Jeongguk looks around the large living room, high up where the bright ceiling is painted with a pink/amateur version of Van Gogh's almond branches. The house is clean, everything -- even its essence -- cleaned like tabula rasa by the power of two 24-hour maids and excess cleaning detergent. It's a mansion to Jeongguk but a cottage to the people who own it. (It's not even the main house.) Regardless its large and domineering presence wouldn't wash anyone over with a sense of dread. Apprehension and awe, maybe. But this dread is not normal. It'd be easy to blame the uneasy feeling in his stomach on the fact that he's never been wealthy and has had more than enough experiences where wealthy people as well as the wealthy places designated to them have treated him like a doormat they have to scrape their Jimmy Choo's onto and that, therefore, standing in the middle of a mansion rich with tenebrist architecture would make him uncomfortable.
He knows a poltergeist when he feels one. Tan, the eldest son and recent head of the Hwang household had contacted him through email. Jeongguk thought it was a spam email and almost deleted it before catching the subject line and the subtext within it.
Looking for Plumber to Contain Wall Leak
Maybe if apprehension and horror movies hadn't made Jeongguk fear his own abilities, he would have had the gall to call his side business what it was. But printing "Exorcist Demon Hunter with Ghost Whispering Abilities and a Talent for Bossa Nova" on 5,000 bright red business cards didn't have the same minimalistic cavalier triteness of "Construction Worker/Plumber."
Even though he had to filter through those who would contact him to actually clean gutters or reupholster some shingles, the cover was worth it. When he was a kid and he saw his first ghost, a little rabbit with one eye, he pointed it out to his mother who quickly shushed him. It was her talent that he'd inherited. Long before he was born, his mother made quite a bustle in her small town. She had her own side business of helping older people communicate with dead loved ones but it went awry and she nearly had been hospitalized. So when she left her small hometown, she left acknowledgment of her own abilities with it. She'd warned him against telling anyone about his and, if she could see him now, she'd probably break his neck for commercializing it. A cover was safe not just for him but for the people he helped.
He didn't intend to make a business out of his abilities. He wasn't looking to be the next Jennifer Love-Hewitt, he didn't want to ride around in a Mystery Machine with a stoner and an oversized dog though he loves his fair share of strains and puppies. It all happened accidentally.
See, his primary job is in the center of the city at a high end mall in Gangnam, in a tech store where rich husbands and wives and heir kids from all walks of life can come and talk down to him all they want. He's had people throw drinks (drinks that shouldn't even be in the store) at him, he's gotten yelled at by Sally the Soccer Mom -- who could afford to take her kids to visit all the way from America-- for not being able to understand her broken Korean. When you're constantly dealing with irate customers (constantly because you are the absolute best employee the establishment has to offer), anything else seems kind of glaringly unimportant in comparison. Or, at least, that's become the case.
Jeongguk knew he'd inherited his mother's gift of seeing ghosts but he'd never seen an actual ghost belonging to a human before until one night when he was walking home after a long and grueling shift and he walked straight into a young and gaunt guy his age who was wearing all black. When their shoulders brushed together, he mumbled out an apology and Gaunty did a 180.
"You see me?!"
Jeongguk turned around completely, faced the shadow of a man, and recoiled back on clumsy feet even dropping the ice cream cone he’d awarded himself with onto the concrete. If the person before him was normal, it’s likely he would have erupted in a rant that would have immediately simmered as fast as it had boiled up -- because Jeongguk, though he doesn’t like to advertise it, is sensitive to the emotions of others -- but the person who stood in front of him that night was not normal on any account. How would Jeongguk define normal? Well, for the most part -- alive.
For, the person stood before him wore clothes that were sullied with crusted mud and their face, or what was left of it, looked like a swirling mix of torn skin and dried blood. That would have been enough to make Jeongguk run for the hills. Add to it the gaping, bleeding hole in the middle of Gaunty’s head, one that revealed the scenery behind him...then Jeongguk damn near passed out.
Except that he vomited his Cherry Garcia ice cream up on the sidewalk. Through the sound of his own disparaged retching, he heard the fucking thing laugh.
“A-ha!” It exclaimed. “You can see me! You can see me, oh my -- that’s really gross, man.”
Jeongguk continued to throw up the rest of everything he’d eaten throughout the day. Luckily, that had been the first and last time seeing such a grotesque corpse caught a rise out of him. It was only after he’d completely emptied his stomach that he was able to face It again. It was once a man much like himself and It had family and a job that also filled it with agony. It had its own run-ins with Its own version of Susan the Soccer Mom and, ultimately, It had once been a person with fears and desires much like Jeongguk’s own.
When it came down to it, It was once called Seongmin.
Seongmin lived and died by the philosophy that he could die any minute which made him rather unaffected and even blasé when he did die by way of a bar brawl gone wrong. All he wanted to do was find his way to his new home or at least his old one, just to simply stop wandering so Jeongguk helped him out (if he had known helping one spirit pass over meant a floodgate of spirits would ask for his help, he would have run for the hills when he had the chance). What Jeongguk found out on his own through their conversations was that Seongmin wasn’t exactly the brightest tool in the shed -- after all the time that’s passed since they met, Seongmin is still the only ghost Jeongguk knows that was still wandering because they missed the light. Dumb spirits are rare but they’re fun. It’s when they’re too smart for their own good and for the good of those they possess that they’re dangerous. He’d rate the current one in the Hwang estate a solid six on one to ten scale, ten being the Amityville Horror (which was faked but is still the one everyone equates with true and uninhibited terror).
Having walked through the entire mansion, even the attic, and picking up every trace of activity, Jeongguk meets Tan’s eyes when he looks down from the grotesquely-decorated ceiling and offers a meek shrug. Tan raises his eyebrows in expectation. He’s a tall guy, heavyset with stylishly wavy hair and deep brown eyes that exude mystery. Jeongguk wastes time simply trying to find a flaw on the surface. He doesn't. “Yeah, you’ve got termites.”
Tan almost misses it, the code. Code is safer around presences as strong as this one. What horror movies often reference but don’t always show is that entities, demonic or else, can tell when someone is trying to get rid of them. Just like humans can feel spirits when they’re actively trying to possess or harm, spirits can feel humans trying to threaten their existence. Tan nods. “How big?”
“Nothing I can’t manage.”
“How much will extermination be?”
Jeongguk licks his lips. “Well, these are some really big termites.”
“I thought you said you could manage it.”
“I did,” Jeongguk nods. “I can. What I mean is, a termite infestation of this size can be really messy to deal with.”
“Can’t you just clean them up?”
Jeongguk swallows down his insult and instead pulls his phone from his pocket, opening up the most recent text conversation with Tan and typing out a quick THIS POSSESSION IS FUCKING HUGE AND I CAN HANDLE IT JUST FINE BUT I NEED TIME TO PULL IT OFF SO IT’LL BE MORE EXPENSIVE THAN USUAL.
When he hits send, he gestures for Tan to check his phone. Tan looks.
“Oh,” he says. “That’s fine.”
Jeongguk sniffs and briefly tilts his head. “I also need you and your family to leave until I say it’s okay. It’ll be easier to get rid of it if I don’t have to worry about casualties.”
Tan rolls his eyes. “That’s fine by me. Take all the time you need, just make sure it gets done, yeah?”
Tan goes to walk away. Jeongguk clears his throat and Tan turns around with questioning eyes. “Pay me.”
“Oh. Right. How much?”
When payment and details are squared away, Jeongguk leaves the estate with the promise of returning tomorrow to start the extermination. With new money in his pocket and the dead muted thrill swirled with regret, his mind echoing the words of his mother, Jeongguk heads home.
He lives alone in a rooftop apartment near Yeonsinnae, perfect for him because he can have a balanced amount of solitude without feeling too lonely, the echoes from the bustling subway station making him feel plenty company. He listens to the echoes from the city and for distant traffic when he’s outside hanging his laundry on the line or throwing darts. When he’s inside, like right now, he settles for the noise on his small TV set as he feasts on a dinner of takeout burgers that he knows aren’t good for him but he’s really taken to the philosophy that life is short anyway and he may as well have fun.
In the back of his mind, though, he knows this doesn’t really count as fun. Watching the late night news with the comfort of his roll out mattress and a burger that is no doubt clogging up his arteries isn’t living life the fun way but it’s what suffices. It’d be easy to blame it on his abilities and accidental magnetism attracting dead people but truthfully Jeongguk has always kept to himself even before he knew what he was capable of. Not to say he’s hurting for companionship because he has plenty. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter -- name it and there’s always an inbox full of messages that he can’t bring himself to respond to for whatever reason. He has a bad habit of shutting himself off, pushing people away, getting lonely and talking to everyone he knows at one time, then ignoring the messages when they come through.
But when it comes down to it : Jeongguk doesn’t like to be lonely. He loves being alone, he gets energy from it, he gets peace from it but he hates being lonely. He hates that he feels resentment when two people on the train are simply hanging out, not even kissing or cuddling or committing any kind of PDA sin. The resentment rises because he doesn’t have that with anyone and he wishes he did. But then at the same time, he’s more afraid intimacy than he was of the demon possessed terrier he had to take care of last week.
Intimacy means vulnerability and vulnerability means people stabbing you in the back.
