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til the fever broke

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i clutched my life and wished it kept

my dearest love, i'm not done yet

how many years i know i'll bear

i found something in the woods somewhere

hozier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

i.

 

 

taehyung tucks in his brother’s shirt for the fourth time that afternoon.

“stop playing with it,” he says, as sternly as he can. it’s a testament to how nervous daesung is that he doesn’t even pout. “you have nothing to be worried about.”

from across the tiny, dirty bedroom, seokjin cuts taehyung a sharp glance. taehyung ignores him, focusing instead on adjusting daesung’s too-starched collar.

his own clothes are laid out on the bed, dragged out from the back of their tiny closet. the blue shirt is too big in the shoulders; four years ago, it had been seokjin’s.

“i’m scared,” daesung whispers. taehyung closes his eyes, presses his lips to his brother’s forehead.

“you’re okay,” he says. “your name is only in there once.”

“and how many times is yours?” daesung asks, after a long moment. like he’s afraid of hearing the answer. taehyung pulls back. the smile on his face feels as brittle as the collar of daesung’s shirt.

“not enough to matter,” he says.

“taehyung. it’s almost time to go.” seokjin is quiet and composed when he stands up off the floor, leaving minji alone, staring intently at the game she’d traced into the dirt with her finger. she’s only ten; only ten, but she knows to be quiet and afraid.

the clothes on the bed smell like dust and cheap soap. taehyung pulls them on without looking, not even when seokjin gently grabs his neck and forces his hair into something presentable.

“stay with taehyung until you check in,” seokjin says sternly as he steps back to give them both a critical once-over. “then find your school friends, okay? look for me and minji in the crowd.”

“okay,” daesung says. he’s still whispering, his voice closed up from fear.

“hey.” taehyung takes his hand, squeezing it tightly and trying to ignore how small daesung looks right now. he’s only twelve. only twelve, and his spine is already hunched from work in the fields and the aching lack of hope in their home. “i’ve got you. i won't let anything happen to you, okay?”

“okay,” daesung repeats, a little more sure this time. he reaches back, tucking in the back of his new shirt.

“i love you both,” seokjin says, like he only does on reaping day. he looks taehyung square in the eye when he does, and they’re both thinking about the same number. about the grain and oil and barely-full stomachs they’ve been sleeping on for years.

“love you, jin,” daesung replies. he stands straight for one heartbeat, two, lips pressed firmly together, before he breaks.

the hug daesung gives seokjin is desperate. taehyung starts to step away, to give them space, but one of seokjin’s work-roughened hands clamps over his shoulder and drags him in, lets him breathe in the safety of their brother for just a while longer.

“it’s time to go,” taehyung finally says, and is echoed by the clanging of bells. “come on, daesung-ah. it’s time to go.”

it’s his last reaping, and daesung’s first.

the fear is a heavy, familiar knot in taehyung’s stomach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ii.

 

 

taehyung doesn’t flinch when the needle pricks his finger. the smear of his own blood on the paper is familiar, if sickening. daesung winces, though, biting down on his lower lip when the man grabs his wrist and presses it down. not rough, but disinterested. like they’re cattle.

“go find your school friends,” taehyung reminds him, before daesung is pulled away by the crowd. daesung nods. his eyes are huge but dry, and taehyung can’t help but feel relieved.

taehyung slips in between two other boys he thinks he remembers from school. it’s been too long since he’s been, too long since he’d had the luxury. taehyung has been working year round ever since he outgrew picking fruit in the orchards with the other kids. he scans the crowd for daesung, sees him quiet and pale in a crowd of quiet and pale boys.

daesung is one name out of thousands.

seokjin is harder to find, crowded in with all the other families. he’s probably holding minji up, because even though she’s ten she’s still too skinny, too fragile. the ceremony begins, the same video they show every year of bombs, the gleaming towers of the capitol, the blood on the hands of a boy younger than taehyung, and he gives up looking for seokjin.

the gaudy, glittering woman from the capitol steps up to the stage, diamonds embedded in a sparkling line on her cheekbones, her teeth too white and straight. her skin, almost as white as her teeth, makes taehyung think of his mother’s old china doll.

“ladies first!” she calls, and totters over to the reaping bowl on her skinny legs.

the girl called is fifteen. she looks terrified when the steps up, her hands shaking at her sides. from the quietly murmuring crowd, a woman screams jaggedly, and is quietly escorted out.

and then to the boys. the woman seems to enjoy drawing out the anticipation, and the boy next to taehyung shifts uneasily. her manicured claws reach into the glass bowl, filled with hundreds of slips of paper. thousands go in, one comes out. no one comes back.

her fingers fiddle with the slip as she approaches the microphone. she’s all false cheer as she plays with it, smoothes it out as she holds it up in front of her, unfolds it carefully, and—

“kim daesung!” she calls.

taehyung’s world shatters.

he can’t breathe. the square is dead silent, the boy next to him is staring, something thick has wound itself around taehyung’s throat and is throttling him. something—his father, with a peacekeeper’s bullet in his chest. the fine white hair that had grown on his mother’s skin as she starved, the rattling cough in her ribs.

in front of him, he sees daesung tuck in the back of his shirt.

“wait,” taehyung says. his mouth tastes like ash. again, louder: “wait.”

“come on up,” the woman says cheerfully. a peacekeeper steps forward. taehyung rips himself out of line, barely has time to push daesung behind him before he collides against the peacekeeper’s chest. he might be screaming—he doesn’t know. all he can hear is daesung saying his name.

“i volunteer!” taehyung shouts, and the peacekeeper’s hand unclenches itself from his forearm. silence. taehyung’s own breathing echoes in his ears, sand dry on his tongue.

“i volunteer,” he repeats, and looks his brother in the eye.

“oh,” the woman onstage says, like she’s surprised. “come on up, then.”

daesung sobs, and starts to run toward taehyung, and is caught around the middle by a boy who works the fields with taehyung before the peacekeeper’s hand can make contact with his cheek. taehyung takes one step forward, and another, and feels himself slipping away as he climbs each rickety chest.

“what’s your name, hm?” the woman asks, voice dripping like honey.

“kim taehyung,” he whispers into the microphone shoved in his face. he can’t find seokjin in the crowd. the woman beams at him.

“let’s have a round of applause for kim taehyung, district eleven’s very first volunteer!”

in the crowd, there’s silence. like they’re mourning him already.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

iii.

 

 

the room they bring him to is nicer than anywhere else in district eleven. the couch is floral and antique looking, and taehyung stands stiffly in the middle of the carpet without touching anything, even if his fingers itch to smooth over the velvet.

the fear has stopped choking him by now; instead, it’s a heavy rock in the pit of his stomach. unavoidable, nauseating, consuming. when the peacekeepers had grabbed his arms to carry him off to the justice building, taehyung had almost thrown up with it. now he waits, and counts his breathing, and tries not to think about what comes next.

when the dark, heavy wood doors crack open and his family comes tumbling through, taehyung almost breaks his resolution not to cry.

minji reaches him first. her body slams into his, arms wrapped around his waist so tight he stops breathing, and taehyung staggers a few steps back even under her fragile weight.

“don’t go,” she begs, face pressed into his stomach. she’s getting tears on seokjin’s nicest shirt, but that hardly matters anymore. “taetae, you can’t go.”

“i have to,” he chokes out, and tangles the fingers of one hand in her cropped hair. seokjin closes the door quietly behind him, lips pressed tight together, daesung’s hand caught in his.

seokjin looks tired. his back is almost always hunched these days, from long hours working in the fields, and taehyung knows how the work pulls and rubs at the scars on his back. they both do all they can, do more than what they can stand, but it’s never enough to keep any of them from going to bed hungry.

“i’m sorry,” daesung finally says, caught on a sob. just a few weeks ago he’d fallen in the late afternoon, out in the fields with taehyung after school, and had sworn up and down that he was a man, that men didn’t cry, even when blood streaked down his palms.

“it’s not your fault,” he insists. “come here, daesungie.”

with the weight of both of them pressing down on him, taehyung finally lets himself collapse into the velvet couch. the softness of it is staggering against the cruel exterior of the justice building.

when he looks up again, seokjin is still watching him. taehyung opens his mouth, closes it. seokjin doesn’t break the careful silence, but taehyung doesn’t need him to. they both know everything they could possibly say to each other, by now.

“you can—you’re gonna try to win,” daesung says, and presses his face into taehyung’s shoulder. “you’re strong. and fast.”

“yeah,” taehyung chokes out. he closes his eyes, feels the warmth of their bodies against his. “yeah, of course.”

the rest of the twenty minutes passes like that. some quiet discussion of what they’ll do while taehyung is gone. strict instructions to not put in daesung’s name for more rations. he’ll drop out of school, probably, and it makes taehyung’s heart hurt.

“two minutes,” barks the peacekeeper from the other side of the door.

“hey, get off him,” seokjin urges quietly, and daesung and minji know better than to argue. taehyung stands, feels his bones protest. he makes himself look seokjin in the eye, guilt clawing up his throat. like all of this is his fault, somehow.

seokjin takes taehyung’s face in his hands—hands roughened by years of work and crooked by nature. taehyung wraps his fingers around his brother’s wrists, doesn’t say i don’t want to die.

“i’m so proud of you,” seokjin whispers, and that’s when taehyung breaks his promise.

seokjin’s thumbs brush away the tears. his dry lips press firm against taehyung’s forehead, and taehyung collapses against him like he hasn’t let himself in years. he closes his eyes, and feels something drape around his neck.

“he’d want you to have it,” seokjin says, as taehyung stares down at the carved wooden lily, its worn leather cord. their father had spent weeks carving the coin-sized chip of wood, trying to make it perfect.

“time’s up,” the peacekeeper says, and taehyung hugs his siblings goodbye, and watches them disappear one by one out the door.

“i love you, taehyung-ah. don’t forget,” seokjin says, as he’s halfway through the door. the peacekeeper yanks him out, one brutal hand around his arm, and the door slams shut.

and taehyung is alone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

iv.

 

 

the reaping square is crowded with chatter and laughter when jimin slips through, jihyun close on his heels. he can feel the eyes trailing him, though most people are too polite to stare outright. the whispers trail in his wake, and jimin suppresses a smile every time he hears his name.

“go find jeonggukie,” he says lightly, when he reaches the rest of the boys his age. they’re standing in the very back—the oldest, though jimin isn’t exactly the tallest. jihyun pouts, but reaches out to squeeze jimin’s hand with a smile.

“good luck,” he grins, and slips off into the crowd to find his friend. the boys next to jimin are looking at him out of the corner of their eyes, at the shining silk of his shirt and the careful style of his hair.

the crowd hardly quiets down while the mayor speaks, or when their capitol representative plays the same tired video as last year, and the year before. everyone is excited, for a day where they can set aside work and laugh and toast to a coming victory.

their capitol representative—jay, he introduces himself every year—has gleaming gold teeth and silver patterns on his cheeks. when he slips his hand into the girls’ bowl, his rings clink against the glass rim.

everyone cheers when seulgi is called. jimin knows she’d taken out tesserae every year—that her family needs it more than others—but he also knows that she’s deadly. no one challenges her when she steps up, when jay asks cheerfully for volunteers. seulgi smiles when she shakes his hand, and waves cheerfully out at the crowd.

finally, finally, it’s their turn. the crowd hushes as jay turns to the men’s bowl, the heel of his boots clicking firmly against the stage. jimin doesn’t bother feigning nerves; when he sees jihyun and jeongguk swivel their heads around to stare at him from a few rows ahead of him, he meets their eyes and smiles. the boy next to him swallows audibly.

it isn’t him. the boy can’t be older than fourteen, and he steps up to the stage with a sheepish grin, scuffing his feet when jay congratulates him.

“and do we have any volunteers?” jay asks, playing coy. the crowd outside the reaping square cheers, and jimin glances at the camera already trained on his age group, and takes a step forward.

the crowd parts around him.

“i volunteer,” he calls out. his heart is pounding, but it’s not fear. it’s pride, and exhilaration, and a shaky relief. he steps forward, and sees his own face magnified by a thousand on the huge screen above the stage.

he looks calm. by the time he reaches the polished steps, he feels calm.

“park jimin,” he says into the microphone, when jay asks. his name bounces across the courtyard, from mouth to mouth, person by person, until it echoes off the arching stone walls.

just last week, after hours and hours spent fighting against dozens of other boys his age, after taking down one after the other until his mind had gone blank and he’d stood above all of them, undefeated and exhausted, jimin had gone home to his family.

i’m going to the games, he had told them. i’m going to win.

until now, it hadn’t felt real. now, with his hand tight in seulgi’s as they shake, with his own name echoing in his ears from the voice of his district, it feels real. it feels like what he was born for.

jimin is going to the games, after years of pushing and fighting and hungering for it, and he can already feel the thrill of adrenaline in his veins.

jimin walks out of district two a tribute. when he walks back in, he’ll finally be a victor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

v.

 

 

the peacekeepers stay bare inches behind him until the train doors slide shut. taehyung can practically feel their breath on the back of his neck; at his side, yuna flinches every time she hears the metallic click of their guns. tributes have tried to run before, taehyung knows. they never make it far. replacement reapings are recorded, everyone forced back out to the square under faux sunlight to pretend that nothing has happened.

it’s been years since a tribute has tried to run in their district. taehyung thinks he’s too weak to make it even a single step.

the train doors slide shut with a quiet shush, and his feet sink into the soft carpet. taehyung’s stomach growls too loud in the quiet hall. they’re directed by silent avoxes to a dining car, and taehyung stares at the ground instead of meeting anyone’s eyes. his tongue feels heavy in his mouth.

the food is better than anything he’s ever had, but taehyung only manages a few rich mouthfuls of beef and cheese-smothered potatoes before it starts to turn his stomach.

seokjin is probably cooking dinner right now, of stale bread begged from the baker and half servings of brown rice. taehyung swallows, and tries not to gag on the first meat he’s eaten in almost a year.

he doesn’t speak when they part. yuna’s sleeping car is on the opposite end of the train, and they part without a word. taehyung wants to say something, opens his mouth when she turns her back, but her hair is the same short, jagged cut as minji’s, and taehyung can’t make himself force out something meaningless.

taehyung doesn’t sleep.

there’s a screen in the sleeping car bigger than his whole apartment; it responds to his touch quickly and cheerfully. the only programming he can figure out how to access is the reapings, and taehyung pauses a moment before tapping play and settling down cross-legged on the floor, arms wrapped tight around a pillow made of the softest material he’s ever felt.

he watches them as they’re broadcasted: in reverse. district twelve, almost as poor and just as dirty as his own home. a seventeen year old girl, a sixteen year old boy.

taehyung skips his own reaping. just thinking about it makes his skin crawl. he watches slightly different manicured hands reach into identical glass bowls, calling up children who look terrified at best and resigned at worst. most of them are younger than he is.

the girl from district four is a volunteer. people cheer when she steps up, and she waves out at the crowd with a smile. the announcers coo over her soft cheeks and dimpled chin, and go on to list notable skills of past district four victors. taehyung swallows, throat dry, and mutes the screen.

district three is unremarkable, and taehyung can feel the excitement vibrating off the announcers as they reach the final two districts, the ones with the lists of victors longer than district eleven’s body count.

taehyung watches the crowd part for the district two boy, who stares into the camera with his lips twisted up at the corner and pride tilting up his jaw, and has to stifle a hysterical laugh.

you’re strong, daesung had said, but taehyung is nothing compared to the boy who steps up to the stage. whose name drips silently from the lips of everyone else onscreen, who stands under the light like he was born for it.

one of the tributes he’s just seen is going to kill him, if he doesn’t starve or freeze first.

he wonders if the volunteer from district two would be the type to do it quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vi.

 

 

taehyung crawls out of the overly soft bed the next morning with burning eyes and aching limbs. he doesn’t bother trying to make himself presentable; instead, he tugs on the softest clothes he can find in the expansive closet and pads barefoot back into the dining car. he feels hollow—not hungry, but like there’s a piece of him missing.

he lets his feet carry him to the dining car without really thinking. sunlight is beaming in through the windows of the train; outside, they’re passing through a mountain range. taehyung has never seen mountains before, dense with forest and freedom. he doesn’t stop walking.

when he enters, the door sliding open almost silently, the car isn’t empty.

kim namjoon. district eleven’s first victor in twenty years.

“good morning,” namjoon says quietly, closing the book on his lap. his plate is mostly empty, but in the way that makes it seem like it had never been full in the first place.

taehyung doesn’t answer. he walks quietly over to the food, stares at the buffet blankly for a long moment before reaching for an orange, a small bowl of strawberries.

there’s a platter of apples just to his left. taehyung ignores them, and the steaming meats, and takes the seat across from namjoon.

for a long moment, they watch each other. taehyung sizes him up; this namjoon is fuller in the cheeks than the curious boy he remembers from school. this namjoon looks more weary, shoulders hunched and neck bowed.

namjoon is only a year older than taehyung. he’d won his games when he was fifteen.

“i’m sorry this happened to you,” namjoon finally says. he sounds like he means it, and taehyung’s lips twist into what feels like a bitter smile.

“why should you be.” he picks at the peel of his orange, gets the residue underneath his fingernails. “it’s not like i—”

he cuts himself off. in front of him, the other door to the car opens on yuna, scrubbed clean and looking small. she looks at them, eyes wide, then makes a beeline for the meat. taehyung wonders if, like him, she’d thrown up her too-rich dinner in the middle of the night.

“taehyung,” namjoon says quietly. “there’s nothing i can say to make it better. but you’re allowed to feel however you want, with me.”

taehyung looks at him. namjoon and yuna are the last pieces of home he has right now—he thinks he remembers namjoon laughing with seokjin on the dirt path in from the orchard, a few months before their mother had gotten too weak to stand on her own.

“i don’t regret it,” he finally says. namjoon nods. yuna slides into another booth on the other side of the car.

“you’re braver than me.” there’s a moment, so brief that taehyung almost thinks he’s imagined it, where namjoon looks so sad. so defeated.

“you won your games, though,” taehyung points out. there’s nothing left in him. his nail had accidentally dug into the orange’s tender flesh; there’s citrus all over his hands. it’s namjoon’s turn to smile, bitter and wry.

“i was desperate, not brave,” he says. taehyung thinks back to the rewired bombs under the cornucopia, to namjoon’s hands around the throat of a boy whose face had been half burnt off. “i can’t teach you how to be that desperate.”

they both know namjoon is only his mentor in words only. there’s no strategy he knows to teach them, no allies or connections he could make for him.

taehyung sets down his orange, traces a finger over the ribbed, seeded surface of a strawberry. thinks that daesung has never eaten a strawberry before, and looks up to meet namjoon’s heavy gaze.

“i don’t think you’ll have to,” he says.

namjoon blinks at him, something hard set in the corners of his mouth. taehyung can still see his dimples.

“you should clean up a little,” namjoon finally says. “we reach the capitol in an hour.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

vii.

 

 

taehyung barely has time to breathe. he stumbles into the shower with too many buttons and settings for him to make sense of, then tugs on a dark green shirt and the same soft pants he’d dug out earlier. seokjin’s shirt has vanished from the bed, the crumpled blue fabric swept away like it had never existed in the pristine luxury of the train.

the screams of the crowd are deafening when the three of them step out into the crisp air; namjoon behind taehyung and yuna, one hand steady on taehyung’s shoulder.

he catches glimpses of hair in vivid greens and pinks, diamonds set into teeth, skin tattooed in garish patterns that make his head spin.

“keep walking,” namjoon murmurs behind him.

he hears a woman scream his name, pitched and frantic. taehyung blinks, and picks up his pace.

two minutes later finds him standing in front of three primped, decorated people who stare at him like he’s a bird ready to be carved. namjoon has vanished out the same door they came in through, and yuna has been tugged off to her own awaiting stylist.

“well,” one man sighs, arching one curved, blue eyebrow. “at least he’s pretty.”

taehyung opens his mouth, and the woman with delicate-looking dyed skin that reminds him of the patterned butterflies that fly in during the spring reaches out with one orange finger, laying it gently across his lips.

“we’ll just fix you up a little,” she says sweetly. “don’t worry about it, honey.”

fixing up means, apparently, ripping every hair on taehyung’s body out by its pores. it’s uniquely painful and he grits his teeth against it, feeling too exposed in the flimsy gown they’d shoved at him in place of clothes.

it’s not until he’s been waxed, scrubbed, perfumed, and scrubbed again that they finally deem him fit to see his stylist.

“i swear there’s still some dirt under his nails,” the glittering one—crystal, she’d called herself—says morosely. like taehyung is nothing but a doll to her.

he doesn’t recognize himself in the mirror. his eyes look too big, his face too clean. the gaunt cheeks are familiar, but nothing else.

he barely even notice when his prep team leaves the room, when the door clicks shut behind someone else’s quiet footsteps. taehyung can’t stop staring at the mirror, at his mother’s eyes and nose and sunken beauty.

“feels strange, right?” a low, quiet voice says from behind him, and taehyung flinches back in the soft leather chair. he spins around, expecting someone else with extra eyes tattooed on their cheeks, various jewels set in their irises.

instead, taehyung comes face to face with the most normal looking man he’s seen since entering the capitol. he’s a little short, a little angular, with hair so light it’s almost white. he doesn’t have any obvious modifications, just a sleepy smear of black eyeliner.

“yoongi,” the man says, extending a hand. taehyung stares at his own hand, at the faintest trace of dirt under his nails, and wonders if it will ever scrub out. “your stylist.”

the opening ceremony is tonight, and taehyung knows what to expect. farmer’s wear, not much to save his dignity. he wonders if the capitol stylists know what they really wear, out in the fields.

yoong doesn’t shove a straw hat in his face, though. he pulls up a stool and sits next to taehyung, asking quiet permission before reaching out to toy with the ends of his overgrown hair.

“tell me something you love about your district,” yoongi finally says. he doesn’t seem like a man of many words, and taehyung feels something loosen in his chest as he thinks quietly.

“when i was little,” he starts, careful with his words. “my mother had a garden. we’re not allowed to grow our own food, but she had—herbs. medicines. and flowers, in the springtime.”

he reaches up, touches the wooden lily resting on his bare chest.

“she used to put them in my hair.” the memory stings his eyes, and taehyung presses his lips together too tight. yoongi doesn’t laugh, though, just hums thoughtfully and scratches his nails down taehyung’s scalp.

“i can work with that,” he says.

something about it makes taehyung smile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

viii.

 

 

when district eleven’s chariot pulls out of its station and into the spotlight, the crowd starts shrieking. it’s deafening—taehyung fights the urge to wince and cover his ears. he remembers namjoon’s sharp reminders, though, and he’s too mindful of the dry paint on his hands to do anything but let them hang limp.

it had taken yoongi hours. it’s maybe the longest taehyung has ever sat still in his life, and he’d found himself falling asleep for the first time in a day under the cool strokes of the paintbrush yoongi had used on his skin.

almost every inch of taehyung is covered in paint. his fingertips to his elbows to his shoulders to his neck, all the way up into his chin. swirling patterns of leaves and vines and every different kind of flower, painted on taehyung’s skin with meticulous detail.

every once in a while, yoongi had paused his work to ask taehyung the details of a specific kind of flower, the patterns on the leaf of a vine.

the epicenter is his heart, bared by the white linen overshirt that hangs loosely, comfortably. a lily that stretches across his chest, touches his neck and his navel both, sends gasps rippling through the crowd.

taehyung’s feet are bare; for the first time in years, he has wildflowers braided loosely in his hair.

he holds his breath as the chariot pulls forward, as roses and jewelry and a few choice items of clothing rain down from the stands. yuna, similarly painted at his side, reaches out and snags a long-stemmed sunflower, holding it out with a smile.

for a brief moment, dressed only in the loose white linen and flowers of his home, taehyung forgets that he’s going to die.

and then the chariot pulls to a stop, and taehyung meets the angry eyes of the district nine boy next to him, and the startling awareness rushes through him like ice water in his veins.

he wonders what seokjin thinks of him right now, primped and painted for the cameras.

taehyung fidgets through the president’s speech, and practically leaps off the chariot as soon as it pulls to a stop beyond the prying eyes of the stadium.

“calm down, flower boy,” yoongi mutters, glancing over taehyung with a critical eye. namjoon is at his side, close enough that their arms are brushing with an easy familiarity that taehyung can’t quite understand. “not bad, looks like nothing smeared.”

“you did well,” namjoon assures him. “both of you. we don’t want you to be forgotten, and you made a good first impression.”

“i feel wild,” taehyung comments. he looks down, inspects the flowering clematis vines along his veins. he looks up in time to see the smirk vanish from yoongi’s lips, namjoon’s pointy elbow retreating from his ribs.

