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Keep the Car Running

Chapter Text

 

 

 

When Taehyung wakes up, everything is gray and the world has turned to ashes. He tries to take a deep breath and chokes on the dust, the soot and the rich copper scent of blood that invades his lungs.

His head is completely silent. There is no fear pressing up against him other than his own; no pain other than the throbbing of his knee, the pulsing in his side and the creak of his own ribs when he tries to breathe in.

When Taehyung wakes up, he knows that his team is dead before he even opens his eyes.

He lies there for a while, eyes still closed. Contemplates not getting up, contemplates just lying there in the rubble until the Reclaimers find him and take him to wherever they take the people they capture from the Rebellion. It’s a nice thought, giving up, and it is ever so tempting when he thinks about how he is, once again, the only one that has been left behind.

He’s just about to sink back into the darkness when he hears it.

A quiet cough.

It’s faint and weak, but when Taehyung strains his ears, he definitely hears it again and this time it is followed by a weak gasp for air.

Taehyung staggers up to standing and doggedly wobbles his way towards the noise. Along the way, he comes across too many familiar bodies, all of them with faces he had seen before. Some of them wear the face of friends.

The Reclaimers had somehow known they were coming and had completely evacuated the premises - which had meant they had free reign to completely erase the area from the map when Taehyung and the others had arrived. The results had been devastating.

To his left, he catches sight of one of his teammates lying crushed under a slab of concrete. His sightless eyes stare into the distance and Taehyung limps his way over to him and uses two shaking fingers to gently close the man’s eyes.

The weight of his grief is almost too much and Taehyung’s knees tremble under the strain.

Then, he hears it again. A raspy wheeze for breath. Hope sings in Taehyung’s veins and carries his body forward.

Half-buried underneath a pile of rubble, Taehyung finds him.

The man is in terrible shape. His clothes are nondescript, giving Taehyung no indication as to who he might be or which faction he could be from.

Nevertheless, if the man is here, then he’s working for the Rebellion and anyone in the Rebellion, as far as Taehyung is concerned, is an ally so Taehyung gets to work.

He laboriously clears the debris, taking breaks to clutch at his own side and groan at the throbbing. Finally, after what feels like an age, he kneels down and rolls the body over so that the man’s head rests in his lap and he sacrifices his bandana to wipe the man’s face clean of the gray dust that seems to have settled over everything. When he is finished and he gets a good look at the face of the man he’d been wiping down, the bandana falls from his lax grip and flutters down to land on the ground, completely forgotten.

The half-conscious figure on his lap is Jeon freaking Jeongguk.

Jeon Jeongguk, the Rebellion’s strongest soldier, the Rebellion’s strongest sentinel has his head resting in Taehyung’s lap. 

Jeon Jeongguk, of the Bangtan faction and therefore of the Rebellion’s strongest defence against the Reclaimers is lying out here, in the middle of this razed military compound, dying, with his head in Taehyung’s lap.

Shit, Taehyung thinks, this is not good.

He casts his eyes around, trying to find a hint as to how much time has past since the failed attack, tries to gauge how much time he has to get them the hell out of here. The only thing he can gather is that the sun has begun to set.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung hisses, roughly shaking the man’s shoulder. Jeongguk groans but doesn’t say anything else.

Get up, he tries to coax. He had gotten a good look at the other man’s body when he was clearing it of debris, and he knows that with the state of Taehyung’s knee, the bruising on his ribs and the nasty cut running down his side, there is absolutely no chance that he’s going to be able to carry the other man out. They’re not going to make it if Jeongguk is too weak to get to his feet.

Please, Taehyung tries again, get up, he insists more forceful this time. He thinks about all the times he’s managed to will himself into the shadows, remembers the taste of desperation on the tip of his tongue every time he’s charmed himself out of trouble and throws it into the words he’s projecting at the man in his lap.

To his surprise and relief, Jeongguk’s eyelids begin to flutter open.

“The attack failed,” Taehyung summarises as soon as he sees that Jeongguk’s eyes are starting to focus. “We’re the only two still left alive and we need to get you out of here.”

Taehyung sees Jeongguk furrow his brow, hears his breath become laboured as the pain begins to register. Taehyung runs a hand tentatively through the man’s hair. He knows sentinels will begin to lose control when in pain, but they can’t afford for Jeongguk to zone now.

Taehyung desperately tries to recall all the overhead conversations he’s ever come across about sentinels and guides. He himself had tested too low to qualify for anything remotely resembling a guide, but he knows that sometimes, all a sentinel needs is a calm point to focus on. Something to latch onto so that their senses don’t go haywire.

Taehyung modulates his voice so that it is as gentle as he can make it. His next words are measured and calm.

“Jeongguk, listen to me," the man on his lap furrow his brow. "Just concentrate on my voice. It’s evening. The attack failed. You’ve broken your left arm, severely twisted your right ankle and you knocked your head pretty hard. Judging from the bruising I can see on your abdomen, I think some of your internal organs aren’t doing too hot either, but you need to get up.”

Jeongguk eyes flicker to Taehyung’s face and Taehyung continues to run his fingers through his hair. They breathe together and the man looks calm. Taehyung lets out a relieved breath.

“Will you be okay?” Taehyung asks away, just to be sure.

Jeongguk gives him a small nod. His eyes are fixed to Taehyung's face and they look surprised. If they at met at another time, Taehyung might have wondered at the intensity of the man's gaze, but as it is, he doesn't have the luxury.

“Can you hear them?” Taehyung asks. He needs to know how fast they’re going to have to run. “How long do we have?”

The man in his lap is still silent, but somehow, Taehyung knows he has just dialled up his hearing.

“An hour, max,” he finally whispers after a couple of seconds, his voice is hoarse. It is still sweeter than Taehyung would’ve expected of a man of Jeongguk’s reputation, and the older man fights back his smile at the sound. “They’re coming from the west road.”

“Shit,” Taehyung curses when the words register. The closest getaway car he had been eyeing up had been in that direction, but it looks like they’re going to have to go for his second choice which is almost twice the trouble and double the distance.

Taehyung gives a small, sheepish smile to the man in his lap as he gestures to his own knee.

“I won’t be able to carry you out of here,” he mutters, apologetic, “so you’re going to have to get up.”

Taehyung watches as Jeongguk carefully shifts, most likely to start taking stock of the full extent of his injuries. Taehyung bites his tongue against the urge to ask the man if he could hurry it up. Instead he concentrates on another important bit of information.

“Did you come here with a team?”

The man jerkily pushes himself off Taehyung’s lap and Taehyung winces in sympathy at the sight of the wet patch of blood the man leaves behind on the concrete when he gets up. He must be in a world of pain.

“Just me,” Jeongguk finally groans and they both painstakingly get to him to his feet.

Once there, they take a moment to catch their breaths and then they begin hobbling their way out of the levelled compound.

The both of them must make such a sorry sight, Taehyung muses; him with his busted knee and bloody abdomen trying to support Jeongguk and his twisted ankle without further doing damage to the man’s broken arm.

Like a pair of drunken monkeys most probably, Taehyung thinks and he can’t suppress his laugh. 

Jeongguk gives him a questioning look and damnit, Taehyung thinks, he might’ve hit his head too after all.

 

 

 

 

They hobble along the side of the road until Taehyung finds his target car. He carefully settles Jeongguk into the passenger seat.

“What’s your name,” Jeongguk croaks once they both regain their breaths. They’re both sweating from the delightful cocktail of pain, exertion, and stress despite the freezing air. Taehyung carefully searches through the car. He finds a couple of shirts and several bottles of water in the boot and hands Jeongguk one of each item. The younger man gratefully sips at the water and uses the rest to give himself a perfunctory wash before he slips on the new shirt. Taehyung does the same as he circles to the glovebox and almost cries with relief when he finds a toolbox and in it, a miniature screwdriver.

“Kim Taehyung,” he belatedly replies, distracted as he carefully pulls the access panel free from the steering column. He roots around inside it until he finds what he needs. His fingers feel clumsy and stiff from the cold but he still manages to neatly twist the connection and battery wires together. He grins as the radio comes on.

Some things, you just never forget.

“Kim Taehyung,” Taehyung repeats, “of the Geochang faction at your service.”

“Jeon Jeongguk,” Jeongguk replies staring at Taehyung’s hands at the panel with interest. The man, Taehyung has noticed, is oddly intense, “of Bangtan.”

Taehyung sparks the starter wire and revs the engine in delight when he hears the car come to life. He blasts the heater and they both take a moment to bask in the warmth.

Taehyung cups his hands over the warm air until he feels his fingers start to tingle and he takes a second to enjoy the sensation. Then, he grits his teeth in preparation for the pain, grips the wheel between both hands and cranks it hard to the left. He is rewarded by the sound of the steering lock breaking and the sensation of warm blood gushing down his side.

“I know who you are, buddy,” Taehyung finally answers when he’s recovered from the exertion and pain both. He feels a smile stretch across his lips and he thinks it is possible that the adrenaline coursing through him has made it look slightly deranged. “Everyone knows who you guys are. And I’m going to get you back to them.” 

As he begins to speed off, he can see Jeongguk’s worried gaze out of the corner of his eye. He then feels it turn pointedly disapproving when he focuses on the dark red patch covering the wound in his side.

Just for that, Taehyung decides, he’s not going to let Jeongguk pick the music.

 

 

 

Hours later into the drive, the sun has long set and Taehyung is splitting his attention between the road and glancing worriedly at the sleeping man next to him. The road isn’t busy by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re heading towards civilisation so he can’t drive too recklessly. The wound on the sentinel’s head has thankfully stopped bleeding but…it had looked deep. Taehyung would bet good money that the man next to him is concussed.

Taehyung’s mind had been oscillating between leaving the poor guy alone in order to let the guy get some well-deserved rest and waking him up to make sure the Rebellion’s best hope isn’t quietly slipping into a coma. The fact that the man is even sleeping at all is probably in itself a bad sign because they barely know each other and Jeongguk should definitely know better than to be so unguarded in front of a stranger. 

Actually, the fact that it has taken Taehyung so long to decide what to do should probably be indicative of Taehyung’s own state and he laughs at himself when he realises. He promises himself that he’s definitely going to hop himself up on caffeine at the next available opportunity.

In the meantime…Taehyung reaches out and shakes Jeongguk’s shoulder.

The man doesn’t wake up and only gives a weak huff of protest at the action. He curls away from Taehyung’s hand with an annoyed noise and Taehyung is suddenly struck by how young the man looks in the dim glow of the streetlights. He wonders what Jeongguk was when the war broke out, wonders where he had lived and whether he had ever had the opportunity to be a child at all. He wonders if, maybe, he had been like Taehyung, who had only got to experience the magic of childhood through the stories of others.

In the end, it was all his goddamn wondering that made him miss the sudden movement and Taehyung is rudely broken out of his musings by the feeling of his windpipe being crushed. In the struggle, the car jerks violently but Taehyung had enough presence of mind left to ensure he doesn’t send the car into a death spin when he moves the car to the side of the road and carefully applies the brakes. 

“Jeongguk,” he croaks desperately, bracing himself against his seat so he can have the leverage to turn and face the sentinel. His knee screams at him in protest but Taehyung ignores it.

“Jeongguk,” he croaks again when dark spots start to dance in his vision. His voice is barely a whisper. He reaches out and manages to paw at the younger man’s wrist and after a few more excruciating seconds Jeongguk lets him go with a horrified noise.

Taehyung gulps in lungfuls of air. His ribs protest at the way he’s panting but Taehyung doesn’t care because he’s too busy celebrating the rush of oxygen that floods back into his bloodstream. He feels a little lightheaded and his ears are ringing which is why it takes him a few moments more before he realises Jeongguk is having a meltdown in the passenger seat.

“Jeongguk, it's okay. I’m okay,” Taehyung wheezes but, instead of calming down at the words, the other man seems to freak out even more at the sound of Taehyung’s voice.

“I could’ve killed you,” he breathes, eyes wide and horrified. “How could I have -”

Taehyung throat really hurts and he just wants to get back to driving, but Jeongguk is scrabbling at his seatbelt and thrashing about in his chair and really, he’s just going to injure himself further, Taehyung thinks, what is he doing? 

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung hisses. “Calm down, we both know you didn’t mean to.”

“I should’ve known it was you, I should’ve-” Jeongguk babbles.

“What are you talking about? Of course you couldn’t have known. We’ve only just met and you’ve been conscious for maybe 2 hours of the time we’ve known each other.”

Jeongguk, however, isn’t listening and after having successfully removed his seatbelt he is now fumbling at the door handle.

“You’re hurting yourself, stop it right now. Jeongguk-”

The flash of bi-coloured lights in the rearview mirror shuts him up and makes them both freeze. The lights are, really, just the cherry on top of this entirely terrible day.

Running on instinct, Taehyung quickly throws a blanket on top of Jeongguk to hide the state of his arm and slides a knife out of his boot and into Jeongguk’s waiting hand. He barely manages to paste a smile on his face before there is a knock on the window.

“You boys alright in there?”

The voice sounds kind, but not kind enough for Taehyung to release his grip on the screwdriver that he has hidden in his sleeve before he rolls down the window.

“Evening sir,” Taehyung chirps. He forces his voice into a cheery tenor despite the pain in his throat. He is so grateful that it’s the middle of the night because he bets the ring of bruises he must have around his neck must look spectacular in the light of day.

Next to him, Jeongguk has closed his eyes to feign sleep but Taehyung knows his body is tensed to pounce the second anything looks to be amiss.

“That was some pretty terrible driving there,” the officer says, still conversational. He’s radiating calm so Taehyung knows they’re not in the red, yet. “Do you mind stepping out and doing a test for me?”

With the state of his knee and his ribs, Taehyung actually minds very much. Nevertheless, Taehyung can’t believe their luck. Here they are, on the run from government forces and it looks like they’ve actually gotten pulled over by a legitimate officer just trying to do his job. He almost laughs. 

“Sure thing sir,” he says instead. "I haven’t been drinking though, I swear,” he continues and when the officer turns to go get the breathalyser from his car, Taehyung carefully opens the car door and prepares to get up. He wraps both hands around his knee for support and gently stretches it out. When he tries to put his weight on it, he almost ends up kissing the ground.

Taehyung therefore makes the executive decision to lean against the car instead. It won’t give him points in the looking sober department, but he’s a hundred percent sure he’s not going to fail the sobriety test anyways so he doesn’t care about presentation points at this time.

Inside the car, Jeongguk makes a distressed noise when Taehyung bites back another pained sound when he is forced to lean against his bruised ribs.

When the officer comes back a minute later all traces of discomfort are gone from Taehyung’s face. He blows in the breathalyser and passes with flying colours and the man shakes his head.

The officer looks pleasantly surprised when he mutters, “well I’ll be damned.”

Finally, as Taehyung is sitting himself back down into the driver’s seat, the officer pokes his head in the open window and nods towards Jeongguk in concern. Despite the other man’s best attempt at acting, his pallor and the sickly sheen of sweat on his face is hard to miss.

He asks, “what’s wrong with him?”

The man’s voice has gained a note of worry and a tinge of wariness.

“Oh, he’s just tired,” Taehyung says. He tries to make his tone sound unconcerned.

“You sure, son? I could take a look for you,” the man says, squinting as he pushes back to begin circling the car to the passenger side. Shit, Taehyung thinks. If the man manages to get a good look at Jeongguk he’s definitely either going to put one and one together and call in reinforcements or call for an ambulance.

If a description of them goes out now, this close to the destroyed military compound, they’re definitely going to be doomed.

Out of the corner of his eye, Taehyung sees Jeongguk come to the same conclusion and tighten his grip on the knife hidden under his blanket.

Panic grips Taehyung and he is shouting before he can even think. “No,” he cries, voice forceful, “he’s just a little carsick. It’s nothing. Everything’s fine.” 

Miraculously, the officer halts mid-step. He changes direction and starts walking back towards his own cruiser. He waves a friendly hand at Taehyung as he passes by his open window again.

Before he gets in the car the man called out, “you boys be good now alright? No more sudden manoeuvres.”

“Yessir,” Taehyung answers, hardly daring to move. He gives a weak wave in return and slumps in his seat when the police cruiser finally drives past them and disappears into the night.

“Oh, thank fuck,” he groans, deflating. His heart feels like it wants to beat straight out of his ribcage. He rolls his head to the side to share a conspiratorial smile with Jeongguk for making it out of that situation by the skin of their teeth but is only met with an intense stare.

“How did you do that?” Jeongguk demands.

“Do what?” Taehyung asks. He puts the car back into gear and gets back on the road.

“Make him leave. How did you get him to leave, just like that?”

“Uh?” Taehyung is confused, “I talked to him? You were there literally there the whole time.”

“He wasn’t going to let us go and then, suddenly, he just gets in his car and drives off. You think that’s normal?”

Taehyung’s throat is sore, he’s exhausted and he doesn’t want to have this conversation anymore. He throws the radio he’d just liberated from the nice police officer into Jeongguk’s lap and the man startles.

“He’s going to realise you’ve taken this off him at some point you know,” Jeongguk reproaches but begins to fiddle with the dials anyways, already effectively distracted.

“Yup,” Taehyung agrees, popping the ‘p’ just to be annoying. It hurts his throat even more and Taehyung reflects that this is probably what karma feels like.

 “Which is why you,” Taehyung begins, ignoring the pain once again. He pauses to give Jeongguk a significant look, “you are now in charge of getting in contact with your people and arranging for the closest and fastest pickup possible. Whereas I,” Taehyung says as he turns into a service station and points to himself, “will be in charge of making sure that we are going to be very hard to find when he does.”

 

 

 

 

Around thirty minutes later, Taehyung returns with the new clothes, basic medical supplies, chocolate bars, sandwiches and another bag filled with drinks he had ‘acquired’ from a different service station close by. Everything has been neatly arranged inside the new car he’d borrowed off someone who had trustingly parked in a hidden side street behind the station. He’s also managed to acquire a cap to help conceal his face so overall, he’s pretty happy with himself.

When he finishes parking next to their old car, Taehyung eyes how Jeongguk is slumped in the passenger seat and sees that he has definitely taken a turn for the worse in the time Taehyung’s been gone. He is pale, barely conscious and his skin burns when Taehyung touches him. His limbs are boneless when he tries to get up. Taehyung's good mood is gone in a flash only to be replaced by a sense of urgency. He needs to get Jeongguk to help asap.

With a strength he didn’t know he possessed, Taehyung opens the door and begins to haul Jeongguk’s body into the backseat of the new car. His knee screams at him the entire way and Taehyung resorts to dragging it behind him as he lugs Jeongguk’s body across the small space between the cars' open doors.

Once they’re in there, his knee won’t stop pulsing against the confines of his jeans so he takes a pair of scissors to his own trousers and cuts them off above the knee. He sobs in relief as the fabric falls off and releases the pressure on the joint. Taehyung glances down and sees that his knee is swollen to almost triple its normal size and is now so stiff Taehyung is almost afraid to begin driving again. 

Next to him, from where he’s been quietly laying down in watch across the bench Jeongguk warns, “I’m going to be sick.”

Springing back into action, Taehyung manages to move Jeongguk’s head out the car door, just far enough away for him to throw up messily onto the pavement and not in the interior of the car.

When he’s done, Taehyung tentatively peaks at the mess and thanks God for small miracles when he sees that it is blood-free. He clinically helps Jeongguk rinse out his mouth, feeds him a candy bar to help him chase the taste of bile out of it and then after all that, they both lie there on the seats completely drained.

The fact that they barely have a fully functioning body between them suddenly hits Taehyung. He had driven them through the night and now the adrenaline that had been keeping him going is running out.

“I don’t even know if we’re even being followed,” Taehyung admits in a whisper. He feels like an idiot.

“I can find out,” Jeongguk replies weakly and Taehyung goggles at him. They’re sat face to face now across the backseat. Jeongguk grimaces, presses a hand to his ribs and Taehyung worriedly hunches forward to begin examining Jeongguk’s torso.

“We’re hundreds of kilometres away from that base, not even a level 5 like you can stretch your senses out that far without help. And you’re very hurt.”

He really is. His whole abdomen looks bruised and tender and Jeongguk had definitely flinched away when Taehyung pressed gently onto the area under his ribs.

Taehyung thinks he sees a slight distention and quietly panics some more. If he’s right, there are definitely some severe internal injuries going on underneath Jeongguk’s skin and they're going to need to get him to help, fast.

“I can do it,” Jeongguk insists. He lolls his head so that he can look Taehyung in the eye, “and I won’t be doing it alone. I’ll have you.”

Taehyung shakes his head at him. The man is obviously concussed and maybe a little crazy. “I’m not a guide, Jeongguk. There has to be another way. I can’t help you.”

“We don’t have the time to think of another way. And I know this will work,” Jeongguk hisses. Taehyung jumps at the tone and immediately deflates. He’s right. Every minute they spend arguing here is also a minute against the clock.

There were only three roads leading out of that compound and none of them branched out for miles. Tracking any survivors down would have simply been a game of taking a drive down the path until they basically ran over them. If they were being followed, the need to increase the distance between them and the base is more urgent than ever. 

But maybe, if they could confirm now that the Reclaimers didn’t know of any survivors, he and Jeongguk could stop their frantic race away and just wait for pickup. Taking into consideration the shape that they’re both in, Taehyung really doesn’t want to be moving anyone anywhere if there was a way to know that it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

“Okay,” Taehyung agrees reluctantly. He really hopes Jeongguk knows what he's doing. “We’ll give this a shot. What do you need me to do?”

Jeongguk nods at his reply, mouth set in a grim line despite the fact that he had won the argument. "Just, follow my lead," he says, and then he reaches across the space between them, places a hand over Taehyung’s heart and shuts his eyes.

A few breaths later, Taehyung sees the furrow of pain that had carved a permanent place into Jeongguk’s brow recede and then, in the next breath, the man looks peaceful. 

For the first time, Taehyung finally gets a quiet moment to really study the other man’s face and his heart begins to race.

A few more silent moments pass and then Jeongguk begins to laugh. It lights him up from the inside and despite the fact that he’s dusty, bruised and bloody, Taehyung can’t look away.

“Don’t do that,” Jeongguk admonishes gently, tapping at his chest, right above his heart. It takes Taehyung a moment to parse his meaning. When he does, he feels heat rush to his cheeks but takes a deep breath and tries to calm his heart down nevertheless.

“That’s it,” Jeongguk encourages when he manages, “that’s all I need.”

 

 

 

 

The next few minutes are lost to the sound of their quiet breaths.

“There’s an alert going out,” Jeongguk finally murmurs, breaking the silence. “They knew I was meant to be amongst the bodies today.”

The news he delivers couldn’t have been worse.

“They’re going to send a team this way,” Jeongguk continues and Taehyung swears. He really should know better by now than to tempt fate. They need to get moving then. Now.

Taehyung places a hand on the one Jeongguk has on his chest and says, “that’s enough Jeongguk. That’s all we need to know.”

Jeongguk hums at the extra contact and his voice is content despite the message it’s delivering, “they’ve sent out three cars.”

His voice is still dazed and Taehyung clutches harder at the hand he has under his palm. He really hopes he was right to trust in the fact that Jeongguk said he wasn’t going to zone. “That’s enough,” he repeats, “come back here Jeongguk, come back to me.”

After a breath, Jeongguk slowly blinks his eyes open and Taehyung thinks it’s like watching him emerge through a fog.

“Taehyung?” Jeongguk murmurs.

“Yes, that’s it,” Taehyung encourages, relief and adrenaline spreading through him. He lets go of the hand he has held trapped to his chest. “We need to get a move on.”

Jeongguk nods his agreement. He leans back and slowly retracts his hand.

Taehyung feels it as he lifts it in sections starting from his palm until finally, he lifts the tips of his fingers. He moves slowly, almost reluctantly, as if he were trying to prolong the contact.

 

 

 

 

They’re another twenty minutes down the road when the radio in Jeongguk’s hands finally kicks to life and a tired voice comes over the speakers.

“Scouts to Golden Boy…come in Golden Boy…Scouts to Golden…”

Over the rearview mirror, Taehyung and Jeongguk share a celebratory look.

“This is Golden Boy,” Jeongguk manages into the handset from where he’s lying down across the backseat. Taehyung had thrown a blanket over his shivering body and placed the device in his lap to distract him from the pain and to give him something to do.

From the radio, there is a moment where the other end of the line bursts into a flurry of incoherent noise before the voice comes back to the line sounding breathless.

“Golden Boy this is RM, please confirm.”

Jeongguk doesn’t even glance Taehyung’s way, nor does he hesitate before he rattles off the confidential confirmation string into the mic. Taehyung would have been flattered at the amount of trust he was being shown if he wasn’t also pretty sure that Jeongguk was only being so careless because he was halfway to dead.

“We’re going to need pickup from Port New 7 in three hours,” Jeongguk continues, completely ignoring what sounds like a mass celebration going on on the other side of the line.

“We?” the voice asks. The voice is wary, but also tentatively hopeful. News of the failed attack must have already reached the Rebellion then.

“For myself and for V, of Geochang. We’re the only two left but we’ve got company, so we’re going to be coming in hot.”

The sounds of the celebration abruptly cease and Taehyung tries to ignore the pain that pierces through him at the reminder of the team he had left behind.

“Understood,” says the voice from the radio. “Port New 7 in three hours. RM out.”

 

 

 

 

 

“So you did know who I was,” Taehyung tries to tease when Jeongguk cuts away from Bangtan’s frequency to see if he can tune it to eavesdrop on the ones on their tail. Jeongguk had initially suggested trying to listen in on them again through extending his senses and Taehyung had threatened to throw him out onto the tarmac if he so much as tried so they had reached a compromise.

Despite the tone he was aiming for, Taehyung’s voice sounds like it’s being crushed against gravel and Jeongguk flinches when he hears it.

“I didn’t know your face,” Jeongguk mutters, curling in on himself even more. Taehyung isn’t watching him, but he knows Jeongguk is eyeing the ring of bruises decorating his neck again. He sounds cornered and Taehyung wonders at it. “But I knew of you, sure,” Jeongguk eventually continues.

Taehyung doesn’t speak again, because it obviously upsets the man behind him but he thinks he manages to telegraph his question through the use of his eyes and eyebrows alone.

“Also, you’re the thief,” Jeongguk elaborates, “most of the intel the Rebellion has on the Reclaimers that hasn’t been hacked out of their servers has come from you.”

Taehyung grins, it’s always nice to hear that all his hard work hasn’t gone unappreciated. 

“Namjoon was actually going to come to you after-”

Whatever he had been about to reveal is cut off by the crackle of the radio in Jeongguk’s hands.

“…officer has reported his radio had been stolen off the M15. All cars focus on routes to and off the M15 area. I repeat…”

Taehyung catches Jeongguk’s eyes in the rearview mirror and the panic reads clear on both their faces.

“Where is Port New 7?” Taehyung demands. Each faction has their own codes for emergency pickup locations and Taehyung prays this one isn’t too far. 

Jeongguk tells him. 

Taehyung curses and presses down harder on the accelerator.

 

 

 

 

It’s just creeping into the early hours of the morning when Taehyung's body decides to introduce him to the limits of his adrenaline. The crunch of rocks beneath their tyres is what alerts Taehyung to the fact that he has basically fallen asleep at the wheel.

Taehyung jerks and hastily straightens them out to get them back on the road.

His mind immediately supplies him with all the ways they could’ve died. He could’ve wrapped them both around a telephone pole or the car could’ve drifted into the path of an oncoming truck instead of the relatively harmless roadside.

He glances behind him and sees that Jeongguk is still sleeping, oblivious as to how much of an idiot Taehyung had just been. He’d be damned if he’d managed to drag them this far only to kill them in something as mundane as a car accident. However, even the knowledge of what he had almost done isn't enough to give him the boost of adrenaline he desperately needs.

The road stretches out before him, long and monotonous.   

Taehyung rifles through the shopping bags he had thrown in the car earlier and guzzles down the first can of coke he finds there. He drinks three cans in total, eats a chocolate bar and waits for the energy to flood into his bloodstream. In the meantime, he opens a fourth can and sips at it whilst his stomach groans at him in protest.

Once the sugar and caffeine truly hit, his eyes feel like they’ve been stapled open and his free leg starts to bounce from the jitters. His head pounds and his heart feels like it’s punching the inside of his ribs with how heart it's beating.

From behind him, Jeongguk frown and stirs.

“Taehyung? Your heart's going crazy, what’s going on?”

Taehyung glances back at the sentinel as shrugs. He’s aware that he looks slightly manic. “Gotta keep awake Jeonggukkie. Can’t have Bangtan’s finest dying by the roadside.”

“What did you do?” Jeongguk says and for the first time since meeting him, Taehyung gets a glimpse of the dangerous man he is reputed to be.

He laughs the man off and singsongs, “just drank some sugar Gukkie, don’t you worry.”

Taehyung sees him eye the number of empty soda cans scattered in on the floor with trepidation, “you’ve had too much.”

“Probably,” Taehyung agrees easily. He feels sick to his stomach but he is no longer sleepy, which is what really matters.

They’re still a good distance away from the pickup point. He takes another sip at the coke he has in his hand and puts it down in the cup holder to press his palm over his jack-rabbiting heart.

“Taehyung…” Jeongguk intones and the tone of his voice has Taehyung’s hackles rising.

“What would you have me do?” Taehyung growls, “this isn’t ideal for me either but -”

The crackle of the radio cuts him off before he can really get going and the message it delivers supports Taehyung’s point better than he ever could.

“…reports that a blue 1996 Honda Civic, with plates AEF 1943 has been stolen early this morning from…” 

It’s the exact description of the car they are driving. Taehyung had switched out the license plate for one from a similar car earlier when they had driven past it some time ago, but that was only going to buy them so much time. The fight leaves him as quickly as it had come and from the look on Jeongguk’s face, it looks like it’s been drained from him too.

“If I stop, they catch us,” Taehyung finishes gently.

Jeongguk’s good hand clenches at the radio so hard the plastic creaks, but the next time Taehyung takes a sip of his drink, he is silent.

 

 

 

 

An hour later, both the sugar and caffeine have worn off and the resulting crash hits Taehyung hard. They’ve come off the highway now, and they’ve been stuck crawling through the morning rush hour traffic. A long and annoyed honk startles Taehyung out of his doze at the wheel and he curses as he shifts the car back into gear. God, he can’t believe he had just drifted off at a red light.

When he looks up again Jeongguk is watching him worriedly. “Taehyung,” the man says, it sounds like he had been calling him for a while. 

“We’re going to make it,” Taehyung mutters determinedly, at this point he’s not sure if he’s talking to the man in the back or to himself. They just need to get to the warehouse district and then Jeongguk’s team is going to come to pick him up and then Taehyung is going to sleep for a million years.

They’re going to make it. They have to make it.

He just has to stay awake.

Taehyung braces himself in his chair, grips hard at the wheel with his left hand to ensure the car will stay steady and then digs the fingers of his right into the wound in his side. Taehyung yells at the burn as his wound reopens, at the hot gush of warmth that rushes over his skin.

Jeongguk cries out in alarm as the smell of fresh blood hits him, “what are you doing? Stop!”

Taehyung sees him try to reach out to him only to fall prey to vertigo and the sight of this man of legend looking so weak gives him the strength to dig his fingers in even harder into his wound. The pain works better than anything and Taehyung smiles as the fog finally lifts and awareness returns to him.

“Stop,” Jeongguk whispers again.

Taehyung ignores the way the other man’s voice cracks at the word and he drives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

When Taehyung turns the corner, the sight of the dilapidated warehouse is one of the most beautiful things he has ever seen and he lets out a loud whoop in joy.

As additional piece of good news, Jeongguk is still awake and aware of his surroundings. Taehyung just needs to somehow move him into the warehouse.

The older man parks as close as he dares to the entrance, opens the door and braces himself.

This next part was going to suck.

Taehyung swings both his legs out the car to try to avoid having to straighten out his knee for as long as possible after the long drive but, like an idiot, he accidentally hits it against the car door and then goes tumbling backwards out of his seat and onto the ground, blinded by the agony.

In the back of his mind, he thinks he hears Jeongguk calling his name but he isn’t sure.

Taehyung feels dirt and grit dig into the open wound in his side when he curls up to try and manage the pain and takes a moment to feel sorry for himself.

Then, shaking it off, he waves goodbye to his dignity and crawls his way around the car to where Jeongguk should be. The door is already open when he gets there and Jeongguk, with a hand pressed hard into his ribcage is sitting there and struggling to get up.

“I can walk,” he slurs when his feverish eyes spot Taehyung on the ground. He skin is clammy and pale.

“You really can’t,” Taehyung croaks from where he’s crouched. He braces himself on the open door and tries to pull himself to standing. A shaky hand covers his and he looks up.

“You can’t either,” Jeongguk whispers. He rests his temple against Taehyung’s and his voice is kind. “You’ve carried us all the way here. We’ll make it through this last bit together.”

He wraps himself around Taehyung and, somehow, through drawing strength from one another, they manage to carry each other the final length of the way.

 

 

 

 

 

Once they’ve settled in the warehouse, Taehyung takes a glance at his watch. They’re somehow fifty minutes early, but that’s much better than being late and potentially missing their window for escape.

Just as Taehyung thinks they might be in the clear, a chilling message comes over the radio.

 

“…a car with plate number AEF 1943 has been spotted by a patrol car on…”

 

It looks like they had come across his decoy at last. Depending on how good the team who had come across the car is, the distraction might buy them a lot of time, or none at all.

The next moments are tense. Jeongguk places the radio in the empty space between them and they hunch over it as if in prayer. Taehyung keeps one eye on his watch and at forty minutes to pick-up, almost on the mark, the radio bursts into a flurry of sound.

 

“…plate number AEF 1943 does not match vehicle…”

“…confirming the switched out license to be for NYT 9430…”

 

They had cross-checked the plates with the car body. The team that had found the car knew exactly what tricks they had to be watching out for.

Taehyung can’t tear his eyes away from the radio. His heart is still tight with hope despite the fact that he now knows that they are running on borrowed time.

He squeezes his eyes shut against the despair. They had been so close to making it out of here.

There has to be something he can still do.

 

“…roger that. All operatives now scanning for plate number NYT 9430…”

 

They’re now circling in, coming closer and closer. Taehyung can feel the squeeze and he can barely breathe as he waits for confirmation of the final nail in their coffin.

Next to him, Jeongguk’s eyes are fixed onto Taehyung’s watch and he knows, without asking, what the other man must be thinking.

There is no way that Bangtan is going to get to them in time.

The Reclaimers have finally caught up.

Taehyung is still frantically assessing their options. Neither of them can fight, that much is obvious, but maybe, if they hide, they might be able to last long enough for Jeongguk’s team to get here.

But even if they did survive the final minutes hiding, then what?

Would Jeongguk’s team, who would have only prepared for the extraction of two people, be able to fight off all the Reclaimers that are likely to swarm the area once they get their hands on the likes of Jeon Jeongguk?

Has Jeongguk asking for this evacuation just resulted in them fruitlessly condemning more of their people to the grave with them?

Should they call the rescue off altogether so, at the very least, the rest of Jeongguk’s team can live to fight another day? 

Taehyung shakes his head to clear it from his dark thoughts.

There has to be something.

 

“…reporting confirmation of a man matching the rebel’s description in a white baseball cap driving car license number NYT 9430 into…”

“…all local units. I repeat, you are looking for a man in a white baseball cap driving a…”

 

Upon hearing the latest batch of communication, Taehyung perks up.

