He dreams often. Faraway fantasies of making it big in music industries, people who will listen to his words of rebellion and anger and oppression. Chilly omens of shadowy figures in the corners of his room whispering things he doesn’t want to hear. Visions of sleeping in endless sunlit spreads of dry parched earth with nothing but his heartbeat around for miles.
“What’s your name?”
The boy sits with his back to Yoongi. He remains wordless, nearly swallowed up in the blackness that presses in around them like the sensation of being head-under blankets at night. Yoongi wants to stand up and leave, but something keeps him rooted to the spot, legs crossed. They prickle as they fall asleep. The lantern he’s holding up near his face is the only source of light, the heat of the candle flame abnormally hot and painful through the glass.
“Who are you?”
Still he offers no answer, but after a moment the boy turns his head. Yoongi recoils when he sees his face, a mess of facial features in all the wrong places. He stumbles when the blackness melts away and his back meets a wall. He’s standing now, in an abandoned structure full of people with faces he cannot distinguish. Just like that nameless boy, their eyes are not quite in the right places in their heads, blinking lazily where their lips should be, mouths brushed to the side of cheeks and noses planted on foreheads.
“Vitalum Vitalis,” says one of them, his mouth moving out of sync with his words. His voice is distorted, as though it passes through water. “The balancing of energy between life and death.”
One of the human Picasso creations strides toward Yoongi, hands of six fingers each reaching out for his neck. He can’t even run. The soles of his feet are nailed into the ground. The hands close around his neck like a cold metal vice and he chokes. He can’t believe this is how he dies. His mouth hangs open but no air goes into his lungs, it’s as if he’s forgotten how even to breathe. All it is is the warmth seeping out of his body, starting from the tips of his fingers and toes before the iciness reaches the blood in his face.
He hits the ground with a heavy thud. The concrete almost feels warm under his cheek.
“And there we have it,” says the voice. “The next Supreme of the South Korean convocation of warlocks—”
A cheerful tritone-chime screeches over the second half of the sentence. The image of the run down building around him fuzzes around the edges, then pulls away until it looks like nothing but a badly performed stage show in the distance, and Yoongi wakes up.
Jung Hunchul messaged you!
Yoongi squints hatefully at the blinking tab on his computer, wiping his cheek where it’s damp with drool, and should really somehow make it clearer to people that he is not interested in making small talk unless the sky is falling or blood is spurting everywhere. Then, maybe, are people allowed to open with “So how was your day?”
But maybe it is good that Jung Hunchul is messaging him now. Just as well, in fact, considering this—whatever that dream was—is something out of the scope of Yoongi’s expertise and frankly out of scope for the fucks he desires to give at any given time on any given day. He despises phone calls but at the same time, something like this really shouldn’t wait.
“Hello? Damn, is this Min Yoongi?”
“That’s me! Why so glum, chum? I didn’t really pit you as someone who would ever call after getting a froyo invitation on Facebook.”
“You woke me up from my nap, asshat. Listen, there are more important things than froyo right now.”
Hunchul groans into the receiver. “I beg to differ,” he says, mouth audibly full. “If you could taste this marbled taro right now—”
“I saw something.”
A pause. “You saw something, or you Saw something?”
“Capital s, Saw something.”
The silence stretches out again. Yoongi hears him talking in the background, “Yo, yo, you glue factory rejects, shut the fuck up,” and chuckles. “What did you See?” he asks.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“Do you at least have something you can put into words? You’re not helping a homie out here.”
“How old is the current Supreme, hyung?”
“Right now? Twenty.”
“And he was the youngest Supreme to ever manifest, right?”
“That I know of, yeah.” Hunchul is quiet again, the sounds of the froyo parlor soft and crackly over the receiver. “Why, did you See something about him?”
“How old are Supremes usually before new ones begin manifesting?”
The silence between Yoongi’s question and Hunchul’s reply is the longest one yet. “Yoongi,” he says, voice grave as death, “are you saying—?”
“Yes,” Yoongi says, sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose. “The next Supreme is coming. He’s coming soon.”
Living the life of a hidden warlock is not an easy one. Living the life of a hidden warlock that can hear the thoughts of everyone around him and see the future is even harder. Yoongi goes through most of his days with headphones jammed down over his ears, music cranked up to deafening volumes to drown out the voices in his head. It never completely erases the buzz of thoughts in his head that aren’t his own but the harsh, Marlboro-roughened beats of rap blanket it, sweep it under the carpet and give him something else to listen to.
“You don’t look so hot.”
“No, really.” Donghyuk nods at the way Yoongi picks at the synthesizer controls under his finger. “You’ve been distracted all day. You usually turn into a different person the second you sit down in a recording studio, what’s wrong?” He pauses, the hesitation clear in the way he wrings his hands. “What were you talking to Hunchul about yesterday?”
“He told me not to tell you,” Yoongi sighs. “Said it wasn’t worth raising a fuss until I sniffed around first.”
“Ahh,” Donghyuk says, adjusting his headphones so that one of his ears is exposed, the other still clamped under the foam earpiece. “I have to hand it to him, I didn’t think he’d be able to keep the Wixen Council together after Ikje decided to step down from the leadership position but that one’s got his priorities in the right place.”
Later, when Donghyuk isn’t watching, Yoongi slips a scrap of paper out of his pocket and reads it again—the address to the Supreme, living somewhere in Seoul right now.
“You should go speak to him,” Hunchul said yesterday, voice hushed over the phone. “This is the last address he gave me, I’m not sure if he’s still living there or not. It’s the best I can give you, I’m sorry, but if you can’t find him I’ll call up some people who can.”
“Is stalking the Supreme even legal?” Yoongi asked, smoothing a hand down the Post-It note after he finished copying down the address. Hunchul snorted into the phone.
“Do you think we’re here to tell a rowdy group of witches and warlocks what’s legal,” he said. “Please. We do what we can to help you all live, we don’t have time to worry about law.”
“Hey,” Yoongi says, crumpling the paper in his fist and shoving it back into the pocket of his sweatpants. “How long do you think we can ditch this taco stand and take a spin to the big city?”
Donghyuk eyes him. “Why? Is this part of whatever juicy little secret between you and Hunchul?”
“I don’t have time for this, Donghyuk,” Yoongi says flatly, and Donghyuk simply pouts.
“You say we,” he replies, waving an airy hand in Yoongi’s face. “We’re a bitter underground troupe of rappers by day and a council of warlocks by night. I think it’s about damn time we crashed a big city party again. It’s getting too quiet in Daegu.”
He still has a damp towel wrapped around his waist, beads of water clinging to the ends of his hair. This is the not the picture of presentability.
“Hey, Jackson, can you get the door?”
No answer. More likely than not, Jackson is doing his fifteenth set of handstand pushups of the night, or filming an amateur striptease (Namjoon could not make this shit up, he has walked into one too many strange things Jackson did). He curses under his breath, hitches the towel tighter around himself, and reaches for the doorknob.
It hits him like a surge of electricity when he does, a bright flashing image of a boy, with a tuft of black hair peeking out from the back of a snapback with the bill turned backwards, standing with his arms crossed on the other side of the door. This boy, whoever he is, isn’t here for a business inquiry, isn’t a telemarketer that always comes around with a clipboard, isn’t a high school student looking for donations. He’s here for a matters a little more extraordinary.
This much, Namjoon knows.
For a moment the picture is burned into the backs of Namjoon’s eyelids, and he has to blink to get it to fade. With a little more caution this time he puts his hand back on the handle and turns the knob.
“Uh,” says the boy, and his name comes to Namjoon like an old memory, though he doesn’t recall ever meeting him. “Hi. Are you Kim Namjoon?”
“—Min Yoongi, right?”
“Oh,” Yoongi says, looking mildly impressed. “You remember me?”
“No, I,” Namjoon says, waving the hand he still has resting on the door handle, and smiles. “Supreme.”
Yoongi searches his face for a moment, then asks, “Can I come in? I’m sorry, you look busy, but it can’t wait.”
“No, it’s fine, come in,” Namjoon steps back to make room. “Just let me get dressed.”
Yoongi follows him into the living room, where Namjoon pulls on a t-shirt and clumsily steps into his pants. He’s expressionless at first, turning his head side to side surreptitiously as if trying to pick up noise, then wrinkles his nose when he sits down in a tattered armchair.
“Something the matter?”
“Do you live with someone else?” Yoongi asks.
“Yeah, one roommate. I think he’s in his room.”
“He’s so loud.”
“Yeah, sometimes he—” Namjoon frowns. Jackson is silent right now, or at least to his knowledge. “Wait. You’re the clairvoyant, aren’t you? Min Yoongi, the same one from five years ago, during the last test of the Seven Wonders. You were the last candidate for Supreme, until you failed concilium—you’re part of my convocation.”
“That’s me,” Yoongi says, saluting with one finger. “So, Supreme, if you know who am, tell me what I’m here for.”
Namjoon shrugs. “I’m lost.”
“Ah,” Yoongi says. “Right. Yeah, it’s not exactly great news, I advise you sit down.”
Once Namjoon has has made himself comfortable, Yoongi gives a sigh like a disappointed father facing his delinquent son. “There’s another Supreme on the horizon,” he announces with gusto.
Namjoon blinks rapidly. “What.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I were just trying to mess with you,” he continues. “I Saw it happen. The test of the Seven Wonders, not long from now. And if it happens exactly as I Saw it, someone will die during Vitalum Vitalis. It might be me.”
Yoongi says all of this with eerily collected calm, and Namjoon leans forward, resting elbows on knees with fingers laced together.
“You’re telling me that there is a new all-powerful witch or warlock that is rising in this convocation?” he repeats, trying to make sure he understands what Yoongi is telling him. It’s not that Namjoon doesn’t trust him, but clairvoyants are tricky, tricky people, and it really doesn’t get more dangerous than someone who can read minds and see the future.
Okay, so maybe it is that Namjoon doesn’t trust him.
“Are you here to call yourself off the list of suspicion?” he finally asks. “Warn me, like you’re looking out for me, then kill me when you have the chance? How can I know you don’t already know who it is?”
“I went to Hunchul with this,” Yoongi deadpans. “And while they’re a bunch of dick-brained fucks most of the time, I don’t have the nerve to lie through my teeth to the Wixen Council.”
Namjoon feels marginally bad for being so cynical.
“Don’t be,” Yoongi says intuitively. “I can’t blame you for being suspicious. If I were you I’d ask the same question because, at least to me, you don’t look like you’re dying. There’s no reason for a new Supreme to be manifesting only five years after you stepped up.”
“I am definitely not dying,” Namjoon confirms. “Well. What should I do about this information?”
“Do what you will,” Yoongi says. “I’m acting on Hunchul’s advice, I would never have been able to find you without him. And—well, you’re the Supreme. We might not be a close convocation of warlocks like the New Orleans coven of witches, but you’re still our leader.”
When Namjoon sees him off at the door later, he pauses and turns around. Namjoon thinks he has something else to warn him about but all he does is point out, “The back of your shirt is wet, by the way.”
“Oh, I know. I don’t towel off my back.”
Yoongi fixes him with a pained expression. “Why?”
“Why towel it if it’s going to dry itself anyway?”
“What the fuck kind of reasoning is that,” he hears Yoongi say to himself after he shuts the door. “Why live if you’re going to die?”
But Yoongi’s words haunt Namjoon like a dark cloud.
“Are you all right?” Jackson asks, and Namjoon has to shake himself out of his trance. “You’ve been weird since that Yoongi guy came over.”
Namjoon quirks an eyebrow. “You heard his name?”
“You guys were talking pretty loud.”
“Jackson, you didn’t even hear me shouting at you to come open the door.”
“Details,” Jackson says, waving a hand. “Did he give you a hard time? He’s not here for the diary of his dead sister, or something, right? I really don’t want to be living in a haunted apartment complex, because I could have sworn I heard shuffling around in the morning, and—”
Namjoon’s phone vibrates against the kitchen table, the grating rumble making them both jump. It’s Hunchul, and Namjoon would be lying if he said he isn’t a little relieved that he’s seeing a more familiar name from whom he can actually get answers. He steps into his room to answer.
“Yep. Could have given me a bit of a heads up before sending a Sighted clairvoyant on my tail like that, thank you.”
Hunchul laughs. “I’m not trying anything weird with you, I swear. But that Sighted clairvoyant Saw something that concerns you, and I’m trying to keep this as low profile as I can. Need to know basis. Yoongi is too much of a sloth to give a flying shit about power, but not every witch or warlock out there is like that.”
“What now?” Namjoon asks, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t even know half the convocation in South Korea, how on Earth are we going to sniff out the next Supreme?”
“Well, actually,” Hunchul says, the creak of a chair tipping back punctuating his words, “you and Yoongi are the only ones from the last test of Seven Wonders that are still alive. The other ten were killed at gunpoint just outside the North Korean border.”
“Jesus in a shit bucket.”
“Yeah, Ikje decided to step down after that,” Hunchul replies solemnly. “We call it Slaughterhouse Ten. Well, not to his face, anyway. Since then we’ve let you two stay apart, because clearly, unity was not the optimal choice for our fallen heroes.”
“So what it looks like right now is,” Hunchul continues, “there are no known witches or warlocks that could be challenging your position.”
“This does not reassure me at all.”
“I didn’t think it would,” Hunchul says. “The thing is, that means whoever it is has no idea he’s the next rising Supreme. Which means that you, my liege, need to make a lot of magical friends in the next few months.”
Namjoon cracks his knuckles. “Why?”
“If there’s someone that’s challenging your position,” Hunchul sighs, as if this is obvious, “you really don’t want to make an enemy of them.”
Hunchul has a fair point. Namjoon shuts his eyes, breathing in deep, trying to arrange his thoughts and words before he speaks again.
“Right,” he says. “How are we going to do this, then?”
“Leave that part to me,” Hunchul says with relish. “I got a distress call from down in Busan. From the looks of it, you’ve got a doozy coming your way, my friend.”
The police officer’s voice is brusque yet not unkind, but Jeongguk doesn’t immediately bring his face out of his hands. The red-and-white checkered fleece blanket around his shoulders still isn’t enough to keep him warm but someone had draped it over him. In the confusion, he hadn’t seen who it was, or got a chance to thank them. It’s his favorite blanket.
“Yeah,” he says, voice hoarse. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Even as he looks up the rotating police lights and ambulance strobes sting his eyes. The entire street is bathed in it, asphalt awash in bluish-red. The sight of it makes him want to close his eyes, scrub the image out of his mind but the picture is burned onto the insides of his eyelids.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say now can be used against you in court. Can we proceed?” says the other officer.
“Name and age?”
“Jeon Jeongguk. Seventeen.”
“Relationship to the victim?”
Jeongguk doesn’t answer right away. Then, “Acquaintance,” he grits out.
“Yes. Didn’t know his name.”
“Can you describe the events right up to the moment you called paramedics?”
Jeongguk does close his eyes this time.
It hadn’t happened so fast, but it’s still a blur. He’s done this more than once, especially after his brother made him a fake copy of his own ID—club hopping and bar hopping with people much older. In retrospect, it wasn’t his turf, he should have stayed home, done his work like the high school third-year he is, but one taste of it and Jeongguk has been addicted ever since. Letting people he knew only by face and vaguely, vaguely by name if he’s seen them around enough, drag him off the dance floor, into cabs, and between sheets.
It’s never ended like this, though.
“His nose started bleeding first,” Jeongguk says, eyes still shut. “It wasn’t obvious in the beginning, and it wasn’t that bad. He told me to get off of him because he had a nosebleed, so I did and he reached over for something to stem the flow. He turned on the light and I saw that it was true. By the time his hand actually reached the tissues box, he’d already started bleeding from both nostrils. Then from his ears, and his eyes, and his…” Jeongguk pulls the blanket tighter around himself. “Everywhere. Blood everywhere. I don’t know how it...how it happened.”
So the long, short, and dirty of it is this: Jeongguk’s first time was with someone he hardly knew, which is all well enough, if he hadn’t died virtually on the spot the second he put his dick in him.
This is like a bad, bad dream.
“Did the hemorrhage occur before or after, er. Penetration.”
The cop that hadn’t spoken gives his colleague a severe look. Jeongguk blinks dumbly at the question as though he’s not quite sure he heard correctly.
“Uhm…” Jeongguk licks his lips, the thick smell of iron in his lungs. “After.”
The officer nods, grabs the other’s elbow, and yanks them around so that they’re facing away from Jeongguk. This can’t be professional, but right now Jeongguk doesn’t even care. Still, though, he hears them easily, their voices carrying in the breeze.
“Is death by coitus possible in humans?”
“I don’t fucking know, Yongjin. Maybe that’s why they call it le petit mort, though?”
A paramedic checks Jeongguk’s vitals as they whisper to each other some more, holding a stethoscope to his chest, telling him to breathe in and out. She shines a light into his eyeballs and declares him stable for now, and the officer named Yongjin turns around and tucks his hand into his jacket, a grim look on his face.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to come down to the station with us for the time being, Jeon Jeongguk,” he says. “You’re under arrest on one count of first-degree manslaughter.”
Jeongguk’s parents are far more worried than they actually are angry with him. The first thing his mother does when he breaks the news to her (“Hi Mom, I’m at the police station and they’re offering me two billion in bail. I can explain.”) is not, surprisingly, to disown him. Instead, she says with a muted sadness in her voice,
“Oh, honey, did you try to sleep with someone?”
To which Jeongguk had sputtered, but admitted, in the end.
The story is, apparently, that Jeongguk’s great-great-grandmother, or someone in the family, had been one too—a black widow, a curse that is only too true to its name. More importantly, she’d been a witch as well.
Which makes Jeongguk a warlock. A teenage boy that wielded considerable magical power for someone who received a failing grade in geography and geology class last semester.
He shakes his head, trying to clear his mind as he’s led to his cell. Men on all sides hang out of their own rooms, arms slung around the bars, cigarettes dangling from lips. Even from here on the second floor Jeongguk can see the poor excuses of showers, little cubicles with shabby curtains, dirty water pooling on the floor around them. He gulps.
“There will be someone to come get you,” his mother promised him on the phone, and her voice swims back into his ears now. Her words were gentle but of little comfort. “We just don’t have that kind of money, Jeongguk-ah, but someone will be there for you. Just wait, okay?”
“This is your room,” the officer barks. “No roughhousing, got it? Or you can say hello to the corrections officer.”
The door slams shut with a metallic clang behind him. Jeongguk is still hugging his pillow and blanket to his chest, backed up against the bars. He has one roommate, who currently is slumped over in the bed across the empty one that Jeongguk supposes will be his. He’s wearing thick black sunglasses, which strikes Jeongguk as odd. Aren’t all the prisoners stripped of outside personal belongings like that?
He doesn’t move. Jeongguk shuffles cautiously forward in between the two bunks, jumping when he notices the huge black Labrador sitting with its face in its paws under the bed. It peers up at him, and he bends down to pet it, hand already outstretched over its head when he sees the label on its leash.
GUIDE DOG ON DUTY, DO NOT PET.
“Oh,” he breathes, withdrawing his hand, and suddenly the sunglasses make sense. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware you were visually impaired.”
His roommate makes no indication he’s even listening. Jeongguk, still clutching his things, bends down in very close to his face, until they’re practically nose to nose and says, “Hello, can you hear me?”
No movements. Jeongguk pulls away, shrugging to himself, before going to his own bed and dumping his things on it. He shakes out his blanket, which smells and looks like it was used to clean a horse, fluffing his doormat of a pillow best he can. The mattress screeches like an angry cat when he lies down on it, folding his hands behind his head, feeling the ill-fitting prison uniform bunch up around his torso.
“What’s a pretty little kid like you doing here?”
Jeongguk turns his head. “So you could hear me.”
“Wanted to see if you’d do anything embarrassing if you thought I couldn’t see or hear,” he says, grinning. “So. What’d you do? Underage drinking? Deal drugs? Sneak into clubs?”
That last one makes Jeongguk squirm. “Well, what are you here for?” he shoots back.
“No ask-backs. I asked first.”
Jeongguk rolls onto his side, facing away from him. “None of your business.”
A huff. “I mean, if I’m going to be living with a convicted sexual predator, I’d really rather know than not. I need to know whether I can safely bend over to get something I’ve dropped, you know?”
Jeongguk squawks with indignation. “I am not a sexual predator,” he protests.
“Well then, what is it?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“I’ve been here for a while,” the boy replies, and Jeongguk turns his head around. His head is unmoving, and even behind his sunglasses, Jeongguk somehow can tell that his gaze is trained on the floor. He can’t see Jeongguk’s face, probably. “I understand more than you. You know the guy next door is in here because he’s convicted of eating his ex-girlfriend? It really doesn’t get more fucked up than that.”
Jeongguk shivers, and his roommate smiles again.
“I’m just kidding. We tease him for it but he’s just in here for carrying coke around.” He pauses, then, “I’m Kim Taehyung.”
“Jeon Jeongguk.” He pillows his head on his hands. “It was an accident. It really was.”
Taehyung nods sagely. “They all are.”
“No, really! I had no idea it would happen…”
“What did you do?”
“I accidentally...someone died,” Jeongguk mumbles.
“Died?” Taehyung repeats incredulously. “You killed someone? Did you run over them with your car when they ran into the street or something?”
“No!” Jeongguk says. “No. It was a lot more...unexpected.”
“I’m not following.”
Jeongguk sighs. “It’s really not something you would believe.”
Taehyung props a hand up on his chin, smiling faintly. “Yeah? Try me.”
Jeongguk opens his mouth, then closes it, covering his face with his hands. The image still haunts him, the blood pooling over the bed, dripping down the edge of the mattress into the carpeting, cherry syrup pooling over the edge of an iced cake. He remembers pulling off and stumbling back, blood smeared over the insides of his thighs, washing over his skin in sticky waves.
“Someone died on me during sex. I swear I didn’t know it would happen. It just—it just did, we were just doing what people do during sex, and I was the only witness, so.”
Taehyung’s eyebrows knit together over his sunglasses. Distractedly, Jeongguk notes the little Raybans logo in the corner of the frames. “Who the fuck were you having sex with?” he asks. “Because you know, fifty-four percent of senior citizens are concerned that their partner will die during orgasm. Actual statistic.”
“Uh, what the fuck.”
“It was. Someone my age. Close to my age, anyway.”
Taehyung scoots off the bed. Even when he passes the open window, the lenses of his glasses are tinted so black that Jeongguk can’t see his eyes. The black Lab under his bed lifts its head, but he runs his hand along the rusted metal frame of Jeongguk’s bed, reaching out with the other.
“Let me see how old you look,” he says, and Jeongguk brings his face up until Taehyung’s fingertips meet his cheek. He jerks back; the iciness of Taehyung’s hand is startling.
“Sorry,” Taehyung says, before Jeongguk can open his mouth to apologize. “I know they’re cold.” He drops the hand he holds the bed frame with, cupping his hands in front of Jeongguk’s face. “I’ll be quick.”
Jeongguk closes his eyes. Taehyung is gentle, fingers skittering across Jeongguk’s nose, his cheekbones, over both his eyebrows and along the swell of his lips. His face is so close, expressionless, until he pulls away and grins. Jeongguk tips forward slightly, missing the contact—as cold as it was, no one has properly touched him since that nightmarish evening.
“I’m not sure, actually,” Taehyung says. “Are you nineteen?”
“No,” Jeongguk says, amusement creeping into his voice.
“Damn. You feel nineteen.” He frowns as he shuffles away, sitting when the backs of his knees hit his bed. “Younger or older?”
“Jesus, you look older than my best friend, then,” Taehyung murmurs. “Eighteen?”
“Is that shocking?”
“Only in the fact you don’t look or sound seventeen,” Taehyung says.
Jeongguk smiles faintly. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“So,” Taehyung says, crossing his arms, picking at the corner of a bag of dog treats. “your DNA rifle is as deadly as an actual assault rifle, huh?”
Not that this isn’t true. Taehyung hit the nail uncomfortably close to the head, and it’s not like he could possibly understand. Or maybe it only applied to his—well. Now Jeongguk is wondering about the logistics of how this black widow curse work, does he have to get fucked or does this happen if he fucked someone else? He’s giving himself a headache.
“Don’t you know anything about gun safety,” Taehyung says disapprovingly.
“I...” Jeongguk doesn’t have a comeback. “I wish that was the only thing I had to do.”
The edge of Jeongguk’s bed sinks with a hiss when Taehyung finds his way over again and sits down. “Sorry,” he says. “I took that too far.”
Jeongguk glares at him, then remembers once more that Taehyung can’t see it, and settles on a light punch to his arm. “Yeah. Well, you’re a better roommate than I could have hoped for.” He pauses. “So, what are you in here for?”
“I shoplifted five hundred dollars worth of Chanel sunglasses from a boutique,” Taehyung replies.
A shocked silence follows.
“No you didn’t,” Jeongguk says, though he’s not sure what to believe now. “Did you?”
“I wish that was the only thing I did,” Taehyung says, mirroring Jeongguk’s words. He’s still smiling at something past Jeongguk’s head, but it’s tinged now with something Jeongguk can’t quite place. “Nah. Don’t worry. I bought these sunglasses with money.”
“Then what are you in here for?”
“Disturbing the peace,” Taehyung says.
“Well, that’s what they wrote on my profile.”
“So what was it actually?”
Taehyung turns his head, following the sound of Jeongguk’s voice, so that it appears that he’s looking into Jeongguk’s face. Jeongguk knows he’s blind, can’t see him, yet somehow Taehyung’s silence makes him even more uncomfortable.
“Maybe I’ll tell you one day,” he says finally, grinning. “It’s no fun to spoil the story before it’s even begun.”
For Hoseok, most of his late afternoons, sliding into purple dusks, end like this—standing in the convenience store across the street from his apartment, sweat still running down his temples after meeting the underground dance crew in the afternoon. The moon, a little early for the party, is an embarrassed blue disc in the sky.
His breath is still hot in his lungs, even in the dead of winter, face mask dangling from one ear.
“Excuse me, sorry.”
Someone opens the fridge door beside him, bulky messenger bag bumping into Hoseok’s thigh. He makes a grunt of acknowledgement, glancing up with a smile ready and an it’s okay on his lips when the other person catches his gaze at the same time.
Hoseok feels his stomach drop to his feet. They stare at each other for a heartbeat, and the boy suddenly frowns.
“Do I know you?”
“Then what do you mean, ‘Oh fuck, this is Min Yoongi,’” Yoongi asks. Hoseok just blinks rapidly, very deliberately setting down the drinks he has in either hand back on their shelves as Yoongi glowers at him. Then he turns to him with a smile, bowing. Yoongi looks appropriately confused by the time he’s straightened up. Excellent. Step one, disarm your opponent with sheer confusion.
“It seems that I forgot I…” Hoseok begins, still grinning hugely, then makes a mad dash for the entrance.
The bell tinkles on the door when he crashes into it, cold wind stinging his face when he runs down the street. He’s almost made into his apartment building when Yoongi walks out of the entrance, looking more irritated than ever, messenger bag still slung over his shoulder and beanie pulled snugly over his ears. Hoseok almost trips when he stumbles backwards.
“Don’t try,” Yoongi says, when Hoseok turns to run again. “I’ve got shit to do, so if you’d please, it would make things a lot easier if you cooperated without the use of force.”
Hoseok doesn’t move, so Yoongi circles around him and comes to a stop to face him. He reaches out and rips the face mask off Hoseok’s face.
“How long were you planning to keep this up?” he asks, turning the fabric over in his hands. Hoseok shrugs. “What’s your name?”
“Oh. Hm.” He crosses his arms. “Does Hunchul know about you?”
“The Wixen Council. Ikje, Hunchul, Donghyuk, Hyosang…” Yoongi trails off. “You have no idea who I’m talking about, do you.”
Hoseok shakes his head.
“What do you know?” Yoongi asks, eyes narrowed. “You have to know something, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”
Hoseok picks his mask out of Yoongi’s hands and loops it around his ears again. His nose is cold, wintry air nipping at his cheeks. “There’s been a shift in magical power,” he says. “I felt it. Happened about a month ago. You must have felt it too, since you wouldn’t be here either if you hadn’t. I don’t know what it is or why it’s happening, but I wasn’t going to sit back and do nothing.”
“You have a really bizarre method of investigation,” Yoongi says, and Hoseok laughs at this.
“Well, you can’t say it’s a bad one, right?” he says, and Yoongi frowns even deeper. Somehow, he knows he’s won this argument.
“You’re lucky you haven’t stepped out of line if you don’t know the Wixen Council,” Yoongi says. “They’re going to want to know about you, Jung Hoseok. I thought your kind was extinct.”
“You’d be surprised how many of us are running around out there,” Hoseok says, winking.
Yoongi rolls his eyes. “How long do you plan to keep tricking the Supreme into believing you’re Jackson Wang?” he asks.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Hoseok says. “I could get used to walking around shirtless.”
Jeongguk stirs his spoon in his bowl, watching the powdery instant miso rise in plumes in the thin soup and settle back down in the dregs of the bowl. He and Taehyung sit on the ground the youngest two inmates crowded off the rickety plastic tables. The cement is frigid and damp under them.
One of the inmates at the tables comes over especially to pick up Taehyung’s hand and slap a pair of chopsticks into it. Jeongguk stares at the interaction, and looks at Taehyung for an explanation. Then he remembers he needs to say everything aloud now, and that Taehyung doesn’t depend on nonverbal cues like facial expressions.
“You’re friends with them?” Jeongguk whispers, leaning close. Taehyung shrugs, picking up bits of dry, cardboardy tempura with surprising dexterity and holding them out for his black Lab. Kkanji! Taehyung had replied when Jeongguk asked its name.
“Why not? We’re all stuck in here. Might as well be friendly with the people you have to spend your mindless days with.”
Jeongguk elects not to tell Taehyung that he is essentially guaranteed a ticket out of here before the murder case proceeds. According to his mother, anyway; he hasn’t spoken to her since the last time he’d called and asked for two billion won in bail. He still doesn’t know what the victim’s name was, a sick feeling settling in his stomach when he recalls that night.
“What are you thinking about?”
A shrug. “What are you in for?” Jeongguk prods, and Taehyung just laughs.
“You’re never going to get it out of me. Need to know basis. Right Kkanji? Right?”
Jeongguk puts up a furious pout. “You’re going to have to tell me at one point,” he says petulantly.
“Sure, when you tell me what you’re actually in here for, too,” Taehyung replies easily. “Because I know you hardly told me half the story. Probably less. I know these things.”
At this, Jeongguk clams up. Taehyung doesn’t press him further, feeding Kkanji almost everything on his food tray.
“Aren’t you going to go hungry like that?” Taehyung nibbles on the corner of a piece of tempura. “You hardly eat anything.”
“I don’t really like eating,” Taehyung says, wrinkling his nose. The mere suggestion of this is a concept that escapes Jeongguk. Food is life. Carbs are life.
They’re put on dish duty later. Everyone in the detention center works—if it’s not helping in the kitchen, it’s cleaning or laundry. Jeongguk is skeptical—the kitchen is wide and expansive, and he doesn’t know where everything goes yet. He doesn’t know if he should rely on Taehyung to tell him where everything is, but Kim Taehyung, Jeongguk learns, proves to be quite the character.
“All the metal trays go in the bottom drawer near the stove,” he says, elbow-deep in a sinkful of suds and dishwater. “Basically, if it’s anything bulky, look in compartments that could fit children.”
“Creepy,” Jeongguk mutters, stacking the trays and arranging them to capitalize the space inside the drawer. The pile of wet, clean dishes is growing on the counter, dripping water down the cupboards and onto the tile. The damp towel that Jeongguk uses to dry them is already too saturated with water to do much, but he wipes them the best he can.
That’s when he notices the water is a shade of muddy red, bubbles stained pink.
“Whoa, what is that?” he asks.
“What is what?”
“The water is—holy fuck, holy fuck. You’re bleeding like crazy.”
There’s a deep gash in the side of Taehyung’s hand, oozing thick dark blood, when he pulls his arms out of the water. Jeongguk’s head spins at the sight of it, dry heaving at the all-too-familiar smell.
“Oh, shit, I am. I guess this must have been from the santoku knife.”
“Are you okay, oh my God,” he says, managing to keep his voice steady. “How could you not feel that? Hurry, rinse it clean, we need to do something about it.”
“Are you okay?” Taehyung asks, frowning. “You sound kind of sick.”
“Do you faint at the sight of blood?”
“No, but I might at the sight of your dead body if you don’t stem the flow of it soon,” Jeongguk says, holding a hand over his nose as if this will help ward off the stench. “Hurry up! I’m going to go get the first aid.”
Asking the head corrections officer for it is nerve-wracking. He looks at Jeongguk over his mustache severely, handing it to him only after he explains in detail what had happened. He softens a little when Jeongguk throws in a little shake in his voice at the end, though, so Jeongguk takes it with many a bow and thanks before dashing out of there.
He crashes promptly into someone else in the hallway.
“Whoa, where’s the fire, kid.”
“I’m sorry!” Jeongguk says desperately. “Sorry, my friend is—he’s bleeding.”
“Oh, don’t let me keep you,” he says, stepping out of the way.
Taehyung is humming to himself, water running as he keeps washing the dishes. The entire stack of what he probably thinks is clean dishes have droplets of pink, bloodstained water and Jeongguk slams the faucet level down.
“I told you to rinse it off!” he exclaims, yanking Taehyung’s wounded hand out of the sink.
“Oh, I forgot,” Taehyung says. “Sorry.”
Jeongguk stares at him. Taehyung sounds genuinely confused, despite the fact the cut is huge and any normal person would be on the floor clutching their hand to their chest in pain. “Whatever, let’s get this cleaned up,” he says, holding Taehyung’s hand and running cold water over it until the gash is clean. It isn’t until Jeongguk is pressing a wad of balled-up paper towel to Taehyung’s hand to stop the bleeding that Taehyung speaks again.
“You’re an idiot,” Jeongguk grunts.
“You really can’t look at blood, huh,” Taehyung says tentatively. “Thanks for doing this anyway.”
Jeongguk says nothing in reply. He dabs antibiotic ointment into the exposed wound, then rips a packet of gauze open. Taehyung doesn’t even wince when Jeongguk binds it to his hand with athletic tape, giving the back of his hand a little pat when he’s done.
“Just let me finish the dishes,” he says, turning away—because though Taehyung might be sightless, the way he seems to be looking right into Jeongguk’s eyes from behind his glasses shakes Jeongguk to the very core.
“We start with the simplest, pyrokinesis, the ability to manipulate fire and flame, and end with the most difficult, Vitalum Vitalis, the balancing of the scales between two life forces. Along the way you will be tested in concilium, mind control; transmutation, teleportation without occupying the space between; divination, the the extra-sensory awareness of people and objects; telekinesis, the ability to manipulate objects with the mind; and Descensum, the conscious projection of the soul into the afterlife. Fail one and you will be disqualified. Should you die, and be returned to life trying to carry out one of the Seven Wonders, counts as a failure as well. A Supreme is exactly what the title implies—a witch or warlock of superior magical prowess, succeeding in all practices of the arts without the help of external forces. Is that clear?”
The voices are disembodied. Maybe Yoongi is one of them. He’s trapped in a murky landscape with nothing but cloudy purple darkness pressing in on him, the words echoing over his head. Far away, he hears someone shouting, rhythmically—like they are looking for someone. It’s a name.
Yoongi can’t quite make it out. Before he can strain his ears further, lean into the sound and let the voice envelop him, he feels the darkness clearing.
A face he doesn’t recognize hovers over him. A boy, on the cusp of manhood, maybe, smiles down at him.
“Hey, Min Yoongi. No sleeping on the job, dude.”
“Fuck,” Yoongi shouts blearily, sitting bolt upright in his chair and nearly toppling over backward. Donghyuk reaches out to steady him, a hand on his shoulder, face concerned at the way Yoongi is literally panting.
“Hey, are you sure you’re okay?” he asks. “What did you See?”
Yoongi shakes his head. “Hunchul’s not letting me tell anyone.”
Donghyuk frowns. “Look, I know he’s trying to look out for everyone’s well-being, but it’s no use letting us live happy, easy lives if there’s imminent danger that we should know about. You shouldn’t have to be the one carrying the entire burden of knowledge alone. Ikje made sure we didn’t do that.”
