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How Many Strings Does a Marionette Have?

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Seokjin was screaming before Jeongguk was. Jeongguk could hear his sobs, his desperation, but it felt so far away. Like there were miles between the two. And, as far as Jeongguk was concerned, there were miles between him and everyone. He was isolated. Alone. For the first time in his entire life, he had no one.

Jeongguk looked over at Seokjin, barely visible through the fog clouding his vision. Jeongguk was faintly aware that he was crying. How odd. Seokjin was kneeling, with his head resting on the cold wood beneath them. He kept hitting the ground with his closed fist, clenched so tight his knuckles were ghostly white. It was almost as if he could break the ground open, as if breaking it open would help.

“You’re wrong.” He kept on repeating that phrase, a stupid incessant mumbling. No, he was yelling. His dark hair had fallen over his face, covering his eyes and nose, but Jeongguk could see the tears pooling in the corner of his mouth. He watched as they splashed onto the ground as Seokjin opened his mouth a little too much to be quiet. Funny, he sounded quiet.

Jeongguk let out a wet sob, and suddenly he was back. He stepped past Seokjin, screaming on the ground like a deranged animal, and grabbed Killian by the collar of his shirt. Killian’s dark eyes were swollen and red, but dry. His tan skin had a sickly pallor to it, almost grey. He met Jeongguk’s eyes, and Jeongguk almost stumbled back. He’d never seen him look so…hurt? Broken? It’s the only way Jeongguk knew he really was telling the truth. The look in his eyes made everything real.

“You’re not lying.” Jeongguk whispered. Killian shook his head, and Jeongguk felt his knees give out. Killian hugged Jeongguk to his chest, as the younger began sobbing. “She’s…she’s…. she’s really…” he couldn’t breathe. Jeongguk choked back a sob. “She’s really gone.” he stated, not a question at all. Jeongguk knew he was telling the truth. His voice was hollow and about two octaves too high.

Killian didn’t respond, just held Jeongguk tighter and let him cry. He was horrible at comforting people, and Jeongguk knew seeing him so distraught and pained must have been uncomfortable for Killian. He didn’t care. After all, his mother was dead. Holding Jeongguk was the least he could do.

Jeongguk didn’t know how long they sat in that room for. The three of them wallowing in total, unadulterated sorrow. Seokjin stopped crying long before Jeongguk did, must have tired himself out. Killian said so in Jeongguk’s ear.

“Cried himself to sleep.” His voice sounded dry, like he hadn’t had a drink of water in a long time. Jeongguk rubbed his eyes on Killian’s shirt and pushed away from him. He looked over at Seokjin. He looked rather uncomfortable, all hunched over, a small puddle of drool forming under his mouth that was smooshed up against the floor. Jeongguk let out a small laugh: the breathy, scandalous kind. He didn’t deserve to laugh, but he found himself doing it anyway.

Killian started laughing too, and suddenly they were giggling like idiots. Maybe, it was because of the shock of it all, maybe it was because seeing Seokjin in any compromising position would always bring Jeongguk unbridled happiness. Whatever the reason, Jeongguk was grateful. He liked laughing significantly more than crying.

“What an idiot.” Jeongguk said through his laughter. She would have found this hilarious. He was well aware that the thought of his mother should have sent him back into a sob fest, but, for some reason, it caused him to laugh more. It was like Jungkook had to laugh for the two of them.

So, Jeongguk did. He laughed until his sides hurt, and Killian joined in. Laughed until he was breathless and crying again from the sheer hilarity of it all. The sound of their laughter bounced off the cramped white walls of the room Killian had dragged them into only a little bit earlier. The thought of Jeongguk’s cluelessness in that moment caused his laughter—his maniacal cackling—to increase. If only he had known that Killian would tell him his mother was dead. Oh god, he was crazy.

Jeongguk was crazy. She was dead.

Jeongguk’s laughter stopped almost instantly. Killian let out a few more breathless chuckles before he also stopped. Then, it was silent. For the first time in a long time, it was completely silent. They just sat there, not looking at each other or speaking a single word, but knowing exactly what the other was thinking about. Of course, they were both thinking about her. How could they not?

They stayed silent for a few more moments, allowing time for them to gather their breath and sanity. Yes, sanity. Her death had yet to really hit Jeongguk. He knew she was dead; He could feel it, but it just wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. Jeongguk looked over at Killian. How long had it been since he’d seen him? Five months now? It’d been too long, of that he was sure.

“Did you come back just to tell us?” Jeongguk asked in a small, broken whisper. He looked over at Killian. Killian’s face was twisted into something like remorse. “How long?” Jeongguk asked. He didn’t answer, just avoided Jeongguk’s gaze. “How long has she been dead, Killian?” Jeongguk inched closer to him, his voice getting louder and angrier.

Killian flinched away from Jeongguk. “I…” He paused and took a deep, stabilizing breath. “I heard from her five days ago, through Markus.” Jeongguk nodded along. Markus was one of the guild’s support mages. He could create telepathic links between members of the guild no matter where they were. He took all the reports from mages out on jobs. If Killian had heard news from Markus about Jeongguk’s mother while he was out on a job, it was serious.

Well, of course, it was serious. She died, didn’t she?

“He told me that she was in some trouble. I asked him to explain, but he was frantic.” Killian winced, as if the memory was painful. “He told me that she’d been taken.” Killian paused to take another deep breath.

“Taken? Taken where?” Jeongguk asked, feeling himself grow frantic as well.

“Do you really think you’re ready to hear the story?” Killian asked. Jeongguk looked at him quizzically. Ready? “Because I don’t think I’m ready to tell it.” Killian let loose a deep sob, one Jeongguk was certain he’d been holding in. Jeongguk felt his features soften, his eyebrows relaxing and his lips pulling up into an uncertain kind of smirk. Killian was the only person that managed to do this to him. The only person left that Jeongguk cared about, even if he was always away.