Every cloud does have a silver lining after all.

“They think there is only one of us,” Taehyung crows, overjoyed.

Of course, Taehyung realises. Jeongguk had been lying down across the back seat for the second half of their journey, so witnesses would’ve only spotted one driver. 

A plan begins to take shape in his mind and he quickly gets up. 

“No,” Jeongguk rejects. “No, no, no,” he repeats and he falls forward.

The sentinel tries to grab at Taehyung’s arm. He manages to catch his sleeve, but the man is currently much weaker than Taehyung.

The older man shakes off his grip and he moves towards the door.

“I’m not going to just sit here twiddling my thumbs, waiting for them to come to us,” Taehyung reasons as he continues to drag his sorry body to the door. He tries to subtly hang onto the doorframe for a little bit to catch his breath when he gets there but he's pretty sure he fails. “Not when I can still do something about it. I promised you I’d get you back to your team and I don’t break my promises.”

“You’re going to go back with me,” Jeongguk demands. He’s still sprawled across the crates they had been sitting on. The man hadn’t bothered with trying to right himself after his failed lunge for Taehyung and he looks so small and is so miserable that Taehyung aches for him.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung begins. They both know that the chances of Taehyung losing their tail and making it back to the warehouse in time for their pickup are slim.

Jeongguk shakes his head and it’s as if he’s already mourning.

“Please,” the man begs, his voice is hollow. “I’ve only just found you.”

Something in Taehyung’s heart tugs and breaks but he sets his jaw and soldiers on. He ignores the fact that Jeongguk isn’t quite making sense and responds to the spirit of his request. 

“I can try,” Taehyung compromises. “But if it sounds like I won’t be coming back, you have to leave when Bangtan comes to get you,” he nods at the radio next to the other man. Jeongguk reaches out and grasps at the device like a lifeline. He still looks mutinous.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung threatens, impatient. He thinks he can hear sirens in the distance and if he can hear them then Jeongguk has definitely been aware of them for a while. “It’s either you promise me this now or I will guarantee you there will be nothing to wait for.”

Taehyung’s heartbeat is steady as he says the words and he knows that Jeongguk can tell he’s not lying.

“I promise,” Jeongguk blurts immediately, breath hitching. Panic bleeds into his voice, “I’ll leave if it sounds like you’re gone. I will. But you have to try.” 

“I’ll hold you to that,” Taehyung says instead and moves out the door. He ignores the wave of grief and fear that hits him when he’s completely turned away.

 

 

 

 

 

This time, when Taehyung gets in the car, he doesn’t bother with taking any backstreets or with painstakingly squeezing into cramped alleyways. This time, he listens for where the sirens are congregating and speeds straight towards them.

There is no need for him to hide now.

As he presses down harder on the accelerator, he cranks up the music on the radio and somehow, the thump of the bass mixes with his fear and determination to lead the chase far, far away and gifts him with a hidden reserve of adrenaline. 

He zooms past a cruiser coming from the opposite direction and throws his head back to laugh loud and long when he sees the officer inside it do a double take. In the rearview mirror, he watches the cruiser almost mow down several unsuspecting passers-by when the guy slams the breaks and hurriedly doubles back on himself.

Seeing it happen makes Taehyung realise: he’s going to have to downsize significantly if he expects to be able to outrun these guys in their territory.

He turns the other corner and drives straight into the first parking lot he sees. When he gets past the gate, he knows he’s hit the jackpot.

Taehyung has managed to find himself in some sort of college campus and he just knows that no-one is more lax with security, no-one is more lazy with motorbike safety especially, than college students.

Even the sorry state of his knee doesn’t stop him this time. He get out of the car and eyes up the rows and rows of motorbikes - more than half don’t even have locks on the wheels.

Really, it was almost as if they were asking for him to take one.

Taehyung only has to break open three trunks before he strikes gold. There, glinting up at him next to the rider’s helmet like an invitation, is the spare key.

Just as he’s securing the helmet, a set of flashing lights turn into the campus gates and Taehyung gives the guys in the car a friendly wave when he zooms past.

He’s always been told that he was too sociable for his own good.

Once he hits the main road, he frantically tries to recall everything he knows of this town and remembers that it is on the coast.

He turns the bike around and follows the signs that point him towards the scenic drive.

 

 

 

 

 

The road he’s on now is twisted along the coastline and is absolutely beautiful. To his right, the ocean is a bright blue, waves crash against the jagged cliff face and as he hurtles around the corners and the wind whips at his skin and tugs at his clothes.

The rush of cold air also numbs the throbbing of his knee and he can almost imagine he wasn’t just here for the sole purpose of buying Jeongguk time if he ignores the sound of sirens echoing around him. The cars had started to gain on him in the town centre but once he had turned onto the winding coastal road, the tight turns had won him back a good amount of distance.

He’s not going to be able to keep this up forever though. For all he knows, these guys might have just set up a barricade at the other end of the trail and the ones tailing him are simply herding him into their waiting arms. It’s what he would’ve done if he were in their shoes.

He doesn’t mind the idea of getting captured as much as he knows he should, it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, saving Bangtan’s best operative, but the moment he thinks it, his brain decides to play his last conversation with Jeongguk in HD surround sound and the quietly broken look on the sentinel’s face makes him reconsider.   

So Taehyung makes sure to keep an eye out for a solution as he speeds around the corners. Despite his best intentions, his distraction almost costs him his head anyways as the wheels of his bike slip against loose gravel and almost sends him careening head-first into the ocean.

He has to use his left leg as a counterbalance so that the bike doesn’t skid out from under him. He has no idea how his knee has managed to take so much abuse without giving up, but it doesn’t fail him this time either and he straightens the bike out and is back to speeding down the path again without any more close calls.

The near-accident does give him an idea though.

It’s not a great idea. Doesn’t even pretend to kiss up against the edges of a plausible one really, if he were to be honest with himself. But, theoretically, it could work.

At the next turn, the view opens up to a beautiful inland beach and in the distance, he spots his best chance.

Bracing himself for what was to come, he slows down the bike as much as he dares and, despite every cell in his body fighting against him, he throws his weight to the right. 

The bike tires screech deafeningly and burn hot against the tarmac as the it skids sideways across the final straight stretch of road.

He’s in a kind-of valley now, so the sound of sirens reflect off the rocks around him, fills his head and forces its way down into in throat. Taehyung screams when he feels his arm hit the ground, he feels it snap but the wailing of sirens is all he can hear.

He is thankful for it.

As the bike’s front wheel tips over the cliff’s edge and into the emptiness there, Taehyung pushes off it hard with his legs to change its trajectory. The bike flies away from him, in the direction of the water.

Finally, Taehyung lets go of the handlebars and prays for a miracle.

 

 

 

 

 

This time, when Taehyung comes to, he’s treated to the view of a smiling face hovering upside-down over him and almost wets himself from the shock. 

“Holy shit,” he wheezes, scrambling up from his prone position on the ground. His whole body protests the movement but the fright carries him through to a weak crouch. His right hand tries to come up to clutch at his chest to calm the rapid beating of his heart but the movement causes a burning pain to shoot up his arm and he almost blacks out again. He feels the breeze run through his hair, and concludes that someone has taken his helmet off for him.

Well, that’s not a creepy thought at all.

“Hello,” the smiling face greets once Taehyung’s soul finds its way back inside his body, “Jeongguk told me we’d find you around here.”

Taehyung squints at him. He tries to get a good look at the man’s face despite the glare of the sun in his eyes and the fact that the world seems to be spinning. He doesn’t have much success. 

“Who the fuck are you,” he demands eventually, giving up. Then, more parts of his brain start to come online and he breathes, “holy shit, I’m still alive.”   

“You sure are,” the man confirms. He steps forward, sticking out a friendly hand. “I’m the man who dragged your sorry carcass away from the scene of the crime. Pleasure’s all yours.”

Taehyung eyes the hand warily and then squints at the man some more. He’s smaller than Taehyung and thinner, but something in the way he carries himself makes Taehyung nervous. He keeps his attention on the hand still outstretched in his direction, wary, but also starts taking stock of their surroundings. They seem to be inside a store of some sort. He spots a Slurpee machine and thinks they must be in a drinks shack.

Another moment more where Taehyung doesn’t move an inch and the man cocks his head to the side. “Good thinking aiming for the pile of pool floats,” he compliments.

Ah, Taehyung thinks, so he did manage to land on them after all. Despite the confirmation, his body still doesn’t act like he landed on anything soft. Everything hurts.

“Funny,” the man continues heedless of the fact that Taehyung isn’t engaging with him. Taehyung observes in a detached kind of way that this man really seems to like talking to himself. “When I first got here, I had thought you had to be dead because I couldn’t feel your presence at all. Had to turn up the hearing and listen for breathing. And then there you were!”

The slighter man speaks with so much energy bubbling inside him that it’s giving Taehyung a headache. Then he steps out of the sun.

“Jung Hoseok?” Taehyung gapes when he gets a good look at his face. “Jung Hoseok of Bangtan? Why are you here? How did you even find me?” He swallows as a terrible thought crosses his mind, “did you…did you not get to Jeongguk?”

“No, no. Remember how I said Jeongguk was the one who told us where we’d find you? We got to him just fine,” Hoseok says dismissively and his voice is airy and light. His eyes remain fixed on Taehyung, but he waves a hand carelessly in the general direction of the warehouse they had left behind. “But he had refused to leave, and now he’s zoning and no one can get close to him. So I came to collect you!”

That’s too much information to parse at once, so Taehyung concentrates on what was most important.

“Why did you come to me?” Taehyung asks slowly, his everything is still so bruised, and he thinks he probably has a nasty case of road rash up one side and down the other but he needs to know. He didn’t literally sacrifice the skin off his back to yank the man from the jaws of death just so Bangtan could kill him with their inaction. “Your faction has some of the best guides, and the man is bleeding out. Get one of them to anchor him and then get him the hell out of here.” 

Hoseok levels him with a look that cuts Taehyung off mid-rant. “Jeongguk won’t leave,” he intones, “because you’re not there.”

Taehyung gapes and Hoseok beams at him again.

“So, Kim Taehyung of Geochang, you will be coming with me.”

 

 

 

 

When they get to the warehouse it is silent save for the low murmur of a single voice.

“…his heartbeat is steady, the bones in his arms are sliding against each other, his footsteps are uneven and he’s in an enclosed space. There is the sound of rat’s feet, the sound of them chewing through wires. He’s moving, his heart is still beating, he’s not dead…”

Jeongguk is still positioned, slumped, on the exact same crate Taehyung had left him on but now his eyes are wide open and unseeing.

He sees the evidence of tears on the his face. They have left clean, salty trails that clear a path through the soot and dust caking his skin. He’s also, to Taehyung surprise, got Taehyung’s dirty bandana, the one he had used to wipe down Jeongguk’s face when he had found him under the pile of rubble, pressed to his heart. Taehyung had completely forgotten about it, thought it had been left behind in compound.

He takes everything in and files that bit of information away to think about later.

“Shit, how deep in is he?” Taehyung whispers instead, turning to look at Hoseok’s unhappy face.

“Very. He’s anchored himself to your heartbeat and the sounds around you. So he’s very deep.”

Taehyung hadn’t even known something like that was possible. Bangtan’s operatives really were something else.

“Plus, he’s never zoned before, so we don’t know how to get him out.”

Taehyung goggles at the news, disbelieving. An unbonded level 5 sentinel who had never zoned? Surely, that couldn’t be possible. And even then:

“So what do you expect me to do about it?”

Even Taehyung knows that a sentinel that has zoned can only be brought back with the careful handling of a powerful guide or with the help of their bonded pair.

“Bring him back out,” Hoseok requests, voice mild, as if his words weren’t batshit insane.

“Also,” Hoseok adds cheerily as if just remembering, “he seems to be a violent kind of zoner. So be careful, I guess. No-one’s been able to touch him so far.”

As if intending to highlight Hoseok’s point, another figure, probably concerned with the wetness that even Taehyung can hear in Jeongguk’s breathing slowly approaches the man. However, the second the figure comes within reach, Jeongguk’s left arm (his broken one, Taehyung’s mind supplies in horror), shoots out, grips the other man by the shirt and throws him clear across the room with enough force that he hits the surrounding crates with a loud crash.

The bones in Jeongguk’s arm shift unnaturally under his skin and Taehyung feels sick, not only at the display but at how mindless it was. Despite what must have amounted to be an agonising amount of pain, Jeongguk doesn’t make a sound and the blank expression on his face doesn’t shift.

Hoseok doesn’t even flinch.

“I’m not a guide,” Taehyung reminds him, a little shaky from the display. Surely Hoseok, another powerful sentinel, can sense the fact that he is null.

In the background, Taehyung hears his conversation with Hoseok being repeated through Jeongguk, but in a flat voice. The sounds rings, like a monotonous echo and it’s more than mildly creepy.

“No,” Hoseok agrees, “you’re not. But Jeongguk had tuned his hearing to you, to keep track of you after the Reclaimers had reported over the radio that you had died and he told me that you’d  be able to bring him out if anything happened.” He gestures grandly at the man sitting on the crates and at the warehouse.

“So chop, chop, Kim Taehyung. We won’t have much longer until they figure out that you’re not actually a part of that sinking pile of motorcycle debris, come looking for you and find us all here.”

 

 

 

 

Against all his senses of self-preservation begging for him to just turn around and leave, Taehyung is somehow not willing to give up just yet. He’ll give Hoseok’s crazy request his best shot because the man certainly seems to believe that Taehyung will be able to do something, so he’ll at least try to prove the man wrong.

When Taehyung fails, at least Hoseok will understand how fruitless this had been, and then, maybe, they’ll find a way to sedate Jeongguk or something so the poor guy can finally get to a hospital.

Come to think of it, Taehyung would really appreciate getting some medical attention for himself as well.

Taehyung glances at the man who had tried to approach Jeongguk earlier, he doesn’t look like he’d broken anything, but he doesn’t look too happy to be where he was either.

At the state he’s in now, Taehyung doesn’t think he’d survive a throw like that. The bruises around his neck throb as if in remembrance of Jeongguk’s strength and he hesitates.

Jeongguk continues to stare into the middle distance, gaze completely vacant.

Taehyung grits his teeth and takes a determined step forward.

“…heartbeat is getting faster and there is the sound of blood dripping, there is so much blood…”

He tries to filter out the disturbing monotone of Jeongguk’s voice, focuses instead on slowing his heart rate down, on evening out his breathing. Just like Jeongguk had asked of him, mere hours ago. 

There is a break in the flow of Jeongguk’s words. A brief stutter.

It could be nothing, but Taehyung takes what he can get.

“Jeongguk,” he calls. He steps closer. He still hovers out of Jeongguk’s immediate reach but at the sound of his name, Jeongguk tilts his head to the side. The movement reminds Taehyung of a dog cocking its ear up, alert.

Jeongguk eyes are still unfocused, but Taehyung latches desperately onto that small action. He takes another step forward, and then another and another until he’s placed himself within Jeongguk’s reach.

He holds his breath and braces for the hit.

“…he is limping, he’s stopped walking, his heart and breathing are steady. He’s not dead, he’s not dead…”

It doesn’t come.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung calls, braver now. He still doesn’t know how long he has until Jeongguk decides he’s a nuisance so the words come out in a rush, “time to dial it back. Come on, concentrate on my voice.”

The sentinel stops his monologue.

It throws the room into a deafening silence as everyone seems to be holding their breath.

“That’s good,” Taehyung praises, voice tight with nervousness. Now for direction. He can do that. 

“Tell me what you can hear.”

A beat. Then Jeongguk closes his eyes.

He smiles.

“The breeze running through your hair, the air moving in and out of your lungs, your heartbeat, you,” Jeongguk breathes, he sounds hypnotised. “I can hear your voice, but it’s hurt. Because of me, I did that. I almost-”

The calm of Jeongguk’s expression breaks and Taehyung hurriedly cuts in.

“Stop,” he commands and to his surprise Jeongguk does. 

Taehyung thinks he can hear the sirens again. They’re out of time. 

Zoned sentinels, Taehyung vaguely recalls, need to be reintroduced to their other senses to help pull back from the over-focusing on the one.

“I’m going to touch you now, okay?” Taehyung says and really hopes he’s not signing his own death certificate with what he’s about to do next. He reaches forward and presses one of Jeongguk’s hands to his heart.

Jeongguk’s hand twitches under his palm to dig into the fabric his shirt.

From his left, Hoseok’s voice cuts in to say, “can we, maybe, hurry this up please?”

Definitely sirens then. His voice is mild but his eyes have become sharp.   

Taehyung fights back a flare of annoyance at the interruption and to his surprise, Jeongguk snaps his head in Hoseok’s direction. Even with his eyes closed he is still spot on. He snarls.

Nonplussed, Hoseok shows both his palms in a placating gesture, he uses his right hand to make a zipping motion over his lips and swaggers off, presumably to guard the entrance.

Taehyung cradles the fist that Jeongguk has made over his heart and Jeongguk’s shoulders relax.

He asks, “can you feel that?”

He thinks back to their shared experience in the backseat of the car, puts it at the forefront of his mind. “You said this was all you needed, remember? I need you to come back now. You’ve done so well Guk, they’ve found me, thank you, but now we need to get out of here.”

He’s babbling and he knows it, but as he speaks he can feel something inside him unwind and he thinks it’s the sensation of Jeongguk coming back to himself. He runs his fingers through Jeongguk’s hair, and it reminds him of the very first time he did this. It was only yesterday, but it feels like years ago now.

“Open your eyes and look at me,” Taehyung finally murmurs. He uses his good hand to cup Jeongguk’s face. “I’m here.”

Suddenly, as if taking his first breath after being submerged underwater, Jeongguk’s eyes fly open and he gasps in a giant breath of air.

“Tae,” he whispers as soon as he is able.

His eyes have blessedly returned to awareness and they focus in on Taehyung’s face. Jeongguk pushes his cheek into Taehyung’s hand to strengthen their point of contact. “Taehyung,” he breathes again as if his name is the only word he’s ever known.   

“Hello,” Taehyung greets, hushed.

“You came back,” Jeongguk says and his smile is radiant.

Using what has to be the last reserves of his energy, Jeongguk puts a hand on Taehyung’s waist, uses it to pull him close. The contact feels like a balm over his wounds.

They press their foreheads together and breathe each other in. 

“I’m going to pass out now,” Taehyung eventually informs him and the world at large.

Jeongguk moves to rest his head on Taehyung chest and beats him to it.

 

 

 

 

“You can’t make me do this,” Taehyung hisses at Namjoon as soon as he comes out of the radio room. He scrambles to keep up as the man breezes down the corridor.

His legs are excessively long. Taehyung would file a complaint if he wasn’t already too busy fighting for his rights.

“You would find,” Namjoon replies, voice dry as dust, “that I just did.”

It's been eight months since the hell-trek (as Taehyung fondly dubs it in his head) and since then, Taehyung has been pretty effectively absorbed into Bangtan’s task force roster despite the fact that he had spent a solid four of those months in painful recovery. His final list of injuries had read more like an excerpt from a medical journal rather than something that could have actually happened to a person, but he had survived.

Barely.

But, against all odds, he and Jeongguk had both survived.

Since getting back in the game, despite the circumstances of his initiation, or maybe because of them (saving one of the faction’s most valued operatives did provide with him with one hell of a good reference after all), Taehyung had thought he had been doing pretty well.

He completes his missions on time, he plays nice with the everyone on and off base, he eats his vegetables. 

He thought Namjoon had actually liked him.

And yet:

“Please don’t make me work with him,” Taehyung begs. Who needed pride in the face of soul-crushing disdain? Not Taehyung.

“But you just told me yes, and I’ve already relayed the news,” Namjoon counters, gesturing back into the room he’d just come from.

He looks like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. It’s not an expression that should look at home on the leader of the Rebellion’s most feared guerrilla organisation, but on Namjoon it looks worryingly natural. 

Something inside Taehyung squirms with the desire to pinch the man’s cheeks and he firmly squashes it with the heavy sense of betrayal he’s feeling.

“That’s because you tricked me into agreeing to the mission before you told me who would be on it!” 

Namjoon smiles at him beatifically.

“Don’t you dimple at me,” Taehyung threatens.

He had fallen for that trick the first time Namjoon had smiled at him. Then, Namjoon had made him pay for his naiveté by sending him on a mission where he had to basically live inside air vents for a week. He refuses to fall for it again.

Namjoon just smiles harder.

Taehyung breaks.

“Look, I just don’t think it’s smart to make us work together when he obviously has a problem with me,” Taehyung tries to reason.

“He doesn’t have a problem with you,” Namjoon dismisses, confident, like he can make it true by simply speaking the lie into existence.

“Maybe not in front of you,” Taehyung challenges. “But that’s only because he would never be difficult in front of his precious Namjoon-ssi.”

Sue him, he’s a little bitter. Call him naive, but Taehyung had thought saving a man’s life would mark the start of a beautiful friendship (in his weakest moments he admits that maybe, he had been wishing it might’ve marked the start of something more, but that was neither here nor there).

However, his hopes for any kind of friendship had been cruelly crushed when he had woken up alone in the hospital and learnt that, Jeongguk, having woken up first between the two them, had asked then and there to be transferred to a completely different location. His only caveat had been the need to be far, far away from Taehyung.

Finding out that little fact had hurt more than the physical wounds littered all over his body.

Taehyung didn’t get the chance to see Jeongguk again until around six months after their moment in the warehouse. They had crossed paths between missions in the corridor and Taehyung had observed that man had made a full recovery. Seeing him at his best, standing tall and powerful had left him a little breathless.

Until that moment, Taehyung had held onto the faint hope that it had all been a misunderstanding. That hope had lasted up until the minute they finally locked eyes.

He still remembers the cold and shuttered expression on Jeongguk’s face.   

But he also remembers the curve of Jeongguk’s lips in the warehouse, remembers the sound of his soft laugh in the car and just wishes he knew what went wrong.

Shaking himself out of his funk, he tries a different tactic. He can see he’s not going to be winning this battle with Namjoon so he might as well get something else out of it. 

“I’ll go quietly if you finally tell me what RM stands for,” Taehyung bargains, but Namjoon knows when he’s got the upper hand.

“The volume that you eventually decide to leave for the mission in is no concern of mine,” he comments, ruthless as ever.

“Why won’t you just tell me,” Taehyung whines.

The first time he had asked, it had just been for a bit of small talk. A stalling tactic for him to gather his frayed nerves when Taehyung had realised Kim Namjoon, the Kim Namjoon was standing over his hospital bed offering him a place in Bangtan. Taehyung’s brain had gone offline for a bit and he had blurted the first thought that had come to mind in reaction to discovering Namjoon had also been the one speaking with Jeongguk over the stolen radio in the car.

The man’s consistent refusal to answer him though, had sparked a curiosity in Taehyung, hot enough to burn him from the inside. Taehyung was one of the Resistance’s best spies for many reasons, and his insatiable curiosity was definitely one of them. 

“I told you I’ve forgotten,” Namjoon lies, straight to his face.

As he moves further away Taehyung shouts, “I used to look up to you, you know!”

Unconcerned, the taller man doesn’t even turn back as he waves Taehyung’s comment off with a lazy hand.

“Never meet your heroes,” Namjoon replies, droll. He turns the final corner and disappears up the stairs.

The sound of his laughter is only slightly muffled when he shuts the door.

Damnit, Taehyung thinks, one day, I’ll get to have the final word.

 

 

 

Taehyung walks up to the safe house, duffle in hand, with a heavy heart.

There have been rumours of some kind of secret operation going on in the area. An informant had dialled in with reports of an increased number of Reclaimer sightings in the small town - the activity concentrating in one area in particular. 

The safe house Namjoon had found for them was close to the target site. It’s in one of the seedier parts of town. If Taehyung were to be brutally honest, the whole town kind gives him a distinctly unwashed feeling and the safe house is definitely located right in the thick of it.

His skin crawls with remembered unease.

He takes a good look at the house from his position standing outside the half-destroyed wire fence and grimaces. The lawn is full of mud and dead grass, the walls have graffiti and what looks to be actually bullet holes on one side and he thinks one of the windows might be broken. Charming. 

As Taehyung stands outside taking this all in, without warning, the front door swings open.

Jeongguk stands in the doorframe dark and imposing. Something inside Taehyung aches when it sees him. 

“Stop loitering. You’re attracting attention,” the other man snaps. He leaves the door once he’s delivered his message.

As far as welcomes go, it could use some work. Taehyung has had worse ones of course, where he’d been strung up, gagged and then interrogated but this frigid reception comes at a close second.

Shaking his head, Taehyung gathers himself together and steps over the threshold, resigned. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Taehyung bends down, places his hands on the kitchen’s wooden floors and slowly shifts his weight from his feet to the tips of his toes.

He breathes out and lifts his feet off the floor. Focuses on balancing on his hands in a half crouch; knees tucked to chest and elbows tight against his body.

The brainstorming session definitely could’ve gone better.

He locks his elbows and slowly stretches his legs back so that his body hovers parallel to the ground. He tries to find his centre, tries to calm and reorganise his mind as he settles into the familiar movements.

He lets out a long breath.

Beneath his palms, the wooden panels creak under his shifting weight. He’d closed himself up in the kitchen after the disaster that was the debrief between Jeongguk, Namjoon and himself where the youngest had filled them in on what he had found from his solitary investigation of the target site.

Taehyung takes another large breath in. He brings his legs back to his chest and then swings them forward. The tips of his toes ghost over the wooden floorboards as they move past the space left between his palms and he stretches his legs out in front of him.

He keeps them floating over the ground and lets out another breath.    

The tone of Taehyung’s welcome had definitely set the mood for the rest of the day so far. Taehyung tries to disregard their first discussion, the one they had had after Jeongguk informed him that the younger would be investigating the target building alone. It hadn't been pretty. 

All of Taehyung’s own input (for Taehyung to come as backup, for them to first run a preliminary investigation together to find the best way to approach the target site) had been summarily ignored. The younger man had obviously been determined to finish the mission solo and to pretend that Taehyung didn’t exist despite Taehyung’s protests that Namjoon must have put them both on this mission for a reason.

Taehyung lowers his legs to the ground and lets his body fold forward. Pressing his chest flat against his thighs, Taehyung takes four more breaths and shoves the hurt aside to concentrate on the situation at hand.

He arranges all the information he had gathered from his trip into town and files it away. Then, he begins arranging the information Jeongguk had gathered on his own.

 

 

 

 

The target site was a factory that, Jeongguk had concluded, was definitely a front for something else. At first glance, there hadn't been anything that overtly advertised the building as remarkable, other than the overly high number of Reclaimer personnel that seemed to move in and out of it. However, once Jeongguk had made his way inside, it was made clear to him that the facility was definitely hiding something. 

During the debrief which was a video call to Namjoon, Jeongguk had sat as far away as he had been able from Taehyung whilst still managing to stay in range of the phone camera. He had reported that the sound and feel of his footsteps on the factory floor was what had first alerted him to the fact that there was definitely more going on underneath the surface. He also told them that he had felt the tremors of machine parts and the echoes of people voices beneath his footprints once he had gotten inside. 

By the time Taehyung had returned to the safe house after his self-appointed reconnaissance mission in town, Jeongguk had been done with comparing the factory layout he had in his mind to the blueprints that had been given to them by Namjoon and had discovered the factory basement’s most likely entrance through analysing the discrepancies. That entrance, like several of the others (likely decoys), had been protected by limited keycard access and with a fingerprint scanner.

If nothing else, the level of security, which was wildly disproportionate for what was supposed to be a regular factory definitely confirmed that there was something there that the Reclaimers had wanted to hide.

Jeongguk had taken photographs of all the access panels he had come across and had had the forethought to snag a blank employee swipe card from the HR department on his way out. At this point in the debrief, Namjoon had paused their conversation to send a missive that contained Jeongguk’s photographs and notes over to the Lab to get them hack into the system.

 

 

 

 

'The Lab’ was what Bangtan’s small, but terrifyingly effective, team of hackers were called. Taehyung had never met anyone who worked in the fabled Lab in person, but he knows that his hide had been saved by them many a time. In the kitchen, Taehyung kicks himself up into a handstand and stays there for a moment. Then, resting his weight on his forearms, he begins to lower his feet down to touch the top of his head in a scorpion pose.

Once he feels them connect, he focuses on breathing past the deep arch of his spine and runs through the rest of the facts. 

 

 

 

 

In the guardroom, Jeongguk had spotted guns with bullets he had never come across before inside them. He’d then located and pocketed a few clips to bring back. When he had laid them out on the coffee table in the safe house Taehyung had first thought they looked like regular hollow-point bullets and scrunched up his nose in distaste. Hollow-point bullets were bullets designed to expand upon impact as the pressure on the blunt bullet head would force the bullet to collapse in on itself. They were bullets designed to cause maximum damage, and incapacitated their victims through increased tissue damage and blood loss. Taehyung hadn’t been surprised to find them in the hands of the Reclaimers.

Once the bullets were on the table, he had reached out and picked one up. Upon handling, Taehyung had realised that the weight of them had felt a little off.

“There’s a liquid inside them. I think it’s stored in a container, maybe glass, inside a hollow in the bullet head, ” Jeongguk had explained, still only addressing Namjoon and Taehyung had rolled his eyes at the childishness.

“I can’t sniff out what it is, partly because its smell is being overpowered by the scent of gunpowder but I don’t think I’ve ever come across it before either. It’s definitely a chemical though.”

Reluctantly impressed at the level of detail which Jeongguk could get from just breathing in the direction of the damned things, Taehyung had huffed and rolled the bullet in his hand. After inspecting the bullet a little more, Taehyung had chimed in with his own observations.

“The bullets aren’t jacketed. And the hollow is abnormally large even for bullets of this type, which means they have been designed to fragment on impact which would break the vial.”

“So they want whatever chemical that is inside it to be absorbed into the body,” Namjoon had concluded.

“Yeah,” Taehyung had agreed, “the bullets are just the method of delivery. Like a syringe, but one that flies through the air and is also out to kill you.” 

He didn’t want to imagine what the chemical had been designed to do if they had been created to cause even more damage than a fragmenting bullet. Didn’t want to imagine what other horrors the factory could be hiding if this was what the Reclaimers felt like they needed to have to protect it.   

“Bring back as many bullets as you can,” Namjoon had ordered, then a beep from his computer terminal had interrupted him before he could continue. It was a message from the Lab. Namjoon had relayed the news that their fresh swipe card had been successfully whitelisted for all the doors in the factory.

Then, Namjoon had also confirmed what Taehyung had initially suspected: that the technology used for the fingerprint scanner had been too rudimentary for the Lab to break into. Jeongguk and Taehyung would need to get their hands on the real thing or something close to it if they wanted to get past without breaking the door down.

After delivering them that bit of news, in true Namjoon fashion, he had abruptly ended the call with a promise to call back in an hour to hear their solution to the problem they had at hand.

“I look forward to your ideas,” he had said and then he’d winked in Taehyung’s direction.

After the screen had gone blank, Jeongguk’s phone had rung with an almost apologetic sounding beep, signalling the arrival of a text.

As Jeongguk opened it, Taehyung had tried to contain the urge to throttle the man who was safe at the other end of the disconnected line. The message itself was one from the Lab and it had contained a list of the names of the people whose fingerprints had been approved for access to the door they were interested in.

The list contained three names. Only one person on the list, the factory’s superintendent, was reported to currently be in town.

 

 

 

 

Feet still resting on his head, Taehyung shifts them to the right and transfers all his weight to his right forearm. He takes a breath and lifts his left from the floor. A breath. He puts his left arm down, shifts his weight, lifts his right arm. Another breath. Then, he alternates them again.

His arms start to ache from the strain but he pushes through it.

 

 

 

 

The argument that resulted from them trying to figure out a plan had been explosive. True to form, Jeongguk had wanted to pursue the quickest, and most individual path around the access issue i.e. kidnapping someone from the list and dragging their heavily drugged and unconscious body to the fingerprint reader for it to scan.

Taehyung, never one to roll over and back down especially when faced with a truly idiotic idea, had pointed out all the unnecessary risks they would be taking. The first being all the risks involved with trying to snatch a high ranking Reclaimer.

He’d tried to suggest at a safer plan. He wanted for them to dedicate a couple of days to observation, at the very least, and then Taehyung would find a way in. He always did.

“What are you doing?” Taehyung had hissed when he saw that not only had Jeongguk tuned him out completely, but he was also unscrewing one of the bullets.

“Finding out what’s inside,” Jeongguk had replied coolly.

“Leave that to the base, we don’t know what it is,” Taehyung had reasoned. “It’ll take them a couple of days, a week tops for them to analyse it.”

“I’m faster,” Jeongguk had replied as his fingers continued to disassemble the bullet in his hands.

The almost desperation that the younger man had to finish the mission as fast as possible despite all risks had grated on Taehyung’s last nerve and all the hurt, all the anger that had been brewing since the morning had exploded out of him. 

The silence after that fight was suffocating.

“You wouldn’t understand,” Jeongguk had finally snarled and in his anger, he had held a little too tightly onto the tiny glass vial that he had unearthed from the bullet shell and gunpowder. It had snapped in his hand. The scant drops of the honey-coloured liquid inside the vial had quickly broken out and was absorbed into Jeongguk’s skin.

The two had both stared at his hand in horror.

Breaking out of his trance first, Taehyung had sprung from his seat, dragging Jeongguk to the sink by the wrist. At the touch, Jeongguk had finally snapped out of his own fugue state and had tried to yank his arm back out of the elder’s grip.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung had snapped, “I don’t give a fuck about your problem with me, but right now we need to wash whatever the hell that was off of you.”

At the sound of his voice, Jeongguk had stilled and they had done everything in their power, short of cutting off Jeongguk’s hand at the wrist, to try to rid the chemical from his skin. Stressed out and tired, Taehyung had sat Jeongguk down on the couch when they were done.

“Let’s hope that was enough. Did that exercise in stupidity help you with identifying the chemical, at the very least?”

Hanging his head, Jeongguk had replied in the negative.

“Feel anything?”

“No,” Jeongguk had muttered.

“Okay,” Taehyung had breathed, relieved.

“Okay, well. That’s a start. But now it looks like we’re going to have to do things your way after all, Jeongguk.”

The younger had made a confused noise.

“I’m not enough of an optimist to believe that it's not going to affect you eventually, so we need to wrap this investigation and get you back to Bangtan, fast.”

Looking defeated, Jeongguk had glanced to the side and had admitted, “no, you were right. Kidnapping a high ranking official is too high risk.”

“Yeah, but we might just have to take it,” Taehyung had gritted out, head in his hands and slightly suspicious of Jeongguk’s sudden complacency. He'd hoped that it was just the shock and not a side effect of the amber liquid. He looked at the man again and was hit by a whirlwind of emotions; anger, worry, self-recrimination. They swirled around him, clouded his mind and Taehyung could barely breathe from it let alone think.

“Look, our timeline has effectively been cut off at the knees,” he had eventually said after a moment when he managed to calm himself down. “As in, we are now working in negative time. You might be compromised. Fuck,” Taehyung had cursed, “shit.”

He massaged his temples, “I need to, to digest everything.”

The sentinel, now still, had seemed to have gathered himself together better than Taehyung. He’d nodded stiffly and added, “I’ll try to sniff out the compounds in the chemical. It’ll maybe give us more to tell Namjoon when he calls us again.”

Heading towards the kitchen, Taehyung had called back, “come get me if anything changes.”