“Did he really,” Yoongi asks dryly.
“He did,” Donghyuk says. He sounds genuine. “‘Protect that Seer,’ he told us. ‘Don’t let him See and suffer alone.’”
“Damn. I wouldn’t have expected that of him.”
“Slaughterhouse Ten changed him.”
“Yeah, I’ll say,” Yoongi mutters under his breath.
“You talked to the Supreme, right?”
“I did. He took it well. I never really had a chance to get to know him better the last time we met, but then again, the last time we met we went head to head for that position.”
“Have you Seen anything else that he should know?”
Yoongi shifts in his chair uncomfortably, the headphones heavy around his neck.
“So you did.”
“I might have Seen something, it might have been a dream. I try not to worry about that shit until it starts cropping up over and over. Patterns, you know.”
“This has happened twice already.”
“And you need three points of data for anything to be considered a pattern, Donghyuk, so chill out.”
“Fine,” Donghyuk says. “Next time I catch you sleeping in the recording studio, you’re telling me everything.”
Yoongi makes a point not to cavort with strangers. He makes this pretty obvious with his body language, going nowhere without earbuds plugged and arms crossed, but there come times when it’s his turn to go buy food for the rest of the Wixen Council’s dinner.
Yoongi pretends not to have heard him.
“I’m not interested in buying your product, scram,” he grunts, taking one earbud out and letting it hang. He’s been surveying the cuts of raw meat in the deli fridge for at least ten minutes now, debating whether or not he should splurge this one time and make the rest of the Council happy. It’s already obvious what he’s going to buy but he pretends to be fascinated by a slice of pork belly until this boy leaves.
“I’m not selling anything.” The boy pulls his hood up over his head, tugging it lower so that he is hidden from the butcher’s view. Then, right before Yoongi’s eyes, his face changes: jaw squaring out, lips plumping up, eyes growing impossibly wide until he understands who this must be.
“Jesus,” Yoongi hisses, yanking him into an aisle of dish soap and tampons. “Don’t do that in public, what if someone saw you?”
Hoseok grins. He drops his hood just as his features slim down and narrow again. “You’d be surprised at how poor people are at face recognition nowaday.”
“So this is what you actually look like, huh,” Yoongi says. “Well. What do you want?”
“People usually start these things with a hello.”
“Hello, what do you want.”
Hoseok sighs. “Good enough.”
“Actually, two questions. What do you want, and how did you know where to find me?”
“I didn’t,” Hoseok says. “I saw you outside the alley where I usually hang out with my underground dance crew. I followed you here.”
“I wanted to ask you if you’ve Seen anything else,” and at this Hoseok’s face grows serious.
Yoongi glowers. “How would you know?”
“How would you know?”
“For the same reason I knew there was an imbalance in magical power,” Hoseok explains. “I have the pseudo-Sight. I’m an Underseer. I might not be able to tell the future like you can without fail, but sometimes I know when people are lying, or when people hide things from me. Unspoken things, misunderstood things, and things like shifts in magic.” He crosses his arms and Yoongi assumes he’s trying to look authoritative but Hoseok has such a natural cheery demeanor it only makes him look like a petulant child. “And right now I know you’re not telling me the whole truth.”
“Fine, then let me ask you this,” Yoongi says. “What made you come look for me?”
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says. He has the shame to look apologetic when Yoongi raises an eyebrow. “I don’t know. Something, I guess. Something is wrong. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“I know something is wrong, I wouldn’t be in Seoul if I had a choice.”
“No, something is wrong, and it’s coming our way,” Hoseok says urgently. “I just wanted to tell you to watch your back.”
Yoongi knows he doesn’t mean it as a threat, even though that’s exactly what it sounds like. He nods.
“Thanks for letting me know.” He shuffles his feet, unaccustomed to this whole friend-making-with-strangers business. “Why don’t I give you my number so the next time you want to tell me something, you can just give me a call.”
They exchange numbers. Yoongi admits that it takes a weight he hadn’t known was there off his shoulders to know that there is at least one other person in this world that understands the terrible feeling of knowing the future and knowing that there is not a single muscle nor will in his body to stop what is inevitable. Even if Hoseok is nothing more than an Underseer, suddenly, Yoongi feels a little less alone.
“I’ll give you a call if anything else sets off alarms for me,” Hoseok says. He smiles, waving, and disappears between a display of canned pineapple and toilet paper. Yoongi bites his lip, then dodges around the food to call out to him, but Hoseok is already gone, just a lone girl reading a label on a package of water chestnuts.
(It’s only later that Yoongi realizes she’d been wearing the exact same oversized black hoodie that Hoseok had, and it hadn’t been a random girl at all.)
“Come on, Jimin. Come on, follow my voice. You can do this, come on.”
Jimin. That’s what the name had been. Jimin. Yoongi has figured out where this place is now—someone else’s consciousness. This time, he has no idea whose it is, but it can’t be the same as the one before. This time, it’s a nightmare.
He’s trapped in a dark room alone, hunched in a corner by himself as something dark pools under the dresser beside the door. There is no other furniture in there but that dresser, and every time he shifts the floorboards squeak and sickeningly red bubbles rise up between the cracks of wood.
There’s something monstrous under that dresser.
“Jimin?” and this voice Yoongi does not recognize. “Jimin, where are you?”
“Jimin, follow my voice!”
“Jimin, where are you?”
The sunlight is dazzling when Yoongi opens his eyes, only to realize he’s still stuck in this dream, and this time he sees a different face—one that is older than the first had been, a little clearer around the edges, but just as strange and unfamiliar. The fear that’s in his eyes melts away and Yoongi struggles in this Jimin’s body until he’s released.
He twists his head, looking for that boy whose consciousness he must have first invaded, but when he turns he’s blinded in the face with a yellow-white halo that surrounds two figures beside him. There’s a cold, sweaty hand entangled with his and Yoongi extricates it to shield his eyes.
The next thing he knows is Hunchul’s face, tired but satisfied as he smiles down at Yoongi.
“You’re the Second Supreme.”
This time Yoongi doesn’t wake up because Donghyuk jolts him out of sleep. He wakes up, facedown in bed of his hostel room, breath rushing in and out of his lungs. He stares at the digital clock on the nightstand. It’s nearly five in the evening and he has no idea when he fell asleep but he’s in street clothes with his shoes on, still.
The first thing he does is call Hunchul.
This is bad. This is bad, if he knows who the Second Supreme is—and if there are other Seers or clairvoyants out there—
“Hi, this is Hunchul—”
“Hunchul hyung! Thank God, look, I know, I sound—”
“—can’t come to the phone right now, so please leave a message after the tone! I swear I check all my voice mails!”
Yoongi brings the phone away from his ear, staring at the silly selca that Hunchul had set of himself as the contact picture in Yoongi’s phone. It fades away when Yoongi ends the call. This is odd. Hunchul always, always answers his phone, even at 3 AM, because he keeps his ringtone on the loudest volume at all times.
He tries Donghyuk. After all, Yoongi had promised him that he would tell him if this happened for a third time. The tone goes for one, two, then three, then four rings before going to voicemail, and a bad feeling starts brewing in his belly.
Hyosang doesn’t pick up either. Yoongi hadn’t expected him to, as Hyosang is a serial texter and would let calls ring out before texting the person tf do you want, so Yoongi shoots him a quick message and waits. Twenty minutes pass and nothing comes back.
There is one more person that Yoongi can try—the self-estranged leader of the Wixen Council that he hasn’t spoken to since Slaughterhouse Ten, Choi Ikje. Maybe Ikje hadn’t had the shame to show his face around Yoongi, especially not after he had clearly warned him that there would be trouble if he let ten warlocks of their convocation run around with radical ideas. Not that he can blame him, because no one really took a then seventeen-year-old Seer seriously. But that had been then and this is now.
And now, whatever this is, is what Hoseok must have predicted.
Yoongi dials Ikje’s number. The rings stretch out, slow and lazy, like a cat, and when Yoongi is about to give up, the call goes through.
“Hello, hyung? Ikje hyung, it’s Yoongi.”
“Oh, Yoongi,” Ikje says, and right away Yoongi can tell there’s something wrong with the way he talks. It’s hushed and panicked, like he’s trying to keep his words unheard. “Yeah, what’s up?”
“What’s wrong, hyung. Don’t lie to me, what’s happening?”
“Nothing—nothing is wrong, Yoongi, you just caught me at a bad time—I’m a little busy. Could you call me back? Or I’ll call you back. Listen, Yoongi, I’m sorry I didn’t listen to you about Slaughterhouse Ten. I’m sorry, I should have, I knew I should have.”
“Hyung, what the fuck is going on?”
“Yoongi, call Hunchul, okay? Call Donghyuk and Hunchul and—”
His words cut off without warning and the call goes dead. Yoongi frowns, ending the call. That rotten sense of fear still sits like a stone in his stomach and refuses to go away as nightfall rolls around. He drags himself out of bed to go buy food, not bothering to buy helpings for the rest of them, seeing as none of them had answered their phones.
Later, when Yoongi is curled up in bed and flipping through channels, the headline of a news station catches his eye. He’d passed this news outlet several times already on his hunt for a movie rerun, but all those times they had been reporting on stocks and weather.
BREAKING: Gruesome Scene at Gwangjin Bridge, blare the white letters on the bottom of the TV screen. Yoongi straightens in his pillows, leaning forward with his chin resting in folded hands.
“The young man has of yet not been identified. Police are calling this one of the ‘most bizarre’ murders that they have ever witnessed, as Gwangjin Bridge is famous and full of tourists at the estimated time of death and have no idea how this could have happened in a time with so much pedestrian traffic. The victim is described to be a man in his mid twenties, with no signs of physical struggle, hung from the side of the bridge. There were cross wounds found slashed over his eyes with a sharp weapon. The bridge has been closed for further investigation and people have all been warned to stay out of the area.”
Yoongi jumps out of his skin when his phone bleats, and he gropes the folds of his blankets until his fingers close around the warm metal body.
“Did you see the news?”
The grimness of his voice confirms what Yoongi fears.
“I’m watching it right now.”
“I wish I could have told you what it was exactly.”
“No, it’s not your fault. You told me all you could.”
Hoseok is silent for a second. Then, “What was his name?”
Yoongi sighs heavily. “Ikje,” he says. “Choi Ikje.”
It sounds like it’s coming from a child. At first, he thinks he is still trapped in waking dreams until the sleep dissolves from his eyes and the pitch of the crying drops. It takes several more moments of lying stock still, staring at the brick and concrete wall to understand where it’s coming from.
“Hyung,” he says, turning in bed. “Hyung, wake up.”
Sticky yellow sodium glow from the streetlamps outside stream in from the metal-barred window. Jeongguk can barely discern the lump of Taehyung’s body in his bed, and at the foot of his bunk Kkanji is sitting up, and watching him just as silently as Jeongguk is. He listens to the whimpers a little longer before slipping out of bed, the freezing air attacking his body.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk shakes him gently. “Hyung, it’s just a drea—”
Jeongguk chokes in surprise when he feels Taehyung’s hand grab his so roughly that he’s yanked forward. His heart pounds in his ears for a few moments, sleep chased away, and then Taehyung is sitting up, hand sliding up Jeongguk’s arm and up to his face. Unsure of what to do, Jeongguk stands still until Taehyung lets out a breath.
“Oh, it’s just you.”
“Who else would it be,” Jeongguk says waspishly. “Nothing can get in here.”
Taehyung is silent, and Jeongguk shakes him off gently. “Were you dreaming?”
“By the looks of it, it wasn’t a nice dream.”
Taehyung is oddly quiet, so Jeongguk shrugs and climbs back into his own bed. He’s drifting off already, and swears that Taehyung is still sitting up in his bunk, when he hears a whisper next to his face.
“Can I sleep in your bed with you tonight?”
“What?” Jeongguk asks groggily. “You what?”
“Can I sleep with you?”
Jeongguk doesn’t have time to protest before Taehyung is already climbing under the covers with him, squeezing into the tiny bunk beside him. His body is far cooler than Jeongguk expects, almost like a damp draft in his blankets. He squirms until his back is pressed against the cold wall so that Taehyung can fit.
“God,” he grunts. “I should have just let you stay asleep.”
“Thanks for waking me up.”
The gratitude in his voice is thick with relief. Taehyung sounds physically exhausted.
“What was it about?”
“What was it about?” Taehyung repeats. “You’d think it was weird.”
“Dreams usually are.”
Taehyung wiggles closer until his body is aligned with Jeongguk’s. “I was a little kid.”
“I was a little kid, shopping for food with my mother. We were at the seafood market in Japan, the really big and famous one where you can fish for squid and they’ll prepare it for you on the spot. Hakodate Morning Market. Or Tsukiji? I’m not sure. Have you ever been there?”
Jeongguk shakes his head.
“You should go one day. If we ever get out of here, I’ll take you.”
A blush dusts Jeongguk’s cheeks, and he is glad for the darkness. Taehyung is already including him in his future plans, however unlikely they may be, and all Jeongguk wants is to just get out of this place. “Go on, what happened next,” he murmurs.
“Oh. Yeah, so there are all sorts of live fish and dead fish there, and I was looking at one of the dead ones...I was a little kid. I thought it was fascinating, I don’t know, it looked so alive still. I swore it was looking back at me and I—I don’t know how it happened. I didn’t mean to, I really didn’t. It just did—it just happened, one second it was dead and in the next it was alive, flopping out of the basket. All of them were alive. Everywhere I looked, crabs and lobsters and fish started moving where they should have been—”
“Hey,” Jeongguk says, finding Taehyung’s hand between them, holding it in both of his. “Hey, it’s okay, it was just a dream.”
Taehyung is breathing hard again, breath blowing into Jeongguk’s face in chilly puffs of air. It’s dark enough that Jeongguk can’t quite discern his distinct features, but this is the first time Taehyung has ever bared his face to him. Jeongguk shivers at the trust and fights the urge to reach out and run his fingers over his skin, look for clues as to how he lost his sight.
“A dream,” Taehyung whispers. “Just a dream.”
He doesn’t sound like he believes it. Jeongguk, still feeling a little drunk on sleep, finally does reach out, but only to can brush the hair out of Taehyung’s face. He pauses—it’s matted with cold sweat.
And this must be the strangest thing about Taehyung, Jeongguk realizes. He hasn’t been able to put his finger on it until now. Taehyung has an aura that pulses around him like a tiny sun, warm and insistent and omnipresent, but every part of his body is cold and chilly.
He is two opposites bundled up in one.
“Go to sleep, hyung,” Jeongguk says, yawning widely. “Dreams can’t hurt you.”
Jeongguk doesn’t push him away when Taehyung curls into him, icy fingers clinging to the rough fabric of Jeongguk’s pajamas. The light in the window is just beginning to turn a deep blue, sleep sprinkling stardust over his eyelids, when he hears Taehyung mumble into his chest.
“Wasn’t a dream.”
“Hmm? Sleep, hyung.”
“Wasn’t a dream,” Taehyung says. “ ’S real.”
Neither of them bring it up the next day.
Jeongguk does not see much of Taehyung at all, as he’s on yard duty and Taehyung is in charge of laundry. It’s the first time they’ve been put on different work shifts, and Jeongguk finds that he feels alone and a little scared without Taehyung beside him, chattering to Kkanji or touching Jeongguk every time he needs to find something.
“Yo, kid, that corner of the court ain’t getting any cleaner,” one of the inmates shouts across the snow-covered cement, crossing his arms over his snow shovel. “You’ve been shoveling the same fucking spot for the last five minutes.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Jeongguk yelps, scrambling forward. The inmate, the same one he had bumped into the time he was getting the first aid kit for Taehyung, frowns and straightens his ear-flap beanie.
“Hey, you’re Kim Taehyung’s cellmate, aren’t you? The little one that follows him around everywhere even more tightly than Kkanji does.”
“I’m Hakyeon.” He holds out a mittened hand. The knit of the garment looks self-taught and made right here in the detention center. “No need to look so scared of me. I’m Taehyung’s friend. He trusts me.”
“I don’t know if I trust Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, but he shakes Hakyeon’s hand anyway. “I’m Jeongguk.”
“Yeah, I know, Taehyung talks about you,” Hakyeon says. “A lot. Why don’t you trust him?”
“He does?” This is new information. Taehyung is barely ever out of his sight.
“Hey, I asked you a question first. No ask-backs.”
Jeongguk wrinkles his nose. “Yeah, you’re his friend, all right.”
“Well, why don’t you? Trust him, that is?”
“I guess it’s not that, or I don’t mean to make it sound that bad,” Jeongguk says, forcing the shovel into tight-packed snow with his boot. It’s too big for him but the detention center didn’t have any smaller sizes. “He’s just...he seems like he puts everything he has on the table, but even then there seems to be something else he’s not telling me.”
Hakyeon frowns. “Really? What makes you think that?”
“Well. When I asked him what he was in here for, he said it was for ‘disturbing the peace.’”
“‘At least, that’s what they put on my profile’?” Hakyeon finishes. He nods in understanding. “He told me the same thing. Me being me though, I was nosy, and I’ve been here long enough that they let me work in the corrections officer’s office. They keep all our files in there.”
Jeongguks eyes are huge. “You read his profile?”
“Well, like he said, the only thing in there really is just the words disturbing the peace. No description, no notes, no nothing. Almost as if they didn’t know what to say about it.”
“And it doesn’t bother you, not knowing?”
“Prisoners are in for a thousand different reasons,” Hakyeon says. “You, for one, could be the next mass murderer, and I could have just shoplifted a box of popcorn, but here we both are, shoveling snow off the ground and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“No, no, I’m not saying I’m judging his character for what he did to get in here,” Jeongguk says. “I mean there’s something about the way he lives his life, it’s a little odd...he’s not scared of anything. Like he has no regrets.”
“That’s just how he is.”
Jeongguk sucks his lip between his teeth and worries it until it’s raw and red. “I guess.”
He hangs around Hakyeon for the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening, learning things that Taehyung never taught him—mostly things that are banned in the detention center. The most ridiculous of these is the hidden phone up in the ventilator shaft right over the corrections officer’s room, one of the only places in the building that gets Wifi reception.
“Impossible,” Jeongguk whispers, scrolling through his Facebook feed for the first time in weeks. There are hundreds of posts on his wall asking him where he is, if he’s okay, how he’s doing. “How on Earth do you manage to pull this off?’
“It’s not the first time I’ve been in here,” Hakyeon says with a wink. “Not the first time and not the worst place.”
Jeongguk becomes acutely aware that he’s stuck in a dark, narrow tube with someone who’s committed unlawful crime—and while it can’t have been that bad if Hakyeon is in a mere detention center now, he suddenly feels afraid. He’s not quite sure why. Hakyeon is smiling pleasantly, but the glitter of his teeth, or something about it, puts him on edge. He bows out quickly and thanks him for his time, slipping out of the air vent alone and making his way hastily back to the mess hall.
“Whoa, I haven’t talked to you all day.”
Jeongguk jumps. He almost walked right past Taehyung, sunglasses perched on his nose as usual.
“Oh, hyung. Yeah, I was with Hakyeon hyung.”
“You were with Hakyeon hyung?” Surprise colors Taehyung’s voice and Jeongguk realizes how bizarre it sounds even to his own ears. “All day?”
“I know, I know. Sorry.”
“What, did he teach you how to roll blunts? Is that why you sound so shameful?”
“What? No, what the hell, we were shoveling snow. And…messing around.”
“Messing around? Careful there, son. You don’t want anyone else keeling over on you.”
“What the fuck, we were not—!”
“Hey, you’re awfully mean to your protege, aren’t you?” Hakyeon slings an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders. “What do you think, Jeongguk? We had a good day, right?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, shaking Hakyeon’s arm off, trying not to be too obvious about it. “I’m tired though, I’m going to go lie down before dinner.”
“All right, kid.”
Jeongguk doesn’t move until Hakyeon is gone, glancing at Taehyung and stalking off. He’s nearly made it inside their cell, too, when Taehyung’s voice from behind stops him.
The word is sharper and more forceful than he’s used to, the tone alone stopping Jeongguk in his tracks.
“Why did you hang out with Hakyeon?”
“I—who’s stopping me?” Jeongguk snaps, tired of the questions—tired of being in this place, tired of Taehyung’s antics that he can never understand, tired of trying but failing to crack the invisible shell around him that Jeongguk knows is there. “You said it yourself, we live with these people, there’s nothing wrong with making friends with them.”
“I did,” Taehyung says slowly, following Kkanji into the cell and closing the door behind them. “I did. But there’s a reason I’m not friends with Hakyeon.”
Jeongguk scowls. “What do you mean, you’re not friends with Hakyeon, he says you guys talk all the time. He even knows the things you say.”
There isn’t a trace of laughter in Taehyung’s face, his expression darkening to match the black tint of his sunglasses. “Are you sure he said that?” he asks.
“He—yeah, he did. When we were shoveling snow. He said he was your friend and I could trust him.”
Taehyung doesn’t reply right away, bending down silently to unhook the clasp from Kkanji’s leash and detach the stiff leather lead. Three pats to the head and she settles herself under his bed, face in her paws, and Taehyung begins looping the nylon strap around his hand.
“Why, what’s wrong with Hakyeon?” Jeongguk prompts, not sure if he really wants to hear the answer.
“There’s nothing expressly wrong with Hakyeon,” Taehyung begins. The metal clasp of the leash clinks as he throws it over a rung on the ladder of the bunk bed. “I don’t know what he’s in here for, but he’s been an old hand since before I got in. That’s a pretty long time. I try not to judge people—I try to never judge people until I know them, but there’s something about Cha Hakyeon that tells me to stay away. Far, far away.”
So Jeongguk isn’t the only one that felt it, the eerie demeanor about him. “How long have you been in here?” he asks.
He doesn’t expect a direct answer, but for once, Taehyung doesn’t beat around the bush. “A year, give or take a few weeks. Lost count after the sixth month. But good news is I might be released on probation soon if I keep my record up for good behavior.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk frowns. If Taehyung is released soon then he really might be alone. “He did say he’s been in worse places.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it for a second.” Taehyung climbs into his bed. “What other things did he tell you?”
“Uhm,” Jeongguk shifts. “Well, apparently, he’s read your profile.”
Taehyung takes this well. “Damn. He’s got nerve, I’ll give him that much.”
“He says there’s nothing interesting in it.”
“I know. I could have told you this. I did tell you this.”
“Disturbing the peace, huh?”
“That’s right. Disturbing the peace.”
And it’s not that Jeongguk’s doesn’t believe Taehyung, but.
But Jeongguk would be a hypocrite to accuse him of not telling the whole truth, because neither is Jeongguk. Because while it’s true that he had sex with someone who happened to die in the middle of it, he has never told Taehyung exactly what had transpired that night, for obvious reasons—for fear of being ridiculed and laughed at or seen as some kind of monster. Yet the more the he’s around Taehyung, the more he feels that there is some secret that Taehyung is hiding that would make his black widow curse look puny and laughable in comparison.
He also might just be overthinking things, and Taehyung might just be a completely bizarre individual that Jeongguk has had the extreme misfortune of meeting. This latter option seems like a better explanation sometimes, when Jeongguk wakes up to the morning bell and Taehyung is already up, attempting to teach Kkanji to play patty-cake, or when he suggests folding all the dinner napkins into swans to mimic the ones in big Chinese restaurants, or now, when he’s sitting beside the boy who always comes over and sets up his food tray, placing chopsticks in his fingers.
“What are you doing?” Jeongguk asks, flinching at the sound of snapping plastic, and Taehyung smiles right away when he hears Jeongguk’s voice over him—like he’s been waiting for the sound of it all day.
“What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Snapping perfectly good pens in half,” Jeongguk says.
“Correct, padawan,” Taehyung says. “Sungjae, this is Jeongguk. Jeongguk, Sungjae.”
“Oh, your cellmate, right?” Sungjae nods at Jeongguk, who is at present watching as he lets the deep blue pen ink drip into shallow juice carton lid. “The spastic GD hamster?”
“What—how do you even know that I like—?”
“You sing in your sleep, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung answers. “You sing. And you dance.”
“Oh. Oh, God.”
“No, you’re good,” Taehyung says. “Quite good, in fact, it would just be nice if you showed off your talents at three PM rather than AM.”
“I had no idea I even did anything at all in my sleep.”
Taehyung scoffs and waves a hand. “It’s fine, if it actually bothered me I would have told you earlier. Help me break these pens, my fingers hurt.”
“What is this for?” Jeongguk asks. Every pen that Taehyung snaps in two, he hands to Sungjae, who extracts the ink into three wells that consist of the aforementioned juice lid, a soap dish, and a cap of a Tyenol bottle.
“I do inking in my free time,” Sungjae explains. “We’re not allowed to carry pocket money around but the guys here transfer me a little something from their bank accounts for some work here and there. We get bored.” He glances up at Jeongguk as he taps the last few drops of black ink out of a Bic. “Want one? I’ll give it to you for free,” and he winks.
“Uh,” Jeongguk says.
“I don’t know if I’m a good enough artist to do GD’s face, though,” Sungjae warns. “I have limits.”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says. He’s wanted one for a while, actually. The problem was that he never knew what to get, or if his parents would even let him, but parental approval seems like such a non-issue at this point. Tattoos were a lifelong investment, and there wasn’t something he could imagine carrying around on his body for so long.
“Well, what’s something that means a great deal to you?” Taehyung asks. “It’s easiest to start there.”
Jeongguk considers this. He’s never had something that he couldn’t live without, and now that he thinks about it, this scares him—nothing is really keeping him here, nothing is really making him stand out. For a moment, he looks into Taehyung’s face and almost says something ridiculous like haha, how about a pair of Raybans sunglasses, right on my shoulder blade? but swallows the words before he can blurt them out.
He’s not even sure where they came from.
“Or something that you feel like is a part of you, meaningful or not,” Sungjae suggests. “Something that makes you more—you, so to speak.”
Well. There is one thing, Jeongguk supposes.
“Can I get an hourglass,” he says softly.
“An hourglass. A red one.”
Sungjae raises his eyebrows. “Like the ones on black widows?”
“Exactly like those.”
An hour later, Jeongguk has a tattoo the size of Taehyung’s hand on the small of his back, sitting benignly between the dimples of his waist. The skin there burns and tingles from the tattoo gun that Sungjae had fashioned himself using nothing but sewing needles and bits and pieces of broken metal contraptions—eyeglasses, box hinges, bottlecaps.
“Pen ink is not the safest ink to use,” he said as he heated it over a battered sheet of titanium that he chipped off one of the oil drums tossed to the side near the basketball courts. “This is the best way I can sterilize it, I’m going to tell you that now.”
“I can keep it clean,” Taehyung offered. “I’ve done it before for others, and a damn good job of it too. Remember Byun Baekhyun, Sungjae? That one that was in here for grand larceny?”
“No, remind me.”
“Ah, of course.”
“Remember that giant thigh piece he wanted? Man, keeping that clean was a fucking nightmare.”
Jeongguk was quiet as the needle pricked his skin rhythmically, the sting fading as the pain grew monotonous and numb. From where he lay, stomach down on the floor, he could see the space between Taehyung’s eyes and the lenses of his glasses, his eyes staring straight ahead.
“Hyung,” he said.
And Jeongguk could have sworn in that split second he saw Taehyung’s eyes move to look at him. But perhaps Jeongguk saw what he wanted to see, wishing childishly that for once Taehyung could see him.
Jeongguk didn’t answer, and the both of them have been quiet around each other, even after Sungjae finished with a satisfied pat to Jeongguk’s back and told him not to scrub the area when he showered. The cell door bangs shut with a clang as the corrections officers come around to lock up for the night, and Jeongguk is climbing into his blankets, wincing at the dull ache, when Taehyung stops him.
“I’ve got something for that,” he says. “Kkanji, aloe.”
“How on earth do you have that?” Jeongguk asks as Taehyung takes it from her mouth, giving her a scratch behind the ears.
“They passed it around after they made us do hard labor in the sun this past summer,” Taehyung says. “Everyone was peeling like a fucking reptile, it was gross. Get over here, you.”
Jeongguk walks over to Taehyung’s side of the room, then stops in front of him when he realizes he’s going to have to pull his pants down in front of him. This is not a position he wants to be in.
“Where is it,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk makes a strange noise in his throat when his hands come up to roam over Jeongguk’s torso, palms sliding over his abdomen and down his sides to rest on the crests of his waist. “Your back, right?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, body responding far more reactively to Taehyung’s touch than he expected. “Sorry, I’ll turn around.”
Even the sandpapery texture of the detention center clothing is painful over his skin. Jeongguk pulverize the inside of his cheek with his teeth as Taehyung’s fingernail scrapes over the tattoo, still raw around the edges.
“Oh, there it is,” Taehyung says. “Sorry, I must have hurt you.”
“It’s okay,” Jeongguk spits out through gritted teeth.
But the pain could not have prepared him for Taehyung swooping forward and dropping a dry peck right on the most narrow part of the hourglass, lips nothing more than a candy-soft puff of warm air on Jeongguk’s skin. It makes him yelp all the same, leaping out of Taehyung’s reach, hands jumping to his back.
“Shut the fuck up, will you?” shouts a gruff voice from the next room over.
“Sorry,” Jeongguk calls back, heart pounding in his chest, and Taehyung is laughing. “What the fuck, hyung?”
“Don’t you know that kisses make everything better?” he chides, waving his miniature bottle of aloe lotion. “Get back here, do you want to feel better or not?”
The thing is, Jeongguk thinks, is that he hadn’t disliked the feel of Taehyung’s lips on his back, half-wishes that he hadn’t been so quick to scramble away from the touch. He shuffles back, letting Taehyung pull the elastic band of his pants down, his fingers spreading cool aloe over his skin. The heated throb of pain dies down immediately and Jeongguk can’t hold back the sigh of relief.
“There, see,” Taehyung says, patting the lotion into the skin with his fingertips. “I know what I’m doing here.”
“Thanks, hyung,” Jeongguk grumbles unintelligibly. “You’re always picking up after my messes.”
“Consider it a favor repaid,” Taehyung says. “You wrapped me up when I near sliced my hand off in the sink, remember?”
“I try not to.”
Taehyung smooths more aloe over the tattoo, breath steady and calm, cooling the aloe to an icy chill on Jeongguk’s skin. For a while Jeongguk just listens to it, counts it like the seconds of a clock because there is none in their own cell. Sixty-eight breaths later, Taehyung’s fingers still fluttering over Jeongguk’s back like the hands of a piano player, he speaks.
“It was an accident. Like yours.”
“The reason you’re in here. It was an accident, wasn’t it?”
Jeongguk feels his insides shrivel. “What do you mean?”
“You said someone died when you had sex, and you asked for a red hourglass as a tattoo.”
There’s a light snap as Jeongguk pulls away from Taehyung’s touch for a second time, the elastic waistband of his pants springing back into place. “How are those things at all related?” he says, heat rising in his face. The nervous shake in his words gives him away instantaneously.
“You’re a black widow, aren’t you?” Taehyung asks. “I’ve heard of people like you. Whoever sleeps with you hemorrhages violently, bleeding from every orifice in their body, until they die, right?”
“I—I never said—”
“Before you call the corrections officers on me, I’ll tell you what I’m in here for,” Taehyung says, cutting Jeongguk off. “My profile says I am charged with one count of disturbing the peace. That’s exactly what I did. I ran past the back door of a butchery plant, getting in a new shipment of whole pigs and cows in giant trucks. It’s not something you wanted to see.”
Jeongguk sits down heavily on his bunk, the springs screeching.
“I was chasing Kkanji, you see, who’d been spooked after some knucklehead honked at us on the street when we were crossing. Back then I’d just gotten her and she always had a nervous predisposition. The school she came out of told me about it but it had never been a problem until then.”
“So you ran after her?”
“I ran after her. She took off like a bullet, and it was all I could do not to lose her. Black dog on black streets, it’s not an easy feat. I didn’t really look where I was going, and that’s where I ended up—behind the unloading dock of a butchery plant. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Jeongguk sees a gaping hole in Taehyung’s story, but he doesn’t point it out yet. “And then?”
“I am a little like your opposite, Jeon Jeongguk,” Taehyung says with a sad smile, screwing the cap of the aloe tube back on. “If you are black widow, he who can kill by coitus, I am a necromancer. Someone that can bring the dead back to life.”
Nausea roils in Jeongguk’s belly. “Please,” he says faintly.
“All it takes is a little lost control and a look into their face. Animal or human, I don't discriminate. So imagine me, a necromancer, throwing his gaze left and right freely around a truckload of dead livestock,” Taehyung says. “Imagine the chaos that ensued. There were at least two dozen cows and three dozen sow pigs in that shipment of meat, God, maybe more. By the time the police arrived on the scene, a truck driver was trampled unconscious and two of the cows had run into the street and caused a major traffic accident.” He slumps, as though the weight of the memory is still heavy on his shoulders. It must be. “That, Jeongguk, is what I’m in here for.”
“A necromancer,” Jeongguk repeats. “A necromancer. I think. I think I’m going to pass out.”
“If you aren’t a black widow, then just forget I told you anything,” Taehyung says. “You can just pass it off as a terrible story I made up to get you off my back for what I’m here for, because you wouldn’t be the first one to hear one of my made-up arrest stories.”
“But it’s real, isn’t it,” Jeongguk asks. “Your story.”
“I…” Jeongguk can’t answer. He was thrown into all of this—this, whatever this is, the idea that the existence of magic is real, without a choice. He was thrown into all of this because someone had to die, and he doesn’t know if he can just up and accept the reality that Taehyung had the supernatural ability to bring people back to life. “I don’t want it to be.”
“Trust me, neither do I. I never asked for this,” Taehyung replies. “Maybe I wouldn’t be in, I don’t know, prison if I didn’t have this. Neither would you. Do we ever ask for it?”
“But,” Jeongguk says, standing up and walking to Taehyung again. There’s still something vastly wrong with Taehyung’s story. “You said—you said you ran after Kkanji. You chased her through across streets and over sidewalks. You knew there was a butchery. You couldn’t possibly have been able to follow her by sound alone over all that traffic.”
At this, Taehyung says nothing, as if he’s waiting for Jeongguk to finish his thoughts. But Jeongguk says no more, reaching up instead, sliding the sunglasses off of Taehyung’s face with shaking hands. It’s the first time he’s ever seen all of his face in the light, and for a moment Taehyung stays as still as a wax figure.
Then he looks up, eyes bright and animated, right into Jeongguk’s face as if he’s seeing the sun for the first time.
“I always did want to tell you,” he murmurs, as Jeongguk gapes down at him, “that you look adorable when you’re asleep.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Namjoon says, dropping his bag on the floor of the coffee shop with a thump. He grimaces. His laptop is in there. “I got held up. Group project.”
“Not even I’m late,” Yoongi says. “And since you’re not aware, sometimes I’m so late I don’t even show up.”
“That’s called bailing,” says Donghyuk.
“The Supreme is never late,” Hyosang says loftily as Namjoon raises his eyebrows in Yoongi’s direction. “Everyone else is simply early.”
“I’m the Supreme, not the Queen of Genovia,” Namjoon says. “What did you all call me here for? Where’s Hunchul?”
“Hunchul is on a mission,” Donghyuk says, and Namjoon rolls his eyes when he bleats the Mission Impossible theme through pursed lips. “Remember the distress call he mentioned in Busan? It’s turning out to be a little more difficult than we expected to extract our...wanteds, so to speak.”
“Wanteds, plural?” Namjoon asks. “Why?”
“They’re guarded quite heavily by surveillance and police officers and metal bars,” Hyosang says, holding his phone over his head and swiveling back and forth like a satellite dish, trying to find the best angle and lighting for his selca. “We got two delinquents on our hands, it seems.”
“Oh, lovely. Just what we need. Criminals capable of magical power.”
“One of them is apparently somewhat of a loose cannon,” Donghyuk says, grinning. “But then again, he’d have to be to land himself in a detention center.”
“So who else are we waiting for?”
“This guy called Jung Hoseok?” Donghyuk looks to Yoongi, who grunts. “He’s another warlock that Yoongi met here in Seoul, and he knows some things we should. Claims to be an Underseer. He and Yoongi have Seen things, and there are pressing matters we need to discuss.”
“So Ikje hyung’s not coming?”
“Like that,” Hyosang mutters as he types on his phone, and Donghyuk elbows him in the arm.