“you look it,” namjoon assures him, and now he’s smiling too.

taehyung looks away, across the bustling courtyard. for a moment his eyes drift over the prep teams and the stylists, until his eyes lock into a tribute’s, and the tribute looks back at him.

the district two volunteer is stunning. he’s in a suit, one that looks more fitted than anything taehyung’s worn in his life, the white marble pattern offsetting the black silk of his shirt, the careful tousle of his dark hair. taehyung looks at him and feels poor, feels dirty and small and ashamed to even be standing here.

the boy looks away, disinterested, and taehyung feels the nausea rise again.

“let’s go,” he says, tugging softly at namjoon’s skin. it’s more of a plea than anything. “please. i’m tired.”

namjoon looks at him, then turns slightly as if he’s wondering what taehyung had seen.

“okay,” namjoon finally agrees, and takes taehyung’s painted fingers in his. “you have a long day tomorrow.”

taehyung smiles, as much as he can. he may not have any friends in the arena or sponsors outside of them, but in the few weeks before the games begin, he thinks that he could count on namjoon as an ally.

at the very least, he can ask namjoon to take care of his family where taehyung has failed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ix.

 

 

the next day, training begins. they have a week to pick up whatever skills they have, to learn survival techniques for every different type of environment and how to slit a throat cleanly. taehyung refuses to wear the stiff pants laid out for him that morning; when he stumbles into the lavish dining room of the luxurious suite, namjoon stares disapprovingly at the comfort clothing taehyung had found in the drawers.

“i’m not going to be more uncomfortable than i have to,” taehyung says, keeping his head up. he picks lightly at the bowl of beef stew over rice. even two days later he struggles to keep capitol food down sometimes. his body is used to being starved. that, at least, is something he won’t need training to be prepared for.

“fine,” namjoon finally says. like it’s not worth arguing.

the first time taehyung stands with the twenty-three other tributes, listening to the head trainer’s instructions for the next week, he doesn’t look any of them in the eye. he hears a few whispers about him that die off quickly, mostly about his paint last night, but no one approaches him.

very few of them speak to anyone, in fact. the careers bunch together on instinct, but they’re not friends. the boy and girl from district two seem amicable, at least; when the trainer releases them to the stations, they both wander over to the same rack of knives.

don’t play to your strengths during public training, namjoon had said, like taehyung has any strengths at all. he glances over longingly to the empty station tucked into the very corner, with charts of edible plants and flowers and a few potted specimens that make him think of home.

knowing which berries will kill him in seconds isn’t a skill that will get him a sponsorship, or a high training score. taehyung rubs the soft fabric of his pants between his fingers, and heads over to the station with the ropes.

that’s where he spends most of the next seven days. taehyung alternates, learns how to hold a sword, to throw a knife, to balance a spear. but every time, he comes back to the ropes, to the thick synthetic cords between his fingers.

on the fifth day, taehyung has company. not the fleeting kind, the tribute who drops by to learn how to tie a noose before moving on to something deadlier. the career from district two sits down on the floor a few feet away from taehyung, soft black hair falling in his eyes as the instructor shows him how to set up basic snares.

they don’t speak. taehyung has his net cast out around him, complex knotting and weaving making up different patches as he tests his own memory. district two watches him sometimes, twisting short fingers in his own rope before returning silently to work.

he doesn’t seem like a killer, but taehyung knows better. even the girl from his district has started to avoid him. yesterday taehyung had stood by and watched, along with half the room, as he carefully and methodically drained a hyper-realistic training mannequin of all the blood in its veins.

taehyung stops by the plants for a few minutes that day, to clear the nerves that light up in his stomach every time district two looks at him. there’s only one station left now that he hasn’t visited.

taehyung spends the seventh day, the last day, doing what he knows best. everyone has settled into something by now, even if they’re not particularly good at it, and the gamemakers don’t pay any of them much attention.

so taehyung steps over to one of the starting points he’s been mapping in his head for days now, and he climbs.

that day, he watches. he doesn’t have to speak, or pretend to be comfortable with a knife in his hand. he finds a safe, guarded spot in the rafters and ties and unties the rope he’d brought up with him, resting without anyone watching him, without anyone caring.

half an hour before they all clear the room for individual testing, taehyung watches district two walk over to the ropes.

district two looks around for a second. reaches for a black, flexible cord. fashions it into a noose. looks up.

district two meets taehyung’s eyes, shrouded in the shadows of the rafters around him, and smiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x.

 

 

over an hour is spent in strained, uncomfortable silence before taehyung is called for scoring. he, yuna, and the district twelve kids are the last ones left in the room. taehyung brushes his fingers along his sunken cheeks as he tries not to fidget. it’s like the four of them are competing to see who can look more underfed.

“kim taehyung,” the cool, automated voice calls, and he almost trips over himself when he stands up. yuna looks like she’s about to say something, but closes her mouth and settles back into her chair when taehyung steps toward the door.

the first thing he hears when he pushes the door to the training room open is the raucous laughter. it’s familiar to him by now—the gamemakers have been getting bored, he knows. taehyung stands awkwardly in the center of the floor, waiting for some kind of signal.

“go on,” an older man says carelessly, though a mouthful of pork. he barely glances at taehyung before turning back to the dining table.

taehyung takes a breath. he’s not expecting anything higher than a five, and at this point it doesn’t matter. against the strength and skill of the careers, against the casual viciousness of the district two boy, he doesn’t stand a chance.

he wonders if there will be anyone left betting against district two, after tonight.

he can’t make himself care enough to get their attention again, taehyung sticks to the plan namjoon had laid out for him a few days ago.

he starts with the ropes. he’s practiced enough now that weaving the trap only takes him a few minutes, though it’s with a few shortcuts.

when taehyung starts climbing up to the ceiling, the end of the rope wrapped tightly around his wrist, he hears a few murmurs from the stand behind him. this, at least, is familiar. it’s been a long time since taehyung was small enough to work in the orchards, but he never stopped climbing up trees during their ten-minute breaks in the fields, looking out over the expanses of his district.

he finishes rigging the rope, slides down the wall as quickly as he can, and spares a glance over to the gamemakers. one of them seems to be watching him, eyes darting to the ropes and ceiling, but after a few seconds his wine glass proves more interesting. taehyung closes his eyes, tries not to get angry. there’s no point to it.

the mannequin is heavy, but not difficult to move. taehyung adjusts the ropes, takes a step back.

when he shoves the mannequin forward and pulls hard on the rope still wrapped around his wrist, the trap closes. the mannequin shoots up into the air, and taehyung hears the crack that the mannequins make when a bone has been broken.

taehyung feels sick.

“you can go,” a gamemakers says, after a long moment. taehyung exhales for what feels like the first time since he’d entered the room.

the mannequin comes crashing to the ground a few feet away from him, and taehyung walks away.

he scores a six. namjoon makes a small noise when he sees it, leaning forward into his elbows on the top-soft couch in the suite. yoongi doesn’t say anything at first, before he leans behind namjoon and touches the ends of taehyung’s hair again. it feels strange, too intimate, but taehyung can’t make himself push yoongi away.

“you did good,” yoongi says in his low, rough voice. taehyung closes his eyes.

you’re gonna try to win, daesung had said, like he really believed it. and—taehyung can try, will try, but even if he’d scored a six, it doesn’t matter.

his eyes are closed, and all he can see is the beaming smile of park jimin, district two, with a score of eleven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xi.

 

 

two days later, it’s time for the interview. taehyung spends the first with namjoon, going over the most commonly asked questions and approaches with namjoon. it stings, to talk about his siblings and his friends and his mother’s flower garden and pretend he’s talking to an audience of thousands. giving away the memories feels worse than going into the arena a stranger.

“don’t let them ignore you,” namjoon says quietly, before they part for bed. he looks so worn, shoulders beaten down by the last three years of tributes he’s watched die. “you don’t have to give them everything, taehyung-ah. but don’t let them forget you.”

it’s his last chance to speak to his siblings, however indirectly, before he goes into the arena.

the next morning, taehyung is shoved out of bed by his prep team, who unroll him from his cocoon of blankets with frightening precision.

“yoongi has something amazing for you,” crystal trills, but taehyung is too busy groaning and trying to bury his face in the softest pillow he’s ever felt to really care.

“joon told me to make it special,” yoongi says lowly, when the prep team turns taehyung over an hour later, exfoliated and moisturized and irritable. he refuses to look into the mirror this time, refuses to see his mother’s eyes. instead, taehyung tries to think back to namjoon’s games.

“were you his stylist?” he asks, as yoongi leans forward in front of him, dabbing various creams and powders on his skin. yoongi hums lowly, and reaches for a dark pencil for taehyung’s eyebrows.

“namjoon? he was my first,” yoongi says. “bossy about it, too. went on a whole lecture about straw hats before i could even say a word.”

that sounds like namjoon. taehyung laughs a little, and yoongi scowls at him as he puts down the pencil, reaches for the eyeliner. he doesn’t look threatening at all—unlike the announcer tonight, who’s covered in everything gold but for his skin.

“he was just nervous, though,” yoongi says pointedly. taehyung makes a soft noise in the back of his throat, and doesn’t respond.

yoongi lines taehyung’s eyes in a muted aqua and steps back, carefully judging his own work before returning with a lip color that he dabs trace amounts of onto taehyung. when he stands away from the mirror, taehyung is relieved to find that he still looks like himself, in a black shirt with a loose neckline, just with more color.

“i had this made for you. used some of the ones i painted the other night,” yoongi murmurs, and taehyung doesn’t know what he’s talking about until yoongi opens a door in the dressing room, and pulls out a rack with taehyung’s outfit on it.

the first thing he sees is the suit coat. there must be some fabric on it aside from the black lapels, but everything else—

“where did you get these?” taehyung breathes, and reaches out to rub one of the dozens—hundreds—of flower petals on the coat between his fingers. pink, yellow, colors so vibrant that he could almost believe them to come from the capitol, instead of the spring fields of the poorest district in the nation.

“like it?” yoongi asks, smug like he knows he doesn’t have to. taehyung bites his lower lip, fingers the black silk shirt, tries to imagine himself in any of this.

“come on, flower boy,” yoongi urges, tugging taehyung up. “let’s get you ready for the circus.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xii.

 

 

few of the tributes speak to each other backstage, waiting for their names to be called. they’re standing in a line; taehyung can see over most of their heads, save a few. in front of him, yuna is tiny and fragile in a dress that looks woven with deep green patterns.

district one is first, two seventeen year olds who glitter almost as much as the capitol itself. they’re all bared teeth and confidence; when the master of ceremonies asks the girl what her greatest strength is, she looks into the camera with a smirk and replies my aim. the crowd laps it up with roaring cheers. taehyung looks away from the screen mounted over their heads.

when park jimin, district two, walks out, the crowd quiets. taehyung’s eyes shift back of their own accord, watching as he shakes announcer song’s hand, as he sits himself down with unspeakable poise on the lounge.

“jimin,” song says seriously, leaning forward into his knees. “your reaping was one of the most talked about events of the year. can you tell us what was going through your head, when you volunteered?”

park jimin smiles, and his cheeks bunch up, and nausea twists in taehyung’s stomach. park jimin doesn’t look like the kind of boy who knows the quickest way to the heart through the ribs, but he’d seen it himself during training.

“oh, i don’t know,” park jimin says with a shy wave out at the screaming crowd. “it never even occurred to me that i wouldn’t volunteer. it’s what i’ve wanted for—well, ever since i remember.”

“and you’re confident that you’ll win?” song asks, teasing, and park jimin’s bright smile turns into a brighter laugh.

“sure, i’m confident.” he smooths down the lapels of his coat, and it looks demure instead of anxious. “you know, my first memories are of watching the games. the year on the rafts, with the flooded arena. district two didn’t win that year, and i remember thinking—when that’s me, i won’t lose.”

park jimin’s smile fades, and he presses his lips together for a moment as song watches him, as the crowd starts to murmur in excitement.

“i won’t lose,” park jimin repeats. he’s staring out at all twenty of them still crowded backstage, and making a promise. “the next time you see me, announcer song, i’ll be wearing laurels.”

the rest of the interviews go by in a blur. taehyung is third to last, and he barely realizes yuna is gone from in front of him until the attendant grabs his wrist and has to drag him forward to take his place. the panic is loud in his chest, drowning out the polite, more subdued applause as yuna exits stage left, and taehyung is pushed into the light.

he doesn’t think he breathes until after the handshake, after he’s sitting down with announcer song’s hand trailing appreciatively down taehyung’s sleeve.

“are these real?” song asks. taehyung nods, tells him the names of the flowers, the ones that grow every spring in the fields. he drops yoongi’s name, too blank to think of anything beyond vague appreciation. he counts the seconds in his head; two minutes left, after song is finished asking about his skills in the arena.

“now,” song says, more serious. “the question everyone has been waiting for. taehyung, we all know you volunteered in place of your brother. is there anything you’d like to tell us about that? anything you’d like to share with him now, before the games begin?”

taehyung goes quiet. in his head, the seconds tick by, one after the other. namjoon’s voice echoes in his ears. don’t let them forget you.

“daesung,” he says, slow. “his name is daesung. and—i’d like him to know that i would do it again. i’d volunteer a hundred more times for him.”

the crowd sighs. he thinks he hears a few exaggerated sniffles. taehyung looks down at his hands. one pale yellow petal has fallen off his sleeve, resting on the back of his fingers.

“i’d die for him,” taehyung says, and for the first time he lets himself imagine it. his body, or what’s left of it, sent back in a box nicer than anything in their home, the last letter he’d written on his chest. it aches, and taehyung looks at song, and the crowd, and the cameras, and he lets it hurt so bad he can barely get the next words out.

“i’d die again and again, and i wouldn’t regret a second of it.”

taehyung is ushered offstage three stunned, silent seconds later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xiii.

 

 

namjoon grabs taehyung’s shoulders the second he makes it backstage, and taehyung doesn’t realize why until his legs threaten to give out on him. namjoon is talking, probably, but between the ringing in taehyung’s ears and the heavy weight of the other tributes’ gazes on him, he can’t understand a word.

namjoon guides him over to a chair somewhere, and taehyung presses his head between his knees until everything stops spinning, until he can breathe again.

“taehyung,” namjoon is saying. “hey, come back to me. come on.”

his hand is warm and solid against taehyung’s spine, even through layers of silk and petals. taehyung takes in a shuddering breath and lifts his head, looks at namjoon crouching in front of him, eyes worried and weary.

“hey,” namjoon says. “you did well out there.”

taehyung wants to protest, but he barely remembers the last five minutes outside of the crushing grief in his own chest. namjoon at least seems to understand, and he doesn’t push. just waits until taehyung can wrap unsteady fingers around his wrist, can be more person than terror.

namjoon opens his mouth again, starts to say something, when he’s interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. taehyung’s gaze darts up as namjoon stands from his awkward crouch, almost overbalancing as he turns to face the stranger.

or at least, he’s a stranger to taehyung.

“hoseok,” namjoon says, with what might be relief. jung hoseok, victor of the seventy-first hunger games, gives namjoon a wan smile and a warm embrace. “what are you doing here?”

“not mentoring,” hoseok replies, a bit of humor in his voice. of course he’s not; district two has plenty of victors to go around, older and more experienced than hoseok must be. “not that jimin-ah really needs it, anyway.”

“that’s not what i meant,” namjoon says, and steps away from the embrace. he’s placed himself in between taehyung and hoseok, and hoseok looks down, gives taehyung a look he doesn’t quite understand, before namjoon shifts to block his view.

“just visiting.” hoseok sounds nonchalant, but taehyung watches the rigid set of namjoon’s shoulder. “you know me, namjoonie. always making friends.”

“right.” namjoon doesn’t sound convinced. “well, make friends somewhere else right now. we can talk later.”

“sure, sure,” hoseok says. it sounds like he’s smiling. “just want to make sure you know what you’re doing. you’re so young, you know. i worry.”

“we’re the same age,” namjoon says, dry. there’s something—deeper, underneath their words, that taehyung can’t wrap his exhausted mind around. “and i’m not doing anything worth knowing about.”

hoseok hums; taehyung thinks there must be some kind of charged eye contact happening between them. finally, after a long moment, hoseok laughs. there’s no humor in it.

“you’re crazy, joon,” hoseok says, and namjoon’s shoulders finally relax.

“aren’t we all?”

hoseok pulls namjoon into another hug, hooks his sharp chin over namjoon’s shoulder, and gives taehyung a long look. his brow is furrowed, lips pulled down in the corners, but he fakes a smile as he pulls away, eyes locked into taehyung’s.

“good luck, kim taehyung,” hoseok says. he’s the first person to sound sincere when he says it. taehyung thinks of the final shot of hoseok’s games, the year after namjoon. hoseok’s hands wet with blood up to his elbows, the one remaining eye of the district two girl staring lifelessly up at him as she sank into the marsh. “i hope you see your brother again.”

taehyung blinks. namjoon reaches for him, gently manhandles him back to his feet.

“come on,” namjoon says, like he knows what taehyung is thinking. “you need to rest.”

the rest of it goes unspoken. that tonight is taehyung’s last night sleeping on a capitol mattress. that tomorrow he wakes up and prepares himself to die.

i’d do it again, he thinks. taehyung wonders if it’s too early for his family to start mourning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xiv.

 

 

that night, taehyung doesn’t sleep. rest hasn’t come easy in the week and a half he’s been in the capitol, but at least after training he’d been exhausted enough to be on the brink of collapse every night as he stumbled into his room.

they’re on the twelfth floor, and the view is stunning, but the first night taehyung had drawn the blinds shut tight. he hadn’t wanted the reminder of the glittering buildings and humming traffic, couldn’t bear to look out from the huge window for days. it’s the farthest taehyung has ever been from the ground, though he’d climbed even the tallest trees back home.

home, taehyung thinks, and walks silently over to the window. the curtains pull back easily, and for a brief moment he can see himself in the glass, reflected back more recognizable than he’s been in a long time. loose satin pajamas from the closet, ruffled hair, not a trace of makeup left on his skin.

the skyline is gorgeous. the city fades out into a quiet glimmer at the foothills. past that is district two. father out is district ten; even farther is district eleven.

home, taehyung thinks, and curls his fingers around his father’s necklace. the lily carved for taehyung’s mother, for her name. on the back; nari, in the careful lettering taehyung had inherited.

it’s the only thing he’ll take into the arena with him. the only thing, beside the letter he’d written on the train, that will go with his body back home.

if he sleeps, he does it in bursts brief enough that he doesn’t remember.

the sun cracks over the horizon and blinds him for a moment, leaves taehyung blinking spots out of his eyes as he unfurls his cramped limbs.

the suite is quieter than taehyung expected, as he creeps out into the dining room. the buffet has been laid out already, and taehyung takes his usual array of fruits and a soft biscuit, sitting with his back to the door.

he hears namjoon come in next, the now-familiar pad of his footsteps. sees the loaded plate placed by his elbow, full of meats and delicate pastries.

“eat, taehyung,” namjoon says quietly, and takes his place at the head of the table. there’s nothing in front of him but toast and a steaming mug.

it’s the last meal you’ll get, he means, but doesn’t say. taehyung licks raspberry stains off his lip, and picks up a meat bun.

namjoon escorts them to the looming training building before it’s time to say goodbye. taehyung refuses to cry, but he clings into namjoon near as tight as he’d held seokjin in those last minutes.

“take care of them,” he begs. he’s not ashamed to admit he begs. “jin won’t want to let you, but—please. please, namjoon.”

“don’t worry,” namjoon whispers, his lips pressed into taehyung’s hair, just above his ear. “i will.”

namjoon pushes him away first, and taehyung walks into the building, into the elevator that takes him to the roof and the hovercraft where they shoot something into his arm with a thick, painful needle.

waiting for him, wherever they land that’s underground and separated into sections by district, is yoongi. he looks up without a word when taehyung is escorted into the dressing room, and presses his lips together tight as he suits taehyung up for the games.

thin jacket, plastic exterior, green. lightweight long sleeve, dark brown. black work pants, heavier than he’s used to. thick leather boots, better than anything he’d worked the field in.

“hey,” yoongi says, as he pulls the cord of taehyung’s necklace out, so the lily rests plainly against his heart. “taehyung. in the arena, don’t forget who you are, okay? don’t let them take that from you.”

taehyung nods, without a word. you’re gonna try to win echoes in his head, daesung’s voice so horribly hopeful.

“and stay alive,” yoongi says quietly, before the glass comes down between them, sealing taehyung inside the platform that will take him up, up.

into the arena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xv.

 

 

let the seventy-fourth annual hunger games begin.

sixty seconds. that’s how long taehyung gets, when announcer song’s voice rings through the open air, the raising platform jolting to a stop underneath taehyung’s feet.

it’s too bright. taehyung squints into the blinding sun and tries not to collapse in his rising panic. he can see—grass, stretching out in front of him. the circle of tributes, peering around and shielding their eyes from the sharp rays of light that reflect off of the cornucopia—

the cornucopia, spilling out backpacks and glinting metal weapons and tents and clothing and everything anyone could need to survive. to kill.

thirty seconds. taehyung can finally see. he casts his eyes around do the other tributes; most have their eyes trained on the bounty, but others—weaker, slower, less trained—cast their eyes around to the rest of the arena.

most of it, from what taehyung can see, is forest. dense trees reaching clear up into the sky, surrounding them from most angles. just to his left, the field tapers off into something darker, more humid; some kind of swamp or marsh that taehyung has never seen before.

find water, namjoon’s voice echoes back in his ears. clean water. as soon as you can.

ten seconds. the career tributes are looking at each other, talking silently with their eyes and shoulders. park jimin, district two, doesn’t look at anyone. his eyes are trained on the cornucopia, and any desire taehyung might have had to wade into the bloodbath vanishes.

five. taehyung trains his eyes on a thick black backpack twenty feet in front of him.

four. the girl next to him, district twelve, starts crying. taehyung forces himself not to look.

three. he shifts his weight. swallows, throat dry.

two. taehyung casts a brief thought to his siblings. everyone gets the day off for the start of the games, though it’s in the middle of the harvest; he wonders if seokjin is letting them watch.

one. he stops thinking.

the cannon goes off.

taehyung sprints. he’s light, and quick, and he has his hand around the strap of the backpack before he has time to think about it. there’s—a knife, a few feet away, as long as his forearm and wickedly sharp.

don’t engage, namjoon’s voice rings, but taehyung is dead already without some sort of weapon. he slings the backpack over his shoulder, and dives for it.

his shoulder collides with another boy’s. their fingers wrap around the hilt at the same side. from the other side of the cornucopia, a scream is abruptly cut off.

boom.

taehyung meets the eyes of the boy—district five—and jerks back with all his strength, and stumbles backward.

he gets the knife, but district five lunges for him, fist balled and arm pulled back.

taehyung doesn’t stick around long enough for the punch to land. he twists away, stumbles for his feet, and runs. panic pricks at the corners of his eyes as he pushes himself, tries not to vomit when he hears another rattling boom.

taehyung throws himself into the thickest part of the forest, and prays that the next cannon blast won’t be his own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xvi.

 

 

taehyung runs until he can’t anymore. his body is screaming at him, a sharp pinch in his side nothing compared to the burn in his legs, in the back of his throat. he can’t hear anything over the rush of his own blood in his ears; he can only hope that no one has followed him.

as he slows to a walk, taehyung finally has the presence of mind to hear the cannons. he’s missed some in his frenzy, but as he listens he can hear them. one. two. five. seven.

by the time the eighth cannon rumbles through the sky, taehyung is actively searching for water. he doesn’t know how to navigate this kind of landscape, has never been outside his district for fear of the charged fence that surrounds it. the forest turns into a maze, dark and foreign even under the midday sun.

all the nature in district eleven is either dead or cultivated.

underneath the roots of a fallen tree taller than anything he’s seen before, taehyung finally lets himself rest. his legs shake when he sits down, unslings the backpack from his shoulders. he has to peel his fingers off the handle of the knife, and they’re shaking too. he feels too fragile for this arena, too easily blown over.

he takes stock. he has a thin, thermal sleeping bag. a twenty-four count box of matches. a pack of crackers and dried beef. an empty water bottle, with iodine taped to it.

there has to be water. he’d run away from the only source he saw; a small, glimmering lake on the other side of the cornucopia. but there are signs of life everywhere, and a rabbit had been startled from his path. taehyung leans back against the old, dead trunk, and closes his eyes.

there might be cameras on him now. probably at least one. now that the bloodbath is over, people will want to know who is still alive, who is on the move. taehyung is both, for now. seokjin is probably sitting in front of their government-provided screen, watching him stay alive for one more day.

taehyung wonders if it might have been easier for them if he’d died at the cornucopia. if he’d spared daesung the tragedy of hope.

he walks for the rest of the day. it’s a different kind of white noise than he’d been surrounded with at the capitol, inane chatter and bustle traded for the whisper of wind through leaves, the chatter of birds above his head, the crunch of earth beneath his feet. taehyung stays silent. no one likes a talking tribute with nothing in their favor.

that night, he climbs. he’s never seen these trees before, but taehyung climbs as high as he can, until he can no longer see the ground beneath him, and still the branches are thicker than his waist.

he rolls himself into the sleeping bag, uses the straps from his pack to secure himself to the branch—daesung had always complained that he kicked in his sleep, minji had fought his hugs as soon as she grew old enough to be embarrassed by them.

the anthem plays. nine dead. fifteen left.

taehyung sleeps fitfully until he wakes up to the sound of a cannon.

after that, he doesn’t sleep at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xvii.

