run. Namjoon doesn’t need any more prompting. The children blindly run, too scared to think about any specific destination.

 

Namjoon braves a look back to see if the lynx has given chase as he feared.

 

Sure enough, the lynx is behind them. Its amber eyes are glued onto the children with a single-minded focus that nearly causes Namjoon’s limbs to rubber.

           

The lynx isn’t moving that fast thankfully. The lynx isn’t known for its speed. Namjoon’s not worried about that.

 

What he is worried about is that he can’t predict when the lynx will decide to jump. What a lynx lacks in speed, it makes up for it in launching power. As if reading his thoughts, the lynx stops and crouches low to the ground.

 

Oh no.

 

Namjoon turns his head back around, ready to warn Eight what the lynx is about to do. She is staring back at the lynx too; not a trace of fear in her eyes, just a quiet intensity that intimidates Namjoon. He’d be scared if he were the lynx.   

 

Then without warning, she stops and that forces Namjoon to stop too. Before he can ask her what is she doing and to keep moving, she grabs him by his thighs and heaves him onto her back. If not for the panic and astonishment that has robbed his words, he would’ve questioned the source of Eight’s brute strength.

 

Once she steadies him, she grunts out, “Hold on!” That’s the only warning Namjoon gets before she floors it.

 

Good thing, too.  

 

Just as they start moving again, the lynx strikes its attack. It misses them by mere millimeters, its claws barely brush against Namjoon’s Merlin Mickey t-shirt.

 

Namjoon is sure they are moving at the speed of light. Everything is now a blur of green in his line of vision. The air which had seemed so humid to him at the start of the day now feels icy as it slaps at his cheeks and eyes in what seems like coordinated attacks.

 

He tightens his grip on Eight’s shoulders and closes his eyes, waiting for them to stop.

 

The girl had realized pretty quickly that they couldn’t move the way she wanted them too if she was worried about pulling on Namjoon’s arm and seriously hurting him. When she picked him up, the act had been based on impulse.

 

It’s nothing she hasn’t done before. She’s given piggyback rides to little kids before and lucky for her, Namjoon is a twig of a boy so he practically weighs nothing.

 

Maybe if she wasn’t literally running for both of their lives, she might’ve enjoyed the satisfying burn of her pumping legs and the comforting weight on her back. Still, the girl is running on adrenaline and is swiftly running out of juice. Throwing a hasty glance behind them, she is pleased to see that they have lost the cat.

 

With this knowledge in mind, her body loses its state of extreme hyperdrive. They near a crystalline-like lake and the girl finally loses the last of strength. Her legs give out and Namjoon takes that as his cue to vacate her back. She slumps down onto the grass, inhaling deeply.

 

Namjoon balances himself on one foot, stalling for time. What could he say?   

 

Eight saved him again.     

 

He wanted to show her a different side of him. A cool and smart side. Instead, he once again acted like a helpless baby that needed to be rescued. If this kept up, she probably wouldn’t want to be his friend! The possibility has Namjoon gnawing on his bottom lip. In a moment of petulance, he considered not thanking her.

     

Ultimately, etiquette and gratitude won out.

 

But it’s not exactly gratitude that exits his mouth.

 

“I’m sorry you had to save me again! I just wanted to explore a little bit before you came. I even found a pretty flower petal that I wanted to show you. When the lynx showed up, I was so scared. I could’ve shifted and hid somewhere until it went away, but I didn’t. I didn’t move and I cried like a baby.”

 

“You’re so cool, Eight! You were in danger but you still helped me. You weren’t scared at all. I wish I was like you…”

 

The girl is stunned by his words.

 

Cool? Brave? Her?

 

Pride warms her chest.

 

She’s been called a lot of things but never brave. Back at the orphanage, she always did her best to keep her head down. Although she slipped up sometimes, she never consciously tried to rock the boat. She’d seen what happened to kids who dared to stand up for themselves and she was too scared of the consequences.

 

She wanted to tell Namjoon the only reason she was brave was because he made her so. She wanted to tell and show him what she was really like when Namjoon wasn’t around.  

 

But she’s not ready to reveal herself.

 

She sits up and glares at him. “No! Don’t say that! I was just as scared as you were.”

 

Namjoon’s eyes widen briefly before he scoffs. “No, you weren’t. You knew exactly what to do. You’re just saying that to make me feel better,” he sulks, avoiding her gaze.

 

Namjoon is content to mope about his apparent syndrome of DID (Damsel in Distress).

 

The girl kisses her teeth in frustration, adamant to stop Namjoon’s pity-party. Fine, if he won’t believe her, then she’ll show him. She stands right in front of him.

 

“Look!” Namjoon looks up and his mouth drops open.

 

Eight has lifted her arms to reveal two embarrassingly large sweat stains on her armpits. What’s preventing Namjoon from looking away to preserve Eight’s dignity is the fire burning in her yellow depths. Eight raises an eyebrow, daring him to look away.

 

“When I’m scared or nervous, my armpits start to sweat. Well, first they sting and then they sweat.” She lowers her arms as she continues. “I was running towards the florist’s shop when I caught your scent. I almost ignored it but I’m glad I didn’t. I didn’t know if you were alive or not. And I didn’t if we would get away from that thing. I didn’t know what I was doing. Both of us might’ve been eaten by that thing…” Her bottom lip trembles.

   

Namjoon stares blankly at her, not knowing what to say. Finally, he settles on, “Do your pits stink after you sweat like that?”

 

The words come out before Namjoon has time to consider how offensive they might be. He blushes, knowing his Hyung would scold him for asking such an invasive question. Oh no, would she burst into tears like the girls he saw on TV? He doesn’t think Eight is the type of girl to spontaneously cry without warning; but then again, he still doesn’t know her well enough.   

 

Luckily, Eight doesn’t look mad or upset. She tilts her head and looks thoughtful as if she is seriously examining his question.

 

She shrugs. “Let’s find out.” She lifts her arm again and takes a deep whiff.

 

She chokes and coughs. “Blech!” she sputters.

 

The girl hadn’t anticipated the ripeness clinging to her. She really did stink!

 

But before the heat has time to crawl up her neck, she hears the miraculous sound of Namjoon’s giggles. He’s rolling around on the ground, clutching his stomach as his cheek turn red from the force of his laughter.

 

The girl grins. She hadn’t exactly meant for him to laugh at her expense, but she soon finds herself laughing as well. Namjoon has that type of effect on her.

 

When their laughs die down, the girl perks up.

 

“Do you still have it?”

 

“What?”

 

“The flower petal, silly! You said found a flower petal, did you keep it?” Namjoon blinks, gets up, and then pats his bottom. His left dimple appears as he pulls out a crumpled white petal. He hands it to Eight.

 

Eight looks pensive as she traces the petal with careful hands.

 

“It’s smooth.” She lifts it to her nose, her eyes crinkle as she smiles, “It smells sweet too! This is really cool Namjoon. I wished I had gotten there sooner. I would’ve liked to see it as a full flower. I bet it’s really pretty.”

 

“Don’t worry,” Namjoon chirps, “I took plenty of pictures, c’mere!” He waves her over.

 

The girl peers over Namjoon’s shoulder as he goes to his photo gallery. Right before he taps onto the most recent picture, she notices a selfie of Namjoon, who was laughing, and a handsome, dark-haired young man exaggeratedly biting his cheek.

 

“Who’s that?”

 

Forgetting that Namjoon isn’t supposed to tell anyone about his Hyung, he tells the truth. “My big brother.”

 

“Wow, he looks just like a prince or something.”

 

Namjoon briskly nods his head. “He is!”

 

Fortunately for Namjoon, the girl rarely has a chance to watch TV, aside from the few times that the kids smuggled in bootleg movies. And even if she had seen the King’s face on the occasional newspaper, she never cared much about the happenings of the royal family so she never thought to give much attention to what the King looked like.

 

She raises her eyebrow. “Sure, Namjoon.” All thoughts of Namjoon’s gorgeous brother leaves her mind as quickly as they came. Her lips part as he scrolls through the pictures.

 

“I never knew that flowers could grow on trees like this. I thought that the tree had to look, you know, skinny.”

 

Namjoon nods his head. “I thought so too. I just wish I knew what type of flower it’s called though. When I get home, I’m gonna look up what it’s called. There’s this book at my house that talks about everything!” Namjoon spreads his arms out wide for emphasis.

 

Eight’s skepticism is obvious in her voice. “Everything?”

 

Namjoon juts his chin out, feeling like he’s being challenged.    

 

“I’ll prove it to you! Next time we meet, I’ll bring it and you can see for yourself.”        

 

Competition fades from his mind as he continues to plan.

 

“Oh! I could also bring some sandwiches. I’ll make them myself. My Hyung—I mean my big brother says my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the best he’s ever tasted. You’ll see. We could make it a picnic and…” He trails when he realizes that Eight isn’t saying anything.

 

She’s just staring at him in awe.

 

“What you said before, about wanting to be like me?” She shakes her head. “Don’t. I like this Namjoon the best. I wanna be friends with you, not another me.”

 

Namjoon’s face becomes painfully hot as his flush goes to the roots of his hair. His mouth repeatedly flaps open and shut as his brain malfunctions.

 

Fearless, cool Eight liked him even when he acted like a total doofus? She still wanted to be his friend?  

 

His heartbeat begins to gallop. “You think so?”

 

She bobs her head up and down in her assent. “Most kids wouldn’t want to return to a place where they almost died, but you’re already planning to come back. That takes serious guts, Namjoon.”       

 

Namjoon’s bewilderment begins to erode. A slow, brilliant smile lights up his face. “It does, doesn’t it?”

 

Eight giggles. “Not to mention you’re super smart, you have a cool phone, and you…” Eight averts her gaze.             

         

“You smell like peaches,” she shyly informs him.

 

Well, that does it.

 

Namjoon dies from heatstroke of the face.

    

His face is on fire and Eight doesn’t exactly look calm herself. Would it be presumptuous to assume that she likes his scent? Is he overthinking this? He’s never thought too much about his scent. Yeah, he acknowledges that it smells sweet, but he doesn’t think it’s all that special. Eight’s the one with the awesome scent. It’s unique and it always feels like he’s smelling her for the first time.

 

He should probably tell her that. But then she starts rambling.

 

“I-I used to think that you smell like oranges, but then I realized that oranges are sweet and tangy, and you don’t smell tangy. Peaches are my favorite fruit and you remind me of them. You’re sweet and your face is round and soft like a peach.” The girl wishes she could shut herself up because this embarrassing. She didn’t mean to blurt out that entire, mushy spiel but what’s done is done.

 

She dares to glance at his face. His face is ketchup red and he’s avoiding her eyes too. But there’s a pleased grin teasing his lips.  

 

“Thanks,” is the only word he can manage to say. He can tell her that he likes her scent next time.

 

They sit there for a while, just content to sit next to each other.

 

Of course, they are children, and children can’t stand the quiet forever.

 

“You really thought I was cool running away from that cat?”

 

Because Namjoon now feels better about himself, he has no trouble gushing/hyping up his friend.

 

“You’re so strong! You lifted me like I weighed nothing! I didn’t know you were that strong.”

 

“I didn’t know either. I told you I was scared.”

 

Namjoon’s eyes do this thing where they widen after he crinkles his eyes. It’s fascinating to watch and the girl knows it’s going to haunt her dreams. “We were going so fast, I thought we were flying! We went like zoom, and whoosh, and…” He makes noises and gestures that suggest things blowing up.  

 

The girl smiles and adds, “No, it was more like a big boom!” She jumps as she yells. “And a big, big bam!”

 

“Exactly! You’re like a superhero, Eight. No, you’re better than a superhero.”

 

Namjoon’s eyes shine with such admiration that the girl is simultaneously humbled and guilty.

 

She is humbled that Namjoon thinks so highly of her when she knows that he is her superior in every way in reality.

 

There are about a million things she feels guilty about on any given day. Currently, she feels guilty about the promise she made to God in the woods. She knows in her heart that there is no way she can keep up her end of the bargain.

 

She loves being his superhero too much for that. She can’t leave him alone. 

 

It’s just not possible.

Chapter Text

Next time they meet up, they’re slightly more prepared.

 

They make a pact for now on to meet on Monday and Thursday afternoons at 1:30. And if either or both of them can’t make it on Monday and/or Thursday, there’s always next week.

 

Neither of them gave too much thought about that.  

 

No one could hardly blame the girl if she was fidgeting all through her chores. All Monday morning, she made periodic breaks to check if it was time yet. When no one was looking, she ran to the dining hall where she knew the big wall clock was located.

 

Along with knowing her letters from A-Z, she also had the proud accomplishment of memorizing her numbers all the way to number fourteen.

 

She knows enough about clocks to understand that the little hand on the one and the big hand on the six is 1:30.

 

Of course, the saying that a “watched pot never boils” may apply since the girl takes trips every five minutes to see if her luck had changed. And when it didn’t, it admittedly made the girl cranky and pouty.

 

Since it was an unofficial rule for everyone to ignore and exclude her following the dining hall fiasco, the children didn’t dare comment on the glowering girl vigorously wiping down the glass-stained windows in the small chapel; and the girls only gave her a wide berth as they warily observed the way the girl was about to scrub the white right off the toilet seat as she cleaned it. The toilet, not being a bunch of wimpy girls, had no problem voicing its protest as it groaned and moaned under the girl’s rough treatment.   

 

Hoseok, along with everybody else, watched the girl take out her mounting frustration on her chores with no short amount of curiosity and amusement.

 

Around late twelve and the girl’s fortieth (or was it her fiftieth?) routine check of the clock, Hoseok stopped the girl in the hallway as she was stomping back to her room.

 

“Wanna tell me why you’re charging through like a raging bull elephant?”      

 

Hobi’s words made her visualize a bull’s head on an elephant body, mooing its head off all while stampeding through a field.  

 

It was weird yet oddly funny at the same time. She giggled.

 

Hobi raised an eyebrow and the girl realized she still hadn’t answered his question.

 

“I’m going to play with Namjoon today! We’re going to meet at the florist’s shop at 1:30 and I’ve been checking the clock so I won’t be late, but it’s so slow. Argh!” She had a mini temper-tantrum and stomped her foot repeatedly and whines deep in her throat.

 

Hoseok can’t help it: he laughs. Hoseok’s laugh is loud and squeaky. His heart-shaped lips pulled back into a wide smile as his “hahas” reverberate off the walls. Worse still, he started clapping. He only did that when he was extra hyped.

 

Any other time, the girl would’ve been thrilled that she made him laugh, but not now.

 

“C’mon, Hobi,” she huffed, “It’s not funny.”

 

Hoseok got himself under control long enough to remark, “So I take it that you guys were able to meet up last Thursday then?”

 

The girl nodded. She opened her mouth to go into the details of their meetup but stopped herself. She knew Hobi would’ve never told her business to anyone else if she asked, but it makes her feel squirmy to talk about all the things her and Namjoon. She wants to keep that between her and Namjoon.

 

She doesn’t mind being selfish when it comes to Namjoon.

 

Hoseok’s waves of sunshine dampen as his expression turns sober.

 

“I didn’t say anything before because I knew you were in a hurry but now that you have time, answer me this: why is that boy calling you ‘Eight’?”

  

The girl suddenly was fascinated with the rips on the jeans framing Hobi’s skinny legs.

 

Well, there was no point in lying since Hobi somehow knew her tells. “I told him to call me that. It’s just a nickname!” She couldn’t help but get defensive.

 

Hoseok didn’t dispute her claim. He just nodded and was silent as he thought of how to delicately broach his next question.

 

“Does he know about your… living situation?”

 

“I don’t understand what you mean.” But she had an inkling of what he meant.

 

So much for being delicate, Hoseok thought ruefully.

 

“Does he know that you live in an orphanage?”

 

The girl recoiled. What? Of course, she hadn’t told him that. Why would she?

 

Because to her, Hobi’s question isn’t asking if Namjoon knows where she lives. It means something entirely different in her mind:

 

Does he know that no one wants her?

 

Does he know that no one even thought enough of her to give her name?  

 

The girl wraps her arms around herself.

 

Of course, he doesn’t know; because then the persona she built would’ve been torn to shreds. Superhero Eight would be gone and all that would be left is a nameless, spineless, motherless girl.

 

He would see what everyone else saw. He wouldn’t look twice at her, much less be her friend.

 

She pictured Namjoon: his pretty silver hair and eyes, luxury-brand clothes, and top-of-the-line phone. Then she pictured herself: Unkempt, nappy hair, hand-me-down dress, and her dirty, calloused hands. She could see Namjoon looking at her with nothing but pure disgust and hatred in his eyes.

 

Just the thought alone had the girl hyperventilating.

 

“I don’t wan im t’no!” Her panic caused her to slur her words together. Her eyes are wild, darting to every corner.

 

Well shit.  

 

If Hoseok knew that she would react like this, he would’ve never brought it up. Making sure that no one was coming down the hall, he swooped the girl up into his arms and brought her into his room.

 

Hoseok rooms with three other boys, one of them being a skittish skunk shifter that had frequent nightmares. Hoseok sent up a silent prayer that the stench had finally loosened and wouldn’t further irritate the girl.

 

He sat himself down on the bed, the girl still in his arms. She calmed down some, although shivers still racked her body.

 

Hoseok rocked her, his head rested on the top of her head; her scent clogged his senses. It took a while, but Hoseok is growing to like it.

 

“I’m sorry, honey,” he cooed in her ear. “I didn’t mean to upset you. What I was trying to say is that it might be better if your little friend knew the whole story so there would be no room for misunderstanding.”

 

The girl nuzzled her face in the crook of Hoseok’s neck, breathing in his scent, attempting to tamp down the nausea in her belly.

 

“He won’t be my friend anymore,” she mumbled, her puffs of breath tickled Hoseok’s neck.

 

“How do you know that?”

 

“I just do.”

 

Hoseok lifted the girl and plopped her on the bed. He slid off and knelt in front of her.

 

“If Namjoon really wants to be your friend, I don’t think it’ll matter if you have parents or not.” He stopped, momentarily debating whether he should add to his point. He decided to brave on.

 

“And if he doesn’t accept it, then maybe you two weren’t meant to be friends after all.”

 

The girl flinched. Hobi could’ve left that last part off. But to pacify him, she jerkily nodded her head.

 

Hobi pulled his phone out and noticed that it was 1:15.

 

“Alright, honey, I won’t keep you from seeing him. Go on.” Now the girl didn’t wanna go. She suddenly felt so tired and just wanted to lay down.

 

But she knew that she would regret not going later on. Plus, Namjoon was expecting her.

 

Pecking Hobi on the cheek, she said her goodbyes and slipped out the door.

 

Hoseok watched her go. He hoped that everything worked out for the better.

 

And if it didn’t and the boy did reject her, he is not averse to gutting a little kid and leaving his insides for the vultures to feed on.

 

But that’s just him.


 

 The girl waits anxiously by the white picket fence entrance to the florist’s garden. She tries not to feel too guilty remembering the last she was here.

 

Thankfully, she didn’t need to do that anymore.

 

Hobi’s part-time job has become somewhat of a weekly agreement. Since Hobi’s boss was so impressed with their “efficient work”, every Friday morning from now on, Hobi and the girl help sort out the fresh produce from the rotted.  

 

It helped in more ways than one: aside from the little bit of cash, the girl has been pocketing the fruits and vegetables that were deemed uneatable.

 

It was going to be thrown out anyway, so why not take it home? All they had to do was cut off the rotting parts and they were good to go. Also, that meant that the majority of the money could be focused on any cosmetic needs for the tween/teen girls and boys, and the needs of the infants and toddlers in their care.

 

Guilt-free and convenient.

 

The girl is brought out of her thoughts when she sees the back door leading out to the garden open and Namjoon steps outside.

 

Any residue anxiety that clings to her melts into the background. She feels her heartbeat pick up and her ears and cheeks feel warm. She waits for him to notice her before she waves.

 

Namjoon’s eye light up and enthusiastically waves back. His dimples pop out and the space where his two front teeth should be showcases his pink gums as he beams at her.

 

The girl wants to scream. Namjoon’s cuteness is overwhelming her. This is too much for one girl to take!

 

He has an orange and grey backpack strapped to his back and it jostles as he hurries over to her.

 

“Hi, Eight!” Namjoon does this odd little dance when he reaches her. He bounces around her in circles, eyes shining with anticipation. His energy is palpable and the girl starts twitching too.

 

“Hi, Peaches!” It comes out before the girl has time to think about what she just said. Her face heats up.

 

Namjoon stops bouncing. “Peaches?”

 

“Uh… yeah. Remember, I told you that you smell like Peaches.” She twiddles her fingers as she waits for his response.

 

Namjoon’s jaw drops a little.

 

He’s been called “Namjoonie” by his Hyung, “Pup” by Ki-Jong Noona, and “Jooniebear” by his Eomma.         

 

Peaches?

 

Peaches.

 

“I like it!” He confirms with a giggle.

 

Eight looks up from her fingers with a relieved smile.

 

They both look to see if the florist and Ki-Jong Noona is out of sight, then they proceed to their destination. They agreed on Thursday that they wanted the lake they stumbled on as their spot.

 

Although Namjoon knows the way (Well, he’s eighty percent confident with his memory), he “lets” Eight lead the way.

 

The girl had spent a good few hours on Saturday morning planning out the perfect route from the florist’s shop to the lake. After getting lost several times and encountering a bush that may or may not had been poison oak, she figured it out.

 

They reach the lake in no time at all.

 

The girl plops down on her butt, uncaring if her jeans get dirt on them. Namjoon sits down next to her and removes his backpack.

 

“Okay,” the girl says, “Where’s this “everything” book you promised to show me?”

 

Namjoon almost looks smug as he turns around to unzip his backpack.

 

“I know I said that I would bring it today, but there’s something else I really wanna show ya.”

 

“I bet you just did that because the book doesn’t exist,” the girl teases. Namjoon’s smirk morphs into a pout. “It does exist,” he promises sulkily, “but this couldn’t wait.”


 

Namjoon had been too excited to go to sleep last night. He thought that if he couldn’t sleep, he could at least do something productive. So, he crept down to the kitchen to make the sandwiches for his picnic with Eight tomorrow.