“There seems to be a lot I need to know,” Namjoon says.
“Things are changing, Supreme,” Hyosang says solemnly. “Up until now you’ve lived a life of a mostly normal dude, but I’m afraid there’s a storm coming.”
“Hey! Sorry I’m so late, I got stuck in traffic.”
Namjoon looks up to see his one and only roomate Jackson “J-Swang” Wang smiling and waving at them, walking towards their table. One earbud dangles merrily from the collar of his oversized black tee and Namjoon feels his jaw drop.
“You’re the Underseer?” he asks in disbelief.
“Yeah!” Jackson says, bewildered by Namjoon’s shock. Yoongi, however, looks extremely displeased, wearing the most horrendous expression that Namjoon has ever seen upon a human face. The smile on Jackson’s face falters then, and transforms into a look of horror when Yoongi makes a motion with his hand like a clean chop to the neck.
“Oh, fuck,” Jackson says out loud, and a table of two girls glance in his direction.
“Good job, Jung Hoseok,” Yoongi says, almost to himself. “You fucked up. You fucked right up.”
“What’s going on,” Namjoon asks. “No, really, Jackson. What is going on?”
“I’d like to know this as well,” Donghyuk says, raising a finger and leaning out from behind Namjoon. “Because from what I understood, Namjoon doesn’t know know a Jung Hoseok, but he seems to know you quite well. Who are you?”
“This is my roommate,” Namjoon says, turning around. “I’ve known him for a few years now, and we’re good friends, but never did I see this com—where did he go?”
“Bathroom,” Yoongi says, still leaning back in his chair, phone and hand resting on his stomach. He is the picture of disinterest. “You’ll see.”
Namjoon lets his back hit the backrest of the padded coffee shop bar stool. “What else don’t I know?” he says, throwing his hands up in the air.
“A fair amount, considering the Seer here tells us everything he Sees,” Hyosang says, nodding at Yoongi. “And recently, he’s been Seeing way too much.”
Before Namjoon can inquire further, a thin, red-haired boy approaches their table, and it’s only then does he put two and two together.
“You’re a shapeshifter,” he says, taking in the clothes that now hang even more loosely off his slim frame. “I thought there were no such things as shifting warlocks anymore.” Hoseok nods, still looking embarrassed. “Wait. If you’re not the real Jackson, then where the hell is he?”
“He’s fine! He’s fine,” Hoseok says, holding his hands up by his head. “He’s in Hong Kong where he’s supposed to be.”
Namjoon just stares open mouthed at him.
“You can deal with him later,” Hyosang says. “Hunchul said he was going to call me this afternoon with updates, so let’s get this out of the way first.”
Namjoon shoots Hoseok a glare, to which he answers with a brilliant, sheepish smile. “What’s the first thing on the agenda?”
“I know who the next Supreme is,” Yoongi says bluntly.
Reactions to this dropped bomb are multifarious. Hoseok looks unimpressed and somewhat confused, Namjoon crosses his arms and feels his eyebrows draw together in concern, Hyosang makes a noise like a squeezed chicken and Donghyuk chokes on his cappuccino, snorting milk foam and espresso powder up his nose. Hyosang has to thump him hard on the back and press cardboardy tissues to his face.
“What do you mean?” Namjoon asks, speaking for all of them. “How on Earth did you See something like that?”
Yoongi slow blinks at him and Namjoon shuts up.
“That is a bit of a problem,” Hyosang says. “And something needs to be done about it. No one is supposed to know. Not even the future Supreme himself can know until he passes the test of the Seven Wonders. It could be Yoongi himself. It could be you, Hoseok. It could be one of the those two delinquents down in Busan.”
“Or it could be the others in Incheon.”
Four heads turn to Hoseok, who looks suddenly uncomfortable amidst all the attention. “I Saw it,” he continues. “Two of them. I’m not fully sure what they can do, or if they even know what they’re capable of. But that’s our convocation—seven of us.”
“Seven, huh,” Namjoon muses out loud. “You two and four others like us?”
“I haven’t Seen jack shit of that, but don’t doubt what he says,” Yoongi says. “He might not be able to give you the sordid details like I can, but he knows things that I don’t. Like the murder of Ikje hyung, for one.”
“Murder?” Namjoon says, and everyone at at their table sans Yoongi shushes him.
“Quite a production of one, too,” Hyosang says.
“What the hell happened?” Namjoon demands. They’re throwing so much information at him that he can hardly keep up and now, apparently, one of the Wixen Council is six feet under. “Murdered? By who?”
“We don’t know. He was lynched on the Gwangjin Bridge,” Donghyun says grimly. “We haven’t heard from him in a while, and then one night without warning he showed up at our apartment and asked us out to dinner. It was out of the blue, a little weird. But we didn’t think much of it and we went out together like it was old times. It was fun, until we found that all our phones were missing. Guess where they had gone.”
“He had them, didn’t he? He took them from you,” Yoongi says. Namjoon slants his gaze over to him. “I tried calling all of four of members of the council the night I figured out who the next Supreme is. I tried Hunchul first, then you two pea brains, and none of you answered. Ikje was the only one who did, but I only managed to get a few lines of conversation in before the line went dead.”
“He knew something,” Donghyuk says with a dark scowl. “He knew something, and he knew that knowing it put his life in danger and would put all of ours in danger if we knew it too.”
“Who would want anything to do with Ikje?” Hyosang asks. “After Slaughterhouse Ten, he faded from recognition and the families of all the warlocks involved all thought him dead. We let them believe what they wanted. He was a ghost.”
“He was found with X slashes over his eyes,” Yoongi murmurs, and Namjoon feels the pieces coming together, the cogs turning in his head.
“X slashes,” he repeats under his breath, and Yoongi looks to him. “Witches and warlocks have one rival faction of magical practitioners that we have gone head to head with for centuries. Their trademark is X’s over the eyes.”
“Close, but no cigar,” Namjoon says. “No, I’m talking about the voodoo masters.”
“So you’re suggesting that Ikje’s extremely public death is a message from a clan of voodoo masters?” asks Hyosang. “A message to us?”
“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.”
“I thought voodoo had died out more than two decades ago,” Donghyuk says.
“Not necessarily.” It’s Hyosang who speaks. “It’s been simmering and recovering all this time. It isn’t likely that they’re back in full power this soon, but not impossible either.”
“You sound like you know a lot about this,” Hoseok comments.
“I know some,” Hyosang admits. “Because if this really is voodoo we’re dealing with here, I know just who to call.”
Today, more than a hundred and fifty of that clientele is composed of government officials, their juniors, and dozens of other big business leaders that have come to meet and speak with them, exchange plaques and rewards, shake hands. A whole line of media outlets and news reporters armed with cameras wait outside, with only a select few being let in.
In other words, something important is happening and there is no better way to do it than over expensive, Michelin-starred food.
“When they said, ‘prepare for a large crowd,’ they did not tell me there were going to be over a hundred damn people stampeding through those doors,” Gukjoo says. “Mochi needs time to freeze! I can’t pull five dozen extra orders of them out of my ass by the end of this evening.”
“You stop worrying about that and let our glacier cry over the mochi, there are a whole twelve courses before you have to bring the mochi out there,” Seokjin suggests as he peels shrimp into the sink with lightning fast dexterity. “And tell Nana to get in here, I don’t have time to be doing this when I have to serve everyone that’s not part of the event. Other customers still exist, if that’s slipped her mind.”
“Yeah, where is that girl,” Gukjoo says, dropping the ball of mochi dough with a slap on the counter, bustling through the back doors. Seokjin sighs, drying his hands on the towel tucked into his waist and abandoning the station of shrimp for the sizzling chicken patty. At this point, he doubts that any other customers are going to be able to make it through the war lines outside, but until then he has to impress the rest of the diners that are just looking for a decent meal.
Just as the meat is about done, Seokjin slices some bread extra thick, toasts it in the oil right alongside the chicken. The sizzle is quiet, calming, and in the time before regular shift has started, Seokjin is alone in the kitchen.
“Is that brat here again?” Gukjoo asks as she storms back in with loudly complaining Nana in tow, breaking the warm spell of silence. It was nice while it lasted, all fourteen seconds of it. “You’re making those godforsaken sandwiches.”
“Yep,” Seokjin says pleasantly. “And he’s not a brat, noona, he pays for everything he eats.”
Gukjoo answers this with a grunt and Nana shoots him a look that says help me, but she doesn’t gripe any further and goes to the station beside the pantry. By the time he’s done plating everything, she’s started work, knife a silver flash on the cutting board.
“One chicken vincenzo,” he says with a flourish, sliding the plate onto the bar. It’s empty save for one lone figure, bent over a tattered binder with a pen in hand.
Jimin is about the size of a lima bean but the weight of a cinder block, if cinder blocks were animate and human. It’s winter now, so it’s a lot less obvious under three layers of fleece and wool, but Park “English isn’t a problem if you’re as cute as me” Jimin can probably pack a punch as mean as a professional boxer’s and eats enough to match.
“Wow, don’t sound too excited, will you,” Seokjin says. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing that’s a big deal,” Jimin says, stuffing the sandwich into his face. “I just didn’t do too hot on my midterm.” He flicks his head back towards the dining area that’s now been roped off. “You seem to have your hands full.”
“Yeah,” Seokjin says, leaning onto the bar on his elbows. “They said a hundred people would come at most, so we’re a little overwhelmed.”
Jimin nods. He’s usually bright and loud and bouncy, whining for Seokjin to sit and talk with him longer like he used to, when he was only a sauté chef and had time between dishes to spend with Jimin and dote on him. It was him who sat through Jimin’s college application woes, his girlfriend woes, his sexuality crisis woes, all over food. A quiet Jimin worries Seokjin.
“Hey, tell you what, if you stick around long enough I’ll make you a mochi. No charge,” he says, and Jimin stares at him.
“No, you can’t,” Jimin hisses. “You’re sous chef now, you’ll get demoted!”
Seokjin waves a careless hand. “Gukjoo has literally given me a shiner for burning the bread before, I am the only one in the kitchen who’s not afraid of her. It’ll be fine.”
Well, it’s fine for about an hour, until the government and big business meeting is about three courses in and the kitchen have to start in on the actual entrées. Seokjin feels sweat beginning to bead at his temples as he rushes back and forth, listening to the bark of Gukjoo’s orders and trying to translate them to the rest of the kitchen without inducing any nervous breakdowns. Sunny tends to have a lot of those, especially when she first started, and she’s gotten much better as time has passed. The thing is is that Gukjoo under high stress is at least 37% why Seokjin believes that women overlords and the eventual female domination of the known planet are real.
“Seokjin, can you give me a hand with the fish,” someone shouts across the bubbling broths of the kitchen and Seokjin groans. These tortellini are not going to wrap themselves, but he wipes his hands down on his towel and steps around Nana, who’s shredding cucumbers now with deadly accuracy.
“Chanyeol, do your own work,” Gukjoo says, and Chanyeol just smiles and reddens up to the tips of his ears.
“What do you need?” Seokjin asks. “Make it quick, I need to finish the pasta.”
“I just need these fileted,” Chanyeol says, gesturing to the three whole salmon lying on the counter. He already has a knife in hand, working on the first. “Actually, it would even work if you just scaled them, that’s the fastest part but it would save me a bunch of time.”
“On it,” Seokjin says, reaching for the scaler. He’s one of the only people in the kitchen that doesn’t complain about Chanyeol hanging tools too high on the overhanging rack.
Seokjin moves fast so he can get back to his own station before Gukjoo actually comes over to clout Chanyeol around the ears. Salmon scales fly as he drags the blade in lightning fast strokes over the skin. Every time Chanyeol gets ready to work the knife into the orange flesh he taps the work surface with his blade, adjusting his grip, the sound bringing Seokjin’s focus back just as it begins to wander.
But then, just as Seokjin is on his last few scrapes, he reaches too high and draws the razor-sharp blade over his knuckles, effectively shaving off several layers of skin.
“Shit!” he shouts, dropping the fish, holding his hand away. “Shit.”
“Holy fuck, are you okay?” Chanyeol asks, setting down his knife as Seokjin grits his teeth and runs his hands under a stream of running water, the bottom of the sink turning bright red. “Fuck, that’s so much blood.”
“Seokjin, you’re bleeding?” Gukjoo asks. “Get that shit out the kitchen until you wrap it up, blood is a biohazard.”
“You’re going to have to use this fish for cooked purposes only,” Seokjin says, grimacing. “I’m so sorry. I made your job harder.”
Chanyeol shakes his head. “I shouldn’t have been lazy, it’s my fault. Go bandage that before Gukjoo comes over here and throws you out on your ass.”
Seokjin has to pass the bar that looks into the serving area of the kitchen where Jimin is sitting, still nursing his hand. When he’s out of sight of the other chefs, though, he brings his good hand away from the wound momentarily just in time to see the deep, clean-cut scrape seal back up, healing back into a perfect uninjured expanse of skin.
“Out here again? I thought you said you were busy.”
Seokjin looks up at the sound of Jimin’s voice, and closes his fingers around where the wound should have been. “Hurt myself. Can’t have blood in the kitchen, so I’m letting the bleeding stop until I go back in.”
“You’re not the only one,” Jimin says, nodding to the scene behind him.
At least three dozen people are on their feet, huddled around one of the government officials. He’s mirroring Seokjin’s pose exactly, though he is far more vocal about the pain—screaming and shouting, and Seokjin feels his stomach drop when he sees the bloodstains all over the white linen tables outside.
Shit. He hadn’t kept himself in check and this happened. Again. He’s gone a whole five months without accidents like this.
“Are you okay, hyung?” Jimin asks. “You look pale. Are you really hurt?”
“I,” Seokjin begins lamely. “Uh. Just. A little fazed by the pain, I guess. I don’t get injured in the kitchen that often.”
Jimin stares at him, then back at the official, who’s now letting someone wrap a napkin around his hand as someone else has the hospital on the line. God, Seokjin thinks to himself. It hurt, sure, but the hospital? Seriously?
“Bring me the first aid kit,” Jimin says. “I’ll do it for you.”
“No!” Seokjin says too quickly, backing away. “I can do it myself.” Jimin’s frown deepens at this.
“Well, if you’re not going to bandage up now, help me with my essay while you’re waiting for the bleeding to stop,” he says, pushing his binder around so that Seokjin can see it. “My arguments feel lackluster and you always have great mic-dropping one liners, hyung.”
This is true, so Seokjin smiles slightly and moves to read the prompt scrawled across the top of the page. The moment he steps up to the counter, though, Jimin’s hand darts out and snatches Seokjin’s forward.
Jimin comes face to hand with Seokjin’s knuckles—intact and showing absolutely no signs of injury. He glances up slowly, narrowing his eyes.
“Hyung?” he asks. He doesn’t sound disapproving, because now it just looks like Seokjin is a major slacker on his job, so much as he sounds confused. “What is this?”
“I, uh,” Seokjin says, grasping at straws, scratching the back of his neck. “It was just a little nick. I cleaned up all the blood, so you can’t really see much of it now.”
Jimin tugs at every inch of skin around Seokjin’s fingers and knuckles, searching for a wound, only letting go when Seokjin pushes him, very gently, away. The expression on his face doesn’t turn sour and childlike, like Seokjin expects it to be, but into a muted kind of wonder, one of someone that wants to believe something but can’t quite allow himself to.
“Let me go wrap it up,” Seokjin murmurs. It feels so wrong to pull away from Jimin like this, but he must. The commotion in the dining area grows ever louder and Seokjin should tell Gukjoo now. No one else in the kitchen is going to be brave enough to break bad news to her. “I have work to do.”
The next time Seokjin passes by the bar, Jimin is gone. The corner of his sandwich sits unfinished on his plate, still a little warm.
Seokjin first found out when he was five and his older brother was eight.
He had been short then, small and easily stepped on, hardly showing any indication that he’d grow up to be the broad-shouldered man he is now. It was an innocent accident—his brother accidentally bumped his face with the corner of a baking sheet taking it out of the oven when they were trying to make cupcakes for their mother for Parents Day.
The burning pain had exploded across Seokjin’s face, and he screamed, hand jumping up to his cheek, but then his brother, Ryujin, had cried out and dropped the tin on the cupcake with a clatter. There on his face, in the exact same spot, had been a furious red welt that blistered around the edges. But where he had burnt his brother, there was nothing. Seokjin’s face was spotless.
That was the first time.
The second time was a far more unjust occurrence, but only then did Seokjin understand the true extent of what this power entailed. It was a month after the cupcake incident, and a couple of the primary school grade students were bullying him outside the school for spilling water over their chalk creations on the sidewalk.
Their voices are still fresh in Seokjin’s mind, the ghosts of their then-big hands still big and rough on his shoulders. When he closes his eyes and thinks hard enough he can still hear the anger in their words, shouting in his face and caging him in, making him feel tiny and helpless. Then the biggest of them had shoved him hard, then again, again, again until Seokjin had fallen back, hands reaching back to break his fall.
Gritty pain had erupted over his palms, then promptly faded away. The first grader that had pushed him yelped seconds later, backing away and holding his bloodied palms up to his face in terror, staring at Seokjin with sudden fear in his eyes.
Then they had run away, far away, and never bothered Seokjin again.
But such is the fate of a living human voodoo doll. As the years passed Seokjin has gotten better at keeping this ability in check; considering that he never needed to use it, or sought to exploit it, he’d often forget that something as monstrous and bizarre as this slept inside of him. And every time he did, something like this happened to remind him, Hey, you’re not like the rest of us. Don’t try to be.
“You should live in a plastic bubble,” Ryujin had joked once when they were both in high school. “Save us a bit of trouble.”
But Seokjin didn’t want to live in a plastic bubble. Goddammit, he just wanted to live.
“Where’s your little puppydog?”
Seokjin looks up from the salmon flowers he’s constructing for a sashimi platter to see Nana leaning against the counter of her station, arms crossed with one hand holding wire mesh ladle. It drips with oil from the deep fryer where she’s just finished frying with some tempura for later. Her hair is loose around her shoulders. Gukjoo is going to chew her out for that. Then she’s going to chew Seokjin out for not telling her to tie it back.
Today is not a spectacular day.
“Oh, please. You know, that kid that always sits at the bar and orders a sandwich and sometimes a Pellegrino. The one you like.”
“Oh,” Seokjin says, not even bothering to shoot down that last part. “He’s not here?”
“Did you get an order for a sandwich?”
“Then there you go. There is literally one diner who comes at the start of dinner and orders a sandwich, and I didn’t start working here yesterday. I know these things.”
Seokjin grunts noncommittally. Of course he knows Jimin isn’t here; he checked. He hasn’t been here for three whole days now. Jimin always comes in a few minutes before he should, before the restaurant opens for dinner. Gukjoo used to complain, saying that they needed to maintain some semblance of quality control here. Jimin had just smiled widely, flashing his irresistible eyesmile, and offered to do his own dishes in their kitchen every time until she softened.
“What’s the deal with you, anyway?” Nana asks. “I heard you injured your hand yesterday so I went to go look for you when you didn’t come back, and I saw him holding your hand. Gukjoo is going to kill you if she knew you were doing that with a customer during work hours.”
“What? No! You don’t understand.”
“I just told him,” Seokjin mumbles, fucking up a flower and unraveling the fish in frustration, “that I got injured.”
“Oh,” Nana says. “And—what, he demanded to see it?”
“But your hand was fine.”
“No—no, it was definitely not fine.”
“I know, I saw you skin yourself scaling the salmon,” Nana says. “It was very not fine, you left the kitchen, and the next time I saw you, you were very fine. Like, in terms of physical well-being.”
“Gee, thanks,” Seokjin says dryly. “Flattering of you to say, noona. You just saw wrong. My hand practically bled out on me before it stopped, okay?”
She watches him one more moment before shrugging and going back to her pot of stew.
“Well, I hope you’re better now,” Nana says, in the way people do when they know they’re being lied to, but don’t care enough to get to the bottom of it. “We wouldn’t want you bleeding on any more food.”
Business is exceptionally slow today. Not that this is particularly surprising after that fiasco with the government official a few days ago, but Seokjin feels so jittery and nervous that he’s here arranging sashimi, needlessly fancy, for a client that ordered just a standard platter for takeout. Nana lets her ladle sit in the simmering soup, ducking out back for a smoke break with everyone else.
Cooking helps Seokjin bring his focus all his attention on one task. It had begun as a passion but now he does it so he doesn’t accidentally injure anyone in the process if he hurts himself.
He’s tucking in the ends of his last salmon rose when the door opens and he straightens up, ready to reassure that everything is under control, dinner hasn’t started yet, and that he’s just finding busywork for himself, until he sees that it’s Jimin.
“Hey,” Seokjin says. “What happened? You can’t be in here, Jimin, let’s go talk outside.”
Jimin takes his wrist as he walks toward him, and Seokjin glances down at it, then back up at Jimin’s face—where it’s usually so bright and happy, there’s a dark frown in his eyes.
“Hey. What’s wrong?”
“Is your hand okay?”
Seokjin brings it up between them, Jimin’s finger stroking the end of the gauze that Seokjin had wrapped around his hand. For show, of course. He nods slowly, his free hand coming up to wrap around Jimin’s smaller one. “It’s fine.”
“Is it really?”
“Then I hope you don’t mind if I try something.”
Seokjin lets himself be led across the vacant kitchen, around counters and stationary knives, until they stand together in front of the deep fryer and Jimin’s hand is still curled insistently around Seokjin’s wrist. For a moment he doesn’t understand what’s going on, until the resolve hardens in Jimin’s face, and.
Jimin takes his hand and plunges it into the hot oil, the thick yellow liquid surging to life with bubbles. Seokjin shouts in pain, yanking his hand out of the fryer, watching as the blisters burn on his skin for a moment before they traitorously fade away right before Jimin’s eyes. He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t speak, doesn’t do anything to indicate that this freaks him out. Seokjin flattens his mouth into a straight line, dropping his hand back down to his side.
“Park Jimin, who are you?”
But there’s someone else screaming outside, from the back. Footsteps come running towards the kitchen and Seokjin grabs the collar of Jimin’s shirt and yanks them both down so that they’re obscured from sight.
“What the hell?” Sunny comes stumbling in with Chanyeol following closely behind, tears streaming down her face. She’s sobbing, cradling her hand, and when they run past for the first aid, Seokjin can see the horrific second-degree burns on her skin. “What the hell is this, how did this—how the hell did this happen?”
He feels Jimin turn his face very slowly toward him in the cramped space. He’s so close that Seokjin can smell the cologne on his clothes.
“You’re a voodoo master too,” Jimin whispers, breath ghosting over Seokjin’s cheek. “Why did you never tell me?”
“I—what?” Seokjin isn’t even sure he heard the words right. “What the hell do you know about that?”
“What the fuck happened here?” Gukjoo’s voice booms across the kitchen, and Seokjin stands up hurriedly, shoving Jimin farther under the counter and out of sight. She turns to him when he appears, looking him up and down with a poisonous glower. “You. What the hell happened?”
“Uh,” Seokjin says. “I don’t know, I just saw Sunny run through here with some bad burns while I was making this.”
“Well, is she okay?”
“I think so. Chanyeol is helping her.”
Gukjoo walks up to Seokjin with slow, measured steps, and if he’s honest, he feels his blood turn cold the closer she gets, shuffling around the deep frying station so that his legs block Jimin from view. She comes to a stop, jabbing a finger in his face, and Seokjin leans backwards.
“You’re being awfully fishy, Kim Seokjin,” she says. “You’re the sous chef, if I need to remind you. If I find you hiding something you shouldn’t, you’re going to be hot, hot water. Understood?”
She squints again, then drops down and yanks Seokjin’s apron to the side so that he steps out of the way of the space under the deep fry counter. He makes a strangled noise, pushing her hands off, cursing and readying himself for the inevitable shout-down he’s going to get for having Jimin in the kitchen.
But she straightens up, clapping her hands together as if ridding dust. Seokjin stares at her as she jabs two fingers at her own eyes, then at him, bustling away and shouting for someone to report on Sunny’s condition. Momentarily, Seokjin is frozen, unable to unglue his back from the side of the counter. Then he bends, afraid of what he’s going to see, only to find that Park Jimin has disappeared without a trace.
His hand tingles.
“Yo, sandwich order from the bar, same old,” Nana says, sticking her head into the kitchen. “Puppydog found his way home.”
“Right,” Seokjin says, trying not to sway where he stands, raising a hand in acknowledgement. “I’m on it.”
Seokjin makes Nana serve Jimin. She gives him a long, hard look, but doesn’t question it when he offers to chop all her garlic. She hates chopping garlic. He also hates chopping garlic. It’s a fair trade-off, kind of.
“Are you sure there’s nothing between you two,” she asks conversationally. “You’re acting bizarre today.”
Which is true, if fine entails being lost in your own hazy thoughts the entire evening, Jimin’s words voodoo master and why didn’t you tell me? bouncing off the insides of Seokjin’s skull like hyperactive children. And the word too, the indirect confession that he is the same. If Jimin knew anything about his affliction, as he so fondly calls it, that would imply that he himself is affected. Or knows something about where it comes from.
Voodoo. To Seokjin’s knowledge, it’s a magical practice dating far, far back in human history. It uses dolls and potions and curses.
“There’s a customer out there that requests you serve him especially,” Chanyeol says, startling Seokjin out of his trance. “And I think you should just let me do the sautéing for now. You’re already overcooking the onions.”
“Oh—oh, shit,” Seokjin says, taking the skillet off the heat in a hurry. Chanyeol hands him a plate of lobster newburg, nudging him out of the way. “Sorry. Sorry, I don’t—”
“I owe you one,” Chanyeol says, winking. “Now hurry up, don’t keep our clients waiting.”
“Did he say who he was?” Seokjin ask, hefting the platter over his shoulder.
“Well, he’s not your puppydog,” Chanyeol says, and Seokjin groans at the nickname. Goddamn Nana. “I don’t recognize him. He’s tall, tall as us, maybe.”
This doesn’t ring any bells until Seokjin reaches the table where the diner sits alone, reading the screen of his phone intently. The moment he looks up, Seokjin feels a grin of disbelief stretch across his mouth.
“How’s my better half?” Hyosang says as Seokjin sets the food down in front of him. “Why the hell am I not the least bit surprised to find you here?”
“Yeah, how did you?”
“Do you think it’s hard to track down a sous chef of a two Michelin star restaurant with the Internet at my fingertips?” Hyosang picks up his fork and knife, sinking the blade into the bread and sighing as he takes a bite. “Did you make this?”
“God, no. Our pastry chef did.”
“My compliments to him,” Hyosang says, eating another mouthful.
“Her,” Seokjin corrects. “But why do I have a feeling you’re not here to compliment my cooking?”
Hyosang pretends to be offended. “The last time you cooked for me was junior year of university before you left for culinary school. Have a little faith in me.”
“I made you a Hot Pocket when you had a hangover.”
“Man. Was that really the last thing you made for me?” Hyosang asks. “Damn. I must have been really hungover.” He sighs, setting down his silverware with a clatter, and the serious look on his face tells Seokjin that whatever this is going to be, it’s not good news. “But you’re right. There’s something we need you for.”
Seokjin crosses his arms on the table. “We?” he says.
“We, yes.” Hyosang shifts in his seat, rummaging for the right words. “There are a few other people in this world besides you and me, shockingly.”
“Please.” Seokjin catches the knife where it’s about to tip off the plate.
Hyosang sighs. “I don’t know how to put this, Seokjin.”
“We’re best friends, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” Hyosang says. “Okay. Well, I know you’re...I know you have an uncommon supernatural power. You’re aware of it too, I’m sure.”
Seokjin blinks at Hyosang, who’s watching him with tentative eyes. This makes two people in one day that have brought this—whatever this is—up to him.
“And what if I do?” Seokjin retorts, voice hostile.
“I promise you that it has never made me view you as less of a person,” Hyosang says immediately. “I knew since the first year of college with you, Seokjin, when you gave yourself a papercut and it appeared on me in the exact same place.”
“Look, Hyosang,” Seokjin says, dropping his forehead into his hands, “I don’t know how you know this. But I need you to be completely truthful with me, because you are the second damn person today who’s come to me about this, and—”
“Whoa, whoa. Second? Who was the first?”
Seokjin glances up through his fingers. He has hardly ever seen Hyosang this concerned.
“My friend, Park Jimin,” Seokjin says. “If he’s still here, he’s sitting at the bar right now to the very right.”
“Oh yeah,” Hyosang says, looking up. “Yep. Yeah, and he’s looking this way, too.”
“Goddammit,” Seokjin mutters under his breath.
“What did he say to you?”
“Something like, ‘you’re a voodoo master, too,’” Seokjin says. “Too. As if he has any idea what this is—”
“Wait,” Hyosang says abruptly, cutting him off. “This restaurant, Jung Sik Dang. Are we in Incheon or Anyang?”
“Well,” Seokjin says, “We’re on the outskirts of Incheon, very close to Anyang?”
Hyosang’s eyes flit to Jimin, then to Seokjin’s face, to Jimin—back and forth a few more times as a slow smile stretches across his face.
“Bingo,” he says. “Oh, Hunchul’s going to be pissed to find out I beat him.”
It’s too dark for him to see much more than the outline of Taehyung’s body in his blankets, rising and falling. The tick of the clock at the front of the mess hall is loud, echoing through vast empty space, as Jeongguk listens to the symphony of things that go bump in the night. Listens to the prison breathe. Listens to Taehyung beside him.
Sleep is elusive. Sleep has been hard to come by since the night Jeongguk had slipped the glasses from Taehyung’s face only to see himself—someone just as haunted by his past and someone just as hunted by the future. Taehyung acts, day in and day out, like nothing happened between them, and Jeongguk is more than happy to go along with this. Pretending like nothing has changed is so much easier, so much more painless than admitting something has.
(Even if something has, Jeongguk can't find it in himself to admit what it is.)
Every day Taehyung pushes the sunglasses onto his face and lets Kkanji lead him to breakfast. Sungjae still comes over and threads chopsticks through his fingers for him, moving his plates around his tray and telling Taehyung where everything is, and when Jeongguk doesn’t say anything, he asks him what’s wrong.
“Nothing,” is always the answer. It’s the best one Jeongguk has.
A week tiptoes by on eggshells. Jeongguk asks the corrections officers to put him on different work shifts every time he sees that he’s paired up with Taehyung for anything, and they frown at the sheer nerve he has to be asking for favors around here, but do it anyway. They’d rather bend to requests than deal with two inmates fighting with each other otherwise.
“You have a spat with your cellmate?”
Jeongguk looks up from the dishes he’s drying. He’s been shafted to work with Hakyeon again, and even now, Taehyung’s words ring in his ears. Stay far, far away from Cha Hakyeon.
“You used to follow him like a sunflower follows the sun,” Hakyeon says, sponging off another plate in an endless pile of them. “And it’s like night has fallen for you, a lost little blossom that doesn’t know where to look now. So now you’re closed up. Shut off.”
Jeongguk wrinkles his nose.
“Do I lie, though,” Hakyeon says, taking in his expression. “Do I lie.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says. “We just needed to be away from each other for a while.”
“Oh my God, you say that like you were together to begin with,” drawls Hakyeon. “Want me to help you get him back? I’d need you to work with me, though.”
Jeongguk is ready to decline forcefully, disdain sour on his tongue, when he sees the soft smile on Hakyeon’s face. There it is again—that eerie charm about him that Jeongguk can’t pin, crawling under his skin and tickling his ribs.
“No, I’m fine,” he says. “Thanks for offering, hyung.”
The rest of his kitchen shift is wordless. Hakyeon doesn’t press him any further, giving him a curt nod when they hang up their aprons and turn off the lights to the kitchen. There are a few minutes between lights out and lock up so Jeongguk leaps into the showers and lets the freezing water shake out his sore muscles. The snow, falling in earnest now, needs to be shoveled from the driveways at least three times a day, and Jeongguk signed himself up for all three of them every day, just to guarantee that he doesn’t get put on a shift with Taehyung.
The water hits his face in a bullet-hard spray and he squeezes his eyes shut. The more Jeongguk thinks about it, dragging his hands up and down his cheeks, too tired for proper face wash, there is no good reason for him to be avoiding Taehyung. Not now, when he’s finally found someone who’s a little like him. Someone who understands what it’s like, unable to be yourself entirely with others. But the circumstances of Taehyung’s birth doesn’t really seem to be why he’s pulling away—if that were the case, Jeongguk wouldn’t be here, asking himself over and over why he feels so lost and alone.
The door of their cell clangs shut when he just barely makes it inside for lock up, shivering from his shower. The officer rattles the door to make sure it’s locked properly, ring of keys jangling from his fingers, and glides out of sight. The bark of his voice in the next room over grates at Jeongguk ears as he gropes blindly in the darkness for his towel to dry his hair off better.
“Let me take a look at your tattoo,” Taehyung murmurs. Jeongguk hesitates, lets the towel drop to his shoulders, and goes to stand beside Taehyung’s bed, eyes adjusting to the dim light. “Is it feeling better?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, just as quietly. “It’s feeling a lot better.”
“Kkanji,” Taehyung prompts his Lab, as he does every night, “aloe.”
Jeongguk looks over his shoulder just in time to see Taehyung reach up, fingertips around the right frame of his sunglasses. His eyes are closed as he turns his head, slipping them off his face, and drops them onto the bed beside him. Just as he begins to look up, sensing Jeongguk’s gaze on him, Jeongguk turns away hastily, eyes boring holes into the opposite wall.
“Most of the swelling is gone,” Taehyung says. A dollop of aloe slides down Jeongguk’s skin and Taehyung spreads it out before it drips into the hem of his pants. “Which is good, because I’m almost out.”
“That’s okay. It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”
Like all the other nights, Taehyung silently works the aloe into the skin around the tattoo until it’s dry, fingers chilly, but gentle. Jeongguk closes his eyes, dares to let himself revel in the feeling.
Maybe it’s this that has him running as far from Taehyung as he can manage in a place of locks and keys.
Taehyung pats the space between the crests of Jeongguk’s hips the same way he does every night, and Jeongguk tries not to sigh as Taehyung lets go of the band of his pants, his shirt falling back down to cover his skin. He’s about to walk away, hang his towel back up, when Taehyung’s hands snake between the spaces of his arms. Jeongguk can't help the gurgle of surprise in the back of his throat as Taehyung pulls him in close until his face is pressed into Jeongguk’s back.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says, voice choked up by the sudden contact. “Hey, hyung—”
But Taehyung’s grip simply tightens, hands locking together insistently over Jeongguk’s belly, hugging him to his body. Against his better judgment, Jeongguk reaches up until one of his own hands rests over both of Taehyung’s.
“Did I do something wrong?” Taehyung asks, voice muffled in the fabric of Jeongguk’s clothes. “I did, didn’t I? I’m sorry. Just tell me what I did, I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You won’t even look at me,” Taehyung says. “You work every shift I don’t, and you used to hate working alone.” He pauses. “It’s because of what I said last week, right? I messed up, Jeongguk. I shouldn’t have said anything, I knew it. I knew it and I still—”
“No,” Jeongguk says, trying to pull away so that he can look Taehyung in the face, but Taehyung refuses to let him budge. “No, it wasn’t that.”
“Is it because I lied to you about my sight? There’s only one other person in this world that knows I can see. You know what could happen if I—”
“No, I know. It isn’t that, either.”
“Then why are you avoiding me?”
The words tear at Jeongguk’s skin even later, teeth and nails against his face, slumbering like a monster under his bed. It’s another sleepless night of staring at the dark mountain of Taehyung’s body in his bed, letting the sound of his breath wreathe around him like the soft circle of his arms that time he had crawled into bed beside Jeongguk, skin icy through his clothes.
He closes his eyes. The next time he opens them, there are corrections officers in his face, arms folded across their chests. Jeongguk blinks in confusion, before realizing that he’s sleeping with his head in his arms, temple pillowed on the backs of his hands.
“Jeon Jeongguk,” one of them barks, and Jeongguk sits up, squinting in the bright light. It’s not even dawn, but all the mess hall lights are on, fluorescence buzzing over their heads. “Would you like to explain what you’re doing outside of your cell at four in the morning?”
“I,” Jeongguk begins, looking back and forth. He hasn’t the slightest clue how he got out here. The last thing he remembers looking at was the shape of Taehyung in the bed beside his. “I don’t know?”
