The jungle is dark and menacing at night.
Sweat pastes Namjoon’s hair to his temples as he battles his way through the undergrowth, trying to struggle through the fern fronds and fallen tree trunks as quietly as possible. He shouldn’t be here. Nothing human belongs in jungle this impenetrable. Why did he think it would be a good idea to come to the fence when it was dark?
He succeeds in extricating his foot from a mossy tangle of weeds right before a wooden, leering face looms in front of him. He screams silently, flinching back, terror leaping in him like a spark from flint. It’s over. He’s done for. If it isn’t one of the council’s guards on patrol, it’s a jungle monster coming to eat him and tear him to pieces.
But after a silent, tense minute of his heart thudding crazily out from his chest, he cracks a cautious eye open. The face hasn’t moved. Frowning and against his better judgment, he steps closer for further inspection and feels foolish when he realizes that it’s just a knot in a tree trunk, the warped whorls of the bark somewhat resembling a face.
He exhales a frustrated breath. He doesn’t have time to be spooked by trees. Clouds pass over the moon, causing the little illumination which makes it through the thick canopy to alternatively suffocate and strengthen. The strobing of the weak moonlight creates shadows which flit over the roots and fallen leaves. If he looks at any of the shadows right, even the most innocent and formless, the patch of darkness unfailingly resolves itself into a monster.
He pushes aside his misgivings and forces his way onward. The bedtime stories villagers tell their children to scare them into obeying their parents have obviously burrowed too deep into his mind to easily shake. But he’s an adult. Adults make their own rules, and he is fed up of following the whims and fears of the council.
Don’t go into the jungle. It’s the villagers’ oldest rule, and their most unspoken one, because it’s common sense. Monsters lurk in the jungle. If monsters don’t exist, very real and very existential wild animals lurk in the jungle. But Namjoon suspects a different reason the rule is in place—a wild, untameable swath of tangled swamp and trees cuts right between the male side of the village and the central fence, barring them from any contact with women whatsoever. It’s an easy excuse to pass off and prevent contact between the different sexes.
Well, Namjoon is tired of the backward rules. He hasn’t seen a woman in ages. He doesn’t understand why men and women have to be so rigorously segregated—women make good friends. Women are sensible, nothing like the shallow, flighty, superficial men of the village whom Namjoon can’t stand. Namjoon likes being among females, because the moment a girl walks into the room, everything begins making a little more sense.
He’s jerked from his rebellious thoughts by a peculiar shadow in his periphery. He comes to a stop right where he is, fear suddenly piercing his system again. He watches it more closely. Surely it’s just the moonlight playing tricks on him. The shadow stands completely still, and if you look at it the right way, it could just be a human silhouette—but every other shadow looks like a human silhouette if you stare at it, doesn’t it?
Namjoon shakes his head and continues on. He’s becoming just like the other men: jumpy, terrified, startling and shrieking at the slightest sound. He needs to find his core of steel. He needs to woman up, however sacrilegious the action may be.
But doubt eats away at the edge of his mind when he thinks he sees the shadow move. He pauses again and dubiously looks up at the sky. Clouds completely obscure the moon, a barely visible grey blanket thrown over the only spot of illumination in the night sky. Silvery rays no longer shift through the jungle. There is no trick of light in existence which could have occurred and shifted the shadow.
Namjoon’s fear returns, pounding shaking fists against the inside of his ribcage. But he shakes his head and continues on, turning away from the shadow. It’s nothing. It’s stupid.
A moment later, he spots the shadow again, directly in front of him. It definitely has a head and shoulders. He thinks he can even see the folds of a hood. His fear morphs directly into panic. He turned. He definitely did. This shadow is the same one he saw before he switched direction, he’s sure of it. Shadows don’t follow you around and conveniently materialize in your line of vision.
He gulps, taking a faltering step back. To his utter terror, the shadow definitely moves this time: it takes a step towards him.
Namjoon takes another shaky, unstable step back, his boot landing directly in a muddy puddle. The loud splash rings through the jungle and bounces off the branches and trunks. The figure starts walking purposefully towards him, rapidly approaching, and it lifts clawed hands to push back a black hood, and it’s coming so close that Namjoon can almost see its face and Namjoon can’t breathe or move because he’s so goddamn scared—
The figure looms above him. It has broad shoulders, and it’s tall, taller than Namjoon. Recognition abruptly penetrates his dull, terrified mind. Bahu. The man-monster who walks the woods at night, the one with shoulders as broad as the Straits of Malacca and legs as long as a sampan, preying on foolish jungle-trekkers so it can eat their tongues and rip out their hearts and burn their skulls black to hang on vines around its hut—
“Hello!” the figure chirps.
Namjoon squeaks in terror. Bahu talks. Bahu has a nasal voice, rounded at the edges, and the only reason it sounds so smooth is probably because of all the tongues it’s consumed. Namjoon clutches at his heart. He doesn’t want to die. He doesn’t want to die.
A beat of silence, filled by the deafening chirp of insects and the muggy drone of cicadas: the best kind of soundlessness the jungle can manage. Sweat beads on Namjoon’s forehead, sliding down his cheek and dripping off his chin. He wishes Bahu would get it over with and kill him. The waiting is torture. Fear surges through his veins with every pump of his short-lived heart, but it’s diluted by the fact that if Namjoon didn’t know better, he’d think that the figure standing in front of him seems confused.
“Do you talk?” Bahu asks eventually.
“Don’t kill me,” Namjoon squawks. He stumbles back and trips over a tree root, beginning to fall. Bahu reaches out and steadies him, gripping his arm gently but firmly until he regains his footing, then withdraws its horrifyingly, atrociously—
—perfectly normal hand.
Now Namjoon is confused. All the myths state that Bahu has claws, he’s sure of it. How is Bahu supposed to tear out hearts and tongues with clipped, clean, fingernails?
“Why would I want to kill you?” Bahu asks in a reasonable voice. “There are far better, more edible things this jungle yields than nighttime wanderers. Chickens, sometimes. Birds. Not to mention all the completely organic and exceedingly healthy vegetation.”
“The bananas just a few minutes away from here in a seaward direction are very delectable, in my opinion. You just need to be smart and pick them at the right time.” Bahu lifts a well-groomed hand and taps a temple hidden within the depths of the shadows which cloak its face. “Too many people dismiss the bananas which grow in this jungle as tasteless and unripe, you know? But kelat only means you’re being impatient. You just need to wait a little longer.”
Bahu…is apparently a fervent banana enthusiast in its time not spent eating idiotic villagers.
“The mangoes aren’t very good, though,” Bahu continues. “It’s too muggy here. They get worms as soon as they ripen. Don’t even bother with the mangoes. But the coconuts are very good, if you’re willing to walk past the banana groves to the beach.”
“But—but—” Namjoon stutters, unable to hold back and listen to talk of jungle fruits any longer.
Bahu waits patiently. “Hmm?”
“You’re Bahu,” he whispers, voice low and horrified. “Aren’t you going to kill me?”
Bahu goes still for a moment. Namjoon is absurdly terrified that he’s offended it. Do monsters get offended? “Bahu?” Bahu asks, as if it doesn’t know its own name.
“Yes! You! You’re Bahu!”
It appears to think for a while.“So that’s who Bahu is,” it says eventually. “It’s me. Huh. I always wondered what the villagers were talking about when they mentioned a jungle monster. I would’ve run into it if it really existed.”
“You’re not Bahu?” Namjoon says in a strangled shriek. It must be an even worse monster, then. This monster probably flays the skin off its victims before slow-roasting them over a fire. And then uses the corpse to fertilize its beloved jungle fruits.
A surprisingly cheerful, indulgent laugh. “I guess I am,” Bahu says. “But I’m whatever you’d like to call me too. Everyone is.”
Great. It speaks in riddles too. “Well,” Namjoon quavers, deciding this is a good time to make his getaway, “if—if—if you don’t want anything to do with me, then I’ll just be on my way—”
“You’re headed in the wrong direction,” Bahu says pleasantly.
“The fence is that way.” Bahu points to Namjoon’s left. “You were on the right path at first, but then you turned, I assume to get away from me, and became misled.”
Namjoon splutters. “H-how did you know I was on the way to the fence?”
“You’re the only villager stupid enough to venture into the jungle at night,” Bahu says rationally. “I’ve seen you here many times, always heading for the fence. And when I didn’t see you, the jungle did.”
Bahu is beginning to creep him out. The jungle isn’t sentient. It doesn’t have eyes. He opens his mouth to say something, but Bahu isn’t finished.
“By the way, I wouldn’t advise you to take more than one warna flower at a time,” he adds. “The effects one flower produces are quite pleasant, but I’m afraid that ingesting more than one can lead to quite serious hallucinations. The council forbade warna for a reason, you know. A man drowned himself when he consumed too much. If I’m not mistaken, he was hallucinating so vividly that he wasn’t aware he had walked right into a swamp.”
He knows what Namjoon’s going to the fence to collect too?
Bahu looks up. “The moon is quite low already,” it says. “I must get going. The lunar blooms aren’t going to pick themselves, and I would really rather not be forced to pick wilted ones.”
The monster is quite definitely mad.
“Onward in that direction,” Bahu says, pointing again. “In a few minutes, you’ll reach the fence. And you know how to come back.”
Bahu draws the hood up over its head again. It turns, a swish of black cloth obscuring its body, and slips between the trees. In a matter of seconds, it’s gone.
Namjoon stands in the middle of the jungle, alone. He just encountered Bahu. He just encountered Bahu, and he survived.
And it was one of the strangest experiences he’s ever had to undergo.
He shakes his head like a dog ridding its muzzle of moisture. Maybe it was just a dream. Maybe he’s just sleepy and dropped off without realizing while still walking, and he zoned out and imagined the whole thing.
He looks around fearfully and forges forward through the jungle. Even though it was probably a nightmare, he remembers Bahu’s advice and turns left.
A girl is leaning against the fence waiting for him when, true to Bahu’s word, he reaches it in a few minutes.
She looks impatient. One hand is tucked behind her back, closed into a fist. “What took you so long?” she asks, pushing off the fence. She isn’t the normal girl, and neither of them have met before. “I’ve been waiting here for ages.”
“Sorry,” Namjoon mutters, digging in his pocket for the coins. “I ran into Bahu.”
The girl stares at him blankly. “Who?”
He remembers too late that the female side of the village has different mythology. Most of the folklore Namjoon knows is utterly unfamiliar to the women. “Uh, no one.”
She sighs and rolls her eyes, pushing her hand through the fence. “Hand the coins over.”
Namjoon frowns. “What? Isn’t it regulation to give the goods first?”
“New rule. Money has to be given first.”
He hasn’t heard of this new rule. But then again, he doesn’t know anyone else who knows about the illegal border trade between the two sides of the village, and there wouldn’t be anyone to tell him about the rule if it really existed. Even if he did know someone who knows, it would not be wise at all to talk about it.
He isn’t quite sure how the illicit trade system works at all. Who founded it? Who runs it? Who makes the rules? All he knows is that if you want something from the women’s side of the village which can’t be begotten from the men’s, you go the well and stack stones to ask for it. Two stones for warna. Three stones for cloth. Four stones for rice. Five stones for a special request which will take two meetings at the fence to fulfil: one to ask for it, and another to collect it if it’s available. Once the stones are stacked, you go to the section of the fence next to the river on days when the moon is full to collect and pay for the goods. There are no rules, to Namjoon’s knowledge, other than pass the goods before the money and keep your mouth shut.
The system works because the villagers believe the stones are stacked by spirits, and the cairns are always carefully avoided and hurriedly repaired if damaged. Namjoon never fails to finds it amusing whenever he sees a villager accidentally knock over a cairn, hastily stacking it again with shaking hands and counting the stones meticulously to make sure the number remained the same while muttering prayers for forgiveness. They help Namjoon and the other people in the peculiar order break their own laws.
Warna only grows on the women’s side of the village. It’s forbidden for everyone by both councils, male and female, because it’s a pretty damn potent drug, but the women are crafty and willing suppliers of it at the right price. Men make cloth, but they never get it right—cloth made by male hands is always of poor quality, unravelling and losing its color after a month. Like cloth, rice farmed by the male side of the village is terrible and unappetizing: coarse and dry and tasteless.
Namjoon learned the secret of the trade system when he visited the village penitentiary once. People get put in the penitentiary for any infraction for varying time spans. His friend was in there for stealing from a fruit stall. He was getting out in a week, but Namjoon was visiting him to keep his spirits up.
There was a man in the cell next to him, however: emaciated and wild-eyed, hair in long, frizzy, tangled mats around his face. His sign said that he was due for hanging the next day. He beckoned Namjoon over frantically, and though Namjoon knew it was a bad decision, he went and asked the man what he wanted. Dry, cracked lips positioned against Namjoon’s ear, spoken in a quiet, urgent, raspy voice, the prisoner passed the secret of the border trade system onto him. To this day, Namjoon still wonders why the prisoner decided he wouldn’t just report it to the council and bring the whole arrangement crashing down.
The prisoner was right, however, and now Namjoon gets to enjoy blissful nights tinted with the euphoria brought about by warna. Everyone needs to let loose once in awhile, right? Personally, he thinks the council should legalize warna and put into place rules regulating its consumption. Warna is harmless if the right amount is taken, but fatal if too much makes its way into the body. He’s sure people would be more willing to follow the rules and keep themselves safe if the council followed his plan. The only reason warna is dangerous now is because people are uneducated about it, only told that they shouldn’t take it, and, unaware about the limit to its consumption, when they get around the rules and obtain warna they suffer the consequences.
But Namjoon isn’t stupid. He knows the consequences. Warna is always traded one flower at a time, and he only ever grinds a petal, two petals at most, into the distinctive purple powder it produces before mixing it into water and drinking the fragrant tea. He never consumes more than that in one sitting, and he’s never experienced any bad side effects. For the next hour or two, he floats in drug-induced ecstasy.
He reflects on all this as the girl taps her foot impatiently. It’s sometimes a different trader, but not often: he wonders what happened to the last one, a bright, cheery girl named Siti. This one’s unfamiliar, with straight hair instead of Siti’s bouncy curls, thin, pursed lips, and a pinched, hollow-cheeked face. Her eyes are filled with a silent threat. Understandable, of course: both of them are taking an enormous risk by being here and interacting. If they were caught, it would be death by hanging without a trial.
He makes his decision. If he doesn’t hand over the money, the girl could report him. There’s nothing suspicious about her being here—the women’s side of the fence is abutted by crop fields, and she could say that she was farming, although of course it would be suspicious that she’s farming in the dead of night. Whereas Namjoon? He has no good reason to have struggled through a mile of forest to the fence except illegal ones.
“Fine,” he says tersely, pushing the coins through the hole in the fence. They drop into her waiting palm. Her hand closes over it greedily.
She brings her other hand out from behind her back. A single flower is clutched between her fingers. But it isn’t as healthy or fresh as the other ones Namjoon’s seen—the petals droop, and it seems wilted. Black veins branch out over the faded, usually pristine purple underside from the stalk.
“Wait a minute,” Namjoon says, frowning. Now he knows why the girl asked for the money first. “This one doesn’t look right. Look at those black lines.”
The girl looks uncomfortable. “Warna isn’t growing too well on our side. It’s been raining a lot this past week. They can’t grow in soil that’s too damp.” She thrusts the flower more insistently through the hole in the fence. Its large, washed-out purple petals flop listlessly. “Do you want it or not?”
Namjoon sighs. “Fine.” He reaches out a hand and takes it from her. Their fingertips touch. Her hand is sweaty, clammy. “I really hope there won’t be any bad effects because it’s wilted like this.”
“That’s a gamble everyone plays when they take warna. There’s no cho—”
Namjoon looks up from his inspection of the peculiar black veins. The girl is staring at the hand which touched him with a horrified expression on her face.
“Are you alright?” Namjoon asks.
She lifts her hand slowly. At first, he can’t make it out, but then a ray of moonlight falls right over them, highlighting the abnormality. A bruise spreads across each of her fingertips, violently black and blue, sprawling across all the places she touched Namjoon. The color seems livid in the silvery illumination. Moonlight usually gentles and softens. But the blow of this—the implications of it—cannot be gentled or softened by anything.
Namjoon’s heart stops. He raises his hand and turns it slowly, fingers trembling. When he sees it, he closes his eyes. Oh, God. Oh, God. An identical bruise stretches across his own digits, highlighted stark and condemning by the moonlight. The color of their skin matches the warna flower exactly. Black and purple have never been as damning a color as now.
The flower drops to the ground, forgotten. The girl takes a stumbling step back from the fence and scrubs frantically at the bruise, as if she could erase it, expunge it. It refuses to come off.
Of course it does. Blood vessels ruptured by fate would not disappear under the ministrations of mere skin.
Namjoon struggles to regain sensibility, even as the marks of their crime blare large as life and accusing on their hands. “We have to—to wear gloves,” he whispers. He is suddenly terrified. The moon is a spotlight for anyone to find them. The trees have ears, hunching in wait and biding their time before they can report Namjoon and the girl back to the council. “We have to hide this in any way we can—”
“What am I going to do?” the girl wheezes, taking fast, panicked breaths through her nose. “What am I going to do?”
“Calm down,” Namjoon says urgently. “If we hide this, the bruises will fade. No one will make the connection.”
“I shouldn’t have done this,” the girl mutters frantically to herself. “I knew there were risks, why did I take them—”
“There’s no undoing this now. I—” Namjoon’s eyes drift beyond the girl’s shoulder. A light switches on in a distant hut, the sound of voices drifting faintly over. Noise carries on windless nights like this one. What if their exchange has been heard? What if people already know? “We have to go. Hurry. Run back to your house. Cover up. Pretend you’ve been burned and start wearing gloves, or—or make a show of hitting your hand against something to reason away the bruise. Do anything it takes to hide this, you understand?”
The girl nods. Her eyes are large and panicked. There’s no time to waste. Without another word, Namjoon turns and flees, stumbling and running along the riverbank. His house is built right on the river. He always follows the river to get back home. It can’t be followed to get to the fence because he has to enter the jungle from elsewhere—guards patrol the place where the river winds into the jungle, and they only go off to sleep after border trades take place.
The fear spurs him on, nipping at his heels, clouding his judgment with blazingly insistent terror. Namjoon gives up silence for speed and runs as fast as he can, crashing through the thick plants. From between the shadowy tree trunks, Bahu watches with interest, chewing thoughtfully on a banana.
The morning is hot, lazy. The air is muggy and still in Namjoon’s wooden house, standing on tall stilts. Distantly, a baby cries while Namjoon wipes the constant, ever-present moisture of sweat from his forehead, lifting his damp sarong away from his skin. He shifts and winces in mingled disgust and resignation when his thighs come off the sticky wooden floor and leave twin patches of sweat behind.
He shifts away from the damp, warm patch of floor and shuffles to a cooler one. Remembering the task at hand, he stares at the book open on the floor in front of him with renewed effort. His lips move slowly as he struggles to shape the sounds correctly. He’s trying to teach himself to read. Most of the villagers can read Jawi: Arabic letters, the script of the Qur’an. But Namjoon has no need to know Jawi because he isn’t Muslim—yet another different thing about him which the villagers resent. As if being Korean wasn’t enough.
He hates this place. He hates it with a passion. Maybe it was an act of kindness that the villagers rescued him from the shipwreck and took him in, giving him to the council to raise before he got old enough and was allowed to build his own house and live alone as an adult. Maybe it was a miracle that he wasn’t left to die: a wailing, foreign baby abandoned on the gritty sand while the waves washed over him and slowly pulled him towards the ocean to drown.
But however inspirational and uplifting his very existence, it doesn’t make him like the place. Malaysia is a land of untamable jungle and primitive villages, and Namjoon has never felt at home in either. Wherever he goes, he draws hostile, suspicious looks because anyone can tell from a glance that he’s foreign, not one of them, bound from birth by the curse of being Korean. He has no friends. He clings to the very bottom of the social ladder. When he buys things, sellers always give him a higher price.
It’s everywhere he goes, the unthinkingly cruel racism, ingrained after years and years of the villagers only ever seeing faces like their own around their village. It’s hidden in every nook and cranny in places one would never think to look, and every week someone finds a new way to make him feel like an outsider, and Namjoon gets just a little bit wearier.
As far as he knows, none of the villagers can read anything besides Jawi. That’s why none of them ever leave the village. They are content, anyway, happy to be stifled and suffocated by the heat and the close-mindedness and the village which never changes: generation after generation planting the same crops and teaching the same things and living the same lives and dying the same deaths.
Namjoon is convinced that knowing how to read is his only way out. He works wherever he can find a job, and he saves the money he earns, spending as little as possible. On any day when he felt like it, which is every day, he could take a sampan and row along the coast until he reached a place where he could buy a boat ticket. And from there—he could go out into the world. He’s heard of the large cities. He hungers for them, hungers to live in a place where everyone has someplace to go and something to do, where change is so whirling and frequent that the entire city is a hive of chaos. He would love a place like that. At night, sweat dripping down his spine, tossing and turning as he struggles to sleep in the pervasive heat, he lulls himself to slumber by dreaming of a city of gleaming metal and glass, where the air is always cool and the people welcome outsiders with open arms. Where, perhaps, everyone is an outsider: a myriad of colors and a flurry of different tongues, all rising above the vehicles and paved roads and mingling into a single harmony of belonging.
He yearns to belong. Oh, how he yearns to belong.
Or he could do all that—if only he would be able to survive in the outside world.
Much as he hates Malaysia, he is as helplessly rooted in it as an ant in quicksand. The country holds him in his clutches with how damned stupid his upbringing has made him. He can only speak Malay. He knows how to harvest paddy, build houses, start fires, but he does not know how to speak English: the language of the world, of modernity. He has never known any culture or land besides Malaysia, with its sweet kuih and stifling heat and torrential rains, and he worries that he has grown too used to it to ever leave.
He can’t even read. That, he has convinced himself, is the true hallmark of intelligence, the one thing which will set him apart from the noisy villagers with their small minds and prying eyes and wagging tongues: the ability to read. When he goes out into the world, on that far-off, beautiful day, no one will ever guess that he came from a tiny village stuck deep in the jungle. Not a single soul would be able to read the signs of Malaysian-ness pasted all over him. And why? Because everyone knows that villagers can’t read.
If only it weren’t so goddamn hard.
Indescribably frustrated, he snaps the book full of unfamiliar letters shut and flings it away from him. It skids across the wooden floor he cut, hewed, and polished himself. It’s too hot. It’s too bright. It’s too loud, the irritating clamor of the village—the brash cawing of Malay, the crying of babies, the crowing of the call to prayer—shattering his concentration into a million pieces. This entire godforsaken country and village is manufactured, designed, crafted to prevent anyone from ever being able to leave.
Namjoon drops his head into his hands. He is so tired of trying.
But he is also not a fool. After a minute of wallowing in self-pity, the sweat which collected at his hairline coating his fingers now, he looks up wearily. The book was expensive. It cost him a whole month’s pay of working in the blazingly sunny paddy fields, which gave him a painful, angrily red sunburn his paler skin is prone to but the tanned skin of the villagers seems immune to. He can’t afford to throw it across the room like that, not when he worked so back-breakingly hard to obtain it.
He sighs, crawling forward through the thick, humid air and reaching for the book. It landed beneath a window. When he straightens up into a kneel, hugging the slim volume to his chest before instantly regretting it as the pages soak in sweat, movement outside the window catches his eye.
Across the dirt road his house is built beside, a couple stands beneath a large angsana tree, holding hands and smiling at each other. One man’s lips bear the bruise, while the other wears his on his cheek. They look into each other’s eyes like there are slices of heaven to be found in them.
Namjoon supposes that they’re lucky. He was taught that every human being is created and then split in two. The two parts are sent into the world, and only destiny determines if the two lost and wandering halves ever find each other and reunite. Everyone else will be a bad fit; a flawed match compared to the blindingly perfect unison of soulmates.
You are incapable of falling in love with anyone besides your soulmate. It’s impossible, of course, to meld two different hearts together. Reflecting this principle, only soulmates can legally get married or form relationships.
But for the unlucky majority, fate extinguishes any chance they have at a relationship. Soulmates are always the same sex, the way all relationships should be as fervently enforced by the council, the way all lovers must be as preached by spiritual leaders. After all, the common reasoning goes, how could they be two halves of a whole if their physiologies are utterly different?
Consequently, heterophobia is alive and raging in the community. Only all-male pairs and all-female pairs bear the bruises where they first touched, the marks signifying them as fated lovers. Soulmates are never of a different sex, because in this village, men and women don’t mix.
Until Namjoon broke the rule and tromped through the forest for drugs, happily brushing his hand against a female’s and finding his soulmate.
While Namjoon has never quite swallowed the whole myth about soulmates being two halves of a whole and therefore always the same sex—it is just anatomically impossible to be split in two at creation and survive—he does believe soulmates will love each other at first sight, and he has no idea what sort of trick the universe was playing on him there. The girl quite clearly held a strong distaste for him. Namjoon doesn’t want to judge harshly, but he found her quite unpleasant as well. He would never imagine that his soulmate would be someone like that, much less a woman.
Soulmates are supposed to get along perfectly. Soulmates are supposed to fit together like two jigsaw pieces. Soulmates are supposed to walk the world by each other’s sides. With your soulmate, your life is supposed to become tenfold better, your fears are supposed to trickle away, your dreams are supposed to come to fruition. An instant attraction is supposed to spring up between you and your soulmate when you meet.
The girl is most definitely not someone whom any of that could be true for. Namjoon held out no hope of finding a soulmate except the hope that he would never find one. While a loveless lifetime would be cold and lonely, he has already grown used to being cold and lonely. And how is he supposed to escape if he’s leaving a picture-perfect relationship behind?
The night after he stumbled out of the forest with the bruise on his hand was terrible. He couldn’t sleep all night—he was so terrified of being caught, of being found. If someone was perceptive enough to realize their bruises matched, he’d be accused of two of the worst crimes a man can possibly be accused of: one, for coming in contact with a woman, and another, for being heterosexual.
Namjoon doesn’t even like girls.
But he respects women. He thinks the barriers the council puts in place between the different sexes should be removed. Women can’t be essential for the miracle of childbirth, the literal creation of new life, for nothing.
Who knows—maybe men and women are meant to be together, too. Maybe if the different sexes were allowed to mingle and come into contact, they’d discover that soulmates can be men and women just as well as men and men. What if the fence is all just a big hoax concocted by the council to prevent heterosexual soulmate pairings? He’s heard of man-woman soulmate pairs, but they were only ever told as cautionary tales by the elders: beware women, for they are evil and will mark you as their soulmate so you are unable to escape their wiles.
He’s sure the same tales are told about men in the women’s side of the village.
Namjoon sighs. Now he has to deal with the moral obligation of a soulmate as well as the constant terror of a man-woman pair being found out. Namjoon wears gloves to cover up the bruise now. He explained to suspicious employers that it’s a Korean tradition. For all he knows, it could be—he has no knowledge of his homeland’s culture whatsoever.