Jeongguk smacked Seokjin on the head. “Wake up.” He said, harshly. Seokjin groaned and slowly sat up. If Killian and Jeongguk weren’t in the middle of a serious discussion, Jeongguk would have started laughing again. Seokjin’s entire face was puffy and blotched with redness. His dark eyes looked around the room in confusion, until they finally settled on Jeongguk.

“Oh god.” He groaned, his eyes instantly wet. “Oh my god. Jeongguk, I…” Jeongguk cut him off. “Stop. I’m fine.” Jeongguk lied because he really couldn’t take pity from Seokjin of all people. Jeongguk watched as a few tears fell from his eyes, and he almost felt bad for being so harsh with Seokjin. Almost.

“Killian was about to tell me what happened. Figured you might want to hear it too.” Jeongguk’s voice was strained and cautious. Maybe, he wasn’t ready to hear the story. Jeongguk looked at Seokjin, hoping he could draw some strength from him. Seokjin was always strong. It was one of the few good things about him. Nothing ever phased him, it seemed. Like, no matter what you threw at him he would never change. Still the same annoying, stupid, brave dumbass he always was. Jeongguk really needed him to be strong. It was the first time he’d ever needed anything from Seokjin.

Seokjin took a deep swallow, and Jeongguk watched as his Adam’s apple moved almost too slowly, like swallowing was hard. He was probably choking back a sob. So was Jeongguk.

“Um, yeah. Yeah, I’d like to hear.” He cleared his throat and adjusted his legs, so they were spread out in front of him. Jeongguk felt himself moving closer to Seokjin before he could comprehend what he was doing. Jeongguk grabbed onto Seokjin’s right hand and clutched it for dear life. He sat down next to Seokjin, sitting on his own feet, knowing full well they’d be asleep later. Well, a problem for later.

Seokjin and Killian both gave Jeongguk surprised looks. He was surprised himself. On any normal day, the last person Jeongguk would ever seek comfort from is Seokjin, and he’d be the last person Seokjin would want to comfort. But today wasn’t a normal day. Jeongguk needed him. He was the only constant left.

“I know.” Jeongguk mumbled. He looked down at the ground, and felt a few tears prickling the corners of his eyes. “Please, don’t say anything.” he whispered. Jeongguk felt Seokjin’s hand close around his own, and Killian cleared his throat. Jeongguk thought the shock of what he’d done had cleared Killian’s head, or, at least, filled his head with something other than grief.

Seokjin spoke for Jeongguk. “Well, tell us what happened.” His voice sounded much steadier than earlier. Of course, that could be because he wasn’t sobbing and screaming, but whatever the reason, Jeongguk appreciated it. A small voice in the back of his head told him he was stupid for being thankful for anything Seokjin did, but Jeongguk hushed it. He may have been Jeongguk’s sworn rival, but Seokjin was also like a son to his mother. If they could offer some comfort to each other, who was Jeongguk to deny it?

Killian darted his eyes between the two of them a few more times before getting on with his story. As soon as Killian started speaking, Seokjin tightened his hold on Jeongguk’s hand, and Jeongguk responded in turn. Killian seemed to struggle with getting the words out, but as soon as he started talking, it was like he couldn’t stop.

“Well, as I was telling Jeongguk while you were taking a nap, about five days ago, Markus told me she was in trouble.” He took a deep breath, and Jeongguk suspected he wouldn’t take another one once he started talking again. A tear fell from his left eye, and the two boys watched it roll down his cheek, unbothered.

“I tried…Oh god…I tried to get there in time. It took me a day to find her, but it was too late. I was too late.” He was sobbing now. “It was Adorior. Her body…Jeongguk, there was nothing left. I thought maybe I could get her body at least, so you could have something to bury, something to mourn. But, I couldn’t. It was gone. They dissolved it, everything. She was gone. Gone. Gone. I’m so sorry. So…” He hiccupped for air, “Sorry. Please,” Another hiccup, “Forgive me.” Then he was gone, hunched over on the floor much in the same way Seokjin had been.

He hadn’t given them a real story, and Jeongguk was still curious what had really happened, but he suspected none of them were ready for the details. What they did know was enough at the time. Adorior did it. Her body was gone. Jeongguk didn’t have a mother anymore.

Seokjin had tightened his hold on Jeongguk’s hand so much so that Jeongguk couldn’t feel the blood flow there anymore. Jeongguk looked over at him and realized he was crying too, but there was something else. Anger. His jaw was clenched, and, if not for Killian’s sobs, Jeongguk’s certain he would be able to hear Seokjin’s teeth grinding together. No one hated Adorior as much as Seokjin did.

Jeongguk didn’t know what to do, who to comfort, so he simply reached out for Killian’s hand. He was quick to entangle his fingers in Jeongguk’s, and that’s how they sat for a few minutes: Killian sobbing, Seokjin lost in thoughts of hatred, and Jeongguk just sitting there. He was angry, sure. Sad? Absolutely. But, it was like every ounce of motivation he’d ever had was sapped from his body. What did it matter if Jeongguk was upset? He couldn’t do anything. What, would he destroy Adorior himself? Would it bring her back?

He couldn’t do a single thing.

It was that realization, the knowledge that everything was out of his control, and he was utterly useless, that crushed him. Jeongguk didn’t cry or wail or beat the floor; he just sat there starring out the only window in the room. It was already nighttime. Useless. Useless. Useless. How many times could he repeat that word in his mind? Useless. Useless. Useless.

Seokjin was the first to move. Jeongguk felt Seokjin hand loosening around his, and then he was standing up. His eyes were full of fire and rage. No. He was going to do something stupid. Why was he always so dumb?

“Seokjin, stop.” Jeongguk said, his voice cracking and sore. “Please.” He was begging, pleading even, with him. If Jeongguk couldn’t do anything, neither could he. She would want him to stay and be safe. She wouldn’t want to be avenged.

