“That brings today’s ceremony to a close. Graduates, I hope your foray into the working world is a fruitful one. Underclassmen, please give your congratulations to the Class Primus graduates of 5191.”
Jeon Jeongguk, standing at the back of the award hall with the rest of the Felidae, claps politely. The end-of-year ceremony always drags on, and frankly, he’d rather be in the Quiet Zone having a catnap than here, but, well, the Paradisus Institute insists on making the undergraduates sit through the award ceremonies each year as ‘motivation’.
Taehyung is snoring next to him, head lolling down and whole body swaying precariously. Jeongguk snorts. Motivation, yeah, right.
“Hey,” Jeongguk whispers, elbowing Taehyung before their supervisor comes over and gives Taehyung a penalty. Taehyung jerks awake with a loud yowl just as the hall is quieting down, and a Felidae in the row before them turns around, eyes flashing with annoyance in the dim lighting.
“Is it over?” Taehyung asks blearily. Jeongguk resists the urge to bury his head in his hands. How Taehyung manages to fall asleep while standing up is a mystery to him, but then again, this is Kim “But Look! Catnip!” Taehyung.
“Respect your elders, kid,” the Felidae in front of them hisses, giving Taehyung a look of great disdain and turning back to face the platform at the front of the hall.
“Sorry,” Jeongguk mutters, tail flicking against his legs in second-hand embarrassment. Taehyung just sticks his tongue out at the guy’s back, and Jeongguk elbows him again.
Before them, the hall starts clearing out, the Selachimorpha and Delphinidae exiting to the water portals while the Accipitridae head upwards to the air portals. Taehyung leans his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder as the Felidae head to the combat portal, following after the Canidae and other Felidae.
“So,” Taehyung drawls. “Anything interesting happen in the last two hours?”
Jeongguk narrows his eyes. “Did you sleep through the whole thing? You should pay attention. You have to sit the placement test next year, don’t you?”
Taehyung pulls a face, yawning lazily. “Whatever. I’m happy being a Class Tertius.”
The transport portals buzz with noise as the undergraduates file to their respective waiting rooms, the Canidae heading left while the Felidae head right. There’s a hoverlist in the middle of the Felidae room, with a complete listing of the Felidae graduates of this year, and Jeongguk warily eyes the group of undergrads crowding around it.
“Jeonggukkie, come look,” Taehyung says from within the crowd, and one of Jeongguk’s ears swivels in Taehyung’s direction. Taehyung slides out, grabbing Jeongguk’s hand and pulling him towards the list. “Hey, what happened to that slacker who’s always giving us a hard time during training?”
“Who, Choi Seongho?” Jeongguk quickly scans the profiles on the hoverlist, divided into Classes Primus, Secundus, and Tertius, then frowns when he doesn’t see the ID picture of the distinctive spotted leopard ears belonging to Seongho. “Huh, he’s not there. Maybe he got classed as a Quartus. Sent out to work at the borders near the Invio.”
Taehyung shudders at the word. “Well, good riddance.”
Jeongguk shoots Taehyung a look. “If you don’t step up your game, you’ll be right there next to him.”
The line in front of them moves as the portal doors slide open, revealing the portal shuttle back to the Felidae compound. Taehyung yawns as he gets in, pulling Jeongguk along with him. “I still have a year to up my grades. It’ll be fine.”
The doors close behind them and the shuttle whooshes through the portal at supersonic speeds. Jeongguk raises his hands to cover his ears, grimacing at the unearthly roaring. For all the amazing technological and scientific advances the Paradisus Institute have been able to make, it seems like the one thing that has never changed through the history of humankind is how much the transport system sucks.
Jeongguk peeks at his wristband. 1530. Strength training starts at 1600, and dinner is at 1800. Jeongguk bites his lip. He could probably change out of his uniform and squeeze in a nap before training…
“Hey,” Taehyung says as the shuttle arrives at its destination, all the Felidae uncovering their ears and filing out with unanimous grumbles. He pulls Jeongguk aside, out of the traffic flow, hands clasping Jeongguk’s shoulders. “Can I ask you a question?”
Jeongguk gulps. “Yeah?” Taehyung looks grim, two-toned eyes taking on a grey hue, the way they do when Taehyung is concentrating, deep in thought.
Taehyung sighs, lowering his head, then looks up at Jeongguk, a grin creeping onto his face.
“Do you feel like fish crisps?”
The city of Kardiae was known as Seoul in the olden days, before the Age of Mortem.
The Age of Mortem was a devastating one for humankind. Jeongguk’s learnt all about it during history classes—or, at least, enough about it to scrape a pass in his history exams. There had been a terrible pandemic in the year 5028 that wiped out the majority of the world’s population, an incurable mutating trypanosomiasis coronavirus known as the Mortem Virus. Over the course of 48 hours, infected victims would experience fever, ulcers, muscle pain, swollen lymph nodes, seizures, and finally, the internal organs would swell up and burst inside the body, the victim bleeding out. It hit out of nowhere, devastating cities overnight and essentially bringing civilisation to a grinding halt.
An incurable epidemic.
A group of scientists who called themselves Paradisus Animalia were the saving grace of the human race. Through previous experimentation with animal genomes, they were able to create temporary immunity from the Mortem Virus—by, injecting animal T-cells into the bloodstream, they could delay the fatal effects of the virus, and through more advanced genetic grafting, replacing strands of human DNA with animal chromosomes, they were able to create human-animal hybrids totally immune from the initial strain. Although these hybrids had a much shorter lifespan and higher chance of DNA rejection, relying on reserves of pure human blood and plasma to maintain their regenerative abilities, at least they were able to survive past the devastating attacks of Mortem. These hybrids—or Hybrida, as they are now known—worked together with the humans, Homini, and were able to salvage Seoul and create a protective barrier around it, naming the new city Kardiae. No sooner had the Kardiae been established, mutations of the Mortem Virus ravaged the lands, wiping out all flora and fauna, turning fertile greenery to barren, diseased wastelands.
Now, the city is divided into four rings, concentric circle within concentric circle. Jeongguk has never been outside, but he’s heard about it, the outermost circle, where the Class Quartus are sent, the ring most susceptible to Mortem if it were to ever penetrate the walls. Snug within the first barrier, is the Paradisus Institute, now the leading scientific organisation for Hybrida development and training. This is where Jeon Jeongguk, a seventeen-year-old cat hybrid, has spent his whole life.
Currently, said Jeon Jeongguk is sullenly holding a packet of dried fish crisps, following behind his joke of a best friend Kim Taehyung.
“I can’t believe I’m skipping out on my nap so I can watch you be an idiot,” Jeongguk mutters as Taehyung bats at a hanging ball filled with catnip. The Play Zone is quiet at this time of the afternoon, the other Felidae opting to do more sane things like rest in the Quiet Zone or catch up on their studies in the library, but nothing deters Kim Taehyung from having his fun.
“You love me,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk gives a noncommittal grunt as acknowledgement.
Taehyung jumps onto the nearby balance beam, still chomping on his dried fish, takes two steps, then immediately wobbles off, barely landing on his feet.
“For a Felidae, you are insanely uncoordinated,” Jeongguk says, eyebrow raised. Although the Hybrida keep their human forms, virtually indistinguishable from the Homini save for a pair of ears and swooshy tails for the Felidae and Canidae, or gills on the neck and shark teeth for the Selachimorpha, they’re meant to display the abilities of their Base animals—and for the Felidae, that means agility, stealth, balance, and superb night vision.
Too bad all Taehyung exhibits is an overwhelming amount of love for fish and way too much playful curiosity—both of which make Jeongguk’s life a living hell on a frequent basis.
“I’m a great Felidae!” Taehyung says indignantly, green eyes flashing gold as he dusts himself off. His ears twitch as he clambers onto the scratching post, launching from the top and leaping off, missing squashing Jeongguk to a pancake by a hair’s breadth. “Whoops! See, I always land on my feet!”
“Yeah, except for when you land on your face,” Jeongguk retorts, tugging on Taehyung’s ears. Taehyung yowls, batting Jeongguk’s hand away, then whips Jeongguk in the face with a slender tail.
“Just because you’re a preliminary Primus,” Taehyung says, pouting. “Not all of us have perfectly developed night vision and balance sense like you.”
Jeongguk pulls a face, curling up underneath the scratching post. Although Paradisus scientists can now fuse the human and animal DNA together with a higher lifespan and lower rejection rate, they still rely on human blood transfusions and are unable to select the specific qualities active in each Hybrida. Some Hybrida only display minimal Base animal abilities, while some, like Jeongguk, satisfy the checklist for most desirable Felidae attributes, automatically making him a strong contender for Class Primus.
And while Taehyung doesn’t seem too concerned with his Tertius ranking, Jeongguk doesn’t want anything happening to him. It’s a slim chance, but Taehyung’s physical and academic records aren’t exactly stellar, which already puts him at the bottom of the preliminary Class Tertius cohort. If he falls too many ranks, he might get pushed to Class Quartus, sent out to work in the outer borders of the Kardiae, one flimsy protective wall between him and the Invio.
There hasn’t been a serious case of Mortem for over half a century, but they can’t let their guards down. The Mortem Virus is not gone, only stewing in dormancy, mutating to attack its next victim. The government issues warnings every so often when the drones in the Invio test higher levels of airborne viruses, and it’s up to the Hybrida sent to the outer ring to maintain the walls and strengthen the airtight barriers, for the death of the Homini in the inner circle also means the loss of the blood and plasma needed to sustain their lives.
The Hybrida in training are lucky to be granted a space in the innermost circle of Kardiae, where the majority of the Homini reside. But if they don’t keep their performance up, exhibit the necessary qualities at the gradings, there’s every chance they’ll be sent to the outermost ring, right next to the Invio.
“Just… Keep your grades up, okay?” Jeongguk murmurs.
“Don’t worry,” Taehyung says, curling up next to Jeongguk, tail flicking along the nape of Jeongguk’s neck. He holds up his packet of fish crisps, grinning. “If worst comes to worst, I can always bribe the instructors with a lifetime’s supply of these.”
The Hybrida only get two hours of free time a day, and although Jeongguk should be in the library brushing up for his upcoming grading, he spends most of it napping. He always does well without much study anyway, much to the chagrin of his classmates who spend the weeks preceding the exams curled up poring over books or practising combat at the training rooms.
It’s a lazy Thursday afternoon when Jeongguk’s nap is interrupted—yet again—by Taehyung.
“Hey,” Taehyung whispers, snuggling next to Jeongguk on the beanbag. Jeongguk groans, curling up and covering his ears. “Hey, Jeongguk, wake up, I have something to show you.”
“It better not be your dick,” Jeongguk mutters, irritable. Kim Taehyung is possibly the only Felidae Jeongguk likes enough to keep around—although he’d never admit that to Taehyung’s face—but right now he wants to stuff a gag in Taehyung’s mouth to make him shut up. Taehyung pokes him again, and Jeongguk bats his hand away. “Can this wait until after my nap?”
“It’s not my dick, you’ll see that when I’m scheduled for my heat,” Taehyung says with a wink, tugging on Jeongguk’s arm and dragging him upright. Jeongguk just glares at him, eyes barely open. “And it has to be now, or we’ll miss the chance. Come on!”
Against Jeongguk’s better instincts, he ends up following Taehyung. Taehyung leads him through the corridors of the Institute, from the Quiet Zone to the training grounds, all the way to the back door of the Foodhall, where they’re served their meals each day. Before Jeongguk can protest, Taehyung’s levering the door open with an unsheathed claw, dragging Jeongguk in with him as he slides the door closed behind them with a gentle click.
“Goddammit, Taehyung, we shouldn’t be here, it’s out of bounds until dinner, and our wristbands are still—” Jeongguk starts, but Taehyung’s already halfway across the empty hall, bounding towards the kitchen area. Jeongguk sighs deeply, trudging behind. If they get penalties because of this…
Jeongguk’s going to fucking torch Taehyung’s entire furball collection.
“Look, Jeongguk, look at this,” Taehyung says as Jeongguk pulls up to him, voice brimming with excitement.
There’s a small panel next to the waste disposal, and Taehyung lifts up the flap to reveal an opening just big enough for one person to fit through. Jeongguk sniffs it gingerly. It smells of raw vegetables, fish, and fertiliser—foodstuff before they’re processed for consumption. This must be the chute where the Felidae’s food rations are sent up from the Foodfarms to the kitchens each day, which means…
“Are you crazy?” Jeongguk hisses, grabbing Taehyung by the collar. “What are you doing? We can’t go in there! Don’t you remember rule five of the Commandments?”
“Don’t worry,” Taehyung says for the umpteenth time today as he deftly unclasps his wristband, setting it on the floor and squeezing himself into the chute. Jeongguk gives a frustrated sigh and Taehyung pokes his head back up, grinning. “Rule five only says not to exit Paradisus grounds without permission. We’re not leaving Paradisus, don’t shit your pants. Just exploring a little. Come on!”
Well, wherever Taehyung’s going, Jeongguk sure as hell isn’t letting him stir up trouble on his own. Jeongguk undoes his wristband before clambering in after Taehyung, closing the flap behind him. Kim Taehyung is going to be the death of him.
The chute is dark, cold, and slippery, and Jeongguk can barely make out Taehyung in front of him, even with his brilliant night vision. He swivels his ears around, dragging himself forwards after Taehyung, jolting at the clanking of machinery and electric buzzing echoing in the tunnel. There’s a strange smell permeating the air, getting stronger with every body length Jeongguk moves. The stench is strange and unpleasant, but familiar, almost like last year’s Domus Games where he’d been surrounded by a pack of Canidae…
Jeongguk freezes. Not almost. Exactly.
“What the hell?” Jeongguk hisses as he grabs Taehyung’s ankle. “You’re leading us to the Canidae compound? Have you completely lost your mind?”
“Relax,” Taehyung says, eyes flashing in the darkness. “They’re friendly! Well, mostly. Don’t talk to the Canidae who have grey hair and red eyes. I think their Base animal might be wolves.”
“Wolves,” Jeongguk says slowly. “You’re throwing me to the wolves.”
“If everything goes well,” Taehyung says, stopping at the chute on the other end of the tunnel, grinning as he lifts the flap and peeks around, “there will be no one unpleasant in the Canidae Foodhall at this time.”
Jeongguk contemplates leaving Taehyung and crawling right back the way he came from. Unfortunately, Taehyung is already out the chute, and he grabs Jeongguk’s hand, yanking Jeongguk out with him.
Jeongguk lands on all fours, squinting as his eyes adjust to the sudden brightness.
There’s a face in front of him. Bright blue eyes, coarse black hair, and two perky ears.
Jeongguk shrinks away, on full alert, hair on the back of his neck standing up and tail stiff. He must have his attack face on, because the Canidae backs away a few steps, ears flattened in alarm, before laughing.
“Taehyungie, you came!” The Canidae gives Taehyung a wave, then fixes his gaze back on Jeongguk, tail wagging curiously. “And you brought a friend.”
“Hiya, Jimin!” Taehyung says cheerfully, completely unperturbed that there is a Canidae in front of him, because apparently, Taehyung knows this Canidae. “You on break too?”
Jimin nods. “It’s playtime for us. I have an hour until scent training.” Jeongguk shuffles, and Jimin blinks at him, tilting his head. “Hey, Taehyung, your friend looks like he’s about to scratch my eyes out.”
“Come on, Jeongguk,” Taehyung coaxes, patting Jeongguk’s cheek with the tip of his tail. Jeongguk glares at him, and Taehyung giggles. “Play nice.”
Jeongguk eyes Jimin warily, inching forward and uncurling his body. Jimin’s smaller than the typical Canidae, but well-built, fit, lean, and muscular, with large black-and-white ears and a bushy grey tail. His hair is matted, fur-like, brilliant blue eyes curling up into crescents as he smiles at Jeongguk. God, Jeongguk thinks, struck dumb, this Canidae really has a beautiful smile.
Taehyung grins, pulling Jeongguk upright and curling an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders. “That’s it. Jeongguk, this is Jimin. He’s the same age as me, preliminary Class Secundus.”
“Just for your information, my Base animal is the Siberian Husky,” Jimin explains, puffing his chest up in pride. “I’m the strongest and fastest in my Class.”
Now that Jimin’s closer, Jeongguk can really smell him, a distinct, familiar scent cutting through the other Canidae stench. Jeongguk wrinkles his nose. This is strange. Jimin is a Canidae, but… he smells nice. Pleasant. Homely. Jeongguk feels like he’s been around this scent before. Some foggy part of his brain jogs, but the recollection slips through his grasp and he’s left clueless. Well, whatever. It’s not important. The Felidae and Canidae don’t interact outside of the annual Domus Games of end-of-year award ceremonies, so it must’ve been there.
“My Base animal is an Abyssinian,” Taehyung says, preening. “And Jeonggukkie is a Lynx! He’s a preliminary Class Primus! Aren’t you, Jeongguk?”
Jeongguk gives a half-hearted shrug, and the corner of Jimin’s lips curl up into a grin.
“I don’t think your friend likes me all that much,” Jimin announces, “but that’s okay. I like you!” Jimin takes a step towards Jeongguk, and Jeongguk twitches violently as Jimin’s hand reaches for Jeongguk’s head, fingers rubbing against the velvety fur of Jeongguk’s pink-tipped ears. “And your ears. Your ears are cute.”
“Don’t touch me, mutt,” Jeongguk spits out, alarmed. Jimin pulls away, hurt written in his brilliant eyes—and Jeongguk is almost apologetic for his words—but before Jeongguk can apologise, there’s a kerfuffle outside the Foodhall, the sound of a rowdy group approaching, and Jeongguk ducks, pulling Taehyung down underneath the counter with him. A mechanical door whirrs open, and the stench of more dog fills the air. Jimin stand to the side, tail between his legs, blocking the two Felidae from sight.
“Park Jimin!” a voice sounds out. “What are you doing in here? It’s not dinnertime yet. Come on, let’s go play a game of fetch until training.”
“Fetch?” Jeongguk mouths, making an expression of disbelief at Taehyung. Taehyung muffles a giggle, shrugging at Jeongguk. God, who in their right mind would find fetch a fun game?
Evidently, Park Jimin. His tail starts wagging, bushy tip hitting Jeongguk right in the mouth, and Jeongguk has half a mind to unsheathe his claws and give Jimin’s tail a nice little makeover right there and then. Damn mutts. No sense of personal space.
“Just give me a minute, Hakyeon!” Jimin shouts, waving in the direction of the door, and the footsteps retreat from the Foodhall.
“Well,” Taehyung says, when the door finally clicks closed, “I think he’s gone.”
“We should go too,” Jeongguk mutters, letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding and tugging on Taehyung’s sleeve. They’ve been here too long already, and it’s too dangerous to stay. If either of them are caught by the monitors, god forbid, they’ll rack up enough penalties to be dropped to Class Quartus and sent to the outermost ring, right next to the Invio. The Institute hates those who don’t follow the rules and punishes them accordingly. “Come on, Taehyung, let’s go.”
“Sorry you have to leave so soon,” Jimin says as he lifts the flap of the food chute for Taehyung and Jeongguk to clamber back in. “Come visit again! I always have break at this time of the day. It’s nice to have cute kitties around sometimes.”
“Cute kitties,” Jeongguk echoes weakly, but the flap’s already closed and Jimin’s footsteps are fading into the distance.
Jeongguk refuses to talk to Taehyung for a week after the Canidae Incident. This proves slightly difficult, considering Taehyung is in his personal space pretty much all the fucking time, and his room is in the same cluster as Jeongguk’s, but Jeongguk carries on stoically, determined to mete out his punishment.
It’s not that Jeongguk’s exactly mad at Taehyung. Just… The unplanned excursion had taken him off-guard. The fact that Taehyung, Kim Taehyung, who’d stuck to Jeongguk like a barnacle ever since Jeongguk passed Socialisation and entered the Felidae compound at age ten; Kim Taehyung, who’d held Jeongguk’s hand and helped Jeongguk through his first induced heat at age fifteen; Kim Taehyung, who can’t keep quiet long enough to hide secrets from Jeongguk, has been wandering off on his own doing dangerous things like this. Taehyung’s constantly up to no good, that much Jeongguk knows, but his antics have never been something as serious as breaching one of the Commandments of the Paradisus Institute.
And then there’s Jimin. Park Jimin, a Canidae, a friendly Canidae at that, with his clear blue eyes and infectious smile. Jeongguk doesn’t even get along well with the rest of the Felidae, bar Taehyung. To think that he could be at ease around a Canidae, that he felt familiarity in Jimin’s presence…
It scares Jeongguk.
Jeongguk jumps, eyes snapping to the front to meet the Kim Seokjin’s inquisitive gaze. Seokjin, the dorm supervisor, is also their history teacher and one of the only Homini Jeongguk’s ever met.
“Um.” Jeongguk stands up, swiping to power off his readerpad. The class has already ended, the rest of the Felidae already filing out the door and heading to the Foodhall for lunch. Jeongguk grimaces. He’s been zoning out the entire history lesson. “Yeah, I’m—I’m fine.”
Seokjin frowns, walking up and sitting on Jeongguk’s desk. He studies Jeongguk carefully, contemplatively. “You don’t look fine. Does this have anything to do with your quarrel with Kim Taehyung?”
“What,” Jeongguk blurts out rudely, taken aback, then claps his hands over his mouth. Seokjin’s lip quirks up in amusement. “I mean, uh… Is it that obvious, teach?”
“Well, apart from the fact that you’re always together and for the past week I’ve been passing you both in the hallways alone? And that Kim Taehyung has been moping in all my classes and zoning out just like you? Yeah.”
The back of Jeongguk’s neck heats up as he flushes, embarrassed. He hadn’t thought Seokjin was attentive enough to remember little details like this, but he’s been keeping closer tabs on them than expected. “It’s nothing. We’ll sort it out.”
Seokjin nods, placing a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I hope you do. It’s lunchtime, so I won’t keep you much longer, but…” He stands up and makes his way back to the front of the classroom, reopening the door for Jeongguk. “Just, the two of you… Don’t get yourselves into too much trouble, okay? Be careful.”
“Yes, teach,” Jeongguk mumbles, darting out the door.
With Seokjin’s words in mind, Jeongguk finally breaks his silent treatment that night when Taehyung turns up at his door with a signed copy of G-Kitten’s newest holodisk.
“Don’t do that again,” Jeongguk mutters, letting Taehyung in and placing the holodisk next to all his other G-Kitten merch. Taehyung grins happily, flinging himself onto Jeongguk’s bed. “We’re fucking lucky we didn’t get caught. I can’t believe you found a way to the Canidae complex. The Institute’s meant to be the most secure area in Kardiae.”
“Well, it wasn’t on purpose,” Taehyung says, rolling over onto his stomach and cupping his head in his hands, “I was just in the Foodhall after hours trying to find the snacks they confiscated from me. I tripped and found the tunnel and it kind of just… happened?”
Right. Jeongguk closes his eyes, rubbing at his temples. For a second there he thought Taehyung had some sort of super secret information, but evidently, he’s just a bumbling idiot with two left feet.
“Isn’t Jiminnie nice, though?” Taehyung continues, tail flicking back and forth. “I was scared shitless the first time I was in the Canidae Foodhall, but it was just Jimin there digging through the trash for the chewbone he accidentally threw away.”
“If he was looking for trash, he sure found some,” Jeongguk says pointedly, flopping down next to Taehyung.
Taehyung gives Jeongguk a wounded look. “Are you calling me trash?”
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, grinning. “You are a piece of dog-loving trash.”
“Oh, come on,” Taehyung says, rolling his eyes. “What do you have against Canidae? We’re not that different. No matter what Domus we’re in, we’re all still ninety-seven percent human. Aren’t you at least a little curious about how the Canidae live? How Jimin lives? Or what it’s like outside Paradisus?”
Well… Jeongguk would be lying if he said he wasn’t—but he also knows too much curiosity brings about risks and penalties he’s not prepared to take. Taehyung is impulsive and reckless, but Jeongguk is not. And, really, they’re taught enough about the other Domus and the outside world in class that there’s no need to step out until they graduate. Life is comfortable here. Jeongguk doesn’t want to break the status quo.
“All I’m saying is that you should be careful what you’re curious about,” Jeongguk mutters. “Remember what taught us? Canidae are unstable and unpredictable around Felidae. They’re dangerous.”
Taehyung shrugs. “I don’t care what they say. Plus, didn’t you notice it too? Jimin’s different from the others. He doesn’t have the same acrid Canidae stench around him.”
Yeah. Yeah, Jeongguk’s noticed alright. Jimin’s scent has been haunting him since that day, an annoying stray thought at the back of his mind that he can’t shake off, but can’t quite place either. In any case, it’s not his place to lecture Taehyung, and it’s not like he can convince Taehyung to do otherwise, not with how stubborn Taehyung is once he’s set his mind on something.
“Just promise me you won’t do anything else dumb again.”
Taehyung grunts and flops down face-first on Jeongguk’s pillow.
Taehyung’s heat is scheduled for early February, which gives Jeongguk a little over a week to prepare, both mentally and physically.
One of the burdens that came with being born a Felidae or Canidae Hybrida, Jeongguk had learnt in a particularly scarring sex education class that Jeongguk never spoke of ever again, was the increased sex drive and heat cycles. It was an effect of hybridism that the scientists hadn’t fully managed to negate, but one thing they could do was control the timing and intensity of the heats. Every half-year, Felidae over age fifteen are drug-induced into a weaker, carefully monitored heat meant to curb the ‘natural’ heat from kicking in. Unfortunately, this supposedly ‘weaker’ heat is still ridiculously overwhelming, and even more unfortunately, the compounds are gender-segregated, which means the only ones who can help out during this trying time are fellow male Felidae.
And, well, Taehyung has helped Jeongguk through every single one of his induced heats, so Jeongguk doesn’t mind returning the favour.
Taehyung’s pupils are dilated into narrow slits when he comes out of the medical centre, hands balled into fists and tail tightly coiled. Jeongguk grins, patting Taehyung on the shoulder as they walk down the corridor and back to their sleeping quarters. “So, I’m guessing the heat’s kicked in?”
“Yep,” Taehyung says tersely, voice cracking. “I think I’m about to cream my pants.”
“Christ,” Jeongguk mutters, as he finally enters Taehyung’s room and Taehyung slams him against the metal door, almost ripping Jeongguk’s uniform off with his nails. “Easy there, kitten.”
“Fucking hell,” Taehyung growls out, pinning Jeongguk’s wrists to the door and mouthing at Jeongguk’s neck, sharpened teeth grazing against Jeongguk’s soft skin and leaving angry red marks along the line of his jawbone. “I’m—fuck, I’m dripping.”
“Already?” Jeongguk pulls one arm out of Taehyung’s grip and reaches between them, sliding a hand down to Taehyung’s crotch and palming Taehyung over the fabric of his uniform. Taehyung’s already straining against his pantsuit, a wet patch spreading fast in the rear, just below where his tail is flicking back and forth restlessly. “Damn, that was faster than usual.”
“I swear that medical officer gave me more dilator than usual,” Taehyung whines, clawing at the buttons of his uniform, like he can’t undo them fast enough. He rips his clothes off, still mouthing at Jeongguk’s skin, then grabs Jeongguk by the shoulders and guides him to the bed, pushing him down and sitting on his lap. Jeongguk gulps, feeling the hardness of Taehyung’s cock against his belly and the warm wetness of Taehyung’s precome seeping through his own uniform and onto his thigh. Taehyung rubs up against Jeongguk’s thigh, little whines coming out of his mouth. “G-god, look at all this. I don’t usually get this wet.”
“Are you complaining?” Jeongguk asks, quirking an eyebrow, and Taehyung just growls as he undoes Jeongguk’s buttons and yanks Jeongguk’s clothes off, underwear and all, mouth hovering just above Jeongguk’s cock, now laid bare. He brings one hand down to finger himself, moaning as his fingers slide in slick and easy, and Jeongguk laughs. “Yeah, thought so.”
Taehyung doesn’t even bother to reply, simply taking Jeongguk into his mouth greedily while simultaneously rocking back on his own fingers, fucking himself open. Jeongguk raises an arm to his mouth, biting down on his forearm as Taehyung works wonders with his tongue, resisting the urge to buck up into Taehyung’s mouth.
“Hey,” Taehyung breathes out, just when it’s starting to get really good, popping Jeongguk’s cock out of his mouth. “Do you think Jiminnie does this too? With the other Canidae?”
“What the hell?” Jeongguk hisses and swats at Taehyung’s head with an open hand. “Don’t bring up Jimin now.” Jeongguk’s boner is aching by this point, cock almost doubled in size now he’s fully hard, and Taehyung licks at the head of Jeongguk’s cock one last time, kittenishly, before scrambling up and smoothing his hands over Jeongguk’s chest, thumbs running over the ridge of Jeongguk’s collarbone.
“He’d be going hard for days,” Taehyung says as he spreads his legs, positioning Jeongguk’s cock so its head is brushing against Taehyung’s entrance. “You know what they say about Canidae heats.”
Yeah, Jeongguk knows. Or, he’s heard the stories. With Felidae, it’s fast—usually, they can get it over with within the same day if they go at it hard enough, but Canidae heats are rumoured to last for days on end, even when they’re weaker inducements. Jeongguk doesn’t know how they manage to keep up days of this, but it’s certainly commendable.
“You know how to many any situation unsexy,” Jeongguk mutters as Taehyung sinks down, gasping as Taehyung clenches, a beautiful tight heat around his cock. Taehyung rolls his hips desperately, riding Jeongguk at a frantic pace, scrabbling at Jeongguk’s chest, shoulders for support. Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut, trying really hard not to think about Taehyung’s words. About the length of Canidae heats. About a room days locked, reeking of sex and pheromones, about Jimin on all fours, panting and looking completely wrecked as he’s fucked from behind—
“Shit,” Taehyung whimpers as he blows his load twice in quick succession, decorating Jeongguk’s belly and chest with strings of white, clenching around Jeongguk so hard that Jeongguk loses it and comes inside Taehyung, hot and sticky. “Shit, more.”
It’s well into the night by the time Taehyung’s fucked out of his first heat, coming down from his high. Taehyung is somewhat of an anomaly—his heats come and go in intense spikes over the course of twenty-four hours, and he needs to be sated for each one. Jeongguk collapses next to Taehyung as Taehyung’s breathing slows and he curls up against Jeongguk’s body, soft ears brushing against Jeongguk’s bruised, scratched collarbones.
“I don’t know how I’m going to survive the rest of the night,” Jeongguk murmurs, draping an arm over Taehyung and pulling him in. His entire body aches, a slow but pleasant throbbing, his pulse still racing from overexertion. In his last heat, Jeongguk had left a sizeable dent on his desk from slamming Taehyung too hard onto it, the frenzied, insatiable want coursing from his fingertips to his toes. He’s up for inducement soon, right after the gradings, which means this arrangement will have to repeat itself quite soon. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it when I’m scheduled.”
“Well, you don’t want to skip it,” Taehyung remarks, rolling over onto his belly and cupping his head in his hands. “It’s either this or get your ass hauled to ICU.”
“What?” Jeongguk cracks an eye open. “ICU?”
Taehyung lowers his voice conspiratorially, lips right next to Jeongguk’s ear. “A guy from my grade was found seizuring and babbling nonsense in the bathroom with a burning fever, so they took him to intensive care. They say he turned feral because he skipped his inducement. No one’s been allowed to see him for a week now.”
“Huh.” Jeongguk’s never known anyone dumb enough to skip inducement—what kind of idiot would want to pass up one of the only days they actually have their schedules officially cleared to have sex?—but if that was the consequence, there’s no way he’s ever skipping his.
“Apparently something similar happened last year too.” Taehyung, ever the post-coital chatterbox, rests his head on Jeongguk’s chest, tail flicking slowly up and down Jeongguk’s leg. “Remember the final-year Class Primus we always used to see in the same corner of the Quiet Zone, then he stopped turning up one day and we figured he was just busy with training?”
“You mean Jung Taekwoon?” Jeongguk remembers him alright, tall, quiet, always hanging out by himself, stoic expression plastered on his face like he could rip out and devour the heart of anyone who got on his bad side.
“Yeah. He wasn’t off training, I heard when they were gossiping this morning in agility training. Some medical officers suspected a fever and he was taken to ICU, except he was never released, and no one saw him in training again.”