But he’s afraid the bruise will never fade. Soulmate-induced bruises usually fade a little while after the soulmates establish a relationship—the couple outside his window must have just found each other. He will never at any point in the future establish a relationship with the girl, nor does he entertain a shred of desire to. What if he has to bear the mark of this illegal, unfulfilled soulmate pairing forever?
A flood of despair overtakes him. He slumps to the floor, back sliding against the wooden wall. How is he going to deal with this? How will he make it through this alive, much less unscathed?
Why does every single calamity in the world have to befall him?
He closes his eyes.
Namjoon is so tired of living.
The fruit seller eyes his gloves suspiciously.
Namjoon inwardly sighs. He knows it’s coming. And sure enough: “What’s with the gloves, Namjoon?”
Everyone in the village knows his name. It would be heartwarming if they didn’t say it the way they do: distastefully, as if the Korean name is a slur, as if the foreign syllables taint their tongues just by resting on them. Namjoon is sure that they purposely mispronounce and warp his name in almost laughably absurd ways. The villagers’ Malaysian accents are thick, but nothing can distort ‘Namjoon’ into ‘Nebjum’ without the intervention of very human prejudice.
“Korean tradition,” Namjoon says shortly. He suppresses a wince. It will only make the villagers hate him more: this flaunting of his apparent native culture in a place which takes difference and turns it into something ugly.
The seller evaluates him, eyeing him up and down. “What do you want?” he asks grudgingly.
“Rambutans. Do you have any rambutans?”
The seller’s eyes narrow. Namjoon senses himself being measured and being found not up to par. “Not in season,” he says tersely.
Namjoon frowns. He can see a rattan basket of the vivid red fruits right behind the seller on the dirt ground, instantly recognizable hairs poking out through the holes in the weave. “Aren’t those rambutans?” he asks, pointing.
The seller kicks the basket behind him. “Rotten.”
“They look perfectly fine to me.”
Namjoon jerks his chin at the neighboring fruit stall. “That seller has ripe rambutans. Completely edible, too. They must be in season.”
“If you’d like to haggle with him for them,” the seller says, words clipped and short, “then you are welcome to.”
He leans around Namjoon and motions impatiently to the buyer in line behind him. The old man shoves forward, elbowing Namjoon aside with a bony arm, and Namjoon stumbles right into a puddle.
He looks down. His sarong has been soaked with muddy water up to the ankles. A little boy across the marketplace points at him and laughs, high, clear voice ringing through the marketplace, before his father yanks him away. But the father is smirking too.
Namjoon’s fists clench in his pockets. He even brought extra coins, anticipating the higher prices sellers charge him just for the foreign blood which runs in his veins. He didn’t expect it to be one of the extremely bad days, when he does something wrong, crosses a subtle social line which hasn’t been drawn for native Malays, and people don’t want to sell to him at all.
For a moment, he isn’t sure what to resent more: his nationality or the petty hate of the villagers.
Suddenly, a small commotion breaks out at the other end of the marketplace. The villagers, being Malaysians and being insufferably nosy—not necessarily related facts, although Namjoon sometimes suspects otherwise—crane their heads to look. Namjoon is the tallest in the village, another inherited boon and inavoidable landmark of his genes. He doesn’t have to strain to see over the heads of the marketplace crowd.
A man moves through the crowd gracefully, people parting to make way for him. He seems unaffected by the hostile glares directed his way. A basket dangles delicately from his arm. To Namjoon’s astonishment, he sees that the stranger is taller than even himself, impossibly long legs going on and on and ending in slender hips and a narrow waist—the same towering height as Bahu, if Bahu wasn’t a hallucination brought about by the chaotic terror of that night. Namjoon knows everyone in the village, by extension every human being for miles around, but he has never laid eyes on this man in his life.
Upon sight, one can tell instantly that the man is not Malay. His eyes are slanted, and his skin is pale, hair a brown color which can’t be natural to Asians. He could be from China or Japan, but something deep in Namjoon’s heart tells him that the man is Korean.
Another Korean. Smack in the middle of jungle-choked Malaysia.
What in the world is he doing here?
“Who’s that?” Namjoon mutters under his breath to himself.
He doesn’t expect the same old man who elbowed him aside earlier to shuffle towards him, newly-bought, exceedingly in-season rambutan clutched in his wrinkled hand. “It’s the witch,” he says in a ferocious whisper, eyes fixed on the stranger as he moves between stalls, bending over to peer at the wares. Namjoon realizes that, for the first time, a villager is willingly engaging in conversation with him, the two of them united by the mutual unfamiliarity of an outsider even stranger than Namjoon.
“What?” Namjoon asks, sure he’s heard the old man wrong.
“I said that he’s a witch, boy,” he says, the tiniest bit impatiently now. He points a slightly trembling finger, ignoring the rudeness of such a gesture. “A foreigner, too. Some ching-chong man.”
Namjoon takes a deep breath, counts to ten, and stores the ching chong insult away in the special room in his mind where he can lock the door and forget its contents.
“Aren’t witches female?” he asks. The stranger doesn’t wear normal clothes. His attire is painfully odd—trousers made out of black cotton and a peculiar white shirt with the sleeves cut off midway down the arm. The most formal men’s wear in Malaysian culture is baju melayu, a satin outfit consisting of long pants and a long-sleeved shirt occasionally paired with a sampin, which is an intricately patterned brocade sarong. But the whole spectacularly stifling ensemble is only worn on Raya, the celebration which marks the end of Ramadan, the fasting month. (Namjoon, not being Muslim and therefore not celebrating Raya, has never worn baju melayu.) Day-to-day clothes are generally agreed to be a cotton sarong, maybe a sleeveless wifebeater if one feels fancy. Trousers are never worn unless during festivals, most definitely not made out of cotton, most definitely not dyed black, and—and Namjoon doesn’t even know where to start with the shirt.
The man’s shoulders are the broadest he’s ever seen. The unorthodox shirt only emphasizes their width. It niggles at a memory, dislodging it from the trash heap of his brain— doesn’t he have the same silhouette as the Bahu hallucination? —but Namjoon shakes his head to dismiss such idiocy.
Is the man trying to be an outcast?
“Not this one,” the old man next to him hisses. “He lives in the forest. The council exiled him there so his black magic wouldn’t harm the people. At night he does rituals and carves the hearts out of animals.”
Namjoon is dubious about that last part. The man looks far too delicate, too tidy and put-together, to get his hands dirty with animal blood.
The man looks over his shoulder into the distance, face turning towards Namjoon. Namjoon feels his world abruptly tilt on its axis, his knees going the tiniest bit weak. This close up, he can see that the man is beautiful.
The man looks down at the ground and licks plump lips, small mouth parting for the briefest of moments, and Namjoon feels his heart stutter. He’s heard of the phrase struck dumb before, but he never knew it was actually possible. Something in his stomach pulls, swooping upward like a bird taking flight, and he sways slightly, idiotically. He can’t take his eyes off him. It would be like a butterfly struggling free of a river of sap: impossible, beyond his abilities.
The man notices. His eyes lift to Namjoon’s, locking for a heartbeat, and something like recognition lights up his face. He smiles, eyes crinkling in a way Namjoon’s never seen anyone’s do before, and blows an exaggerated kiss with his hand.
A strangled sound escapes from Namjoon’s throat. The stranger turns back, picking up a piece of seafood and asking for its price. The old man looks disgusted, moving away from Namjoon like he’s been contaminated. Their small commiseration is over.
Namjoon stays in place even as the man moves on and disappears from view, basket now full of fish. The sellers seemed a little scared of the stranger. He can tell that if not for the rumors of him being a witch, they would’ve refused to sell to him the way they refused to sell to Namjoon.
Minutes after, Namjoon still sways gently on his feet. He doesn’t feel the heat, doesn’t see the sky streaking with pink and orange by courtesy of the setting sun. There is someone else like him in this place. There is someone else who is as painful an outsider as Namjoon, who could possibly understand the struggle it is just to battle through every day. But unlike Namjoon, he doesn’t seem to care at all.
Namjoon’s world was a muggy, confined, suffocating sphere before, but the man has come and shattered its walls. To Namjoon’s limited experience and exceedingly narrow horizons, he is extraordinary. Strange clothes. Strange face. He even lives in the mysterious, impenetrable, forbidden jungle. How is it possible that Namjoon hasn’t heard of him before?
Eventually, he emerges from his stupor and goes home. He trudges up the steps to his house, dazed and barely registering his surroundings. Nothing ever changes. Everything is always the same. This is the constant Namjoon has chafed against his entire life.
But today, something changed. An unfamiliar stranger, odder even than Namjoon, walked into his life and blew a kiss and walked right back out again. Namjoon doesn’t know why, but he can’t shake the feeling that he’s seen this exhilaratingly peculiar man before.
He can hardly go to sleep that night. His blood, sluggish for the past few years, seems to race through his veins. His eyes refuse to close, instead choosing to stare, wide-eyed, up at the wooden ceiling. He needs to know more. His skin itches with the urge to know the outcast better.
And even if he is a witch, well—
So what? People have fired countless insults at Namjoon, and while most of them are blatant lies, some of them aren’t falsehoods. They’re just things which have always been true about Namjoon—his race, his height, his color—warped to become horrible.
I’m whatever you’d like to call me. Everyone is.
Namjoon’s mind finally calms enough to fall asleep, the words of Bahu still ringing in his ears.
Namjoon squints against the blazing sunlight. The ancient rain trees which ring the field are massive, with trunks wider across than a man and thick canopies the length of longhouses, and they always make Namjoon feel awed and inferior. They cast an impenetrable umbrella of shade over the cow grass beneath them. But the center of the field where Namjoon stands is devoid of trees, without shelter from the merciless sun, and Namjoon can hardly see for how glaringly bright it is.
He looks longingly at the beautifully cool and relatively dark ring of shadow around the ceremonial field. Only the women are allowed to stand in the shade behind the stage, waiting to ascend the steps to the dais. The men have to sweat and bake in the heat.
Someone beats a drum, and Namjoon returns his attention to the stage, peering over the sweat-damp heads of the other men. A woman climbs up the steps to the stage, large white skirt billowing around her, and the men of the village jerk to attention. Her long, silky black hair spills down her back to her waist. The men eye her curiously—none of them, except Namjoon, have seen a female since the last conception ceremony.
Another man ascends the stage, standing beside the woman. They bow stiffly to the audience before doing the same to each other. Then the woman lifts her voluminous skirt, layers and layers shifting so her lower body is hidden from the women behind her but revealed to the men in front of her, and stares straight ahead.
The men stare blandly at her exposed genitals, the crowd devoid of arousal while the line of women behind her shift and mutter restlessly, cracking their knuckles. Namjoon scratches at a mosquito bite on his cheek. Female reproductive organs will never stop looking strange to him.
The man kneels in front of her. He holds a ceremonial syringe fashioned out of wood and string, the barrel made of translucent amber full of milky white liquid. He hesitates, then places the syringe between the woman’s legs, taking pains not to touch her with anything except the instrument, and pushes the plunger down. The woman’s face twitches, lip curling in the beginnings of disgust, but she keeps her eyes fixed on the other end of the field.
Finally, the man shuffles away and stands. He holds the syringe aloft to the crowd. When they see that the barrel is empty, everyone in the field claps, congratulating the successful insemination.
It is the first of twenty.
Every year the number of candidates for childbirth changes, reflecting the number of deaths which have taken place. It’s an effective system because it keeps the population of the village constant—unless, of course, a rare case of failed conception occurs. The candidates are rotated and selected randomly from the pool of young and unmarried villagers.
The conception ceremony is the only time when men and women can legally meet. However, there are strict rules: the childbearers are not allowed to touch, speak, or look each other directly in the eye, and after the ceremony they must undertake an hour-long prayer for the conception to be successful. When the child is born, it is given to its mother or father to take care of depending on its sex and segregated from the other side of the village.
Namjoon isn’t sure whether the council, sitting at a long table in the shade beside the stage, even consider him an eligible candidate for childbearing. Any child of his would be mixed, diluting the purely Malay bloodline which runs through the community by the simple act of its birth. He is quite sure that they do not want him to conceive. Namjoon may live here, but he has never exactly been considered a villager.
For once, he is grateful for their racism. He does not want to leave behind a child.
Refreshments are served after the ceremony to celebrate and commemorate hopefully successful conceptions. Mercifully, they are also served in the shade beneath the leaf-heavy branches of the rain trees. Namjoon sips his teh tarik, gingerly touching the sunburnt tip of his nose, and wearily wonders why he didn’t slather on the aloe vera concoction which acts as natural sunscreen before attending the conception ceremony.
Suddenly, he feels a presence approach behind him. He tenses, knuckles whitening on his wooden cup, then spins around.
The witch-rumored stranger stands behind him, smiling pleasantly. He reaches around Namjoon for the pitcher and pours himself a cup of teh.
“Hi,” he says.
Namjoon eyes him warily. This close up, he can definitively identify the man as Korean. Chinese and Japanese don’t usually have doe eyes or quite the same facial structure: he’s scrutinized their pictures in the battered, soaked ship’s manifest which washed up with him.
“Hi,” Namjoon says, cautiously setting down his cup. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to make friends with someone his age and race. They could bond over their shared experiences as outcasts.
“So,” the stranger says, sipping his tea. “Did the collection go well?”
Namjoon’s mind works slowly, blinded by the sun and made sluggish by the heat. It eventually draws a blank. This man is a stranger. What in the world is he talking about? He knows nothing about Namjoon. “Huh? What collection?”
The stranger blinks at Namjoon over the rim of his cup. “Don’t you recognize me?”
Namjoon racks his brains. He only saw the stranger that day because he went to market later than he usually does—he was spooked by the soulmate bruise, and it took him a while to convince himself to go at all. He never ran into him before that day because the stranger probably only goes in the evening whereas Namjoon usually goes in the morning. Namjoon shakes his head.
His eyebrows crease for a second. Then he says, “Oh. It was dark. You couldn’t see my face.”
“What?” Namjoon asks, utterly perplexed.
“Nothing.” He sticks out a hand. “Anyway, hi! I’m Jin. I’d love to ask for your name, but everyone for miles around knows it anyway.”
Namjoon sighs a little, taking the hand and shaking it. Jin’s hands are cool to the touch, gentle but capable. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m Namjoon.”
“Nice to meet you.” The stranger beams earnestly, and Namjoon believes for a second that he actually means it.
“So I’ve been wondering,” Namjoon says, looking down and fidgeting with his cup. “Um. An old man told me you live in the jungle. You’re not really part of the village. So why do you have to come to these?”
“The jungle is part of the village,” Jin says lightly. “I tread the section between the fence and the men’s side, so I do live in the village. The jungle won’t let itself be owned, but the council likes to think that they own it, so by extension, they like to think that they own me. Therefore, I have to follow the laws and attend the events.”
The elegant, almost educated way he talks reminds Namjoon of someone—of, of Bahu, although that has to be impossible. He dismisses the thought. “Doesn’t it irritate you? You don’t even live in the village, but you have to obey the rules.”
“They can’t really see what I do in the jungle—they’re too afraid of it. So I don’t really follow all the rules, per se.” He shrugs. “But I have to come to the market for things like oil and seafood, because I’m terrible at fishing, so I’m still kind of dependent on the village for survival. I just put in appearances here and there, make the council feel a little puffed-up and important, just so they won’t chase me out.”
They both glance over at the council table. They’re all old men with fat, bulging bellies, holding court with a crowd of suck-up followers who hope to sit on the council themselves one day by currying favor. It’s a foolish hope. The council members will hold onto power to their very last breaths. They have grown fat on it, spoilt on it, and cats which have eaten cream for decades will not willingly subsist on scraps.
“How do you survive?” Namjoon asks eventually. “In the jungle?”
“I’ve lived there all my life. It raised me. I could find my way blindfolded through it.” A smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. “If you only know where to look, it has everything you need: food, water. The bananas are good on the seaward side. But don’t even bother with the mangoes.”
Namjoon’s brow furrows. The words are familiar—too familiar to ignore. Is he going mad, or are there strange parallels between Jin’s words and those of his Bahu hallucination?
Jin steamrolls on cheerfully. “And also, ooh, if you know where to look there are some really good coconuts, but for some reason the ones which grow on the beach don’t have any water in them? Like, what’s up with that, coconut trees are beach trees, you could at least function like any self-respecting coconut tree would and produce water, couldn’t you? They yield very good coconut milk, though. If you try and grate the flesh of the inland ones, on the other hand, you can’t because they’re hard as rock, but I must say that the water those give you is delicious—”
“Um,” Namjoon interrupts eloquently, “I’m—I’m sorry to interrupt this very thrilling coconut discourse, I really am, but I have to ask. You’re obviously not from around here, like me. Are you—are you Korean?”
Jin smiles a funny little smile. He sways slightly on his feet as he stares dreamily at a coconut tree in the distance, the impossibly tall canopy reaching above the height of even the rain trees. “Of course I am. You wouldn’t get a Malay named Jin, would you?”
In Muslim folklore, ‘jinn’ is the name for semi-corporeal supernatural entities known by the rest of the world as genies. Legend tells of their mercurial nature: some benevolent, some neutral, some malevolent. Because of this ambiguity, the common consensus of conduct when encountering a jinn is doing your best to appease it, then making your leave as hastily as possible. Being named Jin would carry an unshakably negative connotation.
But Namjoon clings to the confirmation of his suspicion that Jin isn’t Malay. His chest fills with wild, golden hope. “You—you are? What’s Korea like? It’s colder than here, right? Is Korean a nice language? Please tell me it’s not as hot as here. I think if it’s as hot as here I’ll curl up and cry. Are there different plants? Is the sky a different color? Is—”
“But I’ve never been there,” Jin interrupts. “Not really.”
Namjoon’s chest deflates. He’s so crestfallen that he forgets to notice the strange wording of the reply—how can you “not really” have ever visited a place? Shouldn’t a reply to such a question be either a solid affirmation or denial?
“How are you here, then?” Something occurs to him. “Wait. Were you in the shipwreck like me? The Far East Asian ship?”
“That’s where you came from?” Jin shakes his head. “No. I think I was left as a baby in the jungle. My earliest memories are of toddling through it.”
“Wait, but—” Namjoon is confused. Namjoon is so confused. “Who? How could a baby survive in the jungle?”
Jin shrugs. “I told you. It raised me.”
“What, like—spirits?” A chill of fear trembles down his spine.
“Maybe. But mostly the jungle.”
Namjoon massages his temples. “I’m sorry, but you’re not making any sense.”
Jin chuckles. “It’ll make more sense in due time. Although of course that depends on how well we get to know each other.”
There is something fundamentally different about Jin. The villagers form a melody even Namjoon, for all their efforts to ostracize him, blends into, but Jin is a beautifully discordant chord amongst a generic, mundane, oft-played tune. Seeing him here, standing in the ceremonial field and holding a cup of teh tarik with an air of ease Namjoon has never seen anyone else succeed in cultivating, is oddly, wonderfully wrong—like touching water, with its slippery, heavy coolness, and discovering that it’s dry.
Namjoon can’t get enough. He’s desperate to keep Jin talking, desperate for an actual friend. He’s so used to the hostile suspicion of the villagers and the constant mundanity of the village after years and years of never knowing a single irregularity that he hungers for difference of any kind. Anything to break up the rhythm which his life beats sluggishly to.
On some days, he wakes up and realizes that he can predict the day ahead accurately down to the minute, and the frustration which overwhelms him is so acute that he’s seized by the urge to tear his hair out and scream. This boredom, this arrested progression of what should be the refreshing newness of life—sometimes it makes Namjoon feel like he’s dying a slow death.
But Jin could be his chance to slow that death down further.
Because they’re all dying, aren’t they? From the moment of their birth, they’re already slowly degrading, decaying. The earth pulls their remains back to itself from the very second it spits them out.
But this isn’t the time for Namjoon to get philosophical and reflective. He’s actually expected to engage in prolonged conversation with someone for the first time in his life—conversation which will, hopefully, be the predecessor to more in the future.
“Can you speak Korean?” Namjoon asks eagerly.
Jin laughs, shaking his head. “Nope. I’ve never left this area in my life.”
Namjoon’s heart sinks. Maybe Jin is as closeted as he is, as confined to this godforsaken land of jungles and heat, and there really is no way out for Namjoon. “Aren’t you…sick of it?”
“Sick of it? What do you mean?”
“Don’t you want to go places? Explore? Travel?” Namjoon waves his arms agitatedly, the teh tarik in his cup sloshing over the rim. Jin watches the drops of foamy brown liquid fly through the air with interest. “See the world?”
“I think this place is interesting enough,” he says mildly.
“No, it’s not!” Namjoon gestures at the surroundings. People have begun to edge away from him, the familiar, suspicious glares returning. “It’s so boring! Nothing ever changes! It’s so hot that I feel like I’m constantly cooking! There’s nothing to do!”
“There’s tons to do in the jungle,” Jin says.
“I can’t go in the jungle! It’s terrifying and there are no maps and everything wants to eat me!”
“I live there. It’s really rather pleasant.” Jin lowers his voice. “And you didn’t seem to have a problem traipsing through it every full moon.”
Namjoon turns red. “W-what?” he sputters. “How do you know about—I don’t—I’ve never set foot in the jungle!”
Jin smiles, shaking his head. “Don’t bother trying to lie, Namjoon. Every time you entered the jungle, you trudged all over my backyard. Of course I noticed.” He tilts his head. “You really don’t remember, do you?”
“Remember what?” Namjoon casts a nervous glance towards the council. The truth dangles from a thread pinched between Jin’s fingers. Namjoon doesn’t trust him, however nice he seems. He could report Namjoon to the council in a heartbeat.
“Nothing.” Jin scratches the back of his neck. “Hey, if it makes you feel better…you’re worried that I’ll report you to the council, right?”
“I didn’t even—” Namjoon stutters weakly. “There’s nothing to—”
“How about knowing one of my secrets? Then we’ll be fair. We’ll stand on equally shaky ground. You could report me to the council. I could report you to the council.” He raises his eyebrows conspiratorially.
Namjoon’s pathetic excuses trail off into silence.
Jin leans in. “I run the illegal border trade,” he whispers.
Namjoon blinks. “What? Wait, w-what? Jin—”
But Jin has wandered off, humming, making a beeline for the platter of kuih talam.
Namjoon stares after him, watching him go. He is so terribly confused. He will never be anything but perplexed again. He is doomed to spend the rest of his life in a state of puzzlement.
He shakes his head, face contorted in incomprehension, and refills his cup.
He even sleeps in his gloves now—he’s so terrified of being found out, every waking second dogged by the implications of what would happen if someone made the connection. Sometimes he wakes up in the middle of the night panting and kicking because of a recurrent nightmare he’s having, ridiculous but frightening all the same: a bunyan squatting on his chest yanking his gloves off and gleefully raising his bruised hand for the whole village to see.
But this night he fails to sleep. It’s terribly hot, what seems like the hottest night of the year so far, and wooden houses are horrible at staying cool but excellent at preserving heat from the day. Namjoon steams like a dumpling, tossing and turning on his rudimentary bed of a mengkuang mat laid directly over the boards. His blanket lays flung aside a few meters away, a plain, pathetic twist of rough, poor-quality cloth. Every part of his body is overheated, but his hands seem to be baking the worst.
He growls in frustration. If he could just take off his gloves, he would be able to sleep so much better. Sweat runs in rivulets down his forearm from his uncomfortably warm hands and pools on the boards.
But he can’t. What if someone sees the bruise? What if…
But tomorrow’s a long day. He’s been hired to plough a paddy field. That’s not going to happen on no sleep. Either he’ll collapse under the onslaught of heat and sunlight or, worse, he’ll do a shoddy job and receive no pay for it except exhaustion.
It’s pitch black anyway. It’s a new moon tonight, and Namjoon built his house far away from anyone else’s. No one’s going to see his bruise, and besides, the girl is covering hers up too, right? No one would make the connection.
He makes his decision and tugs off the gloves, immediately feeling better. He sighs as cooler air hits his hands and drops his gloves on the floor beside the mat. Wiping his sweaty hands on his shirt, he spread-eagles his body to maximize exposed surface area and goes to sleep.
Namjoon is woken by a creeping sense of unease.
He doesn’t understand it. When he sits up and looks around, everything looks the same: pitch-black darkness, dark enough to almost convince Namjoon that he’s blind, and the rough weave of the mengkuang mat beneath him. Sweat trickles down the sides of his face, squelches unpleasantly beneath his skin. The heat and the sun never seem to affect the other villagers, but Namjoon’s body seems to know that it was meant to live in cooler climes and insists on sweating and burning ferociously.
The sun is absent now. It’s another thing Namjoon has always hated about this place—it only has two brightness settings, blazingly bright and impenetrably dark. Save for the two precious, brief golden hours of dawn and dusk in between, they are both incredibly inconvenient.
The unsettled feeling inches up his spine and curls thin fingers over his shoulders. Namjoon hunches, shuddering and dusting at his shoulders, but nothing is there.
He abandons sleep and gets up to investigate, groping his way blindly through the house. He built it himself and he knows every nook and cranny of it, but he’s also terribly clumsy and manages to stub his toe twice. He curses, blundering his way to the front door—that’s where the roiling in his gut seems to be repelling him from—and flings it open.
He stares into the darkness. He can’t see a single goddamn thing. He looks around slowly, opening his eyes as large as possible to catch and absorb any remnants of light present, and while his unease only intensifies, he sees nothing.
And then the night shatters into chaos.
Torches flare to life all around him as the council’s guards leap from the bushes. Namjoon stumbles back, shielding his eyes from the sudden glare of light, but rough hands grip him and hold him in place. Someone grabs his hand and yanks it forward.
“I knew it was a soulmate mark on the girl’s hand,” they hiss. Namjoon is still hardly able to see—torches have been thrust into a flaming, bright circle around him, and he tries to force his eyes open, only managing to achieve teary slits. “Bruises like that do not come about naturally.”
Namjoon’s heart plummets sickeningly.
“What do you think, Abu?” The sound of shuffling feet on the old, dusty boards of his veranda. “They match, correct?”
A cold silence. Cruel hands pinch and pull at his fingers, opening the fist he’s trying to clench his hand into to hide the bruise. Namjoon feels despair wash powerfully over his chest, threatening to drown him in it. It’s over. He’ll be dead by morning. “Definitely,” a second voice says eventually.
“Disgusting,” the first voice says, hardening instantaneously.
Namjoon starts struggling wildly, but a dozen more hands push him back and pin him down. It’s hopeless. He wishes he’d never visited the penitentiary and learned of the illegal border trade. He wishes he’d never felt the lazy urge for warna, the urge to lose himself in drugged bliss. He wishes he’d never set foot in that cursed jungle.
“Take him to the council,” the man says.
The council members stare at him.
The leader of them leans forward. “Kim Namjoon,” he says. “You are a foreigner, yet we rescued you from a shipwreck and raised you as one of our own. We took you into our village and handed you our trust. And yet you destroy two of our most fundamental rules.”