“Your cell is locked and impossible to pick,” another one says. “We didn’t know you wanted solitary confinement so badly that you were going to sleep out in the cold alone to ask for it.”
“No,” Jeongguk says wildly. “No, you don’t understand, I didn’t come out here myself.”
“Oh, so you’re saying someone helped you?” one of them asks. “Who, your cellmate?”
“Taehyung?” Jeongguk shakes his head. “No, he didn’t do anything.”
“Then, young man,” and two officers grab him on either side by his arms, “come with us.”
Jeongguk looks over his shoulder at where his cell is, the door still secured shut, to see Taehyung awake and standing with Kkanji, hands gripping the bars like he wants to break through them. He isn’t wearing his sunglasses, isn’t attempting to hide his face, a stricken expression in his eyes.
Solitary confinement drives Jeongguk out of his mind.
For up to twenty-three hours a day he sits on the hard pleather-covered bed with a sheet draped over crossed legs for a blanket and stares at the blankness of the off-white of the opposite wall. Right now, or maybe an hour ago, someone had pushed a tray of food through the slot in the bottom of the door, undercooked rice and kimchi that’s been left out for too long. The longer Jeongguk stares at it, the more he swears he hallucinates the bowls floating in the air, dropping back down with a clatter, chopsticks rolling across the concrete floor as the thin gochujang from the vegetables oozes across the floor.
The sight makes Jeongguk’s stomach churn.
As the hours snail by, too slow and timeless at all once, he wonders if there really is anyone coming for him. If there’s anyone at all out there for him. Maybe there isn’t. This is probably some higher cosmic form of punishment. Maybe his mother had told him to wait for someone that will never come, glad to be rid of the shame of a son that he was when he fell into this circle of sleeping around that ultimately landed him here. Jeongguk closes his eyes, feels acid and bile rising in his throat.
When he opens his eyes, grains of rice are still scattered across the floor, and he’s still alone, and in this space he finds himself wishing for nothing more than Taehyung’s presence. Taehyung next to him, brushing Kkanji down. Taehyung’s body in the same space, taking up too much of it with his loud voice and incessant chatter. The skin of Jeongguk’s back burns as if in agreement that it too misses him and his touch. Some nights he thinks he can feel Taehyung climbing into bed beside him, face nuzzling into Jeongguk’s neck, until he wakes up in a cold sweat.
Jeongguk turns his head, eyes lifeless, when the window shutter on the door opens to show an officer’s face. Then the lock is clicking open, and he’s faced with one of the corrections officers holding up two pairs of cuffs, one with bigger cuffs and a longer chain than the other—ankles and wrists, he surmises. Can’t have a prisoner poofing off into places he shouldn’t be again.
“Someone wants to talk to you. In exchange, you’re not being let out later at rec hour, or tomorrow at all.”
Silently, Jeongguk lets himself be chained up and led outside. He perks up when he notices that he’s being led to the visiting area for regular security prisoners and guests, and thinks that this must be someone very special.
They chain him a rung right beside the telephone when Jeongguk sits down, facing a window made of scratched, graffitied plastic. The chair opposite him is still empty, but right as the officers leave, someone appears.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says, sitting up in alarm. Kkanji wags her tail when she sees him, and sits down out of sight near Taehyung’s feet as he settles into the chair.
“Is anyone with you?” he asks.
“No. No one is with me.”
So Taehyung reaches up, pulling the sunglasses off his face, and Jeongguk drinks the sight of him in, eyes flooding against his will with unshed tears. Taehyung reaches up and unhooks the phone from its stand.
“Don’t cry,” he says, smiling gently as Jeongguk chokes the tears back. “I can’t do anything to help you.”
“No, it’s okay,” Jeongguk says, throat tight, voice wobbling traitorously. “It’s okay, I just. Don’t say anything and just let me look at you.”
Taehyung falls silent for one, two, three seconds before he has to speak again.
“You scare me when you get emotional like this. It makes me feel like something bad is going to happen.”
“I don’t know how it can get worse than this,” Jeongguk says.
“Hey. You don’t want to go and jinx yourself, Jeongguk-ah.”
The endearment has a fresh wave of tears pressing on the corners of his eyes, but Jeongguk forces it back. They don’t have a lot of time, and he refuses to spend half of it crying. “Hyung, you have no idea what it’s like in there,” Jeongguk says. “It’s terrible. It’s nothingness. I’m going mad.”
“I know a little bit about that, actually,” Taehyung says blandly.
“How? Have you’ve been in solitary too?”
Taehyung shakes his head. “Listen, we don’t have that much time,” he says quickly, quietly, and Jeongguk strains to hear him. “I know how you got out there that night, Jeongguk.”
“You are a warlock,” Taehyung says. “You have to trust me. You are a black widow, and you are a warlock. That night you woke up in the mess hall, you teleported yourself out of our cell. I was awake to see it.”
Jeongguk feels his head swim, but he swallows thickly and nods. “Okay.” He has to trust Taehyung.
“It’s called transmutation. The ability to travel to two different points of position without occupying the space between. Some warlocks are able to do it, some can’t. You happen to be in the former group. It’s happened to me before, but Kkanji barked until I woke and before the officers could find me.”
“What am I going to do?”
“Once you’re aware of it, you can control it,” Taehyung says. “And don’t try using it to escape this place, because I have, and it does not end well.”
“I can’t believe this,” Jeongguk groans. “What else can I do?”
“It appears over time,” Taehyung says. “Magical abilities. Most warlocks have them. Descensum, telekinesis, divination, concilium. Transmutation is one of them.” He pauses. “Are you with me? You have to trust me, Jeongguk. I’m not here to play games with you.”
“Where did you learn all of this?”
Taehyung smiles at this, still sadly, but it reaches his eyes. “An old, old friend,” he says. “The best. I don’t know where he is now, but he’s the only person in this world besides you that knows what I can do.” He laughs. “And that I can see, for that matter.”
“Five minutes,” comes a police officer’s gruff shout. Taehyung winces, then turns back to Jeongguk.
“I need to tell you this so that you know,” Taehyung says, so fast that Jeongguk has to struggle to keep up with his words. “I got a letter today telling me that in a week I’m going to be released on probation. I’m free to go.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, heart skipping a beat. There it is, the reality he’s been fearing deep down since the day Taehyung told him what he is. “Hyung, that’s grea—”
“But I am not leaving this place without getting you out of here,” he continues, cutting Jeongguk off. “At least out of solitary. I can come back later for you if I have to, but I’m not letting you waste away alone in there. I’m not.”
There’s a manic glint in Taehyung’s eyes. “It was a tiny offense. They have no reason to keep you in there for so long.”
“Hyung, you know they will never let me out of here.”
Taehyung stares. “Why?”
“Hyung, I—” Jeongguk exhales. “I killed someone. Even I wouldn’t let myself out.”
Taehyung puts a hand up to the plastic between them. He says nothing, and Jeongguk slants his gaze over his palm, pale and ghostly, and reaches up to press his hand to it.
“I’m going to try.”
Jeongguk quirks the side of his mouth in a half-hearted smile. He looks back up into Taehyung’s face, and his eyes are dark and full of something Jeongguk can’t pin. They sit like that, separated by half an inch of flimsy transparent plastic, in silence—two lost souls in a land of gods and monsters.
Then an idea slips to the forefront of his mind.
“Hyung, you’re a necromancer, aren’t you?”
The gentle smile on Taehyung’s face falters slightly.
“Yeah,” he says, a little wary. “I am.”
“You can bring people back to life?”
“What would it take for you to bring back the person that I accidentally...that I accidentally killed?”
Taehyung sighs, as if he’s been asked this question one too many times. “I can’t do that, Jeongguk,” he says.
“Why?” Jeongguk asks. “You said you could, right?”
“I did,” Taehyung says, dropping his hand, pulling away. “And I can. But that doesn’t mean I should.”
“I can pay you back somehow,” Jeongguk says. “Somehow, some day. But this is, this would mean the world to me. It means I could live with myself again.”
Taehyung’s face is growing colder and colder with every word Jeongguk says, and by the time he’s finished, Taehyung is leaning back in his chair, expression shut off.
“I know, Jeongguk,” he says. “And I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with that kind of guilt on your shoulders, but I can’t bring that person back to life. I won’t do it.”
“Why?” Jeongguk asks, frustration creeping into his voice now. “You’re the only chance I have.”
“Is that what I am?” Taehyung asks, anger flaring in his face, and Jeongguk actually feels a shard of fear in his heart. He would be more afraid if he wasn’t so exasperated with Taehyung’s staunch refusal. “Is that what I am, redemption?”
“No—hyung, no, you don’t understand,” Jeongguk protests. “I know that you’re trying to teach me a lesson, to live with the mistakes I’ve made. But I—it wasn’t on purpose! You don’t know what it’s like to live with this guilt, it’s true. Do you have any idea what it’s like, knowing that you took someone’s life away and you could have stopped it from happening if only you knew a little more about yourself?”
“Teach you a lesson?” Taehyung asks with disbelief. “Is that what you think I’m doing, Jeon Jeongguk? Do you really think that?”
“No, listen to me. Do you have any idea what it’s like to live after death? Do you know what it’s like to come back from that side, back into the living world where you don’t even belong anymore?”
“And you do?”
But Taehyung is already slamming the phone down on the receiver. Jeongguk is frozen in his position, the line going dead in his ear, and Taehyung has swept away with Kkanji long before Jeongguk hangs the phone back up. His hand is still pressed to the plastic, even when the officers come to get him, pulling him to his feet and pushing him to walk.
Jeongguk looks over his shoulder as the visiting room disappears around the corner. Taehyung had said nothing—he hadn’t quite said it, at least, and yet Jeongguk feels like he had been so close to finally, finally understanding who Taehyung is.
And honestly, the more I think about it, the more I think you might be right, but as much as Jeongguk means to me, and as much as I always want to see him smile even in a place as bad as this, I couldn’t say yes to him when he asked that of me. I wanted to. I still want to, because maybe—maybe, okay, don’t quote me on this, because I have no cited sources—maybe I love him. At least, he’s the best thing that’s happened to me since I can remember. Is that love? I’m not sure. I think that’s what it means to me.
But I couldn’t. It’s kind of hard to explain, but I can show you. And maybe then you will understand why.
“Taehyung-ah, don’t go too far, okay? If you can’t see me, you’re too far.”
“Okay. Okay, Mom. I’m not going anywhere!”
This is a rare moment in which he stays put. Taehyung is far too fascinated with the barrels crowded with live fish, the tanks full of skittering crawfish, and the tubs of quiet little clams sitting under the surface of the water.
And then there are the dead fish. They lie in messy piles, one on top of the other, some of them so freshly killed that their fins are still twitching with the last tinges of life. Fish as small as sardines and as big as sturgeons and four-hundred-pound tunas, flesh still stained crimson with blood.
Taehyung’s fingers grip the edge of the counter where a fishmonger is gutting a tuna with knife the size of his arm. The fish’s eyeball is nearly as big as Taehyung’s fist and he stares into the deep, endless black of the pupil, strangely entranced. It’s dead, even this young Taehyung knows that things have to die for others to live, but something about it is still so alive.
The tuna jerks on the cutting board, and Taehyung gasps, jumping away as the table rattles. The fish jumps again, falling to the wet cement. The knife is knocked from the man’s hand and its giant jaws gape as it struggles for water.
“Mom,” Taehyung says, voice high and scared. “Mom—?”
Taehyung still has nightmares of this day. One of them happened to fall on a night where Jeongguk was awake to shake him out of it. Taehyung has never told him that half the reason why he had to climb into his bed was that Jeongguk’s body was the only thing that could chase away the ghost of the cold, slimy sensation of hundreds of fish Resurging, coming to life, suffocating his tiny three-year-old body under their desperation for water.
That night, lying wrapped up in Jeongguk’s scent, was the first night Taehyung could fall asleep again after having that dream.
Have you ever read the first Harry Potter book? It’s the one about the stone, I think. When I was old enough to read it, I didn’t think about the words that much. I think back then I couldn’t have understood what they really meant. It’s not that I really think about the words now—just this one part that really stands out to me today.
The centaur says them in the forest the first time Harry faces that figure in the black cloak. ‘The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price. You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself, and you will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips,’ he says.
I didn’t know what a half-life was back then.
I worked in a hospital some days after class all three years of high school. My mother was a nurse there and she said it would look good on my college applications, so I did as she recommended. Too many days I wandered the ICU, staring in through the windows in doors. Too many times I’ve seen a family crying over someone motionless in bed. Too many times did I bring all those people back to life for another chance, walking away alone in those gloomy hallways and hearing gasps of delight behind me, thinking that I brought happiness into their lives again.
What could I possibly say to them now? That I’m sorry?
That’s life, though. It’s a funny thing. I hear it all the time. ‘Learn to appreciate it when you can,’ that sentence is always thrown around too much after any disaster. But the thing is that you never learn to appreciate it until you've seen the other side. There is nothing over there. However bad life might seem, anything this side has is better than what’s over there. Because there really is nothing. After a while you wish you could feel pain.
You die once, you lose a little bit of yourself. A lot of it if you’re dealt a bad hand, but I got lucky. That’s how zombies happen, I suppose. But it’s an unwavering rule, that the person who returns from death isn’t ever quite the same as the one who walked into it.
At least for me, before death, I could actually taste what I was eating.
At ten years old Hyerim barely comes up to Taehyung’s shoulder at full height and in her high heels that she’s only ever worn once to a class performance in her grade school. It’s been five years since she last deigned to let him hold her hand (“I’m not a child anymore,” was her declaration, and it was at that moment that Taehyung knew she was going to be a handful as a teenager), but today she is gripping him tight.
“Husband of our mom’s oldest cousin,” Taehyung whispers. The funeral procession is slow and somber. His youngest brother is asleep on his mother’s shoulder in front of them as they file into the church. “You met him when you were a baby.”
“Oh,” Hyerim frowns. “Okay. Did he pass easily?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.”
The pews rumble as they move to sit down, and Hyerim sits much closer to him than she needs to. A priest steps up to the podium after everyone has settled into their seats, and when Taehyung fixes his attention on the stage, and his heart clenches when it comes to his realization that this is an open-casket service.
His face. Taehyung can see his face.
“Don’t fidget,” his mother chastises as Taehyung shifts around.
The eulogies and speeches fly by far too fast. Taehyung is not typically a patient person, or someone whose attention can be held consistently for extended periods of time, but he’s dreading the approach to the stage where everyone will have a chance to pay their respects. His cousins are the first to go, supporting his aunt on either side, followed by the man’s own frail mother and father.
“Our turn,” Taehyung’s mother murmurs, standing up. Hyerim follows suit and then tugs on Taehyung’s sleeve when he doesn’t move.
“Oppa,” she says, holding out her hand. “Come on.”
“Kim Taehyung,” and he jumps out of his seat at the sternness of his mother’s voice, “you are seventeen. Do not make a scene.”
And it’s not really an option for Taehyung to explain here and now why he’d rather not be in close proximity with a corpse. Frankly, it’s a secret he’d vowed to take to his own grave, so he slips his hand into his sister’s and stands up on shaky legs.
Someone hands them white carnations to place inside the casket as they take the stairs up to the stage, though Taehyung feels more like he’s stepping up to the noose for his own neck. Hyerim gives him one, and Taehyung waits, dread filling his stomach as the line moves.
If Hyerim notices how tightly he’s gripping her hand, she doesn’t comment on it. The man’s face is so peaceful, preserved to look as though he really is just sleeping. He doesn’t budge as Taehyung sets the flower down beside him to frame his face in a halo of white blossoms. It’s only when Hyerim follows behind him does she scream in alarm, jumping away from the casket and into Taehyung’s back.
“He’s awake!” Hyerim says, clutching Taehyung, who freezes where he is. “He—he opened his eyes—”
“Kim Hyerim, another word and I—oh, oh my God.”
There are more yelps of shock all around the church and Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut when he hears the rustling of flowers and fabric behind him.
“What’s going on?” and the voice is hoarse from disuse. “What the hell’s everyone—hey! You!”
Taehyung feels the eyes of an entire funeral service turn to him. He looks behind his shoulder to meet the eyes of a man who, only a few moments ago, had been still and closed.
“You,” the man says, pointing at Taehyung, flowers falling from the sleeve of the suit he was laid to rest in. “It was you.”
A commotion breaks out as his wife faints in the pews, and Taehyung gulps.
“I don’t know what you’re saying, Uncle—”
“Taehyung-ah,” his mother asks, eyes full of terror, “what’s he talking about?”
“You saved me, just now,” his uncle says. “It was you, I saw you! It’s black on the other side. There’s nothing, and then you appeared out of that nothing and took my hand, told me to follow you. And here I am! I swear it was you, you look exactly the same—exactly the same as the boy that appeared in death—”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Taehyung denies vehemently, and in that moment Hyerim pulls her hand out of his. He stares at her, though she refuses to meet his eyes.
“Our mom told me that you’re a little different from us,” she says, looking at the ground. Tears are swimming in her eyes and Taehyung takes a step forward, but she only shrinks away and into their mother’s side. “Is this what it is? What are you?”
I can’t say I was surprised my mother told my siblings there was something a little off about her oldest son. I couldn’t blame her, either. She didn’t know what she was dealing with and the best way she knew how to protect the younger two was to teach them that I was a little different. But growing up, I don’t think any of us were taught to love different, either.
Love difference, my friends. It keeps us alive.
My uncle was committed to a mental hospital shortly after that. Eventually, so was my aunt. Not a week later, my cousins showed up at my high school. I had stayed late to study, because I thought that if I was going to be different, then it was the least I could do to get good grades. I thought wrong.
They knocked me out, threw me in the trunk, tied me up and gagged me. It was some real Bourne Identity shit and if it hadn’t been a drive to my inevitable slow-roast over the flames, it would have been kind of exciting.
But joking aside, dying by fire really is the worst way to go. Like, they couldn’t have done something quick and easy, such as shooting me in the face, for example. Or run me over with a car. Nope. My cousins tied me up to a fucking stake. Which was flattering and all, the whole Jesus parallelism shebang. I can say at least they didn’t attempt to nail my hands into the wood. That would have been pretty rude, I think.
They’d clearly done their research. Or maybe they knew this already, they were devout Catholics or Protestants or whatever. They said I was the work of evil, the work of Satan, the work of witchcraft. All of which is true, so I guess at least that wasn’t a false accusation. And then they dumped oil on my head, lit a match, and threw it into the brush at my feet.
I swear. They could have started a forest fire.
Anyway, I don’t remember much after that. It fucking hurt, being burned alive. That’s not something you can really forget, but death afterwards is easy. Painless. But like I said, death is nothing. There is no afterlife. Maybe that’s sacrilegious and saying that to anyone who practices religion would be asking for a beating but I’ve been there.
There’s nothing for us on the other side.
But I have the power of Resurgence, and other people and animal aren’t the only things I can bring back to life. My cousins didn’t count on me being able to do it for myself, too. To be honest, I didn't count on it either. It took a while, but I think around sunrise, I woke up to someone who happened to find me in the remote part of the hiking woods I’d been burned in.
His name was Park Jimin.
The more he tries to push it away the harder it persists, until he blinks his eyes open and the hammering turns into the persistent knocking of someone at door. Jimin flails, trying to untangle himself from his cocoon of blankets, and succeeds in only tumbling off the bed and onto the floor.
“Who is it?” he shouts blearily, groping for his glasses on the nightstand. He doesn’t actually need them but his face resembles a puffer fish right now. He almost jabs himself in the eye with one of legs as he shoves them on, stumbling to his feet. “Who is it?”
A boy Jimin doesn’t recognize doesn’t stop knocking until he opens the door, fist held aloft in the air until he realizes he’s punching air and looks up from his phone. He smiles briliantly, and Jimin feels blinded.
“You must be Park Jimin!” he says, grabbing Jimin’s sweaty palm and shaking it. “The voodoo master from Incheon, right?”
“I’m Jung Hoseok. Seokjin told me you know quite a lot about magic, so I don’t need to get your toes wet and ease you in slowly or anything. I’m an Underseer!”
Oh. That’s right. Jimin is living in a cheap, homey little family-run hostel, rooming with Kim Seokjin, at the persuasion of his best friend Jin Hyosang. He had walked up to Jimin in Jung Sik Dang, Seokjin still unable to meet his eyes, and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”
(He was sorely disappointed in the lack of spinny office chairs that he could turn around in, fingers steepled, but Seokjin had just patiently explained that Jung Sik Dang is a Michelin star restaurant and not a corporation with polished cherrywood desks, and that he’s dealing with two practitioners of voodoo. There is no need for spinny office chairs.)
But it’s true. Jimin considers himself blessed. Born to a warlock of a father and a voodoo queen of a mother, he’s been expected since he could walk to know magic back to front, front to back, taught only to conceal it outside of his family.
“Hi,” Jimin says, shaking Hoseok’s hand a little more slowly and pensively. “Can I help you?”
“Sorry, I woke you, didn’t I,” Hoseok asks. “It’s quite early, I know, but Hunchul wanted all of us to meet in the dining area for brunch together, and you were the only one still asleep.”
Jimin gathers his toothbrush and washcloth. “All of us?” he repeats, blinking sleep from his eyes. “Who else is there?”
“There’s me, you, and Seokjin,” Hoseok ticks off on his fingers, “A guy called Yoongi. He’s a dark cloud when you first meet him, but he’s actually a really sweet guy. A little weird at first. You’ll see. Oh, and Namjoon. He’s the Supreme and a complete klutz. In the time I’ve known him he’s broken his phone twice. Lucky for him, he’s also a genius.”
“A Supreme, huh?” Jimin asks. “Damn.” His father, a nomadic warlock, has told him of Supremes, of how the convocations of warlocks and covens of witches that come together to elect superior practitioners of magic to be the leader of their circles. Too often this has led to corruption and greed for power, Jimin knows. That’s when his mother would always sniff and say that voodoo never had this problem. All their women were queens and their men masters.
“There are two more,” Hoseok says when Jimin is bent over the sink with a mouthful of spearminty foam. “They haven’t joined us yet. I have a feeling Hunchul is getting us all together to talk about what we’re going to do about them, actually.”
“Why, do we have to go capture them in bear traps or something?”
“Oh, the government’s done that for us already,” Hoseok says, picking at his nail. “It’s the getting them out of the bear traps that’s the problem right now.”
Hoseok is an easy person to be around. Jimin has decided he likes him by the time they make it downstairs, and Hoseok leads him to a table of other guys who, at present, seem to be talking about something serious, while Seokjin simply looks like he’s trying to keep up in a physics class three levels too difficult.
“Yo,” Hoseok says, dropping into a seat and elbowing a boy with ash blond hair in the ribs. “What’s happening? This is Jimin, by the way.”
He extends his hand. “I’m Namjoon,” he says, and Jimin shakes.
“That’s me. And to answer your question, Hoseok, you didn’t need to jab me—Yoongi is saying here that he Saw something else last night.”
“Again?” Hoseok frowns. “You’re Seeing something every time you go to sleep, aren’t you?”
Yoongi is thin, even a little sickly, and from what Jimin can tell, deprived of sleep. He drags his hand down his face and groans, burying it in his hands so that all Jimin can really see of him is his russet, bedheaded mop of hair.
“I don’t let myself sleep that much or that long,” Yoongi says. “So I’m attacked with information every time I do.”
“What’s he talking about?” Jimin whispers to Seokjin, who shrugs. “Do you not know or do you not understand?”
“The latter,” Seokjin says. “I’m still not a hundred percent sure what a Supreme is.”
Yoongi looks up then, right into Jimin’s face, and his expression darkens even further. For a moment, Jimin has a wild thought that he’s encountered him before, until Yoongi says, “I don’t think we’ve met. Park Jimin, is it? The voodoo master?”
“Yes,” Jimin says. “How—?”
“Min Yoongi, clairvoyant and Seer. Try not to think about food too hard will you, we’re all hungry,” he replies without taking a breath, and Jimin recoils slightly. Hoseok laughs, patting his shoulder.
“You’ll get used to him hearing everything that crosses your mind,” he says. “It takes some time.”
“Yoongi was saying that he Saw two Supremes,” says another one of them. He looks just as exhausted and sallow as Yoongi. “I’m Hunchul, by the way, Jimin. I’m part of the Wixen Council with Donghyuk and Hyosang.”
“Two Supremes, ruling together,” Yoongi repeats. “It’s unheard of. Almost a ridiculous suggestion, in fact. Supreme means the top, the best, the first. There is only space for one person in that position. For the last five years, it’s been uncontested, Namjoon’s space and his space alone.”
“How is work with the two in Busan?” Hyosang asks, and Hunchul grunts.
“They’re powerful. Which is a problem, because they’re locked up in that tiny space together. One of them somehow managed to get himself stuck in solitary confinement. The officers told me that he was misbehaving but I have a feeling his powers are manifesting. Trapped in there with nothing to do? I’m fucking worried I’m not going to get them out on time before something bad happens.”
“Why don’t we help you?” Seokjin asks, speaking up for the first time. “You’re doing this all alone?”
“It’s a better idea not to attract too much attention to them,” Hunchul explains. “They’re already suspicious inmates as it is. One of them is blind and needs the service of a guide dog, but the corrections facilities told me that he doesn’t act completely like someone of the visually impaired should.”
Jimin frowns. “Wait, say that again?”
“It’s a better idea not to attract too much—?”
“No. What did you say about—he doesn’t act like someone of the blind should, or something?”
“Yeah,” Hunchul says. “They were cellmates. Like, Goddamn, as if they weren’t ticking time bombs alone, they just happened to be placed in the same cell.”
“What did you say his name was? The blind one,” Jimin says, voice shaking, and Hoseok looks at him in concern. He lays a tentative hand on Jimin’s bare arm, and then lets it settle when Jimin doesn’t reject his touch.
“I didn’t,” Hunchul says. “Why, do you know him?”
“I—I might have known someone that fits that description.”
Hunchul props his chin in his hand. “Kim Taehyung,” he enunciates. “Ring any bells?”
Jimin feels the world swim beneath him.
“Too many,” he replies. “Oh, my God. How did he end up in prison?”
Hunchul shrugs, but Yoongi looks from him to Jimin.
“It seems like you already know the answer to that question.”
“No use trying to hide it from him,” Namjoon says. “If you have information that could be helpful to us and he overhears it, he’s going to tell us even if you don’t.”
Jimin pouts. “That is an invasion of privacy.”
“I don’t seek it out myself,” Yoongi says, like he’s made this point too many times before. “It is always in the background for me. In my life there’s never been a moment of silence. I don’t know what silence is.”
“Oh,” Jimin says, feeling immediately guilty. “I didn’t know.”
“Tell us what you do know,” Hoseok prompts.
“Uh,” Jimin begins. “Are you guys sure you won’t hurt him?”
“We’re warlocks,” Namjoon says. “Why would we hurt someone that we’ve been trying to protect?”
“It’s just that he’s been,” Jimin says, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Fine, okay. Okay. He’s—he’s a necromancer.”
Hunchul raises his eyebrows and exchanges looks with the council.
“A necromancer? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” says Jimin. “I know.”
“How do you know?”
Yoongi holds up a hand, interrupting the exchange, and points at Hoseok. “You. Spit it out.”
Hoseok laughs in defeat. “Damn, and I thought I could keep this to myself. I didn’t want to offend anyone.” At this, Yoongi looks murderous.
“Offend anyone? Lives are at stake and you’re worried about offending people?”
“I don’t like it!” Hoseok insists. “And I don’t know as many details as you do. But whoever killed Ikje is going to go for the two Busan kids next, and soon. Kim Taehyung and…?”
“Jeon Jeongguk, that’s his name,” Hunchul says. “Why would this offend anyone?”
Hoseok sighs. “If what I feel is right,” he says. “And it never has been wrong, the people we’re up against are a voodoo clan. A radical, angry, bloodthirsty voodoo clan that think they can do unity better than we can.”
Hunchul laughs humorlessly in the silence that follows.
“What’s he talking about?” Seokjin asks Yoongi, who whispers into his ear.
“They think they can recreate Slaughterhouse Ten, but do it right,” Hoseok explains. “Ten voodoos, against a convocation of five warlocks and two voodoos. Eight and two if we count the council.” He glances at Jimin and Seokjin. “Now you see why Hyosang wanted you guys here?”
“You didn’t think to tell us of this in the restaurant?” Jimin asks incredulously.
“Well, unless you want to go against what has been already ultimately decided for you,” Yoongi says. “Because Hoseok knew from the very beginning that you two would be part of us regardless of what magic you are capable of, and if I’m correct, you both can control all the forces we do. In time, anyway.”
“I mean,” Hoseok says, eyes sad, “if you really wanted to join them, it’s not like any of us can stop you.”
“Are you kidding?” Jimin says. “Why the hell would I join people that are trying to kill my best friend?”
“So you’re agreeing to go against them for us? Blood is thicker than water.”
Jimin shakes his head. “I am a half blood. Half voodoo, half warlock. My parents are nomads and belong to no associations. And you have it wrong, hyung. Blood of the covenant,” he corrects, “is thicker than the water of the womb.”
It is determined that there are only four people who are actually able to both fight in combat and stay inconspicuous on the odyssey to Busan.
“Ten voodoo masters are a force to be reckoned with,” Namjoon says. “They’re going to feel us if they’re in the area, and they’re especially going to pick up on two their kind among us. Be ready to go head to head with them.”
“But I don’t know anything about hand to hand combat,” Seokjin protests in the back of Hunchul’s car. “Seriously, I don’t know anything about transportation or telekinesis.”
“Transmutation,” Jimin says. “And that’s not a problem, hyung! All you need to do is stand in place and stab yourself to incapacitate anyone and anything you want. If you ask me that’s a lot more effective than telekinesis.”
Seokjin casts him a withering look. “Thank you, that is so very reassuring, puppydog.”
Seokjin blushes. “That’s what they called you in the kitchen. It was Nana’s idea, I swear.”
Jimin is speechless for a moment, caught between embarrassment and happiness. Then, “What did you tell the kitchen, anyway?”
“Family emergency,” Seokjin sighs. “Though I don’t know if Gukjoo will let me return to my position after this. I have to start as a busboy from scratch again.”
“We’re getting close, children,” Hunchul says, and Jimin peers out the window. In the far distance is a severe, geometric grey building that juts out from the landscape like a sore thumb. Namjoon looks up from his phone, stowing it away in his pocket. “Namjoon, can you run down the plan with them again?”
“There’s a plan?” Seokjin demands. “And you’re telling us now?”
“Hunchul is not amazing with planning ahead,” Namjoon says, turning around in his seat. “None of the Wixen Council are.”
“I have noticed,” Jimin says.
“With any luck we can get them out without trouble. Without any luck, well,” Hunchul’s hands whiten on the wheel, “it’s showtime.”
The light is on in his cell. Another serving of dry, sour kimchi had been pushed under his door when he was asleep, and he eyes it uncertainly. It’s been a long time since he remembers eating anything else, and he’s about to slide out of bed to retrieve it when there’s another boom, one that reverberates through the walls of the building.
The fluorescent bulb over the sink flickers.
He looks up, sliding eyes across the ceiling. The security camera that stares into his room leers back at him with its misty blue lens. It’s the one portal Jeongguk has to the outside world, and he wonders if the longer he stares, the more unsettled the person watching on the other side will be.
Another boom, a lot closer this time, followed by gruff shouts. Jeongguk jumps when sirens blare above him, screeches and cackles in his ears. Footsteps pound on the floor outside, gunshots go off and Jeongguk feels his breath catch in his throat.
Peering out of the shutter on his door is not the soundest decision he has ever made. The moment he does he sees a dark figure bent over a navy-suited police officer, a pool of red on the tiles beneath him. Jeongguk’s eyes widen, and in the split second he hesitates to slam the shutter closed, another officer’s bloody face is slammed into the window in the door. His cheek flattens against the surface, drops of blood spraying across the glass. Jeongguk shrieks, stumbling back, tripping on the chopsticks that rolled off his tray of food. The shutter door remains jammed where it is, and slowly does the man’s face slide down and out of sight, leaving a smear of gore on the glass.
Just then, a face appears in that tiny window, and Jeongguk, fallen back on his ass and elbows, swears he sees Cha Hakyeon’s cold, glittering smile in that moment before it’s gone. When he disappears, angry barking fills the hallway and Jeongguk scrambles to his feet—he knows that sound.
“Kkanji!” he shouts uselessly. This cell is soundproof and no one will hear the pound of his fists on the metal door. “Kkanji—”
Where there is Kkanji, there is Taehyung.
It’s a voice Jeongguk doesn’t recognize—high, sharp, cutting through the din. A streak of black fur flashes across the window and that someone laughs. “I can’t believe it—where’s Taehyung?”
Taehyung? Jeongguk’s fingers scrabble at the glass. Someone here knows Taehyung.
“He’s here?” The voice is closer now. “He’s in here? Wait, this can’t be right, this solitary—solitary! Hey, Namjoon hyung, Jeon Jeongguk’s here, he’s in here—”
In the bloodstained window a bright, sunny face appears. He’s holding Kkanji up in his arms even as bullets whiz by him.
“Wow, he’s bigger than I expected,” he comments, and at this Jeongguk bristles. This munchkin is the person his mother was referring to when she told him that there would be someone to come get him? “You hang in there, Jeonggukkie!” he goes on cheerfully, voice muffled but audible, ducking as something is thrown at his head. “God, I know this is a voodoo attack but does no one in this detention center have any chill—”
“Stand back, Jimin. You too, Jeongguk, if you can hear me.”
Jeongguk backs up, stepping barefoot in cold rice. At first, he hears the lock click, thinking that they’re picking it—and then the metal groans, as though straining under a colossal weight. Finally the door flies off its hinges with an ear-splitting bang and Jeongguk catches a glimpse of a youth with ashen hair already dashing out of sight, but Jimin is still there, holding out his hand.
“No time, come on,” Jimin says, grabbing Jeongguk’s hand in his when he doesn’t move. Kkanji jumps out of his arms and onto the floor. “We’ve got to find Taehyung and get you out of here.”
“Who are you?” Jeongguk asks, trying to keep up with Jimin’s pace. For someone so stocky, he is surprisingly lithe and fast. “How do you know him?”
“Well, first of all, I’m your hyung,” Jimin says pointedly, as they run after Kkanji down a body-strewn corridor. Jeongguk stumbles at the smell of blood, but Jimin never lets go of his hand. “Otherwise I am Park Jimin, nineteen, voodoo master. Taehyung is my best friend.”
So this is the person who taught Taehyung everything he knew. Jeongguk tightens his fingers.
They find Taehyung tending to a nasty head wound across Sungjae’s forehead, the boy under his hands out cold. His sunglasses are absent from their ever-present perch on his nose, and he is so focused that he doesn’t even notice them approaching until Kkanji noses at his face.
“Oh my God,” he says, getting up unsteadily when his gaze falls upon Jimin. “Oh my God, Jimin!”
The display of affection is somewhat badly timed, but perhaps that is what makes it the most heartwrenching; Jeongguk watches as Taehyung throws himself at Jimin, who almost topples at his weight but just laughs and hugs him anyway. When he catches sight of Jeongguk over Jimin’s shoulder, he scrambles down and pulls him to his chest too, as if the argument a few days before had never happened.
“You’re okay,” he says, patting Jeongguk all over. “Right, you’re okay?”
“I’m okay,” Jeongguk mumbles. He tries to pull back and look into Taehyung’s face, but Taehyung doesn’t let him go. “Hyung, really—”
“I’m sorry I got mad at you,” he says, breath tickling the skin of his neck, and Jeongguk looks at Jimin helplessly—but Jimin is more confused than he is, watching them with a kind of vague understanding on his face. “What if something had happened and that was the last thing I—”
“Taehyung,” Jimin says then, tapping his shoulder, “sorry to interrupt, really, but can we do this later.”
He picks up his sunglasses where they lie cracked and broken on the floor—and Jeongguk thinks he’s about to slide them onto his face, but he lays them on Sungjae’s chest, hooks facing up.
“You’re not going to put those on?” Jimin asks.
Taehyung shakes his head. “I’m coming with you guys, aren’t I? I don’t need these.” He pats Sungjae’s bloody forehead carefully. “I’ll see you again one day, my friend.”