 

Namjoon thinks he did James Bond proud with the way he quietly assembled what he needed. Once he had everything, he got to work.

 

Namjoon had to stop several times because wow! He was working up a serious sweat. But everything had to be perfect. Seokjin-Hyung had coached him on the art of the perfect PB&J.


 

“Remember Namjoonie,” his brother had told him one night. He had just gotten finished with his duties and was spending the rest of the night with Namjoon. He was preparing some sandwiches so they eat something while they watched “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends”.

 

Namjoon had been watching his Hyung spread the even strokes of peanut butter onto two slices of bread and asked what was his Hyung’s secret to making them taste so good.

 

“It’s all about spreading the perfect ratio of jam and peanut butter.” Namjoon didn’t know what a ratio was, but he liked the sound of it. It sounded like a big-person word and he instantly decided it would be his new favorite word.

 

“You have to make sure put enough on the bread that it’s not too dry. But you also have to make sure that you don’t put too much on or else the sandwich will be too thick and gloopy. You’ll make yourself sick.”

 

Namjoon ran to his room to grab his favorite notebook. It was a spiral notebook with the Pokémon character Dragonite on the cover.

 

He hurried back to the kitchen, sat down, and set his notebook on the kitchen island. He scribbled as fast he could. He didn’t want to forget a single thing his Hyung had taught him.

 

Seokjin observed him. There weren’t enough words in the world to describe the burst of love he felt while watching his innocent baby brother trying to write down everything he said.

 

It was times like this that he truly missed their parents. If they were only alive to see the amazing, intelligent young man that Namjoon was turning into. Then he remembers the reason why they weren’t here. He remembers the series of events that led up to that awful day.

 

And as much as Seokjin loved—loves his parents, his hate for them is just as strong.

 

He hates that because of their actions, Namjoon will be forced to grow up without a mother and father and Seokjin was forced to become King and fix their many mistakes.

 

Seokjin’s grip on the butter knife tightened as his dark thoughts continued.

 

Perhaps if they hadn’t been so wrapped up in each other and their perverted ideals of love and devotion and concentrated more on protecting their kingdom and their children, maybe they—

 

A tiny mass attaching itself to his side brought Seokjin out of the hall of memories he kept in the far crevices of his mind.

 

When Namjoon had still been jotting down his notes when he noticed his Hyung’s clear spearmint scent had soured. He looked up to see his Hyung’s laughing brown eyes flat. His full pink mouth had flattened into a deep frown.

 

Namjoon was anxious to understand what could’ve changed when he saw the tear course Seokjin-hyung’s cheek.

 

He didn’t hesitate.

 

He scooted off of his chair and came around the island to wrap his Hyung in a bear hug.

 

“It’s good to cry, Hyung,” he told him, “It will help make the sadness go away.”

 

Seokjin nearly sobbed.

 

How did he get so blessed?

 

If Namjoon wasn’t here, he knew he would’ve sunk into himself and became someone he didn’t know.

 

Instead of breaking down in front of his brother again, he scooped him into his arms and returned his hug. Inhaling Namjoon’s sweet scent already made feel moderately better.

 

Namjoon was still very young when their parents were murdered. Because Seokjin shielded him, Namjoon only remembers the good times. And if Seokjin has anything to say about it, it’ll stay that way for a while.

 

He knows that one day he’ll have to rip the rose-tinted glasses and tell the ugly truth to Namjoon.

 

But until then…

 

“Well, you’d cry too if your food was that good.” He lets out his trademark high-pitched laugh and hopes that he sounds natural.

 

He kisses Namjoon’s forehead and sets him down.

 

“Now,” Seokjin clasped his hands together. “I’ve taught you everything I could, young Padawan. It’s your turn now.”


 

Namjoon finished the sandwiches.

 

For a first attempt, he thought he did pretty well.

 

He put them in separate sandwich baggies and put the baggies in a little lunch pail. He wrote his name in permanent marker on a sticky note and stuck it on the lunch pail so that everyone (Hyung) will know not to eat them.

 

After making sure that the coast was clear he hurried back to his room, feeling very pleased with himself. He snuggled in bed and struggled not to squirm in giddiness.

 

He was a spy now. He could probably rob a bank and no one would know it was him.

 

Not that he’d ever rob a bank. Stealing is wrong.

 

Thoughts still buzzing around in his head, he decided to read for a little bit. Hopefully, that’d make him sleepy.

 

Crawling out of bed again, he ambled over to his bookshelf. He intended to read his Encyclo… Encyclo… his book about everything and get lost in there for a while. It is quite thick so Namjoon had some trouble getting it out. He didn’t know how Ki-Jong Noona managed to fit it in his bookshelf.

 

Consequently, Namjoon was able to get the book out, but not without several smaller books falling onto the floor.

 

Puffing out his cheeks in frustration, he bent down to put the books back on the shelf. He was almost finished when he scanned the title of one of his picture storybooks. A favorite of his.

 

He sat and read it, awed by the stunning pictures. While reading it, he couldn’t help but compare the hero to Eight.

 

What would she think about the story?

 

Eager to find out, he packed the story of “Sir Launfal” into his backpack.


 

Namjoon pulls the picture book out of his backpack. “I wanted to show this story instead. It’s one of my favorites. Here,” he pulls out the two sandwiches, “We can eat these while we read and drink these,” he takes the Gatorade bottles out of the side pouches. “I like green, so you can have the blue one. C’mon Eight, this will be fun.”

The girl doesn’t think so. Her mouth feels dry and her stomach churns.

 

Namjoon expects her to read the story along with him. How is she going to get herself out of this?

 

Thinking fast, she chuckles nervously and insists, “Uh, why don’t you read and I’ll just listen to you?”

 

“Lazy!” Namjoon sticks his tongue out at her. But he doesn’t discourage the suggestion. In truth, he’s dying to show her what a good reader he is.

 

“Okay!” The girl heaves a sigh. She narrowly avoided this pitfall with her life. And she didn’t have to lie to do it.

 

To celebrate her win, she’s going to eat her sandwich and enjoy the story.

 

Namjoon waits for Eight to get settled before he begins.


 

The story recounts the tale of a knight named Sir Launfal who served King Arthur as a steward. Sir Launfal was chivalrous, righteous, and everything a knight should be.

 

Sir Launfal loved his King, but the same could not be said for the King’s wife, Queen Guinevere.

 

Although Queen Guinevere was beautiful in such a way that earthly men and women simultaneously envied and adored, the same could not be said for her heart.

 

In front of her husband and subjects, she was the prime example of what a Queen should be. In private, she was vain and selfish.

 

Sir Launfal recognized the Queen for what she truly was and secretly distrusted and opposed her.

 

Through means that remained a mystery, the Queen learned of Sir Launfal’s loathing for her. Enraged and insulted, the Queen persuaded the King to remove Sir Launfal from the royal court.

 

Consumed by his love (lust) and adoration for his bride, he blindly granted her request. Even though there was the temptation to protest the command and expose the Queen, Sir Launfal complied for two reasons: A, he didn’t have any proof; B, his duty is first and foremost to his King.

 

Sir Launfal was a “Sir” no more.

 

Disgraced and penniless, Launfal lived in solitude. What little funds he had quickly ran out and he was soon homeless. Everyone around him, whether they were former friends or strangers, found it easier to mock rather than help him.

 

For days at a time, he would aimlessly wander around in the woods, searching for nothing in particular. Stripped of his title and purpose, he was nothing more than a spectre roaming the countryside.

 

One day, Launfal stumbled upon a castle that was like something out of a dream. Believing that he had finally lost touch with reality, he dismissed the sight in front of him.

 

Even when a dozen fairies poured out of the castle, he was still doubtful. It was only when his eyes landed on the woman who followed the fairies did he start to pay attention.

 

Queen Guinevere’s beauty was a mere fraction of the woman’s magnificence. And unlike the Queen, the woman’s beauty did not just extend to the physical.

 

The woman was Triamour, Queen of the fairies.

 

Launfal, overwhelmed by the vision of loveliness before him, was unsure what to do at that moment. So, he did the only he was capable of: he got on his knees and wept.

 

Triamour felt great pity and sympathy for the broken man and made a vow to help him. She brought him back to her castle to help him recover. Once he had, Triamour gave the tools he needed to make his triumphant return to the royal court: a servant, a horse, a suit of armor, and sacks of gold. The finishing touch was an enchantment that would keep Launfal from getting hurt. The only way the spell would break is if Launfal ever told anyone about Triamour’s existence.

 

Launfal swore he never would.   

 

When Launfal returned to his home, he made great use of his Triamour’s gifts. He used the horse, suit of armor, and invincibility to win many tournaments. And he donated the gold to those who truly needed it. Launfal had restored honor to his name.

 

Despite Launfal’s growing prominence, he still found time to visit Triamour. Every visit resulted in their bond growing stronger. And somewhere along the way, the bonds between them which originally had been held together by friendship and charity blossomed into something sweeter.  

 

It wasn’t long before the rumors of Launfal’s deeds reached the ears of King Arthur.

 

Curious to see what all the fuss was about, he ordered that Launfal return to his palace.

 

The Queen, having forgotten about her vendetta against Launfal, was drawn to his looks and power. Later that night, she called him to her rooms.

 

Launfal knew that whatever the Queen was planning was a trap yet he couldn’t disobey a direct order from his betters.

 

Unsurprisingly, the Queen tried to make Launfal fall in love with her. She was convinced that Launfal would be like any other man and would be thankful that she was even looking at him.

 

Launfal rebuffed her advances repeatedly. Unfortunately, the Queen didn’t give up easily. She was a woman who was used to getting her way and she wanted Launfal.

 

Launfal, growing tired of the Queen’s endless badgering, accidentally blurted out that the woman he loved was ten times the woman the Queen would ever hope to be. The Queen, furious with his refusal and claim, stormed from the room.

 

Launfal instantly realized that he just indirectly broke his promise to Triamour. Horror-stricken, he fled the room and tried to escape the palace. He had to get back to Triamour and explain what happened.

 

But it was too late.

 

The Queen duped the King into believing that Launfal was trying to convince the Queen to run away with him. The naïve king arranged for Launfal to be seized. Launfal knew premonition was correct when he was easily apprehended by the guards.

 

During his trial, Launfal retold the account of his encounter with the Queen. The Queen, of course, denied everything and screamed that he was a liar. The King’s peers knew of the Queen’s reputation. They surreptitiously knew that it was far more likely the Queen was lying to save her own skin. But no one was bold enough to call her out on it.

 

Even though he knew what was to come, Launfal kept insisting that what he said was true. The Queen scoffed and mockingly proclaimed that if Launfal’s lover really was Queen of the Fairies, she would willingly blind herself.

 

No sooner had she said, the doors to the courtroom flew off the hinges. Triamour appeared in all of her terrible glory. The guards that were foolish enough to approach disintegrated into dust with only a single glance.

 

She freed Launfal and breathed a special mist into the Queen’s eyes, making her go blind.

 

Triamour whisked Launfal off to her court, where they were to be married. No ever heard from them ever again.


 

“…and they lived happily ever. The end!”

 

A couple of empty Gatorade bottles and eaten sandwiches later, Namjoon finishes the story. To hold her attention, Namjoon made up voices for the characters. He’s very proud of himself and believes he may have a career in voice acting. Yes, he may have stumbled over the big words, but overall, he thinks he did a bang-up job.

 

The girl claps her approval. “That was a good story! The fairy was so awesome. The way she just busts up in there and saved the knight.” She could not remember their names for the life of her so she referred to them as the “fairy” and the “knight”.

 

“I know, right?!” Namjoon agreed. “I was reading this last night and I realized that you and the fairy are a lot alike.”

 

Eight blinks, stupefied. “Me?”

 

“Yeah! She’s super strong like you are! And she saves the day like you do. You’re a superhero just like her,” He states with a firm nod.

 

The girl grins, pleased with Namjoon’s analysis.

 

She takes a look at the final page: Triamour and Launfal are riding away on an enchanted horse into the sunset.

 

Instead of the figures on the picture, her mind replaces Launfal with Namjoon and the fairy with herself. She knows that Namjoon won’t stay a cute little boy forever. He’ll grow up and become just as handsome as the man in the picture. No, he’ll be more handsome than she can imagine. She can imagine him being as gallant and kind-hearted as the knight.

 

When she tries to picture herself as the fairy, she runs into some technical difficulties.

 

Triamour was beautiful, benevolent, and powerful.

 

She’s not a fairy. She doesn’t have superpowers as the fairy did.

 

And as for beauty…

 

The woman in the picture has ramrod, straight blonde hair that trails at her ankles. She has almond-shaped azure-colored eyes. Her lips are a deep shade of red. Her skin is pure porcelain aside from her delicate pink cheeks. Her figure is grace and slender as a willow tree

 

The girl tries to envisage herself as a fairy: tangled, coiled hair that just touched her shoulders, bug-shaped piss-colored eyes, lips more pink than red, and dark brown skin. Plus, she has always been on the pudgy side.

 

There’s a reason no one draws fairies that look like her.

 

“I’m not like her,” she brings her knees up to her chin, her light mood evaporating.

 

This is an emotion that Namjoon has never seen on Eight’s face. He doesn’t like it. He wants her to smile like she usually does.

 

“Why not? I think you are.”

 

“Namjoon,” the girl does not want Namjoon to see her cry but her voice wobbling, “Fairies are supposed to have powers and look like that,” she points to the picture. “I-I don’t have powers and I’m not… not…” she trails and rests her head on knees, facing away from Namjoon.

 

Namjoon can’t see her face but he can hear the quiet sniffles.

 

Namjoon doesn’t know what to do.

 

He’s never seen Eight so sad and he feels himself starting to tear up in response. He can’t help it; seeing his friend hurting makes him hurt. He should’ve never brought this dumb book. It only upset Eight.

 

Inspired by his anger, he slams the book onto the ground roars, “Balderdash!”

 

Eight looks up from her knees, face tear-stained. “Huh?”

 

Don’t ask why, but one day Namjoon was looking in the thesaurus when he found the word “Balderdash”. After learning what it meant and to pronounce it, it became one of his favorite words.

 

And oh, how apt it is for the situation.

 

Too hot, Namjoon ignores Eight’s confusion.

 

“You do have powers: you’re strong, you’re faster than anyone I know, you’re brave, and you’re DUCKING AWESOME!”

 

Eight’s despair has switched to astonished embarrassment. And she likes she wants to stop him.

 

Well tough luck, because he ain’t finished yet.

 

His face is turning red from the exertion.

 

“Plus, you smell good, you have nice eyes, and you’re way more prettier than the fairy in the book! If no can see that, then they’re just a bunch of… idiots!” He’s not allowed to say the “I” word at home. It’s considered a bad word.

 

Not only is Namjoon spy and a voice actor in the making, but he is also a rebel.

 

It’s liberating living on the wild side.

 

Coming back to reality, he realizes he hasn’t heard Eight say one word since his tirade.

                      

The girl is shell-shocked.

 

Namjoon likes her scent.

 

No one has ever told they liked her scent before, not even Hobi. She had gotten so used to the default disgust everyone gave her, she just assumed that Namjoon didn’t like either.

 

But he likes it.

 

She knows he’s telling the truth because she has a gut feeling that Namjoon isn’t a liar.

 

Wow. She’s not sure if she wants to do a jig or yell her joy.

 

And wait, did he say…

 

“You think I’m pretty?”

 

Namjoon’s mind draws a blank.

 

When did he…?

 

Oh right.

 

During his rant, so great was his determination to bring Eight out of her blues that he blabbed some things he didn’t want her to know. Didn’t make them any less true, but some things don’t need to be said.

 

He can already feel the tell-tale blush coat his cheeks. Oh well, no use faking the funk now.

 

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I do.” He can’t look at her. He fears he might combust if he does.

 

The girl can’t think. Too much is happening at once. But she can’t leave Namjoon hanging like that. But what should she say? It has to be something smooth-like.

 

Something like, “I think you’re pretty too!”

 

Darn.

 

His head whips up, eyes going huge and his pink cheeks turn to beetroot red.

 

“Pretty? Me?”

 

The girl wants to smack herself. Really? That’s the best she can do? She meant to say that he is handsome, not pretty.

 

But doesn’t pretty and handsome mean the same thing at the end of the day?

 

So, she shrugs and states, “Yeah, pretty.”

 

The children go quiet, not sure how where to go with the conversation.

 

The girl breaks the silence with, “I think you’d be a kind knight.”

 

Namjoon replies, “And I think you’d be an awesome fairy.”

 

The girl tilts her head in thought “What do you think happened to them afterward?” Namjoon shrugs. “Who knows? But I think that they went all around the world and had lots of adventures.”

 

“I like that idea.” The girl pauses. “Do you think we’ll be just like them and have great adventures?”

 

“I think we will.”

 

“And does that mean we’ll get married too?”

 

Namjoon chokes on the air going entering his lungs.

 

When he selected to bring this story, he didn’t know that he would have answer questions about his future. He just learned that two times two is four. What does he know about marriage?

 

But if he has to pick someone to marry, he wouldn’t mind if it was Eight he had to spend the rest of his life with.

 

“I don’t mind if you don’t.”

 

She shakes her head. “I don’t.”

 

“Ok, so we’re getting married.”

 

“Cool. Wanna read the story again?”

 

And just like that, the subject of marriage is dropped.

 

The girl picks up the book Namjoon dropped and hands to him. “Read to me again,” she commands.

 

“No, no. I already read it. I wanna hear you read it this time.”

 

The girl jolts.

 

Shoot.

 

What has she done? She has stepped on a landmine of her own making.

 

She should’ve factored in Namjoon requesting her to read to him instead. She had herself up to fail. What was she thinking?

 

“Eight?” He looks so sweet in his confusion. His mouth curled up in a pout.

 

She has to say something. Like now.

 

“I uh… well… you see…” Words, words, words, why won’t they come to her?

 

“Do you not know how to read?”

 

The question comes so simple, so easy, from Namjoon’s lips. How can he say it so easily?

 

He probably meant it to be funny and is expecting the girl to say “No way! Of course, I can read. Don’t be stupid, Peaches!”

 

And any minute the mirth will go away and when the silence extends, he’ll know.  

 

Namjoon’s alert eyes cloud with confusion for a milli-second before clarity clears them. He then nods his head and says, “Oh.”

 

The girl is about to cry again.

 

He’s gonna think she’s stupid like those kids in the cafeteria did. He’s not gonna want to be her friend anymore. He’ll think she’s stupid. He’ll—

 

“Then I’ll teach you.”

 

The girl’s destructive thoughts screech to a halt.

 

“What?”

 

“I’ll teach you. I’m still learning to read too, but I promise to do my best. Everything I learn from my teacher; I’ll teach and we can spend our playtime studying. Oh, I know!” Namjoon smacks his fist against his open palm. “I’ll write down everything my teacher says. Well, maybe not everything because—”

 

Eight wraps her arms around Namjoon.

 

Namjoon can’t comprehend what is happening. Eight’s scent is clogging his senses. He can’t say he minds though.

 

He’s only hugged a few people in his life and girl his age wasn’t one of them until now. Once the shock wears off, his hearing filters in Eight’s voice.

 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! You’re my best friend!”

 

He doesn’t think what he said was a big deal. He probably won’t even be that good of a teacher anyways. But Eight’s joy makes him happy too.

 

He hugs her back.

 

“You’re my best friend too.”

 

This is good, the girl thinks. If Namjoon can accept that she can’t read, then surely, he won’t reject her if he knew the whole truth. He won’t be like the others.

 

Once they separate, the girl freely admits, “I don’t go to school.”

 

“I don’t either. I’m homeschooled. I have a tutor at my house. My brother works all the time. What do your mama and papa do?”

 

The girl’s warm, hopeful feelings are dosed in the cold waters of her reality.

                                                      

Namjoon is rich. He has a home and people that love him.

 

Sure, he spends his Mondays and Thursdays with her but he has something better to go home to. He probably has friends that are way more interesting than her. Probably smarter and cleaner too.

 

The girl knows she is probably just a momentary speck in Namjoon’s vast universe for the time being and that soon he would get bored with her. He’d probably forget about her entirely one day.

 

The girl is at a crossroads now.

 

It would be wiser to tell him the truth now and get the disappointment out of the way.

 

But she wants to be his friend so badly. She’ll do anything to keep this bubble of happiness and acceptance. Even if she has to lie to maintain it.

“My mama, she uh… can’t afford to put me in school. My daddy died during the war, so it’s just me and her. S-She um, works all the time and can’t afford to put me in school right now. We live in a little house near the…”

 

The lies just kept coming and the girl is somewhat horrified with herself. They come out so smooth that she even believes herself for a minute. Where is she even getting all of this from? Was she always capable of such falsehoods?

 

And Namjoon doesn’t for a second peg her for the filthy liar she truly is. He believes in every word. Why wouldn’t he?

 

She starts sobbing. She can’t help it. The nuns were right about her. She is an unholy vessel. How can she lie to him like that?

 

Worse still, Namjoon hugs her tightly like the angel he is. Whispers in her that it will be alright, that he’ll always be her best friend.

 

She can still fix this. It doesn’t have to be like this. She could tell him the truth right now and make it right. She could tell him that the girl he knows as “Eight” never existed.

 

But Namjoon is holding Eight.

 

Namjoon thinks Eight smells good.

 

Namjoon thinks Eight has someone to go home to like he does.

 

Namjoon thinks Eight is pretty, smart, and strong.

 

Namjoon likes Eight.

 

He wants to be around Eight.

 

Eight.

 

Not the girl. Never the girl.


 

For two years, the girl plays two roles: the nameless girl who keeps her head down and bold, clever Eight who is best friends with Kim Namjoon.

 

She does well to keep her personas from clashing.

 

In all the time that they spent together, the girl and Namjoon never talked about their lives at home, for which the girl is eternally grateful. It was a silent agreement that their time was about them. Worries were left at the door.

 

The girl never imagined that their friendship would last for so long and yet it did.