Namjoon fixes his eyes on the dirt ground of the council’s court hut. They never raised him. They threw him in a house with a foster family which fed him and sheltered him but ignored and neglected him otherwise. When he grew old enough, the family kicked him out, and he was left to live a life separate from the rest of the village as an outcast.
That is not kindness. That is the council funding his survival because they worried about the moral weight of leaving a wailing baby among the ruins of a shipwreck, about the sin of abandoning a helpless child to starve and drown. Namjoon knows these people well. They do not worry about right and wrong because they genuinely want to do good. They worry because they are afraid of how a mistake will pollute their reputations.
Namjoon has never had family, least of all these old, power-greedy, overfed toads.
“Not only did you go to the fence and consort with a member of the opposite sex whom the males of this village are explicitly barred from contacting,” the leader goes on, jowls wobbling in righteous indignation, “you also committed the sin of—of heterosexuality.”
The council members shift and mutter. One passes a hand over his eyes. Namjoon can’t stand it anymore.
“I don’t like women,” he says, jaw clenching with the effort not to yell.
The leader leaps at this. “Then why did you go to meet her?” he probes accusingly. “Why are both of you soulmate-marked?”
Namjoon opens his mouth, then stares at the ground. He can’t admit the real reason he met up with her. If he did, he would get accused of a third crime, and one of the most heinous by definition of the council to boot: possession of warna. He thinks that if he admitted to that, they’d drag him through the streets before killing him.
“Talk to her,” he says, fighting to keep his voice at a respectful level. Losing his temper will only dig his grave deeper. “I know the women’s council have, at least. Surely they’ve communicated their findings to you. She holds nothing but distaste for me, and the feeling is mutual.”
“An act,” the leader says knowingly, the rest of the council nodding along like puppets. “All an act.”
Namjoon clenches his hands into fists. “Why am I here, then? Why haven’t you killed me already? Are you taunting me? Making me feel remorse for my sins, maybe?”
“Watch your tongue, boy,” the leader says sharply. The council members bristle. “We have showed you nothing but kindness over the years, and ample respect is due.”
Namjoon lifts his eyes to the dried palm-leaf ceiling and counts to ten.
“No,” the leader says, pleased at Namjoon’s silence and taking it to mean he’s cowed, “you are here because there is a way for you to emerge from the other side of these horrendous sins unscathed.”
Namjoon’s eyes flicker slowly down to him.
“The council has convened and come to a solution,” the leader says, leaning forward and steepling fat fingers. “We marry you to the witch. Once the wedding has taken place, you are absolved of all crimes. Refusal to this generous proposal will end in death.”
Namjoon blinks. He’s utterly, absolutely caught off guard, so shocked that for a moment his anger fades away to be replaced with a dull buzz of confused astonishment. “What?”
“Marry the witch,” he repeats impatiently.
“Who? Jin?” Namjoon’s head spins. How in the world could that possibly solve anything? Has the council gone mad?
The leader’s lip curls slightly. “Yes. Jin.” He sits back, chair creaking as his large bulk shifts. “This solves a number of problems. Firstly, it is to our knowledge that you are both young, unmarried Korean men. Secondly, this can be a way to prove to us and the village that you are truly homosexual as you say.”
“I don’t have to—” prove anything to you, Namjoon wants to say, but he knows that letting those words spill out of him will without a doubt prompt the council to retract the offer and hang him within the hour. “What does—what does the first part have to do with anything?”
“You are Korean. You can keep each other company. After all, you have many things in common.” As if blood is all that matters about a person, Namjoon thinks. As if the color of our skin determines the content of your character. “You are also young, unmarried…eligible—”
He breaks off. It takes him some effort to say it; it’s obviously beyond the council’s ability to grasp that anyone would willingly want to marry either of them. What a good way to tie off a loose end, Namjoon thinks bitterly, marrying the outcasts nicely to each other where they can be ostracized from society together. “—bachelors. The fact alone that both of you have reached your age and failed to find husbands is highly irregular.”
Failed, Namjoon thinks. His internal monologue is in full resentful mode. As if I would want to marry any of those close-minded, racist villagers. I can’t even spend a minute with one of them, much less my entire life.
“Jin didn’t do anything to deserve this,” Namjoon says. “He shouldn’t be forced into marriage with a stranger.”
“We rather think we are doing him a favor,” the leader says lightly. Namjoon grits his teeth. “And besides—you two looked remarkably friendly at the conception ceremony the other day. We don’t think he would particularly mind.”
Namjoon sputters into silence. His mind temporarily blanks out with how fundamentally wrong that sentence is. That assumption. Who is the council? Who is the council to determine the course of both their lives?
A rage burns under his skin, boiling and untamable, a tempestuous sea seething to tear a ship apart. When he leaves this place, he hopes to never set foot in it again.
But it’s this or death. And as much as Namjoon likes the idea of being noble and saving his potential new friend from an ignominious fate—
He doesn’t want to die. Not when this land, these people, are all he has ever known. It would be a life squandered on over twenty years of hell, and he can’t bring himself to waste his one chance at happiness on keeping Jin from entering into an arranged marriage.
Jin didn’t do anything wrong. But Namjoon won’t let himself be hanged for a crimes too trivial to be sins.
“I’ll do it,” he says, teeth gritting.
The look of lazy triumph on the council’s faces—like they knew Namjoon would concede even before they made their proposal known—makes him want to lunge across the table and throttle each of them to an airless, choking death.
Maybe then they’d know how it feels to be suffocated.
The council makes sure the wedding happens as fast as possible.
In a matter of hours, in fact. No one is invited to the ceremony, but because it’s outside—it’s traditional for village weddings to take place outdoors—a crowd of curious villagers gathers to watch. Namjoon hears murmurs. Arranged. Surely arranged by the council.
His fists clench at his sides. Of course they would never believe either of them had managed the match himself.
Namjoon doesn’t see Jin before the ceremony. He doesn’t get to talk to him, explain, apologize—and when he sees Jin being escorted up the dirt road towards him, council guards on either side of him gripping his arms just a little too hard to be willing, a heavy ball of dread somersaults in his stomach.
The guards release Jin to stand next to him. Despite the shade of the large, colorful, tassel-edged parasol intended to shade the unwilling grooms from the sun, the heat is baking, a mirage shimmering over the ground, and sweat drips down from Namjoon’s hair to trace clammy drops down his neck. The cloth of his tengkolok , traditional headwear formed out of heavy brocade wrapped around the skull to form a rough conical shape which the council forced him into along with a dark blue baju melayu, traps heat impressively against his scalp and doesn’t help in the least.
The whole outfit seems manufactured to make one as uncomfortably warm as possible. Sweat drips down his spine and pools in the roll the top of the thick samping forms . When Jin draws to a stop beside him and turns to face the crowd, similarly attired except for the fact that his outfit is colored a blazing crimson, Namjoon sputters a useless flood of apologetic words.
“I’m so sorry, Jin—you shouldn’t have to pay for what I did—I was stupid and now you have to marry me and it’s not even your fault, you shouldn’t have to bear the burden I should be carrying and you don’t deserve such a punishment—I—I wish I could say something but I have no excu—”
“Namjoon.” Jin cuts him off with a faintly strained smile. His red tengkolok and sampin are embroidered with gold threads, shining brilliantly in the blinding sunlight. Namjoon has to give the council credit. They dug out some pretty impressive outfits for this arranged wedding. Speaking of the council, each of the members are taking turns to deliver smug speeches about Jin and Namjoon’s impending union to the gathered audience, but neither grooms are listening. “It’s alright. I understand it’s not your fault.”
“But none of it would’ve happened if it wasn’t for me,” Namjoon wails as quietly as possible. His hands pluck agitatedly at the pearl buttons of his baju melayu. He’s not used to wearing a shirt. The back and armpits are already embarrassingly damp with nervous sweat. He doesn’t even want to see the state of the tengkolok. “I forced this on you and now you have to spend your life with me and you have dreams and hopes and I’ll make a terrible husband and—and—and now I’ve destroyed everything and—”
Namjoon is teetering on the brink of panic, but he is powerless to stop it, just as he can do nothing to dim the burn of the sunlight beating down on the scorched-dry ground. Jin notices. His eyes dart over Namjoon for a moment, assessing him, and then he interrupts again. “Hey.”
Namjoon stops. “Y-yes?” He braces himself for the worst. Anger, fury, rage, even. Disappointment. Perhaps the six words which would tear Namjoon’s chest apart utterly and dissolve him into a puddling solution of guilt: I thought you were my friend.
They don’t come. The next words out of Jin’s mouth are the last words Namjoon would ever expect him to say. “Do you know how a cow laughs?”
Namjoon blinks, internal anguish momentarily forgotten. “Um…no?” He thinks hard, trying to muster his memories of cattle. Maybe this is important. Maybe his answer will determine whether Jin likes him or rejects him. “Do livestock even…feel mirth?”
“Just say ‘how’,” Jin says patiently.
Namjoon would do anything. Namjoon is desperately in debt to him and desperately hopeful that Jin will take this well and desperately happy that he hasn’t lost his temper and yelled at him yet, and he would quite literally say the sky was green and made of papayas if that’s what it took. “How…?” he asks, stapling a question mark onto the end.
“Moo-ha-ha-ha,” Jin says.
Namjoon blinks slowly. He stares at him. Jin’s expression is of the utmost sobriety, completely solemn and somber, without the slightest hint of mirth in his face. Then Namjoon sees his mouth twitch, his eyes crinkle, and he bursts into a laugh.
Namjoon listens to him laugh at his own joke, bewildered. Jin leans over and slaps at his satin-clad knee, hiccuping out laughs which sound like squeaky rubber. “Get it?” he gasps between tears, punching Namjoon on the arm while the villagers peer curiously over each other’s heads at the commotion and the council stops their speeches to turn and glare. “Moo-ha-ha-ha?”
Namjoon chokes out a laugh of disbelief. This is the day their forced marriage will be officiated, a visible symbol of the unfair bigotry of the council and their insistence on punishing crimes which are not crimes, and Jin is standing next to him minutes before they’ll be wed and telling dad jokes. Jin slowly thumps him on the shoulder, still laughing his peculiarly squeaky laugh, and Namjoon feels himself spiral into idiocy.
Then they’re both leaning on each other, struggling to gasp in air between snorting howls of laughter. Everyone in attendance has stopped to turn and stare. The joke stopped being funny a long time ago—it never was, really—but every time Namjoon thinks about how ridiculous the whole situation is, he loses it again, and every time Jin looks at his face, he dissolves into cackles too.
“I—” Namjoon tries, but hears a particularly high hiccup from Jin and feels delirium overtake him again. He grips Jin’s shoulders to stop himself from sagging to the ground, unable to draw breath between his mirth. “We should really—”
He and Jin both catch sight of the council leader’s icy glare. They straighten up, laughter dying out, clearing their throats and straightening their collars.
“Since the grooms are quite clearly eager to begin married life,” the leader says in his unpleasant, slimy, toad-like voice, “the wedding shall now commence.”
The flaps of the canopy are lowered to fence Jin and Namjoon in, heavy purple cloth dimming the light while incantations are chanted over it outside. Namjoon sees his chance. “Hey,” he whispers. “Jin. I really am sorry that you got yanked into this.”
Jin shrugs. The joke seems to have perked him up remarkably. “It’s alright. It’s lonely in the jungle. I’ll like having someone around.”
Namjoon side-eyes him. Oh. Right. They’ll have to live together, but they haven’t talked about where.
Jin sees the side-eye. “Um, I mean…of course if you’d rather we live in your house, that’s great too.”
“No,” Namjoon says, thinking of the suspicious neighbors he sometimes catches peering in the windows, that time teenagers threw rotten eggs at his house and he had to spend a whole day cleaning them off. “No, I think…I’m afraid of the jungle, but I hate the village more. I think I’d prefer living at your place.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of the jungle, you know,” Jin says, looking straight ahead. There is a spatter and a tapping sound as rose water is sprinkled on the canopy over and around them. Namjoon flinches vaguely, remembering the time when he was young and a fried goods seller, unused to the sight of a Korean child running around, threw drops of hot oil at him. The burns didn’t disappear for weeks. “The only reason people are afraid of the jungle is because they don’t understand it. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Of what’s different.”
“Trust me,” Namjoon says bitterly, the thousand tiny cruelties the villagers have dealt him over the years rising to the forefront of his mind, “I know.”
Jin pauses and considers, looking at him. “Although in a way,” he says, “growing up in the jungle also shielded me from a lot of discrimination. You know the rumors about me. Because of them, on the rare occasions when I do enter the village, everyone’s too afraid to cross me and I waltz out unscathed.” He smiles, but though it looks placid, Namjoon sees the shadows swimming beneath the surface. “I know they hate me, though. The council considers me dangerous because I know the jungle intimately whereas they hardly dare to set foot in it for fear of getting lost. The villagers hate me because the council hates me, and they have minds like sheep. I try to keep myself as uninvolved in village affairs as possible, because…there’s no point trying to blend into a society which will always view you as an intruder.”
Namjoon stays silent. He doesn’t know what to say. Jin does understand. He feared, thanks to Jin’s constant cheer and the apparent lack of scars racism should have left on him, that Jin wouldn’t have gone through any of the hell he has. And though he wouldn’t wish the suffering of being an outcast on anyone…
…it’s nice to have someone who understands.
Jin isn’t put off by his silence. He understands more about Namjoon and knows how to read his mannerisms better than anyone else Namjoon’s ever met. “It’ll be fun to introduce you to the jungle,” Jin says, again speaking of what is fundamentally a large collection of trees as if it has a consciousness. “I think that once you see it for what it is, you’ll find that it’s really a much more pleasant place than the village.”
Namjoon sighs. He stopped expecting pleasantness from the places he chooses to inhabit a long time ago. He was happy enough to settle for tolerance.
But looking at Jin as he talks about the jungle, eyes bright, hands flying through the air and gesturing animatedly as he waxes poetic about the incomparable quality of the mangosteens and the tender meat of jungle game, he can’t help but receive the impression that Jin is someone who’ll keep his promises to his very last breath.
With normal weddings, a procession of relatives is supposed to escort the grooms to their chosen house, but seeing as neither Jin nor Namjoon have parents and the council guards skittered away in fear when they mentioned the jungle, it looks like they’re on their own. Jin leads Namjoon through the village, resplendent in their colorful, formal clothes—the council said they could keep the outfits, probably wary of them being tainted—while chattering amiably at Namjoon. Namjoon watches the villagers stare at them cautiously, on guard if they begin throwing things or yelling slurs. He knows Jin has put up with as much as he has, but somehow he feels the need to protect him.
They make it through the village unscathed. Just as they pass beyond the outskirts, Jin happily explaining the logistics of a successful vegetable garden to Namjoon, the surrounding light dims considerably.
Jin pauses. Both of them stop in their tracks and look up to the sky. A large cloud is drawing over the sun, several times the size of the village, and its belly is an alarming dark grey.
“But these are the nicest clothes I’ve ever had,” Namjoon says. “I’d hate for them to get wet.”
“Run,” Jin says nonchalantly, just as the skies open up above their heads.
They make a mad dash towards the shade of the jungle as torrential rain beats down on their backs, running off the satin in rivulets and soaking their tengkolok and sampin. Namjoon groans when he steps in a puddle and muddy water splashes his baju melayu up to his knee. The rain is as deafening as it is abrupt, coming down so hard that it stings Namjoon’s hands and face like tiny needles. The earth is rich with the smell of rain.
They make it into the jungle, stumbling to slow themselves down as they skid over the wet fallen leaves and soil. Less rain can make it through the thick canopy, but they’re only in the fringes of the jungle, and Namjoon is still getting drenched. “Come on,” Jin gasps, already a few feet ahead of him, but Namjoon hesitates, staring into the dark depths of the jungle.
Don’t go into the jungle. One of the only lessons which actually embedded themselves in his mind. The jungle is evil. The jungle is unfamiliar. The jungle will swallow you up and spit back out a madman.
But Jin…Jin is not a madman. Namjoon watches helplessly, torn, as Jin hops from foot to foot in impatience and makes a nervous little screeching sound through the back of his throat. “I’m getting soaked! These are such nice clothes!” He wrings his hands, droplets of water running down them. “Please, Namjoon!”
Namjoon clenches his fists until his nails dig into his palms.
If I die in there, he thinks, I wonder what I ever really did with my life.
But he has no other choice. The rain is beating down hard on his back and forming pools in his expensive tengkolok, and Jin is looking more and more anguished by the minute, and nothing waits for him in the village but hostility and racism. He has nothing to go back to.
Perhaps the jungle only exists, squatting just beyond the village outskirts, to devour those who have nothing to go back to.
Taking a gasping breath through rain-clogged nostrils, he plunges after Jin into the jungle.
Jin hands Namjoon a huge leaf, as long as his legs and more than twice as wide as he is. “Here,” he says, snapping one off for himself and holding it over his head. The leaf is massive—it acts as an umbrella, shielding him from the pouring rain. Water runs in a curtain off the sandpapery green edges, soaking Namjoon.
Namjoon takes it cautiously. “It’s not…poisonous?”
“No,” Jin says, pushing onward. The jungle has grown steadily denser, plants and trees growing closer together until leaf begins to be indistinguishable from stem, vine begins to be indistinguishable from trunk. “Colocasia gigantea. Elephant ear plant. Not at all toxic. Very helpful for staying dry, although…” He looks at his and Namjoon’s soaked clothes sadly. “I guess it’s a bit late for that.”
Namjoon sighs. The jungle has thickened around them, meaning the rain which was torrential before has reduced to a more tolerable speed, but the sound of raindrops pattering onto his massive leaf umbrella is still noisy enough to drown out his thoughts.
The jungle never seems to end. He slips on mud numerous times, his clothes only saved from utter ruination by Jin’s quick catches. He trips on tree roots. He gets whacked in the face by low branches. He gets scratched by twigs. Jin moves through the jungle gracefully, twisting between hanging vines and thorny stems as if he’s following the steps of a dance no one bothered to teach Namjoon, but to Namjoon, it’s the most miserable, soaked, painful hour or so of his life.
Finally, Jin stops. The rain has slowed to a few stray drips from the leaves which form a roof above their heads. Namjoon looks up from the ground—he hasn’t taken his eyes off it since he looked up for a second and tripped on a tree root, nearly breaking his ankle and flying forward spectacularly—and sucks in breath. They’re standing outside a huge thicket of banyan trees, and these are old, old banyan trees—their trunks as wide across as five men, their canopies majestic crowns of leaves and gnarled branches far, far up in the sky. Banyan trees are normally quite squat, wider than they are tall, but these are unnaturally, breathtakingly gigantic—taller than Namjoon could imagine anything ever being. Young banyan trees have dangling roots which are only as thin as thread, only some of them reaching the ground, but these trees must be ancient. Their thinnest roots are the thickness of Namjoon’s thigh, and they’re latched onto the ground so close together that Namjoon feels like he’s staring at a dense forest of wooden columns, or a thicket of matted, woody hair.
“What is this place?” Namjoon whispers. He has to look up until his neck aches to glimpse the bottom of the shortest tree’s foliage. The banyan trees seem to grow in a ring, but there are so many twisted roots between Namjoon and the center that he has no idea what they surround.
“There’s a story,” Jin says, “that a long time ago, centuries and centuries before the village sprouted, a princess ran into this forest half-mad with dehydration and starvation fleeing from the king’s guards. The king was trying to marry her off to a neighboring kingdom’s prince, but the princess refused to let her life be swayed by the whims of power and the throne.” He reaches for a hanging vine as thick as Namjoon’s wrist. “She died here in the center of these trees. A bomoh, who loved her, eventually found her corpse. Grief-stricken, he raised these trees to protect her body and prevent anyone from ever disturbing it.”
He jerks the vine downward. A rope ladder woven out of thick, sturdy vines tumbles down, bottom brushing the ground. Namjoon jumps back in surprise.
Jin puts a foot on the ladder and pauses, smiling beatifically back at Namjoon. “Strangely apt for this situation, isn’t it?”
Namjoon doesn’t reply. He’s following the ladder with his eyes, stretching up and up the trunk of the banyan until it disappears through a curtain of hanging root strands. His stomach lurches sickeningly.
Jin tilts his head. “Would you like to go first?”
“You expect me to climb that?” Namjoon blurts.
“Well,” Jin says, “of course. The only thing in the middle of these trees is a red ant hill, and I can’t imagine why you’d want to visit that.”
Namjoon flinches instinctively. He accidentally stepped in a red ant hill once as a child. The pain was terrible, an excruciating stinging and pinching series of bites in red, mandible-endowed dots all over his body.
“So why are we climbing this?” he indicates the rope ladder. His hand shakes slightly.
Jin chuckles. “What we’re looking for isn’t on the ground.”
A bout of terror runs through Namjoon.
“If you’d rather not be left alone down here, you can go first,” Jin offers again. “I know the rope ladder isn’t secured to the trunk, but that’s so that it can be pulled up once we’re done with it. It would be quite dangerous if I left it hanging all the time. Anyone could climb up. It sways a bit, but it’s really very safe.”
Namjoon weighs his options. He can’t run away now. Jin has led him so deep into the jungle that if he fled into the trees, he’d most probably be wandering the jungle for the rest of life.
That means he has to climb the ladder.
If Jin goes first, that means if the ladder has any weaknesses or is prone to snap, Jin will tumble down and not Namjoon. But if Jin goes first and disappears through the root curtain, Namjoon will be left alone down here, at the mercy of wild animals and possibly monsters.
Namjoon really doesn’t want to be left alone.
“I’ll go first,” he says, voice strangled. He moves jerkily towards the ladder.
He reaches out a sweaty hand and grips it. He can feel Jin’s eyes on his back. He puts a tentative, trembling foot on the lowest rung and panics when he feels the whole thing sway away from the trunk.
Jin lunges forward and steadies them both. “The key is to lean your upper body away from the trunk,” he instructs, “keeping a firm grip on the ladder. Because your body falls naturally into a slant, this means your feet will gravitate closer to the trunk, keeping the ladder pinned to it.”
Namjoon closes his eyes. This is madness. He’s going to climb a ladder which isn’t secured to anything except a point several sampan-lengths above his head—many, many sampan-lengths above his head, in fact—and is expected to survive the ordeal. Namjoon is not afraid of heights, but he has a healthy sense of self-preservation and a strong determination to stay alive, and right now he would rather face the red ant hill than climb the accursed ladder.
Jin senses his trepidation. “Hey,” he says gently. “It’s nothing, okay? You’re not going to fall. Even if you do fall, I’ll catch you.”
Namjoon glances at him, panting shallowly through his nose. Even under his soaked wedding clothes, Jin’s body still looks strong, shoulders broad and waist tight with muscle. Jin’s large eyes bore into his, full of a gentle concern and confidence Namjoon thinks is really quite undeserved. He could catch Namjoon. He could probably catch Namjoon.
“Fine,” Namjoon says shakily. “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”
He puts his foot again on the rung of the ladder as instructed. It stays steady until he hoists the rest of his body up, putting his other foot on it, and it begins to sway crazily. He squawks in terror and leans his upper body out so fast that he nearly falls off.
As Jin predicted, the ladder—and his feet—slam back into the trunk. Namjoon heaves a sigh of relief, disproportionately glad at the ache in his toes, which took the main brunt of the impact against the wood.
“You see?” Jin says smilingly. “Not that hard. You’re getting the hang of it already.”
He appreciates Jin’s assurances, but it’s a false one—he’s only on the lowest rung.
Namjoon takes a deep breath and begins to climb.
Several long, long minutes later, Namjoon flops off the ladder and onto a wooden platform, gasping for breath.
It turns out that the climb wasn’t just terrifying—strong winds buffeted the ladder harder and harder against the trunk no matter how far he leaned back, stretching his torso backward over the void of empty space below him and gripping the rungs with white-knuckled fists—but it was also impossibly strenuous. Once Namjoon pushed through the root curtain, he discovered that the ladder ended. He panicked over what in the world he was supposed to do now, stranded on a ladder high up in a colossal tree, surely higher than any human would ever reach—and then he saw peculiar splashes of white paint, scattered all over the trunk.
His spirits sank as he realized what he was expected to do. The white paint, which under closer inspection seemed to be sap, marked handholds and footholds Namjoon was expected to use to scale the trunk. Namjoon wondered why the rope ladder couldn’t do the job, then realized that the roots were too thick above him for the ladder to dangle through.
The next few minutes were the most harrowing of his life. Following the blazes of white with religious fervor, he located tiny little niches carved into the trunk, jamming his hands and feet into them. In many places, he had to squeeze between, duck under, and climb over thick banyan roots, and in one case he was forced to walk across a branch while clinging, terrified, to a vine above his head.
It was hell in the form of a bizarre obstacle course, and by the time Namjoon reached the end of it by crawling through a branch which had been hollowed out to become a tunnel, he wished to never see another tree again.
Thankfully, at the end of it, he glimpsed a reassuringly man-made platform. He sobbed with joy and threw himself onto it, squeaking in fear as his body flew over a gap between the end of the tunnel and the edge of the wooden boards. He lies there now, spreadeagled, gulping in air to fill his depleted lungs.
He can’t even fathom how high above the ground he is. The air up here, stuck in the center of the banyan trees, smells ripe, heavy with the smells of the jungle—the sweetness of decaying vegetation, the smell of mulch and humidity, and the unmistakable pong of animal excretion. Namjoon doesn’t even care about the smell. He’s so grateful to be here on a presumably solid platform, entire body aching and sore, no longer a slip away from death, that he’d be laughing in elation if he wasn’t so tired.
The rain has stopped, the grey storm clouds clearing. The thick foliage surrounding the platform only permits a small amount of light to fall upon Namjoon. It’s beautifully dim and surprisingly cool without the heat of the sun, the only illumination gentle due to being filtered through leaves. Namjoon stares up at the leafy canopy above him and listens to his heart rate slow.
He can’t hear children screaming. He isn’t being slow-roasted by the glare of the sun. He isn’t being hemmed in by the noise and commotion of the villagers, the stink of people, the hoarse caws of hawkers. All he can hear all the way up here is the distant chirping of birdsong, the rustle of leaves in the slight breeze around him, and to his surprise, he realizes that he’s more at peace than he’s been in his entire life.
There’s a muffled scuffle. Jin drops lightly out of the tunnel and onto the platform, landing in a graceful crouch. He straightens up. Not the faintest hint of sweat sheens his forehead, whereas Namjoon is soaked with rainwater and perspiration as well as covered with mosquito bites from his trek through the jungle. He is filled with a comfortable sort of exhaustion. He could probably fall asleep right there on that platform.
“You made it,” Jin says brightly.
Namjoon nods minisculely. His eyelids are growing heavy. He thinks this is the lowest temperature he’s ever experienced in his entire life, lying in an area which has probably been shielded from direct sunlight for years.
He never wants to leave. The climb was so worth it.
“Well, come on,” Jin says, shattering that daydream. “We can’t stay here forever.”