The first thing Jeongguk hears when they step into the hostel is “Are you all out of your fucking minds?”
Followed by “Seokjin, hot. I like that look on you,” to which Seokjin laughs nervously. Not that Jeongguk can disagree, because even though the cop uniform is a little too big on even Seokjin, he looks like he’s stepped out of a magazine rather than a government employee, but still. That doesn’t seems like a very welcoming opening line.
This is immediately then sandwiched with the repetition of, “Are you all out of your fucking minds?”
“Turn down, Yoongi,” says the one Jeongguk had just learned is named Hunchul, collapsing on the floor in a heap. His clothes are torn in some places, and he has bloody fingernails. “We just had to take down half a clan of voodoos with our bare hands, and you are not being of any help.”
Yoongi glowers. “You could have died,” he snarls. “What the hell kind of plan was that? And why did you three agree to this?”
“A damn good one, if I say so myself. But aw, thanks man. I love you too.”
“What the hell did you even tell the police?”
“All we needed to. We sat them down, handed over the forged paperwork. That kid had a brain aneurysm, the livestock weren’t correctly sedated, etc etc, yadda yah, seriously, Yoongi. I know what I’m doing. We obviously just needed Seokjin’s hot piece of ass to do it in the middle of a voodoo attack to the only gay officer in the detention center. It was like a one-way ticket out of there.”
“Please,” Seokjin protests weakly. “You’re making me sound like a hero.”
“You look like a damn hero,” Hyosang says.
“Is this all of us?”
Namjoon is the one that asks, in the corner of the room by himself. Everyone quiets, looking around, and Jeongguk counts ten heads.
“This is it,” Hoseok says. “All seven of us. The Incheon voodoos, two Seers, the Supreme, and the Busan kids.”
“Kids?” Jeongguk repeats. “I’ll have you know that I am seventeen!”
Everyone kind of stares at him, and then Jimin slowly says, “So, a kid.”
Jeongguk is about ready to deal him a falcon punch for that smirk when Yoongi interrupts.
“I imagined the necromancer,” he says, nodding at Taehyung, “to look a lot more...intimidating.”
Jimin snorts when Taehyung makes an affronted noise.
“What are you? Any extraneous abilities?” Yoongi asks Jeongguk, who doesn’t answer. He pauses, then, “Damn, black widow? Nice.”
Jeongguk sputters. “I didn’t even—”
Hoseok places a hand on his arm. “You will get used to it,” he says very seriously.
“Oh,” Namjoon says. “You’re the doozy.”
“I’m the doozy?”
“He’s the doozy,” Hunchul affirms.
“There’s a lot we need to discuss,” Donghyuk says, and Hunchul groans at the prospect of it. “But some of us...need naps, in Hunchul’s case, and I think all of us need food.” He looks at Taehyung and Jeongguk when he says this. “It’s not a hot idea to wait in times like these but I think just this once, it’ll be okay.”
Apparently Kim Seokjin, the human voodoo doll, works in the hostel kitchens. It’s a humble step down from the star restaurant he used to be a big important chef in, Jeongguk learns. He disappears in more normal clothing and an apron tied around his waist, and several hours later serves up the biggest meal Jeongguk remembers since being sent to prison.
“Did you mother raise you in the jungle,” Jimin says disdainfully when Jeongguk wolfs down at least his fifth plate of japchae. “How much can you even eat?”
“More than this,” Jeongguk says. “Seokjin hyung is an amazing cook.”
“Thanks,” Seokjin calls across the table. He evidently has the ears of a barn owl. “I try.”
Jeongguk slows, though, when he sees Taehyung set down his chopsticks. He slurps the noodles up into his mouth and says, “You’re not hungry?”
“But it’s so good.”
“I believe you.”
What an odd reply. Taehyung smiles at him, feeding scraps of pork from his bowl to Kkanji, who’s lying at his feet under the table. She looks so naked without her leather lead. Jeongguk frowns.
“Are you sure, hyung?”
Jeongguk finds himself alone with Jimin later—Taehyung having led Kkanji off to tend to her torn claw and discuss some logistics with Yoongi, the hyungs discussing something that is temporarily Top Secret. Jimin is the only one that’s alone, polishing his pewter cauldron with a sponge.
“I guess I have to say thank you.”
Jimin looks up in surprise. “You? Thank me?” He laughs. “I’ve known you for a fresh three hours at most and I already know you’re not the type to hand out affection and gratitude easily.”
Jeongguk punches him in the arm lightly. Not that he’s wrong. In fact, he’s proving Jimin’s point right now.
“Taehyung told me about magic when we were in there,” he says. He sits on his feet, knees going a little numb on the floor. “He said you were the one that taught him.”
“He talked about me?” Jimin asks, pleased. “Wow. I’m genuinely impressed.”
“Well, he didn’t talk very much about himself,” Jeongguk says. “So, naturally, you slipped into his everyday conversation sometimes. Probably more than I knew at the time, honestly.”
“I can tell,” Jimin says. “That he didn’t talk very much about himself, that is.”
“What? How can you?”
“Well, you ask him questions like why he’s not eating more,” Jimin points out. “If he really did tell you everything there is to know about him, then you wouldn’t need to.”
Jeongguk leans forward. “Why doesn’t he?”
Jimin squirms uncomfortably. “It’s really not my place to tell you.”
Jeongguk presses into Jimin’s personal space, getting right in his face. “Why. Doesn’t he?”
The face Jimin makes is hilarious, bordering on constipated. Then he lets out a breath like he’s been holding it. “God, you’re so cute I can’t even tell you to fuck off,” Jimin sighs, pushing Jeongguk’s face away. “And I just so happen to also suck at keeping shit to myself.”
After another moment’s hesitation, Jimin says, “Taehyung has limited sensory feeling,” and he exhales through his nose. “He can’t taste or smell anything. He can see and hear fine. He can’t feel physical pain, and I’m going to assume he can’t feel physical pleasure, either.”
Jeongguk sits back in shock.
Jimin casts him a funny look. “You really don’t know? How do you think we met?”
“He never specified when I asked.”
Jimin takes a huge breath, letting it out slow, then all at once.
“He died once,” he finally says, tone grim. “He was burned at the stake. I found him when he brought himself back to life and took him back to my house until he got better, but he never got...all the way better, you know what I mean? Kind of like when you break your ankle too many times, that ankle never is the same. After his burns healed, it took him a long time to start talking again, and for a while he sounded like someone that smoked a pack a day. It’s the same idea with death. When you travel all the way to that side, and all the way back, you lose some of yourself on the way.” He reaches out, gripping Jeongguk’s shoulder with a steady hand. “Hey, are you okay? Sorry, that was too—”
“He died?” Jeongguk repeats, sitting down heavily on the floor of Jimin’s hostel room that he shares with Seokjin.
“It’s a long story,” Jimin admits. “Not one that has a really happy ending, either. I mean, maybe there isn’t an ending yet. He was—hey, where are you going? Jeongguk!”
The most inconvenient thing about Jeongguk is that he too is a bundle of contradictions, of opposing forces, of complementary colors; he has impulsiveness, decisions made with no forethought, followed by the crippling inability to act on his feelings. Maybe it comes with being a black widow—all that bottled-up love to give away and no one to adequately give it to. He registers himself standing up from the floor, Jimin’s voice behind him, and the next moment he is out the door—running right into Seokjin, who looks surprised to see him come out of his room.
“Jeongguk,” he says, holding him steady by his arms. “Whoa, are you okay? You’re white as a sheet.”
“His room,” Seokjin says, puzzled. “Which is yours too, by the way. Hunchul just managed to check you guys into one of the last rooms, so it only has one bed—”
Seokjin points down the long walkway. “Room 303.”
Jeongguk’s feet work on their own. The brass numbers that hang over the pearly glass peephole are missing the 0; only the 3 and 3 remain. Initially he raises his hand to knock, then thinks it’s stupid considering this is also his room, and turns the knob without announcement.
“Taehyu—oh. Namjoon hyung?”
“Hey, kiddo,” Namjoon says. He’s holding an armful of gauze and Hoseok is holding an armful of sleeping Kkanji, one of her paws bandaged. Taehyung is listing off, rapidfire, all the things they need to know about dog care on the spot and all the things they can and can’t do with her, if Jeongguk is understanding correctly. “Sorry, we’re about to bounce in a second.”
“It’s okay.” Jeongguk stands out of the way as Namjoon steps outside. “Where are you taking her?”
“My apartment. It’s bigger and more comfortable there. I have a dog too, and she’ll get to have some company as she recovers.”
“Remember that she’s not going to understand Korean, it’ll confuse her!” Taehyung calls after them as they bustle outside. “She was trained in a English language school.”
“I got this!” Namjoon says, throwing up a hand in acknowledgement and promptly dropping a roll of gauze. He runs after it as it unrolls in the wintry breeze, and Taehyung looks to Jeongguk in the doorway, smiling a little sadly.
“Ah. She likes them a lot. I shouldn’t be worried, right?”
Jeongguk blinks at him. “Oh. Yeah, she’ll be fine.”
“Tired? You should sleep,” says Taehyung. “I was wondering where you’d gone off to. Just earlier Yoongi cornered me and said by tomorrow morning we need to start seeing how many powers we’ve manifested, and he and I need to try this—hey. Are you all right?”
Jeongguk’s hand is wrapped vice-like around Taehyung’s elbow, gripping tight. Taehyung turns, pushing Jeongguk away, facing him before sinking down to sit at the foot of the bed.
“You look like you’re going to throw up, please tell me now if you are so we can get you to the toilet,” Taehyung says amicably, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his, and the impossible iciness of his skin snaps finally gets the word out of Jeongguk’s mouth.
“I’m sorry for what I said.”
It’s the lamest possible thing Jeongguk can say in this situation. Ace, Jeon Jeongguk.
“What did you say?” Taehyung is frowning now. Jeongguk wrests one of his wrists from Taehyung’s hold, then runs the tip of his finger along the scar across the back of Taehyung’s hand, white and harsh.
Jeongguk pauses, more useless things to blurt on the tip of his tongue, but Taehyung’s reaction to his touch is so pleasantly unexpected that he does it again, running his fingers over the scar, then wandering over his skin.
“I was saying,” Jeongguk says distractedly, pulling away, “that I—”
Taehyung catches his hand in his, tangling their fingers, and Jeongguk startles at the abruptness. For once, Taehyung isn’t watching him, can’t seem to meet his eyes, even—which is usually a job reserved for Jeongguk, but here they are, Taehyung keeping his eyes trained in the vicinity of Jeongguk’s stomach.
Jeongguk stares at him. His heart is pounding in his ears but the silence stretches out taut between them. He is loath to reach out and pluck it, break that impossible quiet as Taehyung flicks his gaze up to meet his.
And then it’s like a tower of cards being knocked down, a row of dominos falling. Jeongguk swoops down and Taehyung reaches up, hands hooking over the back of his neck and they pull each other in in in. “Jeongguk,” Taehyung gasps, like he’s been waiting for this since the very first day and, somehow, Jeongguk feels the same. The same desperation boiling in his blood, the same conviction that despite all odds, something makes this so right.
Their lips are maddeningly close when Taehyung stops.
“Wait,” he whispers and he’s so close that Jeongguk can feel the puffs of his breath on his mouth. “Let me. Remember this.”
His eyes are shut, and Jeongguk watches the butterfly-wing flutter of Taehyung’s shut eyelids, entranced. From here he can count every eyelash and before Taehyung can open his eyes, set time in motion again, he closes the distances between them.
Jeongguk has kissed and been kissed hard enough to bruise and draw blood, raise hickeys like whiplashes across the skin of necks and collarbones. This—mouthing at Taehyung’s bottom lip, kissing for the sake of kissing—is new, foreign territory. It’s uncertainty. The exhilaration of it makes Jeongguk dizzy.
Taehyung gets up on his knees, the edge of the bed bending under his weight, to drape his arms around Jeongguk’s shoulders. Maintaining balance is a challenge, especially when Taehyung slants his head to kiss him deeper, opening his mouth to Jeongguk’s tongue.
And then breaking apart is another monumental struggle. Jeongguk manages to do it first. Taehyung is not impressed, chasing him with his mouth until Jeongguk has to physically press a hand over his lips, laughing.
“I need a breather,” Jeongguk says, panting. He shudders when Taehyung’s fingers wander under the collar of his shirt at the back of his neck, stroking over the cobbles of his spine, and reaches back to swat it away. “Hey, no touching what you can’t affo—”
But Taehyung, snatching the chance when Jeongguk’s hand is away from his mouth, kisses him again. Jeongguk isn’t about to push him away this time, but within a few moments Taehyung needs to pull back for air too.
“How long have you wanted to do that?”
Taehyung’s voice is broken and raspy. It takes Jeongguk a second to find his own words, thoughts flatlining through his mind. He’s not too sure he even has a concrete answer, lips parted like a fish, waiting for something to fall into his head.
But Taehyung just laughs and brushes his lips over the shell of Jeongguk’s ear. “That’s okay,” he murmurs, “I’m not too sure either.”
But in hell, there is no fire, there is no ice, there is no river of lost memories. No, in hell, you face your own worst fears.
Hell is different for everyone.
So naturally, going to Descensum is not something Yoongi makes a habit of. It’s an unpleasant, terrible experience, different for everyone that travels there. It’s catered especially for Yoongi, for example, in the form of getting up on a stage with raps he composed himself, mic to his lips, only for everyone to frown in disgust the moment he opens his mouth to sing.
But this is the only way he can do this.
“Back again? This is the fifth, sixth time? In the last three weeks.”
“Yeah. Well, what’s new.”
“What have you got for me this time?”
“You fucking bet.”
The Devil is the only thing down here that is worth Yoongi’s time and energy. The most frightening thing about him is not his appearance—no, the Devil isn’t a little red goblin of a man with horns. He can be beautiful, because he was an angel once, and he was God’s favorite. He has hair as dark as shoeshine that falls down to his shoulders, dressed from chin to toe in black. The red of his eyes is bloody and piercing.
No, it is the mind games he plays.
“I don’t think you understand how knowledge works, little friend,” says the Devil. “No matter how many times you throw it away down here, it will always find your way back to you. Knowledge is power. Didn’t they ever teach you that people can take away anything from you—your love, your money, your rights—but knowledge is something no one can ever steal?”
Yoongi doesn’t speak. He instead closes his eyes and waits, feeling cold, dry lips press to his forehead, wincing when he feels energy drain from his body. When the Devil pulls back, he licks his mouth hungrily, and Yoongi sways from the punch-drunk sensation from the sudden outflow of information.
“Good and gone now?”
Yoongi nods, shutting his eyes.
“Any idea who the Second Supreme is?”
“Not a clue.”
“You’re the Devil, though,” Yoongi points out. “You can take anything you want.”
“Ah, but not without an equal give to compensate for that take. I’m afraid there are other high powers besides me, little friend,” he says. “Those fuckers up there, for example.”
“Oh yeah, them.” Yoongi hesitates. “Actually, I wondered if there was something you could do for me this time.”
The Devil raises his eyebrows.
“Asking favors from me? Brave, you are.” But the Devil is a bargainer, a gambler by nature, unable to back down from challenges like this. “What do you want?”
“If I have given you knowledge, can you keep someone alive?”
“You want me to play God?”
“I guess that’s what I’m asking, huh?”
“Someone,” the Devil repeats, the word slimy on his forked tongue. “Someone special?”
Yoongi shakes his head. “I don’t know who it is. I only know that soon, someone is to join you forever here, during a test of Vitalum Vitalis. What would it take for you to keep him alive?”
The Devil searches Yoongi’s face, a horrible, unctuous smile playing along his mouth. It stretches wider and wider, bordering on a Glasgow grin. “I know which one you speak of, little friend.”
“Will you save him?”
“On how many sins he has over his pretty head,” says the Devil. “And how much you, the deal maker, are willing to fork over.”
“I’d like to to stay alive, thanks.”
“I’m not too picky.”
“I’ll tell you what, mouthy little friend,” says the Devil, “I will grant that request for all the knowledge you have given me. You have paid me handsomely. I’m return I will keep little friend’s little friend alive.”
Yoongi pauses. “Really?”
“At a price to you. But yes, I will.”
Yoongi sighs in relief. “Thank you. Though if you’re going to be expecting monthly debts in the form of child sacrifice from me or something, I’d like a warning before we shake on this.”
“You humans and your obsessions with liabilities and contracts,” the Devil mutters. “No worries, little friend. I won’t be coming up anytime soon to ask you for soul sacrifices. This is a price affecting you and you alone. You don’t need to worry about anyone else.” His eyes, sharp and calculating, dart to a point over Yoongi’s shoulder, and he nods. “Your ride is here.” He sounds disappointed.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, holding his hand out to Yoongi. His figure is a little blurred and dreamy around the edges. “Time to go back, hyung.”
“Why don’t you stay for tea?” the Devil asks. “Awfully rude of you to walk out so many times on me, Taehyung. Especially that time you—”
“Thanks, but we still have unfinished business,” Taehyung says. “And someone is waiting for me to get back soon.”
“Oh! Then don’t keep him waiting,” the Devil calls and Taehyung leads Yoongi away with gentle, firm force. “Goodbye, little friend. I don’t think I will be seeing you for a while. I stood by my decision until the very end, though. You would have made a good Supreme, Yoongi.”
Yoongi whirls, but Taehyung doesn’t let him go, and the Devil is already gone.
But Yoongi feels the darkness slipping out of his fingers like smoke as he wakes. Early dawn is washing over the room, ghostly green-grey through January skies. Yoongi blinks up at the ceiling, sweat beading alone his hairline, before he turns to see Taehyung rustling in his blankets. He lets his hand go, mumbling in his sleep.
“Thanks, kid,” Yoongi mutters, sitting up. Jeongguk teeters on the very edge of the bed, curled at an awkward angle around Taehyung’s body with his shoulders and head pressed against the headboard. Yoongi slips into his shoes and makes sure Jeongguk doesn’t roll off the mattress by pushing him into the center of the bed, which proves to be far harder work than he expects, because Jeongguk is a dead weight. He deems his work done when Taehyung rolls over and into Jeongguk’s chest, throwing an arm over Jeongguk’s middle and latching on tight.
The moment the door clicks shut behind Yoongi, he looks up into Hoseok’s shadowed face and he lets out a shout of surprise.
“Jesus, don’t do that!” he snaps. The wind bites at his cheeks and Yoongi tugs his jacket tighter around himself, crossing his arms and hunching into himself. That trip into Descensum has been the most draining by far; he feels cold and tired and just wants to get back to his own room.
“Did you feel that?”
“The power shift.”
The cruel breeze is cooling the sweat on Yoongi’s forehead. He clears his throat.
“I might have heard about it.”
Hoseok’s eyes widen. “What, you Saw something about it just now?”
“Can we do this in my room?” Yoongi says. “I’d prefer not to freeze my ass to death.”
For weeks now, Yoongi has been sending himself to Descensum to sell what he knew about the Supreme.Every time the Devil gets a little too clingy, which was every time, Taehyung would appear in the blackness, digging deep into death and into Yoongi’s subconscious, pull him back into the world of the living. It’s an inconvenient procedure, since it requires Taehyung to be touching him, which means Yoongi has to sleep in Taehyung’s and Jeongguk’s room and those nights, well. Yoongi has Heard Some Shit, so to speak.
“Isn’t it kind of...awkward?” Hoseok asks as Yoongi unlocks his door.
“I mean,” Hoseok says uncomfortably. “Sleeping in their room. Sleeping in their bed. I thought they were a thing.”
Yoongi laughs dryly. “Trust me, it would be a lot more awkward if you could hear what they’re thinking about each other for twenty-five straight hours a day. But clairvoyants get used to that shit after a while.”
“But isn’t Jeongguk a black widow?”
The keys clatter when Yoongi throws them onto the dresser. “Yeah. So?”
“So...how would they…?”
“You don’t get it, do you,” Yoongi says, slinging an arm over his eyes as he collapses in his unmade bed. “It’s because he’s a black widow that makes it so much worse. Which is hilarious, considering they’d be safe even if they did bang.”
“Wait, how?” Hoseok asks.
“Ugh, Hoseok. I’ll tell you later. Can we stop talking about them?”
“Of course, sorry,” Hoseok says, shaking his head and settling himself down in the worn armchair beside the bed, arranging his expression into one of matronly severity. “About the power shift, though. The electricity literally faltered for a moment and I woke up to see the billboards and shit flickering outside. What the hell happened? What did you See?”
Yoongi groans melodramatically. It is way too fucking early to be play good cop bad cop with Hoseok, but he has to admit that this is important.
“The identity of the Second Supreme has been changed.”
“Wait, shut up. Changed?” Hoseok flails his arms expansively. “As in, it’s not the same person you thought it was?”
“It’s not the same person I knew it was, correct.”
“Damn,” Hoseok says. “That explains the…” He waves his arms again as if batting away giant moths and Yoongi eyes him wearily.
“You can’t feel it?”
“I feel like I’m coming down with pneumonia, Hoseok, thank you.”
“Namjoon told me,” Hoseok says, leaning his elbows on his knees, “that the power of the Supreme is like a spirit, or a soul. It takes residence in the body of the warlock it decides is the most worthy of wielding its power. That’s why the reigning Supreme always begins dying when there is a rising Supreme. That magic is leaking out of their body, transferring to a different one. But now there are two, and if you say the identity has been changed, that sudden…” He pauses. “Who’s to say that there isn’t just magic running rampant among us now?”
“That is a wonderful point. I’m going to ask the others if they feel anything like you said.” Yoongi sits up. “You,” he says, “are impressively intellectual in the early mornings.”
Hoseok smiles. “Why thank you. I try.”
“Okay, now get the fuck out. I am going the fuck back to sleep.”
“Are you serious,” Seokjin says, flicking the light on and off a few times, then rapidly like a club strobe light. “Hey, Park Jimin. It’s past noon, you were supposed to meet the Council today to talk to them about voodoo alchemy.”
Jimin doesn’t budge.
Seokjin means to shout. What he doesn’t mean, however, is for Jimin to quite literally fly out of bed, backward, hitting the opposite wall with a deafening thud and landing in a heap of blankets. When he groans, presumably in pain, Seokjin is still standing in the doorway frozen in shock.
“What the hell, hyung, I heard you the first—wait,” Jimin says blearily, squinting at him as he props himself up. His hair is adorably tousled. “Was that your first successful go with telekinesis?”
“Yeah, it was, but are you okay?” Seokjin says, kneeling down besides Jimin who has a bruise blooming across his shoulder already. “Oh, God, I’m so—I’m so sorry, Jiminie—”
But Jimin is laughing, throwing his arms around Seokjin’s neck—and today, just today maybe, Seokjin feels daring, and hugs Jimin back.
“In that rogue clan are six voodoo masters and four voodoo queens,” Jimin says. He and Seokjin are here, gathered around the dining table of the Wixen Council’s apartment. His fingers are stained with wine and other potions, a mess of drawings and symbols and powders strewn over the roll of parchment paper he taped down to the wood.
“So you can tell the future too?” Donghyuk asks, trying and failing to understand as Jimin draws more lines over the paper, dipping his fingers in his crucibles and cauldron.
“I can’t tell the future, but voodoo is about ritual,” Jimin explains. “Conduct it right and you can craft curses and find out information you need. Like what I’m telling you now.”
“Are we looking at any other human voodoo dolls?” Seokjin asks.
“Most likely,” Jimin says grimly. He wipes his fingertips off in a paper towel. “The chances that a clan of ten voodoos don’t have a doll are very slim.”
“What kind of combative forces do we have,” Hunchul says, frowning. “Let’s see. Two types of Seers, which...only Yoongi could be helpful if he could tell us all the next moves they pull, but that would be impossible for him with twenty voices screaming all around him. Hoseok’s a shapeshifter, so that could be really useful.
“Seokjin, all you would have to do is stand in place and stab yourself,” Hyosang says.
“Thank you, I had no idea.”
“Jimin, I don’t know, could you concoct Molotov cocktails or something?”
Jimin scoffs. “I can do so much worse than that.”
“Taehyung is a necromancer, but he can only bring people back to life, and he told me he refuses to do that for anyone anyway, and Jeongguk can only kill people through—Hoseok, are you okay?”
Pain explodes behind his eyes. It’s all Hoseok can do not to start tearing at his hair, fingers clawing as he falls from his chair and onto the floor, curling into a tight ball. He tightens his hands into fists in the hair at his temples, screaming in the back of his throat at the pain. It feels like a hot, electrocuted rod has been shoved through his head at his temples, sawing back and forth against bone.
“What’s happening?” Jimin asks, voice scared.
“Hoseok,” Seokjin says, and his soft voice makes the pain fade just that much. He pulls Hoseok’s body into his lap. “Hoseok, where does it hurt?”
But Hoseok feels like his entire body is crumbling under the weight of the pain, and all he can do is scrabble blindly for something to hold onto and ground himself. Jimin wraps one of his hands in both of his, squeezing tight, and the Wixen Council hover over him until he’s no longer seizing with agony.
“What was that?” Hunchul asks, eyes wide as Hoseok drops his head back to rest on Seokjin’s shoulder. “Jimin, can voodoo attack from from this far away?”
“They can,” Jimin says. “It get more difficult the farther away, naturally, but if ten of them worked together, they could probably do it. And with great accuracy. But why would they just target—?”
“That was not a voodoo attack,” Hoseok says, panting, a sheen of cold sweat darkening the hair by his ears. He swallows and shakes his head. “I know it wasn’t.”
He shakes his head again. “Have you guys felt a little...weird, lately?” he asks.
The look Jimin exchanges with Seokjin is the only answer he needs.
For example, Jeongguk wakes up shivering every night with no blankets over him, Taehyung swaddled up in a massive burrito. Taehyung is a motionless sleeper while Jeongguk lives up to his sleep-singing, sleep-dancing violence, and Taehyung has to kick him awake in the wee hours of the morning just to get him to lie still. Taehyung also sleeps with his eyes open, which has served to freak the shit out of Jeongguk more than once.
It also makes kissing, turned more, way too easy.
“I think they all know by now,” Taehyung says, slamming the door to their room as Jeongguk surges up behind him, knocking him down onto their rumpled mattress. He laughs, bouncing slightly, as Jeongguk climbs over him on all fours, bending his head to kiss him hard. “We need to stop taking off every time after all the convocation-Council meetings like we got a damn bus to catch.”
“I got a damn hot piece of ass to make out with, same thing,” Jeongguk says, pulling back only tilt his head and kiss Taehyung deeper. “And let’s be brutally honest, I’m at least half convinced Jimin and Seokjin are fucking.”
“True,” Taehyung says. “Do you think Jimin has bomb stroke game? Wait, that’s weird, he’s my best friend.”
“Don’t talk about your best friend when you’re making out with me,” Jeongguk says.
“Yeah, bad idea on my part.”
For a while all they do is make out. It happens in flows and ebbs—sometimes it’s heated and furious, like they’re trying to breathe the fire of each other into their own lungs, and then sometimes it’s lazy, mouthing at each other’s lips and sucking on tips of tongues.
But always, always, without fail, it segues into something more, and that’s when Jeongguk always has to hit the brakes and bring everything to a screeching halt. He hates doing it. He hates himself more for being what he is.
“Stop, stop,” Jeongguk gasps into Taehyung’s mouth, pulling off, pulling Taehyung’s hand out of his shirt. He has to force himself not to whine at the loss of the touch, and Taehyung looks even less pleased, sticking his bottom lip out. He smiles ruefully, kissing the swollen pout. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Taehyung says, running his thumbs over Jeongguk’s cheeks, cradling his face. “We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.”
Jeongguk groans, falling back into the sheets, throwing his arms across his eyes. “That’s the thing Taehyung, it’s not that I don’t want to. Because I do—I want to, I really. I. You have no idea, hyung. It’s that we can’t. If we get too caught up, you know, I don’t want—no. I can’t let it happen.”
His arms are peeled away from his face, and Taehyung is wearing a Cheshire grin.
“No,” Jeongguk moans, shaking his head, rolling onto his side. “Please, don’t do this to me.”
“Does it only happen with genital sex, or any kind of sex?”
Jeongguk separates his arms so that he can peer at Taehyung through the crack between them, making a face.
“What? I had to ask! Like, if it only happens if you take it up the ass, or vice versa…” There’s a gleam in Taehyung’s eyes. Mischievous and pleading. “Well.”
“Y-yeah, actually…I messed around a lot before I met you and...” Jeongguk says, trailing away. He reaches forward, taking Taehyung’s wrist into his hand. “It only happens with genital sex.”
“Do you want to?”
Jeongguk looks up into Taehyung’s face.
“Yes,” he says, voice gravelly.
Taehyung’s face changes, lights up and darkens at the same time. “What do you want to do?”
“I want to,” Jeongguk says, heartrate beginning to quicken at the idea of taking his clothes off for the first time in months, and for Taehyung. “I want you to touch me. Suck me off. I want to touch you—”
Taehyung is amazing with his hands and his mouth. Jeongguk sucks in a breath when Taehyung pulls his pants down enough to get his cock out, licking cheekily up the shaft of it with his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth.
“You’re so hard,” he marvels.
“Take responsibility for it, goddamn,” Jeongguk says, hips jerking as Taehyung presses a kiss to the tip.
“Hang on, I need to let Old Glory breathe,” Taehyung says, slipping off the bed and undoing his own jeans, shimmying them off his legs.
Jeongguk props himself up on his elbows. “Old Glory,” he repeats.
But he stops complaining when Taehyung turns around, climbing back into bed. Jeongguk doesn’t think there’s anything he wants to see more than Taehyung on his knees, legs spread and cock full and hard because he did it, he did that. He doesn’t think there’s anything more beautiful or gorgeous, even though he’s slept around so much and had so many people get on their knees for him that this shouldn’t even be anything of noteworthy significance, but this is Taehyung—Taehyung, who’s at present leaning forward and taking as much of Jeongguk into his mouth as he can.
“Fuck,” Jeongguk whispers, head tipping back, eyes fluttering shut at the perfect heat around his cock, sinking lower, lower, until he feels his head nudge the back of Taehyung’s throat. “Fuck, you’re good, don’t—don’t stop—”
Taehyung’s eyes are dark and hooded when he glances up at Jeongguk, lips stretched around him, bobbing slowly and so painstakingly that it’s all Jeongguk can do not to snap his hips up into Taehyung’s mouth. He doesn’t want him to choke.
The hum of Taehyung’s groans has Jeongguk’s hips jumping, though, and Taehyung struggles to hold him down onto the mattress with his hands, sucking and licking up and down Jeongguk’s shaft until he’s close. Jeongguk is so close, he’s squeezing his eyes shut with the beginnings of fireworks on the backs of his eyelids. Flashes of sparks, nothing more, that fizzle out when the slick heat of Taehyung’s mouth disappears.
“Wh—what, no, don’t stop.”
“You taste so good,” Taehyung moans, the sound making Jeongguk’s cock actually twitch in his hands. “You taste so good, Jeongguk, fuck. I want you in me, I want to feel you in me.”
Jeongguk reaches out, running a hand down Taehyung’s cheek and wiping up the shine of spit on his lower lip. “Don’t beg me like that, you know we can’t,” he says softly, a noise of surprise bubbling up from his stomach when Taehyung sucks his finger into his mouth, eyes full of pleading. “I’m sorry, but we can’t.”
“I know,” Taehyung says, letting Jeongguk’s thumb slip out and leaning forward to kiss him. “I know, but. I want it.”
But they play it safe—they play it alive, as Taehyung goes back down on Jeongguk’s cock, taking him in, consuming him, sucking like there’s nothing more important to him in this world but getting Jeongguk off. He’s unexpectedly talented with his tongue, though Jeongguk realizes that he’s probably not the only one between them that’s messed around. The muscles of his thighs strain as Taehyung runs his hands down from Jeongguk’s bent knees, all the way until they reach Jeongguk’s waist. When Taehyung drags the tip of his tongue over his slit, though, Jeongguk cries brokenly and comes right down Taehyung’s throat, thrusting gently until he pulls back.
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says as he collects himself, pulling Taehyung up to make out with him, tasting himself in Taehyung’s mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I want it as much as you.”
“Shush,” Taehyung says, kissing Jeongguk harder, pressing his lips into his, sucking Jeongguk’s tongue into his own mouth. “Don’t feel bad. It’s okay.”
He says it’s okay because it’s true. If he’s going to date a black widow then he had better damn well be ready for it. Jeongguk knows this, Taehyung always says it right to his face, but both of them can hardly keep their neediness in check every time their clothes come off.
Jeongguk snakes a hand between them, slick with spit and sweat, and jerks Taehyung off until he’s positively moaning into his mouth, hips pressing against Jeongguk’s stomach. It’s not enough friction, not enough heat, but it’s the best they can do—and Jeongguk is already half-hard again at the sensation of Taehyung’s cock dragging up and down his belly, hot and thick and solid. He keens into Jeongguk’s mouth, and then comes all over Jeongguk’s torso, come painting milky white on his skin. Taehyung shakes with the force of his orgasm, shakes against Jeongguk’s body, and then tips them forward with his weight and stretches out on top of him.
“You’re just,” Taehyung says, closing his eyes and kissing Jeongguk again. They both ignore the sensation of come cooling on their bellies, stickiness trapped between their bodies. “I just want you. So much, Jeon Jeongguk, you have no idea.”
“No, I have plenty of ideas,” Jeongguk says, words muffled by Taehyung’s mouth. “More than you know.”
None of which we can try.
One time they cut it too close, almost fuck, seeing as both of them are barely keeping themselves in check. Blowjobs and handjobs can only do so much before they’re seeking something more.
It starts out pretty conventionally. They get back from a convocation meeting and Taehyung gives Jeongguk a fucking wild ride of a blowjob, lightning splitting the darkness inside Jeongguk’s eyelids as Taehyung sucks and teases and edges him until Jeongguk’s thinks he’ll combust, turn into a thousand little particles of stardust. But then it goes too far, farther than Jeongguk should let it—because instead of reciprocating, instead of blowing Taehyung in return, he slicks his hand up and fills Taehyung with one-two-three fingers as he straddles Jeongguk’s lap, rutting onto his hand as he clutches Jeongguk’s shoulders for support. Every time he slams down harder, it’s as if he’s searching for Jeongguk’s cock instead.
“Please,” Taehyung whines, tilting Jeongguk up by the jaw with both hands. He kisses him in earnest, filling Jeongguk’s mouth with his tongue, fingers tangled in sweaty hair. “Please, I just—”
“Jerk yourself off,” Jeongguk says, cutting Taehyung off before he can suggest it again and blur Jeongguk’s better judgment. “Show me how you do it. Show me how you do it when you think about my cock filling you, hyung.”
“Just do it,” Taehyung moans. “Please—give it to me, Jeongguk, please—”
“No. No, I can’t, you know who I am, Taehyung. You know what I am.”
“What if I don’t care?” Taehyung whispers.
“I do,” Jeongguk says. “I want you, but I want you alive more.”
Taehyung sighs, nodding, reaching between their bodies and taking his cock in the tight curl of his palm, stroking himself. Jeongguk teeths a trail of hickeys in the column of Taehyung’s throat, so red and raw and angry that there’s no way that Taehyung’s clothes with be able to hide it.
Come streaks Jeongguk’s belly, as usual, when Taehyung climaxes. He clenches hard around Jeongguk’s fingers, as if to hold him there, the feeling of fullness the closest thing he’ll ever get to Jeongguk’s cock up his ass. But Jeongguk is pulling out, pushing him off, and lies back in the pillows.
“Let me taste you,” he says, letting his mouth hang open, and Taehyung cottons on quickly. He smiles, dropping his head down and licking his own come off Jeongguk’s skin, chuckling when the soft fluttering touch of his tongue makes Jeongguk seize with giggles. He’s so sensitive and ticklish.
Just as Taehyung is within kissing distance, Jeongguk reaches out and pulls him in, lips crashing together. Taehyung slips his tongue in between Jeongguk’s teeth, and there it is—the taste of him on the roof of Jeongguk’s mouth, strong and tangy. They kiss like that, noisily, sloppily, until the bitter taste of Taehyung’s come is nothing more than the soft burning heat of their mouths meeting. Jeongguk can feel a sheen of sweat drying on his chest, but Taehyung ignores it, settling down on top of him with his head nestled into the crook of Jeongguk’s neck.