 

Two, blissful years of playing, reading (Namjoon is a good teacher!), daydreaming, and happiness.

 

If the girl had it her way, they would remain like this forever. No could hurt them and they would always be together, safe in their self-made Atlantean paradise.

 

What they don’t is that thanks to the girl’s decision, their friendship is living on borrowed time.

 

It all starts when King Seokjin decides that his brother needs a playmate…

 

Chapter Text

Most of the time, the unthinkable happens on what should be an average day in an individual’s routine. That way, when someone looks back at a tragedy, they can say “It started off like any other day…” and it makes for a juicy opening.

 

It generates anxiety and raises the question “why”.

 

Or other times, the unthinkable occurs when we least expect it.

 

And doesn’t that make the collision all the more impactful when we don’t expect it? When it sneaks up on you and strikes from behind?

 

This explanation attempts to describe the reactions of two, small children who are forced to watch their two-year-old friendship perish in a matter of mere minutes.

 

The end of Eight and Namjoon begins on sunny-cloudy Friday afternoon a week after Namjoon’s birthday.


 

Eight-year-old Kim Namjoon is trying for the umpteenth time not to squirm in his car seat. He can’t help it. He’s been on edge ever since he left home. He has surmised that his Hyung is to blame for his current predicament.

 

He had a wonderful birthday: he got a lot of presents, cake and ice cream, spent time with his Hyung and Eight, and did he mention the ice cream? He got to eat ice cream for breakfast (he was only on the toilet for fifteen minutes afterward, a record!)

 

With all the festivities, Namjoon was content with his lot. He didn’t want nor need anything else.

 

Later that night when Seokjin-Hyung tucked him into bed, he told Namjoon that the surprises weren’t over yet.

 

“I know my work,” his Hyung had said, “doesn’t allow for us to spend a lot of time together, and for that I’m sorry. If I could, I would be with you all the time. You know that, right?”

 

Namjoon initially nodded his head but after thinking about it he shook it. “But wouldn’t we grow sick of each other if we spent all our time together? We’d hate each other after while. I like my space, Hyung.”

 

Seokjin had to stop himself from sputtering.

 

Space? Since when did his little dongsaeng care about such things? And more importantly, what the hell does an eight-year-old do that requires space?

 

There was some truth to it, of course. Despite Seokjin wishing his duties didn’t take up most of his time, he didn’t want to spend his every waking moment with his little brother, no matter how endearing he is.

 

But it hit different when it came from Namjoon’s mouth.

 

His sweet, inquisitive brother was growing up. One day in the distant future, his brother wouldn’t be satisfied with it just being himself and Namjoon. He wouldn’t need Seokjin anymore. Seokjin is terrified of the day when his brother won’t need him anymore.

 

Seokjin is even more terrified that there won’t be a day when Seokjin will stop needing Namjoon.

 

But he is strong enough to look beyond his own pain to realize that Namjoon is changing: he’s growing taller, his cheeks are losing their pulpiness (although he suspects that they will always retain their round shape) and he’s letting his hair grow past his usual bowl cut length, much to Seokjin’s relief.

 

“I know,” Seokjin says, trepidation and pride wrestling for dominance in his heart. “Which plays a part in your present.”

 

Just because Namjoon was satisfied with the number of gifts he has already received doesn’t mean he will turn down the possibility of more presents.

 

Namjoon bolted upright and would’ve collided his forehead with his Hyung’s if Seokjin hadn’t backed up in the nick of time. “There’s more?” Namjoon bounces up and down on the bed, the mattress creaking as he did. “What is it? Where is it? Where is it? Do you have it? Am I getting it tonight? Tomorrow? Next week?”

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! Time, time!” Seokjin exclaims laughingly. He makes a “T” with his hands for emphasis. “One question at a time: you’ll be getting it tomorrow morning, it still needs a little time to get here, and it’s something you play with and talk to.”

 

Oh my God, Namjoon thinks with glee. He’s totally getting a puppy. He can feel it.

 

Oh, he can picture it now: a cute puppy (preferably a white, short-haired one) that both boy and wolf cub could play with. Eight meeting the puppy for the first time; her sunshine-colored eyes enlarging to the size of dinner plates and her thrilled grin. They could play with it for hours in the forest.

 

Predictably, Namjoon got hardly any sleep last night. His mind was reoccupied nightdreaming about his “mystery” gift. He didn’t understand the need for secrecy when it was so obvious what it was. But he supposed there was no harm in indulging his Hyung. When he did finally settle into sleep, he had vivid dreams of a white puppy, himself in his wolf cub skin, and Eight racing through the forest.

 

This morning, Namjoon leaped out of bed at 7:30, took a bath (he’s finally old enough to bathe himself!), hurriedly brushed his teeth, and threw on some clothes. Usually, the maids would pick what he wore, but as a birthday gift and sign of independence, they promised him that he could do that himself for on.

 

Seokjin told him at 11:00, come to the family room to receive his gift.

 

It was still only a little after eight. He tried to keep himself busy until then. He started reading one of his gifts, “Into the Land of the Unicorns” which is book one of the series, “The Unicorn Chronicles”. Although there was the occasional sly glance at the clock, the book did its job and kept him preoccupied for the remaining three hours.

 

When it was time, Namjoon stuffed his new book into his new Pokémon backpack (another gift). He could read the rest of it with Eight anyways.

 

On the way to the family room, he had to stop himself several times because his excitement was threatening to trigger a shift. Seeing as how it is only his second day of being eight, the last thing he needs is to show how much of a little kid he is in public.

 

After getting himself under control, he hotfoots it to the family room. Seokjin-Hyung is there, waiting for him.

 

“You ready for your present?” Seokjin-Hyung asked. He was smirking, an expression he only adopted when he thought that he was being especially clever. Namjoon associated that look to be his know-it-all look.

 

Namjoon would regularly find it annoying but his anticipation is outweighing his irritation. “Yes! Now c’mon, Hyung!” he demands impatiently.

 

His Hyung laughs but follows his command. Seokjin-Hyung opens the door and goes in first. Namjoon strides after him, his gait reminiscent of a five-star general. He had been waiting his entire life for this moment and his patience was about to be vastly rewarded.


 

Spoiler alert: he still doesn’t have a puppy.


 

How, Namjoon thinks in dismay, was his hypothesis so off-kilter? He thought that he and his Hyung were more in sync than this. How did puppy translate into this? 

 

This is a definite setback in his masterplan to become a crime-fighting detective.

 

Not for the first time, Namjoon steals a glance at the two individuals that are sitting next to him. He is fully aware that it is considered bad manners to stare, but he’s curious and not a little uncomfortable.

 

But it’s not like the petite ten-year-old chatterbox beside him can sense his stares. “Oh my God! Taehyungie, did you see that? Did you just freaking see that? Market stands! A whole bunch of them too. Just like in the drama that Eomma was watching last week, remember? But that show was only filled with humans and they were speaking Japanese on top of that! It was kinda boring. But this is better much. Oh Taehyungie, look at that, look at that! A family of black swan shifters is selling mangoes. I’ve never seen anyone so open about their animal egos before. But then again…” This is only a paragraph in the boy’s endless and mindless spoken word dissertation as he takes in the sights from the car window.

 

When Namjoon had walked into the family room, ready to accept the supposed puppy, he was confused to see two children lounging on the sofa, whispering to each other. Their whispers ceased and the two of them, with creepily timed synchronicity, glanced up to stare at him. He immediately surmised that they were the children of the staff.

 

For the time since his puppy hypothesis, he guesses right.

 

Seokjin-Hyung introduced the smaller of the boys as Park Jimin. Park Jimin is the son of Park Ji-Seok, who is the King’s royal advisor. The Parks are an aristocratic and prominent line of Snow Leopard shifters.

 

The Kims and the Parks had always been close, business and personal-wise. Park Ji-Seok had grown up with the previous King and had been his royal advisor as well. Tragically, Ji-Seok’s eldest son and Jimin’s Hyung was also killed in the assassination of the King and Queen.

 

Park Ji-Hyun was still training and was only a mere foot soldier at the time of his death. But he had been the first one to spot the gunman and courageously shielded the King with his body. Although it was all for naught, in the end, the Parks and Kims were bound together by their mutual grief.

 

A few weeks before Namjoon’s birthday, Seokjin inquired about Ji-Seok’s young son. He knew that his advisor had a son around Namjoon’s age and saw the potential of gifting Namjoon with a playmate. He knew that keeping Namjoon’s existence confidential was paramount, but he wanted his brother to have a friend. Someone he could build a lasting bond with.

 

Wanting to vet the boy, Seokjin set aside some time for himself to make the 30-40-minute drive to the Parks’ mansion to meet him. It took no time at all for Seokjin to be charmed by the character that is Park Jimin.

 

Seokjin discovered in no time at all that Jimin is a talker. On any other little kid, Seokjin probably would’ve told the kid to shut the fuck up in the nicest way possible. But Jimin was a smooth operator. Not to mention the kid looked like a baby doll.

 

Jimin has a mop of dark blonde hair, amethyst-colored eyes, butterscotch toned skin, and the cutest pair of cheeks that bunched up when he smiled. Seokjin had no doubt that while Jimin is an adorable child now, he will most certainly grow into an ethereal man.

 

Jimin had taken to the idea of meeting Namjoon immediately. He insisted that he be allowed to bring his attendant-in-training along with him. Said attendant-in-training was a reserved tiger shifter named Kim Taehyung whose parents worked for and lived in the Parks’ illustrious mansion.

 

Taehyung is a skinny boy with dark brown hair, intelligent hazel eyes, and slightly wide ears.

 

Jimin and Taehyung are package deal; where Jimin goes, Taehyung goes and vice versa.

 

When Seokjin-Hyung had told Namjoon that the duo was going to be his new playmates, Namjoon malfunctioned. As he stood there buffering, his brain was endeavoring to process the unexpected information thrown at him.

 

Once the download of information finally computed in his muddled brain, his first instinct was to scream, “But I wanted a puppy!”

 

He refrained because one, he’s not going to embarrass himself, Jimin and Taehyung, or his Hyung with his whining. That was bratty, little kid move and Namjoon is neither bratty nor a little kid anymore. Two, if nothing else, he would endure this unexpected turn of events with a mega-watt smile for his Hyung.

 

Seokjin-Hyung looked so pleased and hopeful with his gift. Namjoon knew that he was taking a risk even allowing Jimin and Taehyung to know he existed. He knew his Hyung was only thinking of him when he arranged this. Namjoon would not ruin his brother’s surprise by allowing his discomfort to show.

 

Besides, if everything worked out, he would have three friends instead of one. What’s the worst that could happen?


 

In truth, it isn’t Jimin or Taehyung’s fault that Namjoon can’t seem to yank the yard-long stick out of his butt. If they were colors, Jimin would be a vivacious red because of the way he speaks about everything and nothing with such a passion that only he could pull off.

 

Taehyung would be purple with his quiet regal nature. Jimin had mentioned that Taehyung was a little younger than him which surprised Namjoon. Taehyung, with his sharp features, could’ve easily been mistaken as the same age or older than Jimin. Jimin is the one with the babyface. Namjoon couldn’t help but feel somewhat irked that Jimin, with his cute face and short stature, is two years older than him.

 

Currently, the three of them are riding in a car driven by Jimin’s family chauffeur. Like Namjoon, Jimin was kept sheltered the majority of his life although his existence wasn’t kept a secret.

 

Much like Namjoon was in his first expedition outside the palace walls, Jimin is regarding everything with wide-eyed wonder. Despite not saying anything, Taehyung is just as fascinated. He captures pictures of the moving scenery every ten seconds.

 

They are both incredibly hilarious to watch. Namjoon doesn’t understand why he can’t relax and enjoy the moment as well.

 

Wait, that’s a lie. He knows the exact reason.

 

For two straight years, he hasn’t felt lonely. How could he? He had his Hyung and Eight to fill the clawing void inside him. He hasn’t wanted for more since then. He was living in a tiny yet comfortable bubble.

 

And now his bubble is threatening to pop with the arrival of these unknown elements. He isn’t prepared for the sudden uproot.

 

“Sorry.”

 

Jimin’s high voice compels Namjoon to come out of his thoughts and focus on Jimin.

 

Jimin’s adorably fluffy cheeks are flushed pink and he actively avoids eye contact with Namjoon. “I must be annoying you; acting so excited over everything like this. His Majesty told me that you’ve done this over a million times. Me and Taehyung must seem like total kids to you, right?” Namjoon takes a cursory glimpse at Taehyung’s face. He is frowning and stuffs his phone into the seat pouch in front of him.

 

Namjoon could kick himself.

 

He hadn’t considered that Jimin and Taehyung were feeling nervous as he is. How had he been so wrapped in himself he hadn’t realized?

 

Namjoon makes the decision to stop acting like a giant turd and start interacting with his company.

 

He juts his chin out, squares his shoulders, and practically shouts, “There’s nothing wrong with being excited, Jimin-ssi! I was the same way when I first went outside. And the marketplace has a lot of stuff going on during the day. I’ve taken plenty of pictures.” Namjoon’s positive affirmation is enough to bring Jimin and Taehyung out of their shame.

 

Jimin leans over to Namjoon and Taehyung quietly retrieves his phone to snap more pictures.

 

“Thanks, Namjoon-ah!” Before Namjoon has time to realize what he’s doing, Jimin leans over and gives Namjoon a quick hug. Namjoon gets a quick whiff of Jimin’s scent and it reminds him of the cherry blossoms that grow in the greenhouse back at home. It’s sweet yet subtle. It wasn’t anything like Eight’s scent that forced you to pay attention.

 

Namjoon blushes, wondering why he is comparing the two.

 

Trying not to delve too much into it, he tries and fails to think of something to spark up a lengthy conversation.

 

Thankfully, Jimin relieves him of the task.

 

“Out of all the places you’ve visited, what was your favorite?” Namjoon is about to remark that he hasn’t visited many locations in the city but he decides to leave that part out.

 

“I love visiting the florist’s shop near the bakery. She has the prettiest flowers I’ve ever seen! My favorites are the blue sweet peas that she grows in her garden.” He remembers liking them so much, he discreetly plucked a few of them and gave them to Eight as a present. Yes, it’s wrong to steal but the look on Eight’s face was worth it. Being friends with Eight makes him want to be brave.

 

Jimin’s violet eyes shine like gems. “She lets you play in her garden?”

 

“Yeah. Her shop is attached to her house so she lets me play in her garden while she talks to my nanny.”

 

“Wow… that sounds nice. And you said it’s located where?”

 

“Near a bakery called ‘Maeve’s Goods’. You can’t miss it: big white letters and all.”

 

Jimin nods and taps the driver. He whispers something to her that Namjoon strains to hear. He catches the words “favor” and “florist”. Namjoon has a bad feeling he knows what they’re talking about and sure enough…

 

“Good news, Namjoon-ah. I convinced In-Sook Sunbaenim to make a detour towards that flower shop you like so much. You can show us the garden yourself.”

 

Namjoon doesn’t why he feels uneasy. It shouldn’t be such a big deal.

 

The florist’s shop is something that he shares with Eight. It’s where their friendship was born. Even if he knows Eight isn’t going to be there, he doesn’t want to share something so precious to them with strangers.

 

He doesn’t want to share Eight. It feels wrong somehow.

 

But he shakes it off. He’s being dramatic and for what? It’s not Eight will be there. It’s a Friday and she must be home, preparing dinner for her Eomma when she comes home from her job.

 

With luck, Jimin and Taehyung will become bored with it and never ask to come to the florist’s shop again.  

 

“Sounds great!”


 

The girl is in a foul mood today.

 

Hobi had shaken her awake earlier than the usual five o’clock this morning. After two whole years of this gig, her body’s internal clock was finally starting to get used to waking up at an ungodly hour only to have her blanket yanked off at four instead of five.

 

The girl viewed it as the ultimate betrayal that Hobi would ruin her sleep time when they had an arrangement.

 

Hoseok had told her that he had talked to his boss last Friday about the possibility of earning more cash if they pulled a double shift. For Hobi and the girl, that meant working until late afternoon.

 

Hobi had told that he wanted to get there a little earlier so they could find some tossed out food they could salvage before their boss got there.

 

At four in the morning, the last thing the girl cared about was making money. Hobi’s sunny voice was making her head pound. Why was this boy so chipper at four in the morning? What did he have to be so jolly about?

 

The girl briefly entertains the fantasy of ripping off Hobi’s nuts and shoving them down his throat. Let’s see how sunny he is when he’s choking on his testicles.

 

Hobi’s crotch was right there and the thoughts would’ve become actions if not for the single word her mind produced.

 

Alexei.

 

That name was powerful enough for her to climb out of bed without complaint.

 

About a couple of months ago, one of their human residents, a male infant, died in his sleep.

 

Alexei had only been with them for a year. One of the teenage girls had been coming home from her shift at a bar when she heard his cries in a nearby dumpster. She rushed him to the nearest clinic.

 

It had been touch and go, but the physicians gave him the green light. When the teenage girl brought him to the orphanage, Father Sebastian said that the children could keep him, but do not expect any type of assistance from him or the nuns. After the adults’ rejection, it became a unanimous decision that the children would do their best to raise the baby themselves.

 

All of the children, even slithery Astrid, had been taken with the little guy. Some of the teenage girls dubbed him Alexei, after Alexei Romanov. And like the famous Russian prince, Alexei had been sickly from the start.

 

The girl tries to remember Alexei the way she wants to: tightly curled black hair, soft brown skin, and huge brown doe eyes that could melt even the most stoic of men.

 

But her nightmares are plagued with the nights where Alexei wailed through the nights because the poor baby was in so much pain. She recalls how frail he had been in the end.

 

The children tried to give him what he needed, but what Alexei had couldn’t be cured with formula, warm clothes, or cough medicine.

 

The children had begged Father Sebastian to pay for Alexei to be treated at a hospital. But he had said was, “Just like Pontius Pilate, I have washed my hands of the entire matter. His fate in your hands.”

 

Alexei died soon after.

 

The children had placed his tiny body in a white shoebox and buried in a small clearing where the sun peaked through. Alexei always did giggle when he felt the sun rays caressed his cheeks.

 

After that, the kids all processed their grief through different mediums. The girl distracted herself by working with Hobi and becoming when she was with Namjoon. At that point, they were the only things keeping her going.

 

She is making progress though. She has finally stopped having nightmares about Alexei’s endless screams.

 

She knows that Hobi is taking on more than he should. He has dark circles under his eyes and he is quick to lose his temper. Hobi believes that there was something that he could’ve done for Alexei. He believes that if he had worked harder and earned more money, they could’ve afforded to give him the care he needed.

 

Hence his desire to go the extra mile lately.

 

But the girl chooses to indulge him because she doesn’t how else to comfort him. She has never been the best with words, but at least she can there for him.

 

And when he breaks, she will help him pick up the pieces.


 

“Remind me again, why am I carrying the Tupperware container while you’re holding onto the cash?”

 

Hobi and the girl are walking back to the orphanage after a long morning of working at the supermarket. They decided to cut through the forest behind the florist’s house since the commute back to the orphanage is faster.

 

Her feet feel are tender and her mouth is uncomfortably dry. At this point, she just wants to collapse onto her lumpy mattress and fall into a dead-like state.

 

On the bright side, they made twice as much as they usually would have and they harvested plenty of food.

 

The girl is honestly appalled at how much food goes to waste when kids like her are starving. That’s why she feels no guilt when she swipes the food placed in the bad pile. Why should she considered stealing when it was going to be thrown out anyway? Their supervisor doesn’t know about it and if he does, he looks the other way. The girl considers it a part of their revenue.

 

“Because this was your bright idea and I can’t be holding something that heavy. I’m just a kid. You’re the big strong leopard man. You do the math.”

 

“Kid my foot!” Hobi rolls his eyes. “At the rate you’re growing, you’ll be taller than me before the year ends. And you forget that I watch you nearly break a teenage boy’s arm because he was arm wrestling with you.”

 

“He had it comin,” the girl claims with a burgeoning smirk. “Acting he better than us just because he got a car and a fancy watch. I showed him, didn’t I?”

 

“Yeah, and we only had to run three blocks when his friends tried to jump us.”

 

“Hey, that’ll teach him to mess with the, as he said, the pathetic or—”

 

“Eight?”

 

The girl stops dead in her tracks.

 

She must be imagining things. He isn’t here. It’s Friday. This is real, this isn’t—

 

“Eight!” She can smell that sweet peachy scent that usually makes her heart beat a little faster. Now it turns her stomach.

 

She hears the familiar tempo of his gait as his scent grows ever closer, along with two other scents that she doesn’t recognize.

 

“So, it looks like I will finally be able to meet the famous Namjoon you meet every week?” Hoseok whispers, amused with the situation. But the girl finds nothing funny about this.

 

She worked so hard to keep her two worlds separate and now a simple encounter is threatening to tip the balance she created.

 

Stay calm, she orders herself. Maybe if she plays her cards right, she can fudge her way through this calamity and Namjoon would be none the wiser of the truth.

 

Hobi will back her. He’ll be rightfully pissed at her, but he’ll back her.

 

Reinforced with this knowledge, she turns around to face Namjoon. The two boys standing beside him once again throw her off her stride.

 

The way they’re dressed suggests that they are rich like Namjoon is. She notices the way the smaller boy clings onto Namjoon’s hand. His cute face curled up in suspicion.

 

The girl hates him instantly.

 

“Hey, Peaches! I um, uh… w-wasn’t expecting you today,” the girl chuckles nervously. When the girl refers to Namjoon as “Peaches”, the small boy’s eyes narrow and now leans his body onto Namjoon’s like he is a warm furnace.

 

Anxiety forgotten, the girl balls up her fist and struggles against the impulse to rip the boy away from Namjoon.

 

“Um… who are your friends?”

 

Namjoon startles like he forgot the boys are there.

 

“Right! Um, this is Park Jimin—”

 

“His new best friend,” the tiny boy snarls out in an impossibly adorable voice. Namjoon glares at Jimin and tries to wriggle out of his grasp, but Jimin just grips on tighter.