Seokjin looked at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk felt the weight of his anger. It was crushing; Jeongguk backed away from him a little. Killian looked up to see what was happening, his breathing still unsteady and loud. Seokjin’s gaze softened slightly when he looked at the two of them. They probably looked like a miserable duo to him, sitting on the floor beneath him, mourning and wallowing in pity.

“I don’t know what you’re thinking, but please, don’t do it.” Jeongguk pleaded more.

Seokjin let out a deep breath, and Killian looked between the two of them in confusion. Seokjin met Jeongguk’s eyes again, and it took everything in Jeongguk to meet his gaze. “I have to.” He let out in the most broken whisper Jeongguk had ever heard. He was hurting so badly, and somehow, he was still standing. The tears kept on falling from his eyes, but he didn’t let out a single sob; his breathing remained even. He was always so, so strong.

“You don’t have to do anything, Seokjin.” Killian spoke up, the sobs still pushing through his words. He could see the rage too, could feel the tension in the room. Suddenly, Jeongguk realized he was very afraid of whatever Seokjin was thinking. No, he knew what Seokjin was thinking, and that’s what scared him.

Jeongguk had been there when Seokjin found out his father had been killed by Adorior. They were six years old, and he couldn’t even control his magic. He had thought he could take them on, kill all of them. He was so angry that the entire room had iced over; the temperature dropped so quickly. His eyes looked the same. That was the moment Jeongguk realized Seokjin didn’t care about his life, just about justice. Or whatever his dumbass thought was justice. It was just one of many things the two didn’t see eye to eye on.

“Yes. I do.” Seokjin said, his gaze now directed at Killian. His voice was sure; all the desperation was gone. “I’ll find them, and…” Killian cut him off, standing up to meet his gaze. Seokjin was a couple inches taller than Killian, not much of a height difference, but enough to make Killian’s challenge look slightly pointless.

“You’ll find them? This is Adorior! What, are you going to hunt them down and wipe every last one of them out?” Killian was yelling, his breathing was still a little hitched, but the sobs and tears were gone. He grabbed Seokjin’s shoulders when he tried to turn away and leave the room. “You’re eighteen years old, Seokjin. You haven’t even graduated, yet! You can’t do anything. If you even find them, all you’ll do is get yourself killed.”

Seokjin pushed Killian off of him. “Doesn’t matter if I die. I’ll find them, go down swinging and all that, yeah? Take out who and what I can.” His voice was gruff and almost uncertain. It was like he was trying to justify what he very obviously knew was a stupid plan.

“You idiot.” Jeongguk spoke up, but only a little. “It does matter if you die.” Jeongguk muttered, hoping Seokjin couldn’t hear him, but knowing full well that he could. Seokjin let out a harsh laugh.

“What? You care if I die?” He let out that grating laugh again. God, Jeongguk hated him. That being said, he really didn’t want Seokjin to die, as hard as that was to believe. Jeongguk stood up too, and the height difference was notable, Seokjin being taller. With that look in his eyes, they boy was particularly intimidating, but Jeongguk didn’t care. His magic was stronger than Seokjin’s by a long shot, and if he tried to leave, Jeongguk would remind him of it.

Jeongguk fixed Seokjin with his meanest gaze, and practically spat his words out at him. “Doesn’t matter how I feel about your life. My mother wouldn’t want this.” He scoffed. Jeongguk slapped him. The sound of Jeongguk’s hand connecting with Seokjin’s face was extremely satisfying. Seokjin’s eyes widened in shock before he glared at Jeongguk some more. “Don’t you dare. Don’t you say a single thing. If you leave, hunt them down because your dumbass thinks it can do something, you disrespect her memory. God, how are you always this stupid?”

Seokjin looked like he was about to respond, but Jeongguk began yelling again before he could say anything. “My mother just died, Seokjin. She’s dead. Do you see me running out there seeking some deranged vengeance? Think about it, think about anything for five fucking seconds. We’re useless. Killing them won’t bring her back, it’ll just get us,” Jeongguk pushed Seokjin, “Get you killed.” He took a deep breath before starting up again.

“I know they killed your father. I know you loved her just as much as I do,” Jeongguk winced a little, “did, and I know I’m probably being a little harsh. But, can you please just cry, and sit in a dark room contemplating mortality, and grieve like a normal person?” Jeongguk started crying again. “You always do this. You always run around without thinking, and I’m sick of it.” Jeongguk tried taking a deep breath, but it was cut off by a sob. Jeongguk pushed him again.

“Stop making other people pick up the pieces. Stop being impulsive and dumb and just stay here. Please.” Jeongguk’s voice cracked, and he would have been embarrassed at how desperate he must have seemed if not for the fact that he had just found out his mother was dead. “Please, Seokjin. I need you here. You can’t die. You just can’t.” Jeongguk started sobbing uncontrollably, and he was about to collapse onto the floor when Seokjin grabbed him. He wrapped his arms around Jeongguk in what had to be the most awkward hug ever. Jeongguk just sobbed into his chest.

“Okay. Okay, I get it. I’ll stay.” He sounded defeated. Good. Jeongguk wrapped his arms around Seokjin’s back and kept on crying. It was comfortable there, safe. Jeongguk heard the door open but didn’t turn his head to see what was going on. He really didn’t care.

“Get him back to his room,” Killian said, his voice—significantly gentler than it had been a minute ago when he was yelling at Seokjin—coming from the recently opened doorway. “I have to talk to a few more people, get some stuff worked out. Funeral preparations and all that.” Jeongguk dug his head further into Seokjin’s shoulder at the word funeral. He hated funerals.