Right now, though, as he chomps on the burger whose bun has begun to soak through with pickle juice and too much ketchup, he can’t help but think of the shows he would watch when was a kid -- the ones where the friends would hang out at one place all together and just have a great time talking. Or the part in movies where the main character has that official coming-of-age moment and they run to their best friend to tell them that they love them in the most non-romantic way possible and that they never needed Ethan Craft with the good hair. Just as he’s about to swallow it all -- the last bite of his burger and his repressed sadness -- down with a now mostly ice water soda, a commercial comes on projecting the very image he’d been trying so hard to be rid of: a group of friends laughing in a restaurant.
The image in itself is painful enough especially when he thinks of his past and the fact that he used to have that, a close group of friends that he quickly brushed off as soon as close became too close, but that stab in his gut is temporarily gone then back with a vengeance when he recognizes one of the faces in the group of friends. To the far left of the screen sits a guy with light auburn hair which is messy with short waves like he’s just stepped out of the shower and didn’t bother to dry his head properly. His eyes are wide as he dramatically gawks at the steaming plate of food the waiter sets down in the middle of the table. His lips, pink and familiar, are pressed into a surprised and stupendously beautiful “O.”
Jeongguk gulps down his food in one go and, at the same time that he realizes it’s gone down the wrong pipe, just as he realizes he’s choking, he reaches one hand out toward the screen, the other going to his throat, and croaks:
He falls back on his bed at that point, wriggling against the mattress as he claws at his own throat, trying to get out the lodged in piece of food from the outside. He wheezes and heaves, eyes watering as his vision stays on the now wavering image of Seokjin and “friends” drooling over a new deal at some chicken place. It’s only after the commercial ends a second later that he realizes he’s a fucking idiot and clenches his hand into a tight fist, beating at his stomach for pressure. When that doesn’t work, he uses both hands. When it still doesn’t work, he finds lost energy in him to stand and barely stumbles over to the hard edge of his kitchen counter where he pushes him stomach against the structure over and over until--
Out with a little bit of vomit and not without a searing burn in the back of his throat, the food shoots out of him like a bullet and splats itself onto his kitchen wall, making a stain of saliva and condiments. Jeongguk stares at the substance for some time before doubling over and catching his breath. After labored, painful breathing, he looks back at the stain then back at the TV. Then he pulls out his phone before he ends up choking alone in his apartment like some shut-in. He goes to Facebook first.
The first name he looks up while nursing his burning chest and throat with a fresh, cold beer is Kim Seokjin.
Seokjin was someone Jeongguk knew mainly though Taehyung who was Seokjin’s younger brother. Taehyung and Jeongguk briefly took archery together at a summer camp when Taehyung was 13 and Jeongguk was 11. It’s likely that, if not for Jeongguk’s aunt’s uncanny ability to be late to everything under the sun, he wouldn’t have met Seokjin at all but it just so happened that on the last day of camp, he was still waiting for his ride when all of the other campers had gone. Except for Taehyung who waited with him while his brother patiently stood by his car, waiting for Jeongguk’s aunt with just as much patience. Neither of them wanted to leave him alone which, in itself, was a fortress of kindness. So when Taehyung suggested they drive Jeongguk home themselves, Seokjin agreed, and Jeongguk didn’t bend over backwards when he said yes.
The three of them could have become great friends if not for Seokjin’s busy life. He’d been a Gerber baby before Taehyung was born and did a lot of modeling in his teens mostly for catalogue fashion magazines and shopping channels like QVC. He didn’t want to be in the entertainment industry but their father pushed him toward it because he thought Seokjin was very handsome and, as he’d always say, “it’d be a pity to waste it.”
Seokjin’s constant schedules from being on the debate team all throughout middle and high school to being on the swim team and being valedictorian throughout the entirety of his academic career meant that Jeongguk only really ever caught glimpses of him whenever he went to hang out with Taehyung.
The Kim house was modest though bigger than what Jeongguk was used to, it was still exceptionally quaint with little homemade decors like the macaroni picture frame that Taehyung made in Arts & Crafts as a toddler which hung over the fireplace and a drape covered in pint-sized, multicolored hand prints that Taehyung and Seokjin made as a gift for their mother when they were 7 and 4. In hindsight, it was probably the decor that made Jeongguk feel so at home and made him go over every day for years.
He liked being around Taehyung. Taehyung was protective of him but never treated him like he was a child, always a peer. He never made Jeongguk call him hyung and never batted an eye when he was being bratty. He treated him like an equal and like they could, together, do anything and everything under the sun. Taehyung could read him well and that’s why they’d end up wrestling on the floor so much because even though Jeongguk only ever caught glimpses of Seokjin, that didn’t stop his hormones from developing a ponderous and excruciating crush on him.
The Seokjin he knew was awkward though. He was handsome but he was still in that teenage phase where everyone is kind of awkward. The Seokjin he knew was gangly with long, noodle limbs and a broad set of shoulders that made him stick out like a sore thumb. His hair was perpetually messy and not in the attractive way. But he had kind eyes and a smart mouth and, with his busy life, was always draped in the allure of mystique. Of course, Jeongguk had a crush on him. Thirteen year old Jeongguk would absolutely pop a boner immediately at the sight of the Seokjin that twenty-one year old Jeongguk is looking at now.
This Seokjin has filled out to absolutely fit all of his proportions perfectly. The once gangly limbs are now strengthened and toned, his muscles clearly defined in the black t-shirt he’s wearing in the current picture, the one hugging his body in all the right ways. His skin, which was always rather perfect in comparison to the effervescent red spots that would blotch up Jeongguk’s face, is now glowing and it’d be easy to blame it on it being edited but the glow is there even in pictures taken and posted by other people. He’s taller now. His eyes are still kind, still sweet, still teeming with a know-it-all fervor, and his lips have turned into the stuff of Hollywood Dreams, foot pop and all.
This isn’t the 16-year old Seokjin that Jeongguk stared at for too long but the same feeling stirs up in his gut. He scoffs when he surmises from little posts on his wall that Seokjin splits his time between acting in small things like commercials and writing books. He never suspected Seokjin would become a novelist but the image suits him. He goes to add Seokjin as a friend but his thumb hovers over the glaring FRIEND REQUEST button for a lifetime before chickening out and stalking someone else.
He goes to Taehyung next, hitting his name directly from Seokjin’s page and laughing as soon as the profile picture comes up. Taehyung looks pretty much the same. He’s gained weight, filling out healthily and he looks happy. Just as dorky but happy. Jeongguk raises his brows in surprise when he sees the bold Engaged next to Taehyung’s relationship status. After going through pictures and seeing several of Taehyung with his arm around a guy with a sunshine smile and messy black hair (a tag under the photo identifies him as Park Jimin), he understands. Even just through pictures, he can see their bond clearly and the early engagement starts to make sense. He doesn’t hesitate or even talk himself out of sending a friend request. As soon as he sends it, he opens up messaging and starts typing out a message:
Taehyung! Long time, no see. Sorry for falling out touch. I see you’re engaged, he looks terrific. I’m happy for you. If you’re free, I’d love to catch up sometime. Maybe get drunk and shoot at targets like we used to? I might forget to check back so this would be the best place to reach me:
Jeongguk leaves his phone number and sends the message before he can talk himself out of it. He knows, as he locks his phone and shuts off his TV, that he’s going to regret this in the morning. But loneliness tends to make people do things they normally wouldn’t do. Aside from that, there shouldn’t be much harm. He trusted Taehyung even if he did cut him out of his life. They were close. It would be alright.
His shift at the “High End Establishment of Tech Goods” is uneventful.
A kid breaks an expensive camera by dropping it on his foot and wailing about how much it hurts when the lens breaks. Jeongguk didn’t feel bad for hoping the kid broke a femur or whatever the fuck it's called. Parents of Jackass Kid, Jackass Mom #1 and Jackass Mom #2, get angry with Jeongguk for not having the camera properly displayed where it couldn’t have fallen and hurt their beloved spoiled brat. They asked for his manager who feigned a stern lecture to Jeongguk and then tried to appease the parents after they started an even bigger scene when they were told they’d have to pay a fine for the damaged camera. That was simple. Having to kick a homeless guy out for “disturbing the customers” was worse. He hates doing that. Another person, who didn’t take kindly to being told they couldn’t bring their triple nonfat no foam latte into the store, decided, in an act of supposed defiance, to knock the drink over on the floor and utter a dramatic “oops” before shouldering past Jeongguk and walking away.
Yeah. Pretty uneventful.
What isn’t uneventful is how tense he is when he steps back into the Tan mansion. One foot in the door and he can feel that things have changed. The poltergeist must have caught onto what they were planning because now its presence is overwhelming and along with the freezing cold temperature, there is a stench of sulfur. Dead. Rotten. Angry. He doesn’t even bother closing the door behind him when he walks in all the way because he knows the poltergeist will do it for him and it will slam it hard enough for the whole house to shake. Jeongguk doesn’t even flinch when the slam echoes throughout the vast living room. Instead, he sighs.
“What gave it away?” He asks the ceiling. He doesn’t respect a response or, at least, not a verbal one anyway. Poltergeists can talk but it takes a long time to get them going and he doesn’t want to have to tolerate thirty whole minutes of groaning and screeching before the thing picks up speech.
“Okay,” he calls out. “If the guise of working as a plumber was easy to see through to begin with, knock twice for yes and once for no.”