 

The girl now wants to punch the midget in the eye. The only best friend Namjoon has is her. And no obnoxious, prissy, little snot like Jimin is going to take him away from her.

 

Namjoon sees the way Eight is squinting at Jimin and knows that Jimin does not realize the danger is he putting himself in. He should’ve listened to his gut and refused to come here.

 

“And this,” he intervenes, sensing a fight brewing, “is Kim Taehy—”

 

“I know you.”

 

These are the first words that Taehyung has spoken all day. He is pointing a long skinny finger at something.

 

Shocked, Namjoon follows his finger to its general direction.

 

“How do you know Eight?”

 

Taehyung frowns. “Who?”

 

I’m dreaming, the girl dimly thinks. This has to be a bad dream. That’s the only explanation for this. Or else, this is God’s idea of a cruel joke.

 

Because how else could she explain this?

 

She doesn’t pay much attention to adoption days anymore. They all end the same. But for multiple reasons, she remembers the adoption day that took place two years ago.

 

And that is why she is staring in absolute horror at the tiger shifter or Taehyung.

 

“Her name isn’t Eight. She doesn’t have a name.”

Chapter Text

“That’s crazy talk!” Namjoon protests, outraged shock coating his outburst. “Of course, Eight has a name. Everybody is given a name at birth. It would be weird if she didn’t.”

 

The girl plants her feet into the itchy earth below her. It’s the only she can stop herself from shrinking into herself.

 

Namjoon’s expression remains obstinate, ignorant of the damage he has just inflicted.

 

Of course, he would think it weird for someone to be born without a name. In his world, if something or someone doesn’t have a name, it doesn’t exist. A ghost, a superstition, a nobody. In the girl’s mind, a person doesn’t have worth if they don’t have a name to be called by.

 

How glorious it must be to matter and have worth.

 

“Taehyung is not crazy!” The pint-sized runt bites out. His cheeks flush beet red in anger and he lets go of Namjoon’s hand. “He’s my friend and he has never lied to me,” he throws a pointed look at the girl, “If he tells me he knows this girl then I believe him.”

 

This is going downhill so fast the girl can barely keep up. She should say something to defend herself. She looks guilty just standing here taking all of the accusations. But she foolishly never thought this day would come. And so, she never prepared herself for the day her lie would hunt her.

 

All she can do is stand rooted to the spot and watch Namjoon needlessly defend the guilty party.

 

“Well…” Taehyung hesitates, looking vastly uncomfortable with being put on the spot. “It’s not like we were friends. I just saw her around sometimes.”

 

“Uh-huh,” Namjoon agrees. “So, you can’t say you really know her then.”

 

“I guess not…”

 

“Case closed!” Namjoon yells; a satisfied glint of pleasure in his eyes as his voice echoes through the trees.

 

The girl perks up: was she worried for nothing? Although she feels guilty for letting Namjoon fight her battles, she can’t deny feeling relieved and maybe a little silly about being so worried. Taehyung doesn’t clearly remember her and her other life can remain a secret.

 

“When I was still living at the orphanage, I remember that we were all a little bit afraid of her.”

 

Namjoon gasps.

 

The girl nearly vomits.

 

Jimin looks smug.

 

For a moment, there is a standstill. No one knows what to say.

 

“That’s not true!” There is a touch of desperation in Namjoon’s tone. “Eight isn’t an orphan. She lives with her Eomma in a little house, just outside this forest. That’s why she knows her way in the forest. Her Appa died during the wars so it’s just the two of them. Her Eomma works during the day at a grocery store and can’t afford to put her in school right now. Eight sometimes goes to the store to help her.” Namjoon is babbling and his face is becoming flushed from the exertion. The girl swears she hears something break inside her.

 

“Her name is Eight because she was born on her parent’s eighth wedding anniversary. She loves comic books and fairytales, she likes cats better than dogs, her favorite color is silver, and she’s my best friend!” His voice cracks and the first tears escape his eyes.

 

“Oh kid…” The girl flinches. She almost forgot that Hobi is standing beside her. She doesn’t dare glance up at him but she doesn’t have to see him to hear the disappointment in his tone. She can feel his body heat radiating off him and briefly plays with the idea of signaling him to help her out of this mess.

 

She wisely refrains.

 

“Namjoon-ah…” Jimin takes Namjoon’s face in his delicate hands and gently wipe away the tears from his flushed face. The girl wants to yell at him to not touch her friend. She fantasizes about breaking his fingers and watching him wail but her imaginings remain just that.

 

“Taehyungie and I have lived together for a long time. I know everything about him and he knows everything about me; so, I know that he would never lie to me. That’s how I know your ‘friend’ is tricking you.”

 

“She’s not!” Namjoon insists, pulling away from Jimin’s hands. “Me and Eight have been friends for a long time too. That’s how I know that she would never lie to me. Taehyung-ssi must’ve got the wrong person.” He turns to face Eight and tries to ignore the sick feeling in his gut when she refuses to look at him. “C’mon, Eight, tell ‘em. Tell ‘em that they got it all wrong. I know you would never lie to me.”

 

The girl knows what Namjoon is expecting. He thinks that this is another one of their numerous games.

 

During their many playdates, the girl would bring the raggedly DC comic books Hobi would lend her so that she could practice reading with Namjoon. At least, that’s was the original intention.

 

They would spend what felt like hours pouring over the riveting artwork that, in their eyes, would leap off the worn pages. Or better yet, the children would be sucked into the books. They would sometimes travel to the treacherous slums of Gotham City and Hell’s Kitchen, fly and have lunch on top of the Daily Planet headquarters, or dashing over to Central City to have a race with the Flash.

 

Eight and Namjoon would often read the vintage stories together and when they were done, they would reenact the story but with them as the clever sidekicks that always got the main hero out of sticky situations. Namjoon was the wolf boy and Eight was the strong and fast one. Sometimes they would forego the medium of comic book heroes and just be superheroes. The forest was their playground and the squirrels and rabbits were their villains. 

 

Namjoon is waiting for the girl to swoop in and fix this mess and tell Taehyung he’s got the wrong girl; to tell these outsiders to leave their secret world. He wants her to be his Eight once more.

 

But the girl he knows as Eight is nothing more but a trick of the light; something he only imagined.

 

A mask.

 

A fake.

 

“Whadda you waiting for, Eight? Tell them.” His face, God help her, his face is filled with so much expectation; so innocent in his faith. She has to look away, she doesn’t deserve it.

 

As she continues to stay silent, Namjoon’s confident expression wavers.

 

“Come on, Eight. This isn’t funny anymore. You’re scaring me…” He tries to smile like he meant it as a joke, but his eyes gleam with the truth.

 

Namjoon doesn’t understand why Eight is acting like this. Is this some kind of joke? Did she conspire with Jimin, Taehyung, and this tall kid to play some mean-spirited prank on him?

 

He dispels the thought as soon as it comes.

 

For one, Eight couldn’t have met Jimin and Taehyung before he did and even if she did, she wouldn’t pull such a nasty joke on him just for the heck of it.

 

But that’s the only logical explanation he can think of to justify this unexpected bout of chaos. And Eight is acting like his Nintendo when it’s running low on power. It’s like all the strength has been zapped out of her body.

 

“Eight?” He calls her name again, hoping to revive her with the sound of his voice. Maybe he could ask the big kid standing next to her, but he wants Eight herself to make sense of this nonsense and set Jimin and Taehyung straight.

 

Because if his joke theory is wrong and Eight refuses to answer his questions, there is only one other option and if it’s true…

 

No. No, it couldn’t be. “Eight!”

 

It’s not true. She wouldn’t trick him like that and let him believe in her lies for so long at that. “Eight!”

 

She has saved him from not only danger but from the beastly hold of his loneliness. She probably never realized that her presence saved him even when they weren’t together. His constant companion for the last two years. “Eight!”

 

Why would she lie to him though? If she was an orphan, she has to know that he would’ve still chosen to be her friend no matter what. It wouldn’t have mattered to him. “Eight!”

 

How could it when he loves her so much?

 

“Eight!”

 

The girl that looks up at him is not Eight.

 

Eight is bold, vibrant, and beautiful. There is a self-assured, almost cocky, aura that envelopes her every time he sees her. She rarely had a frown on her face other than the times she is concentrating on reading.

 

The girl standing in front of him is empty.

 

Where Eight’s eyes are filled to the brim with life and energy, this girl’s eyes are flat and despondent. Eight has a constant, easy smile on her face whereas it seems like this girl’s face is etched into a permanent frown. He has seldom seen Eight cry but the tears come easily to this girl.

 

The tears continue to fall, the girl steadies her glassy, remorseful eyes on Namjoon.

 

She can only rasp out, “I’m sorry.”

 

The girl doesn’t hear or sense anything else as she directs all her energy towards Namjoon. Her apology is meager in quality and two years too late to offer. But it’s all she has.

 

She is rewarded with the sight of Namjoon’s bright eyes becoming spaced out and cloudy as her words filter in his psyche. And when they do, his face falls as he lowers his head. Because she focusing so hard on Namjoon, she can hear his tears plopping onto the grass below.

 

I did that, the girl thinks distantly. She destroyed him. She destroyed them.

 

She wants to run over to him and comfort him but two things hold her back: one, Jimin has wrapped himself around Namjoon and placed Namjoon’s head on his shoulder. Two, how can she give comfort and hurt at the same time?

 

It’s then that she realizes that Taehyung is talking. Again.

 

He is explaining how the orphanage worked and how some kids weren’t given a name while others, like him, were. He tells them that there is a clearing that the orphanage is just on the other side of these woods. And then he talks about the girl.

 

“The adults didn’t know what to do about her and neither did we. All of the kids kept out of her way because we were all a little afraid of her. Something about her wasn’t right. I remember right before I was adopted, there was a rumor going around that she hissed in her sleep. You wouldn’t believe how scared I was when they forced me to sit with her—"

 

“Alright, back it up!” Hoseok had sat back because he believed that the girl needed to handle this mess even though a large part of him wanted to play peacemaker and make everything alright. But he wasn’t about to sit back and let this entitled little shit bash her. It didn’t matter if he used to be one of them.

 

“Maybe if you and the rest of those fuckers had actually tried to get to know her instead of investing your time into making up some outlandish shit as an excuse to alienate her, you would know that none of it is true.”

 

Hoseok rarely allowed others to see him enraged. He wanted to be known as who he is as a person. He didn’t want to be defined by his animal ego. He knew that predators were stereotyped as being macho, arrogant, and ill-tempered sons of bitches and he had been trying his damndest to go against the grain. But his need to protect the girl is stronger than his want to protect his reputation.

 

Yes, he knows this ultimately the girl’s bed to lie in, but that didn’t mean he would let her get slandered while she made the descent.

 

The boy’s, Taehyung’s, eyes went wide in disconcertion as he flushed in what might’ve been a shame. The other boy, Jimin, glared at Hoseok. “Don’t you yell at him! She’s the liar here, not Taehyung. He’s only trying to tell the truth. How dare you speak to him like that?”

 

“And I don’t know where you get the King Kong-sized balls to insert yourself into a conversation that has jackshit to do with you! I was not looking at you nor talking to you. Whole reason this is happening is that you couldn’t and your little friend couldn’t keep your noses out of shit that ain’t got nothing to do with you! This is between me and the boy. Butt out!”

 

“And if I don’t?” Jimin lifts his chin in haughty defiance. Hoseok’s eyes lighten from dark brown to navy blue. “Or I’ll make you,” he threatens in a guttural growl. Although Jimin’s expression remains stubborn, he takes a step back.

 

The girl elects to tune out Jimin and Hoseok’s squabbling to focus on Taehyung. She takes in his dark brown hair that has golden highlights when the sun touches it, the hazel eyes that were now a golden brown, the perfect honey-brown skin, and his pleasing strawberry scent.

 

She can’t help comparing herself to him. And when she did, her feelings for the boy shifted from fear to a jealous rage.

 

He has everything she has ever wanted: a home, guaranteed food, and two adults that both loved and wanted him around.

 

Father Sebastian never hesitated to remind her that no one wanted her. He would remind of the day that they found her as a toddler, abandoned on the steps of the institution. “You ought to be on your knees in servitude to me,” he would taunt. “I could’ve let you freeze to death in the wilderness that your whore of a mother left you in.”

 

Taehyung has everything she could only dream of having and now because of him, Namjoon is slipping out of her feeble grasp.

 

How dare he?

 

She wouldn’t let the likes of him or Jimin take away her wolf. She’d destroy anything that took him away from her.

 

As if sensing her morbid thoughts, Taehyung glances her way. What he finds has him blanching under his tanned complexion.

 

As he should be.

 

The images come to her mind like a projector displaying a silent film in a retro movie theater: Herself, except several inches taller and meaner, backhanding Taehyung so hard that he flew off the ground and collided with a nearby tree. He shrieks in pain as his head snaps back with a sickening crunch and then he collapses to the ground. He doesn’t get back.

 

With Jimin, the girl imagines herself picking up the irritatingly pretty boy by his blonde hair till he is hanging in the air. She can see him flailing uselessly around as he sobs out his agony. The girl punches Jimin repeatedly in the face. The girl can almost feel the satisfying ache in her knuckles as her fist continuously meet soft bone and cartilage. She wouldn’t stop, even for the way he whimpers out bloodied pleas for mercy as her fist makes dents in his skull and his nose caves into his nasal cavity.

 

And after they—she gets rid of the problem; nothing will stand in the way of her and Namjoon ever again.

 

Multiple scenarios like this played out in her head as her stare bores into Taehyung’s aghast eyes.

 

Namjoon doesn’t what prompts him to lift his head and gaze at Eight or whoever she is. But whatever he is expecting does not brace him to witness Taehyung with tears and mucus coating his face as he babbles. So great his fright, he shudders and gone is the lanky boy and in his place is a tiger cub. Taehyung the tiger gets tangled in his clothes in his haste to get away from whatever has scared him so bad.

 

Baffled, Namjoon turns to Eight and immediately understands Taehyung’s fear.

 

Eight has vanished and has been replaced with a creature of undiluted wrath. Hatred contorts her pretty face into a snarl so severe it threatens to fracture the contours of her face. Her scent’s potency takes on a feral edge that somehow both intrigues and scares Namjoon.

 

And her eyes…

 

Gone is the yellow shade that Namjoon associated with sunshine, sunflowers, and happiness. Her eyes are now an unearthly jade color. It’s almost as if someone or something else has occupied her body. Namjoon knows that he is supposed to be apprehensive of the being in front of him. And yet his instincts tell him not to be afraid of her. She wouldn’t harm him.

 

But he has been wrong before.

 

Anyhow, Jimin and the older boy are arguing so loudly that they fail to notice the events unfolding.

 

Eight seems to be in a trance. Although Namjoon doesn’t want to, he speaks to her.

 

“Eight?” She blinks and twitches as if she is fighting off a chill.

 

Namjoon tries again. “Eight!” This time, her head jerks back as if she has been slapped square across the face.

 

Namjoon’s voice stops Jimin and the older boy’s bickering.

 

For a moment, everyone is still, aside from the spooked tiger continuously fighting his clothe prison.

 

Jimin inhales big gulps of air. His verbal battle had left him slightly out of breath. But all thoughts of breathing vanish when he hears the panicked growls coming from the pile of clothes.

 

“Taehyung!” Jimin leaps to the heap and carefully withdraws the struggling striped cat. Taehyung, recognizing Jimin’s scent, curls into him and starts shaking. Jimin coos and pets the tiger in an attempt to calm him down; all while glaring at the troublemaker who causes all this discord.

 

“You did this, didn’t you?” He seethes. “You did this to my friend.”

 

“I-I…” The girl, whose eyes are now back to yellow, feels like she is coming out of a dream. She remembers being angry but she can’t remember anything else past that. Her anger and despair flooded the vestibules of her mind and when it evaporated, any memory of what occurred vanished.

 

Hobi kneels in front of her and grasps her shoulders. “Kid, are you alright? What happened?” The girl opens her mouth to give some crappy excuse when Jimin bellows, “Look at what she did to Taehyung!” The blonde boy’s cheeks are flushed and his eyes could strike fear into the steadiest of men. He turns to Namjoon. “Namjoon-ah,” his voice now sweet as honey, “don’t see what this girl? She’s made you look stupid and she hurt my friend.”

 

Hobi’s concerned face turns murderous as he stands back up and rounds on Jimin. “If I told you once, I have told you a million times that you are not going to talk about her like she is nothing. She didn’t lay a hand on him.”

 

“She did something to him,” Jimin insists, suspicion ripe in his tone. “I know she did.”

 

“How could she have done anything when—”

 

“STOP!”

 

Namjoon’s shout is enough to shut both Jimin and the boy up. Once Namjoon is sure that they will remain quiet, he turns to Eight.

 

Namjoon’s face is calm yet stern at the same time. The boy that the girl met two years ago would’ve been too scared to pull off the look she sees now.

 

He is growing up. The girl could not be prouder.

 

But along with pride comes dread; because along with the stern and calm, there is distrust.

 

“Did you lie about everything?” he asks, point-blank.

 

The girl doesn’t answer. She doesn’t have to.

 

Namjoon’s facial armor crumbles and the tears fall come down his face. “Who are you?” he whispers.

 

That’s a loaded question. The girl couldn’t answer him even if she wanted to. But she tries anyway. Key word being try.

 

“I…”

 

“Don’t lie,” Namjoon snaps out, “Tell me the truth for once. Who. Are. You?”

 

As pathetic as it sounds, the girl starts weeping too. She can feel Namjoon and her friendship tearing at the seams. And she has no one to blame but herself.

 

“WHO ARE YOU?!” Namjoon screams, finally losing patience.

 

“I’m your friend!” she responds and she knows it to be true. For all the lies she told, she never doubted that she saw Namjoon as her best friend.

 

“You’re not!” Namjoon wails. How could she be his friend when she lied to him so much? He crouches down and begins to rock. “You’re not… you’re not…” he chants in between sobs. Jimin tries to lay a hand on him but Namjoon pulls away.

 

The girl is in no better shape. She feels the weight of what she has done as her vision mists over.  

 

“I’m so sorry, Namjoon,” she moans, “I’m so sorry.” She finds herself sobbing into Hobi’s arms. She doesn’t fight the embrace and sobs her anguish and regret onto his waiting shoulder.

 

Namjoon wishes this day had never happened. If it didn’t, he wouldn’t have met Jimin and Taehyung and he could’ve gone on being none the wiser to Eight’s deception. Everything would be as it should’ve been.

 

Maybe he should wish that he never met Eight in the first place but that wouldn’t be true. While he can’t stand the sight of her and what she did, he doesn’t regret a single moment of their time together. She saved him and he loves her even though she broke his heart and betrayed his trust.

 

But even though he loves her, he doesn’t want to be around her right now.

 

After standing up and wiping his nose on his arm, he stumbles out of the forest, Jimin close behind him with Taehyung in his arms. He knows that he will hear Eight’s cries long after he leaves the forest.


 

The following week, neither Eight nor Namjoon go to the forest on Monday and/or Thursday. And they keep up the new routine for the following weeks. Both kids too afraid to run into each other or worst, one of them shows up and the other doesn’t appear.

 

The girl knows that Namjoon probably never wants to see her again, but she can’t but wish that she could see him one last time; for no other reason to explain why she lied. But she doesn’t think that her wish will be granted.

 

And yet, sure enough, the girl’s wish is granted.

 

Just not in the way she imagined.

Chapter Text

Kim Seokjin likes to think of himself as a man that does not make mistakes.

 

In his four years of being King of the Tuhan Kingdoms, he has navigated his way through press conferences, treaty dealings, and budget cuts. He tries to be a King that his little brother can look up to with pride. Seokjin is fully aware that he is still a rookie in his kingship but he thinks that for the most part, he is doing a bang up job. He also knows that many people assume that just because he is young and that he came into his role through tragedy that he is primed to be a target for corruption and manipulation.

 

First year of his reign, his naysayers, the nobility, and even the twitter trolls learned real quick that he was nobody’s fool. After his doubters got over the humiliation of having crow shoved down their throats, that was when the reluctant respect and loyalty started to accumulate.

 

Needless to say, that as a king, Seokjin is confident as fuck.

 

Once upon a time, he was confident in his role as a big brother.

 

But when his “informants” told him that Namjoon rushed to his room in tears after a day with his “gifts”, he’s not so sure anymore.

 

Seokjin isn’t blind. He saw the hesitation and doubt on Namjoon’s face when he met Jimin and Taehyung. But Namjoon is naturally shy around new people and it takes him a minute to adjust but once he did, he would start to adorably ramble about the latest thing he learned or watch on National Geographic. Seokjin thought it would be no different with Jimin and Taehyung.

 

But when he checked on his brother later on that night, Namjoon was asleep but the moonlight coming through his window highlighted the tear tracks and the clear, crusted snot drying up under his nose.

 

The next day, he tried to coax Namjoon into revealing what happened yesterday afternoon to leave him so distressed, but Namjoon was tightlipped about it. The same result happened when he asked Ji-Seok to speak to Jimin and Taehyung. You’d think with the number of times Seokjin has covertly binge-watched “Iyanla, Fix My Life”, he would be a master on how to handle his moody eight-year-old brother.

 

Seokjin had internally pouted. At that age, one of a kid’s biggest concerns was not looking like a snitch.

 

Seokjin knows the boy isn’t physically hurt. He had their family physician check him for injuries the next day after the mystery disaster. No. His baby brother’s hurt isn’t something that can be patched up with Band-Aids. Nevertheless, Seokjin knew that he couldn’t force Namjoon to talk if he didn’t want to.

 

Maybe he just needs time, the king thought. Perhaps this was something that the boy needed to sort through himself. Though his gut was telling him a different story, Seokjin tried his best to believe Namjoon would be alright.


 

A month goes by and Namjoon is not alright.

 

While some kids lash out at the world when they go through periods of trauma and despondency, Namjoon fell into another category: he started to go deeper into himself.

 

In the span of what feels like a millisecond, Seokjin watches as his bright, cheerful Namjoonie’s fire continues to die out.