Jeongguk heard the door close, and all of a sudden Seokjin and him were alone. “Come on, Jeongguk. Let’s get you upstairs.” Seokjin started pulling him towards the door, but Jeongguk refused to move. “Jeongguk, come on. Don’t be like this.” He huffed in aggravation.

Jeongguk let out a pathetic whimper. “I don’t want to go up there. I can’t go back. She won’t be there. Everything will be real. Oh my god, Seokjin, it’ll all be real. Please, please, don’t make…” He sighed deeply as Jeongguk’s words were cut off by another sob.

Seokjin looped his arm under Jeongguk’s shoulder and started pulling him out the door. Jeongguk let out a yelp in detestation. “What do you…” Seokjin cut Jeongguk off. “Shut up. You’re always talking at me.” He sighed, as if he needed to collect himself. “I’m not taking you to your room, if that’s what your worried about.” Jeongguk relaxed a little and leaned into Seokjin when he said that. Jeongguk wasn’t entirely comfortable with blindly trusting Seokjin, but as long as he wasn’t taking Jeongguk to his mother’s and his apartment, he really didn’t care where he went.

“Okay, good.” Jeongguk realized his tears had slowed down significantly. They walked out of the room, and Jeongguk was happy to see that there wasn’t anyone in the hallway. Usually there’d be two or three people wandering around, but there wasn’t a single person. Good. Jeongguk didn’t want anyone to see him like this.

“Um…Not that I really care where you’re taking me, but where are you taking me?” Jeongguk asked in a small whisper. God, he sounded so weak and soft. Seokjin must think Jeongguk was pathetic. Once Jeongguk was done mourning, he’d have to kick Seokjin’s ass a few times to remind Seokjin that he was still stronger than him. Yeah, that’d show him. A good flaming fist the gut would destroy any image of Jeongguk that Seokjin held in that teeny, little head of his.

“Why do you look so smug?” Seokjin noticed that Jeongguk had tightened my lips into a mischievous kind of grin. Jeongguk quickly dropped it and flitted my eyes away from him. “I’m taking you to my room.” Oh. OH. His room. Yeah, sure. That was fine. Okay, it wasn’t really very fine, but his room was leagues better than Jeongguk’s own.

“Oh, okay. Are you…sure?” Jeongguk asked. Seokjin gave the boy a look that screamed, “You’re stupid.” Jeongguk was very familiar with the look; he was fairly certain that Seokjin had learned it from him. “Okay, you’re sure.” Jeongguk clutched Seokjin’s shirt a little harder and didn’t talk the rest of the way, just let his tears silently fall.

When they got to Seokjin’s room, he gently set Jeongguk down on his bed. “Thank you.” Jeongguk mumbled out. Seokjin responded with a grunt, almost like he didn’t want the other’s thanks. He flipped on the lamp and laid down next to where Jeongguk was sitting on the side of the bed. Then, he let out a deep sigh. Well, this was weird. Really weird.

Jeongguk suddenly became aware of many things. For one, Seokjin was tall. The guy was all limbs and wide shoulders, and it was weird that Jeongguk never really noticed before. And, it annoyed him. Annoyed him that he’d never noticed and annoyed him because…well, it was Seokjin. Seokjin was annoying. It was, like, his thing.

Secondly, Seokjin was crying. It was silent, and maybe he thought he was being sly, but Jeongguk could feel it: the shallow breaths and the grief practically radiating off of him. Third, Seokjin’s bed was really comfortable. Fourth, Jeongguk noticed he was crying, a lot. Fifth, the room smelled nice, but that was wrong. There was absolutely nothing nice about Seokjin, and Jeongguk refused to ever admit aloud that he liked the smell of the other’s room. Was this how he smelled? It was comforting, kind of. Like a smell Jeongguk recognized, just never really payed much attention to it. How annoying.

The sixth thing Jeongguk noticed was the journal sitting next to Seokjin’s bed. Jeongguk’s mother had gifted it to Seokjin. Jeongguk remembered the day, because he helped her pick it out. He thought it’d be so funny. “Buy him a journal so that he can write about his stupid ideas before he acts on them. Maybe then he’ll stop being so impulsive all the damn time.” That’s what Jeongguk had said. Looking back on it, it was a very passive-aggressive suggestion. What a great summation of his and Seokjin’s relationship.

Jeongguk’s mother had laughed and picked up the one she thought was the most “Seokjin-like.” It was big and leather-bound. Jeongguk had suggested she’d pick a smaller one. For one, Seokjin’s vocabulary wasn’t large enough to need that many pages, plus, it would look hilarious in his obnoxiously giant hands. She didn’t laugh at that, just glared at Jeongguk and payed for the big one. “You’re so mean to him all the time.” She had reprimanded the boy. Jeongguk just rolled his eyes. She was always getting onto him for being mean to Seokjin.

Jeongguk let out a little laugh at the memory, and Seokjin lifted his head up. “Hey, what’re you laughing for.” His voice was tired, and he almost sounded a little angry that Jeongguk had broken the silence. Jeongguk looked at him, smiling through his tears. God, he was a wreck.

“I helped her pick out that journal, you know. I thought it’d be funny. I told her to get a smaller one because you’re stupid, but she just got onto me for being mean to you.” Jeongguk gave him a light and easy laugh, the kind that wasn’t burdened with grief and anger. The kind that liked remembering all the good times he’d had with her.

“Yeah, you are really mean to me.” Seokjin grumbled, but Jeongguk could hear the smile in his voice. Then, he laughed a little too. “If I’d known you helped pick it out, I might not have used it so much.” Jeongguk rolled his eyes and gave Seokjin’s leg a light punch.

“You should find yourself lucky that I give you thought at all.” Jeongguk joked. Seokjin sat up, his eyes widened in feigned shock. Jeongguk gave a little laugh at the expression. He was still crying, but the tears didn’t feel so heavy anymore. Seokjin was crying, too. It’s just that joking around and talking about when she was alive made everything easier. It didn’t feel so bad.