Jeongguk frowns. “You sure?” Usually, when the Felidae get sick, they’re taken to the medical office where they get their usual transfusions and inducement shots, and the staff there sort them out. Only the most serious cases are escalated to ICU, and Jeongguk’s never been, but he hears it’s off-base from the main Paradisus building and a hassle to get to.
Taehyung yawns, pushing himself upright and sitting back on his heels, stretching, muscles rippling in the dim light. “Eh, who knows, it’s probably just the people in my grade stirring up shit after Ren was hauled off.”
“I hope that’s it,” Jeongguk mutters, and Taehyung climbs onto Jeongguk, grinning widely.
“Anyway, enough of that.” Taehyung’s cock is standing at full attention once again, pink and flushed, second spike having kicked in, and Jeongguk mutters a prayer under his breath. “Round two?”
Jeongguk can’t walk properly after Taehyung’s heat is finally over, but other than that, he’s back on his feet and ready to go back to training right after his usual weekly transfusion.
“I’ve given you slightly more plasma to make up for the liquid you’ve lost,” the medical staff explains, holding a bag filled with clear liquid and hooking it up to the osmosis patches plastered all over Jeongguk’s arms. “Don’t worry too much if you get dizzy, that’s just your body reacting to the transfusion, you know the drill.”
Taehyung takes longer to bounce back, burnt out from his heat, but in about a week he’s his usual chipper self again, bouncing around and annoying Jeongguk in the Quiet Zone after training.
In the following month, tapestries of the Felidae emblem pop up all around the hallways, in the training rooms, and from the ceiling of the Foodhall, intricate embroideries of green and gold. The atmosphere in the Felidae compound changes to one of excited buzzing resounding everywhere.
“Two weeks,” Taehyung announces gleefully, mouth full of stew. Pieces of carrot and chicken spray onto the table, and Jeongguk makes a disgusted face at Taehyung. “The Domus Games are in two weeks!”
Jeongguk’s not particularly excited, but he understands why everybody else is. The Domus Games, held a month before gradings, are the only other time in the year where all of the different Hybrida have a chance to meet face-to-face, battling each other competitively. It’s not such a big deal to the lower years, but to final years, the Domus Games is the last chance have to gain merits and push their rankings between Classes—from Tertius to Secundus, from Secundus to Primus. Only the best three in the grade for each Class make selections, and the Domus scoring the most wins overall is awarded with new amenities in the Active Zone.
The Felidae representatives had been chosen long ago through preliminary selections held earlier in the year, and Jeongguk’s outstanding abilities naturally secured him a spot in the competitor lineups.
“Are you trying to put pressure on me here?” Jeongguk mutters, rolling his eyes. Although Taehyung’s never participated as a competitor in the Games, whenever this time of year rolls around, he’s always the most enthusiastic cheerleader.
“But it’ll be fun!” Taehyung beams at Jeongguk. “You’ll get to battle the Class Primus from the other Domus. Aren’t you excited? And hey,” Taehyung adds, dropping his voice, “we might be able to see Jimin again.”
“I can’t believe you’re still going on about him,” Jeongguk says with a sigh. “We haven’t seen him for well over a month, he’s probably forgotten about us.” Taehyung nods, then shrugs guiltily, and Jeongguk’s eyes narrow. “Wait.”
“I haven’t been caught!” Taehyung protests before Jeongguk can chew him out, hands held out in front of him defensively. “I’ve only been going during night! I’ve been careful!”
“I told you—” Jeongguk hisses out, before realising he’s involuntarily stood up and the Felidae around him are staring. He sits back down, smoothing his ears, wiping his face with his hands, and tries again. “I told you not to do anything dumb. You know our supervisor’s already suspicious of you, right? Kim Seokjin? He’s more observant than he looks. Be careful.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taehyung mumbles, sticking his fork in his bread roll. “Anyway, Jimin said he was competing this year, in the strength and speed events. I said we’d watch his games.”
“I should strap you to your bed so you can’t get up to more trouble,” Jeongguk says longsufferingly, and swats at Taehyung’s face when Taehyung smiles lecherously. “Not like that, you pervert.”
“Anyway,” Taehyung says, reaching over and squishing Jeongguk’s cheeks between two hands, “good luck for your training, I’ll be cheering in the audience.”
The arena for the Domus Games is off-base from the living and training areas, ten minutes from the Felidae compound by portal. By the time Jeongguk arrives with the rest of the Felidae competitors, the stadium seats are already filled out, divided into eight sections, one for each Domus. Jeongguk sweeps his eyes around the arena. The Felidae and Canidae are seated in the sections next to each other, followed by the Ursidae bears, then the Selachimorpha sharks and Delphinidae dolphins from the West Atrium, the Accipitridae eagles from the North, and finally the Equidae horses and Bovinae oxen from the South Atrium.
Jeongguk looks back to the Felidae seating area to see Kim Taehyung standing up in the crowd and waving at him with both hands, a huge grin plastered on his face. Jeongguk gives a wave back, grinning at Taehyung’s enthusiasm, before he’s ushered into the competitor waiting rooms by the supervisor.
It’s deathly quiet in the waiting area, all of the competitors sitting with their respective Domus, nervous tension buzzing in the air. None of them are talking—they’re not allowed too much interaction between different Domus anyway, with the supervisors watching their every move, ready to penalise them if there’s too much conversation going on—and Jeongguk takes his spot at the back of the room, biting on his lower lip anxiously.
The doors whirr open, and Jeongguk looks up to see a group of Canidae at the entrance, wolfish smiles gleaming and red eyes fiery as they make their way into the room.
And then, a flash of white and blue.
Jeongguk’s breath catches in his throat as his eyes gravitate towards Park Jimin. In the month that Jeongguk hasn’t seen Jimin, Jimin’s… definitely been training. He carries himself with more confidence now, head held high, jawline sharp and arms well-defined. Jimin turns, catching Jeongguk’s gaze, and he stands there dumbfounded for a few seconds before he whips his head in the other direction and walks on with the rest of the Canidae.
“Is that really a Canidae?” Bambam, one of the Class Tertius competitors from Jeongguk’s grade, asks under his breath as Jimin makes his way to the back of the room. “Why’re his eyes blue? He looks so different from the rest of them.”
“Probably has a different Base animal,” Kim Jongin, Class Primus upperclassman, replies. “Most of the Canidae who make it to the Games have wolves as their Base, but sometimes the other breeds can outperform.” He eyes Bambam up and down, leaning back on his hands. “Just like how you’re a Siamese and still managed to pass prelims.”
The air next to Jeongguk fills with a sweet, musky scent, and Jeongguk tenses up, ears perking. They’re not meant to let on that they know each other—how could they, two Hybrida from different grades and different Domus?—so it’s dangerous to even acknowledge each other, but…
Jeongguk sneaks a look at Jimin. Jimin’s looking straight ahead, concentrating on the supervisor, hands clenched into fists. Jeongguk looks back to the front, but flicks his tail to brush it against Jimin’s, lips twitching into a smile when Jimin reciprocates, wagging his bushy tail against Jeongguk’s. The tension goes out of Jeongguk’s body.
“Hey,” Jimin mutters under his breath, when the supervisors are explaining the rules. “Long time no see.”
“Sorry,” Jeongguk mumbles back. “I guess I’m not a delinquent like Taehyung is.”
“He’s a strange one,” Jimin murmurs back, faint trace of a smile on his face. Jeongguk rolls his eyes. Strange doesn’t even begin to cover it. “He’s been visiting almost every week. Mentions you a lot.” Jeongguk huffs under his breath, and Jimin’s grin widens. “Apparently you’re a very big help during heat.”
“Oh, dear lord,” Jeongguk says, closing his eyes. Of course Taehyung would blab all about that. He has no shame. “I’m going to kill Taehyung. If I don’t get killed in these Games first.”
The supervisors finish up their explanations, motioning for the Class Tertius competitors to proceed to the main arena, and the nervous tension is back in Jeongguk’s belly.
“What are you in today?” Jimin asks, watching as the Tertius file out of the room, faces grim. “I’m in the long distance and weight-hauling events.”
“Obstacle course, agility, and sparring.” Jeongguk had gotten a bad bite from one of the Canidae in last year’s sparring event that he’s not keen to replicate this year. Granted, he’d also left a nasty scratch on the Canidae’s face, nearly taking out his eye, so he could probably call it even. “Reserve for weight-hauling.”
“Well, I’ll be cheering you on,” Jimin says, breaking out into a smile, eyes narrowing into beautiful crescents, and Jeongguk smiles back nervously.
All in all, the first round of each event goes pretty well for Jeongguk. He places first for the obstacle course, second in agility, and advances to the finals in sparring. When he turns to the crowd, Taehyung’s standing up in the stands again, waving two hands proudly, and Jeongguk waves back, grinning.
Taehyung bounds up to Jeongguk during lunch break, almost suffocating Jeongguk with his crushing hug.
“Congratulaaaaaations!” Taehyung singsongs. He looks happier for Jeongguk than Jeongguk is himself.
“I’m sweating, get off me,” Jeongguk says half-heartedly, but doesn’t move to push Taehyung off, like he would’ve done to anyone else.
The competitors are allowed back into the stands for this lunch hour only, a time for fellow Hybrida to congratulate them on their first round successes and hype them up for the finals or console them on their losses. There’s a bunch of final year Class Primus seated behind them, all congratulating Kim Jongin on making it to the finals of agility, while a couple of rows down Bambam is being consoled for missing the ladder rung on obstacle.
“Jimin made finals for weight-hauling,” Taehyung says, pointing over at the Canidae area where Jimin’s surrounded by a bunch of Canidae who are all ruffling his hair and shoving food in Jimin’s mouth. At the plateau halfway up the stands, a group of Canidae are chucking a ball around, chasing after it in a game of fetch, and Taehyung looks upon them wistfully.
“You should’ve been a Canidae,” Jeongguk says longsufferingly. “You’re sure as yappy as one. I bet you’d enjoy a game of fetch too. Fetch, kitty! Fetch!”
“It looks fun, actually,” Taehyung says, pouting. “I wonder if Jimin will teach us how to play.”
“I’m not even going to remind you how many supervisors there are roaming around today,” Jeongguk says with a groan, leaning back in his seat. “Don’t do anything dumb. I’m going to take a nap. Wake me up when break is over.”
“You’re no fun,” Taehyung says, then throws a jacket over Jeongguk’s face. “I’m gonna go check out the food trucks. Sleep well, child.”
Jeongguk’s almost drifting off when a voice cuts cuts through his foggy mind, pulling him back to consciousness. His ears twitch, swivelling involuntarily to face the sound, and it seems like it’s coming from a group of Felidae who’ve just settled into the seats in front of him.
“So,” the voice sounds again, and Jeongguk puts a name to it—Park Jinyoung, one of the final year Class Secundus Felidae. Jeongguk’s sparred with him on a few occasions during mixed grade training. “I was eavesdropping on the Accipitridae in the waiting room, and you wouldn’t believe what I heard.”
“This better not be a lead-up to another one of your lameass jokes,” someone grumbles.
“No, no, I promise it isn’t, this is good.” There’s a shuffling sound, and Jinyoung lowers his voice. “You know Professor Shin Joohak?”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. Who doesn’t know him? Shin Joohak, the current co-head of the Paradisus Institute and one of the leading scientists in Hybrida research. None of them have ever seen him in person before, but all the supervisors answer to either him or Kim Youngmin, the other co-head.
“Well, one of the Accipitridae was sneaking around the main office after curfew and saw him and Professor Kim Youngmin having a huge spat. He didn’t catch exactly what it was about, but apparently they mentioned something about Ren—you know, the kid a grade below us who was taken to ICU?”
“Yeah,” someone mutters. “He’s still not out, is he?”
“Well… Look, this is all unconfirmed, but apparently Professor Shin was talking about how he just ‘needs more time to figure out the virus’ and Professor Kim was getting mad and saying something about how he’d given Professor Shin enough chances and ‘look how things turned out with those Felidaes and Canidaes, they had a damn seizure.’”
Jeongguk’s head is spinning, beads of cold sweat forming on his neck. This isn’t some regular conversational gossip. This is serious shit, and Jinyoung definitely wouldn’t be talking about it if he’d realised that the jacket in the row behind him wasn’t actually just a jacket.
“What does that mean? What virus? Are they talking about…?”
Jeongguk holds his breath, staying completely still, waiting for Jinyoung to go on. Viruses are almost unheard of these days, especially in the heart of the Kardiae. If Jeongguk’s instincts are correct, then this could mean Ren being moved to the ICU wasn’t simply because he’d skipped inducement.
This could mean…
“Heck if I know,” Jinyoung says, cutting into Jeongguk’s train of thought. “That was all I heard before I was called up to the arena for my event. Anyway, keep this a secret, don’t tell anyone else, we might get into trouble.”
“Jeonggukkie!” Taehyung’s voice rings out, and Jeongguk curses internally. Master of bad timing, Kim Taehyung. Taehyung bounds up, pulling the jacket off Jeongguk’s face, and Jeongguk puts on the best act he can of looking like he’s just been roused by Taehyung and not, in fact, been eavesdropping on Jinyoung’s entire conversation. “Jeonggukkie, look, they have cheese balls at the food truck, I got you one—”
“How much did you hear?” Jinyoung interrupts stonily, staring straight at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk puts on a clueless face, blinking innocently at Jinyoung.
“Hear what?” Taehyung cocks his head, bright eyes flashing expectantly at Jinyoung. He sits down, shoving the cheese balls into Jeongguk’s hands and gripping the back of Jinyoung’s seat. Jinyoung backs away, eyebrows shooting up. “Gossip? I love gossip! Tell me!”
“Uh.” Jinyoung’s eyes flicker between Jeongguk, the dripping cheese balls in Jeongguk’s hands, and Taehyung, before he exchanges a long look with the group of Class Secundus Felidae he was talking to. “It’s nothing. Never mind.”
“I’m…” Jeongguk stands up, shoving the food back in Taehyung’s hands and wiping the grease off on Taehyung’s jacket. Jinyoung’s eyes follow him warily, and Jeongguk gives a casual smile. “I’m, uh, gonna go get ready for the finals. Good luck for your events, Jinyoung.”
“Yeah,” Jinyoung says, gaze fixed to the back of Jeongguk’s neck. “Good luck to you, too.”
Jeongguk can’t concentrate for the rest of the day, mind wandering to Jinyoung’s words, about the ICU, the virus, and his performance suffers. It’s not a big deal for him personally—after all, he’s already Class Primus, so he’s not like the Class Secundus who are trying to climb ranks—but he doesn’t miss the way that the other Felidae look at him scornfully, disappointed that his terrible results have blown their chances at being the winning Domus. Even Jimin’s eyes flicker to him when they cross paths, expression concerned, and Jeongguk just closes his eyes, blocking everything out of his mind.
“Jeongguk,” Kim Seokjin says, pulling Jeongguk aside just as he’s about to enter the waiting rooms and change out of his competition uniform into something more comfortable. “What happened out there?”
“Nothing,” Jeongguk says, shrugging. “I guess the first round tired me out more than I thought.”
Seokjin frowns. “You usually have good stamina though.” He presses a hand to Jeongguk’s forehead, and Jeongguk jerks back at the sudden contact, arms raised defensively. “Are you… feeling unwell? Dizzy? Feverish?”
“No,” Jeongguk blurts out. The warning bells are dinging at the back of his head. He had been ready to dismiss what Jinyoung was saying earlier, but from the way that Seokjin is acting, there must be something behind it. “I’m fine, I’m not sick or anything. Just didn’t have much to eat for lunch, so I burned out.”
“Okay,” Seokjin says, dropping his hand. He looks Jeongguk up and down, lips pressed together tightly. “Okay, but if you do get sick, you come to me first, got it?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, shoulders tense. “Yes, teach, I will.”
The Canidae end up racking up the most points for their Domus, securing them a new game simulator for their Active Room, and Jeongguk gets back to the Felidae portal to cold faces and disappointed whispers.
“You did your best, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung says, wrapping an arm around Jeongguk and pulling him in tight. A bunch of Felidae pass by Jeongguk, glaring at him, and Taehyung hisses at their backs, which is really funny because he looks as intimidating as a newborn kitten, which is to say not at all. “Hey, don’t beat yourself up over it, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I know,” Jeongguk says, squeezing Taehyung’s hand. “It’s fine, I’m fine.”
“If anyone gives you any problems, just send them to me,” Taehyung says with false bravado, puffing his chest up, and Jeongguk lets out a chuckle. “I’ll sort them right out.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk replies. “Thanks, Taehyung.”
Somehow, Jeongguk thinks, they’re going to have much bigger problems to deal with than losing out on a game machine.
Jeongguk’s on high alert after the Domus Games, paying extra attention to the supervisors as they roam the hallways, to the hushed whispers and bits of gossip floating around in the Foodhall, but everything is as normal, day in, day out. There are no more cases of illness, no mentions of the ICU, and Jeongguk thinks that maybe it was just a rumour after all.
It’s April before shit hits the fan.
Jeongguk’s on his way to the medical office to get his inducement shot when his wristband beeps twice with a message from the head office. He stops in his track, bringing up the message on his hoverpad. Messages from the head office are rare, usually only reserved for big announcements and special events.
All inducements and training are cancelled today. Please return to your rooms immediately and remain inside until instructed.
Jeongguk frowns. He’s only a couple of metres away from the medical office, and it doesn’t make sense that they’d suddenly cancel inducements, not with how much noise there’d been around the consequences of skipping inducement. He runs forward, swiping his wristband at the sliding metal door that separates the hallway from medical centre, and—
“Fuck! Grab the straps! Hold him down!”
Jeongguk ducks as a metal tray flies at his head, clattering onto the ground. There’s a medical officer lying on the chemical cabinet next to the sink, blood spurting from a gash in his neck in rhythmic pulses. Two other officers are trying to strap a seizuring Felidae down onto the patient chair with little success, the Felidae thrashing around, claws unsheathed. An IV bag gets yanked out of the holder, spilling all over the floor, and the Felidae turns his head, staring straight at Jeongguk.
“Shit,” Jeongguk breathes out.
His face is contorted into an expression of pain, spots akin to bruises appearing in brown and black patches on his neck and all over his arms, but it’s unmistakable. This is Park Jinyoung, the same Park Jinyoung who’d been spreading that story at the Domus Games all those weeks ago.
Jinyoung lets out a howling roar, scratching wildly at the medical officer who’s trying to hold Jinyoung’s left arm down, and the officer screams in pain as claws dig into his face, slashing across his cheek and taking out an eye.
“Jin…young?” Jeongguk breathes. There’s something horribly wrong here. Jinyoung’s not a violent Felidae. To see Jinyoung like this, feral, wild, losing all control…
Jinyoung lets out one more howl, tail lashing around the neck of the second medical officer, and there’s nothing Jeongguk can do but stand there, rooted to the spot, as the metal doors to the medical office slide shut automatically, the travesty unfolding muffled once again behind soundproof walls.
The silence is deafening.
Taehyung’s waiting in front of Jeongguk’s door when Jeongguk finally makes his way back to the dorms.
“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, eyes wide. He takes two steps up to Jeongguk, holding Jeongguk’s shoulders. “Jeongguk, you’re sweating. Did you hear the announcement? What about your inducement? Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, running a hand through damp hair. “No. I mean, no inducement, yeah I’m fine.” His ears still ringing from the bloodcurdling screams he’d heard just moments ago. He’s been replaying the ghastly scene over and over again in his mind, cold chills running down his spine every single time. “And I saw the announcement. You should—you should be inside. Go.”
“But I’m going to die of boredom if I’m stuck in my room alone,” Taehyung says, blocking Jeongguk’s path. He squints, taking a closer look at Jeongguk’s face. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look a bit shaken. Let me in with you.”
Jeongguk sighs, then unlocks his door, pushing Taehyung in before he slides the door closed.
“What do you think’s going on?” Taehyung asks, sprawled on Jeongguk’s bed. Jeongguk’s sitting at Taehyung’s feet, head cradled in his hands. “Did you see anything when you were at the medical office?”
“Kind of,” Jeongguk says. He’s still debating how much he should tell Taehyung. Taehyung would most likely just be unnecessarily worried for something that Jeongguk doesn’t even have definite proof about, and the last thing Jeongguk wants to do it set off Taehyung the blabbermouth. “Let’s just wait it out until they give us more information, hmm?”
Not two seconds after those words have left Jeongguk’s mouth, the lights flicker out, plummeting the two of them into darkness. Jeongguk glances at his wristband, and the usual green glow emanating from the screen is no longer there, the whole thing powered off. Even the omnipresent electrical buzzing of the institute has faded to an eerie silence.
“Whoa,” Taehyung breathes, looking around the room, pupils blown out to compensate for the lack of light. “Whoa, was that a power outage?”
“Looks like it,” Jeongguk mutters. If all the power is out, then that means the electronic controls for their doors won’t work either, and neither will the security systems.
There’s a loud thump on Jeongguk’s door, and Jeongguk jumps, startled, before walking up to his door and looking through the peephole.
“What the fuck,” Jeongguk almost shouts when he sees who’s on the other side. Taehyung’s ears perk up, and Jeongguk motions for him to help pull the door open.
“Jimin,” Jeongguk breathes. Jeongguk’s heart is thumping at doubletime, threatening to jump right out of his chest, and he scours the darkened corridor, making sure no one else is there to witness a Canidae wandering around the Felidae dorms. “What the fuck? How the fuck—”
Jimin has the decency to look at least a little sheepish. “Hey. Uh, I tried Taehyung’s room but there was no answer, so I’m guessing he’s here. Can I talk to you?”
Jeongguk grabs Jimin by the pantsuit front, pulling him into the room and grunting as he pushes the door closed. “How did you get in here?”
“Well, from the looks of it, you’ve got a power outage on your side too,” Jimin remarks, lopsided grin on his face. “Also, the food chute stinks of fish. I don’t know how you guys crawled through that thing.”
Jeongguk rubs his temples. Even if Jimin had managed to get into the Foodhall, there’s no way he’d be able to find Jeongguk’s room, not within the hundreds of rooms in the dorms. Unless…
Jeongguk turns to stare at Taehyung. “Taehyung, did you tell him our room numbers?”
Taehyung gives a little guilty shrug. “Hey, it ended up being useful, didn’t it?” Jeongguk lets out a little harrumph. Jimin comes up to Taehyung, threading his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, and Taehyung positively purrs when Jimin strokes his ears. “It was only in case there was an emergency! Which there evidently is! Right?”
Jimin sighs, taking his hand out of Taehyung’s hair and leaning against the bedframe. “Look, I probably shouldn’t stay long, the systems will be back up at any moment, but I came to check something out.” He pauses, biting his lower lip, and Jeongguk stares, waiting for him to go on. “Have any Felidae been taken to the ICU recently? Because of seizures?”
Taehyung and Jeongguk exchange looks. “Yeah,” Taehyung says. “A guy called Ren. We were told the seizures happened because he skipped his inducement. Why?”
“That’s what they told us too,” Jimin says, voice heavy, “but I don’t think that’s the case at all. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with inducement.”
“Then…” Jeongguk sits down again, hunched over his knees. “What the hell is going on?”
“You guys probably don’t know, but…” Jimin lowers his voice. “There were three Canidae taken away to the ICU this morning, and then the announcement cancelling all inducements and training happened. There was that case earlier this year, when that final year was taken because he suddenly started seizuring during training, but this time, they were just a little feverish. Nothing the regular medical centre can’t sort out. And they were still sent to ICU.”
“Seokjin was asking if I was feverish,” Jeongguk breathes out. “Kim Seokjin. Our supervisor. He was… More concerned than usual. Told me to go straight to him if I felt sick.”
Jimin ponders for a moment. “There was a rumour going around at the Games,” he finally says. “I don’t know if you heard it.”
Jeongguk’s pulse is roaring in his ears. “The one about the Professors?” Jimin nods, and Jeongguk grimaces. “Yeah. Is it true?”
“What rumour?” Taehyung interrupts, frowning. “Jeongguk, you didn’t tell me anything. What rumour? What’s going on?”
“There’s more to it now,” Jimin continues, ignoring Taehyung. “You know how they were apparently arguing because of the way Professor Shin was dealing with the virus? Well, the story now is that they’re at odds with each other and Professor Kim’s set up a team to gather the virus carriers and contain them in ICU. No specifics what the virus is, but…” Jimin lets his sentence linger.
“Mortem,” Jeongguk finishes off. The image of Jinyoung on the medical table, eyes rolling up into the back of his head, body spasming, flashes vividly in Jeongguk’s mind. “It’s the Mortem Virus. Oh my god.”
“So it wasn’t just me thinking that,” Jimin says softly. “God, I was hoping I was wrong.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Taehyung says, standing up and putting a hand on Jeongguk and Jimin’s shoulders. “Hold up, back up, rewind. You think that there’s a case of Mortem inside Paradisus?”
“What else could it be?” Jimin asks. “The officials and supervisors are being hush-hush about the whole thing, probably because they don’t want us to panic. Hybrida are showing reactions we’ve never seen before, and it’s not just in one Domus either. The Equidae were talking about this happening in their compound too, at the Domus Games.”
“Just then,” Jeongguk says, barely audible. “At the medical office. I saw something, Jinyoung, Park Jinyoung, he was seizuring. Sliced the throat of a medical officer open. His claws were unsheathed.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this?” Taehyung hisses, whacking Jeongguk on the arm, and Jeongguk hits him back. “Okay, fair enough, I would’ve blabbed, but still. This is important shit!”
“Anyway, he had these…” Jeongguk runs his hands up and down his neck, then down both arms. “These brown and black patches all over here. Like bruises dotting his body. I didn’t see it too clearly, but… Didn’t they mention one of the symptoms of Mortem was internal bleeding?”
“That’s impossible,” Taehyung breathes. “This is the heart of the Kardiae. There hasn’t been a case of Mortem this far into the city, ever.”
There’s a loud creaking, clanking sound, and the electric buzzing starts up again. Jeongguk freezes, ears swivelling to the door. In the room, the lights flicker, and Jimin curses.
“Shit, I gotta go before they get security up,” he says, making his way to the door and looking through the peephole to make sure there’s no one outside. “Stay safe, you two.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, pulling the door open.
In the next three seconds, Jeon Jeongguk comes to a dazzling realisation that things are about to go very, very awry.
There’s a medical officer standing right outside Jeongguk’s door.
Jimin walks right into said medical officer standing outside Jeongguk’s door.
Oh, shit, there’s a medical officer outside Jeongguk’s door and Park Jimin, a Canidae, just walked into him while coming out of Jeongguk’s room.
The officer looks taken aback for a good few seconds, before sweeping his eyes between the three of them. Jimin falls back into Jeongguk’s arms, and Taehyung lets out a very high pitched squeaking sound, like he just swallowed a mouse.
Before Jeongguk can make up his mind whether to shove Jimin past the officer and tell him to run for it, or take Taehyung and make a dash for it, or pull Jimin back inside and barricade themselves inside his room, the medical officer’s hoverpad beeps loudly three times, and all three of them collapse on the floor simultaneously in a boneless heap.
“Well, well, well,” the medical officer says, stepping into Jeongguk’s room, tucking his hoverpad into his protective suit. Jeongguk can’t move his arms. Jeongguk can’t move anything. He’s completely paralysed, and quickly losing consciousness. “Professor Kim would be interested to see this.”
When Jeongguk comes to, it’s already dark—or at least, the room he’s in is completely dark. Jeongguk reaches up to rub his eyes, only to find that he’s completely immobilised, tied down to the bed, a tangled mess of wires and IVs poking under his skin, all over his body.
“Jeonggukkie?” There’s a groaning sound next to him, and Jeongguk cranes his head with great difficulty to see Taehyung on the bed next to his, similarly incapacitated. To Jeongguk’s right, someone shuffles, and Jeongguk turns his head to see Jimin blinking blearily. “Jiminnie?”
“Where are we?” Jeongguk croaks out. Now that he’s a little more conscious, he’s acutely aware of the pounding headache and sweat beading on his forehead. “What’s going on?”
“This must be the ICU,” Jimin says under his breath. He wiggles his arms, trying to get the needles out of his body, but the cuffs around his wrists are fastening him tight to the metal frame of the bed. “I was still half-conscious when the medical officer started moving us. They took us through the back of the medical office and down a cargo lift.”
“Doesn’t look like an intensive care unit to me,” Taehyung remarks. He strains against the handcuffs to no avail. “I don’t feel very cared for. Especially if they’re locking us down like this.”
Jeongguk’s fingers are tingling. He clenches his fist, and sharp pains travel along his arm, numb, tingling. His breath is short, shallow. The sweat is building up, a little burning churn squeezing his heart, prickling, hot, like… Like he’s bleeding from the inside.
“Ha!” Jimin suddenly blurts out, breaking the silence. He wiggles a little, striking something together, and there’s a dull blue light coming from Jimin’s hands, filling the room. “Emergency glowstones. Had them hidden in my tail.”
Now that there’s more light, Jeongguk can make out everything a lot better. There are six beds in the room, arranged in a circular pattern, the feet facing the centre, where a control panel is projecting their vital stats up on a hoverscreen. There’s no visible door, the panels of the walls completely smooth, enclosing them like a cylinder. Jeongguk looks closer at the beds. There’s a series of numbers and letters engraved into the metal bar holding together the headboard of the beds, and Jeongguk squints at the characters on the bed opposite his.
CND Kim Yugyeom #097. CND. Canidae.
“Hey, Jimin,” Jeongguk croaks, “does the name ‘Yugyeom’ sound familiar?”
Jimin frowns. “Yeah, that was the name of one of the kids who got taken away earlier this morning. Why?”
“Look at the headboards.” Jeongguk’s eyes flicker to the next bed. FLD Park Jinyoung #009.. Jinyoung. Park Jinyoung, who’d mortally injured three medical officers this morning in his seizure. “They have names and numbers on them. Even the beds in our dorm aren’t personalised like this.”
“Im Jaebum, number eleven,” Taehyung reads out, eyeing the bed next to Jimin. “Uh, Jimin, wasn’t that…?”
“The final-year who was hauled off earlier this year,” Jimin breathes. “Yeah. Suddenly started seizuring during training.”
“But what do the numbers mean?” Taehyung asks. He twists around, angling his head so he can see his own headboard. “My name’s on this thing. I’m number thirty.”
Jeongguk musters up the last of his energy so he can arch and see what’s on his own bed. FLD Jeon Jeongguk #091. “Ninety-one.”
“Thirteen,” Jimin says. There’s a long silence as the three of them contemplate. “Maybe they’re our ID numbers?”
Jeongguk closes his eyes. Even if they were, this doesn’t make sense, not for the Felidae and Canidae to be placed together in the same room of the ICU. Plus, if the medical officer had wanted to penalise Jeongguk and Taehyung for breaking rules the rules and hiding a Canidae, they would’ve just simply given out penalties or demoted them, not incapacitated them and dragged them down to this room hidden out of sight. And what did the medical officer mean earlier when he said that Professor Kim would be interested?
“Oh,” Taehyung says, sounding weak. Jeongguk turns his head, forcing heavy eyelids open. There’s a trail of red running down Taehyung’s face, soaking into the sheets underneath. “I’m… I think my nose is bleeding.”
Jimin starts coughing, a wracking, chest-rattling noise to Jeongguk’s right. Tiny sprays of red dot the front of Jimin’s uniform, and Jimin stares at his own chest in horror as the blood continues to drip out of his mouth. “My lungs.”
“Mortem,” Jeongguk mutters. His body flashes hot, cold, hot, dull throbbing pains, tingling, piercing. His eyes are going in and out of focus, the light from Jimin’s glowstones flickering in the darkness. “We’re being segregated because we have Mortem?”
“This fast?” Jimin asks, hacking. “It can’t be. We were fine a couple of hours ago.”
“Mortem kills in forty-eight hours,” Taehyung says, breathing heavily through his mouth.
There’s a clanking and thumping sound from the other side of the wall, and Jimin curses, shifting so he can hide his glowstones between his body and the bed.
“Hurry,” a hushed voice says, behind the walls of the room they’re in. Jeongguk’s ear twitches, swivelling towards the sound. “I can only override the security for five minutes. You have to get out of the building before then. Come on!”
A panel of the wall slides open, and a man steps in.