Poltergeists are, in a word, the worst.
Ghosts and demons are actually fine, all they really do is make an appearance and make the room go a little cold sometimes. The most they do is try to possess you or show up in the bathroom when you’re trying to take a shit. Poltergeists are rude motherfuckers. They don’t just like to watch you take a shit, they think it’s fun to yank you off the toilet. Most big disturbances in a haunting is caused by a poltergeist, they’re the ones who like to move shit when you’re not looking and bang on the wall all hours of the night.
After a prolonged silence, the poltergeist knocks three times which has no fucking meaning, it’s just being a dick.
Jeongguk sighs. “So I’m not a plumber. What’s the big deal? I bet you aren’t the ghost of the Black Dahlia.”
Another thing about poltergeists: they like to lie. Getting one of them to talk takes a long time. The first step is a deep, gruff, groan that stretches out for hours like a gargoyle song. The second step is hissing. The third step is actual speech, broken up, grammatically incorrect, and robotic as fuck but it’s speech. The fourth and final step is speech identical to a human’s. Getting a poltergeist to talk takes time and that time is always wasted because they don’t tell the truth. One time Jeongguk asked a poltergeist who it was and it told him it was the ghost of Paul McCartney who is currently very much alive. When Jeongguk pointed this out, the poltergeist said, a little too defensively, that Paul was dead and has been since 1969. Lying poltergeists are terrible but the conspiracy theorists suck too.
Not getting an answer, Jeongguk shrugs off his backpack and sets it down on the floor, bending over to dig through it in search of his favorite weapon ever. Pineapple Sage. Jeongguk exorcises but he doesn’t consider himself an exorcist. Exorcists carry crucifixes and weaponize themselves with bottles of holy water and bible verses. But Jeongguk isn’t a Christian and, though he’s never proved it, he doesn’t think Christian exorcisms work when the person performing them doesn’t believe in what they’re saying.
That’s how hauntings happen in the first place. The slightest suspension of disbelief opens a door because spirits like to mindfuck and prove people wrong. Disbelief is the Achilles’ heel to traditional Christian exorcisms so Jeongguk doesn’t perform them. But he believes in herbs and flowers so burning sage is his favorite way to get rid of anything. He makes it sound harder so he can get more money but no one needs to know that. He pulls out his bind of pineapple sage and holds onto it while he digs through his pockets for his zippo lighter.
As soon as his hand wraps around the lighter, a force knocks him backward, smacking him square in the face and sending him crumpling to the floor. The sage is then slapped out of his hand and sent flying across the room. Still sitting on the floor, he heaves a sigh upward and blows the hair out of his eyeline. He tilts his head at nothing in particular.
“Listen, Sir, Madame, or any variation thereof : I haven’t had too good of a day and if you could just be patient with me, that’d be awesome. I’m trying to help you by the way.”
The entity doesn’t agree because the next thing he knows he’s lifted up and thrown into a wall, leaving a nice sized dent in the drywall. His head aches and his body is already bruised but he still manages to pull himself into a sitting position. He brings a hand up to his forehead and dips his fingertips in a fresh new wound, taking spots of fresh blood with him. Again, he stares at nothing, the coldness in the house and the stench of rotten eggs being his only company.
“If you can’t comply--”
He’s smacked again, head jerking to the left. The next sentence barely leaves his lips when he’s smacked again, head jerking to the right. Just when his cheek hits the wall again at the impact, his cell phone rings out a short clip of “Take On Me” and a quick peek at the screen shows an image he hasn’t seen in forever: a 19-year old Kim Taehyung, an old picture Jeongguk had in his contacts before he lost (cut off) touch with him.
Jeongguk holds up his hands, holding his right one up vertically and the left one to slant against it horizontally, a makeshift crucifix that he doesn’t even really believe in. “Time out, time out!”
He answers the phone, trying to mask the strain and pain in his voice as blood trickles down from his forehead. “Hello!”
“Ah, Jeon Jeongguk!” Taehyung’s voice is deep and booming with a familiar vivacity, one that has been been missing from Jeongguk’s life. He laughs heartily before going on, without even really waiting for a response: “I wasn’t sure if it was really you! Was it really you?! I thought, maybe, someone, like, got into your account and decided to fuck with people but then I realized we weren’t friends on Facebook which was weird because I always thought we were and I figured it must have been you! It’s been ages, oh my god. How are you? Are you still…?”
Taehyung continues to talk with heightened excitement and Jeongguk can only listen, occasionally swatting at the heavy but person-less breathing by his ear to no avail. The stench of sulfur has grown thicker. Jeongguk doesn’t wait for Taehyung to finish. “No, it was me. I actually, uh, saw Seokjin hyung in a commercial and it got me thinking about you guys. I saw you’re engaged. That’s cool.”
Jeongguk swats again at a hard yank to his hair, swallowing a yelp.
“I am! It’s so weird -- when he proposed, you were the first person I wanted to tell. I didn’t know how to find you, your Facebook account was gone.”
“Deactivated,” Jeongguk nods along to the rhythm of the hard banging through the walls. Someone’s attention hungry. “I was never good at the whole social thing.”
“No, you weren’t,” Taehyung agrees breezily. “‘Guk, I just...Thank you so much for reaching out. It’s perfect timing, really, I, um--”
Jeongguk screams loudly, cutting of Taehyung’s question and staring at the deep, red, fresh bite mark on his leg. The imprints of the mark are crooked but it went deep enough to break skin and Jeongguk is fucking livid. He catches his breath quickly. “I’m sorry, I’m...I’m, uh, watching that show -- Hell’s Kitchen. Someone I like just got eliminated.”
Taehyung makes a sympathetic noise. “Isn’t that the worst? Gosh, I still remember back when Tocara was eliminated from America’s Next Top Model. It was so weird, she was so positive and cool. It still doesn’t seem right. Or, worse, Sanjaya Malakar. Remember him? Couldn’t sing but he was…”
Once again, Taehyung goes on and on speaking in an excited voice, never stopping to catch his breath or to let Jeongguk answer a question which is fine because Jeongguk is now very busy. The poltergeist has decided to catch hold to his foot and drag him across the room, bumping his head against furniture and making hard turns to bang a limb against a few doorframes. But It must not be as smart as Jeongguk initially thought because It drags him right past his backpack which he grabs with ease, still listening to every word Taehyung is saying about how Sanjaya deserved to stay a little longer based on his personality alone but that he was happy Jordin Sparks won. Jeongguk responds easily, sliding against the floor as he pulls out his zippo lighter:
“Wasn’t Jordin in a different season than Sanjaya?”
“No. Wow. No, that’s so wrong. She was there the whole time. Maybe you just weren’t looking.”
Jeongguk dodges a candleholder that’s thrown in his direction, moving his head to the side a few seconds apart from when the candleholder crashes onto the hardwood floor. “Did you steal that from a movie?”
That’s enough to excite Taehyung and get him started on another spiel about everything that makes him vibrate including talk of how cute his fiance is and how Jeongguk just has to meet him.
Jeongguk catches hold of the wall on the entryway to the kitchen and holds on tight with one hand even as the poltergeist pulls both his legs up, making him look like he’s been caught in a hurricane. In his other hand, he grips onto the phone and makes occasional hums and grunts of acknowledgment. Years of running away from his problems both literally and figuratively have made his body a stone temple and Jeongguk rolls his eyes to think that all that running was meant for situations like this. He kicks at nothing. He scraps at nothing. Poltergeists are so strong and so present that it’s easy to forget there’s no physical vessel to their power i.e.: nothing to kick at.
Fortunate for him, he has enough experience to know that poltergeists absolutely hate to be ridiculed so Jeongguk presses the speaker of his phone into his hoodie and turns his head back slightly.
“Is that really all you got? Pathetic.”
He quickly goes back to the phone and utters a pleasant:
“Taehyung, give me just a second--”
The poltergeist uses the grip on his legs and yanks Jeongguk from the wall, throwing him into the kitchen and making him crash against the dining table in the process. His body slams against the top row of cabinets and careens down to the linoleum floor with a hard, resounding bang. Putting the phone back to his ear, he groans: “I’m back.”
“Alright so in the movie--”
Jeongguk runs for the sage in the corner and finally gets the tied bundle in his hands, gripping it tight while using his other hand to flick on his lighter. The lighter only gasps out a few weak sparks. “Fuck me.”
Taehyung squeaks. “Excuse me?”
“I didn’t mea…”
Jeongguk trails off when he feels the brush of heavy, heaving breathing on the back of his neck and the smell of sulfur so thick that he’s almost choking.
He releases a breath, testing the air around him and damn near drops the phone from his hand when he sees the white puffs come out. The breathing behind him sounds off into a deep and croaky groan. Jeongguk turns around slowly, boots crunching against broken glass as he does, with his phone still pressed up to his ear and Taehyung going on about some romantic comedy. When Jeongguk turns completely, his feet almost gives out from under him, his throat chokes up, and his heart takes a dive from his chest to his gut. The fucking poltergeist has appeared. Ghosts appear. Demons appear. Poltergeists throw shit around and turn furniture upside down. Their appearance is rare and usually means Death. So, with his entire body burning and chilling as he looks up -- an entire foot up -- at the old, burly man with deep sunken in eyes and rotten teeth smiling down at him something sinister, Jeongguk swallows hard:
“How’s Seokjin hyung?” He asks the phone.