Then, he had found an empty space on the kitchen floor and closed his eyes.

 

 

 

 

Now, Taehyung unfolds himself and places both his feet back on the floor. He draws himself up slowly, feeling each individual vertebrae realign. They stack back on top of the other until he’s back to standing.

He breathes out one final time and rolls his neck. He feels much calmer.

Taehyung turns back around to make his way back to the living room. He thinks to maybe check in on Jeongguk but gets the life scared out of him instead when he sees the sentinel himself already standing in the doorway.

The other man seems to be frozen in place. His eyes are riveted to where Taehyung is stood and he’s got an unreadable expression on his face. Taehyung wastes a moment trying to parse the look in his eye and then shakes himself out of it. They’ve got bigger concerns at the moment.

“What is it?” Taehyung questions and the sound of his voice seems to break Jeongguk out of his trance. He startles, then, oddly, he shrinks back, looking hunted.

“Nothing. I just, I can’t figure out anything from the chemical compound other than the fact that it’s probably not poison. I’ve never come across anything they’re using inside it. Just thought I would-”

Suddenly, Jeongguk jerks as if struck by lightning and he crumples to the floor, clutching at the sides of his head. Taehyung is by his side in a second. It feels a little bit like the ground has been pulled out from under him. 

“What’s wrong?” Taehyung demands. He’s trying to keep his voice calm, but even he can hear the panic in it.

Jeongguk is silent and still on the floor. Taehyung can hear him taking deep breaths. Under his palms, he can feel Jeongguk’s muscles tense and relax as if he were straining for something.

Finally, after what feels like an age, the younger man starts to speak. When he does, his voice is small and scared.

“I can’t hear your heart.”

He shakes and shakes between Taehyung’s hands and Taehyung tries not to follow him as terror flares bright after the other man’s words.

Right. Okay. One problem at a time.

“But you can still hear?”

Jeongguk nods and Taehyung lets out a relieved breath. He feels Jeongguk tense again and his whole body is now strung so tight it’s like he’s touching the skin on a drum. When Taehyung realises what the other man is trying to do he digs his fingers into Jeongguk’s arms to get him to stop.

“Stop it, stop straining. You’re going to hurt yourself.”     

Miraculously, Jeongguk listens.

“We’re going to go back to the living room and then you’re going to talk me through what’s going on,” Taehyung continues in the same tone, running a hand through his own hair. So much for escaping to the kitchen to calm down. 

At the command, Jeongguk nods and together, they help him back to his feet. Once there, Jeongguk follows him to the couch, docile as a lamb. Taehyung despairs at ever understanding this man, this man who pushes him away with what seems to be everything he has and who only seems to listen when he’s on the verge of falling apart. 

After they’re both seated on the sofa, Taehyung asks again. “How bad is it? Is anything else affected?”

They’re sat at opposite ends of the couch. Taehyung turns his body a little so that he can keep an eye on the sentinel.

“It’s just my hearing that’s been dulled,” Jeongguk replies but he sounds distracted. His hands twitch in Taehyung’s direction, then, he snatches them back and digs his fingers into his own knees. “Everything else can still be switched on.”

As they sit, Jeongguk’s condition seems to deteriorate before the other man’s eyes. It’s subtle at first. He develops a slight sheen to his skin, his breaths start to come faster and it’s only when he starts panting that it clicks.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung snaps and he can’t stop his own relieved breath when Jeongguk’s eyes flicker towards him in acknowledgement of the sound. “Jeongguk, breathe with me. In. Out.”    

He sees Jeongguk try for a few breaths and then younger has to cut himself off to gasp in a lungful of air. There is a wheeze to it now and Taehyung barely stops himself from cursing out loud. Desperate to stop the oncoming panic attack, Taehyung does the only thing he knows and he grabs Jeongguk’s hand and presses it to his chest. To his horror, it only seems to make everything worse.

“I can’t hear your heart,” Jeongguk rasps between his gasps for air, his eyes are unfocused and he has to be feeling dizzy by now. His fingers claw at Taehyung’s chest as if they’re trying to find their way under his skin and past the spaces between his ribs to touch it. “I can see you, I can feel it, but the sound of it is gone. I can’t, I can’t -”

With a final, tortured noise, he falls forward and presses his ear to Taehyung’s chest. After a moment, his breaths return to normal but he is still shaking. All the panic bouncing around the room has started to make Taehyung feel a bit frayed around the edges himself so he lets himself have a moment of weakness. He settles Jeongguk between his knees and curls his body tight around the trembling figure. 

“Tell me how to help you,” Taehyung whispers, pleading.

“Let me stay here. Keep talking to me,” Jeongguk says in a rush. In the position they’re in, Taehyung can’t see the expression on his face but his voice sounds less scared. “Where did you learn the hand balances you were doing in the kitchen?”

So Taehyung tells him. He talks about how he had been taught by one of the members of his old team. It still hurts to talk about Geochang, but it’s a dull hurt now, like the deep ache of a previously broken bone on a cold day. He talks about how his team leader back then had taken one look at Taehyung, young and fiery and reckless and had laughed.

“You’ll never win in a fight with pure strength Taehyung,” she had teased.

Taehyung had bristled at the perceived slight. “I’ve won against everyone else in the team,” he had shot back. 

“Not me,” the woman had informed him. “But I can teach you how to hone the skills you will need to do it. You will never be the strongest, physically, you’re not built like that; but I can teach you things that will make you terrifying.”

He talks about the look on the woman's face the first time he had contorted himself into a seemingly impossible position and slithered out from under her grasp and laughs at the memory.  

“They're beautiful,” Jeongguk murmurs into Taehyung’s chest. Taehyung feels his ears grow hot when he hears him. 

He sounds much better now so Taehyung continues to talk and eventually, Jeongguk calms completely but he still doesn’t pull away.

They stay like that until the phone rings. 

 

 

 

 

 

After they brief him on the most recent development, Namjoon does not look happy.

He agrees that the loss of Jeongguk’s ability to enhance his hearing means that Jeongguk can no longer work point on the mission. They still have no idea on what the chemical could be so they don’t know if the effects of it will be limited to the dip in his hearing, or if they will eventually spread to his other senses too.

Any operative will tell you the key to a successful mission lay in limiting the variable factors under your control. With his fluctuating senses and the chemical in his system, Jeongguk himself has now become a huge variable so Taehyung is now the one calling the shots.

They don’t even know if the effects are permanent. Namjoon posits that it isn’t, reasoning that it would be impossible to make it so, but that's only his best guess. They shelve that issue to deal with after the mission is over.

“And the fingerprints?” Namjoon finally asks.

Before Jeongguk can answer, Taehyung cuts in.

“I’ve got it covered,” he says. Jeongguk turns to him and stares, clearly taken by surprise. Taehyung hand’t mentioned his plan to him and he plans to keep it that way for as long as he can.

Namjoon just gives him a penetrating look.

“Remember that this is meant to be a quiet operation,” he says after a beat.

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Relax RM, we’re not abducting anyone and I’m not planning to chop off any fingers either.”

When he looks back at the screen, he is surprised to see that Namjoon had actually been addressing Jeongguk. When Namjoon realises that Taehyung had noticed the shift in focus, he turns his head back to address him.

“I know,” he replies, and if pressed, Taehyung would say that he had looked unhappy.

“Stay safe,” he continues. Taehyung is hit with a sudden chill and he feels like Namjoon knows exactly what he is planning.

He hopes he is wrong.

They hold each others’ gazes for a moment before Namjoon averts his eyes.

This time, he clearly addresses Jeongguk when he asks, “will you be okay?”

Jeongguk twitches under Namjoon’s gaze and then suddenly, it’s like all the fight leaves him.

“I’m not sure,” he admits. It looks like it had cost him a great deal to say so, but the man can never lie to Namjoon.

Taehyung aches for him at the confession. After their moment on the couch and throughout the whole phone call, Jeongguk had made sure that he was always touching Taehyung in some way. They’re sat now with their knees pressed against each other under the table.

Taehyung has no idea what to make of it.

Namjoon hums. Then, out of nowhere, he commands, “V, give him one of your shirts after we hang up.”

Taehyung boggles at the screen. “What the fuck?”

“Just do it,” he says and his tone leaves no room for argument. Beside him, Jeongguk shrinks into himself but he doesn’t protest.

Uninterested in the emotional upheaval he had just caused at the other end of the line, Namjoon continues.

“We don’t have the time nor the resources to send someone else out there to take care of this and, despite the setback, I know you two can handle it. So Golden Boy, V, I’ll be counting on you,” he is tapping at another screen as he speaks.

“The chemical, or drug, seems to have been engineered to inhibit a sentinel’s senses so investigating this factory is now top priority. Golden Boy, do you think the level of inhibition will be enough to push a sentinel into a feral state?”

Jeongguk’s eyes slide to Taehyung once before he answers. “Yes,” Jeongguk confirms, “my enhanced hearing is completely gone. If the sentinel were bonded and only had the one sense to rely on…”

The man trails off and Namjoon curses. Taehyung is just confused.

“Golden Boy will explain it to you,” the other man says, correctly interpreting the look on Taehyung’s face. “I need to go relay the news. Good luck to you both. RM out.”   

Namjoon cuts off the feed and the room falls into silence. 

 

  

 

 

 

Newly fitted in one of Taehyung’s t-shirts (Taehyung had manfully resisted against asking why Jeongguk was even agreeing to Namjoon’s insane order in the pursuit of more important things), Jeongguk starts to execute Namjoon’s last command. 

“You know what it means for a sentinel to go feral, right?” Jeongguk asks and Taehyung gives him a baleful look.

Everyone knows what a sentinel going feral means. After all, sentinels going feral were one of the chief reasons why they were even fighting this war. A sentinel going feral meant one that had all their enhanced senses turned online. A sentinel going feral meant one that would mindlessly use those senses to survive and fight against anything they perceived to be a threat.

Ten years ago, a handful of powerful sentinels had suddenly turned feral and had killed everyone in their path. The death toll on that day had reached the thousands and the divide had set root.

Those who did not have enhanced senses, those who were null, no longer felt safe living with the ‘others' who they now deemed to be dangerous. They had started to demand to have ‘safe spaces’ away from them. Started to move away to live in communities where there only lived those who were deemed to be their own kind.

Then, one day, the Reclaimers had appeared. A task force set up to protect those who were null from the threat that were sentinels and guides, and the world was turned upside down.   

“Do you know why a sentinel would go feral, though?” Jeongguk asks, and with a start, Taehyung realises that he doesn’t.

At the time that it was all going down, Taehyung had had other worries, but he also knows that the media didn’t truly delve into the ‘why’ because they were much more focused on the statistics. They were much more focused on the gruesome nature of the carnage, on publicising the tragedies of those who had been left behind. Back then, young, but already so terribly cynical, Taehyung had thought it had been because science and reasoning didn’t tug at people’s heartstrings enough to sell, whereas the image of crying families sure did. 

Jeongguk nods at his silence as if he had been expecting it.

“Sentinels go feral when they unexpectedly lose their guide, their bonded pair,” he starts. His voice takes on a far-away quality as if remembering words he had been told, long ago. 

“After a bond, all of the sentinel’s enhanced senses will be attuned to their guide. It’s why they can stay anchored even when they zone.

I’ve heard stories that say it is the shock of it, that the sudden loss of their touchstone is what turns a sentinel feral. The more violent, the more unexpected the loss, the more likely it is for it to happen.”

He pauses and takes a deep breath, as if bracing himself for what he’s going to say next. His voice, when he starts to speak, trembles. 

“People say that losing your guide is like getting your heart punched out. Like being drowned in sand. They say that it feels like the little grains of it fill you up, suffocate you and shred you into ribbons, slowly, painfully from the inside. 

After that, it’s like a void that screams inside the centre of your self. It’s a sound that echoes in the hollows of your bones as it tries to keep you standing, tries fill the loss. I’ve been told that that’s the feeling of all your senses reaching out, calling for the bond. That the echo is what you feel when there is no-one there to hear you, and it’s that emptiness that breaks you.    

Then, if the sentinel cannot find a way to pull their pieces back together, they say there is nothing. They say that that stage is actually the easiest part because it’s when you've reached the feral state. A final gift of nothingness, of peace, until you can join your guide.”

When he’s done, Jeongguk curls into himself. He tucks his nose into the cradle of his arms and breathes. Taehyung finds that there are tears in his eyes and he doesn’t look at Jeongguk, afraid to see them in his too.   

“So the dip in your senses after that chemical gets absorbed into you…it can simulate that then? The sudden loss.” Taehyung tries to clarify.

He hopes not. What Jeongguk had just described had sounded horrifying.

Jeongguk nods and Taehyung’s heart drops. “If, if it mutes the senses had been anchored to their guide, or if it had affected the sentinel’s only sense that was anchored to them. I…I can see how it could turn them feral. Everything is just…gone.”

“This could be really bad,” Taehyung forces past the lump in his throat.

After that, he finds that he’s at a loss for words. Jeongguk gives him a terse nod before he starts to speak again.

“Bonded pairs tend to lose all sense when it comes to their other. It’s a dangerous position to be in, especially in times of war.”

“Surely,” Taehyung says when he finds his voice again, “it can’t all be that bad.”

He’s got a vague impression of his parents at the back of his mind when he says it. Smiling, and more content than anyone he has ever known.

Jeongguk just hums.

Suddenly, Taehyung remembers that he has a job to do and he starts making his way towards the door. The mission has become even more critical now that he knows what could be at stake.

“I’ve got a few errands to run before tonight. I have an idea about the fingerprints that will work. I’ll be back within the hour, will you be okay?”

He sees Jeongguk’s fingers dig deep into the fabric of Taehyung’s shirt, sees him take a deep breath before he nods.

“Call me if you need anything,” he orders. His voice leaves no room for misunderstanding.

Jeongguk gives him another small nod.

“And hey,” Taehyung finally says before he steps out of the safe house, hating the look on the younger’s face. “At least that’s one thing you’ll never have to worry about, right? Everyone knows that you’ve never bonded to a guide.”

From the couch, Jeongguk’s lips tilt up at the corners but his eyes are completely devoid of mirth.

“Yeah,” he agrees.

The empty sound of his voice rings in Taehyung’s ears even after he closes the door and he shivers.     

 

 

 

 

 

The town before dusk reminds Taehyung of a watered down version of where he had grown up. The roads were filthy from litter and neglect. When he passed people on the street, they avoided his eyes and had clutched tighter at their bags. Sometimes, they’d try to stare him down and Taehyung would hold their gazes for a moment before he’d let it slide past them.

Before joining the Rebellion, before the formation of the Reclaimers, before any of it, Taehyung had been, what he likes to call, a street rat. His parents had been taken away from him when he had been too young to do anything but run, and after that he had survived in the dark shadows of dirty alleyways until the war had begun in earnest and Geochang had found him. 

As he walks around this town in the afternoon light, he makes a mental map of the area and keeps an eye out for escape routes and the things that look out of place. He pops into a corner store to buy what he needs, then winds his way past the block of shop fronts that make up the commercial district. Along the way, he spots a shop that looks to be doing a little too well for the people traffic it is getting, he spots a spots a car with newly issued plates next to a crumbling house and dismisses them. The observations were interesting, but not relevant for him today.

Finally, he finds the area he’d been looking for. Hidden behind the bustling commercial district, Taehyung finds a small side street. Despite the contextually early hour (it’s only just gone six in the afternoon), people have already begun to set up, and as Taehyung rounds the corner one of the neon lights flicker and turn on.

‘Secrets’, it reads. Another sign buzzes to life and advertises, ‘Live Shows’.

He’s found the red light district then. Perfect.

Taehyung quietly turns on his heel and heads back to the safe house to get ready.

 

 

 

 

Despite what most people tended to believe when they learn of Taehyung upbringing as an orphan growing up in the streets, Taehyung has never sold his body for money.

Once, when he had been desperate and starving, he had considered it. During his first year, feeling scared, hungry and alone, he had looked at the way some of the others around him had had enough money to buy fresh food and new clothes and had wondered what it would be like to bite into the flesh of a fresh apple every day. He had wondered what it would be like to have a warm blanket to sleep under at night, had wanted to wear clothes that weren’t threadbare. 

Another street kid had stopped him then. He had brought him back to his senses with his sharp eyes, hard set mouth and an even harder smack to the back of Taehyung’s head.

He’d hissed, “do you think those kids are going to be living for much longer, doing what they do?” 

He’d been right.

Lone street kids trying to play at being hookers did not live for very long. The physical damage was actually the smaller issue, the bigger one had been the fact that children always had faith, even when they shouldn’t. There was always a part inside them that believed.

All the kids who had sold themselves that Taehyung had known had ended up not living for very long at all because the people who were willing to cast their humanity aside to buy what the pre-pubescent were selling had already proven themselves to be monsters capable of unspeakable things. Getting involved with people like them could only result in nothing good. 

In the beginning, Taehyung had been too young to understand the full implications of what was happening around him. He hadn’t understood much beyond the gnawing hunger in his belly, beyond the desperation in the situation he had found himself in and the temptation to give in to those who had been lying in wait had been strong.

He knows now that in that moment, the smack to the back of his head from the boy had saved his life.

As Taehyung had grown, he and the sharp-eyed boy had come to rely on each other. They had formed a gang of sorts, had taken care of each other and others like them.

It was never easy, but they had been happy enough. Eventually, they had built something like a family in their little shelter, squirrelled away in one the deepest corners of the world under a street sign pointing to Daegu.

One night, like with everyone else in his life, a group of men had come and taken his sharp-eyed friend away.

He never saw Yoongi again.

 

 

 

 

Back in red light district, Taehyung slowly runs a finger over the texture of the brick wall he’s leaning up against. He’s wearing simple clothing. Tight jeans that flatter his figure and a silken shirt, unbuttoned enough to gape dangerously whenever he bends down.

In his mind, Yoongi’s voice is asking him what the hell he thinks he’s doing.

He hasn’t thought of the other man in years, but suddenly, he’s been on his mind the whole day. 

Considering where he was and what he had planned, Taehyung thinks that it was pretty inevitable.

Jeongguk had been livid when Taehyung had gotten back to the safe house and had filled him in on what Taehyung needs to do next. But Taehyung had won this time.

Over their dining table, Taehyung had drawn over the map of the town and had sprinkled it with the observations he had made earlier during his walk to the shops. He had marked the houses that should be avoided and the alleyways that he’d seen might get them into unnecessary trouble if they had felt the need to get away fast.

Finally, he had highlighted an empty shop he’d noticed would have a good vantage point over where he is standing now. Jeongguk has set himself up in there armed with everything they will need to sneak into the factory once Taehyung has secured the fingerprints.   

A group of drunken men leer at him as they walk by and Taehyung ignores them. They’re not who he’s been waiting for.

His plan has essentially been built on the foundations of a throwaway bit of gossip he had heard down at the pub when he was on his own searching for a bit of intel in the morning. 

Thankfully, during the daytime, there hadn’t been many pubs to chose from, only two. Two open pubs, conveniently located on the opposite ends of the town which meant that there was only one within easy reach of their target site.

Taehyung had always preferred to do his recon work through gathering his information from local haunts, so he had definitely been in his element.

What the movies don’t tell you is the fact that the most valuable pieces of information don’t often get leaked from the people high up in the food chain - those guys know which bits of knowledge need to be kept under lock and key. There was almost no easy way to get information out of them without making a production out of it, so, contrary to popular belief, the scene where a high ranking official is forced to talk happened very rarely and was always employed as a last resort.

The most valuable bits of information had always managed to reach Taehyung’s ears painlessly and unwittingly, and were crafted from the pieces of everyday life that fell into his waiting hands. A chat with the hired help who complains of hating it when their boss goes off on holiday as it always meant double the work when they get back gives Taehyung a timeframe he might need to work with. A flutter of his lashes and another employee confides that he’s stressing from preparing for a visit from headquarters, which then gives Taehyung a location.

Taehyung was often told that he’s just got ‘one of those faces’ that inspires people to open up. So Taehyung sits, and laughs and listens as he files away the little slivers of information that he is given. He’s broken into strongholds this way, has used the scattered crumbs to infiltrate Reclaimer offices and to gather information on upcoming raids.

This time, it looks like he’ll be able to use it to rescue this cursed mission too.   

 

 

 

 

“The superintendent’s last boy looked a lot like you,” one of the factory workers had said in the pub after watching Taehyung for a moment. 

Taehyung had leant in, affected an air of gleeful interest to mimic those around him.

“Always see them scurrying out of the resident’s gates in the morning with their heads down,” One of the other men had added and the rest of the table had burst into rancorous laughter. “That horn dog has had someone with him every night of this week.”

“Must be difficult, taking care of the factory and engineering a thriving social life on the side,” Taehyung had added and the men had gathered in even closer, delighted to be the first to share what they believed to be a scandalous story with those not in the know.

“No kid,” the first man had corrected, “he’s a dirty bastard, but he’s got a nice enough face, see? And get this, he’s already got a wife and kids back home so he’s getting his fix here while he still can.” 

There was clearly only one response that piece of gossip that they would’ve been waiting for.

“Scumbag,” Taehyung had snorted and the table had laughed on queue, approving.

“Don’t let him catch sight of you, pretty boy,” another man had said as he sat down, “he’d snatch you right up.”

 

 

 

 

 

Suddenly, a pair of leather-clad feet enter Taehyung’s line of vision. He lets his gaze run up the length of the man and he takes in the trim figure, the nice clothes and the heavy watch. Once Taehyung’s eyes reach the man’s face, he gives him a slow, hot smile. 

“Hello,” Taehyung purrs. He hooks a finger into the other man’s belt loop and starts to lead him into the bar.

Moving to follow him, the factory's superintendent smiles back. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

“Here,” Jeongguk bites out, shoving a new set of clothes into Taehyung’s arms. They’re both in the shop overlooking the red light district now, in the room where Jeongguk had set up to wait for Taehyung to complete his part of the plan. “Put these on.”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “Look, I just need to change my shoes, then we’re good. Everything I’m wearing is black anyways.”

Jeongguk’s eyes flash and he presses down harder on the fabric in Taehyung’s hands.

“Change.”

Taehyung thinks his eyes are going to fall out of his sockets soon with how hard and how often he’s been rolling them over the past couple of days. He’s really not in the mood. The man in front of him is obviously holding back from snapping by the skin of his teeth, but, Taehyung can’t help but poke at the sleeping bear, just a little.

“What? Bar funk offend your delicate sensibilities?”

To no-one’s surprise, instead of answering him, Jeongguk just clenches his teeth and steps back.

Earlier, when Taehyung had returned from his trip to the shops, Jeongguk had managed to gather himself together enough to return to his surly self in the time Taehyung had been gone. Then, their fight over Taehyung’s plans to get the prints had made the man retreat even further and the dour mood had stayed with them until Taehyung had left.

Now that he’s returned and Taehyung is feeling like there is an agitation buzzing under his skin looking for a way out, he is feeling a lot less charitable towards Jeongguk's attitude. The elder tries to control it because after all, they’ve still got a mission to complete. The mercurial man he’s working with though, does make it difficult. 

Taehyung huffs out a breath and shrugs out of his shirt. As he slips off the silken fabric, he catches a faint whiff of the factory superintendent’s cologne and scrunches up his nose in distaste. He quickly slips Jeongguk’s t-shirt over his own head and he won’t ever admit it out loud but, he does feel much better for it.

The man himself had done a quick about-face when Taehyung had started undoing the first buttons of his silken shirt. His back faces the older man as he sits crouched down over their supplies. Feeling petty, Taehyung balls up the discarded top and chucks the fabric in Jeongguk’s direction. Taehyung watches, vindicated, as his shirt unfurls in the air and lands directly on top of Jeongguk's head.

The room descends into a chilly silence.

Taehyung snorts at the sight of the black fabric hanging over the younger man’s eyes and hopes that it’s completely blocking the other man’s vision.

He then titters some more at the tense line of Jeongguk's back and he keeps laughing, up until the moment the younger man takes a deep breath, snarls and then reaches up with both hands to rip the fabric clean in down the middle.

The man stalks up to Taehyung with one half of the ruined shirt clutched in his fist.

“Do you think this is funny?” Jeongguk snaps. Taehyung startles but he refuses to shrink back. He plants his feet firmly into the ground and lifts his chin.

Powerful or not, he’s not going to let this sentinel scare him. Before he can respond to the challenge, Jeongguk asks again.

“Do you even know what this smells of?”

“The bar?” Taehyung answers, voice dry. “Cigarettes? Whiske-”

“It smells of you,” Jeongguk cuts in, obviously too incensed to wait for an actual answer. He balls up the fabric and throws it into the other corner of the room. “It smells of you, and your fear and it smells like resignation.”

The man stalks even closer and Taehyung takes an involuntary step back from the fire in his eyes. For a moment, Taehyung is certain that he is about to get decked.

“It smells of that bastard’s skin,” Jeongguk grates out, his hands are tensed into fists at his side. “I can smell the oil from his fingertips everywhere he’d touched you. Smell that it’s sunken into the fabric, deep enough that I know he didn’t just brush past you. Smell him mixed in with you enough that I know he had you pressed up against him, so close he would’ve been able to feel your breath on his skin.”

Taehyung’s back hits the wall behind him, Jeongguk moves another step closer and then they're standing almost chest to chest. The sentinel yanks the t-shirt Taehyung is currently wearing up so that it exposes his abdomen.

“He got to do this to you, didn’t he? Push you back against the wall, grab you and—”

Taehyung sees Jeongguk’s eyes flicker down to the skin that is now on display. He sees him choke. Abruptly, all the fight bleeds out of the man in front of him. 

“Taehyung,” he breathes. He sounds devastated.

At the sound, all the irritation leaves Taehyung too and the agitation that had been buzzing beneath his skin fades away.       

“It’s okay,” Taehyung says, voice soft, responding to the heartbreak in Jeongguk’s voice. His heart is still pounding from the threat that had been in Jeongguk’s eyes mere moments ago, but he can’t not respond to the way the man is looking at him now. 

Taehyung follows Jeongguk’s gaze and winces at the red marks and the beginnings of bruises that are darkening over his waist and hip bones.

“It looks worse than it is,” Taehyung reassures him. “You got there in time.”

Jeongguk drops his head to Taehyung’s shoulder. It rests there, heavy, like the effort it is taking to hold himself upright is suddenly too much. His voice, when he speaks, is small and lost.

“Really?”

“Yes,” Taehyung confirms.

“I can’t hear if you’re lying anymore,” the younger man confesses.

Strangely, it is this admission that hurts Taehyung more than anything else. Jeongguk buries his face deeper into Taehyung’s nape and the feeling of his breath ghosting over the skin there feels like purification.

“I’m not,” Taehyung reassures. He’s not lying. Not really.

 

 

 

 

 

It had taken Taehyung less than an hour to entice the factory superintendent enough so that the other man is eagerly following him into the bar’s dimly lit bathroom.

Taehyung knows he’s had the man eating out of the palm of his hand from the word ‘go’. He’s not an idiot. He knows what he looks like and knows how he’s somewhat of a rarity in places like this. Taehyung also knows that he needs this man to be worked up enough, impatient enough, to be a little rough with him; so he teases, and flirts and bends down a little more than he needs to. In return for his efforts, he feels the man’s eyes run hot and heavy over his exposed skin. 

He itches at the attention, but he pushes that feeling aside and smiles through it.

Once the man’s eyes are feverish with desire, Taehyung tilts his head in the direction of the bathrooms in unmistakable invitation and the way the man clumsily slams his glass to the tabletop rings like victory in Taehyung’s ears.

They crash into a stall. Taehyung turns himself around so that he has his back to the man, the space between his shoulder blades itching the whole time (‘never turn your back on someone who wants something from you,’ Yoongi’s voice had hissed at him in disapproval. Taehyung ignores it).

As expected, the other man grabs at his still clothed hips to reel him in. Taehyung grimaces at the feel of his hot breath against the back of his neck and gasps out encouragement for the man to grab at him harder. For him to really dig his fingers into Taehyung’s flesh.

“Yes,” Taehyung purrs when he feels the beginnings of bruises begin to form. He gasps out for the man to get rougher so that he's sure he will have what he needs. The man’s teeth nip at Taehyung’s shoulder and he shivers, skin crawling in distaste.

The bar’s bathroom is small enough when catering to one, but when occupied by two fully grown men, it is downright claustrophobic. Taehyung breathes in the rank smell of alcohol and the man behind him and wants to gag. Then, the superintendent breathes filthy words and starts to scrabble for the button on Taehyung’s jeans. Taehyung can't help the way he flinches away from the hand and he quickly disguises it as a roll of his hips.

The superintendent gives a dark chuckle, runs his hands down Taehyung’s torso and each touch feels like the brush of spider legs skittering down his body. Taehyung chokes down the disgust pushing its way up his throat and he tries to think.

His plan of acquiring the fingerprints had…not exactly been completely fleshed out.

He had had the key elements in place, of course. A method for acquiring the prints, and an idea for getting them to the scanner. But the steps in-between, the ones that would ensure that he'd manage to get himself out of this exact situation without placing suspicion on himself? He hadn’t really had the time to figure that part out yet. 

If he were to be honest, he would've said that he had known from the second he had slipped on his silken shirt that there was a high possibility that he might have to…finish what he’d started, so to speak. He had tried to not examine that thought too closely as he waited outside the bar, had tried to convince himself that he would find a way out in the heat of the moment. Had told himself that he had always worked best under pressure. 

Now though, in the dimly lit stall and with the feeling of the man’s teeth scratching over the back of his neck, Taehyung admits that he might’ve overestimated himself.

“Are you ready for me, pretty?” The man rasps into his ear. It’s a rhetorical question. The man is convinced of his own appeal, of their chemistry. T he superintendent himself was considered to be conventionally attractive and Taehyung is, after all, very good at what he does.

He breathes out and desperately casts his gaze around the stall, looking for a way out.

He finds none.

Clenching his fists, Taehyung shudders and resigns himself to his fate.

“Yes,” he chokes out.

He closes his eyes and lies, “I want you.” 

Behind him, he hears the snick of a belt buckle, then, the quiet slide of leather and he shivers.

Suddenly, crackling through the clammy, suffocating air like the clap of thunder, Taehyung hears the fire alarm start to ring.

In the resultant confusion, he quietly, and gratefully, slips away.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Thank you for pulling the alarm,” Taehyung says to the top of Jeongguk’s head.

The younger man makes a non-committal noise. 

They’re sat down on the floor now. Taehyung is in his boxers and he has Jeongguk’s shirt rucked up to his armpits. The younger man is crouched in front of him and carefully pealing at the clear layer of ‘skin’ Taehyung had used to capture the superintendent’s fingerprints in the bathroom earlier.

The basic mixture of detergent, glue and corn starch had dried clear and spongey over his skin has the texture of soft wax. Taehyung had applied the mixture over his hips and waist before leaving to the red light district and now, Jeongguk is pealing the layer off with gentle hands, careful not to stretch the membrane.

Its surface now holds the evidence of the superintendent’s greedy grip as deep imprints - providing Taehyung with perfect moulds for what he will need.

“Do this one next,” Taehyung mutters, pointing to one of the darker bruises on his waist. There is a very visible indent there, and Taehyung is reluctantly thankful for the bruises. They mean the man had held on tight, which therefore increased the likelihood of them finding a quality print.  

Taehyung sees the younger man before him take a deep breath and close his eyes, as if needing to gather himself. Then, Jeongguk leans back down and runs a short nail under the place where the clear paste meets Taehyung's skin.

In the silence, Taehyung pushes, “how did you know?”

“I heard you,” Jeongguk mumbles.

His touch is soft, intimate and makes Taehyung break out into gooseflesh.

Taehyung shakes himself and tries to concentrate on what's important, “so the fact that you heard me, means that you’re cured? Then why couldn’t you tell if I was lying or not earlier?”

“It comes and goes,” Jeongguk mutters, sounding preoccupied and remarkably unconcerned about the state of his hearing. His fingers hover over the tender skin of Taehyung’s darkening bruises. This time, when Jeongguk speaks, his voice is brittle, like he’s barely holding himself back from some great emotion. “I can hear things in bursts, but then it disappears. For a moment, I could hear the things he was saying to you and I had to—”

He cuts himself off. Shakes his head.   

“I had to intervene.”

When the last of the mixture comes off, Jeongguk runs his hands up and down Taehyung’s torso. Taehyung knows he must be searching for the bits he might have missed, but the feeling of his hands is like a balm to his senses so Taehyung lets it continue for much longer than he should. It feels like Jeongguk is washing away all the traces of the other man, almost feels like he’s tracing the path the superintendent’s fingers had taken and is replacing the sensation with the burn of his own touch.

A minute more and Taehyung’s blood starts to run hot under the quiet attention so he makes himself pull away before the change can become noticeable.

“This should be enough,” he grunts, sitting up properly. Jeongguk’s fingers twitch and then reluctantly fall away. 

The older man gathers up the selection of good ‘prints’ - four in total - and walks them to where they have the craft glue waiting. Coating the prints he had gathered in a thin, protective layer of oil so they won’t just end up with a useless mess, he pours the glue into his four moulds. 

As they wait for that to dry, Taehyung finishes getting changed and Jeongguk cleans up in silence. A few minutes more and he goes back to the prints to check on his work.

At Jeongguk’s look he explains, “the original mould we had made from the grip on my hips before would’ve never worked on the fingerprint scanner because when the asshole grabbed onto me, the indents he made into the mixture would’ve, naturally, been reversed. Every indent inside his print would’ve become a raised part and vice versa - making the print all wrong.”

He remembers the last time he had used this little trick. It had been a much simpler process then. He had snuck in when the target had been asleep and pushed his finger into soft wax. Then he had used that man’s print to get into a secured safe. No unwanted body contact needed.

Growing up in the streets had definitely taught Taehyung a thing or two about getting into places that were off-limits to most. 

They, unfortunately, couldn’t have applied his tried and true technique this time because waiting for the superintendent to fall asleep after his night out on the prowl would’ve left them with not enough time to investigate the factory. So, Taehyung had improvised. 

Taehyung presses a gentle finger to the glue inside the moulds to see if it had dried. Satisfied, he starts to pull the new layer back. “So the mixture that was on me tonight provided the mould from his grip. Now this glue that was just poured in, reverses everything again so all the grooves are now where they should be.”

He finishes peeling out all the prints and puts down four perfect replicas on the table. Two for each index finger because it’s always good to have a spare.

“And there you have it,” he smiles, “everything we need for a break in. Tried and tested and completely DIY.”    

 

 

 

 

 

Getting into the building itself is anti-climatic. Even without the full return of the sentinel’s hearing abilities, Jeongguk’s other heightened senses easily sniff out the locations of the two night guards on duty so that they are easily avoided. He also knows where all the security cameras are and remembers the best and easiest path to the locked door that they’re interested in. 

Working with him closely when he is in his element just reinforces to Taehyung why Jeongguk is one of the most notorious Rebellion operatives in the war. The man moves fast and sure and his control over his senses almost make him superhuman. Information that would’ve taken Taehyung hours of research to put together is accomplished by Jeongguk in mere seconds.   

There is a tense moment after they swipe the hacked employee card and another tense moment where Taehyung holds the fingerprints to the scanner. When he does, the machine stalls for a few breaths, access light staying stubbornly red before Taehyung tilts the prints minutely. The machine chimes with a happy beep.

The door to the hidden basement unlocks and the machine's green light glows in the darkness. 