“T-teach?” Taehyung murmurs. Jeongguk squints. The man is none other than their supervisor Kim Seokjin. “Teach? Why are we—”
“Shh,” Seokjin says, striding towards the control panel in the middle and typing in a sequence. The humming of the monitors fades, light on the hoverscreen fading, and Seokjin cracks open a red glowstone. “Yoongi. All yours.”
A red-headed man Jeongguk’s never seen before steps in, hauling a long optic fibre rope and several body bags behind him. “Two Felidae, one Canidae,” the man—Yoongi—says. “This is it? Where are the rest?”
“They acted early,” Seokjin says, gritting his teeth. “Prof Kim’s orders. They originally scheduled it for next week, but then the accident happened this morning and they sped everything up. These are the only three left from this compound.”
Yoongi grunts, then strides right up to Jeongguk, jiggling the controls next to Jeongguk’s wrists, and the cuffs holding Jeongguk down come loose with a pop.
“Stay—” Jeongguk licks his parched lips. He can feel his senses dulling, vision blurring, limbs weakening. His head is throbbing with pain, and the feverish ache is spreading all over his body. Sickness. Virus. “Stay away. I have Mortem.”
There’s a loud chuckle, and Jeongguk’s being lifted from the bed, all the needles and wires pulled out of his body. Next to him, Seokjin’s doing the same to Jimin and Taehyung, yanking out all the wires and helping them up. “You sure run a tight ship here, Jin. Relax, kid, you don’t have Mortem.”
“But…” Jeongguk closes his eyes as Yoongi hoists him up, supporting Jeongguk on his shoulders and leading him out the door. “I’m burning up. I’m sick.”
Yoongi doesn’t reply, simply dropping Jeongguk down in one of the opened body bags, and Jeongguk sits there, dumbfounded and feverish.
“Who are you?” Jimin asks, as he’s similarly dumped next to Jeongguk. Taehyung, is dragged towards them, laid down in the third bodybag, and Jimin waves his hands around frantically. “What are you doing?”
“Saving your lives,” Yoongi says back, a little grumpily, and Jimin and Jeongguk exchange looks. Seokjin closes the panel behind them, a claw knife in his hand, and Jeongguk eyes it warily. “Look, I’d love to explain, but we kind of don’t have time here and I’d like to get you all out of here, preferably alive.”
“I’m not—” Jeongguk clambers out of the bag, stumbling back against the wall, and Seokjin and Yoongi just watch as he collapses, too weak to hold himself up. “I’m not going with you unless you tell me what’s going on.”
“Should’ve just sedated them,” Yoongi grumbles, unfurling the rope and securing it to the ends of the bags. “You want the short version? To quote from one of my favourite historical movies, ’you’ve been living in a dream world, Neo.’ Your entire life has been a lie and we’re here to snap you out of it.”
“Two minutes,” Seokjin warns. He walks up to Jeongguk, holding Jeongguk’s head firmly on his knee and exposing the back of his neck, a hand covering Jeongguk’s mouth. “Sorry, this’ll hurt a little.”
Seokjin stabs the end of the knife into the back of Jeongguk’s neck, twisting harshly and pulling, and Jeongguk can’t even call out, paralysed. There’s a sharp pain running up Jeongguk’s back, like hot, live wires are being wrenched out of his spinal cord, dots of white exploding in the back of his eyelids.
“Sorry, kid,” Yoongi says, as Seokjin carries Jeongguk and places him into the body bag. “You’ll hear the full truth soon, promise.”
Yoongi seals the bag over Jeongguk’s face, and Jeongguk blacks out.
Bright light. Piercing. Too bright. Strange smells. Earthen. Musty.
Jeongguk wakes with a jolt, sitting straight up, then claps a hand to the back of his neck as a sharp pain shoots through his spine. He turns his head gingerly. Taehyung’s lying on the mattress next to him, still knocked out, and on Taehyung’s other side, Jimin’s curled up protectively, tail over his face.
A blinding pain throbs in Jeongguk’s head, and Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut, flashes of the night before flooding his mind.
The medical office. Park Jinyoung. ICU. Seokjin. Yoongi. Mortem.
They’re not in Paradisus anymore.
Jeongguk turns his body, observing his surroundings. They’re in a small room, windowless, walls made of a material Jeongguk’s never seen before. There’s no door, but there is a stepladder leading to a trapdoor in the ceiling—and said trapdoor is opening at the very moment.
The man who clambers down the ladder is someone Jeongguk’s never seen. Jeongguk stares warily, taking in his blond hair, dusted with different coloured powders, the tanned skin, the white lab coat, the thick-rimmed glasses sitting on the man’s face. His smell is weak, plain, the same as Seokjin and Yoongi. Homini.
“You awake?” the man asks, setting aside a jug of water. Jimin stirs, uncurling himself as he lifts his head to look at the intruder, and the man pours a glass of water, putting it on the floor next to Jimin. He does the same for Taehyung and Jeongguk. “Sorry about last night, we were pressed for time. How do you feel?”
“Who are you?” Jeongguk croaks out. “Where are we?”
“I’m Kim Namjoon,” the man says, pulling the seat from the corner of the room closer to the beds and sitting down. “I’m a geneticist. And you’re in my safehouse under the lab.”
“Your safehouse,” Jeongguk repeats slowly. Next to him, Taehyung groans, stirring, and Jeongguk watches as he comes to, rubbing his eyes groggily and frowning as he sees Namjoon.
“Why did you take us?” Jimin asks, voice husky. Namjoon motions for Jimin to have a drink, and Jimin just stares warily at the glass. “How do I know it’s safe?”
“If I was going to kill you, I would’ve done that already,” Namjoon says dryly. “Drink up. You lost a lot of fluids last night and your body needs it to flush the drugs out of your system.”
“What drugs?” Taehyung’s asking, but he’s cut off by the sound of the trapdoor opening again. Jeongguk clenches his jaw. This time, it’s Yoongi coming down the ladder, a platter of food balanced precariously in his arms.
“Breakfast,” Yoongi says, sounding as grumpy as ever. He glances at Namjoon. “Well? Have you told them the story yet?”
“I was getting there,” Namjoon says, and Yoongi rolls his eyes.
“Sure taking your sweet time. Look, kids, here’s the deal.” Yoongi sets down the platter of food and claps his hands together. “Your entire life has been an elaborate construction. Nothing you know is real! You don’t live in the Kardiae, or whatever crap they said it was. This is Seoul! There are no ‘rings’, no protective barriers, no Invio, because there is no such thing as the Mortem Virus.”
“What do you mean our lives have been a construction?” Jeongguk says slowly. The dull throbbing ache in his head is back. “Mortem wiped out almost all of the humans in 5028. The Hybrida had to build the protective barriers for the Kardiae, so the Mortem Virus couldn’t get in—”
“I know this is a lot to take in,” Yoongi says, rather patronisingly, “but you’re going to have to forget everything they taught you at Paradisus.”
“Paradisus isn’t what you think it is,” Namjoon says, adjusting his glasses. “Do you want to hear the truth about the Institute?”
Jeongguk closes his eyes. This is crazy. They’ve just been strapped to a secret room in Paradisus, then busted out by a grumpy redhead, and now they’re in a decrepit room in god knows where, with two men they’ve never seen before in their lives telling them that their entire life has been a lie. This is beyond insane.
“Let’s hear it,” Jimin says, before Jeongguk can gather his thoughts. Taehyung nods, placing a hand on Jeongguk’s knee and patting it. “It won’t hurt to know.”
“Sit tight,” Namjoon says, bringing up a hoverscreen in the middle of the room. “This is going to be a long story.”
According to Namjoon, The Paradisus Institute was established fifty years ago when a group of scientists who discovered the DNA code to perfecting the human-animal hybrid sold their patent to a scientific corporation specialising in biological warfare. The Government of Asia had originally been against human experimentation, but after Paradisus supplied them with a squadron of Hybrida manufactured for attack, they changed their stance. Now, Paradisus is Asia’s leading scientific corporation, with bases in seven countries, their products dispatched all over the continent.
“When you graduate, you’re sold off to companies and wealthy families. The classes are nothing but price markers, categories for product quality, if you will.” Namjoon nods towards Jeongguk. “Jeongguk, you’re Class Primus. Class Primus fetch at least a million on the market. Secundus go for hundreds of thousands. Tertius are limited to private households, the cheapest of the lot. Still go for tens of thousands, though.”
“But…” Jimin frowns. “What about the Class Quartus?”
Namjoon grimaces. “Paradisus calls those rejects. Faulty and defective, unsuitable for sale, usually because the animal qualities all the companies are after don’t show up as much. Paradisus keeps the Class Quartus to work in their food farms, construction, in mines, manual labour jobs until they can’t work anymore. Then they’re disposed.”
“There are companies who’ll order a batch of Class Primus Hybrida each year and use them as sharp-eyes, guards, assassins,” Yoongi cuts in. “But what each company wants depends—big fisheries go for Class Primus Selachimorpha or Delphinidae to guide fishing expeditions. Logging and mining cartels want the best Ursidae, for all the heavy lifting and labour. Brothels and escort businesses buy female Leporidae, the rabbit Hybrida. People call them ‘sex bunnies’. I’ve seen them on the streets of the red light district, stationed outside dark buildings.”
“It’s disgusting,” Namjoon finishes. “You’re all treated as products, not people.”
“How come they don’t protest?” Jeongguk asks. “If I was suddenly sent to work in a mine or a brothel after I graduated I’d… I’d question it.”
“That’s because you don’t see what they do to the graduates after the end-of-year ceremony they put on for you.” Yoongi swipes the air, and the hoverscreen changes to show an image of a small vial and a chip, a series of number and letters next to it. “This drug. It activates the kill function on the microchip embedded in the Hybrida’s necks and weakens resistance to orders sent to it. The buyers are given controls which they can use to send commands anywhere, anytime, and if they’re not followed, they can send painful shocks through the microchips.”
Jeongguk lifts a hand to his neck, wincing as he feels the wound, barely healed. Someone’s put a bandage over it and wrapped it up, but Jeongguk’s spine still tingles when he moves.
“You know Seokjin, the one who took out your microchips. He’s our man on the inside. If you had those microchips still in, Paradisus would be able to track you, send a remote signal to activate the neural shock, and you’d be dead.”
“Proof,” Taehyung says, somber for the first time in his life. “Anyone could make this up. Do you have proof?”
“I’ve got a video to show you,” Namjoon says, pulling a file up. “It’s this year’s Hybrid Bidding Wars, aired in March every year by all the broadcast channels in Asia. Representatives from companies all over Asia come bid at this event. You’ll… You’ll recognise it.”
The video starts playing on the hoverscreen, and Jeongguk’s heart freezes in his chest.
The subject of the video is… Him.
Him, Jeon Jeongguk, sweating profusely in a familiar arena he’d been standing in not a month ago.
A beeper sounds, three, two, one, and he’s off, zooming through the obstacle course, swinging from the ropes, ducking past the metal shurikens, scaling the wooden wall and making his way across the monkey bars. The video cuts to a shot of important-looking men in suits, whispering among themselves, then one man raising a sign with a number on it.
“S&M Corporation has put in a reserve bid of one million for Class Primus Felidae Jeon Jeongguk,” a commentator booms. “A fine specimen, excelling as an all rounder, specialising in agility and obstacle navigation. Still has three years until graduation, but we can see the potential already, he’s sure to be great as sentinel or attack. And—oh, one more! S&M putting in another bid of one million for Class Primus Ursidae Jackson Wang. Best of his class in strength. Wise choice indeed.”
Jeongguk raises an arm. “No more. I’m going to be sick.”
“That was the Domus Games,” Jimin murmurs. “They were this year’s Domus Games. I can’t believe—I can’t believe this was all created so they could sell us.”
As much as Jeongguk’s entire being is resisting this new information, it all makes sense. It makes perfect sense. Why they’d never seen any of the graduates in person, only through short video clips played during their training sessions. Why they’d never been allowed to go outside Paradisus. Why they’d never been allowed to interact with the other Domus, even at the Games.
How had he not noticed before?
“Then…” Jimin frowns. “What about the virus rumours? We heard that Professor Shin and Professor Kim were arguing about how to deal with a virus. If it’s not Mortem, then…? And all the Hybrida getting sick? Seizuring? What’s the deal with that?”
Namjoon and Yoongi exchange looks. “Here’s where things get really messy.”
Namjoon swipes once more, and a series of pictures featuring a human, an animal, and DNA double helixes show up, spinning around stationarily. “Retroviridae Animorphus,” Namjoon announces. “The Morphus Virus. A mutation of the animal gene which enables carriers to completely morph into their Base animals. And all of you have it.”
“Morph into our Base animal?” Jimin quirks an eyebrow. He looks at Jeongguk and Taehyung. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve never turned into a Husky before, ever.”
“Not that you remember,” Yoongi corrects. “They anaesthetised you and brought you to the underground room once a week to perform experiments. Seokjin told us all about the procedure. You need a special activation agent to trigger the sequence, a kind of drug they inject into your body before the morph happens.”
“Anyway,” Namjoon continues, “a secret experimental group in Paradisus led by Professor Shin took on this project twenty years ago. There were a hundred of you made, a hundred of you with this new genome sequence, this virus, a new experimental group called the Morphus, and you were hidden amongst the regular Hybrida. If things went well, you were meant to be the new class, Class Nullius, a new, superior group of hybrids with heightened animal instincts and morphing powers. Perfect for scouting and reconnaissance. Snapped up by the military, special ops, companies who needed silent assassinations done. All the tests had gone fine, so Paradisus sent out a couple of test subjects to stakeholder companies last year.” Namjoon pulls up another video, finger hovering over play. “Unfortunately, this is what happened.”
It’s a news report, headlines flashing as the text in the banner scrolls. The footage is shaky, but clear enough, and Jeongguk squints as the lens zooms in on a dark, four-legged animal—a Black Panther.
“Restrain it!” someone screams, as the panther roars and leaps right at a man’s jugular, sharp fangs ripping into flesh, and the man gurgles as blood spurts from the gash in his neck. “Shoot the damn thing!”
There’s a bang, a puff of smoke, and an unearthly roaring as a missile lands on the panther’s thigh, taking out a huge chunk of flesh. The panther turns, amber eyes flashing at the drone camera, then leaps forward on three legs, jumping on top of a zooming hovercraft, claws digging into the metal frame. The camera follows down the airway, zooming in on the panther bleeding over the roof of the hovercraft, until it can’t hold on any longer and slides off onto the road, limping into a dark walkway between the buildings.
Something akin to steam rises from the panther’s body, and it collapses on the ground, shrinking, changing shape, limbs elongating—
“Taekwoon,” Taehyung breathes, pointing at the screen. The panther is no longer a panther, but a very familiar boy in ragged, black clothes, clutching at a gaping, bleeding wound on his thigh. “That—that’s Jung Taekwoon.”
“I’m sorry,” Namjoon says, switching the screen off. “They found him afterwards and shot him in the alleyway. Covered it up, too—only Paradisus and the stakeholders he was sent to knew of his existence. The press reported it as a stray wild animal, a freak accident.”
“They killed him?” Jimin asks, eyes wide and watery. “They—how many morphing hybrids were sent out?”
“Altogether?” Namjoon runs a hand through his hair. “Eight. Paradisus sent staff to bring back or eliminate them all after Taekwoon lost control. Turns out the microchips couldn’t control them while they were in animal form. Stakeholders found out and started protesting that these new hybrids were too dangerous, and the two heads of Paradisus had a disagreement about what to do with the Morphus. Shin wanted to tweak the DNA but Kim wanted to just dispose of the lot since no stakeholders would buy them after the incident, so they started giving all the Morphus toxins in their transfusions and inducement drugs to mimic natural illness, then whisk them away to ICU and dispose of them. Or, at least, that’s what Seokjin told us.”
Yoongi massages his temples. “I was meant to extract six of you from the Institute in a week’s time, but then Seokjin sent me an SOS saying that Kim had pushed forward elimination plans and I needed to be there ASAP. Talk about putting me between a rock and a hard place.”
“Anyway, you’re here now, and you’re safe for the time being,” Namjoon says, putting on a smile. “We’ll give you some time to let this all sink in. It’s been tough, so get some rest.”
Both Namjoon and Yoongi stand up from their seats, walking towards the stepladder. Jeongguk wants to run up to them, grab them, shake them like a rag doll, but he can’t move his limbs. It’s like this bombshell’s stunned him in place, iron shackles around his arms and legs, weighed down by a tonne of chains.
“Why?” Jeongguk turns his head. It’s Jimin, staring at Namjoon and Yoongi’s backs, voice so very small. Jimin’s entire body is shaking, his blue eyes faded to a dull grey. “Why did you save us then? Why would you, the humans who made us for your benefit, want to help us?”
“Because this isn’t the way things should be,” Namjoon says simply. “Because we can’t stomach how they treat you. How easily they could decide to end a life just like that. We’re the sick, twisted Homini who do these things to the Hybrida, yes, and we’re sick of it. Everyone deserves an equal chance, whether they’re human or hybrid.”
“It’s not just us two, in case you’re wondering,” Yoongi adds. “We’re just a small group, the scientists in this field. We’ve got contacts of other morphing hybrids who’ve been extracted, just like you, and also contact with active agents working on the field like Seokjin There are other groups working to extract hybrids from plants all over Asia, a little network of sorts. And if you’re okay with it, we’d like your help, too.”
“Our help?” Jeongguk asks, finally finding his voice. An underground network of rebels, fighting against the system. Seeking justice, seeking equality. It’s… It’s promising. “How… We don’t even know—know who you are. How…?”
“What’s the name of your group?” Taehyung cuts in, breaking the silence he’s been keeping. Jeongguk looks over at Taehyung. Taehyung’s tail is flicking back and forth, curiously, ears perked up. Oh god. Jeongguk muffles a sigh. Taehyung wants in. Taehyung’s been won over.
Namjoon grins, puffing his chest out proudly. “We call ourselves Bulletproof.”
The sanitation machine here is old and rickety, an antique model that only sprays water and soap without the usual antibacterial disinfectant, and Jeongguk has to get used to the sensation of water cooling and evaporating on his skin. Jeongguk finally steps out of the underground room on his third day here, exploring their new quarters. The underground residence that Namjoon had prepared for the three of them is underneath a large lab, one that Namjoon uses for his scientific experiments. Namjoon and Yoongi’s sleeping quarters are in a room upstairs, connected to the main building, publicly visible.
Jeongguk, Taehyung, and Jimin are forbidden for the time being to go above ground. The government and Paradisus have camera drones performing surveillance on the entire city, and anything out of the ordinary could endanger their lives.
But, down here beneath the ground, in their newfound residence, Jeongguk finds it difficult to sleep.
It haunts him, the images from the hoverpads. The videos, the evidence, the moving holographs of Hybrida lined up in a row, eyes blank and lifeless, just products. Jeongguk’s been wading through videos for the entire morning, video clippings of news stories, on hybrids, Paradisus, insides churning with anger and indignation at each clip he watched.
“It’s wrong,” Jeongguk mutters, when Jimin joins him, chin resting on Jeongguk’s shoulder. This time it’s a video of the Hybrida stationed outside S&M Corporation, eyes glassy and unfocused, faces lifeless. “They’re so much more. We’re so much more.”
“Yeah,” Jimin says, scooting closer to Jeongguk, gently prying the hoverpad away from Jeongguk’s hands, setting it down on the bed and switching it off. “But this is the way Seoul is run, I guess. Money and power.”
“Just products,” Jeongguk says, voice heavy. “This—this is what we’ve lived for. All those years in Paradisus, just to be turned into products and sold for public consumption? Years of training, and we have no autonomy. No say. Puppets on a string.”
“Hey, hey,” Jimin says, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his. “Don’t think that way. We’re not, you know that. We have our own voices and opinions and we can fight for ourselves, too.”
“Yeah, well,” Jeongguk says, closing his eyes and lying back down, arm held over his forehead. “I wonder what two cats and a dog can really do against an entire military squad.”
The weekly blood and plasma transfusions that Jeongguk’s so used to are apparently unnecessary. Just another setup within Paradisus to trick the Hybrida into believing the Institute’s elaborate lie, Namjoon had explained, to fool the Hybrida into believing they were reliant on Homini to survive. A way to suppress and chain them down, enslave them. At first Jeongguk panics when Namjoon refuses to give any of them their transfusions, but a week passes without any of them showing adverse side effects, and Jeongguk thinks that maybe Namjoon and Yoongi are telling the truth about everything after all.
But that still doesn’t mean Jeongguk trusts them enough to help them, not yet.
“Have you at least thought about it?” Jimin asks, lying on his back and looking up at the dirty ceiling of their sleeping room. Taehyung’s rushing up and down the stepladder to bring food down into their room, and Jeongguk watches as he clambers up to the underground living room to retrieve a large plate of meat that Yoongi had attempted to cook for them. The keyword being attempted. “Joining them? Helping them out?”
Jeongguk grunts. Namjoon and Yoongi hadn’t pressured them or anything, just remarked gently they’d really appreciate it if the three of them could participate in some scientific investigations they’re conducting on the Retroviridae Animorphus virus. Jeongguk’s not certain what that means, but they had mentioned taking blood from the three of them and something about testing the effects of different drugs on their body.
“I think it’ll be fun,” Taehyung pipes up, setting the plate down on the table in the corner of the room. He yawns, then flops down and stretches his body over both Jeongguk and Jimin’s, giggling when Jeongguk makes a stank face at him and Jimin whacks his arm. “We’re never going to be able to go back to Paradisus anyway. And I’m not sure I want to, not after this.”
“We don’t even know what they want,” Jeongguk mutters. “Who’s to say they’re not lying to us too? That all they want is a group of Hybrida to do their own illegal scientific experiments on? Take our blood and analyse it so they can create the same sequence for themselves? We can’t trust anyone but ourselves.”
“They seem like good people,” Jimin says, shrugging. Jeongguk scoffs, and Jimin gives him a little pout. “No, I’m serious! I’ve always been a good judge of character. Husky instinct. They wouldn’t hurt us, I can feel it.”
“Yeah, well,” Jeongguk says, tone surly. “My cat instinct is telling me that humans can’t be trusted.”
“Mine’s not,” Taehyung says, then gives Jeongguk a pained look when Jeongguk kicks him in the shin. “What? If they wanted to kill us we’d be dead already. Plus, anyone who gives me meat,” Taehyung continues, pointing at the plate of half-raw beef, “is a good person to me.”
“But more than that,” Jimin says, voice dropping low, “if what they’re saying is true, it’s not just us who have this morphing virus thing. There are—were—ninety-seven others. And Paradisus is trying to kill them all off, just like they tried to with us. If—if what we’re doing can help our friends who are still inside Paradisus who don’t know anything, even just a little bit, then…”
“Then we should help, of course,” Taehyung pipes in, rolling over Jeongguk and Jimin’s legs and popping a piece of meat into his mouth with relish. “You don’t have to if you don’t want, Jeonggukkie. Jimin and I will do it, you just stay put and be grumpy.”
Jeongguk kicks Taehyung’s butt, putting an arm over his eyes. While he’s not completely convinced, he still doesn’t want Taehyung and Jimin to go off and help, just the two of them, while he’s left out of the loop. If they do this, they do it together.
Jimin and Taehyung are all Jeongguk has now. They have to stick together.
“We’ll see,” Jeongguk says. He rubs his temples. There’s something he needs to ask Namjoon first, to get clear. “Just… Give me two days.”
“I need to see it.”
Namjoon turns around from where he’s writing up some complicated formula Jeongguk can’t understand to stare at Jeongguk. It’s early in the morning, Jimin and Taehyung still asleep in the room below, and Namjoon’s working away at the table in the underground experiment basement. Jeongguk stares right back, and Namjoon puts down his hoverpad.
Namjoon frowns. “What do you mean? You’ve seen Seoul. I’ve shown you, given you those videos on the hoverpad. Have you watched them?”
Jeongguk shakes his head. “No, not like that. I’ve seen those, but I need to see it with my own eyes. I can’t—I can’t just believe the videos. You said it yourself, Paradisus made us believe what we did by fabricating our whole lives. What if you’re making it up too? Edited the videos together?”
“For the record, I didn’t, but…” Namjoon sighs. “Going outside, it’s really dangerous. You know that, right?”
“You want our help, don’t you?” Jeongguk asks, crossing his arms. “It doesn’t have to be for long. Just five minutes, take me outside for five minutes, enough to convince me that what you’re saying is the truth. Then I’ll do whatever you want, unconditionally.”
“Look.” Namjoon scratches his head, lips pursed. “I’d love to take you above ground, I really would, but I can’t risk you getting caught so early on in the game. They have monitors all over the place, facial recognition scanners. We were only able to go undiscovered because we brought you in through an underground sewage system underneath the city, used by humans thousands of years ago. If you’re caught while above ground, it’s the end for all of us.”
“Then disguise him. You can do that, can’t you?”
Both Jeongguk and Namjoon turn, startled at the new voice joining their conversation. It’s Jimin, leaning against the wall near the trapdoor entrance, his weight on one leg, arms crossed, and Jeongguk furrows his brows. Why the hell is Jimin backing him up?
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally willing to help, but…” Jimin smiles, eyes curving into crescents. “I want to do this together, the three of us. And this means Jeongguk, too.”
Namjoon frowns for a moment, deep in thought, then stands up, striding across the room. He knocks on the door at the end of the lounge room, the door to the second underground experiment lab. “Hey, Yoongi. You sleeping in there? Come out.”
“I was in the middle of something,” Yoongi grumbles when he finally pokes his head out. He has goggles around his eyes, a layer of black soot covering his face. “Can this wait?”
“Your holographic projector,” Namjoon says. “The one you were fixing last month after you broke it up. How’s that coming along?”
Yoongi looks between Namjoon, Jeongguk and Jimin, narrowing his eyes. “Are you fucking serious? No. No! If we’re caught, we’re dead.”
“Just for five minutes,” Jeongguk says. “Five minutes is enough.”
The holographic projector Namjoon is referring to is just a clunky helmet, connected to an external battery battery pack. An old type of technology, but apparently enough for Yoongi to use to project a mirage around him when he’s out doing Illegal Stuff slash reconnaissance work.
“It’ll only project for one person,” Yoongi explains, tightening the straps around Jeongguk’s head. “Out and back. One trip. You follow behind Namjoon, got it?”
“Take care,” Jimin says, resting a hand on Jeongguk’s back, and Jeongguk grits his teeth, nodding.
The air outside is humid and hot, and Jeongguk’s sweating underneath the suit and helmet. It’s a sight Jeongguk’s never seen before, the natural sunlight, the fleets of airships and hovercrafts zooming around in the air, the tips of skyscrapers as they move closer and closer to the city centre, winding through narrows streets. He follows closely behind Namjoon as Namjoon leads the way to the heart of the suburbs, keeping his footsteps light and quiet.
“Most of the Hybrida here will be Class Tertius,” Namjoon mutters under his breath as the turn the corner into the main street, “but you’ll get the idea.”
What Jeongguk sees next roots him to the spot.
There are rows of Hybrida standing in front of the shops and buildings, mostly Canidae, Felidae and Ursidae, backs held stiff and faces drawn. They all have a metal band around their necks, ones that look like chokers, and their eyes are glazed over, lifeless.
“Guards,” Namjoon explains, leading Jeongguk down the street. “If they don’t act right, it’s a microchip shock. The signal’s sent through the collar.”
At this point, a plump man walks towards them, adjusting his suit and striding up importantly to the entrance of one of the buildings. When the Canidae at the entrance doesn’t react immediately to open the door for him, he frowns, pressing a button on his hoverpad, and the Canidae doubles over, entire body shaking for a good ten seconds before the man takes his finger off the button.
“That’s the owner of the bank here,” Namjoon says, when the man’s out of sight and Jeongguk’s breathing has calmed down. “He treats his Hybrida the worst. Shocks them whenever they don’t perform even a small task right. Come on.”
They turn into a side street, a dimly-lit alleyway, and if Jeongguk thought he’d been indignant before, now he’s sick to the core.
“The Leporidae. These are the sex bunnies,” Namjoon says, voice sympathetic. “The ones who are forced to work at the brothels after they’re purchased from Paradisus. Most of them have a specific quota to meet or they’ll be punished.”
Jeongguk glances at the nametag of the Leporidae standing outside the building. Hyeri. Hyeri, who had probably been brought up inside the walls of Paradisus believing the lie they’d fed her, believing she could be something more than an escort on the streets.
“Sir, sir,” Hyeri says, running after Namjoon. Jeongguk ducks out of the way before Hyeri can collide with him, and Namjoon turns around as Hyeri catches the edge of his shirt. “Sir, would you like to come in and try our services?”
“It’s okay, thank you,” Namjoon says, taking Hyeri’s hand and gently removing it from his shirt. “You don’t have to.”
“Sir, we have the best range of Bunnies in Seoul. Class Primus, all of us, handpicked by our manager Tony An. Please, can you…?”
“Here,” Namjoon says, slipping a few circular discs over to Hyeri. “Take this and tell your manager you met your quota for today. I won’t take your services.”
Hyeri accepts the discs gratefully, tucking them away in her skirt before scurrying off to catch the attention of more people on the streets, and Jeongguk’s follows behind Namjoon, shaking in anger.
“Is this enough for you?” Namjoon says gently, when they’re out of earshot of people from the main street. “Do you believe me now?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, fists clenched tight enough to draw blood. “Yeah, I do.”
Jeongguk, Taehyung, and Jimin are rotated every day for the tests that Namjoon and Yoongi perform. The first few days only see Namjoon and Yoongi drawing a few vials of blood from each of them, taking swabs of cheek tissue and attaching monitoring electrodes to their body to monitor their vitals. It’s so they can have something to compare any results against, Namjoon explains, but Jeongguk’s never been great at science, so he doesn’t try to understand it.
The days pass much more slowly than the training and lesson-crammed days at Paradisus. While they’re all used to routine of being awake at seven, heading to the Foodhall at eight, followed by an entire day of lessons interspersed with lunch and dinner, they make their own regulations here. Suddenly, there’s too much time during the day, not enough to do, and Jeongguk finds himself borrowing one of Yoongi’s old hoverpads and reading up on all the information about this world that he can.
Yoongi and Namjoon are helpful, too, as much as they can be. The way they work is fascinating, and also a little strange. Namjoon uses these things he calls pen and paper to write down his formulas. Apparently it helps him think, and it’s also more secure when he’s doing top secret work, more so than using things like hoverpads, which the government can tap into and access. There’s a lot of secretive stuff going on here, lots of numbers and letters and formulas and mathematics and just too many things Jeongguk doesn’t quite understand, so he gives it up and just lets them do their thing.
Taehyung, for the most part, seems content here. Of course, Jeongguk knows Taehyung would rather be in the Active Room fucking around on the beams or play equipment, but space is limited here, so there’s much they can do for exercise apart from bodyweight training. So, Taehyung takes this opportunity to catch up on all the sleep he’s never had while dragging Jeongguk around the place when they were back at the institute. He’s always napping during the day at random intervals, sometimes in the downstairs bedroom, sometimes at the table in the underground lounge while Jimin’s doing some cleaning, wiping out the dirty corners of the room to make the aesthetics more resemble the immaculate institution rooms they’re all used to.
Jimin adapts the best out of the three of them. Maybe it’s his nature, the genes he has in his body that give him a natural bias towards humans and a loyal, trusting heart, and soon, even the ever-grumpy Yoongi is chatting and laughing with Jimin on the rare occasions that he comes downstairs to checks up on them during his lab breaks.
Other than the lack of amenities, life here is… pretty good. Peaceful, even. The sense of urgency and danger that Jeongguk had always felt while he was at Paradisus, and during the first couple of weeks at the little hideout, disappears, replaced with something more tender and kind. And although Jeongguk is accustomed to sleeping alone, valuing his personal space, it’s just impossible to do here when he’s sharing the same room, the same bed, with Jimin and Taehyung. The blanket-snatching and Taehyung’s snoring drives Jeongguk mad, and he has half a mind to kick Taehyung off the bed when Taehyung starts drooling on his chest, but Jeongguk’s no longer shying away from either of their touches. Although Jeongguk still jolts when Jimin touches him, slings his arms around Jeongguk’s waist and pulls him in tight while deep asleep, he doesn’t throw Jimin’s arm off as he would’ve anyone else, and instead settles into Jimin’s comforting warmth.