Namjoon sighs. Reluctantly, he picks himself wearily off the ground and follows Jin across the platform.
They pass beyond the branches and leaves, and Namjoon gasps.
The branches of the trees, in an amazing coincidence, stretch out to form a rigid, woody net over the empty space in the middle of the ring. Boards have been laid down over the naturally-occurring net, extending the platform. Built on the platform is a house.
It’s an extraordinary house, the strangest one Namjoon’s ever seen and therefore the most fascinating. It’s large, sprawling across the entire space from trunk to massive trunk, and it’s the only house Namjoon has ever seen which isn’t built on stilts. It’s built like an enormous treehouse, almost exclusively out of wood.
The walls are made out of boards which don’t seem to be nailed together. Large windows have been cut into the boards, curtains of dried banana leaves tied by the sides to allow in light. The front door is made out of a single large slab of thick, sturdy, and glossy wood, polished to a shine, brown with an orange sheen. Namjoon expects it to be too heavy to move, but when he pushes it experimentally, it swings open silently and effortlessly on unseen hinges.
Multiple chimneys sprout from the roof and puff smoke into the air. The canopies of the trees above don’t quite touch, leaving a circular opening in the center of the leaves which functions as a skylight. Gentle sunlight bathes the house, making normally drab, uninteresting wood shine.
Namjoon bends closer to peer at the boards. They appear to be mortared in place by amber—petrified sap. The light slants through the orange-yellow resin and emerges as fiercely beautiful rays of gold.
“This is amazing,” he says lowly. “Who…who built this?”
“I did,” Jin says mildly, coming up behind him.
Namjoon glances instinctively at Jin’s hands. They are soft, gentle, uncallused. They aren’t weak, but they definitely couldn’t have built this house. Namjoon can’t even fathom how the tools necessary to put together such a gravity-defying edifice were transported up here, but he’s too awed by the sheer ingenuity of the house to question it.
He runs inside. The house is the largest he’s ever seen, and it includes a sitting area, lined with rattan and bamboo chairs piled with soft, feather-filled cushions; a kitchen, metal woks, pots, and pans hanging on hooks driven into the wall, bunches of spices and vegetables and fruits hanging from the ceiling; and a bathroom, with a huge tub filled to the brim with water Namjoon could lay down in. Namjoon can’t imagine how Jin managed to get all that water up here. He dashes into the next room and comes upon a beautiful bedroom, with an actual bed—colorful batik sheets over a thick, fluffy mattress with an abundance of bolsters and pillows—dominating the space. Namjoon stumbles through the large folding doors, panes of glassy, petrified wood sliced impossibly thin and staining the light a rainbow of colors, and finds himself on a balcony.
He edges to the wooden railing and stares. The balcony juts out of the banyan tree ring, hanging over empty space. It’s a sheer drop from the balcony to the ground, terrifyingly far below him. Namjoon would fall for a good few seconds before reaching the level of the next highest trees. The boards which make up the floor are sturdy and thick, the priceless amber mortar gumming them in place, but he suddenly feels very afraid and very unsafe, and he backs away from the railing back to the relative safety of the bedroom.
He bumps into Jin. He spins around. Jin must have been following him patiently through the house, and he looks amused at Namjoon’s frazzled amazement. As a builder himself, Namjoon knows that a house this complicated with such fine design must have taken years to construct.
And don’t even get him started on the petrified sap and wood. He’s only ever seen them once as a kid, when a traveller with pale skin, yellow hair, and eyes the color of the sky stopped by their village to eat and drink and showed the children souvenirs of his travels. Among them was a small, tumbled tablet of amber, flecks of gold caught in it along with the crumpled body of an ant. He had a chunk of petrified wood too, wood which had turned into rock by mystical processes Namjoon yearned to understand but most probably never would. Cracks ran through the wood, like peepholes into another world. Through the cracks, which the village kids took turns peering into, you could see the inside of the chunk of wood: colorful minerals, hard and unyielding, such a crazed, starburst frenzy of colors that whenever Namjoon looked at something for days afterward, he would be disappointed that they weren’t colored like the rainbow which hid inside the wood, like the jewel-colored plumage of a tropical bird.
He doesn’t know a lot about petrified materials, but he remembers the traveller communicating to them, at first in incomprehensible bursts of a strangely-accented language Namjoon thought was English and then crude drawings in the dirt with a stick when he realized the children didn’t understand, that it took a very, very long time. Longer than the lives of everyone in the village combined.
The petrified, colorful wood he understands—perhaps Jin cut it from a petrified tree he found somewhere in the forest and slotted it into the folding doors. But how in the world did Jin manage to get sap in its liquid form, drip it between the boards, and wait for that mind-bogglingly long period of time for it to solidify and hold the boards together?
There are many odd things about this house: for one, how Jin managed to even transport the materials needed for its construction from the ground up to here, and again the baffling enigma of the petrified resin. Namjoon doesn’t even know where to begin asking. The creeping suspicion that perhaps the rumors are true—that perhaps Jin really is a witch, for this house would not exist if not for something close to magic—slides insidiously into his mind.
Namjoon’s eyes narrow. He opens his mouth, the impossible question lined up on his tongue, when Jin says brightly, “I think it’s time for lunch, don’t you?”
He closes his mouth with a snap. His stomach rumbles. He is hungry, he realizes, stomach scraped clean from the exhausting climb up to Jin’s house. He nods vigorously, eyes pleading. “Yes. Definitely.”
Jin laughs. “Come sit down, then.”
Jin leads him back through the house, through the kitchen, and to a verandah overlooking the stomach-churning drop down to the ground below. Namjoon quails, then sits in the chair as far away from all that empty air as he can manage, closest to the doorway. As far as he can tell, like the bedroom balcony, the verandah juts out from the rest of the house beyond the ring of banyan trees and is attached to the main structure only by one side. If it decides to break away and plummet to the ground at this very moment, at least Namjoon can dive out of his chair and through the doorway, back into the house.
The table is a single humongous slab of a tree trunk, cut crosswise with a polished top but rough sides with the bark still attached. It looks like it would require ten men to lift, and it’s definitely impossible to transport up here from the ground. Namjoon adds it to the growing pile of mysteries scattered throughout the house.
He sneaks glances at Jin cooking through the doorway which leads to the kitchen. Namjoon is hopeless at cooking and generally stays as far away from kitchens as possible to avoid inadvertently poisoning someone, but even he recognizes some of the ingredients Jin’s using: coconut milk, chicken, chillies, lemongrass. He’s not adept enough, however, to correctly identify what all these ingredients come together to make, and he sits nervously, inhaling the tantalizing smells wafting from the kitchen, hoping whatever Jin serves won’t be too weird.
About fifteen minutes later, Jin walks out of the kitchen, humming and carrying a steaming pot in one hand, the other arm balancing two plates of rice. He sets the bowls down on the table, one in front of Namjoon and one at the seat across from him, then places the pot on the table. Namjoon cranes his neck to peer into it, half-dreading glimpsing a broiled, intact human head, or a full branch of leaves cooked in soup—
—but the pot is filled with perfectly normal chicken curry.
He heaves a sigh of relief. He doesn’t know what he expected, but he was bracing himself for the worst.
Jin ladles the curry onto Namjoon’s bowl first, making Namjoon a bit embarrassed at the courtesy, and then serves himself. Green fingers of okra bob in the orange curry. Jin scoops a few of them out and deposits them on Namjoon’s plate, then does the same for his own. The thick, rich aroma of good food wafts out of the pot.
They sit down. Namjoon waits cautiously for Jin to say a prayer before eating, as everyone else he’s ever known besides himself does, and is immensely relieved when Jin tucks right into the food.
“So,” Jin says, putting a pinch of rice in his mouth. Namjoon’s heard that in the cities, people eat with cutlery, but he’s only ever seen one spoon and heard descriptions of a fork, and personally he thinks it’s far more trouble than it’s worth when he has a perfectly good pair of hands outfitted with two complete sets of fingers at his disposal. “How did the council rope you into this?”
Namjoon sighs, hungrily scarfing down a chunk of chicken. Thanks to the bone-deep exhaustion of the climb, it seems like the best food he’s tasted in his life. Maybe it is the best food he’s tasted in his life, with or without the climb. “There was this whole big mess with the girl I met up with at the fence, but…” The memory of their first conversation hits him anew. He glances suspiciously at Jin. “You already know that. You have some explaining to do about that, by the way.”
Jin shrugs, inclining his head.
“I went there to buy warna.” Namjoon wouldn’t normally tell people this, but he finds, for some reason, that he trusts Jin. “But there was a mishap. When the girl touched me to pass the flower over, we soulmate-marked.”
Jin blinks. “You both bruised?”
“In the same places? Where you touched?”
Jin sits forward with a frown. “Do you like women?”
“No. That’s the oddest thing.”
“Then a soulmate-mark shouldn’t have happened.”
“It did, though. That’s why it all felt so unfair.” Namjoon runs a hand through his hair, frustration rising up anew. “I ran away fast. I told her to go to any lengths to cover up the mark, and I started wearing gloves. We got away with it for a while. But then there was this one really hot night, and my hands were so uncomfortably warm that I couldn’t sleep, so I took the gloves off. Something woke me up in the middle of the night, so I got up and opened the front door to investigate. Turns out the council was waiting for me.” Namjoon sighs again. “I’d forgotten to put on my gloves, so they saw the bruise. The girl must’ve let her bruise be seen too, because they made the connection. They dragged me to the council hut and accused me of two crimes: coming into contact with a member of the opposite sex and heterosexuality, because you apparently only soulmate-mark people you’re attracted to. I’m not heterosexual, although I have nothing against women. I met her to buy warna. But I couldn’t tell them that, or I’d be accused of breaking three supposedly important laws.” Namjoon mixes his rice with the curry restlessly, unable to meet Jin’s eyes. “They told me I had two choices: death, or marry you to prove to them and the village that I’m homosexual. And I’m—I’m sorry, Jin, but I chose to marry you instead.”
He listens guiltily to the silence.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am,” he says falteringly. “You didn’t commit a single crime, but you were forced to marry me. I’m so sorry.”
More silence. And then a sigh as Jin shifts, sitting back.
“That’s okay,” he says, “honestly.”
“What?” Namjoon can’t believe his luck. “Really?”
“Yeah. I mean—we don’t have to be an actual married couple.” Jin gives him a sly look. “Unless you want to.”
Namjoon laughs. The comment makes him nervous for some reason. “Uh…of course not.”
“And it’s lonely up here.” Jin gestures around. “As you can imagine. No one ever visits me. Every so often I have to trek to the edge of the forest to see whether the council’s left any messages for me, and then I have to come back to this house and stay all by myself. Everyone’s too afraid of the jungle to give me some company.” Jin does a small, contented wiggle. “But now you’re here.” He beams. “And hopefully we can be friends!”
Namjoon doesn’t know how he does it: laying out all his feelings and vulnerabilities on the table like that, willingly demolishing his walls for the world to see the raw heart beating in his ribcage. Namjoon has always hid his emotions behind bars of apathy. To see Jin bare his without the slightest hesitation is…jarring, to say the least.
“Okay,” Namjoon says, leaning forward. “Now you explain. You said you run the illegal border trade. How the heck did that happen?”
“I felt that the council segregating males from females was unfair. So I told the right people that I’d pass messages to the other side of the village saying they’d buy certain goods at a certain price if they wanted, and the trade started from there.” Jin shrugs. “I live in the jungle, so it’s easy. I can visit the fence whenever I want, and I’m technically not breaking any laws since the council lets me live here.”
“I’d never have imagined someone like you was behind the whole thing,” Namjoon says, taken aback.
“I don’t know. You just seem so…law-abiding.”
“Good boys are bad boys that haven’t been caught,” he says in a weird sing-songy voice.
“Say what now?”
“Nothing.” A mischievous twinkle enters his eye. “But tell me. You met Bahu on the night you were soulmate-marked, right?”
Namjoon glances up sharply, okra halfway to his mouth. “How do you know that?”
Jin chuckles. “I’m Bahu, silly.”
“A bunch of villagers saw me walking around the jungle and turned me into a monster. I didn’t make the connection until you saw me and called me Bahu.” Jin looks amused. “I expected you to recognize me at the Conception Ceremony from that meeting in the jungle, but I guess you forgot.”
“No. I—I never saw your face. It was always in shadow.” Namjoon sits back, winded. “That’s such a coincidence.”
“Not as much as you think.” Jin’s eyes glimmer. “Outcasts attract.”
Namjoon opens his mouth to say something, but Jin shakes his head. He smiles. Its message is clear: we shall not talk about this sad thing we have both experienced. Not now.
Namjoon closes his mouth.
“Eat up,” Jin says generously, ladling more curry onto Namjoon’s plate.
Namjoon recites his log of strange occurrences to himself that night, stomach pleasantly full with a dinner of curry. Jin took away his wedding clothes, heavy and cumbersome with water, to dry, and lent him some clothes to wear. Now he’s wearing one of Jin’s odd short-sleeved shirts and even odder pants which end at the knees. Jin calls them shorts. The whole outfit is surprisingly cooling and comfortable.
He lies on his back in Jin’s huge, ecstatically soft bed and stares at the ceiling. Jin curls up on his side, back to Namjoon, and sleeps peacefully, breathing soft and gentle over the chirping of cicadas. Neither of them touch.
There’s the petrified sap, for which the house would have to be literally ancient for it to chronologically make sense. There’s all the things which couldn’t be transported up here: the veritable ocean of water in the tub, the tree trunk table, the materials needed to build the house. Namjoon doesn’t know much about cooking, too, but he’s pretty sure it takes more than an hour to cook curry. And the most incriminating evidence—Jin walked inside the bathroom earlier with their wet clothes, humming, for just one minute—and emerged with them completely dry.
Namjoon was flabbergasted. Brocade takes days to dry. He looked in the bathroom later, expecting a super-concentrated, laser-thin beam of sunlight, or perhaps a room full of mirrors, boiling hot, but it was a normal bathroom, walls and floor tiled and scrubbed clean, the illogically full porcelain tub of water which never seems to run dry squatting on gilded legs in the middle.
Jin has a strange contraption in his bathroom. Namjoon’s never seen it in his life and has no idea how Jin came up with the idea for it. Jin calls it a toilet, and it’s basically a seat with a hole cut in the middle dropping down to a shallow pool of water. It comes equipped with a tankful of water for what Jin calls “flushing”. Jin stood next to it with Namjoon and explained how to operate it for a good fifteen minutes—it involves lowering the seat and pulling a lever and other unfathomable steps—but Namjoon is used to doing his business in bushes or holes in the ground and is still utterly baffled. He was so frightened when Jin pulled the lever to demonstrate and the water got sucked into unknown depths with a great, booming roar that he jumped backward clear out the door while Jin laughed his squeaky-rubber laugh, doubled over and clutching his stomach.
For that matter, why are the banyans so huge? It’s just unnatural. No trees should be this huge or this wide across. Namjoon doesn’t believe in magic, so he didn’t swallow that myth about the grieving bomoh and the dying princess. He was too tired and soaked to notice earlier, but for trees of their size to exist, with an entire house suspended midair from them to boot, is just…impossible. And no one could’ve strung the rope ladder in place without first climbing the trunk of the trees, which would, again, have been impossible. Lastly, nothing and nobody can throw that high.
Who built the platforms? Who built this whole system, hidden away in the heart of the jungle at the center of a ring of ancient, enormous banyan trees? Jin’s never said it outright, but it’s been implied that he built all this. Him, with his soft hands and unlined face and fair skin. Namjoon finds that hard to believe, and for good reason: it would’ve taken a superhuman of some sort to have built all this. The superstitious villagers would’ve called it God.
Namjoon grapples with these problems and finally gives up. He knows Jin isn’t a witch. Witches don’t exist. But until Jin decides that Namjoon can be trusted enough to be told the truth, he’ll just have to accept them as mysteries.
Uneasily, he falls asleep.
Jin feeds him a breakfast of eggs beaten and fried into what he calls an “omelette”, along with strips of mystery meat he calls “bacon” and small orange beans he calls “Heinz”. The beans come in a thick, sweet sauce. Namjoon’s never seen food this strange before, and he pokes at it suspiciously before he takes a small, wary bite of the omelette and realizes how good it is. The ten minutes after is spent hungrily shovelling all the food he can reach into his mouth.
Jin, on his part, seems delighted to cook for him and have someone appreciate his cooking. Food flows from the kitchen in a steady, seemingly inexhaustible stream of dishes and platters. After Namjoon has had his third serving of something marvellous and gooey which Jin calls “chocolate pudding”, the guilt catches up to him.
“Jin,” he says, looking up. He clears his throat awkwardly and wipes a crumb from the corner of his mouth. “Um…how much do I pay you for this?”
Jin blinks at him. For a moment, Namjoon is worried that he’s offended him.
Then he laughs. “Don’t be silly,” he says lightly. “We’re married now, even if it wasn’t exactly consensual. I cook for you without charge. Don’t even think I’m going to accept any of your money.”
Good, Namjoon thinks with a decided measure of relief, because I don’t have any.
Jin ruffles his hair in an absentminded way and puts a rectangular biscuit-looking thing with brown streaks on his plate. “Pop Tart,” he announces, with the gravitas of a bride’s father delivering the dowry.
Namjoon takes it reverently. “Pop Tart,” he repeats solemnly, rolling the strange syllables around his mouth. He takes a bite and closes his eyes. So tasty. So beautiful.
He’s utterly stopped questioning what Jin’s feeding him—Jin could probably try feeding him grass, and he’d scarf it down greedily based on the trend set by the other wonderful foodstuff Jin’s served—when Jin asks offhandedly, “When was the last time you took a shower?”
Namjoon lowers his carton of—he doesn’t know what its name is, but Jin calls it “banana milk”—and blinks at him. “Uh, yesterday. Why?”
Jin tuts, immediately sweeping all the food off the table. Namjoon makes a little cry of loss and grief when the banana milk, of which half is still left, is tugged out of his hands. “That won’t do. You have to be clean!”
“What…you want me to take a bath?” Namjoon looks uncertainly. “But I don’t see a well around here. Did you mean with the tub?”
Village people take baths by drawing buckets of water up from wells and dumping it over themselves, usually while semi-dressed, since wells are inconveniently located outside the privacy of the house. Well water is freezing cold in the morning and boiling hot at noon. Namjoon’s never liked taking baths very much. He feels like it’s a waste of water.
Jin gives him an affronted look, mortally offended. “No, of course not! The water in the tub is clean water, exclusively for drinking and cooking. We can’t bathe in it.”
“Then why is it in the bathroom…?”
“There was nowhere else to put it.” Jin piles the plates on the counter and walks briskly over to the door. “Follow me. We’re going to take a bath.”
“What…?” Namjoon’s (very, very full) stomach sinks as Jin waits expectantly in the doorway. “We have to leave the house for it?”
“Of course.” Jin holds the door open, tapping his foot.
Namjoon sighs and reluctantly follows him outside. The circle of sky far above the house is a fierce, burning, cloudless blue.
“We don’t have to climb all the way back down again, do we?” Namjoon mumbles. “I think if we have to, I’ll cry.”
“Well, no. That would be quite unsafe and most probably impossible.” Jin leads him in a different direction over the platform. Namjoon heaves a sigh of relief as they pass the entrance tunnel, Jin stopping briefly to unfasten a rope which he explains lowers the vine ladder for their return, before walking through a natural arch formed by a curved roof of branches. “There’s a different way to get down.”
As they walk, Namjoon takes a moment to appreciate the beauty of gentle morning sunlight shining through the leaves. It’s cool this early in the day, the slightest bit chilly this high up, and he thinks the temperature is wonderful. He does a little skip-dance, then hurriedly decides not to do skip-dances in the future when he trips over the boards and nearly falls off the platform. He sees Jin glance back and stifle a giggle.
Jin leads him to a hole in the foliage surrounding them. Namjoon obliviously walks right up to the edge of the platform, then jerks back with a gasp. A vine as thick as his bicep has been fastened to a point above their heads, soaring down right into the jungle. It disappears through a similar hole in the canopy impossibly far below.
Jin picks up a bundle of complicated-looking equipment involving metal hooks and rope, stepping into complex straps of rough black cloth and tightening it around his waist. Namjoon glimpses a small tag sewn onto the cloth. After a struggling moment to remember his self-taught English lessons, he deciphers it: Made in the U.S. “This is a harness,” Jin says nonchalantly, as if he isn’t standing feet away from a drop which would turn him to a splat on the jungle floor. “It keeps us from falling if we lose our grip on that.” He jerks his chin.
Namjoon follows the point of his chin to a wooden frame attached to the vine. Two handles coated with rubber, grooved for gripping, jut out from the sides. A metal wheel hides in the center of it, placed over the vine and presumably intended to spin. It takes Namjoon a moment to recognize the suicidal contraption as a zipline.
When he was a child, someone built a low, short zipline, just five feet off the ground at the highest point, for the village kids to play with. They’d jump or climb a tower to catch ahold of the handles and then scream in delight as they zoomed down. Namjoon was never allowed to play on it, of course, but he yearned to try it enough that he essentially memorized its structure while watching from the sidelines.
He’s always wanted to try a zipline. That wistful childhood dream has never quite gone away. But this is a different matter entirely—this is ziplining from a hundred feet above the jungle floor, with only a flimsy harness between him and grisly, gruesome death, and not on a strengthened, reinforced metal cable—on a vine.
“Don’t worry,” Jin says. He clips the harness onto the vine and holds onto a trunk so he won’t zoom down, jumping to demonstrate to Namjoon how he dangles freely. “It’s strong. See?”
Namjoon doesn’t like this. Namjoon is not convinced. All Namjoon sees is the terrible drop all the way to the ground far, far below, horrifying visions of the vine snapping while he clutches in terror at his pathetic harness and waits for the earth to meet him. Namjoon is not getting on that zipline. Namjoon is smarter than that.
“I’m not getting on that zipline,” he tells Jin with conviction.
Jin tilts his head.
“I wish I wasn’t getting on this zipline,” he babbles as Jin clips his harness to the vine. He grips the handles with white-knuckled fists, shaking and moaning in fear. “Why am I getting on this zipline? What did I do to deserve this? I’m too young to die!”
Jin rolls his eyes. “I didn’t know I married such a drama queen,” he says, then pushes Namjoon hard.
Namjoon flies through the air. He screams, disjointed fragments of words trailing in the air behind him, as wind pushes his hair back and stings his eyes. He digs his nails into the rubber handle, praying more desperately than he’s ever had cause to in his life, as the trees rush closer and closer and the zipline puts on more and more speed. Any minute now the vine will snap and throw Namjoon to the ground. Any minute now Namjoon’s harness will disconnect and he’ll be hanging helplessly from the zipline by two hands, sweaty palms slipping as the envelope of his death is sealed—
Namjoon soars through the hole in the trees. This section of vine is coated in rubber. Smart, he has time to think, as the friction between the rubber and the wooden frame builds and his momentum slows.
He comes to a gentle stop, feet brushing the tops of the blades of grass. Shakily, he unclips his harness and collapses in a heap on the ground.
The frame is reeled back up by another vine connected to it. This takes a while. Minutes later, while Namjoon catches his breath and thanks all that is good and holy that he survived the experience, he hears a distance whizzzzz sound. He just barely musters the foresight to roll out of the way seconds before Jin zooms through the jungle canopy and comes to a stop, unclipping his harness and gracefully landing on both feet.
Jin towers over him, smiling brightly. “So!” he says. “How was it?”
Namjoon groans. His stomach has migrated to his throat, possibly permanently, and his heart has beaten its way out of his ribcage and travelled to Korea. You couldn’t pay him to do that again. Not even with another breakfast of Jin’s.
Except maybe with a lifetime supply of the strange food item Jin called “churros”. He really liked the churros. He could’ve drowned in a sea of churros and been very, very happy about it.
“Come on, I’m sure we’d all like to lie on the jungle floor and have a good moan now and then, but not all of us can afford that luxury,” Jin says cheerfully, pulling Namjoon to his feet. “We have places to go! Otherwise we would’ve went down the zipline for nothing.”
Namjoon quails. He’s already suffered through that terrifying ordeal thanks to Jin. Getting a bath out of it is the least Jin can offer.
“Follow me,” Jin says.
And they embark on another trudge through the forest.
This one, mercifully, is much shorter than the one they took to get to Jin’s house from the village. Namjoon’s only been getting whacked in the face by low branches and tripped up by gnarled tree roots for five minutes before they reach a clearing in the trees and find a waterfall.
It’s a beautiful sight to behold. Clear, pure water tumbles in a ten foot-high gush of water down into a pool surrounded by rocks. Grass grows around it, tiny blossoms sprouting among the blades, and the ground is devoid of the usual sharp twigs and pebbles which litter the jungle floor. Jin slips off his shoes and walks right up to the pool, pulling off his shirt. Namjoon begins to panic when his shirt falls in a bundle on the grass and the muscles of Jin’s bare back flex as he unbuckles his trousers.
“What are you doing?” he squawks, wavering desperately between covering his eyes and turning away.
Jin pauses to look at him curiously. “Undressing.”
“Last time I checked, you needed to undress to bathe,” Jin says dryly.
That was most definitely not the common consensus last time Namjoon checked, but he says nothing, whining in upset as he stares at the sky, while Jin strips down naked and walks into the pool.
Jin swims to the middle, then treads water, turning to Namjoon. “Aren’t you coming?”
“But—” Namjoon tries to think of a valid excuse which is not I’m sorry I know you’re very nice but I don’t want to take my clothes off in front of you. “I—”
“Come on,” Jin says patiently. “Otherwise you would’ve went through all the trouble to get here for nothing.”
Namjoon can’t argue with that.
Eventually, persuaded by Jin, he reluctantly turns away, quickly takes off his clothes, and dashes into the pool, hasty to hide his body. He dives into the water with a splash and paddles to the middle where he can tread water and his body isn’t visible. Smooth, round pebbles line the bottom of the pool. It’s the only natural body of water Namjoon’s seen which isn’t brown. The place almost seems too perfect to be true.
Jin tosses him a cream-colored bar of soap. Namjoon barely manages to catch it and fumbles to keep it in his grasp as the slippery surface strives to leap out of his hands. “Here. It’s homemade.”
Namjoon brings it to his nose and sniffs. Jasmine.
With that, Jin swims off to the other end of the pool to give Namjoon his privacy, humming. Namjoon is immensely grateful as Jin turns his back on him and begins soaping himself, washing off in the flow from the waterfall.
Namjoon looks around cautiously. There’s no one else around. He lets his shoulders drop, lowering his defenses, and takes another deep, appreciative sniff of the soap. It really does smell good.
He begins running the bar over his body, soaking up the beauty of the waterfall and the surrounding jungle. This place is so perfect that it looks like someone painted it. Even the water feels softer around his legs, gentler. He wiggles happily, letting go of the soap—peculiarly but conveniently, it floats—and scooping up handfuls of water to wash himself.