 

After his lessons, Namjoon would usually go watch something on Animal Planet or explore the Greenhouse. Now he just goes straight to his room and doesn’t come out for hours. During a guardian-teacher conference with Namjoon’s tutor, he learns that while Namjoon does do his homework and his grades are stellar as usual, his customary enthusiasm is missing. He hasn’t gone outside in so long he looks pale underneath his tan skin.

Seokjin decides that enough is enough. He has given his brother his space and now it’s time for a talk.

 

Although it takes quite a bit of finagling on his part, he successfully rearranges his schedule so he can give Namjoon his full attention. Standing outside his door, Seokjin is oddly nervous. This is something he has never been good at. Seokjin is the fun Hyung, the cool Hyung, the swag Hyung. He’s not the “let me listen to you spill all your problems to me and then I’ll give a rousing speech while some cheesy ass 90s music from fucking Family Matters plays in the background (A/N: No shade, I love Family Matters)” Hyung.

 

Overall, he has been lucky so far. Namjoon has always been self-sufficient even from an early age and didn’t need that much coddling. But now, Namjoon needed him and he wouldn’t let him down.

 

What would his Eomma do in this situation, he wonders as he turns the knob to Namjoon’s door. Unbidden, an image of his mother enters his mind. The image he sees is before… everything had happened: long silver hair and intelligent silver eyes, tall and slender, and deep dimples. Seokjin sees so much of their mother in Namjoon.

 

With these bittersweet thoughts, he enters Namjoon’s room.

 

Seokjin doesn’t know why he was expecting to see his brother doing something dangerous but he holds back a sigh of relief when he finds Namjoon sitting hunched over his desk, doing his homework.

 

Seokjin beats his knuckles against the door, announcing his presence. “Namjoonie? Can I come in?”

 

Namjoon had already heard and smelt his Hyung mulling outside his room so he wasn’t startled by his presence. Without turning his head, he answers with little to no inflection in his voice, “Sure Hyung.”

 

Seokjin quietly meanders to the mahogany desk and leans a hip on it. For a prolonged moment, silence dominates the room aside from the scratch, scratch, scratch of Namjoon’s pencil on the moving against the worksheet.

 

For someone that had once made a lively conversation about lead paint, Seokjin is grappling for words. So, in his desperation to cease the silence, he asks, “Whatcha working on?”

 

“Homework.”

 

Seokjin frowns but then smiles, feeling himself begin to unwind. He pokes his gangly middle finger on the side of Namjoon’s head. “Yah, I can see that, smart guy. What type of homework is it?”

 

Namjoon tries to hide his grin but Seokjin catches it. “Math. I’m working on adding and subtracting mixed fractions.” Seokjin’s jaw drops. That level of math is reserved for sixth or seventh graders. Hell, Namjoon is supposed to still be learning what numerators and denominators are.

 

Seokjin himself didn’t grasp the concept till he was in the ninth grade.

 

“Since when do you know fractions?”

 

“Since last week, Hyung. Tutor Lawrence says since I learned fractions so fast, he wanted to see how I would do with some more advanced work. I think I’m getting it.” The way Namjoon says it so nonchalantly ruffles the feathers of Seokjin’s pride. So much so, he offers, “Well, if you need any help, you know you can always come to me.” Admittedly, Seokjin is offering for selfish reasons. He wanted to flex his math smarts. What he isn’t expecting is for Namjoon to bust out laughing like a loon.

 

“No offense, Hyung, but the last time I asked you to help me with my math homework, you said that one times one is five.”

 

Seokjin feels the tips of his ears burn. He can’t believe that Namjoon still remembers that. Here he is trying to be Uncle Phil and this little shit is making him look like Boo Boo the clown.

 

“Yah!” Seokjin squawks. “I had had back to back meetings all day. I was tired and you come to my room at around one in the morning, asking about some daggone time tables. What did you want me to do?” He can actually feel a vein starting to form on his forehead. “Besides, I thought that the question was what was one raised to the fifth power that’s why I said five.” As soon as Seokjin divulges this bit of information, he wishes he could wire his jaw shut with some barbed wire.

 

Even if one was raised to the millionth power it would still be one. Any idiot who knows power math should know this.

 

Luckily for Seokjin, Namjoon is too busy laughing to comment, so maybe he hadn’t heard the last bit hopefully.

 

Namjoon is laughing.

 

It’s been so long since Seokjin has heard that delightfully squeaky laugh of his that he doesn’t mind making a jackass of himself if it means that Namjoon is happy.

 

Once the laughter fades, Seokjin knows this is his opportunity to shift the light-hearted mood. Before he can protest, Seokjin gathers Namjoon into his arms, lifting him out of his seat.

 

“Hyung…” Namjoon whines. He thinks that since he has turned eight, he is getting too old for cuddles. Seokjin only tightens his hold. “I missed you, Namjoonie.”

 

“Why? I didn’t go anywhere.”

 

“It feels like you have, pup. You’ve been so sad lately.” Namjoon tenses. “It seems like ever since your birthday, something’s been bugging you. And can’t help but feel like I may have caused it by blindsiding you with Jimin and Taehyung. Was it my fault? You won’t hurt my feelings if it is.”

 

There’s a pause, and then Namjoon burst into tears. Long, reedy, angst-filled sobs rack his tiny body.

 

Yes, Seokjin thinks as he rocks his brother side to side. It’s better this way. Seokjin scoops his brother into his arms and shuffles them over to the bed where they can be comfortable.

 

“I’m sorry, Hyung,” Namjoon mewls in between sobs, “I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

 

“No, no,” Seokjin kisses Namjoon’s forehead. “You don’t have to apologize, I’m just worried is all. Something is hurting you and I want to get to the bottom of it.” Namjoon doesn’t answer aside from the whimpering and sniffling.

 

“Sometimes it helps to talk it out.”

 

Namjoon is still for a minute and then lifts his head from his Hyung’s shoulder. Before he can wipe his nose on his arm, Seokjin sacrifices his Versace shirt to wipe the mucus from under his brother’s nose.

 

“If I tell you, you have to promise that you won’t get mad, okay?”

 

“I promise that I will not get mad.” He holds out his pinky towards Namjoon as a sign of good faith. Satisfied, Namjoon links his pinkie with his.

 

Taking a deep breath, Namjoon launches into the tale of how he met a girl named Eight.


 

Hoseok is at his wits’ end.

 

Day after day he has watched the life being sucked out of the girl. When that boy and his friends left them in the woods, she carried on crying for hours, only mumbling that she was sorry, over and over again. She only stopped when she passed out, resting her cheek on Hoseok’s shoulder.

 

After that, she had nightmares for weeks. Her endless agonized pleas sent fear into the unfortunate children who were in her general vicinity.

 

Once the nightmares ended, the girl then deflated like a helium balloon. She abandoned her daily routine of helping Hoseok at the grocery store for lying in bed. Unfortunately for the girl, that resulted in her getting multiple punishments nearly every day.

 

Hoseok did his best to wrestle the girl out of bed before the nuns, or worse, Father Sebastian got their hands on her again. Unfortunately, despite Hoseok’s efforts, he could only sneak into the girls’ hall so many times before someone caught wind and snitched on him.

 

Worse still, the girl just didn’t seem to care anymore.

 

Unless someone was dragging her out of bed and forcing her to do something, the girl would lie on her bed, staring into space for hours at a time.

 

No stinging palm or behind, restriction of meals, or multiple trips to the isolation room fazed her. Nobody and nothing could get through to her.

 

It’s only when Hoseok overhears some of the girls the girl rooms with complaining about her one day does he realize he needs to intercede.

 

It had started out with their usual bellyaching which Hoseok had let pass through one ear and out the other, but he focused in when he heard how thin she was getting. He briefly considered cashing in a favor from a female acquaintance to sneak the girl a little snack from the kitchen when they went on.

 

“Ugh, I am seriously about to ask Sister Henrietta to transfer me to another room.”

 

“Grace, you know it doesn’t work like that.”

 

“I don’t care!” Grace whined. “If I have to go another day sleeping in a piss-smelling room, I’m going to be sick.”

 

“Right? You’d think the little monster would’ve been house trained enough to know how to deposit her junk into a toilet bowl, not her bed. Next time, she can change her own sheets.”

 

Understanding that the severity of the girl’s depression, Hoseok decides to remedy the problem tomorrow morning.

 

Perhaps through nothing but divine intervention, Hoseok is able to sneak the girl out of the orphanage with minimal trouble. The girl herself doesn’t seem to care whether or not she is being dragged out of bed. She is content to let Hoseok drag her around like a rag doll.

 

It’s late Thursday morning and everybody is busy with their chores. Hoseok sees it as the perfect opportunity to slip away for a few hours unnoticed.

 

Once they are deep enough in the forest, Hoseok lets go of the girl’s hand. He listens for noise, ensuring that they are alone and then he turns around.

 

The girl’s eyes are bugging out of her skull, her whole body is vibrating, tears gushing out of her eyes, and her voice is the equivalent of a malfunctioning record player.

 

Hoseok can only stare in confusion and alarm. What on earth could’ve caused such a react—

 

And then it hits him. Hoseok is such a dumbass.

 

This is the same place she lost her best friend. Her worst fears came to live here. This place is probably what torments her when she dares to enter the REM state.

 

Hoseok wants to ram his head against a random block of concrete for not properly thinking this through, but he doesn’t have time for that.

 

Beside him with panic, he clumsily falls to his knees in front of the girl and frantically wipes her face with his thumbs.

 

“It’s alright,” he chants, “It’s alright, baby. Nothing out here is going to hurt you. I won’t let them, I promise. You’re safe.”

 

The girl doesn’t respond, just continues to mumble something incoherent. Mixed in with her hyperventilating, it’s almost impossible to decode.

 

Puzzled, Hoseok leans on the leopard inside him to aid interpret the girl’s incessant ramblings.

 

Finally, “I’m bad… I’m bad… I’m bad.”

 

“Oh,” Hoseok sighs, feeling his chest tighten in sympathetic pain. “Baby, you’re not bad. I know you’re not. You just made a mistake.”

 

“Yesh I am!” the girl shrieks, voice thickened by saliva and tears. “Everyone says I am, so it must be true. If I was a good girl, Namjoon would still be my friend. But I lied to him. Good girls don’t lie…” the rest of her speech gets cut off as she breaks back into tears.

 

Hoseok brings her head to his shoulder as he searches for a way to calm her down.

 

“Kid,” he starts, “you forget that I was there. I saw the look on that boy’s face. Yes, he was angry. But he was also sad and confused. And bet that he misses you as much as you miss him.”

 

The girl gives a watery scoff. “Yeah, right. He probably hates me now.”

 

“Maybe,” Hoseok agrees, not wanting to give her false hope. “And maybe not. Perhaps your friendship isn’t completely broken.”

 

“But what if it is?” The girl lifts her head from Hoseok’s shoulder. Her eyes are red-rimmed. “What if I never see him again?”

 

“Well…” Hoseok shrugs. “Then maybe it wasn’t meant to be and he was only meant to be in your life for that long.”  

 

The girl sniffles, contemplating his words. It isn’t exactly what she wanted to hear when she asked that question. “But hey,” Hoseok cups her chin between his thumb and forefinger so that he can level a stare directly into her eyes.

 

“Although you may have lost Namjoon, I will always be your friend. No matter what.”

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

The girl never realized until now how selfish she was acting.

 

All this time, she has been mourning the death of her relationship with Namjoon. In her grief, nothing had seemed to matter anymore. She was alone again.

 

And all the while she was bemoaning her woes, she failed to realize that she was never truly alone.

 

Memory after memory flits through her mind: Hobi standing up for her against Astrid and those kids, and even Kim Taehyung and Park Jimin; Hobi giving her a chance to feel useful by allowing her to accompany him to his odd jobs; Hobi, sweet, gentle, compassionate Hobi being her friend even when she had been less than deserving.

 

And suddenly, the idea of losing Namjoon doesn’t hurt as much as it used to.

 

She wraps her arms around him and squeezes as hard as she can. “I’ll always be your friend too, Hobi. I promise.” The girl thinks this is a very touching moment so she is a little offended that Hobi is not reciprocating her hug.

 

“Kid, I am very happy you feel that way. But you are choking the life out of me with them iron bars. Let go, okay?” Sure enough, when the girl peeked, Hobi’s cheeks are beet red.

 

“Oh, sorry!” The girl giggles. And God, if that isn’t the most wonderful sound Hobi has ever heard.

 

He gives his trademark sunny smile and feels like his world is being shifted back into place. He grazes his hand on her cheek. “Do you feel better?”

 

The girl nods.

 

“Good! Alright, let’s head back now.”

 

“Actually, I think I’m going to stay here for a minute. I’ll catch up later.”

 

Hoseok’s eyebrows furrow. His instincts are telling him to stay with her. “You sure?”

 

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

 

“Alright. Don’t be too long. I am not cleaning the pews all by myself.”

 

“You know what? I am a bit tired. Maybe I’ll just take a nap here.” The girl drags out a long, obnoxious snore.

 

It gets the desired effect and Hoseok chuckles. “Yeah, yeah.”

 

Hoseok jogs back to the orphanage, smiling all the way. He had done it. He had brought the girl out of her funk. The chances of her seeing Namjoon are close to nil and she needed to face it if she is going to heal. Hoseok has a good feeling that with time, she would forget about the boy and be the better for it.

 

But Hoseok is wrong about one thing.

 

As he continues on his way back to the orphanage, he doesn’t realize that he unintentionally lied about one thing.  

 

There are things out in the woods that can hurt you.  

Chapter Text

The girl watches Hobi shrink from her vision. Then she falls back onto the itchy, soft earth, not caring about the dirt that is probably getting stuck in the tiny coils of her hair. She inhales deeply through her nose, allowing the various scents to assaulting her senses. The wind softly grazes her clothes.

 

It’s amazing how much better she feels. It’s no wonder Hobi is so respected at the orphanage. Not for the first time she wonders why he chose to latch onto her the way he did. He definitely didn’t gain any notoriety from being her friend, she knows that.

 

What did he see in her that made him wanna be around her? But then again, the same could be asked for Namjoon. Was he just so lonely he latched onto the first kid he saw?

 

The girl frowns at this. She doesn’t believe that Namjoon was that desperate. And besides, they had been friends for two years; wouldn’t someone desperate move along when they got tired of the same face?

 

No. Aside from her stupid mistake, her friendship with Namjoon was real. Her only wish is that she could see him again to explain why she did it and to say how sorry she is. But she doesn’t bet on it. If the roles were reversed, she wouldn’t want to see Namjoon again. In retrospect, Namjoon had handled her deception pretty well. She’d probably punch him in the face or scream until she lost her voice.

 

Or maybe she would crumble. She’ll never know now.

 

She stares up at the sky partially guarded by the swaying branches.

 

Although she and Namjoon did spend a lot of time playing together, there were plenty of quiet moments as well.

 

She recalls their reading lessons. Namjoon had brought all kinds of books: textbooks, pictures books, chapter books, and sometimes, three hundred to four hundred-page novels. In hindsight, maybe there could’ve been a little bit more structure to his lessons, but they muddled through.

 

She remembers one afternoon, a year after they met, Namjoon had been reading a poem, more of a limerick, to her. The poem, which was called “There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly”, was something that Namjoon had guaranteed to make her laugh. And maybe on any other day, she would’ve. But she couldn’t get her mind off of what happened earlier that day.

 

She could never explain to Namjoon the pride she took out of learning new words being able to understand how they fit together in sentences. It gave her confidence that she never realized she could acquire.

 

And because of that boost of self-esteem, that where she had made her mistake.


 

About thirty or forty minutes earlier, she had just finished up her chores and was heading down the hallway that would lead her outside. She was meeting Namjoon and she didn’t want to be late. On her way, she heard some giggling coming from one of the adjacent rooms. Since there is a strict open-door policy during the daytime, the girl was able to peek her head.

 

A couple of teenage girls were hovering over one girl who was sitting on the bed with a magazine in her hands. Whatever they were looking at had the girls busting a gut. Intrigued, the girl ambled over to investigate.

 

Lucky for her, she didn’t have to get too close. The girl holding the magazine was laughing so violently the magazine jostled wildly. The page showed an advertisement of several unfairly beautiful young adults holding cans of what seemed to be Pepsi.

 

The girl frowned. “What’s so funny?” The girls’ laughter turned into shrieks when they finally registered that they weren’t alone. Once their shock wore, they all gave the girl one collective glare.

 

“What are you doing in here?” One of them, a human girl with shoulder-length, honey-blonde hair, demanded. The girl, undeterred (or at least trying to be), answered, “I heard you guys laughing and I wanted to see what all the… the hullabaloo was about.”

 

That was one of the many words she had learned from Namjoon’s reading lessons. He had been reading a picture book to her and the word “Hullabaloo” came up. The girl had liked it so much, she had adopted it into her vocabulary. No matter the situation, even for the absolute mundane, Hullabaloo made an appearance.

 

In truth, this was one of the rare times that the girl was using the word in the right context. 

 

The girl smiled. She had felt very pleased with her colorful vocabulary and she was hoping that the word would inspire the girls to at least give a half-hearted chuckle.

 

No such luck. Mood dropping slightly, the girl straightened her shoulders and carried on.

 

“Well, what’s in the magazine that’s so funny?”

 

The girl holding the magazine, who had olive-toned skin, snapped it shut. “None of your business. Now get lost.” Any other time, the girl would’ve listened, thankful that it hadn’t been worse. But the girl was feeling stubborn that day. Perhaps it was because she was going to Namjoon later on that day, but she was feeling very much like Eight at that moment.

 

And Eight didn’t back down easily.

 

Before she knew what was happening, the girl nagged, “Oh c’mon! It’s got to be super funny for all you to be laughing so much. I just wanna see. Please?” For an extra kick, the girl even adopted the pout that she saw Namjoon usually had. Then again, it worked because Namjoon is really cute. She wasn’t confident if it worked for her but heck, she had to try. “Just one quick peek and I’ll be gone, I swear.”

 

“Even if we did show it to you,” the magazine girl sneered, “It’s not like you would understand what it meant anyway. It would require reading which we all know is beyond your capabilities.” The girls surrounding her laughed. Their screeches pierced the girl’s sensitive ears.

 

The girl’s face burned. Although it wasn’t talked about around her, the cafeteria incident still hadn’t left the minds of the children, even after a year had passed.

 

“I can read just fine!” The words came out before the girl had time to think about them. She was still learning and she still stumbled over big words. But Namjoon was always telling that she was getting better every time they read together and Namjoon had never lied to her before (unlike herself).

 

But it was too late to back down now. And in truth, the girl didn’t want to.

 

She had thought that her admission would stop them in their tracks, but if anything, their guffaws only grew louder.

 

“Right,” the magazine girl gasped in between chortles. “Because knowing your ABC’s counts as knowing how to read.” If their snickers got any louder, sooner or later the other kids would come to see what all of the racket was about.

 

The girl felt her heart thudding in her chest from the imminent threat of humiliation. She didn’t know if she could handle such unbridled hate again. Hobi might not be there to save her this time.

 

But she realized that she would rather save herself this time around.

 

“G-Gimme that magazine and I’ll prove to you!” She wished she hadn’t stammered but that couldn’t be helped. “I read it to you.”

 

Surprisingly enough, the girl abruptly stopped laughing. They all glanced at each other, having their own private conversation. Whatever was decided between them left bloodthirsty smiles on all of their faces. As if on cue, they all turned back to her, pleasant smiles on their pretty faces.

 

The girl was uneasy but not about to cower in the face of a challenge.

 

“Alright,” magazine girl purred. “Have at it then.” Feeling some of her confidence coming back, the girl reached for the magazine. But magazine girl pulled it back “Oh no, allow me.”

 

She flipped through the pages and finally settled on what the girl had believed to be the Pepsi ad page. Barely holding back her smirk, magazine girl closes the magazine, with her thumb as a temporary bookmark on the chosen page, and hands the magazine to the girl.

 

The girl took a deep breath and grasped the warm magazine, her thumb replacing magazine girl’s. Mentally reminding herself to just sound out the word if she didn’t automatically know it, she opened the magazine.

 

Fully expecting to be assaulted by the bright colors of the ad, the girl was brought up short by the bland, white backdrop of the page, only contrasted by the columns of tiny black words clumped together on the page.

 

Looking back at it afterward, the girl knew that it was just a viciously mean joke to them. They were never going to take her seriously. In another world, she would’ve slammed the magazine onto the ground and called out the girls’ mind games. She wouldn’t have taken their abuse. She would’ve been strong.

 

The reality was far less passionate and willful.

 

Her heart, which had already been beating pretty hard, was now trying to beat a hole in her chest and plop onto the wooden floor. She tried in vain to see what the first word on the article was. But how much reading could she do when she could barely hold onto the magazine?

 

Maybe she could’ve muddled her way through if she had focused, but she scared. They weren’t like the words she saw in Namjoon’s books, even if they didn’t have pictures in them. The girl had felt intimidated by Namjoon’s non-picture books words because they were easy to see and, eventually, read.

 

Plus, they had Namjoon’s peachy scent on every yellowed, crackly page. His scent always did calm her down.

 

The words she was seeing were so tiny and they were so many of them. How was she going to read all of that? Just the thought of being a failure after all of Namjoon’s hard work made her throat close up. How would she be able to face him? She dropped the magazine and her wobbly legs finally gave out.

 

Later on, she would be thankful that there her pulse was ringing in her ears. She didn’t hear the brays of laughter being rained down on her back as she ran/crawled out of the room.


 

“Eight?” She flinched. He had called her name several times before his voice finally filtered into her brain.

 

Dang it, she couldn’t even look at him without feeling ashamed.

 

Namjoon had been reading his poem, his tone losing ardor with every minute that he didn’t hear Eight. Ordinarily, Eight would’ve sat beside or behind him to get a good look at the pictures or the words. Strangely, she was sitting a few feet away from him, staring down at her hands.

 

“Eight, is something wrong?”

 

“N-No!” She gave him a grin that she hoped that he perceived as genuine. “Everything’s fine.”

 

“Are you sure,” Namjoon asked, his tone dubious. “You’ve been acting weird.”