Taehyung laughs. “What?”
“Seokjin hyung,” Jeongguk swallows and talks faster as the poltergeist, already in his face, starts to close in on him. “How is he? I saw him in that commercial and he looked really nice and I just wanted to know how he is.”
“Oh my god, you still like him! Why? Never mind, don’t answer that. Hyung’s great, he’s doing really--”
“I don’t think I stopped liking him,” Jeongguk admits. The poltergeist is taking slow steps toward him and Jeongguk is rushing with his lighter, hands shaking violently. He read somewhere that your soul feels purer in death after you’ve come clean. “Is that stupid?”
“I don’t think it is, I just think he’s really nice--”
“Have you met my brother?”
“--and I wouldn’t have felt this way for so long if I wasn’t, like, meant to be with him. My theory since I was fourteen was that we were soulmates.”
“Also I stole a candy bar from a convenience store when I was five. Or I tried to but I felt bad and put it back. In the chip aisle, I don’t think it belonged there.”
“Why are you--?”
Jeongguk looks from the lighter to the poltergeist which is standing right in front of him. “Sir, Madam, or any variation thereof, I understand you’re upset and, as an immediate solution, I’d like to suggest you go right back to Hell,” Jeongguk lights the sage and pauses for a moment, thinking better of it. “If that’s where you from, you kind of look like a Purgatory type.”
Without further ado, Jeongguk thrusts the burning sage into the emptiness of their frame which has always been Jeongguk’s favorite part because it’s like shanking without the violence. The poltergeist screams something loud and piercing as it disappears from view, fading into nothingness after burning into a smoke. Jeongguk can barely make out Taehyung’s calls of concern and, after bidding adieu to what was, he replies to the concern with a calm and collected voice. “Do you want to get coffee?”
Taehyung looks the same as always except that he’s gotten exceptionally more attractive, his body having gone under the makeover that only exists in 80s montages. But he looks the same, more or less, his features like his broad smile and twinkling eyes and his ever-amusing expression of confusion are all the same. Like right now, he’s idly mixing in his addition of nutmeg to his white mocha with the wooden stirrer and trying not to make the target of his stare obvious. Jeongguk sips at his own drink, allowing Taehyung to stare at the bandaged gash on his forehead and the bruises on his cheeks without mentioning it. He knows he looks like he’s just invented the very first Fight Club so when he first walked into the cafe and Taehyung’s bright smile and cheerful greeting both faded simultaneously into slight horror, he didn’t mind.
Taehyung clears his throat. “Um, ar--are things well?”
“Okay,” Taehyung offers instead. “Are you...You know, if you’re in any trouble, you can talk to me. I still consider you family.”
“Oh,” Jeongguk feigns surprise and gestures toward his face. “This? It’s nothing! I tried playing hero last night and stopped a couple of kids from terrorizing this old man.”
“Kids did that?”
“Yes,” Jeongguk nods and a moment passes between them of total silence where Taehyung challenges disbelief and Jeongguk challenges being challenged. Eventually, Taehyung folds into agreement even though he doesn’t completely believe it.
“I’m sure your kids won’t be like that.”
At that, Taehyung smiles and busies himself talking about how close he is to the family he’s always wanted to build. How his fiancé is just the absolute best, how happy he is that Jeongguk contacted him because he really wants him to be at the wedding, going back and forth. Jeongguk tells him he splits his time between working at a retail store in Gangnam and doing freelance plumbing for different clients across the city. He gives Taehyung his card for equal measure because he can tell how worried the bruises make him. (Jeongguk also has to assure him that he’s not dating anyone or even fwb-ing anyone so there’s no one taking advantage of him i.e.: no one responsible for his battered face). Even though Jeongguk is over the moon to hear about Taehyung’s life and gladly volunteers to be apart of Taehyung’s wedding ceremony within the next few months, he swallows down his frustration and exigent need to ask about Seokjin.
At one point, his mind even starts to wander as he thinks about why Seokjin is on his mind so much lately and what he meant to Seokjin. The truth not so universally acknowledged is that Seokjin wasn’t just his first real crush but also his first love (questionable because Jeongguk has always been an impressionable person) and most definitely his first kiss. But Taehyung didn’t know any of that and near-death experiences can really make a person’s life flash before their eyes so when Jeongguk’s flashes were full of mostly could have and would be scenarios starring his first love, it's safe to say he got a little curious.
When they’re leaving the cafe, saying their goodbyes, Taehyung hugs him and makes him promise to come by soon for dinner where he can meet Jimin and catch up with Seokjin once he comes back from Berlin.
When they’re hugging each other tight and Jeongguk squeezes at Taehyung’s waist, Taehyung hisses and then hastily apologizes. “It wasn’t you. I’ve been sleepwalking, I think. Running into furniture at night.”
“Trying to be a hero in your own special way?”
Taehyung laughs and pushes Jeongguk away. He ruffles his hair like he used to before walking in the other direction with a promise of dinner to come.
The next week passes uneventfully.
But it's a rather nice and pleasant uneventful, being able to call up Taehyung and talk about their days, exchanging frequent and earnest texts. On one of their calls, Taehyung even gets Jimin on the phone who is unsurprisingly kind and surprisingly a wise-ass. It's comforting, though, to know that Taehyung feels comfortable enough with him and about their friendship that he spoke to Jimin about him long before he sent that Facebook message.
Other than that, Jeongguk goes to work like normal, eats takeout in his living room like normal, and filters through floods of emails, texts, and calls deciphering actual plumbing jobs from exorcism jobs like normal. Jeongguk doesn't know that his life is about to stop being his version of ordinary within two weeks and that the change will be due to a call he was not expecting.
Since the number calling is unknown, he answers with his scripted and rehearsed plumber response:
"Hello, this is Jeongguk of Jeon Plumbing Services, do your pipes need cleaning?"
There's a stillness on the other side for a long time before the velvety, swoon worthy voice that always made Jeongguk's knees weak lets out an uncertain: "Jeongguk?"
Jeongguk springs up from his bed where he'd been lying and idly scrolling through his phone, looking for something interesting to do. "Hyung?"
Seokjin laughs. Flat out laughs. Boisterous and high pitched and squeakier than ever, even releasing a few involuntary snorts in the process. When he's mostly composed himself, he says: "You need to not ask people if their pipes need cleaning."
"How many times have you been mistaken for an escort service?"
Jeongguk blinks in surprise at that because it's actually been a surprising amount since he started the fake plumbing business. Many people call for plumbing and many people have hung up when he's answered, mistaking it for something much more lewd. "How'd you...? A lot. A lot of people."
"And you never thought the mistake was somehow correlated to you asking people if they needed to be jerked off?"
"That's what that means?!"
He can practically see Seokjin shaking his head, endeared and amused at his earnestness that has somehow not changed. Jeongguk can't help but smile as he thinks of how he made Seokjin smile.
Seokjin clears his throat. "Wow. Um, I do need my pipes cleaned actually. But I mean actual pipes, is that okay?"
"Shut up," Jeongguk blushes and plays with his hands, heart pounding hard for a way out. "How'd you get this number?"
"Taehyung gave it to me. He mentioned he's seen you recently and all. Said you'd made a career out of this and I needed help...Figured a familiar face would be best. I know you won't try to stiff me."
"What makes you so sure?"
Seokjin challenges. "Because you know I'll kick your ass if you do."
Jeongguk hiccups, laughing hard and breezily. He takes a deep breath and nods at no one in particular. "Just send me the details, hyung. I promise not to stiff you."
In a tone that teems with words unsaid, Seokjin responds: "Let's not make any promises just yet. I don't want to be responsible for breaking it."
With that, Seokjin hangs up and Jeongguk tries really hard (and fails even harder) not to think about the double-entendre. And it's not even until the day right before he's supposed to drive down to Seokjin's cottage in the Gurim Village that he realizes he isn't a real plumber and can't actually do anything to help him.
A few YouTube videos and For Dummies books later, Jeongguk makes the long drive down to the Gurim village and finds Seokjin's cottage away from the sect of villas by itself in a secluded area. The house is small and comforting, a country area with spacious backyards and too much room in between neighbors. Jeongguk gets out of his rental car and stares at it in awe. There's nothing extraordinary or exemplary about it but its warmth and quietness make Jeongguk feel awed. And he has no idea why.
(And he highly, highly doubts the awe has anything to do with the anticipation in his stomach at being able to see Seokjin again).
He knocks on what he thinks is the main entrance three times and runs a hand through his hair, checking his face for any snack crumbs or drool stains in his front camera. As he looks at his reflection, the glow of his skin courtesy of a facial mask, the new piercings adorning his left ear, and the brand new haircut, he wonders if he overdid it. And then he wonders why he's overdoing it. He doesn't take three hour drives back to the countryside village of his hometown for simple jobs especially ones that have nothing paranormal about them. He doesn't get haircuts for jobs that are actually plumbing jobs and he doesn't get new shirts for the occasion. And he wonders, belatedly, what it is that he's trying to get out of seeing his first crush, possible first love, for the first time in years.
When Seokjin opens the door, however, he stops wondering all together. Seokjin's hair has grown, a little unruly, a little suave, and he's pushed it out of his face. It isn't properly slicked back, just a simple job of running his hand through it the way he used to whenever he was confronted with a difficult math problem. Seokjin offers an apologetic smile and, through it, Jeongguk sees the answers to all he'd been wondering about.