And as the days and weeks pass, the hideout starts to feel more and more familiar.
From the start of June, Namjoon stops bringing them premade food and instead of dumps a crate of groceries downstairs and tells them to cook for themselves. None of them have ever cooked before, considering everything in Paradisus was provided to them in the Foodhalls, so their first couple of attempts turn out atrocious and absolutely inedible. Taehyung chucks entire vegetables into the pan without chopping them up first, mixes up the salt and sugar, then manages to set fire to the soup pot.
“It’s a fucking soup pot,” Yoongi says, rubbing his temples, when he comes down to survey the damage. “How the fuck did you set fire to a soup pot?”
Apparently, by pouring a fuckton of oil into it and whacking the pot on the fire before any of the ingredients have even been taken out of the crate.
“It just… happened?” Taehyung says, tail between his legs, and Jeongguk snorts. “Look! There’s a first time for everything!”
“You’re banned from the kitchen,” Yoongi says, snatching the pot out of Taehyung’s hands, then shoving it into Jimin’s. “Jiminnie. You do the cooking from now. Taehyung, go clean out the sanitation unit or something.”
It’s unspoken now, that Jimin does the cooking, Taehyung does the washing and cleans the living room, while Jeongguk’s in charge of keeping the downstairs bedroom tidy. While the concept of family is foreign to Jeongguk—to all of them, parentless Hybrida—Jeongguk thinks that this might be what it feels like to have a family.
“Do you ever miss Paradisus?” Jeongguk asks one afternoon, right after Yoongi’s drawn another five vials of blood from each of them to test a new drug compound on. Both Jimin and Taehyung are in the bedroom with him, Taehyung lazing around and scrolling through some articles on the hoverpad while Jimin’s combing the knots and tangles out of his tail. “Do you ever miss living there, before we learned the truth?”
“Honestly?” Jimin says, looking up at Jeongguk, lips downturned. “Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I had lots of friends in my grade. Sometimes I’d like to return to before all this shit happened, just spend the rest of my time there training and playing fetch.”
“Also, catnip,” Taehyung pipes in. “God, this place has no catnip. Or fish crackers.”
“Your priorities,” Jeongguk mutters, rolling his eyes. “We’re in a fucking underground hideout with an entire corporation trying to kill us, people telling us we’re some kind of new experimental Hybrida, and all you can think about is catnip?”
“But this is our life now,” Jimin says simply, grinning. “All we can do is forget about the crap that’s happened and enjoy it while we can. Honestly, it’s not too bad, being with you two.” Jimin shrugs. “You’re fun. I like hanging out.”
“Aw, shucks,” Taehyung says, rolling over and nuzzling into Jimin’s side. “Was that a confession? I like hanging out with you too! More than Jeongguk!” Jeongguk lets out a wounded yelp, and Taehyung cackles.
“Although, I do have to say catnip is kinda gross,” Jimin adds with a laugh, shoving Taehyung off and wrinkling his nose. “Too bad it’s limited produce and only available to Paradisus branches, otherwise I’d go get some for you.”
“If you manage to get me catnip, I’ll bring you a bone or a chew toy or something,” Taehyung says, grinning. He sticks his hand out in Jimin’s face, pinky extended. “This is economics.”
Jimin lets out a bark of laughter, then links his pinky with Taehyung’s and stamps their thumbs together. “It’s a promise.”
It’s already July, hot, sweltering July, before the thought crosses Jeongguk’s mind.
Honestly, everything here is pretty much covered for, save for the lack of space. Yoongi and Namjoon provide for them pretty damn well, considering that they have absolutely no obligation to do anything for the three of them. They’re patient with their explanations when any of them have questions (Namjoon more so that Yoongi, who just grunts and waves them off in Namjoon’s direction) and keep the three of them updated on stuff happening within Paradisus.
The only thing they haven’t touched on—and Jeongguk doesn’t know if it’s because they’re not familiar with it, don’t know the answer, or just hasn’t crossed their minds—is the question of what happens to Jeongguk, Taehyung, and Jimin’s heats now that they’re no longer receiving inducement shots.
If they were still in Paradisus, Jeongguk would be receiving his second inducement of the year now. The others in his grade would’ve just completed their July gradings, which means two weeks of scheduled inducements following right after.
Evidently, Jeongguk’s uneasiness shows, because Taehyung comes up to Jeongguk when he’s at the kitchen table, chopping up the tomatoes for the dinner stew, and leans against the counter, resting on his elbows.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, grinning, bright green eyes searching Jeongguk’s face. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, biting his lower lip. “It’s just…” His tail flicks, catching the tip of Taehyung’s tail, curling around it, and Taehyung laughs in understanding.
“You’re worried about your heat,” he says softly. “You were scheduled for inducement soon, weren’t you?”
Jeongguk nods, setting the knife down. “Neither Namjoon or Yoongi have mentioned anything about it. Should we… Should we ask?”
This is how the five of them end up sitting around the dining table that night, an awkward silence hanging over them.
“So,” Taehyung says cheerily. “Heats!”
Namjoon raises his eyebrows when Taehyung doesn’t elaborate. “Heats?”
“What he means,” Jeongguk murmurs, face buried in his hands, “is what’s going to happen to our heats now that we’re not getting induced? I was due for inducement this month. Are you going to induce us or…?”
Namjoon and Yoongi exchange looks.
“Well,” Namjoon starts, slowly. “This is a little embarrassing, but we don’t have the drugs they use for inducement, so we can’t do it.”
“What?” Jimin blurts out, eyes wide. “Wait, so what’s going to happen to us?”
“Calm down,” Namjoon says, waving his hands around and looking each of them in the eye. “Seokjin told us was that the inducements aren’t necessary. You won’t die if you don’t get induced, nothing will happen. They just did it because they wanted all the Hybrida to be predictable in their cycles instead of having rough sex all the time on every surface imaginable.” Taehyung shuffles, giggling, Jimin coughs a little, cheeks flushed, and Jeongguk can’t look either of them in the eye.
“What’s wrong with you?” Yoongi asks, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re acting like you’ve never talked about this before.”
“We don’t…” Jeongguk glances at Taehyung. “Well, we weren’t really allowed to talk about it outside of our heat partners. It was a bit of a taboo within Paradisus. Everyone knows it happens, but none of us really discuss it.”
“Whatever, we’re not going do that here,” Yoongi says, shrugging. “Nothing is off-limits. Talk about whatever you want. Do whatever you want, just don’t break the furniture. We’re not here for your censorship or to suppress your…” Yoongi narrows his eyes, and Jeongguk feels himself shrinking under Yoongi’s gaze. “Animalistic urges,” he finishes delicately.
“Does that mean we’re allowed to pee on our territory?” Taehyung pipes up, and everyone turns to stare at him. “What about scratching the furniture to keep our claws sharp? Just asking.”
“The only thing is,” Namjoon interjects, ignoring Taehyung’s ridiculous questions, “we’re not quite sure how your body will react to a natural heat instead of an induced one. So, uh, if you feel weird, feverish or hot or dizzy or anything, come to me, hmm?”
“Yessir,” Taehyung singsongs, saluting Namjoon, and Namjoon nods, clapping his hands together once and getting out of his seat.
“We’re going to finish off coding some sequences now. Let me know if you need anything else.”
Then Namjoon and Yoongi are gone, heading back upstairs to their labs, and it’s just the three of them sitting around the table, Jeongguk almost melting into his chair from mortification.
“So,” Jimin says, clearing his throat. “I’ve always been kind of curious. I know you’ve kind of mentioned them before, way back when we were still in Paradisus, but what are Felidae heats actually like?”
“Fun,” Taehyung says, without missing a beat. He loops his arm around Jeongguk’s neck, bringing Jeongguk close in, and grins. “It’s the only time that this one lets me have my way with him.” Jeongguk buries his head in his hands again, tip of his ears hot.
“So I guess,” Jimin waves his hand between the two of them and tries to keep his tone casual, but the way he shifts in his seat and flattens his ears is anything but. “You’re exclusive? What they call, uh, heat partners or something?”
“My one and only,” Taehyung says proudly. Jeongguk looks up at this moment to find Jimin’s eyes focused on him, an intense, blue piercing gaze. Jeongguk whips his head away. Oh god. Jimin is probably imagining the two of them in heat, fucking each other into the mattress. Jeongguk’s sure that his entire face has just gone a couple of shades redder. “What about you?”
Jimin laughs. “I never had a heat partner. Dealt with it myself—and probably for the better too, considering there are no Canidae around here.”
“Hey,” Taehyung says, flicking his tail in Jimin’s face playfully. “Who says the heat partners have to be between the same Domus?” Taehyung waggles his eyebrows. Jimin gives Taehyung a pointed look while Jeongguk slinks further down in his chair, crying inside. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have an actual cat dick or anything. That shit is barbed. Just saying.”
“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?” Jimin asks, batting Taehyung’s tail away as he flicks it in Jimin’s face again, and Taehyung simply gives him a very, very wide grin, yawning and stretching out on the table. “I, uh,” Jimin flushes again, scratching the back of his neck. “You know how long Canidae heats last for, right?”
“A couple of days? Nothing we can’t handle,” Taehyung says dismissively. Jeongguk punches Taehyung in the arm, and Jimin breaks out into a coughing fit.
“With…” Jimin glances over at Jeongguk. “With Jeongguk?”
“He should’ve been a Canidae,” Jeongguk moans. “He should’ve been a fucking Canidae.”
Taehyung shrugs. “Hey, it’ll be fine. Friends help each other out in times of need, yeah?”
“I guess,” Jimin says, locking eyes with Jeongguk, and Jeongguk feels a full body shiver run down his spine. The corner of Jimin’s lip curls up into a smirk, and Jeongguk can’t stop his heart from thumping in his chest. “Yeah. I’m okay with it if you are. But we don’t even know what’s going to happen, now that we’re not sticking to our inducement schedule. We might not react the same way we usually do. It could be completely unpredictable.”
“Well then,” Taehyung says, looking Jimin up and down, shit-eating grin on his face. He thumps Jeongguk on the back, rubbing circles near his shoulderblades, and Jeongguk lets out a sigh of defeat. “Whatever happens, bring it on.”
Yoongi summons them all to the projector room of the underground lab the next morning, positively bouncing up and down with excitement. Yoongi is never outwardly excited, ever, so this must be something pretty damn big.
When Jeongguk steps into the room, the first thing he sees is a giant image of Kim Seokjin’s face, holographically projected onto the wall. The image moves, and Jeongguk realises that it’s not an image, but a video.
“I got the transmitter to work,” Yoongi says proudly, puffing his chest out. “The software took forever to install, and I had to manually set up the holo-program, rewrite the hack for the spywall, but I bypassed Paradisus security!”
“Hey all, hey Yoongi,” Seokjin says, grinning and giving a wave. “Long time no see.”
“Teach?” Jeongguk chokes out, eyes wide. The questions he’d been bottling up inside release themselves, flying around in his head in a whirlwind. “What’s going on in Paradisus? What happened to Jinyoung and the others? Can’t you tell the about what’s really going on?”
“I’ve only got a couple of minutes so I’ll make this quick. All the Morphus have either been bailed out by the resistance groups or disposed. Namjoon, you probably know already but SPICA managed to extract fourteen Morphus from the female compounds, and DNH’s going to do the same soon at the male compounds. Jinyoung didn’t make it, I’m sorry. And the three of you, you’re in the clear. I deactivated the microchips, set up the three dummy bodies and had them passed off for incineration. Officially, Paradisus thinks you’re dead.”
“Were you in on this from the beginning?” Taehyung asks. “Does that mean you knew about where Jeongguk and I…”
“Your trips to the Canidae compound? Yeah. Saved your asses a bunch of times, too,” Seokjin says with a laugh. “Do you know how hard it was to cover up your footprints? Leaving your wristbands in the Foodhall like that, you idiot.”
“Oh,” Taehyung says, eyes wide. “But I was being hush-hush about it.”
“With your subtlety,” Jeongguk says dryly, “nothing is hush-hush.”
“Anyway,” Seokjin continues, “I have some new intel. You know how we thought that the Retroviridae Animorphus virus was injected after birth and the subjects infected? Turns out it happens much earlier than that. I was prying while talking to one of the lab scientists working for Shin, and he told me the virus was introduced in the embryonic stage, and recoded entire sequences in the Morphus’ DNA. They made a hundred different mutations of the virus, for a hundred different Hybrida. The files for the mutations and genome sequences are in Paradisus HQ, stored off any networks and only accessible to Kim and Shin, which is why I’ve never seen them before. But more than that,” Seokjin says, holding up two vials, red and blue, “I managed to get hold of these.”
“Are those…?” Namjoon asks, voice awed, and Seokjin nods. “Holy shit, you’re a legend.”
“It’s not enough to facilitate a full morph and return, but it’s a start. I’ll send it over as soon as I can. Yoongi, you should be able to analyse it and break the compound down pretty quickly, if you’re not lazy about it.”
“When am I ever lazy about anything?” Yoongi grumbles, and Namjoon just shoots him an exasperated look. “Okay, fine, I admit that sometimes I do not sanitise and steal your underwear because I haven’t washed mine, but science is different!”
“Do it fast,” Seokjin says. “And once you’re done, send the formula it to the other resistance groups too. They’ll need it.”
“Yeah,” Yoongi says, saluting Seokjin. “Thanks man. Stay safe.”
Seokjin gives a little grin, waving back, and the screen goes black.
“So,” Yoongi says, turning to face Jeongguk, Jimin, and Taehyung. “Looks like you’ll be able to try out your morphs very, very soon.”
The vials arrive the same day, two inconspicuous bottle of red and blue-tinged liquid tucked inside a hollowed-out carrot, hidden amongst an entire box of vegetables, and Yoongi and Namjoon pull an all-nighter in the labs, presumably analysing the compound composition.
It’s an important piece of puzzle, Namjoon explains the next morning, eyes bloodshot and eyebags purple, to figure out how the Morphus DNA works. It’s not enough to just take their blood samples while they’re in their human forms—there’s something else that happens to their bodies when the drug is in their bloodstreams, and for Namjoon to analyse that, they need samples from Jeongguk, Jimin, and Taehyung while they’re in their animal forms.
It’s not that Jeongguk doubts Namjoon’s words—after all that he’s told them, and all that’s turned out to be true, why would Jeongguk have any reason to believe that Namjoon was also lying to them this time around?
Yet, it just sounds too farfetched. Something that could only happen in some far-off, fucked up dystopia.
He’s lived all seventeen years of his life as a human. He’s never remembered morphing into an animal. Sure, Jimin’s scent may be a little more than familiar, and sure, he might have better Felidae instincts than most of his peers, but that isn’t conclusive of anything. Hell, Taehyung’s meant to be a Morphus, and Taehyung is about as dangerous as a, well, newborn kitten.
“We got it,” Yoongi says on the afternoon of the second day, bursting into the bedroom downstairs. All three of them are taking their afternoon nap, snuggled up into each other, Jimin’s leg over Jeongguk’s waist and Taehyung nuzzling into the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, and they get up groggily, staring at Yoongi’s expectant face. “We broke down the compound and replicated it. Are you all ready to try a morph?”
Five minutes later, Jeongguk’s in the middle of the experiment room, walls padded with mattresses and soundproofing plastic, completely empty. Just in case, Namjoon said. It is their first morph while conscious, after all, and who knows if they’ll be able to control the animal inside. Better safe than sorry. While Jeongguk does the morph inside the room, the rest of them will be watching from outside, through the crack-resilient screen separating the experiment lab from the living room.
“When Paradisus tested these drugs on you, they did it while you were unconscious. We’re not going to do that so… this might be a strange experience,” Namjoon says. “Sorry. We wouldn’t do this unless we needed you in animal form to extract the morphed DNA.”
“Ready?” Yoongi asks, squeezing the syringe, drops of red liquid spurting out the tip of the needle. While Jeongguk’s used to having transfusions and medicine done through the osmosis patches, apparently Namjoon and Yoongi are fonder of intravenous needles—less chance of missing a vein, and better absorbency. Jeongguk nods, breathing deeply, and Yoongi nods back. “Okay. Here goes.”
Yoongi pricks the needle in, squeezing until every last drop of liquid has gone inside Jeongguk’s veins, then backs away, heading out the door and bolting it shut.
Nothing happens in the first couple of seconds. Jeongguk stares out the panel, at Namjoon, Yoongi, Taehyung’s furrowed eyebrows, Jimin biting his lip, feeling absolutely nothing. Jeongguk frowns. They must’ve done something wrong with the formula. Or maybe, like Jeongguk had thought, the whole Morphus thing is just a myth, and—oh.
Jeongguk reels, stumbling backwards, the dim light coming from the panel suddenly piercingly vivid.
It’s bright. Too bright. Too sharp, and the smell too, the smell is overwhelming, overpowering, and Jeongguk can smell all four of them, even through the airtight door. Jeongguk’s chest feels hot, like molten lava is bubbling inside his lungs, an iron hand squeezing his heart, and he looks at his limbs with horror as they shift, bones cracking, pale skin sprouting golden fur, fingers retracting and knuckles rounding into paws.
“Holy shit,” he hears someone—Taehyung—say. The sound of bones cracking and snapping ring in his ears, the burning of his insides almost unbearable as his organs twist and change shape to fit his Lynx body. “Holy shit, this is real.”
Jeongguk falls to all fours, no longer able to balance on his hind legs. He tries to speak, to say something, but his mouth doesn’t move the way he wants, elongating and filling out to a stocky muzzle, His skin itches as fur grows to cover his entire body, and the clothes he was wearing while in human form are hanging loose on his Lynx frame.
Then, the Lynx is in his head.
Holy shit. Holy shit. Jeongguk screams—roars—as a second set of thought patterns kicks in. It’s like there are two beings inside one body—him, and the Lynx, his Base animal. Jeongguk can feel the character of this Lynx—not just any Lynx, but the one who’s part one him, the one who’s lived inside him for seventeen years. This Lynx is proud and fierce, a solitary creature, and right now, it wants to see the sunlight and feel the breeze through its fur as it hunts its prey.
“Jeongguk,” Namjoon says through the microphone, voice booming in the small room where Jeongguk is trapped. “Jeongguk, are you in control? If you can understand me, put two paws up on the back wall.”
Jeongguk prowls around the room, fighting against animal instincts to bolt and run, ram against the door and escape. He stalks towards the back wall, clawing at the soundproof covers, digging his front paws into the soft lining as he fulfils Namjoon’s request. There’s an audible sigh of relief from all four of them outside, and Jeongguk turns his head to look at them.
“Okay,” Yoongi says, taking out a control. The drone in the room, perched up in the corner, buzzes to life, hovering above Jeongguk. “Hey, Jeongguk? The drone’s going to extract some blood and samples from you. It’ll be quick. Hold still, yeah?”
There’s a sharp prick on his backside, and Jeongguk roars, momentarily losing control of the Lynx and ramming up into the wall. He picks himself up as he regains authority, shaking his body, and the drone flutters away, setting a full vial of blood into the storage box above the door.
“I’ll turn you back now, before it gets too much to handle,” Namjoon says. “Hang in there.”
And the drone is next to him again, injecting a vial of blue fluid into Jeongguk’s veins, and Jeongguk howls as the morph reverses, Lynx instincts disappearing as fast as they had invaded his mind, fur falling off in clumps, limbs elongating and fingers stretching out back to their original length.
The morph completes, and Jeongguk collapses, lying on the floor in a heap, breathing heavily and completely worn out.
“Jeongguk!” Taehyung shouts, bursting into the room and sitting Jeongguk up against his lap. “Jeongguk, are you alright?”
“Are you hurt anywhere?” Jimin asks, kneeling in front of Jeongguk, taking Jeongguk’s face in his hands. Jeongguk gives a weak grin. Some of his Lynx senses must still be lingering, because Jimin’s scent is so strong, so comforting. “Jeongguk?”
“I’m fine,” Jeongguk says, taking Jimin’s hands off his face and holding them instead. “God, that felt so weird. But good. Exciting. Like I could communicate with my Base animal, properly.”
“Don’t worry if it’s difficult the first time,” Namjoon says. “Seokjin said you’d get better at controlling the animal characteristics with practise. We’ll do it again if you want to learn how to use this form. It could come in useful one day.”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, looking up at Namjoon. “Yeah, I’d like to do this again.”
“But for now,” Yoongi says, hauling Jeongguk upright and patting his arm. “Go get some rest.”
Jeongguk collapses onto the bed the moment he walks in, a sheen of sweat over his body. God, it’s so hot, the weather pushing 35 degrees, and coming down from the intensity of his morph isn’t helping. Jimin’s now in the experiment room, and although Jeongguk really wants to be around to watch as Jimin undergoes his transformation, he’s just too knackered and worn out and hot, his head pounding and sweat trailing down his neck.
It’s weird. Jeongguk’s immune system is usually great, so these morphing drugs must have had a really strong effect on him if they can make him feel so shaky and feverish. Jeongguk groans, kicking off the blankets and curling up on his side. Maybe a nap will help.
Jeongguk closes his eyes, trying to ignore the way each pulse sends a sharp shiver through his body. He lies there, still, steadying his breathing, but the sweat won’t stop dropping in streams from his forehead, down his neck. It’s hot, so fucking hot, and Jeongguk grunts, stripping off his shirt and pants, lying there on the bed in nothing but his underwear.
Water. Water will help.
With shaky legs, Jeongguk gets up, the tips of his fingers and toes tingling, breathing shallow, limbs heavy, heart abuzz. This is a hell of a fever, he thinks, grabbing the jug and downing the entire thing, to have him so disoriented, or there’s something seriously wrong. Maybe he should go outside and tell Namjoon, tell him that something’s fucking wrong with the morphing drug, to stop Jimin and Taehyung from taking it.
But before Jeongguk can do anything, the trapdoor lifts, and Jimin’s climbing down the stepladder, looking similarly exhausted and sweaty, and—fuck.
Something stirs in the pit of Jeongguk’s stomach, something feral, something carnal, and Jeongguk lets out a loud whimper.
Fuck. This is definitely not a fever.
If Jeongguk had thought Jimin’s scent had been captivating before, it’s positively intoxicating now. Jimin shuts the trapdoor, turning to look at Jeongguk on the bed, and Jeongguk feels the space between his thighs slick up. Fuck. He’s never gotten this wet before, ever, but it’s taken all of two seconds for him to start dripping out of his ass, and all Jimin did was look at him.
“Shit,” Jeongguk curses under his breath, curling up as small as he can go, holding a pillow between his legs. “Shit, shit, shit.”
“Jeongguk?” Jimin asks, voice gravelly. His eyes are not so gentle today, a deep, steely blue, and Jeongguk turns around, not meeting Jimin’s gaze. “Jeongguk.”
It’s not meant to be like this. Jimin’s a Canidae, for god’s sake. Jimin’s a Canidae, and yet…
Jeongguk wants Jimin to fuck him, right now, so much, so, so much.
Before Jeongguk can react, can get his head around this overwhelming rush of feelings, the trapdoor opens again, and Taehyung bounds into the room.
“Hey,” Taehyung says, shutting the trapdoor behind him with a bang that rattles the room. “Namjoon and Yoongi said they needed to rejig some stuff so I’ll be doing my morph tomorrow.” Taehyung reaches the edge of the bed, then stops in his tracks, sniffing the air. “Whoa, what’s that smell?”
“It’s Jeongguk,” Jimin says, voice low, and even turned the other way, Jeongguk can still feel Jimin’s eyes staring holes into his back. “The smell is Jeongguk.”
“Jeongguk?” Taehyung asks, tapping Jeongguk on the shoulder. Jeongguk closes his eyes, trying not to rub against the pillow too much, for fear the friction will make him come right then and there. “Jeongguk, are you feeling okay?”
“He’s not okay,” Jimin growls out, climbing onto the bed and grabbing Jeongguk’s shoulders, pulling so that Jeongguk’s on his back instead of his side. “He’s definitely not okay.”
“Um,” Jeongguk says, unfurling his body, and Jimin’s eyes flash, his hands curling into fists. Even without having touched himself, Jeongguk’s cock is half-hard against the fabric of his underwear, and he’s dripping through the back, onto the mattress. “I think I’m in heat.”
Taehyung stands there, stunned for a moment, before he bursts out into laughter.
“Shit,” Taehyung says, almost doubled over. Jeongguk gives him a woebegone look, and Taehyung laughs even harder as he sweeps his eyes over Jeongguk’s body, fixing his gaze on the slick wetness between Jeongguk’s thighs. “Shit, now? I’ve never seen you this wet before. Do you need help? You look like you need help.”
“Yeah…” Jeongguk’s throat is parched, and he swallows. “Yes. But… Jimin. Jimin too.”
Taehyung turns his head, looking at Jimin, who still has his hands balled up into fists, then takes a step closer, sniffing the air around Jimin’s neck. “Oh, fuck, you too?”
“Yep,” Jimin says, popping the ‘p’, and Taehyung, that piece of shit, just grins, before jumping onto the bed next to Jeongguk and pinning Jeongguk’s arms down with a flick of his tail, holding Jeongguk’s wrist down with the furry tip.
“Well,” Taehyung says, grabbing Jimin and pulling him down so Jimin’s kneeling on the mattress next to Jeongguk. He waggles his eyebrows. “I see only one solution here. We’ll just have to fuck it out of your systems, won’t we?”
“You piece of shit,” Jeongguk breathes out, skin prickling with heat. Fuck the talking. Fuck the fact that Jimin’s a Canidae, that Jeongguk’s dripping like he’s never done before, that Taehyung’s so casual about the whole damn thing, Jeongguk just wants a cock inside him, now, right now, and Jimin smells so fucking enticing. “Fuck, do it, hurry up.”
It’s not like they’re strangers to each other. They’ve been sharing the same bed for months now, snuggled up tight, arms and legs tangled, personal space a thing of the past, and yet, there’s this tension in the air, this feeling that once they cross this line, they’ll never be able to go back to what they were before, that they’ll be infinitely and intimately connected.
“I’m okay with it if you are,” Jimin says, voice strained. “Jeongguk, are you—do you—”
“Yes,” Jeongguk says, grabbing Jimin’s shirt collar and pulling him down, burying his head in the crook of Jimin’s neck where the smell is strongest and breathing in. Fuck. Fuck. Jeongguk feels like he’s barrelling headfirst towards Jimin, drawn towards the force field sucking him in, and he can’t stop. “Yes, we’ve talked about this before, remember, just—fuck me, do it, do it now.”
“Okay,” Jimin says, giving Taehyung an uncertain look. Taehyung just nods, grinning, and Jimin licks his parched lips. “I’ve—I’ve never done this before with someone else though, not even a Canidae, so—”
“Less chatting, more fapping,” Taehyung singsongs, pushing Jimin down, and Jimin stumbles, body pressed flushed against Jeongguk’s. “And if Jeongguk can’t last long enough for your rut, then, well, I’m here to help.”
“We’ll see,” Jimin murmurs, pushing himself off Jeongguk, eyes flashing, and Jeongguk curls his fists in the blankets, a shiver running down his body. “Feels like I’ll be this way for a while.”
“Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung purrs, grinning at Jeongguk and running his hands up Jeongguk’s legs. Jeongguk squirms at the touch, jerking his leg away, but Taehyung pins him down, hand reaching up to stroke at the crests of Jeongguk’s hips. His fingers curl over the band of Jeongguk’s underwear and he pulls them down, grinning as Jeongguk lets out a whine. “Time to free your mini-me.”
“Now is not your time for you to exhibit your aptitude at rhymes,” Jeongguk grits out. Taehyung drags Jeongguk’s underwear over his legs, bunching them up into a little ball and throwing them to an obscure corner of the room, and Jimin inhales sharply as Jeongguk’s cock slaps against his belly, pink and swollen, slick with precome. Jimin’s straining against his pants now, breath shallow—Jeongguk can see it, the outline of Jimin’s erection pushing against the fabric, and Jeongguk lets out a cry as Jimin fumbles with his pants, practically tearing them off to reveal his cock, curving up towards his torso.
“Shit,” Taehyung breathes, laughing silently while looking Jimin up and down. “For someone of your stature, you sure have a… Shit, is that even going to fit—”
Jimin whacks Taehyung in the face with his tail, shutting Taehyung up, then takes Jeongguk’s wrist, bringing it up to his nose and breathing in deeply, fingers trailing down Jeongguk’s lower arm. “Smells so good,” Jimin murmurs, pushing a knee between Jeongguk’s thighs, inching them apart. He holds himself over Jeongguk, staring right into Jeongguk’s eyes. It looks like Jimin’s barely holding himself back, arms shaking and jaw clenched, but he’s still—still being so gentle with Jeongguk, for now. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, arching his hips up, whining in frustration. “Yeah, just, hurry—”
“Okay,” Jimin says. He presses a quick kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead before sitting up and straddling Jeongguk’s chest, cock swollen and hard against his belly. Jimin grips Jeongguk’s shoulders, digging his thumbs into the groove of Jeongguk’s collarbones, grinding against Jeongguk as he slides down and Jeongguk gasps, jerking his hips up as he drinks in the sight of Jimin before him, naked and delicious.
Jeongguk comes without even being touched.
“Damn,” Taehyung says in appreciation, as Jeongguk muffles a groan, on the brink again as Jimin palms his cock, pink tip just inches away from Jeongguk’s mouth. Jimin strokes, and Jeongguk arches up again, second orgasm hitting out of left field, and this time Taehyung’s there, kneeling on the bed behind Jimin, lips pressed to the head of Jeongguk’s cock, hot tongue lapping up all of Jeongguk’s come. Jeongguk whines again, thighs trembling at the sudden contact as he comes a third time straight into Taehyung’s open mouth.
“Shit,” Taehyung says with a laugh, swallowing all of Jeongguk’s come and wiping his lips. “This is one hell of an intense heat.”
The space between Jeongguk’s asscrack is so wet, inner thighs slick with lubrication, and Jimin reaches down, eyes still locked with Jeongguk’s, a hand palming at Jeongguk’s balls, then further, drawing circles around Jeongguk’s entrance, tip of a finger sliding into Jeongguk. Jeongguk keens, spreading his legs wider, and Jimin slides his finger the entire way in, crooking upwards, and Jeongguk practically screams, whole body shaking.
“You’re so wet,” Jimin breathes in wonder, adding another finger, working Jeongguk open. Jeongguk clenches around Jimin’s fingers, feeling the blood rush to his head, his heart pound with adrenaline. “And loose.”
It’s one thing to have Jimin’s fingers inside him, but it’s another thing entirely when Jimin slides them out, stroking his swollen cock and pushing it inside, fucking in all the way until he’s buried to the hilt. Jeongguk pulses around Jimin, letting out a cry at the slow burn of the stretch, body producing more and more lubrication so Jimin can pull out and slide back in, his entire length up Jeongguk’s ass.
“Fuck,” Jeongguk groans out, hands finding Jimin’s hips, fingers tracing the firm muscles of Jimin’s back, knees bent and feet planted into the mattress as Jimin fucks him, faster, rougher, with less and less restraint. Jimin hits a spot inside Jeongguk, and Jeongguk’s claws unsheathe of their own accord, sinking into Jimin’s skin, drawing blood.
“Whoa,” Taehyung mutters, slinking up from behind Jimin to lie next to Jeongguk, resting his head on an elbow and watching intently. “Easy there, Jeongguk, or our puppy is going to bleed out.”
“Shut up,” Jeongguk moans, throwing his head back as Jimin bends down lower, sliding his hands up the length of Jeongguk’s arms and pinning them to the bed by the wrists instead, to save himself from the scratches. “I can’t control—can’t—”
“This is…” Jimin bites into the flesh above Jeongguk’s collarbones, rutting in. Jeongguk reciprocates, rolling his hips up to meet Jimin’s frantic thrusts, moaning out as Jimin’s cock sinks deeper and deeper each time. “This isn’t… Like my normal…”
“Same,” Jeongguk breathes, words cut off as Taehyung giggles and presses a kiss to his lips, hands trailing down Jeongguk’s chest to tweak at his nipples. Jimin lets go of one of Jeongguk’s wrists, and Jeongguk reaches over to grip Taehyung’s hand, interlacing their fingers, Jeongguk squeezing so hard his knuckles are white. Taehyung squeezes back, free hand reaching up to Jeongguk’s forehead to brush his sweaty bangs back, trail fingers down Jeongguk’s jawline. God, everything is intensified a hundredfold. If Jeongguk thought his induced heats had been intense, this… This is like a battalion charging in from the horizon, obliterating everything in sight, leaving the lands barren, parched, and dry.