“Namjoon,” she whined. “I’m fine, I really am.” She playfully shoves his shoulder, hoping that he would take a hint and leave it alone.

 

“Is it the book? You can be honest. It’s alright to say if you don’t like it. I got plenty of others.” The girl grimaced. It was becoming obvious that Namjoon was buying anything she was selling. He was going to keep at it until he got to the root of the problem.

 

Well, tough luck.

 

With a sudden burst of anger that she didn’t know she was carrying, the girl glared at him.

 

“Would you drop it, already? I told you I’m fine. Why would I tell you anyway? So you can prove how much better you are than me? So you can show off even more? I know you secretly get a kick out of seeing how stupid I am.” Namjoon’s sunny face fell like a house of cards. Hurt and confusion came off his body in waves.

 

Before the girl had the chance to say anything else, Namjoon dropped the book, stood up, and walked away into a nearby thicket.

 

When he was out of sight, it only took seconds before she collapsed in sobs. She curled up into a ball of misery and self-pity.

 

What was wrong with her? How could she say such mean things to Namjoon? Her best friend?

 

In all of the time that they knew each other, they had never seriously argued about anything. Everything about their relationship was so easy that it sometime scared the girl how compatible they were.

 

And she ruined it all with a few angry words. Worse part was that she didn’t even mean it. She was angry those girls for being purposefully mean, and she was mad at herself for not walking away and sparing herself the humiliation.

 

She knew Namjoon didn’t judge her for knowing how to read. She knew Namjoon admired her despite her illiteracy. He told her all the time how amazing he thought she was?

 

Now, because of her misplaced rage, she was gonna lose him. She really was stupid.

 

“I’m sorry,” she sobbed as she rocked back and forth. “I didn’t mean it.”

 

Over and over, she chanted her contrition, thinking that no one heard her. When something wet and rough licked her already damp cheek, she understandably shrieked.

 

Scooting backward, she rubbed her eyes. In front of her was a black wolf pup with big, silver eyes staring steadily at her.

 

Although this time, the pup was bigger than the last time she had seen him. Whereas his legs were once short and stubby, they were now becoming long and skinny. His muzzle was narrower, and his torso was leaner.

 

The girl didn’t say anything. She stared solemnly at the pup, letting him determine what happened next.

 

Once again, the pup licked teardrop stains off her face.

 

The girl couldn’t wait anymore. She choked out renewed sobs of remorse and carefully wrapped her arms around his neck.

 

She buried her face in his neck, basking in his calming scent, not a hint of negative emotion detected.

 

She truly did not deserve him.

 

“I’m so sorry, Namjoon. It won’t happen again.” He let out a muted whine. Somehow, the girl knew that meant that all was forgiven.


 

As much as the girl relished their shared moments of rambunctiousness, she looked forward to the lazy afternoons as well.

 

Sometimes, instead of talking and playing, Namjoon would shift into a wolf pup and the two of them would just spend the afternoon cuddling. He had gotten pretty good at knowing when the girl needed the silence. Never once did he complain. He was just naturally unselfish.

 

If she concentrates, she can still feel his soft fur brush against her cheek. His heartbeat thrumming a steady pace underneath her fingers. His soft scent lulling her into a hazy alternate universe.

 

The illusion is so strong, it nearly undoes her.

 

She can’t keep doing this to herself. She needs to do what Hobi said and move on. She made her bed and she had to lie in it.

 

And she promises herself that she will. But God, it won’t be an overnight thing. Especially since his scent is stuck in her head. She must be hallucinating because his scent, which had been faint just a few seconds ago, is getting stronger.

 

The girl groans and runs a hand down her face. What she needs to do is find Hobi and—

 

“Eight!”

 

The girl goes still.

 

No. Why?

 

This has to be some cruel dream. There’s no way he’s here. He hates her. Why would he come back?

 

“Eight!”

 

Unless he had forgiven her.

 

The idea seems so preposterous and yet she finds herself rising on shaky legs and no, she isn’t imagining it. Namjoon’s scent is getting stronger and it’s heading this way.     

 

She can fix this. She can make this right.

 

All thoughts of following after Hobi oozing out of her mind, she stands on wobbly feet and follows the sound of Namjoon’s voice like a sailor being pulled in by a siren’s song.

 

I’m here.

 

Namjoon’s voice is lighting up that dark space within herself and it feels like she has wings as she scurries through the forest.

 

I’m here.

 

She’s getting her second chance with her Peach and this time; she will not screw it up.

 

I am here, Namjoon.


 

Namjoon isn’t entirely sure how he managed to get here.

 

All that he knows is that he needs to see her again. He has to.

 

He told his Hyung everything that had happened: getting lost in the woods to chase the Adonis Blue, how Eight had saved him twice, and how they fell apart.

 

To his credit, not once did his Hyung interrupt him during his retellings. He stared at with a pensive frown on his lips. Namjoon was bracing himself for the rage and punishment that was sure to follow.

 

“…and I haven’t seen her since,” he concluded. Seokjin-Hyung didn’t immediately answer. Namjoon didn’t offer up any follow-up, consciously aware that the ball was in his brother’s court.

 

“You were careful not to mention anything about your life at home?” All traces of his playful Hyung were gone. His eyes were flat, his back and shoulders straight, and his voice like granite.

 

King Seokjin waited for his reply with cool blackish-brown eyes.

 

Seeing made Namjoon’s back instinctively stiffen and he met his King’s gaze straight on.

 

“No, sir.”

 

“She has no inkling that you are related to me?”

 

“No, sir.”

 

“Do you plan on seeing this girl again?”

 

The questions were being snapped off in rapid succession so it took Namjoon momentarily off-guard when the King asked that question and he answered without really thinking about the ramifications of his answer.

 

But strangely enough, his response rings true throughout his entire body.

 

“Yes, sir, I do.”

 

The King’s eyes narrowed to slits and Namjoon felt his air briefly get stuck in his lungs. “You just sat here for the last ten minutes crying about how this girl lied to you about who she is. Now you want to break bread with this brat and act as if nothing ever happened? Why?”

 

Namjoon felt sweat dampen his back. The King was giving him no mercy and he knew that he had to think carefully about his next words. The King mercifully remained quiet as Namjoon thought up his response.    

 

After taking a deep breath, he began.

 

“I know that Eight lied about a lot of things for a long time. But I thought about it a lot and I think that I’m not that different from her. Yeah, I didn’t lie like she did, but it’s not like I told her anything about who I am either. I am a little mad, I wanna know why she did it. Plus, I don’t she’s a bad person. She saved my life, Hyung. She’s still my best friend and I want to forgive her.”

 

Maybe his words weren’t what the King wanted to hear but Namjoon wouldn’t cower or recant his words.

 

Seokjin didn’t often use his King mask with his brother. But it was the only way he could think of to show Namjoon that he was dead serious.

 

Although he didn’t show it, he was proud of the way Namjoon stood his ground and didn’t get intimidated by his Kingly mask. Men four times Namjoon’s age recoiled when he stabs them with his icy glare. It took serious spine to look him head-on in the eye and not waver. Namjoon was already showing the markings of a King.

 

“Our family owns several properties out of the city.” Namjoon’s face went blank, blindsided by the abrupt change in topic.

 

“There is a lake house just outside the city. I sometimes go there to unwind. It’s got a game room, several widescreen TV’s, a pool, the fridge is always stocked, and there is plenty of wildlife.” The silver-haired boy just stared at him, not comprehending the meaning behind his words.

 

Finally, the King’s face softened and Namjoon was staring into the smiling face of his Hyung.

 

“I wouldn’t mind if you wanted to bring your little friend up there to play.” Namjoon’s jaw dropped and his eyes bugged out of his head. Then he leaped into his Hyung’s arms.

 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, Hyung!”

 

“If what you said is true, then I owe this little girl my eternal gratitude for keeping you safe. This is the least I can do. Alright, alright! I get it, you’re happy,” Seokjin complained, but his squeaky peals of laughter were ruining the effect.

 

All too soon, he grabbed Namjoon by the shoulders and gently pulled him away from him.

 

“But before I can allow this, I have two conditions.” Namjoon fought the urge to roll his eyes and pout. He should’ve known it wouldn’t be that simple.

 

“One, you have to promise me that there will be no more sneaking off and putting yourself in danger.” Namjoon cringed but nodded his assent. “Two, if your friend is going to be at our lake house, I want Jimin and Taehyung to be there as well.”  

 

Namjoon opened his mouth, ready to argue. Seokjin raised his hand, quelling any protest. “Jimin’s family has worked with ours for generations. I feel comfortable knowing that they were there.”

 

Namjoon grimaced. Recollections of what happened the last time Jimin and Eight got within breathing distance of each other filled his mind.

 

Yeah, he really didn’t want a repeat of that. But to get what he wanted; compromise was essential. Beggars can’t be choosy.

 

“Alright. Deal.”

 

Seokjin smiled that smile that bunched up his cheeks. “Deal. Alright, Namjoonie, I gotta run to this meeting. I’ll see you at dinner.” Pecking his forehead, Seokjin rose from Namjoon’s bed and headed to the door.

 

Spurred on by impulse, Namjoon blurted, “Hyung?”

 

Seokjin stopped, hand on the knob. “Yes, sweetheart?”

 

Namjoon bit his lip. Should he be asking this so soon? Even after his Hyung had already been so lenient.

 

“Could we go to the lake house today?”


 

Namjoon is still surprised that his Hyung said yes, but that might have to do with him being in a hurry.

 

It doesn’t matter either way. He is going to find Eight and they’re going to work this out. Everything will go back to the way it used. Nothing had to truly chan—

 

“Joon-ah, wait up!”

 

Namjoon sighs. The dual scents of cherry blossoms and strawberries assault his senses as he waits for his companions to match his long-legged stride.

 

Ok, maybe not everything will go back to normal. But it was either this or have ten guards surrounding him. He briefly considered the latter option because he isn’t sure what Eight will do when she sees the duo.

 

She might leave Taehyung alone but he observed the murder in her eyes when she saw Jimin and vice versa. He still hasn’t worked out a plan on how he is going to keep those two in their separate corners, but he can put those problems on the back burner for now.

 

First things first, find Eight.

 

It’s Thursday, one of their days. It’s a longshot to hope that she will come but it couldn’t hurt to try. Plus, if that doesn’t, he’ll have Taehyung tell him where the orphanage is.

 

Namjoon smirks. This some evil genius-level thinking he doing here. But now’s not the time to revel in his intelligence. There is plenty of time to do that later.

 

“Eight!” Not only does he call her name, he inhales a deep gust of through his nostrils. He smells everything except Eight’s sharply sweet aroma.

 

Undeterred, he tries again. And again.

 

When he lets out another booming shout, he feels a cold hand grasp his arm. “Namjoon-ah, I think we should go back. She’s not here and your shouting is not going to magically produce her from thin air.”

 

Namjoon feels Jimin’s skepticism prick minuscular holes into his optimistic balloon. Maybe it would be smarter just to forget about her and end this chapter of his life.

 

But what kind of friend would he be if he gave up so easily?

 

With an amount of patience that he doesn’t know how he possessed; he shrugs Jimin’s hand from his arm. When he turns around, he tries his best to contort his face so that it mirrors his Hyung’s “king” face. While his eyes give the illusion of tranquility, his feverishly-bright, rain-colored eyes tell a different story.

 

“I’m going to find her whether you want me to or not.” Satisfied with Jimin’s momentary yet rare lapse of silence, Namjoon begins a tread towards the lake where he and Eight spent many lazy afternoons reading, playing, and cuddling together.

 

He can start there, he reasons, and if she’s not there then he’ll just—

 

“Hello?” Jimin grouses as he struggles to keep up with Namjoon’s gait. “You don’t know anything about this girl. Did you forget that she lied to you and made you look like an idiot? What makes you think that you can trust her? If you ask me, I think we should just turn an—”

 

“When I was six-years-old, I was nearly eaten by a wild animal. Eight risked her life to save me. She could’ve died right along with me but that didn’t stop her. That is who she is. That is who my best friend is.” Not once did Namjoon turn his head to glance at Jimin’s flushed face. All of his attention is zeroed in on finding Eight.

 

Not one to be dismissed, Jimin once again opens his mouth to jibe about something else when he finally registers something.

 

“Namjoon, Taehyung’s not here.” Namjoon fights the compulsion to send his eyes’ gaze toward the heavens. “Jimin…”

 

“No, I’m serious. He’s not here.”

 

“That’s impossible, he’s right behind…” He pivots around to prove his point only to discover that Taehyung is indeed missing. Even his ripe strawberry scent is becoming hard to distinguish.

 

Namjoon is swiftly losing the war against his impatience, but he tries not to show Jimin, who appears to be on the verge of hysteria.

 

“Jimin,” he prompts soberly. The older boy levels scared, wet in his direction. “Does he do this often? Wandering off?”

 

“Um,” Jimin closes his eyes, fighting for control. After wiping away a stray tear, he reopens his eyes, expression serious. “Y-Yeah. He gets easily distracted and sometimes just disappears without telling anyone where he went.”

 

“Okay,” Namjoon breathes, trying not to panic himself. He can do this. He and Eight have explored the forest a million times before. “His scent is still lingering around here so he couldn’t have gotten too far. I know the ins and outs of the forest; I can guide us through it. But I’m going to need your help. You know Taehyung’s scent better than I do. You’ll be able to pick on his trail better than I will.”

 

“Okay. I’ll do my best.”

 

“Hey,” Namjoon squeezes his hand. “We’ll find him.” Namjoon’s hand feels so warm in his own that Jimin can’t help but blush. Luckily, Namjoon is too focused to pay attention to Jimin’s pinking cheeks.

 

The children head into the general direction of where Taehyung’s scent meandered off to. After a few twists and turns and a couple of frustration-filled huffs, the children subsequently find Taehyung in a dwarf-sized clearing surrounded by pine trees. Taehyung is crouched down and something has obviously caught his eye.

 

“Taehyung!” Jimin surges to his spot. He wraps him up in a bone-crushing hug. “I was so worried about you!” While Jimin is busy fussing over a struggling Taehyung, Namjoon takes his surroundings, noting the familiar sweet syrupy fragrance wafting from the trees. He lets his travel upward and gapes when the medium-sized, papery-white flowers emerging from the leaves.

 

Southern Magnolias.

 

This is the same clearing where Namjoon encountered the lynx all those years ago. Suddenly, it’s two years ago and Namjoon is staring into the empty of the beast that wants to devour him. He can still the brush of its claws on the back of his t-shirt.

 

Shaking his head, Namjoon endeavors to bring himself to the present. It was years ago, he reminds himself, the lynx is long gone. Everything would be fine.

 

“I’m sorry Jimin-ah.” Taehyung’s soft voice trickles into Namjoon’s consciousness and breaks out of his stupor. “I wasn’t trying to lose you guys. But I heard this little guy crying and I just had to see if he was hurt. I mean, look at him, Jiminie. Doesn’t he look helpless?”

 

“Well, I don’t about helpless, but he is very cute.” Jimin coos at the unidentified “little guy”.

 

Intrigued, Namjoon takes his eyes off the trees and onto whatever caught his acquaintances’ eye. Now that they got Taehyung back, they get back to their primary mission. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t hurt to just take a cursory glance at Taehyung’s…

 

No.

 

No, no, no, no!

 

When Taehyung described the animal as a “little guy”, Namjoon was thinking in the ballpark of a rabbit, a kitten, or, heck, even a baby skunk would’ve sufficed.

 

What graces Namjoon’s eyes is none of those animals. Instead, laying curled up in a tightly-wrapped ball is a creature with black fur covering its entire body. Its ears are the color of brownish-gold, a cute pink snout, and a short black tail.

 

A black bear cub.

 

And when a baby bear is usually by itself…

 

“Guys, we need to leave. Now.” He strives to keep his voice near-mute but his frenzied heartbeat reminds him of the proximate precariousness of their situation which raises his voice to a whisper-yell.

 

“Why? It’s not like there’s anything that can—”

 

Jimin. Please we have to go. Let’s just leave it alone. We don’t want to startle it.” Namjoon tugs on his arm, head swiveling to survey if something is coming.

 

Jimin rolls his eyes. “Joon-ah, come on. What’s the worse that he can do? He just a cu— Taehyung? What…”

 

You’d think Namjoon would’ve learned his lesson the first time around to not take his eyes off of Kim Taehyung. Too late, Namjoon turns to see Taehyung tenderly stroke the bear cub on the head. It stirs and mews at the contact.

 

Namjoon storms over and yanks him back by the wrist. “You idiot!” he growls, losing all semblance of patience. “I said leave it alone. Can’t you do anything right?” Taehyung’s eyes fill up with tears at the harsh words.

 

“Stop it!” Jimin steps in between Namjoon and Taehyung. His glower could stop a human heart. “The only reason why we’re out here in the first place is because of you.” He pokes Namjoon squarely in the chest. “You don’t care about us; all you care about is your precious little liar.”

 

Letting out a snarl more wolf than human, Namjoon flings Jimin’s finger off of his chest. “You’re right, I don’t care about you two! I didn’t even want you to come. I could’ve found Eight a lot sooner if I didn’t have to worry about Taehyung running away like a little brat!” A small part of Namjoon’s knows that half the words he is spewing are a result of his frustration and fear. But he is not about to apologize. Not now anyway.

 

“That’s funny because the only brat I see around here is yo—”

 

The deafening wail punctures through the bickering. Jimin and Taehyung are frozen in confusion and anxiety, while Namjoon struggles to get feeling back into his numb legs

 

If Namjoon wasn’t so terrified, he would kick himself for losing his cool the way he did. But all he can do is be paralyzed by horror and fascination as the cub continues to bay out its distress.

 

It’s the thick, earthy, bloodthirsty scent odor that sends his mind back into overdrive. He snatches the motionless two boys by their wrists and drags them away from the bear cub. “Quick,” he rasps out, “we have to be quick! It’s coming, it’ll be here soon. Let’s go before…”

 

Taehyung’s whimper is his first clue. The blanching of Jimin’s usually ruddy cheeks is the second. The hot, fish-rotted, breath on his neck is the third.

 

Namjoon almost persuades himself that this is a bad dream that he can wake up from. He almost doesn’t turn around to face what he knows to be the stuff of nightmares. When he does turn around, he almost convinces himself that there isn’t an enormous black bear growling at him and showcasing her brown-stained canines and rage-filled, button eyes to him.

 

But when said bear stands up on her hind legs, towering over the three children like a vengeful beast god and lets out an almighty roar that rattles their bones, it’s suddenly not too hard to believe.

 

“RUN!” This time, Jimin and Taehyung don’t need to be told twice.

 

The children flee from the accursed clearing, the deranged Mama bear hot on their tails.

 

Namjoon is sure that his lungs will burst from how hard he is working them. He admittedly believes that he can outrun the savage beast. His wolf, coupled with the years he spent running through these woods, makes him slightly more confident about his chances of survival.

 

He doesn’t know if the same can be said about Jimin and Taehyung. He risks his sanity by turning his head a fraction to check on his companions. Thankfully, they are hot on his heels. But for how long?

 

Jimin looks like he can take of himself. He is almost right beside Namjoon as they continue to run. It’s Taehyung that concerns him. Taehyung is a wisp of a boy, that looks like he could be blown at any given time.

 

Even now, the poor boy’s cheeks are beet red, sweat pours down his caramel-coated face, and he is slowly lagging behind. Something needed to be done. Fast.

 

Namjoon makes his decision in that flash of time.

 

“I’ll distract it,” he says in a choked gasp. He pulls the boys so that they are in front of him.

 

“What?!”

 

“Go get help, I’ll keep her busy.”

 

“No! Namjoon, I—”

 

But Namjoon is already shifting.

 

The delicious pain surges through his body as his anatomy changes. Fabric tears, buttons pop, and seams are viciously torn as his new body emerges. It’s as familiar as his Hyung’s hugs.

 

Transformation complete, the wolf pup bravely charges toward the bear, hoping that she’ll more interested in him rather than the children he hopes are running away. Sure enough, when he barks at her, she gives an enraged snarl and gives chase.

 

He only prays that the calvary will come in time.


 

Seokjin is in a meeting discussing how to stretch the kingdom’s budget to increase employment in the poorer districts in Tuhan when his world implodes for the second time in his life.

 

Seokjin is giving his closing argument on how focusing their attention on the less privileged will ultimately reimburse the kingdom in the long when the young man in the black suit burst into the room. He is gasping for air as he steadies himself on the door frame. Two other men, equally dressed, rush behind him, their faces grim.

 

Seokjin, still in “King” mode, shows none of his irritation. “I would love to hear the reason why you three saw it fit to disrupt a meeting that could potentially cut the poverty rate in half. Please,” he sits back down in his chair. “I want to hear this.” The three men give audible gulps at the lack of emotion in their king’s voice.

 

“F-Forgive me, your majesty. The last t-thing I wanted was to disturb while you are conducting highly sensitive business. If the circumstances were different I—”

 

“Get on with it,” Seokjin lets the wolf deepen his voice slightly. He’s not an asshole by trade, but he is miffed. What could possibly be so important that his bodyguards felt the need to barge in his meeting?

 

The young man, a bull elephant shifter no less, squeaks like a mouse. “R-Right! Apologies, your majesty.” Taking a deep breath, the frazzled man starts again. “I just got off the phone with the Parks’ chauffeur. It seems that the young prince is in trouble, sir.  The children ran into some trouble in the woods…”

 

The bodyguard barely got another word in edgewise before Seokjin’s smart, Tom Ford suit rips from his body, and standing in the wrecked suit is a savagely beautiful white wolf with sharp, white teeth. The government officials all step back in alarm. Seokjin didn’t make a habit of showing his wolf skin.

 

Seokjin couldn’t care less about what people thought about him at that moment. He cocks his head to the bodyguard and this time; the young man didn’t hesitate.

 

Even he was smart enough to know that was his King’s way of saying, Take me to him.


 

This is the end. It has to be the end.

 

Namjoon’s original plan was to lead the bear around the forest in a wild goose chase, hoping that she would eventually get tired and give up. He had been cocky in the fact that he knew the forest so well. Apparently, the bear knew familiar with the forest as well. Every time Namjoon believed that he had successfully eluded the manic creature, she always came out, claws bared.

