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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.

Chapter Text

Jeongguk didn’t know why he genuinely expected Seokjin to help him out once they got to The Academy. In reality, he wasn’t all too surprised when they passed through the front gates and Seokjin practically vanished, but he was disappointed. And scared.

Jeongguk had no clue where his dorm was, how to find the administration office, or virtually anything about the school. He started walking in the same direction Seokjin had sprinted away to and hoped that he’d run into someone that could point him towards his dorm.

He ignored the weight on his chest and the shaking in his legs and urged himself to keep walking, vowing to speak to the first person he saw. Well, the first person he saw was very tall and not smiling, so he vowed to ask the second person.

“Can you tell me where Whitmore Hall is?” Jeongguk asked a disinterested looking girl sitting outside a limestone building.

“You’ve found it.” she said, gesturing to the building at her back. Jeongguk stepped back to look up, and, sure enough, “Whitmore Hall” was written in massive lettering along the side. It was embarrassing that he hadn’t seen it.

“Yeah.” Jeongguk laughed nervously. “Thanks.”

He stepped into the hall and found that it was relatively easy to navigate. He took the stairs up to the fourth floor, grabbed his keys from a too-eager RA, and made his way down to his room. 407. He briefly considered knocking once he reached the door but opted to open it instead. If his roommate was already there and shocked at the intrusion, that’d be his problem to deal with.

He stepped into the space and took it in. He had expected it to be a small room with two beds on either side but was surprised instead to see it was a suite style dorm. There was a spacious living room with a hallway off to the left that led to what Jeongguk assumed was two bedrooms, and to the right was a door he supposed was to the bathroom. Jeongguk heaved a sigh of relief. Thank god he wouldn’t be sharing a cramped space with a stranger.

“Hello?” Jeongguk yelled.

There was a crashing sound behind one of the doors before it opened to a shocked boy. He was staring at Jeongguk with an apprehensive yet piercing gaze. Jeongguk was about to say something snarky, when the boy’s face morphed into a massive grin and his eyes disappeared into little crescents.

“You’re Jeongguk!” the boy exclaimed in what had to be the brightest tone of voice Jeongguk had ever heard.

“I’m Jeongguk!” Jeongguk responded in the same tone. It was meant to be mocking, but the boy didn’t seem to take it that way.

“Oh. Wait there. I prepared something.” Jeongguk remained rooted where he was standing while the boy ran back into his room. He stepped out with a party popper and ran over to Jeongguk to pop it over his head. Confetti rained down over Jeongguk who was trying very hard not to grit his teeth. Wasn’t this overkill?

“I’m Jimin.” the boy introduced himself and held out his hand. Jeongguk stared at his hand for a few seconds before tentatively reaching forward to shake it.

“Jimin.” his roommate shook his head in confirmation. “So, Jimin. What’s with all the confetti?”

Jimin’s smile got smaller, more comfortable and casual, but didn’t dim any. Jeongguk thought he might have to wear sunglasses around the guy. “Seokjin. You know Seokjin?”

“Something like that.” Jeongguk grumbled in response.

“Seokjin’s a friend of mine. He was here just before you got here, and he told me you like surprises. He gave me this party popper.”

Jeongguk didn’t hold back from gritting his teeth when Jimin said that. Not only had Seokjin vanished before Jeongguk could even ask for help to get to his dorm, but he’d gone to Jeongguk’s dorm anyway just to tell his roommate something he knew would piss Jeongguk off.

“Seokjin lied. I hate surprises. I hate confetti. I hate him.”

“So, you’re not, as Seokjin put it, ‘a massive fluffball who cries at the sight of a frown’?” Jimin questioned.

“Fuck no.” Jeongguk assured.

Jimin’s smile dropped into a lazy smirk. “Good.” Jimin pointed to a fishbowl in the corner of the living room while Jeongguk tried to wrap his head around the 180 Jimin just did in terms of demeanor. “That’s my fish. Don’t feed it because you will kill it. Don’t touch my fish. Don’t speak to my fish. Don’t go within a foot of my fish.”

Jeongguk nodded his head. “You in love with it or something?” he joked.

Jimin didn’t respond, just rolled his eyes as he held the lazy smirk in place. “That’s the bathroom.” Jimin pointed at the door to the right, the one Jeongguk had suspected led to the bathroom. “I will use it every morning for fifteen minutes from 6:30 to 6:45, and every evening from 7:30 to 8:00. Other than that, use it whenever.”

Jeongguk hummed in understanding and followed Jimin as he walked to the bedrooms. “This door.” Jimin knocked on the door situated on the left of the hallway. “This one right here. This is my door to my room. Wanna come in? That’s cool, just knock. I’ll lock it when I leave, though. It’s nothing against you. Jericho just has a thing of trying to steal from me a lot.”

“Jericho?” Jeongguk questioned.

“Item mage. I’m sure you’ll meet him, if the magical energy you’re putting out is any indication of how skilled you are. He’s in the advanced class, like Seokjin and me.” Jimin explained.

Jimin opened the door opposite his own, and Jeongguk followed him inside the room. It wasn’t anything special. There was a twin sized bed tucked in the corner with a nightstand sitting next to it. A desk by the door, twin doors that looked to be a closet, and a dresser next to said doors. The furniture was all a cherry wood that looked like it would clash with any attempt at decor. Good thing Jeongguk wasn’t much of a decorator.

“And this is your room.” Jimin stated as if it wasn’t obvious. “I’ll leave you to get situated. Knock if you need anything.” Jimin said with a curt wave as he closed the door behind him and retreated into his own room.

Jeongguk walked around the small space and tried to convince himself that it was his. He did his best to unpack what little belongings he had to make it seem more like home, but it still felt empty and cold. A part of him blamed the tacky color of the wood they’d chosen for the furniture, but really, the honest part of him, knew it’s because he hadn’t had a home in a month. He hoped he would at least get semi-comfortable in the room, but the bed looked uninviting, the desk out of place, his clothes not enough to fill up the closet. It just felt wrong.

He didn’t want to be there anymore.

His feet were walking to Jimin’s door and his fists were knocking before Jeongguk registered that they were doing it. Jimin opened the door with his brows furrowed in apparent confusion.

“Done unpacking already?”

“Not much to unpack.” Jeongguk responded with a shrug. “Hey, wanna get out of here? I still have no clue how to get around campus, and I could use someone to show me around.”

Jimin seemed to consider for a moment before agreeing. “Sure. Let me just throw on some shoes.” He popped in his room for a second before stepping out in some leather boots that looked like they cost more than Jeongguk had any hope of making in his entire life.

“Rich family?” Jeongguk asked. He cursed himself as soon as the words left his mouth. Jeongguk accredited his recent lack of filter to Seokjin. He’d spent too much time with Seokjin since his mother’s passing, and it was starting to reflect poorly on his character.

“Well-off family and only child.” Jimin clarified without any malice in his voice. Jeongguk nodded his head and chose not to prod the topic further. He shouldn’t have asked in the first place.

The campus was large, but Jimin made a point to only show Jeongguk what he deemed the important places, said if Jeongguk was that keen on knowing where everything on campus was, he could explore on his own time. It wasn’t as harsh as it sounded, Jimin was just very concise. He was also kind behind the smirk that always seemed plastered to his face.

They didn’t run into many people as they were walking around, and Jimin explained that only senior students were here this early. They got their testing done first, so The Academy moved them in sooner.

“Speaking of testing, that’s tomorrow. Ready?” Jimin questioned in such a way that almost made it seem like he didn’t care if Jeongguk was ready or not, just trying to make conversation. Almost. His nose was upturned, lips pouted, and eyes slightly narrowed as he looked up at Jeongguk for an answer, like he was actually trying to gauge Jeongguk’s character. Jimin was nosy.

“Why wouldn’t I be ready? They just test your magic power, right? I’ve got that in droves.” Jeongguk didn’t have feign arrogance the way he suspected Jimin did from time to time. He had it naturally.

“Sure, if your magic isn’t easily seen or if using it only hurts other people. You use fire, right? They’ll do more than have you burst magic energy.” Jimin started. “They’ll want to test how well you can control it, your mastery of spells, down to how you stand when you cast. It’s more than power, it’s dedication to controlling that power. They want to know if you have what it takes to be more than a mage.”

Jeongguk paused for a minute before responding. “More than a mage? What more do they want you to be?”

“A good mage.” Jimin deadpanned. Jeongguk found himself laughing a little at the dull joke as Jimin’s smirk melted into something more genuine.

“Let’s get food now. All this talk of testing has me famished. I can show you the cafeteria, and maybe some of the class will be there. I can introduce you to a few people.” Jimin began walking away, and Jeongguk assumed he was supposed to follow.

The cafeteria was, well, for lack of a better word, totally awesome. Jeongguk was used to guild food which mostly consisted of corn, bread, and hamburger steaks. Good every once in a while, but tired after about the 17th year in a row of eating them nearly daily. It happened to be their cook, Pip’s, favorite dish. Pip had never grown tired of it, so he’d never really stopped making it.

That didn’t matter now, though, because this cafeteria was the complete opposite of that. Not only were there food options, but they were split by the region they’d hailed from. Jeongguk didn’t know where to start. He hadn’t even seen or heard of some of the foods before. He immediately found himself walking towards the sweets.

“Sweet tooth?” Jimin asked. Jeongguk had forgotten Jimin was there, completely enamored by the cherry danish looking into his soul.

“Let’s call it an everything tooth with a soft spot for sweets. I like to eat.” Jeongguk took another step towards the danish when Jimin grabbed his arm and began pulling him away.

“Okay foodie, but you have to do this right. The line starts here.” Jimin placed them both behind a line that consisted of about eight or so people. Jeongguk decided that if any of them touched the danish, he would burn their food. He’d already soulmated it. That was his.

“I hate lines.” Jeongguk was almost whining.

“Who doesn’t?” Jimin rolled his eyes. “Here’s a plate. I’ll assume you know how to use it.”

“Who says I can?”

“Yeah. Typical of Seokjin’s brother.” Jimin responded. “I have to be careful in vetting you. Never know what people like him would get up to or what they’re capable of, or rather, not capable of.”

Jeongguk laughed at the jab at Seokjin, even if it was secretly an insult to him as well. He also helpfully ignored the fact that he didn’t feel the need to correct Jimin when he referred to Seokjin as his brother. The last month had changed some things, he supposed.

The line moved quickly enough. The boys just had to sign their name on the dinner ledger to mark down that they’d already had their meal. Jimin led them to a table in the middle of the cafeteria, and Jeongguk found himself sitting down at the table despite every social bone in his body—or, non-social bone, rather—screaming at him to eat at one of the edge tables. Jeongguk ignored the pull to the table by the trash can and opted to bite into the cherry danish that, thankfully, no one had touched

Jimin seemed to be looking for someone as he absentmindedly picked at his spinach salad. Jeongguk had attempted to make fun of Jimin for it, but he was shut down as soon as Jimin pointed out Jeongguk’s dinner of a pork chop, a cherry danish, and about six different flavors of cookies.

Actually, Jimin wasn’t looking, so Jeongguk took this as his opportunity to create what he’d gotten these cookies for in the first place: tripledecker cookie sandwich. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded. The sandwich consisted of Jeongguk stacking all six cookies on top of each other, and eating it was Jeongguk trying to unhinge his jaw in an attempt to get a bite.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jimin asked. Jeongguk quickly dropped all the cookies.

“Nothing.”

Jimin narrowed his eyes like he didn’t believe Jeongguk and mumbled something that sounded like “Seokjin’s brother.” Jeongguk took a bite out of his snickerdoodle. “Hey, Yoongi just got here. Is it cool if I invite him to sit with us?”

Jimin was waving the man Jeongguk assumed to be Yoongi over before Jeongguk had even finished nodding his head. Yoongi wasn’t like Jimin, Jeongguk caught onto that quickly. He looked soft enough, actually, Jeongguk thought the man looked perfectly harmless—especially with a head of soft, blonde hair. He almost looked like a fairy, or maybe a cat, but the magic energy he was exuding was nearly suffocating. Yoongi was a dangerous man, and it seemed like he didn’t care who knew it.

“Who’s he?” Yoongi said as he sat down next to Jimin, not even bothering to look or gesture at Jeongguk.

“He’s my new roommate and Seokjin’s brother.” Jimin explained. “Jeongguk, this is Min Yoongi.”

“Jeongguk, huh?” Yoongi asked as he brought his eyes to meet Jeongguk’s. “Think I’ve heard Seokjin mention you before. Fire? Big temper? Arrogant?”

“Funny of Seokjin to say I have a big temper.” Jeongguk huffed. “He ever say anything nice?”

“Nope.” Yoongi popped the p and brought his drink to his mouth. “Don’t let that temper get to you here. You may be hot shit at your guild, but that sort of thing won’t get you far at The Academy. Trust me, I tried.”

“He’s mellowed out a lot.” Jimin assured with a soft pat to Yoongi’s shoulder.

“Let’s just say that I have a few, hard-to-press buttons, and Seokjin just happens to be good at anything that’s impossible. Benefits of being a bonehead with the conviction of a rock.” Jeongguk attempted to explain. Jimin giggled a little at Jeongguk’s description of the ice mage while Yoongi nodded in seeming understanding.

“Ice and fire mage brothers, huh? You two were made to dislike each other.” Jimin stated.

“Guess so.” Jeongguk shrugged as he bit into another cookie. He found himself thinking about his mother briefly and thought to himself that maybe that wasn’t right. Maybe they weren’t meant to hate each other, they just never tried not to, never bothered to learn anything else. He’d been having thoughts like that too much recently. He shoved the rest of the cookie into his mouth.

Yoongi sniffed the air a little bit and got closer to Jeongguk until he was almost sniffing Jeongguk himself. “Lose someone recently?”

“What?” Jeongguk choked a little.

“Someone close to you. Did you lose them?” Yoongi clarified, but he said it like he didn’t want to repeat himself.

“Yoongi!” Jimin sounded scandalized as he pulled Yoongi back into his seat. “Don’t feel like you have to answer him Jeongguk. His magic is just…weird.”

“Weird, huh? I’d say powerful.” Yoongi muttered just loud enough to hear.

“What is your magic?” Jeongguk asked instead of answering.

“Necromancy.” Yoongi stated.

“Isn’t that…dark magic?” Jeongguk shivered at the thought. Yoongi was even more dangerous than he initially thought, and Jeongguk initially thought he was deadly.

“Anything used by a dark mage is dark magic. Lucky, I’m not a dark mage. It’s just rare, and the council likes putting condemning names on things it doesn’t understand.” Yoongi’s voice took on a bitter edge at the mention of the council. Malice towards the council wasn’t something a light mage usually harbored.

“Quiet your voice.” Jimin warned. “You can’t talk like that here.”

“I’d never do anything to the council.” Yoongi responded in a quiet but sharper voice. “That didn’t stop them from ostracizing me, though, did it? Favors aren’t always returned, Jimin. Sentiments aren’t always shared. And the good guys aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be.”

Jeongguk was confused and found himself growing increasingly curious about Yoongi. He didn’t think the man was a dark mage, but he didn’t think he was necessarily light either. Suppose he was a wild card, that made him unpredictable. That made him a potential threat. Jeongguk would have to keep a close eye on him, deciding in that moment that the pale-haired boy couldn’t be trusted. Still, Jeongguk found himself wondering what made it so easy for Yoongi to malign the council in a public place without fear of retribution.

“It was your mother, wasn’t it?” Yoongi changed topics while Jimin seemed done talking, opting to fiddle his fingers in his laps with a look of concentration on his face. He looked frustrated. Jeongguk suspected that Yoongi had that effect on people.

“How can you tell?” Jeongguk asked.

“Mom’s have a different energy than other people. You were close to yours. Her loss is strong, weighing. I can almost feel it myself, and you reek of it.” Yoongi explained.

“Cool, I guess.” Jeongguk responded.

Yoongi let out a bitter laugh, but not one that sounded entirely void of humor. He pointed a curious finger at Jeongguk. “You’re not going to ask me to bring her to life or something?”

“No body to bring back to life.” Sympathy and regret flicked across Yoongi’s features for a moment before disappearing and his expression returned to that hard-to-read blank slate it’d been resting in for the majority of the conversation.

“Sorry for ruining your dinner, Jiminie. I’ve got to go make sure Seokjin hasn’t encased all my desk supplies in ice, now. See you tomorrow?” Jimin nodded his head, and Yoongi smiled softly.

“You room with Seokjin? Then you would’ve already known about my mother, right?” Jeongguk questioned.

“I’ve been rooming with that asshole for four years now. He doesn’t tell me shit.” Yoongi turned to walk away before pausing for a second to look back at Jeongguk with narrowed eyes. “Talk to you later, Jeongguk.” Then he walked out of the lunch room, and Jeongguk took a deep breath once the nearly oppressive magic presence left with him.

“So, that was Min Yoongi.” Jeongguk stated with awed reluctance.

“That was Min Yoongi.” Jimin confirmed.

--

Aptitude testing wasn’t as hard as Jimin seemed to want Jeongguk to think it was. They had him cast a few simple spells, gauged his magic power, asked him some questions about form and technique, then sent him out to get the next student.

Jimin had invited Jeongguk to sit with him and his friends to wait for the test results to be put up, but Jeongguk wasn’t feeling up to seeing Min Yoongi again, nor was he feeling like meeting any more people that were potentially like him. He excused himself back to his room and resolved to go look at the list himself once it’d calmed down.

They’d be posting the placements at around five, so Jeongguk had another six or so hours to kill. He still didn’t feel comfortable in the dorm, even after spending a night there. It felt more like a weird, lonely sleepover than like he was sleeping in his new home. He was starting to think he wasn't meant to get comfortable there, that he shouldn't. It was for that reason that instead of bringing him to the dorm, Jeongguk’s feet took him places Jimin hadn’t shown him. Maybe he could find an open field and try throwing some fireballs around for practice.

It was nice wandering around for awhile with nowhere to go and no one to see. They were nearing the tail-end of summer, so the weather was getting nicer. Being outdoors reminded Jeongguk of his mother. She was a fire mage as well, but her magic was more connected to the sun. She loathed rainy days and detested winter. If the sun was out, so was she. Jeongguk thought he could feel some of her presence in the rays that scattered across his skin. Jeongguk began mumbling softly a song she used to sing to him.

Hair woven from the sun
Hair unwoven and undone
Fire sprite dance for me
Grant me the warmth I seek

The clouds are crying in the night
They miss the sun, friend in the sky
Oh, Fire sprite dance for them
Warm the horizon up again

The flowers on the earth below
All they want to do is grow
The sun’s rays don’t reach their stems
Fire sprite please dance for them

Fire sprite your flame is dim
You’ve danced enough for all your friends
Now lay down and close your eyes
And wake up dancing, fire sprite

Jeongguk lit a little flame on his fingers and caused it to slowly dim throughout the verses like his mother used to when she sang the song for him. When Jeongguk was young, she would tell him he was her fire sprite. It was a sentiment Jeongguk had thought he’d forgotten but was happy now to see that he remembered it.

“That song is pretty. Where’d you learn it?” a deep voice asked Jeongguk, who had recently found himself sitting on a bench outside the school gardens.

“My mom.” Jeongguk said as he opened his eyes and sought the speaker behind the voice. It didn’t take long to find him. A tall man was standing in front of him. He was hard to make out with the sun to his back and in Jeongguk’s eyes, but Jeongguk also suspected the man didn’t like to be seen. His dark fringe covered his eyes, and he kept his chin tilted down. Not like he was trying to see Jeongguk better by looking down, but like he didn’t have the confidence to look up.

“Thank you for letting me listen.” The man said before turning around and quickly walking away.

Jeongguk briefly considered telling the man that he didn’t technically let him listen, but Jeongguk opted to let him leave. It occurred to him that there wasn’t a point in singing a song aloud if no one was listening to it, so in a way, he was happy that the stranger was there to hear it. Jeongguk was glad he wasn’t the only one to find joy in his mother’s song.

Jeongguk made his way over to the placement listings once he was certain no one else would be there. There wasn’t, so he walked straight to the advanced list and found his name almost instantly. First was a boy named Kim Taehyung, second was Min Yoongi, and third was Jeon Jeongguk. He assumed these were their placements within the class as well. The list wasn’t in alphabetical order, so it seemed the list was ordered by aptitude score. He’d have to ask Jimin about it.

“Yep!” Jimin answered cheerily once Jeongguk returned to the dorm. “I saw you placed third. That means you’re the third most powerful student here.”

“You’re the seventh. Not bad.”

Jimin scoffed. “I’d say it’s pretty damn good considering I’m a support mage.”

“Oh yeah, I never asked. What is your magic?” Jeongguk questioned.

Jimin’s eyes lit up in excitement and something akin to mischievousness. “Cards.” He pulled out a deck of ridiculously flashy cards and began shuffling them in ways Jeongguk thought impossible, but he was watching it happen, so it couldn’t be. His brain just was confused. Very.

“So, like, tarot and stuff?”

“That’s part of it, sure. I mostly tell the future with them, so you’re not far off. A lot of them act as defensive or healing items, though. Some have offensive spells I can use. It’s pretty cool. I make a card for what I want it to do, within reason, of course. It has to be supported by my magic ability, then I enchant it.” Jimin explained excitedly.

Jeongguk’s eyes widened. Cool. “I’ve never met a card mage before.”

“We’re not rare or anything like that, but I wouldn’t consider us common either. I’m the only card mage for three towns, where I come from.” Jimin smiled pridefully, but not mockingly. It was more like he was happy with his ability and where he came from.

Jeongguk found himself slightly envious of Jimin. Fire magic was painfully common, but it was harder to control and master. That’s why Jeongguk worked so hard at it. If he didn’t, not only would he be common, but he’d have burnt down the guild by now.

“That’s really neat, Jimin.” Jeongguk said, and he meant it. “I think I’m going to head to bed now, though. I’ve had a long day.”

Jimin nodded his head. “Okay. Goodnight Jeongguk, and good job on the testing by the way.”

“Thanks, Jimin.”

--

Jeongguk and Jimin were walking into the advanced senior classroom for their first day of classes, and with each step, Jeongguk could feel himself growing smaller, while Jimin seemed to grow bigger. One was dreading school, and one was not.

Jimin sat down in the middle of the room, again. Jeongguk thought it must be because Jimin likes being in the center of anything happening. Like Jeongguk had noticed before, Jimin was nosy, but it was more than that. He was just naturally sociable. No one was in the room yet, though, so Jimin was pouting. Jeongguk remained standing in the doorway, unsure of where to sit.

“Come sit next to me. You’re blocking the door.” Jimin demanded. Jeongguk reluctantly took a seat next to Jimin, in the middle of the room, aka his nightmare.

The first person to walk in the room was a small girl with a mean scowl. Well, mean wasn’t the right word. It was more challenging.

“Hey, Mizuki!” Jimin greeted. The girls scowl turned into a small smile.

“Let me guess.” The girl, Mizuki, Jeongguk assumed, snapped her fingers and pointed at Jeongguk. “Jeon Jeongguk. You’re the fresh meat around here, huh?”

“Yeah, guess I am. Mizuki, I’m presuming?” the girl nodded her head and grabbed Jeongguk’s hand to shake it. Jeongguk found the action odd but didn’t say anything about it. If Jeongguk was remembering correctly, this girl was ranked fifth on the advanced tier list, only two spots below Jeongguk. That made her among the top 25 percent in the class.

Muzuki sat in the front row in the corner farthest from the door. Her face returned to that scowl, a stark difference from the smile he’d just been on the receiving end of. He wondered if the mean look was just her natural face or if she was in deep thought.

Jimin continued introducing people as they came in. There were water-mage twins Kailani and Kainalu; they sat in the back. Two guys, Hoseok—an illusionist—and Namjoon—a combat mage—came in together and sat one next to Jimin and one behind him. Jeongguk found himself instantly taking a liking to them, especially Namjoon who was ranked fourth, just below Jeongguk. Then Jericho, the infamous thief. Apparently, he could make anything out of anything. He proved it by turning Jeongguk’s lone pencil into a baloney sandwich and eating it in front of him. Jeongguk frowned. Jericho did not offer him a new pencil.

Some guy named Damon walked in with a demon sitting on his shoulder, and Jeongguk nearly had a heart attack. Damon assured Jeongguk it was harmless, just something he’d summoned as a pet. He sat in the back, and Jeongguk allowed himself to believe that if he couldn’t see the demon, it was not in the same room as him. Yoongi and Seokjin walked in, and they took the seats in front of Hoseok and Jimin. Jeongguk was in the middle of an important conversation with Namjoon about the weather, so he didn’t notice.

“Making friends, I see.” Seokjin commented as he sat down.

“Why are you sitting near me?” Jeongguk questioned with little malice.

Seokjin gave Jeongguk a bright smile. Jeongguk briefly considered punching out his teeth. “Because, Jeongguk, you’re making friends with my friends.”

“I thought we were all friends.” Jericho whined from his spot next to Damon.

Seokjin turned towards Jericho with a playfully spiteful look on his face. “We’ll be friends, Jericho, once you hold up your end of our bet. Yeah, don’t think I’ve forgotten about that.” Jericho tsked and dropped the topic, going back to talking to Damon about whatever it was he was talking about before.

A few other people came in, but Jeongguk forgot their names as soon as Jimin said them. One guy, though, Winnie, he appeared in front of Jeongguk’s desk suddenly, and Jeongguk was proud to say that he didn’t flinch when a stranger just manifested before him. Well, not a lot, at least.

“Jeongguk? I’m Winnie. Well, my real name is actually…” The man was talking too fast for Jeongguk to catch what his real name was, and he kept talking. Everyone looked upon the boy in what seemed an endearing way, but Jeongguk thought his ears might explode just by trying to keep up. So, he stopped. Winnie. He’d heard that name before, right?

“Oh. Winnie. Seokjin mentioned you once.” Jeongguk cut the boy off. “He said something about how when I came to school here, I’d kick you out of the advanced class. Glad to see you hung in there, bud.”

Winnie’s face fell a little, and Seokjin instantly started rushing out apologies to Winnie. Several more people came in, nameless like the ones before Winnie. There were 21 students in the class, but Jeongguk only counted twenty people. In fact, if he was correct, the only person that had yet to show up was Kim Taehyung.

Seemingly at that thought, a man walked into the room at exactly that minute. There was one empty spot left open in the back of the room, and he took it without question. Jeongguk thought he recognized him. The fringe, the down tilt of his chin, the shy demeanor, the height. Was this the guy who heard him singing his mother’s lullaby the other day?

“That’s Taehyung. He can read minds.” Jimin told Jeongguk whose eyes had not yet left the newcomer. He broke eye contact with the boy’s figure at Jimin’s revelation, bringing his eyes to Jimin’s instead.

“Can he read my mind?” Jeongguk asked. He wondered if he had aluminum foil in his dorm or if they had any on campus. That’d work to block his thoughts, right?

Seokjin scoffed. “Not much to read.”

“Aluminum foil won’t help.” Taehyung spoke up from the back of the classroom. Well, it wasn’t that far back. He was actually sitting right behind Namjoon, but, strangely, Jeongguk felt there was a wide distance between Taehyung and everyone else.

“Huh?” Jeongguk asked.

“Heard you thinking about wearing an aluminum foil hat.” Taehyung said as he tilted his chin up and become a little more playful, a little cockier. “That won’t help.”

Jimin gaped. “That’s the first time I’ve heard him speak in three years.” Hoseok, Namjoon, and Seokjin nodded, while Yoongi seemed pretty disinterested in the entire thing.

“Has it really been that long?” Taehyung asked in mock shock. Jeongguk had to stop himself from smiling. Taehyung hadn’t said much, but he was kind of funny.

“Well, why’d he speak the last time?” Jeongguk was holding eye contact with Taehyung, but he directed the question towards Jimin. Taehyung had wide, dark eyes. They were hard to read. Taehyung’s eyes curled a little as Jeongguk had the thought.

“Draven was being a jackass. Taehyung called him out.” Jimin explained simply.

“He’s the guy you kicked out of the class.” Seokjin grabbed Jeongguk’s hand and shook it fervently with a mock bow of appreciation before Jeongguk ripped it away and wiped it on his slacks. Seokjin laughed a little at the action. “Thanks for kicking him out, by the way.”

Jeongguk returned his attention back to Taehyung. “Will something else stop you from reading my mind? Because, I have a bike helmet just waiting to be used.”

Taehyung laughed loudly at Jeongguk’s suggestion. “I won’t read it if I don’t want to.” He clarified.

“Do you want to?”

“Let’s just say you’re interesting.” Taehyung smirked as he eyed Jeongguk’s sitting form. He seemed to know something Jeongguk didn’t, and that made him uncomfortable. Or maybe he just knew what Jeongguk did. Jeongguk couldn’t tell which option made him more nervous.

“Woah. He doesn’t say that about anyone.” Jimin exclaimed. “Well, doesn’t say much of anything about anyone, ‘cept for that one time with Draven.” The card mage added as an afterthought.

Jeongguk waved Jimin off. “How does it work? Can you read far back, like, my memories and stuff?” Jeongguk found himself immediately thinking about the memory of his mom’s death, and, as soon as he saw sympathy in Taehyung’s expression, he regretted it. Well, so much for that.

“No comment on that.” Taehyung stated simply.

“Okay, sorry for pressing.” Jeongguk apologized genuinely, but he still found himself curious.

“It’s fine.” Taehyung waved away the apology like he didn’t need it. “That’s the first time anyone’s ever actually asked me about my magic. Most people just like to make rumors. So, thanks, I guess.”

The boys sitting around Jeongguk looked mildly guilty, while Jeongguk just muttered an “Oh.”

“All that being said,” Taehyung started, already seeming to retreat back into his shell. “I’ve reached my quota on speaking for the next three years, so, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re odd.” Jeongguk stated. Taehyung responded with a smirk.

The class didn’t start long enough after that. They weren’t learning much yet, just getting an introduction to their courses. Jeongguk didn’t remember the name of their teacher, but he’s sure it’s something that started with A or maybe it was N. Okay, he was not sure.

He found himself not caring to find out, though. Jeongguk’s mind kept wondering back to Kim Taehyung and his magic. How was a mind reader ranked number one for magic use at The Academy? It seemed to unrealistic. There had to be something more. His mind kept circling back to Taehyung during the lesson, and he knew Taehyung knew he was thinking about him. He knew it, but he didn’t stop. He couldn’t. Curiosity was getting the best of him.

If you know I can hear you, why do you keep thinking about me? Jeongguk heard Taehyung’s voice bounce around in his head, and he jumped in shock. He’d been communicated with telepathically before, but he didn’t know Taehyung could work his magic both ways.

Jeongguk turned to look at Taehyung who was staring resolutely at his desk. Oh, so you can speak in minds now, too?

I can do things you don’t even know how to imagine, Jeon Jeongguk.

Like what? Jeongguk pushed back.

Taehyung didn’t answer, just continued starting at his desk as his lips turned into a bitter smirk. Jeongguk tried to pay attention to lecture again but he couldn’t get that smirk out of his head, the way it held up even though it almost seemed like something was trying to tug it down. It was deprecating, almost. Jeongguk found himself thinking Taehyung was very odd, but he liked that.

Chapter Text

“Do we really have to throw a party tonight?” Jeongguk grumbled as Jimin and him were making their way back to the dorm.

 

Jimin scoffed. “We? Me. This is my party.”

 

“Coulda fooled me considering it’s in our dorm.” Jeongguk muttered under his breath as he kicked a rock off the cobblestone path.

 

Jeongguk didn’t know about the party until about ten minutes before they got out of school when Jimin announced to the entire class to not forget about their annual back to school bash. Jeongguk was secretly excited because he assumed that meant Jimin would leave the dorm, and he’d have it to himself. That wasn’t the case. The back to school bash was hosted by Jimin every year, and, apparently, it’d been that way for the past six years.

 

So, that’s how Jeongguk ended up dragging his feet behind him while Jimin bounded toward their dorm to prepare it for guests. When they got back, Jimin grabbed a bag of chips from his room and a large bowl, dumped the bag into the bowl, and set it on the coffee table which he’d unceremoniously pushed against a wall. He didn’t set out more food and drinks. Jeongguk didn’t know what Jimin thought he’d accomplish with one bag of potato chips, but Jimin had made it clear that Jeongguk wasn’t allowed to be part of hosting. Besides, Jericho could probably just steal more pencils to turn them into baloney sandwiches if anyone really got hungry.

 

Jeongguk had a different problem from chips though, a bigger problem. He needed to keep people out of his room. He borrowed Jimin’s least sparkly pens and set to work on making some signs to keep people away. One read “KEEP OUT” in bold letters. One announced it was his room. And, one said “BEWARE” with a very realistic depiction of a human head on a stick with its head on fire. Hopefully, that’d get the point across well.

 

Jimin pretended to clean until guests started showing up. After vacuuming the living room for the ninth time, he set a lava lamp on the coffee table, plugged it in, and declared the dorm an official party zone. Jeongguk chuckled at the declaration in spite of himself and, surprisingly, felt himself getting into the most party mode he’d ever been in. It was probably because of the lava lamp, not that he’d tell Jimin that.

 

“Hey, you.” Jimin pointed at Jeongguk after putting a sign on their door that read ‘Back to School Bash not being held here, carry on RAs.’

 

Jeongguk pointed at himself. “Me?”

 

“No, the other only person in this room.” Jeongguk rolled his eyes at the sarcasm. “Yeah, you. Don’t let Jericho so much as look at the lava lamp.”

 

“Um. Why?”

 

“He’ll turn it into lava. He did it when we were fourteen? Fifteen? Anyways, burnt a hole through the building. He thinks that sort of thing is funny, so keep him and his grubby, little, magic fingers away from it.”

 

Jeongguk nodded in affirmation and hung out in his room reading until the first guest showed up. He left his room and closed the door behind him, gave one cursory glance to make sure his signs were still fastened to it, and went into the living room to greet whoever had arrived.

 

“Leave it to you Mizuki to arrive fifteen minutes early to a party.” Jimin teased with a smile.

 

Mizuki responded with a grin of her own, a warm expression Jeongguk was somehow shocked to see on the girl. “Knew you couldn’t wait a second longer to see me, Park.”

 

Jeongguk awkwardly waved and mumbled out a greeting. Mizuki nodded her head politely in his direction and went back to bantering with Jimin. Jeongguk wasn’t sure if he was supposed to join their conversation or just listen to them have it. Both options felt wrong, and he was wishing for a third option that involved a painless death. Yeah, dropping dead on the spot wasn’t feeling like too bad of an option.

 

1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Jeongguk counted to five and didn’t die, so he instead made his way to the couch and sat. He picked at the bowl of potato chips and watched as the ball of goo moved from the top to the bottom of the lava lamp. He heard Mizuki and Jimin giggling behind him; he had to hold in his own sarcastic giggle. Jeongguk reminded himself that people didn’t like to be mocked, sort of like how they didn’t like to be left out of things. He wished one of them would start talking to him, invite him into the conversation. They didn’t. Jeongguk named one of the chips Rutherford and decided he’d be a good party companion.

 

As Jeongguk was attempting to have an imaginary conversation with Rutherford (pathetic, he knows), he found himself wishing that Seokjin would show up. If nothing else, it’d be nice to see a more familiar face. Seokjin also had this odd--annoying--habit of trying to make Jeongguk socialize with people, and Jeongguk found himself in desperate need of that push to just speak. Speaking was easy, right? Seokjin made it seem like it was.

 

Seokjin and Yoongi were the last to arrive at the party. Well, Taehyung was still absent, but Jeongguk suspected that parties weren’t much his thing. It was something they could agree on. Seokjin immediately found his way to where Jeongguk was sitting on the couch. He swiped Rutherford out of Jeongguk’s hands and shoved the poor guy into his mouth. Jeongguk scowled at his brother.

 

“We’re gonna have some fun. You in?” Seokjin asked after swallowing Jeongguk’s only friend in this world.

 

Jeongguk stood up. “Sure.”

 

Seokjin dragged him across the crowded room to a corner that Hoseok and Namjoon were whispering to each other in. Seokjin grabbed Hoseok’s shoulder and leaned in to whisper something into his ear. Hoseok grinned from ear to ear as he turned to Jeongguk with so much cheer Jeongguk almost fell backwards from the emotional impact of it.

 

“Lucky you, Jeon. You get to pick our first victim.” Hoseok explained with that grin that was as wide as it was easy.

 

“Victim.”

 

“Hobi here is an illusion mage.” Seokjin explained as he shook the red-haired mage’s shoulders. “He can make people think they’re seeing or experiencing something that isn’t real.”

 

“So you’re gonna do that to someone here?” Jeongguk asked, slowly catching on.

 

“Yep. Got someone in mind Flame Boy?” Yoongi questioned lazily, choosing to stare and pick at his nail beds than to look as Jeongguk as he directed a question at him.

 

Jeongguk gave it a second of thought. “Winnie. Make him think he’s on a hamster wheel.”

 

The boys all laughed at that, even Yoongi. His smile was mostly gum, and Jeongguk thought he looked much less intimidating this way. The power radiating off of him was still as strong as ever, but one could never tell from just looking at him.