"Sorry," Seokjin says. For a moment, his eyes are stuck behind Jeongguk like he's looking for someone but then he looks at him directly and his smile is blinding. "I was unpacking, I didn't hear the door."
When Seokjin opens the door a little more, crossing his arms over his chest and looking Jeongguk up and down, Jeongguk simply smiles and takes a step back. He wants Seokjin to appreciate him in a full view, even doing a dramatic little turn. When he looks back, Seokjin is smiling wide and shaking his head.
Jeongguk bites his lip. "What?"
"Your body has grown but your mind is still the same size, I see."
"Oh, whatever," Jeongguk follows Seokjin into the little villa. "I can always let you get stiffed by someone else."
Seokjin groans, guiding him throughout the home around every corner. The place is bigger than what Jeongguk expected. From the outside, it looks like a traditional villa in a traditional village but the inside has been remodeled and Jeongguk gets downright bug eyed when Seokjin starts guiding him down a flight of stairs into a basement. "That'd be no fun. Getting stiffed by someone other than you."
Jeongguk fights back a pleased smile. "How the hell did you get stairs in here?"
"Grandpa had a phase in the seventies," Seokjin laughs. "He went on a remodeling binge and re-did everything in here. I have no idea how he added a basement but it was always pretty cool so I didn't question it."
Jeongguk doesn't say anything because he doesn't know what to say. All he knows, from the way Seokjin spoke, is that his grandfather has passed on now. So he continues following Seokjin to the last step and offers silence as a form of sincere condolence.
Seokjin confirms. "He died last year. Left the villa to me and Taehyung but we could never get around to coming out here. In his will, he told us we could use it in any way we wanted, said we could even demolish it. He just trusted us to treat it right no matter what we did."
Flicking the basement light on, the space becomes clear and Jeongguk looks around. There's a nice leather couch in the center with two love seats on the opposite side, a long coffee table in the middle, and an entire wall of bookcases. It's simple. Cozy. But no longer warm.
"But how could we demolish it?" Seokjin asks, not really wanting an answer. "He put years worth of work into repairing the damages and making sure this place stayed standing through storms and renovations. It's a piece of him. My grandpa always wanted to see the world but he never left the country so Taehyung and I thought it'd be nice to turn it into one of those exchange homes--"
"Right. If we can't let him see the world, we can let the world see him, right?"
Jeongguk smiles softly, fondly, eyeing the delicate parts of Seokjin's features and feeling himself go back to thirteen years old. He nods. "That's really sweet."
Seokjin smiles. "But we've gotta prepare some things before we start. Exhibit A," he opens the door to the left of the leather couch to show a pristine bathroom. He goes to the sink, turns the knob, and winces when no water comes out, only a loud creak. "This thing is currently a piece of shit. I tried fixing it myself but I'm pretty sure I made it worse."
"It's all good," Jeongguk nods, displaying a confidence and certainty in plumbing that he does not possess. "I can take care of it, no problem."
"Great," Seokjin smiles and then bites his lip in contemplation when he looks down at Jeongguk's empty hands. "Do you need to borrow some tools or...?"
"Oh, no, yeah," Jeongguks shakes his head and juts his thumb out behind him. "I left them in the car, I'll just go and..."
He turns around and leaves the bathroom, walking up the basement steps. When he gets to his car, he grabs the tools he bought hastily at a warehouse store fast, almost tripping over his feet in a rush to get back into the house and just soak up being under the same roof as Seokjin. When he gets back inside, Seokjin is standing in the living room, in front of a stack of unopened cardboard boxes. With a boxcutter in his hand, he grips the side of the top one while slicing it open and Jeongguk notes the muscles in his forearm as he does it. He releases a desperate sigh and bites his lip again.
"I'll just get to work," he says.
And Seokjin turns around. "No," he says, a little panicked but mostly insistent. "You don't have to get to work right away, we have some catching up to do."
Jeongguk chuckles bashfully, looking down and toying with the car keys in his hand when he answers: "Well, I'm a plumber, hyung, that's not a lot to catch up on."
When he looks up, Seokjin is frowning and he is shaking his head. "Don't do that."
"Talk down to yourself," Seokjin waves a hand. "Come over here. Let's split a sub sandwich and tell me where you disappeared to."
"Well," Jeongguk shuffles forward. "I didn't disappear."
"You cut off contact, then. One day you just stopped coming by. Taehyung said your number changed. We never saw you again."
Jeongguk picks up a hint of resentment, anger, in Seokjin's voice and if there's a part of him that tells him to ignore it, he absolutely does not. When he steadies himself into a seat at the kitchen table, he watches Seokjin's as he bends over and digs in the refrigerator for a drink. He shrugs to no one. "I dunno."
Seokjin turns around. "All this time of wondering and the answer I get is 'I dunno'? Not even 'I don't know'. Wow."
"...You've been wondering about me?"
Seokjin turns around and starts warming up the sandwich, pouring the strawberry kiwi juice into two wine glasses. "Don't be stupid, Jeonggukie. Of course I wondered about you. Wondered about you every day."
"Why does anyone wonder about anyone, hm?"
They fall into mostly silence after that. They eat their sandwiches. Seokjin tells him about his travels and how he mostly writes novels about people trying to find themselves in the wrong places. "It's easy," he says at one point, "to get away with telling the same story. Just do it in different ways and no one really notices."
Seokjin says he continues doing the acting work because he's come to like it now but, also, when he doesn't feel like writing anything new, acting serves as a nice paycheck. Jeongguk offers no explanation for his absence, no explanation for the fading yellow bruises on his face, and a lie about where he started his plumbing business. Jeongguk thinks Seokjin doesn't really believe him but, if that's the case, he doesn't say anything and soon after their done, Jeongguk goes down to do work in the basement while Seokjin continues to pack and unpack.
Partly because Jeongguk doesn't really know what he's doing, he doesn't finish any of the plumbing that day but that's to be expected. After three or so hours of working in the basement, mostly switching between trying to figure out what tools do what and staring at the sink in malice, a chorus of heavy footsteps come down the stairs. When Jeongguk looks up, he's meet with the smiling faces of Taehyung and who, thanks to Facebook he's come to know as Jimin.
He stands up just in time for Taehyung to come at him and embrace him in a hug that's notably less intense as his usual ones are. When they part, Jeongguk notes the tired look in Taehyung's eyes and the pale hue of his usually vibrant skin. "Are you alright?"
Taehyung offers a weak smile. "Yeah."
Jeongguk raises his eyebrows at the curt reply. Uncharacteristic indeed. Still leaning against the door frame, Jimin, still smiling, shakes his head. "Planning everything is wearing him out which is why he's on bedrest for the whole weekend."
Taehyung breaks out into an even brighter smile and starts biting his bottom lip. Jeongguk could swear that he even blushes. He steps to the side and gestures. "Jeongguk, this is Jimin."
"Jimin," Jeongguk repeats, stepping aside and approaching Jimin with an open hand. "The one who swept Taehyung off his feet."
Shaking hands, Jimin nods. "That'd be me. I doubt I was the first though, you know how our Taehyung can be."
"Okay," Taehyung waves a hand and walks past them both, leaving the bathroom and going to leave the basement entirely. "This is a little weird, I'm gonna get a soda."
"Water, please," Jimin calls out. "The soda isn't gonna help your headache."
As Taehyung has gone up the stairs, the other two follow suit. Jimin is quiet but from the stories Taehyung has told him and his words on the phone tell Jeongguk it's just how he is around new people. Nothing more.
(Before they get upstairs, unbeknownst to them, Seokjin scrambles to cover up the insignia he's been painting) and when they get upstairs, Taehyung has taken a seat on the couch, curling up with a bottle of water and looking weaker than he had before. Jimin joins Taehyung on the couch and Jeongguk finds his way to Seokjin, wiping his hands on an old rag like he's seen the plumbers and mechanics do in movies. Seokjin has foregone his t-shirt in favor of a tank top and is currently pulling nails from the wall in one of the bedrooms.
Jeongguk swallows hard. "Um."
Seokjin turns around. "Oh. You finished?"
"No, actually. I don't think I'll get it done today. Is it okay if I come back tomorrow?"
"It's more than okay. Take all the time you need, I want it to be as perfect as a pipe can be."
"Then after that," Seokjin turns away from the wall completely and Jeongguk sees that the front of his tank is drenched in sweat, his arms are glistening and one of them is strained as he grips onto the hammer in his right hand. He looks earnest. "Would you mind taking care of, uh, the toilet?"
"Yeah," Seokjin smirks knowingly and wipes the sweat from his brow. "The toilet."
Jeongguk beams. "Yeah, I'd be -- um, I can totally stay for the -- to fix the toilet. For you."
"I, um, I'll just head back then. And I'll see you tomorrow?"
Seokjin tilts his head. "Don't you live like three hours away? Just stay the night. If you can -- oh, shit, you might have to work, huh?"
(In the next hour, Jeongguk rushes outside, calls up his boss, and offers a quick: "Hey, it's Jeongguk, I quit" before hanging up and going back inside).
"No," Jeongguk waves a dismissive hand. "I can stay, I don't mind. Is there a hotel I can stay at around here?"
Seokjin laughs. "I meant stay here. With us."