 

Even with his wolf body giving him an extra boost, Namjoon is only eight-years-old. He couldn’t even feel his legs anymore as he ran aimlessly, the bear right on his haunches. He could feel that the end was near.

 

His last burst of adrenaline depleted, he collapsed. Even breathing felt like a chore at this point. He has to fight just to keep his eyes open. Worse still, the bear inches towards him. Sensing that his will is gone, the bear doesn’t go straight for the kill like Namjoon thought she would. No, this bear ambles, almost sashays, to her kill. The bear is basking in her victory and she wants to enjoy the spoils of her chase.

 

Namjoon can only pray that he passes out before she tears into him.

 

He hears the heavy pads of the bear’s feet as he shuts his eyes.

 

Maybe it won’t be so bad being dead, he consoles himself. He’ll see his Eomma and Appa again. And the hurt of losing them has never truly faded.

 

But what about Seokjin-Hyung? Who was going to look after him? Even though he’ll say it out loud, Namjoon knows how lonely he gets.

 

And Eight…

 

Eight, with her pretty eyes, amazing scent, and take-charge attitude.

 

He never got to see her; never got to say that he forgave her. He never had the chance to tell her that he…

 

An inhuman shriek punches a hole through Namjoon’s regrets. Before he can decipher what it is, the bear emits a thundering bellow and Namjoon feels her hovering presence disappear. Namjoon would open his eyes to who or what is his mystery savior but he’s too afraid that he’ll see the bear’s empty eyes staring into his.

 

So, he listens as the bear releases a series of growls, yelps, and shrieks while the thing attacking it continues to hiss at her.

 

It all becomes too much. Despite, his best efforts, Namjoon succumbs to oblivion.

 

  

He wakes up in his Hyung’s shaking arms.

 

Because he opens his eyes to darkness, he had thought it had been… y’know. But he soon realizes that his face is being mushed against a solid chest and recognizes his sharp mint scent.

 

He is alive.   

 

After relishing in his apparent escape from death, he notices something: his Hyung, who he often thinks of as his hero, is crying. The side of his head is completely damp. As happy as Namjoon is that he is alive, his Hyung does tend to sweat profusely. Not to mention he is squeezing way too hard.

 

With great effort, he twists his shoulders to get his Hyung’s attention. “Hyung…” he wheezes. His throat is in serious need of some water.

 

The shaking pauses, and then is renewed with great force. “Namjoonie,” he sobs. He hasn’t seen his Hyung cry like this since that faithful night four years ago. And dang it if that doesn’t inspire tears of his own to rise.

The two brothers stay like that for a while, mutually satisfied to drown in each other’s tears.

 

Having got it out of his system, Namjoon pushes against Seokjin’s chest to survey his surroundings. He doesn’t recognize the tiny floral-scented bedroom.  

      

“Hyung… where…?”

 

“Mrs. Villanueva was gracious enough to let us use her room so that you could rest.” Villanueva? Who is that? Sensing Namjoon’s puzzlement, Seokjin-Hyung clarifies, “The florist.” Oh, so that’s her name.

 

Seokjin-Hyung sighs but it comes out more like a repressed sob. “God, Joon. You really know how to get my attention, don’t you? When I got the call that you… that you were…” He breaks off, pressing a hand to his eyes. Namjoon wants to say that everything is alright, that he’s fine now, but he doesn’t have the strength or want to give his brother falsehoods.

 

“I honestly don’t think I would’ve got there in time to save you. God, just the thought of you…” A few tears escape before his Hyung can stop them. “Thank God Jimin was there to protect you.” If Namjoon had been drinking something, he would’ve spitted it out or choked on it.

 

Jimin?

 

“Jimin saved me?”

 

“It was the damndest, I mean, darndest thing. When we tracked you down, that little boy was wrapped around you like Velcro. We had to physically remove him from you, he was hanging on so tight.” Seokjin-Hyung chuckles incredulously. “That little boy has a lot of courage.”

 

Namjoon hears what Seokjin is saying, but his gut is telling him something else. He just couldn’t wrap his head around it. Not to say that he thinks his Hyung is lying to him, but he just can’t see it.

 

Because right before he passed out, he is sure that he caught a faint whiff of…

 

“Is he here? Jimin, I mean.” Seokjin-Hyung blinks and then nods slowly. “Can I see him?” His Hyung grins. “Well, I’ll see what I can do, but it’s going to be hard considering that his father just declared that he won’t let him out of his sight.” He pulls his cellphone out of his pocket, dials, and talks to the other person on the line. Namjoon doesn’t listen, too caught up in his thoughts.

 

The answer on whether Jimin would come or not is answered only a few, short minutes later. The boy quietly enters the room. He bows deeply in front of the King and gives Namjoon a tentative smile. The boy’s face is dirty and his knees are wrapped in white bandages.

 

“Hi.”

 

“Hi.”

 

Silence.

 

“Hyung, can I speak to Jimin?” He doesn’t say alone, but its implication is clear enough. Seokjin frowns but sighs. “I won’t be far if you need me. I’m practically right outside this door.”

 

Namjoon nods his head and Seokjin-Hyung gently untangles Namjoon from his lap onto the bed. When he leaves, the silence returns. Jimin hesitates before sitting on the bed next to Namjoon.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

 

“Oh, good. That’s good.”

 

Yes, it’s uncomfortably quiet, but neither boy knows what to say at the moment. Namjoon decides just to come out with the question burning a hole through his tongue. “My Hyung tells me that you saved me. Is that true?”

 

Whatever Namjoon is expecting, it’s not the abrupt vehemence that enters his eyes and voice. “Well, of course, I saved you! You run off like an idiot to take on a bear that you most likely wouldn’t have been able to fend off and you expected me to do nothing? I told Taehyung to go get help and I ran back to come get you. I got the bear’s attention was able to lose it when I climbed up into the trees.” When Namjoon just stares at him, Jimin flushes. “What? I wasn’t about to leave my friend behind when he risked his life for me?”  

 

Namjoon is floored. He hadn’t wanted to believe Jimin had saved partly because he couldn’t picture the boy willing to do something like this for someone he didn’t know too well.

 

Is it possible that he misjudged Jimin this entire time?

 

He’ll admit that part of the reason why he had been so hesitant to accept Jimin and Taehyung into his life was that he was afraid of the change it could trigger.

 

Maybe this is a sign. A sign that he needs to let go of the past and embrace something new.

 

And he can start with this.

 

“Thank you, Jimin.”


 

Park Jimin is a good boy.

 

He is an obedient son, a loyal best friend, and the best dongsaeng to ever live. Well, the last part was all according to his Hyung.

 

Jimin used to love and hate his Hyung. Hate, because he was everything Jimin knew that he could never be: Strong, brave, and smart. But his Hyung, bless him, made a point to always say, “Chim-Chim, you gotta stop being so hard on yourself. I guarantee when the time comes, you’ll see that you have more courage than you think you do.”

 

It’s that memory that propelled Jimin to do what he did.

 

Through nothing but divine intervention, Jimin and Taehyung made back to the florist’s house. They barely stepped onto the back porch, before Jimin was instructing Taehyung to call for help and running back into the forest.

 

Legs pumping, heart thumping, and mind thrumming with the plea “Don’t be dead, don’t be dead, don’t be dead,” Jimin pushed his heightened sense of smell to the limit. He’d never exercised his abilities to this level and had a hard time focusing on Namjoon and his surroundings. He fell more times than he could count and got small cuts on his hands and knees.

 

He briefly considered shifting into the leopard to cover more ground, but those thoughts vacate his head when he smelled Namjoon and the beast.

 

Hidden in the trees, Jimin watched as the bear crept closer to the wolf pup slumped against the tree Jimin was hiding in. It would’ve been so easy to jump down, in snow leopard form, and take the bear’s focus off of Namjoon. All he had to do was jump.  

 

He wanted to. Oh, how he wanted to jump down in his snow leopard form and swipe that thing with his claws. He could hear the bear’s screech as it cradles its snout. The bear would realize that it was no match for Jimin and run away. Namjoon would wake up and see what Jimin had done, and see him for the hero he was.

 

Jimin would be what his Hyung always believed he could be.

 

But he couldn’t move. The claws, the teeth, and the menacing growl of the bear were shackles that demanded he stay attached to the tree, safe from its clutches.

 

Everything in him wanted to do something, but his hands and legs felt worthless in the face of a seven-hundred-pound bear that would surely eat him alive. He couldn’t do it.

 

I’m sorry, Namjoon, he thought as the bear neared him. Tears of horror and shame trickle down his face.

 

I’m sorry, Hyung.

 

But before he could look away from what he was sure to be a gruesome sight, a scream of pure animalistic rage cut through the hush of the forest. Forcing his gaze back, Jimin was just in time to watch as a small figure jumped onto the back of the bear and started clawing at its eyes.

 

Startled, the bear roars in pain as, whoever it is, continues to jab at its face. Jimin had thought that nothing would more terrifying than an angry bear, but this person with striking eyes the color of…

 

No. It couldn’t be. Not her, anyone but her.

 

But sure enough, it was the same girl that Jimin and Taehyung had exposed as a liar.

 

Jimin had been so sure that he had the girl (Eight, he remembered) pegged. He had been sure that she had been nothing more than a dirty thief who was looking to make a quick buck off of Namjoon. He had been furious by the obvious affection in Namjoon’s eyes and knew that he had to break them apart for the prince’s own good. Yes, the girl had cried, but they were the tears of a con artist. It’s not like she had genuine feelings.   

 

Jimin’s perception of the girl was hard at war with what he was witnessing before his very eyes. Despite not having claws, wings, or visible signs of strength, the girl took the creature as if she were just as big and intimidating.

 

He watched as the girl wrapped her pudgy, long arms around the bear’s neck squeezed with all her might, nothing but grim determination on her face. She must’ve been stronger than she looked because the bear twisted its head, trying to wrench her off its back.

 

Suddenly, with no warning, the bear charged deeper into the forest, the girl locked on its back. Jimin listened to the snap of branches as the bear barreled through the woods.

 

After a moment of stillness, Jimin carefully climbed down the tree. First thing he did was check for Namjoon’s pulse. It was there, albeit a little erratic. He knew that he should stay with him until help arrived, but he wanted to see what had happened to the girl.

 

Admittedly, it’s counterproductive since he was so scared just a minute ago, but he wants to see what happened to the girl.

 

She did just save the prince.

 

After doing a final check on Namjoon, Jimin hurried after the girl and the bear’s tracks.

 

It wasn’t hard seeing as how the bear made its trail clear with the smash branches, pungent scent, and pawprints.

 

Jimin was being careful not to come too close, but it turned out that it wasn’t needed. When Jimin reached the end of the trail, the bear was gone, only leaving the girl.

 

What was left of her.

 

The stench of blood is so ripe in the air, Jimin had to breathe through his mouth so he wouldn’t be sick. When he laid eyes on the girl though, he feared might vomit anyway.

 

The girl was lying on her back. Her shirt ripped, exposing her belly, which was sliced open. Blood steadily pouring out. On closer examination, the half of the girl’s face was equally desecrated.

 

Four, long, thin yet deep claw lines were slashed on the left side of the girl’s forehead, coming all the way down to her chin. The area was already cresting over with dried blood. It didn’t look as if she was breathing.

 

God.

 

The bear had literally chewed her up and spit her out. Jimin wasn’t even sure that she was alive. Against his better judgment, he risked getting closer to check for a pulse.

 

Right before his trembling hand reached her neck, her good eye snapped open and she jerked. Jumping back, Jimin felt like he just wet himself. After getting himself under control, he realized that she was mumbling something. Concentrating his hearing as his father taught, he listened.

 

“Peaches… peaches… peaches…” Over and over again, she chanted this word until she started coughing and blood filled her mouth.

 

Jimin remembered when he first saw the girl, that was what she had called Namjoon. Peaches.

 

Jimin didn’t like to admit when he was wrong. Mainly because he thought he was right about everything. But maybe, just maybe, he had been wrong about this girl.

 

That is who she is. That is who my best friend is.

 

Jimin understood in that instance what Namjoon had been trying to tell him. If she dared to save her friend at the cost of her own life, it spoke volumes about her character. The least Jimin could do was give her another chance at life.

 

He took a deep breath, prepared to call for help when something stopped him dead in his tracks. The girl was training her good eye at Jimin’s knees. He had skinned them on his trek to “save” Namjoon. The wounds were still fresh, evidence being the tiny droplets of blood trickling down his legs.

 

The girl’s eye followed the descent. Then she bared her reddened teeth in a hungry hiss.

 

Jimin had already seen the girl’s eyes do the unusual thing of turning from yellow to gold. But this…

 

He only saw this once before.

 

He can still remember clear as day watching the press conference on the television screen, hoping to see a glimpse of his brother. He had said that he would be there and that the cameras might catch him in action. Oh, how apt his prediction had been.  

 

Because six-year-old Jimin was in the living room alone, nobody stopped him from watching the monster, who was aiming to shoot the King, shot his brother who had courageously stepped in front of the King to block the shot.

 

Jimin could watch helplessly as the bullet lodged itself inside his chest, creating a bloom of red on his uniform.

 

In the days to come, the news bulletin replayed the murder several times. Afterward, they were able to identify the assassin, who had shot himself in the head after he murdered the King, Queen, and Jimin’s brother. A picture of him was broadcasted on the top news’ stations.

 

If you asked Jimin what the monster looked like, he wouldn’t be able to tell. The only thing he remembered about the man was the way his pupils were dilated to the point where the black eclipsed the white of his eyes, making his eyes look completely black.

 

That was how Jimin learned how to identify vampires.

 

The girl’s eye is now black with hunger as she sought to move her broken body so that she could taste the blood on Jimin’s knees.

 

Jimin’s guilt was now replaced with deep-rooted disgust. In Jimin’s eyes, gone was the girl who had taken on a bear to save another, she was part of the race that killed his Hyung. She was just like the rest of the bloodthirsty monsters. She probably only saved Namjoon because she wanted to devour him herself.

 

Fists clenched, he wanted to kill her himself, but why should he get his hands dirty? Let the animals finish her off instead.

 

Later on, he came back to Namjoon’s side and curled around him, giving the illusion that he never left his prince’s side. And when everybody asked what happened, he told them that he saved Namjoon because honestly, he did.

 

If he had let everyone that that bloodsucker had done it, they would’ve been inviting the enemy into theirs, his, world.

So, in retrospect, he did save Namjoon. At least, that what he tries to tell himself as a minuscular smidge of guilt tries to worm its way into his heart.

 

Still, the question of what if she survives plagues him. So, after he leaves Namjoon in his room, he tells the King of how he was almost attacked by a rabid vampire in the woods while searching for Namjoon. He makes sure to be on the edge of tears so that it’s believable and the King doesn’t ask any further questions.

 

King Seokjin promises to send out a couple of his best men to take down the beast. After Jimin hugs him and tells him what a good king, the worried tumor clogging his mind evaporates.

 

His Hyung was right. He was brave. He just needed the right opportunity to show it.

 

In the span of only an hour, not only did he protect his prince, but his country as well. There’s no doubt in his mind that that girl would’ve killed the prince, destroying the delicate balance created.

 

Now that he has ensured that she’s dead everything will be as it should. And as an added bonus, everybody reveres him as a hero.

 

Park Jimin is a hero.


 

Well, whadda you know?

 

She can take on bears.

 

She didn’t win but that’s beside the point. All that matters is that Namjoon is safe. At least, she hopes he’s safe.

 

She guesses she’ll never know now.

 

Okay, she supposed this is the part where she supposed to be glad that if she has to die, she’s glad that it was something important or some type mess like that.

 

She guesses that it’s partly true, but overall, she’s terrified of dying. But when she heard the bear and the scent of rotting peaches, the telltale signal of Namjoon’s fear, the only thing she could focus on was Namjoon.

 

She hadn’t been thinking of anything else. In hindsight, maybe she should’ve had more self-preservation. But it’s too late for shoulda, coulda, woulda.

 

Oh! Hobi!

 

Hobi’s sweet smile, concerned eyes, and comforting pine scent fill her brain.    

 

She wonders how long it’ll be before he realizes that she still hasn’t caught up yet.

 

She never thanked for all he did for her.

 

And Namjoon. She never thanked Namjoon for filling her days with endless wonder and possibility.

 

Come to think of it, did she ever tell him that she…

 

She can feel coming now. The creeping cloak of death. It won’t be long now.

 

But she’s scared. She’s so scared of dying alone.

 

To comfort herself as the cloak begins to muffle her, she thinks of things that made her happy in her short life:

 

Clear skies,

 

Blue butterflies,

 

Galaxies dancing in his eyes.

 

A wan smile tugs at her lips as she repeats the mantra in her mind.

 

Clear skies,

 

Blue butterflies,

 

Galaxies dancing in his eyes,

 

Clear skies,

 

Blue butterflies,

 

Galaxies dancing…

 

And then there’s nothing.

 

End of Part One

Chapter Text

All Min Yoongi wants to go home, watch shitty Asian dramas (it doesn’t matter to him if they’re Korean or not), and fall into oblivion for a few hours.

 

He can’t exactly pinpoint the reason why this latest gig just seemed to drain him. He can usually turn it off and laser in the objective of his mission but maybe it’s a sign that he needs to change careers.

 

He scoffs at the thought. Who the hell was going to hire him?

 

For one thing, at the age of two-hundred and twenty-five years old, he thinks it’s a little too late for him to change careers at this point. Second, he’s skeptical that his particular set of skills will not look on a resume.

 

He can’t but snort as he pictures it: him, sitting in some high, saditty corporate tower, trying not to rip his tie and white button-up shirt to shreds while some smug white man asks about his previous experience, knowing that he was not about to give Yoongi the damn job in the first place.

 

Yoongi supposes it’s just as well. Questions like, “share a time when you were forced to complete a project under a hard deadline” couldn’t be answered with stories like, “I once was commissioned to assassinate two rival King Cobra gangs before they took their war to the streets of Tuhan. I had to infiltrate their ranks, find out the meeting spot, plan out the best course of action, and carry it out so the public had no idea of what was happening. In doing so, I demonstrated problem-solving skills, time management, and my capability to carry out a solo project.”

 

Yoongi can only picture the horror on some unsuspecting employer’s face as he drabbles on.

 

Oh, hell. How did it come to this?

 

Yoongi knows his worth. He knows that he is more than some two-bit hitman that’ll take on any job that comes his way. He used to be second-in-command to a long line of Emperors of the Noctis Bloodline; the only Nosferatu clan that can match the Shifter Kim Line in terms of power and nobility.  

 

Yoongi had been nothing. Just a desperate street urchin surviving from nothing but tiny donations of blood from the homeless shelters, and pilfering the pockets of naïve, unsuspecting rich people who were dumb enough to come looking for trouble in Yoongi’s neck of the woods.

 

At an early age, Yoongi trained himself not to have expectations. Not in himself and definitely not in people. Expectations lead to hope and hope would lead to anxiety and his anxiety usually lead to a predictable yet devastating withdrawal that would leave him despondent for days, weeks, even months.

 

Although he knew this on a fundamental level, that didn’t automatically mean he wasn’t prone to slip-ups.

 

At seven-years-old, Yoongi had been skinny, frail-looking, and nimble. Vampires and humans alike looked at him and saw a grubby child. Not capable of any true strength.

 

It gave Yoongi immense satisfaction to take their money.

 

Because he always got away with it, Yoongi had arrogantly assumed that he just had the juice like that and the world was blind to his sins.

 

But eyes were hiding in the shadows, calculating the potential profits the boy could bring in.

 

His pickpocketing schemes had become well-known in the underground world. And it wasn’t long before young Min Yoongi was accosted to join gangs. They lured him with the grandeur of high rank, full responsibility, and the promise of uncompromising brotherhood and family.

 

What more could a boy want?

 

But every time, like clockwork, the following would happen: the fuzz would sooner or later catch onto gang activity, the gang would scatter, leaving Yoongi behind in their dust, wondering why couldn’t they take him too.

 

Searching for love and acceptance, it usually wouldn’t take long for Yoongi to fall into another bad crowd, knowing in the back of his mind that they were going to leave him eventually.

 

But hell, at least for a time, he didn’t have wonder where is next vial of blood would come from; even if he didn’t know where it came from and how.

 

It had taken seven more years of his so-called families abandoning, cheating, and taking advantage of him for the lesson to finally be tattooed in his brain: he couldn’t count on anyone.

 

Unfortunately, the same could be said for himself.   

 

Yoongi will never claim to be a good person. He knows that there is something in him that has a penchant for causing chaos and looking for danger.

 

That’s partly he pickpocketed. The adrenaline, the risk, and fantasizing about the look on those idiots’ faces when they realized that they got their shit stolen.

 

It was better than crack.

 

When Yoongi was fourteen-years-old, he once again was looking for that addicting dopamine rush in the giant-like man, who had a coat of arms emblem on his long, forest-colored soft-looking cloak. Yoongi’s keen ears heard the jangle of the fat purse the man kept on the belt of his tunic.

 

He was practically begging to get robbed. How could Yoongi say no?

 

Turned out, maybe he should’ve just said no.

 

It had started like all the rest of his heists: his mark coincidentally “slips” or is “pushed”, or a latch on a wooden chicken coop breaks, and the brainless animals wander onto the street, creating havoc. In this case, Yoongi decided to keep it simple and mentally shove the bastard onto some poor pedestrian.

 

While the man was trying to explain to the woman who he landed on that he didn’t mean for his face to land on her bosom.

 

Yoongi, he could’ve been a snake shifter for how smooth he was, deftly lifted the pouch before anyone noticed and pretended to be just another wide-eyed spectator who wanted in on the drama while slowly easing away.

 

He was already thinking about the useless shit he could buy with the coins when he felt the hand on his shoulder.

 

Yoongi had been sure that the soldier would’ve turned him in and he would’ve spent the next century carrying out his sentence on some brig where he had no chance of escape.