He looks down at the depths of the pool. It’s deep enough that he can’t see the bottom—it disappears into a vague, crystal-blue haze. But surprisingly, he finds that he isn’t worried about monsters or piranhas dragging him down into the depths. He trusts Jin. Jin brought him here. The sound of the waterfall is lulling, like a melody of water, and even though Namjoon traditionally worries about everything, he finds himself utterly relaxed as he gazes languidly through the water swirling around his feet—
—and sees a face.
Vaguely, he sees Jin’s head jerk towards him in his peripheral vision, but Namjoon has other concerns. He kicks and flails wildly at the face, pale against the blue of the water below him, sobbing his regrets at ever going down the zipline. The face takes on a disgruntled expression. Strands of wispy brown hair float around it. Namjoon shrieks louder for help as it rises through the water, followed by a long, lean body, head breaking the surface of the water and turning towards him.
“Would you please stop shouting,” the man says to Namjoon. Namjoon continues yelling in a long, continuous screech. “Would you—would you please—oh, I need Jungkook to deal with this.”
As if summoned, another man breaks the surface of the water beside the first. Namjoon screams louder. They’re monsters. He’s done for. The first man, the one with the brown hair, has blue-tinged skin, and the other has green hair falling in damp bangs over a pouty baby face.
“Why did Jin bring him here?” Babyface asks Brunette, raising his voice to be heard over Namjoon’s shrieking. “Look at him. He’s yelling down the jungle.”
“That’s because people are a bit unused to the sight of us, babe,” Brunette replies. The lines on the sides of his neck which Namjoon originally thought were tattoos ripple, and Namjoon realizes with a sickening lurch that they’re gills. “Can’t blame him, really. He’s obviously never been in the jungle before. People tend to dislike me upon first sight for some reason.”
“Jin!” Namjoon screeches. “Help me!”
Babyface dips his head to lick Brunette’s gills, running his tongue along the flaps of flesh. Brunette giggles and pushes at his chest. “I like you.”
“I like you too, babe.”
They begin to make out, grossly and extremely publicly, right in front of Namjoon. Their tongues appear to be turquoise, the same color as their eyes. This does not help the situation. Namjoon is practically in tears when Jin arrives, coming to a stop in a flurry of ripples and splashes. “What’s going on here?”
They break away reluctantly from each other. “He saw us and started screaming,” Brunette complains, casually thrusting two of his fingers into Babyface’s mouth as he talks. Babyface wraps his plump lips around them and sucks placidly as if they were a pacifier.
“Oh,” Jin says. “I forgot to warn him.”
“Jin!” Namjoon yells. “What! Are! They!”
Babyface releases Brunette’s fingers. Brunette licks the spit off them thoughtfully while Babyface says, sounding faintly put out, “Now that’s just unkind.”
“It took us years to be recognized by the Elven Creature Convention as who,” Brunette adds indignantly. “The least you could do is respect that. You just gonna trample all over our rights like that?”
“Namjoon,” Jin says, rubbing his temples as Namjoon drags panicky, gasping breaths into his lungs, “this is Taehyung—”
“Me,” Brunette says, rather unnecessarily.
“—and this is Jungkook.”
Babyface waves webbed fingers at him. Namjoon thinks he might pass out.
“They’re water nymphs,” Jin says carefully. “Now, water nymphs are nothing to be afraid of—”
“Why are they here?” Namjoon yelps.
“Excuse you,” Taehyung says, “why are you here? This is our waterfall.”
“Jin brought me here! I didn’t know there were going to be two naked pretty boys floating around beneath the surface and watching me bathe!”
Jungkook nudges Taehyung. “He thinks we’re pretty,” he says, pleased.
“You two,” Jin says, pained, “what did I say about keeping your hands off each other when you meet new people? It leaves a bad first impression.”
“We were having sex,” Taehyung says, open as anything, “when this bozo floated over us and started dropping soap suds on our heads. Naturally, we came up to investigate.” His gills ripple as he talks, driving Namjoon’s panic levels higher.
“How do you all know each other?” Namjoon asks wildly, still not recovered.
“Well, it would just be bad form if we failed to acquaint ourselves with the neighborhood witch,” Taehyung drawls, as if this is common sense, “and Jin comes over to loosen up every once in awhile, too.”
Namjoon takes a minute to grapple with this information. Eventually, he arrives at a dismissive, “He’s not a witch.”
Taehyung and Jungkook exchange incredulous looks—then burst out laughing. Namjoon is confused. Do these nymphs believe the rumors too? “What?” Taehyung gasps. He seems to be doing more talking than Jungkook, who’s doing something underwater which makes Taehyung stutter out a moan every few seconds. Namjoon does not like to think about what bodily fluids he may currently be floating in. “Did you just say Jin isn’t a witch?”
“Jin is the witchiest witchy witch-witch south of Witchland,” Jungkook declares, which does not clear up matters in the least.
Namjoon turns to Jin. He’s not taking evidence from someone with gills. “Jin?”
Jin looks ashamed. “I was going to tell you…”
“You are a witch?” Namjoon’s whole world reels with shock.
“I thought you’d figured it out! There’s no way that house could’ve been built except through witchcraft, Namjoon!”
Namjoon rubs his temples. “Look, I don’t…I don’t know what colossal joke you all are playing on me, and those are very nice gills, Taehyung, and I’m sure your webbed hands are very fine and dandy, Jungkook, but…I don’t believe you. I can’t.”
“Does he want a demonstration?” Jungkook asks curiously.
Taehyung perks up, clapping his hands together. “Yes! Yes! Demo!!!”
Jin sighs. “Do I really have to—”
“Yes!!!!!” the two of them chorus in unison.
Jin rubs a hand over his eyes. Then he narrows his eyes at Taehyung, mouth thinning into a line, and Taehyung squeals in delight as he’s lifted clear out of the water.
Namjoon winces and looks away. Clothes appear to be an alien concept to Taehyung.
Then it hits him. Wait. What? Jin can levitate people?
He gapes at Taehyung. Taehyung makes ridiculous swimming motions in the air, and Jin’s eyebrows furrow as he makes him fly around the clearing like a bird. Taehyung flaps his arms ridiculously.
“Jin!” Namjoon yells. “Why did you not tell me you could do this?”
“I just didn’t think it was a big deal,” he says, looking momentarily away from Taehyung. Taehyung bounces off a tree trunk and blinks woozily, shaking his head.
“What? What? What part of ‘by the way, the rumors are true and I’m a witch’ is not a big deal?”
“You’re going to be living with me anyway,” Jin says sulkily. “You would’ve found out eventually.”
“And—” Another part of Taehyung’s statement hits him. “‘Loosen up’? What does that mean?”
Taehyung laughs. Jin sets him gently back down in the water, where he clings to Jungkook, giggling. “What do you think it means, baby boy?” Taehyung teases.
“I don’t know, like…” Namjoon grasps wildly at strings. “A massage?”
They collapse into laughter again. Jin looks at the water. “No,” Jungkook cackles. “No, not that kind of loosen up, although you’re close.”
“He comes here to fuck us,” Taehyung gasps. “That’s what I meant.”
Namjoon looks at Jin, feeling oddly betrayed.
Jin has the grace to look embarrassed. “I mean, it does get lonely in the jungle,” he mumbles, shuffling his feet. “There’s no reason for me to always be by myself.”
“I thought you were a virgin,” Namjoon says, faintly accusingly.
“Why would I be a virgin?” Jin asks, bewildered.
Namjoon looks down. Because I am, he thinks to himself. And because you’re meant to be an outcast, you’re meant to be like me, and people like us don’t get to fuck pretty boys in the middle of the jungle.
“You look a bit down,” Taehyung remarks. “Need some help with that?”
It takes Namjoon too long to realize that Taehyung is reaching between his legs. He yelps and bats Taehyung’s hand away just before it touches him. “No!”
Taehyung fakes offense, pouting. Jungkook sidles up to him and pats his chest consolingly. “It’s okay. You can touch me.”
Taehyung smiles and proceeds to do just that. Jungkook sighs in pleasure and floats on his back in the water, exposing his body to the world, and Namjoon shuts his eyes hastily. Modesty seems to be unheard of among nymphs.
Jin sighs. “Come on, Namjoon,” he says. “They’ll be going at it for a while.”
Namjoon doesn’t know what to say or think on the way back, so he doesn’t. They trudge through the fruit-laden branches of the jungle in silence.
He always suffers through the torturous ascent to the house before Jin does because he doesn’t know how to pull up the rope ladder, and this time he only has to rest for one minute after dragging himself like a dying fish onto the platform. He pulls himself up with difficulty and staggers towards the house. He thinks he’s improving—it’s the first time he’s managed to move his limbs before Jin arrives.
He opens the door of the house and walks in, heading to the tub of water in the bathroom to fill a cup and gulp it down. The liquid is always cool. Namjoon could get used to this life.
He hears a clatter and walks outside, wiping his mouth with the cup in hand, expecting Jin back. But who he sees is most definitely not Jin.
There’s a man in the sitting room with silver hair and eyes, dressed in a glittering waistcoat and sequined black trousers, and he’s sitting slumped in Jin’s best rattan armchair and looking around, disgruntled.
Jin materializes with a pop in the middle of the room. Namjoon screams even harder and stumbles backward, tripping over a stool and going down with a crash onto the floor. The silver stranger tilts his head at him curiously.
“What is it?” Jin says wildly, short of breath and red-faced. “What happened?”
“Who is that?” Namjoon yells, pointing a quivering finger at the silver man.
“That’s—” Jin glances and seems to sag inward. “Oh. Jimin.” He bends over and puts his hands on his knees, wheezing. “Damn, teleportation really takes it out of me. I thought a tiger got in here and you were being mauled alive.”
“Who?” Namjoon shrieks, shaking his whole arm at the silver apparition for emphasis.
Jin sighs, straightening up creakily and rubbing a hand over his face. “This is Jimin. He’s a time traveller and necromancer.”
“Necromancer,” the silver man—Jimin—speaks this time. His voice sounds like the tinkling of silver bells, high and light, but his eyes are jittery—darting around the room like unsettled fish. “Death magician.”
Namjoon sways. This is a bit too much.
“Jimin’s powers manifested very early,” Jin begins. “And, well, there was quite an abundance of them. So Jimin here was resurrecting things left and right, anything dead he found like roadkill—”
“—and crushed bugs, but no one told him that in anchoring a released soul back to this world, you loosen your connection to it a little bit more. So Jimin…eventually came unfastened.”
Namjoon’s eyes slide back to him nervously. Jimin does look like someone who could be described as unfastened. He doesn’t seem to ever be in one place at once even though in all respects he is mostly motionless: there are his eyes, constantly moving, and his hands—if they aren’t drawing restless patterns on the arms of the chair, the fingers are twitching slightly, jittery with pent-up tension.
“Unfastened?” he prompts anxiously.
“Jimin began to slip,” Jin says. “He went to sleep one day and woke up a century later.”
“What?” Jimin does not look like someone over a hundred years old. If you discount the constant air of strangeness which surrounds him, a sort of eldritch wrongness which makes Namjoon want to skitter away from his pale hands and dead eyes like a frightened bug, Jimin is really quite young and attractive. The sort of people Taehyung and Jungkook would go for, Namjoon thinks resentfully.
“He’d slipped from his own time period into another. His consciousness was losing its grip on time, and for the next few years—well, I can’t really say that, but for a long while—Jimin fell through years and decades and centuries, unable to hold onto any fixed time to exist. He could barely manage to stay in one time period for a few days before he was forced into another one. But Jimin is nothing if not resourceful, and while it’s still hard for him now to control his time-slips, eventually he learned how to harness the error and turn it into the power of time travel.”
“So you’re a sort of dynamic time-hopping resurrector,” Namjoon says to Jimin, the rational part of him for some reason accepting this without question. This marriage has changed him.
“Yes,” Jimin says. His eyes fix on Namjoon. Namjoon suddenly feels intensely uncomfortable. “But I don’t resurrect things unless I absolutely have to, these days. It’s too risky. Every life returned unfastens me a little more.”
Namjoon feels something like bugs crawling up his spine.
Jin turns to Jimin. “Why’d you decide to stop in, Jimin?”
“Well…I was feeling a bit tired, and you said I’m always welcome here. I really don’t mean to impose. But you know how much easier it is for me to hold on in this time period, and I was hoping I could stay for a bit—?”
“Don’t even ask,” Jin says vehemently. “You are always welcome here as long as you can stay, Jimin.”
“Wait,” Namjoon says hopelessly. “Why is it—if I’ve understood correctly, it’s easier for you to stay in this time—?”
“My magic acts like a sort of homing beacon for him,” Jin says. “Jimin tells me it’s easy to pick out magic in the time stream, and mine is like a lighthouse. It’s like…something for him to hold onto. He draws on it to stay anchored.”
“Doesn’t that tire you out?”
“I don’t mind in the least,” Jin says firmly. “I’ve got more than enough to spare, anyway.”
“You can never have enough magic,” Jimin murmurs distractedly.
“So, how was your journey here?” Jin asks brightly, sitting down. Namjoon sits down slowly as well, feeling winded from the influx of information.
Jin scratches the rattan arm of the chair the way one would scratch their head. Namjoon watches it with fascinated confusion. “It was…fine. I landed somewhere in the jungle—this waterfall. Magic had recently been used there, so it sidetracked me from my target. I made to leave, but these two water nymphs—Taehyung and Jungkook?—appeared out of nowhere and insisted I fuck them.”
Namjoon flinches at the sudden, unexpected vulgarity. Jimin has…odd manners. He must have picked it up from different time periods. He’s still finding that hard to wrap his head around.
“They do that to everyone,” Jin says, unruffled. “It’s normal.”
“And when I said no, they got a bit put out? They went a little ways away in a huff and started French-kissing very conspicuously.”
“Trying to make you jealous,” Jin says knowingly. “They do that to everyone too.”
“They didn’t do that to me,” Namjoon mumbles sulkily.
He only realizes he’s said it aloud when their heads turn towards him. The way Jimin moves unsettles him greatly. His shoulders and body stay in place, but his head swivels like an owl. It occurs to Namjoon that he hasn’t blinked once since he arrived.
“What’s he doing here?” Jimin asks, tilting his head. Namjoon resists the urge to cringe away from the stare of those silver eyes. He feels like a cowering mouse being examined by a cat. “He’s not magical.”
“Ah,” Jin says. “Um, events conspired, and this is now my husband. Jimin, meet Namjoon.”
Jimin doesn’t seem surprised. “One of those horrible arranged marriages, then? Hello.” He swoops in and abruptly kisses Namjoon on both cheeks. His lips are as cold as a fish’s. Namjoon flinches, but forces himself to stay frozen in place, terrified of offending him.
Jimin seems to become aware of the silence in the room an awkward moment later. “Oh, I’m sorry. Was that Elizabethan etiquette and not this time period’s? It was, wasn’t it.” He gnashes his teeth together thoughtfully. “Let’s see. How’s it rolling, fam?”
Namjoon turns to Jin. “What?” he asks wildly. “What’s rolling?”
Jin sighs. “It’s his way of greeting you. Don’t mind him.” He seems to brighten. “You must be hungry, Jimin.”
Jimin looks down at his belly. “Hungry?” he asks it.
His stomach, of course, does not reply.
He seems satisfied and looks up, nodding. “Yes. Quite.”
“I’ll go and cook something up, then,” Jin decides. He grabs Namjoon’s arm. “Husband. Help me.”
Namjoon is too flabbergasted at husband to protest as Jin drags him into the kitchen.
“Onion,” Jin says, shoving one at him along with a wooden chopping board. “Cut it.”
“What are we making?” Namjoon fumbles to catch the knife which sails leisurely through the air at him, then holds it by the tip of the blade between two fingers, terrified.
“Nasi lemak with my special homemade sambal.” Jin whacks him lightly on the arm, amused. “There’s no need to be afraid of magic, husband.”
“Husband?” Namjoon blurts, unable to hold back.
“I’m trying it out. Do you mind?” Jin slices chillies into fingernail-thin slices with terrifying precision. “It’s either that or darling. Pick one.”
“Husband,” he says hastily. “Husband is good.” He hesitates. “But can’t you just call me Namjoon?”
“That would be no fun.” Jin spins past him towards the doorway, laying a finger briefly across Namjoon’s lips as he passes. “I’m going to get some chicken. Be right back.”
Namjoon spends far too long standing in the middle of the kitchen after he’s left, cheeks beetroot red with confused embarrassment, lips tingling as he stares stupidly at the onion.
It turns out that Jimin is extraordinarily hungry. The nasi lemak finishes, but after Jin sends Namjoon off to the kitchen to cook up fried rice impromptu and he manages to burn Jin’s best pan instead of the food, Namjoon is exiled from the kitchen until further notice. He sits glumly next to Jimin at the tree trunk table while Jin bangs and clatters in the kitchen, furiously muttering about it being literally alchemically impossible to burn iron at this temperature.
“I think he’s angry at me,” Namjoon says quietly to Jimin, wincing as a particularly loud crash echoes through the adjoining doorway.
“No, he’s not,” Jimin dismisses. “When Jin is really mad at someone, he goes calm and quiet and begins smiling a lot. It’s very unnerving and usually ends in that someone being turned into a toad. But all this?” He waves his hand, indicating the frightening noises coming from the kitchen. “This is all for show. He’s only doing it to see you cower.”
Namjoon wobbles uncertainly. “…cower?”
“Of course,” Jimin says, as if this was obvious. “Haven’t you noticed how much he likes pushing you around?”
Namjoon looks towards the kitchen. “Should I…be insulted?”
“No,” Jimin says, one eye twitching spasmodically in a way Namjoon decides to ignore. “It means he likes you. He wouldn’t tolerate you or cook for you or do magic to show off to you if not.”
“What do you mean he likes me?” Namjoon realizes abruptly that this scares him more than the tantrum apparently being thrown in the kitchen.
But Jimin only winks, with some difficulty thanks to the twitching eye. “You’ll have to find that out yourself.”
No one knows how long Jimin will stay. Jin seems to optimistically take this as an omen that they should do as much with Jimin as possible before he goes—into another dimension, or another time, Namjoon doesn’t know. (He’s not sure if he wants to. Jimin’s entire existence is a headache—a parcel held together by unravelling twine.)
But Jimin seems resistant to Jin’s efforts to include him, moping around the guest room at the end of the house for hours by himself. He shows up for dinner one day with a new acquisition whirring through his hands. Namjoon gapes at it, awestruck.
“What is it?” he finally plucks up the courage to ask. “Does it do magic?”
“Uh…” Jimin looks down at his hand. “It’s…a fidget spinner.”
“Fidget? So it does do magic?”
“No,” Jimin says, sounding amused. “It just keeps me calm. Anxiety, you know. And OCD. And ADHD. And borderline personality disorder—”
He stops when he notices Namjoon staring at him blankly.
“You haven’t had Freud yet, have you?” he questions.
“Ah. Basically, the time travel messed me up as a kid so I’m quite stressed a lot of the time, and this”—he holds up the contraption, a tri-armed thing with round holes in each arm, the entire thing spinning—“helps me relax.”
“Can I try it?”
Jimin hands it to him. It’s heavier than Jimin makes it look—it’s solid silver to match his hair and eyes, and Namjoon nearly drops it in his soup. He fumbles it to safety hastily, swishing it curiously. It’s only a few minutes before he gets too enthusiastic and accidentally flings it right off his thumb, sending it sailing gracefully over the balcony railing and right over the edge.
The three of them watch it fall. Namjoon makes a mild squeak of terror, stomach plummeting. I’m going to get turned into a fish and steamed for breakfast. I’m really in for it now. “I’m sorry,” he babbles, fighting every shred of self-preservation in his body to get up and peer gingerly over the railing. “I didn’t mean it, Jimin, really, please don’t voodoo me or something—”
“It’s really no problem,” Jimin says. Jin snorts ungracefully.
Namjoon turns around. The fidget spinner is back in Jimin’s hand, dancing between his fingers.
“But—” He looks between the two of them. They look like they’re enjoying a colossal inside joke Namjoon isn’t in on. “How—?”
“Magic,” Jimin says, eyes dancing mischievously, “is a real gift at times.”
“At times?” Namjoon takes his place at the table again, still mildly shocked. “Isn’t it always a gift?”
Jin looks alarmed, like Namjoon’s said something wrong, but Jimin shakes his head indulgently. “Not when it’s landed you in the messes it’s landed me in,” he says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been dragged into another time to face near death. You see, geography is always changing. I’ve been to the bottom of the Mariana Trench once. I took an impulse trip to the Middle East, thinking I was stable, and woke up in the middle of a sandstorm. And I’ve lost count of all the wars I’ve been catapulted into. People, everywhere, always fighting. Every land has known the scars of battle.”
Namjoon looks at him askance. By all rights Jimin should appear like a young man only around he and Jin’s ages, but every time Namjoon looks at him his instincts tell him Jimin could well be one of the oldest people on Earth. He carries a heaviness inside him Namjoon’s only ever seen elderly bear a tiny portion of. His body seems too young for so much pain.
“Well,” Jin says brightly, making a valiant attempt to lighten the conversation, “I just remembered I need to go into the village tomorrow to buy supplies. Namjoon, Jimin, are you two okay on your own?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Jimin says. Namjoon would be offended at the implication that Namjoon is the bumbling wreck if not for the fact that he’s completely right.
“What supplies?” Namjoon asks. “I thought you said you have everything you need in the jungle.”
“I’m dreadful at fishing,” Jin says, “and if I go any longer without seafood, I’ll commit suicide with a wok.”
Namjoon recoils. “I hate seafood.”
“Well, I’m the cook here, so you’d better warm up to it real fast, husband.”
“Do you really have to go to the village?” Namjoon asks, just a hint of a whine in his voice. As much as he likes Jimin, he doesn’t want to be left alone with him. He could probably hack Jimin’s arm off with a meat cleaver without him noticing. He seems to inhabit a plane of existence separate from theirs, only emerging occasionally to participate in conversation. Namjoon’s seen him, in a fit of distraction, walk clear off the platform before, only to reappear with a pop a few feet away from the edge, blinking. “They’re so mean to you.”
Jin shrugs. “They never say anything to my face.”
It still doesn’t settle well with him. He struggles internally for a while before resigning himself to the fact that a sacrifice must be made to spare Jin. Jin saved him from the gallows, after all. The least Namjoon could do is repay him in fish—however slimy, slippery, smelly, and generally unpleasant they are. “I could”—he grimaces—“fish for you.”
Jin lights up. “What? When? Tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah. Sure. I’ve done it before. What do you have? Net? Bubu? Fishing pole?”
“Whichever you prefer.”
“Brilliant!” Jin turns to Jimin. “What are you doing alone?”
Jimin considers for a while. “Well…I suppose I could go see those water nymphs, if their offer’s still open.”
Namjoon chokes on his rice. Jin pats him on the back while he coughs up the grains.
“What?” he gasps. Jimin regards him calmly. “You’re—you’re joking, right?”
“Why would I joke?” Jimin asks curiously.
“You’re—let me get this straight.” Namjoon gesticulates wildly at him with his rice-sticky hand. “While we fish, you’re going to… engage in relations with those two water nymphs you don’t know at all?”
“If by engage in relations you mean have sex with them, yes,” Jimin says. “Why?”
“You don’t know them!” Namjoon says wildly. “You’re not married to them! What in the world?”
“Namjoon,” Jin says gently, “Jimin comes from different times. Where he’s been, strangers are fair game. Sex does not have to wait for marriage. People can do what they want with their bodies.”
“But it’s immoral,” Namjoon says, aghast.
Jimin shrugs. “That’s never stopped me from having fun.”
“And—and—and Taehyung and Jungkook are okay with you being an utter stranger?”
“Is that normal in the jungle?”
“It must be,” Jimin answers. “Or Jin would still be a virgin, wouldn’t he?”
“You’re not still a virgin, Namjoon,” Jin says, amused. He makes no attempt to deny the attack on his purity.
Namjoon stews furiously, indignant, his sensibilities offended.
“You are,” Jimin says, astonished.
“I comply with the law,” he answers shortly.
“No you don’t,” Jin says dismissively. “Or you’d never have known a warna high.”
“In the future, we have marijuana, and it’s completely legal,” Jimin says, leaning forward conspiratorially. “I’ll take you there sometime. It’s great.”
“I still can’t get over the fact,” Namjoon says, stabbing his finger into the table with every word for emphasis, “that while we fish and engage in homely, wholesome activities, you are going to canoodle with two strange water nymphs in a pool in the middle of an unfamiliar jungle?”
Jimin’s lips twitch. “Canoodle. That’s a new one.” He leans back. “And you’re exactly right.”
Namjoon groans. “You still don’t see the flaw in your reasoning?”
“Don’t blame him,” Jin says to Jimin. “He’s been raised this way.”
“There’s no flaw as far as I see it,” Jimin replies. “And Jin would’ve tagged along if not for you.”
Jin dabs at his mouth with a napkin delicately. “No one can say I’m not a faithful husband.”
“We’re not even real husbands, though,” Namjoon says, unsure how to feel about this development in events.
Namjoon’s cheeks flush slightly. He frowns at the table.
Jimin leaves them at the bottom of the zipline. He looks cheerful, a towel slung jovially over his shoulder. “Don’t wait up for me,” he calls back.
Namjoon shudders, following Jin as they traipse seaward through the jungle.
He hears the booming roar of the ocean before he sees it. They emerge from the copse of trees suddenly, just when Namjoon has become used to the thick, endless impenetrability of hot, muggy green all around him, and Namjoon finds himself squinting at a narrow strip of sand. The sand is the cleanest he’s ever seen: pure white and so fine it’s dusty. It reflects the sunlight so acutely he has to shade his eyes or narrow them into slits to protect them from the blinding glare.
After hours spent absorbing the sun’s heat, the sand is also scalding hot. Namjoon sets foot in it and yelps, jumping backwards straight into a thicket of spiky twigs. Thankfully, his hardened, roughened foot soles, broken in from trudging through the village virtually his whole life, barely feel the tiny thorns, but it’s uncomfortable nevertheless.
Jin chuckles. “Don’t be hasty,” he says. “I brought shoes.”
He produces boat-shaped banana leaves, sewn together out of twine. Namjoon takes a pair and stares at them dubiously. “Are you sure these will protect my feet?” he questions skeptically.
“I rubbed aloe on the inside. It’s enchanted not to dry out. If anything, they’re cooling.” Jin tips his massive, preposterously wide-brimmed wicker sunhat over his eyes to shield them from the sun. When Namjoon refused to wear one himself, Jin forced him to smear copious amounts of aloe vera paste on his skin as sunscreen. His face and arms feel uncomfortably sticky.
Namjoon sighs and hefts the net higher on his back, bending down to tie the twine around his ankles. He takes a cautious step onto the sand. Sure enough, the heat doesn’t seep through the thin banana leaf layer at all. He takes a few disbelieving steps along the beach, bypassing the boundaries of the jungle’s shade and taking the full brunt of the sun beating down on him.
When his feet don’t turn into charred embers, he shrugs. “Guess I’ll start, then.”