 

“Your wish is my command.” Hoseok stated as he pulled his wand--a forearm-length, willow tool--out from his back pocket and casted the spell.

 

Some magic didn’t need a wand. Jeongguk’s magic was like that. There were magical items he could use to help control his magic or manipulate it in a certain way, like staffs or guns. Fire staffs were what they sounded like, a long piece of stick that a fire mage would light up and smack things or people with. Fire guns could be used to more adeptly aim and shoot fireballs. Jeongguk, however, much preferred to use his hands. The magic Hoseok used wasn’t as tangible, though, so something like a wand helped the caster to visualize the placement of the magical energy and cast appropriately. It wasn’t necessary, but it was efficient.

 

“Oh my god, look. It’s working.” Namjoon said excitedly.

 

Jeongguk looked up to see Winnie, poor, lanky, awkward-looking Winnie, running in place in the middle of the living room floor. His legs were moving so fast, Jeongguk couldn’t see them, only a blur of black from his school-issued slacks. It was a wonder the carpet didn’t catch on fire. It was a wonder Winnie was staying in place.

 

The rest of the class made a circle around the boy and laughed as he ran. The speed mage said something under his breath along the lines of “not this again,” which Jeongguk didn’t even want to begin to question. Everyone was laughing, and yelling at Winnie to go faster. Not that Winnie could hear them. Hoseok assured Jeongguk that the only thing Winnie could hear was himself and the squeak of the hamster wheel.

 

Suddenly, Winnie stopped. “Where’d the wheel go?” he asked as he collapsed onto the floor in a daze, the confusion most likely a lingering effect of Hoseok’s magic.

 

“No wheel in the first place, Winnie.” A voice from the near the door explained. Everyone turned their heads to see Kim Taehyung standing in the doorway, a playful smirk adorning his otherwise bored-looking face. “Tricking people isn’t nice, Hoseok.”

 

“Neither is interrupting their magic.” Hoseok grumbled.

 

Jeongguk gaped. “Did you really stop his illusion spell?” If Taehyung had in fact stopped it, that’d be phenomenal. His magical abilities were seemingly stacking, and Jeongguk didn’t know if he’d ever met such a gifted mage before.

 

“More like blocked it.” Taehyung corrected. “I don’t think it’s right to play with people’s minds.” Taehyung said that quieter, almost with an edge of guilt to his voice. Jeongguk found himself wondering why that was.

 

Stop thinking what you’re thinking. Taehyung warned inside his head. Jeongguk tried to shake the thoughts from his head and fill them with something else, but the question lingered. Even if it was pushed aside, it was large and demanding. He knew Taehyung could sense it, but he also knew there was nothing to be done about it.

 

The party went back to normal shortly after that. Jimin briefly greeted Taehyung before throwing himself back into the mingling fest, while Taehyung and Jeongguk stood along the edge of the room like two wallflowers at a party full of people neither of them talked to or wanted to start talking to now.

 

“This is weird.” Jeongguk ventured.

 

“Super weird.” Taehyung agreed.

 

Jeongguk stepped away from the wall. “Wanna go to my room? It’ll still be weird, but at least it’ll be less crowded.”

 

“Lead the way.”

 

Jeongguk wondered what Taehyung was doing at that party. Not that he didn’t want to see him, quite the opposite. He was happy Taehyung was here, but according to Jimin, Taehyung had never come to any of these back-to-school bashes. What was different this year? Jeongguk felt Taehyung’s gaze on the side of his face and remembered that Taehyung could read his mind.

 

When he was a child, Jeongguk tried to monitor his thoughts because he was scared that anyone could be a mind reader. He grew out of that fear a long time ago, but Taehyung brought it back in a weird way. Weird, because he really could read his mind. Jeongguk had never been so curious about one person, and finding that he was incapable of thinking on that curiosity without seeming blatantly rude to Taehyung was frustrating.

 

Then again, here Jeongguk was thinking about how he wanted to think about Taehyung. He internally groaned because of course, of course, even in his own head he was awkward. Taehyung was probably listening to this entire internal discourse wondering if Jeongguk was okay, thinking he was impolite, thinking he was just like everyone else, thinking he was weird. Kim Taehyung was annoying. Jeongguk opened the door to his room as Taehyung began laughing.

 

“That’s a new one.” Taehyung said through low chuckles.

 

“What is?”

 

“Being called annoying.” Taehyung clarified. “Usually people go for creepy, rude, elitist. Never has anyone thought I was annoying.”

 

“Oh. Sorry.”

 

“Yeah, well, no one’s ever bothered to worry if I cared what they thought about me either. Don’t worry. I don’t think you’re like everyone else.” Taehyung had a genuine smile on his face, and Jeongguk felt some of the weirdness break away.

 

Jeongguk sat on the edge of his bed while Taehyung settled into the desk chair. He looked around the room, and, even though Jeongguk couldn’t read his mind, he knew that Taehyung was most likely thinking about how little things were in the dorm, how impersonal it felt.

 

“Was thinking you were a minimalist. Impersonal is a little harsh, don’t you think?” Jeongguk hadn’t yet decided if he liked that he didn’t have to talk for Taehyung to respond to him. It was something to get used to, but it didn’t seem bad.

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “I wanted it to be impersonal. This isn’t my home, and I refuse to get comfortable here.”

 

“You’re awfully harsh on yourself.”

 

“I’m honest with myself. There’s a discernible difference.” Jeongguk grabbed his pillow and put it in his lap, pulling on a loose thread that didn’t want to come undone. Everyone in the living room was being loud, it was barely muffled by the door between them, but Jeongguk felt like he was in another world, shut away with Taehyung in this empty bedroom.

 

“I liked the signs on your door. The burning head was a nice touch, Flame Boy.” Taehyung changed the topic, probably picking up on the touchiness of the last one.

 

Jeongguk groaned loudly. “Flame Boy. If that nickname sticks, I’m dropping out.”

 

“Alright, then I guess I’ll just have to think of a different one.” Taehyung reasoned. Jeongguk frowned, but thought that anything could be better than Flame Boy.

 

Jeongguk stopped fiddling with the thread in his pillowcase. Playing with it was starting to make the skin on his fingers raw. “You know, people say you don’t talk, but you’ve talked to me more than anyone. Well, except Jimin, but he doesn't ever shut up.” Jeongguk spoke with no malice in his voice. He found himself growing fond of Jimin surprisingly quickly.

 

“I’ve had to practice really hard to block out Jimin’s thoughts. The things that boy thinks.” Taehyung cut himself off with a small laugh. Jeongguk didn’t mention that Taehyung hadn’t addressed what Jeongguk had actually wanted to discuss: the mind mage’s silence towards everyone else. Taehyung knew what he was doing; he was avoiding the topic on purpose. Jeongguk chose not to push it.

 

Taehyung asked if he could open the window over Jeongguk’s desk, and Jeongguk said that was okay. Taehyung struggled with the clasp for a few seconds before pulling it open, allowing a warm, night, summer breeze to filter into the room and slightly ruffle Taehyung’s long, sandy-brown hair. Taehyung seemed to take a moment to breathe in the fresh air, to close his eyes and let it absorb into him. Jeongguk thought he looked peaceful like that, content.

 

There was a knock on the door that broke the moment. Taehyung’s eyes snapped open, and he sat back down in the desk chair. Jeongguk’s eyes moved from the other male to the door. Before he could invite the person outside the door in, it was being opened.

 

“Hey, Jeongguk, we need to buy more chips.” Jimin said, stopping just past the doorway and giving Taehyung an odd look.

 

Jeongguk rolled his eyes. “That’s because you only bought one bag.”

 

Jimin eyed Taehyung again, ignoring Jeongguk’s retort. His gaze wasn’t rude, just curious, it seemed. “Why are you in here?” Jimin asked.

 

“I don’t know, Jimin. Why are your parents divorced?” Taehyung asked with a cheeky grin. His schooled his face into a concentrated look. “Oh. That’s why.”

 

Jimin frowned, but didn’t seem truly offended. “Well, I’ll just pretend that didn’t hurt my feelings, but I’m not pretending. It really didn’t.”

 

It hurt his feelings, huh? Taehyung voice bounced inside Jeongguk’s head.

 

Yeah, man. That was kinda harsh.

 

“Anyways, Jeongguk.” Jimin moved his attention to the black-haired boy sitting on the bed. “I came in here to ask you to pick up some more snacks.”

 

“What happened to this being your party, Jimin?” Jeongguk pressed.

 

“Things change, people change, their divorced parents get disrespected.” Jimin’s voice had a nonchalant air about it.

 

Taehyung snorted. “Oh, are we still on that?”

 

“It literally happened twenty seconds ago.” Jimin gave Taehyung an incredulous look before dropping back into that nonchalant expression and stance. “Not that I’m hurt or anything, or ruminating on it, or holding a grudge.”

 

Jeongguk spoke up before Taehyung could say something. “Fine, I’ll go get snacks. Not because I care about your party, but because it’s loud in here, and I want to get out.”

 

Jeongguk made to leave his room, and noticed Taehyung was standing up as well. “I’ll go with.” the mind mage stated.

 

“Don’t wanna stay at the party?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

Taehyung grinned, big and boxy. “Why would I wanna stay at a party that doesn’t have snacks?”

 

They grabbed their shoes from the front door and made their way out of the dorm hall. Night had fallen, and it was the first time Jeongguk was walking campus in the late evening. It had a different feeling to it. Maybe it was the magic that made the school feel more alive, but it felt like the campus was sleeping with the sun. Everything was quiet, shadowed, and soft.

 

All the paths on campus were cobblestone, except for the main one out into town, which was an actual paved road. Taehyung and Jeongguk walked down the middle of the paved road, not bothering to worry about any cars coming in or out of campus. The sides of the road were lined with white willows, large, but heavily trimmed so they weren’t drooping. Even with streetlamps lining the road, the trees made everything feel darker, somehow.

 

The Academy was situated fairly close to the town center. The entrance gate was only about a half mile or so away from downtown. The Academy was pretty lax about allowing students outside. Curfew was 1:00 AM for weekdays and 4:00 AM for weekends. It seemed too much of an extension to Jeongguk. Not that he wanted to have a curfew, but The Academy’s curfew times were so late and absurd, it was a wonder they had them at all. Jeongguk didn’t voice his concerns aloud to the gate attendant, though. It was The Academy’s lax curfew that allowed him to go get snacks for his class this late.

 

Taehyung and him remained silent the entire way to the store, not even speaking in each other’s heads. Jeongguk usually preferred silence, but sometimes felt extended periods of quiet around people were uncomfortable. He didn’t feel that way with Taehyung. Walking in silence with Taehyung was nice, like there was an unspoken understanding between them that they preferred it this way.

 

The silence made the walk feel different, though. With anyone else, most other teenage boys, it would be a rowdy walk filled with laughter and jokes. The silence, aside from Taehyung’s shoes dragging slightly on the pavement, gave the moment a heavier feel, made it important in a way that it wasn’t. Jeongguk thought maybe that’s why he liked silence, because it made things feel a little less meaningless, a little more magical.

 

They reached the store in a little under ten minutes and were quick to make their way to the chip aisle. Jeongguk said a silent prayer in his head for Rutherford, his fallen friend, and he thought he heard Taehyung laugh a little beside him as he did it.

 

“Papaya chips.” Taehyung stated after Jeongguk had finished his prayer.

 

“Huh?”

 

“They’re my favorite. Let’s get some papaya chips.”

 

Jeongguk had never tried papaya chips. “Should we get something else too?”

 

Taehyung shook his head. “Trust me, Jeongguk. Everyone loves papaya chips.” The way Taehyung said love, a little more drawn out than his other words, led Jeongguk to believe that people did not, in fact, love them. Jeongguk grabbed a few bags anyways. Killian had once told him that if he never wanted to do something twice, don’t do it right the first time. This would be the last time he’d be running food errands for Jimin.

 

“You don’t trust me?” Taehyung asked as they paid for the snacks.

 

Jeongguk shook his head, but had a bright smile on his face. “Not even a little.”

 

“Good.”

 

----

 

“Jeongguk, this is just seven bags of papaya chips.” Jimin had a distressed look on his face as he looked over Jeongguk’s yield: seven bags of papaya chips and a chocolate bar wrapper they’d gotten in the checkout line after Taehyung had insisted he’d needed it. Taehyung had eaten it in nearly three seconds flat and then unceremoniously stuffed the wrapper in one of their grocery bags.

 

“Aww.” Jeongguk began mockingly, “You can count.”

 

Jimin pinched the bridge of his nose. “Papaya is my one food allergy. And dried fruit? The only worse party food I can think of is brussel sprouts.”

 

“Brussel sprouts are good.” Taehyung mumbled under his breath, just loud enough for Jeongguk to hear. Jeongguk was beginning to think Taehyung didn’t have good taste in food.

 

Jimin was pulling all the chip bags out of the grocery bags, almost like he was checking to see if the boys had bought anything else. They hadn’t. Taehyung and Jeongguk were snickering softly amongst themselves, and it’d looked like Jimin had given up trying to find something other than papaya chips, when they heard an “Oh fuck!” from the other end of the room. Jimin heaved a deep sigh and began walking to the other end of the room. Taehyung and Jeongguk followed.

 

“What happened?” Jimin asked with his hands on his hips, his left eyebrow twitching slightly.

 

“Seokjin did it.” someone yelled. Jeongguk thought it was Robbins, but he was most likely wrong. He was still learning names and faces.

 

Jeongguk looked over at Seokjin whose ears were turning red as he began blinking more frequently. “Of course he did.” Jeongguk mumbled.

 

“Well, You know Mishal? Fire guy?” Seokjin imitated someone throwing a fireball with an uncomfortable laugh before continuing, “His drink was hot, so he asked me to ice it a little. So, I pointed my finger at it, and, well, I missed the drink. I did not, however, miss your fishbowl. I uhh unthawed it as soon as I could, but they ended up like this. Who woulda known freezing fish would kill them?”

 

Jimin didn’t seem to be breathing, much like his fish. “You killed my fish.” The fish began moving, and Jimin took a deep breath, “Oh, thank god.”

 

They floated to the top of the bowl again, and Jimin resumed holding his breath. “Got ya good, Park Jimin.” Yoongi smiled that big, gummy grin. A few people laughed, but Jeongguk found himself thinking the joke was a little tasteless.

 

“My fishies.” Jimin was furrowing his eyebrows and had his lips set in a pout.

 

Yoongi seemed to realize he’d messed up as his smile faltered. “Sorry, man. That was too far. They’re fuckin’ dead.”

 

Jimin seemed to snap in that moment, and when he looked up from the fishbowl, his eyes were full of pure rage. “That’s it.”

 

The card mage began listing off his grievances for the night, counting each one off on his fingers. “First, y’all bring up my divorced parents.”

 

“Oh shit, your parents are divorced?” Jericho questioned. Jimin didn’t stop to answer.

 

“Then, Hoseok peed on my bathmat and didn’t even try to clean it up or hide it.”

 

Hoseok interjected, “I tried to hide it, you just caught me.”

 

Jimin chuckled bitterly. It was slightly horrifying. “Oh, sorry. He did try to hide it: under my fucking bed.”

 

“No one drank tonight. You’re an adult. Why are you still missing the toilet bowl?” Someone in the crowd spoke up. Jeongguk didn’t even bother to try to identify them.

 

“Who says I missed?” Hoseok responded smugly.

 

“Then the goddamn papaya chips!” Jimin continued, holding up three fingers now.

 

“Yeah, what the fuck, new guy? Big party foul.” Jeongguk thought maybe Adryan had said that.

 

Jimin held up a fourth finger. “And now, my fish are dead.”

 

Namjoon kissed his hand and bowed his head in seeming prayer. “Aiden and Jaden will be missed.”

 

Jimin pulled his cards out of his pocket, and his eyes glowed yellow as he filled them with his magic energy, illuminating the cards as well. His skin looked like honey, and his dark hair stood almost stark against it. Jimin looked positively dangerous with the cards hovering in front of his face, glowing eyes and skin, and an aura that screamed he wasn’t to be messed with.

 

“Well,” Jimin began, “The cards say if everyone doesn’t leave in the next two minutes, I’m going to light this bitch up.”

 

There were a few grumbles from their classmates, and then everyone was gathering up their things and leaving. A few hung back for a couple minutes to apologize to Jimin and give their condolences for his loss. Jimin tried to give the papaya chips to people leaving, but no one wanted them.

 

“Nice going, dumbass.” Jeongguk said as he turned to Seokjin, who was in the process of slipping on his shoes.

 

Seokjin shrugged. “Oops.” Namjoon slapped the back of his head.

 

Taehyung gathered up all the papaya chips and hung the grocery bags off his arms. “See you around?” he asked Jeongguk just as he was about to head out the door.

 

“Yeah, see you tomorrow.” Jeongguk nodded. They shared shy smiles before Taehyung left.

 

After Taehyung and the others left, Jeongguk closed the dorm door, locked it, and slid down onto the floor. Jimin was sitting on the floor too, leaning against the back of the couch. It’d been a long night  for the both of them. Jimin because everything had went wrong, and Jeongguk because, well, everything had--shockingly--went right.

 

“Sorry about your fish. But, hey, at least now I don’t have to avoid an entire half of the living room to avoid breathing near them wrong.” Jeongguk joked. Jimin laughed softly at it, and Jeongguk knew he wouldn’t hold any pent up resentment towards anyone for what had happened.

 

“Hey, Jeongguk?” Jimin asked after a few minutes of silence.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What’s it like talking to Taehyung? I’ve never had a conversation with him, really, but I’ve always wanted to know more about him.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t know how to answer that question. What was it like talking to Taehyung? “It’s frustrating.” Jimin gave Jeongguk a questioning look, so he tried to explain, “I mean, he’s a closed book. He has this way of knowing everything about you and what you’re thinking, but you never know what’s going on with him.”

 

Jimin nodded. “Yeah, that’d be hard to handle.”

 

“He’s funny, though. I’ve noticed he prefers the quiet too, and he’s observant, even if not for the mind reading. He’s just...I don’t know what he’s like, Jimin. I don’t know.”

 

“There are rumors about him.” Jimin didn’t press the question further.

 

“Rumors?”

 

“Did you know he gets perfect marks on everything?” Jimin sat up a little straighter upon asking the question, raising his eyebrows questioningly.

 

“Really? All perfect marks?” Jeongguk’s eyes widened in amazement. From the few interactions he’d had with Taehyung, he’d found him intelligent, and he knew his magic skill was off the charts, but all perfect marks seemed like an impossible feat for anyone. Even when Jeongguk was being taught by his mom, he didn’t receive perfect marks.

 

“Jericho and Damon broke into the head office, once. That’s where they keep gradebooks for all students, past and present. Guess they were going in there to change some of their grades, but they got curious, so they looked at Taehyung’s. Perfect marks on everything since the day he got here.” Jimin sounded a mix of deathly serious and amazed.

 

“When’d he get here?”

 

Jimin shrugged. “I think this’ll be his fifth year.”

 

That meant Taehyung transferred here just like him. “So, he didn’t start coming here as a child? He was a transfer like me?”

 

“Yeah, only no one knows where he transferred from or who he was before coming here, who he is when he leaves here.” Jimin responded, but it offered no explanation. Jeongguk was finding that the more questions he asked about Kim Taehyung, the more he got in turn.

 

“There’s another thing.” Jimin started again, “He doesn’t use his full magical powers.”

 

“What? And he still gets full marks?” Jeongguk was shocked.

 

“I’ve heard lots of rumors, so I don’t know what’s true. Some people say that mind reading is just a byproduct of his true magic ability. Some people say mind reading is his ability, but he can read down to last synapse, even seeing what you’ve forgotten. All the rumors agree that he’s insanely powerful, but he’s hiding that power.”

 

“How do you know? How do you know he’s not using his full magic?” Jeongguk pressed.

 

“He’s more powerful than Yoongi, yeah?” Jimin began explaining.

 

“Supposedly.” Jeongguk hadn’t felt any strong magical aura around Taehyung like he had Yoongi, but Taehyung was ranked higher.

 

“He can mask his magical energy. I’ve felt pieces of his power before. The past couple years, they’ve had him do his aptitude testing at a different time from everyone else. But, three years ago, he did it with the rest of us. The power he gave off was so astounding, it made me sick to my stomach, Jeongguk. And if it’s true, that he’s hiding his true magic ability,” Jimin shivered. “I can only imagine the amount of power he has. He may be one of the most powerful mages alive.”

 

“That’s crazy.” Jeongguk brushed it off.

 

“Is it?” Jimin asked, a tick in his eye, the left corner of his lip tugged up in a sort of disbelieving half-smile.

 

Jeongguk thought maybe it wasn’t so crazy. Taehyung had said to Jeongguk that he was capable of more than Jeongguk could imagine, and the fire-mage almost believed it. There was something dangerous about Kim Taehyung. He was like fire, Jeongguk thought. Beautiful, enticing, dancing in shades of crimson and sun as it razes and destroys. Taehyung was like a flame, and Jeongguk was like a moth, drawn to the heat, the light, the danger. The curiosity beneath Jeongguk’s skin felt hot.

 

“I wanna know more about him too.”

 

Chapter Text

It’d been nearly two weeks since school had begun, and Jeongguk was finding himself entirely unable to adapt. It was little things, like how his room felt off, so he decided it’s because he wanted it to feel off, that getting comfortable would be bad for him. It was big things, like how he didn’t truly feel like he had friends, and Taehyung had all but been reduced to a silent shell in the back of the room. It’d been days since he had spoken to Jeongguk, and the fire mage found that Taehyung’s silence made him more enigmatic, more worthy of curiosity. Infuriating.

 

It’d been nearly two weeks since school had begun, and Jeongguk was second to last in his class in combat rankings. That left him at 20th place. He was glaring at the list hung up outside their classroom door, a big, wooden thing that--in Jeongguk’s humble opinion--played too much into the non-magic world’s stereotypes on mages. Jeongguk clenched his jaw as he continued to read over the list, somehow more angry each time to find himself at the bottom.

 

Combat Rankings for 12th Year S Class

 

1- Taehyung

2- Namjoon

3- Mizuki

4- Seokjin

5- Mara

6- Mishal

7- Winnie

8- Yoongi

9- Jimin

10- Kailani

11- Kainalu

12- Jericho

13- Dagny

14- Hoseok

15- Meldy

16- Jomo

17- Damon

18- Mina

19- Robbins

20- Jeongguk

21- Adryan

 

Adryan was standing next to Jeongguk, looking at the list with a semblance of pride. Jeongguk tried not to make sense of it. He could tell Adryan was a little different from everyone else here; not because he wasn’t powerful, but because he was a crazy, conceited jackass with charisma falling out of his ears. He had green eyes, dark brown hair, and this sort of just-rolled-out-of-bed-but-don’t-worry-it’s-actually-high-fashion look. He already had a natural charm about him that just made someone want to follow him off a bridges, but he was a compulsion mage. His specialization was convincing people to do things. In most cases, it was considered dark magic, but many compulsion mages were admitted into law enforcement for interrogation purposes. Jeongguk didn’t see Adryan doing anything like that. He’d make a much better loafer.

 

“Adryan,” Jeongguk heard Seokjin before he felt one of his arms slinging over Jeongguk’s shoulders, the other he saw wrapping around Adryan. “Damn. You’re even worse of a fighter than Jeongguk. Do you try to be bad?”

 

Jeongguk shook Seokjin’s arm off him while Adryan seemed to lean into it. “Don’t need to be good at fighting with a face like mine. Who would hit it?” Jeongguk refrained from mumbling a “me” under his breath.

 

“I’m not that bad.” Jeongguk asserted with faux arrogance.

 

Seokjin let out a bark of laughter. “You couldn’t land a hit on someone if they were tied down.”

 

“You know, Seokjin,” Jeongguk began as he started playing with fire on the tips of his fingers, effectively drawing attention from the other two towards him. “You sure do talk a lot for someone waking up without eyebrows tomorrow.” Adryan covered his eyebrows with his hands and made a quick exit from the scene. The pretty boy had some sense of self-preservation, it would seem.

 

Seokjin seemed unphased. “How many times you gonna burn off my eyebrows?”

 

“Until they stop growing back.” Jeongguk blew one of the flames off his finger towards Seokjin who flinched away from it. The flame put itself out before reaching the ice mage, but Jeongguk laughed slightly at Seokjin’s reaction. The other man had never done well with fire. Granted, Jeongguk had never done well with ice.

 

Seokjin rolled his eyes. “Well, if you take to this as fast as you do nearly everything else, you’ll be one of the best fighters in the class by the end of the semester.”

 

“A compliment?” Jeongguk questioned with a raised eyebrow.

 

“More like an observation on your freakish nature.”

 

Seokjin was right; Jeongguk did pick things up fast. That’s what gave him enough confidence to issue a challenge. “Wanna make a bet? Next time they release rankings, I’ll be above you.”

 

Seokjin scoffed, “They’ll be releasing them a week before midterms. That gives you about two months to beat me, and, no matter how much of a freak you are, I’ve been fighting practically my whole life. You don’t want to make a bet with me.”

 

“Two months. I’ll be ranked above you. If I win, you let me burn your eyebrows off.”

 

“Childish, but cruel. Fine. If I win, then you have to write Adryan a love letter.” Seokjin asserted with a twitch of his lips, like he was holding back laughter.

 

Jeongguk gaped. “Adryan?!”

 

“Would you rather it be someone else?”

 

“I’d rather it be a bear than Adryan.” Jeongguk sighed and held out his hand. “We have a deal?”

 

Seokjin shook it. “You’re on, Flame Boy.”

 

Seokjin let go of Jeongguk’s hand and walked into the classroom, but Jeongguk stayed to read over the list a few more times. Seeing his name at the bottom was motivating. He eventually made his way back into the classroom and settled into his seat. The bet was on his mind, and he was thinking of all the way he could singe of someone’s eyebrows. Would a fireball straight to the face be too much?

 

You’re bold. Taehyung’s voice bounced in Jeongguk’s mind. So, Taehyung was talking to him again?

 

In what sense? Jeongguk responded.

 

Think you can beat Seokjin in combat with only two months of training under your belt? That’s bold. Jeongguk couldn’t see Taehyung, but he knew the other male was smirking slightly. He did that sometimes when he thought no one was looking. It was hardly distinguishable from his normal facial expression, the one that screamed “I’m bored and hate all of you,” except for that barely-there tug on the corners of his lips. The expression was more like, “I’m less bored but still hate all of you.”

 

Jeongguk turned around to look at Taehyung--having to peak past Jimin and Hoseok--sure enough, that nearly invisible smirk was sitting pretty on his face. Infuriating. Jeongguk scowled. “I know I can.”

 

Taehyung spoke aloud too. “I never said you couldn’t, just said that you were bold for thinking as such.” Taehyung’s smirk grew into the beginnings of a small, genuine smile. “Actually, I think if anyone could do it, it’s you.”

 

Next to him, Jeongguk heard Jimin stage whisper to Namjoon, “What are they talking about?”

 

Namjoon didn’t even try to whisper, “Hell if I know.”

 

“Ask enough questions, boys, and I’m sure that one day, one of ‘em will be answered.” Taehyung directed his attention to Jimin and Namjoon. Jeongguk felt the statement was directed towards him as well, though.

 

“Seriously, what’s going on?” Jimin continued stage whispering, purposefully not addressing Taehyung or Jeongguk. Jeongguk found it slightly amusing. Namjoon just shrugged his shoulders.

 

Well, thanks for your vote of confidence. Jeongguk resumed mental communication. Taehyung nodded his head once, and his face took back on that bored expression. Jeongguk took that to mean the conversation was over, so he turned back to the front of the room and waited for class to start. It was a dull lecture over the formation of the Magic Council, the same story he’d heard hundreds of times.

 

The Council was created four-hundred years ago after a surge in magic-related crimes. Most of the population couldn’t use magic, and the general populace found themselves growing afraid of this thing they couldn’t control, this thing that was more powerful than they could comprehend. Most mages looked down on those that used their magic for nefarious ends, and many guilds saw their leaders begin to crack down on selfish usage of magic ability.

 

The non-magic government began working with guild leaders to soothe the general populace and create better protections against magic, more enforcement of its practices, and, soon enough, the Magic Council was created to govern over magic users. Guilds under the Council were made to send one representative. The current representative for Jeongguk’s guild was Killian. Guilds that didn’t send a representative or refused to abide by the Council’s authority were labeled enemies of the state and magic threats. There became a name for these groups: dark guilds. Adorior was such a guild. Lecture wrapped up before they could start discussing dark guilds, though. Shame. It might’ve made it more interesting.

 

“Jeongguk, Namjoon, stay past the bell. I need to speak with the two of you.” their teacher, who Jeongguk had finally remembered (after Jimin had told him 73 times) was named Ms. Noyce, said after lecture. There was a chorus of “ooh”s and “you’re in trouble”s, loudest of all from Jericho and Damon, as the students filed out of the classroom.

 

“You wanted to see us?” Namjoon asked once everyone had left. He was visibly nervous.

 

Ms. Noyce smiled politely before her gaze settled on Jeongguk. “You’re not very good at combat, are you?”

 

“Not yet.” Jeongguk said with a shrug of his shoulders. The comment felt a little spiteful.

 

“And Namjoon, you are?”

 

Namjoon rubbed the back of his neck. “I mean, a little.” Namjoon was a combat mage; he was more that a little good.

 

“Great! Then it’s decided! Jeongguk, you’re going to meet with Namjoon four times a week to work on combat training.”

 

Namjoon sputtered. “Don’t you have instructors for this? I’m busy. I can’t just-”

 

Noyce cut him off, “Remember the little stunt you pulled last week?” Namjoon paled. “It’s this or detention and cleaning hours until graduation.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Namjoon deflated.

 

“Yeah? Who says I’d want to work with Namjoon instead of a licensed instructor. No offense, man.” Jeongguk raised an eyebrow and offered Namjoon a sparing glance.

 

“None taken.” the combat mage grumbled.

 

“I figured this would help you get involved with the class a little more, Jeongguk. You’re very bright, lots of potential, but I can see you’re just not clicking with The Academy quite yet. Namjoon is just as good, if not better, than most of our instructors. Working with a peer could help you adjust more, yeah?” Noyce explained.

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk sighed deeply. He would need extra training if he had any hope of beating Seokjin in just over two months. Maybe, this was a blessing in disguise. He did prefer working alone, but he didn’t dislike Namjoon. This could be good for him. His mom would argue it would be good for him. “Fine. I’ll do it.”

 

Noyce clapped her hands together excitedly. “Great! I’ll leave the two of you to work out when you want to meet, but you need to be meeting four times a week for at least one-hour sessions. Come back to me with a schedule tomorrow.” the boys muttered their okays. “Now, go get lunch.” Ms. Noyce dismissed them.

 

They were about halfway to the cafeteria before either of them spoke. “Sorry for dragging you into my punishment.” Namjoon was rubbing the back of his neck again.

 

“What’d you do, anyways?”

 

Namjoon smiled sheepishly. “Snuck out with some guy from A-Class, got drunk, tried to sneak back in, got caught. Kinda stupid, I know, but it was fun.”

 

“Well, guess it could be worse. You could have to tutor me and get stuck with detention.”

 

“Could be worse.” Namjoon’s smile became brighter and his dimples deepened considerably.

 

“If it’s worth anything, I’m sorry for being so bad at combat that you were even put in this position in the first place. I’ll try to improve quickly.” The two shared grins and walked the rest of the way back to the cafeteria joking about lecture.

 

When they got to the cafeteria, an old-limestone building towards the center of campus, the line was short enough, since most students had already gone through, and the two boys were quick to get their lunch and sit down at their usual table with Jimin, Seokjin, Yoongi, and Hoseok. Jeongguk didn’t know if he considered him friends with all of them yet, but he supposed he liked them well enough. If nothing else, sitting with them certainly beat sitting alone. Well, Jeongguk thought as much, at least until he’d sat down at the table and heard what Yoongi was saying.

 

“I’m just saying, what they’re meant to do is regulate magic, right?” the table nodded along with the necromancer’s words. “But all they do is suppress it.” Yoongi was talking about The Council.

 

“Yoongi, maybe you shouldn’t-” Jimin began, but Yoongi cut him off.

 

“You don’t get it, Jimin. Your magic is nice. You do some card tricks and tell people their future.” Jimin winced. Yoongi didn’t stop. He sounded angry, but there was something else there, almost like he was jaded. He was a broken record tired of spewing the same shit, and, still, no one listened. “Your magic isn’t like mine. Mine’s dark, right? Yeah, fuck The Council, self-righteous bastards, every last one of ‘em.”

 

A boy sitting at the table adjacent to them butted into the conversation. Jeongguk didn’t recognize him, but this lunch was for twelfth years, so he at least knew the guy was the same age as them. “Of course, Min Yoongi would be spreading anti-Council propaganda. And, you wonder why they try to suppress your magic.”

 

Yoongi didn’t look up at the guy, just picked at his vegetables and spoke dully, “Your dad’s on The Council, right?”

 

“Yeah, he is.” the guy looked proud of himself. Jeongguk thought that whoever this boy was, he wasn’t very good at reading the mood.

 

Yoongi turned to look at the kid, a mocking pout on his face. “Daddy must be disappointed to have a son that can’t get out of B-rank.” Seokjin ooh-ed loudly. He was also bad at reading the mood.

 

“Your father must be disappointed to have a necromancer son. Adorior, ass-licking scum.” the guy’s ears were red and his brow furrowed. Yoongi seemed to have hit a nerve, but it seemed so did the guy. Yoongi stood up from his chair and glowered. The boy flinched a little.

 

“Say that again. You see, I have something to prove, so say it a-fucking-gain.”

 

Jeongguk had to give the guy some credit, for while he looked visibly frightened, he spoke clearly, “I said you’re Ador-” the boy didn’t get to finish his sentence because Yoongi was landing a blow across his face. Jeongguk jumped out of his seat a little in shock.

 

“Wanna know what I got to prove?” Yoongi said as he shook his fist, like he was shaking off the blow. The guy landed on the floor with a thump.

 

“You-” the boy didn’t get to answer the question because Yoongi was kicking him in the stomach. The lunch room had grown silent, and everyone was gaping.

 

“I could use my magic and destroy you, yet here I am, beating you like a man. Not because The Council stops me, but because I don’t have the desire to.” Yoongi kicked him again for effect. The guy grunted. “I’m twice the person you’ll ever be. I’m not bad. I’m not dark. My magic doesn’t make me; I make it.”

 

The kid attempted to stand, but as soon as he was on his feet, his face went slack, and he was kneeling onto the ground. Jeongguk felt a power surge as the boy dropped to his knees, but it didn’t come from Yoongi or the boy. Jeongguk’s eyes found Taehyung, sitting alone at a table near the edge of the room. Taehyung wasn’t looking at the fight, seemed to be absentmindedly picking at his mashed potatoes, but his jaw was clenched, and Jeongguk thought he’d felt a power surge from him. Had he done something?

 

“You disgust me. So does your father.” Yoongi spat before turning on his heels and leaving the cafeteria. Jeongguk watched him leave; the entire room watched him leave. The door closed behind Yoongi, and Jeongguk turned his attention back to Taehyung, but the mind mage had already gone. It struck Jeongguk as odd, but he couldn’t figure out why.

 

Seokjin broke the silence in the lunchroom. “Dibs on not cleaning up Yoongi’s tray.”

 

----

 

Namjoon and Jeongguk had agreed to meeting before class on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and Saturday in the evenings. They met for the first time on Saturday on the running track behind the ninth-year dorm. Namjoon was already there stretching when Jeongguk meandered onto track.

 

Namjoon jumped up to meet him with a bright and friendly smile. “Ready to get to work, Jeongguk?”

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk answered, pulling his arm across his chest to stretch it.

 

“Great! Do some stretches, and we’ll get started with endurance.” Jeongguk stretched and ran the track. Well, he tried to run the track. After about 150 meters, he found himself needing to take a breather, so he ended up walking the rest of the 400.

 

“You have the worst endurance of anyone I’ve ever seen.” Namjoon stated plainly as Jeongguk finished his walk. Jeongguk got flashbacks to his triple-decker-cookie sandwich. Should he cut back on those?

 

“Nothing that can’t be fixed with some effort, right?” Jeongguk said as cheerfully as he could manage. His sides still hurt from the little bit of running he did.

 

“You’re going to need to start running everyday. I’d usually start someone at a mile, but I don’t think you could take even that. Jog half a mile without stopping, twice daily. Add another half mile every four days. We gotta get up your endurance, otherwise you’ll get too tired to finish a fight. Better yet, it’s best if you don’t have to fight at all. Running away is the best defense method. Can’t have you try to run away only to stop five feet into a sprint because of a side stitch.” Namjoon instructed. Jeongguk’s face dropped more as Namjoon outlined what it was he’d have to do.

 

“Isn’t that what the adrenaline’s for?” Jeongguk tried in an attempt get out of the running homework.

 

Namjoon smirked. “Everyone gets adrenaline during a fight. What happens if you’re up against someone with that boost, and they have more stamina than you?”

 

“I’ll lose.” Jeongguk mumbled.