 

 

taehyung drops down with quiet feet onto the forest floor to the background of birdsong . sunlight barely reaches through the mess of branches, but the birds seem to know that it’s morning anyway.

everything in his body aches. his tongue feels dry and thick in his mouth, and it’s almost impossible to swallow the cracker that tastes only marginally better than dust, but taehyung forces himself to do it anyway.

water. today, he has to find water.

he walks. taehyung has no idea where he his, where the arena ends, who could be near him or hunting him, but he keeps walking. the downhill slope is good, he reminds himself as his unease grows, as his chest aches and his throat scratches. water flows downhill.

the trees thin enough that the sun beats down on the back of his neck. the heat is almost unbearable, thick and humid like summers back home; taehyung pulls up the hood of his jacket and prays that he doesn't burn.

the first time he collapses, taehyung picks himself back up. his legs are shaking like the leaves above him, but he braces himself against a tree and forces his body to keep moving.

the second time he collapses, the third, the fourth, taehyung picks himself back up. slower each time; gasping for breaths that burn against his windpipe.

the fifth time, he stays down. he thinks that he shouldn’t have fallen already, that if he’d been healthier or stronger or maybe better fed he’d be able to make it at least another day. but as it is he’s been able to count his ribs since he was six, and taehyung can’t pick himself back up.

at least daesung won’t have to see him with a knife in his throat, taehyung thinks idly, as a cannon goes off.

boom. thirteen.

taehyung inches forward; the sun is burning against the backs of his hands. he needs shade, he needs—something. needs seokjin to pick him back up and set him back on his feet and show him how to seed the corn again, one more time.

he strokes idle patterns in the softness beneath his fingers. the crops—corn here, wheat there, fields mapped out in the cool slickness under his fingers. it feels so nice, cool and giving under his fingers, under his cheek, pressed into the ground. it smells like home here, sharp sweetness that reminds him of—something. he can’t remember.

taehyung had played in the mud as a child, until his father scolded him for tracking it into their house. the mud.

mud.

taehyung jerks his head up. mud. water. he blinks his eyes open, and the sharp scent in the air makes so much sense. water lilies, dotting the pool of water. water.

it takes every inch of him not to submerge his head under and gulp in as much as he can. with shaking fingers, he reaches into his pack, pulls out the bottle and the iodine taped to it. fills the bottle. adds the right amount of purifier. waits thirty agonizing minutes, counting the petals of one lily as he fingers the carved one on his chest.

they’re surrounding him now, sitting waist-deep in cool water with his boots on the edge of the pool. their pads form a circle, and the scent is intoxicating.

too intoxicating, he thinks. taehyung only notices the perfect geometry of it, the way the flowers have shifted from the rest of the pool to surround him, only him, when he finishes his count, finishes taking careful sips from his bottle until it’s empty again, finishes refilling it and adding in the iodine.

taehyung barely has enough time to stand up before the roots wrap themselves around his ankles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xviii.

 

 

mutts.

it’s the only thing taehyung thinks before his head goes under. he claws at the silt, fingers digging into nothing as it gives way and clouds around him, swarming dirty water into his lungs as he gasps. the water is only a few feet deep but there’s roots around his chest now, holding him under and pressing him into the deep.

his mother always worried about them not knowing how to swim, though she had never been able to answer when seokjin had asked her where they could find water deep enough to swim in. taehyung almost laughs even as he chokes, as he gets his face above water for half a second as he thrashes and breathes in like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do.

no. no, not—his knife. it’s just a few feet away, lying next to his backpack and shoes. taehyung twists, digs his heels into the mud at the bottom of the pool. pushes once—the roots drag him back down before his head even breaks the surface.

he can’t die like this. panic is clawing at taehyung’s lungs almost as insistent as the water in them. his arms are still free. he claws at the mud, manages to drag himself forward a few inches. it’s enough; taehyung reaches out as far as he can, manages to find solid ground to anchor himself.

this time, his head stays above water long enough for two breaths. a root winds around his throat and pulls, and taehyung would scream if he weren’t terrified of opening his mouth. his body is begging him to give up, to let the lilies drag him down to his grave like he deserves, but he can’t. not yet.

the next few moments are a blur. his arms are reaching blindly above his head, as far as they can go, and when he feels the smooth handle of the knife taehyung almost thinks he’s dreaming it.

even if it is a dream, a hallucination caused by oxygen loss and the root tightening its hold on his neck, taehyung has to try. he adjusts his grip, gets it tighter in his hand, and starts swinging.

the first thing he cuts is the root around his neck. his eyes are squeezed shut, colored spots dancing across his eyelids, and he sucks in a heaving breath that makes him cough so hard he barely has the coordination to hack at the other roots, thick and unyielding, that drag him back under.

taehyung loses himself, loses all semblance of rational thought. he’s reduced to the thrum of adrenaline and water in his ears and silt on his tongue as he fights and struggles and hauls himself up onto dry land, as far away from the pool as he can drag himself on shaking arms.

taehyung coughs the water out of his lungs until his coughs turn into dry heaving, his stomach too empty to spit anything except acidic bile out into the grass. the heaving turns into sobs—dry, terrible bursts that wrack through his frame and leave him curled into his side, too panicked for real tears and too overwrought to stop himself.

he’s alive. he’s alive, and his lungs burn and spasm, and he’s drenched to the bone and shaking from all of it, and he’s alive.

it’s a long time until the sobs ebb away, and taehyung is left alone with himself and the birds twittering overhead.

he lies there until the sun goes down. when he can move again, taehyung crawls over to his backpack, chokes down two more crackers and a sliver of dried beef. it’s not enough to stop the awful hunger cramps, but it’s better than nothing.

taehyung doesn’t have the energy to strap himself into a tree, that night. he can’t make himself climb, so he walks unsteadily until the pool is out of sight, until the acrid scent of lilies has faded.

he’s half asleep when the cannons start.

one. two. three. four. five. one after the other, a few seconds apart. taehyung sits up straight, his heart kicking up speed in his chest. silence, for a long minute.

the anthem starts a few minutes later than usual.

it opens on the face of the girl from district one. the boy from district one. the girl from district two. the boy from district three. the girl from district four.

the pack of careers and allies that had eaten together in the last days of training, minus one.

every career, dead, except park jimin.

eight tributes left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xix.

 

 

jisoo makes the fire. her hair shines in the orange light when she pulls it over her shoulder, when she cards her fingers through the thick ponytail to work out the knots. jimin watches quietly from the other side of the campsite as he skins the rabbits, one after the other.

his fingers are covered in blood, from yanking the arrows out.

“so who’s left?” jinyoung asks. he’s cleaning his sword almost obsessively—has been ever since he yanked it out of the breast of the boy from district nine. jisoo glares at him, scuffing the toe of her boot into the dirt. they don’t seem particularly friendly, though they’re from the same district.

jimin can’t make himself stop watching them. the rabbits are skinned and sliced into thin strips, the meat is cooking, the fire is sending smoke up into the sky for anyone stupid enough to approach them. there are too many things to notice, too many nervous ticks to ignore.

“jaehyun dipped,” sojung offers. she’s digging rocks out of the bottom of her boot, socks folded neatly in front of the fire to warm. jimin glances away when she starts rolling up her pants to the knee. “i saw him running off with a few backpacks. doubt he’ll be getting sponsors now.”

she says it with a smirk, like she’s already outlived him. she and jaehyun came from four together, muscular and well-trained and deadly. jimin glances at the mace sojung had seemed so fond of yesterday.

“i’m the last from three.” minhyung is quiet, ripping up grass with his fingers as he sits more apart than anyone except jimin. he’s district three, unusual for their pack, added when jimin’s mentor had seen how good he was with a bow. “so, what? four, five, two from seven?”

“one each from nine and ten,” seulgi notes. she’s watching jimin, when no one else is. he shrugs one careful shoulder, turns the meat on the makeshift spit.

“one more,” sojung says with a frown. “we’re missing one.”

there’s silence, but for the crackling of the fire. jimin fights a smile, slides the meat off onto the face-sized leaves when the thin strips look done enough.

“eleven,” he says quietly, and feels the attention of the pack snap back to him. jimin just smiles, gives each of them some of the food they’d gathered and won at the cornucopia. crackers, dried fruits, some scattered berries, the prize rabbit.

“what,” jinyoung says. his voice is flat. jimin looks up at him, leans around the fire to offer him a makeshift plate.

“the boy from eleven,” jimin clarifies. the one he’d seen in the rafters of the practice room, bones too prominent. full of fear, not even considerable as a threat.

but. but, if jimin hadn’t seen him climbing the walls, he’d be able to throw a knife down, easy as anything. he’s sure district eleven, taehyung, feels right at home in this kind of forest.

“really?” seulgi’s voice drips with skepticism. “this must be the first time eleven’s lasted longer than a day in, what.”

“three years,” minhyung points out. “they like, just won.”

jimin doesn’t bother keeping up with the conversation after that. he passes out dinner, and no one blinks twice at him. seulgi pats the log next to her when jimin hands her food, and he shakes his head with a tight smile.

eventually, he retreats back to his own corner. three backpacks, empty. one backpack, stuffed with the goods in the rest. a sleeping bag that he starts to roll up, crouching with his back to the fire, to the semicircle of the pack.

“what are you doing?” jinyoung asks, over the crack of logs. jimin doesn’t answer. he shakes out a few leaves from the bottom of the sleeping bag.

“hey,” jinyoung insists. “park. what the—”

when he cuts himself off, choking somewhere far back in his throat. jimin doesn’t let himself smile. he turns back to the fire, face as blank as ever, and watches it unfold.

jinyoung is first. no one else seems to notice, until he topples forward off the fallen log, clutching at his throat.

by then, it’s too late.

jinyoung is first, and sojung reaches out with a concerned hand only to bring it back to her throat as her face turns red. minhyung curls on his side in the grass, hands wrapped around his own neck like he can force his airway to open. jisoo has her back braced against the log as she arches, clawing desperately at her lips.

jimin watches.

he’d found the nightlock berries while hunting, and it had all fallen into place. it’s been his plan now for months, for years, for as long as he’s promised himself and the world a victory.

how are you planning to deal with the final competition, the last of the pack, his mentor had asked him. i’m not, jimin had replied, and left it at that.

he finishes tying the sleeping bag to the top of his backpack, and surveys the scene. the pack thrashes, gags, chokes on vomit and bile and undigested rabbit.

seulgi chokes with her hands around her neck, and stares at him as the rest of the bodies around them go still and quiet. the cannons sound without fanfare. one. two. three. four.

she looks like she’s trying to say something. she looks like she’s dying.

jimin stands up. swings his pack over his shoulder. smiles at her, showing all his teeth.

five.

jimin walks away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xx.

 

 

taehyung wakes up halfway through the night to the sound of quiet rustling. it’s barely noticeable, almost indistinguishable from the quiet sounds of the forest at night, but taehyung snaps upright with a panicked gasp that burns his throat. his eyes burn from a lack of sleep, his stomach feels like it’s eating itself alive. taehyung wraps his arms tighter around his backpack and sits with his spine straight against the tree he’d been sleeping against.

he waits. the rustling grows louder, more prominent, and taehyung swallows down the stinging bile in his throat as he waits for something to spring out of the foliage—another mutt, another tribute come to pick off waiting prey.

whoever wants him now can have him, taehyung decides, because he can’t will his legs to move. his whole body still feels weak; every breath is a labor. his eyes strain to see in the pitch darkness of the arena after nightfall

whoever wants him can have him, and taehyung waits, and the rustling grows louder.

a doe steps out from behind a tree as thick around as the train to the capitol. she’s looking at him with one eye, ear flicked curiously, and taehyung breathes in shallowly. his heartbeat is still thrumming in his own ears, adrenaline fading from the back of his throat. the doe takes another careful step forward, neck long and curved as she seeks something out, eye still trained on taehyung.

there’s deer back home; pests, coming to eat their crops, supposed to be kept away by barbed wire and a peacekeeper’s pistol firing blanks into the air. taehyung’s chest constricts. when he raises a trembling hand to his lips, he feels the faintest edge of a smile.

her wet nose nudges against taehyung’s cheek. for all he knows, this is another trap, another mutt that will suddenly pull back velvet-soft lips to expose venomous fangs, but taehyung doesn’t care. it’s the gentlest touch he’s felt in days, and taehyung melts into it with a fragile sigh and fingers wrapped tight around his necklace.

it only lasts for a moment. the doe turns away after a brief moment, distracted by something behind her, and ambles away when a buck emerges from behind the same tree, head tilted to one side. his antlers are broad and sturdy, and he follows the doe without sparing taehyung a second glance. they step away, back into the early morning darkness, as if they had never existed in the first place.

taehyung’s muscles relax one after the other. it’s only after his head has rolled back to press against the jagged bark of the tree behind him that he remembers his knife, wickedly curved and as long as his forearm.

he could have killed the doe, maybe. but then he would have had to skin her, and cook her, and light a fire broadcasting his location to anyone who cared enough to look. taehyung’s stomach turns.

he waits out the night quietly, weaving blades of grass together into a chain that stretches out as long as his leg by the time it’s light enough to see.

that morning, taehyung eats his last two strips of meat and goes back to the pond. he’s almost out of water, and even if the sight and smell of the lilies twists his stomach, he’s almost out of water.

something firm that feels almost like resolve sits low in his stomach. taehyung waits for the iodine to purify the water, and pulls tendrils of ivy from low hanging branches. he strips them of their leaves and lays them on the ground as neatly as he can, severing them at the right length.

he weaves with his knife resting in his lap, a safe distance away from the pond. by the time he’s slowly sipped down to the bottom of his water bottle and purified another, he has five traps ready to be laid.

taehyung is surviving. he knows he’ll have maybe another day, until the audiences get over the shock of whatever must have happened to the career pack and start thirsting again for blood.

another day, before he’s forced back into the violence of the games.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxi.

 

 

taehyung doesn’t have another day. he doesn’t even have another twelve hours.

he spends most of the day laying his traps, walking in what he hopes is a circle around the pond as he covers them carefully with dead leaves, half-underneath edible berry bushes. it gives his body time to recover, to snack on the berries and some crackers as he regains his strength, as his legs stop shaking underneath him every time he stands.

an hour or so in, taehyung starts to settle into the routine. he lets his mind wander as he steps carefully and quietly, careful not to snap anything under heavy feet. mostly he tries not to think of anything too complicated; he names whatever species of plant he recognizes, whispering under his breath with a voice that burns his throat to use.

it’s been days since he talked to another person, so taehyung whispers to the trees and tries to distract himself from the aching loneliness.

he wonders if namjoon is proud of him for making it this far. wonders if his district is watching him right now, his face projected onto hanging white linen as they harvest. wonders if seokjin has been eating. if he’s been handing over his portions to daesung and minji, who need it so much more.

taehyung yanks a knot shut as forcefully as he can without snapping the vine, and bites down hard on his lower lip. it’s almost nightfall; he’ll need to start thinking about making camp.

do i have to watch? minji had asked one year, during the opening ceremony. her best friend’s sister had been reaped. had been only fourteen. seokjin had looked across their tiny room at taehyung with a furrow between his brows, and held minji’s face against his chest.

not this year, he had said, after a few moments. let’s play a game instead, little min.

taehyung is so deep inside the memory that he doesn’t hear the murmur of voices until it’s almost too late. he’s halfway between two traps, going around in a final circle to make sure they aren’t visible from any angle.

“—think we could—” is all taehyung catches before he buckles the chest strap of his backpack and all but flings himself up into the nearest tree. it’s not the easiest to climb, but panic and years of experience get him to the thick lower branches, his foot disappearing past the first line of foliage seconds before he sees heads below him.

three people, one of them lagging behind the rest, dragging something taehyung can’t quite make out. it’s not hard to figure out who they are; two of them have their jackets off, tied around their waists to reveal the shoulders and biceps that had defined the two tributes of district seven during training. taehyung swallows down heaving gasps, and refuses to move. he’s barely hidden by leaves; if they look up he’s dead, so he refuses to give them a reason to.

“i don’t think we should make a fire,” the boy still in his jacket says. “park just killed five people in two minutes, i don’t want him anywhere near us.”

“please,” the girl from seven scoffs. taehyung can’t remember her name. “we could take him. he’s shorter than i am, probably exhausted, and it’s three on one. if he wants to fight, we’ll take him out. i want to cook that deer.”

taehyung leans forward half an inch, and—oh. he sees it. what the district seven boy had been dragging behind him.

a deer carcass, with blood all down her front, an arrow sticking out of her chest. her eye stares up at taehyung accusingly, exposing him for anyone smart enough to look.

taehyung stays in his tree, barely breathing, while the allies make a fire below him to cook their dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxii.

 

 

for an hour, taehyung doesn’t move. his muscles start to cramp ten minutes in, his thighs aching as he holds his feet up above the leaves, his neck locking painfully at an angle. he can’t move, though. not if he wants to live.

“fuck, that smells good,” the boy—district nine, taehyung thinks he remembers—groans. he’s still got his jacket on, but has at least lowered the hood. the district seven boy, jiwoon, has cut off the sleeves of his shirt to expose his arms.

“glad i stabbed that bitch for her bow,” jiwoon grunts, one arm straining to turn the doe over. they’ve got part of her on a makeshift spit, and jiwoon turns it slowly, trying to make sure the halved carcass doesn’t fall off without burning himself. the girl doesn’t speak; she seems too busy unpacking, clearing out small stones so they can lay down their sleeping bags.

“i still don’t like this,” she grumbles. both boys ignore her. taehyung closes his eyes, trying to tilt his head back as silently as he can. the meat smells good, and he’s so hungry, and even if the thought of eating like this turns his stomach, he can’t help the low rumbles that gnaw at his gut.

he thinks with a tinge of hysteria that if nothing else gives him away, his stomach will.

taehyung has resigned himself to falling asleep in the tree by the time the deer is cooked. he manages to shift into a more comfortable position, his back braced against the trunk, weight fully supported by the branch, without being noticed. at least in a forest like this no one bothers to think twice about some rustling from above.

it’s almost full nightfall, and the group below him is gnawing contentedly on their dinner, looking self-satisfied and well fed. taehyung takes slow sips of his water and tries to roll out his neck.

it’s almost full nightfall, almost time for the anthem to start, when taehyung hears it.

a low hum, from a few branches above him.

taehyung looks up, and hopes it’s not what he thinks it is. in the darkness it’s hard to see, but taehyung can just make out the shrouded shape. about the size of a raccoon, too-perfectly spherical, hanging a few inches below a branch.

a wasp nest.

not just any wasps. taehyung has seen more tracker jacker nests than he can count.

back home, almost everyone has been stung. taehyung can remember his first time—he had been seven. too skinny and too uncoordinated. he’d knocked into the wrong branch while picking oranges.

in the orchards, when a child gets stung, no one stops for more than a moment. taehyung had fallen to the ground, had screamed his way through the pain and hallucinations and passed out. he’d woken up in his father’s arms, being carried back home after sunset. the first time had been his father. the times after that, it had been seokjin’s arms, seokjin’s broad shoulders.

he remembers carrying minji home. and daesung. always after nightfall, never knowing until he’d waited outside the orchards to bring them home and had found one of them curled on the ground, stained by dirt and tears and sometimes vomit.

if taehyung gets stung, the venom won’t kill him, but he’ll fall from the tree, and the other tributes will do the rest.

if taehyung gets stung, the venom won’t kill him. he’s built up some sort of tolerance, has learned how to treat the stings; the last time, a year ago, he’d only passed out for a handful of minutes after spitting the leaves out onto the back of his hand. had managed to escape punishment for missing work. if anyone else gets stung, though—if the tributes below him get stung, get swarmed—

he’ll be free. to check his traps, to eat, to get more water. to live, for another precious handful of hours.

the climb is hard, made harder when taehyung realizes that he’ll have to make it without being noticed, will have to cut the branch off during the anthem to mask the noise. taehyung’s palms are raw from the scrape of bark by the time he climbs close enough to the nest’s branch. he reaches back to tug out his knife as soon as he stabilizes himself, and the leather of the handle smarts against his skin.

only minutes left. there’s no sun left in the sky, but the unnatural stillness that always precedes the anthem hasn’t fallen yet. taehyung takes a deep breath, presses his knuckles to his lips.

it’s a stupid, terrible idea. almost as sure to kill him as jumping out of the tree and announcing himself to the group below. and maybe it’s that thought that makes him look down. maybe taehyung is overthinking it, maybe he should just wait until they fall asleep to make his escape.

but taehyung looks down through the branches, and locks eyes with park jimin, crouching silently a few meters away from the camp.

for a moment, taehyung thinks he’s hallucinating already. but jimin is looking at him, a quizzical sort of smile on his lips, and taehyung glances up at the trail of smoke from the cooking fire.

he doesn’t know why he does it. doesn’t know why he warns him.

but taehyung tilts his head toward the wasp nest, watches jimin’s eyes go wide with realization, and makes a sawing motion with his knife. he points down, and jimin’s quizzical smile twists into something vicious.

thanks, he mouths, or maybe taehyung is reading too much into the shadows of the forest.

park jimin vanishes back into the underbrush, like he hadn’t existed in the first place, and taehyung barely has time to think about it.

the birds go silent, the air goes still, and the anthem begins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxiii.

 

 

as soon as taehyung starts sawing on the branch, a blister bursts on his palm.

the capitol anthem is loud, the seal illuminating the arena as he works. back, forth. back, forth. when he makes a groove it’s easy enough; when the branch shakes, taehyung holds his breath.

by the glowing light of the seal, he sees a gold-plated tracker jacker crawl lazily along the surface of the nest.

crack. something in the branch snaps, and taehyung’s hand halts. nothing. no one looks up and yells, no swarm emerges to sting him to death. he goes back to work quickly, quietly.

when the branch starts to tremble at every back, at every forth, taehyung feels a stabbing pain at the back of his neck and knows that his time is running out. another few inches, another few minutes before the venom works its way through his system. taehyung fights back tears and tightens his grip.

an inch more, and the seal vanishes. the music cuts out. taehyung sits frozen in the dark with tears welling in his eyes and the world spinning around him as he tries to remember to breathe, as he tries to make a decision.

another sting on the back of his hand makes the decision for him.

taehyung’s hand burns with the sting; even in the dark he can make out the inch-long barb in his skin. he jerks his hand forward, forces the knife through the last few sinews of wood, and shoves the branch as far away from himself as he can.

one last sting, on his knee, and the nest topples to the ground.

seconds later, the screams begin.

taehyung bites down hard on his lower lip, fumbles through the dark to dig the stingers out of his skin. if he doesn’t, with this many, he’ll die. the screams of the tributes below him mix with the violent buzz of wasps, as they swarm and sting over and over and over again. taehyung clings to the trunk of the tree, knife shoved hastily into his pack, as the venom burns its way through his veins. from the swelling lumps on his skin into his blood, into his bone.

taehyung tastes blood. he’s shaking violently by the time he makes it to the ground, climbing down away from the swarm. his legs buckle when he tries to stand.

it’s unbearable. it’s like being on fire. taehyung stumbles forward, no thought but away. every step is impossible.

soon, the steps are lashes hot and heavy at his back, and taehyung falls to the ground. curls into himself like a child, refuses to scream.

his back is raw and bloody—he can feel it staining the ground below him, can taste the hysteria clawing at his skin. the daylight burns his eyes, seokjin in the town square—the peacekeeper behind him, his brother’s wide shoulders painted with blood.

stop, taehyung tries to scream, and chokes. the old woman from the bakery holds him back as he sobs, as every lash cuts deeper into skin, as taehyung bleeds on the forest floor and digs stinging lines into his own forearms.

get up taehyung-ah, his father urges, one gentle hand smoothing hair back from taehyung’s forehead. taehyung blinks at him, tries to reach out, gasps at the burn of the whip on his back. come on, up. you can do it. here, why don’t you take a bite.

he holds out his hand, and taehyung parts his lips to warn him, and blood blooms on his father’s dirty shirt as red as the apple in his hand.

the whip comes down again. and again. the barbed wire fence is digging into taehyung’s wrists, his arms.

his mother stands close, rotted flesh dripping away from too prominent cheekbones. she holds daesung close, wraps her skinless arms around him, presses one white-knuckle hand to muffle his cries of taehyung, taetae.

too late, she whispers. they both collapse to piles of ash, and the whip doesn’t stop, and taehyung bites a scar into the flesh of his own hand and screams, and screams, and screams.

until his throat is raw to bleeding and the world fades into nothing, taehyung screams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

interlude.