“I always…” Jeongguk hooks his legs around Jimin’s waist, angling himself so Jimin can thrust in deeper, fill all of Jeongguk, ram in, slide out, hit that sweet spot over and over and over. He draws in a shaky breath, closing his eyes as Taehyung trails a finger down his arm to draw circles over the back of his hand. “I always thought your scent was amazing. You—you smell like… Like…”
Familiarity. Happiness. Warmth. A brilliant smile greeting Jeongguk each day. A comforting presence. A reminder that Jeongguk’s not alone here.
“Like home,” Taehyung finishes, beaming up at Jimin, and Jimin lets out a little cry as he shakes and shivers, spilling hot and sticky inside Jeongguk—and Jeongguk’s coming again at the sensation of Jimin filling him up, at the heat inside his ass, strings of come spurting up and leaving pretty patterns all over his belly, flecks landing on Jimin’s chest and Taehyung’s face.
“Shit,” Jimin says, voice strained as he’s milked dry, the pressure building in Jeongguk’s ass. Jimin tries to slide out, pull away from Jeongguk’s body, but Jeongguk’s clenched firmly around him, and Jeongguk lets out a little whine of pain as Jimin tugs. He can feel Jimin’s cock expanding inside him, filling him out, locking Jimin in, and honestly, he… He wants to stay like this, for a little while, Jimin’s cock still hot and pulsing inside his ass, so close, so connected. “I can’t pull out. I think I just…” Jimin licks his lips. “I think I just knotted.”
“You knot?” Taehyung asks, voice incredulous. Jeongguk’s legs are still wrapped around Jimin’s waist, and he rolls his hips, feeling the swollen part of Jimin’s cock pressing against his entrance, against his walls. Fuck, it feels so good. Jeongguk closes his eyes, biting his lower lip, feeling pressure building at the base of his belly again, pulse racing.
“I’ve…” Jimin’s voice goes low, gravelly, as he falls to the side carefully, letting Jeongguk keep his legs wrapped around his waist, Jeongguk’s ass still joined to his cock. Jeongguk clenches and unclenches, feeling the way Jimin grows inside him, and Jimin groans again, burying his head into the crook of Jeongguk’s shoulder and looking past him at Taehyung. “I’ve never knotted before.”
“We’ve only ever heard about this,” Taehyung marvels, draping an arm over Jeongguk’s waist and snuggling in close. He reaches around, searching for Jeongguk’s hand, and grips it tight, rubbing circles onto Jeongguk’s skin with the pad of his thumb. “About the Canidae phenomenon of knotting.”
“Yeah,” Jimin says, shifting slightly on the bed, and Jeongguk stifles a cry as Jimin’s knot moves inside him, pressing against his entrance. “But it’s a thing of the past. No one’s ever… No one’s ever experienced them with induced heats.”
“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy,” Taehyung quips, grinning, reaching a hand to stroke Jimin’s matted hair and scratch behind his ears. “Things are never going to be the same anymore. We’re going to have to deal with a lot more surprises from now on.”
Yeah, Jeongguk thinks. Things are never going to be the same anymore. They haven’t been for a while.
“More than that,” Taehyung says, nuzzling into the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, “How are you feeling, Jeonggukkie?” Jeongguk lets out a little whimper-cry, and Taehyung chuckles.
“Sorry,” Jimin says, laughing a little as he ruts into Jeongguk again and Jeongguk clenches around Jimin, drawing a grunt out of Jimin. “I guess I was a little rough.”
“I can’t believe I just let a Canidae fuck me in the ass,” Jeongguk murmurs, looking into Jimin’s eyes, but his lips quirk into a smile, cheeks flushing, and Jimin laughs back breathlessly, pressing a chaste kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead. “Feels good. So good.”
“There’s a first for everything,” Taehyung says wisely, patting Jeongguk’s ass, and Jeongguk socks Taehyung in the face.
“Jesus fucking christ,” Namjoon says the next morning, when he walks into the bedroom and surveys the damage. He wrinkles his nose as the smell hits him. “What the hell happened in here last night?”
Jeongguk cracks open an eyelid. His entire body is sore from being slammed on too many surfaces, and he’s pretty sure he won’t be able to walk properly for a while, but other than that, god, he’s so sated.
“So both Jeonggukkie and Jiminnie went into heat,” Taehyung pipes up, and Namjoon almost falls off the stepladder. Jeongguk buries his face in the blankets, curling up as small as he can go, Jimin snuggling into him, arms wrapped around Jeongguk’s waist.
“Oh,” Namjoon says, after a very long pause. “Oh, I see.”
“Must be a side effect of doing the morph while still conscious, or without having the inducements,” Jimin mutters, running a hand through dishevelled hair. “We both got ours right after our transformations.”
“Does it feel any different from your usual induced heats?” Namjoon asks, closing the trapdoor and sitting down at the foot of their bed. “Weaker? Stronger? Longer?”
“Well,” Taehyung says, glancing at Jimin and Jeongguk with a sly grin. After Jimin’s knot had released itself and he could pull out of Jeongguk, he and Taehyung had gone a second round, Jeongguk still recovering from coming multiple times, his ass still sore from being stretched out by Jimin’s cock. It had been a strange experience, lying on the bed right next to Jimin and Taehyung, watching his heat partner of four years get fucked in the ass by the Canidae who’d just knotted inside him, but it had also been so right. Like it was always meant to be this way. After Taehyung had come all over the blankets, hands scrabbling against the walls, Jimin buried in his ass from behind, Jimin had come to Jeongguk again, and they’d gone a second round, this time with Jimin sucking Jeongguk off twice before picking him up and fucking him against the wall, coming inside Jeongguk with a shudder. “Let’s just say things got a little more slippery and knotty than usual.”
“Huh?” Namjoon narrows his eyes at the three of them. “Explain?”
“I never…” Jeongguk murmurs into the blanket. “I never self-lubricate, but… I did, and then… Jimin knotted inside me.”
“And I’m still in a rut,” Jimin says, drawing Jeongguk and Taehyung in close. “Hah. Feels like it might last for a couple of days.”
“Shit, it seems like you take on the pack rankings of your Base animal too,” Namjoon remarks, face lighting up. “Wow. Wow, we’d only hypothesised about this, but to think… Jeongguk, yours must’ve been an Omega, and Jimin’s an Alpha. This is fascinating.”
“Fascinating my ass,” Jeongguk growls, closing his eyes. The heat is coming back, winding up again, coiling in his lower belly, and Jeongguk lets out a whine, pressing up against Jimin, eyes beseeching. Jimin growls, blue eyes flashing in reaction, and Taehyung bursts out laughing. “Fuck, fuck.”
Namjoon holds his hands up, jumping off the bed. “Oop. Guess I’ll leave you guys alone for a couple of days. Uh. Let me know if you need anything?”
“Some chill would be nice,” Taehyung says, giving Namjoon a cheery wave as Jimin flips Jeongguk over, straddling him and sucking hickeys along Jeongguk’s bruised neck. “Or not. Too late.”
“Oh, and for the love of god,” Namjoon mutters, as Jeongguk’s cock twitches, precome spurting out the tip, “please do not get stains on my bedding.”
The first heat washes over in four days.
It’s four days of the most intense sex Jeongguk’s ever had. Jimin may be kind, caring, and mostly a pushover in their everyday life, but he gets serious when he’s in bed, taking control of Jeongguk, and Jeongguk finds himself going along to Jimin’s rhythm.
“Well,” Yoongi says, scratching his head and looking the three of them up and down when they finally emerge from the bedroom days later, sweaty and reeking of sex. “Wow. Uh, I’ll go get the sanitation unit ready. It’ll probably be a good idea to let you… recover… before we try to morph you again.”
Taehyung gets morphed a week later for the first time into a little harmless Abyssinian, and when he reverts back to human form, completely unclothed, the first thing he does is pounce on Jeongguk, tail wagging happily, eyes shining a bright green, and Namjoon groans and covers his eyes as he pulls open the trapdoor for them to go down to the bedroom.
“Is it Taehyungie’s turn this time?” Jimin asks as Taehyung clings to Jeongguk, rubbing his head against Jeongguk’s neck, tongue darting out kittenishly to lick at Jeongguk’s earlobe, and Jeongguk lets out a longsuffering sigh. Jimin grins, vacating the bed so Taehyung and Jeongguk can use it instead. “Guess both us will be catering to our lovely Taetae today.”
Taehyung pushes Jeongguk down onto the bed, rubbing his whole body against Jeongguk, who’s still fully clothed, Taehyung’s erection pressed against Jeongguk’s lower belly, hot even through the fabric of Jeongguk’s shirt.
“How are you feeling?” Jeongguk asks as Taehyung sits Jeongguk up, stripping Jeongguk’s shirt off, then pulls Jeongguks pants and underwear down in one go. Taehyung scoots down, pushing Jeongguk’s legs apart, pink lips kissing the tip of Jeongguk’s cock, and Jeongguk feels himself twitch, hardening at Taehyung’s soft lips parting to take Jeongguk’s entire length in, hot tongue licking stripes down the shaft.
“Hot,” Taehyung breathes, pushing Jeongguk’s thighs even further apart, gagging himself on Jeongguk’s erection, tip hitting the back of Taehyung’s throat repeatedly. Jimin watches, eyes shining with amusement, waggling his eyebrows at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk grits his teeth and frowns at Jimin. “Want to—want to fuck myself on your cock.”
Taehyung’s dripping out of his ass now, almost gushing, and he pops Jeongguk’s cock out of his mouth, sitting up on his knees, palming his own cock, one hand reaching behind himself to slide a finger inside his own entrance and stretch himself open. Jeongguk holds his breath, hands curled up into fists, as he watches Taehyung fuck himself open with his own fingers, mouth hanging open and little whimpers marking each time he thrusts his fingers into his own ass.
“Come on,” Jimin mutters, standing up and putting his hands on Taehyung’s hips. Taehyung takes his own fingers out of his ass, getting on all fours, hands digging into the mattress next to Jeongguk’s hips, and Jimin slicks a finger inside, increasing the pace. Jimin must be doing something right, because Taehyung lets out a yell, throwing his head back, and he comes all over Jeongguk’s belly and chest, entire body shivering. Taehyung lowers himself, licking his own come off Jeongguk’s skin, tongue hot and wet against Jeongguk’s skin, and when Taehyung looks up to meet Jeongguk’s eyes, Jeongguk shivers, erection almost unbearable now. Jimin slaps Taehyung’s ass, pulling him back by the hips, and lowers his lips to Taehyung’s ears. “Come on, didn’t you say you wanted to ride Jeonggukkie?”
“Yeah,” Taehyung says back, grinding down on Jeongguk’s thighs, just shy of Jeongguk’s cock. “Yeah, I—I want to ride him.”
“What are you waiting for?” Jeongguk mumbles, taking his erection in his hand and pumping. Taehyung bites his lip, sliding up, then takes Jeongguk’s cock in his own hand and positions it at his entrance. Jeongguk holds back a whimper, feeling the slick heat of Taehyung’s ass on the tip of his cock, shivering in anticipation.
Taehyung sinks down on Jeongguk’s cock, letting out a breath as he takes Jeongguk all the way to the hilt, pleasurable heat around Jeongguk’s cock. Jeongguk’s still acutely aware of Jimin watching from the corner of the room with hooded eyes, drinking in the sight of Taehyung fucking himself open on Jeongguk’s cock, and Jeongguk’s eyelids flutter closed, as if that will make the red flush creeping into his cheeks any less apparent.
And shit, Taehyung must be desperate, because the way he moves, rolling his hips, sliding all the way up and sinking all the way down, his own cock bouncing and hitting his belly with every movement, is frenzied and carnal. Jeongguk tries his hardest to hang on, to hold back from spilling inside Taehyung, filling him up, but Taehyung is too much, too erratic, and Jeongguk ends up snapping his hips up to meet Taehyung’s movements, starry sparks dotting the back of his eyelids when he bursts, waves after waves of pleasure coursing through his body, filling Taehyung to the brim with his come, Taehyung coming not long after, painting both their chests white.
“More,” Taehyung murmurs, clambering up Jeongguk’s body to press a sloppy kiss to Jeongguk’s lips, nuzzle Jeongguk’s collarbones, and Jeongguk can only let out a hoarse laugh as he watches Taehyung get hard again, rubbing against Jeongguk’s thigh desperately.
“Get some rest, Jeongguk,” Jimin says, pulling Taehyung off Jeongguk. Taehyung clings to Jimin, pushing him down onto the bed, and Jimin lets out a laugh as Taehyung starts stripping Jimin, a hand already down Jimin’s pants. “I’ll take care of him for now, until you’re recovered.” Taehyung yanks Jimin’s pants off, flipping him around, claws unsheathed, and he digs them into the small of Jimin’s back, drawing neat red lines down Jimin’s ass, then bringing his face close to lick at the shallow wounds.
“I can’t believe you scratched me,” Jimin growls. Taehyung grins, preening, and Jimin wrinkles his nose. “You damn alleycats.”
Jimin morphs two days later, after Taehyung’s heat dies down, and comes out of his morph already hard, cock straining against his pants, hair matted to his forehead with sweat.
“Jeongguk,” Jimin growls out, when he sees Jeongguk standing there, outside the padded room, and Jeongguk can’t even get a word out before Jimin’s hands are on his shoulders, pushing him back, back towards the room, Jimin’s breath coming in shallow gasps.
Jimin and Jeongguk barely make it down to the bedroom before Jimin’s slamming Jeongguk against the dirt walls, mashing their lips together, hands roaming all over Jeongguk’s body. Jeongguk parts his lips, letting Jimin’s tongue delve into his mouth, sucking at Jimin’s lips, and Jimin responds with an equal ferocity, kissing Jeongguk like he wants to suck Jeongguk’s soul out from his lips, eat him whole, consume him.
“Fuck,” Jimin moans as he grinds against Jeongguk’s crotch, still fully clothed. He rubs against Jeongguk like that, arms caging Jeongguk in against the walls, then groans into Jeongguk’s lips as he shudders and comes in his pants without even having been touched.
“Wow,” Jeongguk breathes as Jimin flips him around, pulling Jeongguk’s pants down, hands stroking down the length of Jeongguk’s tail, kissing the spot just above where Jeongguk’s tail starts. “Wow, you’re really not holding back today.”
“Had enough holding back the first time,” Jimin growls, slicking a finger up Jeongguk’s ass, pushing in all the way, curling upwards to find the sweet spot in Jeongguk. Jeongguk scrabbles against the walls, cheek pressed flush against the coolness, cock against his belly, and lets Jimin have his way, fuck Jeongguk open with his fingers before lining up his cock with the cleft of Jeongguk’s ass and pushing in. Jeongguk gasps as Jimin slides all the way in, filling him out, then runs his hands up Jeongguk’s arms and pins his wrists to the wall, interlacing their fingers. “You ready?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk breathes out. “Go, hurry, fuck me.”
Jimin pounds into him, the whole room shaking, and Jeongguk’s pressed right up against the wall, body ramming into the hard surface as Jimin pounds in relentlessly, Jeongguk being filled out with all of Jimin. It’s so hot, so intense, so good, Jimin’s fingers laced with his, Jimin’s cock inside him, stretching him out, skin against skin, Jimin’s sweet scent filling his lungs, sweat-slicked skin pressed against his back…
It doesn’t take long for Jimin to come again, spilling hot inside Jeongguk, and Jeongguk follows, streaking the wall before him with ropes of white, thighs shaking and heart pounding. Jimin pulls out fast, before the knot can form and lock him inside Jeongguk, and Jeongguk collapses to the ground in a worn-out heap, legs shaking from exertion.
“Thank you, Jeonggukkie,” Jimin murmurs as he bends down to kiss Jeongguk on the forehead, stroking his face gently, before he goes to find Taehyung for round two.
Then it’s Jeongguk’s turn, back into the padded room, back into the mind of a Lynx, an animal invading his mind for the second time, and when he gets out of the room, both Jimin and Taehyung are there, ready to take him down to their quarters before his heat hits its peak.
It’s so good having both Taehyung and Jimin catering to him, letting Jeongguk have his way today. Jeongguk pushes Taehyung to the bed, rubbing his entire body against Taehyung, making out with him for what seems like forever before Jimin slides Jeongguk’s undergarments off, hot tongue flicking out to lick at Jeongguk’s entrance, and Jeongguk bites down on Taehyung’s shoulder, whimpering at the sensation.
“Come on,” Jimin says, slapping Jeongguk’s ass playfully and interlinking their tails, “turn around. I want to suck you off.”
Well, Jeongguk thinks, rolling around so that he’s sitting in the space between Taehyung’s spread legs, back pressed against Taehyung’s chest, Taehyung holding him up with arms wrapped around Jeongguk’s chest, he’s not going to say not to that.
Shit, Jimin is so hot, all golden skin and gentle curves. Jimin’s biceps ripple as he lowers himself down, tongue swirling at Jeongguk’s bellybutton, down, lower, past his happy trail, kissing the pink, swollen head of Jeongguk’s cock, never once breaking eye contact with Jeongguk. Jeongguk squirms as Jimin takes all of him into his mouth, beautiful plump lips stretched around Jeongguk’s cock, tongue pressed flat against the underside, and he lets out an embarrassing whine when Jimin hums, letting the tip of Jeongguk’s cock hit the back of his throat.
“Jeez,” Taehyung mutters from behind Jeongguk, and Jeongguk can feel Taehyung’s erection pressing into the small of his back, “trying to upstage me, are you, Park Jimin?”
Jimin simply quirks an eyebrow, smirking, and takes this chance to go down even further on Jeongguk’s cock, gag himself over and over as Jeongguk comes inside his mouth, once, twice, three times, and Jimin swallows it all.
“Three times in a row,” Jimin announces, scrambling up to straddle Jeongguk’s hips and press a sloppy kiss to Jeongguk’s lips. Jeongguk can still taste himself, tangy and bitter, inside Jimin’s mouth, and his cock twitches again. “Try beat that, Kim Taehyung.”
“Is that a challenge?” Taehyung says, chin rested on Jeongguk’s left shoulder. Jimin simply lets out a laugh, rolling onto his back to lie down next to Jeongguk and Taehyung, and Taehyung lets out a little snort of indignation. “You’re on, pup.”
Taehyung, that motherfucking piece of shit, is serious about making this into a competition. Taehyung, that motherfucking piece of shit, flips Jeongguk around so Jeongguk’s on all fours, then reaches between them to take Jeongguk’s cock in his hand, thumbing at the oversensitive tip. With his other hand, Taehyung spreads Jeongguk’s asscheeks apart, a single finger stroking the rim of Jeongguk’s entrance, then pushes his cock in to the hilt.
“Jesus christ, Taehyung,” Jeongguk grits out as Taehyung pumps harder, rutting into Jeongguk at an increasing pace. “Turn—turn down, fuck, I’m going to—”
“Come for me, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung purrs, stroking up and down the length of Jeongguk’s tail with his own tail as he rams in even harder, the entire bed shaking with the force. Taehyung squeezes Jeongguk’s cock, pad of his thumb ghosting over the tip, and Jeongguk can’t hold back anymore, pulsing and decorating the bedsheets with the last of his come, Taehyung pumping until Jeongguk’s been milked dry.
“More?” Jimin asks as Jeongguk collapses onto the bed, entire body shivering, fingertips tingling, stars shooting across the back of his eyelids. He feels like his entire body is burning up, the fever not fading, but intensifying, fuelled by Taehyung’s touches and Jimin’s intoxicating scent, Jeongguk delirious, dizzy, addicted. Jeongguk reaches over, gripping Jimin’s arm with a clammy hand, draping a leg over Jimin’s hip, and Jimin simply chuckles before shifting so that he’s on top of Jeongguk, staring down into Jeongguk’s eyes, beads of sweat dripping off his chin and onto Jeongguk’s chest.
And, god, Jeongguk thinks, running his fingers through Jimin’s hair, letting Jimin rub circles at his entrance, gripping Jimin’s shoulders as he shudders and comes dry, Jeongguk is addicted to Jimin’s smell, craves his touch.
It’s such a far cry from the first time Jeongguk had laid eyes on Jimin, the conflicting emotions he’d felt then—curiosity, fear, familiarity, intense apprehension. But even from then, there’s no denying—he’d always thought Jimin was beautiful, smelled wonderful, was one of a kind, different from all the other Canidae. Jimin, Park Jimin, the one and only Canidae in Jeongguk’s life, kind, caring Park Jimin…
“You’re beautiful,” Jeongguk blurts out, then claps a hand over his mouth when he realises he’s said it out loud. Jimin pauses what he’s doing, looking down at Jeongguk with an incredulous grin, and Jeongguk covers his face with both hands. Fuck. He can already see Jimin’s pleased grin, his satisfied smirk, and Jeongguk flushes several shades redder. “Fuck, you’re never going to let me live this down, are you?”
“Nope,” Jimin says, moving Jeongguk’s hands away so he can brush away the stray strands of hair from Jeongguk’s forehead, then kisses Jeongguk’s forehead. Jimin moves back, grinning as Jeongguk’s face heats up, then leans back in to kiss down the bridge of Jeongguk’s nose, lips brushing the tip, then plants a soft, gentle kiss on Jeongguk’s parched lips. “I’m never going to let you forget this.”
“I want…” Jeongguk chokes out, carding his fingers through Jimin’s hair, pressing their foreheads together. “I want to be on top. Let me—let me—”
“Your wish is my command,” Jimin says, getting off Jeongguk and letting Jeongguk take the reins. Jimin gladly lets Jeongguk spread him out on the mattress, straddle his hips, kiss up and down Jimin’s body, take Jimin’s nipples in between his teeth and pull, suck hickeys into Jimin’s skin, pink and purple flowers blooming over Jimin’s body. There are no more words exchanged, just erratic breathing, moans and whimpers as Jeongguk takes Jimin’s cock deep inside, already stretched out from being fucked open before, clenching around Jimin hard, as if trying to meld their bodies together.
Jeongguk pins Jimin down by the shoulders, sweat dripping off Jeongguk’s bangs in rivulets onto Jimin’s skin, but he doesn’t slow down his pace, rolling his hips even more frantically and riding Jimin. He lifts himself off, so that Jimin’s cock is almost completely exposed, then sits down, letting out little cries each time he impales himself on Jimin, deeper, harder, faster.
It doesn’t take long for Jeongguk to come all over Jimin’s face and chest, spasming around Jimin, and Jimin spills inside Jeongguk with a groan, hands scrabbling to pull Jeongguk down and kiss him fiercely.
“Fuck,” Jimin breathes, as Jeongguk wraps his legs around Jimin’s waist, Jimin’s come spilling out of his ass and onto the bedsheets. “Fuck, are you still not done?”
“Haha,” Jeongguk says weakly, pushing himself off Jimin, chest and stomach sticky with come, and Taehyung lets out a hoarse laugh as he straddles Jeongguk, arms shaking.
“This is going to be a long night,” Taehyung murmurs, sinking down on Jeongguk’s cock, and yeah, Jeongguk thinks, it’s going to be a long, long night.
The weather cools, hot summer fading into a mild winter, and Jeongguk wakes up one day with the realisation that they’ve already been here for half a year.
While he once craved the tidy neatness of Paradisus, the enclosed, solitary sleeping capsules and rigid structure of every day, he finds that these days, it’s more of a faint memory. Sometimes, he’ll jolt in the middle of the night after a bad dream, or sit up in bed after imagining the Paradisus alarm signalling him to head off to the Foodhall for breakfast and proceed to training with the instructors, but then Jimin or Taehyung will wrap a hand around Jeongguk’s waist, comfort him, pull him back down, press comforting kisses to his forehead, and Jeongguk is reminded that everything is all right.
It’s strange, the relationship between the three of them.
It’s not like they’re left with much choice but to spend every moment of both their waking and sleeping hours with each other, but Jeongguk thinks that even in a world where they were free to roam and choose their friends, their partners, he would still pick Taehyung and Jimin. Entirely physical relationships are easy to write off, say that it’s only for their mutual benefit, that there’s nothing else involved but helping each other through their heats and getting off, but if Jeongguk’s honest with himself, that’s not quite all. While Jeongguk hasn’t thought much of it before, now he’s too aware of it, the warmth in his chest when Taehyung beams at him, the way his mood lifts when Jimin bounces up to him, draping an arm over Jeongguk’s shoulder. At these times, Jeongguk will pretend to act annoyed, scowl and push Jimin off, but secretly, he craves more, craves their attention, wants to see them happy and smiling.
Feelings are something that Jeongguk’s never really had the time or freedom to consider or experience before. None of them have, really. Paradisus didn’t allow space for it—they pit all the undergraduates against each other in intense competition, treated the heatsex like something scientific, something necessary, something to get over and done with so the Hybrida could resume their daily training. Out here, out in Seoul, time is slow, and there is much more to hear, to see, to feel.
While the Hybrida were never taught, never exposed to the complicated feelings the people out here in Seoul call love, it surely exists, deep inside them, a capability locked away and left unexplored. Paradisus just couldn’t risk it, risk having their products led astray because of lingering attachment. It makes sense, too. In a world based on control, love is something unpredictable, something foreign, something that could make the careful calculations of the Paradisus scientists go awry.
But this is no longer Paradisus, and they are no longer bound by the rules they’ve adhered to their whole lives.
Taehyung discovers an old cult hit from thousands of years ago, a drama about a four-hundred-year-old alien from another star who visits Earth and finds his one true love, and makes Jeongguk and Jimin watch it with him. While the graphics are atrocious, the image not even in 3D, but 2D, the emotions are raw, real, and something stirs in the depths of Jeongguk’s chest that he’s never felt before, an aching longing. By the end of the drama, all three of them are teary-eyed, Taehyung positively bawling.
“He…he was willing to die for her…” Taehyung says, sniffling and curling up into Jeongguk’s side. “He risked everything just so he could protect her, to be with her. That’s… ”
“Could you do that?” Jimin asks, voice soft. “Risk your life to protect someone?”
“I don’t know,” Jeongguk says, in deep consideration. The Hybrida don’t have family. They’re raised in spartan environments, in constant competition with one another. They’re taught that feelings are a hinderance rather than a benefit to their training. It’s a question none of them would have ever considered, had they not been rescued by Yoongi. “How do you figure something like that out?”
“Imagine a world without them, I guess,” Taehyung muses. “That’s what Do Minjoon did. Imagine a world where they’re not there, and think about if you can live with that.”
“That’s pretty dumb,” Jeongguk says gruffly. “I mean, you’d have to live on, wouldn’t you? Not like you suddenly stop functioning just because one person isn’t there anymore.”
But, Jeongguk thinks later that night, when all three of them are in bed, Taehyung’s arms and legs draped over Jimin’s body, Jimin nuzzling into the crook of Jeongguk’s neck, if he really, seriously considers it…
A world where Taehyung’s not there to greet him in the morning, purring sleepily and whacking Jeongguk in the face with his tail…
A world where Jimin’s bright blue eyes and dazzling smile are no longer there, his smell, so full of life, a dusty nothingness…
No, Jeongguk thinks, chest aching. He couldn’t live with that.
Taehyung, being Taehyung, gets addicted to ridiculous animations from thousands of years ago and discovers some kind of hidden aptitude for imitating the exact same corny lines from those animations. Maybe in a past life, he could’ve been a movie star or something, but now, he just makes do with bursting out into melodramatic renditions of lines from Olden Masterpieces.
“I hurt because of you!” Taehyung shouts, pounding his chest like a gorilla. This time round, he’s discovered some kind of dancing movie, the kind that had been so popular during the early 2000s, and he’s busy imitating the dance moves to said movie right now. “You are so bad to me!”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, not looking up from his lunch. Why Taehyung chooses lunchtime to show off his newfound skills, Jeongguk has no fucking clue, but it sure makes lunch every day entertaining, if not really weird. “Okay, Taehyung.”
“You’re no fun,” Taehyung whines, pouting at Jeongguk. Jimin muffles a snort, watching as Taehyung slinks up to Jeongguk and tugs at Jeongguk’s sleeve. “Come on, do it with me!”
Jeongguk sighs and puts his fork down. “What are you up to now? Did you discover another one of those 2D cartoon people videos about ancient ball games? Are you going to make me play, what was it called again… volleyball? With Namjoon’s experimental sphere again? We’re lucky we didn’t break that damn thing.”
“Naw, just a little acting. Come on! Hey, handsome bastard!” Taehyung shouts, grabbing the collar of Jeongguk’s shirt. “Are you fucking around with me?”
Jeongguk rolls his eyes. If Taehyung wants Jeongguk to play, then Jeongguk will play alright.
“Yah,” Jeongguk shouts, grabbing Taehyung’s hand and throwing it off his shirt. Jimin lets out a bark of laughter at Taehyung’s shocked face, and Jeongguk smirks. “What are you doing, you ugly trashbaby?”
“Okay, I don’t want to play anymore,” Taehyung says, running over to Jimin, who’s laughing his ass off, and Jeongguk grins as Taehyung makes a mock-hurt face at Jimin. “Jiminnie, look, he’s bullying me.”
Jimin flicks Taehyung’s forehead, pulling out the seat next to him. “Just sit down and eat your lunch, idiot,” he says, and Taehyung quietly obeys, shovelling the fried rice into his mouth.
The three of them get more and more accustomed to the morphs. Now, Jeongguk finds that it doesn’t hurt as much, that he can control the Lynx inside him when he’s in his animal form, and even the heat that comes rushing in afterwards is more bearable, more manageable. Honestly, it gives Jeongguk an excuse to seek out Jimin and Taehyung afterwards, gives him an excuse to press up against them, drink them in, and for that, Jeongguk is glad, because he’d never be able to admit to their faces that sometimes, he wants this, wants the closeness, wants their touches, even without the heat driving him to action.
But all of this, the morphing, the insatiable heat, takes a toll on their bodies. Sometimes, when Jeongguk’s in his heat, Jimin will be too worn out to help, having just recovered from his own heat, and it’s left up to Taehyung to bring Jeongguk down from his high, with his familiar touch and years of practised partnership. Sometimes, Jeongguk will be the one too worn out, and he’ll sit up in the lounge room and curl up for a catnap while Taehyung and Jimin go at it in the bedroom below.
This time, though, Jeongguk’s just finished his seventh morph—his most successful one yet, he’d been able to hold form for an hour before losing the edges of control over the Lynx—and he’s just reverted back to his Hybrida form. He can feel the familiar burning in the pit of his stomach again, the desperate hotness welling up inside, and he searches the room only to find Taehyung curled up on the sofa in the corner, snoozing away.
“Heya,” Jimin greets, big grin on his face, arms crossed and leaning against the doorframe. “Taetae’s kind of knackered from last night. Guess it’s just you and me today.”
Jeongguk lets out a little breathless laugh. Now that he thinks about it, while he and Jimin have their fair share of sex, it’s always been with Taehyung in the equation somewhere, either watching or holding on to Jeongguk or pressed up against Jimin. Maybe it’s because Taehyung could tell that Jeongguk was apprehensive at the beginning, with his wary nature and penchant for solitariness, that he always stuck around—because Taehyung wanted to be there for Jeongguk, the only person Jeongguk’s ever had in his life, but it’s not like that anymore. Now, there’s Taehyung, but there’s also Jimin, Park Jimin, the enchanting Canidae who’s wormed his way into Jeongguk’s heart and set up a cozy house right there in his left atrium.
Jeongguk makes the first move, striding towards Jimin and backing him up against the wall, caging Jimin’s smaller frame in with both arms, pressing his entire body flush against Jimin’s. Jimin responds by tilting his head up, just enough for Jeongguk to lean down and press his lips against Jimin’s, parting them slightly, delving into Jimin’s mouth with the tip of his tongue. Jeongguk’s right hands roams down, stroking Jimin’s shoulder, fingers drawing a steady line down Jimin’s arm, before he hooks his thumb into the elastic of Jimin’s pants and pulls down, revealing the slightest hint of Jimin’s happy trail.
“Room,” Yoongi deadpans, eyes closed and pointing in the direction of the trapdoor, and Jeongguk unwillingly pushes himself off Jimin to hoist open the trapdoor and make his way down the stepladder.