 

“Exactly. You’ll lose.” Namjoon pointed Jeongguk to a water fountain off the side of the track. “Go get yourself some water, then you’re running half a mile. Conditioning begins today.”

 

Jeongguk tried to stretch out his water break for as long as possible, but after about a solid minute of him lying on the ground behind the water fountain, Namjoon dragged him back to the track and had him run some more. It was only two laps, but Jeongguk felt like absolute death afterwards. Namjoon let him have another, longer water break. Then, the fighting began.

 

“Get into your stance.” Namjoon instructed. Jeongguk squatted his legs and put his hands in front of him, open palm. “What are you, a wrestler?”

 

“I was going more for volleyball. Was thinking middle blocker.” Jeongguk defended.

 

Namjoon fixed up Jeongguk’s stance and ran through a few defensive moves with him. A lot of it was about anticipating what his opponent would do next based on his stance. Jeongguk was starting to get why Taehyung was ranked so high; he could read more than body, he could read their minds. Jeongguk was starting to get the hang of some of the methods about fifteen minutes into the exercise, but it wasn’t because he was reading Namjoon’s posture, more because he’d only learned five moves and his body was getting the hang of it. After blocking a weak punch, Namjoon pulled a fast one and kicked Jeongguk’s feet out from under him. That wasn’t something Namjoon had taught him to defend against.

 

Jeongguk rubbed the back of his head as he sat up from the grass. “What the hell, man?”

 

“You weren’t paying attention to my posture.”

 

“You kicked me!” Jeongguk exclaimed.

 

Namjoon sat on the grass across from Jeongguk. “Aren’t fire mages usually good at combat?”

 

Jeongguk shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe.” It was a lie. Jeongguk knew fire mages were usually good at this sort of thing; his mom was. Jeongguk had tried to throw a punch at Seokjin when he was eight and had ended up being pinned to the ground in five-seconds flat. After that, he’d decided fighting was bad.

 

Namjoon raised an eyebrow. “So, what’s the story behind it? Why’re you so bad?”

 

“Usually throw my fire. Plus, if I light myself up, people tend to not want to get near me enough to see if they can land a punch. I’ve found that lots of people are scared of third-degree burns.”

 

“Yeah, I’d guess they are.” Namjoon responded wryly. He patted Jeongguk’s knee. “Well, get up. We have to run through a few more defensive procedures.”

 

Jeongguk stood up and wiped grass off of his pants. “When do I get to learn how to throw a punch?”

 

“As soon as you can block one of them.” Namjoon responded.

 

Jeongguk sighed, got up, and they started going through the motions again. Only now, Jeongguk paid more attention to Namjoon’s stance and body language than just letting himself fall into the routine. They did that every session, Namjoon slowly introducing new techniques to him. Oh, and he made him run if he wasn’t making him try not to get hit. This would be a long two months, Jeongguk thought.

 

After a week and a half of running and conditioning, Jeongguk had managed to get himself up to a mile without stopping. It would have felt like an accomplishment if his core didn’t hurt when he so much as breathed. Namjoon had Jeongguk start weight training, which he found he liked a lot more than cardio. He did his mandatory morning and evening runs, but found himself doing weight training daily just because he liked it. His body was sore, and he was eating less cookies, but he found himself improving quickly. It made it somewhat worth it.

 

Jeongguk started practicing the defense techniques Namjoon had taught him with Jimin. It was a double-win because Jeongguk got more practice in, and, if Jimin accidentally hurt Jeongguk, he’d offer the fire mage some snacks from his room as an apology. After another week, Jeongguk had the defense moves down pat, and Namjoon started teaching him offensive techniques.

 

“Okay, so put your thumb outside of your fist.” Namjoon instructed.

 

Jeongguk rolled his eyes. “Come on, Joon. I know that much.” That was another thing that had happened over the last two weeks; Jeongguk had started referring to Namjoon with a nickname. He thought it meant they must be friends, but, then again, Namjoon made him run. He didn’t think that friends forced each other to suffer.

 

“Okay, genius. What’s next, then?”

 

Jeongguk frowned. “Um, I swing?”

 

“How?”

 

Jeongguk took a soft swing at Namjoon, just to show him what the punch would be like. Before he’d even hit the combat mage, though, the man was already tsking and grumbling about how wrong it all was.

 

“First, you’re clenching your fist too tight. Combat is all about fluidity. It needs to be tight enough to hurt your opponent, but not so tight that you’ll hurt yourself.” Namjoon helped Jeongguk loosen up his fist. “Next, you’re hitting with your pinky first. That’s a good way to break it. Align your first two knuckles with your ulna and radius.” Jeongguk twisted his wrist a little. “I said first two, not middle two.”

 

“This is confusing.” Jeongguk complained as Namjoon corrected the angle of his wrist.

 

“I know.” He smirked. Jeongguk stuck his tongue out at him. “Also, lots of times punches hurt because people hit with their fingers. Make sure you’re hitting with your knuckles, the first two.” Namjoon tapped Jeongguk’s pointer and middle knuckle. He moved Jeongguk’s wrist downwards and aligned it more with his forearm. “If your wrist is lined up with your forearm, you’re less likely to break it.” Namjoon stepped back after he was sure Jeongguk’s hand and wrist were angled correctly, and his stance was correct.

 

“That all?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

“Not even close. Now, hit me. I won’t dodge it because I want to get an idea of if you’re doing it right.” Namjoon turned so his bicep was on display to Jeongguk. “You can do it as hard as you want. Go for it.”

 

Jeongguk made sure everything was in order with his stance before putting all his weight behind the swing. He connected with Namjoon’s arm with his first and second knuckle, distributing the hit onto his second and third as he swung out of it. Namjoon grunted slightly, but remain true to his word and took the hit. Namjoon could harden his skin, and Jeongguk was shocked to see that he hadn't. He really wanted to test Jeongguk’s ability to throw a punch as honestly as he could.

 

“Well?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Namjoon shook his arm a little. “Not bad for your first time trying to throw a real punch. Your wrist alignment was a little off, but it was all-around a good try.”

 

Jeongguk did a couple jabs in the air. “I’ll be a pro by next week.”

 

“Calm down, boxer. You don’t even know a jab-cross combo yet.”

 

Jeongguk faltered. “There are combos?”

 

“We’ve got a long way to go.”

 

The two spent the rest of the session going over types of punches. Most of it was spent with Namjoon nitpicking Jeongguk’s stance, and it was so tedious, that Jeongguk almost wished he’d spent the session running instead. Almost . Still, when he got back to his dorm, he showed Jimin everything he’d learned, who watched with an excited interest, giving Jeongguk one chip for every punch he threw correctly. Jeongguk was thinking him and Jimin were friends as well, maybe. That night, though, he laid down in his bed that still just didn’t feel right, in the empty room that he didn’t want to break in, and dreamt of being back home.

 

----

 

Jeongguk was running late for his early-morning combat session, and he couldn’t find his jacket anywhere. Granted, he could make the trek across campus without the extra layer of warmth, but the mornings were starting to get cooler and cooler, and he’d rather have it than not. He reached under his bed, thinking maybe it’d somehow ended up under there, but his fingers brushed against a box he’d shoved beneath the bed the day he’d moved here and promptly forgot about. He remembered it now.

 

Jeongguk set the box on his desk, but didn’t open it. He knew what was inside: some of his mom’s things that he’d been meaning to give Seokjin. His hand hovered over the cardboard folds before he pulled it away and left the room, completely disregarding his previous desire for a jacket. His heart was beating fast enough to trick him into thinking he was warm. For the first time maybe ever, he found himself wanting to run. So, he did. Ran all the way to the track, until he felt like his lungs were robbed of air and his brain of thought.

 

Once he reached the track, he collapsed on it, not bothering to look around for Namjoon. He allowed himself to breathe, and with each breathe Jeongguk took, he felt the thoughts re-emerge. Among those thoughts, one was the most prominent: it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that she died, that she couldn’t keep her things with her, that he had been left to divy up her belongings.

 

It wasn’t fair that she’d left before she could teach him how to throw a punch, or that he never asked her how to. It wasn’t fair that when she was here, he took everything for granted, and that the things in that stupid box didn’t hold more meaning when she was alive. It wasn’t fair that, for some reason, he loved her more now that she was gone, wasn’t fair that he couldn’t have loved her this much when she was around. None of it was fucking fair. And, yet, there was nothing he could do to fix or change it. Jeongguk felt a sob clawing at his throat, so he swallowed it, got to his feet, and walked to the grassy middle of the track. He wasn’t here to feel sorry for himself.

 

Jeongguk’s voice sounded strained, felt it too. “Where’s Namjoon?” Taehyung was sitting in the grass instead of Namjoon.

 

Taehyung didn’t turn to look at Jeongguk who sat next to the mind mage and looked down at the ground. “Couldn’t make it this morning, so I’m filling in for him.”

 

“Yeah? Didn’t know you two were friends.”

 

“Neither did I.” Taehyung responded with a wry smile, his answer cryptic like usual.

 

Jeongguk didn’t further prod Taehyung. “So, what are we doing today, Teach?” there was a moment of silence, long enough to become uncomfortable, for Jeongguk to wonder if Taehyung had heard his question, if he’d spoken it at all.

 

“You should give him the box.”

 

Jeongguk looked up sharply and met Taehyung’s profile with a glare. “Are you always in my mind?”

 

Taehyung didn’t bother returning the look, just kept his eyes in the distance, towards the slowly rising sun. Orange light was starting to color the sky, casting Taehyung’s features in a warm glow. “He misses her.” Taehyung stated simply.

 

“Yeah? Join the club.” Jeongguk scoffed as he looked away from Taehyung, turning his gaze to the rising sun.

 

“He misses her just as much as you do. Trust me, he’d appreciate it.”

 

“I’ve never really cared much about what he’d appreciate.” Jeongguk responded lowly, not meaning much of anything that he was saying. He couldn’t decide if he was a good thing or not that Taehyung already knew that.

 

“Maybe not.” Taehyung shrugged his shoulders like it didn’t make a difference to him either way. Jeongguk wondered why he was pressing the issue, then. “But, you do now. You have since your mom passed. He’s your family.

 

Jeongguk put his head in his hands and groaned. He wasn’t enjoying being stripped bare. “I hate how much you know about me, that I’m forced to be vulnerable around you, but you’re a big mystery to me.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Well, I was going to give him the box anyway. Believe it or not, I know about my feelings without needing you to explain them to me.” Jeongguk snapped.

 

Taehyung sighed, and Jeongguk looked at him. There was a small smile on his face. “You know, really, I knew you before you ever came to The Academy.” Taehyung stopped talking, but Jeongguk didn’t interrupt the silence, figured Taehyung would say something if he wanted to say it. “Seokjin’s thought about you a lot in the five years I’ve been here.”

 

“Yeah, probably about beating my ass.” Jeongguk grumbled.

 

Taehyung laughed, a soft, deep, genuine laugh, and Jeongguk felt some of the tension from the morning ease. “Sometimes.” he confirmed.

 

“What about the other times?”

 

“I remember one time, shortly before finals.” Taehyung flitted his eyes away from the horizon to meet Jeongguk’s for a moment before drawing his attention back to the sky. “Finals get really stressful, and he’d been having a particularly hard time. We were being sent home in two weeks, and, god, his emotions were so potent.” Taehyung laughed softly, but it felt uncomfortable. “Sorry, that’s a weird way of describing it.”

 

Jeongguk shook his head. “It’s okay. I think I get it.”

 

Taehyung flitted his eyes over to Jeongguk again. “Yeah, I think you do.” and then back to the horizon. “Well, he kept thinking about this noodle shop, about you and your mom, how much he wanted to be there with the two of you. It was so strong that I couldn’t block it out, but felt like I was being sucked into the memory. Like, his yearning was mine.”

 

“Really?” Jeongguk asked in mild shock, a little disappointed to hear hope tinging the edge of his question.

 

Taehyung nodded his head. “You know when a cup overflows with water, like there’s so much that keeps pouring, so it starts flowing out?”

 

“Yeah...I know how cups work.”

 

Taehyung met Jeongguk’s eyes surely, he didn’t flit them away. “That’s what his love felt like.”

 

“Huh?” Jeongguk voiced dumbly.

 

“It was like his heart was the cup, and his desire to see you and your mom in that noodle shop was the faucet. It was overwhelming.”

 

Jeongguk found himself understanding what Taehyung was saying, suddenly it felt like his heart very much was overflowing with saudade. He clutched at his chest. “I get it.”

 

“You feel the same now.” Taehyung whispered, like if he spoke too loudly, he’d break Jeongguk out of his spell.

 

“I miss it.” Jeongguk said in the same, small voice. “I miss her.”

 

Taehyung didn’t say anything, just trained his eyes back on the horizon and let Jeongguk exist in the feeling. It was odd how he felt like he was overflowing with this sense of love but he felt oddly...empty. The sun rose above the horizon. Jeongguk turned his attention back to Taehyung.

 

“What else did he think about? I’ve always wondered what goes on in his mind.”

 

Taehyung laid back in the grass, placing his arms behind his head. “He thinks he’s very attractive.”

 

“Well, yeah.” Jeongguk responded like it was obvious, and it was.

 

Taehyung cocked an eyebrow. “He thinks he can pull of no eyebrows.”

 

“No!”

 

“He’s visually ranked everyone in the class, even Ms. Noyce.” Taehyung stated with a mock gravity.

 

“What’s her ranking?”

 

“Eighth.” Taehyung said too seriously.

 

Jeongguk laughed and Taehyung joined in. It felt like more of the tension from the morning just broke away. “Oh my god.” They laughed until it was silent, then they sat in the silence. They did that a lot, Jeongguk thought. The two of them always ended up quiet.

 

Taehyung broke it. “Recently, he’s been thinking a lot about you.”

 

“Me? Why?” Jeongguk questioned. Taehyung sat back up.

 

“He’s scared you’re not happy here. That he’s-” Taehyung cut himself off with an uncomfortable laugh. Jeongguk thought that even if the laugh was uncomfortable, that it was nice. “I don’t know if I should tell you this.”

 

“Tell me. I’m curious now.”

 

Taehyung responded pointedly, “You’re always curious.” Jeongguk pretended he didn’t now what Taehyung was alluding to. “I guess it can’t hurt to tell you, though. He’s afraid he’s disappointing your mother, like he isn’t taking better care of you.”

 

Jeongguk groaned into his hands. “Of course that idiot would blame himself for my subpar social skills.”

 

“Hey, I think they’re better than subpar.” Taehyung helpfully offered.

 

“That’s because yours are non-existent.”

 

That laugh again. “Touche.” There was another couple beats of silence.

 

Jeongguk broke it with a whisper. “We’ve hated each other for so long.”

 

“Was it ever really hate?” Taehyung asked, sitting up and turning so he was facing Jeongguk, rather than glancing at his profile. Jeongguk liked it better this way, thought Taehyung was maybe easier to read when he could see his face. Of course, Taehyung was never easy to read, but at least like this, he could trick himself into thinking he wasn’t the only open book here.

 

“What do you mean?” Jeongguk responded in question.

 

Taehyung frowned. “You’re both so goddamn stubborn.”

 

“You sound like Mom.”

 

“I can’t see everything.” Taehyung began explaining. “Can’t comb through your memories, really, but I know he’s never hated you. I don’t think you’ve ever hated him, either.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t bother with a response, waited for Taehyung to explain further.

 

“Fire and ice. You’re naturally opposed.”

 

Jeongguk grumbled, “Everyone always says that.”

 

“You don’t like it.” Taehyung said it like a statement. The mind mage rarely had to ask questions, and this wasn’t any different. It was an observation.

 

“No. It’s so...cliche.” Jeongguk frowned. Taehyung didn’t interrupt, his silence spurring Jeongguk to continue speaking. “I mean he’s always cold, and that’s annoying. He’s a natural counter to me, but I never disliked him because of that. It’s because he’s Seokjin, and Seokjin is rash, emotional, cocky.”

 

Jeongguk furrowed his brow as he continued. “He broke my piggy bank when we were eight, and then stole my money out of it to buy some hot rolls. Because when were were six, I woke up cold because he’d made my toes into ice cubes.” Taehyung laughed softly at that. Jeongguk glared at him.

 

“Because when we were twelve, he broke his leg after turning the guild hall into an ice rink, when I told him it’d be a bad idea. Because when we were fifteen, I got a new haircut, and he told me I looked ugly. Then, the next day he went and got the same haircut just to prove he could pull anything off. It’s never been about ice. It’s always just been about him driving me up the fucking wall.” Jeongguk tugged at his hair a little in frustration.

 

Taehyung had a fond smile on his face. “Sounds to me like he was a brother.”

 

“Do you have any siblings, Taehyung?” Jeongguk asked suddenly, wondering if Taehyung had a brother of his own. Jeongguk watched as Taehyung tensed and the smile fell of his face.

 

“No.” Taehyung seemed unsure of his answer. Jeongguk wasn’t certain what to make of that, but he decided to change the subject.

 

“So, give him the box, huh? You think that’ll heal our relationship?”

 

Taehyung frowned in consideration. “No, but I think it’ll be a good start.”

 

“Yeah.” Jeongguk said just to say something.

 

“Besides,” Taehyung continued, “I don’t think there’s nearly as much to heal as you think there is.” Jeongguk let the statement sink in while Taehyung’s face took back on that soft smile.

 

“I know you said you know what you’re feeling without me having to explain it, but when you were telling me about all that, you felt fond, nostalgic. Well, except the haircut thing.” Taehyung gave Jeongguk a pointed look, a raised brow. “You still seem upset over that.”

 

“Because the asshole was right!” Jeongguk exclaimed. “He did pull it off!”

 

Taehyung chuckled for a few moments, and Jeongguk found himself joining in. After he stopped laughing, a smile remained. It was different from his soft smiles, or the wistful ones, or the near-smirks he made when he was slightly amused. It was genuine and big. It was boxy, and Jeongguk liked it. “You wanna know what I think?”

 

“You’re going to tell me anyway.” Jeongguk conceded with a shrug.

 

“I think everyone told you that the two of you were different, that you had to hate. I think the two of you believed them, and then never bothered to feel differently, to learn how to feel differently.” Taehyung said with a wistful edge to his voice. Well, maybe wistful wasn’t the word for it. He didn’t sound nostalgic at all, just sad.

 

“Sounds like you know something about it.” Jeongguk remarked.

 

“I know what it is to have people tell you that you’re something you’re not.” Taehyung took a deep inhale and exhale. “I know what it is to believe them.”

 

“You make it sound sad.”

 

Taehyung met Jeongguk’s eyes so honestly. “Isn’t it?”

 

Jeongguk searched his eyes a little more, studied the surety in them, studied the melancholy too. “Guess it is.”

 

Taehyung smiled, but it seemed emptier than it had just moments ago. “Seems like you know what to do.”

 

“Yeah, I guess.”

 

Taehyung laughed, but it still felt hollow. Now that Jeongguk thought about it, most everything Taehyung did or said felt hollow. “Don’t sound so upset, not when you feel so sure.”

 

“What are you, my therapist?”

 

“PhD.” They shared a small, breathy laugh.

 

“You should be vulnerable with me one day, too.” Jeongguk said simply.

 

The hollow smile remained. “Maybe, one day.” Jeongguk couldn’t help but feel hopeful. Taehyung shook his head. “You’re too curious.”

 

“Sorry. Can’t help it.” Jeongguk responded with a shrug of his shoulders.

 

“I know.” Taehyung’s smile dropped into a smirk that somehow seemed more like him. “Wanna spar a little before we have to go to class?”

 

“Let’s do it.”

 

They got up and ran through some defense drills. There weren’t many words exchanged past that point. Taehyung, Jeongguk was learning, didn’t say something unless he had something to say. They ended up in the same silence they tended to find themselves in. The only sound breaking the silence was that of Jeongguk’s ass hitting the tarmac.

 

----

 

It took Jeongguk the better part of two days to work himself up to give his mom’s stuff to Seokjin. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to give it to him, just the opposite. Really, he just didn’t want to face the emotional confrontation of doing so. Jeongguk was very aware that actions spoke louder than words, and this action had two things to say, and it said them loudly: you are my brother, and I’ve accepted her death. This would feel like closure for both Jeongguk and Seokjin.

 

Jeongguk had told the ice mage to meet him in the garden. It’d become one of Jeongguk’s favorite thinking spots because it was quiet, mostly deserted, and it reminded him of his mother. She always enjoyed the outdoors and the sun, and this was the best place for it on campus. He set himself up under the gazebo and waited, humming his mother’s lullaby quietly.

 

It was one of those nice, fall days with the kind of weather one couldn’t help but sit outside in. Because of the magical nature of the garden, the flowers bloomed year round, and Jeongguk counted himself lucky to sit in cool air while gazing upon Marigolds in full bloom.

 

“You’re not gonna kill me out here, right? Mom would be pissed.” Seokjin interrupted Jeongguk’s reverie. The ice mage already had an easy smile on his face as he walked under the viney arch into the gazebo.

 

Jeongguk responded with an easy smile of his own. “Unfortunately, you get to live.”

 

“Oh?” Seokjin intoned, take a seat on the bench across from Jeongguk.

 

Jeongguk took a deep breathe. “Actually, I had something to give you.”

 

Seokjin raised an eyebrow. “If you throw a fireball at my head and run, Jeongguk, I swear to god.”

 

“Don’t tempt me.” Jeongguk mumbled as he pulled the box out from under the bench. It was a simple cardboard box, so Seokjin still had a confused look on his face as Jeongguk said, “I’m here to make a amends.”

 

“For what?”

 

“Everything.”

 

Seokjin leaned forward on his seat and narrowed his eyes, like he was inspecting Jeongguk. “Vague and concerning. You okay? Smoke finally getting to your brain?” Seokjin moved his hand to feel Jeongguk’s head, most likely to see if he had a fever, but Jeongguk slapped it away.

 

“Stop that.” Jeongguk held the cardboard box he’d filled with his mom’s belongings out to his brother. “Here. Just take it.”

 

Seokjin hesitantly pulled the box out of Jeongguk’s hands, set it next to him on the bench, and opened it. Jeongguk had his jaw clenched the entire time Seokjin rooted through the items. He watched as the ice mage’s expression morphed from one of sarcastic amusement to shock to sentimental tears. Jeongguk almost felt like he was intruding on a private moment, that Seokjin’s emotions were too personal for him to intrude upon like this.

 

“Jeongguk, I-” Seokjin broke the silence and met Jeongguk’s eyes. He was crying. Suddenly, Jeongguk felt like crying too. He didn’t, of course. Sometimes when he cried, his tears turned to steam, and that was just weird for everyone.

 

“Yeah, I know. I should’ve given it to you sooner, but giving it away felt like closure. True closure, you know? I didn’t know if I was ready for it, yet. If you wanna get mad, that’s okay. It was selfish of me to-” Seokjin cut Jeongguk off by pulling him into a tight hug. Jeongguk might’ve hugged back (might’ve, but probably not) had he not been so shocked by the action. Well, that, and Seokjin’s arms had wrapped around his biceps so tight that the fire mage couldn’t move his arms.

 

“Thank you.” Seokjin said near Jeongguk’s ear. He broke the hug off, releasing Jeongguk who shook his arms to get blood pumping in them again. “I’ve been needing a piece of her, lately.”

 

“Yeah?” Jeongguk said just to fill space, to not leave silence in the already unbearably tender moment.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Jeongguk rubbed the back of his neck and avoided Seokjin’s eyes. “Wanna um...wanna talk about it?”

 

Seokjin gasped and then laughed (guffawed, really) loudly. “Who are you and what have you done with my Jeonggukie?”

 

“Your Jeonggukie?” Jeongguk asked dully.

 

“Where’d he go?”

 

Jeongguk sighed, moved further down his bench, away from Seokjin. “I’m trying something new, okay?”

 

Seokjin sat back on the bench across from Jeongguk and pulled the box into his lap, remarking as he moved, “Hmm, seems like a trick.”

 

“I’m trying this whole,” Jeongguk did air quotes, “‘brother’ thing.”

 

“Well, you’re doing great so far!” the ice mage pulled a pair of mittens out of the box. “I can’t believe you put these in here. I didn’t even know she kept them.” Seokjin gave the orange, woolen mittens a warm look.

 

Before Seokjin had his magic under control, things were prone to get icy. Their mother was hesitant to use her magic around him since it was his elemental opposite. She didn’t want to disrupt his energy development, and she was particularly worried about burning him. So, even though it would have been more than easy for her to be around Seokjin and stay warm, to melt his ice, to stifle his magic in exchange for her comfort, she didn’t. She dressed warm, let his magic bloom how it was meant to, and she always, always wore those orange mittens.

 

“She kept lots of stuff. There’s more back at home, but I packed the more sentimental stuff.” Jeongguk smiled fondly at the memory of his mother trying to reign in an icy Seokjin, her face red from the cold, fingers wrapped in orange, and a big smile on her face as she tried not to slip on those ice patches that always appeared wherever Seokjin was.

 

“You sap.” Seokjin said without any malice. The ice mage was a sap too.

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “Maybe a little.”

 

“Oh my god, he’s gone soft.” Seokjin clutched his chest in a mocking, over-dramatic manner. “Our big wildfire has dulled to an ember.” He said more seriously, “Jeongguk, blink twice if you need me to save you.”

 

“Keep going through the box.” Jeongguk brushed off Seokjin’s words. Seokjin just responded with a goofy smile. “And stop looking at me like that, you idiot.”

 

Seokjin returned his attention back to the box. “Ahh, there he is.” He laughed as he pulled out a laminated paper. He held it up so Jeongguk could see the picture on it. “It’s my family portrait! Look!”

 

The paper had a picture that Seokjin had made when he was seven. Their mother was standing on the left, depicted as the typical female stick figure. She had eyebrows. Seokjin was standing next to her, smiling. He did not have eyebrows. Jeongguk was on the far right of the paper. The only way Jeongguk knew it was him was because it was labeled. It looked like a flame in a trash can with an angry face. Jeongguk laughed at it.

 

“Well, let’s just say that I’m happy to have been included in the picture, even if it was as a garbage fire.”

 

Seokjin set the paper back down beside him. “It was honest to how I saw you at the time.”

 

“How do you see me now?”

 

“Well, the trash can is taller.”

 

Jeongguk responded with a dull look. “Did you draw yourself eyebrowless on purpose?”

 

“Thanks to you, I was like that most of my childhood.” Seokjin confirmed.

 

Jeongguk snorted. “It was a good look for you.”

 

“My favorite Christmas ornament!” Seokjin pulled a melting Frosty the Snowman ornament out of the box. The ice mage always said he felt a sense of kinship with it.

 

They went through the rest of the box, reminiscing on their childhood, remembering their mother. In the two months since she’d passed, Jeongguk felt the most at peace in that moment. It was like the night they’d received the news, and they laid awake and just talked about her. They did it then because they weren’t ready to let her go, and they did it now because they were content enough remembering her. It felt like acceptance.

 

“You’ve forgotten one thing.” Jeongguk remarked as Seokjin set aside the box.

 

“What?”

 

Jeongguk got up and searched through the box. He found the small, white pouch he was looking for stuck in a corner. He opened the pouch and pulled out the silver chain necklace with a small, four-prong sapphire pendant. He passed it to Seokjin who held it in his hands almost reverently.

 

“Your dad got is a gift for Mom when she became S-Class in the guild. I figured you’d want it.” Jeongguk explained as Seokjin brushed his fingers over the gem.

 

“I uh, I know what it is.” Seokjin’s eyes glistened with tears again, but none of them dropped. Jeongguk once again felt like he was intruding on some sort of private moment, that he shouldn’t be made privy to Seokjin’s emotions in this way. Seokjin put the necklace back in the pouch and then in the box. “Hey, Jeongguk?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“What made you decide to give it to me now?”

 

Jeongguk pursed his lips. He didn’t want to tell Seokjin that Taehyung had been the biggest push, really. For one, it was embarrassing that he’d been so open with Taehyung, that one person could know how he feels better than even he can. Jeongguk thought that Seokjin also might not like being read so well. Jeongguk could keep this secret for Taehyung, he supposed.

 

“Stumbled upon it the other day, and I just felt like I was ready.” Jeongguk offered as explanation instead. It wasn’t entirely false, more like a half truth.

 

“Well, thank you.” Seokjin offered appreciation again, and Jeongguk didn’t know if he liked the feel of it. Appreciation from Seokjin felt unfamiliar.

 

Jeongguk brushed it off. “Don’t thank me. They were meant for you.”

 

“You didn’t have to give any of this to me, and you know it.”

 

“Well, no matter how I used to feel, she loved you like her own son. I respected her wishes, that was all.” Jeongguk said softly. In truth, it wouldn't have felt right to keep any of it. In truth, these were things shared between Seokjin and their mother. Jeongguk couldn’t have kept them if he wanted to, and he didn’t want to.

 

“Used to feel?” Seokjin questioned. Jeongguk let silence hang after the question, let it coat the moment in gravity and significance. It felt like a turning point, and the longer he let it hang, the more he thought that he’d made so many mistakes throughout his life with Seokjin. It was a contemplative, soft several seconds that the silence reigned their interaction.

 

“You think maybe we never really hated each other?” Jeongguk asked quietly, echoing the same question Taehyung had asked him the other day.

 

“I’ve thought that a lot.” Seokjin responded in that same, small voice.

 

“Really?”

 

“Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes, I really thought I hated you. I mean really.” Seokjin drew out the really. “I mean, I grew up eyebrowless. You melted all of my super-awesome ice sculptures. I’ve taken lots of flame punches to the stomach. There was that one time I got grounded for two weeks because you broke the guild’s 300-year-old vase and blamed it on me. Or that other time-”

 

“Okay, okay. I get it.” Jeongguk cut him off with a laugh.

 

“Yeah, Jeongguk, sometimes I really thought I hated you. Sometimes, I really thought you hated me.” Seokjin looked at the ground with a soft, nostalgic smile. “But then, we’d go to Noodles!, eat with mom, and everything would be fine again. Those moments, the simple ones, that’s when I was the happiest. It wouldn’t have been the same without you, and I’ve always known that.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t respond immediately, just gathered his thoughts. “You know, the night Killian told us about Mom, I thought you were strong. I thought that without you, I couldn’t get through it. You’ve uh-” Jeongguk paused to gather the courage to say what he wanted to--needed to--say. Being emotionally vulnerable and honest was scary. “I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ve always been. Strong, that is. In a way, I’ve looked up to you for it.”

 

“Woah.” Seokjin responded simply. It was a very Seokjin response.

 

Jeongguk shivered. “Okay, now I feel gross. Come here so I can light you on fire.” Jeongguk made a weak lunge for Seokjin who backed away from him, moving further down his respective bench.

 

“Aww, my wittle Jeonggukie does care. Come here and let me pinch your cheekies.” Seokjin didn’t move from his spot on the bench, still leaning away from Jeongguk, his words contradicting his actions.

 

“No.”

 

“Just some pinchies.” Seokjin pinched his fingers.

 

Jeongguk moved further down his bench too, just in case. “Stop talking like that.”

 

“Fine, but I’m never letting you live this down.” Seokjin stood up and stretched a little.

 

Jeongguk stood up as well. “Great! Are we done with emotional bonding time, now? Kinda wanna go back to my dorm and scream.”

 

“Yeah, we can be done.” Seokjin stepped off the gazebo and turned around to give Jeongguk a wink. “For now.”

 

Jeongguk gagged as Seokjin turned around and began walking away again. “Night, Jin.”

 

“Goodnight.” Seokjin turned around again and met Jeongguk’s smiling gaze with an inquisitive look. “Brother?”

 

Jeongguk’s smile grew as he confirmed the question, “Brother.”

 

Jeongguk walked back to his dorm humming the lullaby, and he did nothing to squash the warm feeling in his chest. When he opened the door to his dorm, he heard Jimin singing loudly in the shower. The fondness in his chest grew a little. He walked into his room, closed the door softly, and rooted around in his closet. In a box he hadn’t yet unpacked, were things he brought from home. He set his mother’s perfume on his desk, hung up the poster of Killian (he was something of a magic celebrity) they’d previously had in their living room as a joke, and put the framed picture of his mother, Seokjin, and him on his nightstand. He slept just fine that night.

Chapter Text

Jeongguk was getting really tired of having his ass beat. Granted, it was happening a lot less recently, but he’d expected that with just a month until midterms, he would’ve mastered at least seven different martial art forms by now. When he’d expressed as much to Namjoon after a particularly nasty knock onto the tarmac, Namjoon kicked him while he was down to instill Jeongguk’s stupidity in him. It hurt. Jeongguk was tired of things hurting.

 

Namjoon had pulled the fire mage onto his feet, and they were sparring again. Jeongguk had gotten pretty decent at dodging hits, but he wasn’t so good at getting hits in. Namjoon threw a punch at Jeongguk’s torso. It was a slow blow, so Jeongguk was able to grab the combat mage’s forearm and twist it behind his back. The hold was strong, but Namjoon was slippery. He was out of it quickly enough and striking Jeongguk with an elbow to the ribcage. Jeongguk huffed as he stumbled back from the impact of the hit, a dull ache settling in his left side.

 

At this point, Jeongguk didn’t care much for winning the sparring match. He knew he wouldn’t; that wasn’t the issue. What he wanted more than anything was to hit Namjoon. It only seemed fair considering how many times the other had hit him. It was that desire paired with a healthy dose of instability and impulsivity brought on by his weakened state (thanks, Namjoon) that inspired him to light up his arm in a brilliant inferno. He felt the magic prickle at his skin as every inch of his right arm was covered in orange and yellow flames. It was power; it was bliss; it was was going to be Kim Namjoon’s downfall.

 

Namjoon hardened his skin as his eyes widened in shock, the surprise leaving an opening for Jeongguk. He swung, uninterrupted, at Namjoon’s chest and connected with the hardened skin there. Namjoon fell back from the force of the hit, and Jeongguk extinguished his arm and started exclaiming triumphantly. He may have done a victory dance, but that seems too cocky. If anyone asks, he did not do a victory dance.

 

“What the fuck, Jeongguk? That’s hot!” Namjoon exclaimed from his spot on the ground as he patted the flames in his shirt out. There was a hole in the sweater Namjoon wore. Jeongguk noticed it was school-issued. All of his clothes were fireproof, courtesy of the school. Would he get in trouble for burning another’s student’s clothes?

 

Jeongguk grinned cheekily. “Yeah, it’s meant to be.”

 

“Did you mean to use it?” Namjoon asked, getting back on his feet.

 

Jeongguk rubbed the back of his neck and looked anywhere that wasn’t Namjoon. Was it just him or was that bleacher looking more interesting than usual? “Maybe…”

 

“Cheap trick, Flame Boy.” Namjoon chastised. Jeongguk snapped his eyes to Namjoon and made eye contact.

 

“Don’t call me that.” Flame Boy was a nickname that was sticking, and Jeongguk detested it.

 

Namjoon raised an eyebrow. “Stop trying to light me on fire.”

 

“I tried to light you on fire once.” Jeongguk retorted.

 

“So you admit that you tried to light me on fire?”

 

“I-” Jeongguk sputtered, “This feels like a trick question.”

 

Namjoon pursed his lips as he turned around and began walking towards the water fountain. Jeongguk hesitantly trailed behind him. “It’s a yes or no question.”

 

“Okay, then my answer is no.”

 

The combat mage splashed water on his sweater to put out the last smoldering bits. The hole in Namjoon’s shirt was ugly, and Jeongguk almost felt bad that he’d ruined it, and Namjoon was splashing water on himself in the cold morning. Almost . That hit made everything worth it. It was ridiculously satisfying.

“Liar.” Namjoon huffed as he picked at the charred fabric of his sweater.

 

“If the only answer you would accept was yes, then it was a trick question.” Jeongguk reasoned.

 

Namjoon began walking to the bleachers, and Jeongguk padded after him again, “Less a trick question, more an opportunity for you to tell the truth.”

 

“Okay, fine.” Jeongguk grumbled as he dragged his feet behind the other, the sound of his soles brushing against the track creating this grating, scraping noise that was simultaneously satisfying and bothersome. “I used my magic to try to scare you to see if I could get a hit in. You caught me.”

 

Namjoon sat down on a bleacher, the second from the bottom, and snorted. “I’d hardly say I caught you. You didn’t necessarily try to hide your flaming arm.”

 

Jeongguk sat on the lowest bleacher and turned his body so he was facing away from the track and towards the combat mage. He smirked as he hunched his body forward, elbows on his knees, and chin resting in his hands. “So, what? Am I in trouble? What are you gonna do, punch me?”

 

“I have a better idea.” Namjoon leaned forward like Jeongguk and flicked the fire mage on his forehead. Jeongguk hissed as he leaned back and rubbed at the stinging mark. “How do you feel about fighting Mishal?”

 

Jeongguk ceased his rubbing. “Like, fire versus fire?” Mishal was the other fire user in their class. His magic wasn’t as refined as Jeongguk’s or as powerful, but he was good, and he was one of the best fighters in their group.

 

“You wouldn’t have to hold back you magic, and he’d be easier to fight than me.” Namjoon reasoned.