“I might if you thought something nice about me every once in a while!” Seokjin stated. Jeongguk smirked, knowing that he’d thought more than one nice thing about the other tonight. Jeongguk usually had maybe one good thought about Seokjin annually. Seokjin didn’t have to know that, though. They both laughed a little bit more before falling into a comfortable silence. It wasn’t weird anymore. Mom always had a funny way of lightening everything, making it easier.

They sat in that silence for a few moments before Jeongguk broke it. “She really loved you, you know?” he asked Seokjin. Of course, he knew, but Jeongguk just felt like he needed to hear it. Seokjin had no family left in the entire world, but Jeongguk’s mother was family enough for him. If Jeongguk felt alone, he could only imagine how Seokjin must be feeling.

God, Jeongguk was a sap. Was he really thinking about how Seokjin was feeling? Yes. Yes, he was.

Seokjin smiled a little bitterly at that. It was weird, not like he was angry that she loved him, just a little hurt at the reminder. “Yeah, I know.” He said, but it sounded so sad. The silence stretched on a little longer, as if Jeongguk hadn’t broken it in the first place.

“She always used to stop by here before she left for jobs.” Seokjin said. It was so quiet that Jeongguk could barely hear it. “She was in here just two weeks ago, making sure I had food and money and all that.” He let out a wistful kind of chuckle. “You know how she was. Telling me not to get in trouble…told me to not let you bother me too much.” He let out a tired, hurt sigh. “I’ll miss that.”

They stayed up like that for hours. Just talking about anything and everything that was Jeongguk’s mother, their mother, really. They remembered all the good times and the not so good ones. Seokjin talked a little bit about his father, and Jeongguk had almost forgotten how close their parents were. They talked about all the fights they’d had that she’d broken up, and a few of the ones that she’d inadvertently started. They remembered how horrible she was at cooking anything, and all the nights they’d spent together in the noodle shop right down the street, the only time Seokjin and Jeongguk could be around each other and not fight. They loved noodles too much to ruin it by speaking to each other.

Jeongguk doesn’t know when he fell asleep, but he woke up to the sun in his eyes. He was tucked into a thick blanket and was vaguely aware of someone lying down next to him. Seokjin. Oh, yeah, he took Jeongguk to his room after Killian had broken the news.

His mother was dead.

This was the first morning Jeongguk had woken up with that knowledge.

Jeongguk looked to his right and noticed Seokjin was lying at the very edge of the bed. He was about to fall off, probably to stay as far away from Jeongguk as possible. Good. Because if he’d touched Jeongguk or woken him up, he would’ve burnt off Seokjin’s eyebrows. Again.

Jeongguk was surprised to find that his eyes were wet. He’d just woken up, and he was already crying. Fantastic. His chest felt heavy, and he found that he really didn’t want to move, just wanted to lay there and sob. Yeah, that sounded like the best course of action.

Jeongguk really couldn’t believe that she was gone. He could see her in his mind, and if he closed his eyes it was almost like she was there. His memory of her was just so…fresh. If he just closed my eyes, so he did. He could see her long, black hair, greying slightly at the roots, pulled into a tight pony tail on top of her head. Her skin was tanned a little bit more than usual. The weather was getting warm, so she was spending more time outside. She really liked to be outside.

She was smiling, that big grin she was usually wearing. It left permanent smile lines, the kind you could see even if she wasn’t really smiling. She had crow’s feet, and Jeongguk could almost hear her complaining about them, pulling her eyes taut as if that would make them go away. She’d pout for a minute, but that never lasted long. She was most always smiling.

Jeongguk could see the mischievous glint in her deep-brown eyes, the kind that screamed Get-Seokjin-and-Jeongguk-to-Like-One-Another Plan #847. She was always doing that, scheming ways to get them to treat each other like “real brothers.” They’d helpfully remind her that they weren’t brothers, and then go back to bickering. Now that she was gone, Jeongguk couldn’t help but think they should have tried harder. Hindsight’s always twenty-twenty.

Seokjin moved, and it effectively pulled Jeongguk out of his imagination. He really ruins everything. Jeongguk heard him groan and let out a long, drawn out yawn. “Jeongguk? You awake?” He mumbled. He was still facing the wall, so he couldn’t see Jeongguk. He wouldn’t even turn around to look at him? Jeongguk was filled with some pride at the thought. Seokjin must really be scared of him.

“Yeah. I’ve been awake for a little bit.” Jeongguk said, his voice a little too clear for the morning time. That is, if it was morning time. Jeongguk had no clue, but he also found that he didn’t really care. Seokjin pushed himself off the bed and stumbled over to the bathroom that was just off his room. He closed the door, and Jeongguk sat himself up. The blanket fell off his shoulders, and he was hit with an instant coldness. It was always cold wherever Seokjin was.

“Stupid ice mages and their stupid cold.” Jeongguk muttered as he ran his fingers through his hair. It was a mess. He could feel the brown locks all knotted up. Seokjin probably had a brush; Jeongguk could ask to use it as soon as the other came out of the bathroom.

Jeongguk wiped away the tears that had just run down his face and tried to rub the sleep out of his eyes, rubbed until he could see a little universe on his eyelids. When Jeongguk pulled his hands away, he was still crying, but he felt oddly satisfied and more awake. Jeongguk didn’t think he would stop crying anytime soon. He kind of didn’t want to, wanted to mourn properly.

Jeongguk sat back against the headboard on Seokjin’s bed and just waited for him to come out. Water had been running for a bit, and he was taking his time, so Jeongguk assumed he was showering. His room was surprisingly clean. Jeongguk had been in here a few times, but he never really stuck around. Seokjin only used the room when he was on break from school, and that was only about three cumulative months out of the year.

School. The thought of it really struck Jeongguk with a sense of dread.