“You’re heavy, Jesus Christ,” Jeongguk says, rolling onto his side until Taehyung is dumped unceremoniously onto the bed.
Post-coital slumber is creeping over Jeongguk, but he struggles to stay awake because he doesn’t want to be that douchebag that just check out right after sex. Taehyung reaches out, resting a sweaty hand on his cheek.
“Ugh,” he says, no bite in his voice. “You’re damp.”
“I love you.”
Jeongguk opens his eyes, startled. Taehyung is watching him with a soft expression, one that Jeongguk would hate if he had to see it happening in public, but this is Taehyung, in their room, beside him in bed.
“Thank you,” he says expertly, and Taehyung snorts.
“Ah, I do,” he says, getting off the bed and returning with a box of tissues. “Your answer could use a little work, but whatever it is, I do.”
Namjoon’s reaction to the question how do you tell someone you love them? is so painfully typical of him that Jeongguk should have rethought his decision to ask Namjoon of all people.
“Write them a song,” he says, as if this is obvious. Jeongguk stares at him. “Rehearse it, record it, perform it for them.”
Yoongi actually agrees with this with great enthusiasm.
“I don’t know if Taehyung really is the type to enjoy rap,” Jeongguk says haltingly.
“You would be surprised,” Jimin says from his cauldron, ever smoking. “He personally thinks he can rap his sorry little ass off.”
“Why do you ask?” Namjoon asks. “It’s way too early to be planning for Valentine’s Day.”
“It’s not for anything,” Jeongguk grumbles, blushing. “Never mind.”
“I think it’s something you say over time, with lots of things that people don’t think much of,” Seokjin says. “Like, ‘have you eaten yet,’ ‘sleep earlier,’ ‘text me when you’re safe.’ You know? Time is the strongest force in this universe but also the most limited resource we have, and giving your time to someone else, is, well.”
There’s a soft silence between Jimin nods.
“Yeah, deep,” Jeongguk echoes. “I’m looking for something more direct, though.”
“Have you even tried just saying it to his face?”
Jeongguk freezes at this question, and Jimin frowns loudly when he doesn’t answer right away. “You haven’t? Jeongguk, what the hell.”
“I don’t know!” Jeongguk says. “We get—kind of, caught up, in, uh—”
Jimin holds up a hand. “No. Stop. Do not talk to me about anything you guys might have tried. I love myself.”
“You’re a bitch.”
Jimin crosses his arms. “How are you going to sit there and call me a bitch when you’re the one with a boyfriend to whom you can’t even say ‘I love you’?”
Namjoon blows a breath into his fist. “Shots fired, son.”
“But where is the lie,” Jimin says.
“Okay, okay, okay,” Jeongguk says, throwing his hands in the air. “I’ll. Just say it, I guess. I’ll try.”
Namjoon, Seokjin, and Jimin exchange looks between them, and he swears that they are all enjoying this far too much.
“This is so wrong,” Jeongguk moans. Taehyung’s entrance is right there, right in front of him. No, no, no, Taehyung really needs to turn around again so Jeongguk can be distracted by his cock or his mouth or his face. “This is dangerous, hyung, fuck, we shouldn’t—we really shouldn’t.”
“It’ll be good,” Taehyung breathes, looking over his shoulder as he warms up lube between his palms, rubbing his hands together excruciatingly slow. “Just do it, we just won’t go all the way.”
Jeongguk growls in the back of his throat at the flippant cheekiness in Taehyung’s voice, snaking arms around his middle and pulling Taehyung roughly towards him until his back hits Jeongguk’s chest. His cock nudges into the cleft of Taehyung’s ass and the proximity makes Taehyung drop his head back onto Jeongguk’s shoulder, gasping.
“All I would have to do is put it in right now,” Jeongguk says, turning his face ever so slightly so that he can look into Taehyung’s face, eyes hooded and and dark. His voice is so low that Taehyung feels the words more than he hears them. “And it would be over, hyung.”
But then Taehyung is pulling away, leaning down and running his hands up the backs and insides of his thighs. He does it until they’re slick and shiny with lube, and pitches forward to rest on hands and knees. Now the sight is even more enticing, and Jeongguk knows that Taehyung can see him struggling, tongue darting out to lick his lips.
“Come on,” Taehyung says. “I’m waiting.”
Jeongguk shuts his eyes, controls his breathing. The light pleasant scent of the lube is pounding in his temples but when he reaches forward, he fits his cock in between Taehyung’s legs, pushing his thighs together tight so there’s friction.
“Pussy,” Taehyung teases, and Jeongguk rams between his legs so hard that Taehyung’s ass is going to bruise to shut him up.
But today Jeongguk is inexplicably on the brink, teetering on the edge with only three, four, five thrusts and thinks again, of the sensation of almost being buried in Taehyung’s ass, and comes all over the underside of Taehyung’s cock. That’s all it takes for Taehyung to shudder apart under him, completely untouched.
They don’t talk about how dangerously close they cut it and Jeongguk decides now is not the best time to bring up love.
“If you’re going to think that goddamn loudly, can you at least get a room?”
Yoongi doesn’t sound all too displeased, just tired. Well, maybe he’s a little annoyed, but Jeongguk can’t truly tell with the way Yoongi has his eyes trained on his laptop, headphones clamped over his ears. Jeongguk blushes down to his chest and berates himself, forgetting too often that Yoongi can see and hear everything he’s thinking.
But in his defense, last night was the first night he and Taehyung went to third-and-a-half base since the time Jeongguk had fucked his thighs. Neither of them brought it up again, and had spent all the nights afterwards being painfully platonic, kisses going no farther than necks and falling asleep clothed.
It would be just like the curse to make his lust worse around someone he actually—well. Someone he actually likes spending time with.
And last night Jeongguk had pulled Taehyung into their room and pinned him against the door. Taehyung let him, pliant under his hands, until Jeongguk slid down his body and onto his knees. The room was dark, evening rolling in as the afternoon sunlight fled in orange-pink-purple flocks birds from the sky, and he had watched Taehyung unbuckle his pants, take himself out with slow measured movements, the clink of his belt buckle loud.
The thud of his head against the door was loud as Jeongguk raised himself up just as leisurely, taking his cock into his mouth and sucking slow. Neither of them spoke, and Taehyung’s head rolled to the side as he slid fingers into the hair at the crown of Jeongguk’s head.
Jeongguk hoped it didn’t come off like an apology, because he knew Taehyung was always flinging them back into his face, swallowing up his words and spitting them back down his throat. Not your fault, not your fault, not not not. It was his mantra. You love me the only way you know how. Love me like a black widow and I’ll love you like a necromancer.
When he pulled back to give the swollen head of Taehyung’s cock a kiss, he came, sticky and hot all over Jeongguk’s mouth. Some it of ran down the swell of Jeongguk’s lower lip, trailed in rivulets out of the corners of his mouth, dripped down his chin.
Taehyung slid down the door, until he sat in front of Jeongguk and wiped his mouth off with his sleeve and a faint smile on his face, leaning forward to kiss him.
“Please,” Yoongi protests again, covering his eyes with a hand and Jeongguk drops his face into his own hands in shame. “I’m begging you, Jeon Jeongguk.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says, cheeks burning. He shovels the rest of his congee into his mouth and makes to stand up. “I”m leaving.”
“Look, I’ve got something to tell you.”
Jeongguk looks up with his mouth full, then swallows. “Me?”
“Yes, you, A-Cock-47,” Yoongi says, and Jeongguk feels rice go down the wrong pipe as he chokes. “God, I can’t believe I’m letting the others win this bet. Motherfuck. Seokjin is going to rip me a new asshole.”
“Bet.” Jeongguk crosses his arms. “You guys have a bet.”
“He’ll have to split with Namjoon and Jimin,” Yoongi says. “Yes, a bet. Two hundred thousand won as of today says you and Taehyung fuck after finding out that it’s safe. Seokjin and I called the opposing side. Two hundred thousand won saying that you guys would just go for it and find out that way. Namjoon threw in in the former plus if you guys did it before the Second Supreme is crowned.”
“Find out...what,” Jeongguk asks with narrowed eyes. “What do you mean, safe.”
Yoongi sighs. “Jeongguk. What does the black widow curse do?”
“It kills everyone I have sex with,” Jeongguk answers.
“What does something have to be in order for it to die?”
Jeongguk blinks. “Living?” he guesses.
“Correct,” Yoongi says, making a finger gun at him. “And what is Taehyung.”
“I don’t follow. He is also living?”
“He’s animate, yeah, but is all of him really here?”
“Well,” Jeongguk thinks. No, not really. Not with the way Taehyung can never taste any of the amazing things Seokjin cooks them, or that time Jimin came home with handful of free flowers from the vendor that had said he was cute, and Taehyung hadn’t been able to smell them at all. “I guess not. But I don’t get what you’re trying to say here, hyung.”
“Hmm. Think of it this way. What do you call something that comes back to life after death?”
“Undead,” Jeongguk finishes.
“There you go,” Yoongi finishes, sweeping a hand out in a flourish. “You, my friend, might be a black widow, but you also happened to choose perhaps the one and only person in this sorry little world that can survive that curse. It’s like it’s meant to be.”
“Are you—you’re serious. Seriously?”
“Seriously. So now you and Taehyung can fuck to your hearts’ contents, and maybe I can get a little peace around here, because I am tired of living in a 24/7 porno.”
The world is spinning under him, like Jeongguk’s had way too much to drink and his head is buzzing. “Wait,” he says as Yoongi moves to slide his headphones on again, “how can you be sure? It’s not like this is something we can test.”
“Jeongguk. Why the fuck would I lose at my own bet just to fuck around with you?”
Jeongguk crosses his arms, frowning, getting only an eyeroll in response.
“You,” Yoongi says simply, “clearly did not do your homework on voodoo magic.”
“Well hello,” he says, as Jeongguk’s eyes fall upon the approximate six dozen levitating pieces of popcorn in the air, and then on Taehyung who waves from Seokjin’s primly made bed. “Would you like to join us? We’re watching Insidious and laughing at everything.”
“You mean I’m watching it and laughing at you crying every two minutes,” Taehyung corrects, navigating fluffy little pieces of popcorn through the air so that they drop into his waiting mouth.
“Yeah, well,” Jimin said defensively. “Hoseok’s been in the bathroom since the first ten minutes of the movie.”
“Yeah, what a pussy.”
“Fuck you, son!” Hoseok shouts, voice muffled.
“What’s the big fuss,” Jimin asks, plucking popcorn from the air. “You look like you know who the Second Supreme is.”
“Well,” Jeongguk begins, suddenly extremely embarrassed in the presence of Taehyung, “Uhm, I had a question. A request.”
Jimin’s eyebrows disappear into his bangs. “You have a request to make of me? Incredible. What is it?”
“Yoongi hyung says you’re good at alchemy.”
“I’m a voodoo master,” Jimin sniffs. “What do you want? All the water I’ve turned into vodka tastes horrible, so unless you’re really good at taking low quality alcohol, don’t try.”
“I know voodoo does rituals,” Jeongguk flushes, “For, like. Sex.”
Taehyung’s eyes go wide and Jimin literally crows at the top of his lungs, slapping his thigh.
“I cannot believe you have the face to ask me of all the hyungs!” he shouts. “I cannot believe—”
“Shut the fuck up, oh my God—I will kill you, Jimin, shut the fuck up—”
“How, huh? You gonna stick your dick in me?” Jimin shouts in his face, leaping to his feet on his bed and jumping, knocking popcorn onto the ground. “Guess who gets sixty-six thousand won! Suck it! Suck it, Yoongi hyung!”
“Wait, we won?” Hoseok calls from the bathroom, opening the door with his phone in hand. “Is the movie playing?”
“No, the movie is not playing. Who’s getting sixty-six thousand tonight? THAT’S RIGHT, IT ME.”
“It us,” Hoseok corrects.
“Wait,” Taehyung says, sitting up. “What the hell is going on.”
“What Jeongguk is essentially asking me,” Jimin says, voice still full of mirth, “is to prove whether or not you guys can actually fuck without you dying.”
“I swear I—” Jeongguk begins weakly.
“How is that even possible,” Taehyung asks, unfazed by this line of conversation while Jeongguk stares up at the ceiling and wonders if it’s amoral to use concilium on Jimin right now to hit himself over the head with the lamp. “Black widows kill anything they have sex with.”
“They kill anything alive,” Jimin clarifies, echoing Yoongi. “And you’re not exactly that. But don’t take it from me, listen to the alchemy and let it speak for itself. Hyung, can you hand me my backpack?”
The briefcase Jimin pulls out of his backpack is torn and battered around the edges like it’s seen rougher days. The contents rattle as he take it out, pushing his bag, followed with bits of popcorn, onto the floor. Hoseok makes a face, bending down to clean it up.
Jimin has had this briefcase since the moment his parents knew he was a voodoo master like they were. Over the years, he replaced the supplies as they ran out, getting nicer and higher-quality vials and bottles as he got better at alchemy. He holds the wineskin up to his ear and shakes it. There can’t be much left—just enough, if he’s lucky.
“What are you doing?” Jeongguk asks as Taehyung stares at both him and Jimin dumbly, speechless.
“Ritual for sexual compatibility. It has one hundred percent accuracy like most things in voodoo but I’ve never done this for two guys, so shush and just do as I tell you to and let me concentrate,” Jimin says, setting a cauldron between his legs and dumping the remainder of the wine into the well. Jeongguk shrinks away, and Taehyung reaches out for his hand. Jimin notices the way Jeongguk doesn’t shake him off like he does for everyone else, letting Taehyung pull him close. They whisper to each other, Jeongguk doing a lot of frowning and eyebrow furrowing.
Jimin wishes Seokjin were here just for this. It’s easier when he can get him to hand him things as opposed to groping blindly in the briefcase for his glass bottles and tubes, and Jimin does not trust any of the warlocks around it. Dark purple smoke wafts out of the mouth of the cauldron as Jimin scatters the last few ingredients into the pot and then ladles it carefully into a vial, the inside of the glass fogging up.
“I need you to prick your finger,” he says, holding out his hand for Taehyung’s. He doesn’t even wince as Jimin sticks a needle into index finger and holds it over the rim of the vial until a drop of blood runs down the glass. Jeongguk offers his finger too, unnaturally still as Jimin pricks his skin gently. Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s wrist when he’s done, pressing his lips to the puncture wound and licking across it.
“Gross, that’s unsanitary,” Jimin murmurs, swilling the vial until Jeongguk’s blood meets the rest of the solution. When it does, the mixture bubbles violently, some of it spilling over the edge and onto Jimin’s hand. When the bubbles clear, all there’s left in the bottle and on his skin is a thick golden ooze, and he holds it up to eye level.
“Is that a good sign?” Jeongguk asks warily.
“Well, it’s nothing I’ve ever actually seen,” Jimin admits. He runs his fingers through it; it has the color and consistency of honey. “Just between us, I used to do these rituals in back alleys for couples who were going to rough patches in their marriages, and the results I got were ranges of tar to water or, if they were honestly really compatible, it reverted back into wine.”
Taehyung and Jeongguk stare at him.
“Don’t believe me, right? Jeongguk, give me your finger again, I’ll show you what happens if we mix you and me.”
Jimin scoops the rest of the concoction into an empty vial as Jeongguk obliges, followed by Jimin, who cringes when he drives the needle into his finger. The moment his blood hits the liquid in the vial, it smokes slightly and settles—with far less of a show than the first.
“Stick your hand in that and tell me what it is,” Jimin says, holding the flask out, and Jeongguk reaches in apprehensively. He pulls back after his fingertips dip into it, rubbing them together. A long, thick string of it drips from his hand and Jimin just barely catches it in the flask before it stains the bedsheets.
“Blood,” Jeongguk says. “It’s blood.”
“You bet that’s blood, and we’d see a lot more of it if you and I ever got down and dirty,” Jimin says.
The same results come up when they try it with Hoseok’s blood, and the uncertainty in Jeongguk’s face is morphing something more like giddy elation. Taehyung’s eyes are glinting, understanding leaking into his features when Seokjin comes home from his date with the Wixen Council and is strongarmed into donating blood for the cause as well.
“I’m going to kill Yoongi,” he laments as Jimin holds up the fourth vial of the ritual, blood staining the bottom. “I just got my paycheck today. Kitchen work is thankless and painful.”
Jeongguk stares into Jimin’s face with huge eyes as he cleans up the mess, dropping all the glass flasks into the cauldron to wash later. He smiles crookedly.
“It’s okay, you know. Voodoo doesn’t lie about shit like this. We wouldn’t lie about this, either. Yoongi hyung is the human personification of a lemon but he just wants you guys to be happy. I don’t know how you did it, but by some ungodly stroke of luck, you two found each other.”
They walk hand in hand. Both of them are wordless, neither of wanting to break the thick, bated silence. The distant roar of traffic mutes when Jeongguk shuts the door behind them, leans back against it on his hands.
“Who told you?”
Jeongguk looks up.
“Did you know?”
“I didn’t,” Taehyung says. “But how do you?”
“Apparently, they all did,” Jeongguk says, dropping his face into his hands. “Yoongi knew, I’m guessing Namjoon knew—they’re the old hands at this and they know so much more than any of us, I can’t believe—”
Jeongguk’s head hits the door when Taehyung kisses him. And finally Jeongguk can just give in, let down the steel restraints. When Taehyung presses a thigh between his Jeongguk wraps his legs around it and ruts down until Taehyung laughs, pulling away.
“Slow down,” he says. “We finally get to do this and you’re going to get off like that?”
The last time Jeongguk stripped down this fast was during a school theater production, between costume changes, and ever then his shirt had gotten caught on his chin. He reaches back and yanks his tshirt over his head, letting it pool on the floor, and Taehyung is already working at his pants.
“How the fuck are you so fast,” Jeongguk asks.
But all Taehyung does is wink at him, tip of his tongue sticking out in concentration. The second Taehyung gets his pants down to his ankles, though, Jeongguk is yanking him up and pinning him into the mattress, stretching out his body against the length of Taehyung’s.
“Jesus,” Taehyung says, out of breath. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
“Objection,” Jeongguk says, pushing Taehyung’s legs apart so he can settle between them. “You are the only person in the world who’s not going to be the death of me.”
Taehyung laughs breathlessly. “Aren’t you a syntactical genius.”
Jeongguk shifts on his knees, spreading them slightly so he can lower himself with ease. Taehyung watches him sink down, leaning back with a gaze so intense that Jeongguk hasn’t the slightest idea how he didn’t realize that Taehyung’s sightlessness had been a ruse in the beginning. He bends his knees so that his feet are planted against the mattress, inhaling sharply when Jeongguk’s lips brush across the head of his cock.
“Don’t tease,” he grits out, when Jeongguk does nothing but kiss the head of his cock. “Don’t, we can actually fuck and you’re going to—fuck, come on, don’t—”
Jeongguk chuckles, a scoff. Then he sinks down, slowly, flattens his tongue and runs it over the underside of his cock. He looks up through his lashes, at the way Taehyung’s head drops back and the rippling of the muscles in his neck when he gasps.
“Hey, look at me,” Jeongguk says, pulling off, and Taehyung whines. “I want to see your face.”
Taehyung looks wrecked when he brings his face back down, cheeks dusted pink, his bottom lip sucked in between his teeth and Jeongguk can’t take his eyes off his expression. His hands are still holding Taehyung’s erection still and steady, cock heavy and thick between his fingers.
“Sorry, sorry,” Taehyung breathes. “Sorry, it’s just, I haven’t. This feels different.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, voice cracking when he realizes what this implies. “Oh, can you—?”
Taehyung doesn’t answer, instead reaching out and sliding his fingers into Jeongguk’s hair, rubbing across his scalp. “Warm,” he says. “You feel warm. I can feel you, under my hands. It’s real.”
And Jeongguk goes back down on him, earnestly, enthusiastically, bobbing his head up and down hard and letting the moans tickle the shells of his ears. Taehyung’s grasp loosens and tightens, pain pricking every time his fist clenches in Jeongguk’s hair.
“Get off, get off,” he says, and Jeongguk does, sitting back. Taehyung props himself up on one hand and uses the other to pull Jeongguk in, mouths crashing together. They collapse in a heap when Taehyung lets his hand give out under him.
It feels like they spend hours just kissing. Taehyung scratches at the slopes of Jeongguk’s shoulders. He leaves thick lines of white where his nails drag across Jeongguk’s skin, chokes into his mouth when Jeongguk slides a thigh between Taehyung’s. He bucks up against it, rutting until he’s breaking away from Jeongguk’s lips to pant against his cheek. They’ve been holding off on this for ages, whole lifetimes, and now finally—finally, they can have this.
“Can I,” he asks, voice broken and unsteady, “can I have you from behind?”
“You can have me any way you want,” Jeongguk replies, immediately blushing when he says the words, and Taehyung eyes him with a disbelieving grin spreading across his face. “Ugh, no, stop. Stop. No, don’t look at me like that.”
But Jeongguk is already pulling away as he says it, frowning when he sits back on his heels and watches Taehyung rummage for condoms and lube.
“Do you still need those?”
Taehyung stares at him, hand halfway between the nightstand and the bed. “You want me to take you dry?” he asks incredulously.
“No!” Jeongguk says. “No, I meant...do you still need condoms? I—I mean. You’re not...technically all here, right, it’s not—or. Does it work that way?”
A glint swims into Taehyung’s eyes. “You want me to fuck you without one?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I want you to feel as much as you can.”
“You want to know a secret?” Taehyung says, sweeping the condoms off the blankets in one stroke, not meeting Jeongguk’s gaze. “It’ll be okay. Because I...might’ve fooled around a lot before Resurging, but you’re the first person I’ve ever slept with.”
Jeongguk feels heat flush through his body. He reaches forward, tipping Taehyung’s chin up so he can kiss him, reaching for the lube and squeezing some into his own hand. Taehyung keens, breaking away, when Jeongguk slicks him up, palms warming the lube.
The bed creaks when they shift positions. The snap of the lube cap is loud even over Taehyung’s ragged breathing. He shivers when Taehyung’s hand ghosts over his hip, sliding down to slick the lube into his entrance.
“Relax, you’re so tense,” Taehyung murmurs, stroking a hand up and down the side of Jeongguk’s thigh.
There’s no good way to tell Taehyung that even after all this time, even with the guarantee he won’t be hurt, the image of blood on the bed haunts Jeongguk’s nightmares. More than anything he’s scared it will happen to Taehyung—his Taehyung, the only one who would ever survive the curse unscathed. They’ve toed where they thought was an edge for so long yet now that they know there is no imminent death on the horizon, Jeongguk is afraid.
But Jeongguk lets the feeling of Taehyung sliding a second, then a third finger into him distract him, groaning, dropping his head low, until he’s ramming himself back onto Taehyung’s fingers.
Jeongguk nods, air burning in his lungs, sweat dripping from his chin. Taehyung holds Jeongguk’s waist tight in his hands, pulling him in close and lining the cleft of Jeongguk’s ass up with his crotch. His grip is hard and bruising, fingertips pressing pale white imprints in the crests of Jeongguk’s hips. A whimper slips out from between Jeongguk’s lips, and Taehyung leans down and drops a ghost of a kiss on his tailbone.
“It’ll be okay,” he says, stroking a soft hand up the valley of Jeongguk’s spine. “I’ll be okay. Relax, babe, relax.”
Jeongguk just curls his fingers into the blankets under him tighter. “Do it,” he chokes. “Do it, I want to feel you in me. I want you to feel—”
His words break there, falling off the edge of his tongue unspoken when Taehyung ruts in, cock filling Jeongguk, so thick and tight that all he can do is to try to tamp down the broken cry in the back of his throat. Both of them are frozen where they are, Taehyung choking slightly at the impossible tight heat, Jeongguk feeling so full that his breath is congealed in his lungs.
Then Taehyung draws away, slams back in, and Jeongguk cries out.
“Make all the noise you want,” Taehyung grits out. “I want to hear it.”
Taehyung can’t stop touching Jeongguk, mapping the expanse of his back, fingers tracing the outline of the fiery red hourglass. From day one Taehyung has had roaming hands on Jeongguk, touching him more than he needed to, pressing his body against his until there was nothing more than the vibrations of their heartbeats between them. Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut as Taehyung drives into him, breathless, and thinks that after such a long time in a place with no feeling, coming back to this side of the world must have been an unfriendly shock.
But if Jeongguk can make Taehyung feel again, he’d do anything.
“Are you okay?” Taehyung asks then, slowing down, and Jeongguk opens his eyes. He wants Taehyung to keep going, not stop never stop, make him forget—but the words are tumbling out before he can swallow them back down.
“I can’t believe this is real,” Jeongguk mutters, and chokes a little on his own breath when Taehyung leans closer to hear him, his cock sinking deeper as he does. “I can’t believe this is real, you’re here, you’re intact and fine and—last time I was in this place someone died and I thought that was it, I could never do this or make anyone feel good like this ever again, and—”
And Taehyung is pulling out, the solid heat of his body melting away. Jeongguk thinks he should be ashamed of the needy whine that he makes but Taehyung is flipping him over, rolling him until his back is on the mattress and Jeongguk is splayed out underneath him. The light is dim and Jeongguk wonders how much of his own face Taehyung can actually see, but then he’s smiling faintly and running his fingers through Jeongguk’s bangs, slicked wet with sweat.
“Shh,” he whispers, “I’m right here. I’m not going to bleed out on you. I’ve survived fires, I think I’m too hardy for a few killer genitals to have any effect on me.”
“Please stop talking,” Jeongguk says, panting, chest rising and falling, cock still standing stubbornly at attention and waiting. He lets his eyelids flutter shut, waits for Taehyung to take him all the way again, when he feels Taehyung’s hands close around the wrist that rests beside Jeongguk’s head. At first he thinks Taehyung will pin them back, but all he does is run his thumb across the heady, thrumming pulse just under the thin skin. It isn’t until Jeongguk feels lips there that his eyes fly open.
“What are you doing?” he demands.
“Smelling you,” Taehyung says, gaze hooded, lost in the scent of Jeongguk’s skin. “You have so much...life in you, it’s amazing. And beautiful. So beautiful.”
Jeongguk squirms, supporting himself on shaky elbows before sitting up completely. Taehyung sits back on his haunches as he does, so slowly, like both of them are afraid that any sudden movements are going to break this delicate, fleeting moment that neither of them have been caught in for a long time.
“How much do I make you feel?” Jeongguk whispers, hands on Taehyung’s shoulders, thumbs pressing into his collarbones. He’s so close he can feel the wet heat of every exhale Taehyung breathes against his mouth.
Taehyung closes his eyes. His world becomes tactile, and for once, he really is as blind as he once pretended to be. Jeongguk watches, waits for him to reply, but he simply leans forward until their lips are barely brushing and murmurs,
“Alive. You make me feel alive again.”
They kiss. As desperate as the heat of this moment might be, what with Jeongguk’s boner digging into Taehyung’s stomach and Taehyung’s still-slick cock pushing against his, it’s a slow burn. They kiss and it might not be so different for Jeongguk but for Taehyung, this is the only time he can taste, smell, feel pleasure, feel pain. Jeongguk slides a hand down his chest, until his palm rests right over the spot where Taehyung’s heart is and it glugs erratically beneath his touch. He pulls back.
“It usually doesn’t stutter this much,” Taehyung says when Jeongguk presses his palm flatter against his sternum, eyes wide, and he shivers. “It only does that around you.”
Jeongguk own heart skips a beat the words. He turns his face to hide the blush, instead dropping his hand, letting it fall, and wraps his fingers around Taehyung’s erection, pumping until Taehyung is tipping his head back and batting his hand away.
“Lie back,” he says, words muffled against Jeongguk’s mouth when surges forward to kiss him again.
Jeongguk feels the heat in his face spike again when Taehyung slides back in, easy and unresisted. He reaches out, helplessly, scrabbling for contact. Taehyung is never one to back down from that, and laces his fingers through Jeongguk’s, pinning them over his head. It’s so hard to keep his eyes open. The feeling of Taehyung inside him has all his nerves crackling like they’re livewired open circuits. The only thing he can do is blindly crane his head up and nuzzle into Taehyung’s face until he finds his lips and kiss him again.
Jeongguk manages to wriggle one hand free from Taehyung’s grasp, and hooks it around the back of Taehyung’s neck. He strains his body upward, pushing the both of them upright, whimpering into Taehyung’s mouth when he’s jostled in his seat. When he gets used to the angle, arms still looped loosely around Taehyung’s shoulders, he takes in his face, just as slick with sweat and flushed as his own.
“What?” Taehyung asks, trying to smile up at him, but too breathless to really get all the way there. Jeongguk wraps his arms tighter around him, until they’re chest to chest and his erection is caught between their bellies.
“Nothing, just fuck me, hyung,” he mumbles into the skin of Taehyung’s shoulder.
And he does. He shifts so that there’s some leverage to snap his hips up to meet Jeongguk slamming himself down. Jeongguk threads his fingers into the hair at the back of Taehyung’s head, clutching hard, like a lifeline, choking when he feels Taehyung sucking deep red blooms of hickeys into his shoulder.
Like the first time, the words come tumbling out unplanned.
“Hyung,” he breathes. “Hyung, you know—ah, ah—you know, you know that I love you, right?”
Jeongguk is burning through his quota of embarrassing words today like a damn wildfire, and shuts himself up by biting down into the junction between Taehyung’s neck and shoulder. At the words,Taehyung slows, imperceptibly, before picking up his pace again and thrusting hard and deep into him.
“I know,” he grinds out, and Jeongguk whimpers in his ear. “I know you do, I—”
Taehyung shakes against him, hands so tightening around Jeongguk’s ribs so much that he can hardly breathe. He clenches hard, milking Taehyung dry, sinking down and lifting himself up slowly until Taehyung keens and locks him in place. Jeongguk lets him do what he wants, knows that Taehyung must love the feeling—one of the only things he can feel.
He lays Jeongguk down on the bed, stretching out beside him, resting his temple on a fist and closing the other one around Jeongguk’s cock. He pumps lazily, leisurely, at first, Jeongguk shuddering and grabbing at it too, but Taehyung swats his hand away. Instead, Jeongguk just reaches up, yanks Taehyung’s face down to make out with him, feel his lips on his.
“I love you,” Taehyung murmurs into his mouth. “I love you, I love you, I love you—I love—”
Jeongguk’s body tenses under Taehyung’s touch and he comes, pleasure cresting down his body in waves and he has to physically hold onto him, blinking feverishly through slitted eyes up at Taehyung, who just smiles down at him. Taehyung strokes the head of his cock absently until Jeongguk has come all the way down from his high, hips jumping at the overstimulation until he pulls Taehyung’s hand away and anchors it to his chest, breath coming out in ragged pants. Sleep is washing over him already and Taehyung’s body is so warm.
“If this is a dream, I’m going to falcon punch whoever wakes me up,” Jeongguk slurs, snuggling into Taehyung’s chest and breathing him in. “Damn.”
Taehyung kisses the tip of his nose. Jeongguk wrinkles his face. All through childhood he was made fun of for it, but Taehyung doesn’t seem to care. Seems to love it, even. Jeongguk dares to let himself hope.
“Not a dream,” he singsongs, voice like a lullaby. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The rejection letter is heavy in Jeongguk’s hands, the paper stiff and cold as a body. His surroundings are tinted blue and unfriendly, a lone student sitting in a plastic chair and surrounded by empty desks.
To Jeon Jeongguk,
It is with great sorrow that we must inform you that we cannot accept you for the 2015 - 2016 school year. This does not mean, however, that this is the end of your educational career.
The words get harder to read. They shuffle around on the page by themselves, strokes and characters sliding off the paper, dancing in the margins, rearranging to make new sentences.
This does mean, however, that you are a complete, utter failure; you were a fool to apply for our school in hopes of receiving an acceptance. You have never been special or talented in anything, your incompetence crippling and shameful, and would never amount to anything in our institution anyway—
“Your brother was always our biggest hope,” and there his parents are, his father with an arm around his mother’s shoulder. His face is steely, and she shakes her head and doesn’t even look at him, as if too ashamed. “We never thought you would be anything worth raising.”
“No,” Jeongguk protests, reaching out, but they fade away only to be replaced by his dance teachers, the mentors that had always believed the most in him no matter what happened, and all they can do is shake their heads, too. “No, please, don’t do this—”
And Jeongguk’s breath freezes in his lungs when Taehyung melts out of the darkness, standing in front of his desk and Jeongguk looks into his face. It’s never been colder, more closed off, eyes as black as Jeongguk imagines the other side is from his stories.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk says, reaching out for Taehyung’s hand, voice breaking when Taehyung jerks away from him. “Hyung, don’t be like—”
“You’re going to live with that black widow curse forever, not that I never loved you anyway,” Taehyung says, voice flat and colorless as their surroundings. “You were an idiot to think I did.”
A dark figure looms up behind Taehyung’s head—a beautiful figure with ashen wings, a man with silky black hair and red, red eyes in a pale face. He looks down, down, down into Jeongguk’s eyes and he feels his soul being shaken by the roots.
Suddenly a force like being hit by a car slams into Jeongguk and he jolts. The images turn into a muddled, milky dark pink and his body is wrapped in a warmth so perfect that he thinks that whatever this is, it’s at least better than—
“Hey,” comes a soft, hoarse voice. “Hey, Jeongguk-ah. You’re dreaming.”
Sunlight streams in through a harsh slice of open curtain, stinging Jeongguk’s eyes when he cracks them open and the last tendrils of gripping fear melt away when reality swims back into Jeongguk’s consciousness.
Taehyung. Taehyung’s body against his, chest pressed to his back, legs tangled with Jeongguk’s. One of his arms is wound snugly around Jeongguk’s waist. A thick blanket is draped over them.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, and shivers even though it’s so nice and warm. He turns his head slightly, but his neck is stiff and sore, and only gets there halfway. Taehyung’s lips brush against his ear. “Oh, you’re here. Oh, God.”
“Where else would I be?”
“That wasn’t a dream,” Jeongguk says, wriggling out of Taehyung’s grasp and tossing onto his side so he can press his face into Taehyung’s neck. “Fuck. Fuck, I think I went into Descensum. That was definitely Descensum.”
Taehyung is quiet. “You’ve never been down there, huh?” he asks after a heartbeat, and Jeongguk nods mutely. “Oh, no. What was it? What did you see?”
“I was a failure,” Jeongguk mumbles. “Everyone I cared for said I was nothing.”
Taehyung seems to sense the unfinished end of Jeongguk’s words. “Is that all?”
“I was there?”
“Yeah, you were. You said that I—that I...”
Jeongguk trails off, Taehyung’s Adam’s apple bobbing against his cheekbone when he swallows, and lets the feeling chase away the doubt.
“Let me guess. I said I didn’t love you? That I didn’t want you?”
Jeongguk nods again.
“If anything happens,” Taehyung says, “anything at all, just know that in this life, in any life, probably even in the life before I knew you, I loved you, Jeon Jeongguk.”
It was Taehyung’s idea, naturally, and considering Yoongi neither convicted nor condoned it, nothing stopped him from dragging Jeongguk into the fray. Both of them are just lucky that Seokjin is too nice and soft to bash their skulls in on each other’s heads.
“We still have to talk to the Council tonight,” Jimin says with a massive yawn, arm hooked around Seokjin’s. The plastic bags with their takeout boxes rustle in the wind. “I just want to eat and go to sleep.”
“You got up at two in the afternoon today,” Seokjin says, scandalized. “How are you so exhausted?”
“I’ve had to try getting you to learn all Seven Wonders every day!”
“Then shouldn’t I be the one that’s tired,” Seokjin says, and Jimin wrinkles his nose.
“Hurry up, it’s cold,” he mutters, and Seokjin knows he’s won this round, searching in his pocket for the keys to their room. The wind blusters past them, lifting their hair, and Jimin is wearing nothing but thin sweater, so he presses in close to Seokjin’s side until he finally gets the door open.
Seokjin walks in, toeing his shoes off, and just as he sets down his food and keys on the dresser, he hears a plasticky snap and a tiny, “Boo.”
Jimin screams, and Seokjin makes to turn around but the sound tunnels into his brain and makes his temples pound. Piercing pain punctures both his ears. He sees Jeongguk in his field of vision, blurry, singed red on the edges, and Jeongguk looks almost as mad as him—eyes hazy and wild.