He wades straight into the sea, casting the net and waiting. He doesn’t know why Jin came along—netting fish from the shore is slow work, and they may be here for hours. He sits down on a rock protruding above the waves to wait and casts a wary glance at Jin. Jin has situated himself on a flat rock under a shady overhang of tree branches. His hat brim is tipped too low for Namjoon to see his eyes. He could be watching him, looking out to sea, inspecting his nails, dozing.
Namjoon blinks and looks away, returning his attention to the net.
Anyone else would say it’s a beautiful day, straight out of a tropical tourist guidebook if Namjoon knew what tourist guidebooks were, but Namjoon has grown inundated to views like this after living in them his whole life. The white crescent of sand curves away from him around the coastline, a heat mirage shimmering over it. Beyond it bursts the thick, luscious green of a thriving rainforest in full bloom. The gently rolling hills which have formed his horizon his whole life, covered in blankets of trees, rise beyond the treetops in the distance, further away than anyone from both sides of the village has ever gone. Around him, the clear crystal blue of the sea stretches away on all sides, small, lazy waves lapping at the shore. The seawater is so clean and pure that the sandy, shell-strewn bottom is visible as far as he can see.
Namjoon kicks his legs idly. The water swirls around his legs, warm and drowsy. The sun beats down on him, but it doesn’t bother him after years of tolerating it. The world is silent but for the soft crash of waves on the shore, the wind rustling the palm trees, laughing through the fronds.
He wakes with a start. Jin is standing in the water, shorts held up, offering him a—glass?— of water with odd, transparent cubes floating in it.
Namjoon is too surprised to do anything but stare. “What are those?” he asks. “Poison? Enchantments?”
Jin blinks. “What—the ice?” They both look at the bobbing cubes. “They’re…bits of frozen water. When they melt they release cold water. So they keep drinks cold.”
“Frozen?” Namjoon asks blankly.
Jin sighs and thrusts it at him. “Just drink. You’ve been out in the sun for too long. You’ll dry up like a prune.”
Namjoon takes it and sips. It’s the coldest water he’s ever tasted. It’s beautiful.
He stares at it, holding it at arm’s length, then downs the whole glass greedily. “Thanks,” he says, passing the empty glass gingerly back to Jin. Glass is precious. He’s never heard of drinking from it. But he won’t question Jin’s unorthodox, luxurious ways.
“Wanna check your net?” Jin asks, nodding at it.
Namjoon glances over and startles. The net is bulging, full of fish trying to swim their way back out to sea, lured in by the small chunks of shrimp Namjoon hooked onto the rope grid. He splashes hastily over to it, bending to pick it up. “How long have I been asleep?”
“An hour or so.” Jin gestures. “I had time to build a hut.”
Namjoon turns in the direction of his pointing finger. A well-built, stable-looking hut fashioned out of tree branches, complete with palm frond-curtained windows and a door, stands some ways away on the beach. It wasn’t there when he fell asleep.
“How—?” he asks weakly.
“Magic,” Jin says smoothly. “I’m pretty good at construction magic, you know. I did build the house.”
Namjoon shakes his head and hauls the net to shore. “Do you wanna keep these alive until we get back?” he asks.
“Oh, sure. The fresher, the better.”
Namjoon sighs. “But neither of us brought a bucket.”
“That’s not a problem,” Jin says. After a moment’s delay, the net rises out of the water, taking a perfect sphere of cerulean saltwater with it, and hovers there. Fish swim around in it, bumping its walls with their heads. Namjoon imagines they look faintly confused.
Namjoon prods the walls of the sphere tentatively. He can stick his finger right into the water, the shape still holding. He wearily gives up trying to understand it.
“Would you like to retire to the hut?” Jin asks primly. “I doubt Jimin’s done yet, and we should enjoy a nice day at the beach.”
“I prepared refreshments,” Jin adds.
“Sure,” he says, giving in.
A moment later, they recline on deckchairs in the surprisingly spacious hut, watching the sea. Jin has more iced water. Namjoon gulps it down by the mouthful. Two kuih bakul wrapped in banana leaves have been placed on the table between them, sticky and sweet. The sphere of seawater rotates gently beside them.
“That hasn’t come off yet?” Jin asks, breaking the comfortable silence. He tips his chin at Namjoon’s right hand.
Namjoon looks down at the soulmate mark, almost surprised to see it there. “No,” he says. “I mean, I don’t think it will. It’s a soulmate mark.”
“That’s…debatable.” Jin says, setting down his glass and leaning over. He picks up Namjoon’s hand, inspecting the bruise. “In fact, it isn’t. I might be wrong, but I’m quite sure this isn’t even a bruise.”
Namjoon blinks at him. “What?”
Jin presses down on it. “Any pain?”
“Then it’s not a bruise.” He sweeps his thumb over Namjoon’s hand. Namjoon shivers, then frowns at himself. “I’ll be damned if it isn’t just…dye, of some sort.”
“Dye?” Namjoon’s mind works slowly, made sluggish by the baking midday heat. “You mean…she pranked me?”
“I can’t tell.” Jin lets go of his hand and sits back, deep in thought. “On the way back, remind me to take you past some warna bushes,” he adds, like an afterthought.
“Okay,” Namjoon says, confused.
They settle back in their seats. The thick, motionless humidity of the jungle flows back into the hut, any leftover excitement leaking out. The rattan deckchair he sits on—he has no idea where Jin conjured it from—is amazingly comfortable. Namjoon begins to feel sleepy again.
“Jin,” he says, half-dreaming, “do you ever worry about your soulmate?”
Jin laughs. “Worry? Why would I worry?”
“Like…will you ever find them? Will they really be a perfect match for you? That sort of thing.”
“Witches don’t have soulmates, silly.”
“What?” Namjoon sits up and eyes him in disbelief. “Really?”
“Isn’t that a bit of a lonely life, then?”
“You can be just as happy with someone whether they’re your soulmate or not. The council likes to spread propaganda that anyone but your soulmate will feel like trying to jam your foot into a boot too small for you, but it’s not like that. In fact—” He looks thoughtful. “Jimin tells me that in the future, there are no soulmates at all.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. The world is really different in the future.” His voice grows sad. “Jimin tells me that in the furthest in the future he’s been, there are no trees or animals. Everyone lives above the ground. And there are these—well, first of all, the world is actually round and floats in this big empty place called space, with stars in it, only it isn’t so empty because there are other round worlds floating in it just like ours. And those are called planets. He tells me that in that time, humans have spread to other planets, because there are too many of us here.”
“Too many?” Namjoon snorts. “That’s nonsense. The world is huge. And space? That’s stupid. If the world were round we’d fall off the edge of it. And something as heavy as the world wouldn’t float. It’d drop right through ‘space’ and hit the bottom.”
“Jimin says space has no bottom.”
“That can’t be true. Everything has an end.”
“Yes,” Jin murmurs. “It does.”
Namjoon feels the old curiosity niggling at him again. “Jin, how did you know you were a witch?”
“Hmm? Oh, I’ve been able to do magic as long as I can remember. I got better at it as I grew older.”
“Who raised you?”
Namjoon looks at him askance. “Oh, come on, there’s no need to keep up that lie anymore. I won’t judge, honest.”
“No, I’m serious. I think someone…left me here, as a baby. But the jungle likes me. It provided food and shelter for me and protected me from wild animals until I was old enough to fend for myself.”
“You mean…when you say the jungle, do you mean, like, the trees?”
“To some extent. Mainly the spirits. They all decided that the human baby in their midst was special—because I was magical, see—so they wouldn’t let me perish.”
“Spirits like…Taehyung and Jungkook.”
“There are more spirits than you know of, Namjoon, not just water nymphs. Every tree has a spirit, although most spend their time sleeping. Every plant has a soul. And there’s a spirit, of the jungle itself, who’s always been kind to me. You should meet him someday.”
“It’s a he?”
“Yep!” chirps a bright, cheerful voice behind Namjoon.
Namjoon screeches in fright, leaping clear out of his deckchair and landing in a fighting stance. A man leans against the wooden wall behind him, beaming widely at both of them. He’s clad eccentrically, even stranger than Jimin—a rainbow long-sleeved shirt with a roaring tiger on it, embroidered flowers reaching over the shoulders. His hair is light pink with amethyst streaks. He has delicate features, almost like a fairy, with a nose so pointed and straight Namjoon fears it’ll poke a hole in something.
“Where did you come from?” he yells.
“The jungle.” He giggles. He seems to find himself enormously funny. “I mean, I am the jungle. So…everywhere, I suppose.”
“Your shirt hurts my eyes,” Namjoon babbles.
He looks pleased. “Thanks!”
“Ah—Namjoon, this is Hoseok,” Jin says hurriedly. “Hoseok, meet Namjoon.”
“I know who you are,” Hoseok says cheerfully. Namjoon notices abruptly, with a fresh wave of fright, that the tiger on his shirt moves, licking its chops as it stares with red eyes at Namjoon. A breeze blows through the hut’s windows, and the embroidered flower petals on his shoulders rustle. “I figured I’d drop in and introduce myself since it looks like you’ll be residing permanently in the jungle. Hi! And welcome to me!”
“Hello,” Namjoon says faintly.
Hoseok digs in his pocket. “I brought you a present,” he says brightly, thrusting something glittering at Namjoon.
Namjoon takes it, feeling as if he’s moving through a dream. A rock rests in his hand, perfectly ordinary on the outside but filled with sharp, spiky jewels on the inside. The gems are a brilliant purple.
“It’s called a geode,” Hoseok explains. “Very valuable. Could sell for a pretty penny in the big cities.” He winks. “A gift from the jungle to you.”
“T-thank you,” Namjoon says weakly.
“Well, I must be going,” he says. He holds up a flower and checks it. Its petals move around the center, ticking softly. “I have an appointment with the river and some fussy plant spirits to resolve conflicts over fern growth. You know how vascular plant spirits are. As scatterbrained as their spores, really, although don’t tell them I said that.” He tuts. “I’ll see you around, Namjoon.”
“Okay,” he replies, voice tiny.
Hoseok walks right through the wall, not seeming to notice he’s missed the door, and disappears.
Namjoon looks to Jin for explanation.
“He can be a bit much,” Jin says, “but he’s the best. Really.” He pops the last maroon chunk of kuih bakul into his mouth. “Now let’s head back. I want time to cook these fish.”
As Jin promised, he halts Namjoon on the way back and stoops down beside a tangled bush with waxy, dark green leaves. Namjoon recognizes the purple flowers drooping heavily from the branches immediately. He kneels, staring at the warna blooms. He’s never seen them growing on a plant before. He didn’t even know they grew this side of the fence.
“So my theory,” Jin says, carefully plucking a flower from the bush, “is that the mark on your hand isn’t a soulmate mark. It’s got to do with this.”
“What—” Namjoon begins, but Jin sticks his left hand out, cutting him off. Namjoon looks at it, confused. “What?”
“Shake my hand,” Jin says.
“My hand, yes.”
Namjoon gingerly reaches out and awkwardly takes his hand with his left, his non-dominant one. The flower crumples between their palms.
Jin draws his hand back and inspects it. “Look,” he says, showing his palm to Namjoon.
Namjoon gasps. A bruise sprawls across Jin’s hand. When he glances down at his left palm, he sees that he has one too—identical in color to the one on his right. “Soulmate? You’re—I thought witches can’t?—but—I—”
“It’s not a soulmate mark,” Jin interrupts, not unkindly. “It’s just the dye left by overripe warna. It seems that it’s pretty indelible, but it can be washed off.” He waves his hand over Namjoon’s palms, and with the sensation of a feather brushing over them, the marks disappear as if scrubbed off by an invisible sponge. Namjoon retracts his hands quickly, eyes boggling.
“You’re saying all this time,” he says slowly, “it wasn’t a soulmate mark? We got forced into marriage and I faced execution by the council because of some old flower juice?”
“Illegal old flower juice,” Jin corrects. “So you can’t exactly go back now and show them the evidence that that girl you met at the fence isn’t your soulmate. But yes, basically.”
He crouches down on the ground, holding his head. Mingled shock and relief pour through him like a dam flooding its walls. “I don’t have a soulmate,” he whispers to himself. “It was just old flower juice. I don’t have a soulmate!”
A burden he didn’t know he was carrying lifts palpably from his shoulders. He looks up with a revitalized smile and surprises even himself when he flings his arms around Jin, hugging him close.
“Thank you,” he says, voice muffled in his shoulder. “I would’ve lived my whole life believing a lie if it weren’t for you.”
“I’m sure it would’ve faded eventually.”
“But what if it didn’t?”
Jin squeezes him back tightly and briefly. “No biggie.” Then he straightens up, brushing dirt off his pants. “Now come on. Night is falling.”
Jimin walks back in halfway through dinner, a dazed expression on his face. He drops the towel in a laundry hamper and sits down at the table, beaming genially at Namjoon.
“I suppose you had a good time, then,” Namjoon says dryly.
“Let’s put it this way.” Jimin touches his mouth unconsciously. “After all the time in the world to practice on each other, they’ve gotten really good at what they do.”
“Namjoon netted a big catch,” Jin calls from the kitchen, carrying a steaming plate of fried fish in. “Lots of ikan gemilang and even a few groupers.”
“So close to shore?” He raises his eyebrows. “Good job.”
He shrugs, embarrassed. No one’s ever complimented him before.
“So what do you two lovebirds have planned for tomorrow?” Jimin ladles rice onto his banana leaf-plate. Jin made Namjoon collect banana leaves on the way back, saying that he wanted to feel exotic. A grumbling Namjoon ended up lugging a train of them tied to his waist up the ladder, latex dripping down his calves. “Nothing too scintillating, I hope?”
“Nah. I think tomorrow’s gonna be a slow day.” Jin picks the meat off the fishbones. “I’ll cook something simple like fried rice and take a nap.”
“You’re not gonna show Namjoon the caves?”
“What caves?” Namjoon asks, looking up from his dinner.
Jin looks slightly uncomfortable. “That would be pretty hard to do,” he says, delicately spooning leafy vegetables onto his banana leaf, “seeing as, well, Yoongi has moved back in.”
Jimin’s entire body tenses in alarm. “What?” He looks around. “He’s here?”
“Well, he’s not here, obviously he’s in the caves—”
“He’s Death, Jin! He’s everywhere!”
“Wait, wait, what?” Namjoon puts his hands up in an attempt to stall conversation, again feeling himself get helplessly left behind. “Who’s Yoongi?”
“Yoongi is the…uh…” Jin rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t know how to say it so you’ll get it. Basically, he’s the Death of the jungle.”
“What? You mean he kills it?”
“No,” Jimin says wildly. “Yoongi is the spirit in charge of all death which takes place in the jungle. He harvests life and decides when everything needs to die.”
“Okay,” Namjoon says slowly. “Besides that being supremely creepy, why does that freak you out so much?”
“Because I’m a necromancer,” Jimin yelps, shooting to his feet. Namjoon’s never seen him so agitated. “And he has the power to literally turn me to dust!”
Jin sighs. “What Jimin would be saying if he weren’t so busy being dramatic is,” he begins, “since his entire existence is fueled by death magic, Yoongi can withdraw all the death magic he’s ever used. Not only would that turn Jimin mortal, it would also cause him to age—I don’t know, millennia?—as all the years he’s time-hopped through catch up to him. A pretty agonizing death, to say the least.” He picks at the edge of his banana leaf. “Necromancers and death spirits are also obviously natural enemies. Death spirits work to perpetuate the natural order of things by taking life. But necromancers disrupt that order by restoring it.”
“Why didn’t you tell me he was back when I got here?” Jimin asks vehemently, pacing around the room. “I can’t stay. I have to go.”
“Wasn’t Yoongi here all the other times you visited too?” Namjoon questions.
Jin shakes his head, answering the question for Jimin. “No. Or at least he wasn’t corporeal for whatever reason. Things were still dying, so we knew he was still here, but he didn’t have a physical presence in the jungle. When he’s not corporeal, a lot of his power is taken away, and he becomes more like a lesser death spirit and less like what he actually is—a sort of leader and commander of death spirits. A Superdeath.”
“So he couldn’t kill Jimin?”
“Necromancers are…notoriously hard to kill. They have so much life-restoring magic bottled up inside them that it makes them practically invincible. Even a major Death like Yoongi could only harm him in a corporeal state.”
“And now he’s just a quick stroll away,” Jimin says, pointing a trembling finger over the balcony, “hanging out in the caves.”
“I didn’t even know we had caves in the jungle,” Namjoon says, bewildered. “I’d only heard talk of ones in foreign lands from travelers. How come no one in the village knows about them?”
“Because Yoongi kills anyone who gets too close,” Jin says. “So no one lives to tell the tale.”
“Which is why he is a terrible Death,” Jimin says, silver eyes darting around the room. “He holds grudges. Death is meant to be fair, at the very least. Impartial, unbiased. But Yoongi takes things before their time sometimes just because they irritate him.”
“Do you remember how all the cows in the village died a few years back?” Jin queries.
“Yes,” Namjoon says. They’d all dropped dead in the middle of the night with no rational explanation. The sun rose over a village strewn with cattle corpses. It was a catastrophe—there was no milk or beef for months, after which the elders finally managed to ship in two old, sickly cows just barely of reproductive age. People are still paranoid from that episode—they insist that an uptick of sins incurred the wrath of the jungle spirits. Namjoon has always dismissed that as superstition. He had no idea how close it was to the truth. “What, did Yoongi do that?”
“Yes,” Jin says. “They mooed too loudly, I think, so he killed them off.”
“What?” Namjoon throws up his hands. “We had to hand-plow our fields for months because of an annoyed death spirit?”
“Which emphasizes the fact that I need to leave,” Jimin says, walking fast towards the doorway. “He already knows I’m here. I’ve canoodled in the jungle for days and days. He’s just biding his time to kill me off.” He spins around and points a finger at Jin. “I cannot believe you didn’t tell me. I thought you were my friend! I could be dead!”
“I’m sorry,” Jin says softly, looking down at the table. “I just—I wanted you to meet Namjoon. And I genuinely forgot. Yoongi hasn’t done anything erratic for ages.”
“Which means he’s waiting to do something erratic!” Jimin scrubs his hands through his silver hair, then takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. “Alright. I’m headed to the 21st century. I need to live as a millennial for awhile and be accused of killing everything so I can enjoy the irony. Next time—”
“Actually,” a quiet, unfamiliar voice swirls through the room, “I don’t think you are.”
“Congratulations, Jin. You’ve become better at enchantments.” A knocking sound against the walls, like long nails clicking against the wood all around them. Namjoon fills with sick, paralyzing fear. “It seems I can’t get in.”
“Thank you,” Jin says, face rigid as he struggles to maintain his composure.
“Odd of you to let a mortal into your inner sanctum.” Namjoon feels the disembodied voice focus on him. It’s a deeply unsettling voice—it never speaks louder than a whisper, and it speaks deliberately slowly, but it worms its way into his head and refuses to leave. It’s sibilant around the edges, bringing to mind images of cold scales sliding over jungle grass. “You must like him a fair bit.”
“I do,” Jin says. Namjoon has no idea how he can remain so calm.
“Are you not going to introduce me to him?” Namjoon feels the focus shift to Jimin. Jimin releases a small gasp, silver eyes darting around, face a pale mask of fear. “He’s new. He hasn’t been here when I was corporeal before. He’s interesting.”
“Leave me alone,” Jimin squeaks.
“And feisty.” The voice sounds amused. “You suggested showing Namjoon the caves yourself. Have your plans changed so fast?”
“Yoongi, what do you want?” Jin speaks up, voice cutting curtly through the room.
“I just wanted to see the newcomer. But it seems that I can’t physically be in the room.” The voice sounds regretful. “Oh, well. There’s always ways to get around even the most airtight of enchantments.”
What the hell is going on? Namjoon mouths frantically at Jin. Jin shakes his head minisculely.
“You left a gap,” the voice goes on offhandedly. “Lemongrass to prevent export magic, no? But the lemongrass had all been trampled by those accursed cattle. You figured it’d be okay to let it slide.”
A brief silence. Jin’s eyes widen, then in a split second, he grabs Namjoon’s wrist and lunges across the room, catching ahold of Jimin’s.
“You were wrong,” the voice says.
And everything dissolves into madness.
Namjoon feels the ground drop away from beneath him. He yells as he’s flung around, Jin’s hand an iron vice around his wrist, the world a starburst blur of color around him. Wind tears at his skin and clothes. He can’t breathe. Earth and trees and shattered night sky fly past his face at breakneck speeds, stars so close they singe the tip of his nose, river coursing right through his blood. Helplessly, he feels himself disperse into the very earth itself, and for a moment, he feels it all: every sandpapery leaf, every crawling lizard, every buzzing mosquito, every budding flower, every single blade of grass—every living, breathing mote of life that makes up the enormous roaring furred horned creature of the jungle—
And then he pulls back into his own body, everything stopping, leaving him swaying dizzily in unfamiliar surroundings.
Jin catches him before he falls, propping him up. They look warily around. Namjoon is in a massive, cavernous room made of rock, the ceiling uncountable heights above him. The air is cold. His footing slips—he’s standing on a slope, and the ground is powdery with chalky dust underneath his bare feet.
Jin tugs on his arm to steady him. “Careful.”
He regains his footing after several brief moments of alarm. Some distance away, he sees Jimin touching the walls, face pale as he stares up at the ceiling of what he assumes is the cave. “How did we get here?”
“Yoongi imported us here,” Jin says, wincing.
“What does that mean?”
“He forcefully teleported us here against our will. I—” He runs an agitated hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I thought I’d hidden the gap in the enchantments well enough—I didn’t anticipate this—”
“It’s okay,” Namjoon says quickly, worried by the upset shining through the cracks in Jin’s normally unruffled façade. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
“But this one could cost Jimin,” Jin whispers. The walls of the cave seem to suck up sound, as if listening intently to their conversation. Namjoon would expect such a large space to echo, but noise disappears unnaturally quickly, as if the space is absorbent. “A lot.”
“Where is he?” Jimin asks. His voice trembles. He spins around, shouting, “Where are you?”
“Is there a way to get out of here?” Namjoon walks around the cave, peering into the shadowy openings pockmarking the walls which lead to dark tunnels spiralling into the rock. The main room is by no means bright, but it’s illuminated enough by an unidentifiable light source that they can make each other out without trouble. The tunnels, however, are unnaturally dark, the spaces beyond the main room completely black. Namjoon steps one toe in. He immediately feels a chilling terror creep up his spine, an image of something horrifying with long, matted hair rushing at him out of the tunnel flashing through his mind. He leaps back, yelping. “What’s wrong with it?”
“Fear enchantments to keep us penned in here,” Jin says, resigned. “Yoongi wants us to wait.”
“This is ridiculous,” Namjoon says, pacing. “He can’t just summon us like servants—”
“Stop!” Jin shouts abruptly, voice puncturing the thick hush blanketing the cave.
Namjoon stumbles, windmilling his arms. The dusty ground abruptly drops off a few inches in front of his feet. He notices belatedly that the ground is by no means level—it slopes erratically up and down, and there are random holes in it, seemingly bottomless pits dropping off into nothing. Namjoon feels himself falling forward. Jin does something complicated with his hands, a whipping back-and-forth motion, and a sudden blast of air shoves him backward, making him fall on his butt.
He scooches rapidly backward. “What the hell? There are holes in the ground!”
“All caves are like this,” Jin says, rubbing a tired hand over his face. “They form when rainwater carves holes in limestone. Of course the ground won’t be regular.”
“And why is it so cold?” The chilly air nips at his skin. When he lifts his hands, his palms are covered in the odd, chalky dust, which he assumes is powder eroded from the walls themselves. The drifts he sent up into the air by the sudden motion make him cough.
“Sunlight never touches this place.” Jin looks warily around the room. “Ideal for a death spirit.”
“Speaking of said death spirit,” Jimin interjects, a shaky fury in his voice, “where is he?”
All three of them whip around.
A terribly pale man, so pale his skin shines with an unearthly glow, stands in the middle of the room. His feet are bare, white against the dusty brown ground. His hair is as black as ash. Namjoon can swear that he wasn’t there a second ago. He’s absolutely sure he didn’t enter the room, either.
“Yoongi,” Jin says, voice as tense as a highwire pulled too tight. He bows his head slightly.
“Jin,” he acknowledges, giving him a nod. “I didn’t ask for you two.”
“I wasn’t letting Jimin get snatched here alone,” Jin answers, voice cold enough to rival the cave’s temperature.
Yoongi turns away without bothering to reply, taking a step towards Jimin. Namjoon notices with alarm that his feet don’t quite touch the ground. “Stay back!” Jimin yelps, hands up in a fighting stance. “Don’t come any closer!”
But Yoongi’s black sinkholes of eyes are unerringly focused on him. “Don’t!” Jimin squeaks again in warning, eyes round with terror, just before Yoongi stops in front of him and strokes back a lock of silver hair.
Namjoon and Jin shoot each other confused looks. Jimin looks supremely baffled, rooted to the ground as Yoongi tucks a long strand behind his ear.
“Why is your hair silver?” he asks.
“Stop touching me!” he cries, frightened, trying to shrink away.
“Why,” he repeats, “is your hair silver?”
Jimin shudders miserably. Namjoon imagines that Yoongi’s fingers are icy cold. He swallows hard, seemingly forcing himself to speak. “It turned grey the more I time-travelled.”
“I could make it black again. And your eyes, too.”
He eyes him warily, leaning away from his touch. “Why would you do that?”
“Because I can.”
“I don’t want you to.” Jimin scowls vehemently at him, expression a mix of fear and defiance. “It’s a reminder to not resurrect things.”
Jimin recoils as if slapped, eyes jerking up to Yoongi’s unnaturally still face. “What—I—thank you?” he asks, perplexed and skeptical.
“What the fuck?” Jin mutters under his breath. Namjoon agrees.
When Yoongi doesn’t say anything further, Jimin spits belatedly, “I want to go home,” still trying to pull some semblance of dignity about him like a tattered veil.
Yoongi looks caught off-guard, or as caught off-guard as a literal death spirit can look. “But that’s not your home.”
“Neither is here,” he hisses, injecting ice into his voice.
He blinks. “Touché.” He waves his hand distractedly, stepping back. “Go, then.”
“We don’t know how to get out of here,” he retorts, voice wobbling just the tiniest bit, like a star uncertain of its orbit. “You snatched us here. Couldn’t you put us back, at least?”
“Oh,” he says. “Right.”
He snaps his fingers, and a swirling circle of green begins to form in midair, widening with every moment. Namjoon feels himself get dragged backward towards it and moans in fear, unwilling to go through the hellish cycle of teleportation again—but this time, thankfully, the ride is much smoother. The cave dissolves like putty around them. Namjoon catches, to his utter confusion, a glimpse of Hoseok striding angrily straight down the vertical trunk of a palm tree, sweater now made out of crumbling, wilted black vines and the tiger replaced by a panther snarling its teeth—then they are plopped neatly back where they came from, even in the same seats at the table. Namjoon wonders, winded from the trip, just how much Yoongi knows about them.