Oh, no. School. What was he going to do for school? Jeongguk scrambled out of the bed and began desperately pacing around the room. He paced a lot when he was nervous, made him feel proactive or something like that. “School. Of course. God, why didn’t I think about school?” Jeongguk’s mother wasn’t around anymore to homeschool him. Oh fuck. They’re going to send him to The Academy. He’d have to go to school with Seokjin. “No. No. No. NO!” Jeongguk didn’t know how many times he could say or yell that, how many times he did. He was biting his nails now, and his pacing only got faster.

If Jeongguk hadn’t been so lost in his panic, he might’ve heard the water stop and Seokjin come out of the bathroom, but he was, so he didn’t. Jeongguk turned around on the opposite end of the room from the bathroom, and he saw Seokjin. He was just standing there, looking at Jeongguk stupidly.

Jeongguk ran up to him and shook his shoulders, water droplets from his hair hit Jeongguk in the face, but he ignored them. “School.” Jeongguk said, sounding panicked. Seokjin’s face twisted in confusion as if he didn’t get what the other was saying. Of course, he didn’t. It was Seokjin.

“They’re going to send me to school with you.” Jeongguk said. Seokjin’s eyes widened as soon as he understood, and then he just started laughing. At Jeongguk. Seokjin was laughing at Jeongguk. If Jeongguk wasn’t grieving and genuinely horrified at the thought of going away to school, he’d have flame punched Seokjin’s ass to Loracre.

“This is serious. Stop laughing!” Jeongguk yelled, as he uselessly punched Seokjin’s arm. He laughed a little bit more, and then stopped to wipe the tears from his eyes. He still had a shit-eating grin plastered to his face. Oh yeah, once Jeongguk was done mourning, he’d beat his ass for sure.

“Seokjin. I’m going to have to interact with people. Actual, living people. Are they going to give me a roommate? I’m going to have a roommate. My mother is dead,” Seokjin flinched (so did Jeongguk), and his smile faltered, “and now I have to go to school…in what? A month. Oh my god. I can’t do it. I can’t do this.” Jeongguk was full blown panicking now, and he’d gone right back to pacing around the room that was suddenly very cramped. He’d never gone to school. Ever. His mother chose to homeschool him rather than force him to go to that place. She’d offered to homeschool Seokjin, but he’d already been going to school when his father died. He wanted to continue. Jeongguk never started in the first place. Speaking of Seokjin, the grin was back, full force. Annoying.

“This’ll be fun. I’m sure they’ll love you.” Seokjin’s voice was dripping with sarcasm, and it really pissed Jeongguk off. Jeongguk was the sarcastic one. He was the funny one. Seokjin didn’t get to make jokes, just sit around and be dumb enough that Jeongguk could make jokes about him. Of course, they wouldn’t love Jeongguk! Jeongguk fully recognized that he was as likeable as Seokjin’s brain was large.

Seokjin walked up to Jeongguk and stopped his pacing. “Stop pacing like that; you’re making me nervous.” Jeongguk reached up to smack his head, but Seokjin stepped out of the way before he could.

“I’m pacing because I’m nervous, Seokjin. Me. I don’t care if you’re nervous. You’re used to school!” Jeongguk tried to stomp on Seokjin’s foot because for some odd reason or another hitting Seokjin when he was upset always helped. Seokjin just side stepped, and Jeongguk ended up stomping on the floor. Too bad it was hard to get a hit in on him.

“Okay, well I’ll be there…so.” Seokjin said, nervously, still blocking all the hits Jeongguk tried throwing at him. Oh, why hadn’t Jeongguk thought of that? Of course, Seokjin would be there to help him. He was saved! Jeongguk shot Seokjin a dry look before going in for another hit.

Seokjin was significantly better at combat than Jeongguk, so he didn’t know what he was expecting. Something about their little dance was calming Jeongguk down, though. He’d try to hurt Seokjin; Seokjin would dodge. Jeongguk would try to hurt him again; he’d dodge again. “Man, maybe you should be excited for school. You suck at fighting.” Seokjin was making fun of Jeongguk. Again.

Jeongguk was getting angry. When Jeongguk gets angry, something tends to burst into flames. This time, it was his head, or rather, his scalp. Luckily, everything about Jeongguk was fireproof, including his hair, so he didn’t have to worry about burning himself bald. Jeongguk could feel the flames enveloping his hair, and he loved the power that came along with it. He glared at Seokjin, who reeled back a little. He never was good with fire.

“I hate it when you do that.” Seokjin said, trying to step away from Jeongguk’s flames. Jeongguk probably looked really scary, what with his head on fire and all. He focused, and the flames mostly disappeared. There were a few embers still burning on the tips of his hair, but those would have to put themselves out. Jeongguk really didn’t have the energy to control his magic much.

“Now that I’ve gotten your attention, will you listen?” Jeongguk asked, exasperatedly. Seokjin nodded his head and sat down on his bed. “Stop trying to hit me.” He muttered. Jeongguk nodded his head in agreement and went back to pacing and crying.

“I don’t know what to do.” Jeongguk said through his tears. Seokjin watched him pace, and didn’t say anything, just sat there in what looked like contemplation. Was he capable of that?

“Okay, well the first week we won’t have classes, they’ll just be doing aptitude testing and what not. Just trying to see how smart you are and how good you are at magic, so they know what class to put you in. You’ll do fine in those, they’ll probably put you in the most advanced class.” He flashed Jeongguk a grin, “That’s the one I’ll be in.”

Jeongguk stopped pacing to glare at Seokjin. He wasn’t sure how scary he was, considering he was crying, and his hair was messy and still a little in flames. For the second time in 24 hours, Jeongguk was shockingly aware of how much of a literal hot mess he was. “What makes you so sure you’ll get into the advanced class?” Jeongguk asked, making sure to sound as haughty as possible.