It’s easy, it’s almost too easy, but Taehyung knows that most well-planned operations do end up this way so he tries not be too worried. It must be normal to have an easy mission every once in a while, he's sure. 

Once they make their way down the basement, they work their way past numerous labs and machines, grabbing anything that won’t be missed in a hurry, but that looks to be of interest. It’s bullets mostly, and vials of the amber liquid, inconveniently labelled in code and numbers. They also take as many pictures as they can.

Surprisingly, when they both have a clear goal in mind, he and Jeongguk work well together. Taehyung’s mind is naturally inquisitive and makes leaps between one topic and the next. Jeongguk tends to work slower, more carefully in order to meticulously assimilate all the information he can get his hands on. When together, Taehyung prevents Jeongguk from getting drowned in the details of a discovery whilst Jeongguk ensures Taehyung stays on course. They balance each other out well.

Overall, they’re in and out in a little over an hour. It’s 04:35 in the morning when they're done, which means they’ve got a good hour and a half until the day shift starts - a cushy full hour until the first of the factory workers would start trickling in.

They’d only just made it back into the alleyway behind the factory when things start to go pear-shaped.

From behind him, Jeongguk jerks to a stop and Taehyung’s heart seizes, thinking they’re about to experience another facet of the drug in his system. The sentinel’s hearing has been oscillating between its dulled and enhanced levels the whole time they had been in the factory as the drug had started wearing off and now Taehyung wonders if it has actually snapped, like a piece of elastic that has been placed under duress for much too long.

To his immense relief, when Taehyung turns back around, Jeongguk is still standing on his own two feet and he doesn’t look to be in pain.

Taehyung makes an impatient noise. 

“I think,” Jeongguk begins, the sentinel cocks his head to the side and frowns. “There’s another voice in that building that shouldn’t be there.”

“What do you mean?” Taehyung demands, eyes wide.

Jeongguk furrows his brow and presses a finger to the arch between his nose and eye. “There are three voices in the building,” he begins slowly. “There should only be two - the night guards. I can hear the two talking over the radio. One is in the guardhouse and the other is patrolling,”

He cocks his head to the side again and bites his lip in concentration.

Taehyung’s mind works frantically. Had they somehow missed a third guard?

Even worse, had they missed a Reclaimer operative in the factory? 

If so, could they leave knowing that they had been unaware of the person's presence the whole time? What if this entity been aware of them coming in and out? With evidence of unknown Reclaimer technology in their hands, it is not hard to imagine that to be the case and Taehyung knows they won't be able to let this third mysterious entity go.

"Try listening again," Taehyung says and prays that what Jeongguk had heard had only been a voice over the phone, distorted and overemphasised as a result of his strained hearing. Jeongguk nods and they both fall into silence. 

“There’s someone else in there,” Jeongguk confirms after a moment, shattering Taehyung's wishes. “He’s….singing? I think. Back in the basement.”

Taehyung sighs and readjusts the strap of the duffle on his shoulder. He should’ve known that the whole thing had been way too easy. 

“Let’s go find him then.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second trip back into the basement was just as uneventful as the first. This time though, Jeongguk leads them to a heavy metal door. There is a dull and unpolished goal plaque bolted to it. It reads:

 

TESTING

 

"Are you sure?” Taehyung has to ask, one final time. He is desperately hoping that for once, Jeongguk is wrong. Taehyung…really doesn’t want for them to find anyone in a room that has been allocated for testing.

“Yes,” Jeongguk confirms. “I can hear a voice coming from behind here.”

Taehyung and Jeongguk have both got their backs pressed to the wall in order to avoid the security camera that’s placed right over their heads to monitor the corridor. When Taehyung strains his ears, he thinks he can hear someone humming.

“Sentinel? Guide? Null?” Taehyung asks, because it’s always nice to be prepared.

All sentinels and guides emit a type of aura that can be felt by others who are the same. Like someone’s tone of voice, or like a personal scent, auras were just an extra layer to a sentinel’s or guide’s identity.

Taehyung has been told that to sentinels and guides, encountering another's aura is like hearing someone speak your mother tongue, unexpectedly, and in the distance when you're in a foreign country in the way that it makes you involuntarily tune in and snap to attention. It’s not an overpowering feeling, just a sense of awareness, like something is scuttling over your thoughts to say, ‘hey, over there.’

When the instinct is trained, as it must be for all of Bangtan’s operatives, it can be refined to give the sentinel or guide a sense of how powerful the other person might be and, sometimes it can be refined even further so that it can be tracked down to the source.

In this area, Hoseok has one of the most developed instincts Taehyung has ever encountered. It is the main reason why he is such an asset for the recovery unit who are the main source of hope for operatives whose missions have gone sideways. Hoseok can track people down even when they have to remain hidden for their own safety, can find people even when buried under layers of debris. 

Jeongguk’s instincts in this area, whilst not as developed as Hoseok’s, is nothing to sneeze at either.  So Taehyung finds it strange when Jeongguk hesitates at Taehyung’s simple question.

“I’m not sure,” Jeongguk eventually admits. 

Taehyung frowns.

“What?”

Before Jeongguk can answer, a voice calls from the other side the thick metal divide.

“You can come in, you know,” it laughs in good humour. “I know you’re there.”

Taehyung looks at Jeongguk and despite the younger man’s disapproving glare, he quickly swipes their keycard over the sensor and slips into the room when the door clicks open.

 

 

 

 

 

“Oh. There are two of you, hello,” the figure on the gurney greets. He is surrounded by machines of all types. Next to him, Taehyung spots a row of vials, each filled with a viscous liquid the same colour as the chemical that they had found inside the bullets in their bags. 

The man is dressed in long-sleeved hospital scrubs and he is also attached to a drip of some kind.

Yet, despite the setup, Taehyung can’t help but notice that the man looks perfectly healthy. 

When the stranger lifts his head to face them fully, his gaze immediately flickers to Jeongguk and he startles.

“You’re from the Jeon family,” he blurts. Then, his eyes go unfocused for a moment and he corrects himself. “But no. They’ve given you to Bangtan now, correct?”

Jeongguk narrows his eyes and mutters, “so you are a sentinel.”

This conversation is going right over Taehyung’s head. Jeongguk is famous, sure. He is, after all, one of the Rebellion’s most feared operatives, but the man’s initial reaction had suggested that Jeongguk’s own family was considered to be special too.

Taehyung doesn’t know of another ‘Jeon’ fighting, so he guesses that they must’ve been famous before the war had begun. Taehyung would be one of the first to admit that his worldly knowledge is a bit…limited. He had been concentrating on other things, basic survival being the first, and he hadn’t had the time, nor the incentive, to keep up with world politics or news pre-war.

He does take note though, and tells himself he would ask either this man or someone else for more information later.   

In the testing room, the unknown man ignores Jeongguk’s hostility and his eyes move to Taehyung. Taehyung finds himself fidgeting under the penetrating nature of his gaze.

It feels like this man could deconstruct him down to his atoms, by just looking.

He asks, "are you in Bangtan too then?”

Then, he looks at Taehyung some more. “Interesting,” he comments. His voice is light, but his tone isn’t.

When the man turns to address Taehyung directly, Jeongguk bristles and repositions himself so that he covers half of Taehyung’s body with his own.  

“Who are you?” Jeongguk demands.

The man’s eyes flicker between them both. “Oh, very interesting,” he purrs, chuckling. After a pause, he parts his lips again and continues, “well, like you've already gathered, I'm a sentinel. Enhanced touch and sight. Down here, they call me Subject 1-0-95-P-JM. ”

Taehyung winces and Jeongguk growls. Taehyung takes the room in again with the new development in mind and now, the medical instruments inside it appear much more sinister than they did just moments ago. The man sitting on the gurney sees his eyes dart around a gives him a small, private, smile as if thanking him for his unvoiced sympathy.

Jeongguk catches the look at yanks Taehyung so that he's completely hidden behind the younger man’s back. He bristles some more.    

“Cut it out,” Taehyung reprimands, neatly stepping around him and walking towards Subje- the man on the gurney. Taehyung refuses to address another human being by a number.

“I’m Kim Taehyung,” he greets. “We’re getting you out of here.”

“What,” Jeongguk intones. Taehyung cuts him off with a look. Jeongguk had confirmed himself that the man in front of them was a sentinel, which meant he definitely wasn’t here, under Reclaimer control, under his own will. Looking at the man, Taehyung also feels in his gut that he is trustworthy. 

They were definitely getting him out. Every other detail would just have to be smoothened out later.   

The unknown man tilts his head to the side, looks at Taehyung from toe to head and he smiles.

“I would like that very much,” he says eventually. “Thank you.”

He turns to the side, slides the cannula out of the top of his hand and doesn’t even flinch at the sensation of the needle coming out.  Then, he holds out his wrists and for the first time, Taehyung notices that they’ve been shackled to the bed. He doesn’t understand how he hadn’t noticed the chains earlier.

Taehyung reaches out to inspect the cuffs and breathes a sigh of relief when he sees that the locks holding them closed are the cheap kind. The cuffs had most likely been attached for the demoralisation factor rather than out of any real fear of the man himself or out of worry that the man would try to escape. 

Taehyung gets out his pocket knife, twirls it around a finger and winks.

“I’ll get these off you if you give me something to call you by that isn't the label they gave you here.”

The man’s eyes sparkle and he seems pleased at Taehyung’s playful tone.

Behind him, Taehyung suddenly feels Jeongguk’s heat at his back. He must have moved.

The younger man places a heavy hand on Taehyung’s waist and pulls himself close. When Taehyung turns his head to ask him what he thinks he’s doing, he finds that the sentinel is looking past him to the man on the bed. His eyes are hard.

The man meets Jeongguk’s gaze but only smiles wider. He looks unutterably amused and Taehyung rolls his eyes at the display. He’s not interested in the sentinel pissing contest that seems to be going on around him. They can do that in their own time, thanks.

He tugs at one of the chains linking the sentinel that’s not plastered to his back to the bed frame and asks, “well? Shift change is in an hour, early birds start trickling in in half that. We haven't got all morning.”

To emphasise his point even further, he slides the thin blade of his knife into the lock. He can already tell that it won’t be difficult to break.

Finally moving on from Jeongguk’s gaze, the man catches Taehyung’s eye and giggles. The sound is sweet and airy and it contrasts heavily with the dreary room.

“I used to be called Jimin,” the man eventually reveals and he smiles. When he does, his eyes turn to crescents and Taehyung can't help but smile back.

Taehyung twists the knife he has in his hand. Between them, the lock clicks open and the manacles land on the mattress with a soft thump.

Jimin rolls his newly freed wrists and continues, “Park Jimin. It’s a pleasure to meet you both. I think we’re all going to become good friends.”

 

 

 

 

 

They leave the factory together. Quickly, quietly, without a soul the wiser as to what had transpired and with ample time to spare before the first workers would get in.

When the sun rises at seven, they are already two towns over. Next to them they’ve got two bags full of bullets and vials that are ready to be analysed, Jeongguk has confirmed that he's definitely gotten his hearing back and, Taehyung thinks, looking at the smaller man taking in the first rays of the morning sun, he’s also made a new friend.

Overall, Taehyung would say they that have done exceedingly well. Namjoon will most definitely be pleased.   

 

 

 

 

 

The television at the back of the briefing room fills with the footage of the factory they were at earlier this morning going up in flames. Taehyung winces at the sight.

Namjoon sighs and puts down the remote. “I remember emphasising, on multiple occasions, and quite explicitly, that this was to be a quiet operation.” The man brings a hand up to his temples and massages them tiredly. 

On screen, the news channel replays, in slow motion, the moment where the entire left side of the building had collapsed and black smoke had mushroomed out the factory windows.

It is, quite frankly, impressive. 

Namjoon turns to the screen, and then to the three other men standing in the room with him. There is a long-suffering expression on his face. Taehyung shifts his weight from foot to foot awkwardly.

“In our defence,” Taehyung begins, but he shrinks back when he catches the look on elder’s face. Taehyung looks at where Jeongguk is standing to attention on his own left to try to gain some support, but the other man is studiously avoiding his gaze with a single-minded intensity that Taehyung knows, could only be deliberate.

Coward, Taehyung thinks at him meanly.

The three of them had been as surprised as anyone when they, upon returning to base, were informed of the fire. The blaze had started a little after seven-thirty in the morning but they had all escaped from the factory hours before, which was as clear an indicator as any that they had no part in it.

Taehyung does understand, however, how the sequence of events might make them look suspect. Which is why they are now here. 

On the television, there is a second explosion and the right side of the building collapses to join the left.

Taehyung winces again.

“But we didn’t do it,” he mumbles.

Namjoon gives him a flat look. Taehyung drops his head and rolls his ankle. 

The eldest then gestures to Taehyung’s right.

“Destroyed factory aside, I would also like to address the fact that although I do realise that it is our policy to try to bring back anything that would be of interest,” Namjoon states, massaging his temples harder, “I had thought that, although implicit, it was understood that we would draw the line at real life human beings.”

From where he is standing at Taehyung’s right, Jimin perks up and then beams at being acknowledged. He looks Taehyung’s way and presses his hands to his chest as if asking, ‘me? Is he talking about me?’

On screen, as if to add salt to Taehyung's wounds, there is now a photograph of the smaller man himself framed in the bottom right corner. The photo is obviously old, but it is still, unmistakably, in his image.

The text scrolling across the bottom reads:

 

BREAKING: SENTINEL SOLDIER SETS FIRE TO LOCAL FACTORY. 423 JOBS LOST IN BLAZE.

 

“Oh, I"m on TV,” Jimin enthuses, unnecessarily, because Taehyung is aware. He is very aware. Jimin then turns, hooks a hand into Taehyung’s elbow and presses himself up against the other man. “That’s the picture they took of me when they first captured me,” he adds.  

After a moment, a female newscaster speaks over the images playing on the screen.

 

‘At 07:25 AM this morning, a fire broke out in a factory situated in…’    

 

To Taehyung’s left, as if reacting to Jimin's proximity, Jeongguk suddenly moves to press his body to Taehyung’s other side. Taehyung sighs. 

He feels like he’s starting to develop a headache of his own.

 

‘…police say the suspect, suspected of arson, is still at large. Inquiries are ongoing as officers are continuing to appeal for information. Thirty firefighters were involved in tackling the blaze which started…’ 

 

Completely unaffected by the defamatory and incorrect information being spread about his person, Jimin is focused on giving the youngest man a sly look over Taehyung’s shoulder.

Jeongguk hooks a finger into the sleeve of Taehyung’s shirt.

Ever since they had broken out of the factory together, Taehyung has somehow found himself in the middle of some inexplicable tug of war between the two sentinels. Now, several hours later he feels a little like a worn-out chew toy, and very frayed at the edges.

Gesturing to the television, Taehyung tries to bring everyone back on topic. “That’s not true,” he insists. He attempts to relay the correct sequence of events to Namjoon again and this time, the older man lets him finish. 

When he is done, both Jeongguk and Jimin press closer still.

Taehyung shoots Namjoon a pleading look and finally, the man starts to laugh.

“I know you didn’t start the fire,” Namjoon eventually relents, once he has calmed. He makes a shooing motion with one hand and very reluctantly, Jeongguk peels himself back and gives Taehyung a bit of space. Then, the older man continues. 

“What I don’t understand, however, is why the Reclaimers had felt it necessary to set fire to, and therefore sacrifice thousands, maybe millions of dollars worth of lab equipment and infrastructure in exchange for hiding the fact they have lost your new friend.”

It's a fair question. 

“Well,” Taehyung tries, thinking, “they were basically doing the equivalent of human testing on him."

Next to him, Taehyung feels Jimin shiver and he gives him an apologetic look. Taehyung continues, "They had been injecting him with the chemicals being produced there and seeing how he reacted. That would’ve gotten them some pretty bad press if Jimin had managed to get someone to tell his side of the story before they, well, burnt his reputation to the ground, so to speak.”

Nothing like a bit of arson on your resumé to ruin your credibility with the general public. It would’ve been too easy for the Reclaimers to set fire to their own factory and then plant the news. Even easier to use Jimin as a scapegoat. 

“No,” Jeongguk dismisses, “that’s not it. There have been several cases of sentinels and guides escaping from similar situations. None of them have resulted in something as drastic as this.”

In actual fact, Taehyung hadn’t known that human testing was common practice for the Reclaimers, so he gapes. Sensing his incredulity, Jeongguk turns to him and explains.

“We have a few who had escaped working with us. Their escapes are never on the news and are always kept very hush-hush.”

“Which is why,” Namjoon continues, turning to their most recent escapee, “I find it interesting that they have not only publicised your escape but have also revealed who you are too. They are also trying to, essentially, put a bounty on your head by claiming that you are one of us. A fact which is patently false.”

“Well,” Jimin demurs, “that last part could be made true.”

Taehyung swallows the laugh he wants to let out at the man’s cheek.

“Tell us who you actually are first, and maybe I’ll consider not handing you right back to them,” Namjoon snaps, obviously done with the game Jimin seems to be playing. His eyes are sharp, shark-like and Taehyung, for the first time gets a glimpse at the ruthless leader the man could be. 

Visibly cowed, Jimin hooks his fingers into the fabric of Taehyung’s shirt hem and he sighs. At the corner of his eye, Taehyung sees Jeongguk make an aborted movement in their direction. 

“You’re right in the fact that they were doing tests on me. Also in the fact that the Reclaimers are developing targeted biochemical weapons, so they need people like me with them to see how sentinels and guides react.” Here, the smaller man shivers again and Taehyung finds that his hand has moved to cover the smaller one’s on instinct. The man’s remembered pain is almost tangible.

He squeezes, and Jimin gives him a tight smile. 

“Before I start telling you the rest though, you might want to have someone run a background check on me because I’m sure you won't believe me without it,” Jimin suggests to Namjoon. The man gives him a suspicious look, but the calls down to the Lab and gives them their instructions nevertheless. Once done, he gives Jimin a nod for him to continue.

“Testing on sentinels and guides is notoriously difficult, as, well, they first need to be captured in pairs because without their guide, sentinels will zone under the stress, or go feral if they and if the bonded pair is separated for too long or if the guide is killed.   

“Non-bonded sentinels are even worse because the slightest of stressors are likely to send them into a zone, making them terrible test subjects."

Jeongguk cuts in to snap, "we know this." 

Taehyung didn't, but he also knows that this probably isn't the best forum to bring the fact up. 

In the same moment, Jeongguk also seems to decide to throw away subtlety all together because the younger sentinel moves forward and slices directly through Jimin's hold on Taehyung's wrist. He then moves to slot himself neatly between them.

Taehyung can't see Jimin's expression past the moody wall that has now placed itself directly in his line of vision, but he does hear Jimin when he continues his explanation. His voice is soft.  

"Around two years ago, Reclaimer scientists came up with a different solution. They would test their weapons on sentinels that were born without a guide, on sentinels that do not go feral.”

“They don’t exist,” Namjoon says.

Jimin just hums. He then turns to Jeongguk and Taehyung feels the younger man tense. “Not many people can sense it,” he says, “but your first instinct when meeting me was correct. There would definitely be something about my aura that won't feel quite right.”

"Explain," Namjoon demands. 

"His aura is...strange," Jeongguk answers, "he feels like a level 4 sentinel, and yet not. His aura feels like it's floating between that of a sentinel's and someone who is null at the same time." 

In the confused silence, Namjoon’s terminal beeps and he clicks to open the Lab’s finished background check, it's the report he'd ordered on Jimin as per the smaller man's request.

Taehyung walks over to the screen and reads the words over Namjoon’s shoulder. The information there is unremarkable. Then, Namjoon scrolls down a little further and Taehyung’s jaw drops. The little section highlighting his ancestry reads:

 

Mother: Sentinel (Level 4)

Father: Guide (Level 3)

Born: Null

 

“But that's impossible,” Taehyung blurts. Everyone gets tested for their affinity as a sentinel or guide when they turn five and the results are absolute. If Jimin had been registered as null, he couldn’t be a sentinel now. It’s like being born with blue eyes; you either were or you weren't.   

“They needed sentinels and guides who would never need each other, and sentinels who didn’t zone to run their tests on,” Jimin explains. Shrugging he continues, "and you are right in the fact that they wouldn't exist. Not in nature. So they needed people like me." 

Jimin steps forward and slowly rolls up his sleeves. 

Taehyung stares in horror at the rows of scars and burnt, puckered skin that is revealed.

“I wasn’t born a sentinel,” the smaller man concludes, looking directly into each of their disbelieving eyes in turn. “But they took me, and then they made me into one.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

The sentinels and guides that come to join the Rebellion are a rare and treasured breed. They are but a small portion of the already improbable group of people who are in possession of the genetic anomaly that triggers the sentinel or guide mutation in the womb.

The gene is, in fact, so rare that depending on where you were, people can go their whole lives only personally encountering a handful of sentinels or guides — and that's if they were even aware of the fact at the time.

Before the divide, sentinels were often found working in law enforcement, or in sports, or as chefs. They thrived as perfumers, sommeliers - as anything that benefited from a little sensory boost. Before the divide, a lot of guides worked as sales assistants, or as actors, or lawyers. The industries weren’t flooded with them (they couldn’t be with how rare guides were), but any job that required an overabundance of charisma had naturally come to be populated by a skewed proportion of guides.

Now, the practice of hiring a sentinel or guide for any job that required social interaction has been strictly barred — if they were even hired at all. Only those who had tested as a level 1 (a level which boasted only the slightest of boosts in sensory sensitivity) were allowed to move freely in this new world and, as with a lot of things, that freedom happened mostly on paper.

As a result, some of the more well-connected individuals who had desired to simply live quietly amongst those who were null, equipped themselves and their families with falsified documents. They paid off registries to hide their ancestry, uprooted themselves and moved away so that they would be able to continue living, just under the radar.  

During the early stages of the divide, those who did not have the resources suffered through the years of ostracisation with gritted teeth. They took the sudden demotions and obvious favouritism with their shoulders hunched, and their heads bent low. They sealed their lips together tight in order to be able to keep feeding their families.

With the formation of the Reclaimers, however, one missing family became two, became ten, became thirty and those people were forced to go underground, to 'dark sites' — spaces that had been created as safe havens for sentinels and guides off grid — in order to survive. The public, still reeling from the newly showcased ferocity of feral sentinels, turned a blind eye to their dwindling numbers and breathed secret sighs of relief.   

When Taehyung had first been taken in by Geochang, his team leader had sat him down and told him about how some of the brave men and women had risen up and formed the Rebellion as a response to the sanctioned disappearances.  

Despite the name, she had explained, the Rebellion had been formed to protect. Raids had been organised as a form of defence against the Reclaimer’s own planned attacks and long-term infiltration plans had been put into place in order to ensure that the trails that led to the places people had run to remained cold and untouched.

Taehyung tries to remember this. Remember the importance of the Rebellion. He tries to remind himself of how it had taken the people who had formed it countless years of sacrifice, of fear, for them to get to where they are now. He takes a breath and reminds himself that he had been assigned an important task, and that his success or failure could impact countless lives.

With that thought at the forefront of his mind, Taehyung tugs at his uniform, straightens himself out, and pushes the doors to the room wide open.

The room isn’t very big. It is just large enough to squeeze in four desks and a small snack station. The spaces that are left are filled to the brim with boxes stacked upon boxes and in the far corner Taehyung spots a harried-looking woman seated behind one of the desks.

He walks forward. A sales rep brushes by him on their way out. The man is in a crisp suit, his watch glints on his wrist and his cologne is cloying and expensive. There is a thin scar at the side of his ear, just before his hairline that suggests he's probably had a facelift.  

Taehyung notes all this automatically, tracks the way the man leaves a box of by the door. The box has been poorly resealed. He catalogues the clasp of the man's watch, the way he carries his messenger bag behind him. Ten odd years ago, this man would have been classified as easy prey but in this context, he is harmless and Taehyung quickly dismisses him.

When the rep leaves Taehyung shuffles across the room, shoulders hunched, head bent and with his eyes trained to the floor.

“Good morning,” Taehyung whisper-greets once he gets close enough to the woman’s desk. He hates the timid act, but right now it’s the one he needs to fade into the background and fit in.

The woman startles and then looks up. She's small, barely reaching Taehyung's chest, and she is about his age. When she takes him in, there’s the always-present flicker of interest there and then she sits up a little straighter, tugs down at her top and uses a hand to tuck an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear. Taehyung barely contains the urge to sigh.

“Good morning, Hansung,” she greets, handing him a clipboard, "your four delivery addresses for today."

Taehyung takes the clipboard, bows, and thinks fondly of the time he had driven a motorcycle off a cliff. He thinks he might even volunteer to do it again, possibly twice in succession, if it would mean escape from the cruel monotony of this nine-to-five.

 

 

 

 

"There's been a leak," Namjoon had started without preamble after Jeongguk exits the room with Jimin in tow. Taehyung, preoccupied with trying to shake himself out of the stupor that had descended after discovering Jimin's unlikely origin story, doesn't yet react.

His mind is still stuck on wondering at what it could mean for the Rebellion now that the Reclaimers had — god — artificial sentinels to test their weapons on. He wonders at what other weapons there could now be in addition to the drug that had affected Jeongguk so severely. He wonders if there are more people out there who had been made to be like Jimin.

Taehyung had only vaguely registered the smaller man shooting a final amused glance at him, and then at the sentinel next to him enough to pray that he won't be forced to fish the man's body out of a gutter later on. He doesn't quite understand the reasoning behind Namjoon's decision to force the two to share a safe house — it doesn't take a genius to notice that there is a bit of animosity there. Taehyung is half-convinced he's going to find Jimin hanging from its rafters by the ankles sooner, rather than later.

All in all, the past hour, the past three days , have been a lot to handle. Then, Namjoon's statement finally sinks in.

"What kind of leak?" Taehyung asks in response, and then a thought hits him. "You can't possibly think it's Jimin, right? He's only been in here an hour."

"No, not Jimin" Namjoon reassures, "if I had suspected it, I wouldn't have assigned him to the centre."

 

 

 

 

Bangtan sometimes helped with staffing the training centres dressed up as various types of hobby schools in facilities similar to the one that Taehyung had grown up in after he’d first joined Geochang. The centres were usually secretly manned by a rotation of Rebellion operatives as a way to keep an ear to the ground, and as a way for them to keep active during their downtime.

Assigning Jimin to a centre would mean that the smaller man would be under constant surveillance during the day. Coupled with becoming Jeongguk's new roommate, the man would, in theory, be accounted for 24/7.

The centre Jimin had been assigned to was registered as a dance studio. When asked of any skills he could use as cover, Jimin had looked down the list of centres and said, a little wistfully, "my parents centred themselves through dancing. So I know the basics, and even when I was null, I was training to be a dancer before the war."

And that was that.

 

 

 

 

In the case of sentinels and guides, 'centring' helped them turn their focus inwards. It provided them the opportunity to be mindful, and to pick from the wealth of information coming from their senses.

“Nobody is born knowing how to deconstruct smells, or something they see, down to their very atoms. Our enhanced senses aren't magic,” Taehyung's last leader had explained to the younger version of him as he had sat in the middle of the studio to help with the preparations for their next class.

"It's a bit like learning how to use your body," she had said, "everyone learns how to sit, how to stand, and how to walk quite naturally. And yet, why is one person able to run faster than the other? Another able to lift heavier when the muscles that we had been given are the same?"    

"Practice?" Taehyung had guessed. The young boy traveled around the room and laid down the mats in his arms at evenly spaced intervals.  

"That's right," the older woman had praised, putting down a basket filled to the brim with small jars at the centre of the room. “Without training, a sentinel’s senses would be about as useful as giving a library of books over to the illiterate — the potential for information is there, but the capability to interpret the input is not.”

The older woman uses the small pair of tweezers she has in hand to pick up an even smaller speck from one of the many jars on the floor surrounding them. The speck is barely a millimetre large and Taehyung has to squint to see it. The woman then presses the piece into the material of the mat in front of her and picks up another jar. This one is labelled, 'Dried Raspberries' , the next one she picks up is labelled, 'Beeswax' .  

"During this exercise, sentinels expose themselves to the stimuli pressed into the mat," she says, "and when they are centred, we teach the guides to walk them through what they are experiencing so they both can learn. Of course, coming across something just once won't give anyone the ability to recall it on command, but when you are focused, it helps.

"I facilitate focus of this awareness through hand balances, but you will find that people have found various other ways to centre themselves."

Jeongguk, Taehyung knows from the short time he's known him, centred by going through the patterns of a martial art Taehyung has never seen before. He had sometimes caught glimpses of younger working through the movements between missions whenever he goes in to see Namjoon.

The first time Taehyung had spotted the sentinel was just short of two months before the date of their first mission together to the factory. Taehyung is not sure of what it was that had compelled him to look in the direction of the quiet little courtyard, tucked away between the east and west buildings, but once he had caught sight of the figure gliding across the small square, he hadn't been able to look away.

Thinking back, Taehyung wonders at why Jeongguk had let him stay that first time, and for all the subsequent times after. With senses like his, Jeongguk had to have known that Taehyung was there.

Nevertheless they'd continued to meet like that, Jeongguk and him. Jeongguk in his courtyard, leaves crackling under his feet and Taehyung, with his weight leaning against the balcony railings, watching over him from a distance.

Despite the fact that Jeongguk had made it clear that he had no time for the other man, Taehyung couldn't help but feel that during those moments, the man had been showing off a little under his gaze.

Whenever Taehyung had stopped to look, Jeongguk would close his eyes, breathe in deep as if trying to focus on something in the distance and then, he’d smile a little to himself. His leg would kick out at high, powerful arcs and he’d leap into the air, gentle, graceful, like there were wings lifting him up from the space between his shoulder blades.  

Taehyung sometimes wonders if he will ever get the chance to tell the younger man about how beautiful he had looked during those moments.

He wonders if he will ever be able to tell him about how he still sees the way the sunlight had settled, warm, over the sentinel's skin whenever Taehyung closes his eyes in the quiet hours of the morning.  

 

 

 

 

Back in his office, Namjoon places a photograph on the desk in front of Taehyung and taps it.

"The leak is something we have been investigating for a while. Someone has been selling off information on the dates that sentinels and guides have set up to be relocated to dark sites. This woman," he says, "Chun Misook and her son went missing seven days ago. Sixty-eight days ago, the Won family also disappeared, one week before their scheduled relocation. Both were ordinary working families with falsified 'null' identities."

Taehyung looks down at the photograph of a lady in her late twenties eating what looked to be a homemade lunch in an office canteen. Around her, there are men and women of all ages in smart dress and if it weren't for the small piece of paper reading: Guide - Level 2 , stapled to the upper right corner, Taehyung never would've suspected.  

"The Chun and Won families were scheduled for the same dark site," Namjoon continues, voice grim. "Thankfully, we have no reason to believe that the site has been compromised, but we now have reason to suspect that someone in the relocation chain is corrupt. We've narrowed it down to the agent in this company," he says, sliding a folder into Taehyung's hands and then pointing to a company leaflet. Taehyung doesn't recognise it.

He skims his eyes down the first page and gathers that they sell branded merchandise, The company is, thankfully, not very large.

"Jeongguk is going to be cleaning up the fallback from the leaks, but as you know, agents involved in sentinel and guide relocation programs are a closely guarded secret, so we have been unable to narrow it down any further than this."

"Which is where I come in?" Taehyung asks.

Namjoon nods. "Which is where you come in," he confirms. Then, he pushes another slip of paper firmly into Taehyung's hands. "This is the address for the safe house you will be staying in while you are here."

Taehyung glances down at the address and can't shake the feeling that it looks familiar.

"Also, since Jeongguk won't be able to fully monitor Jimin, nor join you on your mission any time in the foreseeable future," the older man begins, handing Taehyung a phone, "when you get to the apartment, please let Jimin know he is to report to me, by phone, at 21:00, sharp, every day."

Seated safely behind his desk, Namjoon rests his chin the cradle he’s created from the back of his interlaced fingers and he smiles.

Taehyung has the distinct feeling that he is waiting for something.

"But Jimin is staying with Jeongguk," Taehyung says slowly looking down at his hands. A feeling of horror steadily creeps up his throat, "you'll need to give me their..." his eyes drop down to the slip of paper and then to phone in his hands, "...address."

Namjoon raises an eyebrow. The shadow of his dimples darken.

"No," Taehyung breathes, winded from the realisation crashing through on him.

"The three of you will be a tight fit, but it won't be too bad. Go get some rest," Namjoon dismisses before leaning back in his chair and spinning in it.

Taehyung fights the urge to tip the chair over and makes his way out. When he gets to the door he pauses with his hand on its handle and pivots back around.

"I'll have you know," Taehyung starts, straightening his back and tilting up his chin. "I'll have you know that I am most, severely, disappointed in you."

Namjoon snorts.

"Noted," he replies, looking cheerful like nothing today has made him happier than to hear it.

Nothing probably has. Taehyung is starting to suspect that the man might be downright sadistic.

 

 

 

 

The safe house this time is an apartment located in a nondescript building downtown. The flat is a two bedroom, one bath with a kitchen and separate living room. It is up on the second floor so the location of it was smart: it didn't provide intruders with easy access and still enabled the people inside it to make a quick getaway, if need be.

All in all, despite the fact that Taehyung could probably count the amount of furniture in it on one hand, the flat was a marked step up from his and Jeongguk's first joke of a safe house.

After a month of working undercover, Taehyung, having made absolutely no progress in the information gathering front had gone back to the flat and, in a fit of pique, demanded to speak to the landlord over their lack of television. This burst of righteous anger ended up being the catalyst that had lead to Taehyung discover, four weeks into their forced cohabitation, that Jeongguk actually owned the apartment they were all currently living in.

"This place is yours ?" Taehyung gapes.

"Yes," Jeongguk frowns, surly, as Taehyung has come to discover was the usual fair with him. "What is wrong with it?"

Taehyung and Jimin shared a look.

"Well," he begins, hesitant.

Taehyung tries to catch the smaller man's eye again to signal for him to chime in as a gesture of solidarity for all the times they had collectively bitched the apartment out, but Jimin is already watching Jeongguk consideringly.  

"Well," Taehyung starts again, "there's kind of nothing in here?"

It's the truth. The apartment has only been made habitable by ways of the built-in furniture that, Taehyung is now starting to suspect, had actually come with it.

Even more pressing was the fact that, upon their arrival, Jeongguk had taken to sleeping on the pull-out sofa bed in the living room, reasoning that he was the one who was most often away on assignments. Jimin had naturally occupied the smaller room in the back as it had meant that he would need to get past both the living room and the master bedroom if he wanted to sneak out at any point during the night.

The master bedroom which, Taehyung is only now realising, was Jeongguk's bedroom before Taehyung had swanned in and kicked the man out.

The master bedroom where Taehyung has been sleeping on Jeongguk's bed, wrapped up in his sheets, snuggled into his pillows.

Taehyung thinks he's going to have a stroke.

"Scents start to mingle after a week, you know," Jimin suddenly comments, apropos of nothing.  

"That's none of your business," Jeongguk hisses, turning to face him.   

"And I already have everything I need," Jeongguk then continues in defiance of Taehyung's earlier comment, bringing the older man back to the here and the now. The younger moodily gestures to the duffle bag squirrelled away in the corner of the living room that he had been living out of.

"But there aren't even any clothes in your closet!" Taehyung interrupts, shock taking over. If there had been clothes, Taehyung thinks he might've bought a clue, but the closet had been empty, the shelves and cabinets, bare. "Do you literally only own five shirts?"