“What the fuck?” Jimin yells immediately, jumping up from his seat. “What the fuck?”
“Jimin, I’m sorry, I didn’t know he would do that—” Jin’s hands are out as if trying to placate a hot-tempered child. “I thought he’d stopped being volatile—”
“Oh, I don’t know, Jin!” He turns on him, eyes wild. “You let me stay here for days, let me wander through the jungle to go pick fruit and visit nymphs, and you don’t take one moment to tell me “oh, by the way, there’s an active death spirit here who can literally vaporize every atom of your being in the blink of an eye”. You don’t even care enough to warn me! Do you know how much danger I’m in? How much danger I was just in? I thought I was going to die in that cave! I thought that fucking—fucking—that ghoulish fucking cretin of a thing was going to kill me!”
Jin seems to crumple. “I’m sorry, I just—everything was going to well—you seemed so stable—we were all getting along—”
“Jin!” he shrieks, voice bouncing off the walls, and he laughs, voice breaking, crouching on the ground. Namjoon notes with alarm that a yanked-out clump of silver hair is clutched in each fist. He realizes, with the brief, terrified flicker a fish registers before swimming straight into the shark’s mouth, that there is probably a much more damaged individual hidden invisibly beneath Jimin’s already weird surface. Namjoon has no idea what the long list of mental health issues Jimin recited means, but he knows the gist of it: Jimin is a broken person. A broken person, worse yet, whose shattered pieces are constantly straining, tips pointed, to let loose and cut other people to shreds. How much self-control does he exercise just to keep himself from snapping all the time?
But he is not done. “You absolute—you—this would be funny, really, it would be—would be really fucking funny—if not for the fact that I could die within the hour if Yoongi feels like it!” His expression changes like storm clouds whipping over the horizon, becoming enraged with frightening speed. “You—fucking— asshole,” he shouts, levelling a shaking, ringed finger at Jin. “I trusted you, you lowlife backwater piece of—”
“Hey!” Namjoon yells.
Every head in the room turns to look at him. Namjoon suddenly reconsiders his decision to intervene as Jimin’s fury levels directly at him, but he’s already started this—he’s not backing out now.
“Don’t call Jin that,” he says, voice shaking. Just slightly. Just the tiniest bit. “He’s the only friend you have. Yes, he made a mistake. But only because he was so hopeful you’d recovered from—from—whatever you have that he thought it would be fine. Just because he’s the only person you even talk to doesn’t mean you get the right to blow up the one thing he’s ever done wrong on a massive scale. Yeah, you could be dead. But the point is you’re not. And are you really gonna stand here insulting him while every minute you spend shouting is a minute you’re lucky to have survived?”
Jin throws him a grateful look. Jimin’s expression shifts, again, to panic. Namjoon has no idea if the first part of his speech broke through his anger, but he knows the last sentence did.
“I—I have to go,” he says, looking around. “I didn’t bring anything—no. I—yes. I have to—”
“Stop!” Hoseok yells, materializing right on top of the table with a slightly pathetic whump sound .
Everyone flinches, then stares quizzically at him.
“Yes, what?” he snaps. “It’s the sound, isn’t it? Fine. It’s the sound of air molecules being pushed out of a space very quickly. Usually it sounds like pop or crack because I cover it up. But I don’t have time for that, because this is an emergency. Okay?”
He glares around at the three of them. They nod dumbly.
“Now,” he says, clearing his throat and trying to regain a measure of self-importance, “I have just conferred with Yoongi.”
Jimin’s eyes widen. “What? You’re friendly with that apparition?”
“I’m the jungle spirit. I have to be friendly with everyone.” Hoseok looks tired, sapped of his usual vivacity. Namjoon senses more than sees the leaves of every tree in the jungle droop with the corners of his mouth. “Jimin, I’m going to be straight with you, it’s—it’s bad news. Yoongi seems to have taken a liking to you. Because he’s a death spirit and his power eclipses yours, especially since your magic is the same field as his, he’s pretty much blocked you from time-hopping out of here.” He winces. “Effective…just about a few minutes ago.”
Jimin’s face is blank; impossible to read. “So I’m…trapped.”
“Yes,” Hoseok says heavily. “I’m sorry. I tried to persuade him. But there’s only so much I can do to convince him. He’s the death spirit of the jungle, and he’s closer to being my equal than my subordinate. I can’t make him do anything.”
“Well,” Jimin says flatly, “brilliant.”
He stalks off. Jin runs after him. “Jimin,” he pleads, “where are you going?”
“I’m leaving,” he snarls. “On this time plane, apparently, since now that fucker’s stopped me from time-hopping.”
“What good would that do?” Jin appeals desperately.
“He’s the death spirit of the jungle.” Jimin glares at him. “That means once I leave the jungle, his influence over me lessens, if not disappears entirely.”
“Jimin,” Namjoon breaks in nervously, “You really don’t know anything about Malaysia, do you?”
Jimin stops and scowls furiously at him. “What do you mean, I don’t know anything about Malaysia? I’ve lived here years, cumulatively.”
Namjoon takes a deep breath. “The whole of Malaysia is jungle. People from the villages have tried to leave. But the thing is—they can’t. Every direction you go, it’s jungle, or the sea to the east and west. And we can’t cross that sea. Not in a sampan.”
“So you’re saying,” Jimin says slowly, “that I can’t leave the jungle.”
All eyes in the room turn to Hoseok, who shrugs helplessly.
“Namjoon right,” he says. “I’m—the jungle is—huge. I’m not aware of anything beyond my borders because it isn’t part of me, but I span a massive area. For all I know, there’s another jungle bordering mine which you don’t know how to live in or get through.”
His shoulders slump. “So I’m trapped.”
“It seems, until Yoongi gets what he wants,” Hoseok says carefully, “yes.”
The next few days are occupied with tense waiting.
The sweaty days stretch into muggy weeks and the muggy weeks stretch into a stifling month, Namjoon and Jin and Jimin battling through the most severe heat spell the jungle has seen for decades. Every day Namjoon sits at his post by the door, watching and listening hard, sweating marks into his wooden chair. Jin worriedly slaps extra enchantments onto the house every spare minute. Jimin frets, mostly keeping to his room and emerging only to eat once a day. But he seems to have forgiven them—he sees how much effort they’re putting into keeping him safe and Yoongi away, and he grudgingly takes back his place in the household, coming out more often to socialize.
“Still no news?” Hoseok asks, concerned, opening the door and walking in. Jin convinced him to stop materializing randomly out of the air and come in through the door instead, but Hoseok still hasn’t quite grasped the concept of knocking. He drops in every other day to ask what’s going on.
“No,” Namjoon sighs, weaving leaves into a lattice.
Hoseok eyes him curiously. “What do you got there?”
“Jin wants us to celebrate Raya,” he says, reaching into the bowl of sticky rice next to him to pull out a clump. “So I got assigned to making ketupat. He’s currently making enough kuah kacang to drown the village in the kitchen.”
“You guys aren’t Muslim, though. And you didn’t fast.”
He shrugs. “He says he’ll take any opportunity to celebrate since it’s so gloomy here.”
“Hoseok,” Taehyung says piteously, flopping out of the bathroom and leaving a trail of water over the boards, “can’t you do something about the heat? Please?”
“Evaporation rates are insane,” Jungkook complains, cropping up behind him. “The water level in the pool is so low our dicks stick out of the water when we’re lying down.”
“What? When did you two get here?” he asks, caught off-guard by the sudden appearance of two half-naked, dripping men. Jin allowed them to come here for cooled water to reside in on the condition that they wore, at the very least, underwear. They moaned and groaned and sulked about it, but they were eventually forced into two pairs of Speedos Jimin was lucky enough to have with him on account that they’re the smallest pieces of clothing possibly available in the entire world at this time period. “Nymphs,” Taehyung said loftily as he glared at the obscenely tiny triangle of latex, “do not wear clothes. This is a disgrace. An affront to our very identity.”
“But,” Jungkook added grumpily, holding the Speedos at arm’s length and wrinkling his nose as everyone else covered their eyes, “We will tolerate it, because inside the pool, we feel like steamed fish.”
“And Jin is being very generous in conjuring up a bathtub full of cool water,” Taehyung continued, hastily pulling on the Speedos at Jin’s tight, do you really want to test me right now? smile, “chipping off a significant portion of his magic just for us, and we would never dream of squandering his generosity!”
“What he said!” Jungkook squeaked when Jin turned the dangerously stretched smile on him, the waistband already snapping around his hips.
“A while ago,” Taehyung says to Hoseok now. “Come on, can’t you do something?”
“I’m not the sun spirit,” he says. “Even I don’t have control over the weather.”
“Join us for a dip, then?” Jungkook asks hopefully, trailing his fingers up Hoseok’s arm.
“Kook,” Taehyung says, turning to him, “a moment, please?”
He pulls Jungkook, who grudgingly releases his arm, to the corner of the room, which is not very far away, and says, in tones not hushed enough to escape Hoseok and Namjoon’s bewildered earshot: “Jungkook, are we really going there? He’s the jungle spirit. We’re nymphs. We’re part of the jungle. He’s like…our jungle dad.”
“Really?” Jungkook asks uncertainly.
“I mean…I think so?” Taehyung asks, unsure. “Doesn’t that make him our dad? I arose out of a body of water. I don’t know these things.”
“I did too,” Jungkook says. “But we come from the same pool. If you’re going on that, then we’re brothers.”
Taehyung’s face contorts into a horrified expression. “Brothers? But we’re not incestuous.”
“Exactly. So doesn’t that make Hoseok not our dad?”
“You know what,” Taehyung says decisively. “I think you’re right.” He turns back to Hoseok and Namjoon. “I second his offer.”
“I mean, thanks, guys, but I have stuff to do, you know,” Hoseok says apologetically. “Being a jungle spirit doesn’t exactly give me much time to kick back and relax. Maybe another time.”
Jungkook deflates. “Aw.”
“But anyway, how’s Jimin? Any developments? Has Yoongi lifted the ban on time-travelling?”
“No,” Namjoon says heavily. “He tries every morning. No success yet.”
Hoseok sighs, running a hand through his air. Namjoon notes with a slight pang of resentment that Hoseok is actually pretty attractive, with his pointed nose and high cheekbones and friendly smile. Why is everyone here except him attractive? Even Yoongi, if you look past the creepy, overwhelming fact that he’s a death spirit and squint while hanging upside down, could be considered above average in terms of looks. Do they all have some magic handsomeness potion they’re not letting Namjoon in on just because he’s human? “You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he says slowly. “Why don’t any of you guys appear Malay? You’re spirits of a Malaysian jungle. But you and Taehyung and Jungkook and Yoongi all look East Asian like me and Jin.”
“Oh.” He shrugs. “Well, manifestation is a tricky thing. I got to know Jin first out of all you guys, and at the time, he was a pretty lonely guy. He wanted a friend who looked like him and didn’t alienate him. So I manifested as Korean. And then I got to know you guys after, but obviously I’m not gonna transform for every single one of you, so the me you see standing in front of you right now is Jin’s ideal image of a jungle spirit.”
“Does that mean he has a big dick?” Jungkook stage-whispers to Taehyung. Taehyung furrows his eyebrows in thought.
Hoseok politely ignores him and continues. “I suspect that the same goes for Yoongi, Jungkook, and Taehyung—Jin met them all first, so the way they appear to you now is Jin’s preconception of them.”
“Whoa,” Namjoon breathes, fascinated. “So you can shape-shift?”
“Well…no. You need to have an idea of what I’m going to look like in your head first. Once I slip into that idea, I can’t slip back out. I’ll appear the same way to you forever. It’s kind of like…I can only take a particular route if the road is already paved.”
“So Jin had this exact mental image of you in his head when he thought of jungle spirits? What if he didn’t know jungle spirits existed?”
Hoseok scratches his head. “You know, these are tough questions, Namjoon. Also pretty good questions. I would ask someone except for the fact that I don’t know anybody who would know. I’m guessing he didn’t sit down one day and think, okay, if I ever meet a jungle spirit, I think he’s going to have a chip in his front tooth and eyes that are exactly an inch apart. He just hoped I would be Korean. And, like, I don’t know…magic did the rest.” He thinks for a while. “I’d say that if he didn’t know jungle spirits existed, I’d manifest as if he already knew what they were. Like…the image of me extracted from his subconscious in an alternate reality.”
“I did not understand a single word of that last sentence,” Taehyung tells Jungkook.
“So are you human?” Namjoon asks.
“Am I…that depends on what you define as human.” Hoseok leans against the wall, lips pursed in thought. “I guess I’m human with extra powers? Jimin’s told me that he ran into me once a few thousand years from now, and I was completely human. That either means that this jungle will no longer exist then, or some celestial task manager just decided to sack me.”
“Wait, what? What? Ran into you a few thousand years from now? You’re…immortal? ”
“No. A different version of me. A reincarnation.”
“What?” Namjoon’s eyes boggle. “That’s real?”
“Of course it’s real.” He eyes him curiously. “How else do you think Jimin time-travels? His consciousness takes possession of his body in different time periods.”
“So he can’t visit certain time frames if a reincarnation of him doesn’t exist in it?” Namjoon asks, floored. “And every time he time-travels, he takes on a different life?”
“Yes,” Jimin says from the doorway, startling all of them. He walks into the room and sits down. “It’s really dope. A few people are fated to meet over and over again, and there’s one time period where we all have an orgy. I can settle the debate Taehyung and Jungkook will inevitably have if they haven’t already here and now and say that Namjoon has the biggest dick of us all.”
Namjoon flushes while Taehyung and Jungkook eye him up and down with renewed interest. “Any more questions, Namjoon?” Hoseok asks, smacking his lips. “I haven’t eaten yet. Do you think Jin will let me stay for dinner?”
“He’s always happy to have more,” Jimin replies.
“Sorry,” Namjoon cuts in tentatively, “I do have another question. Uh…why do you…eat?”
Hoseok smiles at him curiously. “Why wouldn’t I? Food is so amazing.”
“But you’re a spirit. And you walk through walls. How do you take food with you?”
“You know, I’ve never thought of that.” He taps his chin. “I don’t strictly need food the way other people I do because I’m technically nourished by the energy of every living thing in the jungle, but I do enjoy a good meal every now and then. I guess it’s just a perk of the job.”
“Wow,” Namjoon says, feeling left out and not quite succeeding in hiding it. “You guys are all so…special.”
“Do you feel useless?” Jimin asks, as always saying something just a shave on the wrong side of social propriety. “Don’t be. There’s few things I wouldn’t give to be normal.”
“I just feel really dumb and mundane, I guess,” he says. “You guys are so extraordinary.”
“We’re just people, Namjoon,” Hoseok laughs. “There’s things you can do that we can’t, too.”
“Live as a functioning part of society, for example.”
“I don’t think you’d want that. There isn’t exactly the best community around these parts.”
“Yeah, but sometimes I just wanna go down the street and buy something,” he says. “Get water from the well. Repair a roof. Feel like I belong somewhere. Being able to identify with other people on however small a scale—that’s a privilege you have that we don’t.”
“Being non-magical isn’t a disadvantage, Namjoon,” Taehyung pipes up, not unkindly. “It’s like if I have a hoe and you have a shovel. We have different tools, but that’s because we do different jobs. It doesn’t make one of us inferior.”
Namjoon thinks about it. It doesn’t make him feel much better. Every individual in this room is powerful enough to vaporize him without getting their hands dirty. “Sure, I guess.”
“What’s all this gloomy talk I hear?” Jin pokes his head into the living room. “Maybe I should move dinner forward so we can banish this negativity earlier. Hoseok, am I hosting you tonight?”
“Yes, please,” he says, grinning.
“In that case,” he says, “dessert is sago melaka.”
They all cheer. Namjoon brightens. He’s only had Jin’s homemade sago melaka once, but that one time was enough to make him see heaven.
“Dinner in five minutes,” he says. “Don’t be late or I’ll turn you into a toad.”
They tromp into the dining room while Jin disappears back into the kitchen, loudly chattering and pulling out chairs. Namjoon peppers Hoseok with more questions, only stopping to ooh and aah at the steaming plates of pure goodness Jin totes out of the kitchen. They tuck into the food, conversation flowing as easily and quickly as a river after rapids. Namjoon shoves endless amounts of tamarind fish into his face and mulls over the comment Hoseok made earlier about wanting to belong. Somehow, through a series of unfortunate and painful events, he realizes—he has. He’s found his place to belong.
But of course things can’t stay that good forever.
It’s afternoon a few weeks later, the temperature spiking and lowering as the heat spell grudgingly releases its hold on the jungle. Taehyung and Jungkook drape themselves dramatically over every surface in the house, lamenting the heat, pleading with Hoseok to spare them from gruesome death via evaporation. Hoseok takes to sleeping on the balcony, always happy to be in the center of action (“I love my plants, but they’re not great conversational partners”). Jimin amuses himself by dancing. Namjoon’s never seen anything like it—the only dance he’s ever seen is the kuda kepang, a slightly awkward, galloping series of movements involving paper horses which the villagers perform occasionally. It baffles him, how Jimin manages to contort and fling his body from side to side and make it look graceful.
Jin slowly gets more and more affectionate, crawling into bed and clinging to Namjoon even when they’re both dripping with sweat. Namjoon is usually too surprised to do anything else but lift an arm and let him in. On some nights, Jin’s long arms snug around his waist and his breathing soft on his shoulder, Namjoon wonders how he managed to stumble upon this pretty, tall witch who welcomed Namjoon into his heart and home. He didn’t think anyone got this lucky—from being spat on and despised by the villagers to enjoying three free, delicious meals a day and a constant supply of cool, clean water in the house itself. But best of all, a group of caring and accepting friends.
(And maybe even one more-than-a-friend. Actually—he doesn’t know. Maybe? He’s not good at interpreting Jin’s casual touches and frequent endearments, not good at deciding whether the fact that Jin never calls him anything except Joonie means something. Sometimes Jimin watches Jin bring out an extra side dish just for Namjoon, a piece of kuih or an extra chicken drumstick, and shakes his head and smirks. Does that mean something? Is everyone trying to tell him something? He’s not sure. He’s kind of scared of finding out.)
And so Namjoon gets used to waking up to an active household, Jungkook and Taehyung usually trying to do something stupid that could get them killed, Jimin keeping to himself and reading a book, Hoseok leaning on the balcony railing and having a conversation with the trees, and the smell of breakfast—fried bananas or steamed sweet potatoes—floating out of the kitchen. He finds that he doesn’t miss living alone, even though when it was just him, he never had to retrieve joyfully discarded Speedos hidden in corners of the house and hunt down two water nymphs. The company is…nice. The peace is better.
But on this afternoon, the peace is broken.
A bellowing trumpeting sound shatters the air, the walls themselves almost reverberating. Jimin sits up so fast he bangs his head on the windowsill, face a rictus of terror. The sizzling of onions pauses as Jin sticks his head out of the kitchen, eyebrows knit together. Hoseok stops patting a tree branch and swivels his head in the direction of the sound. Namjoon climbs down from the ladder where he was making repairs to the roof, and Taehyung and Jungkook stumble out of the bathroom, Speedos rucked and half-on.
“What was that?” Jin says, eyes darting around and landing accusingly on the nymphs. “Did you two do something?”
Taehyung holds up his hands at the threatening twitch of the ladle resting against Jin’s hip. “We were just canoodling! Promise!”
Jimin is panting, breathing so heavily it can be heard across the room. “Fuck,” he gasps. “My PTSD—fuck—that really scared me—”
“Wait,” Hoseok says. “It sounds like it came from the other side of the jungle. I’ll ask the tree spirits.” He leans over the railing, whispering urgently, and the closest branch creaks as it leans in too.
“I was having a dream,” Jimin mutters, eyes dull, unfocused. “It was—it was horrible—I was being beaten and I remember I was so weak, all I could do was call for help—I was something, I wasn’t me, I was…”
Hoseok comes back into the room, eyebrows furrowed. “Okay,” he says. “They’re not sure because they’ve never seen anything like it before, but the animal they described sounds like an—”
Jimin’s eyes sharpen. “Elephant,” he and Hoseok say at the same time. Jimin leaps up from the couch, face drained of blood, and instantly disappears.
“Where’d he go?” Namjoon yells, leaping back.
“He wasn’t taken!” Jin says rapidly. “That was teleportation. He—I think he visited the site of the sound.”
“Elephant?” Jungkook says slowly. “You’re saying there’s an elephant in trouble? There aren’t any elephants in this part of the jungle.”
“That means it was brought in,” Namjoon says. “Being beaten…the villagers. They must be mistreating it.” He turns to Jin. “We have to help him. If he tries anything funny against the villagers, if he steps out of line—they’ll hurt him. They really will.”
“You’re right,” Jin says. He unties his apron and hangs it up carefully on the hook, then grips his ladle and holds out his other hand. “Joonie, Jungkook, Taehyung, hold onto me. Hoseok, I assume you can get there by yourself.”
“I’m already gone,” he says, disappearing with a whump.
The three of them remaining scramble to grab ahold of Jin. Namjoon slips his hand into his—it seems like the easiest thing to do—and briefly panics because what the hell, you just took Jin’s hand, what if he turns you into a toad? But Jin only squeezes his hand briefly, setting his sights grimly on the treeline. “Hang on,” he commands, and the room jerks away.
They reappear in a scene of chaos.
Jimin is kneeling beside a downed elephant, its side gashed with bleeding cuts, its grey skin hanging loose in leathery flaps. Its mouth lolls open, rivulets of its own blood dripping down its tusks and its tongue dragging in the dirt. It pants shallowly. Jimin is crying over it, tears dripping onto the great fans of ears. “Come on,” he pleads. “Come on, pull through.”
Namjoon tears his eyes away from the scene. Oh, fuck. The villagers stand ranged in a shocked line some distance away, watching Jimin beg the elephant to survive. The council stands at the very front, each member clutching a whip still coated in the elephant’s blood. Namjoon evaluates the rest of the scene—the empty barrels strapped to the elephant’s back, the thick, black liquid spilled all over the ground, splashed over the trees of the nearby jungle. His mind slowly knits the past together: elephant carrying priceless load of oil trips and spills its cargo, and enraged council whips elephant nearly to death.
A hiccuping gasp from Jimin drags Namjoon’s attention back to him. The elephant heaves, struggling to pull air into its failing lungs, and then its eyes roll upward. Its limbs convulse and go still. Namjoon’s never seen something die before. He realizes he’s clapped a hand over his mouth, staring in disbelief as Jimin screams. He shakes the elephant’s body, feeble pushes that barely make it tremble. “Come back!” he shrieks. “Are you really going to let these bastards win?”
But it doesn’t move. Tears drip down Jimin’s chin, tiny dark spots on the elephant’s ruined and bloodied hide, and the five of them all realize what he’s planning to do at the same time.
“Jimin,” Jin says, alarmed, stepping forward, “don’t—”
But they’re powerless to watch as Jimin clenches his jaw and pushes against the elephant, muscles straining as if he’s trying to turn it over. Pure blue light streams out of his fingertips, lighting up his skin from the inside, sinking into the elephant. The villagers gasp and murmur in shock as its wounds begin to heal themselves. The huge animal’s eyes open. It slowly staggers to its feet, knees buckling and swaying, then raises its trunk and trumpets deafeningly. They all take a step back. The elephant stumbles back too, eyes murky with fear, and turns and crashes into the jungle.
Jimin gets to his feet, shaky and weak. His hair is a shade greyer. He takes one step forward and collapses onto his side.
“Jimin!” Taehyung shouts. They all rush forward at the same time, bending to prop him up. Jimin’s head lolls, the whites of his eyes showing beneath his hooded eyelids. Jin begins to sob.
“He’s not dead!” Hoseok yelps when Jimin stirs. “He’s not dead, he just needs rest.”
“I know, but why would he do that?” Jin raises his head, turning a look of pure fury on the villagers. He straightens up and strides towards them, hands leaping with sparks. “Why the fuck would you do that?” he yells, stabbing the council leader in the chest with a finger. “You beat and killed a powerless animal when all it did was serve you! Does that make you feel real big and strong? Does that help you sleep at night, you puffed up, pathetic excuse of an asshole?”
“How dare you speak to me like that?” the council leader hisses, but he drops his whip, letting it hit the dirt. It stains the ground red. “You impudent outcast. You have no right to tell me what to do.”
“No, tell me!” Hoseok says wildly, striding up from behind Jin. “Quote directly to me, why don’t you, the exact passage from the Quran which allows you to whip an animal to death. You say you live by religion? Then prove it to me.”
The villagers shift uncomfortably. The council members tuck their whips behind their backs, ashamed, barbed tips dragging wetly in the dust. “He—he brought that thing back to life!” the council leader yells, pointing a finger at Jimin’s slumped body, trying to divert attention and redeem himself. “Only God can give and take life! Are you just going to stand there?” he shouts at the council guards, who look uncertain.
“You compare a blessing to a sin,” Namjoon says calmly. “You try to conceal your own brutality by painting others’ gifts in a bad light.”
The council leader narrows his eyes. “You.”
“Yes,” he begins angrily, casting around for words and finishing rather pathetically, “me.”
Taehyung and Jungkook give him identical skeptical looks. “Sorry, okay?” Namjoon whispers.
“I save you from execution and you accuse me of murder,” the council leader says, spreading his arms. “How the tables have turned!”
The villagers laugh reluctantly, dragged along like cows with ropes in their noses.
“You’re going to deny that you killed that?” Taehyung calls.
“It didn’t exactly look healthy,” Jungkook says. “You’d have to be blind to not see it die.”
“Does it matter now?” He spits in Jimin’s direction. “That wizard brought it back to life.”
“That is so insulting,” Jimin mumbles, half-conscious. “Can he not recognize a necromancer when he sees one?”
“Seize them,” the council leader orders, ignoring him, and the guards surge forward.
The fight is mercilessly short. Taehyung and Jungkook are subdued after a brief struggle, Jimin taken with them, and Namjoon only manages to fistfight the council guards off for a few minutes before they tackle him to the ground. Judging by their triumphant sneers, they’re the same ones who caught him with the warna bruise.
Jin fights like a whirlwind, sending blasts of air and miniature lightning bolts at the guards. They shout in pain as they’re burned by jets of flame and slammed into tree trunks by gusts of wind. They edge warily around him, newly-minted fear in their eyes, while the other four thrash and try to free themselves.
Hoseok is, simply put, terrifying. His eyes glow green while the trees rear up and slam to the ground around them, branches snagging the council members in their grasp and flinging them into the jungle. Roots burst up from the earth, showering them in dirt, and drag screaming guards down into the ground. Namjoon has to admit that the entire scene looks unholy. But it looks like Jin and Hoseok are winning.
Until a torch falls from the grasp of a guard yanked into the air by a tree branch, landing in a puddle of oil and bursting into flame.
Hoseok pales. The trees falter as the fire crawls across the ground and up a few tree trunks, the leaves igniting and spreading from canopy to canopy. “Jin,” he whispers. Namjoon sees with horror that the tips of his fingers are reddening, welts bursting onto the burned skin.