“Bed?” Jimin breathes, following after Jeongguk, but Jeongguk can barely contain himself, grabbing Jimin by the arm and walking him backwards until Jimin’s back slams against the dirty wall, and Jeongguk’s making out with him again, hands scrabbling between them, tugging Jimin’s pants off fervently, and Jimin responds by kicking them off and sliding his hands so they rest on the curves of Jeongguk’s waist, fingers digging into Jeongguk’s back. Jeongguk’s hands are inching their way up Jimin’s shirt now, tips of his fingers skimming over Jimin’s toned abs, hoisting the shirt up little by little as Jeongguk dips his head to mouth at Jimin’s neck, suck patterns into the skin of Jimin’s neck below his ear. “Or not.”
“Sorry,” Jeongguk says as he yanks the shirt off Jimin, tossing it to the floor, not sounding sorry at all. Jimin leans forward, hands reaching for the hem of Jeongguk’s shirt this time, and the two of them do this weird dance, spinning in circles around each other as Jimin finally wrestles Jeongguk’s shirt off and grips Jeongguk’s bare shoulders.
“You little shit,” Jimin says, laughing breathlessly as he slams Jeongguk back against the wall, hard. Jeongguk feels his breath cut short as he whams into the hard surface, Jimin holding him down tight, body so close to his. “Is this how you show affection to your elders?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says cheekily, wedging a knee in between Jimin’s legs, slamming Jimin right back against the opposite wall and kissing him fiercely. This time it’s Jimin who lets out a breath, laughing as Jeongguk bites on his lower lip and tugs it between his teeth, leaving them red and puffy. “Yeah, this is.”
Jeongguk’s almost too impatient to prep himself, simply sliding two fingers straight into his dripping ass, fucking himself open on them without detaching himself from Jimin’s lips, and Jimin’s quick to move Jeongguk’s hands away, move them so they’re resting on Jimin’s hips instead. Jimin reaches behind him to rub circles in Jeongguk’s ass and slick his own finger inside Jeongguk—and fuck, this feels so much better, Jeongguk’s nerve ends charged with electricity as Jimin fucks him open with his fingers, Jeongguk’s cock hard and pressed in between their bellies, rubbing against Jimin’s erection.
“Come on,” Jeongguk whines out as Jimin thrusts in again, rocking his hips against Jimin’s, trying to get as much friction as he can on his throbbing erection. “Come on, come on, fuck me, Jimin.”
“Hold tight,” Jimin says, and he flips them around again, so that Jeongguk’s back is flush against the wall, legs spread and shaking. Jimin’s stronger than he looks, power packed into his little frame, because he hoists Jeongguk up, pinning him against the wall, and Jeongguk instinctively wraps his legs around Jimin’s waist, arms around Jimin’s shoulders. Jimin reaches around to finger Jeongguk once more before grunting and aligning the tip of his cock with Jeongguk’s entrance. “Ready?”
“I’ve been ready since I got out of that damn room,” Jeongguk growls, and Jimin rolls his hips up, sliding into Jeongguk, stretching Jeongguk out, and Jeongguk sinks down, meeting Jimin halfway, tightening the grip of his legs around Jimin’s waist.
Jimin goes slowly at first, pressing Jeongguk back up against the wall as he slides out, before fucking back in, smoothly, sensuously. Jeongguk lets out a little hiccough, sinking his nose into the crown of Jimin’s hair, inhaling deeply to take in Jimin’s scent. Jimin’s arms are hooked around the crook of Jeongguk’s knees, supporting him from underneath his thighs, and Jimin slides out again, ramming in hot and heavy, again and again and again.
And—god, it’s almost too much to handle, Jimin fucking him against a wall like this, slow but intense, intimate and face-to-face. Jeongguk hadn’t known Jimin was this strong, to be able to hold him up like this, but he is, his abs ripping as he exerts himself, sheen of sweat trickling down his face, down his chest, caging Jeongguk in, and he increases the pace, steadily, going faster and faster until he’s practically jackhammering into Jeongguk, all that’s coming out of Jeongguk’s mouth a series of quick, staccato moans.
Jimin lets out a soft whimper, then Jeongguk feels a rush of heat inside him, Jimin’s head resting on Jeongguk’s shoulder as he comes in waves, pulsing inside Jeongguk. Jeongguk tightens around Jimin’s cock, milking him dry, legs hugging Jimin’s body tight to him, hands flat against Jimin’s back, pulling him in, breathing in his scent again, consuming him.
Time stands still for a moment, both Jimin and Jeongguk breathing heavily, and Jimin lifts his head to stare straight into Jeongguk’s eyes, pupils blown wide, irises the most brilliant blue.
“I love you.” Jimin says, voice gentle and warm. “Jeon Jeongguk, I love you.”
“Fuck,” Jeongguk blurts out, rather ineloquently. His whole body tenses, thoughts going haywire, and he’s so flustered that he comes right there and then, spurting all over Jimin’s abdomen, cock twitching as he lets out a keen, thighs shaking from orgasm. Jimin’s lips quirk up in amusement. “Shit, I mean, I didn’t mean to—fuck.”
“Shhh,” Jimin says with a laugh, pressing himself up against Jeongguk, pinning Jeongguk’s wrists to the wall, kissing Jeongguk, sloppy and open-mouthed. “It’s okay. You don’t need to say anything back. You don’t need to feel the same. I just—just wanted you to know.”
And… God, Jeongguk doesn’t know how Jimin can just do these things, can look him in the eyes and say it so easily, say something that Jeongguk’s been ruminating over for the past few months, the mess of feelings about Jimin and Taehyung that have been confounding him. The way those three words had just slipped out of Jimin’s lips like it was the most natural thing—the three words that Jeongguk hadn’t even known he’d wanted to hear until now.
“And Taehyung?” Jeongguk asks, unwrapping his legs from Jimin’s waist and standing back down on his own two feet. Jeongguk bends his head, pressing a kiss to Jimin’s forehead. “I’ve seen the way you look at him, too.”
Jimin smiles before pulling away, searching Jeongguk’s eyes. “Is it strange if I say that I think I love two people at the same time?”
“No,” Jeongguk blurts out, breath catching in his throat. “No, no—no, that’s not strange at all.”
Not at all, because Jeon Jeongguk might just feel the same way.
There’s a low chuckle from behind Jimin, and Jeongguk looks up to see Taehyung sitting at the top of the stepladder, chin held in his hands, stifling a yawn. Taehyung gives Jimin and Jeongguk a brilliant grin before hopping down and diving onto the bed, rolling himself up in the blanket. “I’m so touched, really, guys, I thought I was all alone here.” Taehyung rolls onto his stomach and makes an act of wiping away fake tears. “Just so you know, you two are both blockheads. Also, the feeling is mutual.”
“What the hell,” Jimin yelps, eyes going wide, and Jeongguk groans, embarrassed at the thought that Taehyung probably saw the entire thing, saw him being wrecked by Jimin. “When did you come in?”
“Oh, a while ago,” Taehyung says lazily, stretching and grinning voraciously. Jimin growls, then moves to the bed to smack Taehyung on the butt, scowling. “Don’t mind me, I was just enjoying the show.” Taehyung turns to Jeongguk, flashing pearly-white teeth, and Jeongguk feels a chill run down his spine. “By the way, Jeongguk, I do have to congratulate you on—”
“Don’t you dare,” Jeongguk says, holding a finger to Taehyung’s lips before he can get the next words out of his mouth. Fuck, Jeongguk already knows what they’re going to be. Teasing him for coming from Jimin’s words alone. Fucking Taehyung. Taehyung simply snaps his mouth shut, smirking devilishly at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk gives him another pointed look before scampering off to pick up his clothes from the ground.
“Oh, right, before I forget,” Taehyung says, rolling back over and pulling something out of his pants. “Namjoon says to use these next time we, uh, do the doodly-doo.”
Taehyung throws a pack of orange square things onto the bed, and Jeongguk peers at them curiously, clothes gathered in one hand. He’s never seen them before, but there’s the outline of something round within the packages and the letters KING SIZE are printed on the front.
“What the hell are these?” Jimin asks, picking up one of the foil squares between his fingers. He sniffs it tentatively. “Ugh. Smells like rubber.”
“Don’t ask me,” Taehyung says, shrugging. “All he said was that they’d help us, uh, stop dirtying the bedsheets every time we got down and dirty.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” Jimin says, grinning up at Taehyung and Jeongguk. “I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure I’m game for swallowing it all.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says, voice faint, very, very turned on at the thought of Park Jimin with his lips stretched around his cock and drinking him down. “Well, I can’t say no to that.”
It’s a quiet morning, both Taehyung and Jimin upstairs getting their vitals taken, when an emergency news bulletin starts blaring on Jeongguk’s hoverpad. Jeongguk stares as the hoverpad plays of its own accord, frowning as the 3D image zooms in on a building, its gates open.
“Emergency announcement to all citizens in Seoul. A power failure at Seoul National Zoo has facilitated the escape of several dangerous wild animals from their compounds. The force fields enclosing the animals fluxed at 0800 this morning, leading to the escape of twenty wild animals. Citizens are advised to stay indoors until further notice. For your safety and the safety of others, please contact Zoo authorities ASAP with the whereabouts of any animals sightings, dead or alive.”
Jimin slinks into the bedroom then, shutting the trapdoor behind him and making his way down the stepladder. “Hey,” he says, sliding into the bed Jeongguk’s on and glancing at Jeongguk’s screen. Jeongguk’s still staring at the screen, stomach churning. “What are you watching?”
“News bulletin,” Jeongguk says, angling the pad towards Jimin. There’s an uneasy shiver creeping up his spine now, and the images of the supposedly escaped animals aren’t helping. They look too intelligent, hit too close to home. “Look.”
“Animals escaped from the zoo, huh,” Jimin says under his breath. There’s a heavy silence, before Jimin rests his hand on Jeongguk’s back, rubbing gentle circles into it. “You think it’s something else,” Jimin continues, and it’s not a question.
“It makes sense,” Jeongguk says, running his hand through his hair. “It lines up, too. You heard what Seokjin said in that call, how SPICA had done a bust on the female compounds and DNH were preparing to extract the male Morphus from the main compound. What if they didn’t succeed? What if, I don’t know, they went for the bust and it turned out all the Morphus had been drugged and morphed into animal form?”
“So you think the animals they’re trying to capture are actually Morphus,” Jimin says, voice heavy. “That Paradisus wants to know the whereabouts of the Morphus who escaped?”
“I wouldn’t rule that possibility off, no,” Jeongguk says, frowning. He shakes his head. Whatever. There’s no point getting worked up over hypotheticals. He can talk it out with Namjoon and Yoongi when he goes upstairs. “Anyway. How were your vitals?”
“The usual. Nothing out of the ordinary,” Jimin says, grinning and ruffling Jeongguk’s hair. “Namjoon says for you to go up and get your blood and stuff taken now, after Taehyung.” Jimin stretches, yawning, and falls back on the bed. “I’m a little tired so I’m gonna nap for a while. Let me know if anything’s up, hmm?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, pressing a gentle kiss to Jimin’s forehead. He studies Jimin’s face carefully as he pulls away, eyes searching Jimin’s. Jimin really does look worn out, the skin under his eyes tinged purple, his voice without its usual spark. Even his needle wound, which is usually healed over by now, is still bleeding through the bandage. Jeongguk ruffles Jimin’s hair once more before getting up. “Get some sleep, Jimin. You look like you need it.”
The first thing Jeongguk sees when he pokes his head out of the trapdoor entrance is Namjoon pacing around the experiment room, holding some kind of antique receiver to his ear. Yoongi’s sitting in the seat next to Namjoon, legs crossed, head resting in one hand, massaging his temples between his thumb and forefinger.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Namjoon practically shouts into the receiver, voice muffled by the closed door and padded walls. Jeongguk raises an eyebrow, taken aback. “Christ, Ikje, how did you manage—okay, okay, Yoongi and I will—yes, christ, I’ll bring what I have. See you.”
“Whoa,” Jeongguk says, glancing at Taehyung, who’s sitting cross-legged on the couch, rubbing his bandaged arm, looking just as lost as Jeongguk is. “Hey, what’s going on? Is Namjoon alright?”
Taehyung shrugs. “I dunno. He suddenly got communication from someone he knows and stopped my tests halfway. He keeps on talking into that thing, whatsit called, a phone? Something about Ikje and animals and escapees. Yeah, so. I know as much as you.”
“Oh, fuck,” Jeongguk groans, burying his face in his hands. “I was right. The zoo animals.”
“Jesus christ,” Namjoon says as he cuts off the call, closing his eyes and rubbing his temples. He turns to Yoongi. “You probably gathered, but that was Ikje. DNH tried a bust but mistimed it and all the Morphus bolted in animal form. I can’t believe he’s only telling us now, that idiot—”
“Did he ask for backup?” Yoongi asks, getting out of his seat and frowning. Namjoon quirks an eyebrow, lips pressed tightly together, and Yoongi lets out a longsuffering sigh. “Aw, shit, we’re gonna have to go for recon? In broad daylight?”
“Yo,” a voice sounds behind Jeongguk, and Jeongguk turns to see Jimin, who’s evidently heard the ruckus and climbed out of their room to find out what the hell’s going on. “Everything alright?”
“Well,” Jeongguk mutters back as Yoongi and Namjoon rush out of the experiment room, picking up bits and pieces of equipment scattered around the living room and running into the labs to grab more stuff, “looks like our hypothesis was right.”
“Hey,” Namjoon shouts, strapping a thick vest onto his chest. There’s a package filled with little blue vials in his left hand, which he stuffs into the pocket of his vest. He’s got a helmet on his head too—the same holographic helmet that Yoongi had lent for Jeongguk to roam the streets of Seoul the first time—except this one looks a little newer, clear and unobtrusive. “Hey, sorry kids, it’s just—long story. We gotta go out, but keep safe, okay?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says back, nodding. “You don’t have to explain, we got the gist of it. Morphus escaped and you’re helping save them. Like you did with us.”
Namjoon grins, walking up and ruffling Jeongguk’s hair. “You’re a sharp one. Yeah, we got called out for recon. Gotta help DNH get the Morphus safely back to their bases before Paradisus eliminates them.”
“Anyway,” Yoongi continues, cutting Namjoon off. He pulls on a bulletproof vest, fixing his own holographic helmet, and gives Jimin a pat on the back. “Jimin, as the eldest, you’re in charge today, remember the emergency evacuation procedures if the base is found.”
“See you in a couple of hours,” Namjoon says, snapping the visor of his helmet down. Yoongi lets out a long breath, gripping a baton tightly in his hand. “Hopefully.”
“Shit,” Taehyung breathes after Jeongguk shows him the bulletin from earlier that morning. “That is some fucked up shit.”
“You don’t say,” Jimin says drily, washing and peeling the cabbages, setting them aside so they can drain dry. Lunch is chicken and vegetable stew, simple, but the fastest and easiest option, and none of them are in the mood to squabble over alternatives, not today. “So yeah. Right now, Namjoon and Yoongi are working with DNH to trying and get to these Morphus before shit goes down.”
“Looks like they took quite a lot of the morph-reversing drug with them too,” Jeongguk says, switching off the hoverpad and leaning his cheek on his palm. “I hope they’ll be alright. I mean, they have Yoongi’s holographic helmets, but it’s broad daylight outside, and they’re chasing after fully morphed Morphus…”
“You don’t think they’ll get caught, do you?” Taehyung says with a frown, shifting his legs and kicking Jeongguk underneath the table accidentally. “Oops, sorry. I mean, like, I know they told us to keep in mind evacuation procedures and all, but… They’re smart, and tough, they’ll come back without any problems, right?”
There’s a long silence, the only sound cutting through the room the chop chop of the knife as Jimin slices the celery, rhythmically, methodologically.
“Hey, hey,” Jimin says, when neither Taehyung or Jeongguk speak for another minute. He sets the knife aside, turning around and wiping his hands on the apron. “I’m sure they’ll be fine. They know what they’re doing, and they’re not alone. We just have to wait and keep our guard up, hope for the best. Come on Jeongguk, help me wash and skin these potatoes.”
Jeongguk gives Jimin a little smile. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
Yet, no matter how much Jeongguk tries to put it out of his mind, the doubt is there. He runs the peeler over the skin of the potato once. Namjoon and Yoongi’s helmets could stop functioning. Twice. They could get attacked by uncontrolled Morphus. Thrice. They could not just be killed, but taken in and tortured. The dirty peel of the potato sits on the cutting board, shrivelled little curls, bits of flesh on dead skin, much like what Namjoon and Yoongi would be if—
“Jeongguk,” Jimin murmurs, not even turning to look at him. Jeongguk startles, and Jimins lip twitches upwards. “Stop thinking so hard. I can hear you from here.”
“Yeah, Jeongguk,” Taehyung pipes up, having now relocated to the lounge, yawning as he stretches his whole body out, ready for a catnap. “Stop thinking, Jeongguk.”
“What, and turn into you?” Jeongguk retorts, at which Taehyung pokes his tongue out and promptly turns around and goes to sleep.
They work steadily, peeling, chopping, throwing ingredients into a bowl, silence punctuated by Taehyung’s snoring and sleeptalking. Everything’s almost ready to go, just the water and heat to be added, when Jimin knocks over the utensil rack with a clatter, one hand pressed to his forehead.
“Jimin?” Jeongguk asks, vegetable peeler still held in his hand. “Jimin, what’s up?”
Jimin sways on his feet for two seconds before stumbling and falling towards Jeongguk. Jeongguk reacts quickly, angling his body so he can catch Jimin in his arms. Jimin half lands on Jeongguk, half supporting himself with a hand slamming onto the bench, letting out a loud curse as Jeongguk also stumbles a couple of steps.
“You okay?” Jeongguk asks, as Jimin pushes himself off Jeongguk, hand scrabbling at the counter and wincing. “Jimin?”
“A little dizzy, that’s all,” Jimin says, steadying himself and gripping the bench edge. “I’m okay.” He jerks his hand off the counter, staring at it with a frown, and Jeongguk puts down the peeler.
“Did you cut yourself?” Jeongguk asks, as Jimin licks at his own hand. Jimin shrugs, and Jeongguk frowns, taking Jimin’s hand and uncurling Jimin’s fingers. There’s a gash on Jimin’s palm, small but deep, streams of red trickling and spreading down onto Jimin’s wrist, dripping onto the kitchen bench. “Shit, you’re bleeding.”
“Oh,” Jimin says, laughing and pushing Jeongguk’s hands away. “Don’t worry about that, it’s just a nick. Help me get a bandage or something.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, eyes flickering to Jimin’s upper arm, where his needle wound from this morning’s bandaged up, and his frown deepens. There’s a patch of red seeping through the bandage, through his shirt, just a small dot, but it’s unmistakably fresh.
This is weird. This is really weird. Usually, Hybrida heal quite fast—every time Jeongguk scrapes himself, the wound’s scabbed over in five minutes, tops. Jimin’s been bleeding for hours now, slowly, but steadily.
Something’s not right.
When Jeongguk comes back with the bandages, Jimin’s sitting at the table, inspecting his palm, mopping at it with a spare cloth, looking quite perplexed. He smiles as Jeongguk sits down opposite him, trying to take the bandage from Jeongguk’s hands, but Jeongguk shakes his head.
“I’ll do it,” Jeongguk says, and Jimin doesn’t protest as he wraps Jimin’s hand up for him. “You know you’re still bleeding, right? From the blood test this morning. Your upper arm.”
“Oh?” Jimin says, turning his arm around to look at it, then rubs at the red mark. “Huh, you’re right. Strange. Maybe I haven’t been getting enough rest lately.”
“It could be something else. We shouldn’t be taking chances here—we’re getting Namjoon and Yoongi to look at it when they come back,” Jeongguk says with finality, then grits his teeth.
Well, if they come back.
It’s almost midnight before a loud creak and thump from above ground rouses Jeongguk from his fitful nap on the couch. He’s meant to be standing guard for these two hours, wake Jimin and Taehyung if anything out of the ordinary happens. Jeongguk clutches at the stun gun and vial of morphing drug by his side, darting over to knock twice on the trapdoor—the signal for alert—before pulling a rug over the trapdoor and ducking behind the sofa, barrel of the gun resting on the sofa back, aimed at the upper door.
There’s a click as the door latch unlocks, then a flurry of movement near the entrance to the underground safehouse, and Jeongguk’s about to pull the trigger at the shadowy shapes before the lights snap on with a hum and Jeongguk sees Namjoon standing by the switch, dirty and battered, but safe.
“Namjoon,” Jeongguk says, lowering the gun, relief crashing over him like a tidal wave. “You’re back. You’re safe.”
Behind Namjoon, Yoongi and a person Jeongguk’s never seen before are carrying someone between their shoulders, a brown-haired boy, who they drop onto the sofa right in front of Jeongguk. Jeongguk stands back, eyeing the newcomers, and out of the corner of his eyes, he can see the trapdoor lifting, Taehyung and Jimin poking their heads out.
“Yeah,” Namjoon says, pulling off his helmet and vest. “We’re back.”
“How did it go?” Jimin asks, having now made his way next to Jeongguk. Taehyung’s following right behind, tail flicking curiously, and Yoongi pulls a seat out from underneath the table and sits on it, running his fingers through grimy hair, helmet atop the table. “Did you save them all?”
“We lost three. Managed to get seven to the DNH base, SPICA helped locate another five, four to another safehouse we have out west, and…well.” Namjoon motions to the boy on the couch. “One here.”
“Water,” the boy on the couch says, voice raspy, and Taehyung runs off, coming back with a container of water, which the boy takes gratefully, pouring it down his throat. “Thanks.”
“So,” Yoongi says, after the boy’s finished drinking and is wiping his mouth. “Ikje. Why did you tell us to bring him here instead of back to the DNH base?”
The stranger who’d been silent the entire time—Ikje—steps forward. “He said something to me after I gave him the reversing drug, something that confirmed a hypothesis I’d had about the Morphus, but there wasn’t enough time to hear it all out there. What was your name again?”
The boy sits up shakily, leaning against the sofa back. “It’s Hoseok. Jung Hoseok. Equidae. Class Primus. Morphus.”
“You knew you were Morphus?” Namjoon says with a frown, and Hoseok closes his eyes, nodding. “But you were still inside Paradisus until today?”
“I have…” Hoseok lets out a long breath, opening his eyes again, and Jeongguk shivers at how dark and blown out his pupils are. “I’ve got some information I think you might want to hear.”
“What do you mean we’re all dying?”
Jeongguk’s voice rings out in the room, cutting across the narrow space, and Namjoon raises a hand to silence him. Jeongguk looks to Jimin, who has a similar look of unease on his face, then grits his teeth, turning his gaze back to Hoseok.
“I don’t know exactly what’s going on,” Hoseok says, “but there’s something wrong with us all. Something wrong with all the Morphus.” Hoseok licks his lips, voice softening. “I had a friend. Lee Jaehwan. He was Equidae like me, but where I’m a Thoroughbred Base, he was had a Friesian as his Base animal. Really smart, probably too smart for his own good—he figured out they were drugging us and conducting experiments on us at night, but we never let on that we knew. He dug around and found a lot of dirt on Paradisus, too, on the stuff that was going on in the science labs in HQ. Anyway, a few months back, he started getting these dizzy spells, and his reactions slowed, he kept bruising himself during training and wouldn’t heal. They took him to ICU when he gashed his arm open, and we never saw him again. Weeks later, the same thing started happening to me. Getting injured and not healing as fast as I used to. Getting tired. Blacking out.”
“Jimin,” Jeongguk breathes, hair on the back of his neck standing up straight. He turns, taking Jimin’s arm in his hand, lifting Jimin’s hand so he can see where he’d bandaged Jimin up earlier in the day. Sure enough, there’s a fresh patch of red seeping through the white bandages. “Jimin almost fainted earlier. He hasn’t stopped bleeding the entire day. Is this the same thing?”
Jimin jerks his hand out of Jeongguk’s grasp, hiding his arm behind his back, but Namjoon’s already striding over with his lips pursed.
“Jimin,” Namjoon says, stretching his hand out. “Jimin, give me your arm.” Jimin hesitates momentarily, before raising his arm and placing it on Namjoon’s hand gingerly.
“I thought that maybe,” Hoseok continues, “maybe it was just a really unfortunate coincidence, that it was just us two, you know. But then, today, before you guys came to bust us out, when all the Morphus were still inside ICU, we were talking, and I found that this wasn’t unique. All the Morphus from the other Domus have been affected too. The same symptoms. I don’t know what it is, but—you’re scientists, right? You said you were scientists. Can you figure this out?”
“Maybe,” Namjoon says, taking a cotton swab and dabbing at the wound on Jimin’s palm. It soaks the blood up almost immediately, leaving nothing but a raw, fresh cut, and Namjoon frowns, taking out a vial and collecting a couple of drops of Jimin’s blood that flows from the cut. He sticks that into a little plastic bag, then holds up his hand. “Sorry, give me a minute, can you just—hold it there while I doublecheck Jimin’s samples, hmm?” Namjoon runs off to the lab in the far end, past the experimental room, hastily rushing around and fiddling with the machines.
It’s a good five minutes before Namjoon walks back to the room, face ashen.
“Yoongi,” Namjoon says, beckoning Yoongi to follow him. “Hoseok, do you mind if Yoongi takes your sample, too? Just a cheek swab should do.” Hoseok shakes his head, then opens his mouth so Yoongi can swab inside, before the two of them disappear into the labs once more.
“Well,” Jimin says, breaking the silence as they wait, nervous dread vibrating in the air, like a government drone ready to swoop down and attack at any moment. He rubs at his lower arm absently, and Jeongguk’s eyes flicker down again to where Jimin’s palm is still bleeding. “Doesn’t feel like good news, does it?”
“I’m sorry,” Hoseok says, coughing as he leans his head back down on the couch handle, forearm pressed against his head. “I didn’t want to be the one to say it either, but there’s no one else who can help.”
“It’s not your fault,” Taehyung murmurs to Hoseok, walking up behind Jimin and giving his shoulders a massage. “We just have to wait for the results and do what we can.”
“It fits into my hypothesis,” Ikje says with a sigh. Jeongguk grimaces. “A couple of months ago I was talking to Namjoon and Yoongi, and I said that Paradisus couldn’t possibly only be killing the Morphus off because of a few displeased stakeholders. That there had to be something more to it. This might just be it.”
Jeongguk’s sitting at the foot of the couch, curled up into Jimin, almost dozing off again for the second time, when the door of the lab slams open and Namjoon and Yoongi walk back out. Ikje, who’s been sitting on the chair Yoongi vacated earlier, jumps in his seat, standing up.
“Well?” Ikje asks, practically bouncing on the balls of his feet. “What’d you guys see?”
“The DNA,” Namjoon says, voice strained. “They’re unravelling.”
“Unravelling?” Jeongguk shakes his head, as if the action could set his mind straight. “What do you mean unravelling? Like… coming apart?”
“From what we could see,” Yoongi says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “It’s difficult to explain, but it looks like a degenerative condition brought about by an even split of animal and human genomes—the two halves of your double helix unwinding and coming apart from each other. It looks like it’s something that only affects the Morphus, since you’re the only ones who have the half-half DNA makeup.”
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” Namjoon says. “Jimin, your sample just then? They looks nothing like the sample we took this morning. There was nothing out of the ordinary this morning, and suddenly here, you’ve got a marked drop in red cells, T-cells, and aminos, and no clotting agent at all, mutated platelets. No angiogenesis inhibitors either.”
“No angiogenesis inhibitors?” Ikje breathes, running his hand through his hair. “Christ. That’s worse than I thought.”
“Yeah,” Yoongi affirms. “Same with Hoseok. We don’t know why, but they’re not producing any new blood, or new cells, new anything. They’re not regenerating. They can’t regenerate.”
Jeongguk sits up straight, ears flattening. “So Jimin’s never going to stop bleeding from his hand?”
“Not unless we give him an antifibrinolytic drug,” Namjoon says with a sigh. “I’ll do that now, come on Jimin, let’s go to the labs. Hoseok, you too, I’ll give you some in advance just so you have it in your bloodstream and don’t bleed out if you hurt yourself, you have the same condition.”
“But that’s…” Jeongguk lets go of Jimin’s arm as Jimin stands up, following behind Namjoon. Hoseok gets up too, rubbing the back of his neck. “But that’s not good enough. That’s only temporary. How do we stop this? Cure this condition? There has to be a way.”
“I don’t know if this helps,” Hoseok says hesitantly, lingering behind for a couple of seconds, “but Jaehwan mentioned something to me before he was taken away to ICU. About a DNA keycode or recode or something, a hundred of them stored in the Paradisus HQ.”
“DNA key recoders,” Yoongi breathes. He exchanges a look with Ikje. “What do you think? Seokjin mentioned them before, a hundred strains of the Retroviridae Animorphus virus. The numbers match up.”
“It does make sense,” Ikje murmurs, scratching the back of his neck. “You need the keys for any kind of genome work you do, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Yoongi says, heaving a sigh. “Which means…”
“You need to get into Paradisus HQ,” Jeongguk says, heart sinking to his feet.
“Paradisus HQ is a dangerous place to be wandering about, though,” Ikje says, shaking his head. “They increased the number of guards since the last incident, and I’m sure they won’t let their guards down, not after this morning’s incident. Sorry.”
“But what else can we do?” Taehyung murmurs, speaking for the first time in a long while. “Sit around and wait for us to start showing the same symptoms? For Jimin’s condition to get so bad he can never recover? If that’s the only way to save Jimin, then count me in, no questions asked.”
“And me too,” Jeongguk says, resting a hand on Taehyung’s shoulder. “If it’s the guards inside you’re worried about, we’ve lived in Paradisus our whole lives. Even if we can’t get to HQ without extra help, we know our way around inside the main structure. We can’t just sit back here freeloading while you guys risk your lives for us. That’s just not right.”
“Look,” Ikje says, holding both hands up in surrender, “look, I’m not against that, but I’m just warning you, it’s not going to be easy, and if you slip up, caught, if something goes wrong, you might get killed.”
“It’s better than sitting around waiting to die, don’t you think?” It’s Jimin, back from getting the antifibrinolytic, Hoseok and Namjoon following close behind. The wound on Jimin’s palm is finally scabbing over now, rich, red blood turning to a dark scarlet, and he clenches his fist, striding up to Yoongi. “We gotta do what we can, while we’re still kicking.”
“And I’d suggest to act now, or none of the Morphus will make it,” Hoseok says quietly. “Jaehwan took a week from showing symptoms to not being able to control his movements properly—that’s how he gashed himself. I’ve been lucky that it’s dragged out for so long and I can still stand and talk. Some others won’t. If Jeongguk or Taehyung here ever get affected, I don’t know how their bodies are going to react.”
“So,” Yoongi says, uncrossing his arms and fixing Namjoon with a look. “What do you say, leader?”
Namjoon lets out a long breath. “It’s worth a shot.”
“You boys are all idiots.”
Lee Hyori, head of SPICA, is shaking her head at Namjoon, inspecting her immaculate fingernails. Namjoon had connected them in a call, explaining to Hyori the situation and the plan he’d come up with in the last hour or so, and now, all of them are in the dark projector room, staring up at a huge projection of Lee Hyori’s disapproving face on the wall.
“Told you,” Yoongi murmurs under his breath to Namjoon, who just hits him on the arm with a frown.
“Alright,” Hyori continues, crossing her legs in the other direction and looking at the camera, fingers tapping on the handles of her armchair. “All of you listen to me. Namjoon, your idea’s not bad, but there are too many variables. If they have a holosweep or droid drone out on patrol, it’s game over. Simple is best, KISS, keep it simple, stupid. Get the blueprints and interior layouts first, familiarise yourself with it. You have contact with Seokjin, right?”
“Yes,” Namjoon says, scratching the back of his head. “Yeah, we do, but I don’t know if he can get us the plans, he’s got to lay low after the break-in so they don’t suspect it’s him on the inside.”
“Keeping a cover doesn’t matter anymore,” Hyori says. “We’ve been trying to rescue the Morphus and other Hybrida from inside, but remember when you started Bulletproof? And Ikje, you with DNH too. What were your goals at that time?”
“To take down Paradisus,” Ikje murmurs. “Fight against the corporations, let all the Hybrida know the truth about their existence.”