Seokjin gave Jeongguk a look of disbelief. “Because I’ve been in it every single year. The only question is who will you push out?” He contemplated for a second more, looking up at the ceiling and grabbing his chin in a rather comical way. “Probably, Winnie if I had to guess.” He was mumbling a little bit, and he seemed kind of lost in his own world.

“Hello? Seokjin?” He shook his head and looked at Jeongguk. “Who’s Winnie?” Seokjin gave Jeongguk a weird look, as if he knew something he wasn’t supposed to. Seokjin probably didn’t realize he was thinking out loud, something he had a nasty habit of doing.

“Oh, um. He’s just a guy that’s been in the advanced class. He’s fast. Funny, his real name is actually…” Jeongguk really didn’t care about this Winnie guy, now that he knew who he was. He really didn’t need this guy’s whole life story. “Okay, Seokjin. I don’t care. Just, will you help me? I mean, like, I don’t really need friends or anything like that, but will you help me adjust?” Jeongguk asked.

Seokjin laughed a little. “Holy shit. You’re actually asking for my help.” Jeongguk rolled his eyes and fixed a pointed glare at Seokjin, one that he hoped said, “Don’t ever tell anyone, and yes, please help me.” Seokjin scratched the back of his head, and Jeongguk realized that his hair was still wet. Jeongguk’s hair never stayed wet for long; he just heated up, and all the water evaporated. That must be annoying.

“Yeah, okay. I’ll help where I can. Show you around, introduce you to people.” He was mumbling again, like he didn’t actually want to help Jeongguk. Whatever, Jeongguk would force him when the time came. Jeongguk was just worried. Really worried.

“Okay. Thank you.” Jeongguk stopped talking and pacing, and they just sat in an awkward silence for a few seconds. “Um. Hey, could I use your bathroom? Like your hairbrush and shower and whatnot?” Jeongguk asked. “My hair isn’t on fire anymore, so I promise not to melt it. Also, and I know this is a lot to ask, would you or could you get someone else,” Jeongguk took a deep breath, “go upstairs and grab a change of clothes and like my toothbrush? If you don’t want to, I guess that’s fine. It’s just that I…” Seokjin cut him off.

“Yeah, you don’t want to go up there and make everything real. I get it.” Seokjin stood up and scratched the back of his head again, something of a nervous tick. “I don’t know that I can, but I’ll go ask Catherine or somebody.” He made a move to step out of the room.

“Hey, Seokjin.” He opened the door and turned around. “Th-Thank you.” Jeongguk managed to stammer out. He looked away from Seokjin, not able to meet his eyes.

“Yeah, sure.” Was all he said before he walked out and closed the door behind him. Jeongguk was alone for the first time since learning about his mother’s death. Seokjin and the school fiasco had provided a bit of a distraction from everything, but now it was just Jeongguk.

Jeongguk doesn’t remember walking into the bathroom, locking the door, and getting himself in the shower, but he knows he must have. Suddenly, he was sitting in the piping hot water, not really feeling the heat, and sobbing. The heaviness was back in his chest, and he felt like he’d suffocate. He kind of wanted to suffocate.

His mother. Mom. His best friend in this entire godforsaken world was dead. Jeongguk kept on repeating it, but it didn’t feel real. It just didn’t feel real, yet. She’d only been gone for two weeks; only been dead for a few days. No, she’d walk into the guild hall in a few days, all smiles, a bag of souvenirs hanging off her arm. She’d have gotten gifts for Seokjin and Jeongguk, and then they’d all gather together in the noodle shop talking about where’d she’d been and how much they missed her. Life would be good, like it’d always been.

The knowledge that nothing would ever be that way again only worsened Jeongguk’s sobbing. He was gasping for air, and the water hitting his face from where’d he’d sat down in the shower really was not helping the situation. He didn’t care. Jeongguk crawled out of the water and somehow managed to slather shampoo on his head. He thought it may have gotten in my eyes, but they were already stinging. So, what did it matter?

Now that he was alone, everything was sinking in. Jeongguk hated Adorior. He punched the wall of the shower. His fist erupted in pain, but he kept punching. “I hate them.” Another punch. “I hate them.” Another punch. “I hate them!” Jeongguk was screaming and punching, and everything hurt: his chest, his fist, his eyes. It all burned and throbbed.

There was knocking on the door. “Jeongguk?” It was Seokjin. “Jeongguk? Are you okay?” Seokjin probably heard Jeongguk. For some reason, that didn’t upset him. Jeongguk liked hearing Seokjin’s voice. He really, really didn’t want to be alone. Jeongguk finished rinsing off his body and hair, and then he turned off the water. He’d had the good sense to grab a clean, dry towel from under Seokjin’s sink before getting in. He grabbed it and dried his hair and body a little before wrapping himself up in it. Jeongguk unlocked the door and opened it a smidgen.

“Yeah. I’m okay. Do you have my stuff?” Jeongguk asked, his voice cracking. He definitely didn’t sound okay, but if Seokjin had any sense in him, he wouldn’t comment on it. Jeongguk heard some scrambling behind the door, and then some clothes were being poked through the small opening he’d made.

“Um. Yeah. I had Catherine grab you a few things. I hope this is okay.” Jeongguk grabbed the stuff Seokjin pushed through the door and tossed them on the ground behind him. Jeongguk closed the door quickly and sat down on the ground in front of it, resting his head on the door. He looked up at the ceiling and just let his hands fall uselessly at his sides, his right hand throbbing from the beating he’d put the wall through.

“Hey, Seokjin?” Jeongguk asked, a little loud. He didn’t hear anything for a minute, and Jeongguk wasn’t sure if Seokjin had heard. He was about to call again when Jeongguk heard him. “Yeah?” He sounded close, like he was sitting on the other side of the door.

“I’m sad.” Jeongguk called.

“Me too.”