"Yeah. Jimin and Taehyung are already staying to help fix the place up. You can stay too. They have the second bedroom but you're more than welcome to stay in the living room."
"I wouldn't want to be in the way. I can just stay in the basement if--"
"No," Seokjin shakes his head. "I mean...the bathroom doesn't really work down there so just, I mean, it would be easier if you stayed in the living room. You wouldn't have to move too far if your bladder wakes you in the middle of the night."
Instead of pressing him further like he really wants to, Jeongguk accepts it and brandishes a toothy grin. "If you'll have me."
The three of them have a makeshift dinner of microwavable pizza and cold leftover noodles, cracking open more strawberry juice because there's no beer. Jeongguk learns that Taehyung now splits his time between being a freelance illustrator and doing work on an animation crew at a popular production company which is how he met Jimin. Jimin composes music for those films and the two of them ran into each other one day and hit it out of the park. Taehyung described it as an instantaneous connection.
"I just knew," Taehyung smiled as he looked at Jimin. "I don't know how else to explain it and, believe me, I've tried."
(Taehyung doesn't say that he would follow Jimin to the end of the earth and back but everyone sitting around the table hears it anyway).
After dinner and after everyone goes their separate ways, exchanging good nights in the midst, Seokjin makes a makeshift bed for Jeongguk on the living room couch and says he'll see him in the morning. But old habits die hard and long after everyone's gone to sleep, Jeongguk is lying awake on the couch and staring up idly at the ceiling. He looks down the hall where Seokjin is sleeping and doesn't answer the million questions going through his head. Sometime between wondering about the future and lamenting the past, Jeongguk finally dozes off but not before tucking the blankets around him tighter and comforting himself against the cold.
He finds Seokjin and Taehyung crowded in the bathroom in the morning, Taehyung sitting on the edge of the bathtub and Seokjin sitting on the floor, gripping Taehyung's arm in his. The door is open so Jeongguk doesn't give himself the opportunity to feel guilty for listening to their conversation and eventually inviting himself in.
Whatever Seokjin had been saying immediately stops and he turns around and looks at Jeongguk, offering a tired smile in lieu of an answer. Taehyung sighs: "It's nothing, I just bumped into something again last night."
Jeongguk gets a good look at him then.
Taehyung looks tired. Not even tired. He looks beyond exhausted, purple bags under his eyes and the color gone from his skin. He looks less like the Taehyung he'd met for coffee the day before and more like a ghoul of himself. He looks frail. Small. Like he's completely breaking apart. Jeongguk steps inside then and looks at Taehyung's arm, crowding over it along with the other two. His arm is bruised deep and dark with the imprint of a hand. It looks as if the hand that grabbed him, gripped him hard on his arm, was made of fire because the bruise looks like more like a burn.
"That's just," Taehyung sighs. "I'm just sleepwalking a lot lately and it's...I guess I'm bumping into things."
"Don't be stupid," Seokjin says firmly. "What kind of thing could you possibly bump into that would leave a hand shaped bruise? Nothing...Is there something you're not telling me?"
Taehyung shakes his head and his eyes spill over an honesty, a genuine honesty. He believes what he's saying. "I swear--"
They all quiet down when they hear footsteps coming down the hall from the other bedroom and Taehyung yanks his arm away from Seokjin and pulls his sleeve down fast.
"Please don't say anything to him. He's worried enough as it is, this is really nothing. Alright?"
Neither one of them even get a chance to promise anything before Taehyung is standing, pushing past them both and going down the hall. Next to Jeongguk, Seokjin shakes his head and mutters: "He can't be serious."
He turns to Jeongguk and gives him an uncomfortable smile before leaving the bathroom as well. Jeongguk stays behind and sinks to the edge of the bathtub. He stares down at the floor, at the green bathroom mat, and shrivels up. He may be confused at times but he really is not stupid and he knows what the beginning of a possession looks like. Taehyung had been bruised up when they met for coffee but he was still well. But now he's weak, buckling under the weight of whatever demon it is that's latched itself onto him, succumbing to the second stage: oppression. Jeongguk thinks of the freezing cold basement and the cold spots in the living room and curses.
It doesn't take too long for more of the obvious signs to become more obvious and Jeongguk is certain that his psychic abilities are dulled when he's around Seokjin. But other than the cold spots within the villa, other than it being obvious that Taehyung is in the second stage of demonic possession, there were warning signs. Like the fact that it's completely quiet in the area but Jeongguk is always catching hints of some noise or another, nothing like a house settling or someone else moving, but like a being drifting within and with out. Sometimes Jeongguk hears breathing, even when it's just him in the basement focusing on fixing a sink he doesn't know how to fix.
Jeongguk is familiar with the stages of demonic possession, almost obsessively so. He would even go as far as to say that he's as familiar with it as he is the little habits Seokjin has that he's not even aware of (but only if there's no one around to listen). He knows enough to know that he -- more specifically, Taehyung -- doesn't have a lot of time.
Throughout the day, he works alongside Jimin in the basement. Jimin busies himself with the task of cleaning out the foyer area of the basement while Jeongguk toils in the bathroom, picking up the occasional tool to keep up the appearance of plumbing but really tying sage leaves together with twine and filling every corner with salt. It won't do a lot but, if push comes to shove, at least the bathroom will be safe and he can prevent any casualties when he actually tries to carry out the exorcism which, in his case, is really just going to be a matter of tying Taehyung down and shoving salt down his throat.
Jeongguk drops the sage out of his hand and picks up the first tool in reach which happens to be a universal key (which ends up looking quite dumb when he holds it up to the base of the sink and spins it around). He turns around and offers a bashful smile at Jimin's humored/confused expression. "What's up?"
"Um," Jimin chuckles and pulls at his ear. "I'm sor--do you need help?"
"Do you know what you're doing though?"
Jeongguk lets out a nervous laugh. "Of course, I do. I'm a plumber."
"You wanted to ask me something."
"Oh," Jimin looks down then and contemplates at the floor, tapping at the doorframe as he does. He takes a deep breath before looking up through hooded eyes, a shyness that wasn't there before becoming prevalent. "It's just...well, I've known Seokjin and Taehyung for a long time but you've known them longer and I just...I dunno, I kind of feel like things are a little off."
Jeongguk swallows hard. "Off how?"
"Is there something they're not telling me? Or...something Taehyung isn't telling me? He's been so distant lately, it's weird. It's almost like he isn't himself."
"...He's seemed pretty normal."
Jimin nods. "Yeah, when he...I don't know, man, he just goes back and forth sometimes. But mostly, he's been closed off which, I mean, you know that's not him. I just thought I'd ask you. I would ask Seokjin hyung but he's been distracted lately."
Jeongguk wants to ask what that means but he doesn't. Instead, he settles more comfortably on the floor and looks up at Jimin with an earnest expression, lending his silence as a shoulder to lean on.
"For the most part," Jimin says, "he's normal. But when he's normal, he's weak. You know? And he keeps waking up with all of these bruises and he says he's sleepwalking but...Jeongguk, I'm a really light sleeper. I'd be able to tell if he ever got out of bed, I'd be able to feel it but I never do. The days when he's not weak are somehow worse though because he's not himself. The other day I found him standing down here."
"What was he doing?"
Jimin shakes his head. "That's what was so weird. He was just standing there. I called out to him a few times and he didn't move. When I touched him though...he looked at me and his eyes..."
"His eyes what?"
Releasing a deep, shuddering breath and falling into a shaky laugh that's as unbelievable as it is forced, Jimin shakes his head. "Never mind."
"Please, tell me."
"Because you're gonna think I'm crazy and you're Taehyung's oldest friend and--"
"Why would I think you were crazy?"
"Because they were black!" Jimin looks confused right after he says it, like he can't quite believe he really admitted it to himself. Then he looks crestfallen, eyes back on the floor. "See? That's ridiculous, right?"
And the way he says it makes Jeongguk's blood run cold because it's too hopeful. Jimin knows there's something wrong but he doesn't want to admit it and all he really wants is to be told he's going crazy. Jeongguk would want nothing more than to tell him than that but before he can give him any assurance, no matter how false, a crash from upstairs snaps them both out of their conversation.
Without any hesitation, they both stumble out of the bathroom and up from the basement, falling on uncertain and heavy steps into the living room where they find Taehyung crumpled on the floor with his back turned to them. Jeongguk stays behind and watches on when Jimin rushes to his side and tells Taehyung to wake up. But Taehyung is unresponsive and Jimin's pleads fall into the background as Jeongguk looks around the living room and notes the absolute, dead silence.
He's just about to ask where Seokjin is when Seokjin rounds the corner and looks down at Taehyung's lifeless form in surprise. But something about it seems off. Still looking in Seokjin's direction, Jeongguk whispers:
"Jimin, get away from him."
Seokjin responds, speaking to Jimin as well but still looking in Jeongguk's direction. His eyes are even but cold. "Jimin. Come over here."
Jimin sputters between the two of them, looking up while holding Taehyung's head in his lap. "You need to call someone, what's wrong with you guys?"
Without any real effort, Jeongguk grabs Jimin's arm and pulls him away from what is used to be just Taehyung and is now also a vessel for something else. He starts explaining with an uneven, somewhat breathless voice: "You two need to get out of here."