Two weeks ago, after confirming that he was likely to be in town for a while, Taehyung had paid a visit to one of the storage boxes he'd owned to take out a bag full of clothes and a few other items to make his ( Jeongguk's, god) bedroom feel a little more lived in.

Neither Jimin nor Jeongguk had done the same. Jimin, for obvious reasons, and Jeongguk for not so obvious ones, but Taehyung hadn't questioned it. Until today.

Today, Taehyung looks a little closer and he's notices that all of Jeongguk's clothes, although neat and well-kept, are made of well-worn fabric. The shirt the younger man is currently wearing has a neat row of barely-there stitches at the upper arm.

There's nothing wrong with it per say, which was why the detail had never pinged Taehyung's radar. In truth, Taehyung admires Jeongguk's ability to hold onto his clothes despite all the hazards their lifestyle undoubtedly attracts, but combined with the utter lack of personal items in his own bloody apartment , it is a little odd.   

Taehyung casts his mind back a little further and realises that in the weeks that they had been living together, the man has never eaten out with Jimin and himself. Jeongguk has never come out window shopping, never tagged along for a stroll around town, never joined them even once during that short period of time where Jimin had been thrown into paroxysms of joy over the turning of the leaves and had insisted on walks in the park to catalogue all the ways in which they were changing.

He wonders for a moment if it was Bangtan's policy to not allow their operatives frivolities in order to ensure that they would always be available and on call, but quickly dismisses it. Namjoon had never asked it of him. Taehyung has even met Hoseok once or twice in the café next to Jimin's studio.

That night, as he's laying down in his (Jeongguk's) bed, he thinks about the rigid way in which Jeongguk always holds himself. Taehyung thinks about how the younger's every move is calculated, how his every breath seems to be measured. Back in the town where they had found Jimin, Taehyung had dismissed these mannerisms as Jeongguk staying mission-focused, but...

"The Jeon family was known for being...strict," Jimin had revealed, during one of their walks to the park.

All things considered, Taehyung is starting to suspect it's a little more than that. It's starting to look to him like Jeongguk never really does anything just for the pure joy of it, that he has no comforts to turn to, no secret luxuries he holds dear.

He thinks of the way Jeongguk had once stared (with what Taehyung is only now recognising as wistfulness) at the people who were leaving a theatre a couple of blocks down from their flat and wonders if the other man even knows how to wind down, or if he had been expected to exercise restraint his whole life.

Taehyung wonders at what it was that had made the younger man this way.

He thinks about it a little more, then makes himself stop before he has time to make himself properly sad over it. Taehyung rolls over, turns off the light and tries to grab enough sleep to be functional at work the next day.

His heart sits heavy in his stomach.  

 

 

 

 

Work at the company where Taehyung had been assigned to go undercover, work at Corporate Impressions, is dull. After Taehyung is handed his clipboard, he begins his rounds and stews in his case of serious mission-envy with younger sentinel roommate.

Jeongguk is always sneaking into somewhere or spying on someone. Some days, Taehyung even envies Jimin who gets to supervise a regular stream of trainees from all walks of life, even though there are a couple of them who always give Taehyung the stink-eye every time he swings by to pick Jimin up after work.

Having drawn the short stick in the game that was life, Taehyung had been handed a profile that proclaimed him to be 'Hansung', a level 1 guide courtesy of the Lab and then promptly assigned to Deliveries. Working as a part of the department did give him the tactical advantage of ensuring that he'd eventually meet everyone within the company and their connections, but, unfortunately, it also had the disadvantage of being mind-numbingly boring.  

Today, the first item on Taehyung's list was delivering ten boxes of branded umbrellas to a tour agency. The agency itself is located in the centre of a strip mall and on his way back out Taehyung walks past a small oddity that catches his eye.

He's stumbled upon a loungewear boutique and the shop seems to be filled to overflowing with comfortable odds and ends. Taehyung eyes the mannequins in the windows decked out in sleepwear and soft, oversized sweaters and is very tempted.  

Thing is, Taehyung is never wasteful . The streets in which he had grown up in had definitely taught him the value in the mundane. However, it had also taught him to fully appreciate his comforts whenever he is able to have them.

Unbidden, his mind brings up the image of the worn-out black and basic, scratchy material. Decision made, Taehyung pops inside.  

Thirty-five minutes later, he reappears with two large bags. One of them holds three pairs of house slippers because he's been meaning to get some for the flat for the longest time, and the other holds two pairs of track pants and three soft tops that are slightly ill-fitting for his frame.  

 

 

 

 

Now that he has actually bought them, Taehyung is not quite sure of what to do. The house shoes go on the shoe rack in the foyer, but as Taehyung stares at the soft material of the clothes he has laid out on the bed, he becomes increasingly doubtful of his spur-of-the-moment idea. Outside of the heat of the moment, the purchase feels, well, intimate.  

He's still trying to come up with an excuse when he hears the front door open and shut. Taehyung hastily shoves the new clothes into his closet and slams it closed.

It had just turned eight, so when Taehyung leaves the bedroom, he expects to just see Jimin in the doorway but is surprised to see two sentinels toeing off their shoes instead.

Over the past few weeks, Jeongguk and Jimin had struck a reluctant truce but it was still rare for them to be together without Taehyung acting as a buffer. The beef seems to be very skewed to one side, and Taehyung has stopped wondering over the reasons for why Jeongguk would casually insert himself between Taehyung and the other sentinel to then cooly proceed to contribute nothing to the conversation, for the sake of his own sanity.

When Jimin spots the new slippers, he lets out a small noise of delight.

"Oh," he exclaims running over and then leaping into Taehyung's arms, "are these for me? I haven't had house slippers in so long."

Taehyung catches him and holds the other man up with his hands to the backs of his thighs. Jimin makes a contented noise, wraps his legs around Taehyung's waist and holds on tighter.

"Thank you Taetae," he says, "which pair is mine?"

"The one with the paw print on the side," Taehyung replies, smiling, and Jimin gives him another squeeze before sliding down and running back to the shoe rack. He shoves his feet into his new slippers and the fronts of them lift in turns as he wiggles his toes.

"They're so soft ," he compliments, "and I love felted sheep wool."

Taehyung opens his mouth to ask and then realises, right, touch enhanced .

He's just always loved the idea of house shoes. Loved the quiet luxury of having something purely dedicated to comfort. He loves the thought of each of them having an assigned pair in the foyer, waiting for their them to come back to the same place at end of each day.

It's been a while since he's had even the illusion of permanence. He thinks it must be the same for the two as well.

"The other pair is yours," Taehyung mumbles, clearing his throat and addressing the space just above Jeongguk's ear. He gestures vaguely at the remaining pair on the rack. This one has small silhouette of a rabbit stitched into its side.

The shoes are such a small thing, but Taehyung still finds that he is nervous as he waits to see if Jeongguk will accept this tiny bit of comfort he wants to offer. The moment suddenly feels important and Taehyung unconsciously holds his breath.

There is a long pause, then, Jeongguk hangs his bag up in the hallway. He brushes past the other two without a word.

His bare feet are loud against the floorboards and Taehyung feels his stomach drop.

 

 

 

 

A month and change into his assignment, Taehyung still hasn't managed to secure a lead and he's starting to get frustrated. They had initially given him the profile of a level 1 guide in the hopes that it would ferret out anyone who had a vendetta against the sentinel and guide population, but that plan had crumbled like sandcastles in the sun because as it turned out, almost everyone had something to say.

"You're different from all the guides I know, Hansung," one of the receptionists had said to him as Taehyung hauled boxes into their storage room.

"How so?" Taehyung had enquired, affecting an air of polite interest.

"You're trustworthy, you know," she had continued. "At first, when your company warned that they were using a guide to do the deliveries, I was a little nervous, but I'd left a purse the store room the last time you were here and when you left, you didn't take it with you."

Reminding himself that he was meant to remain non-confrontational, Taehyung had just given her an empty smile.

"Guides normally would," she had simpered at the perceived encouragement and then she fluttered her lashes at him like she had given him some great compliment, "but not you. You're different. It feels like I can trust you."

"Right," Taehyung had said, thinking about how he had just seen her pocket one of the USBs and several pens when he had opened the boxes for inspection and staples a smile to his face instead.

When he finally gets to leave, he somehow he manages to wish her well.

Hours later, even after his shift is over, Taehyung is still restless. The feeling stays, bubbling and uncomfortable under his skin. so after he gets off from work he takes the long way home to try to walk the sensation off.

He doesn't manage it, can't shake the anger he's feeling at the pure illogic of her statement out of his head. He had always known of the unfair bias against sentinels and guides, but Taehyung can't help the way he gets angry, every single time.

Half an hour into his walk, he comes across people setting up an outdoor cinema. They're well into the middle of autumn now, so the air is cool and crisp. The team setting up the event is putting up a sign for a booth advertising thick, woollen blankets for rent. One of the piles topple over and they laugh.

As Taehyung watches them scramble to pick everything back up, a crew member suddenly pops into his line of vision. He's about Taehyung's height, bright eyed and whipcord thin. Taehyung imagines him to be a student.

"We still have some last minute tickets left," he informs Taehyung, holding out the small sheaf of paper in his hands hopefully. The thought is tempting.

He looks and notices that tickets are for a show scheduled to start at nine that night and droops. Jimin, Taehyung knows, won't be free. He had recently progressed to giving Namjoon his reports in person two to three times a week, so Taehyung knows he'll definitely be in the older man's office by the time the show starts.

Just as Taehyung is about to shake his head, he remembers that Jeongguk had just gotten back from his mission that morning.

He wonders when Jeongguk had last gone out to see a movie.

Before he can think better of it, Taehyung buys them both tickets, then he buys Jimin one too, just in case the smaller man finishes early. As the event staff walks away satisfied with the success of his efforts, Taehyung gets out his phone.

 

Me: Jeongguk, come to Jangchungdan park

Grumps: R U okay

 

Taehyung laughs and runs a finger over the edges of the tickets he has in hand as he contemplates what to say next in order to get the man to come. His chest still gives a little twinge every time he spots Jeongguk's slippers sitting untouched on the rack, but Taehyung is definitely not a quitter.

He's going to make Jeongguk let his hair down even if it kills him. It's become a personal challenge now.

Before he can figure out the perfect thing to say, his phone rings.

"What's wrong?" demands Jeongguk's voice, short and borderline snappy. Under the fairy lights decorating the venue, and with the sound of the younger's voice in his ear, the upset from his day melts away.

"Come to the park, Jeongguk," Taehyung ends up saying without finesse because sometimes simple is best. A couple walk past him with a picnic basket and they start settling in to wait for the movie to start. A little bit of yearning slips into Taehyung's voice from the sight of them before he can stop it, "I'll pick you up from the University station exit."  

"What do you—" Jeongguk begins to reply but Taehyung hangs up when the younger is mid-word. He laughs to himself when his phone immediately rings again.

Then he starts making his way towards the underground station, and he waits.

 

 

 

 

Jeongguk marches up the subway's escalators towards where Taehyung is waiting for him effervescent with his annoyance.

"Hello," Taehyung greets.

"So I was right," Jeongguk replies when he gets close enough, and if glares were lethal Taehyung would definitely be six feet under. "You're not in danger."

"No I'm not," Taehyung agrees completely unrepentant. Their time living together had taught Taehyung to mostly consider Jeongguk's actions, rather than his words and Taehyung knows Jeongguk would have been able to hear it if he were in trouble. The fact that he had come all this way despite the knowledge shows that the other was, at the very least, curious and Taehyung dares to feel a little hopeful.

He hands a ticket over to the other man, "here."

The younger reflexively grabs the slip of paper and then looks down, visibly confused.

"We're going to watch a movie together," Taehyung reveals.

"What."

Jeongguk continues to stare down at his ticket, completely blank. He's caught so off guard that Taehyung suspects the man hadn't even realised he'd forgotten to add an inflexion to his question. Then, upsettingly, he starts to look a little scared.

"Come," Taehyung interrupts, cutting the emotion off before it can develop further. He takes the ticket back and starts leading Jeongguk to the venue. Behind him, he hears Jeongguk take a long, shaky breath, but he follows.

"Tonight, they're showing 'The Avengers'."

 

 

 

 

 

Watching Jeongguk watch the movie is a revelation in itself. They'd settled in at the farthest corner inside the designated viewing area, well hidden in the shadows. It's an area that Taehyung suspects is most densely populated by couples, but when Jeongguk picks the spot, the older man doesn't say anything and just laughs instead.

"What's funny?" Jeongguk had scowled, but Taehyung just shakes his head. He hands Jeongguk his blanket, adjust their chairs so that they're far enough apart so the younger won't be uncomfortable, but close enough together that Taehyung can still whisper to him whenever he wants to.  

Then, the movie starts.

The sentinel doesn't glance Taehyung’s way even once, but the other man is helpless to look away. He ends up watching the movie through cataloguing the expressions that flicker across the sentinel's face and in the images that are reflected off his eyes.

The younger man's gaze is awed as he takes everything in. His fingers clutch at the soft material of the rented blanket and at the first explosion, he shifts a little closer to Taehyung.

"The speakers are loud," Jeongguk mumbles, still not moving his eyes from the screen. Then, the younger seems to unconsciously press a shoulder to Taehyung's own and Taehyung finds that he can barely breathe.

The night breeze gently ruffles Jeongguk's hair and Taehyung has to fight the urge to run his fingers through it to correct the misplaced stands.

The places in which they are touching burn.

'He's adopted,' the Thor on screen says in reaction to the news of Loki's massacre and Taehyung sees it coming before he hears it. Jeongguk's eyes widen, they sparkle in time with the fairy lights hanging above them and then, he laughs.

The sound isn't loud but it is light, joyful, and it brings Taehyung back to their quiet moment in the car. It brings him back to other moments too; the softer ones he's only just become privy to when he's caught Jeongguk in the early hours of the morning, shuffling his way through the flat. It reminds him of the feeling in his chest that one night he had been unable to sleep, too weighted down by memory and grief; Jeongguk had silently slipped into his bedroom to leave him a book and a warm cup of tea. Then, he had sat with him until morning.

Now, when Jeongguk laughs, Taehyung laughs along. The sound is a little sharp, a little hysterical because Taehyung is only just realising how much trouble he's gotten himself into.

Under the soft glow of the city lights and with the weight of all their shared moments between them, Jeongguk is so, very beautiful.

"Your heart is racing," Jeongguk whispers at him not taking his eyes off the screen. A soft smile tugs at the corners of his mouth, like he knows.     

Taehyung doesn't say anything. He pointedly leans his weight onto the shoulder Jeongguk has pressed to his. The younger man startles, like he's only now realising that they've been touching this whole time, but he doesn't move away.

The stay like that until the credits start rolling. When the last names runs off the screen, they stay like that for a little while longer.

 

 

 

 

Jeongguk stops them both before they turn the final corner to their flat with two fingers hooked into Taehyung's sleeve, on their walk home.

"I," he starts and then takes a deep breath as if needing to gather himself for what he wants to say next. "I had a good time tonight Taehyung, thank you."

Having delivered his message, the younger man lets him go and proceeds to turn the final corner. Taehyung hurriedly shakes himself of his daze and leaps to follow. As he comes barreling around the corner, he catches sight of a pale face pressed into their living room window and almost screams.

When he recovers, he realises that the face in the window is actually Jimin's. The smaller man is currently peeking out from between the curtains and he's grinning down at them like he's auditioning for Jack Nicholson's role in The Shining.

"Why didn't you warn me?" Taehyung complains good-naturedly to Jeongguk's back when he catches up. The younger man doesn't say anything, but he does smile wide.

"What would be the fun in that?" he sing-songs. Taehyung wants to trace the upturn of his lips with his fingers, it feels like his heart has resettled sideways inside his chest.

When they reach their front door, it swings open without either of them touching it.

"You two were out late," Jimin smirks, blocking the whole entryway with his body and very obviously about to demand the story as payment for passage into their flat. Unfortunately, the smaller man didn't account for the fact that Jeongguk could simply shove him into the wall to move him out of the way.

He younger proceeds to do just that and Taehyung snorts.

"Hey!" Jimin exclaims after the other sentinel's retreating back, "respect your elders, you brat!"  

Jeongguk doesn't reply. In the silence, Taehyung hears the soft swish of rubber soles against wooden floorboards. When he looks down, Jeongguk's slippers are gone from the rack and he hides a smile behind his hand.


 

"I think I've finally got it," Taehyung says to Namjoon the minute he steps into his office, elated to be reporting progress at last.

They've been barking up the wrong tree this entire time. The person who Taehyung believes to have sold off information hadn't been doing it out of a sense of duty or as a result of their personal ideologies, they had been doing it for the simplest reason of all: money.

The man, Chom Yongsu, was the sales rep with the expensive tastes that Taehyung had run into early on. Taehyung had noticed that the boxes of Yongsu's USB deliveries were consistently being opened and re-taped and in a sudden burst of inspiration, had spent an afternoon going through all the files that had been preloaded onto them.

He had struck gold in the form of a heavily encrypted file hidden inside a USB that had been surreptitiously marked at the corner. That file is currently being broken into, but it was going to take some time.

"We'll need to get access to his personal files, to see all the information he has that could've already been sold," Namjoon muses out loud. "All relocation agents are, unfortunately, in possession of highly protected hardware. Doubly so if he's working for the Rebellion on the side, our Labs will need direct access in order to break into his system. Better still, they might also find an encryption key."

"His wife is a stay-at-home mum," Taehyung sighs, "they have a kid, and employ a live-in housekeeper who I'm sure is a sentinel. Sneaking in is going to be difficult when she is around."

"Seollal is coming up, which is when people usually let the hired help visit home," Namjoon muses referring to the long holiday that the Lunar New Year will give them, "do you think you can get him to invite you to his place over the long weekend?"

"I'm just a delivery boy," Taehyung laughs. He's well-liked in the company now, he's made sure of it, but he knows Yongsu's type very well. Taehyung knows that in Yongsu's eyes he is worthless until it can be proven that knowing him would further the man financially or socially.

Yongsu is never going to give him second glance, unless —

"But I might know a guy," Taehyung says, "luckily, he even owes me a favour."

It's a bit of an understatement. Taehyung had recently left the man a huge tip that had helped him avoid a well-devised trap.

As the man is the secret backbone of one of the most intricate relocation networks, they had often crossed paths and whenever Taehyung came across information on potential threats to the other's safety.

"He works in real-estate," Taehyung says, "and owns twenty-five per cent of the commercial district, or something close to it. If I did a bit of a name drop, Yongsu would be all over me to make the connection. Having a guy like him in his portfolio would raise Yongsu's profile quite a bit."

Namjoon pauses abruptly and stops stirring the sugar into his coffee.

"The man you're thinking of wouldn't happen to own the restaurant at Lake Seokchon, would he?"

Taehyung pauses to think, it's an odd point of reference. "Yes," he finally confirms, "I believe so."

Namjoon gives a deep sigh and dispiritedly lets his teaspoon sink to the bottom of his mug . It's the first time Taehyung has seen him this genuinely off his game so his mind latches onto the unexpected reaction with curiosity, and not a little bit of glee.

"It's a solid plan," the older man finally says, but he sounds pained at the admission, like the words are being forced out of his mouth. "I'll get in contact with him," he promises and then sends Taehyung on his way.

"Or," Taehyung bargains, sensing an opportunity, "you can tell me what RM stands for and I can do it for you." 

"Get out," Namjoon chases, but he's smiling as he does. 

As Taehyung leaves the room, he wonders at what Kim Seokjin could have possibly done to rattle a guy like Kim Namjoon.

He can't wait to find out.

 

 

 

 

"You're early," Taehyung teases when he catches sight of Jimin on the way out of the building. It's only half past eight and Taehyung knows the smaller man and Namjoon usually meet at nine on the dot. "Did you miss our leader too much?"

There is a moment where Jimin freezes in surprise, but he quickly recovers. The smaller man gives Taehyung a bright smile and makes his way towards him. He looks a little faded around the edges.

"I missed you, silly," he corrects, draping his arms around Taehyung's neck. "Come with me to the studio tonight," he coaxes.

At the invitation, Taehyung suddenly realises that they hadn't gone together for a while. During the beginning of their cohabitation, Taehyung would often spend his evenings after work in the studio being taught Jimin's preferred choreography. They currently have four routines that they run through together in constant rotation.

Taehyung has found that he likes it, like the discipline that is required in perfecting a routine. He enjoys putting his focus into the turn of his wrist, the bend of his knee. He likes the strain in his muscles and the minute trembling of them when he reaches to hold a pose.

The feeling is vastly different from his hand balances, but there are enough similarities in the movements that he can join in with Jimin and not feel too left behind.  

"When sentinels and guides dance together," Jimin had mused last time when he had helped correct Taehyung's form from inside his hold, "it strengthens them both. Contemporary dance connects the mind, body and spirit so it makes it easier for us to connect too."

In those moments, with his head tilted back and his arms straining from holding up the entirety of Jimin's weight in the air, Taehyung believes him. He thinks he can feel the thrum of anxiety that Jimin always carries and imagines running his hands over their edges to quiet them down.

In his mind's eye, he's sometimes untangling the knot that has become of Jimin's artificially heightened senses as they leap their way across the room and he thinks he can feel the way Jimin's shoulders loosen when he hums his relief.

Tonight, after Jimin is done with Namjoon, they leave the building together. On their way out, Taehyung notices that the smaller man shoots fleeting looks down one of the corridors and watches the way his Adam's apple bobs as he swallows.

That particular corridor, Taehyung knows, leads to the Lab that is currently assigned to analysing the chemical he and Jeongguk had found. So far, it has been concluded that there were five different types; each one dedicated to limiting a single sense. They are also currently concentrating their efforts on trying to synthesise an antidote.

Jimin turns his eyes away from the corridor. Taehyung doesn't comment, but he does take note.

 

 

 

 

Taehyung mentions Seokjin in passing at the next after-work gathering and is immediately rewarded by the way Yongsu's greedy eyes had lit up. As predicted, the man had pounced on the potential connection without shame and minutes later, Taehyung successfully secures an invitation for himself, Seokjin and Seokjin's ‘cousin’, Jeongguk for the holidays.

Finally back at the flat, Taehyung leans back against the door, listlessly toes off his shoes and presses he forehead to the wall. It's been a long couple of months.

Then, he catches sight of the man crouched in front of the cabinet under the sink and adrenaline surges through him before he recognises the kneeling figure.

"Jeongguk," Taehyung calls as he rushes over. There are drops of blood scattered in a ring around him and smeared across the floorboards.

Jeongguk doesn't react save for how he attempts to move faster. Taehyung can probably count on one hand the number of times they have been alone together in the same room ever since that night in the park.

The sentinel has been working back to back missions lately after the first part of Taehyung's encrypted file had been decoded and had revealed a set of coordinates and not much else. Taehyung knows that he must be exhausted.

The older man kneels on the kitchen floor next to where Jeongguk is trying to grab for the first aid kit and brushes the other's hands out of the way to snatch it instead. The box is heavy. Taehyung doesn't know if he wants to laugh or cry at the fact that the only well-stocked thing he's found to date in this entire flat is the first aid kit.

"Jeongguk," Taehyung snaps, "let me do it."

He quickly runs his eyes over the other man to assess the damage. Thankfully, the younger is not seriously injured, but his palms are scraped raw. Through the gaps of his freshly ripped jeans, Taehyung can see that his knees are also bruised and bloody.

The man must have skidded on a landing.

"I'm fine," Jeongguk protests, trying to lunge for the box Taehyung has in his hands. The older man yanks it away before Jeongguk can make contact and the fact that he manages to keep it out of reach, is telling. The bags under Jeongguk's eyes are so dark, they look like bruises.

"Go clean yourself up," Taehyung says instead, moderating his voice to soothing. He walks himself to the master bedroom and keeps the first aid kit hostage, "come in here when you're done."

Before Jeongguk can reply, Taehyung pointedly toes his door halfway shut. When he puts the red and white box down at the foot of his mattress, his eyes drift to the closet door where he had hidden the clothes he had bought on an impulse late last year. In the back of his mind, he registers the bathroom door clicking closed.

Taehyung considers the state of Jeongguk's knees and thinks that now would be a good time as any to give him a something he could be comfortable in, something to wear whilst waiting for his wounds to scab over.

Heart pounding for reasons he can't phantom, he walks over to his closet. Taehyung carefully lays out the soft, oversized hoodie and a pair of joggers on the bed. He smooths a hand over the material once, twice, to get rid of the wrinkles in the cloth, and then he waits.

Jeongguk comes out of the shower only dressed in a pair of boxers and with a towel around his neck. Taehyung is happy to discover that the wounds he had seen in the kitchen were the full extent of Jeongguk's injuries. He gets Jeongguk to sit down on the mattress and dresses the other man's wounds in silence.

Despite his clear exhaustion, Jeongguk still looks incredible. The older man tries to focus on his task, but he still gets distracted by the warmth of all the skin on display. He has to fight with his hands to stop them from lingering, and it feels like there is an electricity that sparks between them every time that they touch.

When Taehyung kneels down to bandage Jeongguk's knees, his fingertips brush against the vulnerable skin behind it and the other man jerks, breath sticking in his throat. Taehyung looks up through his lashes, catches Jeongguk's eyes. He takes in the part of his lips and makes himself look away before he does something irreversible.   

"What are those?" Jeongguk finally asks when Taehyung finishes bandaging up his palms. He jerks his chin in the direction of the clothing laid out at the foot of the bed and Taehyung bites his lip at the huskiness that he hears in the other man's voice.

"I just thought it might be nice for you to have something comfortable to wear," Taehyung says shaking himself out of it. He clear his throat, tries for casual and misses by a few miles. He doesn't say, I just wish you would allow yourself to have nice things , though which he figures is a win.

"They're not yours," the younger continues, tilting his head and then furrowing his brow the way he does when he is concentrating. "These are new."

"Why don't you try them on?" Taehyung suggests by way of answering. Their faces are so close and Jeongguk's lashes are so dark against his skin. Taehyung swallows.

"I'll go put this back in the kitchen," he declares. He picks up the red and white box and escapes like the giant coward that he is, before the situation can become even more precarious. "I'll make some hot chocolate, so come out when you're dressed."  

Ten minutes later, Taehyung has managed to calm himself down and Jeongguk reappears dressed in his new clothes. They're nothing to write home about, just a black hoodie and grey sweats, but they look just as he'd imagined.

Taehyung smiles and hands Jeongguk a steaming cup that the other cautiously receives. The sleeves of the oversized top get pulled over his hands to protect them from the heat and he looks soft and sweet. Taehyung aches for how he looks to be at the brink of exhaustion.

"These were in your closet," Jeongguk eventually murmurs when he is almost through with his cup. His eyes are beginning to droop.

The younger is sat with his legs to his chest and after he makes the observation, he buries his nose into the fabric covering his knees. Taehyung watches the way Jeongguk's ribs expand and contract as he breathes deep and he thinks his heart is going to burst.

"Sorry," Taehyung says, trying to clear his mind. Jimin had mentioned that smells would mingle after a week, so the clothes must be saturated with his scent. Taehyung can't believe that he had forgotten.

He plucks the now lukewarm drink out of Jeongguk's hands and encourages him to lie down on the sofa bed.

"I can get something else from your bag for you if it makes you feel uncomfortable."

"'S'okay," the younger man slurs as he climbs under the covers. "It's nice," he adds and then, confusingly, "the other one doesn't smell like you anymore."

Jeongguk's cheeks are flushed from the combination of the hot drink and the heat from the blankets. His lips are pink and wet. His gaze is soft, and he is dressed in the clothes that Taehyung had bought him.

He closes his eyes against the temptation.

Taehyung thinks instead about the hunted look in Jeongguk's eyes the first handful of minutes after they had settled down to watch the film in the park, thinks about how he had looked around, hesitant, like it had been a moment that he had stolen.

Then, Taehyung thinks about how Jeongguk hasn't stopped pushing himself since, like he is trying to punish himself for his lapse in control.

He thinks about the way Jeongguk had reverently run his fingertips over the soft material of the clothes Taehyung had bought him, thinks of the guilty hunch in the man's shoulders when he had savoured the hot chocolate and makes the leap.

'The Jeon family was known for being...strict.'

"It is okay to want things, you know?" Taehyung whispers, finally voicing his suspicions because even if it gets him punched in the mouth, the fact needs to be said.

The moment feels fragile, he feels like he's trying to balance glass figurines on a ledge and Taehyung doesn't dare even to breathe, lest they fall. But still...

"With the lives that we are living, I've been told that we should try to find joy in even the smallest of things. Not everything has to be weighed against whether it would benefit you as a sentinel. Jeongguk," Taehyung sighs, "you should be able to watch silly movies just because you like them. You should eat delicious foods, come outside with Jimin and I if you want to, purely because it's fun.

"It shouldn't matter whether or not it something will make you more of an efficient asset to the Rebellion. Not everything you do has to be boiled down to need, you shouldn't feel guilty for simply wanting ."  

After his speech, Jeongguk doesn't say anything for a long time. Then the other man brings a hand up to rub at his lips. He presses three fingers against his mouth, as if he's trying to physically hold back the words that want to be said. The skin around them bleaches white from the pressure and his fingertips shake.

Taehyung watches the way the other man's throat constricts as he swallows and he hates that he was right.

He moves to sit himself at the side of Jeongguk's bed because he can't not. Even in the silence, he feels like they're having two different conversations at once, but also like the one Jeongguk is having has layers Taehyung cannot even begin to comprehend.

He doesn't know what the man in front of him could possibly be longing for, but he knows enough about Jeongguk from their months together to know that it can't be anything bad.

"It's okay to want things, Jeongguk," he says again. "Just ask, and if I can help, I'll do my best to make it true."

Jeongguk finally looks up. In the light of the moon, his eyes are the colour of the earth after torrential rain. There are secrets buried inside them and Taehyung finds that he wants to learn them all.

Taehyung moves again to rearrange Jeongguk's blanket around him but pauses when he feels the tentative curl of Jeongguk's fingers around his wrist. The sentinel twists his grip until the pads of his index and middle fingers settle on the older man's pulse point and then he presses down until Taehyung can feel his veins beating against the pressure.

Then, slowly, as if he's gaining ground after fighting a battle only he could hear, Jeongguk shuffles forward and tucks his nose against the thin skin of Taehyung's wrist, next to his fingers. He breathes in. The sentinel then settles his head onto Taehyung's open palm and somehow tucks the rest of his body into the small space between Taehyung and the back of the couch.

At the sight, Taehyung finally gathers the courage to stroke a hand down Jeongguk's trembling back.

"It'll be okay," he promises. Taehyung runs his fingers of his free hand through the other man's hair.

"What if what I want something that has been forbidden?" Jeongguk finally asks, and his voice is thick with an emotion Taehyung cannot place.

"We'll work it out," Taehyung reassures.

When Jeongguk breathes back out, he weaves a spell in the contraction of his lungs and Taehyung suddenly finds that he can no longer move.

When Jeongguk breathes back out, he asks if Taehyung can stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“Joon told me he’s going to be the one monitoring your feed tonight to help with looking through Yongsu’s laptop, ” Seokjin says as he’s blow drying his hair in the shared bathroom so of course, Taehyung is unable to hear a thing.

“What?” Taehyung shouts at the older man, trying to lift his voice so that he can be heard over the noise. He makes a hand gesture at his ear to indicate that it would be a good idea to turn the machine off before attempting conversation again.

“What?” Seokjin shouts back, equally loud and completely ignoring his signal. Taehyung rolls his eyes. The elder's reflection makes a face at him in the mirror and Taehyung makes one back.

“He said he agrees with the fact that you shouldn’t be left here to do the investigation alone,” Jeongguk interjects smoothly from where’s he’s lying back in his borrowed bed.

Upon arrival to Yongsu’s holiday home for the New Year, the three of them had been given the two rooms that had been connected through a common bathroom.

Taehyung had, he felt, for once come out on top as Seokjin and Jeongguk had been forced to share one of the rooms for the sake of maintaining their guise of being cousins. That restriction had the happy result of Taehyung being free to claim the other room for himself and, after spending a handful of months living in close quarters with two high-powered sentinels, the additional barrier that the two thick walls provided had felt like the purest relief.

Jeongguk and Taehyung are both in the younger’s shared room now though, waiting for Seokjin to finish getting ready. Yongsu and his wife had rented out a yacht for the night, and they were all scheduled for dinner and a short cruise on it, later on.

Taehyung is expected to join them as well of course, so he was the first to get dressed up. What the Chom family doesn’t know, however, is that their babysitter had been persuaded to call in about thirty minutes to cite her own family emergency and put a wrench in their plans. Once that happens, Taehyung will magnanimously offer to stay behind to look after Yongsu’s daughter and it is expected for Yongsu to agree after a token protest or two (if any).

The other man’s target for the holidays was, after all, Seokjin, which meant that Jeongguk (a supposed member of his family), ranked much higher than Taehyung himself in the hierarchy. It was a fact that they were going to take full advantage of in order to gain access to Yongsu’s study and his computer.

Back in the room, Jeongguk looks completely unrepentant at his bald-faced lie. He doesn’t even twitch when Taehyung raises a sceptical eyebrow.

Taehyung likes this though, likes this space they have recently grown into after the night he had found the younger crouched on the kitchen floor.

He likes that they’ve become more comfortable together. He's also noticed that Jeongguk turns to him now when he smiles, that the younger brackets the air between them with his body when he laughs, so the sound of it becomes a secret that only they share.

Recently, before this mission, the sentinel had also taken to joining his other two housemates in the kitchen when they are eating dinner.

Through them, Taehyung has learnt that Jeongguk has a charming and incomparable sweet tooth. He’s seen the other man put away a pack of cookies before settling down to eat, and then he's seen him wander to the cupboards minutes after finishing his meal, to put away another.

He now knows that Jeongguk eats his bungeoppang by tearing off the pastry fish’s head and tail before finishing off the sugary filling found in its belly in two large bites; knows the younger eats them in this way because he loves ending his little treats with the taste of its most delicious parts lingering on his tongue.

Taehyung suspects that he would have guessed at the habit if issued the challenge, just from observing the way the younger is a poster boy for self-discipline and delayed gratification. What he never would’ve guessed at, but now knows, however, is this: that when Taehyung reaches over and uses a finger to swipe through the warm, red filling, Jeongguk will watch the way the other man eats his stolen treat off his fingertips and not say a thing.

Whereas before it had felt like Jeongguk would only touch him under threat of death, these days Taehyung can move across the room to eat from the sentinel’s own fingers and the other man will simply sit back and watch. Sometimes, when Jeongguk doesn’t know that he is watching the younger man back, Taehyung will be treated to the way the way the other's eyes go hooded, to the way his breath turns sharp when Taehyung tilts his head to take what he is being offered.

Suffice to say, over the past couple of months, Taehyung has come to learn a lot about the other man.

So whilst he knows that Jeongguk is an accomplished liar, he has also come to learn that it is only towards people who do not know the younger man well.

Back in the room, the older man gets up from his chair and starts making his way towards the sentinel reclining on the bed. The silk of his dress shirt is cool against his skin, and when he moves, it falls open, drags against his collarbone.

Taehyung’s skin pebbles at the sensation and his skin rises, following the movement of his shirt’s collar. He keeps his eyes on Jeongguk’s face and his blood runs a little hotter when he sees the younger man’s own eyes follow the soft swish of fabric that falls across his skin, like a caress.   