And deep, deep down in Seokjin’s gut, there is a sudden, terrible jolt of bloodlust. His hands move of their own accord, reaching out, and Jeongguk’s neck looks so frail—
But just as fast as it comes, though, it disappears.
Jimin has both hands clapped over his mouth.
“What the fuck was that?” Taehyung says, beside Jeongguk in the darkest corner of the room. He shakes his head like a dog ridding water after a bath. Seokjin flicks the lights on, and Jeongguk switches off the flashlight he had evidently been holding under his chin. “Jimin, what the hell did you do just now?”
“I don’t know!” Jimin cries. “Holy shit, I’ve only—are you guys okay?”
“That was something else,” Seokjin says, rubbing his eyes. “Did you guys feel that too?”
“If by that you mean the inexplicable urge to kill the nearest living thing, then yes,” Taehyung says. “Sorry, Jeongguk-ah.”
“Oh,” Jimin squeaks. “Oh, is that what you felt?”
Seokjin raises his eyebrows. “What, were we supposed to see fireworks and light shows snd shit?” he asks.
“No! No, I’m saying that if the sound of my screaming made you guys feel that,” Jimin says, “that’s a—that’s a voodoo ability, it’s a war cry, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.”
“It’s supposed to make people want to kill everything,” Jeongguk clarifies.
“You have a war cry,” Taehyung says. “Why did I never know this?”
“I don’t know.” Jimin looks troubled. “It’s never happened before now. Maybe that’s why I’m so tired.”
“This might be something you want to tell the Council about,” Seokjin says. “Later tonight. Because it sounds like it could do some serious damage if you can make it work in our favor.”
“Wait, try it again,” Taehyung says, eyes wide, and Jimin is already sucking air into his lungs when Seokjin pulls Jimin to his side and slaps a hand over his mouth.
“Let’s not play with death more than necessary,” Seokjin says, Jimin struggling to peer up at Seokjin out of the corner of his eyes, and Taehyung sagely agrees.
The meeting with the Wixen Council and the convocation that night is oddly formal and official, all of them sitting down at the round table in the Council’s apartment.
“I think you elbowed me in the crotch,” Taehyung complains as they take the elevator upstairs. Squeezing into Hunchul’s car all together had been unnecessarily difficult, Seokjin taking shotgun, the youngest two and Yoongi sitting in the back, and Jimin splayed out over all three of their laps. “I don’t understand why we couldn’t have just taken the bus.”
“I’m not a middle-class, stay-at-home dad,” Hunchul says. “It’s not like I own an eight-person minivan. Besides, you guys won’t even be here for much longer.”
Seokjin raises his eyebrows. “Why won’t we?”
This question isn’t answered until they get inside the apartment, Donghyuk and Hyosang already seated. Even Taehyung is quiet as they settle in, and when everyone is comfortable, Hunchul leans forward onto his elbows.
“Yoongi and Hoseok estimate that they’re not going to wait past this month to start coming after us in earnest,” he begins. “They know we’ve grown in numbers. They don’t need to follow us around to know that we have. That’s the advantage they have over us. Voodoo rituals,” he looks to Jimin, who nods, “can tell them all of that and more.”
“Well, we have,” Hoseok pipes up, “a…we have, uhm. A Supreme!”
“We have two Supremes,” Hunchul corrects, and then quickly amends himself he sees looks of shock around the table. “Well, we will have two Supremes, soon. Because we’re going to administer the test of the Seven Wonders tomorrow.”
A silence broods over them like a dark cloud.
“Tomorrow?” Seokjin asks. “As in, tomorrow tomorrow?”
“Did I stutter.”
“It’s for the protection of everyone,” Hyosang explains. “We’ve been on voodoo watch since we all came together, but they seemed to not want to mess with us—fair enough. But now they know we’re not that big, nor that powerful compared to them, so we need to send something downwind if we want to keep them off our tails.”
“But isn’t that just putting off conflict that’s going to come anyway?” Taehyung points out.
“Yes,” says Hyosang. “Long enough for us to crown the Second Supreme. Supremes are always immensely powerful for some time after they come to position. That can help us more than you know.”
“I am a weak old man,” Namjoon jokes.
“Where are we going to be doing it?”
“Namjoon’s apartment, tomorrow evening. We’ll start after dinner, and that gives you guys enough in Descensum before the sun rises,” Donghyuk says. “You’re okay with that, right?”
“Yep,” says Namjoon.
“As for that voodoo clan, we know there are seven masters and four queens,” Hunchul says. “We don’t know how we can expect to anticipate them, or if we can even anticipate them at all—so if you’re going out into public, and notice anything weird, don’t act weird in response. Or they’ll sniff you out right away if they haven’t already.”
“How powerful are we talking, exactly,” Jeongguk asks.
“Let’s just say by the time you can take your pants off to stick your dick in them, they’ll have taken your head off already,” Hunchul says, and Jeongguk makes a noise of indignation.
“Maybe that’s overestimating it a little,” Jimin says. “Actually, I found out something today.”
The Council have mixed reactions to his news about his war cry. Donghyuk looks delighted, Hyosang completely jaded, and Hunchul pensive.
“How could you corral that to only work on them, though,” Hunchul asks. “And how do you know that they don’t have something to combat it?”
“The war cry ability is not a common one,” Jimin says. “If they’re going to prepare for anything, they’re going to prepare for your Vitalum Vitalis and Seokjin, to be honest.”
“You two, stay behind,” Hunchul says. “Otherwise, meeting adjourned. Get some sleep. Hyosang, could you get the other three back to the hostel?”
“Do I have to sit in the same car with them,” Yoongi gripes, and Jeongguk flushes.
“I’ll be good!” Taehyung says. “I swear! I’ll think about Edgar Allan Poe and pregnancy and—”
“No,” Yoongi says. “Please just—think your normal thoughts.”
“In the time you use to take a shower,” Taehyung says the moment Jeongguk walks out in a cloud of steam from the bathroom, “I could have eaten a whole meal, written a novel, backpacked across Tibet, and still had time left over to get off.”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. “I’m scrubbing down the body you put your mouth on, and you’re complaining?” he asks, toweling his damp hair dry. “Seriously, your nerve, hyung.”
“Mmm,” Taehyung says, stretching out on his stomach luxuriously, hugging one of the pillows under his chest. Jeongguk feels heat pool at the base of his abdomen when he realizes that Taehyung must have been rutting himself into the mattress this whole time. “Well. I’m not complaining now,” he says. “But I will again if you take your sweet ass time over there.”
“If you’re so horny, get yourself off already,” Jeongguk challenges, looking right into Taehyung face as he hangs up his towel. For a moment, a pout graces his lips, but quickly melts away when Jeongguk sees his hand snake down under his body between his legs, as if outside of his own control. Jeongguk blinks, stepping back in surprise, and the spell is broken.
“Bitch,” Taehyung says, laughing breathlessly, bringing his hand back out of the blankets to wrap around the pillow, clutching it like he can convince himself it’s Jeongguk’s body if he uses his imagination. “You didn’t say you learned how to use concilium.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Jimin tried to get me to do it today, actually. It didn’t work.”
Taehyung pushes the pillow aside, slipping out of bed, and Jeongguk makes a point of not looking at him even as he approaches on little cat feet. “It’s okay,” he says. “I thought it was kind of hot, actually.”
“Real hot,” Taehyung says, arms snaking around Jeongguk’s middle. “What did Jimin tell you to do?”
“He told me to try and make Seokjin kiss him,” Jeongguk says, and Taehyung snorts. “Not like Seokjin needs coercion on my part to do that anyway.”
“Amen to that.”
Jeongguk tenses when Taehyung presses up behind him, and even through the thick chenille of the bathrobe Jeongguk can feel the chill of his body. His hand falters on the comb in his hair when Taehyung kisses the back of his neck, still pink and sensitive from the hot shower.
“You really can’t wait just one second,” Jeongguk says, eyes fluttering shut.
Taehyung kisses the shell of his ear when Jeongguk’s head tips back, one of his hands sliding into the fold of his robe and running down the length of Jeongguk’s bare chest.
“Nope,” he replies, and Jeongguk opens his eyes just enough to see Taehyung undoing the knot of the bathrobe with one long, teasing tug. The fabric falls open, hanging loose, and then Taehyung slips it off of Jeongguk’s shoulders.
Jeongguk shivers as Taehyung moves lower, tongue dragging down the valley of his spine, tracing the ridges, until his mouth lands on the place where Jeongguk knows the red hourglass is cinched. He kisses it, and Jeongguk squirms.
“God,” Jeongguk says as Taehyung leads them back to bed, climbs over him, bracketing his body with hands and knees, “God, Taehyung—”
“God knows all the dirty things you’ve done with me, let’s not invite him in now,” Taehyung says, sitting back as Jeongguk searches for the lube. He makes a noise of frustration when the drawer comes up empty besides the worn Bible that seems to mock both of them.
“Where the fuck—” Jeongguk turns around to see Taehyung holding it already, a sly smile on his face. “Oh. Oh, my God, really?” he asks, cock literally aching at the mental image of Taehyung spread out on their bed as he was in the shower, three fingers deep and telling himself his own hand was Jeongguk.
“You told me to get off myself,” Taehyung says, a wicked twinkle in his eyes. “I mean.”
“I can’t believe,” Jeongguk says, swiping the lube out of Taehyung’s grasp and drizzling it in strings over his own cock, hips jumping at he strokes himself. “You are going to be the death of me, hyung, Kim Taehyung.”
“Your choice of words,” Taehyung says dryly, walking on his knees until his cock is pressed down tight against Jeongguk’s chest, “is truly a work of syntactic art, Jeon Jeongguk.”
“How long did you fuck yourself, thinking it was me?” Jeongguk asks as Taehyung lines himself up. He doesn’t sink down all the way, teasing the head of Jeongguk’s cock, mischievous smile painting his mouth again.
“Too long,” he says, as Jeongguk snarls in his throat the more he teases, digging his nails into the skin of Taehyung’s waist. He gives a little more, sinking further down. “Too long, Jeongguk. I thought about you filling me in deep. I thought about fucking me into the mattress until I cry. I thought about you taking me from behind, when I’m tied down, I thought about you letting me ride—ah—”
He shudders when Jeongguk pulls him all the way down to his hilt, mouth falling open. Jeongguk looks up into his face, nodding like he understands as Taehyung’s lips tremble, body shaking with the feeling of Jeongguk’s cock pulsing inside him, whimpers slipping from his mouth.
“Uh-huh,” Jeongguk says, smiling, even though his voice is strained. “Good, right?”
Taehyung glares down at him, hands on Jeongguk’s shoulders tightening to match the grip Jeongguk has on his waist. He swallows, lips parting, before he rolls his hips and Jeongguk almost comes right there.
But that would be embarrassing, and kill the fun, so Jeongguk forces the orgasm down. It’s difficult to corral, especially as Taehyung pulls off and sinks down so slowly. Within moment Taehyung is riding him him earnest, cock slapping against Jeongguk’s belly with every slam downwards.
Jeongguk’s own rasping pants are cut off when Taehyung kisses him, sliding his hands up Jeongguk’s neck to hold his face on either side of his jaw. His touch is oddly gentle, contrasted sharply with the insistence of his body and the frantic movement of his hips.
This time they’re more synchronized—Taehyung clenches down hard around Jeongguk, in that same way he used to right after coming when Jeongguk fingerfucked him. The impossible tightness around Jeongguk’s cock makes him cry out, right into Taehyung’s mouth as he comes. Taehyung follows him, only heartbeats behind.
In retrospect, it was a dumb fucking idea for Jeongguk to take a shower this early in the evening. They jump into the stall together, slipping a little on the slick floor of the tub and slipping a lot when Jeongguk trails down Taehyung’s body and gets on his knees between his legs. The water is lukewarm, toeing cold by the time they finish rinsing off. The only way to combat this is obviously cuddling in bed again, and the sleepiness is hitting Jeongguk in full force now.
Taehyung watches him, wide awake, and Jeongguk blinks slowly up at him. He doesn’t want to fall asleep just yet.
“Don’t start crying on me again,” Taehyung warns. “You scared me that time in the detention center.”
Jeongguk pinches the meat of Taehyung’s abdomen, hard, earning a yelp of pain and a kick to the knee. “I was happy to see you,” he grumbles. He shifts his cheek on the pillow, shaking hair out of his eyes. “What do you look so troubled about?”
“I’m not troubled,” Taehyung says. “No, I’m just thinking about you. And how much I love you.”
“Oh, God,” Jeongguk mutters.
“What I’d do without you. Where I’d be if you hadn’t been shoved into my cell that day.”
“Stop,” Jeongguk pleads. “Stop, you’re killing me.”
“Thinking—wondering. Wondering if there’s anything for me in a world without you.”
There’s no joke, no laughter in Taehyung’s voice when he says this last part. Jeongguk doesn’t answer right away, but then gathers the blankets tighter around their bodies. “I swear to God, Kim Taehyung, if you keep talking, I am going to go sleep in Jimin’s room.”
“Okay, okay,” and the chuckle is back, “not like you’d take his room over this. What if you woke up to him and Seokjin kiss—”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry.”
Jeongguk waits until he can feel the subtle loosening of Taehyung’s arms around him, the tension in his muscles fading to a low hum. Somehow, he’s still awake and listening to Taehyung’s uneven heartbeat, though sleep has been tugging on the corners of his eyes for a while now.
He cranes his neck, wriggling out of Taehyung’s grasp, until they’re face to sleeping face, and Jeongguk watches him for what seems like hours. Then he finally works up the nerve to say,
“Sometimes I wonder that too,” Jeongguk says. Taehyung continues sleeping, walking in a place of starlight that is completely his own. “And I don’t know what your answer is, but there is nothing for me in a world without you.”
Jeongguk lets the words sink into his own consciousness, flushing high in his cheeks before he tosses to his other side and pulling the covers up to his chin.
(Taehyung blinks sleepily, presses his forehead to the back of Jeongguk’s neck, and smiles.)
Jimin’s hand settles over Seokjin’s thighs, calming the jittery bounce of his legs. The subway to Namjoon’s place is crowded, and they are pressed between businessmen and women on their commute back from work.
“Kind of,” Seokjin says, snow parka rustling against Jimin's. “What if I don’t come out of Descensum?”
Jimin frowns. “I really shouldn't have told you the consequences of that. But remember, that’s only if you can get to Descensum, anyway. It’s the Sixth Wonder, you’d have to pass all five before that to have to worry about Descensum.”
“Thanks. I think.”
They arrive after Taehyung and Jeongguk but before Yoongi, shedding winter coats when they make it inside. Namjoon’s apartment has the look of a place that’s ordinarily Mess Mountain but was cleaned up in a haste in light of guests, and Jimin is fairly sure that the towel over the sink is hiding a pile of unwashed dishes.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, Jeongguk asleep on his shoulder on the couch. Kkanji is at his feet, and Jimin drops to his knees to give her a scratch under the chin.
“Hey yourself,” he replies.
“Well, Yoongi is late,” Hunchul says. “Not that I’m shocked, but he makes it to these sorts of things on time. Did any of you guys hear from him before you left?”
Seokjin shakes his head.
“Hm,” Hyosang says. “Should I call him?”
“Not yet,” Hunchul says. “We’ll give him a few minutes, if he’s not here in the next five, call him.”
Jimin lets Kkanji lick at his fingers absently, staring at the doorway. There seems to be something strange about Yoongi not arriving on time, but he sweeps in exactly five minutes later on the dot.
“Glad to see you didn’t decide to bail on this,” Donghyuk says, standing up. Taehyung shakes Jeongguk awake and everyone gets to their feet. “Right, we don’t have any time to waste if you guys want enough time in Descensum.”
Namjoon puts Kkanji in his room with Rapmonster to keep them out of harm’s way, then pulls out the folding table that he and Hoseok use as a dining table, setting out a row of six candles on the table, one for each of them.
“We’re going to start with Pyrokinesis,” Hunchul says, crossing his arms. “And then work our way up through difficulty from there. Sound good?”
Pyrokinesis is the First, and easiest, Wonder to wield.
Yoongi steps up to the table of candles lined up in a row unprompted, having done this once before. The other five of them are slower, but follow his example. Jimin stares before him at the long, innocent white candle balanced in the well of the glass candle holder, the waxed wick bent, crooked, to the side.
“Light them,” Hunchul commands.
Jimin focuses all his attention on that little wick, raising his hand over the candle. He know it’s not necessary, but he’s accustomed to using his hands in voodoo practices, and it feels more natural than standing with them hanging loosely at his sides.
“Try not to burn the apartment building down, please,” Namjoon calls from the couch.
The wick sparks, then bursts into flame, and Jimin grins.
Hyosang is nodding as little orange fires pop up across the table. There’s a stain on the corner that Jimin swears is probably from some kind of alcohol, and laughs to himself when he realizes they must be using a BP table for something as important and official as this.
“Take two steps back. Use telekinesis to bring the candle to you.”
The glass flies into Jimin’s hand the moment he thinks about it. Taehyung, next to him, turns and stares with a furrowed brow.
“How did you—?”
“Uh,” Jimin says meaningfully, nodding at something out of the line of Taehyung’s sight, just in time for Taehyung to turn and see the candle holder fly off the table, glance on his fingernail and shatter on the floor. The flame extinguishes with a puff of smoke in the spilled wax.
“Nice,” Jimin says.
“That’s a pass,” Hunchul sighs. “But please try to catch the things you summon, Taehyung.”
“Come on, hyung,” Jimin says, flashing back to where Seokjin remains, six feet away from the rest of them. “Come on, we tried this.”
“I know,” Seokjin says, shifting from foot to foot. “I’m trying!”
“Ten more seconds, and we call fail,” Hyosang says. Best friend though he may be, Hyosang does not bend the rules of something as important as this. “Starting now.”
Taehyung and Hoseok are, at present, chasing each other around the living room, appearing and disappearing behind the couch, on top of the dinner table, balanced precariously on the bookshelf. Namjoon watches them with helplessness in his eyes.
“Don’t kill yourselves,” he says. “That’s how one of the Louisiana witches did once.”
Taehyung freezes where he is, one leg still lifted in a running pose. “How?” he asks.
“She transmutated onto the top of an iron spike in the gates,” Namjoon says. “And impaled herself.”
There’s a horrified silence, which Hyosang breaks with “Fail. Sorry Seokjin, you’re out of running.”
“Yes,” Seokjin says, punching the air, and Hunchul almost laughs. “Don’t judge me, Descensum is not something I want to fuck with. Ever.”
“So we’re down to Yoongi, Hoseok, Jimin, Taehyung, and Jeongguk,” Hunchul says. “Fourth Wonder...right, concilium. Remember, it’s not so much mind control as it is body control, so don’t do anything that causes physical harm. Got it?”
Jimin turns to Taehyung, without missing a beat, and points at Jeongguk. “Slap him.”
Taehyung’s hand lands across Jeongguk’s cheek far louder than Jimin had anticipated it. No one makes a move, Jeongguk reaching up to cup his face, and Taehyung has both his hands covering his own mouth in horror at how red it is.
“Oh my God, Jeongguk-ah, I’m sorr—”
“Strip,” Jeongguk says, looking Jimin in the face.
“Gladly,” Jimin says, until his hands start moving to the waistband of his pants. “Wait—hey, no, no no no, not—goddammit—”
“That,” Hoseok says, staring at Jimin’s dick, “is a lot smaller than I pictured it.”
Seokjin laughs dryly.
“Oh, fuck you!” Jimin screeches, and for a second, Hoseok feels red tinge his vision. “Jeon Jeongguk! I will fuck you up—”
“Jimin, please keep your voice down, we don’t need any friendly fire to happen right now,” Donghyuk says.
“Isn’t that considered physical harm?” Namjoon asks.
“Nah,” Hunchul says.
“We only say physical harm because one of the Lousiana witches once made the other stick a lit cig up her vagina,” Hyosang says calmly, and Namjoon chokes on his own saliva.
“Are you going to make him kiss you?” Hoseok asks when everyone looks to Taehyung. He’s eyeing Jeongguk, who’s trying to hide behind Hoseok. “Aw, come on, Jeongguk, that’s cute.”
“Yeah, I’m going to make him kiss me,” Taehyung says. “I’m going to make him kiss my ass.”
“I can’t believe you!” Jeongguk cries, blushing down to his collarbones, feet moving against his will. “I was kidding when I said—”
“The fact you said that at all,” Jimin says as an aside, and Jeongguk glares murder in his direction.
“On your knees, honeybun,” Taehyung laughs, and Jeongguk screws his eyes shut when he’s forced forward, dropping a tiny peck on Taehyung’s tailbone, right between the pockets of his jeans. Everyone in the living room crows at the top of his lungs. “See, was that so bad? It’s not like you haven’t done that anyway—”
“Okay!” Jimin says over him. “I can’t believe I just had to witness that with my own naked eyeballs.”
“Hoseok?” prompts Hunchul.
“Hmm,” Hoseok says. “Jimin, what’s the freakiest thing you’ve ever thought of while jerking off to Seokjin?”
“Oh, boy,” Seokjin mutters.
“Using a voodoo aphrodisiac on him,” Jimin blurts out, and Taehyung screams with laughter. “Fuck! Fuck!”
“You guys are so horny,” Yoongi complains.
“Well, it’s your turn,” Hunchul says, looking unfazed by all of this. “Show us what you got.”
Yoongi fixes his gaze on Jeongguk, who fights the urge to back away, but he doesn’t move at all. After a few moments, Yoongi looks away.
“I can’t do concilium,” Yoongi says. “You guys know this already. I might be a clairvoyant but of course the irony would be that the only Wonder I can’t use is mind control.”
“Are you sure?” Hyosang says. “We’re going to fail you if you back out on this.”
“Fail me,” Yoongi says, sounding restless.
“Then, fail,” Hunchul says. “But you knew this would happen, didn’t you?”
Yoongi grunts, neither confirming nor denying the accusation, and squeezes into the last empty seat on the couch facing Hoseok, Jimin, Taehyung, and Jeongguk.
“Fifth Wonder,” Hyosang says. “Divination.”
Divination turns out to be the most nerve-wracking test yet. It really is like an interrogation, Jeongguk going first, sitting down at the bare table alone facing the Council.
“Tell me,” Hunchul says, “where does Namjoon hide the spare keys to this apartment?”
Jeongguk closes his eyes.
“Gee thanks, bro,” Namjoon says in the silence.
“Just hide them somewhere else!” Hunchul says. “Besides, he might not even—”
“The dresser,” Jeongguk says, “under the lowest drawer to the very right, all the way in the corner.”
“Just kidding,” Hunchul says. “Good job, Jeongguk.”
Jimin is asked to tell them what the previous owners of this apartment were like. It takes him a few moments but he manages to determine that they had been a family of four, parents and a set of twins, that had moved to Ilsan a year before. A pile of little odds and ends are strewn onto the table for Taehyung—rings, coins, pairs of earbuds—and he is asked to point out exactly what belonged to who.
“Hey, you have nice earbuds, Namjoon hyung,” Taehyung says, moving them aside. “And Jesus Christ, Donghyuk hyung, I don’t know why you carry around so much change…”
But it is Hoseok who fails Divination, unable to tell them what in this apartment once belonged to the Supreme before Namjoon.
“You’ve got ten seconds, Hoseok,” Hunchul says. “And then we call a fail.”
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says sadly. “I have no idea.”
“Time’s up,” says Donghyuk. “Out of the running, son.”
“It was a tiara,” Namjoon says. “It’s in my desk in my room.”
“A tiara,” Hoseok says.
“Little would you know that the last Supreme quite liked them,” says Namjoon.
“Jo Kwon liked anything that glittered,” Hunchul says. “But we have Jimin, Jeongguk, and Taehyung left now, right?” The sky is blackening outside. “How are you guys? All right?”
“Tired,” Jimin says. “I’m starting to feel it.”
“You’re going to feel it a lot more after Descensum,” Donghyuk says. “If you want as much time as you can get, we need to start right away so you guys have enough time to get back before dawn.”
“Before we do, though,” and Hyosang sits up, leaning forward and beckoning the last three of them forward, “I’m sure you guys know this, but I have to say it anyway. Descensum is dangerous. If you’ve been down there, chances are it was by accident. You guys laugh at the movie Insidious and it’s true that a lot of the shit in that movie is stupid, but they had one thing right—the farther away your soul travels away from your body, the harder it will be to get back. You guys are pushing yourself willingly into that space and getting lost is easy. Getting back will be impossible.”
“God, don’t be such a downer, Hyosang,” Hunchul says. “As if Descensum wasn’t stressful enough.”
“I just want everyone to be aware!” Hyosang says. “How would you feel if you were signed up for a clinical trial, or whatever, and bad shit happened to you without a consent form or some shit?”
“They really don’t have a choice right now,” Hunchul points out.
“Who’s the downer now.”
“Well, he’s right,” Jimin says. “We have to do this one way or another, and we’re wasting dark, aren’t we?”
“Right,” Hunchul says. “Make yourselves comfortable, I guess. It’s going to be a long night.”
Seokjin and Hoseok peels the pillows and cushions off of the couch for them, and they settle down in rough circle around each other, curling up on the floor.
“On three, you say the word, Descensum,” Hunchul says, “and you will find your way there.”
“Should you be telling us that?” Jeongguk says.
“Oh, it’s not the getting there that’s what what we test,” Hyosang says. “It’s getting back.”
“Are we ready?”
“Good luck, okay? On three. One. Two. Three—”
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung blurts the second he sits up, voice still thick and confused with sleep. “Jeongguk?”
“Pass,” Donghyuk says, checking off on his clipboard. “Good job, Taehyung, take it easy.”
“I’m right here,” Jeongguk says, going to kneel by Taehyung’s side. “I’m here, how was it?”
Taehyung simply pulls Jeongguk closer without a word. His movements are jerky, his head thudding hard against Jeongguk’s chest like a sharp rap of knuckles on a door, someone on the other side waiting to be let in. Jeongguk lets his body relax, melt into the cracks around Taehyung, arms settling around his shoulders.
“A world without love,” Taehyung says, and chuckles despite himself. “A world without you.”
He says it low enough that only Jeongguk could have heard the last part, and Jeongguk rests his cheek on the crown of Taehyung’s head. It takes a while for Taehyung to come all the way back, but when he does, they join the rest of them waiting for Jimin now. Jeongguk holds his hand in his lap. It’s as cold as usual, won’t warm with his touch, but he thinks Taehyung might need a little something to keep him grounded in the living world.
The minutes tick by ominously. Taehyung dozes off on Hoseok’s shoulder, who tips Taehyung’s head so that he’s leaning against Jeongguk instead. The movement wakes him only enough for him to mumble and then curl tighter into Jeongguk’s side.
The urge to sleep is hard to fight off. Jeongguk finds his own mind wandering, slipping into a light doze. It isn’t until he feels the shift of Taehyung’s body that he wakes up—which is unusual, because Taehyung could pour magma on Jeongguk’s face and he’s probably still be able to sleep through it.
Sleep clears from Jeongguk’s eyes slowly, the shadowy film of innocent dreams dissipating as he blinks. Taehyung is clutching him, but his grip is underlined with urgency and worry and Jeongguk is about to ask what’s wrong when he sees.
It’s almost dawn. The sun pummels up towards the line of the horizon, turning the sky red, and Jimin is still quiet and still as a grave. His head rests in the crook of Seokjin’s arm, head lolling when Seokjin shakes him lightly.
“Follow my voice, come on, you can do this,” he says. “Come on, Park Jimin.”
“He has five minutes left.” Hunchul’s face is uncharacteristically grim.
“Come on, Jimin,” Seokjin whispers. He clutches Jimin’s body to his chest, and from here Jeongguk can feel Jimin quivering along to the shaking of Seokjin’s frame. Seokjin, who kept himself together the best he could for the rest of them, recognizing his age and living up to it the only way he knew how. Seokjin, who has never shown weakness around Jimin. “Come on, follow my voice. You can do this, come on.”
Taehyung raises his head off Jeongguk’s shoulder. The don’t exchange any words, but both of them know what happens when someone doesn’t come out of Descensum before the sunrise. It happened once to a witch in the New Orleans coven, Namjoon had told them, and legend has it that anyone who stayed down there long enough looking for her would find her there, still trapped in hell with no living body to return to.
“Four minutes and forty-five,” Donghyuk murmurs. “Seokjin—”
“Seokjin,” Hyosang says, kneeling down beside him and laying a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be okay.”
“It won’t be okay,” Seokjin says, shaking his head, voice finally breaking, “he’ll be stuck down there, God knows where, forever—do you know what forever is, Hyosang, do you have any id—”
“Let me try this,” Taehyung says suddenly, pulling away from Jeongguk then. “I’m going to find him.”
Yoongi and Jeongguk shout the word simultaneously, but everyone in the room except Seokjin stares at Yoongi, his hand outstretched. Hearing that from Jeongguk is to be expected, but from someone like Yoongi, who didn’t even exhibit enough energy to talk sometime, is unsettling. But Taehyung only glowers, already lying down on the floor beside Jimin and taking his hand in his own.
“There’s no time, hyung,” he says. There can’t be much more than four minutes left on the clock before dawn breaks. “If I don’t do this now he’ll turn to ash.”
“Is this legal?” Namjoon whispers to Hunchul, who shrugs. Jeongguk hears him whisper something in reply, but he doesn’t move to stop what’s happening, and assumes that they carry out the control, not law principle out to completion.
“Please find him,” Seokjin says, beseeching. “Can you do it?”
“I’ve never done it for anyone but Yoongi,” Taehyung murmurs, shifting around on the floor to get comfortable. “But I’m going to try.”
Just as Taehyung closes his eyes, Jeongguk grabs his shoulder.
“Come back to me,” he says under his breath. “Don’t leave me here alone.”
Taehyung nods, almost imperceptibly. Then his entire body relaxes, muscles loosening under Jeongguk’s touch. His head falls to the side.
“They need to get back before sunrise,” Donghyuk says. “Or else both of them are toast.”
Taehyung is so motionless that Jeongguk has to press a hand to his chest just to feel the rise and fall of his breath. It’s shallow and weak. The shadows around them are lengthening, darkening as dawn blinks innocently on the horizon.
The most unsettling thing about Descensum is the time dilation. The first time Jeongguk had gone down there, the night after he first slept with Taehyung, he couldn’t have been down there for more than ten minutes—but a whole night had slipped by, Taehyung had informed him. A whole night, nearly eight hours, and Taehyung admitted that Jeongguk had been abnormally still for all of them.
Jeongguk looks up when he feels eyes on him. Yoongi is watching him, face unreadable, from across the room, but then his gaze flits to Taehyung and Jimin lying hand in hand on the floor.
He doesn’t know what to make of it. Yoongi has known who the next Supreme will be for ages. Maybe it really is Taehyung—the irony would be too much, considering how many times Taehyung has led him back only for it to be him—a young warlock that brought himself back to life after death. It would make sense.
“One minute,” Hunchul says.
Jeongguk shuts his eyes. Minutes up here in the living world are mere seconds, fleeting moments and glances on the other side.
“Follow my voice,” he says. “Come on, Taehyung hyung. I know you can hear me.”
Then Jimin gasps in Seokjin’s arms, eyes flying open as he panics blindly for a few moments. Jeongguk feels his stomach settle, but only ever so slightly, until Taehyung cracks his eyes open. He blinks in the morning sun, eyelids slitted. Then he looks into Jeongguk’s face, an exhausted smile staining the corners of his lips. They’re chalky and white.
Jeongguk breathes a sigh of relief, dipping down to press their foreheads together. Taehyung’s is cold and clammy, but solid. Solid and here.
“I can’t believe you,” Jimin accuses, voice wobbly and hoarse. He’s sitting up on his own, but Seokjin has an arm slung around his shoulders. “That was such a fucking stupid thing to do, Taehyung. What if you’d gone too far?”
“You’re my best friend,” Taehyung says simply. His words hang between them with immeasurable weight.
Jimin shoots him a grateful, exasperated look. He leans out, rapping his knuckles on Taehyung’s head gently. “Goddamn you,” he says. “You could have seriously fucked yourself over. Don’t do it again.”
“Is that a pass or a fail?” Seokjin asks.
“He woke up before Taehyung did,” Hyosang admits. “So it’s very difficult to say.”
“So, I pass?”
“Nice try, kiddo,” Donghyuk says, to which Jimin sticks out his lower lip.
“How about we let him try the last two Wonders,” Hunchul suggests. “And if he passes them, he does Descensum again. Alone. No one is going down to find you if you don’t come back by dawn.”
It sounds fair, albeit cruel. Jeongguk finds himself hoping feverishly that Jimin fails soon, because he doesn’t want to lose him.
(This is something he’d only ever admit to himself, and Yoongi can fuck off if he can hear this right now.)
Jeongguk grins to himself when Yoongi snorts across the room.
“And the last test, then,” Donghyuk says. “The Seventh Wonder, Vitalum Vitalis. We hope you’re not squeamish.”
The test of Vitalum Vitalis is a little macabre, in retrospect. The Wixen Council had procured bodies of animals from the local veterinary office—rabbits that had passed away and stray cats that had been caught in road accidents and died shortly afterwards on operating tables.
“Is this even safe?” Taehyung says, eyeing his dead cat uncertainly. “Like, what if this one died of rabies or something.”
“The cat did not die of rabies,” Hunchul says, rolling his eyes. “All right, it’s just you three left now, right? Youngest to oldest, then. We’ll start with Jimin.”
Jeongguk runs his palm over the soft, velvety head of the cocker spaniel that’s laid out before him. Its body is cold and and stiff, and from what Namjoon has told him, he doesn’t need to touch the body for Vitalum Vitalis to work, but it feels right. It feels right that, if he’s going to be bringing something back from the other side using his own life force, for him to touch it, get to know it.
There’s a moment of breathless silence as the rest of the convocation and council watch Jimin try his hand on a runt of a puppy that had only been a few days old before it succumbed to nature’s calls. Seconds tick by, ballooning into full minutes, and only after Jimin is red in the face does Hyosang call a fail.
“Man,” Jimin says sadly, cradling the tiny body in his hands. “You take care over there, little guy.”
Jeongguk decides it would be best not to tell him the stories that Taehyung has of the other side. Seokjin, on the other hand, looks like he is about to burst with happiness, pulling Jimin into his side.
“Taehyung,” Hunchul prompts, nodding at Jimin apologetically. Donghyuk hands him a Gatorade.
“Drink,” he says quietly. “Vitalum Vitalis takes more out of than you think and your stint in Descensum is probably still in your system.”
It takes only a few heartbeats for Taehyung to bring the tabby back to life. Of course. No one is surprised, for a necromancer who brought himself back to life when he was little more than a pile of burnt flesh and bone, a measly cat is nothing. Jeongguk can’t help but smile at the delighted little grin that spreads across Taehyung’s lips when the tabby turns in a circle and then leaps into his lap.
Donghyuk holds out a bottle of Gatorade to him too. It’s then that Jeongguk notices there’s something off—in the way Taehyung reaches out, how shaky his arm is, as if simply lifting it is a struggle. His hands shakes, fingernails a pale white.
“Hey,” Jeongguk says. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Taehyung says, voice faint as he unscrews the cap. “I’m fine, let me just—”
A sticky splash of electric blue washes over Jeongguk’s knees when the full bottle of uncapped Gatorade hits the floor. Seokjin lunges for it, snatching at thin air as though to catch it before it hits the floor, but then Taehyung slumps, entire body crumpling under its own weight.
He hits the floor with a thud, head cracking on the concrete, and Jeongguk feels his heart go cold.
“What’s wrong?” he asks, trying to keep his voice under control. The blue is leaking into his shoes and socks. Jimin is already by Taehyung’s side, rolling him over onto his back. He hovers over his body, hands outstretched, like he doesn’t know what to do.
“Taehyung,” Jimin says, shaking him lightly. “Taehyung, wake up.”
Seokjin pulls him away, instead laying the back of his hand on Taehyung’s cheek. It’s losing what little color it had.
“Let me see him.”
Jimin and Seokjin shuffle out of the way when Hoseok comes pushing through everyone else. He kneels down, giving Taehyung’s body a cursory once-over.
“He’s…” Hoseok knits his brows together, holding first a finger under his nose, then prying his mouth open and passing a hand over it. He gets down on his knees and presses a ear to Taehyung’s chest, then straightens with a stricken expression. “He’s...gone.”