 

Jeongguk nodded his head, an excited smile made its way across his face at the prospect of fighting someone more his level and being able to use his magic while doing it. “You think I could beat him?”

 

“No.” Jeongguk deflated slightly. “But, I do think you could learn a thing or two from him.”

 

“Something even you can’t teach me?” the fire mage crossed his arms over his chest as he mockingly regarded Namjoon, a smug grin teasing lips. “So, he isn’t infallible.”

 

Namjoon laughed loudly, his dimples deepening significantly. “I’m not so prideful as you, Jeongguk, that I can’t admit where I’m lacking.” Namjoon shrugged his shoulders, that big, amused smile still resting on his face. “I tend to be lacking fire magic.”

 

“Smartass.” Jeongguk huffed. Namjoon chuckled a little more.

 

“So, what do you say?”

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “Okay. Set me up a session with Mishal.”

 

Namjoon agreed, and then cut their session short because he needed to get a change of shirt. Jeongguk walked back to the dorm with him and the two went their separate ways after walking through Whitmore Hall’s doors; their rooms were on different floors. The walk to the dorm wasn’t quiet, not like whenever Jeongguk walked with Taehyung. It was filled with sound, voices, laughter. It was fun, but Jeongguk still found himself thinking he’d rather walk in silence with Taehyung. It was a weird thing to think after parting with Namjoon, and he rubbed his chest absentmindedly, thinking he could erase whatever feeling it was that had settled there. Of course, it was easily explained: he was an introvert. He liked silence; Taehyung liked silence. For that reason, they meshed well. That’s all there was to it.

 

Jeongguk walked into his dorm as Jimin was just about to walk out. Jimin had a piece of toast hanging out of his mouth that fell as soon as Jeongguk opened the door. “Christ, Jeongguk.” Jimin huffed, leaning over to pick up his toast. “You made me drop my breakfast. Maybe knock next time, yeah?”

 

“You want me to knock on my own door?” Jeongguk gave Jimin a dull stare.

 

“The only thing I want, Jeongguk,” Jimin placed his toast-free hand firmly on Jeongguk’s shoulder and squeezed lightly. “Is for my breakfast to not be ruined.”

 

“Sure thing, Jimin. I’ll be more careful.”  Jimin let go of Jeongguk’s shoulder and tossed his toast in the trash can. “You going to class?”

 

“Yeah, I’m leaving a little early this morning because Noyce wanted to talk to me about something. I don’t know what.” Jimin shrugged his shoulders and then went about adjusting his backpack straps.

 

“Okay.” Jeongguk stepped out of the way of the door and gestured for Jimin to walk through it. “I’ll let you get going. I’m gonna take a shower, and then be on my way. So, uh, see you there?”

 

“See you there.” Jimin confirmed as he stepped out the doorway. He leaned back in for a second, “You owe me a toast by the way.”

 

“Got it.” Jeongguk did a double thumbs up as Jimin closed the door behind him and went on his way to class.

 

Jeongguk sighed deeply after the door had clicked shut. He gathered a change of clothes from his room and then got in the shower. He liked his water hot, practically boiling. Maybe it was a fire user thing, maybe it was a Jeongguk thing. It didn’t really matter why, just mattered that he did. The initial sting of the hot stream hitting his skin shortly morphed into a feeling like that of a comforting embrace. Usually, it helped him relax, but today, it made him think. Cleared up his head in all ways except for one: Taehyung. His thoughts settled firmly on the mind reader, and Jeongguk couldn’t distract himself from it.

 

There was something about Taehyung that, recently, had Jeongguk thinking about him more often than usual. In particular, that conversation he’d had with Taehyung about Seokjin, and Jeongguk had noted the hollowness that underscored everything Taehyung said and did. When Taehyung had said that he understood what it was like to believe people when they said he was something he wasn’t. Or the unsurety Taehyung expressed when he’d said he didn’t have a brother. It was all settling under his skin like a dull itch, like a question that needed an answer. The problem was Jeongguk wasn’t certain what the question even was, wasn’t sure if an answer was possible.

 

Jeongguk scrubbed shampoo into his scalp and hissed softly when some dripped into his eye. He rubbed it out and went back to his train of thought. If nothing else, it seemed easy to deduce that Taehyung probably had family issues. Maybe that was why he was so adamant on helping Jeongguk with his own family problems. Or, maybe, Taehyung really didn’t have a brother and he was reading into things. Maybe, he was just a normal guy who had an absurd amount of power dropped in his lap, and some people had treated him differently because of it. That explanation didn’t settle well with Jeongguk, though. It didn’t seem to make sense. The fire mage couldn’t decide if it was because it truly didn’t make sense, or because Taehyung was so built up in his mind at this point that he had to be something more. He got out of the shower and heated himself up so the water on him evaporated.

 

Jeongguk wrapped a towel around his waist and walked to his room to put on clothes. There was another thing about Taehyung that kept getting on his nerves, well a few more things, really. The first was that power surge he’d felt in the cafeteria after Min Yoongi had beat that councilman’s son. The magic energy had seemed to come from Taehyung, but nothing discernible happened. Jeongguk felt it at the same time the guy dropped to his knees. Had Taehyung immobilized him, maybe? Shortly wiped his thoughts, so he ended up falling from the blankness, the lack of command from his brain to his body. But, the guy had kneeled. He hadn’t collapsed; he’d made a subservient move. Taehyung could have told the guy to kneel using his telepathic links, but would the boy had done it if Taehyung had simply ordered him to? Also, Jeongguk never felt that level of magic energy when Taehyung spoke in his own mind. Maybe the guy kneeling and the magic he felt weren’t related at all, but Taehyung had done something. Of that much, Jeongguk was sure.

 

Jeongguk pulled on his school-issued uniform: black slacks, a white, collared button-up, a maroon tie (which he was only moderately okay at knotting), and a black sweater that had the school’s insignia on the left breast (a tiger’s face atop a laurel wreath). He grabbed his backpack, not bothering to check and see if he’d remembered everything, and made his way out the door. His feet moved slower than usual on his way to class, but his mind was racing.

 

The second thing about Taehyung that was bothering him were the rumors about him. Jimin had mentioned that some people believed mind reading was Taehyung’s primary magic; it was just so powerful that he could read every synapse in a human’s mind, could even see what one had forgotten. Taehyung had said that he couldn’t comb through memories, though. That rumor, as far as Jeongguk was concerned, wasn’t valid. That left the other rumor about his powers: mind reading was a secondary skill, a side effect, of his true magic ability. This seemed the most feasible to Jeongguk based on his conversations with Taehyung. Even Taehyung himself had alluded to having hidden magic power. There was also the fact that Taehyung did his aptitude testing away from other students. Was his magic dangerous? Is that why both him and The Academy felt the need to hide it? What was Kim Taehyung’s primary magic? More importantly, who was Kim Taehyung?

 

Jeongguk was pulled out of his thoughts when Seokjin came barreling into him outside of their classroom building. He stumbled on his feet as Seokjin attempted to get on top of his backpack for a piggyback ride of sorts. Jeongguk tried to shake the ice mage off, but he was stubborn, like usual.

 

“Get off.” Jeongguk threw an elbow behind him, but couldn’t reach Seokjin around his backpack. Seokjin tugged on his ear.

 

“Onward, steed! We can’t be late for class.” Seokjin proclaimed.

 

Jeongguk huffed and mumbled under his breath, “Remind me why we decided to mend all our differences again.” The fire mage stopped walking and began falling back, hoping that Seokjin would cushion his fall. Seokjin let up a yelp as the two began falling, but before they hit the ground, they were being lifted off their feet. Both the boys let out similar yelps when they noticed they were levitating.

 

“Careful. Someone could get hurt.” Dagny said as he lowered them gently to the ground with a gesture of his hand. That explained it. Dagny could manipulate gravity. Not that the explanation did much in the way of comfort; Jeongguk would prefer that the gravity around him not be manipulated ever again.

 

“Yeah, Seokjin. Someone could get hurt.” Jeongguk turned to Seokjin who was now sitting on the cobblestone beside him.

 

Seokjin gave Jeongguk a look of pure disbelief, all wide eyes and red ears. “I’m not the one that tried to pancake me!”

 

“Thanks, Dagny. I’ll get them in from here. It’s like herding cats.” Yoongi, who Jeongguk now realized was standing behind them, said. Dagny went into the class building (another one of the gazillion limestone structures on campus), and Yoongi crossed his arms over his chest as he gave the brothers a dull look. Jeongguk felt an odd mix of trepidation, curiosity, admiration, and fear that took him over whenever he was in the presence of Min Yoongi, which was a lot more than he was arguably comfortable with.

 

Seokjin pushed Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Were you trying to kill me?”

 

“Honestly?” Jeongguk asked. Seokjin nodded his head. “Probably.”

 

Seokjin threw his backpack off of his back and tackled Jeongguk. “That’s it, Flame Boy. I’m turning your head into an ice cube.” Seokjin put his icy fingers on Jeongguk’s neck, and the fire mage yelped at the sudden cold. He managed to lift up his arms enough that he could almost singe off Seokjin’s eyebrows, when the ice mage was being pulled off of him.

 

“Enough.” Yoongi demanded. “If one of you kills the other, it’ll be on me to control your dead body so no one gets suspicious. I’m tired today, don’t feel like wasting my magical energy.”

 

“It’s best that you don’t control me, anyway. You’d totally get my behavior wrong, and, even in death, my reputation is too important for that.” Seokjin agreed too seriously, getting to his feet and pulling his backpack on.

 

Yoongi scoffed. “I can mimic your behavior just fine.”

 

“Prove it.”

 

Yoongi fixed his face with a dopey smile and did some finger guns in the direction of a tree. Seokjin immediately started exclaiming that he didn’t act like that while Jeongguk fell into a fit of laughter at the action. It was strangely spot on for his brother, and, it occured to Jeongguk, out of character for what he’d seen thus far from Yoongi. Maybe, Yoongi wasn’t as mean and scary as he had built him up to be in his mind. If nothing else, Yoongi was funny. That was enough for Jeongguk to start working on being more comfortable around the other and break apart some of the tension he felt around him. Some. Not a lot, but Jeongguk felt slightly less afraid. Who could be afraid of a guy that did finger guns at trees?

 

Jeongguk got up from where he was sitting and tugged Seokjin’s ear lightly. “Come on. Let’s get inside. We can argue about how accurate Yoongi’s impression of you was later.”

 

Seokjin swatted Jeongguk’s hand away and pulled the fire mage’s ear in turn (with much more force than Jeongguk had pulled his). Yoongi smirked from where he was standing and watched as the two brothers slapped at each others’ hands and pulled on each others’ faces.

 

“You think it was good, Flame Boy?”

 

“Your impression?” Jeongguk mumbled through stretched lips. Seokjin was pulling on his cheeks. He swung his arms up to disconnect Seokjin’s grip from his face and pushed the ice mage away.

 

“Yeah, my impression.”

 

Jeongguk nodded as he patted down his hair; Seokjin had mussed it. “I’d say it was perfect.”

 

Yoongi mumbled something that sounded like “Yoongi one, Seokjin zero.” under his breath, but Jeongguk couldn’t be too sure. The two started walking into the building, Yoongi trailing close behind them. Seokjin elbowed Jeongguk for no apparent reason, and, before the situation could be mitigated, the two were elbowing each other back and forth. Yoongi stepped between them when Jeongguk tried to jump on Seokjin’s toes and flatten them. Neither boys were brave enough to push past Min Yoongi to bicker, so they made their way into the classroom in silence but with less bruises than they otherwise would have had.

 

There was a man standing in front of the whiteboard talking to Ms. Noyce and a few other, starstruck students. As soon as Seokjin and Jeongguk recognized who the man was, they met each others’ eyes with wide smiles and broke formation with Yoongi to tackle the man in a hug.

 

“Hey, boys. I was just wondering when you’d get here.”Killian said through a breathy laugh. He awkwardly patted both of their backs before the two boys pulled away.

 

“What are you doing here?” Jeongguk asked excitedly with a big, toothy smile.

 

Killian furrowed his brow and fixed Jeongguk’s hair a little. It was probably still messy from rough housing with Seokjin. Of course, Seokjin’s hair still looked perfect.  “I’m here to give a guest lecture. Gonna talk about your potential futures with The Council and all that. Pretty boring stuff, but I thought it’d be nice to see the two of you.”

 

“You’re right. That does sound boring.” Seokjin confirmed.

 

Killian clicked his tongue, something he did when he didn’t quite know how to respond to something or disapproved of what had been said. It was meant to be scolding. “Go take your seats, boys. We’ll make dinner plans after class, yeah?”

 

Seokjin began to ‘fix’ Killian’s tie as he said words of encouragement for speaking in front of class. Jeongguk simply nodded his head and made his way to his seat. That big smile hadn’t left his face, and it wasn’t until he met Taehyung’s gaze across the room that it began to falter. The mind reader was giving him and inscrutable look. He remembered his thoughts from the morning and felt a blush take over his face, both from guilt and something else he didn’t quite recognize. It felt maybe like intimidation from the intensity of the look he couldn’t quite decipher.

 

The fire mage settled into his seat and thought a good morning to Taehyung that wasn’t reciprocated. Jeongguk worried that Taehyung knew of his thoughts from the morning, and he was hurt by Jeongguk’s prying curiosity. All the thoughts were coming back to Jeongguk now, and he wished that he could shut them away, that he’d never thought them in the first place. Wished that Taehyung wasn’t so secretive, and wished that he wasn’t so inquisitive. Mostly, though, he wished that he could hear Taehyung the same way Taehyung could hear him. It was the most scandalous thought of them all, but he felt justified in it. Jeongguk felt that for everything Taehyung knew about him, he deserved the same. Lecture started as Jeongguk was ruminating, and he was able to push the thoughts to the back of his head, well, maybe more towards the middle, and focus on what Killian was saying instead.

 

“Hello, S-Class. I’m Killian Byrne, councilman and representative for Carpe Spades. I’m sure you’ve heard of me, so introductions aren’t really in order, are they?” Killian spoke clearly and with an arrogance that only he could make charismatic. Jeongguk noticed that the councilman had cut his hair since he’d last seen him. His dark brown hair was cut far above his brow. Usually his fringe hung beneath it. His blue eyes were that much more piercing with the lack of hair, and it gave him this all-seeing aura that Jeongguk hadn’t experienced around him before. Looking at him now, Jeongguk thought Killian seemed powerful.

 

“I’m visiting your class today to speak to you about your potential futures in working for The Council.” Killian paced to the other side of the front of the room, all eyes in the room following him across the space as he moved. “You lot represent the best and brightest The Academy has to offer, and, one day, any of you could end up as a representative.” Killian grinned arrogantly and pointed towards himself with his thumbs. “Like me.”

 

“I doubt it.” Jeongguk heard Yoongi mumble under his breath.

 

Killian’s gaze found Yoongi, and his eyes narrowed slightly. “Sorry, did you say something?”

 

“Yeah.” Yoongi fixed a lazy stare on Killian. “I said not Jericho.”

 

“Hey!” Jericho yelled from his corner of the room while several other students snickered.

 

“Ah, and you are?” Killian strode closer to Yoongi’s desk and crossed his arms as he looked down at Yoongi. It struck Jeongguk as condescending, and he felt a knot forming in his stomach at the idea of Yoongi being challenged, especially by a member of The Council.

 

“Min Yoongi.” Killian’s face darkened slightly at the name. To anyone else, it may have seemed contemplative, but Jeongguk grew up with Killian. He knew what that look really meant. He recognized the name, and he didn’t like it. It would seem, Yoongi had made a name for himself among The Council. Jeongguk didn’t know why, but the thought unsettled him.

 

“I see.” Killian dragged his gaze--now a glare, really--away from Yoongi and fixed it on Jericho instead. “Jericho?”

 

“Yes, Sir?” Jericho responded, sitting up straighter in his seat. Jeongguk nearly laughed at the action.

 

“What do you do?” Killian asked.

 

Jericho pointed to himself in question, and Killian nodded his head to affirm that he had directed his inquisition at the right person. Jericho cleared his throat and answered, “I’m an item mage, Sir. So long as I understand how something is crafted and the internal components of it, I can make anything.”

 

“Thinking of engineering? Weapon crafting?” Killian inquired.

 

Jericho rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. “Actually, I really want to own and operate a sandwich shop.”

 

Killian nodded and scanned his eyes over the rest of the room. The glare from earlier was gone, and that cocky look the man usually donned was back on his face. “I see.” he cocked his mouth into a smirk. “Let me rephrase. Most of you represent The Academy’s best and brightest.” The class laughed at the remark made at Jericho’s expense.

 

“Do any of you know the motto of The Council?” Killian asked as he strode over the Noyce’s desk and leaned back on it, placing his arms behind his back in an easy, relaxed pose. Ms. Noyce gave Killian a miffed look, but didn’t ask him to move.

 

“Et facta ex lux.” Mizuki answered.

 

“And it means?”

 

Jimin answered, “And light was made.”

 

“Should be ‘condemnant quo non intellegunt’” Yoongi said under his breath. Taehyung snorted from his seat, and Jeongguk wondered what Yoongi had said. Something about intelligence, maybe?

 

Don’t understand Latin? Taehyung asked in Jeongguk’s mind.

 

Jeongguk jumped a little out of his seat at the sudden and unexpected intrusion. Not often, no.

 

You’re an interesting mage, Jeongguk. Taehyung responded. There was amusement in his voice (if telepathically speaking could be described with a voice).

 

Jeongguk huffed softly. That your way of saying I’m stupid?

 

On the contrary. Taehyung paused, and Jeongguk almost thought the conversation was over. Taehyung had a thing for abruptly ending conversations. What Yoongi said, it means “They condemn that which they don’t understand.”

 

I see. Jeongguk would’ve nodded his head if the two weren’t having a secret, mental conversation. Do you agree with that?

 

Jeongguk imagined Taehyung shrugging as he responded, Doesn’t matter if I agree or not.

 

Why? Jeongguk asked as he turned around.

 

Taehyung met his eyes sadly as he responded, a weighted, close-lipped smile on his lips. Because I’m one of the condemned.

 

“Jeongguk, look alive! Eyes up here.” Killian interrupted.

 

Jeongguk allowed his eyes to linger with Taehyung’s. Questions were running through his mind, of course they were, but most prevalent was this heavy feeling in his chest that begged him to reach out and comfort, to sympathize. He didn’t entirely understand the feeling, but he didn’t stop it. He allowed himself to feel heavy with this unidentifiable grief. Taehyung offered Jeongguk a wink as if to comfort him. It felt out of place and hollow. Why did he always feel so hollow?

 

“Jeongguk!” Killian warned again.

 

Jeongguk offered Taehyung one last questioning glance before turning his attention back to Killian. “Sorry.”

 

Killian began lecturing again, but Jeongguk was entirely tuned out. His mind was focused solely on Kim Taehyung. What did he mean? He could’ve been referring to the rumors perpetuated by other students. It’s true that Taehyung wasn’t well received on campus. Jeongguk had heard what people said about him, and he’d heard Taehyung address it in his conversations with him before. They’d called him elitist, creepy, scary. Jeongguk had never felt that Taehyung was those things, but he knew Taehyung. Well, he didn’t really know him, he supposed. He knew Taehyung as well as anyone did. Taehyung wasn’t what they said he was, though. Of that, Jeongguk was sure. He didn’t know much about Kim Taehyung, but he knew he was kind.

 

Jimin had said Taehyung was one of the most powerful mages in the world. Jeongguk had never sensed an intense level of magic power from Taehyung before, but, if it was true that he could conceal his magical energy, then labeling him as powerful would be an understatement. That took the kind of control only well-gifted and absurdly disciplined mages could accomplish. Taehyung was young, though. Like Jeongguk, he was only eighteen. Was that enough time to learn something so complex and to use it indefinitely as Taehyung did? Most importantly though, would that level of power warrant attention from The Council, and not the positive kind?

 

If that was true, and Jeongguk was really starting to think it was, then it granted more credence to his theory that mind reading was not Taehyung’s true magic. He had to practice something else. He couldn’t be that powerful with telepathy magic, couldn’t be condemned in the way he was suggesting if his only ability was reading minds and creating telepathic links, something considered widely useful in the magic community. There was morality in use, at least by The Council’s standards. Someone with so much utility would never be marked as anything near condemnable.

 

The question was still begged, and it begged Jeongguk greatly to be answered, what did his mind reading stem from? Jeongguk suspected that The Academy knew the true nature of Taehyung’s magic. Could The Council know, then? Did they know whatever secret Taehyung was so intent on keeping, and is that why he was labelled ‘one of the condemned’? Maybe, they didn’t know. Maybe, Taehyung was so secretive because he knew that if they did, he would become an enemy of them. Perhaps, The Academy didn’t know his secret either, just knew there was one, just knew that he was powerful beyond belief. That may explain why they held his aptitude testing away from other students. Did anyone know who Kim Taehyung truly was?

 

You’re so curious. Taehyung spoke in Jeongguk’s mind. Jeongguk briefly tuned into lecture and heard that Killian was still discussing the origin of The Council’s motto, the idea that it signified light in magic’s dark age. It brought order to chaos. The story was one Jeongguk had heard a hundred times over. He turned his attention back to Taehyung.

 

If it bothers you, why would you say that, then? Jeongguk’s voice lacked any bite, but was rather laced with a soft curiosity that didn’t so much plead for answers as much as it invited them.

 

Say what? Taehyung asked like he didn’t know what Jeongguk was referring to. Jeongguk found it simultaneously infuriating and endearing. Taehyung knew what Jeongguk was thinking, so Jeongguk didn’t feel the need to provide an answer, but Taehyung extended him the courtesy of a true conversation. He allowed Jeongguk to think that he wasn’t entirely invasive, which the fire mage appreciated more than he could articulate.

 

That you were one of the condemned . Jeongguk responded. You knew I would ask questions.

 

I guess, I did. Taehyung said simply.

 

Jeongguk didn’t stop the questioning scowl from forming on his face. His eyebrows furrowed and he pursed his lips. Then, why?

 

Maybe, it doesn’t bother me that you’re curious. Taehyung stated it, but it sounded more like a question, like he didn’t believe it himself. Jeongguk understood the sentiment. He didn’t really believe it either.

 

Maybe?

 

Yeah, Maybe.

 

Jeongguk began softly tapping his fingers against his desk. He desperately wanted to have this conversation face to face, with voices rather than thoughts, but that wasn’t possible right now. He relieved his tension through the tapping. Why not?

 

I don’t know. And, for the first time, Jeongguk thought Taehyung really did sound unsure. It was bizarre considering he had always seen Taehyung as someone that just knew things. He always knew with Jeongguk. Why couldn’t he know with himself?

 

Maybe, it’s only fair considering how much you know about me. It’s possible that you feel that our relationship should be reciprocal. Jeongguk attempted to reason.

 

You could say that. Taehyung confirmed unassuredly. Or, maybe, there’s another reason it doesn’t bother me.

 

Jeongguk was getting tired of all the maybes. You gonna tell me what that reason is?

 

A part of me wants someone to know the answers to your questions. Taehyung stated. He continued with his thoughts taking on a softer edge, something more vulnerable than Jeongguk felt he had any right hearing. A part of me wants you to know.

 

Jeongguk couldn’t stop the first thought from tumbling out of his head and over to Taehyung’s. Why me?

 

Killian said something to Kailani and Kainalu, the water-using twins who sat in the back of the room. Jeongguk didn’t catch what it was, didn’t really care to know. He was absorbed in something much more pressing than a lecture on a career he had virtually no interest in. Taehyung was taking a moment to respond, and Jeongguk began tapping his foot, slightly off beat from the tapping of his fingers. It was out of sync, and felt so reflective of how he felt in this conversation with Taehyung, like there was something he was missing, something to Taehyung’s words that he wasn’t picking up on. That maybe Taehyung didn’t even know he was implying. He felt so ridiculously out of tune with the mind reader, but he also felt tuned out to everything else. Even if the beat was messy, the melody confusing, Jeongguk found himself unable to listen to anything other than it. It rattled around in his mind until he felt that the metaphorical song was clawing at his skull and begging to be heard by anyone else, to be interpreted as anything other than grating.

 

I don’t have the answers to everything, Jeongguk. Taehyung answered after what felt like an eternity of contemplation.

 

Don’t you have the answers for yourself? I’m not asking for everything; I’m asking for you. Jeongguk responded. Taehyung didn’t answer, so Jeongguk continued. Afraid you can’t trust me?

 

Afraid I’d trust you too much . Taehyung said quickly. Jeongguk didn’t respond. He tried to allow space and silence for the thought to sink it, but it didn’t. What did Taehyung mean? You’re confused.

 

Something like that. Jeongguk answered.

 

If I’m honest… Taehyung stopped his sentence midway through, and Jeongguk felt the need to fill the space left.

 

You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.

 

I’m not good. Taehyung answered in a soft voice that felt too cruel bouncing around in Jeongguk’s mind. It squeezed at his heart and added considerable weight to the mass in his chest. You shouldn’t want me to trust you. Jeongguk thought that if they were speaking, Taehyung’s voice would’ve broken in that moment. For the first time in the entire conversation, Jeongguk felt grateful that they weren’t speaking face to face. He didn’t think he could handle seeing Taehyung like that.

 

You haven’t given me any reason to think otherwise. Jeongguk offered comfort, but it was honest. Taehyung had been nothing other than good in the short time Jeongguk had known him. Jeongguk could admit many faults with himself, many times that he’d misinterpreted something or misunderstood someone’s motives or character. He was not making a mistake now. Taehyung was good.

 

That’s because I haven’t answered your questions, yet. Taehyung answered wryly, and it felt very self-deprecating. Jeongguk frowned at it. He thought that no matter how Taehyung answered his questions, his mind wouldn’t change.

 

Jeongguk clenched and unclenched his fist before resuming tapping on the desk again. Taehyung, he began trepidatiously, When you said you were ‘one of the condemned,’ did you mean by The Council or by yourself?

 

Both.

 

Tae- Jeongguk tried before Taehyung was interrupting him.

 

We should pay attention to lecture. Not everyday a Council rep comes to speak to us personally. Taehyung’s thoughts took back on that cool indifference they usually held. Jeongguk could practically see the walls building back up around Taehyung, and he almost wished he hadn’t asked such a brazen question. He felt, however, that it was a question Taehyung needed asked. It was something he needed to think about.

 

You’re diverting again. Jeongguk responded dully.

 

Yeah. I do that a lot, don’t I? Taehyung’s thought had a small laugh to it. It felt awkward and apologetic, and Jeongguk felt a pang in his chest. He was getting sick of his chest feeling weird. Maybe, the hit to the ribs from Namjoon earlier in the morning had caused more damage than he’d initially thought.

 

You do. Jeongguk confirmed.

 

Jeongguk thought he heard Taehyung sighing. We’ll talk later, another day.

 

Taehyung didn’t specify the date, and Jeongguk didn’t ask. He thought he’d reached his limits of questions for the day and asking more would be overstepping his bounds. Jeongguk didn’t feel entirely placated, and the song was still rattling around in his brain, but he was content with it. Something in him trusted that, one day, Taehyung would tell him everything. The fire mage felt willing to wait until Taehyung was comfortable with it. He suspected that the mind reader had much thinking to do about himself and his own feelings. Taehyung, it seemed, had more questions about himself than even Jeongguk did.

 

“You’re exactly right, Mina.” Jeongguk tuned back into lecture. He didn’t know what Mina was right about, but he suspected he’d find out soon enough. “The Council seeks to keep magic pure, to instill lightness into the very essence of the craft. We do it with laws. I’m sure all of you are aware, but what are the three tenets of The Council?”

 

Jomo answered from his seat on the very edge of the classroom near the door. “Magic will not be used to kill. Magic will not be used for selfish gain. Magic will not be used to deny another individual of their natural rights.”

 

Killian told Jomo he was right, and Yoongi was muttering something again from his seat behind Jeongguk. “But the greatest among these laws are the unspoken ones: don’t be born different and don’t defy The Council.”

 

If Killian heard Yoongi, and he probably did (or at least heard his voice, if not his words), he didn’t acknowledge it. He mentioned stipulations to the laws, like if magic is used in cases of self defense, killing may be necessary. To every law, there are extenuating factors. To every moral truth, no matter how universally accepted, there are grey areas.

 

“Speaking of Latin mottos, I came up with one for the school!” Winnie announced enthusiastically. Damon responded that the school already had a motto.

 

“We moved on from-” Killian began, but Winnie was already speaking.

 

Winnie turned in his seat to look at Jericho. “Discupli nostri bardissimi.” Several students, the ones that understood Latin, laughed, Taehyung and Yoongi included.

 

He said, “Our students are the stupidest.” Taehyung told Jeongguk. The fire mage found himself laughing too. Jericho really couldn’t catch a break today, and from Winnie of all people.

 

Jericho returned Winnie’s eager smile with a blank look. It didn’t seem that he understood Latin. “Why do I feel like I’ve been insulted?”

 

“Dude, he called you dumb.” Damon explained.

 

“Technically, he called all of us dumb.” Mara interjected with her finger pointed in the air.

 

“I’m willfully omitting myself from this narrative.” Jericho defended himself. Winnie told him that the narrative was created for him, and the entire left side of the room devolved into arguments about whether or not Jericho was stupid. The general consensus was yes; the only dissident being Jericho himself. Killian didn’t interrupt them, just watched in silent amusement as the classmates bickered about their intellectual standings.

 

“Please give Killian back your attention.” Ms. Noyce chided from her desk. The room quieted shortly afterwards, and Killian clapped his hands together.

 

“So, now that we’ve gone over a few things, is anyone interested in a career in The Council? By show of hands?” Killian spread his arms as if to invite anyone to raise their arms. Not a single person raised their hand. “Anyone?”

 

“Sounds boring.” Damon answered simply. There was a chorus of agreements, and Killian sighed.

 

“Yeah, it does, huh?” Killian rubbed the bridge of his nose as he looked down at his feet before looking up sharply with a sudden smile. “Well, I’m sure that’ll change eventually. You’re all young, still in school. I’m sure legislation seems pretty dull. No matter. I thought the same thing at your age.”

 

Yoongi snorted. “I’m sure you did.” Yoongi didn’t try to quiet his voice this time. He’d meant to be heard. Jeongguk shrunk down in his seat as Killian’s gaze found Yoongi’s, who was sitting directly behind the fire mage. The last thing Jeongguk wanted to be was in the crosshairs of this confrontation.

 

“You’ve been awfully quiet this entire time, Min Yoongi. Tell me,” Killian’s face took on a sickeningly sweet smile, the kind of expression that Jeongguk had never seen on his before. It seemed challenging and dangerous and was making Jeongguk’s stomach do somersaults. Killian continued speaking, “What are your thoughts on The Council?”

 

“Oh, me? I love The Council.” Yoongi’s voice was dripping with sarcasm. The room was silent as he spoke spare the sound of a ticking clock. Jeongguk felt that rather than ticking time forward, it was counting down to something.

 

“I’m sure you do.” Killian echoed Yoongi’s previous words. He gave Yoongi a curious look, the smarmy smile no longer on his face, and Jeongguk was grateful for it. He didn’t like seeing Killian that way. It was unfamiliar and unnatural. Killian was arrogant, sure, but he was hardly cruel. That smile screamed cruelty, and it left Jeongguk with an unsettled feeling throughout his entire body.

 

“Well, I think that about wraps up my time with you all.” Killian clapped his hands together. “Any questions?” Again, no one raised their hands. Yoongi didn’t say anything else, and Jeongguk was happy to see that there wouldn’t be a confrontation afterall. The tension in the room still felt thick, unbearably so, but Jeongguk could live with it. He’d rather live with it than live with it snapping.

 

“Okay. I’ll be taking my leave, then.” Killian began walking out the door as Ms. Noyce thanked him for coming and a few members of the class bidded him goodbye. Killian turned around once he reached the doorway, not bothering to respond to Noyce or any members of the class. His eyes flitted between Jeongguk and Seokjin. “Boys, meet me by the front gates once you’re out of school for the day. We’ll get dinner and catch up.”

 

With a blinding smile, Killian left the room. A few people in the class were discussing how handsome Killian was in person and how cool it was to meet him. The loudest among them was, oddly, Jericho. Jeongguk was left with a different feeling, though: a gratefulness for Kim Taehyung’s vulnerability, an excitement to see Killian once class was over, and questions upon questions that a part of him never expected an answer to, but another part of him refused to leave open-ended. Ms. Noyce started their next lecture, and Jeongguk continued tapping his feet and fingers out of beat with each other.

Chapter Text

Jeongguk and Seokjin met Killian in front of the school gates when they got out of classes for the day. Well, they stood in front of the gates until Killian showed up twenty minutes late, walking at a leisurely pace with an easy smile on his face. He was taking drags off a pipe stuffed full of tobacco (which Jeongguk was at least 87 percent certain wasn’t allowed on campus) as he walked towards them with no semblance of a rush on him. The two boys didn’t mind his tardiness, though. It was a Killian thing, said that being late to everything made him more memorable.

 

A sleek, black car pulled up to the gates not less than thirty seconds after Killian had reached the boys. Jeongguk attempted to get into the car first before Seokjin pulled him back by the waistband of his pants.

 

“Dibs on the side seat.” Seokjin stated as he pulled Jungkook away until he was able to easily slide himself in the car. Jeongguk was halfway in the car about ready to light Seokjin’s entire head on fire when Killian was pulling him back and tsking.

 

“Don’t damage my seats.” Killian reprimanded, before taking middle seat himself, leaving both Jeongguk and Seokjin with side seats. Never one to ignore his more childish impulses, Jeongguk leaned around Killian and stuck his tongue out at the ice mage.

 

Seokjin rolled his eyes at the gesture. “Close the door, idiot.” Jeongguk huffed as he pulled on the door and heard it click shut.

 

The car began pulling away from The Academy, and Jeongguk watched from the rearview mirror as its gates and willow trees disappeared behind them. The driver asked Seokjin if he wanted to listen to any music in particular, and Seokjin very meticulously dictated a queue. Killian huffed a particularly large amount of tobacco smoke into the enclosed space, and Jeongguk held back a cough as he felt his nose prickle and burn from breathing it in second-handedly.

 

“No music is fine, Marlo.” Killian said. Marlo immediately turned the radio off. “So, boys, tell me. How’s school going?”

 

“Pretty good for me.” Seokjin boasted. “Jeongguk’s combat rankings aren’t so good, but I’m still number four in the class.”

 

“Did you absolutely have to throw me under the bus?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

Seokjin smirked in that annoying way of his as he leaned back in his seat, crossed one leg over the other, and threw an arm around the back of Killian’s headrest. “Always.”

 

“Fourth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either.” Killian stated with another pull from his pipe. Jeongguk smirked triumphantly before sticking his tongue out at Seokjin again. His victory was short lived as he sneezed from the smoke. Killian payed Jeongguk no mind.  “Who’s ahead of you?”

 

“Mizuki, Namjoon, and Taehyung. But they’re insane, better than most everyone in the field. I’d say I’m doing pretty well for myself.”

 

“Saito Mizuki, Kim Namjoon.” Killian arched an eyebrow. “Taehyung?”

 

“Kim Taehyung.” Jeongguk answered softly.

 

Seokjin straightened up from his lounged position and gave Killian a confused look. “Have you not heard of Kim Taehyung? He’s number one at The Academy in, well, everything.”

 

“His surname is Kim, you said?” Killian questioned.

 

“Yeah. He’s a mind reader.” Seokjin explained.

 

Killian furrowed his brows and set Seokjin with an inquisitive glare. “He’s a mind reader, and he’s managed to become the most powerful student on campus?”

 

“Yeah, man. He’s crazy talented.”

 

“Kim Taehyung, mind reader.” Killian inhaled from his pipe and whispered with an exhale, “Interesting.”

 

Jeongguk felt chills down his spine as Killian spoke Taehyung’s name aloud. The utterance left a sickly feeling in his stomach that screamed this was bad. Killian shouldn’t speak Taehyung’s name; he shouldn’t know it. Jeongguk wished he could reach over and pry Taehyung’s memory out of Killian’s mind, but he instead stuck with biting his lip and beating out an unsteady rhythm on his thighs with hands that wouldn't stop shaking. Jeongguk couldn't rationalize the feeling, couldn’t possibly explain why Killian shouldn’t be interested in Taehyung. The beat became more unsteady.

 

The ride into town was short, but it felt longer than it should have. Killian, Seokjin, and the driver carried on an easy conversation while Jeongguk sat in his anxiety and curiosity, wishing that the cloying tobacco smoke would stop prickling at his nose and lungs. He couldn’t think with all that smog filling up the small space. He gave in and rolled down a window, still beating that rhythm into his thigh, still wondering why Killian couldn’t know of Taehyung, still thinking that even the outside air wasn’t fresh enough.

 

“We’re here.” The driver announced just as Jeongguk was about to shove his face out the window in an attempt to breathe in anything other than fumes.

 

Jeongguk had never gotten out of a car so quickly in his life. He breathed in the early-evening air greedily. He’d never been fond of smoke, and Killian knew this. Jeongguk huffed in frustration before walking around the car to join Seokjin and Killian. The three made their way into the restaurant--a posh sushi place that’d opened a few months earlier--while Jeongguk walked a few feet behind the other two.