Seokjin puts an arm out in front of Jimin and, for a second, Jeongguk feels hurt. Not because he's jealous. But because, for a second, Seokjin looks at him like he doesn't really trust him or even like he's afraid of him. He smiles and shakes his head. "I can't do that, Jeongguk."
His head is starting to spin. "Look, I don't have a lot of time to explain it but you're in danger. Taehyung's in danger but I can help him, it's not too late to help him."
Seokjin nods. "Yeah. But I can't leave. Jimin, please go to my room and lock yourself in, be careful not to break the line of salt."
At the same time that Jimin does a double take, Jeongguk falters, and they both utter at the same time with equal confusion: "What?!"
"Jimin, please lock yourself in. Don't make me do it or when Taehyung gets back from this he's not gonna forgive me and I'll be damned if I'm not gonna be the best man. If you stay out here, he isn't gonna make it. Lock. Yourself. In."
Jimin looks between them again, looks back at Taehyung, and Jeongguk can see him running back to Taehyung but he doesn't. Wanting to keep Taehyung safe is important but feeling like he might, in some way, be responsible for him being unsafe is more pressing. Ultimately, Jimin heaves a sigh and storms off, locking himself in the bedroom. It isn't until they hear the door click that either of them speak and it's Jeongguk.
"You're a hunter."
"And you're an amateur."
Behind him, he starts to hear Taehyung -- or whatever it is that's in him -- start to groan something deep and inhuman. His head is spinning even more. The room is beginning to fade. Seokjin reaches out, lowers his voice to something so soft and so gentle, it sounds like a dream. "I am so sorry for what I'm about to do. It's gonna hurt like hell but it's better than the alternative."
Jeongguk staggers backward, a sharp pain stabbing his face when Seokjin punches him hard. He has a few seconds of cognizance before ultimately succumbing to the darkness and passing out.
It wasn't exactly fair to call Jeongguk an amateur when Seokjin himself hadn't even noticed his own brother was in the process of being fucking possessed until now. As he's chaining his brother up in the basement, locking him up next to an obsolete heater that no longer emits anything resembling warmth, he looks at the bruises on Taehyung's skin and wonders how it was that he missed the signs. Taehyung himself doesn't really know anything about the supernatural other than that he knows not to fuck with ouija boards or suspicious looking dolls so he can't be blamed.
But Seokjin has been hunting demons since he was seventeen. He should have known something was up but somehow, whatever it was that latched itself onto Taehyung kept a good cover. So good that Seokjin with over nine years of hunting on his belt didn't even realizes it. He makes sure the lock is tight before sprinkling a thick circle of salt around his body. When he's certain all is as okay as it can be in a situation of demonic possession, he turns to Jeongguk who he's also dragged down to the basement.
He knows the basement is no good. In fact, he's certain that it's the basement that's responsible for all of this. Or at least whatever was living in the basement. But he figures he can kill three birds with one stone.
Seokjin grabs a thick, black permanent marker from his back pocket and lifts up the sleeve of Jeongguk's shirt and pushing it up until there's a good amount of bare skin to work with. As he grips onto Jeongguk's elbow, biting the cap off of the marker, he notes the taut muscles beneath and he would shiver if circumstances would allow it. He starts drawing the symbol he's come to know so well on the side of Jeongguk's bicep, the one that wards off demons the best.
He clicks his tongue. "Jeonggukie...what are you doing hunting demons without proper protection?"
When he's done drawing the symbol, he turns around. Taehyung is still passed out and the demon inside of him is still adjusting. In the midst of trying to decide whether he should try writing the symbol somewhere on Taehyung's skin, he thinks about where he might have gone wrong. At seventeen, one of his friends had a run in with a skin walker and Seokjin, ignorant as hell and mostly copying things he'd heard done in urban legends, saved him by playing pretend. And maybe he shouldn't have because that's the thing about the paranormal: once you acknowledge it, it acknowledges you.
Taking care of one skin walker turned into taking care of multiple skin walkers which turned into vampires and turned into ghosts and turned into demons. By the time Seokjin was in college, he'd been actively searching for opportunities to clear the mortal realm from immortal entities no matter how much it would take. And now he's been doing it pretty much for free but he's slowed down. All the while, he managed to protect the ones he cared about and somewhere along the line he fucked up so bad he got his own brother possessed.
He shakes his head at no one but himself as he watches Taehyung's lifeless form. "Damn."
But Seokjin doesn't have a lot of time to mourn his own mistakes because after years of working he's built up a sixth sense and he can tell when he isn't alone. He springs up in the nick of time, just as a bat swings into empty air. Seokjin whips around at Jeongguk who's gripping the bat tight and looking like he's half lost his mind. "What the fuck, Jeongguk?!"
"You hit me!" He pants, still holding the bat. "I love you and you hit me!"
Seokjin can't help but twist up his face, mostly confused and partly -- a very small, tiny, minuscule part because this is a very serious situation -- amused. "What?"
"What?" Jeongguk blinks. He drops his bat. "I didn't say anything."
"You fucki--Jeongguk, I had to do that for your own safety."
"Right because parents have to punch their kids in order to keep them safe because that makes absolute sense," Jeongguk flails up his arms as he says this, his right eye now swollen and a little pink.
"I'm not your parent."
"I don't...Hyung, why'd you hit me? Why are you hunting? What the fuck is happening?"
Seokjin brings both hands down on Jeongguk's shoulders and leans close. "Breathe with me. Okay? Calm down...Taehyung told me when he met you for coffee and he mentioned the bruises. He said you looked like you started the first fight club--"
"Oh," Jeongguk croons. "That's what I thought."
"--and I got worried. So I called you that day to check up on you, I didn't need a plumber. I fucked up the sink myself because I wanted you to stay."
"Because...when I called you, there was someone else with you."
"No, there wasn't."
"Yes, there was. I could hear everything you said like normal but there was someone else breathing like a haggard old man. Just breathing. It wasn't you, I mean I know you've grown up but goddamn."
Jeongguk begins to look beyond uneasy, his forehead creasing and his nose wrinkling like it used to when he was a kid and he got afraid of thunderstorms. So Seokjin says the next thing as slowly as he can, speaking in the voice he uses when he's trying to help spirits pass on:
"Jeongguk...when you first came to the door, I saw it. It latched itself onto you, it was right behind you. Right on your back. I wanted you to stay because I wanted to get rid of it."
"Did you come across a poltergeist recently?"
"I got rid of one," Jeongguk corrects. "I...I got rid of it."
Seokjin blinks at him like he just said he used a water gun. "What?"
"Burning sage! I, like, stabbed it with sage and it went away."
"Who the fuck taught you how to get rid of poltergeists?"
"Is there something wrong with how I do it?" Jeongguk puffs up his chest. "It's worked before."
Seokjin stares at him. "...your customers are gonna start calling you for refunds because all sage does is hold them off. The one you think you got rid of must have attached itself to you. But it's okay. It can't get in you, not right now. I marked you up with this but, Jeongguk, you have to get a real one soon."
Seokjin lifts up the edge of his shirt, pulling up and showing the side of his stomach. Too long, Jeongguk just stares at the skin with an open mouth instead of focusing on the tattoo low on Seokjin's stomach, high on his hip. "You can't be hunting demons without proper protection, that's like catching baseballs without a glove."
Jeongguk looks at his arm then, admiring the intricate design. He looks back at Seokjin. "You did that for me?"
"Of course, I did."
"Wow," Jeongguk breathes out.
"...because you would have, like, died otherwise."
"I know," he says in a murmured breeze. He stares into Seokjin's eyes and starts bowing closer. Closer. His eyes flutter shut as he tilts his head up.
Seokjin looks away. "Jeongguk, this is neither the time nor place."
Jeongguk's eyes widen abruptly and he lurches backward like he's just realized he's allergic to Seokjin's lips. He scoffs. "I know that."
Before Seokjin argue that he didn't and that he knows damn well Jeongguk was going in for a kiss, a loud groan tears into the room and the both of them turn to the cold heater. Taehyung is awake now. At least a part of him is. And he's sporting a toothy smile, his black eyes glimmering under the overhead light. He laughs, a deep and disembodied sound.
"You were expecting me, I see."
Seokjin rolls his eyes. "I really don't have time for this small talk, guy. You're in my little brother, that's a little annoying."
'Taehyung' ' eyebrows furrow. "Why do you assume I'm a guy?"
Seokjin's eyes widen a little. "Oh, I'm sorry."
"Yeah," Jeongguk agrees quietly. "That was a little sexist, hyung."
The possessed Taehyung nods, black eyes looking disappointed as he shakes his head. "I mean, come on, this is the 21st century."
"I didn't mean it," Seokjin sighs. "I'm sorry, okay? I'm sorry," he looks at Jeongguk and lowers his voice. "Do you, at least, know how to perform an exorcism?"
'Taehyung' scoffs. "Don't you know I can hear you? Like I'm a supernatural being, I can hear everything."
At the same time that Jeongguk whines "can you shut the fuck up?", Seokjin throws his head back and groans out a disgruntled: "Then you know we're not inviting you to tea, fuck off."
Jeongguk nods when the demon entertains itself by drumming Taehyung's feet against the floor, looking up at the ceiling and humming a bluesy version of 'Sympathy for the Devil.' "Of course, I know how to exorcise."
"I mean without sage."
Jeongguk nods again, less convincing, and hums an awkward, high pitched agreeing tone. "Mhmm, sure."