“Was that really what Jin-hyung said?” Taehyung questions, a small smile teasing at the corners of his mouth. At the sound of his voice, Jeongguk’s eyes slowly make their way back to Taehyung’s own.

Along the way, they linger on the divot between his collarbones, and at the pulse beating in his neck. His gaze is hot, like a brand on Taehyung’s skin and the older man’s blood rushes with it.

When it does, the sentinel on the bed jerks forward, lips parted, already shining and wet. His teeth flash when they press into the skin of his lower lip, and his eyes dilate like he is already tasting the other man’s skin.

The air between them feels electric, charged with everything that they have recently been dancing around.

But the moment is quickly spiralling into something they haven’t yet had the chance to discuss, so Taehyung, once again, pulls himself back from the ledge.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung calls. He raises a finger to tickle at the younger man’s chin.

His hand immediately gets batted away but not before he sees the way Jeongguk’s breath hitches at their proximity.

“No,” the sentinel eventually admits on a sigh, referring to Taehyung's earlier question and completely dissipating the buzz surrounding them. A moue of dissatisfaction distractingly decorates the soft bow of his mouth. “That’s not what he said. But I still have a bad feeling about this.”

The sound of the hairdryer suddenly cuts off and Taehyung’s ears echo with the void it leaves behind. Jeongguk scrunches his nose in reaction, blinks a little faster like he’s recalibrating his senses to the abrupt silence. It is, quite possibly, the most endearing thing Taehyung has ever seen.

Moving in before Jeongguk can dodge away, Taehyung uses a fingertip to tap the sentinel on the nose. Jeongguk startles, goes a little cross-eyed to catch a glance at the tip, like the elder had left a visible fingerprint behind, and Taehyung laughs and laughs.

Out of the corner of his vision, he sees that Seokjin had stopped to observe the tableau that he and Jeongguk make. From the way he’s settled into the doorframe, Taehyung thinks the older man had been stood there for a good while.

“Get a room already,” Seokjin grumbles when he notices that he’s been spotted. Despite the words, his tone is playful.

Taehyung hums noncommittally and doesn’t move.

“But we’re already in one,” he replies in singsong. He then fiddles with the shell of Jeongguk’s ear and younger man tilts his head to the side to let him.

“On the other side of the planet,” Seokjin clarifies, and Jeongguk very quietly turns his head to muffle his laugh into Taehyung’s side.

 

 

 

 

 

The babysitter calls exactly on schedule — ninety minutes before everyone is meant to leave, which is terribly bad form. The action had probably resulted in her never getting hired by Yongsu’s family ever again, but Taehyung would hazard a guess that she’d been compensated enough to not care.

After the call, it had been laughably easy for Taehyung to get Yongsu to buy into their idea for salvaging everyone’s evening plans. He had barely finished his proposal before the older man had started nodding his head in relieved agreement.

Yongsu’s wife, Jiae, had taken a bit more convincing, but Taehyung had eventually managed.

Jiae was a small woman; sweet, with delicate features. She had a laughing voice and possessed an image that was always impeccably well presented and dressed. To Taehyung who had trained himself to recognise the air of someone who had come from wealth on sight, Jiae was someone who broadcasted it in spades. She wrapped it around her like a well-loved cloak and had a background that ensured that she would never have seen the need to take it off.

Years ago, in another life, Taehyung would’ve picked her out as a training exercise for one of the younger kids in the gang because getting to her wallet would’ve been far too easy. But, Taehyung supposes, that someone like Jiae would’ve never had seen the need to stray into his territory in the first place so it is moot point to speculate.

Jiae also carried on her the air of a person whose feet had never touched the ground, so their heads could remain in the clouds. But Taehyung doesn’t fault her for that.

He does, however, note that whilst Jiae had taken an immediate shining to Jeongguk who she believed to be a soft-spoken and (perhaps most significantly in her eyes), null young man, she did not share the same sentiment for Taehyung who was the guide she was being forced to put up with for the sake of her husband’s job.

Taehyung wonders how Jiae would feel if she were to ever find out that the ‘precious young man’ who she held in such warm regard is currently one of the most powerful sentinels the world has ever known.

He wonders if Jiae would be self-aware enough to recognise the nonsensical change of heart for what it was, if she were ever to be told.

Taehyung doesn’t think that she would be.

 

 

 

 

 

He is suddenly thrown out of his internal musings by being almost bowled over by a solid force to the back of his knees. Taehyung stumbles forward, but manages to stay upright.

“Daddy told me that you are staying with me tonight,” a high voice says from the vicinity of Taehyung’s hip bone.

“Youngmi,” a smiling voice calls from around the corner. Jeongguk follows it in moments later, holding a brush in his left hand. “Come back here, young lady. I haven’t finished with the other side of your hair.”

Taehyung takes a look at the small figure who had wrapped herself around his left leg and sees that it is indeed, Yongsu’s daughter, Youngmi. She is already dressed in her pyjamas and half of her hair is pulled into a neat french braid that sits on one side.  

“Hi there, honey,” Taehyung greets, crouching down so that they can look each other in the eye, “why are you running away from Junghun?”

Jeongguk, or, as the Chom family were calling him, Junghun, had made himself into something of an expert hair stylist in the short time that they’d been at the holiday home. He, Jeongguk and Seokjin had walked into the living room the second night they had gotten there and had been greeted to the image of a frustrated Jiae struggling to follow a video of a man braiding his daughter’s hair.

“It’s just not making any sense, baby,” Jiae had sighed, and Taehyung had laughed at the ferocity of Youngmi’s frown.

“Haeun’s mum does it for her every morning before school,” Youngmi had declared, not budging an inch. “They’re pretty, and I want them.”

“Let me see,” Seokjin cuts in to say, making grabby hands for Jiae’s phone before Youngmi's disquiet can turn into a full blown upset. Jiae hurriedly hands Seokjin what he's asking for.

The man studies the video playing on it in silence for a long while before tilts his head to the left, then right, before he finally recentres.

“It can only be done by people with six hands,” he finally concludes to the little girl on the couch, voice grave, “because they need to hold the strands here,” he points, “but also here and here.”

He hands the phone to Jeongguk for safe keeping, looks Youngmi straight in the eyes and lies, “Haeun’s mum is probably a little bit magic. You should ask her when you see her again at school.”

His face is deathly serious. Taehyung almost bursts a blood vessel trying not to laugh out loud and observes the way Jiae is trying to do the same. Youngmi, on the other hand, is rapt. Seokjin has always had the power to hold his audience captive, no matter who they were.

Taehyung knows that people have reported emerging out of negotiations with the older man as if from a trance, holding documents detailing terms that were almost criminally skewed in Seokjin’s favour. As a matter of fact, the very first high-profile case at the start of the divide had included an investigation into Seokjin’s ancestry because no-one could believe that someone so charismatic hadn’t been born a guide.

The results had definitively proved that the man was null but Taehyung knows that Seokjin now uses that event to shield the powerful guides he hires in secret so they can fly under the radar as his 'protégés'.  

“I could probably do this,” Jeongguk suddenly comments and everyone turns to see him studying the video, brows furrowed. He looks up, probably sensing their gazes and flushes like he’s only just realised that he’s voiced his thoughts out loud.

“I’m pretty good with my hands,” the sentinel continues, eyes flitting to where Taehyung is standing.

Unlike Taehyung who had become fast friends with Youngmi practically overnight, Jeongguk had yet to warm up to her. He tended to hover nervously behind Taehyung’s shoulder whenever they were all in the same room, like he was afraid to break her if he breathed too close.

Luckily for them their hosts had found his skittishness charming, rather than offensive.

Jeongguk’s first modestly successful attempt at styling Youngmi’s hair that night had, however, managed to break down whatever reservations he had about her which, as a another plus, had the fortunate result of endearing him to them even more.

Unfortunately, it had also meant that more often than not, the little girl would insist that Taehyung — her personal favourite out of the three people who had come to share her family holiday, deserved to be treated to a new hairstyle as well.

Tonight, it seemed like Taehyung’s fate would be no different.

 

 





“Seokjin-oppa said we have to have pretty hair for a su— succe— good sleepover,” Youngmi explains, casually dodging Jeongguk’s attempts to brush out the other side of her head.

“‘Seokjin-oppa’ also said that all rice cakes from the store come with a bite missing after he ate your share,” Taehyung shoots back and Jeongguk snorts.

“Junghan-oppa already said ‘yes’,” Youngmi replies, steamrolling over his comment and pushing a floral kerchief and several jewelled pins into his lap before climbing neatly onto it as well. “He said these would be prettiest on you.”

Youngmi is possibly one of the cutest kids Taehyung has ever seen with wide, sparkling eyes and a small cupid’s bow of a mouth. When they are side by side, her resemblance to the other, younger man in the room with them is sometimes uncanny, so Taehyung already knows that he is going to give in to anything that she asks for.

“Did he now?” Taehyung laughs. He tries to catch Jeongguk’s determinedly averted gaze and isn’t successful. The other man’s ears are a bright pink.

Eventually, Taehyung convinces Youngmi to sit still for long enough so that Jeongguk is able to finish the braid on her other side. Then, Youngmi moves aside to peer over Jeongguk’s shoulder as he works on his next head of hair.

She delightedly points at where each jewelled pin needs to sit atop Taehyung’s head, and the sounds of their quiet chatter are so peaceful that Taehyung is almost coaxed to sleep by the feeling of Jeongguk’s careful fingers running through his hair.

Some time later, he blinks himself awake at the brush of careful fingertips at the short hairs of his nape just in time to catch Youngmi as she launches herself back into his arms.

“Oppa is so handsome! Will you marry me when I grow up?” she demands, posing for a picture Taehyung doesn’t realise is being taken until it’s too late. Taehyung knows that he looks ridiculous, still a little groggy with the red bandana and jewelled clasps holding his hair back, so he laughs at Youngmi’s question. Then he turns to the one who had taken the picture.

“If anyone else gets even the faintest hint that that picture exists…” Taehyung begins to threaten.

“You’d have to fight for him,” Jeongguk replies instead, voice light and ignoring Taehyung's comment altogether. His eyes lock onto Youngmi’s like he’s afraid to catch Taehyung’s own, but his words ring in his head, clear as a bell.

Taehyung stills and his heart almost stops beating completely. Did he—?

What could —?

Jeongguk takes one look at the expression on the older man’s face and he laughs. On the way out, he grazes a finger across the pulse beating just under Taehyung’s jawline, like he can’t help himself. The younger man then stops his exit to look back at him from the doorway. He lingers when he takes in the image of Taehyung with clips in his hair and Youngmi in his lap, as if he’s liking what he sees.

The air between them is heavy and sweet. It sits like caramel at the tip of the tongue.

By the time Taehyung had gathered himself together enough to respond, Jeongguk has already disappeared back up the stairs to get ready and then, suddenly, it is time for everyone to leave.

The strange note in the air still lingers between them.

“See you soon,” Taehyung says, soft.

Youngmi is waiting for Taehyung in the living room, so it is just Jeongguk and him now, standing face to face in the foyer.

The sentinel had rushed back into the house moments earlier, claiming to have left his wallet behind in his room when everyone had been prepared to drive off. Taehyung doesn’t believe that the younger man had forgotten anything for a second.

He steps forward into the other man’s space. Jeongguk swallows noisily and does the same.

“Stay safe,” the sentinel finally whispers when they are an arm’s length apart. He clears his throat and then he’s all business.

“The guys won’t be able to remote access the computer because Yongsu’s laptop is completely locked down. Browsing is going to have your full attention,” he rumbles. Taehyung doesn’t react, save for a noncommittal hum. They both know the plan for the next several hours inside out.

The Reclaimer’s policy of full system lockdowns meant that the only way they were going to be able to document any information found on Yongsu’s laptop once Taehyung sneaks into the study would be through screen capturing everything. Naturally, any Reclaimer worth their salt had laptops that sat outside of regular, public networks and were protected against commercial screen recording devices, but the technology used in the USB Bangtan had given him is brand new. The only downside to them being, of course, the fact that Taehyung was required to scroll through whole documents for the recordings to be read at a later date, rather than rely on the simple transfer of files.

It was going to be time-consuming, tedious and his hand will probably cramp up, but Taehyung knows those points are not the ones in which Jeongguk took issue with, so he waits.

“Which means,” the younger finally sighs once the silence stretches out for a beat longer. The sound of it crackles over Taehyung’s skin. “It means you won’t be able to concentrate on your surroundings, Tae.”  

“I know what it means. I’ll secure the area before I start,” Taehyung reassures for the third time that night. “I’ve done this a million times before Jeongguk, stop being such a mother hen.”

“I don’t like this,” Jeongguk eventually admits.

“I gathered. I’ll be fine,”  Taehyung laughs, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. He turns the sentinel around and pushes the man out the door with firm hands to his shoulders. “Now go. You’re making everyone wait.”

Taehyung wants to run his hands down the other’s lapels, smooth the fabric down to feel the heat from his skin underneath his palms. He’s become familiar with the desire to touch the younger man now, made his peace with the fact that he will always be drawn to the other at some baser level but this feels...different.

This feels like a compulsion. Like there is an agitation simmering under Jeongguk’s calm façade, and it needs to know the press of Taehyung skin, the rhythm of his heart, to calm down. Taehyung's hands twitch with the need to respond.

Before he steps out completely, Jeongguk stops their momentum and his back ends up pressed into the older man’s chest.

“I’ll be monitoring your heartbeat,” he whispers in a rush, not turning around.

Taehyung remembers the last time Jeongguk had tried to monitor it over a long distance, remembers Jeongguk zoning and frowns.

“No,” he refuses, “the last time you tried, it didn’t turn out so well. Just concentrate on charming Yongsu and Jiae. I’ll be fine .”

“I know you better now,” Jeongguk returns, not budging. “And I’ll feel better, keeping an eye on what you’re doing.”

At his last sentence, Taehyung’s easy calm evaporates and is immediately replaced by hurt. He bullheadedly transforms it into anger.

“How can you still doubt me,” Taehyung hisses, he doesn’t want anyone overhearing, not even Youngmi. “After everything? How much more do I need to prove myself to you before you can trust me to do something that's been assigned to me?”

All their easy laughter means nothing now, if Jeongguk still doesn't trust him when it truly matters. Taehyung's mind flashes back to their last mission together, the one where they had found Jimin. He remembers how desperately Jeongguk had tried to do everything himself.

He thought they had gotten past this. That they had, if nothing else, finally come to be something like friends.

It hurts to find out that he had been wrong.

The disappointment rises, and this time it is a pill that is much harder to swallow than the last, because this time, it’s not Jeongguk dismissing him after knowing him for a couple of hours.

They’ve lived together now. Shared the same space, breathed the same air. This time, Jeongguk knows him .  

“I —” Jeongguk begins, but he’s cut off by Seokjin calling for him from the car parked outside.

“Just...” Taehyung grits his teeth, remembers that they still had a mission to complete. He swallows past the lump growing in his throat and says, “just. Leave.” 

“Tae,” the younger man insists, digging his heels into the ground and refusing to budge. “That’s not, I don’t —”

“Go,” he snaps. Taehyung gives the younger man a final shove to get him over the threshold. Then, he spins around and closes the door firmly behind him.

He takes another breath.

Finally, he leans back against the closed door and hopes that Jeongguk has enough decency left inside him to not listen to the way his breaths have begun to stick inside his chest.

 

 

 

 

 

“Did you and Junghan-oppa fight?” Youngmi asks as he’s tucking her into her bed later in the evening.

On her nightstand, Taehyung’s phone lights up and vibrates — indicating that he’s gotten a call. Taehyung glances at it, sees the word ‘Grumps’. If it were something important, the nickname would’ve been overridden with their code names, but since it hasn’t been, Taehyung leaves it to ring out.

“A little,” he admits to the little girl staring up at him. The truth of Jeongguk’s distrust in him sits heavy on his shoulders and it feels good to give a voice to the disappointment, even to someone who doesn’t know who either of them really are.

“Don’t be mad at him,” Youngmi mumbles. Her eyes flicker towards Taehyung’s phone when it begins to vibrate again. “He likes you a lot, Hansung-oppa.”

Taehyung pets her head and pulls the blankets up higher over her shoulders. Then he replies, a little sad, “I thought so too, petal.”

“He does,” she insists. Her eyes are already drooping from fatigue, but she seems determined. Taehyung’s heart feels warm when he sees how hard she’s trying to make him feel better.

“Mummy doesn’t let me play outside very much, and she doesn’t want me to go to new places. But it’s not because she thinks I’ll do something bad,” Youngmi eventually mumbles, barely audible. “She loves me a lot, so she doesn’t want any bad people to hurt me. She would cry for a long time, I think, if something bad ever happened to me.”

Oh, Taehyung thinks, glancing at his phone. It lights up again with a message informing him that he’s received a voice mail. His lock screen is of a leaf, gently floating on the surface of a quiet lake.

“Sometimes, I think Junghan-oppa is a lot like my mum,” Youngmi finishes.

Oh.

 

 

 

 

“Still nothing?” Taehyung asks into the silence as they’re walking.

“13.521651, 80.0451112,” Jeongguk recites referring to the coordinates they had unearthed from the USB Taehyung had taken from Yongsu, “I can say those cursed coordinates in my sleep and I would swear I know that place from top to toe by now, but it's like every time I go there, there's something new to discover.”

“I know you’ll get to the bottom of it Guk, whatever it is,” Taehyung reassures and then, “ouch, careful! Geez.”

It's roughly a week before they are scheduled to ‘vacation’ at Yongsu’s holiday home and the days leading up to one where they leave for it have been tense. Immediately, after catching sight of Taehyung's unhappy face after coming back from his latest mission, Jeongguk had manhandled Taehyung out into town in the middle of the night with nothing save for the request for Taehyung to keep his eyes firmly shut.

‘I want to show you something,’ he had said, and Taehyung had followed.

Navigating the city in the darkness had been a fun adventure. Taehyung had been happy to humour the younger (especially since he asked for things ever so rarely), but the state of his bruised shins and ankles made the sentiment disappear, fast.

He shakes his right foot after it had caught on yet another step and swats the younger’s hands away when the sentinel tries to grab at him.

“Eyes closed!” Jeongguk chides, laughter in his tone. And then, uselessly, he adds, “also, sorry. There’s a step.”

“Stop moving,” Taehyung commands. He unhooks their elbows and places both his feet firmly on the ground to recentre.

“We’re here, right? Wherever it is, that you wanted us to be?” Taehyung confirms. He’s been manoeuvred onto buses and down again, past a courtyard of some kind, and through more doors that he can count. Beside him, Jeongguk makes a noise of agreement. “So we just need to get up these stairs?”

“Yes.”

“Your hovering isn’t working,” the elder concludes, shoving the sentinel even further away. “I’ve just got my eyes closed, I haven’t turned into a lemon. Tell me how wide the next steps are, and how many I need to go up, and I’ll do it myself.”

“But —”

“No buts. Trust me Jeongguk. I trusted you to lead us, literally with my eyes closed, to wherever you wanted. Trust that I am competent enough to walk up some stairs.”

“This and that are two different things,” Jeongguk protests, still laughing, and Taehyung feels the annoyance that was beginning to simmer under his skin disappear. Recently, Jeongguk has been laughing much more often, but the sound itself is still rare enough to give him pause. “I know you know what you’re doing Tae, but I don’t want to see you get hurt.”

Nevertheless, despite his protests, Jeongguk steps back and gives Taehyung the information he’d asked for. A moment later Taehyung carefully makes is way up the steps. When he reaches the top, Jeongguk is there again, guiding him with a gentle hand to the elbow.

“Open your eyes,” Jeongguk eventually whispers when they stop walking. His warm breath ghosts over Taehyung’s ear. They're in some kind of room, Taehyung thinks. It is quiet. With his eyes closed, it feels like they are the only two in the world.  

Taehyung shivers, takes a bracing breath, and he then does.

The other man had brought him to a dimly lit room with dark grey walls. It is empty save for the paintings, photographs and gently illuminated screens lining the walls, and hanging from the ceiling.

“Jeongguk,” the older man whispers, hardly daring anything louder. His heart twists inside his chest.

“I broke into here once, the first time, for practice,” Jeongguk explains and Taehyung bites back a hysterical giggle because of course, of course, Jeon Jeongguk of Bangtan would just casually break into the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art for practice .

It is easier to focus on that fact, rather than on how the light from one of the screens is bathing Jeongguk in its gentle light. It rests, soft, on the curve of the younger man’s cheek, finds a home in his eyes and Taehyung aches.

“But it’s peaceful here at night,” Jeongguk continues, not looking away, “quiet. So I come back here sometimes when things become a little bit too much.”

“Oh,” Taehyung breathes, finally understanding what was being shared.

He looks around, takes the photographs and paintings in. They show little snippets of the lives that are happening all around them, like little windows into all the lifetimes he will never get to lead. The screen next to them depicts a looping scene of leaves falling onto a clear lake.  

It’s a scene that Taehyung himself has never taken the time to sit down and just watch. He takes a step closer, follows the way the lake's water ripples when the leaves kiss its surface and is suddenly filled with a quiet, but deep-seated sense of peace. “Thank you. It is beautiful here.”  

“Yeah,” the other man says and when Taehyung turns around, Jeongguk is much closer than where he had left him. He’s smiling now too, rocking forward a little on his heels. “I knew you’d like it. I can teach you how to get into here after hours as well, on our way out.”

“But this is your safe place,” Taehyung protests.  

“And now I want it to be yours too. You’ve given me so much,” Jeongguk starts and shakes his head when Taehyung opens his mouth to deny it. The sentinel presses his index finger carefully to the soft of Taehyung's lips and makes a shushing noise. "More, I feel, than you will ever understand. So please, let me give you this."

Bringing up a point Taehyung had thought they had left at the foot of the stairs, Jeongguk says, “you've got it the wrong way 'round. It’s not that I worry about you because I don’t trust you, Tae. I can’t help but worry about you, because I do.”

 

 






“How are you so smart already?” Taehyung murmurs, and Youngmi gives a sleepy giggle.

“You’ll call him back?” she presses, not letting the point go. Taehyung thinks that this child is going to grow up terrifying, and he adores her for it. 

“Yes,” he promises, but Youngmi had already slipped into sleep, so she doesn’t hear it.

Taehyung quietly gets up. He picks his phone up from the nightstand and walks out of the room. When he is back outside, he taps to listen to the voice message first.

“Tae...Ah, shit it's your voicemail,” Jeongguk’s voice comes, and then it breaks off to sigh. “Look, I didn’t mean…” there is a long pause, Taehyung thinks the younger man had been debating hanging up. “I do trust you, Tae, I do. You must know.”

There’s a voice in the background, probably Seokjin calling for him to get off his phone. Jeongguk’s voice overrides it to hurriedly whisper, “I want to go to the museum again. Together. After...tonight. Be safe, Tae. Please. I...”

There is an intake of breath, like Jeongguk is bracing himself to say something else, but the voicemail cuts off.   

Taehyung listens to the message two more times to try to get a hint as to what Jeongguk was going to say, but he doesn’t manage to. Then, he hits redial. He gets redirected straight to the other man's voicemail, but that was something he half expected. The others must all be well out at sea by now.

The knowledge, somehow, makes him feel a little lonely.

“Guk,” he hums into the phone when he is asked to leave a message. It really had been a stupid argument. “Stop worrying, I get it. I'm...sorry I got mad. And I...” he swallows, cradles his phone between his palms. There are a lot of things that he wants to say, but he swallow them all back and whispers, “be safe. I worry about you too,” instead.

Message delivered, Taehyung puts his phone back into his pocket, clears his mind, and walks to his room to begin preparations for the night ahead.

This job was going to be a piece of cake.

 

 

 

 

“This is bad,” Namjoon comments as Taehyung scrolls down the long list of names of people who had been scheduled to pass through the relocation network. There were, at the very least, a thousand names on file.

He’d waited an hour after he had tucked Youngmi in before heading for Yongsu’s study. Getting into the older man’s laptop had been child’s play and Taehyung had foolishly thought that the ease had confirmed that Yongsu was a nobody to the Reclaimers, but he had been very wrong.

“This guy isn’t just a cog in the machine,” Taehyung agrees. He wasn’t sure of what he had expected to find when they had broken into Yongsu’s laptop; an encrypted message or two maybe, a small hint as to who his contact into the Reclaimer network would be at best, but this. Well, this was truly something else.

In Yongsu’s photo album, Taehyung had found photograph after photograph of the man sitting with known Reclaimer officers. There’s even one of him sharing a drink with the operation’s head. Taehyung had only ever seen the other man on TV.

The list of names he’s going through now is filled with names that have been colour coded and sorted with details that went far beyond what would be given to someone of insignificance.

Taehyung looks down at the machine under his palms. There must be such a wealth of information stored inside its servers that, maybe, if he were to take it back to base they would be able to find out so much more.

Maybe even find out enough to win this war.

“Don’t even think it,” Namjoon threatens, like he’s reading Taehyung’s thoughts. “We don't know how much he knows yet, but Yongsu knows every single one of your faces now. They are also all over his security feeds. We know the Reclaimers have sketches of Jeongguk, but if you steal his laptop, then he will know who you all are, and then they will have pictures. They will also find out about Jin.”

Wind ripped out of his sails, Taehyung sighs and dispiritedly clicks on another file.

As he scrolls down it, Taehyung eyes catch on a coloured row. He makes his hand continue working despite the fact that he would swear that he’d seen ‘Park, Jimin’, highlighted in bright yellow. It could be nothing, it could be the key to everything, but he forces himself to push it aside because the answer to that, would have to come later. They still had a whole computer to go through.

“Did you see…?” Taehyung mumbles anyways, just to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks on him.

“Yes,” Namjoon confirms, voice serious and Taehyung pushes the curiosity aside for the moment and opens another file.

It was going to be a long night.

Suddenly, from Namjoon’s side of the line, he hears hurried footsteps. Then, he hears the sounds of a door being slammed open.

“You’re not meant to be in here,” Namjoon says. 

“The numbers that were intercepted from Yongsu weren’t coordinates,” comes a rushed voice over the comms, ignoring him completely.

“What?” Taehyung blinks at the interruption and the information both, hands hovering over the keys.

There’s the sound of a scuffle and then a muffled thump like someone’s been successfully shoved off a chair. 

“13.521651, 80.0451112,” the same voice mumbles, but closer this time so Taehyung can venture a guess at who won that fight. “It’s been written in that format as a set up for anyone who finds it. There's also evidence of the Reclaimers monitoring the location so that they can catch people from the Rebellion, if the information was ever leaked, so it must be important.”

There is a pause, like the voice is considering what he can see of  Yongsu’s desktop through the USB. The images that are being streamed to Namjoon’s computer back at headquarters are of terrible quality, but they are clear enough to give a general idea. 

“Click on the green book icon at the bottom left of your screen.”

Who the hell even is this guy?

However, for some unfathomable reason, Taehyung’s hands take a life of their own and they obey the voice out of some deep-seated instinct.

He clicks. 

“But that can’t be.” Namjoon’s voice across the line comes again, referring to the voice’s earlier statement as the program loads. He sounds calm, so Taehyung figures the owner of the voice is, at the very least, trusted. “Those coordinates had to be decrypted . We’ve sent Golden Boy to scour that location three times since and he’s always come back with something.”  

The window Taehyung had been on disappears behind a new one. The page is a plain dark green with nothing save for an input bar and a blinking cursor next to the words:

 

Welcome to the library database. Please enter journal code:

 

“Hence my use of the word 'set-up', RM, the point of them is that they are convincing,” the voice grits out. A quiet denial begins to stir in Taehyung’s gut — like his body has already caught on, and is rebelling against the idea before his mind can process the full implications. “I informed the Lab the second I noticed, and now they are trying to look for signs to figure out if Yongsu knows we've been sending Golden Boy too.”

If he does, Taehyung thinks, and the flash of realisation feels like a bolt of lightning to his spine. If Yongsu knows who Jeongguk really is, who he is really working for, then Taehyung had walked them all straight into a trap.

Jeongguk is powerful, yes, but the sentinel and Seokjin would be sitting ducks out there, stuck on some yacht with no signal and nowhere to run had Yongsu organised some sort of attack. If there was even a yacht at all.

Taehyung's mind flashes to the fact that he could only reach Jeongguk's voice mail. He does a quick mental calculation and realises that the guys have been gone for slightly over four hours.

A lot can happen in four hours.

“Look,” the voice snaps again, but the sound of it is lost in the rush of panicked denial roaring in his head. “Those ‘coordinates’ reveal a code for a journal that has been filed using the Dewey classification system. I tried looking them up on the national database before coming here, but access to every medical journal under the 045 journal series has been restricted — so they must be hiding something.”  

Taehyung doesn’t care. Hands trembling and heart in his throat, he springs up from his chair. It shoots back and crashes noisily into the bookcase behind him.  

“I have to warn them,” Taehyung blurts, pushing away from the desk. They’re on a yacht, so they’ll have no signal but maybe he can shout the warning at the coastline — Jeongguk was bound to hear him. He’s halfway to the door before Namjoon’s voice registers.

“V! Stop! V, listen to me” Namjoon snaps down the line, “if Yongsu had known, then there’s no way he would’ve left you alone with his daughter. So either Yongsu doesn’t know anything, and you're panicking over nothing, or he already knows everything and rushing out will only alert whoever is watching you to the fact that we’ve caught on, and then you will get everyone killed.”

Taehyung runs a shaky hand down his face. The room comes back to him slowly, but he can still hear the roar of his blood in his ears. The surge of adrenaline rushes through him again, impotent and clamouring against his bones now that it has nowhere to go. It makes him feel sick to his stomach.   

“Right,” he says when he thinks he voice won’t break. His brain comes back online in parts. “But if someone has been watching, then they must also know that I’m here in the study.”

“And since no-one's come in to stop you,” Namjoon grits out, “they probably have something else planned. Something else which can happen at any moment. V. Get it together. Concentrate .”

“Right, you’re right. Sorry RM,” Taehyung huffs jerkily, heart still jackrabbiting inside his ribcage. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and opens them again. He needs to keep it together, he needs to survive this, so he’ll be able to help the others if they need him. “What do you need me to do?” 

“Is this clown really one of your best?” Taehyung hears muffled on the other side, and he would be offended but Taehyung knows he’s not putting on his best show tonight, so he lets it slide.  

“We need to access what it is that’s been restricted, obviously,” the voice comes back louder and Taehyung would be damned if the derisive note in the other man’s voice didn’t ring a bell. Was the man a Lab operative who had teamed up with him as a handler before?  

“The file I just sent you,” here, Taehyung’s phone beeps and his screen fills with several small tables, “shows that there are three possibilities. I’m going to need you to find them and scroll through them.”

Taehyung takes a glance at the chart and wants to laugh at how easily they had all been fooled. If this man is right, then they had all been led astray by the oldest, simplest trick in the book.  

 

 

 

13.541651 , 80.451112
13 5 4     16 5 18     045     11 1 2
M E D     P E R     045     J A B
                          1 11 2
                          A J B
                          1 1 12
                          A A L

 

 

JOURNAL LIST 

Option 1 MED PER 045 JAB

Option 2 MED PER 045 AJB

Option 3 MED PER 045 AAL

 

 

KEY
A B C D E F G H I J K L M
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

 

 

 

 

 

He inputs the code for the first paper: ‘ MED PER 045 JAB’ . Seconds later, the page reloads with an error message saying the paper could not be found. It suggests for him to try again.

‘MED PER 045 AJB’ , Taehyung types next and he gets the same message back.

“If this is another trap...” Namjoon threatens over the line, tense.

“It’s not,” the voice cuts in, sure. Then he says, “the last one.”

‘MED PER 045 AAL’ , Taehyung keys in carefully, and then they wait.

The screen flashes white and then a document appears.

“Regulating Mutagenesis: Triggering Recessive Gene Mutation as a Stress Response, and the Regulation of Evolvability,” Taehyung reads out loud to no reaction. The document is two hundred, odd pages long. 

“I know what all those words mean individually, but together they don’t mean a thing,” Taehyung quips. He scrolls down the document as he speaks to save time, “is this relevant to us?”

“As far as I can tell, the paper is talking about proposed methods of identifying and then activating sentinel or guide characteristics that may be hidden inside recessive genes,” Namjoon muses, “but how could...” 

The rest of Namjoon’s sentence is lost when Taehyung’s eyes catch on a photograph of the researchers running an experiment in their lab when he gets to the final pages of the document.

The figures aren’t posing for the shot, so they are both caught mid-motion with their backs to the camera. Their faces are tilted away. Taehyung can only see the bridge of the man’s nose, and the side of the woman’s face, but he would be able to recognise them anywhere.

“What?” Taehyung breathes, voice trembling before his eyes even reach the caption.

 

Lead scientists Kim Jihun and Kim Soyon at the Daegu Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (DIGIB)

 

His finger involuntarily traces the contours of the image, a low buzzing noise starts in his ears. 

“Mum?” he whispers. He runs a fingertip over the slope of the man’s nose. “Dad?”

“Hansung-oppa?” comes a small voice from the doorway and Taehyung almost jumps out of his skin. His automatically undocks the USB and palms it.

Taehyung wants to scream; mind still running in panicked circles over what he had just seen. Why was there a photograph of his parents in the paper? Why were the Rebellions interested in it? Was this why they had been taken from him? 

He wants to look through the document again, wants to analyse every word to see he could find clues that might lead him back to them. Deep inside, the hope to see his parents again flutters; it crawls out of the crevices of his heart, shakes off the dust to beat its fragile wings.

But first, he remembers suddenly, Youngmi. Taehyung doesn’t know why she is no longer in bed, so he needs to tread carefully. 

“Hi there, honey,” Taehyung temporises. His voice is still shaky from shock. There have been a lot of revelations tonight and he not sure if he can handle any more. "What’s wrong?”

“I don't want to go back to sleep,” Youngmi replies which could mean anything from, ‘I think there are monsters in my closet,’ to, ‘my dad told me to keep stalling until the Reclaimers I called on you can get in here and slit your throat,’ so Taehyung starts to inch backwards.

His eyes flicker back to the laptop on the desk and he makes himself look away. He won’t be able to find his parents if he’s dead. If the paper is all he can get tonight, then that’s already more information than he has ever had.

His back hits the window. Taehyung uses his finger to silently undo the latch behind him, he slides his fingertips under the frame to have leverage and braces himself to jump.

The cool night breeze brushes against his fingertips from the tiny sliver of space he’s made under the window and his arms break into gooseflesh. The little girl in front of him looks nothing but nervous, but Taehyung knows first hand what young children are capable of, so he doesn’t relax. Not yet. 

“Why can’t you sleep, darling?” Taehyung asks. He gives her a small smile, warm and friendly.

The area between his shoulder blades itch with paranoia and Taehyung prays to whoever will listen that he doesn’t have a sniper trained to his back.

“I woke up to get some water but,” she says and the wobbly set to her bottom lip thaws at Taehyung’s defences. “Oppa,” she says eventually after a long moment, “I’m scared.” 

Taehyung lets go of the window frame, kneels down on the floor and opens up his arms. He cannot stay indifferent when faced with a scared child, especially one that he’s come to know. Youngmi runs straight into his arms and clings.

‘What are you doing? Idiot,’ he hears a voice hiss in his ear. Taehyung unsure if it’s Namjoon or their new friend, but he doesn’t spare the thought to care. Instead, he grits his teeth and braces himself for the feeling of a blade sliding between his ribs. 

When it doesn’t come, he lets out a shaky breath. “Youngmi,” Taehyung repeats relaxing by a fraction, “honey, tell me what's wrong.”