 

Once they’d settled into the table and had ordered their food, Seokjin started conversation. “So, any news on the investigation into Mom’s death?”

 

Killian sipped his drink slowly before setting it down with a sigh. “At this point, her death is just a drop in a bucket of crimes they can’t prove Adorior had anything to do with. Besides, even if we could charge them with anything, it wouldn’t matter because we can’t find them. They’ve been in hiding since Moon Sr. died.” the elder pinched the bridge of his nose. “We haven’t been able to pick up a trace of them. Whoever they have nullifying, they’re good. Scary good.”

 

The boys remained silent, just staring down at their untouched drinks and thinking to themselves. Jeongguk understood. He wasn’t expecting anything to come from the investigation, anyway. There wasn’t so much as a body to investigate, and that was a decently important factor to a murder investigation. That understanding didn’t make his desire for justice any less, though. More like it resigned him to a complacency he wanted no part of. Once again, he was struck by how unfair his mother’s death was.

 

“Speaking of dangerous people, stay away from Min Yoongi.” Killian said casually with his drink straw hanging out of his mouth, almost like he hadn’t just made an accusation against one of their classmates out of nowhere.

 

Seokjin huffed and muttered something under his breath that sounded like ‘typical’ before speaking louder, “Gonna be kinda hard. He’s my roommate.”

 

Killian shrugged the remark off with a wave of his hand. “We can fix that. I can make new rooming arrangements for you.”

 

“Don’t bother.” Seokjin propped his elbows up on the table and leaned towards Killian, challenge glinting in his eyes. “He’s also my friend.”

 

Killian hummed. “A good friend?”

 

“Best friend, actually.”

 

“Jeongguk.” Killian called, snapping his attention to the fire mage who was tapping on his leg again beneath the table. “He a friend of yours?”

 

And wasn’t that a loaded question. Jeongguk didn’t suppose Min Yoongi was a friend, but he wasn’t not a friend, either. If anything, he was someone Jeongguk respected and didn’t want to piss off.

 

“Well, um, not really…” Jeongguk mumbled.

 

“Why, Killian?” Seokjin asked

 

Killian smiled, that same challenge in Seokjin’s eyes now gleaming in his own. “Why what, Seokjin?”

 

“Why do you want us to stay away from him?” Seokjin questioned. Of course, Seokjin knew the answer to the question. Jeongguk knew the answer to the question. Yoongi fought against the answer to the question every second he spent breathing.

 

“He’s a necromancer.” Killian answered simply.

 

“And?”

 

“That’s dark magic.” Killian glared at Seokjin like he was lesser, like he didn’t know what he was talking about and had no place speaking at all. Jeongguk unconsciously leaned further back in his chair.

 

“Is it?” Seokjin asked, still leaning over the table, unphased by Killian’s disregard.

 

Killian nodded shortly. “Yes. Now, about your rooming arr-”

 

“Did you choose the magic you were born with, Killian?”

 

The two pairs of eyes snapped over to Jeongguk, and it took everything in the fire mage’s body to not clamp a hand over his mouth to stop anything else from falling out. Why had he asked that? Why had he gotten involved in a conversation that didn’t pertain to him, in an age-old argument that he didn’t want to be a part of. Taehyung’s face flashed in Jeongguk’s mind, and, for the first time in awhile, Jeongguk understood why he was feeling the way he was. Like it or not, he cared for Taehyung, and he knew this conversation pertained to the mind reader, that him and Yoongi were in the same boat. Jeongguk may not be friends with Yoongi, but he was friends with Taehyung. He felt the urge to stand by that.

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” Killian questioned, now fixing Jeongguk with that dismissive look. Jeongguk tried not to let it bother him.

 

“Answer the question.” Jeongguk stated firmly, holding Killian’s gaze, still tapping against his legs beneath the table. That tapping was his only tell, though, the only sign that he was anything other than confident at that moment in time.

 

Killian sighed. “No. I didn’t.”

 

“Do you think we should condemn people over something they have no choice over?” Jeongguk pressed.

 

Killian’s eyes widened and he sat up straighter in his chair, uncrossed his legs. “Jesus, Jeongguk. Condemn is a strong word, don’t you think?”

 

“It’s the word he uses.” Killian, of course, thought Jeongguk was referring to Yoongi. He very much meant Taehyung. Although, Yoongi had said he was condemned as well, hadn’t he?

 

“Yeah? He’s openly anti-Council. Lot of weight we can give his words, huh?” Killian retorted, a sneer making its way onto his features.

 

Seokjin decided to rejoin the conversation. “He’s not anti-Council. He’s anti-prejudice.” Jeongguk nodded his head in agreement.

 

“Boys, I don’t want to have this conversation with you.” Killian warned.

 

Jeongguk suddenly remembered the conversation he’d had with Taehyung the day he’d filled in for Namjoon during a training session, and he decided not to heed Killian’s warning. He started softly, “He knows what it is to be told he’s something he isn’t, for people to believe it.” The fire mage fixed the elder with a harsh glare before spitting out, “Lucky for you, he decided not to believe it.”

 

Killian’s laugh had a scathing bite to it. “Lucky for me?”

 

“Yeah, lucky for you he isn’t the person you want him to be.”

 

“Jeongguk,” Killian sighed and reached out to gently grip Jeongguk’s shoulder, to look in his eyes with a soft smile that Jeongguk was having a hard time finding convincing. “I don’t want anyone to be a dark mage.”

 

“Then why do you assume he is?” Seokjin pulled Killian’s attention back to himself, and Jeongguk took the opportunity to shift out of the elder’s grip and move his chair farther from him. “Why do you assume when you don’t know him?” Seokjin pressed.

 

“I’m not assuming, just saying he has potential.” Killian attempted to explain.

 

Jeongguk rolled his eyes. The bullshit Killian was spewing drew out his attitude that had been dormant thus far in the conversation. “Don’t I have potential? Doesn’t Seokjin?”

 

“Don’t say stuff like that.” Killian warned. No, he demanded.

 

“Or what?” Seokjin paused to take a sip of his drink, most likely in an attempt to maintain nonchalance. Jeongguk knew, though. He knew Seokjin was just as nervous as he was; they’d never argued with Killian like this before. Seokjin continued, “You’ll put him on one of The Council’s watch lists, too? He’s right.”

 

Jeongguk nodded his head once in agreeance. “Any magic can be used badly, same as any magic can be used for good.”

 

“The thing is,” Seokjin said with a point of his finger. “Yoongi would never misuse his.”

 

Killian rubbed at his brow, squeezing his eyes shut in frustration. “And his anti-Council sentiments? What of that?”

 

“He’s a constituent of your assembly unhappy with the way he’s been treated under it. That’s not on him; that’s on The Council.” Jeongguk stated with a shrug. It seemed easy to understand to him.

 

Killian dropped his hand from his brow and smirked, that same smirk that screamed mock superiority. It was unsettling. “And what would you have me do to fix it?”

 

“A good place to start might be to stop labeling anyone with problems with The Council as bad guys.” Seokjin offered.

 

“Magic is magic. Stop making one kind bad or one kind good. It just is.” Jeongguk added.

 

Killian leaned back in his seat, taking back on the image of comfort and dominance he had when they came in, before the conversation had started. “Grand ideas, boys, but that’s all easier said than done.”

 

“Wouldn’t be so grand if more people believed in them.” Jeongguk grumbled under his breath, but he knew Killian heard him.

 

For the first time that night, Killian laughed a real laugh, the kind that Jeongguk was used to. It wasn’t that demeaning snicker or breathy guffaw of disbelief; it was a chuckle-sort-of sound that Jeongguk was familiar with. “Touche.” Killian responded. “You know, for thinking The Council and legislation is boring, you two both have quite a few thoughts on it.”

 

Jeongguk groaned, already feeling the tension of the discussion ebbing away. He didn’t think the conversation was truly over, but it seemed over for now. That was okay. Killian could be convinced further on a later date.

 

“Please, don’t turn this into a recruitment thing.” Jeongguk begged.

 

Seokjin fixed Killian with a serious gaze. “There is nothing you could offer me to get me to work there .” Seokjin said ‘there’ like it was a dirty thing. Killian didn’t remark on it.

 

“Nothing?” The elder questioned teasingly.

 

“Not a thing.” the ice mage confirmed.

 

“Lifetime supply of lobster.” Killian threw out. Seokjin immediately placed his hand on his chin and hummed in contemplation.

 

Jeongguk laughed softly, more of a giggle, really. “Now you’ve got him thinking.”

 

“Could I even eat the lobster in the office? During meetings? Hearings? Literally always?” Seokjin still had his hand gripping his chin with that too-serious look yet to leave his face.

 

“Yes.” Killian confirmed.

 

“I might be convinced.” Seokjin rushed out. “Let’s discuss side dish options.”

 

Jeongguk half-listened to the conversation the two were having about side-dishes, and he only half-heartedly ate his food once it was brought out. His mind was somewhere else entirely, back on the one thing it always settled on: Kim Taehyung. After the conversation with Killian, he found himself needing to see the mind reader. There wasn’t any particular reason Jeongguk could pinpoint as to why he wanted to see him (big shocker, there. Jeongguk was starting to think he was severely emotionally constipated), he just knew he wanted to, knew that he needed to.

 

Killian paid for the younger two’s meals, and didn’t smoke on the way back to The Academy. Killian wasn’t one to apologize aloud, but his actions spoke loud enough. It was atonement. He felt bad for starting an argument with them, and he didn’t like that they had disagreed. Of course, he wasn’t upset that he couldn’t agree with the two, more likely he was upset that they didn’t agree with him. That was okay, though. He was sorry for the argument, and that was  enough. There weren’t many things Killian could say or do that would ever make Jeongguk seriously angry with him. Killian knew that, too.

 

The boys parted from Killian with small side-hugs in the backseat of the car. They stepped out and waved the vehicle away from The Academy together and began making their way back to the dorm. They were halfway back when Seokjin broke the easy silence between them.

 

“Thanks.”

 

Jeongguk tripped a little on the sidewalk before righting himself and resuming pace with the ice mage. “W-what are you thanking me for?”

 

“Back there with Killian. I know Yoongi isn’t really a friend of yours, but you stood up for him. And to Killian of all people.” Seokjin gave Jeongguk a soft smile. “It means a lot.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t feel like it’d be an appropriate time to admit that he didn’t really have Yoongi in mind when he was arguing with Killian. “Well, he’s not not a friend, either.”

 

“Maybe. It still took guts to do that. I know how you and Killian are. I’m uh” Seokjin paused to rub the back of his neck. “I’m proud of you.”

 

“I’m proud of you? Too?” Jeongguk managed to squeak out.

 

Seokjin punched Jeongguk’s arm. “Don’t make it weird. Just keep walking.”

 

“I’ve been walking.” Jeongguk huffed.

 

They got back to the dorm building and walked up together. Whitmore was apparently where all twelfth years were housed, not that Jeongguk knew that until days after arriving at The Academy--Seokjin really didn’t do much for Jeongguk in the way of preparation for school. They were walking up the stairs, and Jeongguk stopped at the second floor. Seokjin made it up three steps before he realized Jeongguk wasn’t next to him anymore.

 

“Don’t you have two more flights to go?” he asked after turning around to look down at Jeongguk.

 

“Actually, I have to see Jomo about something really quick. Have some questions about um animation magic.” Jeongguk came up with a flimsy excuse. Of course, he wasn’t sure why he felt the need to come up with an excuse, but just outright telling Seokjin that he was going to see Taehyung felt weird. Jeongguk didn’t like when things felt weird, so he opted to lie instead.

 

Seokjin smirked and walked down one step. “Jomo, huh? The Jomo that rooms with Kim Taehyung?”

 

The fire mage looked anywhere that wasn’t his brother and placed his arms innocently behind his back. “Oh, really? He dorms with Taehyung? I didn’t know that.”

 

“I’m sure you didn’t.” Seokjin said flatly.

 

“Yeah, so I’m just gonna-” Jeongguk stepped backwards, not facing away from Seokjin, and pointed his thumbs over his shoulders. “Just gonna go.”

 

“Have fun with Taehyung, Jeongguk.” Seokjin called out before continuing his ascent up the stairs. Jeongguk didn’t make an effort to correct the other boy, not really feeling the need to correct something they both knew was the truth.

 

Jeongguk walked a few feet before standing in front of Taehyung’s dorm. His door was plain; that was the first thing Jeongguk noticed. Students could decorate their dorm doors with their roommates, and Jimin had decorated theirs. A lot. He’d made a bunch of sparkly cards and then added flame details to them, then stuck them all over the door with some vague phrases one might find in a motivation book like “Believing in yourself is your magic” and “Little things make big days.” Jeongguk had remarked on that particular phrase, asking if Jimin was the little thing. Jimin was not amused. Jeongguk had briefly been teleported to a desert before reappearing back in their dorm hall covered in sand while Jimin laughed at him, hiding his face behind a glowing card. That was the day Jeongguk learned Jimin had teleportation magic in those cards of his.

 

But that’s not what’s significant. What’s significant is that Taehyung’s door had nothing. Just a little sign that said “Jomo and Taehyung,” which an RA had most likely made for them. Jomo was a simple guy, so it didn’t surprise Jeongguk that he hadn’t put anything on the door. Taehyung was like that too, Jeongguk supposed, but it still unsettled him for some reason. The longer he stared at the empty door, the heavier his chest felt. He knocked.

 

“Jeongguk, hey. What’s up?” Jomo answered the door with a porcelain doll in his hands. The fire mage chose to ignore that.

 

“Is Taehyung here?” he asked, cutting straight to the point.

 

“No, you just missed him, actually. I can take a message?”

 

Jeongguk shook his head. “No need.” Jeongguk wasn’t even entirely certain why he was there. What message could he leave Jomo with? “Do you know where he went?”

 

“No clue. He doesn’t really talk to me much.” the animator shrugged his shoulders. “Or ever.”

 

“Alright. Well, thanks Jomo. Have a good night.” Jeongguk gave an awkward wave goodbye before turning on his heels and walking back down the hallway.

 

“You too, man.” Jomo responded before Jeongguk heard the door click shut.

 

Well, off to find Taehyung

 

----

 

Jeongguk found Taehyung by luck, really. He’d been almost everywhere on campus trying to find him before he gave up on the search and decided to go sit in the gardens for a little bit, not feeling up to going back to his own dorm. Towards the back of the hedge maze was a grassy area that was perfect for lying down in. It was dark, so Jeongguk spent ten minutes walking through the maze--which conveniently moved sometimes (magic schools. Am I right?)--lit only by small lamps haphazardly placed. He found the grassy patch after acquiring at least three mosquito bites, and he almost turned around after seeing there was already someone lying there. Almost , before they spoke.

 

“Fancy seeing you here.” Taehyung spoke from his lounged position.

 

Jeongguk didn’t waste much time lying down next to Taehyung, directing his gaze to the night sky. The moon was phased into a waning gibbous, and Jeongguk thought it looked pretty hung up in the sky, slowly losing its light to the backdrop of stars much brighter than it could ever hope to be. Jeongguk broke the soft moment by offering Taehyung a response, but he didn’t remove his eyes from the sky.

 

“I went to your dorm, but you weren’t there. Looked around, couldn’t find you, gave up, and came here. It’s almost like you can read my mind.” Jeongguk joked.

 

Taehyung snorted. “No mind reading this time. It really is just coincidence.”

 

“They say there’s no such thing as coincidence.” Jeongguk voiced softly.

 

“Maybe not.” Taehyung agreed. “Sorry you had to come looking for me, though. Jomo was practicing his magic on his dolls again. Creeps me out.” Well, that explained why Jomo had a porcelain doll in his hand when he’d answered the door. He must’ve been using his animation magic to control it.

 

“Things scare you?” Jeongguk questioned jokingly.

 

“Lots of things, actually.” Taehyung confirmed.

 

Jeongguk finally pulled his eyes away from the stars and turned on his side to look at Taehyung, resting his head on his elbow. The two were close, maybe closer than they’d ever been. “Like what?”

 

“What scares you?” Taehyung responded with a question, remaining on his back with his gaze still pointed above.

 

“Microwaves.” Jeongguk answered honestly and without hesitation.

 

Taehyung laughed and sat himself up, looking down at Jeongguk. The moonlight illuminated him from behind, making it look like he had a soft halo framing his shaggy, brown hair. Jeongguk looked at Taehyung as he was laughing and found himself giggling a little in spite of himself. Microwaves were a stupid fear. Also, had Taehyung always had a mole under his eye?

 

“Microwaves?” Taehyung questioned, drawing Jeongguk out of his silent study of Taehyung’s features. Well, it wasn’t so silent. Afterall, Taehyung could hear everything he was thinking. The thought brought a blush onto the fire mage’s face.

 

“Don’t laugh. I’m serious.” Jeongguk covered up his face with the arm he was laying on. Not that it would do any good. Taehyung knew exactly why Jeongguk was covering up his face, probably better than Jeongguk did, himself. “They could blow up at any moment or catch on fire or-”

 

Taehyung cut him off. “Aren’t you immune to fire?”

 

Jeongguk removed the arm from his face and exclaimed, “I’m not immune to flying microwave particles that could stab me!”

 

Taehyung started laughing and Jeongguk found himself joining in again. Not because he found his fear particularly funny (it was scary, really), but more because he just felt happy. He hadn’t heard Taehyung laugh much before, but the sound was infectious and, soon enough, his own cheeks were pushed up into his eyes as he giggled with Taehyung. The mind reader grinned down at him, a bright, boxy smile that Jeongguk hadn’t been blessed with many times before.

 

“I have a fear like that, too.” Taehyung said once his laughter had died down.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I have pee anxiety.” Taehyung stated.

 

Jeongguk arched an eyebrow. “What, like you can’t use the bathroom in public? That’s kinda normal, I think.”

 

“No, like.” Taehyung groaned into his hands. “This is kind of embarrassing. I get scared of having to pee when I’m in a position that I can’t.”

 

“Like what?” Jeongguk asked, a smile tugging at his lips again.

 

“Like, if I’m on a long trip, and there’s nowhere to stop. I’m running late, so I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. That’s horrifying. That seriously scares me.”

 

Jeongguk let out a breathy chuckle. “You know, it kinda is. Still not as horrifying as flaming microwave debris, though.”

 

Taehyung looked affronted. “Of course not.”

 

The two shared a grin before Taehyung laid back down on the grass. Jeongguk didn’t know if he was imagining things, but he could’ve sworn Taehyung was closer than he was before. Of course, he probably was imagining things. Why would Taehyung lay closer to him. That’d be weird, right? Well, it didn’t feel weird, but shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it make sense if-

 

Taehyung cut off Jeongguk’s train(wreck) of thought. “Why’d you want to see me, Jeongguk?”

 

“I don’t know.” Jeongguk answered quickly and honestly. He’d been asking himself the same question all night, and the answer always came back confused.

 

Jeongguk heard Taehyung rustling beside him, and he was momentarily aware that Taehyung was looking at him, his profile, studying his face. Jeongguk wanted to turn and look at Taehyung too, but he didn’t. He let him study. “You really don’t know.” Taehyung stated.

 

“Just felt like I had to, I guess.” Jeongguk answered, sparing a glance to his side to look at Taehyung. The mind reader had the same look on his face that he’d had earlier in the day, when Jeongguk had walked to his seat grinning after seeing Killian. The fire mage still didn’t know what that look meant, but he decided it wasn’t a bad look. It almost felt nice being looked at like that.

 

“We’ve never done this before.” Taehyung said as he rolled back onto his back and looked up again. Jeongguk wished he’d look at him in that way again, if only so Jeongguk could study it more, figure out what it means. It almost seemed fond? Curious? Something like that.

 

“Done what?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

“Hung out just for the sake of seeing each other.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t move to his side, just turned his head so that he was looking at Taehyung. He smiled brightly, “Guess this makes us friends, then.”

 

“Friends, huh?” Taehyung asked, turning his head so he was looking at Jeongguk with a similar grin.

 

Jeongguk scrunched his nose as his smile deepened. “Yeah, something like that.”

 

Taehyung’s grin turned into a half smile as he looked at Jeongguk. He turned his head away quickly. “Tell me, Jeongguk, how does it feel being friends with the most powerful mage on campus?”

 

Jeongguk groaned. “Oh no. Don’t tell me you do this whole cocky thing regularly. I already have one Seokjin in my life, thank you.”

 

“Don’t worry. It’s rare.” Taehyung chuckled.

 

“Thank god.” Jeongguk said as he moved his arms so they were placed under his head like a pillow, rather than lying at his side.

 

“So, um,” Taehyung cleared his throat. “How was your day? That’s something friends ask, right?”

 

“Yeah. It is.” Jeongguk said with a soft smile. His eyes settled on a star, and he thought it was the next best thing to looking at Taehyung. Then, he thought that was an odd thought to have; he shook it off. “Well, um, after class, we got dinner with Killian. It was...okay.”

 

“Okay?”

 

“Are you going to make me elaborate? Can’t you just read my mind.”

 

Taehyung huffed. “I thought you didn’t like me reading your mind.”

 

Jeongguk shrugged as best he could while lying down. “Maybe, I don’t mind it so much since you can’t help it and all.”

 

“So, you argued with him about Yoongi.” Jeongguk could hear the smile in Taehyung’s voice.

 

“I guess.”

 

“You guess.”

 

Jeongguk mumbled, “I wasn’t arguing for Yoongi, you know?”

 

“I know.” Taehyung answered in a soft voice.

 

Jeongguk decided then and there that he didn’t like it when Taehyung used a soft voice. It made his words too heavy, even though his tone was light. He wasn’t certain how to respond, not when Taehyung spoke like that. Instead, he honed in on the twinkling star, bursting light along its edges as it dimmed and undimmed. Jeongguk’s mother always preferred the daytime because of the sun, but Jeongguk liked night, when the sky was lit up with seemingly infinite, small stars just like the sun and the moon that sought to borrow their light.

 

“Thank you.” Taehyung whispered.

 

Jeongguk knew what Taehyung was thanking him for, so he didn’t bother asking for clarification. “I think I get it now.” Jeongguk finally pulled his gaze away from the star to turn towards Taehyung again. “I think I wanted to see you because I get it, Yoongi and you. I get why he’s angry and you’re secretive.”

 

“Did you not get it before?” Taehyung asked, meeting Jeongguk’s soft gaze with one of his own.

 

“I had no reason to. Nobody that I…” Jeongguk cut himself off before he could utter the words ‘cared about’ aloud. “Nobody around me was affected by it.”

 

There was a beat of silence. Jeongguk sought to fill it.

 

“When I met Yoongi,” the fire mage started. “I was scared of him. He told me he was a necromancer, and I immediately thought of him differently because of that. I think...I think that was wrong of me.”

 

“And when you met me?” Taehyung asked, his eyes boring into Jeongguk’s own like they held answers that Taehyung had been searching years for. Maybe they did. Jeongguk found himself hoping they did, if it meant Taehyung wouldn’t look away.

 

“I thought you were a mind reader.” Jeongguk answered simply.

 

Taehyung raised his eyebrows slightly. “You think I’m different now?”

 

“I think you’re more.”

 

“Does that scare you?” Taehyung asked in the smallest voice Jeongguk had ever heard him use, and it hurt. It hurt so damn bad that Taehyung thought he was scary and bad and condemned. It hurt that those thoughts made him small.

 

“No.” Jeongguk answered firmly, not a drop of doubt in his voice or mind. No. He wasn’t afraid of Taehyung.

 

“Why?”

 

Jeongguk smiled sadly. “You don’t scare me.”

 

“Maybe I should.” Taehyung responded with a sad smile of his own.

 

“I don’t know if you should or shouldn’t. I just know that you don’t.” Jeongguk felt a sudden urge to reach out to Taehyung. To do what, he didn’t know? Just felt like he had to reach out. He held himself back.

 

“How do I, um, How do I make you feel, then?” Taehyung asked with a tremor in his voice.

 

“Don’t you already know?”

 

Taehyung closed his eyes and demanded,  “Just say it. Please.”

 

“You make me feel lots of things.” Jeongguk began. Taehyung kept his eyes closed as he spoke. “Understood, amused, calm, frustrated, curious, safe, oh, and did I mention frustrated? Because god-”

 

Taehyung opened his eyes and cut Jeongguk off with a laugh. Jeongguk couldn’t find it in himself to laugh right then, so he offered Taehyung a half smile instead. “Thank you.”

 

“Stop thanking me.” Jeongguk reprimanded.

 

Taehyung shook his head. “Sorry. You just-”

 

“How do I make you feel?” The fire mage cut the other boy off.

 

Taehyung’s eyes widened briefly before what Jeongguk would swear was a blush made its way across his face. Of course, it was dark, so maybe he was mis-seeing things. “If that isn’t the question of the night.” Taehyung mumbled.

 

“You asked me first.” Jeongguk pressed.

 

There was a long period of silence where Taehyung seemed to just be gathering his thoughts. Jeongguk watched with an increasing fondness in his chest as Taehyung rolled his eyes up, like he was trying to find the right words to use, and he thought it’d be easier if he was looking up at his brain. Still, the silence hung, and for once, Jeongguk didn’t like it. He found himself needing an answer.

 

“Less alone.” was Taehyung’s simple response.

 

Simple may not be the word for it. There are implications to that sort of thing, to make someone feel like they’re not on their own. The words filled Jeongguk with a strange sense of pride that had him willing to fight Killian a hundred times over for Taehyung, would fight anyone for him. Is this what having a friend was like? It was nice. Really nice. Taehyung made Jeongguk feel less alone, too. The fondness began spreading through his chest again.

 

Taehyung poked Jeongguk’s nose. “You sap. I have a question for you.”

 

Jeongguk wiggled his nose a little. “Yeah?”

 

“When you were arguing with Killian, you asked if he had asked for the magic he’d been born with. Have you ever wished you could be born with different magic?”

 

“Like, not fire?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

“Yeah. Just, anything else?”

 

Jeongguk scratched at the bridge of his nose and furrowed his brow a little as he thought over the question. “Not really.” he explained, “Something less common might be neat, but fire magic is something my mom and I shared. I’ve always loved that.” Jeongguk paused. “Have you wished that?”

 

Taehyung didn’t break eye contact with Jeongguk as he spoke with complete conviction. “Every day.”

 

Jeongguk made an effort to keep the conversation light (not that it was really light to begin with), but Taehyung’s answer was heavy in the midst of it. “If you could be any other type of mage, what would you be? I love being a fire mage, but I think I’d wanna be one of those intelligence mages that have those information systems in their heads. That’d be cool.”

 

“As tempting as that is,” Taehyung started with a smirk. “I wouldn’t be a mage, if I had a choice. I’d be as far away from this world as possible.”

 

Well, so much for keeping it light.

 

“Not the answer I was expecting. Why?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Taehyung pulled his gaze away from Taehyung and turned his head so it was facing up again. Jeongguk kept his gaze steady on Taehyung’s face. “It’s all just so…twisted. Either you fall in line with The Council and commit to oppression and control, or you fall in line with dark guilds and commit to murder and lawlessness. No, I wouldn’t be a mage. I’d be normal.” Taehyung pursed his lips in thought. “Own a bakery, maybe. I’d be anything I wanted to be; anything would be better than a puppet.”

 

“You think we’re all just puppets?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Taehyung took a deep breath before sighing loudly. “I think people are too easy to control, to shape and mold, to make them work best for one man’s common good.”

 

Jeongguk didn’t know how to respond, had never thought so in depth about human nature before. “Yeesh. You’re quite the pessimist.”

 

Taehyung laughed softly, but in that hollow way he sometimes (usually) did. “Something like that.”

 

“A bakery would be nice.” Jeongguk said, settling on an easier topic. “I could be your baker, with my easy access to fire and all.”

 

“You’d burn all my goods!” Taehyung exclaimed. “I wouldn’t let you step foot in my kitchen, Jeongguk.”

 

“Crispy is not burnt!” Jeongguk retorted.

 

They laughed together for a few moments before it faded into silence. Taehyung continued looking at the sky while Jeongguk continued looking at him, and Jeongguk felt so peaceful. That’s another thing Taehyung made him feel, he supposed: at peace. He had another question to ask him, and it was begging him to push away the silence and be answered, to be spoken.

 

“Can I ask you a weird question?”

 

Taehyung covered his eyes with his hands and groaned. “I already know what it is, but okay. Go ahead.”

 

“Why’d you reach out to me over everyone else. Like, why me?” Jeongguk’s voice came out in an unintentional whisper.

 

Taehyung took his hands off his eyes and met his gaze with Jeongguk’s. It was piercing and near desperate the intensity with which he looked into the fire mage’s eyes. “You remember your first day here, that lullaby you sang here, in the gardens?”

 

“You were the guy that heard me singing, that asked me about it.” Jeongguk stated. He had briefly forgotten about that encounter, but now he was remembering. When he’d first saw Taehyung, he thought he might’ve been the man who approached him on his first day, but he wasn’t certain. Now, he had that confirmation.

 

Taehyung nodded his head. “I learned a lot about you, just listening to you sing, think, and feel.”

 

“You like what you learned.” Jeongguk asked with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

 

“No.”

 

Jeongguk felt the wind leave his sails almost as quickly as it had started blowing them. “Huh?”

 

Taehyung chuckled quietly. “Don’t look so scandalized. What I mean to say is that I felt like I understood you. A kindred soul sort of thing.”

 

Jeongguk smirked. “Aww, did I tug at little Tae Tae’s heartstrings?”

 

“N-No.” Taehyung’s face became noticeably red as he stuttered, his eyes widening comically.

 

“Lil’ Tae Tae felt bad for Kookie, huh?” Jeongguk continued. Growing up with the most annoying person alive (Seokjin) had given him all the tools he’d needed to be annoying in turn. Messing with Taehyung, Jeongguk began to understand why Seokjin did it so much. It was kind of fun.

 

“D-don’t call me that.” Taehyung stuttered more.

 

“Tae Tae?” Jeongguk asked, his smirk growing wider.

 

“It’s embarrassing. My mom used to call me that.” Taehyung’s eyes widened further and his blush became deeper (if that was possible) at the mention of his mother. It was clear he hadn’t meant to bring her up. “Oh fuck. I mean-”

 

“Your mom, huh?” Jeongguk cut him off before he could start rambling about something he clearly wasn’t comfortable talking about. “You know, you never talk about your family.”

 

“Yeah, I don’t.” Taehyung confirmed, but didn’t offer any explanation as to why.

 

“So, Tae Tae is off the table? Nickname is absolutely not allowed?” Jeongguk asked, suddenly worried that he’d overstepped a boundary.

 

Taehyung raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to ask me about my mom?”

 

“You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”

 

“Yeah...Tae Tae, call me that if you want.” Taehyung smiled gently. “It’s nice when you do it, like you’re reclaiming it.”

 

“Wait. Can I say it outloud and everything?”

 

“Sure. Outloud and everything.” Taehyung agreed with a soft laugh.

 

Jeongguk looked back up at the sky and smiled mischievously. “I’m gonna call you Tae Tae in class tomorrow, and Jimin is going to literally shit his pants.”

 

“Please, no.” Taehyung groaned. “This is embarrassing. I revoke your privileges.”

 

Jeongguk shook his head profusely. “Nope. We’re officially friends now, Tae, remember? You can’t revoke my friendship privileges.”

 

Taehyung promptly stood up and began brushing off his pants. “They’re revoked. Night, Jeon.”

 

Jeongguk clutched his chest, looking up at Taehyung from the ground. “You even called me Jeon.” he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to look as dramatically heartbroken as possible. “You’re really going to break my heart like this.”

 

Taehyung didn’t offer Jeongguk much of a response, just grabbed his hands and pulled him up. He stumbled on his feet a little after being hoisted up like that. “Let’s get back to the dorm, yeah? I’ve got like six mosquito bites in the last five minutes alone.”

 

“Well, I’ve gotten seven.” Jeongguk countered as he looked up from his feet, deeming them stable enough to stand on. His eyes instantly met Taehyung’s, and they were close. They’d been close all night, but they were nearly chest-to-chest, nose-to-nose. Jeongguk suddenly became very aware of the fact that Taehyung was still holding his hands. Taehyung seemed to notice, too, because he pulled his hands away and quickly shoved them in his pant pockets. Taehyung began walking away, muttering something about how ‘not everything is a competition.’

 

“Hey, Tae?” Jeongguk started as he followed closely behind the mind reader. Taehyung hummed, letting Jeongguk know he was listening. “Can we get cookies at the dining hall first?”

 

“Didn’t you just have dinner?” Taehyung asked as they stepped out of the maze, looking back over his shoulder at Jeongguk.

 

Jeongguk tilted his head to the side slightly before shrugging his shoulders. “Guess I’ll just go alone, then.” He began walking towards the dining hall, the opposite direction Taehyung was going, before he felt a tug on his hand. Taehyung’s hands didn’t linger long; he was just trying to get the fire mage’s attention.

 

“Fine. I’ll come with you.”

 

Jeongguk smiled brightly and, before he could stop himself, wrapped his fingers around Taehyung’s and began pulling him towards the dining hall. The whole way there, neither of them made a move to remove their fingers from the other's. Jeongguk was pretending to drag Taehyung, and Taehyung was pretending to be dragged, but neither of them really wanted to admit that they just liked simple touches like clasped fingers on warm, autumn nights.

Chapter Text

Class had just wrapped up, and Jeongguk’s peers were loudly packing up their bags and discussing their plans for the evening. Seokjin was trying to convince Hoseok to model for an ice sculpture he was working on while Yoongi was begging Seokjin to stop building ice sculptures in their dorm. Namjoon and Jimin were talking about going on a nature excursion and studying somewhere outside (which Jeongguk knew translated to “let’s get drunk on the east side of campus but tell everyone we’re studying”). Everyone else was planning study groups or trips out into town.

 

Not Jeongguk.

 

Jeongguk’s yesterday had been so eventful, he thought he wouldn’t leave his room for anything other than class, meals, and training sessions for at least the next month. Maybe, he could ask Taehyung if he wanted to get dinner tonight. He was currently struggling with talking himself into climbing out of his seat and directing the question toward the mind reader when knuckles knocked on his desk, drawing his attention to the man standing in front of him.

 

“Hey, Jeon, heard you wanted to spar.” Mishal said with a friendly smile on his face, not at all like he was asking Jeongguk to fight him.

 

Jeongguk looked at Namjoon who had briefly pulled his attention away from Jimin to give Jeongguk a nod of his head. The fire mage cleared his throat, “Um, yeah, man. I’d be down if you are.”

 

“Saturday, five, the track behind the freshman dorm? That work for you?”

 

“Sounds good.” Jeongguk nodded his head. Mishal rapped his knuckles against Jeongguk’s desk one more time in confirmation before leaving the room with Mizuki and Dagny.

 

So, the fight with Mishal was happening. Jeongguk was feeling oddly optimistic about it. He knew fire magic better than most anyone, and he knew how fire users moved. He knew Mishal wasn’t quite as proficient in fire magic as Jeongguk was, and that, he hoped, would make the boy predictable.

 

So, what song do you want me to play at your funeral? Taehyung spoke in Jeongguk’s mind. 

 

Jeongguk turned to Taehyung and frowned. “My funeral?”

 

“Namjoon, Jeongguk’s doing that thing again where he says weird stuff to Taehyung out of nowhere.” Jimin stage whispered to Namjoon, although he was staring pointedly at Jeongguk. The two chose to ignore the boy, like they usually did.

 

“Mishal is well-versed, very well-versed in Muay Thai. Has Namjoon taught you anything other than boxing?” Taehyung questioned.

 

“Isn’t Muay Thai just boxing but with more kicks? It can’t be that bad.” Jeongguk said with much more confidence than he felt.

 

Taehyung gaped at Jeongguk. “Oh my god. You’re going to die.”

 

“Shut up.” the fire mage grumbled, turning back to his desk to begin shoveling his stuff into his bag.

 

Wanna get dinner with me later? Don’t feel like eating alone. Jeongguk thought to Taehyung.

 

Not speaking out loud to ask me that? 

 

Jeongguk huffed. If I asked you to eat with me, Jimin would die, I think. If he lived, then he’d question me about it until my ears were bleeding. 

 

Yeah, we can get dinner. I think you’ll want to go to the library first, though. Taehyung responded.

 

I can promise you that I don’t want to go to the library.

 

We’re gonna read up on Muay Thai, then we can go get dinner. Jeongguk slouched his shoulders at Taehyung’s words. It made sense, but the idea of doing anything other than going back to his dorm and staring at his blank ceiling until he got hungry was extremely upsetting.

 

Fine. He found himself agreeing against his best interests.

 

Not less than five minutes later, the two boys were making their way to the library--one of them dragging their feet much more than the other. The library, unlike all the other buildings on campus, wasn’t made of limestone. While everything on campus seemed somewhat contemporary--if you didn’t count the giant wooden doors everywhere--the library seemed anything but.