“I can’t put it out unless there’s water nearby!” he yells, zapping a guard so hard he flies backwards into a tree. “Taehyung? Jungkook?”
“No power unless we’re near our pool!” Jungkook calls back desperately.
The fire spreads faster than they can blink through the jungle, sparks leaping from canopy to canopy until the evening sky is orange with flame. Hoseok falls to his knees. Namjoon watches, powerless and terrified, as horrific burns creep up his arms. “Put it out!” he yells at the villagers, who beset Jin like a swarm of ants now Hoseok has been put out of commission. “Are you idiots? It’ll spread and burn down the village!”
Taehyung gasps and doubles over, Jungkook’s expression screwing up in pain. When he raises his face, Namjoon sees that his skin is puckered and parched, lips chapped and eyes dull. “The pool,” he rasps. “The waterfall’s stopped flowing. A tree fell across the river.”
They slowly overpower Jin, even magic no match for the brute force of hundreds of brainwashed villagers. Jin sinks beneath the sea of fisted hands. It’s like a scene from a nightmare: fire roaring in the jungle, all his friends tortured and dying. Namjoon looks desperately to Jimin for help, but he’s being slammed against a tree trunk by a horde of laughing teenage boys, firelight leaping on their hair and skin. Blood runs from countless cuts on his face. He flails weakly, trying to free himself from their grasp, but he’s only half-conscious and too incapacitated to defend himself.
Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut. It’s hopeless. They’re all going to die.
And then the tide turns.
It happens slowly at first. The council leader staggers, clutching his chest, eyes boggling as blood froths out of his mouth. It starts streaming in earnest out of all of his orifices, running in rivulets out of his ears and nose, spurting in thin jets from his eyes. Namjoon stares as he keels over in a pool of his own blood, seizuring and shaking. What the hell is going on?
The boys harrassing Jimin are the next to go. Namjoon hears the grisly cracks from yards away, and they fall to the ground, twitching, contorted piles of flesh hardly recognizable as corpses. He blanches when he recognizes the white, splintered prongs puncturing their skin from the inside as bones.
The villagers begin noticing. Namjoon falls to the ground as the guards holding him captive release him, rushing to the council leader and shouting in alarm. They stop at the edge of his spreading pool of blood as if afraid his affliction is contagious. And perhaps it is—the ones closest to him abruptly clutch at their throats, gagging and choking, eyes rolling up in their heads.
Namjoon gapes at the spreading catastrophe. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” a pale figure Namjoon is abruptly aware of next to him says. Namjoon scrambles to his feet into a fighting stance. Yoongi stands calmly next to him, white skin and robes spotless against the oily, bloody ground.
“What?” Namjoon says wildly. “What are you doing here? What’s beautiful?”
Yoongi smiles. It isn’t humorous. Raw power rolls visibly off him in black waves, the tiny plants by his feet crumbling to ash, the dirt trembling at his words. Firelight glints off his black hair, reflected in his eyes and the cold curl of his lips. “Death rightfully given,” he says as the council leader begins rising into the air, blood dripping off his body like rain.
“Yoongi?” Namjoon asks tentatively, eyes glued to the council leader, who writhes with pain, suspended in the air.
He suddenly explodes, flesh and guts scattering across the area, droplets of blood painting the trees and ground red. Namjoon exclaims in disgust, shaking off a fat toe which lands in his hair. “Are you doing all this?” he shouts at Yoongi.
“Yes,” he says. “You can take life quickly, with a short, painless yank. But you can also take it…” He raises his white hand and closes it into a fist. “Slowly.”
All sound halts. Namjoon stares in horror as every villager in the clearing falls to the ground in shreds, their bodies sliced into ribbons by invisible blades. Jin fights his way out of a heap of body parts, shrieking in revulsion and terror. He staggers over to them, covered in blood and bits of entrails. “What just happened?” he screams into the silence, the crackling of flames on wood the background to his shrill voice. “Why did everyone die? Why did everyone die on me?”
“Yoongi,” Namjoon says, “decided to help us.”
Jin gives him a disbelieving once-over. “You? You’re not this powerful.”
“Actually,” he says, “everything in the jungle is dying. An enormous influx of life force is currently rushing into me. I could kill everything in Malaysia right now if I wanted to.”
Namjoon takes a step back, but Jin’s face has fallen. “Oh, no,” he says. He rushes over to the curled-up form on the ground, skin red and black, clothes a bed of ashes beneath him. “Hoseok.”
Jin tries to lift the arm covering Hoseok’s face, and Hoseok whimpers in pain when he touches the burns. Jin stares in horror at the bits of charred flesh clinging to his fingers. “Help him,” he pleads, whirling on Yoongi. “Please. Surely there’s something you can do.”
“I can only kill. I cannot heal or save lives.” He looks, troubled, at Hoseok. “Soon I will die too.”
“What?” Namjoon yelps. “But I thought you were powerful.”
“How can I be the death spirit of the jungle if there is no jungle?” he says simply. “I strengthen as Hoseok weakens, but when he dies, I die with him.”
“Jin,” Taehyung rasps, clawing his way over the ground towards them. He clutches at Jin’s trousers, all moisture sucked out of his body. Namjoon stares in horror at his wrinkled, sagging features. “Jungkookie—help. I don’t think he’s okay.”
Jungkook lies on his back a distance away, mouth open as his sightless eyes stare at the night sky, gasping like a fish out of water. His skin is as shrivelled as a prune.
“Wait!” Jin yells. “I have an idea. Jimin can take us all into the future!”
“He isn’t exactly in fit condition to do that,” Namjoon says hopelessly. They all look at Jimin, who sits slumped against a tree trunk, eyes half-shut.
“Jimin,” Yoongi says tonelessly after a few despairing beats of silence. “I can help him.”
He walks over to Jimin. They scramble to follow, watching with bated breath as he gets on one knee to cup Jimin’s cheek. His black energy flows into Jimin like Jimin’s energy flowed into the elephant, but it turns blue when it passes through his skin. Jimin jerks as Yoongi pours more power into him. His eyelids flutter, lips parting as he draws breath, color returning to his skin. “Yoongi?” he asks blearily, eyes slowly opening. “What happened?”
Yoongi suddenly looks uncertain. Namjoon blinks—Yoongi showing emotion? He lowers his hand and backs away. “I tried my best,” he says. “I apologize if it was not enough.”
“What?” Jimin gets to his feet, supporting himself against the tree trunk. “Jin, what did he do? What happened?”
“He saved us,” Jin says. “He killed all the villagers.”
Jimin’s eyes grow as round and large as saucers. Then he charges at Yoongi, slinging his arms around his neck and kissing him hard. Yoongi stumbles backwards, hands held awkwardly behind his back, while Jimin tilts his head and presses their mouths together. “Fuck,” he says, pulling away forcefully. “You’re even prettier when you’re saving me from unlawful execution by village cretins.”
“What the fuck?” Namjoon whispers to himself like a repeat of last time, perplexed.
“Jimin,” Jin says gently but urgently, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but we have bigger problems. The jungle’s on fire. Hoseok and Taehyung and Jungkook are dying.”
He catches on almost immediately. “You want me to take you all to the future?”
“Yes,” Jin says. “If you can. We really hope you can.”
He sets his jaw grimly. “I can try.” He drags them over to where Hoseok is curled up. “Everyone hold onto me. Someone lift Jungkook and Taehyung over here. This is gonna take a lot of energy.”
Jin and Namjoon each take a nymph and carry them over, Jimin gripping both their hands in one. He carefully takes Hoseok’s burnt and mangled hand in the other. Everyone else grips a shoulder or an arm. “Hold on tight,” he says, and then he squeezes his eyes shut.
Namjoon thought he’d braced himself for anything, but he isn’t prepared to reappear in a new world and be greeted by thousands of girls screaming.
His eyes dart around in panic. He’s standing in the wings of a stage in the center of a massive dome, rows and rows of seats sloping upward around it. The entire place— Gocheok Dome, his mind supplies—is bursting to the brim with shrieking females interspersed with the occasional man. He spots signs with his name written on them in flashing neon bulbs. Then he does a double take. Wait. That’s not written in letters.
His name is written on the signs in unfamiliar characters he’s never seen before in his life, yet he can read them. His head jerks as he looks around the stadium, drinking in the signs scrawled over with alien lines and curves and boxes. Hoseok. Jungkook. Yoongi. Seokjin. Taehyung. Jimin. A memory which is not his allows him to read them all. The doors his own mind is barely keeping shut burst open, and the memories of this body flood in: You are Kim Namjoon, stage name RM, waiting in the wings for Jimin to finish performing his hit solo song “Lie”. You are the leader of BTS, a world-famous K-pop superstar boy band. You rake in millions of won a year in salary. You have rapped and danced in more places than most people ever get to visit in a lifetime.
Jimin? he thinks quizzically. He focuses on the stage. Jimin is dancing on it, the strange brand of dancing he likes to do again, the kind that involves dramatic grabs at the throat and complicated footwork. He’s wearing a glittery jacket, tight jeans, and a very low-cut, shimmery shirt. His voice reverberates around the stadium. Namjoon knows these lyrics. Namjoon’s heart bursts with someone else’s pride for Jimin, performing all by himself in front of 16,813 fans. He is dizzy with memories that do not belong to him.
He turns, searching for the others, and finds that the five of them have already formed a talking group, conferring without him. He pushes his way inside. “We need to figure out what to do,” Taehyung yells over the loud music and thumping bass. “Jimin’s performing. He can’t help us. Do you think we lost our Jimin?”
“I’m not sure,” Jin shouts back. “But he’s taken me to the future before. You guys all have the memories of the consciousnesses which occupied your bodies, right? That means you know how to do this. That means you know how to get through this concert.” He points at Jungkook. “Jungkook. What’s the next song?”
Jungkook hesitates. “‘First Love’,” he says finally. “Yoongi’s solo. But apparently he’s named Suga?”
“What?” Yoongi yelps, looking much more scared than Namjoon’s ever seen anybody. He looks much more human now his feet aren’t an inch above the ground, small and afraid in his glittery, rhinestone-studded jacket. Namjoon feels an instant rush of protectiveness for him. He’s not sure if it comes from his other consciousness or himself. “Me? I can’t sing!”
“You don’t sing,” Taehyung says slowly. “You rap. And pretty damn well, too.”
“Yoongi,” Jin says, taking him firmly by the shoulders, “you can. You know exactly how. You’re just rejecting your body’s memories and knowledge. Stop resisting. You know everything about how to live this life. If you accept it and stop fighting, everything will be alright.”
Yoongi drags in a shaky breath. He closes his eyes, chest heaving, then they snap open. “Fuck,” he breathes. “Wow. I do know everything.”
“And that goes for everyone,” Jin says, giving them all a hard look. “You have to open up to your other consciousnesses. They’re trying to help you. They’re trying to merge with you, because you’re both the same person. Let them in. And let’s make this concert a success.”
Jimin’s solo winds to a close. The fans’ screams are deafening, louder even than the music, the walls rattling with the force of thousands of voices. He exits the stage and walks into their wing, face flushed and happy. “Hey,” he says, nudging Yoongi. “You’re up after the intermission.”
“Jimin,” Namjoon says urgently, “catching ahold of his arm. I have to know—none of us are sure. Are you ours? Do you remember the elephant? The fire?”
Jimin’s eyebrows furrow in incomprehension behind his sweaty bangs. “What?”
Namjoon lets go of his arm. His chest seizes in grief. Jimin lost himself in the transfer. He sacrificed himself to save the six of them. He crouches down to the ground, tears slipping out of his eyes and smudging his makeup.
But Jimin is laughing, high and tinkling. Namjoon’s never heard him laugh before. He’s never seen him this happy before. He kneels next to Namjoon and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry, boss man,” he says. “I may not be a necromancer anymore, but I’m still all yours.”
Namjoon raises his head. Jimin stands and grabs Yoongi’s wrists, pushing him into a wall. Yoongi’s eyes widen as he stumbles backwards. “Thank you again for saving me,” Jimin says. “For saving all of us.” And he leans forward, kissing Yoongi long and hard, making Yoongi melt against the concrete.
Then he pushes off, grinning, and walks away to find a makeup artist and get touched up. Yoongi sags against the wall, looking shell-shocked. Jin is laughing so hard it sounds like someone is cleaning a window on steroids.
“Holy fuck,” he wheezes, slapping his knees. “I never thought I’d live to see the day Yoongi looks lovestruck.”
“Shut up,” Yoongi growls, wiping his mouth, but a flush rides high on his normally pale and sallow cheeks.
Namjoon feels a massive wave of love for them—for all of them. He draws them into a group huddle, dragging a reluctant and whiny Yoongi in. “Okay, guys,” he says. “We got this, okay? We got this. We can do this. We’ve done this like a hundred times before.”
“Since when did you deliver the pep talks around here?” Hoseok asks.
“Since I became leader, which was approximately five minutes ago.” He claps them all on the back. “Let’s support Yoongi. I know we don’t know him at all because he used to be a death spirit and we’re all still scared shitless of him, but there’s a part of us now that loves him, and there’s a part of him that loves us too. We just have to tap into it. We can get through this together. Okay? Okay?”
And they’re nodding, looking hopeful, as if Namjoon’s impromptu speech really did buoy up their spirits. Namjoon feels himself smile. Maybe this can work. Holy shit. Maybe this can actually work.
“Now go, Yoongi,” he shouts over the screams of the fans, pushing him towards the ramp leading down to the platform beneath the stage. Yoongi stumbles, but the other five, Jimin returned from his makeup touch-up, have followed suit, propelling him forward and yelling encouragement. Yoongi sits down on the piano seat and turns briefly, giving them a disbelieving look, a microphone shoved into his fingers. Namjoon catches a tiny glimpse of a gummy smile before the platform begins rising and the screaming intensifies.
Piano notes plink over the speakers, echoing around Gocheok Dome, and Yoongi’s gravelly voice fills the stadium. It doesn’t wobble in the slightest. The six of them grin and jump up and down, whooping and punching the air. Pure elation makes the atmosphere giddy. Namjoon doesn’t think he’s ever been more grateful.
Jin wanders into his room and sits down while he’s getting ready for bed. “Hey, Joonie,” he says.
Namjoon turns, buttoning up the top of his pajamas, hair damp from his shower. “Oh, hey.”
He sits down on his bed and starts applying skincare, ignoring the tiny ping of nervousness that Jin’s proximity still gives him. It’s taken him a lot to stop feeling nervous around Jin. He hasn’t yet succeeded in fully squashing it yet, but he doesn’t think it’s fear anymore. It’s just your run-of-the-mill butterflies.
Namjoon frowns slightly, rubbing toner into his skin. There shouldn’t even be butterflies. Jin is his band member, for God’s sake. They’re supposed to be best friends. And no, it shouldn’t matter that they were husbands in another life. Now they’re meant to be BTS—at the peak of their career 4 years after debut.
But it doesn’t stop him from gasping and dropping the expensive tube when Jin puts his arms around him from behind, resting his chin on his shoulder. Namjoon sits with his hands suspended in the air, paralyzed, unsure what to do.
“How come you never show me affection?” Jin murmurs. Namjoon prays that he can’t hear his embarrassingly rapid heartbeat, thundering away traitorously in his chest. “It gets a little hurtful sometimes, Joonie.”
“I—I’m just not a touchy guy,” he stammers. “And work makes me really busy—”
“I won’t turn you into a toad,” Jin says. “I can’t do that anymore.”
“I know,” Namjoon says. “I’m not afraid of that.” All the members except Jimin lost their magic. It was a struggle adjusting at first—Jin detests doing laundry with every iota of his being, and there have been several close cases of drowning when Taehyung and Jungkook forgot they couldn’t breathe underwater anymore—but now, for the most part, they’re all happy. Namjoon didn’t realize how merry Hoseok was when not bogged down by responsibility. “A job as big as representing a whole jungle isn’t for me,” he told Namjoon when Namjoon asked him how he was doing. “Now part of my job is literally being happy. I’m your hope!”
“Then why don’t you ever show affection to me?” Jin whines, wrapping his arms tighter around Namjoon’s waist.
“I—I—I dunno,” he stutters, all excuses flying out of his head.
Jin gets up and straddles him, pushing at his shoulders until his back hits the bed. “Tell me if I’m reading this wrong,” he murmurs. “Am I reading this wrong?”
“No,” Namjoon gasps, battling with himself about whether putting his hands on Jin’s waist would be a good decision. “Hell no.”
“You sure?” Jin leans down and presses a kiss to his neck, soft and overwhelming, and Namjoon nearly yells.
“I—I dunno what you want me to say,” he blabbers, voice cracking at every touch of Jin’s lips to his throat. “You’re ridiculously attractive and I’ve wanted this ever since I met you but I always thought you saw me as a piece of poop on your shoe.” He frowns. “Oh my God. That’s so unsexy. Why did I say that?”
Jin laughs. “I wouldn’t cook and care for a piece of poop on my shoe.”
“I—you—you always tell me that but you care for everybody.”
“You didn’t see me welcoming Yoongi into my household when he was still a murderous death spirit anathema to Jimin.” His mouth is travelling down Namjoon’s chest, kissing his embarrassingly soft stomach, its muscle disappeared when he stopped doing labor, and wow, Namjoon is panicking. He didn’t think he’d ever experience this. He didn’t know you could even do this. He just had some vague, half-formed notions of penetration.
“Jin—um—where can I put my hands?” He fists them helplessly in the sheets when Jin brushes his nose over his clothed erection. Fuck, this is going fast. Namjoon doesn’t know if he can do this. He feels one step away from spontaneous internal combustion.
“Your hands?” Jin glances up, handsome and graceful even with his lips resting on Namjoon’s crotch. “Anywhere you like, I suppose.”
So Namjoon buries them tentatively in Jin’s hair while Jin calmly pulls down his pajama pants as if this is something he does every day. Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut and stares at the ceiling, gasping, trying not to scream, when Jin puts his mouth on him. He didn’t know you could do this. He didn’t know this was even a thing.
“Jin—” His hips jerk, and he bends his knees, spreading them slightly, fingers tightening in Jin’s hair. “Jin, what are you doing?”
“It’s called a blowjob,” he says around Namjoon’s cock, easily taking him down his throat. “Taehyung and Jungkook taught it to me. It’s amazing getting one and giving one at the same time.”
Namjoon feels a pang of jealousy. He bites the inside of his cheek and loosens his hold on Jin’s hair.
Jin pauses, sensing the change. “Namjoon,” he says, letting the tip slip out of his mouth, “you know it was all casual with them, right?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Of course.”
“I’d never go back to them. I still consider you my husband.”
“Of—wait, what?” Namjoon gapes at him.
“Yeah,” Jin takes his cock back into his mouth again, making him release a fretful groan. “At some point, you have to consider whether everything you did in your other life is still valid, you know?” he says, voice muffled around Namjoon’s dick. Namjoon could die and not notice. Hell, he might already be dead. “And I decided that the marriage is still valid, even though it was shitty and arranged and nonconsensual.”
“Really?” he says hopefully.
“Of course, Joonie,” he says, doing something with his hands that makes Namjoon stutter out a series of staccato moans. “And I’d never cheat.”
“Jin,” he says, emotion welling up in his chest. Jin pulls off to listen, hands still pumping him. “I—”
And he blows his load all over Jin’s face, hips twitching and jerking. Jin keeps his eyes shut, expression delicately…something. Namjoon can’t read it, and it terrifies him.
“Oh my God,” he says, horrified. He scrabbles at his bedside for tissues. “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God, that was so rude. I’m so so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.” An irrational fear floats to the forefront of his mind. “Please don’t turn me into a toad!”
“I can’t do that anymore, Joonie,” Jin says, wiping off his face with the tissues Namjoon fumbles over to him. “I told you.”
“Please don’t be angry at me,” he begs, clumsily trying to help clean him up and only succeeding in getting some stuck in his hair.
Jin knocks his hands gently away. “I’m not. I knew you wouldn’t last long.”
Namjoon would be offended if not for the fact he’s completely right. He briefly contemplates how many times people have insulted him and he’s let it slide because they’re not wrong.
“You—uh—” He sits back and starts babbling like an idiot when Jin comes back from flushing away the tissues, sitting back down on the bed. “You—you need to—yeah—too? Right?”
Jin smiles. “That’s okay, Namjoon. I know you’re done for the day.”
“Done?” Namjoon asks uncertainly.
Jin looks at him, then down. “Okay, um…I suppose you’re…not? Do you not have a refractory period?”
“Refractory…?” He looks down. “Uh, no? I guess not?”
“Well,” Jin says, “great.” He throws himself at Namjoon, hands pushing hard at his chest, and Namjoon falls back against the bed with a thud. “I wanna ride you.”
“Ride—?” Namjoon has a terrifying mental image of Jin sitting on his back like a horse, whipping him to make him go faster, and is slightly disgusted at himself when the image turns him on. “Uh, really? How?”
“Like this,” he says, straddling Namjoon’s hips securely and producing a small blue bottle. Namjoon stares as he gets rid of his pants and squirts the clear contents of the bottle onto his fingers in under 10 seconds, clearly a practiced professional. Namjoon feels hopelessly novice.
“What are you doing?” he asks when Jin lowers his fingers. “What are you—oh.”
Jin pushes them inside himself and wiggles them around, eyes half-shut in pleasure. Namjoon feels a swell of heat wash between his legs as Jin’s thighs clench around him and he moans.
“Uh,” Namjoon breathes when Jin has gotten up to three fingers, “wow. That’s—wow. That’s pretty amazing.”
Jin’s shut eyes screw up, and he laughs. “Thanks?”
He pulls his fingers out of himself and squirts some more of the substance on them, wrapping them around Namjoon’s cock. Namjoon lets out a surprised groan as he works his slick hand up and down. “Jin—careful.”
“I know, I know,” he says leisurely, taking his hand away. He grasps the base of Namjoon’s cock and lines himself up, and Namjoon has achieved peak panic, palms sweaty and pulse like a drumbeat in his throat—
Jin sinks down, and Namjoon’s head lolls back, mouth falling open. He bites his lip hard to keep from yelling. A soft, pretty moan drifts towards his ears from down his body, and Namjoon really does shout this time, clapping a hand over his mouth.
Running footsteps head towards his room, the door mercifully shut. Namjoon’s eyes flicker, terrified, to it—is it locked? “Go away!” Jin yells when the knob starts turning. “I’m handling it. Go. Away.”
Frantic whispering beyond the door, then the footsteps reluctantly retreat.
“Fuck,” Namjoon gasps. “Close call.”
“It’s fine,” Jin breathes, working his hips from side to side. “Oh my God. It’s been too long.”
He starts bouncing up and down, and all Namjoon’s conception of space and time dissolves. He’s vaguely aware of stuffing his fist into his mouth to muffle himself, eyes screwed shut so the visual doesn’t push him closer to the edge. He’s determined to let Jin finish first. He’s wondering if that’s a feat too unachievable for him when Jin does—quiet moans and splattering wet on his chest. Namjoon lets go and lets himself come too, groaning around his fist, hips jerking as Jin clenches around him.
Jin gets off him with a squelch that makes Namjoon’s cheeks flush. He watches, equally mortified and aroused, as his own come slides out of Jin and slicks the insides of Jin’s thighs. Jin disappears to the bathroom and comes back with a damp washcloth, towelling Namjoon down. “Thank you,” he mumbles. He doesn’t think he’ll be capable of coordinated movement for another few hours.
Jin replaces the washcloth and comes back, curling up against Namjoon’s side. He purrs like a happy cat when Namjoon gingerly strokes his hair, brushing it back from his forehead.
“Thanks, Joonie,” he says, snuggling closer and letting his eyes slip shut. Namjoon silently thanks whichever god decided he could have this, warm bare skin pressed up all against his body. “I thought you’d never warm to me.”
“That’s silly,” he blurts, tongue loose in the aftermath of sex. “I’d do anything for you.”
Jin smiles in his sleep.
Taehyung and Jungkook are staring at them accusingly when they emerge the next morning, Namjoon’s eyes swollen and hair mussed, Jin drifting beatifically through the kitchen to cook up fried cempedak (he uses most of his wages to import Malaysian food).
Namjoon reaches for the cereal, pouring it into his bowl and unscrewing the cap of the milk. He notices their eyes on him and looks up. “What?”
Jungkook pouts, retreating into his massive hoodie. Taehyung puts a protective arm around him. “We could hear you,” he says. “You know that memory foam you paid so much for? It creaks.”
Namjoon buries his face in his hands. “Oh, come on, guys—”
“He’s been waiting long enough to get some,” Yoongi interrupts dryly, entering the room with a sleep-ruffled and happy Jimin trailing behind him. “The least you could do is not give him shit for it.”
“But they’re like our parents!” Taehyung protests.
Jungkook tugs on his sleeve and whispers something anxiously to him.
“Okay, admittedly we’ve both had sex with Jin and propositioned Namjoon.” Namjoon winces. “But they’re our parents!”
“I think it’s great,” Hoseok says, beaming. “Now maybe we won’t have to put up with Namjoon making googly wistful eyes at Jin every time he bends over to pick something up.”
“I do not make googly wistful eyes,” he says, pained, wondering, not for the first time, whether this is the respect the leader is accorded. Jin chuckles at the stove.
“You guys have fucked on every surface in the dorm,” Jimin says, stealing a piece of toast from Jungkook’s plate. Jungkook protests indistinctly, and Jimin ruffles his hair, smile warm and affectionate. “I don’t really think you have the right to lecture Jin and Namjoon.”
Taehyung moans incoherently. “It’s just so weird.”
“Well, better get used to it,” Jin says, putting a steaming plate down on the table. “Because the two of us have a lot of time to make up for.”
Namjoon’s smile dies. He pales as Jin winks at him, everyone else at the table erupting in laughter.
A year passes. The seven of them learn how to coexist, barriers of magic and capabilities no longer segregating them. BTS only rises in popularity, hopping from airports to Billboard before Namjoon can say hwaiting. Jimin finds out the secret to controlling his time slips—contentment. And sure enough, he doesn’t slip a single time.
It’s during a fanmeeting in a massive stadium, Bangtan Bombs waving up and down in the crowd and all the members flushed and happy from a successful performance, that Namjoon realizes all his dreams have come true.
He’s jerked back to reality by a fan frantically waving her hand into the air in the pit. He smiles—she’s wearing a Koya hairband—and points at her. “Oppa,” she calls, voice straining to carry over the yells of thousands of fans. “If you could do magic, what would you do?”
The members all give each other knowing looks—Jin flexing his fingers slightly ruefully, Taehyung unconsciously touching the place where his gills used to be. Jimin nudges up closer to Yoongi. Hoseok beams at the endless ocean of people. Namjoon doesn’t even need to think—he grins, raising his microphone to his lips. “I think I would use it to keep BTS together forever,” he tells her, voice reverberating around the stadium, which sold out in under a minute. “Because I don’t really need magic. I have everything I need right here.”