 

 

four years ago, seokjin had watched the hunger games from the wheat fields, projected onto a sheet of linen for every field to watch as they worked. to watch as namjoon rose to the top ten, the top five, the top three. seokjin had watched in shocked horror as the shy boy he remembered from school had stabbed a stranger, wired a bomb underneath the cornucopia. he, and every other worker in the field, had stood stunned as the final cannons went off, eyes trained on the projection.

now, though, he can barely make himself watch. seokjin stares down at his hands, rough and tanned, and refuses to look up.

“jin,” the woman next to him says. heeyeon, he thinks. “jin, you need to watch this.”

“stop,” he replies, and takes a step forward to keep working. her hand lands heavy on his shoulder, dragging him back. “i need to finish this row.”

“jin, he’s—” seokjin looks up, finally, his back to the screen. and—the whole field is watching, backs straight for the first time in hours. the sun’s long set, but he can still see the expressions of horror, of shock.

maybe it makes him selfish, maybe it makes him awful, but seokjin can’t watch his brother die.

for the first time in a few hours, the speakers come on. the nation’s anthem blares through, blankets the fields in trumpets and strings. seokjin bites down on rage.

“please,” heeyeon says, and uses her grip on his shoulder to turn him around.

the projection is too big to ignore. taehyung’s face is taller than their house, now, illuminated by the night cameras. at first seokjin is confused, doesn’t know why everyone is staring until the camera pans out. the confusion ebbs into horror, and seokjin feels himself grow roots.

not even the supervisors seem to care that work has halted. they’re all too busy watching taehyung cut down a tracker jacker nest.

the first time taehyung is stung, flinching soundlessly as he works under the blare of the anthem, the collective gasp that goes up echoes from the fields around them. seokjin’s gut twists; he remembers carrying taehyung home after he’d lain collapsed on the ground of the orchards for hours, remembers taehyung’s eyes rolling in the back of his head when he’d been stung working next to seokjin in the fields.

he can’t watch this. seokjin can’t watch, but now that he’s started, he can’t turn away.

the second time taehyung is stung, someone makes a low noise of horror. the third time, seokjin hears someone start crying. and then the nest falls, and taehyung grips on to the trunk of the tree like it’s the only thing keeping him above ground. he looks sick. looks how seokjin feels as the camera shifts to the writhing bodies below.

the tributes scream and swell and ooze sickly looking pus as they’re stung over and over, until they’re nothing more than distorted, disgusting masses of flesh. someone throws up, and is dragged away by a peacekeeper. no one else moves.

they watch as a collective as taehyung half-falls from the tree. as he stumbles away, like every step is agony. as he falls to the ground and convulses, his eyes glazing over.

“please,” taehyung wheezes, slurred and distorted, broadcasted from speakers across the district. “please, stop.”

the scars on seokjin’s back ache. when taehyung starts sobbing, starts clawing at his own arms, seokjin sits down heavily in the dirt.

the grain obscures his vision, but he can still hear when taehyung starts screaming. starts screaming, and doesn’t stop.

seokjin is a selfish man. he lets his friends, his district around him watch as his brother suffers, and can do nothing but brace his head in his hands and wait for the sound of a cannon.

but it doesn’t come. heeyeon hooks one strong arm underneath seokjin’s shoulder and hauls him up, barely giving him time to wipe the tears from his face.

he’s barely in time to see the shadowed form of the district two tribute, the one who’d killed his allies in cold blood, creep out from the foliage around taehyung’s body. taehyung is still twitching, and park approaches him cautiously, like he’s wondering if the venom is going to finish what it started. seokjin grips bruises into heeyeon’s bicep.

park reaches out to push taehyung onto his back, still crouching warily, and then everything is a blur of motion.

taehyung moves, too quickly for seokjin to make sense of. it looks like senseless, panicked thrashing, until he catches the glint of steel.

park yelps, and scrambles away with one hand pressed to his arm. taehyung is still thrashing, his eyes pressed shut tight and his screams muffled by the foam dotting his lips. he goes unnaturally still as park heaves for breath a few meters away, staring. taehyung’s eyelids flutter open, revealing nothing but smooth white.

between taehyung and park, the knife taehyung had used to sever the branch from the tree lies, glittering with dark blood. taehyung doesn’t move when park disappears back into the trees, blood seeping from between his fingers. taehyung doesn’t move when the hovercraft appears to collect the bodies of the tributes he’d murdered.

taehyung doesn’t move, but still the cannon doesn’t sound.

“i’ll take the kids home with me,” heeyeon whispers, as the peacekeepers start to herd everyone out of the field. seokjin nods absently, eyes fixed to the projection. the peacekeepers look right past him when they shove heeyeon forward; a small mercy.

seokjin sits up with taehyung for the rest of the night, alone but for the gentle snapping of linen in the breeze and the constant pain of hunger in his abdomen, and waits for a cannon that never comes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxiv.

 

 

taehyung wakes up, and wishes immediately that he hadn’t. this isn’t the awful, distant blur of the venom wearing off. that had felt more like floating with his own blood in his ears miles above his body; this is sharp, and cruel, and when taehyung tries to move his arms his muscles scream and pain digs into his temple like a pickaxe.

if he had any water left in him, taehyung would cry from the frustration and hopelessness that had slipped into his bloodstream with the venom. he wants to scream, to pound against the earth at the unfairness of it all.

it could have been so easy, to die. he doesn’t have any medicine for the stings, could have saved seokjin and daesung and minji the pain of watching him murdered. taehyung digs his fingers into the dirt beneath him, the only movement he has the energy for, and wonders if he should bother getting up.

someone will find him, if he doesn’t starve. if he doesn’t waste away like his mother, if no mutt or natural animal doesn’t decide he’s an easy meal. someone will find him, and he won’t have to worry anymore about staying alive.

you’re gonna try to win, daesung’s voice echoes accusingly. taehyung thinks of the horrible hallucinations, all the ways he’d seen daesung dead in the games; body pinned to the ground with a spear in his chest in front of the cornucopia, floating lifeless face-down on the pond with lilies growing into his ribs.

i’m sorry, daesung-ah. taehyung closes his eyes, licks his dry tongue out over his chapped lips. every part of him feels dry, feels sore and lifeless. i can’t.

no one likes a suicidal tribute. when taehyung was maybe ten, too young to be reaped but old enough to understand what he was watching, the girl from district eleven had run into the bloodbath with open arms, had flung herself on top of the largest pile of weapons and closed her eyes. he’s seen children younger than him face down a charging mutt, wade into a lake without knowing how to swim, fall onto their own knives and spears and swords.

this is nothing so violent, he thinks. he’ll just wait, and maybe if he’s lucky he won’t have to wait long enough to starve.

as it turns out, he doesn’t. it could be an hour or six later that taehyung hears quiet rustling from the trees around him, the gentle crack of leaves under boots. it could be that whoever is approaching doesn’t know that taehyung is here; it could be that they know he isn’t a threat.

taehyung doesn’t bother to open his eyes when he hears the footsteps stop, a few meters away from him.

“are you awake?” a familiar voice asks, and a cold chill works its way down taehyung’s curved spine. his breathing picks up without his permission; his fingernails dig deeper into the dirt.

taehyung opens his eyes to find park jimin watching him. he doesn’t look like he’s about to pounce and slit taehyung’s throat—if anything, he looks curious. his head is tilted like he can’t quite figure taehyung out.

taehyung blinks, and figures that’s enough of an answer. he doesn’t want to know how much speaking would hurt right now.

park jimin has two squirrels with broken necks in vine-woven traps slung over one shoulder. his jacket is draped over the other arm, a bundle of sticks held stiffly against his torso, like he’s injured. taehyung wonders what happened to him. wonders how long it’s been since he cut down the nest.

“did you make these traps?” he asks, lifting them up slightly. taehyung blinks again, hopelessly confused. he’s ready to die. he’s okay with being killed by park jimin, who has a better chance of winning than anybody. he just doesn’t understand why it hasn’t happened yet.

“are you going to kill me?” taehyung asks. his voice is wrecked; he’s not even sure the first few words were audible. taehyung hunches further into himself, barely has the energy to turn his face and cough up blood from his throat onto the leaves beneath his cheek.

jimin looks at him curiously again. he shrugs.

“you could have killed me with that nest,” he says. his voice is flat, but hints at something purposefully suppressed. “i don’t like owing people favors. odds are someone else will get to you eventually.”

taehyung expects him to leave. to take taehyung’s spoils and vanish into the forest, and leave him to the odds. instead, jimin drops the traps carefully and follows them down, sitting cross-legged as he starts to arrange the bundle of sticks in front of him with what must be his good hand.

“what—” taehyung starts, and breaks off into another wracking cough that burns, that makes every muscle in his body scream as he tries to brace himself against the ground. jimin just watches, never stops watching.

“i’m not going to kill you,” he decides. like it doesn’t matter to him. like taehyung isn’t worth the effort. “i’m going to cook dinner.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxv.

 

 

when jimin rolls him a bottle of water, taehyung thinks he’s hallucinating again. the metal bottle stops half a meter away, and taehyung stares at it like it’s going to bite him. jimin doesn’t look concerned, just keeps inspecting the fire to make sure it doesn’t get too big. he’d dragged over a few flat stones to ring around it while taehyung watched, and has the skinned and cleaned squirrels lying flat on them to cook without burning.

“it’s not poisoned,” jimin says drily, after taehyung still hasn’t touched it for a long few minutes. “i’ve already said i’m not going to kill you.”

taehyung watches as jimin uses a few sticks to flip over the squirrels, checking the tenderness.

finally, taehyung reaches out. there’s needles in his skin as he drags the bottle closer, twists it open with shaking hands. he manages to push himself into a sitting position, the fire between him and jimin, and he almost blacks out again. when the spots clear from behind his eyes, jimin is still watching him.

slowly, taehyung drinks. he expects every sip to kill him, but it’s nothing except soothing relief on his throat. when he tries to move his neck, though, the swollen lump of the sting sends a stabbing pain through his nerves, and taehyung ends up hunched over, fighting not to vomit up all the water.

“do you—” jimin starts, then pauses. there’s a considering silence, and taehyung breathes through it deliberately. he can’t lose any more fluid. “is there anything i can get you? to help?”

it’s the last thing taehyung had expected. he looks up through his bangs, at the harsh play of firelight on jimin’s face. he doesn’t look like he’s lying, looks genuinely concerned, but taehyung still knows better. knows that jimin had killed all five of his allies, probably without an ounce of remorse.

still, though, it would be stupid not to try.

“there’s,” he rasps, and takes another careful sip of water with his un-stung hand. “a plant. the leaves pull out the venom.”

he’d seen jimin at the vegetation station during training, knows that must have been in the course when jimin’s eyes light up in recognition as taehyung describes the leaves.

“i think i’ve seen some,” taehyung finishes. his throat hurts more with every word. “if you could find them.”

jimin thinks for a moment, then shrugs with his right shoulder. it’s his left arm that seems to be wounded; he holds it close, only moves it when he needs to. now that he’s sitting, taehyung can tell that his sleeve has been ripped off and torn into strips for bandages wrapped almost all the way down his bicep.

“watch the fire,” jimin says, after a moment. “i’ll see what i can do.”

taehyung almost laughs. if he did, though, he knows that he wouldn’t be able to stop, that the panic at jimin’s every move would boil over into hysteria.

when jimin is gone, vanished into the trees like he’s lived there his whole life, taehyung breathes a little easier. he inches closer to the small blaze, enough that he can feel the warmth on his face. this close, he can smell the meat cooking, and pain gnaws at his stomach in a way that tells taehyung that he’d been caught in the venom’s haze for longer than just a night.

jimin comes back not long after, and taehyung startles so hard he almost falls backward. jimin doesn’t react, just drops his two handfuls of leaves close to taehyung and takes his seat on the other side of the fire.

“how long has it been?” taehyung asks, barely audible over the quiet crackle of the fire. jimin looks at him, before turning back to flip the meat again. taehyung takes a few of the leaves, shoves them in his mouth, and has to forcefully convince his starving body not to swallow.

“two nights,” jimin answers. “i’ve been checking your snares. they’re good, you caught a rabbit yesterday.”

taehyung doesn’t ask jimin if he ate it. he just spits the wad of leaves out onto the back of his hand, and forces back a moan. it feels like the makeshift salve is leeching the poison out of his body, leaving his limbs weak with relief.

taehyung keeps half of the leaves to use later, and doesn’t speak when jimin pushes over one of the rocks for him to pick at the squirrel meat. it’s tough, and burns his fingers, but it’s the first thing taehyung has eaten in days and he could cry for it.

“thank you,” taehyung says. jimin snorts an insincere laugh.

“don’t thank me for not killing you.”

that night, taehyung expects jimin to leave. they put out the fire slowly, trying to stifle the smoke, and taehyung is still too weak to climb a tree for safety. he manages to get the sleeping bag out of his pack, and is shocked into stillness when jimin does the same.

“what?” jimin says, eyes narrowed. “i know you’re not stupid enough to try anything.”

it’s only when the fire is out, the anthem has blared through the sky with no deaths to speak of, that taehyung realizes that his knife is gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxvi.

 

 

taehyung wakes up alone. every part of him still aches, but he peels away the dried mess from the back of his hand to find that the swell of the sting has gone down, nothing left but an angry-looking lump.

across from the makeshift firepit, the only sign of jimin’s presence is the indent in the earth where he’d slept.

he doesn’t know what he expected. this late in the games, alliances start to fall apart. it’s only been a few days, though—taehyung’s stomach rumbles at the thought of sitting back in the dining room of the district eleven loft, breakfast spread out on the table in front of him. a week into the games, and taehyung has made it to the final five.

they’ve probably interviewed his family. maybe it was filmed while he was unconscious; maybe seokjin refused to speak, and slammed their door on the camera crew.

somehow taehyung doubts it, but it doesn’t hurt to dream. he doesn’t want anyone from the capitol near daesung.

when he finally has the energy to move, rolling up his sleeping bag with shaking arms, taehyung discovers that jimin has left him food.

dried strips of rabbit, laid out on a stone where jimin had unrolled his sleeping bag. taehyung bites his lip, sitting cross-legged in the dust.

he doesn’t have his knife. knows that jimin had taken it as a precaution, because he knows better than to trust anything except a tribute’s desperation to go home. even to himself taehyung can’t say honestly that he wouldn’t have tried, that he wouldn’t have jumped at the chance to take out the greatest obstacle between the forest around him and his family.

but without a weapon, he’s dead. no way to defend himself, no way to skin anything he catches. taehyung packs up slowly, gnawing on a strip of rabbit, and tries to think.

he doesn’t want to run into anyone. it’s only a matter of time before someone else dies, or until the gamemakers decide that they’re growing complacent, that the audience is growing bored. he needs to be armed when that happens, with something better than the heaviest rock his arms will let him throw.

the first thing he does is check his nearest snare. taehyung orients himself, checks the trees to figure out where he’d stumbled to in the haze of venom and hallucinations. he almost feels like a real person again, by the time he’s taken a break to apply another wad of leaves to his knee, hoping to fix the last of his limp.

taehyung makes his way back to the scene slowly. he can’t stop seeing the bodies in his mind, the way the district nine girl had twisted and writhed and screamed as she was stung over and over and over again. the bodies are long gone, but every time he blinks taehyung sees their swollen, leaking skin behind his eyelids.

he’d killed them. the tracker jackers had stung three children younger than taehyung to death, but he had killed them. they’re on his list.

taehyung throws up water and half-digested rabbit into the cavernous roots of a tree thicker around than his arm span.

he approaches the small clearing carefully. the nest should be abandoned, but he’s on high alert for the glitter of gold or the buzz of razor-sharp wings. the spot is almost unrecognizable, taehyung’s memories distorted from the violent shimmer of venom-induced hallucinations. in his mind, the ground is stained red and ugly; in reality, the dust is plain brown, unremarkable in every way.

the only signs of the horrors of days past are the rotting deer carcass and the empty wasp nest, cracked and splintered a few meters away from the roots of the tree.

taehyung is glad for the nausea of earlier; it means he has nothing in his stomach to empty when the smell hits him.

he tugs the spear out of the doe’s exposed ribs, startling the hundreds of flies that swarm to the meal, and cracks the shaft in two for a shorter range weapon. taehyung doesn’t look back for any other supplies when he leaves.

there are five tributes left, but taehyung refuses to let himself start to hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxvii.

 

 

the second day after the venom wears off, taehyung finds footprints in the grass around his southernmost snare. unease settles familiar in his gut; it’s been days since a cannon has gone off, days since the last confrontation he knows about.

it’s been strange, having such an unlimited amount of peace. taehyung has started to learn his routes, had stumbled across the nest of some wild bird the night before and managed to sneak a few eggs without disturbing much of anything. with the snares he gets maybe a catch a day, if he’s lucky. if park jimin isn’t still hanging around, picking off taehyung’s kills for easy food.

somehow, taehyung doesn’t think the footprints are his. he hasn’t seen jimin leave any before; not from the makeshift camp they’d shared for a night, not from any other of the snares taehyung noticed had been relaid.

this speaks to someone clumsier, someone perhaps almost as deadly but lacking the finesse of jimin’s trained predator.

even if they aren’t hunting him specifically, if they hadn’t seemed to notice the trap they’d walked right by, proximity is the most dangerous circumstance of the games. it’s never good to be trapped into a fight. desperation makes tributes dangerous, gives them an edge taehyung won’t have if he’s half starved and as good as unarmed.

taehyung thinks that it’s probably time to move on.

he pulls all his traps, refills his bottle in the lily pond one last time, and starts walking upstream of the river that feeds into the pond. from the highest branch of a tree taehyung had been able to spot the cornucopia, gleaming gold in between the forest and the lake. there’s nothing left in it by now, taehyung knows, even the most unwieldy of weapons dragged away by long-dead tributes, but it could make good shelter.

it could make good shelter if taehyung is the first one there. if he manages to overpower whoever might have already made camp.

taehyung clenches his teeth and kicks a stone into the river. it’s better than sitting around in the forest, waiting for the someone else jimin had mentioned. a someone else without a debt to repay.

there’s nothing to do in the silence of the journey but think. it’s at least a few hours’ walk, progress made in a haze of panic on the first two days of the games. there’s nothing to do but think about the possibility that taehyung is walking to his own death, that he’s playing right into the gamemakers’ hands.

he doesn’t know what the announcers might have asked seokjin. every interview is somehow different; the crews always do their research, to make it that much more personal. taehyung knows the last question, though—the one that’s always the same.

do you think he can win, they’ll have asked taehyung’s family, his mentor, his neighbors.

taehyung doesn’t expect any of them to have said yes, except maybe namjoon. it’s namjoon’s job more than anyone to keep him alive, but even he can’t do that without money from sponsors.

sponsors taehyung doubts he has, even this late in the games.

he chews slowly on a strip of rabbit and hopes that this time he’ll be able to keep it down. fatigue is heavy in his bones; taehyung wonders how much longer it will take before his muscles start to waste away, before he falls to some disease his body is too weak to fight.

odds are taehyung won’t make it that long, since he’s walking into the jaws of an unknown beast.

too soon, even after taehyung recklessly finishes two of his four remaining strips, he feels his body start to give out. taehyung blinks back frustrated tears, tightening his grip on the broken-off spear as he pauses to refill his water in the stream.

taehyung stops on a rock formation overlooking the stream. he spreads himself out on his back and closes his eyes, letting the sun and the stone warm him from the outside in. it’s the smallest of comforts, brings the memory of the sun filtering through the highest leaves of the trees in the orchard to sprawl across his face as he picked.

he takes a moment to breathe, to listen to the soft call of mockingjays and the rustle of the trees and the babble of the stream beneath him.

and the sound of harsh, labored breathing coming from somewhere below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxviii.

 

 

taehyung wants to believe he’s imagining it. he presses himself closer to the stone underneath his back and opens his eyes, staring up at the midday sky. it’s deceptively bright, uncomfortable as taehyung squints up and listens, tries to judge whether whatever is underneath him is moving, has noticed him.

there’s the rustle and rip of fabric, a soft human noise of pain. taehyung inhales as quietly as he can, feels with one palm the rise of his own ribs. his other hand fumbles across the stone to wrap around the shaft of his spear.

taehyung doesn’t move. whoever it is hasn’t noticed him; if he’s quiet, if he’s careful, he can slip away unnoticed. he bites down on his lip, uses one hand to push himself up. the healing blister on his palm scrapes against the stone.

a dry, twisted laugh echoes from beneath him. there’s no humor in it, no amusement in park jimin’s distinctive voice. this isn’t the tinkling laughter of an interview, not in the wasteland of the arena.

jimin has his knife. it’s the first thing taehyung thinks; the only reasonable explanation. he’s not likely to get it back, but—

but, for whatever reason, jimin had helped him. had given him food and water and brought taehyung medicine instead of slitting his throat while he lay unconscious for days.

as quietly as he can, taehyung climbs down from the rock. he’s making enough noise to be distinguishable, enough that jimin can probably hear him. he approaches the bank slowly, carefully, holding his spear as steadily in front of him as he can.

park jimin is sitting on the bank of the river, backpack and jacket discarded, holding the familiar knife more comfortably than taehyung had ever managed.

“i’m strong enough to kill you,” jimin says lowly. both of his shirtsleeves are torn off; wrapped around his left bicep are strips of brown fabric, soaked dark with stream water. red, taut looking skin shows from under the edges.

“what happened?” taehyung forgets himself for a moment, slips into surprised curiosity. the wound must be days old—there hasn’t been a cannon since taehyung had woken after the venom, and he knows better than to think a career as vicious as jimin would leave any challenger alive.

jimin doesn’t answer. he doesn’t lower the knife, even after taehyung’s arm has fallen to his side.

“leave me alone,” he says. there are dark bags under his eyes. his hand doesn’t shake, the point of the knife doesn’t waver, but taehyung knows exhaustion when he hears it. “leave and i won’t kill you yet.”

“maybe you should have already,” taehyung replies. his throat still aches, even after he’d finished coughing blood the day before.

park jimin smiles without showing his teeth. it’s a cruel, self-deprecating thing.

“maybe you’re right.”

for a moment, there’s nothing but the quiet rush of the river beside them. for a moment, jimin lowers the knife.

“wait here,” taehyung says, offering no other explanation, and turns on his heel to walk away.

he doubts jimin will listen, but taehyung is too stubborn—or stupid or lonely or desperate for some sort of contact that isn’t killing—to not try.

the first thing he finds, eyes scouring leaves and roots and every inch of greenery, is houseleek. then arnica, in a small clearing he almost overlooks. goldenrod, yarrow, a half-dead patch of st. john’s wort.

at home, the peacekeepers had only seen the flowers. had scoffed at wasting the time and energy on more plants, more useless life in their half-dead district.

two weeks after the sanitation officers had come for their mother’s body, taehyung had used half the flowers in the garden to soothe the lashes on seokjin’s back. the rest had died, withered away with no one there to water or tend them, but taehyung refuses to forget the voice whispering their names in his ear.

by the time he makes it back to the creek, the sun has almost set. the last few rays cast ominous shadows through the forest as taehyung dodges through trees, follows his memory and carefully left footsteps back to the rocks.

when the turns the corner, jimin isn’t sitting on the riverbed. taehyung stops, something unpleasant building in his throat, his fingers tugging at the pulled-up hem of his shirt.

“over here,” jimin murmurs, and the thing in taehyung’s throat slithers down to rest in his stomach. he’s resting with this back against the largest stone, head tipped back. taehyung’s knife is balanced between his knees. “didn’t think you’d come back.”

taehyung shrugs, and sits down a careful distance away. he works quietly, always aware of jimin’s eyes on him.

he doesn’t have any oil, which means he has to work with small amounts of water. taehyung keeps his eyes on his own hands as he works.

“here,” taehyung says, and offers out his full hand. the houseleek needs the least preparation, might at least do some good overnight as everything else floats for hours in his water bottle before they’re ready to be used. jimin blinks at him in the fading light.

“you don’t have to do this,” he says. taehyung just looks at him. something in his chest aches, something that wants to remember the embrace of his siblings and the quiet chatter in the fields, the work songs hummed under their breath in haunting unison as they walked out of their homes before dawn.