It was one of the largest buildings on campus, as not only was it one of the most frequented, it hosted countless, irreplaceable magic records that couldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. In a sense, the building housed the history of the magic world, acted as a hub of sorts, and the feeling of it was nearly tangible. The entire campus had something of a magic feeling about it. It looked like any regular college campus, except for that one could feel the electricity in the air, that little buzz that indicated the school was different.

 

The library was enticingly bounding with magical energy. If this were a video game, Jeongguk would think that he gained skill levels when he so much as went near the building. Unfortunately, his magic in particular was forbidden within thirty feet of the premises. So much for the upgraded skills.

 

There were two massive spires atop the grandiose structure that Jeongguk would be lying if he said he hadn’t thought of climbing to the top of them and perching like a bird. The front half of the building had more windows than walls, while the back half was exclusively wall (something about light hurting paper). Some of the windows were stained glass with depictions of magical events. Jeongguk’s personal favorite was the depiction of Ailsa the Great holding the freshly decapitated head of Regin the Not So Great (he was more commonly referred to as Regin the Evil, but that was much less fun). The figures had names with the level of pretentiousness the fire mage aspired to, and he just thought the decapitation thing was cool.

 

“That’s my favorite too.” Taehyung said, pulling Jeongguk from thought. They’d settled into the library, situated near the window he was just thinking of. Taehyung gestured towards the depiction of Aisla and Regin with his head. “Less for decapitation purposes, though. More because I think the story is nice.”

 

“Oh, yeah. ‘Cause what’s nicer than a story that ends in beheading your worst enemy?” Jeongguk asked sarcastically.

 

“Exactly.”

 

Taehyung smiled brightly at Jeongguk before turning to the library attendant that had just walked up to their table. The fire mage took the time to try to smack the blush off his face that he felt forming after bearing witness to the grin. He didn’t know why he was blushing, just knew that he was, and he had to stop it at all costs.

 

The attendant left to grab books for them, and Taehyung turned to the other boy with a cheeky grin. “You know, slapping your face will just make the blush worse.”

 

Jeongguk’s blush became worse (of course) as Taehyung chuckled deeply. The attendant returned with a stack of books, and Jeongguk quickly reached for one to hide behind while pretending to read it. He soon realized that Taehyung could tell he wasn’t reading it, so he began actually trying to comprehend the words, only to find that he couldn’t read the book for some reason. Taehyung pulled it out of his hands and flipped it over.

 

“You were holding it upside down.”

 

Jeongguk frowned. “Y-yeah. I knew that.”

 

The mind reader spared Jeongguk further embarrassment by opting not to respond. He instead started reading a book the attendant had brought for him specifically, some novel that looked way more fun than the technical book Jeongguk was meant to be skimming through. Speaking of, with a huff, the fire mage began reading. 

 

He wasn’t ten pages in when he slammed the book down on the table and looked at Taehyung with wild eyes. “I’m going to die.”

 

Taehyung carefully placed a bookmark in his novel and closed it. He looked at Jeongguk with a sadistic glint in his eyes, “Told you so.”

 

“I learned what a jab-cross combo was like two weeks ago. How the fuck am I supposed to beat this guy?” A librarian snapped at Jeongguk for language. “Sorry. How the,” he lowered his voice slightly, “fuck” and raised it again, adding some extra whine to his voice, “am I supposed to beat this guy?”

 

“You could always ask someone for help. I hear that’s what a lot of people do if they don’t know something.” Taehyung shrugged. Jeongguk was starting to think this was one of his cocky-attitude days.

 

“Like who? Namjoon? He’s throwing back tequila shots with Jimin right now on the other side of campus.”

 

Taehyung gave Jeongguk a pointed look.

 

“Hmm. Who else could I ask? Maybe, Mizuki? I don’t know her well, but she may be willing to help. But, I think she’s good friends with Mishal. Would that be a conflict of interest?”

 

Taehyung quirked an eyebrow, his look becoming more pointed.

 

“What? Why are you looking at me like that?” Jeongguk frowned and rubbed at his cheeks a little, thinking he might still be blushing.

 

“Idiot.” Taehyung huffed. He stood up and held out his hand for Jeongguk to take. “Let’s go.”

 

Jeongguk reluctantly took the other boy’s hand and allowed himself to be pulled out of his seat. “Where to?”

 

“I’m going to help you.”

 

“Oh.”

 

They walked out of the library, neither bothering to let go of each others’ hands as a librarian yelled after them to put their books away. They pretended not to hear.

 

----

 

After a particularly brutal training session that primarily featured Jeongguk getting kicked far more than he wanted to (which was not at all. He didn’t want to be kicked even a little bit), him and Taehyung went to the dining hall where Jeongguk had a closely-monitored meal of grilled chicken, asparagus, and water. He’d tried to sneak a cookie into his pocket, but Taehyung heard him thinking about how excited he was to eat the cookie once he got back to his dorm and had promptly dug it out of the fire mage’s pocket and stomped it into the ground.

 

“You wasted it! You couldn’t have even eaten it?” Jeongguk pouted.

 

“Nope.”

 

Jeongguk grumbled as they approached Whitmore hall, the brightly lit limestone exterior coming into sight. “Shoulda just gone with Namjoon and Jimin today to drink. I’d be closer to death on Saturday, but I honestly feel closer to death now. Plus, I don’t even get to eat my cookie.”

 

“Being ignorant to your problems doesn’t mean they stop existing, Jeongguk. I did you a favor.” Taehyung smiled softly. “Besides, alcohol is bad for you.”

 

Jeongguk quirked a brow as a mischievous grin made its way onto his face. “Don’t drink alcohol? What, are you scared it’ll lower your inhibitions too much, and you’ll lose your big, bad, mysterious reputation once everyone realizes you're actually a softie?”

 

“It tastes bad.” Taehyung pouted. He actually pouted, and Jeongguk nearly stopped walking in shock. Cute , he found himself thinking. He tried to shake the thought out of his head. Taehyung, again, used discretion and chose not to comment on the thought. Well, at least Jeongguk was sure about one thing: Taehyung was a big softie.

 

They got to the second floor and split ways with small waves and soft goodnights. Jeongguk waited for Taehyung’s door to click closed before sprinting up the next two flights to his own room so he could scream into his pillow and wonder what the hell was going on with his thoughts recently. It was bad enough that he could hardly control what he was thinking around Taehyung, but now he had to monitor his feelings too, when he didn’t even know what they really were? 

 

He managed to open the door, and was about to make a beeline for his room, when he noticed a moving lump on the living room floor. It was dark, and his knee jerk reaction was to throw a small fireball at the lump. The lump yelped. Wait...That sounded like…

 

“I’m too drunk to stand, and now I’m on fire.” Jimin wailed.

 

Jimin wasn’t actually on fire, just being dramatic. Jeongguk flipped on the light and noticed a burnt patch in their carpet near Jimin’s head. For once, the fire mage was happy he’d missed his mark.

 

“You’re not on fire, you big baby. I missed.”

 

Jimin hiccuped. “You tried to kill me!”

 

Well, he had technically tried to kill him. Jeongguk shrugged. An apology for a later date. He walked over the smaller boy and pulled him up by the armpits to start dragging him to his room. Jimin grunted, but didn’t offer much resistance. Of course, he didn’t offer much help either, just let his body weight fall without even trying to push himself up a little. Thank god Jeongguk had been doing weight training.

 

He managed to tuck Jimin into bed while the card mage was rambling on about suing Jeongguk for attempted murder. The fire mage was able to sneak out of the room as Jimin was demanding a meeting with his lawyer. He showered quickly before tucking himself into bed, trying to fall asleep while thoughts of Taehyung laid heavy on his chest. It was a long night.

 

----

 

Jeongguk had a distinct memory of his alarm going off, just not a distinct memory of turning it off and rolling over and going back to sleep. He woke up a solid 23 minutes later than he was supposed to and ended up sprinting to the track, still in his pajama pants and hoodie. Namjoon was calmly sitting on the bleachers, seemingly unbothered by the tardiness.

 

“Sorry, I’m late, Joon.” Jeongguk took a deep inhale, trying to regain himself after running so hard. “Overslept a little.”

 

Namjoon looked at Jeongguk, his eyes hooded, hair a mess, lips a little too pale. He stared blankly for a moment before speaking, “I’m so fucking hungover.”

 

“Bet Jimin’ll be too.” 

 

Namjoon groaned and laid back on the bleachers. “Can you just, like, run laps today?”

 

“I can’t believe you would ask me to do that.” 

 

Namjoon rolled his eyes. “Right, sorry. Trying to force you to run would probably make my headache worse than if I were to just let you punch me.” Namjoon sighed and stood, slowly making his way to the water fountain. “Let me drink some water and we can spar, or something.”

 

Jeongguk sat on the bleachers and rubbed his still sleepy eyes while Namjoon took his sweet time getting a drink. If the combat mage had been in a better state, he might have noted Jeongguk’s less-than-conventional training outfit: red flannel pants with cookie cartoons and an old guild sweatshirt he should probably throw out soon. At least he looked like a guy that would get his ass kicked, considering that, even hungover, Namjoon would hang him out to dry.

 

Namjoon slowly shuffled back to the bleachers and sat down with a dramatic groan. “So, fighting on Saturday with Mishal. Guy does Muay Thai.”

 

“Yeah, Taehyung told me. Got in some training with him yesterday for it, actually.” Jeongguk looked at Namjoon with wide eyes. “Joon, I even went to the library and read about it.”

 

“Riveting.” Namjoon pushed back so that he fell to the floor, his back leaning against a bleacher while his legs hung over the one in front of him. “Stand there. Show me what you learned.”

 

Jeongguk stood where Namjoon had pointed. “Not going to get up and show me?”

 

“Nope.” he popped the p. Jeongguk got into his stance.

 

Boxing and Muay Thai, Jeongguk had learned, were somewhat similar. One of the biggest differences was stance. In boxing, one would turn their hips to the side so that they were showing as little of their vulnerable body as possible. It was a narrow, defensive stance. Muay Thai was all offensive. He stood with his hips facing forward, bouncing slightly on his feet, a little more weight on his back leg, fists level with his forehead, and elbows out slightly. The stance allowed one to deliver kicks, and the high guard of the arms helped protect from head kicks (which Taehyung had assured him he would be on the receiving end of if he didn’t polish up his high guard). 

 

“Well, it’s a little weird without something in front of me to hit, but…” Jeongguk envisioned a target in front of him and lashed out into a kick, imagining making the impact with his shin. “Don’t know what that’s called, but I learned it. Can also do some kneeing and elbowing now.” Jeongguk demonstrated what it’d be like to strike an opponent with his knees and elbows. 

 

“He taught you all that in one session?” Namjoon asked, mouth slightly agape.

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “The question here isn’t what he taught, but if I learned it well. Was I doing it right?”

 

“Yeah. You were.” Namjoon hopped up from the bleachers and took a few strides to the fire mage, clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Keep practicing that for the next twenty minutes. I’m gonna go throw up, now. Meet again tomorrow morning? We can do some more training before the fight.”

 

Namjoon began stalking off before Jeongguk could properly respond. Jeongguk watched him go, until he was far enough away that he figured he could follow after safely. He didn’t have much desire to run unfamiliar drills by himself so early in the morning, so he kept his distance from Namjoon while making his way back to the dorm. He almost broke his cover after witnessing the combat mage throw up in a bush, but the man straightened himself up immediately afterwards and continued to the dorm.

 

Jimin wasn’t awake when Jeongguk got back, so he took a quick shower before barging into Jimin’s room without knocking and promptly grabbing the boy by his ankles and pulling him out of bed. Jimin landed on the floor with a harsh thump.

 

“Jeongguk, did you just pull me out of bed?” Jimin spoke with his eyes still closed. Jeongguk remained silent. “You better not have because then I’d have to beat your ass.”

“Then, I guess my answer to that question is no.”

 

Jimin jumped to his feet, looking like he was about to beat the daylights out of Jeongguk before his face twisted in pain and he collapsed onto his bed. Jeongguk released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. Jimin was a little scary when he was pissed.

 

“You’re so lucky the room just started spinning, otherwise you’d be dead.” Jimin muttered.

 

Jeongguk smiled cheekily. “Noted. Anyways, get up. We have like fifteen minutes to get to class.”

 

Jimin sat up quickly, looking much more alert than he’d been mere seconds ago. “Fifteen?” Jeongguk nodded. “I didn’t shower last night. I haven’t brushed my hair, or gotten dressed, or eaten breakfast.”

 

“Go a little heavy on the deodorant, then, and put your uniform on.” Jeongguk walked out of the room as Jimin was screaming about where in the hell his deodorant was.

 

Jimin ran out of his room not eight minutes later, still looking more put together than most of the people on campus. He plopped down in front of the door before Jeongguk could open it, explaining that he needed to fix his tie, and he couldn’t do it standing--not with how hungover he was. The fire mage tapped his foot as Jimin took his time, and gave him a look of disbelief as Jimin made grabby motions up at him.

 

“What?”

 

“Carry me to class, muscle pig.”

 

Jeongguk scoffed. “Walk to class, tiny.”

 

“Exactly! I’m tiny! So, carrying me shouldn’t be a problem at all.” Jimin reasoned, that familiar, mischievous glint flashing across his eyes, tugging up the corners of his mouth. 

 

Jeongguk knew how this would play out. He knew Jimin, by now. Jeongguk would say no, then he would try to kick Jimin out of the way of the door to begin walking to class. Jimin would latch onto his leg while he tried to shake him off. Before Jeongguk could exhaust himself doing that, Jimin would use some of his magic to do some sort of unpredictable thing that would scare Jeongguk so bad, he’d have no choice but to just give him a damn piggy back ride.

 

“Fine.”

 

Jimin got up quickly and pulled out his deck. Jeongguk flinched away from it, and Jimin laughed at the action. “Looks like I finally made you into a pet. What, I teleport you to enough deserts? You scared of me, now?”

 

“No.” it was mumbled inconvincibly, with his eyes still locked on the deck, wide as he worried what Jimin might do with them. He was getting sick of visiting the Sahara in the middle of the week. The sand stuck for days.

 

“Down, boy. I was just gonna shrink our backpacks a little.” Jimin pulled out a card, and the same brilliant thing happened whenever he performed his magic. His eyes glowed gold, everything he looked upon bestowed in this light that seemed to pour out of Jimin endlessly. It was beautiful, and it wasn’t. It was also downright frightening. 

 

Jeongguk watched in near-amazement as their two backpacks shrunk. Jimin held them in his palms, showing off his work, before slipping them into his pocket and walking behind Jeongguk to jump on his back. Jeongguk caught him. Barely.

 

“Why couldn’t you just shrink yourself?” Jeongguk asked as he adjusted Jimin.

 

Jimin pinched his cheeks from behind him. Jeongguk snapped his teeth at him, but Jimin flicked his nose. “The spell messes with organs. Bad to use on live things.”

 

“Right.” Jeongguk chose not to ask for Jimin to elaborate on that, thinking he didn’t need another reason to be scared of that card deck. “Hold on tight.”

 

He made his way to their class quickly, stopping to spin a few times before Jimin threatened to throw up all over his, quote, “ugly ass coconut head.” After that, he maintained a slower, easy pace, thinking Jimin was the last person he’d want to throw up on him. Well, actually the last would probably be Jericho. That guy ate too many bologna sandwiches and drank too much apple cider for it to be anything other than the most unpleasant thing imaginable.

 

Jeongguk let Jimin down right outside the giant wooden doors to their classroom, not without whining from Jimin, though. Jimin promptly sat on the ground and pulled out his deck, using his magic to retrieve the exact card he needed to bring their backpacks and everything in them back to size. After making sure everything in his bag wasn’t small anymore, Jeongguk walked into class rubbing his shoulder. Carrying a full-grown guy across campus was way more taxing than Jimin made it seem.

 

“You look like shit, Park.” Namjoon noted as Jimin came in behind the fire mage.

 

Jimin sneered and took his seat in front of Hoseok. “Same can be said of you, Kim.”

 

“And here I was thinking I looked pretty this morning.” Taehyung spoke from his seat next to Hoseok with a slight pout. 

 

A few mouths dropped. Taehyung was becoming more talkative; Jimin had said as much to Jeongguk a few weeks ago. He wasn’t necessarily talking freely, though. Sure, Jeongguk had heard the guy joke, had spoken to him about tons of things, but this was unusual behavior for him around anyone else. Jimin seemed to shed a tear that Taehyung had spoken to him, instead of ignoring him like he usually did.

 

“Of course, I meant Namjoon. You always look good, Tae.” Jimin assured with a bright smile on his face.

 

“Hey!” Namjoon voiced his displeasure.

 

“Tae?” the mind reader questioned at the same time.

 

Jimin’s features overcame with worry. “Sorry, it slipped. Do you prefer Taehyung?”

 

“No. No it’s fine. I-”

 

Jeongguk cut Taehyung off. “He prefers Tae Tae, actually.”

 

Taehyung sputtered, and Jimin had one of those annoying smiles on his face he sometimes got. The one that screamed he knew exactly what was going on here, and oh was he scheming. No one schemed like Park Jimin schemed. Not a single person. Jeongguk worried what that look meant, was jealous that Taehyung already knew. Speaking of Taehyung, he was giving Jimin a very worrying stare.

 

“No.” He pointed at Jimin, whose smile became more intense. “No, Jimin. Stop that.”

 

“Stop what?” Jimin asked, seemingly knowing exactly what he should stop.

 

Taehyung blushed. Oh. 

 

Woah.

 

And wasn’t that just a sight?

 

“You know what, just.” Taehyung groaned. “No. Not.” He glared, a little firmer. “No.”

 

“Okay.” Jimin seemed to think before adding on, “Tae Tae.”

 

Jeongguk gave Taehyung a look of question. What’s he thinking? He thought. Taehyung simply shook his head, and Jeongguk took that to mean he should drop it. Jeongguk was bad at dropping things, though, so he wondered for the rest of the class day what transpired between Jimin and Jeongguk, while Taehyung more or less ignored him. 

 

Namjoon seemed much better after class, and suggested that he and Jeongguk do the training session then, since they didn’t really get to spar in the morning. The fire mage agreed, and temporarily filled his thoughts with Muay Thai and not getting his ass kicked too bad (that last one was a little harder considering Namjoon’s favorite thing to do seemed to be kicking Jeongguk’s ass).  

 

The two walked back to the dorm, Jeongguk feeling a little more sore than usual, which wasn’t surprising considering he was having to use his body in ways he hadn’t previously. Still, he wished he’d stretched a little more beforehand, wished that Namjoon would go easy on him at least once. Of course, he hadn’t, and Jeongguk had never been happier to split off from the combat mage and go to his room to shower and collapse in bed.

 

The cards were rarely in his favor.

 

He opened his door and was greeted with most of his class sitting on his living room floor surrounded by art supplies and talking loudly. In the middle of it all was Jimin with a large bottle of glitter flipped over a poster that was being generously coated in glaring pink sparkles.

 

A voice came from the edge of the room. “Get out.” Yoongi demanded. Jeongguk remained standing in the doorway, more confused than ever at what the hell was happening in his dorm. But the more he thought about it, the less he cared about what was going on here, and more about what wasn’t going on with him, which was not taking a shower and going immediately to bed.

 

“Ignore Yoongi.” Jimin spoke up as he righted the bottle of glitter and set it down next to him. He grabbed a trash bag near him and tilted the poster over in it, getting rid of any spare glitter (which there was a lot of, considering Jimin’s heavy-handed approach). “He’s still got a stick up his ass from the last time we did arts and crafts.”

 

Jeongguk gauged his ability to reach the bathroom through everyone in the room and all the crafts scattered around and concluded it would be hard. He stayed in the doorway. “Yeah? What happened?”

 

“No one fucking tel-” Yoongi was cut off by a glowing card covering his mouth. Jimin smiled brightly from the center of the room as Yoongi began mumbling around the card, trying to tug on its sealed edges.

 

“That should shut him up for a minute. God. He’s so grumpy today.” Jimin clapped his hands over the trash bag and glitter fluttered down from his palms into it.

 

“Park Jimin, you truly fear no one.” Jeongguk noted.

 

Jimin shrugged and gestured to Yoongi still trying to tug on the card. “Yoongi isn’t all that scary. Look at him.” He passed the bag to Kailani who needed to dump her poster. He brought his attention back to the fire mage. “Anyways, he burnt himself with a hot glue gun...what was it, seven, eight times?” Yoongi pulled his hands away from the card to hang his head resignedly and hold up nine fingers. “Nine times! Then, Seokjin got a pipe cleaner stuck in Yoongi’s ear. The school nurse still gives him shit for it.”

 

Seokjin approached Yoongi with a pipe cleaner (how he got through the mess and people, Jeongguk has no clue) and waved it near his ear. Yoongi let out a squeal that sounded unnatural to Jeongguk coming from him and slapped the ice mages hand away. He made a gesture that said, “I’ve got my eyes on you.” and then gestured a slit across his throat with his pointer finger. Seokjin was the least bit intimidated and had the balls to laugh at the necromancer.

 

Jimin sighed. “That’s why this time we gave him a normal glue stick, and we’ve been having Winnie keep Seokjin away from the pipe cleaners.” Jimin gestured to Winnie who was sitting not too far from Jeongguk. His hands were encased in ice. “We should’ve picked someone else.” he sighed again.

 

Winnie gave Jeongguk a pitiful look. “P-please help me. It’s s-so cold.” Jeongguk was able to make his way to Winnie and start melting the ice encasing his hands.

 

“Fun ruiner.” Seokjin directed at Jeongguk. The fire mage chose not to reply, just focused on melting the ice without burning the poor kid. Seokjin really put a lot into this ice, and it was melting a little slower than usual.

 

Just then, the card fell off Yoongi’s mouth. “Seokjin, if you come near me with one of those again, I’ll shove it up your ass.”

 

Seokjin wiggled his eyebrows, and Jeongguk forced himself to hold back a gag. “I’d probably like that.”

 

“For fuck’s sake!” Hoseok spoke up from near Jimin. “Stop flirting and pass me the yellow glitter. I asked for it like five minutes ago.”

 

“Flirting?!” Yoongi asked incredulously.

 

Seokjin did that disgusting eye wiggle again. “Oh, Yoongi, don’t pretend you don’t want me.”

 

Yoongi ignored Seokjin and chucked the bottle of glitter at Hoseok. “Here, Seok.”

 

Seokjin continue teasing Yoongi, and Jeongguk finished melting the ice on Winnie’s hands. He stood up and ignored the thanks muttered at him.

 

“Right, well, I’m gonna take a shower, so…” He began stepping around people and arts, trying to make his way to the bathroom.

 

“You’re not even going to ask us what we’re doing?” Jimin questioned as Jeongguk stepped past two of his classmates, probably getting an obscene amount of glitter on his shoes.

 

He sighed and stopped walking, turning towards Jimin again. “Okay, I’ll bite. What are you doing?”

 

“Making support signs for you and Mishal!” Jimin held up a very glittery (shocker there) sign that read, “KICK HIS ASS, JEONGGUK!”

 

Jeongguk tried to keep the appreciative, fond smile off his face, but it shone through anyways. “Based off the amount of glitter on it, I’ll assume it’s yours?”

 

“I made that.” Jericho frowned from next to Jimin.

 

“It uh,” Jeongguk shot him a thumbs up. “It looks great, man. Thanks.” Jericho’s frown quickly became a big smile.

 

Jeongguk looked around the room to take stock of the group. Mishal wasn’t there, which wasn’t all that surprising. This was all probably supposed to be something of a surprise. Namjoon wasn’t there either, probably didn’t know about it and was used as an unwitting distraction to keep Jeongguk away from the dorm. There was one more person missing, and Jeongguk was itching to ask about him.

 

“Did, uh- did-” as much as he wanted to ask, though, the words wouldn’t form.

 

Jimin seemed to already know where the question was going, though, as that knowing smile from earlier was back on his face. “Did what?”

 

Jeongguk cleared his throat. “Did Taehyung come?”

 

“No, but we invited him.” Seokjin answered.

 

Jeongguk knew he looked disappointed, but he was more concerned with how Jimin looked, which was like he was about to say something he shouldn’t.

 

“Your boyfriend said he was too busy to join us tonight.” Jimin’s smile was smarmy.

 

“B-boyfriend?!” Jeongguk was taken aback, wildly taken aback. He felt his heart pick up pace in his chest, and he wished he could tug it out and throw it at Jimin’s stupid face. He wasn’t allowed to just say things like that as if they meant nothing, as if Jeongguk didn’t overanalyze everything to the point that it somehow ended up making less sense. 

 

Jimin kept on. “Don’t think I don’t see your googly eyes around him.” he interlocked his fingers and held them near his cheeks as he mimed a lovesick Jeongguk. “‘Oh, Taehyung, you’re so talented and powerful. Oh, Taehyung, you’re so misunderstood, but don't worry, I’ll understand you. Oh, Taehyung, can’t you see what I’m thinking right now? You and me and-’”

 

“Okay, that’s enough.” Jeongguk cut him off before it became too much to bear. “I think your imagination is getting the best of you.”

 

Seokjin started a chant that the rest of the room was quick to join in on. Oh yeah, the rest of the room. Meaning almost all of his class, who now thought that he had feelings towards Taehyung, who were now singing loudly. “Taehyung and Jeongguk sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G.”

 

“Leaving for that shower now.” Jeongguk made a hasty retreat to the bathroom.

 

Seokjin began yelling, “FIRST COMES LOVE, THEN COMES MARRIAGE, THEN-” Jeongguk slammed the door and started his shower.

 

Him and Taehyung? Boyfriends? A ridiculous idea...Right?

 

----

 

Saturday approached quickly after endless training sessions only interrupted by class, sleep, and brief periods of wondering what the hell was happening to Jeongguk whenever he was around Taehyung. Something in him thought Jimin had hit the nail on the head; something else told him he was way off base. Either way, it didn’t matter. All that mattered in this moment was the man standing across from him on the turf.

 

Their classmates had gathered in the bleachers holding their signs. It was fairly split in the middle on who was holding Mishal and Jeongguk signs, something Jeongguk thought Jimin must’ve had a hand in, ensuring that Jeongguk wouldn’t feel discouraged by having so few signs for him. In fact, Jimin was holding two for his roommate.

 

Namjoon was standing between Jeongguk and Mishal shouting the rules of the match. “No groin attacks.” he started.

 

“Jeongguk forget what I told you earlier. Do not aim for his balls!” Hoseok helpfully yelled from the bleachers.

 

Mishal raised an eyebrow. “You were going to kick me in the balls?”

 

“Maybe a little.” Jeongguk shrugged.

 

“You cannot knee a grounded opponent in the head.” Namjoon continued, ignoring the two’s banter. “No strikes to the back of the head or spine, we don’t want anyone getting that seriously hurt.”

 

“Speak for yourself!” Damon hollered to a chorus of agreeance.

 

Namjoon glanced at both of them. “If either of you kill each other, you’re dead.”

 

“Well, yeah.” Mishal agreed like that was obvious, and it was.

 

“No head butts, eye gouging, or fish hooking. Seriously, I don’t want any fingers in any orifices.” Namjoon looked at the two sternly who nodded. “No biting, or hair pulling, or throat strikes. Also, no front-of-the-throat grabbing. These folks didn’t come here to see the two of you engage in breathplay, they’re looking to watch someone win a nice, clean fight.”

 

There was another yell from the audience, this one from Mizuki. “I’m here to watch someone lose a dirty fight! Kick his ass, Mishal!” Mishal flinched after she yelled it, looking slightly embarrassed. 

 

“Don’t worry, man. I’ll try not to beat you too bad.” Mishal said, a cocky grin quickly replacing his bashful smirk.

 

Jeongguk responded with a smirk of his own. “Don’t worry, you couldn’t if you tried.”

 

“One last rule, then you guys can continue this weird dominance thing, yeah?” Namjoon spoke from between them.

 

“Spit it out, then.” Mishal demanded.

 

“Don’t throw each other into the bleachers. Let’s keep it to the turf.”

 

“That it?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Namjoon looked at him worriedly, scanning him from head-to-toe. “Yeah.” he gripped Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Good luck out there.”

 

“Just get over there and blow the whistle. I’ll be okay, Joon.” Jeongguk directed Namjoon off the turf with a tilt of his head and a comforting smile. Namjoon nodded grimly before making his way off the turf and pulling his whistle out.

 

Jeongguk took a moment to take it in, to let his nerves heighten so they’d serve to power him during the fight. Closed his eyes and focused on the cool, October air brushing over his limbs, rustling his hair slightly. Let it bristle his arms to goosebumps before opening his eyes and scanning the bleachers, looking for one person in particular.

 

His eyes quickly found Taehyung, standing behind everyone. He met Jeongguk’s eyes and promptly held up a glittery sign reading “JEONGGUK STICK YOUR FOOT IN HIS ASS.” Jeongguk snorted, and Taehyung--knowing Jeongguk had read the words--set the sign down to give the fire mage an enthusiastic thumbs up. The October cold remained on his skin, but he felt something warmer spreading through him. He responded with a thumbs up and a big smile of his own before getting into his fighting stance.

 

Namjoon blew the whistle. Game on.

 

Mishal moved first, too quick for Jeongguk to have a hope at blocking, landing a swift kick on Jeongguk’s legs. Jeongguk hit the ground hard. He felt the breath knocked out from him, and though everything in him was screaming to stay down and recuperate, he took a sharp intake of breath before forcing himself back onto his feet. The ground was not a safe place to be.

 

Mishal chuckled as Jeongguk stood up. “Quick to get back on your feet, but not quick enough to avoid the kick in the first place.”

 

Jeongguk chose not to respond, instead lashed out to grab Mishal by the back of his neck and forced a knee into his side, pushing flames out from his foot and calf to increase the force of his strike. Mishal grunted before breaking Jeongguk’s hold and throwing him.

 

He skidded away, barely catching himself before falling. He was quick to get back into stance and check a kick to his head. Before Mishal could finish pulling his leg back, Jeongguk threw a left jab straight at the other man’s face. It connected and he stumbled back.

 

Mishal took a few steps back before throwing a fire ball at Jeongguk who was quick to catch it, momentarily forcing him to drop his stance. He was not so quick to dodge the roundhouse kick aimed perfectly at his shoulder. Last second he thought to ignite his shoulder to push the leg away slightly and decrease the blow. It still landed on him with a quick thwap that resonated a sharp pain, then intense ache in his shoulder that spread into his torso and down his bicep. It hurt, but if he hadn’t acted by igniting himself, it might have dislocated. Thank god it didn’t.

 

Stumbling away, Jeongguk tried to regain his balance before Mishal did it for him by grabbing him by one shoulder--the one he’d just kicked--and the back of his neck and began assaulting Jeongguk with his knees. One landed in his diaphragm, and the boy couldn’t fight back or defend after that if he tried. And he did try. Tried to block out Mishal’s arms and break his hold by forcing his forearms inside the box Mishal had created in an attempt to push them away. 

 

It wasn’t working, and he couldn’t breathe, and the hits didn’t stop coming, and adrenaline, he was finding, didn’t stop him from feeling pain.

 

He lit a fire ball and threw it up into Mishal’s face. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to distract the male enough that he could break the hold and get away to catch his breath. He didn’t get much away before he fell to his knees, hunched over trying to breathe just for a second.

 

Mishal was rubbing his eyes. “Fire ball to the face is a cheap trick, Flame Boy.”

 

“Stop-” Jeongguk paused to cough, his voice coming out raspy. “Calling me Flame Boy.”

 

Mishal hummed, pulled his fists away from his eyes, got into stance. “You gonna stay down there? Fight over so soon?”

 

Jeongguk allowed himself one more deep breath before getting to his feet. “Not even close.”

 

He clenched his fists around the fire erupting from them. Focusing, he melded the fire into handles with whips of flames extending from their heat. The boy looked at Mishal from behind his fringe, feeling sweat already dripping down his temples. There were some cheers from the bleachers, but they were all muffled in the face of his opponent.

 

Mishal made a move towards him, and Jeongguk lashed out with his whips, wrapping them around the other’s ankles and pulling, forcing him onto his back. The fire wouldn’t burn the boy, seeing as he was a fire mage, but he would feel the heat, feel the discomfort and restraint. He managed to control the fire so it wrapped around his wrists, keeping the boy restrained to the ground.

 

“Wanna tap out? You’re pretty restrained.” Jeongguk gave the boy a way out.

 

“Fuck no.”

 

Well, so much for mercy. He clambered atop Mishal and threw a punch at the boy’s face. It struck him as brutal. So, he hit him again to see if the feeling changed. Tears sprung to Mishal’s eyes. It still felt brutal, but there was something else there, lingering and begging to be indulged: power. There was a thrill to having a perceived opponent beneath him as he subjected him to his whims. Sure, there was a thrill, but there was an ever invasive tug on his gut that made him slightly sick about the whole ordeal. He threw another hit. His stomach churned.

 

“How about now? Still feeling stubborn?” Jeongguk’s voice was shaking slightly after throwing that third punch. Mishal was defenseless, and that brief flash of power was fading into something else. There was no pride in hurting those who couldn’t hurt him.

 

“I’m always feeling stubborn, Flame Boy.”

 

Mishal’s entire body erupted in flames, and Jeongguk was about to shake his head at the rookie trick before he noticed the restraints on Mishal weakening. The other boy was able to pull a hand out of a whip and land a blow across Jeongguk’s face, knocking him off his body, enabling him to untangle the rest of himself. Jeongguk released the magic, and the whips disappeared.

 

“Wow, I didn’t expect that to work.” Mishal noted as he got back on his feet, his body mostly extinguished save a few flames here and there.

 

“What’d you do?” Jeongguk asked, hopping to his feet as well, being sure to take a few steps away from Mishal before reassuming his stance.

 

Mishal put up his high guard, began bouncing on his feet a little more than before. “Not so much what I did, as much as what you didn’t do.” Jeongguk didn’t respond, waited for Mishal to explain further. “Your magic wasn’t as well controlled as you thought it was. All it took was a big burst from me to displace it a little, and, well, a little goes a long way.”

 

As if to mark his statement, Mishal aimed a kick at Jeongguk’s side that was narrowly avoided by him. He countered with a jab that was blocked by Mishal’s high guard. Mishal immediately followed up with an uppercut that Jeongguk blocked, distracting him from blocking the fist to his abdomen, breaking his guard, and allowing Mishal to get in two back fist jabs to the side of Jeongguk’s head. He gripped the back of Jeongguk’s neck, having him in a clinch, before letting him go only to spin quickly, elbow him in the head, near the jaw, and get him back in a clinch and land two consecutive knees to the stomach.

 

For the umpteenth time this match, Jeongguk was winded. He desperately wanted to tap out and lay on the ground indefinitely, but he couldn’t lose just yet. He tried to knee Mishal much in the same way it’d been done to him, but Mishal was able to block the strikes. He pushed Jeongguk back before landing a roundhouse kick to the other’s head, not even giving him a second to get his guard up.

 

Jeongguk crashed to the ground with a ringing in his ears, vision a little fuzzier than it was before. There was a distinct taste of copper in his mouth. He spit red. Everything hurt, ached, and stung. The turf felt nice and comfortable, though. Perfect for a nap, now that he was here and thinking about it.

 

“Come on, Mishal. Maybe go a little easy on him!” Jeongguk heard Namjoon yell from the sidelines, and it was enough to get him to push himself up with his arms, to stand wobbly on his feet, and put up his damn high guard.

 

He didn’t want Mishal, or anyone for that matter, to go easy on him. It was an insult to him as a fire mage. It was an insult to him as a combat student. It was an insult to his pride. It was an insult to him. If he couldn’t hold his own in a fight, then he deserved to have his ass beat. This is what he signed up for, and he didn’t ask anyone to go easy on him. He would handle it until either he won or couldn’t handle it anymore. If he lost, it wouldn’t be an easy loss, and he’d be damn sure of that.

 

“Don’t you fucking dare go easy on me.” Jeongguk spoke sternly, his eyes flashing in warning and challenge.

 

Mishal smirked. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

 

The other fire mage was happy to oblige Jeongguk’s request as he kicked his leg out at his side, and if Jeongguk had been less dinged up, he might’ve been able to catch the kick. Instead, it slipped through his hands and came crashing into his side, Mishal’s shin connecting hard with what felt like every single one of his internal organs. Jeongguk groaned, but remained standing. Until Mishal landed another kick, and it became too much. His legs buckled involuntarily, and he was on his knees in front of his opponent, clutching his side and wide open to any attack.

 

Mishal took a step back, and Jeongguk looked up at the man with tears in his eyes, an expression of his anger, frustration, and physical pain. He was upset. This wasn’t it.

 

“I told you not to go easy on me. I’m still conscious, fucking end it!” 

 

Mishal shook his head. “You can barely stand right now, Jeongguk. I’m not going to keep hitting you.”

 

“Do it.”

 

“No.”

 

Jeongguk attempted to stand, but fell once again. “Do it!”

 

He couldn’t lose like this. He couldn’t. At least if Mishal knocked him out, he could say that he fought until he was wholly incapable. At least then he wouldn’t have to be conscious to see his competitor refuse to completely take the win. It was a slap in the face, one more painful than all the kicks he’d endured.

 

“If it were me collapsed in front of you right now, you wouldn’t hit me. I’m not continuing this. Just call it.” Mishal gestured at Namjoon to call the match. 