The corner of Hyori’s lips lift. “I think it’s time. You said you were planning to get inside HQ. That’s where all the communication devices are, the ones leading to all the Hybrida inside the compounds. It’ll be a double mission, two birds, one stone.”
“Do you think we can do that?” Yoongi asks, eyebrow raised. “We’ll need two teams inside, one to locate the DNA codes and one to reroute the broadcasting switch. How are we going to get two groups of agents inside?”
Hyori raises an eyebrow right back at Yoongi. “Think.”
“Can we crawl up the food chute?” Taehyung pipes up, and everyone turns to look at him. He shrugs. “That was how I got between the Felidae and Canidae compounds… The food chutes lead from the delivery areas to the Foodhalls, don’t they?”
“That’s too obvious,” Namjoon says, rubbing his eyes. “A five year old could think of that. We’ve only ever done breaks into the underground ICUs, but I’m sure there’ll be a shitton of security around the food delivery areas.”
“Sometimes,” Hyori says with a shrug, “the best way in is the most obvious, so obvious that it sounds stupid. Paradisus is expecting top-of-the-line technology, spy gear, security hacks, the like. And after your botched attempt yesterday, they’re not just going to sit back and invite you back in with open arms. They’ll have more droid drones and hovercrafts and patrols out, and probably more internal security, too.”
“What do you suggest?” Namjoon asks, running a hand through blond hair. “To orchestrate a system override or something while they crawl up the food chutes?”
“No, you dolt, I’m just saying it’s a good idea to be one step ahead of them and use a method so antiquated that they won’t know what hit them. And there’s a way to get in without any kind of system overrides necessary. Who from the outside has open access to Paradisus every day?”
“The food hovercrafts,” Ikje murmurs. “The workers from the foodfarms who deliver food to Paradisus every morning.”
Hyori taps her nose with a smile. “That was how SPICA infiltrated the Leporidae compound. Bohyung posed as a delivery hovercraft driver, had Jiwon hide in one of the merch bags, then sent Jiwon up the chute while she was unpacking the real produce and keeping an eye out for guards. Brought three Morphus down with her, got them out by hiding them in the produce bags. Half an hour, tops, no one in Paradisus any the wiser.”
“Damn,” Yoongi says in appreciation. “Damn, you work efficiently.”
“We’ll help, if you need.” Hyori uncrosses her legs again, reaching forward to take some papers from her desk. “The details of the food hovercraft we used, have backup and decoys ready just in case. I’ll brief SPICA up on the mission once you’ve got details. I’ll be waiting to hear from you again.”
“Thanks, Hyori.” Namjoon grins as Hyori gives a little salute. “Always appreciate it.”
The screen goes blank, and they’re plunged into darkness.
“Well,” Yoongi says, rubbing the back of his neck. He closes his eyes, letting out a loud sigh. “Today has been a hell of a ride. I’m sure we’ll come up with better ideas once we all get some rest. Let’s call it a day.”
“D-Day is still in a week’s time, yeah?” Ikje asks, and both Namjoon and Yoongi nod. “Cool. Look, I’ll take Hoseok back to the DNH base now, get him acquainted with all the equipment and explain the general gist of the plan to the others. Call me when you sort something out.”
“Yeah,” Namjoon says, giving Ikje a pat on the back. “Go take Hoseok back and patch the rest of the Morphus up. See ya, man.”
“You three should get some rest, too,” Yoongi says, eyeing Jeongguk, Jimin, and Taehyung. “Sorry. We dropped a lot of bombshells today, didn’t we?”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Jimin says with a smile, but Jeongguk’s too aware of the way that Jimin’s shoulders are quivering, his smile barely plastered on. “Thanks, Yoongi. See you tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you should come along on the mission,” Jeongguk says to Jimin when the three of them are back down in their bedroom, snuggled up in bed.
“What?” Jimin says, shuffling around so he’s facing Jeongguk, lying on his side. “What do you mean?”
“You’re…” Jeongguk turns around too, to face Jimin. Behind Jimin, Taehyung’s biting his lower lip, resting his hand on Jimin’s shoulder, patting Jimin, and Jeongguk sighs. “We just found out today that your DNA is unravelling. I’m worried, Jimin. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“No, no, if there’s a mission and you two are going, I’m going too.” Jimin frowns, taking Jeongguk’s hand and giving it a squeeze. “You need all the backup you can get. I’m not going to sit back here and send…send you two off on something like this without being next to you. You’re all I have.”
“But what if you get injured?” Jeongguk says, gripping Jimin’s hand in his. The cut is now barely healing over, whatever drug Namjoon gave Jimin evidently working, but it’s still not enough to convince Jeongguk. “You’re vulnerable, Jimin. You’re not regenerating.”
“And I’ll never be able to regenerate unless we get into HQ and get the keycodes,” Jimin says back, a gentle smile on his lips. “But for it to work, you need all the help you can get. So let me come along.”
“Jimin’s right,” Taehyung says, clambering over Jimin so that his chin is resting on Jimin’s arm. Jimin reaches around, wrapping his arm over Taehyung’s shoulders, pulling him in, and Jeongguk presses his lips together. “It’s not just him. Pretty soon, it’ll be us too. All or nothing, no half-assing it, you know how I roll.”
Jeongguk lets out a gentle laugh. Yeah, yeah, he knows how Taehyung rolls. All in, no regrets. It’s one of the reasons Jeongguk loves Taehyung so much, the way he can convince Jeongguk that anything is a good idea, suck Jeongguk into the black hole of his personality.
“We can do it,” Jimin says, stroking Jeongguk’s face, brushing a strand of hair aside. “I trust you, Jeongguk, with all my life. So trust me a little, too.”
“Okay,” Jeongguk says, sighing. “Okay. But promise me that when Yoongi and Namjoon come back with the finalised plans, you’re taking the safest role. You won’t go inside HQ with the rest of us. You’re staying down out of the line of fire, on base guard. Can you promise me that?”
“Sounds good,” Jimin says, pressing a kiss to Jeongguk’s cheek, then turning to let Taehyung slide off his shoulder and back on to the bed. “Now get some sleep.”
The last few days at the base pass in a haze.
Namjoon calls them all into the projector room again two days later, to give them a fully detailed briefing of the mission, complete with all variables and backup plans. He’d managed to secure the blueprints from Seokjin, the ones outlining all the tunnels and routes into HQ, where all the experimental data and DNA sequences are stored, and operational details for the communications systems within Paradisus. DNH are assigned to the communications systems, while Bulletproof are in charge of obtaining the DNA codes, and SPICA are on area guard, ready to bail them out at any given time. They’re all given kits, told to run through the timing, having the blueprints memorised better than the backs of their own hands—and Jeongguk takes it seriously, poring over the blueprints and ingraining the route to HQ to the back of his eyelids, memorising all the other alternatives, the contingency plans.
“Eighteen different routes,” Taehyung mutters, massaging his temples. “And we’ll need to break the code for the safes too, the ones with all the DNA, without blowing up all the samples inside.”
“Don’t stress too much,” Namjoon says, patting Taehyung on the back. “Worst comes to worse, just bring down the entire safe. And leave that part to Jeongguk, if you can. Not that I don’t trust you, just…it’s a delicate operation, hmm?”
“It’s okay,” Taehyung says, grinning. “I don’t trust myself with explosives either. Or to like, crack open a safe without setting off the safety lock and destroying the contents. Man, this is too The Thieves for me. Jeongguk, you remember The Thieves? That movie I showed you the other day? With Do Minjoon guy?”
“His name’s Kim Soohyun,” Jeongguk says, letting out a long breath, “and that’s really not very reassuring.” Taehyung just laughs sheepishly, shrugging, and Jeongguk throws his hands up in the air. Whatever. They’ll wing it.
And then, it’s the day before the mission.
“Final run through,” Yoongi says, tapping the projection on the wall. “We set off at 0700, with the courier baggage. Food delivery is at 0800, Namjoon’s acting as the hovercraft operator, you’ll be inside the food bags, everything ready to go. We’ll unload you at the base of the food chutes, Seokjin will be in the Foodhall to extract you, you’ll be in your Hybrida uniforms and temporary wristbands, indistinguishable from the rest of the Felidae. Lay low for a couple of hours inside the compound, then when security’s at its low point and all the Hybrida are gathered at the Foodhall during dinner time, we strike.”
“Got it,” Jeongguk says, saluting, and Namjoon nods at the three of them.
“Get some rest, you three,” he says, clapping his hands together. “You’re going to need it.”
The atmosphere in their sleeping quarters is heavy. None of them say it, but they’re all thinking it. They’re risking everything for this. It’s all in, leaving nothing behind, their first—and maybe their last—mission. There might not be a tomorrow for them.
“So,” Jimin says, sitting down on the bed, smoothing out the blankets. He swings his legs, looking up at Jeongguk, who lowers the trapdoor with a quiet thud. “Tomorrow.”
“So,” Jeongguk says, sitting down next to Jimin and taking Jimin’s hands in his, turning it around so his palm is facing upwards. Jimin’s wound is still visible, a barely-faded scar. The drugs Namjoon had given are doing their job well enough, and Jimin seems recovered enough to carry out being backup outside the compound. “T-minus one.”
As much as Jeongguk tries not to dwell on it, it’s difficult not to be fatalistic at this point. They could make it out alive tomorrow, make it out unharmed, mission success, but there’s always a what if. A second thought haunting them. What if something goes wrong. What if? What if Jimin’s DNA unravels too far, what if Taehyung gets caught by a drone, what if Jeongguk gets open fire in the chest, what if something, anything not in their plans, and Jeongguk never sees them again?
“Stop thinking so hard, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung murmurs, resting his chin on Jeongguk’s shoulder, and Jeongguk lets out a bark of laughter. They know him so well, know exactly what he’s thinking, what his worries are. Jimin, and Taehyung, the only two people in the world Jeongguk would risk everything for without a second thought.
Jeongguk doesn’t want to go without being together with them one last time.
It’s Taehyung who makes the first move, snaking his arms around Jeongguk’s waist and pulling him in, turning Jeongguk around so he can look straight into Jeongguk’s eyes, press their noses and foreheads together, breathe each other in.
“You’re worried, I know,” Taehyung murmurs, not breaking contact, and Jeongguk nods almost imperceptibly. The corners of Taehyung’s eyes crinkle as he smiles, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his, interlacing their fingers, just holding them like that, and Jeongguk feels himself calm down, the jumpy nervousness in the hollow of his chest tamped by the familiar scent of Taehyung, of Jimin behind him, warm hands on Jeongguk’s shoulders, thumbs pressing into the knots of Jeongguk’s muscle, relieving the tension from his back with a simple touch. “Does this help?”
“Y-yeah,” Jeongguk says, closing his eyes. “More. More, I want to—I want to feel you. Feel the both of you inside.”
“Jiminnie,” Taehyung says, reaching over Jeongguk to bring Jimin in, tug his sweater off over his head and throw it to the floor. “I think that’s our cue.”
Jimin and Taehyung’s naked bodies aren’t a rare sight for Jeongguk, but every time he sees them, something stirs inside him, and this time is no different. It’s strange, Jeongguk thinks, that he’s fallen for two boys who are so different from each other, so unique, but he supposes it’s because each of them has a different charm, and the way their bodies feel on Jeongguk’s is different, too. Jimin is well-sculpted, dips and grooves of his abdominals the perfect playground for Jeongguk’s tongue, and Taehyung’s lean, toned stomach and broad shoulders are a far cry from his mischievous expression, muscles of his back rippling as he moves his arms, pulling Jeongguk in.
Jeongguk maps them out with his eyes, drinking the sight of them in. He’s already memorised the planes of their bodies—the way that Jimin’s chest expands with every breath, how the outlines of Jimin’s abs is more defined when he laughs, the beauty spot just below Jimin’s left collarbone; the way Taehyung’s golden skin glistens in the dim light, soft and tender and yielding under Jeongguk’s fingers, the way Taehyung darts his tongue out to wet his lips when Jeongguk trails fingers down his sides, sliding Taehyung’s underwear off to reveal Taehyung’s cock, half-hard, pink head resting against Taehyung’s happy trail. Taehyung moves, draping a leg over Jimin’s body, fingers reaching up to play with a stray strand of Jimin’s hair, and Jeongguk gets onto his knees, removing his own clothing so he can join them, skin to skin.
“You want to take us tonight?” Jimin asks as Jeongguk finds his spot between the two of them, facing Jimin, back pressed tight against Taehyung’s chest. Jeongguk nods, just once, a small dip of the head, and Jimin grins.
“We gotta take advantage of this, Jiminnie,” Taehyung murmurs into Jeongguk’s shoulder, biting down playfully. “Have Jeongguk between us, like putty underneath our hands, while we still can.”
Taehyung’s words must hit a nerve, because Jimin shifts, rolling over so that he’s supporting himself on top of Jeongguk, arms anchored by Jeongguk’s sides. Jeongguk reaches up, winding his arms around Jimin’s neck, lifting his head to give Jimin a peck on the lips, and Jimin’s eyes curve into those beautiful crescents of his as he kisses Jeongguk back.
“It’s rare to see you want to take it slow,” Jimin says, laughing throatily, then presses a third kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead. “But I’m not against it.”
“It’s just…” Jeongguk loops his leg over Jimin’s, flipping them both over, so that now Jimin’s lying on his back and Jeongguk’s on top of him, Taehyung lounging next to them on his side. “We’ve never done it like this before. Without the heat. I wanted…” Jeongguk sits up, straddling Jimin, hands roaming over the expanse of Jimin’s chest, fingers delicate, as if Jimin would shatter to pieces underneath him if he was too rough. “I want to be close to you two, just for tonight.”
“And you can go harder,” Jimin breathes, laughing as Jeongguk spreads him out on the bed, barely touching his skin. He takes Jeongguk’s hands in his, bringing Jeongguk’s fingers to his lips and kissing them. “You’re not going to break me. God, Jeongguk, I’m not made of glass.”
“I just don’t want to hurt you, the degeneration and…” Jeongguk murmurs, leaning down and kissing the hollow of Jimin’s collarbones. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be mentioning that. I guess I’m still a little on edge.”
“Trust me,” Jimin says, leaning up to meet Jeongguk’s lips, hands traversing the expanse of Jeongguk’s back, fingertips trailing over shoulderblades and down the groove of Jeongguk’s spine, settling in the curves of Jeongguk’s hips, “if you were hurting me, I’d have kicked your ass off the bed already.”
And watching Jimin like this… God, Jeongguk thinks, Jimin is beautiful. Mussed up hair, shining blue eyes, a smile brighter than the brightest night star, warm, soft tail, Park Jimin is beautiful inside and out. He’s so lucky Jimin is in his life.
“I just…” God, Jeongguk presses his body against Jimin’s, kissing along the length of Jimin’s jawline. All the times that he’s been in heat, all the times they’ve done this, rushed and rough, Jeongguk’s never felt his heart ache so much before, heartstrings twinge like the climax of an orchestral soundtrack. He travels down, mouthing at Jimin’s collarbones, circling his tongue around Jimin’s nipple, taking the hardened nub between his teeth and clamping down on them gently, pulling away so it stretches gently before snapping back. “God, I want to feel you.”
“But first, we gotta warm up, Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung says, flicking a tail over to Jeongguk’s waist, curling it around Jeongguk’s hipbones, drawing him away from Jimin. Taehyung’s legs are spread out, one knee up, just enough for Jeongguk to sit straddle-legged. “Come here.”
“Go on,” Jimin encourages, running his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair, turning him around and pushing him into Taehyung’s lap. Jeongguk moves easily, falling into place, and Taehyung greets him with an open-mouthed kiss, tongue delving into the warmth of Jeongguk’s mouth, lips tender and fitting right against Jeongguk’s.
Shit, Jeongguk realises as Taehyung pulls away, searching Jeongguk’s eyes, gaze full of affection. This is his life now. These are his friends, his comrades, his lovers, his family, and he wouldn’t give them up for his life.
Home isn’t a place, but two people. Park Jimin and Kim Taehyung.
They are his home.
“I love you,” Jeongguk chokes out, brushing a strand of hair away from Taehyung’s forehead, cupping his face. He closes his eyes, feeling the flush dot his cheeks, the intense rush of emotions that wells up in his chest, chokes him up, squeezes his throat. “I love you, Kim Taehyung, Park Jimin. I love you. Fuck.”
“You said it,” Taehyung crows, ruffling Jeongguk’s hair, then pulling him in so he can kiss Jeongguk on the lips once more, sweet and slow. He turns Jeongguk around, so that Jeongguk’s back is pressed against Taehyung’s chest, Jimin in the space between Jeongguk’s legs. “I’m so proud of you, really, truly.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Jeongguk mutters, tips of his ears going red now. He’s not one to speak his feelings out, not the type to even show them, but he has no time for regrets, not tonight, and if his heart is out on his sleeve, then so be it.
“Say that again,” Jimin says, fingers digging into Jeongguk’s inner thighs, pushing them apart. Jeongguk whimpers as Jimin bends down to press a chaste kiss to the tip of Jeongguk’s cock, barely skimming the tip with his lips. “Go on, Jeonggukkie, say that again.”
“Fuck off,” Jeongguk mumbles, leaning his head back to rest against Taehyung’s shoulder. Jimin laughs, pushing Jeongguk’s legs out even wider apart and taking Jeongguk’s cock into his mouth. “Shit, god.”
“I think we gotta stretch him open,” Taehyung says, playing with Jeongguk’s nipples from behind, arms encircling Jeongguk’s torso. Taehyung’s breath is hot on the nape of Jeongguk’s neck, and his heartbeat comforting against the back of Jeongguk’s ribcage, two sets of bass kicks pulsing in an arrhythmic beat. Jimin nods, popping Jeongguk’s out of his mouth and spitting into his palm, drawing circles around Jeongguk’s entrance, dipping the tip of a finger inside, slicking Jeongguk open with his spit.
“Not enough,” Jimin says, second finger inside Jeongguk, and Jeongguk can feel the slow burn now, rough and dry now that his usual self-lubrication isn’t there to slick things up. “Guess we gotta use this after all,” he says with a grin, holding up one of the packets of lube that Namjoon had given them together with the condoms, and Jeongguk coughs as Jimin rips the packet open, drizzling the gel over his fingers and slicking them into Jeongguk, stretching Jeongguk open properly.
“Some for me too,” Taehyung says, grinning, and Jimin reaches past Jeongguk, pumping Taehyung’s erection with a lube-slathered hand, coating Taehyung in the slippery gel too. “You ready, Jeongguk?”
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, sitting on his heels, raising his haunches so Taehyung can grip at his hips, line up the head of his cock with the cleft of Jeongguk’s ass, push in, and—oh, fuck, Taehyung is so hot inside him, stretching him out, filling him up, and Jeongguk sits back in Taehyung’s lap, straddling him in reverse, Taehyung’s chest pressing against Jeongguk’s back. Jeongguk lift off, then sits down again, Taehyung’s cock sliding in even further this time, and Jeongguk lets out a little whimper, his own cock slapping against his belly. Taehyung trails his fingers down Jeongguk’s arms, finding Jeongguk’s fingers, and he interlaces his fingers with Jeongguk’s as Jeongguk rides him, squeezing Jeongguk’s hand with every up and down motion.
“You look amazing,” Jimin murmurs, on all fours in front of Jeongguk. He’s just been watching Jeongguk fuck himself on Taehyung’s cock, bouncing up and down in his seat, and now he’s crawling forward, reaching to encircle Jeongguk’s cock in his hand, pumping at the same rhythm as Jeongguk’s riding Taehyung. Jeongguk slows his pace, letting Jimin inch forward more and replace his hands with his lips, lick stripes up the underside and swirl his tongue at the pink head of Jeongguk’s cock. “Gorgeous,” Jimin continues, bobbing around Jeongguk, fingers digging right into Jeongguk’s thighs, hard enough to leave bruises. “God.”
“Your beauty marks,” Taehyung moans, kissing the back of Jeongguk’s neck, then leaning around to lick at the front of Jeongguk’s neck. “Here, and…” Taehyung tugs at Jeongguk’s hair so that Jeongguk’s head is held back, neck exposed. Taehyung kisses a trail up from Jeongguk’s Adam’s Apple to his chin, to the tip of his nose. “Here.”
“And here,” Jimin says, popping Jeongguk out of his mouth and scooting up, kissing Jeongguk’s cheek right next to his lips. “Your dimples.” Jimin brushes Jeongguk’s sweaty bangs away from his forehead, leaning in again to kiss at Jeongguk’s left cheekbone. “And you’ve got a scar here, right there, on your cheekbone.”
“I got that when I was twelve,” Jeongguk explains, searching Jimin’s eyes. He’s still clenched tightly around Taehyung, rolling his hips slowly, letting Taehyung rut into him, feel the slow burn roil away, the tension build up in his lower belly, hot coils of pleasure. “Fell off the training apparatus and gashed my eye on the wire.”
“I think it’s beautiful,” Jimin says, kissing it again, then scoots back down, popping Jeongguk back into his mouth.
If what they’d been doing before had been frenzied and heated, then this is the polar opposite. There’s no heat to be punchdrunk on, no animalistic urges to blind their senses and send them in an intoxicated stupor—this is just the three of them, Jeongguk, Jimin, Taehyung, raw, naked, real. It’s not sex for the sake of quenching their heat, but something different this time. This time around, Jeongguk wants to give all he has to Taehyung, to Jimin. This isn’t fucking, but making love—Jeongguk wants to make love to them, make something beautiful, something sacred that only belongs to the three of them.
Jeongguk closes his eyes, building up the pace this time, rising out of his seat, sitting back down, fucking himself open on Taehyung’s cock, feeling Jimin’s hot heat engulf him from the front, moves faster, sets a quicker, more consistent pace, clenching as he goes down.
“I—” Taehyung breathes, lips ghosting the shell of Jeongguk’s ear. Taehyung and Jeongguk’s fingers are still interlaced, and Jeongguk changes his grip, so that his thumb is rubbing circles into the back of Taehyung’s hands, bringing his arms across his chest so Taehyung is hugging him tightly, Jeongguk’s back pressed right against Taehyung’s chest, Taehyung’s chin resting in the crook of Jeongguk’s shoulders. “I—fuck—I love you.”
Taehyung comes inside Jeongguk with a shudder, hot and wet, spilling out from Jeongguk, and Jeongguk comes heartbeats later into Jimin’s mouth with a high-pitched whine. Jimin swallows it all, crawling up to Jeongguk to kiss him. Jeongguk can taste his own come on Jimin’s tongue, musky and tangy, but not altogether unpleasant, and Jimin presses into Jeongguk, Jimin’s own erection digging into Jeongguk’s lower belly, yet unserviced.
“You taste bitter,” Jimin says, breathless with laughter as he finally breaks away from making out with Jeongguk many minutes later. “Good all the same.”
“We should sort you out,” Jeongguk mutters, snaking a hand in between them, giving Jimin’s erection a lazy pump with his hand. Taehyung’s still inside Jeongguk, never having pulled out after he’d come, and Jeongguk sits up, letting Taehyung slide out, feeling empty once more. Taehyung’s evidently worn out from their lovemaking, having tugged the blanket over himself already, snuggled up into the pillows, watching the two of them with a lazy gaze as he draws little circular patterns into Jeongguk’s back. “Lie down, Jimin.”
“Are you going to ride me, too?” Jimin asks with a grin, lying down as Jeongguk wants, and Jeongguk lets out a soft peal of laughter, spreading his thighs and positioning himself so Jimin’s cock is lined up with his entrance. “Well, shit.”
Jimin lets Jeongguk set the rhythm, lets Jeongguk tighten around his cock, lets Jeongguk smooth his hands over the expanse of Jimin’s chest, grip his shoulders, ride Jimin gently at first, then increase his pace, fucking himself open on Jimin’s thick cock, thighs tensing, legs trembling, oversensitive from having come already. It’s something new, intense, emotionally charged, and Jeongguk can feel it deep inside him, the connection between him and Jimin, a new level to their lovemaking.
It doesn’t take long for Jimin to come inside Jeongguk with a groan, fingers wrapped around Jeongguk’s wrists, holding Jeongguk’s hands to his heart, where Jeongguk can feel the pounding of Jimin’s chest against his palm.
“Thank you, Jeongguk,” Jimin breathes out, bringing Jeongguk’s hand up to his lips and kissing each of Jeongguk’s fingers tenderly. Jimin pulls out of Jeongguk, warm and sticky, then crawls up so he’s lying next to Taehyung, tugging the blankets over his body, too, and Taehyung hugs Jimin in, cradling Jimin’s head in his arms. Jeongguk squeezes in between, sandwiched between Taehyung and Jimin, much like he was before, and Taehyung shifts to rest his head on Jeongguk’s chest, crown of his head pressed up against Jeongguk’s chin. Jeongguk buries his nose in Taehyung’s hair, just taking in his scent, and Jimin rests his cheek on Jeongguk’s bare chest, too, touching foreheads with Taehyung. Jeongguk wraps his arms around both of them, pulling them in to him tightly, and they just lie there in the darkness, chests rising and falling, sticky and sweaty, but together in their post-coital euphoria.
And Jeongguk, Jeongguk never wants to let go.
Jeongguk’s heart is pounding in his chest, a rhythmic drum beat, like the ticking of the second hand of a clock, lightly suspended on the upbeat, thundering and crashing down after—as if taunting him that their time is running out.
“We were never taught what love was,” Taehyung whispers after a lengthy silence, when their heartbeats are no longer pounding from adrenaline. Taehyung trails his fingers along Jeongguk’s jawline, brushing the hair off Jimin’s forehead, and he hooks his leg over Jeongguk’s, resting it over both Jeongguk and Jimin’s body, heat a constant reminder that Taehyung’s there, right next to them. “But I don’t want to lose either of you. I couldn’t imagine… Couldn’t imagine getting through life without you.”
Reality is harsh. In just a few seconds, Jeongguk is brought back down, out of their fantasy land, out of a perfect dream where the three of them could stay this way forever, back to the reality where there’s a mission they have to go on tomorrow, to save Jimin, to save them all.
“If…” Jimin turns, resting on his side, and his beautiful blue eyes seem to pierce into Jeongguk’s soul. “If I can’t keep up tomorrow, if I’m wounded and the degeneration happens again, if I can’t stop bleeding, I want you to leave me—”
“Don’t do this,” Jeongguk says, muffling his voice with the blanket. There’s a hot prickling in the corner of his eyes, and he rubs at them furiously. “Don’t think like that. It won’t happen. I’m not leaving you. We’ll make it out of there, all three of us, alive. Together.”
“If you say dumb stuff like that again, Jimin,” Taehyung warns, “I’m kicking you out of bed. You can sleep on the cold, hard ground.”
“You’re right,” Jimin says, pressing a kiss to Jeongguk’s forehead. He reaches over Jeongguk, squeezing Taehyung’s hand in his, and Taehyung snuggles in, sandwiching Jeongguk in between the two of them, skin on skin. “You’re right. It’ll all work out.”
“It’ll work out,” Jeongguk mutters, tilting his head up to press a gentle kiss to Jimin’s lips, eyes watering with unshed tears. “It’ll all work out.”
“So, goodnight, puppy,” Taehyung murmurs to Jimin, nuzzling into Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that.”
Jimin chuckles, drawing Jeongguk in close, and Jeongguk inhales Jimin’s scent, warm, pleasant, home. “Yeah. Sleep well, my darling kitties. We got a mission to rest up for.”
“You ready?” Namjoon asks, putting on his hovercraft driver uniform. He grins. “Last chance to back out, then it’s go time.”
“As ready as we’ll ever be,” Jimin says, grinning, donning the same uniform that Namjoon’s wearing, and Namjoon gives him a pat on the back.
Jeongguk and Taehyung are dressed in the clothes they came in, familiar grey Hybrida uniforms that they’d worn for years, each of them with a food bag to crawl in to so they can be loaded with the rest of the foodstuffs into the back of the cargo hovercraft. Jeongguk hadn’t managed to get much sleep last night, curled up in between Taehyung and Jimin, just revelling in their scent, in the slow burning warmth of their skin, a sensation he might not be able to feel again after today.
“Here,” Namjoon says right before they head out of the basement, handing each of them two vials, one of red-tinged liquid, and one of the blue. “Just in case. Best situation, you’ll never have to use these, but on the off chance you need to escape and can’t do it in human form…”
“Thanks, Namjoon,” Taehyung says, taking it from Namjoon’s hands and tucking it into the little safe pouch right next to his chest pockets. “We’ll keep these safe.”
The back of the cargo is a narrow squeeze, and Jeongguk can barely breathe as he’s squashed up against two cabbages and a bag of carrots. Taehyung’s not faring much better, buried under a mountainous bag of potatoes. Jimin has things a little easier, at the front with Namjoon as co-pilot, which means he’s not met with the smell of beetroots or cauliflower each breath he takes.
“We’re here,” Namjoon murmurs, what seems like damn hours later. “0800 on the dot. We’re pulling into security now. Stay very, very still, the holograph cards should project the image of vegetables into your two sacks for the scanners.”
“What you got here?” It’s the voice of one of the food security guards, and he sounds supremely bored, much like Taehyung when he doesn’t have a brand new drama or some kind of amusement on hand to keep him entertained.
“Food delivery for Paradisus, food farm A0912,” Namjoon announces. There’s a grunt, and then the back of the cargo is opened, a scanner beeping over them, and the cargo door is slammed shut again.
“All clear. Got another one coming in?”
“Yessir, right behind, A0912 as well.”
A yawn and a grunt. “Eh, I’ll keep the gates open then if you’re from the same food farm. Saves me having to rescan and open the gates again.”
“Thanks, sir. Have a good day.”
A minute passes in silence as Namjoon revs up, pressing down on the pedal, before Jimin clears his throat. “We’re through?”
“We’re through,” Namjoon murmurs, chuckling a little. “Damn, Hyori was right. Simple is the most effective.”
“The guard didn’t even look at the scanner results,” Jimin says in awe. “He just… waved us through, just like that, and doesn’t seem like he’s going to check DNH’s vessel either.”
“They probably don’t pay him enough to do this properly,” Namjoon remarks. “But I don’t know what I was expecting from a company who sells Hybrida for profit. In any case, it only makes our job easier if morale is like this at the lower echelons of Paradisus.”
The hovercraft pulls to a stop, and Jeongguk lets out the breath he’d been holding as Namjoon opens up the back of the cargo, unzipping the food bags and letting Jeongguk out of them.
“This is the loading zone,” Namjoon murmurs. He looks unrecognisable with his latex mask on, a new face, and Jeongguk has to stare for a moment before shaking his head and remembering both Namjoon and Jimin had special prosthetics on for camouflage. “I contacted Seokjin for him to disable the internal sensors. Once I get the signal, you two have five minutes to scale the chutes to the Foodhall, where Seokjin will be waiting. Do you remember the passage? Don’t end up in the Accipitridae Foodhall or something.”
“Yessir,” Taehyung says, nodding solemnly. He holds up a finger. “Right, right, left, then…uh… Into the chute that smells like fish, I guess.”
Namjoon looks like he’s about to groan, but then the small round pager on his belt beeps and he pushes Jeongguk towards the bottom of the chute. “Five minutes, hurry before Jimin and I have to send the food up. Go!”
“Good luck!” Jimin pipes in, clenching his fist in a sign of support.
“I’ll see you once this is all over,” Jeongguk murmurs, bumping fists with Jimin, and then he’s off, headfirst into the dark chute, nothing but blackness in front of his eyes.
“You made it,” Seokjin breathes as Jeongguk pokes his head out of the flap, back in the empty Foodhall that he hasn’t seen for over half a year. Seokjin reaches out, helping Jeongguk out of the chute, then does the same for Taehyung before handing them both a wristband. “Going to get you two to one of the dorm rooms so you can lay low for a couple of hours. How does it feel, to be back?”
“Can’t say I missed it,” Jeongguk murmurs back as they follow Seokjin down past the corridors, into the residence clusters. Now that Jeongguk’s seeing this place with a fresh view, a fresh outlook, he can’t believe how he’d missed it before, how lifeless the immaculate steel walls of Institute are, how much of a prison they’d been living in. Even walking down the narrow corridors, the humming of the electric wires and surveillance underneath the surface is alien, and it sets Jeongguk on edge.