"I can do it!"
"Let him do it," Demon Taehyung calls out with a curt nod. "Kid seems like he knows what he's doing, I trust him. Hurry up and get this over with, I'm hungry."
That gets Jeongguk's interest. He tilts his head in Taehyung's direction. "You eat?"
"Of course, I do."
"Souls mostly," Demon huffs. "I like human ones the best."
"Unfortunately, there aren't any human souls to feed on in this realm but if you're patient, we could send you right back to hell where you belong and where there are more than enough souls to feed on for eternity."
On Jeongguk's left, Seokjin tilts his head and stares at him, mouth parted, eyebrows bunched up. Jeongguk explains:
"You have to remove yourself from the equation and make the customer feel like their problem is important enough for the whole store to take care of it."
Seokjin blinks at him. "Jeongguk, this is a demon."
Jeongguk holds his hands up in defense. "I don't know what you want me to do here."
"Oh, boy," Seokjin walks close to the demon and kneels down on his side. "Traditional exorcism, it is then."
"Oh, cool, you're a Christian."
"...I don't understand how you've made it this long and you're still alive."
Demon nods. "He is pretty charismatic, I'll give him that."
Jeongguk smiles, a small blush barely flaring up against his cheeks. "Thank you, Sir, Madam, or any variation thereof."
Seokjin flails. "Okay, this is my little brother and yeah he can be bit much to deal with sometimes but I'm not really up for his body being used to house a demon who has nothing better to do with Its time. It'd be really appreciate it if at least one of you, preferably the human, would take this seriously."
"You're right," Jeongguk makes a cross with his index fingers. "The power of Christ compels you!"
As Seokjin goes through the duffle bag he had set against the wall closest to the door, without sparing Jeongguk a single glance, he replies: "Also I'd like it if at least one of you, preferably the human, sat back and learned."
"Yes, sir," Jeongguk immediately swoops down and sits on the carpet with his legs crossed. Seokjin turns around for a brief moment after he's sat, watching Jeongguk with an unreadable expression. "What?"
Demon yawns. "He's thinking that he'd like you to call him that during sex."
While Jeongguk's expression brightens and his voice goes up a pitch as he sing-songs a pleased "Whaaaat?", Seokjin goes back and forth with a chorus of 'Am not!' and 'Are too!' The thing is that Seokjin has had his fair share of exorcising demons and he knows how to do it. He even knows that the possession they're experiencing isn't that big of a deal. Of course, he now needs to sit his brother down and have a conversation with him about these kind of things. And he really has to take all of them down to the tattoo parlor for the proper signage. But ultimately, this exorcism isn't something he can't handle and he's been preparing for it for weeks.
Since he came to this house, he knew there was something sinister living in it, something thriving in the walls and tainting every single breeze block and wood panel used to construct it. That's not only his skill as a hunter but the skill of someone with his lineage, a genetic disposition if you will. He'd already adorned each wall of the house with the celtic shields to ward off any more demons from coming in and now all he has to do is get the three in here out.
He opens the leather-bound book he got a few years back and goes straight to the page he uses the most, arming his free hand with a bottle full of holy water that he christened himself (so, he's half certain that it's mostly ineffective but he goes along with it). He looks at Jeongguk. "You know there's plenty of ways of doing an exorcism, right? Not every single one needs a bible verse."
Jeongguk hums. "But they do need holy water, right? So it's basically the same."
The demon laughs heartily. "I really like this kid, absolutely nothing gets past him."
"I feel like that was an insult."
Without even looking in the demon's direction, not even sparing a glance to the bottle in his hand, Seokjin douses the demon with holy water with his eyes still on Jeongguk's. "It was."
As the demon sputters and whines, steam blowing off Taehyung's skin and making black eyes go wide, Jeongguk shakes his head in disbelief. "How are you real?"
Through excruciating pain and groan of utter discomfort, the demon explains as best as it can: "Well, in the beginning of time--"
"Sorry," Jeongguk holds up a hand. "I meant the," he nods in Seokjin's direction. "The human exorcising you."
"Oh. My mistake."
To lend a helping hand, Jeongguk reaches into his pocket and throws a handful of salt in Taehyung's face, his own eyes still on Seokjin's in immense adoration. "I mean...I never figured you for a hunter. In any capacity."
"I know," Seokjin shrugs. "No one really figures me for much of anything than the star of a wet dream."
"I didn't mean it like that."
"I know you didn't. Believe me. You know that's part of the reason I've always liked you so much."
"You like me?"
Looking down at his book, Seokjin clicks his tongue. "Not the time."
Instead of waiting for a response, he immediately starts reading verses in Latin with expert pronunciation as he has for the past nine years. He speaks in a rather gentle voice with a furrowed brow kind of like he's reading about a chemistry experiment and is trying to guess the outcome. Every so often, he tilts his head and nods an agreement. A casual reading if not for the screams of agony coming from deep within Taehyung's body.
Jeongguk watches, cupping his hands against his cheeks. He waves a hand in the demon's direction, shushing it. "It's getting good."
Seokjin finishes the recitation and closes the book. Stillness passes in the room with the demon grunting and panting before it rolls its head in Seokjin's direction and shouts out in a screech too inhuman to be Taehyung's: "Fuck you!"
Seokjin releases a bored sigh. "Get in line, pal."
He reaches out and slams his hand against the wall, hitting an insignia that Jeongguk hadn't noticed, one that Seokjin drew with his own blood. Once his hand comes up against the insignia, the entire room gets engulfed in a blinding flash of white and the agonizing screams of the demon fade into obscurity. When the light fades properly and everyone's eyes adjust to the natural light, they both immediately glance at Taehyung's body. He's still slumped over and unconscious but Seokjin makes a pleased noise in the back of his throat.
"Now, that that's done..."
"You just banish them like that?"
"Yeah, well,it's better than walking around with a demon latched to your back."
Jeongguk licks his lips. "Hyung...I don't...I've been able to see demons all my life."
Seokjin nods again. "I had an idea that that was the case."
"So...If there was a demon latching itself onto me for the last two weeks, I would have seen it. I would have smelt it, I'm...I'm susceptible to that."
"I'm going to ask you a question and I want you to answer honestly: do you live alone and do you carry sage around with you?"
"Yes. And yes."
"And the sage you were holding onto when you thought you got rid of that poltergeist...was it still in your hand after it disappeared?"
Seokjin shakes his head. He crosses the room, stepping over Taehyung's legs, and settling right in front of Jeongguk. "You didn't get rid of it. You gave it a mask. It latched itself onto you and you didn't even notice because of it."
Jeongguk closes his eyes, disbelief radiating all over his body but a willingness to trust Seokjin striking him with a case of cognitive dissonance. "Hyung, I think what you just did is super cool but you're badmouthing pineapple sage and I won't have it. It smells great and it tastes really good when you put it in soup."
"You really shouldn't be eating -- ugh, you need help."
They both laugh quietly. Jeongguk looks down and nibbles on his bottom lip a little. Seokjin can't help but think of the morning of Jeongguk's eighteenth birthday when he came by the Kim house like always and, when no one was looking, snuck a kiss from Seokjin right before Taehyung called him down for the ice cream cake. He can't help but reach out and brush some of Jeongguk's hair back. "You haven't changed a bit."
"Oh, fuck off, I have."
"On the outside maybe. Partially. But, look at you."
"You've got earnest written all over you," Seokjin chuckles. "You're still as cute as you used to be."
Jeongguk smiles again, looking up properly to meet Seokjin's eyes. He tilts his head up. "Please tell me now is the right time."
Though Seokjin doesn't lean forward, he does flutter his eyes closed and await the warm sensation of Jeongguk's lips against his. Except what happens is that Jeongguk screams in pain and doubles over, head butting Seokjin's stomach and cursing out every obscenity. When Seokjin opens his eyes it's to the sight of an arrow shot into Jeongguk's calf and him writhing on the floor. He looks up.
Jimin is still posed in the proper stance, still holding onto Taehyung's old bow from archery camp. He looks panicked but protective.
"Jimin, what the fuck?"
"I dipped the tip in salt water, just in case. Isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
"Not to humans."
"Oh, shit. My bad, Jeongguk."
After Seokjin has taken Jeongguk to the local doctor and his wound is sanitized and patched up (Jimin apologized a million times until Taehyung woke up to all the commotion and proceeded to curse everyone out until he got answers for why he was chained up to a heater), the two of them are in the car on their way back to the house when Jeongguk stirs.
He'd been drugged up a little and though the effect wasn't strong, it had been making him more pliant than normal (which Seokjin was one hundred and fifteen percent okay with). "Hyung..."
"I was wondering...why didn't you notice the demon before it got into Taehyung when he was living with you? But you noticed the demon on me when we were miles apart?"
Seokjin scratches the side of his neck. "I was only focused on the one in the house and the one latched to you. Both were so distracting, I guess, I just didn't realize there was a third one latched to him."
Jeongguk hums. "...you said you saw the demon attached to me when I came by. Other people can't see it so, I dunno, do you have abilities like me?"
Seokjin holds back a smile. "No."
"Technically, Taehyung and I are only half brothers. I have a different biological father."
"So," Seokjin glances at him for a long moment, eyes going unnaturally dark and burning before boring his sights back on the road ahead. "My biological father was a half demon."