“i know,” taehyung replies quietly. he meets jimin’s eyes, and doesn’t look away.

maybe that’s what makes jimin reach out in return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxix.

 

 

jimin unwraps the fabric from around his arm slowly. the strips fall to the ground bloodstained and damp from the stream, and taehyung gets his first real look at the injury.

it’s ugly and raw. one long slash, curving from his outer shoulder to his inner arm, deep and ugly. it hasn’t even started to scab over; jimin’s flesh is pink and inflamed, pus still leaking though he’d obviously tried to clean it.

“who…” taehyung trails off, rubbing a petal between his fingers. jimin doesn’t look at him, just dabs the makeshift ointment around the edges of the cut with nothing more than a quiet hiss of pain.

taehyung feels nauseated just looking at it. mottled, swollen, infected. he’s only seen wounds like this a few times, on people too prideful to ask for help after punishments.

jimin hides the pain well. taehyung can’t imagine what it feels like, stares in horror as jimin re-wraps his arm with the makeshift bandages, as he settles back against the boulder with half-lidded eyes. the only indication is the sweat beaded on his forehead, the hot flush in his cheeks.

if the wound is infected, since the wound is infected, he must be running a fever. taehyung bites down on his lip and straightens out the plants in front of him.

“why,” he starts, and pauses. jimin blinks at him. he looks more vulnerable like this, when he’s not illuminated by firelight. soon enough taehyung won’t be able to see him at all. “why haven’t you gotten anything? to treat it.”

jimin’s lip quirks up at the side. he turns his head, looks across the river to the darkness of the forest beyond.

“i doubt i’m very high in anyone’s favor,” he says quietly. taehyung swallows, glances down. there’s nothing more to be done right now, but he aches for something to do with his hands. “you know i killed them all, right?”

jimin sounds like he’s waiting for an answer. half amused, half exhausted. taehyung gives him a nod, and nothing else.

“the first few days we’re supposed to play nice. stun everyone with our charming personalities, or something like that. but i’m not here to make anyone like me.” jimin drags his finger down the blade of taehyung’s knife, slow and deliberate. the threat hangs in the air, weighs down the space between them.

taehyung forces a smile. it’s insincere and stretches his face strangely—he hasn’t had much reason to smile, in the last few weeks. jimin’s eyes flick from the glint of the knife in the darkness to the quiet fidgeting of taehyung’s hands in his lap.

“you should leave,” jimin finally says. he sags back, his legs tuck tighter to his chest. this time when he looks away, he props his chin on his knees.

“you’re running a fever,” taehyung says. “your cut is infected. if i leave and you’ve lost your sponsors, you’ll be dead in a week.”

“you don’t sound as happy about it as you should.” jimin laughs—that short, cruel laugh, so different than the sound from the interview. taehyung wonders which of them is real.

“i promised i’d try to win,” he murmurs. the words are snached away from his lips by the twilight breeze; taehyung pulls his jacket a little tighter around himself and hugs his backpack close to his chest. “i didn’t promise to become a monster.”

he imagines that namjoon is furious with him. or maybe not—taehyung thinks back to the girl who’d been reaped alongside namjoon, the way namjoon had given her his sleeping bag and fed her before himself, the way he’d held her as she bled out on the point of a career’s throwing knife.

this is admittedly different, but taehyung can’t make himself leave. can’t resign himself to that kind of solitude again, even if it means jimin will kill him for it.

“i did what i had to,” jimin says into the darkness. “i’m not ashamed of that.”

taehyung wishes he could agree. he wishes he hadn’t been woken up twice the night before with screaming memories of the bodies the tracker jackers had stung to death.

“i’m ashamed,” taehyung says, as firmly as he can. “i never wanted to hurt anyone.”

“but you volunteered. just the same as i did.”

taehyung tastes bile. he’s the one who looks away this time, away from jimin’s glittering eyes.

“it’s not the same,” he tries, but it sounds weak. “he would have died.”

taehyung knows that if daesung were here in his place, jimin would have killed him in the bloodbath without a thought. would have tracked him for sport after he murdered his allies.

“he might die anyway,” jimin points out. taehyung closes his eyes against the words. he can’t think about that, can’t think about how much—how little—daesung might be eating. he and seokjin had survived on barely anything; now there will be less food to feed nearly the same appetites. “was putting it off worth becoming a killer?”

killer. the word echoes in taehyung’s head. it’s what everyone becomes, in the arena. it’s what namjoon had become, on the first day. what taehyung had become on the third.

taehyung stands up sharply. he swings his bag over his shoulder, but leaves his water and the herbs soaking in it on the flat stone he’d dragged over. his legs threaten to give out under him, but taehyung forces himself to stay upright.

jimin looks up at him. he seems angry, or—taehyung doesn’t know. can’t see anything beyond whatever mask jimin has put up.

“i’ll be back in the morning,” he says.

jimin doesn’t seem to believe him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxx.

 

 

taehyung lays his snares early the next morning. the sun has barely risen, just enough light filtering through the leaves for him to watch his steps, careful and measured. as he goes he gathers what he can, berries and roots tucked away in the pockets of his jacket as he works.

in the quiet dawn, it’s almost easy to forget where he is. there’s no question that he’s going back to jimin, but taehyung can’t make himself just yet. instead he walks, making sure he can hear the hush of the river as he goes.

when he steps into the dandelions, taehyung closes his eyes.

chew the leaves, he remembers. one strong hand on his back, his first day in the fields. seokjin had still been young enough for reapings, but to taehyung he looked ancient, lines worn into his face already. they’re weeds, but it helps.

taehyung bends down, and digs the roots out carefully.

“miss you,” he whispers. selfishly, horribly, he hopes the cameras don’t catch it.

he’s not doing his family any favors for staying alive this long. this won’t help them when he dies at the end, if they start hoping for an impossibility.

he walks back to jimin’s rock, because he hadn’t heard a cannon in the night. the games have slowed down; eventually, the gamemakers will force them all back into motion.

jimin had fallen asleep sitting up. his head is tilted back, hair strewn in a mess across his forehead. taehyung’s knife is still balanced across jimin’s lap, and he’s almost tempted to steal it back.

but jimin’s eyes blink open when he hears the crunch of footsteps, and even if his gaze is bleary and confused, his fingers wrap around the handle like he’d been born with it in his hands.

“morning,” taehyung says. he sits down in the patch of pebbles and dust that holds his imprint from the night before, and reaches for his water bottle.

jimin inhales, deep and raspy. he blinks slowly, and taehyung looks close enough for the first time to notice the flush on his cheeks. the sweat on his forehead.

“jimin?” he says. jimin’s knuckles go white with the force of his grip. “it’s—taehyung, do you remember?”

he waits. his fingers shake around the bottle, fumbling with the lid.

slowly, painfully, jimin nods. his bangs are almost long enough that they cover his eyes, and taehyung is left half-blind, wrong-footed. he can’t tell whether or not jimin will cut him, if taehyung gives him the chance.

“i have medicine.” jimin doesn’t respond. taehyung pushes himself up into an unsteady crouch, held up only by the last two strips of rabbit jimin had given him, eaten before he’d dropped down from the tree early in the morning.

jimin licks his lips, blinks again slowly in taehyung’s direction.

“leave me alone,” he manages. it sounds more like a groan, gritted out through clenched teeth. he’s holding his left arm close to himself, shoulders hunched in like he’s been cornered.

taehyung inhales slowly, and fights his own unease. he should leave. if not for his own sake, then for seokjin’s. daesung’s. namjoon’s even; so they don’t have to watch him killed by a boy whose life he’d saved.

but then—who in the games can claim to have saved a life, instead of taken it?

he inches forward slowly, gives enough warning that jimin knows he’s coming. jimin’s hand doesn’t move; the knife stays balanced over his thighs, but he watches taehyung with narrowed eyes through strands of sweat-damp hair.

“will you let me—” taehyung breaks off, sits down at jimin’s left, facing him. their knees just barely touch, and it sends something cold and uncomfortable creeping down taehyung’s spine. he reaches out slowly, tentatively.

jimin flinches when taehyung’s fingers brush his forehead. taehyung touches softly, heart pounding so loud in his ears he can barely hear the stream. adrenaline makes his mouth dry; approaching a predator is never easy.

the heat underneath the pads of his fingers is alarming. it’s difficult to believe that jimin is still lucid, present enough to watch taehyung’s movements and offer out his bandaged arm.

this close, taehyung can smell it.

“oh,” he murmurs, barely aware of himself, when the bandages fall away again. the houseleek might have helped a day or two ago; last night, it had been fighting a losing battle. taehyung swallows back nausea, sees the firm pressure of jimin’s pursed lips.

“i can’t help the fever,” taehyung says. he tries not to breathe through his nose. jimin nods, barely there. it’s nothing that will be cured with the herbs taehyung knows; either jimin sweats it out and survives to beat the infection, or someone forgives him enough to send medicine. “i’ll clean it, but we need to find shelter.”

he doesn’t think to immediately question the we. for once, jimin doesn’t argue.

taehyung dips one of the few clean edges of cloth into his water bottle; presses soaked leaves and water into the wound to clear away pus and fluid. he takes two trips down to the bank to wring out the bandages, wraps it up as tight as jimin can stand, and sits back on his heels.

jimin’s eyes had fallen shut somewhere in the process. he licks his lips again, breaths slow and measured. impeccably in control, for now.

“you know,” jimin starts. his voice is hoarse, despite the water taehyung had held to his lips. “if i die from this.”

“don’t.” taehyung stares at jimin’s fingers. they still haven’t let go of the knife.

“kim taehyung.” jimin says his name, slow and purposeful. taehyung doesn’t look up. “if i die from this. my name goes on your list.”

he says it like it’s funny. when taehyung forces his gaze back to jimin’s face, there’s no mirth there. only jimin’s eyes, dark and slitted, looking back at him. he swallows the uncomfortable tightness in his throat.

“let’s go,” he says, instead of answering. he supposes that’s an answer in itself. jimin nods again, and turns his face away.

it feels almost good, to make the choice for himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxi.

 

 

taehyung doesn’t know how long they follow the river, looking for any sign of shelter. they walk with jimin’s good arm slung over taehyung’s shoulder, taehyung’s hand clamped firmly around his waist. it’s slow, and exhausting, and every time jimin stumbles he threatens to bring taehyung down with him.

jimin doesn’t speak. whenever taehyung looks, his eyes are half-closed, jaw clenched. sweat drips down the side of his face and runs into the collar of his shirt. it seems like an impossibility that he’s still moving, still standing.

“you don’t know where we’re going,” jimin grits out, when the sun is high enough that it starts beating down on the backs of their necks. taehyung digs his fingers harder into the muscle underneath jimin’s skin.

“oh, and do you?” jimin sags, forcing taehyung to take even more of his weight. taehyung’s stomach cramps in hunger, his muscles protest the strain.

they keep walking in silence, after that. it’s a small mercy.

taehyung sees the rock formation long minutes before they manage to reach it. taller than the one they’d left, not as tall as the cornucopia. he tries not to hope, but when jimin blinks his eyes open to see it, he straightens. takes more of his own weight, through labored breaths.

“just a little farther,” taehyung murmurs, more to himself than jimin.

by the time they reach the rocks, taehyung is exhausted enough that he half-collapses into the shade, bracing one arm and his forehead against the cool stone as jimin slumps to the pebbled ground, his feet inches away from the water.

“i’ll—look around,” he says, and fumbles in his bag for his water bottle. he drinks half and hands it off, and looks away when he notices how violently jimin’s hand shakes when he reaches for it.

the first time taehyung walks around the boulders, he doesn’t see anything. some spots are hidden by thick bushes, with thorns and berries he doesn’t recognize; other spots are piled with smaller stones that must have crumbled from the top.

he makes it back to jimin after a long several minutes, and finds him curled up with his back against the boulder, eyes shut and brows furrowed and lips pursed out in pain.

taehyung tears off the sleeve of his own shirt, soaks it in the frigid river water, and presses it against jimin’s forehead. either jimin is asleep or he’s just too exhausted to protest; he sighs in relief, but doesn’t open his eyes.

with nothing better to do, with restlessness itching under his skin through the ache in his stomach, taehyung walks another slow lap. this time he pokes through the bushes with a snapped branch, walks closer to the precarious piles of stones.

and finds a cave, half blocked off by a rock as tall as he is and five or six times as heavy.

for a moment, he just stares. he can’t tell how deep the cave is or if there’s anything living in it, beyond the empty-looking, leaf-littered first meter or so, can’t tell if it’s waterproof, in case it starts to rain. but it’s something, at least.

taehyung picks up fist-sized rocks from the bank of the river, checking quietly on jimin when he passes, and throws them one by one through the opening, as hard as he can. nothing moves; the rocks clatter off the walls and the sound echoes back hollowly. short of lighting an actual fire and trying to make some kind of torch, it’s the most assurance taehyung is going to get.

“jimin,” he says, when he makes his way back to the bank. jimin’s mouth purses out, his eyes stay stubbornly closed. “wake up. jimin.”

“go away,” jimin mumbles.

“you need to get up. there’s a cave.”

“go away, jihyunnie,” jimin says, a little more cleanly. taehyung blinks.

when he pulls away the damp cloth, it’s warm to the touch. jimin’s face is burning; when his eyes finally roll open, they’re far-away and confused.

“come on,” taehyung urges, when he gets an arm behind jimin’s back. this time, when they walk, taehyung carries almost all of his weight. jimin is slow and sluggish and shaking with fever, and a nauseous kind of nerves settle in taehyung’s stomach as jimin stumbles, as he collapses onto the ground when they finally make it.

he does what he can. he forces water and berries down jimin’s throat, cleans the cut again and gives it air for a long hour in the late afternoon.

taehyung doesn’t know why the thought of jimin dying makes his heart beat faster with some kind of panic. at least right now he has something to do, something to think about that isn’t when he’s going to die. what seokjin’s face might look like, while reading his final letter.

when the sun starts to set and jimin starts to shiver in his fitful sleep, taehyung covers him in both their jackets and leaves the cave. he finds careful handholds, and pulls himself up as high as he can on the boulder.

taehyung watches the sunset from high above the ground, chewing on dandelion leaves to settle the hunger in his bones.

he thinks about minji picking apples in the orchards, daesung in the rice fields, watching him.

when the sun vanishes beyond the glimmering gold of the cornucopia, taehyung blows as hard as he can on the puff of the flower, and makes a wish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxii.

 

 

night comes cold and windy, howling in the mouth of the cave after taehyung crawls back in. the darkness is all-consuming, strips him of his sight and leaves him alone with jimin’s tremulous breaths and the rush of the river.

taehyung sleeps briefly, and wakes with a jolt every time he hears the snap of a branch. there’s something about the arena at night that terrifies him, something that makes him feel like he’s being swept into the undertow of the freezing river every time he looks out at the world.

“cold,” jimin mumbles. they’re braced up against opposite walls, the cave small enough that the toes of their boots brush.

jimin hadn’t been lucid enough to manage to get into a sleeping bag, and taehyung doesn’t have the strength to force it. he’d unzipped one as far as it went and draped it over him, but taehyung can still hear the plastic sound of fabric slipping as jimin shakes and twists and sweats.

taehyung waits, blinks into the empty space between them. jimin groans quietly, shifts a little, and falls back into silence.

hours into the night, the wind starts to quiet down. jimin wakes up more often, mumbles out words taehyung doesn’t think he should hear. at one point, when the howling has faded enough that taehyung can hear the crickets singing, jimin kicks off the sleeping bag entirely.

when taehyung reaches out, his skin feels even warmer than before.

making the trip down to the river is close to impossible. taehyung keeps his steps cautious, braces himself on the side of the rock as he moves slowly, wary of any loose stones. he almost walks into the river, despite the caution, but taehyung manages to wet the makeshift rag without being caught in the current.

he crawls back into the cave and tries not to collapse in quiet relief. his eyes have almost adjusted, can make out the reflective strips on jimin’s jacket as he lies curled on his side, hair in the dirt.

taehyung presses the cloth to his forehead, and sucks in a gasp when jimin’s clammy fingers wrap around his wrist.

“jihyun-ah,” he mumbles. taehyung bites down on his lower lip. jimin’s grip is tight, inescapable, dull nails digging into his skin. it hurts.

“jihyun. don’t, don’t.” jimin stumbles, trips on his own tongue. taehyung doesn’t know if his eyes are open, doesn’t think it would make a difference. “don’t volunteer.”

“jimin, wake up,” taehyung says, barely audible over the slowly-building roar of wind. jimin makes a displeased noise, and somehow manage to drag taehyung closer.

“tell him not to,” jimin says, insistent.

“jimin, it’s taehyung. wake up.” his words don’t do anything; taehyung tries to pull his wrist back and is shocked by jimin’s strength. the wind howls, taehyung’s throat tightens with nausea.

“taehyung,” jimin mumbles. “taehyung, taehyung. don’t let him go.”

“i won’t,” taehyung says desperately, and hopes it will make jimin let him go.

“tell jeonggukie. don’t let them lose—don’t go, don’t go.” jimin is losing what little grasp he’d had, his fingers slipping off of taehyung’s wrist like sand.

“go back to sleep,” taehyung whispers. his eyes sting; without his jacket, and one of his shirt sleeves, the cold is seeping into his bones.

“taehyung,” jimin says, one last time. the glint taehyung thinks he sees off of jimin’s eyes must be a trick of the nonexistent light.

“i’m here,” he promises. he wipes the cloth along jimin’s forehead, already warming up from the heat of his skin. he doesn’t know if jimin hears him or not, over the vicious wind. jimin’s hand falls back down to the dust with a quiet, muffled noise, and taehyung closes his eyes pointlessly against the image in his head of jimin, strewn on his back, chest no longer rising.

that night, taehyung barely sleeps. he keeps his fingers pressed against jimin’s limp wrist, feeling for a pulse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxiii.

 

 

morning dawns, and light filters in through the jagged crevice in the stone, and taehyung blinks his eyes open to find jimin watching him.

it’s hard to tell if he’s lucid. his skin is flushed, hair soaked from sweat or river water, his lips pale and eyes wet, but he’s breathing. he’s looking, through whatever haze the fever has put him in. taehyung leans forward, closes his eyes at the awful ache in his neck, in his spine.

jimin tries to push himself up on trembling arms. taehyung barely opens his eyes in time to see him fall onto his uninjured shoulder, teeth gritted. jimin groans, something small and pained, and refuses to meet taehyung’s eyes again.

“here,” taehyung says. he coughs the sleep out of his throat, tries to rub it out of his eyes with the back of his hand. he reaches out to help jimin up, biting his tongue when jimin’s fingers dig painfully into the flesh of his forearm as he sits with his back to the wall.

“water,” jimin rasps. taehyung fumbles with the bottle and holds it to jimin’s lips, tips it slowly so it doesn’t make a reappearance later. jimin sighs when taehyung pulls it away, half-empty, but doesn’t protest.

cleaning jimin’s wound is quickly becoming routine, but taehyung is almost out of supplies. the cloth they’ve been using as a bandage is dried stiff and bloody, the skin of jimin’s entire bicep is red and taut and burning where it’s not mottled green or leaking pus, and his fever hasn’t dropped.

if i die, jimin had said. at the time, with jimin still lucid, it hadn’t seemed real. now, though, it’s a possibility that twists taehyung’s stomach to consider.

he gags when he takes the trips down to the river to wring the pus and blood out of the bandages. it takes three, before it’s clean enough to dress again, and jimin makes small, terrible noises of pain as he does.

“who’s jihyun?” taehyung says, half-desperate to distract him. jimin opens his eyes for the first time since taehyung had started to clean his cut, blurry with confusion.

“what?” his voice is scratchy and raw, even though taehyung’s been steadily forcing him to drink from their bottle with purified water. taehyung grits his teeth as his fingers run along the swollen edge of the gash, and forces himself to keep his eyes on his work.

“jihyun. you were talking about him last night.” jimin frowns. he probably doesn’t remember any of last night. taehyung will be lucky if he remembers any of this at all.

“oh.” jimin blinks slowly. he’s silent for a moment, and taehyung thinks he’s forgotten the question until he licks at his chapped lips, breathing in slowly. “my little brother.”

taehyung’s stomach twists.

“how old is he?” he asks lightly, instead of biting down on bloody bandages and screaming.

“he—ah,” jimin chokes on pain as taehyung starts to wrap his arm again. “sixteen. and jeongguk.”

“who’s that?” taehyung pulls on a strip of fabric. jimin whimpers, the fingers of his good arm tangled tightly in the fabric of taehyung’s shirt.

“my—fuck, my best friend.” jimin pulls a little harder, drags taehyung a little closer. his fingers fumble on a knot, and he tries to avoid breathing in the smell of jimin’s rotting flesh. “he’s better than me. stronger.”

“why isn’t he here instead?” taehyung asks. it bites more than he intended, but jimin just huffs out a weak, unamused laugh.

“told him to wait. i wanted—stop.” the bandages are halfway up his arm now, halfway covering the cut. taehyung pauses, tries to lean back. jimin’s grip tightens; he grits his teeth and breathes determinedly through the pain. “okay. okay.”

“keep talking,” taehyung urges. he doesn’t know why. thinking about this makes him feel almost as sick as the pus sticking to his fingers; that jimin has a family, friends, people who might miss him just as much as taehyung’s family.

“i just—it was my last year. gukkie could beat me, always could, but. i was selfish. asked him to wait.” jimin’s voice is clipped, tight with the strain of holding himself still.

“this is selfish?” taehyung asks. he pulls lightly on the dangling end of an already-tied knot.

“you don’t understand,” jimin says, like it’s a bad thing.

“i don’t.” there’s something twisting in taehyung’s belly, something that makes him want to dig his fingers into the ugly wound just to make jimin hurt. he hates that he feels it, hates that he wants it. “i would never want to make my family watch this.”

“you have, though,” jimin says. he bares his teeth, eyes closed. ugly and sardonic and hot with pain. “don’t act like you’re better than me.”

taehyung bites down the retort on his tongue, and tightens the last knot.

“done,” he says, curt. jimin sags back, his fingers finally unwinding from taehyung’s shirt.

for a moment, the cave is quiet but for the sound of jimin’s jagged breathing. taehyung leans back against the opposite wall, ignores the gore on his hands to let himself drag in lungfuls of air.

“sorry,” jimin says. taehyung stares at the stone above jimin’s head, at the crack where the boulders meet. the word hangs heavy between them.

“we’re almost out of food,” taehyung finally says. “i set some snares back the way we came, if you’ll be okay on your own.”

jimin’s head rolls toward him, limp and exhausted.

“can’t exactly go anywhere,” he murmurs.

still, though, taehyung waits until jimin’s eyes droop shut and his breathing evens out before he crawls back into the daylight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxiv.

 

 

the trip back to where he had met jimin is shorter than taehyung remembers. this time he isn’t slowed down by extra weight, by an injured tribute and two backpacks and his own exhaustion. the hunger is ever-present and growing, but it’s familiar enough that taehyung can keep his legs steady beneath him.

taehyung takes off his boots and walks halfway in the river, hoping it will be enough to wash away his footprints. where he sees it he tries to erase any sign of the journey to the cave, but it’s hard enough to keep himself upright and on the lookout for anyone who might still be around.

he makes it back to the first rock formation by midday, if the sun beating down on his neck is any indication. taehyung takes the moment to breathe, to sit in the shade with his feet in the water.

the proximity to jimin has been stifling. close to unbearable, whenever taehyung forces himself to think about jimin’s knife in his back, when all of this is over. he closes his eyes and imagines seokjin berating him, and bites down on a smile or tears or both.

he’d like to see his brother one last time, even if it meant he were getting yelled at.

maybe he can convince jimin to make it fast. taehyung had seen him during training, had heard the rapid rhythm of the cannons as he’d killed his allies. he knows jimin is capable of it, and he thinks that after everything, he at least deserves some mercy.

taehyung doesn’t want to ask if it had been his knife. if he’d been the one to cut that infected wound into jimin’s arm, sometime in the blur of the tracker jacker venom.

your list. he doesn’t want to think about what jimin might do to someone who hurt him like that. who cut his odds down to a fraction of what they had been.

taehyung pulls his aching feet out of the river, and goes to check his traps.

the first one is undisturbed. taehyung pulls it up anyway and slings it around his neck, to set somewhere closer to shelter. he tries to remember where he’d found the herbs as he goes, and stumbles entirely on accident into the small clearing he’d found the flowers in when he gets turned around looking for the next snare.

by the time taehyung finally gathers his bearings, his backpack is half-full with careful bundles of plants for jimin’s wound and their own stomachs. he makes quick work after that, chewing slowly on handfuls of berries he’d tasted for the first time in the capitol, after years of growing them.

he hopes namjoon will buy daesung and minji something nice, when he goes back home. some of the fruits they never got to taste, maybe.

the second snare has caught a rabbit. the third has trapped some kind of wild bird, tough and indignant and squawking until taehyung forces himself to snap its neck. there’s more blood on his hands now.

taehyung loads the carcasses into his bag and scrubs at his skin in the river until the pads of his fingers are scraped raw.

he tugs his boots back on for the hike back to jimin. his whole body is covered in grime and dirt and sweat, and taehyung wants to take the moment to wash himself off, to reclaim some of his dignity, but the thought of leaving jimin alone for so long leaves him unsettled.

the weight of the pack drags him back to a slower pace. taehyung glares at the dirty toes of his boots as he walks, mindful of where he places his feet. the last thing he needs is a rolled ankle. the last thing he needs is to die sooner.

something feels wrong about the journey. there’s flies buzzing around taehyung’s ears, drawn in by death and the dirt on his cheeks, and taehyung bats at them until it feels like he’s losing his grip on the world underneath his feet.

he stops on the riverbank to down the rest of his water, and that’s when taehyung sees them.

footprints, leading him toward the cave. toward jimin. heavy and recent, impressed into the mud right where the water laps the shore.

taehyung throws his bottle back into his bag, and runs.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxv.