 

Jeongguk whipped his head to the combat mage who he saw getting ready to blow his whistle. “Don’t you blow that whistle, Namjoon. It’s not over until I say it’s over.”

 

Namjoon gave him a sad smile and made a move to approach Jeongguk on the turf, but seemed to think better of it and stayed on the sidelines. “Gguk, I have to call it. You’re not- You can’t keep fighting like this.”

 

“Then I won’t fight.” Jeongguk stated, turning back to Mishal with a wild look in his eyes. “End it.” Mishal shook his head. “End it!”

 

“I’m not-” Mishal started, but Jeongguk didn’t hear the rest of it. His senses were overcome with a deep sense of worry and concern, a feeling that weighed heavy on his chest and almost brought fresh tears to his eyes. He made to clutch his chest, to tear the feeling out, but he didn’t have any control over his motions, so his arms remained hanging at his sides.

 

Before he knew what was happening, words tumbled out of his lips that didn’t belong to him, words foreign on his tongue. “Fine. I concede the match.”

 

The feelings left him almost as quickly as they came and he no longer felt restrained, but he also didn’t feel like moving or speaking. The feeling lingered, left something behind that made him feel almost...guilty? It was horrible and awful and he was left stunned, wondering what had happened to compel to do all of that. Had he even done any of it?

 

Namjoon was beside him almost instantly after blowing his whistle. He gestured over a healing mage they’d had come to the match, a sophomore that was good friends with Winnie’s little sister. She placed her hand on Jeongguk’s abdomen, and he felt almost instant relief, then his head, jaw, legs. He wasn’t completely healed, but he was about a billion times better than he’d been before, just a few bruises left.

 

“Thanks.” he managed to say to the girl before she nodded her head and made her way back to the bleachers.

 

Namjoon sighed as he helped Jeongguk sit up. “Feeling okay?”

 

Jeongguk laughed bitterly. “Is this a trick question?”

 

“It’s a yes or no question.” Namjoon smiled. This was a conversation they’d had before.

 

“Physically? Sure. Emotionally? Well, let’s not even start to unpack that.”

 

“You held your own well out there.” Namjoon gave Jeongguk a genuine smile, but Jeongguk didn’t genuinely believe it. Losing wasn’t exactly ‘holding your own.’ Certainly not anything to call home about. 

 

“Sure I did. Maybe if I’d done anything other than endurance and weight training all the damn time, I could’ve held it better.” Jeongguk gave Namjoon a pointed look that was filled with more malice and blame than the combat mage deserved.

 

Namjoon gaped. “Are you blaming me for this? Endurance training gave you the stamina to last that long in the first place, and weight training gave power to your attacks. We could have run technique drills all day, but none of it would have mattered if you didn’t have the physical foundations to execute them.”

 

“Whatever.” Jeongguk grumbled, attempting to get to his feet. Namjoon gripped his shoulders and kept him sitting across him on the turf.

 

“No, you’re going to listen to me. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Not mine, certainly not yours. You’ve been working hard, and anyone else with as little training wouldn’t have lasted a fraction as long as you did.” Seokjin, Hoseok, Jimin, and Yoongi approached as Namjoon continued lecturing him. “It’s okay that you lost, Jeongguk. You learned and improved so much this week in anticipation for this fight, and that was the entire point of doing this. Trust me, you’re doing great and surpassing all expectations. It’s okay.”

 

Logically, Jeongguk knew Namjoon was just trying to help and make him feel better. In all reality, he didn’t blame Namjoon for him losing. He blamed himself for not being better, not training harder, for getting arrogant and cocky and thinking that he had any chance against an opponent of Mishal’s caliber. The man barely used his magic, and he still managed to reduce Jeongguk to little more than a punching bag. 

 

No, Jeongguk wasn’t upset with Namjoon. He was upset that he hadn’t made himself good enough for anyone to even expect that he’d win. Sure, they rooted for him, but he knew that all of them weren’t betting on him pulling through in the end. This wasn’t an underdog story. It was a story of a kid who waddled a little too far into the deep end and was met with water crashing into his lungs once he realized he hadn’t quite learned how to swim. It was a realization that he hadn’t done enough. That realization hurt.

 

“Jeongguk’s never been one to take losing well.” Seokjin said, a soft edge to his voice that was rarely present. 

 

Jeongguk stood up and began stalking off, not meeting eyes with any of his friends who had gathered around him to see if he was okay. “You’ve got that fucking right.”

 

----

 

The fire mage found solace under one of the million willow trees on campus. The tree was heavily trimmed, so its branches didn’t hang down in the way Jeongguk wished they would; it felt a little more fitting for his mood if the trees were weeping over him. He wasn’t quite feeling up to going back to his dorm, though, so he made do with the sad excuse of a weeping willow and let all those dark, pervasive thoughts invade his mind to swallow him in the knowledge that he wasn’t enough, hadn’t done enough.

 

He heard a twig snap near him, lifted his head up, and saw Taehyung standing there, looking very unapologetic about barging in on Jeongguk’s wallow sesh. He walked over to the fire mage and sat next to him.

 

“Can we skip the part where you pretend you want to be alone?” Taehyung asked, cutting straight to the chase.

 

“I wasn’t-” Jeongguk began, but Taehyung gave him a pointed look. “Okay, yeah. We can skip that.”

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” Taehyung asked as he picked up a stray leaf and began ripping it apart.

 

“There’s really not much to it.” Jeongguk sighed. “I just don’t like to lose, like what Seokjin said.”

 

Taehyung tore a large piece off the leaf. “Is that really all it is?”

 

“Yep.”

 

He discarded the leaf, opting instead to look at Jeongguk with those hard to read eyes that pierced deeper than anything easy. “Nothing to do with not wanting to seem weak, placing impossible expectations upon yourself, a desperation to prove yourself? You’re just a bad loser?”

 

Jeongguk furrowed his brows, feeling himself get a little angry, a little sensitive. “What do you want me to say? I’m arrogant with a weak ego?”

 

“No, because I don’t think that’s it.”

 

Jeongguk had to bite back his desire to lash out, knowing that Taehyung could hear his thoughts anyways, could feel the struggle that was happening within himself. He didn’t want to yell at Taehyung, though. Didn’t want to make him feel bad for Jeongguk’s own problems.

 

“Why don’t you think that?” he asked instead, swallowing the bitterness he wanted the words to convey.

 

“Arrogant people with weak egos blame the people around them for their shortcomings.” Taehyung smiled sadly. “You’re not really blaming anyone else, are you?”

 

“Well-”

 

“You’re not.” Taehyung said with finality. Jeongguk doesn’t even know why he would try arguing, not when the mind reader already knew everything he was thinking already. “You blame yourself for not practicing more, for not picking up combat sooner, for being weak. Arrogant people would hurt others, but you’re only hurting yourself.”

 

Jeongguk remained silent, tried to mull over the words as best he could. They all made sense, of course they made sense, but, then, they didn’t. It was his fault he lost. He wasn’t wrong in that, right? Well, maybe he was. Maybe, he just wasn’t giving himself enough of a chance. It was easier to believe that it was his fault though, easier to find blame in someone or something.

 

“You’re hurting me too.” Taehyung broke the short silence with a soft whisper. A hard breeze passed by them, blowing the too short willow branches and ruffling Taehyung’s hair slightly off his forehead. He had nice eyebrows, nicer eyes. They were tinged with sadness, though.

 

“What?” Jeongguk questioned.

 

Taehyung grinned in that boxy way he did from time to time, but more low-spirited than it usually was. “Would it be cheesy of me to say that it hurts me to see you beating yourself up over something outside of your control?”

 

Oh. Jeongguk felt warmth spread in his chest. “Very cheesy.”

 

“Oh?” Taehyung poked at Jeongguk’s chest before quickly pulling his hand back into his lap. “But it seems you like hearing it.”

 

“Shut up.” Jeongguk grumbled, but he couldn’t keep the small smile off his face, couldn’t stop that slight upturn of the corners of his mouth. “Stop making me feel better.”

 

“I will not!” Taehyung exclaimed resolutely.

 

Jeongguk pouted, both wanting Taehyung to stop and let him mope and thoroughly enjoying the attention the other boy was giving him. Taehyung laughed and poked at one of Jeongguk’s cheeks. The fire mage swatted his hand away.

 

“You’re like a kicked puppy.” Taehyung noted.

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “Well, I did just get kicked a lot, so…”

 

“Touche.” 

 

They shared warm smiles before settling into a comfortable silence. Talking with Taehyung was nice; it would always be nice, Jeongguk thought. There was nothing that he loved more, though, than the silences with Taehyung. There was something more reassuring, comforting, vulnerable about the silent moments with him than when he was alone. He liked to think that for Taehyung, the world was never really silent. In those quiet moments, it wasn’t really silent for Jeongguk either, not anymore.

 

Every quiet second spent between them was echoed with Taehyung, loud with his presence and his ability to strip Jeongguk raw. It was something Jeongguk hated, but recently he found himself liking it, liking that he was so easily understood by someone he couldn’t understand if he tried. And he tried. He tried and that effort bounced around in the quiet moments, leaving their ripples of soft noise, a tumult of questions he wanted answers to but didn’t need. He didn’t think he needed anything other than the silence, other than the time to count Taehyung’s eyelashes, to measure the perimeter of his boxy smile.

 

Taehyung broke the silence, considering Jeongguk was very unwilling to. “You know how old I was when I started combat training?” his expression was softer than before, more peaceful.

 

“How old?” Jeongguk spoke quieter than he usually would, wanting to preserve the moment a little longer, already feeling it slip between his fingers.

 

“Six. I was six when my parents started me on it. I’ve been fighting for twelve years, and, dare I say, you throw a better right hook than me.” Taehyung nodded proudly.

 

Jeongguk frowned. This liar. “You’re just saying that because you have to, like as a friend obligation or whatever.”

 

Taehyung feigned offense. “If I was just saying that, I’d also say your left hook is better than mine.” He grinned toothily. “It isn’t, by the way.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Seriously, you’ve been at this, what? Two months?”

 

Jeongguk puffed his chest out and smiled a little pridefully, a little bashfully too if the blush on his ears and cheeks was anything to go by (and it was). “A little less than two, actually.”

 

“See!” Taehyung lifted his hands up in the air in his excitement. He grinned bigger, his eyes disappearing a little into his cheeks. Another note about Taehyung: he had nice cheeks. Jeongguk thought that, like this, he looked a little like a puppy. “Your improvement has been nothing short of phenomenal, so don’t beat yourself up over it. Use the loss as motivation to work harder, not to discredit your work up to now.” he paused. “You did well.”

 

Jeongguk was slightly taken aback. He’d always gotten down on himself on every loss, every failure, every mistake. It was in his nature. He’d never considered that he was discrediting himself, or had never thought to label it that way. It brought a few things into light, made him think he hasn’t been as kind to himself as he should be. Taehyung was right.

 

“Please say that out loud.” Taehyung said as soon as Jeongguk had the thought.

 

“Huh?”

 

“I said that you weren’t arrogant, not that I’m not.” he elbowed the fire mage softly. “Come on. ‘Tae, you’re right.’ Say it.”

 

Jeongguk smirked. “Tae Tae, you’re right.”

 

Taehyung blushed a little. Jeongguk did his best to commit the sight to memory.

 

“Did you see that?” a too familiar voice came from behind a bush too close to them for comfort. Park Jimin, the nosy bastard. “He called him ‘Tae Tae,’ then Taehyung blushed. He fucking blushed. Hoseok, stand behind me. I’m going to faint.”

 

Make that a nosy and dramatic bastard.

 

“Jimin, we’re sitting.” Yoongi spoke up. Did they think they were being quiet?

 

“They’ve been there this whole time.” Taehyung helpfully informed Jeongguk approximately way too late for it to matter.

 

Jeongguk stood up and began walking to the bush. His ragtag group of friends were good at a lot of things, but it would seem that discretion was not one of them.

 

“Oh fuck. He’s coming over here. Hoseok, make him think there’s no one here.” that was Seokjin’s voice. How many people could they fit behind one bush?

 

“I can’t.” Hoseok huffed. “‘Tae Tae’ is protecting his mind. Boys, we’ve been caught.”

 

Jeongguk made it over to the bush and peeked behind it to find Jimin, Yoongi, Hoseok, Seokjin, and Namjoon crouched down. They all looked at him wide-eyed, almost on top of each other in an attempt to distance themselves from him. He gave them a small wave that only Hoseok had the decency to return.

 

“Spying?” he asked sweetly.

 

Namjoon cleared his throat. “No, I uh-” He fished a bag out of his pocket, a bag of cookies. If Namjoon was spying, he would be forgiven quickly if that bag ended up in Jeongguk’s hands. “I forgot to give these to you after the fight?”

 

Jeongguk snatched the bag away as quickly as it was extended. “Noted. Namjoon isn’t a spy, just my very bestest friend.” Jimin protested softly about not being Jeongguk’s best friend, but Jeongguk ignored him and pocketed the cookies for later. “The rest of you?”

 

“Eavesdropping.” Jimin nodded his head and looked up, as if he had to think over what he just said. He met eyes with Jeongguk honestly. “Definitely eavesdropping.”

 

Hoseok slapped the card mage’s arm. “Way to give us up.”

 

Jimin ignored the hit, trained that stupid, knowing smirk on Jeongguk. “So, Tae Tae, huh?”

 

Taehyung approached the bush, standing next to Jeongguk. “Anyone else call me that, and I’ll have Jeongguk here cook you.” Jeongguk made a show of lighting up his hands to show the others that he wasn’t afraid to follow through on that.

 

“So he gets special treatment?” Jimin asked, still smirking. Jeongguk thought he’d cook the smirk first.

 

Taehyung smiled softly. “He does.”

 

The smirk melted right off Jimin’s face and was instead replaced with something so endearingly fond that Jeongguk didn’t know what to do anymore. “Oh my god. They’re so cute. Hoseok, behind me. I’m feeling faint again.”

 

“I’ve literally been behind you this whole time.”

 

Yoongi spoke up, ignoring the other two. “Good fight today, Jeon. You’ve improved a lot.”

 

Maybe it was because Jeongguk admired (and feared) Yoongi so much, but praise from him felt a lot more significant than praise from anyone else. “Thanks, Yoongi.” Jeongguk didn’t even have to glance to the boy at his side to feel that Taehyung was looking at him and smiling. He could feel it.

 

“Wait, so you’re not mad at us for spying on you.” Seokjin asked.

 

Jeongguk thought it over for a second, decided he wasn’t. “Nope.” he shrugged. “Wanna go get something to eat?”

 

“Race you to the dining hall?” Seokjin asked, impish grin taking over his features.

 

“You’re on.” Jeongguk immediately turned around and began sprinting to the dining hall, not even bothering to see if the others were following.

 

Seokjin yelled after him. “You asshole! I haven’t even stood up yet.”

 

Jeongguk laughed. He was going to win this race. Afterall, he didn’t like to lose.




Chapter Text

“Midterms begin Monday.” Noyce voiced after wrapping up the math lesson. The entire class met her announcement with groans, Seokjin the loudest amongst them. “I’ve written the testing schedule on the board along with all the study group times. If there is a subject up here you’re struggling with, I strongly suggest that you attend at least one study session for it.”

 

The schedule was written on the board in red Expo marker and chicken scratch:

 

MONDAY - HISTORY OF MAGIC, WRITTEN EXAM

Study Groups: Friday, 6PM ; Saturday, 10AM ; Sunday, 4PM

 

TUESDAY - MATH, WRITTEN EXAM

Study Groups: Friday, 7PM ; Sunday, 11AM ; Monday, 6PM

 

WEDNESDAY - COMPOSITION AND LITERATURE, WRITTEN EXAMS

Study Groups: Saturday, 2PM ; Sunday, 3PM ; Tuesday, 6PM

 

THURSDAY - SCIENCE, WRITTEN EXAM

Study Groups: Saturday, 3PM ; Tuesday, 4PM ; Wednesday, 6PM

 

FRIDAY - COMBAT, PHYSICAL EXAM

Study Groups: Saturday, 4-7PM ; Thursday, 4-7PM 

Sessions will be held in the combat hall.

 

“You’ll receive your field assignments on Friday after the combat exam. You’ll be in groups of seven, and, yes, you can pick your groups.” Immediately there were eyes flitting across the room where people met gazes with their friends and nodded their heads to assure each other that they would team up. 

 

“Just try to be aware that you have a balance of support and offensive mages, yeah?” Noyce continued, talking over the majority of the class ignoring her in favor of getting a head start on sorting themselves into groups. “You have the week to team up. Come Friday, I expect all of you to be sorted. You’ll have the weekend to prepare, then you leave Monday. We’ll talk more specifics on Friday.” She glanced up at the clock, now two minutes past when they were supposed to be let out. “That’ll be all for today.”

 

The movement was instantaneous as everyone began packing their bags and loudly discussing midterms. Noyce continued to try to yell over everyone. “All study sessions, except for combat, will be held in this room. Please be sure to make note of the schedule before you leave!”

 

The midterm field exam. It’d been on everyone’s minds for the past week, and Jeongguk had heard enough about it to know all he felt towards it was pure excitement. They would get into groups and be sent away from The Academy on a real magic job. The Academy would monitor their progress and ability to solve the problem they’d been given using telepathic links. The students would be sent out alone, thrown to the wolves, and expected to come back with their skin. Having the knowledge of what the field exam would entail had him anxious to finish up testing week. 

 

Jeongguk threw his notebook and pencil in his backpack and stretched back in his chair, loosening up his joints from sitting all day. He looked back at Hoseok who was going to the math study session with him later.

 

“Wanna go get dinner before we have to be back here?” Jeongguk asked, looking at Hoseok upside down.

 

“Yes. A thousand times yes. I’ll need the brain food.”

 

Jeongguk sat up and turned his attention to Taehyung. “You want to come, too, Tae? I’ll buy you a dessert.” 

 

“Sorry, can’t tonight. I have a lot of studying to do.” Taehyung pulled the straps of his backpack up and stood, already going to leave the room.

 

Jeongguk frowned. “Surely, you can take a break to eat.”

 

“Ain’t no rest for the wicked.” He gave the fire mage an easy smile before leaving the room in a hurry, not even sticking around to talk a little longer.

 

Jeongguk slouched in his seat and huffed. Taehyung had never brushed him off like that. He felt a kick against the side of his desk and looked up to see Hoseok standing there, ready to go. 

 

“Come on. I want to get there before the chicken nuggets run out.”

 

----

 

They had taken their seats in the middle of the cafeteria. Hoseok was a lot like Jimin in that way, always wanting to be in the center of things, to experience it all. Jeongguk went along with it, sitting down next to the illusionist with his tray of ramen and cookies (only four this time. He was practicing self control).

 

Hoseok slammed a chicken nugget down, drawing Jeongguk’s attention to him and away from the table he’d taken to pouting at. “Stop pouting.”

 

Jeongguk broke his snickerdoodle in half. “I’m not.”

 

“You are, and, if that frown doesn’t turn upside down,” Hoseok made a show of frowning and smiling widely, “I’m gonna go eat with someone less gloomy.”

 

“You would just abandon your friend like that?” Jeongguk compared the two pieces of snickerdoodle and shoved the bigger half in his mouth.

 

“Sure, I would! I could sit with...Winnie! Look how happy Winnie looks over there!”

 

Jeongguk looked over at where Winnie was sitting alone on one of the satellite tables. He had a big salad, a bottle of apple juice, and a pudding cup laid out in front of him. He was struggling with the pudding cup when it popped open and sprayed on his face and shirt.

 

“Yeah, he sure looks like he’s enjoying himself.” Jeongguk said dully.

 

Hoseok took a bite of his chicken nugget, chewing while he talked. “Hey, seriously, don’t take it personally that Taehyung rejected you.”

 

“You want to put it more bluntly?”

 

“Think about it this way.” Hoseok gestured at Jeongguk with the nugget, shaking it a little for effect. “How hard would studying and exam season be for you if you were forcibly exposed to everyone’s thoughts all the time?”

 

Jeongguk hadn’t thought of it like that. He supposed it would be difficult to focus if everything around him begged him to not do just that.

 

“Well, I guess it’d be kinda hard.”

 

“Exactly! He’s usually pretty absent, but the only time I ever see him during exam weeks is during the combat exam. He’s just doing what he can to pass. Don’t hold it against him.”

 

“I’m not holding anything against him. I’m just-” Jeongguk paused. Just what?

 

Hoseok voiced the question. “You’re just?”

 

“Nothing. It doesn’t matter.” Jeongguk shoveled a bunch of ramen into his mouth to avoid having to talk on the subject anymore.

 

Hoseok loved talking about uncomfortable things, though. “You’re just disappointed because you miss him?”

 

There were several moments of silence, both because Jeongguk had shoved too much food into his mouth to conceivably open it and also because he had absolutely no answer to that question. Miss him? He just saw Taehyung an hour ago. Still, the word seemed as good as any other to place on what he was feeling.

 

Hoseok filled the silence, didn’t let it linger like Taehyung would have. “You can admit to liking your friends. I’m not implying anything.”

 

Jeongguk swallowed his noodles. “You so are!” he exclaimed.

 

“You’re right. I so am.” he looked around, like he needed to be sure no one was listening, then leaned into Jeongguk a little closer. “So, you like him right? Like, you like like him?”

 

“Jesus, just say ‘have feelings for.’” 

 

Hoseok tutted. “Don’t deflect.”

 

“I don’t know.” Jeongguk answered honestly. He really didn’t know how he felt about Taehyung, just knew that it was strong. It’s not like he had anything to compare it too, not like he’d ever really had friends or anyone close to him other than Killian and his mother.

 

“What do you mean by that? How can you not know if you have feelings for someone or not?” Hoseok asked, face screwed up in a confused way, eyebrows a little furrowed like it was some tough concept to understand.

 

“I mean, I just don’t.” Jeongguk wiped his hands on his pants, and Hoseok grimaced a little at the action, passing him a napkin. “I mean, yeah, he makes me blush and happy and I really like holding his hand, but-” he stopped again.

 

“But?”

 

“But, I still know barely anything about him. And, I don’t know, I was a lonely kid. What if he’s just the first person outside of family I’ve been this close to, and I’m conflating my feelings for something they’re not?” Jeongguk huffed and leaned back in his chair and broke another cookie in half.

 

“I- You-” Hoseok paused to rub the bridge of his nose. “Jeongguk, I want you to look me in the eyes when I tell you this.”

 

Jeongguk looked up from the cookie to meet his gaze. “Um okay.”

 

“You’re a fucking idiot.”

 

“Hey!”

 

“An impossible fucking idiot.”

 

Jeongguk quirked an eyebrow. “Anything else to say? Another adjective to add?”

 

Hoseok counted to adjectives on his fingers. “You impossible, infuriating, absolute, fucking idiot.”

 

“Oh! Two adjectives!” Jeongguk exclaimed dryly.

 

“You like like him!” Jeongguk gave Hoseok a pointed look. “Excuse me, got feelings for the guy!”

 

Jeongguk scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah, Okay. Well…”

 

“I’m not the only one that thinks so.” Hoseok pointed another chicken nugget at Jeongguk. It was an odd object to use to enhance a point.

 

Jeongguk rolled his eyes, remembered Jimin’s knowing look, everyone singing that stupid song to him when he’d gone into the dorm room after a training session to find them all doing arts and crafts. 

 

“I’m well aware of what everyone else thinks.” Jeongguk assured.

 

“Watch.” Hoseok turned around and tapped on the shoulder of a girl sitting at a table near them. Her and her friends all turned to look at the two boys. “Do you know who this guy is?” Hoseok pointed at Jeongguk with his nugget.

 

They looked at him for a little, and Jeongguk began squirming in his seat at the curious gazes. One of them snapped her fingers. “Isn’t that Kim Taehyung’s boyfriend?” the others nodded. Jeongguk bolted up in his seat, ready to deny the guess at his identity.

 

“Sure is!” Hoseok confirmed. Pleased with the confirmation, the girls turned back around and resumed their previous conversation.

 

“No, I’m not!” Jeongguk got close to Hoseok and whisper yelled. “Hoseok you can’t just say stuff like that.”

 

Hoseok shrugged with a lopsided grin on his face that just screamed ‘shit-eating.’ “That’s weird because I just did.”

 

Jeongguk leaned back in his seat again. “Just… leave it alone. I doubt he feels that way for me. Just... leave it.”

 

“I happen to think he does like you, but since you asked so directly, fine. I’ll ‘leave it alone.’” Hoseok made air quotes around ‘leave it alone’ that didn’t feel the least bit reassuring. 

 

“Thank you.” Jeongguk managed to say anyway. “Now, hand over your brownie.”

 

“What? No.” Hoseok pulled his tray closer to them and turned his back a little to Jeongguk to shield it.

 

“It’s the least of what you owe me for all the emotional distress you’ve put me under for the last ten minutes.” Jeongguk tried reaching around Hoseok to grab the thing, but got his hand slapped.

 

“You’re ridiculous.”

 

“That hurt my feelings.” Jeongguk pouted and put on the puppy dog eyes. “Give me your brownie.”

 

Hoseok sighed. “I’ll give you half if you say please.”

 

“Please.”

 

Hoseok split the dessert and gave Jeongguk the bigger half who took it with gusto. “Spoiled brat.”

 

“Thanks.” Jeongguk said before eating the whole thing in one bite.

 

Shortly after finishing dinner, the two went to the math study session. Only about six other kids from their class were there. Arguably, more of them needed to attend it--cough, Seokjin and Yoongi, cough--but they weren’t willing to spend more time in hell than was absolutely necessary. Hoseok and Jungkook happened to be bad enough at math to constitute attending the study session and desperate enough to pass to actually motivate themselves into going. Seokjin and Yoongi were right, though; it was hell. 

 

Saturday rolled around, and Jeongguk decided to attend the science and combat study sessions. He felt confident enough in himself to not go to the history and lit sessions, but science was a must. He managed to drag Jimin and Seokjin to the 3 o’clock session despite Jimin’s very good science testing scores and Seokjin’s objection. Turns out forcing Jimin to go was a great idea because he helped Jeongguk finally understand what a covalent bond is.

 

“Seokjin, for the last time, you cannot make dynamite and bring it to class for extra credit.” Noyce was in the middle of a heated argument with Seokjin, and Jeongguk pulled his eyes away from the textbook to listen in on it.

 

“Oh, but can’t I?” Seokjin asked, arching an eyebrow and lounging back in his chair, the picture of confidence (even if all his confidence amounted to was thinking very bad ideas were very good).

 

Noyce sighed and looked down at Seokjin sternly. “It’s dangerous.”

 

“It’s good to have a little danger in your life, Noycey.” 

 

“Noycey?” Jimin whispered in Jeongguk’s ear. He shrugged his shoulders. Even having grown up with Seokjin, he rarely understood what that boy thought.

 

“Gives some spark to it.” Seokjin continued. “Makes it a little explosive, if you will.”

 

Jimin and Jeongguk simultaneously gagged at the joke.

 

“Seokji-”

 

“Tell me, are you dating anyone right now?” Seokjin cut their teacher off before she could finish what was bound to be another stern refusal to his request.

 

“Is he hitting on Noyce?” Jimin asked, astonishment seeping into his voice.

 

Jeongguk grimaced. “Probably. He ranked her eighth in class for visuals.”

 

“I’ve been married for four years. You will not bring dynamite into this classroom. That’s final.” Noyce walked away from the boys to go help other students.

 

“Okay!” Seokjin yelled after her.

 

“Now she’s done it.” Jeongguk said, fully turning towards Jimin.

 

“Done what?” Jimin questioned.

 

“She said ‘not this classroom.’ So, he’ll just bring it somewhere else. He’s feigning compliance so that she’ll think she’s won.” Jeongguk explained what he was sure were Seokjin’s motivations.

 

“But she hasn’t won?”

 

“Nope.”

 

Seokjin turned his attention to the two boys with a wicked smile on his face. “You two wanna hit the library after this? Seems I have some research to do for some loopholes I’m almost certainly going to exploit.”

 

“Almost certainly?” Jimin teased.

 

“Certainly.” Seokjin changed, letting the two know that he was in fact going to exploit some loopholes.

 

Jeongguk shook his head. “As much fun as that sounds, you two go without me. I have to go to the combat session after this.”

 

“You’ve improved a lot. I’m sure you’ll do fine on the exam if you don’t go.” Seokjin offered, ever the proponent of bad ideas.

 

Jeongguk smirked. “Not aiming for fine, aiming for better than you.”

 

“Ahh, there’s my Jeonggukie.” Seokjin ruffled Jeongguk’s hair and promptly got his hand swatted away. “Ever the competitive perfectionist.”

 

Jimin looked on the brothers with what could only be described as a fond expression. “You want us to catch up with you afterwards for dinner?”

 

“Sure.” Jeongguk nodded his head. “Dining hall, 7:10?”

 

“Sounds good.” Jimin got up from his chair and pulled Seokjin up from his. “Let’s go, Jin. We have some research to do.” Jimin gave Jeongguk a pointed look as he said ‘research’.

 

“You’re gonna help me with dynamite research?” the ice mage sounded excited.

 

“Just going to make sure you survive it.” 

 

The two boys waved goodbye to Jeongguk who left shortly after them for combat training. Everyone there was in the bottom eleven in the class, and Jeongguk found that he was better than all of them. It meant that he was at least in the top ten, most likely. The improvement was large, and their combat instructor kept letting him know it. 

 

After dinner with Jimin and Seokjin, which was mostly the two of them excitedly telling him how to make dynamite--an idea Seokjin had wholeheartedly roped Jimin into--Jeongguk stopped by Taehyung’s dorm to see if he wanted to just talk for a little bit, maybe about their days or about anything. He missed him, and he was certain that’s what the feeling was. Taehyung didn’t answer the door. Jeongguk went up to his room to sleep.

 

He woke up feeling groggy, tired, a little burnt out on exams, and he hadn’t even taken one yet. All Jeongguk wanted to do was roll over and go back to bed, but he had promised Hoseok he would go to the math session with him this morning and then they’d get lunch. Begrudgingly, he dragged himself out of bed and forced himself out the door, backpack strapped on and pajama pants swapped for a pair of jeans. He kept the pajama shirt on, though. It was one of those days.

 

The math session went fine, he supposed. He’d learned something, understood a concept or two he didn’t before, and that’s all he really wanted to get out of them. Still, it didn’t feel satisfying. Lunch wasn’t satisfying either, no matter how many deserts he got for himself. 

 

“Still haven’t seen Taehyung?” Hoseok asked as they were piling their dishes on the conveyor belt and then leaving the dining hall. 

 

Jeongguk didn’t answer until they were outside. “No.”

 

“Stop by his room when we get back. He’s got to be in there sometimes, right? Maybe you’ll catch him.”

 

“Yeah.” Jeongguk agreed, feeling the first tinge of something good that day. “Maybe.”

 

Taking Hoseok’s suggestion, he stopped by Taehyung’s door and knocked. Once. There wasn’t an answer. So, he tried for a second and third. On the fourth knock, Taehyung pulled the door open, hair a mess, still in his pajamas. Even though it was early afternoon, it would seem that Jeongguk had woken him up. The fire mage instantly felt a little guilty. 

 

“Sorry, I didn’t realize you were sleeping.” Jeongguk fiddled with his fingers and looked down at them rather than up at the sleepy Taehyung.

 

“It’s okay.” Taehyung yawned. “What’s up?”

 

Jeongguk shrugged. “Was just wondering if you wanted to hang out or something.”

 

“Well, I was sleeping.” Taehyung leaned up against his door frame, crossing his arms over his chest, and Jeongguk took a second to draw his eyes away from the floor and towards Taehyung instead. He was cute like this, he decided. His eyes a little puffy and droopy and his hair all kinds of out of place. 

 

“Now that I’m not sleeping, though, I should get back to studying. History is kicking my ass.”

 

It was starting to sound like another rejection, and Jeongguk didn’t want to hear it. “Have you gone to any of the study sessions for it?”

 

“Well, no…” 

 

“Have you ever done a study group before?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Taehyung pulled one arm from his chest to scratch the back of his neck. “Not really. I tend to find the thoughts of everyone else get distracting.”

 

“How do you get by in class?” Jeongguk arched an eyebrow, leaned in a little curiously. 

 

“I review everything when I get home.” Taehyung shrugged.

 

“You- How the hell are your grades so good?”

 

“I’m a great self learner.” Taehyung laughed, deeper than usual with sleep.

 

“Clearly. Come on,” Jeongguk gestured down the hallway with his head. “We’re going to study together.”

 

“Jeongguk, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I mean-”

 

Jeongguk cut him off. “I miss you.”

 

Taehyung didn’t continue speaking, instead snapped his eyes to meet Jeongguk’s that were looking into his surely. He’d said it. It was his heart laid bare before Taehyung, the only thing about his feelings he knew for sure was that he missed him. He wanted to be near him and see him and talk to him and be listened to by him and then not say anything at all, just sit in that silence that he loved more than anything. 

 

“Please.” Jeongguk said--no, begged--softly.

 

“Okay.” Taehyung agreed, his voice unbearably softer than Jeongguk’s. “Yeah, I- I miss you too. Let me get changed.”

 

Taehyung took five minutes inside the room getting ready, while Jeongguk crouched outside the door, excited to finally get to spend some time with the one person he’d wanted to see for days. Not having seen Taehyung, even if just for a few days, was an odd break from routine that Jeongguk would rather not repeat. 

 

“Ready? I was thinking we can just go to the study room on this floor.” Taehyung stepped out of the room wearing some wide cloth pants and a big sweater. It was so horrifically him that Jeongguk found himself feeling nostalgic in the face of it, even as he stood there with the man himself.

 

“Yeah. Let’s go.” Jeongguk stood up, grabbed Taehyung’s hand, and led him to the study room at the end of the hall. He pushed the door closed as Taehyung settled into a seat and started taking out his class materials.

 

Jeongguk took the seat next to Taehyung and peaked over at the work the boy had pulled out. “Isn’t that from the beginning of the year?”

 

“I- I didn’t have time to go over it before.” Taehyung’s ears turned red as he stuttered. Oh? Was he embarrassed?

 

Jeongguk decided to push a little. “It’s pretty easy if you listened to the lecture.”

 

Taehyung pulled on his ear, swiped his tongue across his lips. “Well…”

 

“You? Not paying attention during lecture?” Jeongguk kept his voice teasing, not wanting to put Taehyung on the spot for going over old material. He didn’t want to make him feel bad, but he also liked seeing him like this, not the same confident front he usually presented. 

 

“I have a hard time focusing.” Taehyung explained, still seeming very much shy.

 

Jeongguk grinned, scrunching his nose as he did it. “I have just the idea to help you.”

 

----

 

“So, it’s dates that you struggle with?” Namjoon asked from his spot next to Taehyung. Jeongguk was sitting across from them and kept looking up from his math work to check on how they were doing.

 

His brilliant idea had been to gather all their friends, drag each and every one of them to the library, and have them help Taehyung with the subjects he needed them for. Of course, that meant Namjoon was helping him mostly, while the rest of them did individual work, or--in Jimin and Seokjin’s case--did dynamite research. Actually, Hoseok was starting to seem a little too interested in their conversation. 

 

“Kinda?” Taehyung answered unsuredly. “History has always been my toughest subject.”

 

Namjoon nodded. “Okay, so let’s make a timeline and go from there. You got any loose paper?”

 

Jeongguk was going to just pass them some from his backpack when Taehyung simply ripped multiple pages from his own notebook and handed them to Namjoon.

 

“I do now.” Taehyung said cheekily. 

 

“Thanks.” Namjoon set the papers down in front of him and grabbed Hoseok’s pencil straight from out of his hand.

 

“Hey!” Hoseok protested.

 

Jimin passed Seokjin a notebook that was very inconspicuously titled ‘Not Dynamite Research Don’t Read Thanks’, and stuck his nose in Namjoon and Taehyung studying. “Didn’t you grow up in a guild? Wasn’t the history of magic beat into your head?”

 

Taehyung looked up at Jimin, narrowed his eyes slightly. He still didn’t like many questions about his life before the academy, or, well, his life generally. “My parents weren’t keen on telling stories.”

 

“Oh. Okay?” Jimin voiced before Seokjin got a eureka look on his face and started hitting Jimin’s arm, effectively drawing Jimin away from the conversation.

 

“Okay.” Namjoon drew Taehyung’s attention back to him, ready to start really studying now that he’d made something of a straight line to build their timeline off of. “So, we start in the year 207 where we saw the first human with magic. Their name was?”

 

“Um… Aline Badalian.” 

 

“Close.” Namjoon responded. “She was the fourth, actually, kinda the black sheep of the magic community as it was forming. It was actually Amin Das. Do you know how he gained magic abilities?”

 

Taehyung nodded his head at this, sure of his answer it would seem. “Yeah, he-”

 

“You know, your pencil’s been hovering over that same problem for about ten minutes now.” Yoongi spoke next to Jeongguk, drawing him away from watching the other two.

 

“Oh, yeah. It’s a tough one.” Jeongguk looked down at the math problem to find that it was actually an easy one that he could solve in maybe thirty seconds. He winced a little at the obvious lie.