 

Apparently, the nobleman was a knight for the royal family. He was in town to buy a new pristine chamber pot via his wife’s request. Instead of being enraged like Yoongi thought he’d be, the knight was amused and impressed. So impressed, that he offered to take Yoongi under his wing and make him his apprentice.

 

Before Yoongi could tell the old geezer to fuck off, the soldier reminded him that could still have him arrested if he wanted to. If Yoongi’s disintegration ability had been stronger, he would’ve booked it.

 

Alas, he had no choice but to accept the knight’s “generous” offer.


 

It ended up being the making of Yoongi.

 

After ten vigorous years of nonstop training and discipline of both his physical and mental abilities, Yoongi ended up being stronger than he’d ever been. Yes, he would never be the tallest or the brawniest, but he was lethal, efficient, and dedicated to any task thrown to him.

 

And surprisingly still, Yoongi enjoyed it. Yeah, he had gone in kicking, screaming, and threatening bodily harm, but he could put that highly explosive ball of energy inside of him to good use. It was this enthusiasm that aided him as he steadily climbed the ranks. Before he knew it, he was the personal guard to the Noctis emperors and empresses.

 

As the centuries passed and the world and rulers changed, one thing that remained constant was Yoongi’s position. Of course, some contenders sought to steal said job but Yoongi’s tenure was secured thanks to the clout he had accumulated over the years.

 

Everything had been as it should.

 

Then the war had begun.

 

If anyone were to ask him today about his reaction to it, he would say that he wasn’t surprised by the way it progressed. Then again, after almost two hundred years of service, nothing fazed him anymore.

 

Yoongi saw like this: if you put a crocodile and a Bengal tiger in the same room, don’t you think that they will one day try to annihilate each other. The Shifters and Vampires were no different.

 

Shifters and Vampires had always had an uneasy yet respectful alliance. Two apex predators that were fully aware that in regards to the food chain, they were both on top of it. Aside from a few outlier issues throughout the years, the two groups shockingly never had any huge blowups.

 

Up until four years ago, the war had only been an idea, which is why their retrospective media outlets always had bulletins of their weapons. It was to show that they weren’t ones to be fucked with. Yes, there was potential, but in the back of everyone’s mind, no one truly believed that anything would happen.

 

Then the… the incident had occurred and everything had gone to shit.

 

Yoongi had felt the collective cry of his people’s agony and rage like a wound to the chest. He understood the thirst for vengeance and retribution and for a time, had silently supported their efforts, even the assassination of the current Shifter King and Queen. Why should the shifters know peace after all the damage they had created?

 

But when the vampires began dealing in methods that proved to be more harm than good to their own kind, Yoongi knew that something had to be done. The current Emperor was convinced that a few sacrifices of their own were worth the shifters receiving their due punishment.

 

Yoongi didn’t share the same sentiments. He didn’t personally care what happened to the shifters, but if his people were suffering alongside them, he knew he had to step in.

 

It took months of research and covert tracking in his free time. But he was finally able to gather everything he needed. And it was time, he leaked it to the enemy, thus, ending the war.

 

History had been set in stone and the shifters came out as the heroes of the calamity; their crimes were safely hidden in the dark. The vampires were forced to give over a good portion of their land as “compensation” for their crimes during the war. The once proud vampire species had been forced to downgrade.

 

And it was all Yoongi’s fault. In saving his people, he had doomed them as well. How could he carry on his position knowing he had betrayed his own kind?

 

It was this weight that compelled him to resign from his position. Seeing as how no one knew that he was the spy, everyone around him was confused about why he was quitting. He gave some bullshit excuse that he was getting old (although two hundred years is considered the prime of a vampire’s life) and that he needed something different.

 

Because Yoongi’s sudden loss of a steady yet hefty income, he had been forced to give up his penthouse and relocate to a smaller place deep in the slums of the city. Yoongi never complained (too much). He saw this as a bylaw in his self-inflicted punishment.

 

Gone was the title of Sir Yoongi, Special Agent Min Yoongi, or even Yoongi the street thief. Now it was just Min Yoongi.

 

Take away the fancy monikers and what is so special about Min Yoongi?

 

He has yet to figure it out.


 

But life goes on.

 

And no, Yoongi isn’t what one would label as happy. But he knows others that are far off worse than he is, so he’s grateful.

 

He’s grateful that he isn’t starving; grateful that even with his shitty job, he can still keep his skills sharp; grateful to know that when he comes home, someone will be there to welcome him with open ar—

 

Well, fuck him, what the hell was that?

 

After the bitch of a day he had had, Yoongi hadn’t felt like going home straight away. So, he had decided to take the scenic route. Scenic being this big-ass forest.

 

He knew that this gig was a risk in its self.

 

Vampires weren’t allowed on this side of the land ever since the borders were enacted to keep the peace between the two species. But his client had promised Yoongi good money if he came over to do the job.

 

He had thought the sights and smells of the forest would calm whatever funk he was currently in. However, the thick scent of blood disrupts his plans.

 

“Just ignore it,” he orders himself. Chances were that it was just a wild animal that had met an unfortunate end. And even if it wasn’t, it’s none of Yoongi’s business. He has enough troubles of his own. Someone would come along.

 

Unbidden, Charles Xavier’s voice told him, “Someone has come along.” Coupled with that, the scent seems oddly familiar to his senses.

 

He really shouldn’t have watched “Logan” last night.

 

Well, he reasons, it wouldn’t hurt to just take a quick peek.

 

Urging his dragging limbs to pick up the pace, he follows the odor until it leads him to…

 

Oh, Jesus.

 

This poor kid.

 

It looked a crime scene with how much blood is staining the grass. The air was drenched in the scent of blood, coupled with what Yoongi assumes is the unfortunate person’s scent. It’s so strong, a weaker person would’ve thrown up from the rancid stench.

 

The victim’s, a young girl, stomach looked like it had been torn open. It appeared that the left side of her face received similar treatment. It was caked over with blood, but Yoongi could see the four clawed fissures from where they had erupted.

 

That’s going to leave a nasty scar assuming if she survived this.

 

Oh, what is Yoongi kidding?

 

Of course, she isn’t going to survive this.

 

Ejecting the fact that she is a little girl, she’s already lost too much blood. And by the time, an ambulance arrives, it will be too late.

 

As if hearing his thoughts, the girl’s body twitches.

 

No.

 

No, there’s no that this girl…

 

But if she is?

 

Yoongi strains his ears and sure enough, there’s a stuttering pulse thrumming in syncopated rhythms within her chest.

 

Yoongi shakes his head.

 

If the girl is alive, then she is still feeling the pain of her lacerations. The kindest thing Yoongi can do for this girl is put a bullet in her head, putting her out of her misery.

 

And yet, it’s not his silencer that he reaches for.

 

Yoongi makes it a habit to always carry at least two tightly sealed packets of blood in his arsenal, just in case. He finds himself unscrewing the cap off a packet of O-positive (his favorite), crouching down beside the girl, and carefully opening the girl’s bloodied mouth.

 

He drops a few drops of O onto the girl’s tongue before he realizes his mistake. What was he doing wasting this blood on her? It would’ve been smarter just puncture his wrist and let the girl taste his blood. It’s a well-known fact that Vampire blood has healing properties. The only way the human blood would work on her is if the girl was—

 

The girl’s good eye, which is pitch black, pops open and Yoongi can only stare as she latches her mouth onto the cap and sucks on it as a baby sucks on its mother’s nipple.

  

When it doesn’t give the girl the results she desires, she lets out a snarl that is more pitiful than threatening and bangs her head against the blood-damp ground. Without a word, Yoongi elongates his fangs and raises the packet to his mouth puncture a hole through. Blood comes spurting out and the girl lets out a happy squeal that tugs on Yoongi’s heartstrings. He brings the packet back to her mouth and watches as she drains it.

 

As she does, the wounds on her stomach, face, and left eye begin to close up as if they were never open to begin with. What’s more, the black from her eyes shrink back and Yoongi stares into striking but glazed yellow eyes.

 

Yoongi thought he had gotten past the point where he could be surprised by anything.

 

But this girl…

 

“How did you slip through the cracks?” he asks. Of course, she doesn’t answer. Her only answer is a groan and her eyes rolling to the back of her head. She would need more blood for her to make a full recovery.

 

How did no one notice that a vampire was living among them for so long?

 

And more importantly, how did she survive this long without going feral?

 

But Yoongi stops himself. He knows that bloodlust wouldn’t be a problem for children until they got into their teens or something like this were to occur, aside from a few headaches. It’s completely normal.

 

Unless…

 

Yoongi smells them before he hears them.

 

Ugh, shifters always did have a putrid earthiness to them.

 

“Find it! If the vamp really is as crazed as the young lord described, then we need to stop it before it reaches the town!”

 

“The blood! It’s already ripped some poor animal to shreds!”

 

“Follow the trail men!”

 

Yoongi doesn’t even stop to question what they mean by “crazed”. The tromping of the soldiers is all Yoongi needs to know that he needs to leave.

 

He hesitates. He’s already done more than he should by helping this girl. He doesn’t need the extra trouble. He already has someone at home who depends on him. He can’t possibly afford to take another hungry mouth.

 

Out of nowhere, the soldier who had given him a chance all those years ago comes into his mind. Who would he have been if that man hadn’t taken a chance on him?

 

And he knows what brutes like these soldiers will do, even to a little girl.

 

Decision made, he gathers the girl into his arms. At the very least, it’ll add some more excitement to his life.

 

By the time the guards get there, the only thing they find is the blood.

Chapter Text

 

“Hyung, I think she’s waking up! Look, look, look! Her eyeballs are moving behind her eyelids.”

 

“Guk, didn’t we talk about this? When someone’s eyeballs are moving but their eyes are still closed, that doesn’t automatically mean that they’re awake.”

 

“That’s not true! Remember that one time when I saw your eyeballs were moving? You weren’t asleep.”

 

“Bunny, I’ve been trained to wake up from periods of sleep. Plus, I seem to remember a certain someone was poking at my eyes…”

 

The girl’s eyes pop open. “Namjoon!” She might’ve jolted into a sitting position if not for the invisible force keeping her down on the crudely made cot, which is really just a bunch of thick blankets strewn together.

 

“Easy there. I had to pull some strings to get the proper equipment. Not to mention the time and effort it took to research how to insert the tube. It would be a shame if you accidentally yanked it out.”

 

Tube?

 

It’s only when the gravelly voice mentions it does she feels the pressure in her left arm. The tube in her arm doesn’t hurt, at least not now. She follows the long red-filled tube to its source, which is to a bag filled with what the girl can only surmise be blood. She tries not to let her skin crawl at the thought of that blood entering her body.

 

Instead, she tries to focus on the long, bony fingers lightly gripping the blood bag (and oh God, she’s thinking about it again!). She trails her gaze upward and is soon staring into atramentous-colored eyes. Even the casual t-shirt and sweatpants the man is wearing can’t the lethal undercurrent the man produces.

 

The girl wants to distrust the man, she wants to act like her head and heart aren’t pounding; she also wants some chicken but that’s neither here nor there. The dark-haired man’s appearance is seriously throwing off her attempts to be hard and calculating just like Batman.

 

It’s like God couldn’t make up his mind when he decided to make this one. The man’s eyes are dark and are almond-shaped which reminiscent of a feline. They speak of an old soul that has seen and done some things. They put the girl on edge.

 

But then there’s his face. She looks at this guy’s face and wants to coo.

 

A pale tannish hue that complements his soft looking skin, a small pink mouth that looks like it pouts often, and a button nose that’s just asking to get bopped. Not to mention his scent is like freshly washed sheets. Sweet yet not overpowering at the same time.

 

He looks so soft that the girl would squeal if she wasn’t so frightened and bewildered.

 

She has to get a hold of herself. For she knows he could be a kidnapper that has a hankering for little girls like her.

 

Worse, he could be a trafficker that the kids at the orphanage always talk about. She could be sold to the highest bidder. Oh, God. What if the red stuff being pumped into her wasn’t blood but drugs? To make her docile and weak enough so that the potential creeps would be attracted to buy her?

 

Supposed she had already been sold? Supposed this was the drop-off spot that she would meet her new captor? Supposed—

 

“Hello!”

 

The girl shrieks. She would jump too if not for the invisible hands still holding her in place.

 

The girl had been so busy staring at the man, she didn’t even notice the boy sitting at the end of her cot. But now that she does see him, she wonders how she could miss him.

 

Shaggy coal-black hair that does nothing to hide the big, brown, wide eyes that stare holes into the space between her eyes. He has an adorably huge nose that the girl wouldn’t mind plopping a few kisses. His sweet and spicy scent that is at odds with the fresh aroma the man gives off. The girl judges that he is a little younger than she is.

 

“My name is Jeongguk,” he continues, “I am six years and I’m in the first grade. It’s very nice to meet you. What’s your name?” It’s obvious the boy spent time rehearsing his introduction. Further proof of this is when he glances pass the girl to give the man beside her a hopeful yet questioning stare. The girl looks back at the man and almost wishes she hadn’t.

 

He’s smiling. And he not just smiling to be smiling. It is an honest-to-god, pure, “I’m so happy that you’re here” smile. His smile is nothing but small, white teeth and pink gums. If the girl didn’t suspect otherwise, she would assume that the man is no older than a teenager.

 

The man gazes back at the boy, Jeongguk, with so much affection not just in his smile but in his entire being, it makes the girl envious. He gives a small approving nod that Jeongguk eats up with a blinding beam.

 

“Alright, Guk. The excitement’s over. It’s back to real life for you, little boy.” The boy pouts so sweetly the girl wants to cry. Just who are these people. “But you said that it was an emergency,” Jeongguk whines. He’d probably stomp his foot if he was standing.

 

“I did and I’m thankful for your help, boo. But now the emergency is over and it’s back to business as usual. And speaking of business did you finish the work I assigned you this morning?”

 

The boy drops his gaze to his hands. “Well… I finished my science and reading worksheets, but I’m having a little trouble with math.”

 

The man nods. “Okay. If you still need help, I’ll come help you once I’m done here. How does that sound?”

 

The boy nods, his hair rustling as he does. He gets up, a slight boy in an over-sized, black t-shirt that covers his small thighs.

 

“Oh,” the man says, stopping Jeongguk before he walks out the door. “Once you finish your homework, you and I will watch two episodes of Sailor Moon instead of just one tonight.” The boy gasps like the man just told him he just won a lifetime supply of ramen noodles.

 

“But I thought that I could only watch two episodes on the weekends.”

 

“Well, in light of our new guest here,” the man cocks his head towards the girl, “I don’t see the harm in breaking the rules tonight. As long as you promise me that you won’t oversleep.”

 

“I won’t, I won’t! I promise!”

 

“Alright. Go do your homework.” The boy’s happy grin threatens to break off his small face and stretch for miles with how broad it is. He practically dances as he opens the door.

 

Before he is completely gone, he turns around, his eyes sparkling and a happy flush on his cheeks. “Thank you, Yoongi-Hyung!” He disappears and the door closes.

 

The girl firmly believes that she is dreaming. She has to be. Any minute now, she is going to wake up back at the orphanage. The scene that has just unfolded before isn’t real. It can’t be.

 

The simple, domestic exchange between Jeongguk and the man, Yoongi, is something she has only seen in the movies. She had already accepted a long time ago that the movies are the closest she’ll ever get to a family.

 

“Alright. Now that Jeongguk is gone, it’s time for some questions.” The soft expression on Yoongi’s face has dried up and the seriousness is back in his eyes.

 

“Do you remember what happened?”

 

The girl feels herself go cold. She wishes that she doesn’t recall what happened after she had picked up Namjoon’s scent in the forest.

 

She had been so happy. Redemption was just a few meters away. Everything would go back to the way it should’ve been.

 

Then there was the roar. And the horrible stench of Namjoon’s fear. She hadn’t been thinking, her brain was temporarily shut off and their—her instincts had taken the lead.

 

When she saw that nightmare of a beast standing over Namjoon’s fatigued wolf body, breathing all over him as if it were marinating him in its disgusting, putrid miasma, the girl blacked out. At that moment, nothing existed except the ugly, deafening wail within her mind continuously the same thing:

 

Cripple it.

 

Torture it.

 

Kill it.

 

Kill it.

 

Kill.

 

Kill.

 

Kill.

 

“Where…”

 

For the first time since Yoongi has brought this girl to his home, he shamefully wonders if it would’ve been better to leave her out in the woods.

 

Every little knickknack that is stuffed in his and Jeongguk’s tiny bedroom begins to quake. He forces himself not to think about what is happening out in the small living area. Jeongguk will be fine, Yoongi tells himself. He is fine.

 

Right now, he needs to focus on himself and the kid. Because he is no longer regarding the yellow eyes of a shaken, young kid. The green-eyed, seething creature glowering back at him is the farthest thing from human.

 

“Where…” That’s the second time the girl has uttered that word. But the voice that comes is an indistinct growl-like undertone. As the little girl’s face continues to contort, Yoongi’s bedroom also continues to bear the brunt of this girl’s malicious fury.

 

Hyung?

 

Yoongi curses as he feels the worried question enter his mind. He should’ve known that he couldn’t keep this from Jeongguk. How could he? The rumbling and jostling of his shit were possibly being heard by his neighbors as well. Surprisingly though, there’s fear attached to Jeongguk’s inquiry. Even now, the kid is steady as a rock.

 

Don’t worry, boo. Hyung will take care of this. Just keep doing your homework.

 

Alright. Enough of this bullshit.

 

Yoongi has trained plenty of young vampires to recognize a psychic tantrum when he sees it. Although yes, the girl’s unusual raw strength is something he would love to tinker with further, he has another child in his apartment. Even if he did voluntarily invite this chaos into his home, he will not allow the girl and this… this… whatever this thing is to hurt his little family and the life he is trying to make.

 

Taking a deep breath, Yoongi extends the hold that is keeping the girl down on the makeshift cot to the entire room.

 

Part of the reason why Yoongi loved his prior position and takes on the shitty hit-jobs is that it gives him an excuse to get rid of this pent-up energy that lives inside of him.

 

Every Vampire is born with psychic abilities. Where they come from, no one knows. But the same way the shifters can’t explain why the bones in their bodies break down and reform into the crouching beasts, the same way vampires need blood like water and were given the gifts they have.

 

Although rare in modern times, every once in a while, a vampiric child will come that shows high potential from adolescence. Others, like Yoongi, have to spend decades learning to perfect their mental skills to become a functioning member of society. A vampire that cannot control their psychic talents is no different from a vampire that has lost their mind from bloodlust in his world.

 

The green-eyed monster is no longer so fierce in the face of Yoongi’s power. The fine hairs on its arms and the back of its neck in response to the staticky pulse in the room. For years, the thing had been watching, silently protecting the girl against serious harm.

 

Well, at least until recently.

 

Until the bear, it had gotten to the point where the thing had arrogantly believed that nothing was greater than its power.

 

But that bear…

 

As much as it loathes the thing to admit it, the bear had been stronger, much stronger. And oh, this man. This man is the same.

 

The black of his pupil encases his eyeballs and his pink, soft lips curl back in a silent snarl, revealing tiny, sharp fangs. The thing couldn’t look away from the hypnotizing obsidian pools of his eyes.

 

The man is going to kill it. He’s going to rip it the thing apart and take it away from the girl.

 

No. NO!

 

The thing wants to fight but it can’t. It’s too weak to fight against the fingers scratching at it and the girl’s mind. It lets out a whimper.

 

It’s failed. For the entirety of the girl and its existence, the thing just wanted to protect the girl and it couldn’t even do that.

 

And now it is going to die due to its shortcomings. If it wasn’t so stuck watching the black in the man’s eyes, it would shut its eyes.

 

Stop.

 

The thing freezes. The thing can hear man’s velvety, sleepy voice echoing in her mind although it’s sure that he’s not moving his lips.

 

I’m not going to hurt her or you. I want to help both of you. But you have to ease your mind. Your rage is only going to hurt the girl. Do you want to do that?

 

No! It doesn’t want to hurt the girl. All it wants is to protect her, protect them, protect—

 

An image of a boy with a head of silver hair, stick-thin limbs, and a dimpled-grin.

 

The thing wants to protect both of them. But it can’t even protect one let alone two. It’s not sure what to do anymore

 

Let me help you.

 

The thing is so tired of fighting, and the man’s voice is so warm and smooth like freshly-made peanut butter.

 

Maybe just for a little while, it can rest?

 

Yoongi can feel sweat bead on his back as he gently coaxes whatever it is running the show to let go of its control. Yoongi is powerful as is, but the process and the entity are fragile. He doesn’t want to make any sudden moves, lest he spooks whatever it is.

 

Yoongi can already tell that the girl’s abilities are only going to get stronger. It would’ve only been a matter of time before someone would have gotten suspicious enough to pay attention.

 

Not to sound like he is bragging, but Yoongi has little to no trouble talking the entity down.

 

Yes, he has never encountered anything like this before. But Yoongi has two centuries of experience under his belt. Also, the thing is young and immature. He would go as far as to believe that it’s as young as or the same age as the girl herself.

 

For all of its bark and bite, Yoongi can sense the childlike vulnerability and fear bouncing off the thing like sonic waves.

 

Okay, far be it from Yoongi to assume anything about anyone. He’s had people assume things about him his entire life. He knows how degrading it is. And God forbid he assumes someone’s gender based on their thought patterns alone, that’s just unethical and stereotypic and Yoongi likes to think of himself as a fair and diplomatic individual.

 

But…

 

If he had to speculate, he would say that the thing has a feminine aura about it.

 

But that’s neither here nor there.

 

By the time Yoongi is finished, the atmosphere has lost its static quality and everything is still aside from the panting girl.

 

Her eyes are back to their odd lemon color. She stares up at him as if she has just seen God.

 

“What… what did you…”

 

Yoongi knows that the girl is rattled by what just happened and wants clarity. But he needs to get his answers about this girl now. What just happened is a can of worms that Yoongi will open some other time when he has had at least five hours of sleep first.

 

“Alright, now that we got past that melodrama, let’s try this again. Hi, I’m Min Yoongi. What’s your name, peanut?”