“Feels…” Taehyung shivers as they pass by the hallway leading to the Spartan training rooms. “Weird. Cold. Almost can’t believe we lived here before.”
“Everyone who’s been outside and back feels the same,” Seokjin says with a grin, ushering Jeongguk and Taehyung into an empty dorm room, then raises his watch to his lips. “First batch safe. DNH, you ready to send yours up?”
“Roger,” comes the reply from Ikje. “Ten minutes. Standby.”
“Well,” Jeongguk says as the door slides shut behind them. He looks around the room, taking in the familiar yet foreign layout of the bed, the desk, the one small square window filling the room with artificial light. “It wasn’t so long ago we were still here, was it?”
“No, it wasn’t,” Taehyung agrees, lying down on the bed and staring at his wristband. “Now what?”
Jeongguk sits down next to Taehyung, pulling up the HQ blueprints on the communication device Namjoon had given them. 1800 is when DNH is going for their strike, hijacking the broadcast systems. 1810, Jeongguk and Taehyung to HQ. 1830, all of them out, with the DNA codes if everything goes well.
“Now,” Jeongguk says, switching the screen of the device off and lying down next to Taehyung, arms behind his head. “We wait.”
Jeongguk jolts awake, set off by the beeping coming from his wristband.
“Hey, Taehyung,” Jeongguk says, shaking Taehyung’s shoulders. Taehyung’s fallen asleep too, next to Jeongguk, and he wakes, rubbing his eyes groggily. Their wristbands are both displaying an emergency message, projecting a series of words and holographic image into the air before them.
“They did it,” Jeongguk whispers, as Lee Hyori’s face comes into focus, her video message transmitted through the Paradisus communication systems. “DNH managed to hijack the broadcast systems. This should be playing on all the screens and wristbands of all the Hybrida in the compound.”
“Then…” Taehyung grins, taking his communication device and raising it to his lips. “Namjoon, Seokjin, time for us to go?”
“Roger, all clear,” Seokjin’s crackly voice comes through. “All security has been sent to Foodhall to keep the Hybrida in check. Penthouse level, your wristbands should give you access. Go, hurry.”
The top level of the Paradisus Institute is cold and silent, the eerie humming of the refrigeration systems the only noise on the floor. All the main lights are off, the only things glowing the jars and jars of preserved organs and animal parts along the sides of the hallways.
“Here,” Jeongguk says, motioning for Taehyung to follow him. According to the blueprints, the DNA room is at the end of the corridor, past the storage labs and in-vitro growth rooms, up a separate set of stairs. The two of them make their way past the rows and rows of preserved parts, Jeongguk wrinkling his nose at the stench of formaldehyde and shivering at the chill from the cryogenic preservation tanks.
“This is definitely a new level of creepy,” Taehyung murmurs as they turn the final corner, rushing up the stairs to the DNA room. “I just saw a frozen person that looked exactly like Jimin, without the ears and tail. Was wearing a pilot uniform and all. Let’s get the shit we need and get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Jeongguk says, shivering as he pushes open the door. The inside of the DNA labs is a messy disarray of papers and vials and samples, looking strangely close to the state of Namjoon and Yoongi’s labs, with their odd assortment of scientific gear and strange experiments lying around. In any case, there’s no time for Jeongguk to marvel at all the odd bits and pieces inside the room—they’re meant to grab the codes and be out ASAP. “Come on, look for a safe. Namjoon said they’d most likely be stored securely, under lock and key or something.”
“I don’t know if it’s just me,” Taehyung mutters, rummaging around the desks, searching under the tables and inside the refrigeration units. He groans, running his hands through his hair. “But if I had a set of top-secret DNA codes, I sure wouldn’t make it obvious that they were important. I know Namjoon said it’d be in the safe, but fuck safes, I’d write it into the margins of a book or something.”
“Hidden in plain sight,” Jeongguk says. He sweeps his eyes around the room once more, taking everything in with a fresh mind. “The key sequences are meant to be small and portable, all hundred of them stored in a device smaller than the palm of our hands.”
“This?” Taehyung picks up a half-empty vase, then shakes his head and chucks it aside. He picks up a stack of papers and ruffles through them. “Man, this would be a lot easier if I could understand the crap written on these things.”
“Just take anything you think looks like could be the code,” Jeongguk grits out in frustration. He picks up a thing that looks like a conch shell, insides filled with some kind of sand, and sighs as he puts it back. “We’ll just take it all, Namjoon or Yoongi can figure out the rest.”
“We better hurry,” Taehyung says, upending a container full of books and scrabbling through them. “Someone’s going to come in and find us here soon, and if that happens, we’re dead.”
“Oh, but you’ve already been found.”
Jeongguk whips around, arms held in front of his chest, as a voice sounds from the doorway behind them. The source of the voice is a middle-aged man in a white lab coat, protective goggles over his eyes. Next to him is a stout man, hairline receding, sideburns grey. Jeongguk’s heart stops in his chest as he matches the faces to their names.
Shit. Shit. These are none other than Kim and Shin, the heads of Paradisus.
“Shit,” Jeongguk says under his breath. Behind him, he sees Taehyung raise his head, and he steps backwards so he’s next to Taehyung. “Fuck, shit, Taehyung, we gotta get out of here.”
“But the codes,” Taehyung murmurs back, husky voice going unnaturally high. “We still haven’t found—”
“I think you’ll find what you’re looking for is here,” Kim says, holding a small black box in his hand. He shrugs, tucking the box into his pocket. “Fat lot of good that’ll do now, the Morphus project has been scrapped anyway. They’re just useless bits of data at this stage.”
“Wait.” Jeongguk turns his head to Shin, who’s been pointing a gun at the two of them the entire time. Shin lowers his gun momentarily, before taking one step forward, eyes wide. “You’re Morphus.”
“What?” Kim says, scowling. He squints. “Morphus? You’re meant to be dead.”
Jeongguk steps back, stumbling over a book on the ground as Shin keeps walking towards him. “I remember creating you,” Shin says, voice filled with excitement. “Number ninety-one. And you, thirty. You’re both still alive. Youngmin, this means—”
“Cut out the sentimental bullcrap, Joohak,” Kim says with a sigh, plucking the gun from Shin’s grip and pointing it straight at Jeongguk’s chest, and before Jeongguk can react, think to duck and pull Taehyung down with him, Kim he pulls the trigger twice in quick succession, once at Jeongguk, and once at Taehyung.
“Shit,” Taehyung yelps, collapsing behind Jeongguk. Jeongguk slams his hand to his neck to pull out a medicated dart, a sharp pain shooting through his body, and he’s down, vision spinning and body woozy.
“Sorry we have to do this,” Kim says, not sounding particularly sorry at all. “Can’t have you out and about revealing company secrets.”
“The…” Taehyung breathes, fumbling at his pocket. He’s taking air in shallowly, rasping now, but he manages to stab himself with the red vial, groaning as the drug flows into his bloodstream. “The morph… Drug… Remember? Neutralises tranq…”
“Got it,” Jeongguk chokes out, using the last of his consciousness to reach into his own pocket for the vial of red, stabbing it into his thigh and pressing down to empty the vial into his body. God, Jeongguk thinks, closing his eyes as he feels the tingling burn course through his body, this is not what he’d thought he’d be using his morphing powers for, but being between a rock and a hard place really leaves him no choice.
It’s gruesomely confronting each and every time, the creak of his bones as he morphs into the Lynx, fingers sharpening into claws, mouth elongating into a snout, leg bones shrinking and solidifying, joints turning inside out, fur covering every inch of his body. The transformation is complete in less than twenty seconds, and Jeongguk stands there, haunches raised, a fully-formed Lynx. Behind him, a mewl sounds, and Taehyung’s slinking up next to Jeongguk, a lithe Abyssinian.
“You were a successful batch,” Shin says, wonderous. Jeongguk growls, lowering his upper body, powering his legs up for attack, and Shin takes a step back, wary. “Youngmin, these Morphus—look, these Morphus worked out.”
“Now is not the time,” Kim spits out impatiently. And he’s right, because there’s a loud thwack, and Shin collapses to the ground in a heap, shards of broken glass and entrails surrounding his body.
“Seokjin,” Jeongguk wants to say, but of course all that comes out is an incomprehensible growl. Seokjin’s standing there, a second jar of preserved organs in his left hand, and he throws that at Kim, the jar whacking right into Kim’s head and smashing with a sharp crash as it hits the ground, shattering into countless pieces.
“Come on,” Seokjin shouts, as Jeongguk leaps over Kim and Shin’s collapsed forms. Seokjin rummages in Kim’s coat pocket, pulling out the black box, then waves at Jeongguk and Taehyung to follow him, running down the corridors to the lifts.
The Foodhall is in disarray when the doors slide open. What’s usually an orderly dinner has been sorely disrupted, groups of Felidae rushing around the place, some staring at their wristbands in disbelief, another group banging on the doors demanding to be let out, demanding explanations, and the guards inside are forced back, unable to deal with the sheer force of hundreds of furious, confused, betrayed Felidae.
“You’re here?” Ikje and two men that Jeongguk’s never seen before are in the centre of the crowd, shielding themselves underneath the tables, taking their aim at the guards and shooting tranquiliser darts at them, taking them out one by one. “Area’s clear. We still have communication lines. Other compounds are in similar states. Go.”
“Animals?” someone shouts out, pointing at Jeongguk, and the crowd parts in front of them. Jeongguk spots his classmates, the ones who’d been training in the same place as him, acquaintances he’s known for years and years, and he tries to shout out, tell them that it’s him, Jeon Jeongguk, not a wild animal, but all that comes out of his mouth is a guttural roar, a Lynx cry.
There’s a loud crash from the door. Jeongguk turns his head to see Kim stumbling through the entrance, an automatic rifle in his hand.
“You dare mess with me?” Kim roars out, and before Jeongguk can leap at him and disarm him, Kim opens fire, shooting into the open space. The automatic fire of bullets clang into the tables, ricocheting off the surface of the metal walls—and there’s a gut-wrenching cry from next to Jeongguk, a scream so piercing it rings throughout the hubbub of the Foodhall.
Seokjin. Seokjin’s been shot.
“Shit,” Ikje curses as Seokjin howls in pain, clutching his leg where a bullet from Kim’s gun has lodged in, right next to the bone. “Shit, I’m out of tranq, Hunchul, can you take him out? Stun him?”
“I trusted you, Seokjin,” Kim says, ceasing fire and pointing the rifle at Seokjin’s head. Seokjin crawls backwards, trail of blood coming from the gunshot wound in his leg as he backs up, dragging himself backwards towards the kitchen area, tears of pain running down his face. “How you let me down.”
Jeongguk leaps off the table right as Kim turns his back on him. A rush of adrenaline courses through his body, tingling, and he jumps through the air, baring his teeth, pinning Kim down and knocking the gun out of his hands, biting down right on the vein in Kim’s neck. He clamps his jaw down, as hard as it will go, and god, the metallic tang of blood spurting into his mouth tastes horrific, but the animalistic rage surging through his body won’t tamp down, Jeongguk still not quite thinking straight from the remnants of the tranquiliser in his system.
When Jeongguk lets go, Kim’s body is lifeless, limbs twitching as the blood pulses out of the hole in his neck, eyes glassy and rolled back into his eye sockets, gurgling and foaming at the mouth.
“Shit,” Ikje breathes, crawling out from underneath the table and standing over Kim’s body. “Shit, he’s gone.”
“You two, go,” Seokjin says to Jeongguk and Taehyung, wincing in pain, still holding his leg. It’s chaos. All around, the Felidae are milling about, some screaming at the sight of so much blood, some standing up on the tables to get a better view, some crying, throwing up all the way at the back of the Foodhall. Seokjin slips the black box into the pouch around Jeongguk’s waist and gives him a little push. “Thank you for saving me, but you need to get back down to Namjoon, get this to him. DNH can handle stuff here. Hurry, go.”
Jeongguk’s heart is heavy as he nods once at Seokjin, then dives headfirst into the food chute. The tumble back down is nowhere as pleasant as the crawl up had been, not that that had been pleasant either. Jeongguk’s limbs are heavy, and he’s in a form bigger than his usual human body, which makes the dank, dark tunnels a tight squeeze.
Kim is dead. Kim is dead because of Jeongguk, because Jeongguk ripped him to pieces, tore him to bits with his bare teeth, and—
No matter how much it might have been in self-defense, Jeongguk doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to erase the image of Kim’s lifeless body from his mind’s eye.
There’s a mewl from behind Jeongguk, and Jeongguk turns his head to see Taehyung’s green eyes flashing in the darkness, Taehyung flicking his tail against Jeongguk’s, as if trying to comfort him, and Jeongguk mewls back despondently.
Let’s go home, Taehyung.
What greets Jeongguk at the other side of the tunnel is not what he’d been expecting.
Namjoon and Jimin on their knees, hands behind their backs, guns pointed at their heads.
“Here they are,” a man in a militaristic helmet barks, pointing his gun at Jeongguk. “The escaped wild animals. We’ve been given orders from above to shoot on sight.”
“They’re not animals,” Jimin protests, only to be shoved into the ground facefirst. “They’re Hybrida, like you, you’re being lied to—”
“Stop talking or we’ll shoot,” one of the masked guards barks, and Jimin makes a sound of frustration before gritting his teeth.
Hybrida. Jeongguk stares at the man in front of him, the man, the Hybrida, whose finger is still on the trigger. He’s Hybrida, just like Jeongguk, and yet…
An overwhelming sadness washes over Jeongguk as he shakes his head, crawling out of the tunnel completely. Lied to their entire lives, brainwashed and taught lies. There’s only one way that Jeongguk can think of to make any of the Hybrida military guards in front of them believe him, and that’s to go right back to human form.
The blue vial.
Jeongguk fumbles with the blue vial, pads of his paws clumsy as he scrabbles at his pocket, letting the vial drop to the floor, where he picks it up between his teeth and stabs himself in the arm. The row of military Hybrida stare as Jeongguk morphs back, bones cracking and elongating, organs shifting back in place, stretched clothes hanging off his smaller frame, back to his human form.
“I’m the same as you,” Jeongguk says, voice cracking as he raises his hands. “I’m not an animal. I’m a Hybrida. A new type of Hybrida that Paradisus kept secret. They’ve been lying to you. Please don’t shoot.”
For a moment, a glorious moment, Jeongguk thinks he’s gotten through to them. The commander lowers his gun, raising the visor of his helmet, red direwolf eyes staring straight at Jeongguk, gaping, but then there’s a flurry of movement from the side and one of the Hybrida in the front row raises his gun.
“Freak,” he shouts, barrel aimed straight at Jeongguk’s head, finger pressing down on the trigger.
The next few things happen in slow motion. There’s the bullet, the bullet shooting out of the gun, and then there’s Jimin, Jimin whose fast reflexes mean he’s sprung up before the trigger’s been pulled, Jimin, who’s just thrown himself in front of Jeongguk, arms spread wide. Jeongguk can only watch on in horror as Jimin dives, body jerking in midair, the bullet meant for him driving straight into Jimin’s torso, a clean hit right through Jimin’s gut, and Jimin groans, collapsing to the floor, convulsing as the front of his shirt is painted a horrible, terrible red.
Jeongguk tries to scream, but his vocal cords are frozen solid, limbs stiff in shock. Shit. Shit. Jimin’s right there, right in front of him, mouth open, no sound coming from it, and all Jeongguk can do is stare, stare as Jimin curls up in pain, clutches at his stomach, bleeds and bleeds and bleeds.
“Get down!” Namjoon yells as the same guard opens fire again, shots aimless, flying all around the loading dock. Jeongguk finally reacts enough to throw himself over Jimin’s body, doing all he can to protect Jimin, the same way… The same way…
The same way that Jimin had done for him, and now there’s a hole in his belly, and Jimin’s not regenerating, not healing, he’s already weak, and fuck—
There’s a kerfuffle on the side, a pained yowl, and Jeongguk sees a flash of ginger and red and he realises it’s Taehyung off to the side, Taehyung who’d been trying to jump up to the hovercraft cockpit to run over the guards with the aircraft.
Taehyung’s been shot, too.
Oh god. Jeongguk’s crying now, the tears flowing from his eyes, as Taehyung collapses, scratching the sides of the hovercraft as he falls in a pile to the ground, small, fragile cat body bleeding out from the bullet wound. Taehyung’s not even in human form. A bullet wound on a body that size is fatal.
“No,” Jeongguk chokes out, still cradling Jimin’s body in his hands, as Taehyung jerks, coughing up blood. “No, no, no.”
Jeongguk barely even notices as the doors to the loading dock burst open, the Hybrida guards falling like flies around him, the SPICA girls rushing in and taking them all out with their stun guns and tranquiliser shots. Jeongguk barely notices when a huge hovercraft backs into the dock, cargo hold opening to reveal a makeshift first-aid centre.
“No,” Jeongguk sobs, scooping Jimin up in his arms, his hands scrabbling over Jimin’s face, over Jimin’s chest, the gaping wound in Jimin’s abdomen, the one that Jimin got trying to fucking save Jeongguk from being fucking shot, and oh god, oh god, if something happens to Jimin…
Next to the aircraft, Taehyung, still in Abyssinian form, convulses, and Jeongguk sobs, crawling, scrambling over to Taehyung, pressing a hand to Taehyung’s chest, ripping his shirt off so he can wrap Taehyung up in it, anything to stem the bleeding.
If Jimin dies…
If Taehyung doesn’t pull through…
Fuck, fuck, Jeongguk would never be able to forgive himself.
“Bohyung! Thank god you’re here.” Namjoon shouts, as someone emerges from the cargo hold of the medic hovercraft. Namjoon hobbles over, pulling out a stretcher and laying it down next to Jimin, then rushing over to Taehyung’s side, picking him up and resting him on the bedding inside the carrier. “Jimin…Taehyung…give them a freeze shot, get them out of here, back to base, give them first aid, now.”
“Christ,” Bohyung says, shifting Jimin to the stretcher, “you sure made a mess of things here. Right, we’ll take these two first, we’ll be back. All clear on the outside, DNH are dealing with the guards.”
“I’m—” Jeongguk chokes out, scrabbling at Namjoon, snot running down his face. He fumbles with his pockets, pulling out the black box and pressing it into Namjoon’s hands. “The codes. I can’t stay here, I’m—I’m going along with them.”
Everything around Jeongguk moves in a blur. The next thing he knows, he’s in the back of a hovercraft, Jimin and Taehyung on stretchers, Bohyung and Narae giving some kind of emergency freeze shots to them, putting oxygen masks over their faces.
“Are they…” Jeongguk hiccups, wiping at his face. He can’t breathe properly, air going down in long intakes and hiccups instead, choking every time he tries to calm himself down, but his own well-being is the last thing on his mind right now. “Are they going to make it?”
“I really hope they do,” Bohyung murmurs, taking Taehyung’s vitals. “Fuck,” she says, ripping the stethoscope off her ears. “Fuck, this won’t do. Narae, I’ve never treated a Morphus in this form before, we gotta do amniotic suspension for him.”
The hovercraft’s moving, swerving through the air, and the back of the craft is jolting, so much that Bohyung can barely fill the tank with the fluid, but Jeongguk barely notices it, the only thing on his mind how weak Taehyung looks, how lifeless he is, curled up like that, fur sticking to his body as Narae moves him to the tank, dropping him into the gel-like substance.
“He’ll be okay,” Narae says, resting a hand on Jeongguk’s back. “Amniotic suspension is the safest for the time being, better than the freeze shot. He’ll be okay until we’re back to base.”
“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, opening his eyes. Jeongguk whirls around, startling at the sound. Jimin’s still bleeding out of his stomach in slow, steady streams. Jeongguk’s vision is blurry, the tears refusing to stop as he presses his hands to Jimin’s bandaged wound, applying pressure, begging for the gash to close up, for Jimin to stop bleeding, stop dying. “Jeong—Jeongguk, I got—I got—”
“Stop talking,” Jeongguk begs, hyperventilating. “Fuck, Jimin, don’t say anything, don’t—conserve your energy, you gotta hang in there, yeah? Don’t leave me. Not you, not Taehyung. I need you both here. You can’t leave me. Please, Jimin, please—”
Jimin smiles weakly at Jeongguk, then uncurls his fingers, a packet of something small and green falling to the floor. Jeongguk picks it up, holding it close to his face so he can see it through his tears, and the familiar smell hits him, jams the nail right into his heart.
Jimin turns his head to Taehyung, suspended in the tank, kitten-like body curled up inside the glass. “Hey, Taehyung, I got your catnip, so you gotta hang in there and stop making Jeongguk sad, hmm?”
Jeongguk opens his eyes to blinding white.
Memories rush back into his mind, flashes playing one after the other in quick succession, and Jeongguk sits straight up, wincing as the blood pounds in his head.
“Take it easy,” a female voice says, and Jeongguk turns his head to see a blonde woman sitting by his bedside, hair cut into a short bob. “I’m Boa. Part of SPICA. Sorry about the rough ride, had to dodge the Paradisus hovercrafts on our way here. Those bastards seriously don’t let up.”
“Jimin?” Jeongguk’s voice cracks. “Taehyung, where’s—where are they?”
Boa gives Jeongguk a wry smile. “Taehyung’s recovering well. We brought him out of amniosis back into his human form, and his body practically healed the wound on its own. It’s amazing what the Morphus body can do. He’s regained consciousness, but we’ve induced a hypersleep so he gets better faster.”
“Jimin’s…” Boa grimaces. “We put him in amniotic suspension after we got him to base, gave him a couple of bags of transfusions, but he’s not regenerating, you know that. All we can do for now is slow down his body so we can reduce his degeneration and hope Namjoon sorts out something fast with the DNA patterns.”
“There was so much blood,” Jeongguk says, still shell-shocked. “So much—so much blood.”
“Yeah,” Boa says with a laugh. “Yeah, we were there for clean up. Seokjin’s getting treated for his leg wound, too, but he’ll be fine. And DNH managed to get all the Hybrida out and safe, with Hoseok’s help. Don’t think about it. Just rest.”
“When can I…” Jeongguk gulps. “When can I see them? Taehyung? Jimin?”
“Soon,” Boa says, standing up. “Tell you what. I’ll let you visit Taehyung tomorrow, after we jolt him out of hypersleep.”
Taehyung’s so pale. So pale, his usually pink lips an ashen grey, and Jeongguk chokes back a sob as Narae switches off the hypersleep machine, injecting a shot of epinephrine into Taehyung’s IV.
“Taehyung,” Jeongguk murmurs, as Taehyung’s eyelids flutter open. “Taehyung, can you hear me?”
Taehyung groans as he sits up, then turns his head, corners of his lips curling up. “I smell catnip.”
Jeongguk lets out a choked sob, feeling the corners of his eyes prickle again. He fumbles in his shirt pocket, pulling out the little packet and chucking it on Taehyung’s chest. “Yeah. Yeah, you smell catnip alright, you bastard. Jimin got it for you. Fuck,” Jeongguk says, gripping Taehyung’s hand, “Fuck, I thought you were going to die on me.”
“Me?” Taehyung laughs, then coughs and winces in pain. “Too bad, I’m going to be around to annoy the fuck out of you for a while yet.”
“Good,” Jeongguk says, grinning, then the smile slips off his face as he remembers Jimin, eyes closed, lying in the tank of amniotic fluid. “Jimin’s still unconscious.”
“Shit,” Taehyung says, eyes going wide. “Shit, is he going to be okay?”
“Well,” Jeongguk murmurs. In the best case, Namjoon and Yoongi crack the code and the reversal works. In the worst case… “He’ll be fine. You should rest up first.”
“We’ll let you see him tomorrow,” Narae says, pulling the blankets up around Taehyung. “But first, you need to make a full recovery.”
Jeongguk retreats to his room after the visit, mood somber. It’s like all the fight has gone out of his body, the only thing on his mind that scene from D-Day, Jimin throwing himself in front of Jeongguk without a second thought, selfless to a fault.
Jeongguk sighs, turning on the hoverpad to search for something to distract himself. No chance. SPICA’s all over the headlines, Lee Hyori’s video having gone viral throughout the hypernet. It’s not just them anymore, Jeongguk realises as he continues watching, the clip showing the hubbub inside the Paradisus compounds, on the streets of Seoul. Not just Bulletproof, DNH, SPICA, three renegade groups working to bring down the system. Jeongguk’s mesmerised by the clip, and just for a moment, he forgets all the shit that’s happened to him, to them personally, and focuses on what this means.
Maybe their sacrifice has paid off. Maybe all the pain they’re enduring right now is worth it, if it means one more Hybrida breaking free from the institute. It’s spread wider, a full-blown rebellion against Paradisus, against the institution, from the inside out. There are even Homini groups fighting against the injustice, ransacking the Paradisus buildings, staging protests outside the branches, not just in Seoul, but all over Asia.
It’s the start of a revolution.
Namjoon and Yoongi make a breakthrough a week later.
Namjoon must be some kind of genius, because he ends up figuring out the code to Jimin’s entire genome sequence, and rejigs it so he can completely split the animal DNA, replace it with the other half of his human sequence.
“The only way we can save him is to make sure he performs a full regenesis back to human with the revamped genome,” Namjoon says, reaching in to Jimin’s tank and injecting him with the amino acid mixture. Jimin’s whole body convulses inside the tank, shaking, shuddering, then settles down, and for the first time in what seems like forever, he looks like he can breathe easy.
Jimin’s ears are the first to go on day one, shrinking and melding back into his regular hair, grey and white fur falling out in tufts.
On day two, the colour comes back to Jimin’s face, the wound in his torso closing ever so slightly, no longer bright red, but a deep purple, ragged edges smoothing out, regenerating.
Day three, four, five. Jeongguk and Taehyung stay by Jimin’s side, taking turns to sleep by his tank, hands pressing against the glass, wanting to reach in and take Jimin’s hand, grip it tightly.
“He’ll pull through,” Taehyung murmurs, kissing the back of Jeongguk’s hand, holding it tight. Jeongguk leans on Taehyung’s shoulder, burying his face in the crook of Taehyung’s neck, and Taehyung pets his hair. “Don’t cry, Jeonggukkie. He’s strong. He’ll pull through.”
On day six, Jimin’s tail detaches from his body, a tuft of bushy, matted fur, and Bohyung fishes it out of the tank with a genteel wrinkle of her nose.
Seven, eight, nine. Jimin’s moved out of amniosis, sponged down and transferred to a regular bed, covered in electrolysis patches and monitors. Jimin’s canines shrink, pointy tips morphing down to regular sized teeth, and his claw-like fingernails fall off, rounded human nails growing in their place.
On day ten, Jimin opens his eyes.
“Jeongguk,” is the first thing Jimin croaks out. It’s pushing midnight, Jeongguk slumped by Jimin’s bedside, falling asleep, and Jeongguk jolts, elated. “Jeongguk, you’re alright.”
“You fucking idiot,” Jeongguk almost yells, throwing himself at Jimin, burying his face in the hollow of Jimin’s shoulder. He smells different, not as potent, but just as familiar, just as much like home, and Jeongguk can’t help as the tears burst from inside, Jeongguk not even bothering to hide them now. “How do you feel?” Jeongguk murmurs, not lifting his head.
“Weird,” Jimin says with a laugh, pushing Jeongguk off him and looking straight into Jeongguk’s eyes. Jimin’s eyes are no longer blue, but a deep, rich brown, and Jeongguk runs his fingers through Jimin’s hair, marvelling at how easy it is to comb now there are no ears to get in the way. “Huh. I can’t smell you anymore.”
“I kind of stink right now anyway,” Jeongguk says with a teary laugh. He hasn’t sanitised in days, just sitting by Jimin’s side, not eating or sleeping properly, too worried to do anything but walk around like a husk of a person. “Taehyung—I gotta let Taehyung know, you’re awake, you’re—Taehyung!”
Taehyung rushes into the room, and practically bowls Jimin over with a tackle-hug.
“Easy,” Namjoon says from the doorway, grinning as Jimin groans and shoves Taehyung off. “He’s still weak. Give him time.”
“Thanks, Namjoon,” Jeongguk mutters, bowing his head at Namjoon. “For saving Jimin. For saving us all.”
Namjoon grins and ruffles Jeongguk’s hair. “Don’t mention it. Hey, I’ve asked Boa to courier you back to Bulletproof’s base once Jimin’s well enough to move. There are a couple of things I want to talk through with you three, but until then, get some rest.”
It’s strange to be able to walk above ground, on the roads of Seoul, without fearing that a Paradisus drone will swipe down at any moment. Jeongguk makes his way into Namjoon’s labs, walking down the stairs into the underground lab and place they called home for months, Taehyung and Jimin following behind.
“So,” Yoongi says, motioning to the table. All of them sit, and Yoongi grins. “Just like old times.”
Namjoon sits down too, linking his fingers together. “Jeongguk, Taehyung. I cracked your sequences too.”
Jeongguk and Taehyung exchange looks. “Does this mean…” Jeongguk gulps. “Does this mean we have the option of becoming human? Like Jimin?”
“Yeah,” Yoongi says, tapping a rhythm on the table. He turns to Jimin. “We couldn’t ask you before we did the transformation, sorry, Jimin, it was kind of urgent. But we want to give you two a choice.”
“Because you two haven’t started degenerating yet,” Namjoon says. “Your DNA’s still fine. You still have time before it becomes necessary. Just remember, things won’t ever be the same after you decide to make the change. You’ll never be able to see at night again. Hear the sounds from the next city over. Smell the scents you can now. You’ll lose your sense of balance, your speed, your strength. We’re weak, us humans.”
“And yet,” Jeongguk mutters, “the Hybrida and Morphus were still caged and kept in control by the Homini.”
“And maybe that’s why Paradisus were so desperate to create the Hybrida,” Namjoon says with a shrug. “Make what you lack. Compensate for weakness by seizing power. It’s the way it’s always been, and that’s a fault of human nature.”
And truthfully, Jeongguk will miss it. He will miss the perks that come with being a Hybrida, the agility, the strength, the fantastic night vision, sense of smell, but at the same time, he’s ready to leave that part of him behind. “I’m in.”
“And I am, too. Although I guess I’ll miss it a little,” Taehyung says, then grins. “Especially the heats.”
Yoongi nods. “In that case, we’ll start the transformation tomorrow.”
“And before I forget,” Namjoon says, throwing a manila file on the table. Jeongguk opens it to see three identification cards, officially stamped and approved. “I got you three new identities. All the documents are here. There’s a safehouse that you three can live in. Yoongi and I will be working on recoding and integrating all the other Morphus from now, and working together with DNH and SPICA on forming the Alliance, but you’re free to go as you wish after the transformation.”
Holy shit. This is… Jeongguk sucks his lower lip in between his teeth. They’ve been given a chance at a new life, the three of them together, and there’s no way Jeongguk is going to let this slip through his fingers.
But at the same time…
“You’re sending us away to live a quiet life?” Jimin grins. “The battle isn’t over yet, is it?”
“You got that right,” Taehyung says, nodding solemnly. “We can’t just back down, not now, when things are finally changing around here. This battle is far from over.”
“Then, will you’ll join the Alliance?” Namjoon asks, arms crossed. “Help us relocate all the Hybrida, reintegrate them into society as equals?”
“Well,” Jimin says looking up into Jeongguk’s eyes, “nothing will change if we just stay still and run away from it all. We’re lucky enough to have made it out, to have been given a second chance. And now, I want to help others like us have a second chance, too.”
“Always the good samaritan,” Taehyung pipes up, rolling his eyes, but he pecks Jimin on the cheek, smiling up fondly at Jimin. “Jeongguk, what do you say?”
Jimin’s right. Jeongguk grips Jimin’s hand tightly, thumb tracing over the scar that’s still there on his palm, a reminder of their past, a reminder of Jimin’s time as a Morphus. Jimin’s right. They’ve been given a second chance. They can’t just sit back and do nothing, now that the revolution is finally picking up.
They’ll fight. They’ll fight until the end, until the injustice has been turned around, until all the Hybrida are as free as them, free to enjoy life like the Homini. It’s been a journey, and it will be a journey yet, but it’ll worth it, fighting alongside the two people in his life that he’ll never let go of, not now, not ever.
There’s no battle he can’t win, as long as he’s got Jimin and Taehyung by his side.
“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, grasping Jimin’s hand in his left, and Taehyung’s in his right. “Yeah, let’s do this.”