The funeral was just four days later at the guild cemetery. The entire guild showed up, minus a select few that were on too important of jobs to come home. They sent their regards through Markus, and Jeongguk was grateful. He found himself so overwhelmed at all the support and love his mother’s guild had to offer him, Seokjin, and her spirit. This was his family, even if his mother wasn’t here as the glue anymore. These were his people, even Seokjin.

Initially, they were going to have Killian lead the service, but he started crying as soon as he started reading it to Jeongguk. They ended up getting some random from the city hall to speak. Jeongguk didn’t like the unfamiliarity of it, but no one else seemed up to the task. Regardless, Killian still cried the entire time, clinging to Jeongguk and Seokjin who were equally upset.

They put an empty coffin in the ground, and Jeongguk’s chest felt as hollow as the casket. There was drinking and partying following the service. Everyone got up to share stories about his mother, drink in her name, dance where she couldn’t anymore, but Jeongguk was numb to all of it. He had no stories to share, no stomach to drink, and he wasn’t sure if his legs would move even if he asked nicely. Him and Seokjin were the same, staring dully at the event happening before them, like they were there but not really.

“Want to get out of here?” Seokjin asked at some point during the wake. “We can go get some noodles or something.” Jeongguk met Seokjin’s eyes with his own teary ones.

“There’s nothing I’d rather do.”

The two snuck out of the guild hall and made their way to that quaint noodle shop down the street. The last time the two of them had been here was with their mother. Actually, they’d never been to it just the two of them before.

It looked the same as it always did. There was an obnoxious, yellow light that announced, “Noodles!” As far as anyone knew, the restaurant didn’t have a name. It was just that yellow sign. Inside it was as cozy as it usually was. Bowls of thick broth sat in front of unidentifiable smiling faces, and the air felt like home. It smelled savory, sounded like laughter, felt warm and comfortable.

But, it didn’t feel right. None of it felt right. Because sitting in the back corner of the restaurant was a man neither of them had seen before, when there instead should have been a smiling woman waving over her boys with promises of tonkatsu ramen or yakisoba. Instead, there was a nameless man eating chicken tenders alone. Devoid of her, Noodles! lost its spark. The boys still sat down, still ordered their respective dishes, and still ate the food as if they could taste it.

“He’s not even eating noodles. He’s just eating chicken tenders and staring at the wall. Can he not read bright yellow signs?” Jeongguk grumbled as he stared at the man across the restaurant. The man reached for some ketchup but knocked it off the table. Jeongguk internally laughed at his misfortune. Served him right.

“Want me to mess with him?” Seokjin asked with a wicked glint in his eyes. Normally, Jeongguk would have told Seokjin to stay seated and not act impulsively, but he found himself wanting to mess with the guy himself. What would a little bit of fun hurt?

“Go for it.”

Seokjin gave his signature shit-eating grin and got up. The man was seated near the restroom, so Seokjin simply made it look like he was walking that way. He picked up the ketchup bottle as he walked by and held it out to the man.

“This yours?” he asked. The man nodded his head, and Jeongguk felt the slight pulse of magic from across the restaurant. Most likely, Seokjin had frozen the ketchup. He set the ketchup down on the table, walked into the restroom, and came out less than two seconds later to walk back to their table. It was suspicious, but Seokjin was never one to think things through.

The two boys laughed as they watched the man try to get ketchup out of the bottle, but he couldn’t get it no matter how hard he tried. The man eventually gave up, and the two high-fived. They’d never high-fived before. Jeongguk didn’t look too much into it, but he felt something akin to fondness towards Seokjin as they pranked this innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jeongguk’s mother would scold the boys for doing as much, but more than anything, she’d be pleased that they were getting along. Something like this would have made her happy, and the thought made the two boys think they were doing something right. Made them think that she would live even after she had died.



Jeongguk was nowhere near ready to leave for school, but that didn’t stop the deadline from inching closer. He was still grieving, still anxious about the idea of leaving the guild, still very much opposed to being near Seokjin more than three months out of the year. Regardless of whether or not he was ready, though, he had to be. That’s why he was standing in front of his mother’s apartment trying to talk himself into opening the door.

He needed to pack. He needed a lot of stuff from inside of there, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Seokjin had asked if Jeongguk wanted him to come along, but Jeongguk had refused. This was something he not only wanted to but needed to do by himself. Jeongguk needed to face the fact that his mother was gone, and no one could help him do that.

He unlocked the door, stepped inside, and it felt like coming home after a long absence. The apartment was a little dustier than usual, but, by all means, exactly the same. Jeongguk immediately found himself running to his mother’s room and smelling her citrusy perfume, sticking his face in her pillows and blankets, just trying to remember her any way that he could.

He cried as he got off her bed, but he didn’t sob. He’d stopped sobbing two weeks ago. Now everything just felt like a dull ache. The kind that settled into his bones. He knew it wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, so he’d begun to accept it as part of himself. It didn’t hurt so much that way. He spent the entire afternoon going through his mother’s things, even setting some stuff aside to give to Seokjin. Now, it was just a matter of if he’d ever be able to set aside his pride and actually give the stuff to Seokjin.

He packed all of his bags for school, even sneaking his mother’s perfume bottle in the side pocket of one of them. He’d sprayed it around the apartment a few times beforehand, just trying to remember what it felt like to be around her. Played some of her favorite music and pretended that he could hear her singing along in her always-flat voice.

That night, Jeongguk slept in his own bed. It was the last piece of comfort he could allow himself before leaving for The Academy the next day. Hopefully, everything his mother had spent his entire life teaching him would be enough that he wouldn’t need the comforts of home anymore. Tomorrow marked the first day of his new life, and he’d be damned if he didn’t show his mother that he was okay without her. That she could rest knowing she raised him well. Jeongguk needed her to know, desperately needed her to know, that he would be okay. Tomorrow, if she was watching, he would show her.