 

 

the panic is familiar, clawing its way up taehyung’s throat. he’s barely strong enough to run; every step jolts up through his spine all the way to his teeth. the vines of his traps beat against his shoulder, his backpack slams against his spine.

taehyung can’t hear anything over his own harsh gasps, the pounding of his feet against the pebbled bank.

he rounds the bend of the river and feels relief harsh in his gut when he sees the rocks. the the cave is on the other side, can’t be seen yet, and taehyung almost stumbles as he pushes through the desperate pain in his limbs.

the footprints fade as taehyung approaches the base of the boulders. they lead up, around the bend. toward the cave, toward jimin.

his pack hits the ground with a thud. the traps slung around his neck scrape roughly against his skin.

taehyung rounds the boulder with one band braced against it, and barely feels the cut sliced into his palm.

an unfamiliar tribute is kneeling in the mouth of the cave. the back of her jacket is torn to shreds. there’s a long, scabbed over wound on the back of her neck, from what might have been a claw. taehyung hears jimin groan in pain, slur something vicious he can’t quite make out.

he doesn’t even think. he doesn’t want to.

taehyung grabs the vines from around his neck, the cords together thicker around than his wrist.

the girl doesn’t notice him until taehyung’s traps are tight around her neck. he pulls her back, eyes squeezed shut as she thrashes, tries to get loose. as he falls back and uses every inch of strength in his body to pull harder, to shove his legs over hers to keep her from kicking free.

the girl gasps, and throws her elbow back into his gut, and even as taehyung gags and coughs he keeps his hands steady.

he doesn’t know how long they struggle. somehow he manages to push them over, to pin her to the ground and pull up on the vines as she gurgles and twists and slowly, slowly, slowly falls limp.

even when she stops fighting, taehyung doesn’t let go.

he tries to count, tries to think about how long it’s been, and loses everything when he hears the twisted, choked noise that falls from the tribute’s lips.

when the cannon explodes over the arena, taehyung barely hears it over the rush of blood in his ears.

he can’t let go. his hands hurt. there’s blood all over one of them, blood dripping from the corded vines onto the back of the girl’s neck, into her hair.

taehyung stares down, until he hears a shuffle from the mouth of the cave.

jimin is braced on his knees against the stone, drenched in sweat, eyes bright. around his neck are red marks, that taehyung knows will fade into finger-shaped bruises.

taehyung collapses. his shoulder hits the ground and he drags himself away, dirt clumping against the cut and the blood on his palm. he only makes it a few feet away until he vomits feebly into the grass, bile stinging his throat.

and then, for a long moment, there’s silence. the birds fall quiet, the wind dies down. taehyung breathes raggedly to himself, before he hears the gentle chime of bells.

taehyung watches the silver parachute fall slowly, the bells tethered underneath swinging softly. the package it carries is in a metal container larger than taehyung’s head, and it settles down with a quiet thump in the grass to taehyung’s left.

his hands shake when he twists the lid open. they shake more when he sees what’s inside.

bandages. disinfectant, a small container of an ointment that smells sharp and sterile, two white pills in an unmarked packet. and below that, food. potatoes and carrots and a warm, cloth-wrapped loaf of bread.

in between two tomatoes, taehyung’s trembling fingers find a note.

it’s printed on a strip of thick white paper, almost unreadable through the blur of taehyung’s vision. he stains it with a smear of blood, and blinks the tears out of his eyes.

good job, it tells him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxvi.

 

 

taehyung wraps his own hand first. it takes him a long time to stand up, and when he turns around to the lifeless body of the tribute he’d killed, it almost takes him back to his knees.

eventually, though, he stumbles down to the river to wash the blood off his hands.

the cut stings. it’s a jagged line down his palm, a few centimeters long. not very deep, at least. taehyung waits until the trees go silent and the body has been collected before he walks back around the rocks, mud staining the knees of his pants.

the cream is some kind of antibiotic, taehyung thinks. he douses the small cut in the stinging alcohol disinfectant, dresses it, and uses his teeth to wrap a bandage around his palm.

when he turns to the cave, trembling hands pressing the gift tight to his belly, jimin has disappeared back inside.

he’s waiting on the ground, eyes closed and breathing harsh. taehyung kneels next to him, and pulls out the pills. he doesn’t want to look at jimin’s face; when jimin reaches out a listless hand, taehyung flinches away.

“here,” he says. he holds the first pill to jimin’s lips, places it on his tongue, lifts jimin’s bottle to wash it down. his voice shakes almost as much as his fingers.

“taehyung,” jimin rasps. it sounds awful, painful, the imprint of fingers on his throat inescapable. taehyung shakes his head, pressing his lips tight together. it’s enough to make jimin give up whatever he was going to say. taehyung doesn’t want to hear it.

you’ll try to win, daesung had said. but he never meant this.

he doesn’t want to think, so he drags jimin out into the late afternoon sunlight and strips down his arm. it looks awful—worse than when he’d left, worse than he thinks jimin’s arm might be able to survive.

by now, cleaning and dressing the wound is routine. this time, though, taehyung has bandages and medicine and a cloth he can clean it with and every time he lifts his hand to jimin’s forehead it gets cooler and cooler until it no longer feels as threatening.

the more taehyung moves, the less he thinks. he empties out the metal container, leaves the food spread out on top of his jacket with jimin curled inside his sleeping bag a few feet away. the river laughs at him as it runs, as he almost loses his footing crouched down to fill the bowl. taehyung sets it down on a flat stretch next to him, and digs his fingernails into his thigh until it hurts enough.

if jimin were awake, were lucid, he would probably tell taehyung not to build a fire. taehyung can’t make himself care. he leaves the water to purify as he makes a slow semicircle a few yards into the woods, gathering dry sticks and branches and leaves.

the fire leaps to life inside the circle of stones he’d arranged for it. it takes longer to figure out how to balance the pot close enough to the fire to boil, but by the end of it taehyung is almost too exhausted to think.

he wakes jimin up to skin the rabbit. jimin watches him carefully after that, coherent enough to pluck the wild bird, slow and methodical as the feathers pile up next to him.

it’s more food than he’s ever worked with before. taehyung vaguely remembers his mother cooking something with a cheap beef broth, but never with any real meat. jimin offers quiet pointers in between draining their water bottles and sending taehyung back down to the river to refill them.

he boils the meat, adds tomatoes and the small packets of spices he hadn’t known existed before almost three weeks ago. uses the sharp point of his spear to cut up carrots and onions and potatoes.

jimin seems quieter. he keeps looking at taehyung, when his eyes are clear and almost as sharp as taehyung had seen them days ago.

when there’s nothing to do but wait, taehyung sits cross-legged close enough to the fire to feel its heat on his face, and lets jimin lean against his shoulder as he stares into the flames. jimin keeps dozing off for long minutes, waking up only to tug his sleeping bag tighter around his shoulders.

ridiculously, namjoon had sent spoons. taehyung pushes down on tears or hysterical laughter when he fits the gleaming metal into his unbandaged palm, smooth and unpolished in the jagged cruelty of the arena.

“it’s good,” jimin mumbles, when taehyung brings the first spoonful to his lips.

it’s not, really. it’s poorly made and nothing compared to the luxury of the capitol, but it’s hot and better than anything seokjin or daesung have eaten since the last victory tour, so taehyung chokes down a few mouthfuls and tears off a small chunk of the bread and forces himself to keep it down.

“your fever’s gone down,” he says. jimin’s sweating, this close to the fire, this long spent burning up, but taehyung isn’t as worried anymore. he’s just relieved, and exhausted, and terrified to think about what that means.

“thank you,” jimin replies.

there’s a small moment of silence between them. the fire is starting to die; taehyung tosses a small handful of pebbled sand onto it, and watches it sputter for life. he wraps the bread back in its paper, fits the lid over the container, holds the last pill up for jimin to swallow.

“you didn’t have to do that,” jimin finally says. “you could have let her kill me first.”

“yeah,” taehyung agrees lifelessly, hollowly. “aren’t we allies, though?”

jimin pauses. his fingers tug a little on his sleeping bag, puffy and warm cocooned around his shoulders. his bare toes dig deeper into the dirt.

“yeah,” he finally says. “i guess we are.”

they both know what happened to jimin’s last allies.

“when you go home,” taehyung says. jimin tenses, at his side. “tell your brother yourself.”

jimin doesn’t ask what he means. jimin might not even remember his words, groaned out in the middle of the night.

the birds go silent. the capitol seal lights up the night sky.

taehyung stands up, walks back into the cave. leaves jimin by himself, to bear witness to the single portrait that hangs in the air as the anthem echoes hauntingly around the near-empty arena.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxvii.

 

 

taehyung has to drag jimin back into the cave after the anthem. he’s half asleep, slipping back into incoherence, and taehyung pushes him down as gently as he can and zips up the sleeping bag and presses the water-soaked cloth to jimin’s forehead.

he barely sleeps. he dozes, maybe, once or twice through the night. every time taehyung closes his eyes he sees the broken body of the girl underneath him, feels the vines cutting into his palms. she couldn’t have been older than sixteen.

the night outside is quiet and still, and taehyung keeps imagining the sound of footsteps on the riverbank.

jimin’s fever breaks near dawn. his brow, furrowed in discomfort even as he sleeps, slowly smooths out until his face is more peaceful than taehyung has ever seen it.

he wonders, when sunlight starts to filter in through the trees, how jimin can sleep so easily. maybe it’s something they teach them in district two; maybe his mentors had been more equipped to deal with this than namjoon, who’s not even twenty.

namjoon, who has saved jimin’s life.

taehyung leans his head back against stone and closes his eyes against the sunlight, and waits with his mind drifting somewhere above himself until jimin starts to stir.

they eat half of the cold soup for breakfast, and leave the container in the sun. jimin seems quietly happy to be moving again, but he still has to brace himself against taehyung as they stumble down to the river.

jimin’s bandages fall away slowly, pure white stained dirty on the inside. the wound itself looks so much better; taehyung’s nose isn’t assaulted by the smell of rot, and when he washes away the smear of ointment and pus and blood, it almost looks clean.

“it was your mentor, right?” jimin asks, as taehyung washes out the bandages.

“namjoon,” he agrees. “i didn’t think i had any sponsors, though.”

“maybe it was from both of ours.” jimin doesn’t look at his arm—hasn’t, not once, since taehyung had taken over its care. instead, he makes faces at the bandages and scrubs his bare feet with his good hand in the river until it’s securely back in place. “i feel disgusting.”

taehyung scrunches up his nose. he feels it too; the thick layer of grime, the sweat and dirt and everything else clinging to his clothes.

“we probably have time to wash off,” he suggests.

they don’t know where the other two tributes are. they could be on the other side of the cornucopia, in the marsh taehyung had glimpsed in the thirty seconds before the games began. they could be just a few minutes away, hunting them down. but faced with the thought of feeling clean again, of letting the water rush over his head until he doesn’t have to think anymore, taehyung doesn’t really care.

“probably,” jimin agrees. he’s already unfastening his pants, scrambling to get out of them as best he can one-handed. taehyung looks away, and steps a little farther down the bank before tugging off his shirt.

the water is shockingly cold, and taehyung wades into it wearing nothing but his underwear, delighting at the prickling numbness in his legs. jimin goes more slowly, inches in sitting down until he’s submerged up to his chest, shivering and whining and looking as thrilled as taehyung feels.

“careful,” taehyung says thoughtlessly, when jimin moves to stand up. “the current.”

standing in thigh-deep water, taehyung feels steadier than he has in more than a week.

and then water splashes against the back of his head, trickles freezing down the back of his neck , and taehyung turns around to face an impish smile on jimin’s face that he’s never seen before.

“did you just—” he starts, and spits out the icy water that hits his face not a second later.

and then it’s like they’re not in the games at all. taehyung lunges toward jimin, hands cupped to dump a handful of water over his head, and jimin shrieks and flings himself against taehyung’s knees to bring him down, and then they’re tumbling and shoving each other and spitting mouthfuls of water into each other’s faces until taehyung is too exhausted to fight back and lets jimin dunk his head entirely, laughing when jimin lets him up.

“what was that for,” taehyung pouts, through a breathless round of laughter. jimin drags himself up with his good arm, flops back onto the pebbled bank with his eyes shut and his smile so wide it looks like it hurts.

“thanks for saving my life,” he says through the smile, like he can’t believe it. taehyung pushes wet hair out of his eyes and wades back to shore, laughter slowly dying in his chest.

“jimin?” he says. jimin still doesn’t open his eyes.

“i used to do that with my brother. and jeonggukie. there was a river by the quarry—we’d go down, and just—” he stops, and the smile fades. “i haven’t been in years.”

and taehyung thinks back, to splashing in puddles with daesung and minji and seokjin, when they could threaten him into wading out when it rained. when the fields flooded and they all had to distract themselves from the thought of a failed harvest.

“why’d you stop?” he asks quietly. jimin sighs.

“i started training. and—they did too, but i always wanted to—to be the best. and i thought it was a waste of my time.”

jimin doesn’t sound like he thinks that any more.

“when you go back,” taehyung starts. jimin cuts him off with a shake of his head that sends water splashing against taehyung’s chest.

“stop saying that.” he sounds—not mad. frustrated, maybe.

“don’t you want to go home?” taehyung crosses his arms, looks down at jimin who suddenly seems so small; smaller even than when he’d been curled up in the haze of the fever. jimin looks up at him through wet bangs, and meets taehyung’s eyes.

taehyung had let jimin hold his head underwater, one hand firm on the back of his neck, and had forgotten to be afraid.

“don’t you?” jimin asks.

and taehyung doesn’t have an answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxviii.

 

 

they spend most of the morning at the river. taehyung scrubs out his own hair, then watches jimin struggle to keep his bandage out of the water as he dunks his head, watches jimin peel a soaked leaf off his cheek and grimace as it swirls away downstream.

after taehyung is as clean as he’s going to get, skin pink from the cold and raw from scratching off dirt and sweat and blood with his fingernails, he hauls himself up onto the bank to dry. jimin just sits down a meter or so out into the water, cross-legged, the water up to his hips.

“aren’t you cold?” taehyung asks. he’s trying hard not to stretch out like the alley cats back home, to get as much sunlight on his skin as possible. jimin hums, tilts his head back to catch the sun on his face.

his eyes are closed, lips curved in something that’s not quite a smile.

“it feels nice,” he says, almost too soft to hear over the rush of the current. taehyung combs his hair forward to dry it out, leans over himself to avoid looking at jimin’s quiet peace.

when taehyung’s skin is dry and his hair no longer drips down his neck, he gathers up their clothes and kneels down by the edge of the water. jimin watches him curiously, as taehyung wrings the dirt out of the cloth.

jimin watches him, and taehyung isn’t sure it’s the lack of clothing that makes him feel exposed.

“i used to do this with my sister,” taehyung blurts, when he can’t stand the silence any more. jimin blinks, twists to look at taehyung more fully.

“how many siblings do you have?” jimin asks, when taehyung doesn’t say anything else. taehyung stares down at the bloodstains on jimin’s shirt, barely distinguishable from the brown of the cloth.

“three.” the blood won’t come out, too long dried. “my sister and i would go around the neighborhood at night, and ask the neighbors if they needed clothes washed. most people couldn’t pay, but—they’d give favors, anything extra they had.”

“you’re the oldest?” jimin seems honestly curious. taehyung doesn’t know anything about him beyond what he’d mentioned in the interview, and what he’d said in the throws of a fever. he shakes his head, and lays the shirt out to dry.

“my older brother—” he doesn’t want to say seokjin’s name in the arena, doesn’t even really want to think about what seokjin must think of him right now. “when we were kids we did the washing together. but his back—”

he cuts himself off, but jimin chases the thought.

“what happened to his back?”

taehyung grits his teeth. there’s a small hole in the knee of his pants, where the tracker jacker had stung him. jimin scoots closer, disrupts the flow of the water around him. some of it spills higher on the bank, freezing against taehyung’s knees.

he’d watched the peacekeeper strike seokjin over and over, when he’d hallucinated from the venom.

“we hadn’t eaten in days,” taehyung finally says. his voice is so small, he’s not even sure jimin can hear him. “he tried to take some rotted grain from the fields, and a peacekeeper caught him. whipped him in the square.”

his stomach feels uncomfortably full. taehyung sits back on his heels and closes his eyes.

“taehyung,” jimin says. taehyung shakes his head, tightens his grip on the fabric in his hands.

“so that’s how—how i knew how to help your arm. because he was so hurt he couldn’t move for days, and we only managed not to starve because i was small enough to steal from trash cans without getting caught.”

jimin’s skin is cold. his fingers brush taehyung’s forearm; the touch sends goosebumps up to his neck, makes him shudder from the gentleness.

“sorry,” he says. pebbles shift under jimin’s weight, and then there’s an icy shoulder brushing against his, jimin’s hair dripping onto his skin.

“it’s okay,” jimin replies, even though they both know it’s not.

taehyung finishes washing their clothes in silence. jimin’s gaze doesn’t feel as invasive anymore; the brush of his skin slowly stops feeling so foreign.

by the time he’s done, their hair is dry and the sun is beating down hot and unforgiving, at its highest point in the sky.

the cold of the river is a welcome relief when jimin pushes him in again with a sly smile and a delighted laugh when taehyung drags him in with him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xxxix.

 

 

the morning of the second day, taehyung jolts awake to the boom of a cannon. it’s barely light enough to see, but taehyung blinks the sleep out of his eyes and pushes himself up, already reaching out to grab jimin’s shoulder.

“what—” jimin mumbles, as taehyung rolls him from his side to his back, groaning quietly. taehyung’s back hits the ground as he sags in relief, as jimin props himself up on his good arm.

“sorry,” taehyung breathes. “there was a cannon. i thought...”

he looks up, and jimin is staring at him. eyes wide, lips parted. taehyung looks back, a little confused, dizzy from sleep and panic.

“a cannon,” jimin repeats.

and taehyung realizes. he’d almost forgotten, in the last day, how close they are to the end. jimin looks stunned too, his sleeping bag fallen to gather at his hips.

“oh,” taehyung says.

he hadn’t expected to make it to the top ten, the top five. he’d promised to make it as easy for daesung and minji and seokjin as possible, so they wouldn’t have to hope. and yet here taehyung is, the strongest contender for third place.

he almost expects jimin to—he’s not sure. but when jimin sits up fully taehyung flinches back, and there’s something like hurt in jimin’s eyes before he closes off again.

“we should get up,” jimin says. “we probably don’t have long.”

that morning, most of their words go unsaid. they pick at the last of the wild bird taehyung had caught, split the last piece of bread between them. jimin pulls taehyung’s knife out of his backpack when he rolls up his sleeping bag, and it lies quietly threatening in the dust.

“do you hear that?” jimin asks, as taehyung unwraps his arm to clean it for what might be the last time.

“hear what?” taehyung replies absently. there’s not much to clean, now; he just wipes away the fluid-stained ointment, pours more alcohol over the cut as jimin hisses in pain, dresses it before rewrapping it as tightly as jimin can stand.

“listen.” jimin’s hand finds his wrist, his gaze heavy and intense. taehyung does; the wind rustling in the leaves, the quiet sounds of life all around them echo back at him, peacefully undisturbed.

“i don’t hear anything,” taehyung says, and tugs his wrist back.

“taehyung,” jimin says quietly. “the river.”

they scramble down to the bank, the end of jimin’s bandage fluttering as he runs.

the river is dry. there’s nothing left of it, not even mud. like it had never existed, but for the shallow path cut into the ground.

“it’s gone,” taehyung says, like jimin can’t see it.

“we’re out of time,” jimin echoes back. the we slips from his lips as easy as breathing. taehyung swallows, and reaches out to secure the bandage on jimin’s arm.

taehyung climbs to the top of the rock formation with jimin waiting for him by their burned-out firepit. the ache in his muscles as he heaves himself up is welcome and familiar; by the time he reaches the top, taehyung feels shockingly awake.

behind the gilded cornucopia, the lake he’d glimpsed during the bloodbath shines in the sunlight.

jimin doesn’t seem surprised, when taehyung tells him. what fragile camp they’d made has already been broken down, their sleeping bags tucked away and food hidden in the pockets of their jacket.

they have a bottle and a half of water left, to share between them as they walk.

taehyung wants to ask what comes next. maybe jimin is setting him up; maybe jimin will throw him on the last tribute’s sword just so he doesn’t have to do it himself. but jimin doesn’t speak as they walk in the shallow grave of the river, and taehyung lets him be.

a mockingjay perches on a rock in their path, and whistles out a birdsong.

taehyung hums quietly at it, as they pass. the bird cocks its head, shifts in agitation, and then whistles the melody back.

it flies away, and the melody follows them from tree to tree as they walk. jimin stares at the branches, his head turning every time it echoes up from another beak.

“i know that song,” he says, and taehyung is startled enough that he almost loses his footing.

it’s an old work song, one shared between mouths in the fields and orchards in the long drag of afternoon. sometimes the peacekeepers crack down, fire a blank into the air to make them shut up, but more often than not it turns into a haunting whisper that winds through the crops, the story of the fox in the woods, the predator that attacks. the flight; the freedom.

“they sing it in the quarry,” jimin continues, voice hushed enough that the echo of the mockingjays isn’t disturbed. “it echoes loud enough that you can hear it from town, sometimes.”

“my father taught it to me,” taehyung says.

jimin hums the next lines along with the song around them. taehyung watches him; the wind rustling through his hair, the tense set of his shoulders. he carries his backpack on his good side, injured arm tucked close to his side.

they reach the edge of the forest by nightfall, and hover uneasily too far away from the clearing to be seen. the more he looks at the cornucopia, reflecting the last beams of the sunset, the more nauseous taehyung feels.

“we can camp here for the night,” jimin finally says, as the last of the light disappears. “to get some rest.”

taehyung doesn’t say that he doubts either of them will sleep tonight. he just nods, and drops his bag to the ground.

the boy from district five is the face during the anthem, that night.

“who’s left?” taehyung asks. their sleeping bags are pressed together, at the base of the largest tree they could find. jimin stares up at the canopy above them, lips pursed.

“district four,” he replies, after a moment. “jaehyun.”

the only career he hadn’t killed. taehyung turns onto his back, and pulls his sleeping bag up to his chin.

when he finally falls asleep, taehyung dreams of his knife in jimin’s hands.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xl.

 

 

hours later, taehyung is dragged out of uneasy sleep with jimin’s weight on top of him and a hand covering his mouth.