“Wait,” Jimin protests, lunging forward again and grabbing Taehyung’s shoulders and Jeongguk screams at himself to do something, but his body is frozen.
He’s back. He’s back to the night where this had all started, watching someone bleed to death under him with no way to stop it, like a bad dream. The tabby noses at his damp knees and the contact pulls him back a little, but he still feels trapped between two realities, neither of which Jeongguk can comprehend—a world in which Taehyung is alive, and a world in which he isn’t.
“Taehyung, come on, this isn’t funny anymore,” Jimin says, voice rising. “Come on, you’re the necromancer, you know how to get back—you saved me, you saved Yoongi hyung every other week, don’t tell me you’re going to give up now!”
But Taehyung just flops in Jimin’s grasp lifelessly, eyes half-open, lips turning white as marble.
Yoongi looks just as thunderstruck as Hoseok, and Jeongguk realizes that he must have known someone would die at this moment. He must have seen it, and no wonder Yoongi was so cagey about the details he knew of the future. Maybe if he didn’t acknowledge what he’d Seen, it just wouldn’t come to fruition.
But they aren’t children. Not recognizing the existence of an idea doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist at all. Yoongi obviously hadn’t expected it to be Taehyung—the warlock that was Death’s best friend, felt the cold embrace of the grave, knew it like the backs of his hands. Led Yoongi out of the abyss every week and back into the living world.
How could it have been Taehyung?
Donghyuk, Hunchul, and Hyosang are silent. Maybe they’ve seen scenes like this before. Maybe this happens all the time. It would explain why Hunchul turns to Jeongguk then and says, softly, “We must proceed regardless of who we lose along the way. There are greater dangers.”
The cocker spaniel under Jeongguk’s hand is cold.
Taehyung is dead.
There is a clan of voodoo sorcerers that are out for their necks.
Taehyung is dead.
The cocker spaniel under Jeongguk’s hand is cold.
“No,” he says, hearing the word like someone else is speaking. “No, he’s the necromancer. He can’t die.”
“He must have used up all that was left of his life energy,” Namjoon says, beside Yoongi, whose face is contorted, painted with something that Jeongguk can’t quite read, mind full of fog. “He didn’t have much to begin with.”
“Jeongguk,” Hunchul says. “If you really are the Second Supreme, you need to prove it first. And we can go from there.”
Jeongguk stares at the cocker spaniel again, then back at Taehyung, whom Jimin is hugging to his chest now, cheeks wet with Jimin’s tears.
It’s pretty clear what Jeongguk should do.
Jimin jumps back when Jeongguk slides in between him and Hoseok, hands shaking, vision blurring. If performing Vitalum Vitalis on a dog or a cat weakened you, then doing it on a grown human being is probably riskier than Jeongguk would like to consider, but he doesn’t have time for that.
“Jeongguk,” Namjoon says sharply when he figures out what Jeongguk is doing, sliding a hand up Taehyung’s neck to cup his cheek, bending over his face. “Jeongguk, that’s not a good idea, you just came out of Descensum.”
But Jeongguk isn’t concerned with what is or is not a good idea right now; the only idea he cares about is one of a world where Taehyung is alive, whether only halfway or just barely. Maybe it’s selfish, and Jeongguk should just let him stay on the other side.
Kissing Taehyung without him reciprocating with three notches too much enthusiasm is one of the most disorienting things Jeongguk has ever done. He presses his mouth down, harder and harder, into Taehyung’s lips, tasting the bitter tang of death in his mouth. Nobody moves to pull him away. As he concentrates, Jeongguk feels aches and pains spreading in his joints, chills cutting into his bones. Just when he starts losing feeling in the tips of his fingers and toes, a pleasant buzzing filling his ears, the words “Jeongguk, stop, you’re going to hurt yourself,” tugging on his shirtsleeves, Taehyung jerks under him.
At first Jeongguk thinks he might have imagined it, refusing to lift off, eyebrows still stitched together. Then Taehyung’s mouth moves against his, kissing him back, icy fingers finding their way to the nape Jeongguk’s neck. A murmur passes through the room.
“Damn,” Taehyung says weakly, words muffled in Jeongguk’s mouth. “I should die more often.”
“Oh, my God,” Jimin says, falling heavily back against Seokjin, weak with relief. “Jeon Jeongguk, I swear to God, you enjoy playing with Death way too much.”
“Can we proceed,” Hyosang sighs.
Jeongguk laughs, a mix of a chuckle and a sob, sitting back. His head swims when he does, the room spinning, and Seokjin steadies him with an arm across his back.
“Whoa, slowly.” He opens the Gatorade that Donghyuk has in hand and holds it to Jeongguk’s lips. “You brought a whole person back to life, don’t overexert yourself.”
“I thought you were going to die, and I,” Yoongi says, coming to kneel down next to Taehyung, who laughs at the unshed tears in the corners of his eyes. It comes out more like a dry hacking cough than a laugh, but seeing Yoongi with this much emotion in his face is an occurrence rarer than peace. “And I even—never mind. I thought this was where it ended.”
“Who’s going to come get you if I died?” Taehyung says, hands coming up to wrap around the Gatorade bottle that Hoseok is holding for him. He brings it to his lips with shaking hands, letting Hoseok support him.
“Wait, if Taehyung died, that means he fails Vitalum Vitalis. Which puts him out of the running. That means—” Jimin straightens, eyes huge. “That means—”
“That means,” Hunchul says, “Jeon Jeongguk, you’re our Second Supreme.”
Jeongguk smiles from where he sits against Seokjin’s sturdy frame, cheeks stiff and numb, and promptly blacks out.
It’s a little embarrassing that the first thing Jeongguk does as the Second Supreme is pass out cold, but as it were, no warlock had ever brought a dead body back to life during the test of Vitalum Vitalis as a first-timer.
He wakes up in his own bed, in his own house, for the first time in a long, long time. The sheets still smell exactly the way he likes them, a little homey and little like the fabric softener his mom always used too much of. The shadows in his room are long and dark, the light in his window a thick honey orange. Sunset had always been beautiful from Jeongguk’s room. He’s surprised to find how much he’s missed this view.
When Jeongguk turns his head, Taehyung is there.
He’s dozing, head propped up with a hand, elbow digging into Jeongguk’s pillows and the blankets draped over his lower body. Dark circles still hang under his eyes, dusky evenings on pale skin, and the hollows of his cheeks are a little deeper than usual. Jeongguk extricates one of his arms from the delicious warmth of his blankets and reaches out, fingers hesitating over Taehyung’s skin before he runs them down the line of jaw, traces the bow of his lips and the bridge of his nose. By the time he circles back to where he began, Taehyung’s opened his eyes. He stares down at Jeongguk with a tired smile.
“Didn’t your parents ever tell you not to touch works of art,” he mumbles sleepily, letting his eyelids fall shut. He looks like a wraith.
“I never listened,” Jeongguk says, pressing his thumb into Taehyung’s lower lip and feeling the soft give of flesh. “I always liked touching the prettiest ones.”
Taehyung cracks an eye open again. “I think I like you better when you’re rude and tsundere. That’s how I know you’re feeling okay.”
“I had to make sure you could still feel my touch,” Jeongguk admits. “Two trips to that side has got to be rough.”
“Do it once, it’s not so bad the second time,” Taehyung says, but Jeongguk knows he can’t be telling the whole truth. “Thank god for you, Second Supreme. Hey, Supreme sista, ain’t that mista mista on the radio, stereo, the way you move ain’t fair, you know—”
Jeongguk kicks him in the knee and Taehyung grunts, laughing.
“There it is.”
Jeongguk stretches up to kiss him. It’s a touch he didn’t know he’s been craving, but the desire must have been there ever since kissing Taehyung’s lifeless mouth. Now it’s warm, and Taehyung’s lips lock together with his so perfectly, two pieces of a broken puzzle.
Kissing turns into Jeongguk pulling Taehyung down until their bodies are pressed together, which turns into grinding against each other through their clothes, which turns into Taehyung rolling them over in his bed until Jeongguk hovers over him.
“Aren’t we still on Voodoo Watch two-k-fifteen?” Jeongguk asks suddenly, responsibilities smacking him in the face with an electrified flyswatter. “Where’s everyone else?”
Taehyung makes a face. “You brought me back to life only to kill my boner like this?” he asks.
“What the fuck, I’m Second Supreme, I need to know these things.”
Taehyung sighs, pushing himself up onto his elbows and pecking Jeongguk’s worried little mouth chastely, despite the heat between his legs. “Yoongi said that they’re not going to try anything right after we crown a Second Supreme, and if they’re as powerful as we estimate them to be, they’ll know we have two Supremes now.” He smiles. “They’re not going to try fucking with us until they know the extent of your power.”
“You make this all sound a lot sexier than it needs to be.”
“I don’t know, I think it’s pretty fucking sexy to be in bed with the Second Supreme. Stop me if I’m wrong.”
Taehyung’s not wrong but Jeongguk shuts him up anyway.
Regardless of how unnecessary Taehyung makes it sound, it’s true. Jeongguk can feel the newfound magic thrumming in his blood—actually, he doesn’t even know how strong he is right now, which is a little exhilarating and a lot scary. It isn’t apparent until he and Taehyung have both slicked up and Taehyung has straddled his legs and sunk down onto his cock with a hoarse moan. Jeongguk is holding him tight and steady against his own chest, arms gripping Taehyung’s ribcage, when he hears a breathless, “Ow, ow, you’re hurting me,” beside his ear.
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, pulling away immediately, arms dropping. “Fuck—fuck, I’m sorry, I’ll—”
“I didn’t tell you to let me go,” Taehyung says, grabbing Jeongguk and pulling him forward until they’re chest to chest again, Jeongguk’s face pressed into his neck. “Just to loosen up. You’re just a little stronger than usual, is all.”
The combined factors of Jeongguk’s unsurety of the extents of his physical prowess and the size of the bed—small, or at least smaller than the motel bed, anyway—leads to them rolling right off the edge when Jeongguk pulls Taehyung down to pin under his body. One moment there is solid box spring mattress beneath them, and in the next there is nothing.
When they hit the ground, Taehyung lands with an oof! on Jeongguk’s chest. Jeongguk wheezes when the wind is knocked out of his lungs, before he starts laughing, and Taehyung is laughing too, body quivering over his, holding up the sheet that’s draped over his head and tangled up around their bodies.
“Oops,” he says, still giggling. He pulls Jeongguk upright until he’s sitting up, back pressed to the side of his bed. “Well. This works too.”
Taehyung grips the edge of the mattress on either side of Jeongguk’s head, rolling his hips, and Jeongguk drops his head back onto his bed. He struggles to keep his eyes open, see the way Taehyung’s face morphs from smug and playful to desperate, panting as he rides Jeongguk in earnest.
“I love you,” whines Taehyung, leaning into Jeongguk, pressing their bodies together. “I love you Jeongguk, I love you—I love—”
His breath hitches as Jeongguk shifts, pushing himself up off the floor. The metal bedframe is digging into his back uncomfortably, and he braces one hand on the ground, wrapping his free arm around Taehyung’s waist. Taehyung links his ankles around Jeongguk's hips when he stands, pressing his face into the skin of Jeongguk's shoulder.
“God, you're heavy,” Jeongguk says as he collapses on top of Taehyung back in bed, cock slipping halfway out of Taehyung when the mattress bounces at the sudden weight. “Somehow that looked easier in my head.”
“You say that as if you’re not the approximate mass of a tank,” Taehyung says, whimpering when Jeongguk presses back in to the hilt, hands still looped around Jeongguk's neck. “Who do you think carried you up here?”
“I guess that’s love, huh,” Jeongguk says, chuckling under his breath as he rolls his hips, Taehyung’s back sliding over the sheets.
“Oh, fuck you,” Taehyung hisses, hiking his knees up around Jeongguk’s sides, but Jeongguk simply laughs again before tipping in and kissing him as the tug of Taehyung’s hands on his neck grows insistent.
They break apart when they come, just barely, just enough, lips still brushing as Taehyung arches beneath him, clenching around Jeongguk. Jeongguk’s arms shake and he is loath to keep himself supported, waiting until Taehyung has milked him dry before pulling out and stretching out beside him.
“Ugh, we have to actually launder your sheets ourselves this time,” Taehyung sighs, dragging his fingers through the mess on his stomach, reaching for the Kleenex on Jeongguk’s desk. “Which we should probably do before your parents get back because—”
He breaks off when Jeongguk catches his hand before he can wipe it clean, and Taehyung turns his head in time to see Jeongguk lick the come off his fingers, glancing up to meet his gaze.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, trying half-heartedly at most to tug his hand out of Jeongguk’s grasp, “Jesus, Jeongguk—”
“I know I’m bad at saying these things when we’re,” Jeongguk says, as he licks off the last drops from Taehyung’s pinky finger, “uhm, not having sex, or in bed together, I know I’m not super hot at saying these things even then. Not like you. But I used to think that showing affection or wearing my heart on my sleeve made me weak, or people would take advantage of me if I did. It wasn’t until I met you that I learned that—that showing affection is the scariest thing and it takes a lot of bravery to, uhm, to show it. To anyone, even if they mean everything.”
Taehyung doesn’t move, eyes searching Jeongguk’s face.
“I guess that’s why I slept around a lot, or you know, messed around a lot before all of this.” Jeongguk looks away, unable to match the intensity of Taehyung’s expression. “That semblance of being wanted, even sexually, made up for how shitty I am at love. And I never figured out why I was so hard-pressed to be a warmer person but now I figure that’s part of the black widow curse. Being afraid to love someone and not being able to love them all the way.”
“So what I’m saying is, I love you too,” he mutters, mostly into Taehyung’s neck, but he gets it out. “I love you, more than you know, probably, more than you ever will, most definitely, unless I get better at this whole thing, and maybe then I’ll—”
Taehyung kisses him, fiercely, holding his face in his hands, still damp from Jeongguk’s tongue. He kisses him and pulls Jeongguk into him, like he’s trying to say something without using words like Jeongguk always does. When he pulls back, Jeongguk swears his eyes are glassier than usual, eyelashes a little wet.
“I know,” Taehyung says, voice hoarse. “I know. You don’t need to if you don’t want to. I didn’t choose you because I wanted you echo back all the words I say to you. I love you because you don’t have to.”
The days after the test of the Seven Wonders are oddly quiet. Taehyung goes back to live at the hostel, and Jeongguk spends a week trying to get his parents up to speed. They can’t seem to understand why he’s so eager to be out of the house, but his mother does say, “Son, you’re different.”
“I don’t know, did you grow up when you were away?” she says, and for a long time Jeongguk has been taller than her but now he truly seems to tower over her. “You look older, but that’s not it. You stand up straighter, you look me in the face when I talk to you...you have this light in your eyes now.” She holds his face in her hands like she used to when he was a child and still tripped on his own feet, and it’s been so long since he’s let her do that. “You’re happy.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “Does it seem that way?” He thought it had something to do with his new title. He didn’t expect his mother to notice something like that.
“Is it because you found someone?” she teases, but when Jeongguk doesn’t answer, her face grows serious. “Did you really, my son?”
“I think so,” Jeongguk says.
“But,” she says, pulling out a chair across him at the dinner table. “Do they know what you are? Do they know—”
“They know,” Jeongguk says. “And they’re okay with it.”
“Really,” says his mother. “Incredible. I will have to meet them one day.”
“You will,” Jeongguk says. “They’re really...something else.”
Jimin, on the other hand, does not seem to give a flying fuck that Jeongguk is the Second Supreme. He messes with him every chance he gets, of at the expense of Taehyung as collateral damage. It’s especially frustrating for them to pull open the nightstand drawer for the lube, only to be one, mocked by the Bible again, and two, to hear Jimin cackle a good six doors down when Taehyung shouts his name at the top of his lungs.
“My life is a joke,” Yoongi says to Seokjin over breakfast. “If I have to spent the rest of my sad clairvoyant life listening to the thoughts of your four I might as well just go work for the Devil.”
“Hey,” Seokjin says defensively, “It’s not like I—”
“You are the fucking worst, Seokjin, don’t even front,” Yoongi snaps. He pauses, then, “But you’re marginally forgiven because you cook.”
“What! As if all those times I brought you back from Hell didn’t count for something?” Taehyung protests.
“You really shouldn’t have,” Yoongi says, but there is no real bite in his voice. “Man. Maybe I should just look into moving in with Namjoon, although Hosoek isn’t any better—”
“Do you not like us?” Jimin says. “Unfair! I like you, hyung.”
“How creepy.” But Yoongi is smiling, unable to help himself.
And for a while, things are good.
For what it’s worth, the thing they so fear comes in the form of a phone call on one end and a knock on the door on the other.
Taehyung and Jeongguk are at Namjoon’s apartment, Taehyung insisting that he has to visit Kkanji, and Jeongguk naturally went with him wherever he did.
“You’ve been spoiling her, huh,” Taehyung says, beckoning for her to come to him, getting only a high whine in response. “At least she’s been enjoying her time here. You did a good job, Hoseok hyung.”
“She likes playing with Rapmonster,” he says. “Even though Rapmonster half is her size but thinks she’s twice that. All that time in that detention center, I think she enjoys having playmates and toys.”
“When this is all over,” Taehyung says, rubbing her cheeks and making kissy faces at her, “maybe I can move in with Jimin again, and send her back to the training school. She’ll have a chance at a better life with someone that actually needs her.”
“You’re going to move in with Jimin again?” Jeongguk asks, silent until now. Taehyung looks up at him.
“Yeah, I mean, after I was burned, I lived with him those two years afterwards. His parents are amazing people and they treated me like their third son.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says shortly.
“Are you jealous,” Taehyung says, grinning, and Jeongguk sniffs.
“No. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“You’re jealous!” Taehyung whoops, tackling Jeongguk on the couch. “Don’t even try to deny it, I know you—”
Namjoon’s phone rings, and they fall silent as he picks it up. As soon as he takes the call though, there’s a caustic screech in the receiver and he has to hold it away from his ear.
“Jimin?” he asks, troubled. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” He pauses, eyebrows knitting together. “Jimin?” His expression is growing more and more worried, and Taehyung climbs off of Jeongguk to walk to here Namjoon is sitting at the table. “Jimin, slow down, I can’t—”
“Put him on speaker,” Taehyung urges. The din is loud and staticky when Namjoon does, setting the phone down on the table. “Jimin, where are you? What’s happening?”
“We’re at the hostel,” Jimin says, and even through the bad reception his voice is full of fear. “And—I don’t know, Taehyung, I—”
There’s a loud clatter and a new voice resonates through the phone.
“Who’s speaking? Why don’t you tell me who’s speaking?”
“No ask-backs, I asked first,” says the voice, and Taehyung’s eyes go wide.
Jeongguk feels his blood turn to ice.
“What have you done with him,” Namjoon demands. “I am the Supreme, release him at once or you will have Hell to pay.”
“Ah, is this the Supreme? I am Cha Hakyeon, head voodoo master. It is a pleasure to be finally speaking to you. I’m under the impression you have another Supreme under your wing, though. Is he present?”
Jeongguk opens his mouth, but before he can answer, Namjoon says, “No. He’s not here.”
“Mmm,” Hakyeon hums. “This is going to be hard if you’re going to lie to me. Let’s try that again. I’m under the impression you have another Supreme under your wing. Is he present?”
There is a cry of pain from the other end, and Taehyung grabs the sides of the table as if he can physically dive through Namjoon’s phone.
“You let him go!” he shouts. “Don’t touch him or I’ll—”
“Shut up, Kim Taehyung, even in prison you could never shut your sorry trap,” Hakyeon hisses. “Where is the Second Supreme? I want to talk to him, not a reject of a warlock so pathetic that even Hell spat him back out.”
Taehyung recoils, and Jeongguk feels anger rising in his chest. “Don’t talk to him like that,” he says. “And don’t you dare hurt Park Jimin. What do you want?”
“Oh dear, is that you, Jeon Jeongguk?” Hakyeon says. “Wow. I have to say, I didn’t expect it from you. I’m impressed. What we want is pretty simple. Your convocation and our clan. There’s only room enough for one group of magic in this city and it’s not you.”
“Is that a challenge,” Jeongguk says. “Are you waiting for us to accept it?”
“Well, we’re not really waiting, are we,” and another grunt of pain, this time from someone that sounds like Seokjin. “It’s now or never.”
Namjoon hangs up on him. “Call the Council, and call Yoongi. He must have heard them coming, there’s no way he’s still hanging out around the hostel right now.”
“How are we getting there?”
“Are you not the warlocks?” Namjoon asks, throwing on a jacket. “And do you not know how to use Transmutation?”
There are seven masters, just like Hoseok had predicted. There are all huge, imposing, and to the naked eye far more threatening than a ragtag group of teenage warlocks. The queens are no better, petite killing machines, perhaps even more intimidating than the masters, line up in row in the back parking lot of the hostel.
Jimin has a nasty cut across his cheek, and he’s pinned to the ground by some unseen force beside Seokjin. Even when the clan takes their attention off of them to face the convocation approaching, they aren’t freed, struggling against their restraints.
“Somehow I expected the Second Supreme to be older,” one of the queens says, and Jeongguk squints. “I didn’t know warlocks had to recruit children for their cause now.”
“Cut the crap, how do you want to do this,” Namjoon says, rolling up his sleeves. “Because it’s going to be a lot easier if you just hand those two over and we can be done with this shit.”
“Oh my God, it’s a fight a to the death,” the tiniest queen says. “If this wasn’t obvious already. Oh, but I’m Gain, by the way. I have manners.”
“I cannot believe I am putting off my paper for this shit,” Namjoon mutters. “Oh, what the hell. Let’s do this. He vanishes from beside Jeongguk, and even the clan don’t seem ready. One of the masters is knocked to the ground as Namjoon appears before him, slamming him in the chest. Seokjin wriggles free, jumping to his feet and slashing a kitchen knife through his arm the second he regains control of his limbs, and the rest of them take this as a cue to run head-on into the fight.
“Nice,” Jeongguk comments, when the master he’s grappling with howls as the cut appears in his flesh, but he only counters this with bashing his head into the ground, and a bruised, bloody lump erupts in Hoseok’s forehead. He yelps in pain, clutching his head as he struggles to hold off one of the queens, who has a knife held to his throat. Then she flies off of him, slamming into the side of the hostel and crumples to the ground.
“That’s what you get for calling us useless,” Hoseok mutters, getting up and brushing himself off.
They find out that the knives the queens use are laced with a voodoo poison, as soon as Jeongguk gets Jimin back onto his feet again. None of them are particularly good at hand to hand combat, and with one human voodoo doll on either side, it becomes a struggle to hurt the other by stabbing their own respective dolls.
Jeongguk find himself facing the queen that had taunted him earlier, dodging well-aimed, deadly swipes. He uses telekinesis to disarm her but she seems to have something that counteracts everything he tries on her, even immune to the tactic Hoseok had used on the queen named Narsha.
“You can’t beat me, warlock,” she says, and he appears behind her. She hardly misses a beat, turning to aim more stabs at him. “No matter how strong you may be as the Second Supreme.”
He sees the amulet that’s hanging around her neck. It flashes, he notices, every time she deflects one of his attacks, and aims to grab at it, rip it off her neck.
“Oh, trying something new, are we?” she says, face turning to one of concern when he gets too close.
But then, Jeongguk hears, “Taehyung!”
He turns, and Jimin is trapped under a master, and Taehyung is sucking the life out of one of the queens with Vitalum Vitalis where she’s pinned under him, but another master is creeping up on him, a knife raised over his head.
Taehyung turns, but just enough to meet Jeongguk’s eyes, and immediately his face is filled with horror, not at the master behind him, but—
A warm slash of pain sear across Jeongguk’s neck, and his blood burns; he chokes when it seeps into his windpipe and he looks back only to see Gain smirking, twirling the knife in her fingers.
The world fades around the edges as Jeongguk feels himself falling back, hands coming up to clutch at his throat. Taehyung appears over him just as the world goes dark and he thinks, Oh, Taehyung, to die by your side is such a wonderful way to die.
“Sleeping in class? I knew you were a gutsy one but isn’t it a bit rude to be sleeping in company like me?”
Jeongguk jackknifes upright, looking around him, only to find that he’s here again—in a classroom full of desks, alone. Standing before him is that same man that he’d seen hovering over Taehyung the first time he went into Descensum, red eyes and black wings.
“Who are you?”
“I am the Devil,” he says smoothly. “So your boss, in a sense.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says. “So, I’m dead?”
“Yes,” replies the Devil simply. “You are dead.”
“Oh, no,” Jeongguk says. “Oh no, I was the Second Supreme, and I—”
“But,” the Devil says, “I am the Devil. And I can decide who to keep, and who to send back to the world of the living.”
Jeongguk blinks. “Are you going to keep me here? I thought Death was going to be more...nothingness than this. That’s what Taehyung told me.”
“So, knowing what he told you, what do you think I’m going to do with you?”
“Send me back?”
The Devil doesn’t answer this. Instead he smiles, a terrible little grin, and says instead,
“Do you want to know why you are the Second Supreme, Jeon Jeongguk?”
Jeongguk has questioned it before, sure, wondered why it was him and not more powerful warlocks in their convocation—Taehyung, who fought so hard. Jimin, who knew magic like an old friend. Yoongi, who could see all and said nothing. Why not Hoseok, why not Seokjin?
“Why?” he asks.
The Devil leans back, folding his wings so that the tips cross behind him. “It’s a long story, and we don’t have much time,” he begins. “But it’s because of Yoongi, and Taehyung.”
Jeongguk stays silent, waiting for him to continue.
“Yoongi was originally the Second Supreme,” the Devil says. “He would have been a powerful one, one to be feared, while Namjoon is one to be respected. Before the seven of you, there were twelve, and Yoongi was the one who came the closest to the crown until he failed concilium. But also originally, Taehyung was going to die, once and for all, during Vitalum Vitalis. He is only here now thanks to Yoongi.”
“Yoongi gave away his Second crown,” Jeongguk says slowly, “for Taehyung?”
“Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung,” says the Devil, sighing like a parent who isn’t sure what to do with a delinquent child. “The story with him is complicated. He should have joined me years ago, you know. From the moment that first tuna came back to life before his eyes, I was waiting on this side for him, but he slipped right out of my grasp. Then I thought I had him years later, when his cousins burned him at the stake, but no, he vanished like smoke between my fingers.”
“Why him?” Jeongguk asks, knowing full well he shouldn’t be challenging the Devil of all things. “Why do you want him so bad?”
“Because there is a give and take among life, Hell, and Heaven, Jeon Jeongguk,” snaps the Devil, face turning hawkish, red eyes glowing. “Hell needs practitioners of magic who are full of light to keep this place intact. Too many bad souls and we collapse here, and chaos escapes into the world of the living. Why do you think there is so much evil in your world? Think about all the death, the rape, and the mysteries that never get solved anymore. Why do you think that’s happening? Do you know how hard it is for me to take away the good to keep here in Hell, only to protect the living?”
He relaxes at the sight of Jeongguk cowering in his desk. “And Taehyung, your Taehyung, was exactly that. He was supposed to die, you know. And he wouldn’t have had enough energy to use Resurgence. But then Min Yoongi asked me, ‘Save him. Whoever it is, don’t let him die.’ I’m not sure why, actually. Yoongi doesn’t care much for anyone.”
“That’s not true,” Jeongguk objects. “He cares about us. He was worried for us when the voodoo clan attacked us in the prison. He cared about us enough to trade away his crown to save whichever one of us it was.”
“Well, granted, he didn’t know he was trading away his crown,” the Devil says. “But you are missing my point, Jeongguk, this isn’t about Min Yoongi. I knew it was going to be Taehyung that would die during Vitalum Vitalis, and here he was, asking me to let him live, and of course I was going to wonder why—so the night that you first made love, I came to pay you a long-overdue visit. At first I saw your drive, your determination. And I saw Taehyung.
“Fears can tell a lot about a person, little friend. And all of yours matched up with your strengths. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of disappointing the people that mean so much to you—your teachers, your parents. I was impressed, Jeongguk, because it is not often I see these qualities in someone your age, and I didn’t think I would again so soon after Namjoon. But I dug deeper, because if I was going to take Yoongi’s crown away from him, I had to have a very good reason, no?”
“Of course,” Jeongguk says, barely breathing now.
“So I did. I tunneled deeper, and then I saw it—your fear of losing Taehyung. It was raw, and new, a fear that is fresh and more like terror than the sleeping dread of failure. Taehyung, the one person that survives your curse. Taehyung, who looks at you like there’s nothing else in this world. Taehyung, who has lived, and died, to meet you.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk says, and his chest feels so tight, throat full. “Oh.”
“And I understood,” the Devil smiles, and oddly, it isn’t malicious, or eerie, and for a moment Jeongguk thinks he can see the angel he once was in that smile. The man he once was before he became the angel that eventually fell. “Finally, I understood who you were—someone that I, the Devil, have been losing to since the moment you were born, Jeongguk. I have been chasing Kim Taehyung’s soul across lifetimes and he’s been escaping me all this time for you.” He frowns, then. “Don’t cry, little friend.”
Jeongguk wipes at his cheeks furiously, the breath burning is his lungs as the struggles to keep the sobs down.
“But why are you telling me this now?”
“Because I did not crown you Second Supreme for you to give in,” the Devil says, anger flaring anew in his voice, and Jeongguk shrinks into himself again. “I saw your talent, Jeongguk, I saw your drive to succeed, and I knew that you would wear the crown well. It is not your time yet. It will come, but until then, I did not put the existence of Hell at risk by relinquishing Taehyung, only for you to leave him in the living world alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeongguk says, traitor tears slipping down his face. “I’ll go back now. I’m sorry, I didn’t—I didn’t know—”
The Devil sighs. “Bring me back some voodoo souls, little friend,” he says wearily. “If I’m going to uphold Hell down here, you better damn help me.”
“I will,” Jeongguk says. “You can count on me to.”
The Devil smiles again, and this time it’s a twisted one. “Attaboy,” he says. “That’s what I want to see in my Supremes.”
There is blinding pain in Jeongguk’s neck when he wakes, gasping for breath, but he is very much in the world of the living again.
Hoseok’s voice is full of wonder, and he lays both of his palms against Jeongguk’s chest, checking for breath. “Jeongguk, are you with me?”
“I’m here,” he says broken, voice a whisper. “What’s happening? What’s going on?”
“I’m injured and they’re holding off Hakyeon and Jea,” Hoseok says, “the most powerful of the clan, the head master and head queen. They needed Taehyung to help but with me out of commission and most of them bleeding, I don’t know how it’s going.”
“I’m going out there,” Jeongguk says, sitting up, and Hoseok pushes him back down with one arm, and Jeongguk notices, stomach twisting, the horrible angle at which Hoseok’s arm is broken.
“Are you kidding? I don’t even know how you’re alive, you were poisoned with one of their most potent—”
“I had heart-to-heart with the Devil, actually,” Jeongguk admits, “and he said...he said I still have shit to do here.”
Hoseok stares at him, and Jeongguk sits up more slowly this time, laying a hand on Hoseok’s.
“It’s okay, hyung. I know what I’m doing. I’m Second Supreme, aren’t I?”
Hoseok lets him go, quirking the side of his mouth.
“The Devil himself, huh?”
“Then go,” Hoseok says, “And bathe Hell with their blood.”
When Jeongguk lets himself back out, he feels the eyes of the convocation turn to him before he hears the gasps of shock and delight.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says fuzzily, when he walks over to stand next to Taehyung, who’s bleeding heavily from a gash on his forehead, right on his pulse point. His hair is matted with blood. “Am I dead?”
“No, you’re alive,” Jeongguk says. “I’m alive, you’re alive. I’m here, and I’m not going anywhere.” He turns to Hakyeon, who looks thunderstruck.
“Surprise, bitch,” Jeongguk snarls. “Bet you thought you’d seen the last of me.”
“It’s not possible,” Jea says, shaking her head. “That blade was tipped with lethal poison. Nothing survives that.”
“I’m just going to make this easy,” Jeongguk says, slipping the bloody blade out of Jimin’s hand. “We can kill who we want, but if death spits it right back, there is nothing you can quite do about it, can you?”
Jeongguk appears behind her, drawing the knife over her neck before stabbing in deep, feeling the tip crunch through bone. A warm spray of blood spurts onto his hands and Jeonguk lets her fall to the ground, eyes wide and staring.
Hakyeon doesn’t move a muscle even as Jea’s blood pools in his direction, staring at Jeongguk like he can’t bring himself to acknowledge this reality. It isn’t until Jeongguk makes a step towards him that he jumps, hissing, bringing his knife up.
“You’re still going to try me?” Jeongguk says. “You’re outnumbered, hyung. Frankly, I’m surprised you’re still here.”
“How are you here,” Hakyeon snarls. “You were dead! I saw it with my own eyes!”
“Trust me, I saw it too,” Jeongguk says. “And have you forgotten? I asked first. No ask-backs.”
Hakyeon disregards his words, lunging one last time; but the knife slips from his graps, clatters to the floor as Hakyeon ages rapidly before their eyes, skin wrinkling, sagging, hair turning white. He grabs his wrist, fingers clawed, as his limbs turn wizened, dried, as if he’s been mummified before their eyes. His screams reverberate around them, and then he falls at Jeongguk’s feet.
“Is he gone?” Jimin asks, voice shaking in the silence.
Jeongguk turns around, shivering from the sudden influx of energy pulsing in his body.
“He’s gone,” he says. “Long live the convocation.”
Yoongi makes a mental note that the next time he meets the Devil, he has to thank him. Somehow, he knows he won’t be seeing much of the Devil in the time to come, but it wouldn’t hurt.
Jeongguk may not be as powerful as Yoongi, but he makes a good Supreme—working alongside Namjoon after the bodies of the voodoo clan have been burned to make sure everyone who was injured is wrapped up long enough to make it to the hospital, dividing Hakyeon’s energy surplus among the six of them.
He returns to the Namjoon’s apartment with Jeongguk and Namjoon first, and the rest of them come back in waves depending on injury level—Jimin and Seokjin, then Hoseok and Taehyung the next day. Taehyung takes one look at Kkanji sleeping with Jeongguk on the couch and throws himself at him. Curiously, Jeongguk reports that he cannot smell the delicious aroma of Seokjin’s cooking that night, and Taehyung stares at him with a face full of wonder.
“Like me?” he asks.
“Like you,” Jeongguk replies. “I guess the Devil wasn’t going to let me off that easy.”
Yoongi pretends to retch into his soup when he hears, But you, I can still smell. Only you, and Jeongguk seems to know exactly what he’s reacting to and just laughs.
Only when the seven of them are gathered here like this, in the same room they had had the test of the Seven Wonders, do they realize that this means goodbye. They had come together in the wake of a rising evil and together they had defeated it.
“You don’t have to move out if you don’t want to,” Namjoon says when Hoseok brings up the idea of moving back to Gwangju. “I don’t know, I got used to your presence here. And I don’t want to find another roommate.”
“Really?” Hoseok asks, brightening. “I can stay?”
“You can stay.”
“I should go back to Incheon,” Seokjin says. “Talk to Gukjoo. Get a beating. Then tell the kitchen all my adventures, because I know I’ve got a story to tell.”
“Wow, if you’re doing that, then I have to go back to Busan to find Sungjae! Maybe by the time I do he’ll be released on probation already,” Taehyung says, hooking his chin over Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Come with me?”
“Always,” Jeongguk murmurs, so soft that Yoongi is the only other person besides Taehyung who catches it.
“What are you going to do?” Seokjin asks Yoongi. Jimin is curled up kittenishly between his legs, sleeping with his back against Seokjin’s chest with his head lolling on Seokjins’s shoulder. His hair falls into his eyes and Yoongi is tired enough to feel abnormally sappy, so reaches forward and brushes some of it away from Jimin’s face.
“I don’t know yet,” Yoongi says thoughtfully, and stretches out on the couch. His feet find their way into Jeongguk’s lap and he scrunches his nose, squirming in Taehyung’s grasp, halfheartedly trying to shake his hyung off. “But first, I think I shall take a nap.”
Yes, a nap sounds good, Yoongi thinks as he folds his hands behind his head and closes his eyes with a sigh. A long, dreamless nap.