 

“You were staring.” Yoongi stated.

 

“Huh?”

 

“At Taehyung. You were staring at him.” Yoongi nodded his head towards Taehyung. Luckily, they’d managed to snag one of the only nullified rooms in the library, meaning Taehyung couldn’t hear the thoughts of anyone. Otherwise, he might have already been tipped off that he was being talked about. Instead, he looked invested in his lesson with Namjoon.

 

“N-no, I-”

 

Yoongi cut Jeongguk off. “It’s okay, just be careful of him.”

 

Jeongguk furrowed his brow, felt himself going on the defensive. “What do you mean? Why?”

 

“Taehyung is dangerous. You need to be careful.” Yoongi stated it simply, like he hadn’t just completely twisted who Jeongguk believed him to be, like he hadn’t made such a brazen accusation. 

 

“Okay, wow. You’re like the last person I expected to judge him like that.” Jeongguk said it more casually than he felt. Thought it’d be nice if he could give Yoongi a chance to rephrase or go back on his words or maybe to offer an explanation.

 

“You don’t understand, and I can’t tell you.” Yoongi sighed. “Just trust me. He isn’t who you think he is.”

 

“Neither are you, it would seem.” 

 

Jeongguk turned away from Yoongi, not wanting to hear anymore. It would seem Yoongi didn’t have any more to say as he didn’t try to convince the fire mage further of something inconceivable. He knew Taehyung was dangerous. Anyone with that much power was. Jeongguk himself was dangerous, as was Yoongi, as was every single person in this room. Taehyung, however, was kind. 

 

How many times had he helped Jeongguk without being prompted? Had talked him through feelings he didn’t quite have a name for? How often had Taehyung been there to direct him down the right path, to listen to him talk, to comfort him when he ran and pretended comfort wasn’t what he wanted. There was no one to be careful of.

 

Yoongi, though. Yoongi himself had once said that his magic didn’t make him, but he made it. He’d said that he would never use it darkly. If anyone should understand Taehyung, it would be Yoongi. He was a hypocrite. Jeongguk huffed and picked up his things to walk around the table and sit next to Taehyung.

 

“You’ll never believe what I just realized.” Seokjin said as soon as Jeongguk sat down.

 

“Taking dynamite to the combat exam to show off your chem skills and strike fear in your opponent is an awful idea?” Hoseok asked. Well, that was good at least. It would seem Jimin and Seokjin hadn’t in fact convinced Hoseok that the dynamite would be a good idea.

 

“Of course not.” Seokjin answered with a wave of his hand.

 

“You’re what?” Yoongi asked.

 

“Unimportant!” Seokjin offered in place of an answer. “I just noticed there are seven of us! Why don’t we group up for the field exam?”

 

There was a moment of silence, Jimin speaking first. “Actually, yeah. Why don’t we?”

 

“I’d like that.” Namjoon answered smiling, his cheeks dimpled. “We’d have three support mages, so it’d be a well-balanced team, a strategic group.”

 

“I’m in!” Hoseok was next to agree.

 

Jeongguk looked over at Taehyung to see that he was looking at Yoongi. They were holding each other’s gazes. Was there a tension between them that Jeongguk hadn’t noticed before? They’d never been anything but friendly as far as he knew or could remember.

 

“Yeah, I’d be okay teaming up.” Taehyung answered after mere moments of holding Yoongi’s intense gaze. He pulled his eyes from Yoongi’s and offered the group an easy smile.

 

Yoongi turned his gaze to Jeongguk, though. Jeongguk reciprocated, was waiting for Yoongi’s answer to give his own. Just looked at him, challenging, questioning.

 

“Of course I’d group up with you idiots. I thought it was already decided.” Yoongi answered amicably. 

 

So, that’s how’d it be.

 

“Jeongguk?” Seokjin asked. All eyes in the room found him.

 

He grinned at his friends. “Let’s do it.”

 

----

 

Exams went okay. Actually, better than okay. The lowest grade Jeongguk walked away with was an 87 in math. After all the studying he’d done for the exam, he had hoped for an A, but he was happy to have gotten a high B in his toughest subject. He was slowly learning that some things were okay being good enough, and his math score was one of those things.

 

For the combat exam, he got paired with Dagny and beat him pretty badly. Not too bad. But pretty bad. Luckily, he was in a different time slot than Seokjin for the exam, so he didn’t have to see the dynamite fiasco. Jimin had told him that Seokjin had pulled it out when the match started, and the match was immediately halted. The dynamite was confiscated, and they called in the head of the chemistry department to assess the stability of the substance.

 

While the dynamite was being examined, they did a search on Jin for more and found two sticks shoved into his socks. Apparently, the dynamite was made perfectly, which was shocking considering all Seokjin had access to was a dorm kitchen to make it in (Jimin accredited the quality of the substance to his own chemistry capabilities). Jin ended up walking away from the whole ordeal with ten extra credit points in science, and he won his combat match. Six months ago, Jeongguk would’ve found himself annoyed by his brother’s antics, but now he found them endearingly impressive.

 

Combat scores were posted Friday, the day after the exam, thirty minutes before their 11:30 class to discuss their field assignments. Jeongguk got seventh, meaning three spots below Seokjin who retained his fourth spot. Multiple people had congratulated him on his rapid progress, and he allowed it, said thank you, forced himself to think he’d done well when all he felt was that he’d lost.

 

“Per our bet,” Seokjin said, leaning over Jeongguk to point at his position on the list, “You owe me one love letter to Adryan.”

 

Jeongguk groaned. “Fine. Can I do it when we get back from field exams, though?”

 

“Sure.” Seokjin grinned in that wicked way of his. “It’ll give you plenty of time to create a poetic masterpiece.”

 

Jeongguk feigned gagging as Seokjin laughed at him, taking on a softer look as the giggles receded. “In all seriousness, you did really well. I bet if you’d started when I did, you’d be better than Taehyung by now.”

 

Jeongguk felt a slight blush on his cheeks at the obvious praise, still not accustomed to receiving it from Seokjin of all people. “You think so?”

 

“I know so.” Seokjin hit the side of his shoulder playfully. “Don’t worry, next semester, you’ll be kicking my ass in rankings.”

 

“You say it like you want me to surpass you.” Jeongguk quirked an eyebrow.

 

“Is it so weird that I do?” 

 

“Kinda.”

 

Seokjin’s face got softer, his voice dropping to just above a whisper. “It’s just… Mom would be proud of you.”

 

And, oh. There it was. Jeongguk felt himself start tearing up, but he tried to hold it back. It didn’t work, and he felt small droplets sliding down his face. He didn’t move to wipe them away.

 

“All she ever wanted was to see you happy, but you’ve surpassed even that. You’re thriving here, Jeongguk. She’d love all the friends you’ve made, how well you’re doing in your classes, how much more passionate you’ve become about your magic and combat. She’d be so, so proud.”

 

Jeongguk smiled, it was tinged with sadness, but it rang more of happiness and acceptance. “I miss her.”

 

Seokjin pulled him into a hug, tight and warm. “Me too.”

 

Jeongguk wrapped his arms around Seokjin’s middle, and they stood like that for no more than a few seconds. Enough time to bask in the memory of their mother and her legacy left in the two of them, in the knowledge that they were doing well, that she could rest easy. Seokjin pulled away after a little bit and went into the classroom. Jeongguk remained outside the door to stare at the number 7 and cry softly to himself. He came to the realization that although he couldn’t have his mother back, although he wanted her back, he didn’t need her anymore. It was a bittersweet moment.

 

Jeongguk heard footsteps in the hallway and turned to face the intruder on his moment. His shoulders relaxed as soon as he saw it was just Taehyung. He realized as he met the mind reader’s eyes that he was still crying. This time, he did bring the sleeve of his sweater up to his eyes to wipe the tears away.

 

“Before you ask, I’m okay. I’m really okay.” Jeongguk stated.

 

“I can feel that.”

 

Then, Taehyung was bounding towards him, taking big, quick steps. Before Jeongguk could even fully register the other male’s presence in his space, he was being wrapped in his second hug that day. He was shocked. Taehyung had never embraced him like this before, had never gone past shy touches, hand holding, and verbal reassurances. This was different, but it was good. Jeongguk returned the hug and rested his head on the other’s shoulder.

 

I’m proud of you too. Jeongguk heard Taehyung’s voice in his head, all he gave as reasoning for the embrace.

 

Jeongguk pulled away first, not quite wanting to. “Thanks.” he whispered. He swiped at his cheeks one last time before assuring himself that he was done crying and pointed at the combat list. “You’re ranked first, again.”

 

Taehyung’s gentle gaze was replaced with that cocky smirk that Jeongguk loved so much. “I know.”

 

“Of course you do.” Jeongguk smiled softly, and the two just stared at each other a little before breaking out into small, breathless giggles that bounced around in the space between them.

 

“Wanna go in and get our field assignments?” Taehyung jutted a thumb towards the classroom. “We can get lunch after. Heard they’re making stromboli today to celebrate the end of test week.”

 

Jeongguk grinned until he felt his face would split. “Let’s do it!”

Chapter Text

Jeongguk had never been on a train before. Aside from the opulence of it, a little extra leg room, and the landscape moving by at a rapid pace his eyes could barely keep up with, it wasn’t all that different from a car. Still, he decided he liked a little more, enjoyed the novelty of it. 

 

The seven of them were on their way to Erast, a farm town at the center of the primary agricultural region for their corner of the world. The crops had started dying there before spreading out to surrounding towns and--eventually--the entire region. Their assignment was simple: find out what’s killing the crops, report back, and let the proper officials handle it.

 

It was a big job, which is why Jeongguk was surprised they’d give it to a bunch of students. Noyce had told them they’d thought a novice mage had tried casting a spell to make the harvest more plentiful, but it backfired and had the opposite effect. It wouldn’t be the first time something like that had happened. Really, they just had to find the kid and find out what they’d done. Easy enough. 

 

The further into the trip they got, the more excited Jeongguk got to arrive to Erast, get settled into their hotel, and get on solving the mystery they’d been tasked with. Everyone else was asleep. Well, Namjoon and Seokjin had their noses shoved in books (Jeongguk was still shocked to have learned that not only could Seokjin read, but he enjoyed it). That was boring, though, and they might as well be sleeping. 

 

Taehyung had fallen asleep next to him, head rested on the rattling wall of the train. It couldn’t have been comfortable, and Jeongguk was half tempted to wake the mind reader up and encourage him to lay his head against his shoulder instead. Taehyung must have been incredibly tired to fall asleep against the train like that, though, so Jeongguk let him sleep and tried not to flinch too hard with every particularly intense rattle that shook Taehyung’s head. 

 

Hoseok and Jimin were asleep in the two seats across from Jeongguk, the two having no qualms from using each other as pillows. Jimin had his head rested on Hoseok’s shoulder while Hoseok leaned against Jimin’s head. The other three were across the aisle--decorated with a crimson carpet that seemed a bit like overkill. Yoongi was spread out across two seats he had for himself, while Jin and Namjoon sat across from him with their legs crossed and books held up to their eyes. 

 

It was boring, but Jeongguk liked the trip, the comfortableness of it, the familiarity he had with all his friends. He thought this must be what it feels like to go on jobs with guild members, to have a team with a common goal. It was nice. Having friends was nice. He settled himself deeper into his seat and busied himself with bothering Seokjin while he was reading, occasionally taking a break to look fondly at his sleeping friends (and make sure Taehyung hadn’t sustained any brain damage from his sleeping position). 

 

Their arrival to Erast wasn’t all that eventful, certainly not as eventful as Jeongguk had been building it up in his mind to be. They weren’t met with a group of people ready to thank them for saving their town and livelihoods, but rather a woman who looked all too pleased to escort a group of teenage boys around their quiet town (read: she wasn’t pleased at all. Not in the slightest). 

 

They all squeezed into her car, Jimin and Hoseok yawning back in forth, bickering with each other to stop yawning because it was making the other yawn. Taehyung rubbed his head after tossing his bag in the trunk, and Jeongguk laughed softly to himself at the action. He just shouldn’t have slept like that. Taehyung shot him a glare, and Jeongguk suddenly remembered he could read minds. 

 

The hotel wasn’t nearly as posh at the train, but they really shouldn’t have expected much out of a farm town. An inn would be a more apropos title. As soon as they checked in and were handed three keys, the fight for roommates began. Everyone was in agreeance that Taehyung and Jeongguk would room together, so the two just stood there and watched the other five bicker over the two remaining rooms.

 

Seokjin was dead set on sharing with Yoongi, and Yoongi was dead set on sleeping outside in a gutter before that happened. He argued that he already shared a dorm with Seokjin back at The Academy, so he deserved this reprieve. Seokjin remained persistent.

 

“Don’t worry, Yoongi. I’ll sleep in your bed with you and make sure the big bad ice mage doesn’t hurt you.” Jimin slung his arms around Yoongi’s shoulders and spoke to him in a baby voice.

 

“Oh? But I think Yoongi wants me to bother him.” Seokjin winked at the necromancer.

 

Yoongi’s face turned a deep red (from embarrassment and disgust, if Jeongguk had to guess). “You’re both shameless. Joon,” he pointed at Namjoon. “You’re with me. I’m sure Hoseok would love to spend a few nights with these two.”

 

“Sleeping with Jimin doesn’t sound so bad.” Hoseok answered thoughtfully. 

 

Jimin dramatically pushed Yoongi away from him. “Oh, Hobi!” he brushed his hand across his brow as if he was in some sort of distress.

 

“Oh, Jimin!” Hoseok, of course, played along.

 

Jimin threw himself on the taller man, linking a leg over his hip. “Promise me you won’t leave me, that you’ll stay by my side through the night.” his voice became breathier, more high pitched, and desperate. 

 

“My love, I will never leave you, not even for the sun’s rising.”

 

“Kiss me, you fool!”

 

For a second, Jeongguk thought they might actually kiss, but a desk attendant approached them right at that moment with a bag they’d forgotten to grab, and any thoughts of foreplay in the lobby were quickly discarded in favor of going to their rooms and settling in. The group did nothing more than throw their bags on their respective beds and leave for a quick lunch at a hamburger shop down the street (highly recommended by the woman who had picked them up at the train station. She seemed like a tough woman, so they took her word for it). 

 

After a meal, they met back up at the hotel with the woman, and she promptly drove them to the farm they were supposed to be checking out. Upon arriving, the woman went to sit on the front porch of the farm house with the man who seemed to own the place, and the group were told to examine the property as they saw fit.

 

“It’s all fair game, boys. I don’t care what you do so long as you figure out what in the hell is killing my crops.” was all the man said for instruction. They took it with a grain of salt and ventured into the acres of farmland with some water bottles his daughter had offered them.

 

The further they got into the farmland, the more they got the sense of something being very wrong. They’d been told the crops weren’t growing, but they weren’t expecting to be met with dirt and not a spot of green in sight. The farmer had explained that he grew multiple crops, but his biggest ones were potatoes and carrots. Potatoes were harvested in September, and his harvest yielded next to nothing. Carrot harvest was coming up, and there wasn’t anything for them to collect.

 

They walked through the acres of farmland for what felt like hours, what probably was hours, just trying to sense any ounce of magic. They’d clearly been packing on the magic fertilizer, though, because it was the only thing the boys could sense. If there had been another magic at play, it would’ve surely been smothered by the fertilizer. Their waters had depleted long ago, and while it wasn’t hot, the sun was bright and encouraging a drink of something. 

 

“Anyone have any water?” Jeongguk broke what had been nearly ten minutes of silence brought about from frustration at not having found anything yet. It was making more sense why students were sent on this job; it was tedious.

 

“What happened to your bottle?” Seokjin asked, checking his own to find it empty as well.

 

“I drank all of it.” Jeongguk frowned. “Come on, someone share. I’m thirsty.”

 

They all responded that they were out, and Jeongguk was about to lie on the ground and just die. His legs were tired from walking, the wind kept blowing dirt in his eyes, he was frustrated with not being able to solve this one problem they’d been assigned, and he was thirsty. Erast wasn’t what he thought it would be, and the high from the train, hotel, and good lunch was gone, leaving in place a childish urge to stomp his foot and complain loudly.

 

He almost did it, too, but just then the pivot irrigation system turned on--a massive sprinkler that wheeled down the field and watered the crops--about thirty feet from them, and he had an excellent idea. It wasn’t near them yet, so they weren’t getting wet, but his idea would change that soon enough. 

 

“Hey, you guys think I could just refill my water bottle with that thing?” He pointed at the irrigation system and everyone directed their eyes to the source of the one good thing in a desolate field. 

 

Jimin grimaced. “I mean, I wouldn’t, but if you’re up for it…”

 

“Jeongguk, no. You’ll get all wet.” Seokjin was quick to shut the idea. Funny, Jeongguk figured he’d be the first to enable him.

 

“You forget, brother, that I’m my own personal dryer.” He lit his hand on fire for effect. Seokjin jumped back a little, and Jeongguk was happy to see that he hadn’t lost his touch.

 

“We won’t make it back to the farmhouse for a bit. I mean, we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” Namjoon was met with a chorus of groans. “If you’re that desperate for something to drink, go for it.”

 

Taehyung shrugged. “It can’t hurt.”

 

“Yeah, it can’t hurt.”

 

Jeongguk flipped around and made his way to the sprinkler, getting positively soaked once he stepped under it. There was a prick of something there for a moment, an electricity on his skin that had him almost stepping out from under the stream. The feeling passed as quickly as it came, though, so he brushed it off as his desire to find something getting to him. He filled up the bottle quickly and ran back to the group. 

 

“You’re soaked.” Hoseok helpfully commented upon his return.

 

Jeongguk smirked. “Got just the trick for that.” he set the water bottle down and heated himself up so the water evaporated as quickly as it’d gotten on him. 

 

He felt someone behind him, then a hand was on his head and rubbing at his hair. “Your hair’s all frizzy now.” Taehyung remarked. 

 

Jeongguk didn’t turn around. He thought it’d be best that Taehyung didn’t see the blush quickly appearing on his cheeks, a blush he was sure the mind reader knew about anyway. 

 

“Well, win some, you lose some.” was all he offered as response. He picked his water up from the ground, brought the bottle up to his lips, and threw it back like a man starved. 

 

“How’s it taste?” Yoongi asked.

 

Jeongguk would’ve responded, would’ve told him it tasted hydrating, but as soon as the water began sliding down his throat, it was too late to turn back. He felt the magic in it, negative and choking, choking him. The bottle fell from his hands as he collapsed to the ground, clutching his throat. His vision started fading like spots, little circles of black blocking out what was there before.

 

There was muffled worrying, people calling his name, asking if he was okay. Some sort of mumbling that he could hear but couldn’t possibly hope to comprehend. He was dying. It hurt. There was the barely there, but undeniable feeling of someone wrapping him in their arms, hoisting him up, running like hell. Then, it was gone. 

 

Everything was gone.

 

----

 

Jeongguk woke up in his hotel bed, sore throat, and pounding head making him wish he hadn’t woken up at all. For a moment he wondered what had happened, how he’d gotten here, but his memory came back quickly as he remembered that horrible water and someone running with him before he blacked out. He looked around the room and found only Taehyung there. The man was curled up next to him on the bed, clutching a pillow as he slept. Cute. Jeongguk resisted the ache in his body and sat up, propped some pillows up behind himself for support.

 

“What the fuck was in that water?” He asked, his throat protesting slightly from the sound. It didn’t hurt as much as he’d expected it to, though, so he figured he was safe to talk.

 

Taehyung mumbled from next to him, “Magic. Quiet now. ‘M trying to sleep, so Jeongguk wakes up to me energized.”

 

Jeongguk laughed through his nose, didn’t use his throat to make the sound. “Taehyung, I’m awake.”

 

“Hmm?”

 

It’s me, Jeongguk. I’ve woken up. Can you tell me what happened? Jeongguk communicated with Taehyung mentally, trying to convey as much of his amusement with Taehyung’s current state as he could. 

 

Taehyung sat up quicker than Jeongguk thought was possible. Suddenly, his face was being held between two large hands (had they always been that large?) and two big, gorgeous eyes were looking into his own. Taehyung swiped his thumbs over his cheeks, his look of shock changing into one of concern as his brows furrowed with each fervent swipe.

 

“You’re awake. You’re okay.” Taehyung sounded almost breathless. “You-”

 

Taehyung pressed their foreheads together, closed his eyes as Jeongguk assumed he was listening to and feeling Jeongguk, taking assurance in the knowledge that he was there and fine. Jeongguk’s eyes remained wide open. The two were practically sharing air. No, not practically. They were. Jeongguk waited for Taehyung, let him take his time, not really wanting to break the moment or push him away. They were close, so very close. It all felt delicate.

 

“I couldn’t hear you.” Taehyung whispered, not moving at all, and Jeongguk felt the breath from the words hit his face. 

 

“What?” He whispered back. 

 

“When you blacked out, I couldn’t hear you anymore.” His voice cracked slightly. Jeongguk swallowed. “I couldn’t even sense sleep. You just sounded like...nothing.” 

 

“I’m sorry.” Jeongguk offered rather uselessly, not knowing what to do in this horribly tender moment, but not wanting to break it.

 

Taehyung pulled away, and Jeongguk had to resist the urge to pull him back. The mind reader looked beyond relieved. “You’re okay, so there’s nothing to be sorry about.”

 

Jeongguk scratched the back of his head. Taehyung was still so close. “Right, well…” What were they talking about again? Oh, right. “Was it the water?”

 

“Yeah.” Taehyung laughed softly, pushed Jeongguk’s shoulder softly. “Thanks to you being a dumbass, though, we figured out what was going on.”

 

“Yeah? What is it?” Jeongguk was excited now. Not only had he lived (take that Universe), but they had done what they came here to do and completed their assignment. 

 

Taehyung sighed. “Whoever did this, did so intentionally. Very intentionally.” Taehyung gave Jeongguk a pointed, serious look. Well, so much for the amateur mage theory. “We don’t really know all the specifics, but we have a good idea of it. They put the water inside the irrigation pipes, nullified from the outside so the magic wouldn’t leak out or be sensed. Of course, for anyone to sense the magic would be hard, especially if there weren’t any mages around. The spell seems to be built to be unidentifiable, which would explain the reason you didn’t sense it when you went under the water.”

 

Taehyung shifted slightly to get a little more comfortable, and Jeongguk waited for him to start talking again. “It seems to not harm humans who come into external contact. The magic was made to kill plants then dissipate quickly, leaving as little trace as possible.” He looked at Jeongguk and gave him a bright smile, the boxy kind. “Seems they weren’t planning on some impulsive kid drinking from a massive irrigation sprinkler.”

 

“Woah, that’s…” Jeongguk started, cut himself off. 

 

“Impressive?” Taehyung offered.

 

No, that wasn’t quite the word for it. “Scary.” Jeongguk finished.

 

“That too.” he agreed.

 

Something about this was bothering Jeongguk, something that just wasn’t making sense. “Why would they want to cut our food production? Doesn’t that hurt everyone?”

 

“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Taehyung admitted honestly.

 

Jeongguk shrugged, figured it was a question for higher authorities to answer. “Weird.” he sighed, grinned a little lopsidedly. “But consider my lesson learned. I’ll stick to drinking from plain old faucets from here on out.”

 

Taehyung laughed, loudly and pleasing. It was a warm sound. “That might be for the best.”

 

“Yeah.” Jeongguk allowed himself a few giggles before moving onto his next question. “Where’s everyone else.”

 

“They left after the doctor did to get water samples and scope out the system a little more.” Taehyung explained. 

 

“Doctor?”

 

“Yep.” Taehyung popped the P. “The Academy zapped him over here as soon as we told them you were poisoned. He administered some sort of medicine that nullified and broke up whatever magic you ingested. Good news is you lived. Bad news is you won’t be able to use your magic for about a day.”

 

“Oh cool.” Jeongguk responded dryly. “My first magic job, and I get to spend most of it in bed and magicless.”

 

“Hey, you’re the entire reason we solved this! You’re the MVP of this whole thing.” Taehyung offered as encouragement.

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk still pouted, still felt a little useless. Yeah, he may have been the reason they’d found the problem, but they must have gotten quite the scare from his near-death experience. “When are the others supposed to be back?”

 

Taehyung shrugged. “What time is it?”

 

Jeongguk leaned over to check the clock on the nightstand next to him. “8:40.”

 

Taehyung sat up straighter, arched a brow. “They were supposed to be back an hour ago.”

 

“What? Where are they?” Jeongguk asked, quickly getting a distinct feeling that something was wrong. 

 

Taehyung shrugged, clearly trying to make it look nonchalant, but his worry was evident from the stiffness of the gesture. “They’re out of my range, so I can’t really reach them.” he seemed to sense Jeongguk’s growing unease and moved quickly to grab the fire mage’s hand and look at him with as little worry as he could muster. “Hey, I’m sure they’re fine and just stopped somewhere to eat.”

 

“You seem unsure.” Jeongguk said softly, openly displaying his own unsuredness. “We should go looking.” He tried to stand out of bed, but Taehyung was quick to grab his shoulders and push him back down. 

 

“You just woke up. We can go looking for them, I promise, but let’s get you something to eat and drink first.” Taehyung’s eyes pleaded with him to stay put.

 

“I don’t know. Something could be wrong. Tae, what if they’re in danger?”

 

Taehyung shook his head fervently. “You almost died today, Jeongguk. Please, just wait thirty more minutes to eat something and regain a little strength.”

 

“Tae-”

 

He was cut off. “Trust me. You need sustenance, and we couldn’t do anything. You’re magicless at the moment, and I’m just a mind reader. Not only would we be going out there virtually defenseless, but you would barely be able to stand.”

 

“I guess.” Jeongguk agreed reluctantly, seeing Taehyung’s points but not really wanting to believe them.

 

“Plus,” Taehyung ruffled Jeongguk’s hair a little with a gentle smile on his face, the worry fading as he continued the act, but still a little noticeable in the space between his brows. “They have Yoongi with them, and he wouldn’t let anything happen.”

 

“Yoongi?” Jeongguk questioned, expecting the necromancer to be the last person the other would rely on.

 

“Hmm.” Taehyung hummed in affirmation, twisting the tip of some of Jeongguk’s hair in his fingers.

 

“You trust him?” Jeongguk questioned. 

 

“I do.”

 

“He doesn’t trust you.”

 

Taehyung dropped his hand, sighed softly. “He doesn’t.”

 

“Why?”

 

Taehyung frowned, looked away from Jeongguk for the first time since he’d woken up, took his time answering, leaving Jeongguk to tap a hand against his thigh in anticipation for the answer.

 

“I wish I could tell you that I didn’t know, so I had a reason not to tell you why. We both know that’d be a lie, though.” He looked back a Jeongguk, his head hung a little low, a little shamefully.

 

“So, you don’t want me to know.” Jeongguk ventured.

 

“Yoongi doesn’t know the full story, but even so…” He took a long paused again; the tapping against Jeongguk’s thigh grew stronger and faster. Taehyung grabbed his hand to stop it. “You’re the last person I would want to hate me, Jeongguk. But, if you didn’t hate me, if you instead felt sympathy, I think that’d be worse.”

 

“You’re scared of how I’ll react?” Jeongguk asked.

 

Taehyung nodded, averted his eyes again. “Something like that.”

 

Jeongguk pulled his hand out of Taehyung’s slightly to loosen the hold and entwine their fingers. “Tae, I could never hate you.” He answered earnestly, honestly. 

 

“Never?” he asked, allowing a short glance to the other who shook his head. Taehyung sighed again. “One day.” He promised. “One day, I’ll tell you all about my deep, dark past. Just, not today. For tonight, I want us to be as we’ve always been.” he glanced at their hands, still holding onto each other.

 

“Okay.” Jeongguk answered, also looking at their hands, smiling softly.

 

“Okay?” Taehyung sounded surprised to not be met with much resistance.

 

“I trust you.” he looked up at the mind reader, but the other’s eyes didn’t meet his. Still, he knew that he could feel the look of complete trust and confidence, knew that he could feel exactly what Jeongguk was feeling and that he understood.

 

They existed like that for a few moments longer, Taehyung looking at their linked fingers, squeezing them slightly at Jeongguk’s admission, as Jeongguk looked at Taehyung. 

 

Taehyung broke the silence. He was always the one to break it. “In that case,” he cleared his throat and pulled his hand away. He pulled on a jacket and began slipping on his shoes. “Trust me to feed you. I’m going to go pick up dinner.”

 

Jeongguk smiled, feeling a strange mix of content over their moment shared, while the underlying worry for his friends still pleaded with him to get out of bed and go searching. 

 

“Bring back cookies!” Jeongguk yelled after Taehyung as he was stepping out the door.

 

“You don’t need cookies.” Taehyung hollered as the door closed behind him.

 

He brought back one cookie.

 

----

 

After finishing their meals of convenience store sandwiches and all the water Taehyung could get Jeongguk could drink (plus one glorious, immaculate, heavenly chocolate chip cookie), the other five guys hadn’t returned to the hotel. Jeongguk was feeling on edge at them not having returned yet, and although Taehyung was trying to put on airs, he knew the other was also worried. Jeongguk got ready to leave and the two were out the door, leaving the trash from their dinner still lying on the bed.

 

They walked around the town, popping into novelty shops and restaurants, anywhere that would seem interesting to a group of five, teenage boys. They were nowhere to be found in town. The two were growing desperate enough to try checking the hardware store, but they opted to make their way to the field they’d been in earlier to see if they were just taking a long time collecting samples and investigating. 

 

They got there and knocked on the farmhouse door. The farmer’s daughter answered and told the two that their friends hadn’t come back from the field yet. The two shared a confused look, but remained hopeful that just meant they were being thorough in their work, thought maybe they’d finally found them. The girl gave them flashlights and sent them off to find their friends. 

 

They walked the field and yelled out the names of the others. They approached the closest irrigation system, but didn’t find them there, so they held out hope that they’d gone to another to collect more data from that. They ventured deeper into the field, the lights of the farmhouse fading into nothing, until all they had for light were their flashlights and the gibbous moon hung up in the clear sky. 

 

The further they walked, the more uneasy Jeongguk felt. Taehyung kept vocalizing assurances and comforts, but his countenance showed he didn’t believe his own words. He was bouncy, perpetually frowning, voice sounding flat as he tried to make Jeongguk believe everything would be okay, that everything was okay. It didn’t feel that was true at all. 

 

“Maybe they went back to the hotel, and we just missed them.” Jeongguk suggested. He was desperate to leave the dark, barren field that was only adding to his anxieties.

 

“Yeah, that’s probably it. You want to start back that way?”

 

Jeongguk agreed and the two began wordlessly walking back towards the farmhouse, no longer calling out names, just hoping that the five others would be found, safe and sound, on their return. Jeongguk was thinking about how excited he was to get out of this creepy ass field and take a long shower when Taehyung stopped walking.

 

“Jeongguk.” he spoke sternly, demanding attention with his clipped tone.

 

“Yeah?” Jeongguk asked, his voice a little too high to be considered calm.

 

“Run.” Jeongguk’s heart skipped. Taehyung began looking around frequently. He pushed Jeongguk’s shoulders towards the direction of the house. “Fucking run!”

 

“Wh-” Jeongguk didn’t get the chance to move even an inch, wasn’t offered a chance at escaping. 

 

A cloth covered his nose as a person wrapped an arm around his middle, hard and unforgiving, not giving a care for any damage they might cause. A sweet smell filled his senses as they were overcome with it, with sleep, with darkness. For the second time that day, he was knocked unconscious. Only this time, there was no one around that could save him.

 

----

 

He came to on a much rougher surface, with an even worse headache than before. He tried to move his hands to rub at his eyes, but found that they were secured to the wall. He slowly opened them, somewhat pleased to find the cold room he was in was relatively dark, nothing other than a blinking, yellow light in the corner to offer light. He turned to find his hands in thick metal cuffs, forced to be held against the wall. 

 

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty.” A bitter, sarcastic voice came from a few feet from him. He looked to see Hoseok sitting there, in a similar position to Jeongguk’s. He looked around the room to find the rest of his friends in similar positions. 

 

“Tae-” Jeongguk’s voice cracked. He cleared his throat, regained his ability to speak a little. “Taehyung-”

 

“Still sleeping.” Yoongi answered from the opposite side of the room, Jimin and Namjoon on either side of him. He nodded his head towards a hunched form next to Hoseok. Jeongguk craned his neck as far as he could to see him, and, sure enough, Taehyung was knocked out. “I think they’re waiting for all of us to wake up.”

 

“They?” Jeongguk asked, drawing his gaze from Taehyung to settle it on Yoongi. 

 

“We don’t know who they are, just know some group of people kidnapped us.” Namjoon offered in explanation. Not much explanation it was, though. Why would they be kidnapped?

 

“They’re going to kill us.” Jimin spoke softly, too softly in the severity of the situation. It’d be less concerning if he’d yelled or whined or...something. He just spoke in a broken, resigned voice.

 

“Jimin, no.” Seokjin spoke from the right of Jeongguk. “Don’t speak like that. We don’t know what they want from us.”

 

“The room is nullified.” Jeongguk commented, not bothering to note on Jimin’s worries. He noticed the distinct lack of magic in the space. It was unsettling. 

 

“Yep.” Yoongi confirmed.

 

“We’ve been kidnapped.”

 

“Yep.”

 

“Why?” Jeongguk asked, disbelief clear in his voice, distress clear in his face.

 

“Fuck if I know, Jeongguk.” Yoongi leaned his head back against the stone wall behind him. “Best guess is we found out something we weren’t supposed to, and now we’ll pay the price for that knowledge.”

 

Jeongguk frowned, felt his blood go cold. “The price?”

 

“Death, Jeongguk.” Jimin answered. “They’re going to fucking kill us.”

 

“Jesus, Jimin. Shut up.” Seokjin responded, probably having listened to Jimin’s grim words for hours. The group of them must have been there, conscious, for long. Had they thought the other two wouldn’t come for them? The thought made Jeongguk’s stomach churn.

 

“He’s right.” A gruff voice spoke. Taehyung.

 

Hoseok jumped slightly, clearly startled. “Fuck, you scared me. How long have you been awake?”

 

Taehyung didn’t bother answering Hoseok, cut to the chase. “Jimin is right. They won’t let us live.”

 

“Do you know what happened to us, Taehyung?” Jeongguk’s eyes flitted briefly over to Namjoon, saw him looking at Taehyung toughly, clearly wanting answers.

 

His eyes found Taehyung again, and the other man was taking his time answering. Well, no it didn’t seem that he was taking his time really, but was mustering up the courage to say what he needed to. His shoulders were shaking as quiet sobs tumbled from his lips, unsolicited and scandalous. Jeongguk pulled at his restraints, yearned to go to him, to offer him some kind of comfort. He couldn’t. He was useless here.

 

“Yes.” Taehyung spoke finally, voice cracking on the syllable. 

 

There was silence, everyone waiting for the pen to drop, to tell them what he knew. His mouth remained shut, though, as tears collected in the thin line of his lips, sobs remained trapped in his throat. Hoseok coughed. 

 

“Care to share?” Yoongi asked, keeping his voice surprisingly gentle.

 

“I-” As soon as his mouth opened, the sobs tumbled out. It wasn’t quiet like before, just heart wrenching wails. The sound filled the empty room, echoing around the walls same how it echoed in Jeongguk’s head, bounced around until all he felt was the pain of his friend, felt it clawing at him and begging for him to make it stop. He tugged harder against the cuffs.

 

They rubbed against his wrists, and he felt the skin cracking and breaking, warm liquid running onto his palms. He couldn’t get out. He couldn’t help him. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. The sobs morphed, became less painful and more manic as they became laughter. 

 

He cackled, nearly screamed as sounds meant for joy, but lacked any of it, ripped through him and into the air previously consumed by his wails. “They found me.” he said between breaths. “After all these years, they’ve finally found me.” he kept repeating it like a mantra, “They found me.” whenever he could breathe long enough to say it. It was unhinged and desperate, leaving a sick feeling in its wake broken up by bits of shock, confusion, and fear.

 

For the first time, Jeongguk was scared for Taehyung. For the first time, he was scared of Taehyung.

 

Taehyung’s laughter stopped suddenly, his eyes focusing on the entrance to the cell. They narrowed in contempt. The other six boys turned their heads towards where Taehyung’s gaze was and were met with a man standing in front of them with eyes much too familiar for comfort. Big and gorgeous eyes that lacked any of the warmth and gentleness Jeongguk was used to seeing in a similar pair.

 

He was staring back at Taehyung, a wretched smirk resting on his face. “Taehyung.” The man spoke calmly; Taehyung spit at him. “Long time no see.”

 

Taehyung kept his eyes locked on him. Jeongguk felt his heart picking up in his chest, and he knew him and Taehyung wouldn’t be allowed to remain as they’d always been for one more night. The one day Taehyung spoke of was now. It was happening, and Jeongguk was finding he didn’t want to know as badly as he thought he did. 

 

Taehyung finally answered the question he’d been asked several minutes ago. 

 

“Adorior, Yoongi. We’ve been kidnapped by Adorior.”