When she does, Taehyung’s blood runs cold.

“Daddy always said to go tell someone if I ever saw anything on the road to this house,” Youngmi ends, “and I saw a big line of cars.”  

All the bedrooms in Yongsu’s holiday home are treated to beautiful views of the landscapes that surround it. The house is situated on a hill and is the only one for miles. Any movement outside would stick out like a sore thumb. 

‘Shit,’ Namjoon curses to himself and Taehyung wants to do the same.

He needs to get out of here. If there are Reclaimers coming for him, he needs to get far, far away before Youngmi can get caught in the crossfire.

“Don't you worry about a thing, pet,” Taehyung reassures. His mind is already working for the quickest way to make his escape. Yongsu had taken the car with him, but Taehyung knows he saw a scooter in the garage when they had gotten here.

He is pretty sure he remembers the road well enough to ride on it, even with the headlights turned off. 

“Why don’t you go back to your room, and I’ll get this sorted.”

“V,” Namjoon’s voice comes down the line as he’s pushing Youngmi out the door, “I’m looking at the cameras, and they’ve got the whole house surrounded.” Taehyung bites back a hysterical giggle. Today really has been a barrel of laughs. “You’re going to have to find somewhere to hide until Golden Boy or J-Hope can extract you.”

As he walks Youngmi down the corridor to her room, Taehyung wonders if the Reclaimers have entered the house yet, or if they were all camping outside waiting for him to reveal himself. He wonders if they were watching him right now, if they had seen the way he had backed himself against the windows of the study earlier.  

Youngmi takes her sweet time walking back and Taehyung fights against the urge to just sweep her up and run her there. He needs her to remain oblivious. Taehyung's hands start to sweat from his nerves and he wipes them on his pyjama-clad thighs.   

“Fuck,” Not-Namjoon cuts in to swear. His voice is tight and panicked. “The guys from the Lab’s just managed to tap into their comms and — V, you’re going to need to get yourself underground.” 

“What? No,” Namjoon rejects, giving voice to the sentiment in Taehyung’s mind, “that would just make it harder for us to get to him later.”

“We don’t have the fucking time to debate this. V,” the other man calls and something in the way he says his name brings Taehyung back to a time almost a decade ago when he listened to no-one, save for the boy with sharp eyes. 

“Get your ass underground. They’ve got eyes on all the exits and they’re bringing the house down over your head in ten minutes, on my mark.”

The house is going to be demolished with him still inside it. Taehyung can’t believe his ears.

The onset of fear makes him feel like he’s been dipped in ice. Taehyung’s survived a lot in his life, but he doesn’t have a lot of hope for surviving a building rigged to collapse. He had barely made it out alive, the first time around, and he had Jeongguk to fight for then.

This time, the other man is far, far away and Taehyung hopes that he and Seokjin are safe. He thinks of the USB he has burning a hole in his pocket, thinks of his parents’ faces buried in its memory.

Maybe if he leaves it somewhere protected, someone will be able to retrieve it after — after he—.

Youngmi tugs on his sleeve and Taehyung startles. He had completely forgotten that she was there.

“Oppa?” Youngmi asks, looking up at him. Her eyes are wide and guileless. God, Taehyung realises, the Reclaimers are going to demolish the house with a kid still inside it. "What's wrong?"

The moment he makes the realisation, a new calm finds him. It's like he’s finally thinking clearly for the first time since Youngmi had walked into the study.

Even if the worst had happened and Yongsu had left Youngmi with him knowing what the night had in store, Taehyung wasn’t going to let a child die under his watch.

The new resolve settles, chases the panicked nerves out of his body and hardens into iron in his veins.

“We’re going to go on a little adventure, okay?” Taehyung says, kneeling so that he can look the young girl in the eye. There is a trap door in the kitchens leading down to a wine cellar, his mind supplies, plans and possibilities flashing behind his eyelids. It is a veritable cave, with walls that have been reinforced with closed shelves holding hundreds of imported wines. Taehyung remembers Yongsu showing it off with pride the first day they had gotten here.

‘I’m not leaving you,’ he tries to project to the girl standing in front of him with his gaze. In his mind’s eye, there is a revolving door of all the young faces he never got to save because he had been too young, too scared, too weak. He refuses to add any more.

In his ear, he hears a soft voice murmur, ‘mark,’ to signal that the countdown from ten minutes had begun.

“An adventure?” Youngmi repeats doubtfully, but a smile starts to tug at the corners of her mouth, “what kind of adventure?”

Taehyung smiles back and thinks, ‘I’m not going to let you die here.’

He takes her hand and says, “you and me, we’re going to find the magic cave before the dragons can find us.”

He redirects them to the kitchen downstairs. They keep their backs to the walls, away from the windows. Taehyung grabs a shopping tote along the way and stuffs some water bottles inside it. The throw on the couch gets shoved into the bag too.

He then sends Youngmi off on a ‘mission’ at the other side of the kitchen for as many snacks as she can carry — he doesn’t know how long they’re going to have to be down there, doesn’t know if the Reclaimers would search the area after the explosion. Plus, as much as he would like to, Taehyung knows he won’t be able to keep himself sustained on a diet of pure wine.

Mark,' the voice says again as he’s making room for the first aid kit he’d snatched from under the sink. Nine minutes left.

Suddenly, and without warning, the power goes out.

“Oppa?” Youngmi calls. Her voice is high and scared.

“It’ll be okay sweetie,” Taehyung soothes, making his way towards where he thinks he had last seen her. Taehyung walks carefully with his arms out in front of him while he waits for his eyes to adjust. “It’s just a power failure.”

He finds her and they both get on all fours. He feels around in the darkness until his fingers hit the handle for the trap door and pulls it open.

“Look, honey,” Taehyung gasps and tries to inject as much joy into the whispered words as he can. “A magical cave!”

Youngmi giggles. The joyful sound pierces through the silence that has fallen over the dark house and Taehyung prays that there was no-one close enough to hear it. Youngmi is happy and she isn’t scared. That was the important part. “That’s where daddy puts his wine. Oppa, you’re silly.”  

“Work with me a little, princess,” Taehyung cajoles, sending her down the spiral stairs. He hikes the shopping tote higher onto his shoulder but squats down so that he stays within Youngmi’s reach, “here”.

Taehyung unclips a small flashlight from his belt and then, after another moment, he takes out the USB and attaches it to the string hanging off the end of it. He then pushes the two items into Youngmi’s small hands.

“Don’t use it yet,” he warns, referring to the flashlight. He doesn’t want to give their location away to whoever might be watching. As for the USB, well, Taehyung just wants to make sure he’s got all his bases covered.

He starts making his own way down the staircase. His eyes have adjusted now, so Taehyung can see the contours of Youngmi’s face, highlighted by the light of the moon. Her eyes are wide, and she is unsmiling, but she doesn’t look scared.

He closes the hatch and the world gets a little bit darker.

In their small space underneath the kitchen floorboards, the world is silent, save for the sounds of their breaths. Youngmi grabs for his hand and he hoists her up to his hip, carries her the rest of the way down the stairs.

“Oppa,” she asks, voice small. The cold air of the wine cellar wraps around them, frigid and bracing. Taehyung pulls Youngmi closer. “Why are the bad dragons coming?”

“I don’t know,” Taehyung answers, turning his face so that he presses the side of it into the crown of her head. He cannot fathom that there could be anything in the world that would be worth sacrificing her wide, trusting eyes for.

He holds her tighter and Youngmi reaches up; winds her small arms around his neck. They’ve reached the bottom of the stairs.

"Oppa," Youngmi whispers into the darkness. Taehyung thinks he can hear the sound of car engines in the distance. "I want my mummy and daddy." 

“I know honey," he replies. "You'll see them soon. I won’t let anything happen to you.”

There is a faint crackle in his ear. The comm line clicks back on.

‘Mark.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What —?”

The question breaks off as soon as Jeongguk focuses enough to spot Hoseok waiting for them at the edge of the docks. The older man would have been invisible to everyone else; an insignificant dot amongst many lining the distant shoreline, but Jeongguk only has to blink to focus in on the hard lines pressed into the details of the man’s face. There is a small bundle of cloth wrapped up in the other man’s arms, patterned and soft, like a pile of blankets. 

The sense of disquiet that had been simmering in his gut the whole evening rises up and pushes the air out of Jeongguk’s lungs; expanding until he has to gasp for breath. It makes no sense for Hoseok to be here. The other sentinel shouldn’t be here at all, unless something has gone horribly, irrecoverably wrong.

No, Jeongguk wants to say. It feels like he is going to shake apart. No. 

The bundle of blankets shifts minutely in the other man’s arms and Jeongguk’s ears begin to buzz.

“Junghan?” he hears Seokjin call in the background, “Junghan, is there something wrong?”

“Why are you here?” Jeongguk breathes but his senses are already reaching out for answers. They rip through the spaces between the miles of water where he is trapped on the godforsaken boat to rush down the dirt roads; vaulting over all the hateful distance that keeps him away from Taehyung. 

Jeongguk smells the salt from the sea, smells the earth,  the asphalt from the highway beyond. His senses gallop further out and find the more recent smells of car exhaust, layered with the distinct nitroglycerine and sawdust smell from dynamites and his heart stutters. Everything is overlaid with the acrid scent of smoke, burnt wood and plastic from a fire that has been left to burn out. 

When he comes back to himself, one of his hands somehow has Yongsu by the throat and there is the sound of screaming. Without conscious thought, Jeongguk throws the Yongsu across the deck, over the table where they had been having dinner and then he presses the man’s spine back against the metal of the yacht’s railings. 

He had first observed the slight imbalance in the way the older man had distributed his weight but now, when he has the man’s spine bent to his will, Jeongguk can feel the way one of the disks had previously been weakened, most likely from some form of a sporting accident. Now, when he concentrates, he knows exactly how much he would need to push down, how much further he needs to bend the older man back, to hurt him irrecoverably.

It would be so easy. It would require barely anything at all.

Jeongguk lets the knowledge bleed into his eyes and he presses down a little more. Beneath his hands, Yongsu makes a choked noise. The screaming gets louder. Jeongguk whips his head around, looks the shocked and shaking Jiae in the eyes and bares his teeth. 

“Be silent,” he hisses. 

At his tone, her voice gets caught in her throat and strangles in on itself.

In the resulting quiet, Jeongguk turns his focus inwards.

In his mind’s eye, the thin, golden thread that connects him to Taehyung at his centre starts to pulse in time with the beating of his (their) heart. The thread, which had breathed itself into life the day they had met and had steadily been growing stronger over the past months now flares bright, almost desperate, before it begins to fray at the edges. 

Jeongguk burns

He turns back to Yongsu and says in a voice like storm clouds, “what have you done?” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are galaxies encased inside Taehyung’s skin. 

Millions of cells, of microbes rushing through his blood, spreading through his body — all working together to create the singular miracle that came to be known as Kim Taehyung.  

After Jeongguk had pushed himself into zoning for the first time, after Taehyung had thrown himself off a cliff (the minute he had first opened his eyes in the decimated compound) (earlier, much, much earlier), the sentinel’s senses had instinctively tangled themselves inside Taehyung’s lungs and sank into the ripples of air passing over the other man’s cilia to breathe him in, now they lose themselves the mazes woven into the tapestry of his nerves. 

From a place that was deeper than consciousness, deeper than sense, their edges blur and weave together. A thread, fragile like the new wings of a dragonfly reels them in. It feels like finally becoming whole. It feels like peace.

Then, Jeongguk begins to really wake up. 

There is nothing to know other than contentment at first. He feels golden: like there are pools of light, shimmering just under his skin. Jeongguk takes a breath and it is like breathing for the first time. His head is dizzy with the rush.

He keeps his eyes closed for a little while longer. The sentinel recalls the exact timbre of the voice telling him to ‘get up’ , recalls the first time he had allowed himself to truly listen, to truly anchor himself to the sound of Taehyung’s heart in the back of the car and wants to curl himself around the remembered sensation.

Inside his chest, his heart beats a steady thump- thump that is in time with the heart monitor hooked to the body lying next to him. It feels like salvation, like finding something he had long lost, but he knows that allowing anything more would be swan song. 

He cannot afford to indulge himself any further. 

Jeongguk takes in a long breath and builds his defences back up, brick by brick. The other sensations that had been kept at bay begin to rush back. 

There is the scratchy wool of the blankets and the polyester-cotton blend of the sheets underneath, which get folded up in his mind and neatly assigned the label of, ‘bed’. The steady beep from the machines, the metal, plastic, the shine from the linoleum floor, the soft crinkle from the fluid bag and tubes when he moves, get bundled together under ‘hospital’. All composed of familiar sounds and materials. They are at one of their allied strongholds then. Of this, Jeongguk is sure.

Quiet steps rush down the corridor. Jeongguk tracks them until they reach the front of their room, breathes in the smell of disinfectant, exhaustion and floral shampoo.

“I need to be transferred,” he commands at the nurse rushing inside, not bothering to open his eyes. 

He doesn’t want to leave. He would lose himself if he stays.

The woman startles. 

“Oh —” she gasps. Jeongguk hears her smooth her hands down the front of her uniform to gather her thoughts before there is a small, determined inhale. “You’re very hurt,” the nurse begins, “I can’t, in good conscience, call anyone in to consider your move until you are better.”

The threads tug at him again. Stronger this time.  Jeongguk is quickly tiring from the minutes spent awake and he deliberately tenses the muscles in his stomach. The resulting flare of pain distracts him nicely.

“Then get me someone who can,” he snarls, impatient. The woman flees. 

Letting himself rely on Taehyung’s heartbeat in the car had already started the process of stitching them together. Jeongguk had known the risks going in, but it was one that had needed to be taken. Now, he needs to work to limit the damage.  

They’re still at the start. Jeongguk recognises the signs. The need to stay close is textbook, the yearning (the blissful way the rest of the world has finally gone quiet in light of learning the exact sound of Taehyung’s heart at rest) is relentless but Jeongguk thinks if he gets out now, if he can get himself far enough away, he might still survive. 

“If you could spare the volunteers from your particular brand of charm, Jeongguk, I would consider it to be a personal favour,” Namjoon comments offhand as he sweeps into the room. 

“I need to be away from here,” Jeongguk replies, ignoring the opening completely.  

“You makes these demands, yet you can barely stand,” Namjoon points out matter-of-fact. He’s smiling a little indulgently as he says it, like he’s reluctantly charmed.

On the bed beside them, Taehyung makes a soft snuffling noise as he sleeps the sleep of the well-medicated. Jeongguk thinks Taehyung might wake up soon — tomorrow most likely, or the day after. The other man shuffles in his sleep again, his head shifts on the pillow, and when he does, his breath stutters.

Jeongguk’s senses leap into awareness, they test the air around the other man for the tensing of the other’s muscles, searching for the faintest hint of discomfort. He only returns to focus on the wider world, on Namjoon’s own relaxed sprawl in the plastic hospital chair, once reassured that Taehyung was not suffering unduly.  

The sentinel digs his fingernails into the flesh of his palms. He’s running out of time.

“You know my family’s terms,” Jeongguk finally bites out. 

The younger man closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to look at the disapproving expression on the elder’s face. It’s the one that only appears whenever they have to talk about the agreement between Namjoon and his family before they would agree to let him join Bangtan’s fold.  

Jeongguk knows the face well. It’s a face that speaks of shallowly concealed disapproval and three years later it still looks exactly the same.  

Eventually, after a long silence, the older man shifts in his seat and makes a soft, considering noise when his eyes settle on the still figure on the other bed. 

“It’s true then?” he asks. Namjoon tilts his chin and uses its sharp point to indicate towards the sleeping man as if there had been even the slightest opportunity for misunderstanding.  “He’s the one?” 

“J-Hope must have filled you in by now,” Jeongguk sighs in lieu of answering. There’s no point in hiding it, after all. 

He breathes back out and resists following Namjoon’s gaze. Taehyung’s eyelids flicker. Jeongguk can hear the way the cold hospital air whispers through the other’s long, full lashes and he shudders. No-one had ever prepared him for what to do when the one at the other end of a bond was so, devastatingly, beautiful. 

“J-Hope told me that V feels like nothing, that he feels perfectly null. And yet…?”

Jeongguk gives a bitter smile. Namjoon makes a considering noise.

“What now?” 

Jeongguk breathes out. 

“Do you know what was in that warehouse, RM?”

The other man purses his lips briefly, looking annoyed at the abrupt change of subject, but eventually gives a nod to indicate for the younger to continue.

“Grain, mostly. Stockpiled and on the verge of moulding from neglect. But there was this container in the middle that smelt of copper and tin. Of sulphur and charcoal and gunmetal...shotguns — collector’s items, mostly — waiting to be smuggled to the collectors willing to pay for them. Taehyung and I...we were together for barely a day but if he —” here, Jeongguk stops because just putting the thought into words was enough to make his voice shake. 

“If he hadn’t...I can’t — it’s too big a risk. I’ve survived this long without a guide, RM, and we’re so close to turning the tides on this war I can taste it. We can’t chance it now.” 

“Why not just let it happen?” Namjoon challenges, “I promised your family that we would never go looking, but since this is the hand we’ve been dealt...you think you can just...put the brakes on this? No-one has ever been able to stop a bonding, Golden Boy, not after it’s begun.”

Jeongguk allows himself a private, bitter smile. 

“No level 5 sentinel has ever managed to survive for as long I have without ever needing a guide either,” Jeongguk reasons. “I’ll take my chances.”

“This is pure foolishness,” the older man retorts. His voice is tightly controlled but pained. “Why can’t you see that your family was wrong? Rejecting what you need, rejecting who you are, will only kill you in the end.”

Jeongguk laughs. The sound is hollow. 

“But that’s the thing. They weren’t wrong at all.”

When Namjoon makes as if to protest, Jeongguk pushes on. “Back in that warehouse, when V went offline, there was nothing in my head except the knowledge of where those guns were. I didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t know J-Hope when he walked through the door.” He pauses to swallow. “If V hadn’t survived that jump, I would’ve found those guns, RM. ” Jeongguk’s voice breaks into a whisper and the next words come out in a single rush of air, “and — god help me — I don’t know what I would’ve done with them.”

The room, after his confession, is silent.

“Do you understand now?” 

Namjoon regards him for a long, unreadable moment. Then finally, mercifully, the older man tilts his head in quiet acquiescence.

“I’ll go make the arrangements.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When they move him, he is heavily sedated at his own request. Enough so that his body won’t be able to move, but not enough that his mind can’t be kept clear. Jeongguk needs to be able to control the break.  

The sentinel is gently wheeled out of the room and when the door closes behind him, it muffles the feel of the sleeping man being left behind. A deep, animal denial wracks through his body. It feels like his chest is collapsing under the weight of everything he had failed to learn about Kim Taehyung.  

Nevertheless, Jeongguk feels for, and then yanks at all the threads that are desperately scrabbling to hold to their anchor. He grits his teeth, pictures himself tying a tourniquet around the delicate lines of spun gold and slashes the threads in two.

The rest of the world rushes back and the air is once again shards of glass against his skin. 

Jeongguk lets out a long breath and the gossamer threads that connect them evaporate like fairy gold. Practice, he reflects joylessly, really does make perfect.

It still feels like amputation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Jungh— Golden Boy,” Yongsu manages to whisper past the crushing of his throat, “Golden Boy let me go.” 

“Oh,” Jeongguk intones, voice without inflexion, “so you did recognise me.” He seems unsurprised at the fact that Yongsu knows the name the war calls him by. “Why don’t you fill us in on the other things that you know?” 

Jeongguk hears Jiae’s startled inhale when she hears the name. ‘A Rebel sentinel,’ he hears her breathe, disbelieving, fearful and feels a distant satisfaction. 

The sentinel presses down a little more. Yongsu swallows back a gasp from the pain and his face goes white. His reply is a wheeze for air.

“Sorry,” Jeongguk apologises insincerely, “what was that?” He releases his grip just a fraction. 

“We have opened our home to you and this how you kind thinks to pay us for our hospitality? They were right to want to rid the world of your people,” Yongsu begins, “you’re little more than animals, I —”

“I don't think we're the animals here,” the sentinel cuts in to say, he tightens his grip and the rant immediately cuts off, "do you even know how many people you have sent to their deaths with your little side business?" Jeongguk leans in, “so, let’s try that again, shall we? You somehow found out that we are here for information. We were going to quietly take it and leave, but you’ve decided to do things the hard way. So now there’s no need for games. Tell me what you’ve done and what you know.”

Yongsu remains stubbornly silent. The Reclaimers must be paying him a tidy sum indeed. 

“I can start with what I know if you’re tongue-tied,” Jeongguk begins again, affecting an air of disinterest. “Did you know your lumbar disc still hasn’t fully healed? It must’ve been painful that first time it slipped. I bet you’re wondering how much more it can take, aren’t you? Well, I’m not wondering.” The sentinel bends Yongsu back a fraction more and smiles, “I know exactly how much farther back you can bend, and it’s not much more. Your leg’s already tingling, isn’t it?” 

“Jesus Christ,” he hears Seokjin say in a whisper. Jiae’s breath is ragged and the air tastes of her tears.

Jeongguk bears down a little more. “Not much longer now.”  

“There really wasn’t anything planned!” Yongsu finally confesses, his voice is desperate, “not tonight. Please, you have to believe me. You can’t do this, you’ve lost your mind!”

“No,” Jeongguk murmurs, “not yet. But if you’ve killed him, then it is only a matter of time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeongguk’s first, true memory of his mother is the one of her telling him that guides would destroy him from the inside out.  

She hadn’t put it in those exact words, of course. Phrased like that, it would’ve sounded like they had something to fear, and no-one in the Jeon family had ever been allowed to be anything close to afraid. 

His memories of his mother are well-worn around the edges, but few. An impression of the fall of her hair, of familiar, round eyes, a strict, unsmiling mouth and the scent of jasmine-nail-varnish-powder-lipstick that had eventually been stitched together into his schema for: mother. 

Schemas were how he viewed the world now — broad, structured frameworks; rigidly packaged into digestible bites. It is the only way to stay sane. 

She had come to visit him in his playroom one cool, crisp morning and had sat with him on his mat on the floor. His toys had been pushed aside as she placed a small box into the space between their knees. The box was a familiar one. It was the one that was used to bring him anything that might be new to his senses. His tutor, an elderly relative who had been tasked with helping him adapt after his senses had begun to truly heighten, had told him that this had been their way for decades. 

Ever since Jeongguk had begun to manifest his sentinel powers, they had locked him inside the house and brought objects to him one at a time. He would then be given time to study each item, classify them; get to know the world again by the spoonful to keep from ever being overwhelmed.

The first day they had brought him the box (slid in through a flap in the door with gloved and sterilised hands) he had been sick from the wealth of information that had flooded him. To him, the box stank of wood pulp and earthy, wet, kaolin clay. The harsh chlorine of the bleach used to give the pulp its colour burnt his sinuses and almost brought him to his knees. Later, after he had recovered, he was taught to wrap up the pulp-kaolin-bleach smell into the schema of cardboard and then taught how to quickly dismiss it, to turn it into background noise until it needed to be recalled.  

Jeongguk had outgrown the box months ago so it is a surprise to see its return. He wonders if this will be his next lesson. His mother, he’s now been told, is a guide.

Once his mother sees that she has his attention, she uses a carefully manicured fingernail to tap on the box’s lid. 

“How are your lessons going?”

His mother’s voice is cool, her vowels crisp. Like a general’s. 

“They’re going well,” Jeongguk answers. When he had been moved to the room that first day, the space had nothing in it save for a blanket. His room is full now, as full as it used to be before he had come into his powers. Jeongguk is now allowed to venture back outside and to see his cousins on occasion. Soon, he’s been told, he will be allowed back into school.  

Jeongguk nods at the box between them. There were several small blocks inside and he had heard them sliding against each other as his mother had walked. The ligneous-smoke-fruity-vanilla smell that rises from the blocks tells him that they are made of mahogany.

“Good,” she says, but her voice doesn’t change in inflexion. She opens the box and within it there are rows and rows of small and rectangular wooden tiles. 

“Tell me the schema you have for cotton,” she orders. He does and she nods, handing him a tile. He places it large face down, flat on the ground. 

“Now, wool,” she says, handing him another. He places that one on top of the first and when he has built a small tower she pulls the most recent tile away from his waiting hand. She places it, instead, on the ground so that it stands tall on its shorter, thinner side.  

“Let me show you my way instead.”

His mother uses her delicate hand to pull out another wooden rectangle. Her nails are painted the colour of ivory. 

“Now,” she says, “tell me about copper.” 

When he’s done, she stacks the second tile behind her first. She then takes out the next tile and does the same again. 

The exercise is repeated until she pulls out the last piece. The tiles are stacked in a neat line, spiralling outwards from where he is seated in its centre. It winds around him in tight, concentric layers, ending at where his mother is now stood in the doorway to his room. 

She asks for a final schema and he answers. The tile is placed at her feet. 

“You’ve learnt a lot, Jeongguk,” she says. “You’ve come far.”

Jeongguk looks around, looks at the neat line of tiles and feels a tentative pride bloom in his chest. There are hundreds of them filling up the room — each one tangible proof that he has successfully relearnt the shape of the world. 

“When you go back to school next week, a lot of people are going to ask you questions about why you’ve had to learn all this. They will ask why we’ve made you suffer through trying to find your way through the world alone when there are guides who will be able to do the same for you in mere moments. When maybe I could have.”

Jeongguk, who had secretly been wondering the same, keeps his lips sealed.

His mother gathers up the pleats of her dress, gets to her knees and feathers a fingertip down the side of the last tile. 

Finally, his mother says, “this is what happens when you trust someone else to arrange your world for you.” 

Jeongguk looks between his own haphazard pile, the one he had stacked at the beginning of the exercise, and his mother’s intricate design and doesn’t get it. Her version of his world is much more orderly and beautiful. 

Catching his confusion, his mother gives him a small, tight smile. It’s the first expression he’s seen on her face in years.  

Jeongguk realises suddenly that he’s seen tiles like the ones around him before in the toy box at his old preschool. He thinks they were called dominoes. He wonders if his mother would let him keep them when she’s done with whatever she’s trying to teach him.

“They look lovely, don’t they?” she asks, rhetorical, in a tone like she had read his mind, “but don't let yourself be deceived. Jeongguk-ah, remember this moment because this is what will happen to you when you are left alone if you give into temptation.” 

With a delicate flick of her finger, the tiles that make up what he knows of the world begin to fall; one after the other until none are left standing. They clatter into each other, scatter and shoot across the floor.   

“You will be left unmade.”

Heart in his throat, Jeongguk looks around at the flattened tiles and their painted backs had stared back at him. From where he is sat at the epicentre of the destruction, the fallen tiles surround him like a raw, open wound. They dye the floor in the colour of blood-stop-emergency-panic red, red, red. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Kill who? I don’t —” Yongsu chokes out. His voice is paper thin beneath the crush of Jeongguk’s hand. His face is purple now.

Her husband’s pallor seems to give Jiae an extra shot of courage and she once again finds her voice. It quickly climbs to a hysterical pitch.

“Let go of my husband,” she screams. “You’re killing him, you monster!”

Jeongguk smiles, all teeth. “Good.” 

“Oi, no need for that,” the Seokjin cuts in to chide. He allows Jiae to claw into the skin of his arms with her long, manicured nails and Jeongguk can taste the copper of the other man’s blood in the back of his own throat when they rip through skin. 

“I’m going to count back from ten,” Jeongguk offers, ignoring the two on the other side of the deck completely. He uses his free hand to grab hold of one of Yongsu’s flailing ones by the wrist, “and I won’t be responsible for what happens to you if I get to the end before you tell me what is going on.” 

“I’m not lying!” Yongsu cries, “you freaks can hear that, can’t you? I’m telling the truth, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

Jiae’s struggles increase two-fold. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Seokjin finally flinch back from the pain when her nails dig deep into one of the open gashes in his forearm and the other man loses his grip. Jiae surges forward and Jeongguk’s eyes track her. He crouches in preparation to push her aside.

Before they can make contact, another high pitched voice pierces through the air. The unexpected sound pins everyone in place. 

“Mummy!” he hears. “Daddy!”

Jiae whips her head in the direction of the docks. Her voice, when she calls back, is breathless. 

“Youngmi?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The day Namjoon comes for him is the same day that Jeongguk finds the letters in the attic. 

It had been a day like any other. The war had already begun in earnest, so it was easy for Namjoon to find the Jeon family inside the stronghold of the sprawling dark site. The Jeons were an old family, well-respected for their knowledge of centuries-old centring techniques — something that was quickly becoming an invaluable asset during the time of unrest — so they were spread thin across multiple dark sites to teach their art and in hopes of helping the grieving to heal. 

‘They make it so you can be fine without a bond,’ the rumours say, ‘they themselves have survived for generations without a single one.’ 

Bangtan had been made of little more than whispers all those years ago, built on the backs of fresh-faced youngsters eager to make their mark. Back then, Namjoon would have had a difficult time asking for anyone’s time had he asked for anyone other than Jeongguk’s mother. She had already been keeping her eye on the newcomer rising through the Rebellion’s ranks so when Namjoon appears, she greets him at the door.

When their talks get heated (she offers him Jeongguk at his request for help, Namjoon thinks she is brushing him off, he thinks Jeongguk is far too young), Jeongguk’s mother sends Jeongguk into the attic at the other end of the house with strict instructions to not listen in.  

Jeongguk goes. He finds the letters tucked inside a forgotten shoebox through chasing the scent of vanillin and ink. The loose pages were stained a fragile yellow — barely clinging to the faded black ink of the words marking them. When Jeongguk opens the first one, he sees that they are dated from a time over two centuries ago and that they had been written from one of his grandfathers to his then-wife. 

The young sentinel runs a fingertip over the signed name with a muted gasp. Jeon Jaegyu. Jeongguk knows this name well. 

When Jeongguk had been nine, his mother had sat him down and told him of Jeon Jaegyu, a powerful sentinel and a cold and brutal man, who had been the first to rebel against the bonding of sentinels and guides. His guide and wife, Younghee, had died early — mere months after the two had completed their bond. 

After she had died, Jaegyu had fallen gravely ill, as was expected from a broken bond, but he had never truly recovered. Throughout the first painful months when he had been bedridden, frail and sickly he had preached the dangers of allowing the bond to anyone who would listen. 

His family, having borne witness to the strong and powerful man reduced to but a shadow of himself had taken his words to heart. Jaegyu’s words became gospel and the Jeon family began the journey of learning to deny the bond that came most naturally to their kind. 

“Never let yourself fall into temptation, Jeongguk-ah,” his mother had warned at the end of her tale. “Do not let yourself want for anything, and you will be unstoppable.” 

The first letter Jeongguk reads dates back to what must have been the beginning of Jaegyu and Younghee’s marriage. It reads: 

 

In the night I used to lay down and listen to the sound of the wind raging past the leaves and rushing over the river rocks. I would taste the smoke from the food vendors at the night market at the back of my tongue and I believed that sleep could only come in the moments when my senses got so overwhelmed they gave out. 

 

The description is perfectly in line with Jeongguk’s own experience with his senses before he had managed to get everything under control. Jeongguk marvels at finally being able to connect to someone who was as powerful as himself. He quickly reads over the next paragraph, greedy. 

 

But now, with you next to me, the only thing that exists is you. For the first time in memory, I am thankful for my senses because how else would I have known the way your hair turns the colour of cherry wood in starlight. 

 

Jeongguk breathes out. The rest of the letters were more of the same: filled with words that were so heated and possessing that it makes Jeongguk blush to recall them when he is old enough to fully understand their meaning. He imagines what his life would have been like had he never had his training. He cannot see how he would’ve survived if his only way to relief was in the hands of someone else. Jeongguk presses the box of letters to his chest and is fiercely glad for the trials he was made to go through.

After he joins the Rebellion, after he leaves Taehyung lying in the hospital bed, Namjoon orders him on a mission with Taehyung. 

Jeongguk wants to be angry at the older man. He wants to yell at him for meddling in things he doesn’t understand, but Jeongguk doesn’t, because another lesson that has been instilled into him was how to take orders like the perfect soldier. 

He hadn’t been before, with avoiding all the missions that Taehyung would be on. With their skill set, the two of them together would make a formidable team and Jeongguk is shamefully aware that Namjoon had been very good to indulge him for so long. Whenever the older man had checked in, Jeongguk had always told him that he was managing fine.  

But he hadn’t been. The lure of the bond was much stronger than he had ever imagined. Whenever Taehyung is close, the sentinel feels like his senses are no longer his own. They zero in the cadence of the other man’s speech if they are close and when he is not, Jeongguk’s mind is searching, always searching. 

His only reprieve happens, at first, without him knowing. With the changing of the seasons, Jeongguk moves his centring routine to the hidden courtyard outside. On the second day, whatever it was that had been restless inside him quietens, content. 

Jeongguk thinks he’s finally cracked it, at first. Thinks he’s finally managed to locate the final, hidden threads that are linking Taehyung and himself together and break them, but then he opens his eyes and finds that he couldn’t have been more wrong.  

Taehyung is watching him from a far-away balcony. The feel of his attention is heady and Jeongguk’s body is light with relief from it. Then, the fear rushes in. This suddenly dependance feels unnatural in its intensity — he barely knows the other man and yet Jeongguk already feels like he would move mountains to feel the silk of Taehyung hair between his fingertips. It is the antithesis of everything that he knows.

Panic rises up, pulses through his veins. The sentinel has never felt so dependant on another person, has never felt less in control of his own body and he hates it. He thinks of the stories of Jeon Jaegyu and how the man had so easily been brought to his knees. Jeongguk thinks all that his family had done to save him from the same pain. 

Then, Jeongguk thinks of the feral sentinels that started this war. He could so easily become one of them (he almost did, that afternoon in the abandoned warehouse), and the world would crucify the rest of his kind if the Rebellion failed now. 

Jeongguk is going to beat this. He has to.

On the day of their mission, Jeongguk makes sure to arrive at the safehouse first to centre himself and his mind. The safehouse is dark, damp and held together with a wish and a prayer. Late afternoon, he senses Taehyung standing at the front gate. The man smells exhausted, there is a slight tension in his jaw as a result of his nerves. Jeongguk needs to get closer, he wants more.

The sentinel takes a bracing breath. 

So many people have worked so hard to make him into who he is, and Jeongguk will be damned if he lets something as animal as biology break him now.

“Stop loitering,” he snaps at the figure hovering at the edges of the wire gate. 

There was a war to win.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

The yacht finally pulls into shore. Jeongguk feels like he’s about to burst out of his skin. He marches Yongsu to his wife and shoves the other man’s shaky body at her. She barely catches him.

“J-Hope?” Seokjin blurts as soon as the other sentinel is in earshot. “Why are you two here? What is going on?” 

From where she was hidden behind Hoseok’s legs, Youngmi sprints past Seokjin and Jeongguk both in order to leap into her mother’s arms. Youngmi is whole, Jeongguk observes. No cuts, nor bruises of any kind. The only thing out of place is the soot that cakes her shoes and after that Jeongguk doesn’t spare the Chom family any more attention. The rest of Bangtan’s rescue team will make sure Yongsu doesn’t get anywhere fast. 

“Where’s V?” Jeongguk demands, remembering only at the last minute to use their code names whilst they are still in earshot of the family. He tries to parse out more details but the sounds and smell of the ocean drown them out. Jeongguk has always hated the sea.