“we need to go,” jimin hisses, before taehyung is awake enough to struggle. “get up. come on.”

the panic in jimin’s voice is unfamiliar and terrifying. his palm falls away from taehyung’s lips slowly, quietly. in the darkness, all taehyung can see of him is the whites of his eyes.

a howl rips through the still air of the arena. high and sharp and close. seconds later, another voice joins the first; another creature announces its presence. one after the other, until the chorus echoes above the treetops and vibrates in taehyung’s chest.

and then the howls cut off, and horror rises in taehyung’s chest, and he stares up at jimin as panic claws its way up his throat.

taehyung sits up quickly enough to topple jimin off of him. he reaches out, curls his fingers around the shaft of the spear he’d left next to his sleeping bag, sees the glint of the knife in jimin’s hand.

a branch cracks somewhere in the forest behind them. taehyung reaches out, fumbles until he grasps the cold fingers of jimin’s injured arm.

another branch. another. a growl rips out of the darkness, violent and inhuman.

and together, fingers locked, they run.

it’s too dark to see. taehyung guides them blindly, half a step in front of jimin. they’re close to the clearing, not far into the underbrush, but it feels like miles in the darkness, as they snap twigs beneath their feet and shove aside branches.

the creatures chasing them are close enough that taehyung can hear their heavy breaths. the snarls and growls and thud of their steps on the earth. through the terror distorting his vision, it sounds almost like mocking laughter.

they break into the clearing, and jimin lets out a terrible noise of relief as they run toward the cornucopia, glittering in the unnatural moonlight that fills the arena like a fishbowl.

the creatures break out of the treeline behind them, but taehyung isn’t stupid enough to turn around to look.

across the clearing, another tribute sprints out from the marsh, and taehyung gets his first glimpse of the mutts.

they’re some kind of wolf muttation, nearly as tall as the other tribute even an all fours. three are chasing jaehyun, snapping and growling at each other as they run shoulder to shoulder. jimin’s breath is loud in taehyung’s ear, his fingers as tight as he can manage around taehyung’s hand.

“the cornucopia,” he gasps. “we can climb it.”

and for a brief moment, taehyung thinks they can make it. they’re close enough now to see their distorted reflections in the woven metal. to see the reflections of the mutts chasing them. his hand slips out of jimin’s, reaching out for some kind of safety.

at the base of the cornucopia, taehyung doesn’t think twice as he grabs jimin around the waist, hauls him up to get a better handhold. jimin’s fingers slip once, twice. a mutt behind them snarls, and jimin pulls himself up with the strength of his right arm.

and claws catch in the hood of taehyung’s jacket, and yank him down.

the mutt on top of him is huge. taehyung can’t breathe, tries to roll out from underneath it and flinches back when claws snap against his face. he tries to stab up with his spear, and a giant paw slashes cuts that burn into his wrist, and his spear drops to the ground.

two more mutts stop on either side of the one pressing him down into the ground, one paw planted firmly on taehyung’s chest, claws digging into his skin, teeth dripping hot saliva onto his face. they crouch low and growl; watching, waiting.

the moonlight ripples, brightens, and taehyung looks up at the mutt holding him down and screams.

seokjin’s eyes snarl back at him, hateful and bloodthirsty.

the mutt with his brother’s eyes opens its jaws, and taehyung throws his hands up to catch it around the throat before teeth close around his neck.

he sobs, and holds the mutt away from him with all the adrenaline-fueled strength in his body, and closes his eyes.

he doesn’t want seokjin to be the last thing he sees. the claws pierce deeper, and taehyung’s chest heaves with panic and tears, and blood drips burning down his side and the hot breaths of the mutts on either side of him sting against his cheek and—

the mutt on top of him yelps with seokjin’s voice and twists away, and a hand wraps around taehyung’s forearm and drags him up.

“run,” jimin gasps, taehyung’s knife dripping dark with blood in his hand, and shoves taehyung ahead of him.

taehyung snatches up his spear from the grass, and forces himself back toward the cornucopia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xli.

 

 

this time, taehyung climbs first. his hands find purchase on instinct, slippery with blood against the metal, but taehyung digs in his fingers and forces down sobbing breaths and drags himself up.

when taehyung reaches the top, where the cornucopia evens out flat, he flattens to his stomach and twists around.

jimin is a few feet below him, just within range of a mutt. only two seem to care about him, jumping up and snapping at his feet as he climbs up shakily; the other three pace beneath taehyung.

one of them—the smallest, lithe and skinny and dark—rears up, and plants its front paws on the metal of the cornucopia, and gives taehyung a vicious smile.

his sister’s eyes glitter up from him in the moonlight.

“help,” jimin chokes out. one of the mutts jumps again. jimin kicks at its face with the sole of his boot, and his fingers slip in a smear of blood.

taehyung lunges before he has time to think. his fingers close around jimin’s wrist, and jimin shouts as taehyung hauls him up by his injured arm, as a wolf sinks its teeth into his boot.

it takes all of taehyung’s strength to get jimin to the top. jimin helps as much as he can; as soon as he’s out of reach of the mutts he grabs onto the woven surface, pulls himself the last few inches until they topple backwards, feet slipping on blood-slick metal.

they collapse onto their backs, and taehyung stares up at the full moon and tries to think of anything that isn’t the three wolves prowling underneath him, with his siblings’ eyes and voices and—

“it’s them,” jimin gasps. “tae, tae—how did they—”

“don’t,” taehyung says. his voice is small and shaky and scared. one of his wolves—the middle in size, taehyung doesn’t want to think daesung, takes a running leap at the cornucopia, its claws scraping indents into the lattice.

there’s a gasping groan, and jimin pushes himself into a low crouch, and taehyung sits up with one hand braced against the puncture mark below his collarbone and watches as jaehyun heaves himself up onto the other side of the cornucopia, a jagged line cut down the side of his cheek.

jaehyun stands, sways. braces himself on the hilt of the sword as long as his legs.

taehyung inches back, as far away as he can get without toppling to the ground, but jaehyun isn’t looking at him.

he’s looking at jimin, blood dripping down his face and the side of his neck.

“you,” jaehyun breathes. he takes a step forward, sways, lifts up the sword. “you killed them.”

“i did,” jimin says. taehyung doesn’t know where he’s pulled the composure from; there are tears staining his dirty cheeks, blood leaking through his jacket right where taehyung had bandaged his arm just that morning. he’s holding taehyung’s knife out in front of him like a shield, and it looks laughably small.

“if i kill you,” jaehyun says, like he’s trying to force himself to believe it, “i go home. i’m the victor.”

taehyung claps a hand over his mouth to stop the hysterical laughter that chokes up his throat. the thought of watching jimin die, of being left for his siblings to make a meal of—

he blinks, and the tears spill hot as blood over his cheeks.

his eyes are blurry enough that he misses half of what comes next. all he hears is the squeak of jaehyun’s boots against the cornucopia, the clash of metal, jimin’s agonized gasp. and taehyung blinks, and watches jimin fist his hand in the front of jaehyun’s shirt.

and they both topple over the side of the cornucopia, to the wolf pack waiting below.

taehyung screams when one of the wolves—light brown, one of jimin’s, he thinks—latches its teeth into jimin’s already bloody arm. shakes when jaehyun presses the tip of his sword to jimin’s throat, and is tackled by one of the three mutts that had followed him out from the woods.

taehyung’s siblings circle, and keep their eyes trained on him.

the sun is rising over the edge of the lake, glittering off the horizon, reflecting blinding light into taehyung’s eyes.

jimin buries taehyung’s knife into the chest of the wolf with teeth in his arm, and drags it down, and the blood soaks him from chest to thigh as the wolf screams, and howls, and slowly goes silent.

when jimin limps toward the cornucopia, his second mutt growls low in its throat, and prepares to pounce.

taehyung shifts his grip on the spear in his hand, and desperately tries to remember what they’d showed him in the training building.

the point of the spear embeds itself into the mutt’s shoulder, seconds after it lunges. seconds before jimin reaches the cornucopia and tries to scramble up with one arm and a barely-working foot.

the third time jimin climbs the cornucopia, taehyung scrambles halfway down and ignores the teeth that snap against his ankles and pulls jimin the rest of the way up with him. they slip twice, too much blood slicking the way, but somehow regain their footing.

jaehyun’s screams echo in their ears all the way up, until taehyung’s face is pressed to cool metal and jimin lies motionless next to him and the screaming slowly, slowly fades.

a cannon goes off. taehyung doesn’t have enough left in him to reach over and press his fingers to jimin’s pulse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlii.

 

 

the sun rises slowly. warmth seeps through the air as taehyung breathes, as he listens to the quiet sounds of the arena. the hush of the forest, the quiet lap of the lake against the shore.

jimin’s breaths, jagged in his ear. a mutt huffs out a snort below them.

one of the mutts lifts his head to the sky and howls, long and clear. taehyung pushes himself up, and barely looks down in time to see the six mutts turn tail and vanish into the treeline, leaving jaehyun’s broken body lying next to one of their own.

“jimin,” taehyung says. his throat burns; he tastes copper on his tongue. “they’re gone.”

every part of him hurts. taehyung’s chest feels tight, when jimin fumbles clumsily until taehyung grasps his hands, pulls him up to sit.

jimin looks worse than taehyung feels. he’s pale, soaked in blood that isn’t all his own, shaking viciously. his left arm hangs limp, a bloody gash torn into his skin and jacket and bandages.

taehyung can see to the bone, through the thick layers of gore.

“they’re gone,” jimin repeats numbly. he looks like he could cry. taehyung nods, and stares firmly down at jimin’s red-stained hand in his.

the mutts are gone, and jaehyun is dead. and one of them has to make a decision.

“come on,” taehyung says. he doesn’t look jimin in the eye when he pulls his hand away, when he pushes himself to where the cornucopia starts to slope down.

the climb down is almost harder than the one up. taehyung lets himself drop when the fall is short enough, feels the impact rattle his bones. he thinks it knocks something out of place, something that wants him to run and make jimin catch him, make jimin work for it.

jimin follows him down slowly. he can’t move his left arm, can barely put pressure on his right foot, smears blood over the already-stained metal as he slides down.

he hits the ground with a muffled noise of pain, and sags against the cornucopia to catch his breath.

in the near-silence, taehyung can almost hear the country holding its breath. can almost hear daesung’s heartbeat as he watches, as he sees taehyung both closer to and farther from victory than he’s ever been.

taehyung thinks that if it had been anyone else, anyone other than park jimin, he might have stood a chance.

when jimin pushes himself away from the cornucopia, taehyung doesn’t move. he just watches, as jimin limps over to the mutt carcass. as he passes right by jaehyun, flesh gnawed away and blood soaking the ground beneath him, to pull his knife—taehyung’s knife—out of the mutt’s ribs.

“its eyes,” jimin says hollowly. taehyung stares at the mutt, as jimin crouches down gingerly and peels its eyelid open. “jeongguk’s eyes.”

“my siblings,” taehyung whispers. he closes his eyes when he can’t stand it anymore, the human gaze of the dead mutt too empty for him to bear.

“which one caught you?” jimin asks. he sounds so awful, so detached even as he chokes up. taehyung presses a hand to the claw marks on his chest, and winces at the sting.

“seokjin,” he finally says. the name echoes in the empty arena. taehyung thinks it might be a fitting goodbye. he hears jimin’s footsteps come closer, backs up in the darkness until he feels his back hit the cornucopia.

“taehyung,” jimin says. quiet, calm. “open your eyes.”

he doesn’t want to. doesn’t understand why jimin wants him to see it, to look him in the eye before it happens. but taehyung listens anyway, peels his eyes open to watch jimin step closer, and closer, and stop.

he’s weak enough now that taehyung probably stands a chance. he knows where he could hit, where jimin’s in enough pain to exploit. but the thought makes him sick. staring at the once-white bandages on jimin’s unfixable arm makes him sick. jimin takes a deep breath, and straightens his spine.

“make it fast,” taehyung whispers. he thinks he deserves that much, at least. thinks that his siblings haven’t done anything to deserve watching jimin play with him, bleed him out slowly just to see how long it takes the cannon to go off.

somehow, taehyung doesn’t think he would. he asks anyway, though, and watches something in jimin’s face shutter.

jimin adjusts his grip on the knife. takes a step forward, pushing into taehyung’s personal space. taehyung closes his eyes again, bites down on the horrible sobs that press against his ribs. he feels jimin’s breath warm against his jaw as he stops, shifts, reaches out—

and presses the hilt of the knife into taehyung’s hand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xliii.

 

 

taehyung blinks his eyes open. there’s something burning in his chest; it feels like his heart is trying to escape, is hammering a panicked message against his ribs until it’s all he can hear.

“what are you doing,” he whispers. jimin’s lips tremble, and he presses them together as firmly as he’s pressing the hilt of taehyung’s knife into his palm. his eyes are bright and unwavering as he stares up at taehyung, as he breathes into the space between them.

jimin lets go of the knife, and taehyung’s fingers curl around it on instinct. it still fits into the grooves of his palm, familiar like an old friend.

and jimin’s fingers wrap around taehyung’s wrist, and drag his hand up. his fingers are cold, shaky from blood loss. he looks down as he adjusts taehyung’s grip, bows his head quietly.

“what are you doing,” taehyung says again. “jimin.”

“don’t,” jimin says. he doesn’t look up when he brings the point of the knife to his ribs, when he turns the blade flat and fixes the angle of taehyung’s wrist.

“jimin,” taehyung says helplessly.

“right here,” jimin finally says. his voice is so hoarse and small that taehyung has to strain to hear him. his hand is still tight around taehyung’s wrist, when he closes his eyes and breathes in deep.

“don’t you want to go home?” there’s a quiet kind of desperation in taehyung’s voice. his mouth is dry, his hands are shaking as much as jimin’s.

jimin finally looks up again, and taehyung forces out an ugly kind of sob when he sees the tears on jimin’s cheeks.

“don’t you?” jimin asks. an awful smile tugs at his lips, ugly and scared and tremulous.

“not like this.” taehyung tries to pull his wrist back, but jimin drags him forward again. taehyung bows his head down, and presses his forehead against jimin’s. “not like this.”

“right here,” jimin says thickly, and pulls taehyung’s hand forward. the knife meets resistance, presses a quiet hiss out of jimin. taehyung chokes on another sob, and tries uselessly to pull away. “come on, taehyung, right here. just push.”

taehyung closes his eyes, and imagines it. imagines jimin’s blood hot on his hands, imagines the quiet noise jimin would make as the knife punctured his lungs. imagines going home, and not being able to look his brother in the eye.

“i can’t,” he says. jimin’s shaking breath ghosts along his lips. “you can’t make me.”

jimin shifts closer. the knife digs in a little deeper.

“okay,” jimin says. laughs quietly, horribly. he stops pushing closer, and taehyung almost relaxes. salt mixes with copper on his tongue, mixes with the taste of bile.

but they still have to decide. and if they don’t, the gamemakers will do it for them.

“they need a victor,” jimin says, quiet enough that taehyung almost doesn’t hear him.

taehyung gathers everything he has, and loosens the death grip his fingers have on the leather handle. his knife drops to the ground at their feet. his hand tangles in the hair at the back of jimin’s head.

“i won’t,” he says. he’s killed enough. he’s done enough.

taehyung thinks, maybe just this once, he’s allowed to be selfish.

they stand there, suspended in time, until jimin drops taehyung’s wrist. he wipes his cheeks with the back of his hand, takes a rallying, rattling breath.

“do you know how i killed them?” he asks. taehyung tenses, opens his eyes to see jimin watching him. “the other careers.”

he shakes his head, feeling the drag of their skin together. one breath in, out. jimin flinches as he shifts his arm, the blood still dripping down from his motionless fingers, and reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket.

when he pulls out his curled fingers, shows taehyung the berries cupped in his palm, taehyung understands.

“let me—” he starts. jimin snatches them back to his chest, pushes further into taehyung’s space.

“both of us,” he murmurs.

and maybe jimin has killed enough too.

“but they need a victor.” the words are clumsy on taehyung’s tongue. “jimin, they need—”

“not this time.” jimin sounds as vicious as he ever has. “fuck that. fuck them.”

taehyung looks at him. looks at the resolve firm in jimin’s eyes. holds out his cupped hand, and lets jimin drop three nightlock berries into his palm.

“fuck them,” taehyung echoes. it feels hollow, feels ugly in his chest. he thinks back to the reaping, to the single slip of paper with daesung’s name printed on it. the capitol would have seen his brother dead, and would have laughed at the sport of it.

taehyung’s name had been entered fifty times. fifty times, in order to keep his family from starving.

he doesn’t owe the capitol a victor for that.

“together?” jimin says. taehyung nods.

he doesn’t want to die. he wants, so badly that it hurts, to see his siblings again. to give daesung a hug, to spin minji around in a circle until she shrieks for him to stop.

to hear seokjin’s laughter, squeaky and unrestrained in the fields even with the weight of a peacekeeper’s glare on his back.

but more than that, taehyung doesn’t know what there would be left of him, if he had to watch jimin die too.

“on three,” he says. he tightens his hand in jimin’s hair, looking for some kind of anchor.

one. jimin’s breath is hot on his lips. the ground beneath them is stained with blood. taehyung’s chest aches.

two. the arena is quiet. somewhere in the distance, taehyung thinks he hears a mockingjay whistle the melody of a work song.

“three,” he says. the berries press against his lips, bitter on his tongue, and taehyung bites down.

“stop!” echoes through the arena, a microphone crackling as loud as thunder. “stop, stop! ladies and gentlemen, the victors of the seventy-fourth annual hunger games!”

taehyung spits the berries out of his mouth on a sob, hears jimin cough and sputter and sob as he clings tighter, as he drags jimin’s cheek to press against his, tight and hot and grounding.

“your victors!” announcer song says desperately. “kim taehyung and park jimin!”

taehyung wraps his arm around jimin’s shoulders and feels jimin’s fingers clench desperately in the back of his shirt.

and then the ground falls away from under his feet, and jimin’s warmth is ripped away, and taehyung screams until white walls close around him and struggles against the hands that pull him down.

there’s a sharp, stinging pain in his shoulder.

and all taehyung can see is darkness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xliv.

 

 

when taehyung wakes, he’s alone. there’s a soft glow around him, unnatural and sterile, and it takes him a moment of frantic blinking to realize that he’s in a room, with softly lit walls and a ceiling above his head. there are no windows, no natural light.

somehow, taehyung is in the capitol. somehow, he hadn’t died in the arena. the thought feels as fake as the artificial comfort around him.

his mouth tastes like cotton, tongue heavy and thick. he doesn’t bother trying to sit up; under the softness of the sheets and the bed, he can feel the heavy strap around his waist, holding him down.

the bed shifts mechanically, lifts him up to sit, and taehyung barely has the strength to hold his own head up. when a door in the wall slides open quietly, he flinches from the noise.

the avox doesn’t look him in the eye when she sets down the tray of food. there’s a glass of water, a bowl of hot broth, a small cup of halved strawberries.

jimin, he wants to ask. he can’t force anything past his lips, as mute as the avox herself. the door slides shut behind her, and he loses whatever chance he might have had.

he doesn’t know how long he stays in that room, barely managing to keep down the food that comes whenever he’s awake. slowly, slowly, the strength returns to his bones; the first time he wakes without the strap around his waist, he takes a slow lap around the small room, with one hand braced against the wall.

when taehyung pulls off the thin paper gown to stare down at himself, his scars are almost gone. the four claw marks on his chest have faded to pink lines; the thin, curving lacerations from the water lilies are gone altogether.

taehyung counts his ribs out of habit, smoothing his fingers down his concave stomach.

there’s no dirt under his fingernails. no blood, either. taehyung shrugs the gown back on, and tugs the covers back over himself, and waits for the sedative to pull him back down.

one morning—though he can’t really tell, constantly surrounded by a dawn glow—taehyung wakes to find clothing folded at the end of his bed, along with a tray of the more substantial food they’ve graduated him up to. the needles in his arm are gone, and leave no scars in their wake.

the pants are unnaturally soft between his fingers. the shirt is dark blue, a few sizes too big for his frame. taehyung slips into them quietly, and pauses when he notices what’s lying on the pale bedspread.

his father’s necklace, polished and re-strung. the wood shines in the light.

taehyung reaches out carefully, and traces a manicured nail over the characters carved onto the back.

he hangs it back around his neck, and the weight feels uncomfortable. too heavy, after what feels like days of floating around in his own mind. taehyung tucks the leather cord under his shirt, and steps into the slippers on the floor.

when he approaches the door, it slides open quietly.

the hall is just as sterile as the room he’d left. taehyung’s footsteps are almost silent; in stark contrast to the arena, the only thing taehyung can hear is the sound of his own breathing.

at the end of the hall, another door slides open, and taehyung steps into a large room, arranged impeccably with couches and armchairs and one wall made entirely of glass, opening out onto the shine of the capitol. taehyung stares, holds himself up with one hand against the doorframe.

and then namjoon stands up, and a sob catches in taehyung’s throat, and before he can think he’s tripping forward, flinging himself into namjoon’s arms, pressing his face into namjoon’s shoulder.

“hey,” namjoon whispers, voice thick. his hand is steady on the back of taehyung’s neck, his arms warm and solid around taehyung’s shoulders. “you’re okay, taehyung-ah.”

and taehyung digs his fingers into the back of namjoon’s shirt and lets himself cry, lets himself be held and touched softly and comforted, and namjoon just holds him and lets him and whispers quiet words into his hair.

“help,” taehyung finally manages to gasp. namjoon shifts a little, like he’s rocking an inconsolable child, hums quietly until taehyung’s sobs subside into soft hiccups, until his fingers unclench and his shoulders drop in exhaustion.

“i’m proud of you,” namjoon murmurs, when taehyung lifts his head. his hands smooth the hair away from taehyung’s face. namjoon feels so much older, all of a sudden; taehyung feels too young for his skin. frighteningly vulnerable. “but you’re not done yet, okay?”

taehyung closes his eyes. he’s out of the arena, but there’s still the recap and the interviews and the sponsors’ dinner, where taehyung will meet the capitol residents who payed to keep him alive and have to pretend to be grateful for it.

and—

“jimin,” he whispers. he’s almost afraid of the answer to the non-question, afraid to open his eyes. namjoon sighs quietly, and brushes his thumbs underneath taehyung’s eyes, catching tears on the pads of his fingers.

“he’s okay.” all the air leaves taehyung’s lungs; he latches onto namjoon’s wrists; a parody of how he’d stood with seokjin weeks ago, trying to say goodbye. “you’re going to see him right now. for the recap.”

the thought makes taehyung shudder. he doesn’t know what will happen when he steps out on the stage, doesn’t know which jimin will be there to greet him.

“okay,” he whispers. he lets namjoon hold him up for another long moment, before stepping away.

“taehyung?” namjoon says. taehyung opens his eyes, sees namjoon’s concern and worry and something more calculating underneath it. something about his tone is a warning.

“yeah?” he replies. he wipes his hand across his face, smears away whatever tears hadn’t soaked into namjoon’s shirt.

“be careful.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlv.

 

 

the prep team chatters incessantly as they strip taehyung down again. he barely recognizes them; one of the women has been completely re-tattooed, into a patch of badly-rendered wildflowers.

they talk at him, comment on their favorite moments of the games, tut disapprovingly at his red-rimmed eyes. taehyung tunes them out, and stares blankly away from the mirror until yoongi arrives to shoo them out, until the door closes into silence.

“you look awful,” yoongi says with a dry smile. taehyung’s lips twitch. by the prep team’s standards, his skin is more beautiful than it’s ever been. “how are you holding up?”

“um,” taehyung says. he pauses. holds the pause, because he can’t quite think of an answer.

“yeah,” yoongi sighs, and slowly buries his hands in taehyung’s hair again. it’s overgrown, though a far cry from the tangled mess it had turned into in the arena.

taehyung finally looks into the mirror, but focuses on yoongi’s unassuming manicure and smudged eyeliner instead of his own face.

“how many days has it been?” taehyung asks. yoongi glances down at him, tugs a few strands gently down into his eyes.

“five,” he says, carefully. “they needed some extra time to work on your...friend.”

taehyung thinks back to the mutt’s teeth in jimin’s arm. the way he hadn’t even been able to twitch his fingers, by the end. the blood that had dripped onto their shoes as they stood together.

“you know, you’ve caused an uproar around here. by the end, people were clamoring for them to announce two victors, this year.”

“they did,” taehyung says numbly. yoongi’s lips twitch into a frown, one that smooths away so quickly taehyung thinks he’s imagined it.

“that’s right,” yoongi murmurs. he combs taehyung’s hair back one last time, and steps away. “let’s get you dressed.”

this time, the makeup is minimal. there’s no turquoise eyeliner, no red lip stain; yoongi dabs some clear gloss onto his eyelids and lips, and dusts taehyung’s eyelashes in white powder that looks almost like snow.

the outfit is white too. the suit coat is almost plain, patterned sparsely with lilies that taehyung can almost smell, tailored carefully to make him look like less of a skeleton. the shirt is patterned with marble, gold and silver glimmering along the cracks.

yoongi clips a long, dangling silver chain to taehyung’s earlobe, and stands back to inspect his work.

“good,” he says. he helps taehyung up, adjusts the shirt a little. pulls the cord of taehyung’s necklace out from underneath it, until it lies dark against the pale pattern.

“it’s…” taehyung starts. his voice fades; he doesn’t know what to say. he doesn’t recognize himself, doesn’t recognize the beautiful thing in the mirror.

“jimin’s stylist didn’t want to listen to me,” yoongi says, all smug satisfaction. “lucky for me, i have better connections and better concepts. you should have seen the shit she tried to put you in.”

taehyung laughs, and only realizes when yoongi beams at him, wide and gummy, that he can’t remember the last time he laughed. yoongi smooths careful fingers down his arms, like he’ll break, and tugs him away from the mirror.

the prep team follows them to the set, where taehyung is ushered underneath the stage by the camera crew. yoongi vanishes, leaves taehyung alone on the platform with strangers bustling around him, whispering behind their hands.

when taehyung sees hoseok, he’s strangely relieved. hoseok looks concerned, weaves smoothly through the crowd without even batting an eye.

“taehyung,” he says cheerfully, once he’s close enough. “congratulations!”

“thank you,” taehyung says. it’s automatic, uneasy. hoseok’s eyes narrow. his smile seems sharp, in the dimly lit underground.

“you know, i was just talking to jimin-ah. he’s excited to see you.” hoseok’s voice, like namjoon’s, sounds like a warning.

“i’m—excited, too,” taehyung replies, and hopes it’s the right thing to say. hoseok nods, and smiles wider, and carefully pinches his cheek.

“you’re adorable,” he says sweetly. “hug for luck?”

hoseok doesn’t wait for an answer. he grabs taehyung’s shoulders, pulls him in crushingly close. his lips find taehyung’s ear.

“you need to think about why you’re here,” hoseok hisses, vicious and urgent. “you realize how this makes the capitol look? like you’ve beaten them at their own games.”

taehyung can’t breathe. his eyes are wide over hoseok’s shoulder, nails digging into his own palms.

“you and jimin need to do damage control. you care about each other so much you can’t live without each other. if you don’t sell it, your brother being reaped will be the least of your worries,” hoseok promises. taehyung gasps in a breath, and nods quickly.

“great!” hoseok says, much louder. when he pulls away, the beaming smile is back on his face. “well, you’re up in five. i’d better go.”

he vanishes back into the crowd without another word, leaving taehyung lost on the platform with his heart beating in his throat.

it feels like hours later, like the blink of an eye, when the glass walls seal around the circle he’s standing on. someone on the crew flashes him a thumbs up, and presses a button.

and taehyung moves up, up, into the blinding lights of the stage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlvi.

 

 

the first thing taehyung sees through the blinding stage lights is the audience. they glitter and shine and shriek at him as the podium rises, as he slowly adjusts to the noise and heat of the lights on his face and the way his clothing drapes unfamiliarly, too starched compared to what he’d spent two weeks wearing.

the second thing he sees, when he turns to face the rest of the stage, is jimin.

he’s taehyung’s opposite. his coat is black marble, with the same metallic glints; his shirt is the same splash of lilies. his eye makeup is dark and smokey, a golden chain drips down to his shoulder from his pierced ear. he looks like a victor. he looks, for the first time, uncertain.

and taehyung doesn’t think. he steps forward, like the crowd throwing flowers at his feet doesn’t matter. jimin’s eyes are wide, his lips parted as they walk closer, and closer, something magnetic in his chest drawing him in.

announcer song is shouting something at them, cheerful and exuberant, but taehyung barely hears. he’s close enough now to touch, to bring his fingers up delicately to the smooth line of jimin’s jaw, to the hollowness of his cheeks.

jimin’s right hand brushes taehyung’s neck, nudges away the earring. his skin is warm and smooth and taehyung’s breath catches in his throat.

and then he reaches down with his own right hand, and instead of skin his fingers find smooth, cool plastic.

taehyung stares down at the prosthetic arm, at the easy curl of the clear plastic fingers, at the beautifully intricate machinery under the surface. horror digs roots into his lungs as jimin tilts his head up.

“hey,” he says, with some kind of attempt at a smile. it looks sad, though, looks as gutted as taehyung has felt for days. “it doesn’t hurt any more.”

“jimin,” taehyung replies. his fingers slot between the fingers of the prosthetic without thinking. his left hand wanders to the side of jimin’s neck.

he doesn’t have the words for this, so he leans forward and ever so slightly down, and presses his forehead to jimin’s.

the crowd roars. jimin stares back at him, eyes a little crossed, and digs his fingers into taehyung’s skin.

“i hate to break up the reunion,” announcer song simpers, tapping taehyung lightly on the shoulder. “but we have a show to watch, gentlemen.”

the victor’s throne has been replaced by a small couch, something like a loveseat. taehyung swallows down discomfort, and tugs jimin along carefully with their entwined fingers until he’s close enough to sit down.

jimin sits down beside him, slips off his loafers, and tucks himself into taehyung’s side.

sell it, hoseok whispers in taehyung’s ear. he loops an arm over jimin’s shoulders and plays idly with his earring.

announcer song chatters to the crowd, before the lights go dim and the screen in front of them flickers to life with the seal of the nation.

they’ll be here for three hours, watching twenty-two tributes die again. taehyung’s fingers go still against the nape of jimin’s neck. jimin reaches up and squeezes taehyung’s hand reassuringly. from what taehyung can see of his face, he looks nervous.

looking at himself feels like watching a stranger. the split-second footage of daesung during the reaping, of the shock and horror on his face when his name is called, makes taehyung’s chest hurt. he sees himself volunteer, wild and desperate, sees the footage again of jimin’s name passing through the mouths of the people from his district.

this time, jimin’s pride seems more sinister. taehyung looks away from the screen, and tugs his hand away to smooth out the lines between jimin’s brows with his thumb.

mostly, taehyung drifts. he’s struggling to keep down what’s in his stomach, the small bites of food his prep team had offered to him like an interesting pet as they primped him, as he watches the parade. the scoring. the bloodbath, as jimin wades through with deadly precision.

the story the filmmakers weave is careful. from the beginning there’s an emphasis on the two of them, on taehyung’s flight from the cornucopia and jimin’s silence among the other careers.

jimin’s plastic hand squeezes his thigh gently when taehyung’s image wades into the lily pond.

taehyung looks down at it, and listens to himself drowning.

and then—and then, the camera cuts to the career’s fire, to jimin skinning rabbits and cooking meat and watching, always watching.

eleven, jimin says, as he hands out food arranged on leaves from the towering trees above them. his lips twitch up into a suppressed smile; the camera blurs to a shot of taehyung dragging himself away from the pond, vomits up water, sobs on his hands and knees.

and then the tributes start dying, and taehyung watches with mounting horror as jimin watches, as jimin stands up.

as jimin smiles.

everything after that feels like a sickening blur. the story weaved ends with the two of them together, carefully-chosen camera angles highlighting their brief touches; taehyung’s fingers on jimin’s arm, jimin’s hand around his wrist in the dead of night, their playful wrestling in the river.

by the end of it, taehyung almost believes that they’re in love.

when it’s all over, when the president places wreaths of laurels on their heads and shakes their hands and congratulates them with a bitter smile, taehyung bows out to the audience with his hand tight in jimin’s and his breaths tight in his chest.

they look at each other one last time before they’re ushered offstage by their mentors, and taehyung can’t help but wonder how much of jimin he ever truly knew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlvii.

 

 

namjoon has to hold taehyung up on their way back to the suite. he doesn’t say anything, just tugs taehyung’s arm over his shoulders and guides them into the elevator, where the mirrored doors reflect his distorted reflection back at him.

“you okay?” namjoon asks, like he already knows the answer. taehyung shrugs him off, tucks his arms around his body as the elevator shoots them up to the twelfth floor. the pressure change makes his head spin, makes him stumble a few steps forward when the doors slide open again.

he scrubs his face with the fancy soaps in the bathroom larger than his family’s home, until there’s not a trace of makeup left. he looks raw and hurt, cheeks sunken and eyes hollow.

taehyung wraps himself in the softest clothes he can find, and slinks out into the suite to find namjoon.

he finds namjoon, and yoongi, and hoseok, sitting together in the lounge. yoongi is leaning forward, fingers pressed together, eyes narrowed. hoseok stops talking the second taehyung turns into the room, and offers a tight-lipped smile.

“i can go,” taehyung says, uncertain. the carpet feels strange under his bare toes.

namjoon twists around on the sofa, and beckons taehyung over with a small smile.

“you’re fine,” he assures. “you should be resting, though. you’re on the air again at two.”

it’s closing in on three in the morning, because the hours kept in the capitol run later than even a worker’s schedule back home. taehyung shrugs, folds himself close against namjoon’s side. he tips his head onto namjoon’s shoulder, and wonders if jimin is asleep.

“you did well,” hoseok says, after a drawn-out silence. “just keep it up for the interview, okay?”

“seok,” yoongi snaps. “leave him alone.”

taehyung blinks at them, and shifts his head until his hair hides his eyes. he’s so tired. he doesn’t want to know what they were talking about, why hoseok is here at all. he just wants to sleep, away from the huge cold bed in his suite.

somehow, taehyung finds himself with his head in namjoon’s lap. it’s an indulgent kind of comfort that reminds him of being small, of his mother singing him to sleep before he was big enough to even work in the orchards.

namjoon’s long fingers card through his hair, and the murmured conversation picks up again, and taehyung slowly, slowly drifts off into sleep.

and wakes up gasping in his own bed, what must be hours later.

there’s a sick nausea in his stomach, panic clouding his vision, and for a split second taehyung swears he feels straps tight around him, holding him down to the branch of a tree, before he blinks and clears his eyes and feels the silk of the sheets beneath him.

dawn cracks over the cityscape beyond his northern window. taehyung stumbles over and presses his forehead to the glass with a sigh, letting the cold seep into his skin.

in the afternoon, he and jimin will be interviewed for the last time. in the evening, they’ll be paraded around at the sponsors’ banquet. that night, they’ll be on a train home.

home.

it seems impossible, after everything. taehyung stares out at the dawn, and sinks down to the floor, and presses his hand against the glass.

he wakes up again to namjoon shaking his shoulder, when the sun is high in the sky.

“time to get dressed,” he says, with a rueful smile. of course, namjoon must remember the whirlwind from after his own games, rolls his eyes a little in companionship when taehyung groans. “come on, taehyung-ah.”

and then the prep team is back, with trays of sausages and rolls and pastries that they stuff into his mouth even as they drag him away to wash his hair, shove him under the shower that spits water so hot it turns his skin red.

they talk and talk and for once taehyung is grateful that he doesn’t have to think; he just has to let himself be manhandled and cooed over and talked at.

“i would kill for your bone structure,” one of the women tells him, looking at him very seriously as she dabs cream underneath his eyes.

taehyung swallows down bile as he tries not to think of the girl who had slowly gone limp underneath him. of the way he hadn’t been able to let go, even after the cannon went off.

yoongi shoos them out good-naturedly not long after, and tugs fondly on taehyung’s hair as soon as the room clears. taehyung is growing used to it, is slowly relearning how to accept yoongi’s quiet touch.

today, the outfit is simpler. taehyung gets dark green slacks, a white shirt with tendrils of embroidered ivy crawling up from the hem. the shoes are more like slippers, black and comfortable.

“you’ll do well,” yoongi assures him as he lines taehyung’s eyes in dark green, barely dark enough to be noticeable. “you don’t see yourself out there, tae-ah.”

taehyung doesn’t think he does anything particularly remarkable, but yoongi just artfully tousles taehyung’s hair, and takes his hand to pull him out the door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlviii.

 

 

the set is alive with noise when taehyung arrives. the setup is mostly the same as the night before, but this time he isn’t dragged into the darkness below the stage to wait.

jimin shows up, his mentor’s hand firm on his shoulder and hoseok talking cheerfully at his side, a few minutes later. namjoon gives taehyung a gentle shove toward the set; yoongi gives him another critical once-over, and runs a hand back through his hair one last time.

once again, they match. jimin smiles at him, a little unsure, before announcer song loops one arm around each of their necks and pulls them in tight.

“you two are spectacular,” he beams. “everyone absolutely loves you.”

taehyung murmurs awkward thanks, makes frantic eye contact with jimin, and tries to squirm as gracefully as he can out of the headlock.

song lets them go half a second later, urges them over again to the loveseat. taehyung sits in the same corner, slips his shoes off to pull up his feet. jimin perches a little awkwardly half a foot away, until song coos something at them about how cute they looked last night.

jimin settles back, and taehyung leans into him carefully. jimin’s prosthetic arm curls around his shoulders. its motions are incredible, are almost fluid enough to seem natural.

“sorry,” jimin apologizes quietly, as song’s makeup is retouched. “i’m still getting used to it.”

taehyung’s stomach turns with guilt as he thinks of the scene he’d watched play out last night. his own panicked thrashing; jimin’s blood on the blade of his knife.

“it’s okay,” he murmurs back. announcer song beams at them, and settles back in his chair.

three, two, one, someone counts down from behind the cameras. and then they’re live, and jimin’s face relaxes into something almost unrecognizable.

taehyung lets jimin do most of the talking. he only speaks when the question is directed at him; talks quietly about the tracker jackers in the fields back home, about the long hours he’d spent during training learning how to tie snares, about the gift he’d received after saving jimin’s life.

the audience sighs and gasps and murmurs among itself at all the right moments, as jimin weaves an impeccable story.

“and why didn’t you attack?” song asks, leaning forward in his chair. taehyung reaches over himself, tangles their fingers together. “when you could have so easily knocked taehyung out of the competition, why didn’t you?”

jimin pauses. taehyung tilts his head back, lets jimin’s shoulder carry its weight. jimin looks down at him with a small, barely-noticeable smile tugging at his lips.

“i don’t know,” he admits after a long moment. “when i remembered how he volunteered to save his brother...i don’t know.”

the crowd is hushed, waiting with bated breath for jimin’s next words. he thinks them over carefully, looking at taehyung all the while.

“i started thinking that maybe he deserved to see his family again more than i did.”

announcer song melts; someone in the audience lets out an anguished wail. taehyung blinks tears out of his eyes and picks his head up and squeezes jimin’s fingers.

“and you, taehyung?” announcer song asks. “what was going on in your head when you dropped that knife?”

it’s almost impossible to remember. thinking back on it feels like watching a movie; like the recap they’d watched last night had been played out by a stranger wearing taehyung’s skin. he takes a deep breath, feels the way it rattles in his lungs.

“as soon as my brother was reaped, i was ready to die.” he keeps his words slow, looks down at his own hands. they’re still pristine, undirtied by the shine of the capitol. “i was prepared for that. the farther i got, the more i had to convince myself that i was doing the right thing, trying to get home to him.”

“and i’m sure he’s very proud of you,” announcer song says sympathetically, as taehyung gathers his words.

“i just,” he starts. stops. looks at the camera, then turns back to jimin. “i was ready to die. i was okay with jimin killing me. and i didn’t think i could live with myself if i killed him.”

it might not be the right thing to say, but it’s a version of the truth taehyung can live with. announder song nods, face serious and kindly at the same time.

“anything you’d like to say to that, jimin? any reason you suggested that both of you take the poison?”

jimin looks down at taehyung, and tucks him a little closer.

“i think taehyung said it perfectly. i couldn’t live with myself if i killed him. i don’t think i could keep living at all without him.”

and the audience gushes, and announcer song shouts out their names one last time, and the interview is over.

jimin’s arm stays heavy and warm over his shoulders for a long moment after the cameras stop rolling, before their mentors tug them carefully away.

late in the afternoon, they arrive at the sponsors’ banquet. there’s hardly a moment of peace in between; taehyung is scrubbed and stripped down and built back up again into a suit that’s more formal and less flashy. the only hint of yoongi’s trademarked theme is the black lily pinned to his lapel, with petals made of glimmering onyx.

he and jimin sit together at the banquet, walk around on each other’s arms, smile matching smiles at the vapid capitol elites who each claim to have saved their lives.

by the end of it, taehyung is exhausted enough that he falls asleep under the spray of the shower.

yoongi dresses him in his last outfit, a pale silk shirt and black pants, soft and fuzzed on the inside, and presses a kiss to taehyung’s forehead.

“see you for the tour,” he murmurs, and tucks a strand of taehyung’s hair behind his ear.

taehyung closes his eyes, and lets yoongi stroke through his hair one last time.

and then he and namjoon board the train, and taehyung stares out of the window as the capitol disappears behind them, until it’s nothing more than a gleaming speck on the horizon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

xlix.

 

 

at the other end of the train, jimin is going home too. taehyung had walked up and down the length of it, and found a door halfway through a lounge that wouldn’t open, that separates their parties. instead of trying to force it, taehyung wanders down to one of the emptier cars after namjoon turns in for bed.

at first, the gentle sway of the train is comforting. taehyung lets it rock him gently, curled up on a window seat and staring at the landscape that passes.

this time, he has the time to enjoy it, to stare in quiet awe at the mountains they pass. at the trees he’s never seen before, at the undisturbed landscape. they pass a herd of deer, nosing curiously at overgrown berry bushes; a flock of birds floating quietly on a pond.

taehyung has never felt so much like a caged animal, like something watched and poked at until it breaks.

he blinks slowly, until it feels like miles have passed every time he opens his eyes. taehyung thinks he sleeps, and dreams of the deer in the forest. her velvet-soft lips against his cheek; the spear he’d ripped out of her ribs.

taehyung wakes up as the tracks pass precariously over a lake, and struggles for a long moment to remember how to breathe. he walks as quietly can back to his bedroom and wraps a soft robe around himself.

in the connection between two of the cars, just before the locked door, there’s a maintenance hatch on the ceiling, and a ladder leading up.

the train is moving quickly, but not quickly enough that the wind bowls taehyung over when he climbs up onto the roof of the car. it whips his hair around his face, stings his eyes until he turns his back to his district, looks behind him at the wilderness.

and at park jimin, sitting cross-legged at the other end of the car, looking back at him.

the wind steals taehyung’s breath from his lips, and blows it teasingly toward jimin.

taehyung settles, pulls his robe tighter around his waist. jimin doesn’t move; he turns his head, looks past taehyung to the glint of moonlight on the lake just behind them. the left sleeve of his shirt is empty, tossing rapidly with the wind.

in the end, taehyung goes to him. he inches forward precariously, mindful of the sway of the car, the occasional bump, until their knees are close to touching.

“hi,” taehyung says. he can barely hear himself over the howling in his ears. jimin’s eyes shift back to him, a little puffy, a little red.

“couldn’t sleep?” jimin asks, instead of returning the greeting. taehyung shrugs.

“you?”

jimin looks away again. his hair is blown back from his face; it leaves him nowhere to hide. he draws his knees up to his chest, rests one cheek on the top of them.

“i keep dreaming,” he says, so quietly that taehyung barely hears him. it’s the first thing jimin has said since the games ended that taehyung can wholly believe.

“me too.” the train shudders; in the distance, an owl shrieks.

for a little while—long enough that they pass through a grove of trees, over the ghost of a river—jimin watches the landscape, and taehyung watches jimin. when jimin finally licks at his lips, opens his mouth to speak, he keeps his eyes averted.

“what are we doing?” he asks. he sounds so small, so watered-down and less somehow than the jimin of the games, the jimin smiling at the capitol audience. he sounds, for once, like a boy taehyung’s age.

“i don’t know,” taehyung says. he isn’t sure if jimin is talking about the lingering touches in front of the cameras, about hoseok’s hissed warning, about saying i can’t live without him. “i don’t know what we’re pretending.”

jimin presses his lips together. he looks at taehyung for five seconds, six, seven, and turns away again.

“i wasn’t lying.” he sounds firm now, sounds solid enough to be heard over the wind. “when i said you deserved it more than me.”

taehyung doesn’t know if he can disagree. doesn’t know if it would be truth if he did, when he thinks back to jimin’s vicious smile, his cold-blooded killing.

“that’s not why we did it, though,” he finally says.

“fuck them,” jimin says hollowly. he bites out a bitter laugh, and closes his eyes. the sleeve of his shirt snaps in the wind.

“fuck them,” taehyung echoes faintly. the wind carries his words backwards, back toward the capitol like they could possibly hear it and all its connotations. “we’re not very good victors.”

“i don’t feel like a victor at all.” in the moonlight, jimin doesn’t look like one. taehyung reaches out, leans over slowly enough that jimin could stop him if he wanted. he ties jimin’s empty sleeve into a knot at his shoulder, wraps it up to stop it from catching in the wind.

when taehyung sits back, hands folded in his lap, jimin is watching him.

“i’m sorry,” he offers.

“don’t be,” jimin says. “you weren’t even awake.”

taehyung barely remembers. everything after the first sting is an awful blur of pain and terror; everything in the games remembered with an awful emptiness.

“what’s going to happen?” taehyung asks, when the silence gets unbearable. jimin shrugs one shoulder. slowly, quietly, he reaches out and takes taehyung’s hand.

jimin’s fingers are cold and familiar, pressing carefully into taehyung’s skin.

“we go home,” jimin says. “we see our family again.”

“and after that?” taehyung folds both hands around jimin’s, stares down at where jimin’s skin meets his, so much softer than taehyung’s. not calloused and cracked from years of work, from years of struggling to wake up in the mornings.

“i don’t know,” jimin tells him. “we keep pretending for the tour.”

the tour. in six months, when taehyung remembers how to be alive again, they’ll be dragged through the districts for the victory tour.

“okay,” he says on an exhale.

they sit like that, jimin’s hand in taehyung’s lap, swaying with the wind and the thrum of the train, until they start to fall asleep.

taehyung squeezes jimin’s hand before he lets go. it’s the last time they’ll see each other for months.

he climbs back down to his side of the train, and watches the sunrise from the window.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

l.

 

 

namjoon wakes him up with a gentle hand on his shoulder. taehyung blinks into awareness more gently than he has in days, neck sore from leaning against the window and head aching from the press of the glass.

“we’re almost home,” namjoon says quietly.

home. taehyung takes a deep breath, and wills himself not to cry.

namjoon takes him to the dining car and sits him down, fills a plate with eggs and sausage and peach slices.

“eat it,” he says, and leaves no room for refusal.

taehyung does, slowly. he feels heavy enough already, feels like he might sink down through the earth and rest through the winter, like he might only come up when he’s ready to be something alive again, something real.

when namjoon is satisfied, taehyung pushes the plate away and stares down at his hands.

“what do i do?” he asks the room at large, not really expecting an answer.

namjoon’s hand settles warm and steady on his shoulder, and taehyung leans into it and swallows down a sob. he doesn’t know why he’s so scared, doesn’t know why the thought of going home is as terrifying as it had been to leave.

“it’s hard,” namjoon tells him. he crouches down next to taehyung’s chair, pulls him down and into a hug, and taehyung lets himself sit on the carpeted floor and wrap his arms around namjoon’s chest and be comforted like a child. “it’s really hard, taehyung-ah.”

“how am i gonna,” he says, chokes on something thick in his throat. “how do i look at them, joon?”

“i’m sorry.” namjoon’s lips are pressed against taehyung’s temple, hands solid against his head and spine. “i’m so sorry.”

they sit half-collapsed on the floor of the dining car, until a bell chimes through the sound system.

“ten minutes,” namjoon whispers, and helps taehyung up.

he tugs on the clothes yoongi had given him yesterday. they feel too fine, suddenly; too soft. taehyung had boarded this train in a years-old shirt and pants too short for his legs; he’s stepping off it in silk and laurels, completely unrecognizable.

the train slows, the familiar fields tumble into sharp clarity, taehyung’s breath fogs up the glass of the window next to the exit.

“what if i can’t,” he whispers to no one in particular.

he doesn’t get an answer. namjoon steps into place beside him a minute later, adjusting his cuffs, spine straight.

the train pulls to a screeching stop, and taehyung stares through the window at the crowd gathered in front of the platform.

his family is out there. his brother is out there.

taehyung glances to his left, like he could see through walls of metal and wood to tell whether jimin is watching. whether jimin will watch him walk back out into the world, before he starts his own journey home.

“let’s go,” namjoon says. taehyung steps away from the window, puts himself in place at namjoon’s side. a hand settles steady on his lower back. “i’ve got you, okay?”

taehyung nods. his mouth is too dry to speak.

when the doors slide open with a quiet hiss, the crowd of his home starts to cheer. taehyung steps out onto the platform in shoes too fine for his feet, namjoon’s hand the only thing keeping him moving forward.

at the front of the crowd, his family is waiting for him.

it feels like taehyung has been gone for years. it feels like he’s barely been gone a day. he trips forward, loses the warmth of namjoon’s hand, forgets about the crowd as tears blur his eyes and he runs closer, and closer, and flings himself into seokjin’s arms.

daesung and minji latch on around his waist. seokjin’s cheek is pressed against his, and taehyung can’t tell which of them is crying harder.

“i’m home,” he sobs out. seokjin grips him tighter, and sobs out a laugh, and presses frantic kisses to whatever skin he can reach.

“you’re home,” seokjin promises. the one thing taehyung had thought he’d never hear again.

“you’re home,” they say, over and over again.

you’re home, taehyung thinks, and finally starts to believe it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

end.