Hoseok presses his lips together and gives a grim shake of his head. At the look, Jeongguk takes out his phone and he starts moving in the direction of Hoseok’s bike.

Hoseok grabs him by the elbow before he can. “He’s not answering,” the older sentinel says. “RM told me to come get you.” 

Jeongguk ignores the older sentinel and presses the call button. He uses the mission override codes to make sure the call will go through even in places that would be beyond the reach of regular signal. It rings and rings until it gets cut off. Jeongguk takes the phone from his ear and hits redial. His chest is tight and aching. 

“What happened?” Jeongguk’s demands, phone is still pressed to his ear. The dial tone continues to ring unanswered, monotonous and mocking. “Why do I smell dynamite?” 

“The house...” Hoseok begins. He looks shaken and Jeongguk tries to recall a time when he had ever seen a similar expression on the older man’s face and fails. “A team of Reclaimers came when you guys were gone and did a controlled demolition.”  

Jeongguk’s knees sag and he has to lean against the side of Hoseok’s motorcycle to keep himself upright. This is why I didn’t want to leave him behind , something inside Jeongguk begins to keen. His mind flashes to the delicate skin that stretches over the knuckles of Taehyung’s hands. The man’s hands are soft, much too soft, despite years of ruin and war.

“They set fire to the remains.”

“And V?” Seokjin’s voice makes them both jump. Any other day the older man would’ve been laughing at successfully sneaking up on two sentinels with enhanced hearing, but today is face is grave. “Where is he now?”

“I don’t know,” Hoseok grimaces as he admits. “The Labs were the one to direct me to where to find Youngmi at the boathouse, away from the remains of the main house before they lost contact. They’re working to re-establish a connection now and the rest of the team were told to come for you. Taehyung wasn’t there.”

“Then what is the use of you!” Jeongguk finally explodes. His hands shake and he grips his phone tighter to try to hide it. Why didn’t Taehyung come with Youngmi? Why was he left behind?  

The dial tone is loud in his left ear. In his right, he hears Youngmi babbling excitedly at her parents and for one hot, shameful moment, he hates her.

“Hansung-oppa said that Junghan-oppa and his friends would come save us from the dragons, and he did!” Youngmi says and suddenly there is no air left in Jeongguk’s lungs. 

“She’s not scared,” Seokjin comments, following his gaze, “she would be, if she had been alone when the house went down.” 

Seokjin’s right, of course, but the fact doesn’t shed light on where Taehyung is now. 

“Unless she played a part in their plans?” Seokjin reconsiders with a tilt of his head. 

“No,” Hoseok confirms, “I was asking her questions on the way here. She doesn’t know what is going on either.” The older man taps at his ear when he says this to indicate that he was listening to her heartbeat for the telltale stutter that even the most seasoned liar wouldn’t be able to hide.  

“God,” Seokjin hisses, upper lip curled,  “then what kind of disgusting father would leave their daughter —” 

“I have it on good authority that he didn’t know the Reclaimers were going to act tonight,” Hoseok answers. Then, “time it, Golden Boy,” he snaps when he sees Jeongguk move to bring the phone to his ear again. “You’re going to run the battery down and we might need it later.”

The younger man gives him a shaky nod but can’t help but wait for the current call to ring out. Maybe this one, he thinks, desperate. Maybe he’ll answer this one. He strains again to hear Taehyung’s heartbeat but his mind is too jumbled. With news of the state of the house, Jeongguk can’t focus.  

“Please,” Jeongguk whispers when the current call cuts to voicemail. The word comes out like a prayer and Hoseok looks away, “You need to call me back.” There is nothing. Jeongguk feels hollow.

“We need to go,” Jeongguk finally says. He moves to straddle Hoseok’s bike. The leather is supple beneath his hands, the grain course. It smells rich, earthy and sweet. The bike is new, only four people have ever ridden on it. Jeongguk blinks to clear his head. He’s already slipping. 

“You need to stay calm,” Hoseok says, recognising the signs. His voice is pitched to soothing as he holds onto the backs of the other sentinel’s elbows. The younger angrily shoves him away and snarls. 

“Easy for you to say,” he growls, “when you’re the one who left him .” He’s so angry he feels effervescent with it. “Youngmi would’ve been safe staying where she was, you didn’t need to get her out first. If you’re worried about the building collapsing on us now, I can listen for that, alright, and I thought you could too. We need to go back and get —”  

The rest of his words are lost. Jeongguk places a hand to a cheek where it is shocked and stinging from how Hoseok had slapped him clean across his face. 

“I did try to get to him first, alright?” the older man finally snaps, “and the fire wasn’t the problem. So before you try to rush back there, calm down and let me finish .” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What is this?”  

The words come without conscious thought. Jeongguk had returned from another long mission to see Jimin sprawled over a sleeping Taehyung on the couch. The two weren’t on the fold-out Jeongguk had claimed as his temporary bed, but the sight still makes him bristle. 

“We’re napping,” Jimin replies, blithe and deliberately obtuse, “well, Tae’s napping and I’m taking the opportunity to centre myself.”

Jeongguk knows that the act of a sentinel centring themselves can also be done through anchoring oneself to a guide, but he also knows that the process — like the regular centring he does in the courtyard — is a mental one, and it doesn’t explain why Jimin is sprawled all over Taehyung’s sleeping form.

The room, however, is fresh and clean. It doesn’t have the lingering notes of musk or sweat that would be present had anything baser had been going on between the other two. Jeongguk unconsciously lets out a sigh of relief and some of the tension bleeds from his shoulders. They tense up again when Jimin spares him a small smile, like Jeongguk’s thoughts are painted in blazing neon letters over his head. The smaller sentinel looks as if he's reading all of them and grins like they’re keeping him amused.

“It helps him too, you know,” Jimin continues. The shorter man stretches his arms up above his head languorously and the inside of his right wrist brushes up against the pulse point high on Taehyung’s throat. Before he knows what is happening, Jeongguk’s body marches itself across the room and he viciously snatches the other sentinel’s arm away.  

Once close, Jeongguk forgets about the other man’s arm and ends up staring at all the points where the two had touched. He wants to press his own fingerprints to the side of the sleeping’s man’s neck. Wants to wipe Jimin’s scent away and press down hard enough to leave marks. Cover the man in tiny little temporary tattoos for everyone to see.

“It relaxes him, focusing on a single person’s emotions. It’s why he’s sleeping so deeply now.”

Jeongguk snaps out of his musings at the sound of Jimin’s voice. 

“Nulls don’t have that problem, and you know it.” 

Even as he says it, Jeongguk is thinking of how Taehyung had managed to persuade the policeman to suddenly leave them alone when they were driving away from the destroyed compound, is thinking of the inextinguishable need to stay close that pulses through his own veins and his words come out weightless.

Jimin hums, snuggles briefly into Taehyung’s shoulder and then mercifully rolls off. The other sentinel ambles across the room, picks up the kettle and puts it on.

“The other test subjects, the captured sentinels, told me stories about you, you know,” he reveals. Jeongguk is surprised the other man is still speaking to him. There wasn’t any obvious animosity between them anymore, but they normally do their best to stay out of each other’s way. “About the ‘Jeons’ and your quaint little aversion to bonding. They were utterly fascinated.”

Now that his attention isn’t split between their conversation and holding himself back, Jeongguk can fully listen to what the other is saying and he feels his hackles rise. 

“A lot of people are,” he snaps. 

“But I think you guys have it wrong,” 

“No-one’s asked you.”

“Hm, I suppose. Maybe it’s more obvious to me because I’ve spent time as a null before all this. But when they told me the stories about Jeon Jaegyu and his wife I couldn’t help but think, ‘isn’t that just regular heartbreak?’ Feeling weak, losing control — isn’t that what grieving looks like? You sentinels and guides always think your experiences are singular, when some things are quite universal.”

“A sentinel, especially a powerful one has a responsibility."

"Oh, so you deny yourself for the people."

"A null," Jeongguk hisses, ignoring him "will maybe cry a little when they lose their partner but we can go feral." He won’t have this man he barely knows run his mouth about Jeongguk’s family and the years of teachings they’ve dedicated to him to make sure he stays safe. “It’s why sentinels and guides shouldn’t be allowed together, especially powerful ones. It’s selfish to push everyone else into danger just because two people who happen to have compatible body chemistry refuse to apply self-discipline.” 

“Is that what you think the bond is? Compatible body chemistry?”  

“What else could it be?”

“Listening to the other kids in the testing facility, it seems like much more than that. Besides,” here, Jimin jerks his chin towards the shelf in the kitchen with the hidden compartment. It’s where Jeongguk had been storing the bandana Taehyung had been wearing the day they had met in the compound and the t-shirt Taehyung had given him the day they had found Jimin. 

Jeongguk growls and moves to bodily block the shelf from view. He doesn’t know why he’s kept the items, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to give them back or throw them away.

“It’s getting harder to resist, isn’t it? Your soul is starving, Jeongguk, I’ve seen it happen to the sentinels who were separated from their guides. It’s the reason why it gorges itself whenever you aren’t fully holding the reigns.”

It is true. These days Jeongguk can barely sleep without waking to find that his senses have wrapped themselves around Taehyung like a lover. Each morning, it gets harder and harder to detangle them.  

“But like any other animal, if you feed it properly, if it knows you won’t keep holding what it wants out of reach, it will settle and become even stronger.” 

Jimin hums when he is finished. He turns towards a cabinet and fishes out a sachet of instant coffee. Jeongguk involuntarily blanches, he doesn’t know how anyone can handle the acrid, bitter sting. 

“It’s supposed to be a symbiotic relationship, I hear. Try it out sometime,” the smaller sentinel suggests, indicating to the items in the shelf behind Jeongguk again. “But well, that’s just what I understood from the gossip around me, so what do I know? You born-sentinels might not be the same as us created ones. After all, we made-sentinels don’t feel the bond.”  

“You mean there are more like you out there?”

“Of course,” Jimin assures. He picks up a chopstick from the drying rack and uses it to stir his coffee. “Did you think the Reclaimers stopped after they figured out the secret to making people like me?” The other man laughs, “no, we’re like Pringles, you can’t stop at just one.”

From the sofa, Taehyung makes a quietly unhappy noise. Jeongguk glances back and sees that the man’s skin is rising up with gooseflesh. He walks back into the living room and repositions the throw so that it's settled over the sleeping man’s shoulders and smooths his hands down its edges to tuck the blanket in. The spot on his neck still smells of Jimin and this time, instead of fighting the urge, Jeongguk presses a thumb to it and wipes the area clean. Something in Jeongguk's chest settles and Jeongguk's nose is suddenly free to register the faint chemical undertone mixed into Jimin's skin. Jeongguk frowns, trying to place the smell.

“Speaking of going feral...it’s unnatural, don’t you think? The way people went feral all those years ago,” Jimin says, reappearing in the doorway. Jeongguk jumps and hurriedly snatches his hand away. “Sentinels shouldn’t go feral so easily, they’d be hundred of them otherwise — people die all the time. But all those people...all at once.” 

“You,” Jeongguk starts, feeling caught out and flustered. He swallows and tries again, “what are you trying to say?”

“Nothing,” Jimin concludes, shrugging. The man takes a sip of his now tepid coffee and leans back against the doorway’s wooden frame. “Just always thought it was odd, that’s all.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Reclaimers who burnt the place down might be gone for the time being, but they left someone else there to stand guard,” Hoseok rushes to say, “I sensed them.” 

“Why does that matter?” Jeongguk bites back. It’s taking everything he has to keep from screaming. “You have me now. We can take anyone down.” 

“No, Jeongguk. I sensed whoever was there.”

Jeongguk finally understands. If Hoseok could sense their presence, then the other has to be one of their kind. An unknown sentinel or guide guarding the rubble would be able to feel them approaching in return and sound out a warning. Maybe, they would do more harm to Taehyung as a result, if the Reclaimers already have him.

It is unthinkable that any sentinel or guide would betray their own to side with the Rebellion, but if their scientists had already created more people like Jimin who had, without any training, managed to feel Jeongguk from behind a metal door...

“I didn’t get close enough to get a gauge on how powerful they were — I didn’t want to risk it. There’s no way of knowing how well the other side is trained. But we won’t be able to sneak up to the house Jeongguk. We don’t even know if V’s still in there. Or if he’s even…” Hoseok trails off with a grimace. 

“He’s still alive,” Jeongguk dismisses. 

“Look...I hate to say it, he’s a good guy, but you haven't seen the state of the—”

“Hyung,” he cuts in. They’re wasting time. “I wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t.” 

“What?” Hoseok starts, confused. Then, his eyes widen. 

Before the conversation can continue, Youngmi’s determined voice rises above the din. She had been arguing with her mother for a while, but now her tone has hardened with determination and she struggles inside her mother’s embrace with a firm, “oppa gave me a quest .” 

Maybe it was the word ‘quest’, so out of place coming out of a young girl’s mouth, but both Jeongguk and Hosoek snap to attention at the sound. She wriggles free and runs for the three men crowding around Hoseok’s bike. Jiae, who is trapped behind the other Bangtan operatives and under the weight of her husband looks on, horrified.

“This is for you,” Youngmi says when she reaches them. She brings up her hands to remove a flashlight that had been hanging off a makeshift lanyard around her neck and hands it to Hoseok. There is a memory stick dangling behind it and Jeongguk knows the moment Seokjin spots it because the older man lets out a shocked breath. 

“Is that…?” the older man starts reaching for it and Youngmi moves the stick away.

“Sorry, Jin-oppa,” she says as she pushes it into Hoseok’s waiting hands, “Hansung-oppa said this is for Hope-oppa, only.”

Hoseok turns to Seokjin after Youngmi's apology as if only remembering that the other man was there. "You should go over there," he says in a whisper, indicating to where the rest of the Chom family were clustered. Jeongguk hears him anyways. "Say whatever you need to to distance yourself from us. That you were threatened. Anything. There are people who still need you, so we can't afford for your cover to be blown."

Seokjin grimaces but he nods. He steps back and starts to walk away. 

“Jeong — Junghun,” the older sentinel calls. Hoseok eyes flicker to the young girl and he switches names just in time. Hoseok then palms the weight of the memory stick and runs a finger down its edge. The older man watches how Jeongguk’s eyes follow the movement, covetous. “So he’s really…you’re really— ?” the sentinel cuts the question off with an incredulous sound. 

The USB still holds the faint scent of Taehyung’s skin. Jeongguk twitches with the need to take it from him. He concentrates on holding that feeling at bay, rather than dwell on the fact that Taehyung had given the information they had been looking for to Youngmi to deliver to them. That, maybe, he had done so because the other man didn’t think he’d be able to do so himself.

“Yes,” Jeongguk admits out loud for the first time. He’d never imagined he’d be doing so on a day like this one. 

Jeongguk bites back the harsh and sudden bubble of a sob that rises in his throat and closes his eyes. He thinks about all the spaces between the fragile parts of skin, muscle and bone that hold Taehyung together. 

“Yes, he’s the one.” 

The other man, Jeongguk knows, is made of starlight. So bright, so beautiful and yet so, terribly, breakable. He trembles.

“Oppa,” Youngmi’s voice comes again. Jeongguk is surprised to see that she is still there, and that she is staring at him intently. “Are you crying?” He lifts a hand to his face, feels the hot wetness on his cheeks and realises that he is.

Across the distance, he hears Jiae gasp. Jeongguk thinks about lying, but he cannot summon up the energy. “Yes,” he admits.

“Are you scared?” Youngmi questions again, uncharacteristically relentless. 

“Yes,” Jeongguk repeats, raw. Despite the people surrounding him, he finds that the words come easy when he is looking into her bright eyes. He thinks about how Taehyung might be hurting, buried under the rubble all alone. Every moment they spend here at the docks might be the last moment they had to spare. “I am terrified.” 

Youngmi stares at him for a long while and then gives a nod like his words were expected. She then pushes the long sleeve of her sleep shirt back and reveals a red kerchief tied tightly around her small wrist. Jeongguk’s breath catches. He recognises who it belonged to even before Youngmi hands it to him. He remembers his own hands tying the fabric around Taehyung head only hours earlier and the scent of the other man’s skin is unmistakable.  

“Hansung-oppa said to give this to you if you looked sad. He said to tell you that he understands that you might take a little longer to come find him, and that he’ll be waiting, and that it’s okay.”

Jeongguk blinks at the square of cloth in his hand and then bends to press his face to the delicate floral print. It quickly becomes warm from his tears. If he closes his eyes, he can pretend that the heat is the warmth leftover from Taehyung’s skin.  

Even trapped in the dark, tens of kilometres away, Taehyung had still been thinking of ways to reach him, ways to provide Jeongguk with the comfort he might need to push forward. 

Jeongguk clutches tighter at the square of fabric and there are no words left. He knows that going back now would mean taking an incredible amount of risk. They have no information at all on the sentinel or guide waiting for them back in the debris. They don’t know why the other person is there, don’t know how powerful they are, if they’ve laid down a trap, or worse. 

Jeongguk straightens up and turns to look at the older sentinel next to him, imploring.  

“Alright then,” Hoseok mutters to himself.

Hoseok does a full body shake like he is physically throwing off the rest of his doubts before he stands tall again. Ready to jump back into the breach once more on nothing but Jeongguk’s request. If he were in a different frame of mind, the younger sentinel would thank him. 

“Alright,” the older man repeats a little louder. He lifts his head to look Jeongguk in the eye. “I’m game. What do you suggest that we do?” 

Jeongguk pulls the bandana from his face and folds it so that all that is left is a small square of fabric. He slips it into the inner pocket of his jacket. The warmth of it rests against his heart.

“We go get him back.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re always watching him,” Youngmi says to him the first night he tries to braid her hair. They’re both sat sideways on the couch in the living room. “Even when you’re not looking, and when he’s not here.”

Jeongguk guiltily moves his focus away from where he had been keeping tabs on Taehyung as the other man moves across the room. He’s heard something similar before from the other sentinels and guides around him, and he doesn’t know why it’s a surprise to realise that someone who was null has noticed it too. 

“You watch him like the people in my stories do.”

The sentinel makes a non-committal noise and picks up a hair elastic. He hooks it over his index and middle fingers then tries to scoop up the remaining lock of hair with his pinky to add it to the braid and is rewarded with a convoluted mess. Jeongguk sighs, unravels his latest attempt and tries again. 

“Well, I don’t have much of a choice.”  

“Are you his bodyguard? ” Youngmi’s voice is awed.

“No, no,” Jeongguk laughs, “nothing like that.” 

“Then I don’t get it.” She sounds annoyed at having to admit to the fact. Jeongguk is hopelessly charmed.

“Well,” Jeongguk tries. “It’s like reading a book, but you already know the end.” He thinks of Taehyung and himself like that sometimes. Despite Taehyung reading as null, they’re somehow bonded. They're two characters with their destinies intertwined by a controlling hand.

“Do you...not like the ending?” Youngmi asks, brow furrowed. That question brings Jeongguk up short.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Jeongguk muses, gathering up, and then dividing Youngmi’s hair into sections. Quite the opposite in fact. Living together with the other man had made him come to realise that there was nothing frightening about trusting himself to the Taehyung at all. Taehyung is always so, heartbreakingly, gentle.  

But, sometimes, Jeongguk can’t help but think that the other man has something that might compel him to be kind. Like the golden threads that tie them together were acting as puppet strings — forcing the other to be gentle in the same way Jeongguk cannot help but be drawn to the other’s pulse.

“Say I started a story,” he continues, trying to expand the metaphor. 

“What kind of story?” Youngmi asks. 

And although not every bond results in intimacy, Jeongguk knows what kind of story it is for him. He thinks of the way Taehyung had looked in the museum and how he glows under the fairly lights in the park, after dark. “A love story,” he admits and Youngmi beams at him.

“I like those,” she says, bright, and Jeongguk smiles.

“Wouldn’t you feel...odd sometimes to know the end before you even begin the book? Like who the characters are might not matter, because the main characters have to fall in love no matter what.” 

It is this thought that grates at him the most. For him, Jeongguk’s made his peace with the fact that there will be no-one else. It’s not because he’s never had someone who can calm his senses as much as Taehyung does, he’s been trained to live without that need. But, after their night watching his first movie at the park, after he’s seen what the man looks like in the early morning light, the shade of Jeongguk’s need for the other man has become clear.

Beyond their fated connection, Taehyung centres him in a way that has nothing to do with the way a guide might do. The other man is cheeky and bewitching but with a core of steel, and Jeongguk cannot get enough. 

However, Jeongguk doesn’t know if it is the same for Taehyung. From anyone else, the shortness of breath and the dilation of his pupils would read as want, but from Taehyung, Jeongguk is not sure. 

If, like him, the man feels the pull of the bond without knowing what it could be, he could be mistaking it for interest. Jeongguk doesn’t know what he would do if he responded to the heat that has been sneaking into Taehyung’s gaze and it fizzles down to embers when the other man realises he had misunderstood the attraction after all. Worse if Jeongguk cannot tell, and never knows if the response is real. It would feel like forcing the other man’s hand. 

Youngmi goes quiet as she thinks about Jeongguk’s words. After about a minute she brightens. “But isn’t that every love story? The story wouldn’t be about them, if the two weren’t meant to fall in love.” 

And Jeongguk pauses. 

He had been viewing Taehyung’s attraction to him to be a consequence of the bond when, maybe, the bond was actually a consequence of their inevitable attraction to each other. A case of souls recognising one another before the mind could catch up.

“You could be right,” Jeongguk admits and leans back. This time, Youngmi’s braid is perfect, every strand orderly and intertwined. "I'm still not sure."

“I am,” she replies, confident. “He watches you too, you know,” she nods at where Taehyung is finishing up his conversation with Seokjin. “Just wait.” 

Jeongguk doesn’t quite know what to say to that so he picks up the large hand mirror and holds it in counterpoint to the one Youngmi has in her own hand to show off the fruits of his labour. She lets out a delighted gasp and uses her right hand to run her fingers over her hair.

Across the room, the conversation finishes and Taehyung turns around. Normally, at this point, Jeongguk would avert his gaze, but tonight he keeps it steady. Taehyung glances his way and their eyes meet. The sentinel allows himself to think about the way the other man’s hands move and about the timbre of his laugh. Heat climbs up Taehyung’s neck.

“Told you so.”

The other man’s heartbeat quickens. Jeongguk drinks it in. He wants to touch him. Wants him closer so he can press his lips to the beat of other man’s pulse once again.

“Should I be worried?”

As if summoned by his thoughts Taehyung appears, voice light and teasing. Jeongguk turns to it, automatic. The older man gestures at the two on the couch and at the way their heads are bent together with a grin, “you two planning world domination or something?” 

Jeongguk and Youngmi glance at each other and share a small smile. The sentinel shrugs.  

“For a given definition of the word ‘world’, maybe.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“What the fuck,” Hoseok wheezes, clutching at his head when they get close to the house. They’d both decided to go with the adage that the best defence is a good offence and had agreed to storm into the property fast enough that whoever was guarding it would barely have the time to react. 

The people the Lab could spare had also committed to running interference to any communications they, or the two sentinels might detect.

The plan was not without its flaws, but with their limited resources, it is the best one they’ve got.

The mysterious aura had started to become apparent when they rounded the bend to the property but Jeongguk could barely pay it any attention. The hill that Yongsu’s house had stood on is barren. The sight of it knocks the wind out of him. He doesn’t know why he had expected some parts of the house to be intact, anything surviving the wreckage would’ve stuck out like a sore thumb, but the sight of it guts him nevertheless.  

“Jeongguk!” Hoseok calls when the younger man hops off the bike before it stops completely. 

The sentinel ignores him and runs for the house’s former front door. There is nothing left of the building but a blackened skeleton of its frame. When is this close, the full force of the unknown aura hits him, and Jeongguk can tell that the other is powerful.  

“Jeongguk,” Hoseok calls again when Jeongguk doesn’t turn around, “hold up! What the fuck! The aura is much stronger than it was an hour ago. This person has to be at least as powerful as you and they’re a guide .” 

The other sentinel was right. There was a guide here. A guide so powerful that their broadcasted emotion was like a hand grabbing onto the base of Jeongguk’s spine and forcing him to his knees. But there was an art in making the body move when the brain thinks its had enough and Jeongguk was a master at it. He forges ahead. 

“I know.”   

A powerful guide, Jeongguk knew, would have abilities on par with the fabled telepaths of storybooks. They wouldn’t quite have the ability to read minds, but their empathy would be heightened enough that it wouldn’t be difficult for one to maintain the illusion.

Guides were also masters of every subtle cue the human body could make — an invaluable asset when trying to project calm for surrounding sentinels, but when used as it was being at the moment, it could rain chaos onto those who were unprepared. 

Jeongguk gasps for breath and his head pounds. A guide this powerful would be able to coax a sentinel into manipulating their own senses, make them focus on, or dismiss things that would affect their judgement. It was also rumoured that guides this powerful could make the chlorine from table salt become as potent to sentinels as chloroform.  

Fortunately, Jeongguk wasn’t just any sentinel.

“You stay out here,” Jeongguk orders turning back to the slighter man behind him, “try to keep out of range. Let me know when the Lab manage to re-establish a connection with Taehyung.”

He takes out his communicator and places it in his ear. He needs to make sure that he’ll have use of both his hands should the situation call for it. The scent of smoke and ash are still overwhelming him and he cannot sense Taehyung. Jeongguk wonders if the guide is hiding him.

He’s never seen it done, but Jeongguk’s never felt a guide like this before. He wonders at what other surprises the Reclaimers might have in store and sets his jaw. 

“Roger that. Be careful in there, Jeongguk.”

If the guide has hurt Taehyung, Jeongguk will rip them to pieces limb by limb and damn the consequences. 

“No promises,” he says. Jeongguk cocks his head. He follows the aura to over the threshold and into the blackened hallway. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it comes time for him and Seokjin to leave for the yacht with Yongsu and his wife, Jeongguk finds that he is restless. There is an agitation that is crawling under Jeongguk’s skin and he longs for the touch of Taehyung’s hands to soothe it. 

“I’ll be monitoring your heartbeat,” he says, desperate for something to hold onto, for a point of connection. When Taehyung flinches back, Jeongguk knows that the man has misunderstood. He panics and the next words are clumsy coming out of his mouth. 

In the back of his mind, he hears Seokjin speaking to Yongsu, keeping the older man entertained while they wait. ‘Hurry it up in there,’ the older man finally whispers into his lapel, too soft for anyone but Jeongguk to hear but the sentinel can’t leave now, he can’t just walk away when —   

“Go,” Taehyung snaps and he shoves Jeongguk’s frozen body over the threshold. The door slams shut with a note of finality. 

Before Jeongguk walks to the car, he takes in a final drink of Taehyung. 

The other man is leaning back against the shut door and the air tastes of the beginnings of salt, like the man is holding back tears. The sentinel guiltily takes all his details in in an attempt to soothe his own jangling nerves. He feels like there is a storm is brewing on the horizon but there is no basis for it. Both Yongsu and Jiae read as perfectly relaxed. No nervous sweat, no heightened pulse — nothing.

Jeongguk writes it off as another side effect of the burgeoning bond now that he’s allowed himself to be freer with his gaze and with his touch and tries to calm down.

The sentinel opens the door to the car and slides into the back seat. Seokjin hisses something at him but Jeongguk’s concentration is still drawn to the man he left behind; the well-worn cliché of the moth to the flame. 

They’ll talk when this mission is over, Jeongguk thinks. Both Youngmi and Jimin, in their own ways, were right. The bond wouldn’t exist if they didn’t in some way fit together and fighting it was getting him nowhere fast.

Jeongguk leans back into his seat and thinks about how being next to the other man is gold and inevitable like sunrise, warming him, and unfolding by degrees into his own world of starless, night-blue. 

As the car moves away, Jeongguk licks his lips. He wonders at what light tastes like. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jeongguk follows the aura past the living room and into the dining area. Here, the feel of the guide’s aura is stronger than ever.  

When the sentinel gets to where the breakfast nook used the be, the communicator in his ear beeps to indicate that he’s being hailed. Hoseok’s voice comes through tense but clear, “the Lab has managed to re-establish a connection.”

“Patch me in.”

There are a series of quiet clicks, then a gravelly voice comes over the line. 

“Genius Lab,” it snaps. Jeongguk closes his eyes when he hears it. If Yoongi, the Lab’s head, was working the line back at headquarters then something must’ve gone terribly wrong, even before the house had been forced to collapse. 

“Golden Boy,” he confirms. 

“Stand by.”

Jeongguk presses his fingers to his lips. The guide’s presence is thick in the air and heavy like molasses. He grounds himself in the present sensations, readying himself to react should the guide try to nudge him out of place. 

Jeongguk steps into where the kitchen used to stand. He inches closer. The aura teases at his edges, envelops him. It moves to his fingertips, exploratory, and Jeongguk feels every sensation in sharp relief. Suddenly, like the popping of a ballon, the heaviness in the air falls away and it feels like stepping into sunlight. 

From the comm line, there is silence. Then, a faint click. A quiet breath.

In the back of Jeongguk’s mind, the golden threads flare, his heart leaps, and then he knows

 

 

 

 

 

 

The first time Jeongguk is allowed to travel outside of Busan, he is thirteen.  

“We’re going on a little trip,” his mother had declared earlier that morning and they had gotten into the car straight after.

A little over half an hour into the drive his mother reveals, “there are rumours of a boy.” Her hair is pinned back with a hairpin made of black walnut wood. It smells of earthy citrus and warmth. “They say he had powers that were level with Jeongguk’s own, but he tested out as null. There have also been no signs of power since.”

“Powers can be hidden and documents are forged all the time, honey,” his father had replied. “It’s nothing to get excited over. We of all people should know that.” 

Jeongguk dozes in the backseat, head against the windowpane. There are figures in the distance, crowded into the shade left by an overpass. The figures are small. They are of children, Jeongguk suddenly realises, children his age, some, maybe a little younger. Idly, he wonders what they are doing out here, so far from everyone else. Their clothes are threadbare and ragged. Outside of the car, in the daylight, it is scorching. 

“Maybe it is that simple. But what if it’s something else?”

“Something else? Something like what was described in that crazy paper years ago? The one where those researchers wrote about...what did they call it again — ‘masking’?” Jeongguk’s father laughs and the sound booms in the confined space.

The older man pulls a hand off the steering wheel to ruffle the ends of his wife’s hair fondly. The strands whisper through his fingertips like rainfall. 

“That’s crazy talk, honey. They were just new scientists, looking to make their mark. They’re laughing stocks now — haven’t published anything in years. Who even knows what they’re doing anymore.” 

As Jeongguk watches, the crowd of children part to reveal a taller child at their centre. The new boy is laughing, hands and lips moving in the midst of telling a story. The taller child moves into the sunlight. He’s older than Jeongguk, a little taller too, despite being obviously undernourished. 

The boy’s hair is wild and he is gangly with his too-long limbs. Jeongguk cannot take his eyes off him. 

Inside, something leaps as if in recognition despite Jeongguk knowing that he has never seen this boy before.

In the car, the silence in the air is broken when Jeongguk’s mother sighs. “I don’t know what to think...maybe this really is madness. But, what if it were true? We both know there’s something brewing. Something bad. Sentinel and guides cannot hide from another who is trained. If one of us joins the other side or if someone discovers how exactly it is we can sense each other...”

The other boy’s features become clearer as they get closer to the overpass. Jeongguk doesn’t blink him into focus. He wants the details to come to him slowly, by degrees. Wants to savour them as they become apparent.

The older boy’s eyes sparkle when the sunlight hits his face just right.

“You always talk in ‘us’ and ‘them’, as if some great battle is on the horizon.”

There is a mole on the boy’s lower lip. Near the tip of his nose. Between the lower lashes of his eye. 

“It is only a matter of time. You can't tell me that those feral sentinels weren't suspicious. One every half century, maybe, but all those families, all at once?” His mother pauses. The car drives past the small gathering outside, so close Jeongguk thinks he would be able to touch the other boy if they both stretched out their hands. 

The thought hits like a physical blow. He wants to find out the exact warmth of the other boy’s palms. Wants to track the story of its callouses, learn his fingerprints one by one.  

Oh , Jeongguk thinks and when he understands, it is like sunrise. Oh, there you are.  

“I’ve never seen so many homeless children in one place,” he hears his mother mutter in the background. “How do they survive out here, alone?”

Between one breath and the next, the newly awoken part of him reaches and tugs. Jeongguk sees the boy take in a sharp breath, watches how he breaks out into gooseflesh and how his hair stands on end. The boy’s eyes snap up, and for a single, perfect moment they lock with Jeongguk’s own and the world is golden around them.

“Never mind them,” his father’s voice is dismissive, then disbelieving. “Is this really your next step? Tracking down these quacks to talk about a decades-old supposition that almost got the Kims laughed out of academia...all because of rumours of a boy whose powers ‘disappeared’? Does anyone even know where they are anymore?” 

The car makes the turn into Daegu and the two pairs of eyes are forced to break contact. Jeongguk chest twists and rebels. 

“Wait!” 

The cry is pulled from him, unbidden. In the rearview mirror, Jeongguk sees his father raise an inquiring eyebrow and the car slows. His mother twists in her seat to look at him as well. Her lipstick is the same shade that was used to paint the back of the wooden tiles she had brought to his playroom. 

“What’s wrong Jeongguk-ah?”

There are quick footsteps behind them. The other boy must be moving to keep the car in view. 

Jeongguk hesitates.

The boy is almost at the turn in the road.

‘You will be left unmade,’

“Nothing,” Jeongguk whispers. The word is sharp in his mouth. He feels like he should be tasting copper, and red, and heat. “I thought I — nothing.”  

Jeongguk’s hands are shaking so he moves them between his knees to keep them out of sight.

His parents give him an odd look, and then they shrug. Jeongguk doesn’t see any of it because he’s closed his eyes. The young boy pulls himself back inwards just like he had been taught. He concentrates on the leather of the seats and the hum of the engine beneath him. 

The footsteps falter, then begin to slow.

“So we’re really doing this?” Jeongguk distantly listens to his father ask. The older man has picked up the conversation seamlessly from where he and his wife had left off. “We’re really chasing this ghost.”

The car drives away. Jeongguk breathes in. At the edges of his hearing, he listens as the others call the boy back into the shade. The footsteps stop and then turn back. The boy calls a reply. Jeongguk breathes out.

“Yes,” his mother confirms. “The rumoured boy is the Kims’ son, a Kim Taehyung. I don't believe in coincidences.” 

Jeongguk hears the boy’s voice only once, but never forgets it. It echoes in his mind every night before he sleeps. In the years that follow, he wraps the notes that make up the sound around him like a cocoon whenever he centres himself.

The sentinel knows that he should let the moment go, but he finds that he cannot. Surely there would be no harm in allowing this small measure of comfort from someone he would never see again? Later, he tells himself that he is only keeping the memory fresh and real so that he will be able to avoid the other should their paths ever be in danger of crossing. He keeps to this promise despite several tantalisingly close calls, up until the moment the voice calls his name years later.  

The voice is deeper; remoulded by trials and eroded with grit and hard-worn determination. There is no mistaking it. It pierces through the smell of dust, of soot and the rich copper scent of blood that surrounds him. The voice calls his name, a hand (warm like sunlight, like sips of whiskey down the throat, like first breath) shakes his shoulder. 

Get up , he hears. Please, it begs, get up

He knows this voice.  

And in that moment, Jeongguk, exhausted from almost a decade of yearning, is helpless but to respond.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Taehyung.”