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Saviour

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The Honda flew along the bus lane and through a puddle, but Jin was too quick, darting back to avoid the spray that snatched at his trousers. Not today, mate, he scowled as it flew on. He was having a bad enough day and no idiot was going to make it worse.

He held his hand out to hail his bus as it finally trundled up in the Honda's wake. He'd already missed one. It had been just his luck today: rounding the corner to see the final passengers boarding the bus, half-way down the street: having to make that snap-second decison to either give it up, or to run and risk the humiliation of just missing it.

He'd ran. And just missed it.

He'd spent the last twenty minutes standing in the drizzle, twirling his umbrella over one shoulder impatiently, mulling over all the things he should have said at work while his boss was chewing him out. It wasn't Jin's fault his car had broken down in the driveway this morning, making him late. It wasn't his fault that their project was running behind when the team kicked back and surfed the net at every opportunity.

The bus ground to a halt, wheezing as the door slid open. As Jin folded his umbrella and shook the droplets off, he could already see that it was pretty packed, every seat taken and a cluster of people standing near the front holding onto the rails. He stepped aboard, steeling himself for an unpleasant journey. He could already smell the sweat and damp emenating from his fellow passengers. He dropped his fare in the slot, trying to figure out where to position himself to be the least inconvenience to everyone else.

Jin didn't take the bus often, but he'd always figured there were unwritten rules. What they had instead here was about twelve people all huddled near the front in no discernable order: a virtual blockade for him to squeeze his way through. It's not their fault he scolded himself as he took his ticket and shouldered his way through. You're in a bad mood because of work and the car and because last night was such a disaster. Don't be rude. Why won't she move two inches to the right though? Seriously.

He made it out of the mass and grabbed onto a rail as the bus jerked and set off again. Well, he was stuck standing in the aisle then, constantly looking out for seating passengers needing to get past.

But wait - was that an empty seat up towards the back? There wasn't a small child disguised from view, was there? Jin craned his neck, not wanting any more embarrasment. Nope, it looked free. He glanced back at the standing crew, none of them looked prepared to budge.

He made his way up to the seat eagerly.

There was a handsome young man in the neighbouring seat, who had angled his body towards the free seat, one of the free newspapers laid out on it. Perhaps he was so engrossed in the paper that he hadn't noticed the build up of human traffic towards the front of the bus. More likely he was a jerk who didn't care. Jin knew the type: thought his face entitled him to special treatment. Who wanted two seats to himself and had laid the paper there in an attempt to ensure it.

"Excuse me," Jin said firmly.

The young man heard him. Jin saw the lines in his body tense, but he refused to look up and made no effort to remove the offending paper from the free seat.

Normally Jin was ridiculously polite, deffering. Today was not a normal day.

He shrugged and sat on the newspaper.

"Hey!" Jerk protested in outrage. "I was reading that!"

"Did you pay for an extra seat for your newspaper? I don't think so," Jin snarked sweetly. "How about you don't be so selfish in public?"

He sensed the nearby passengers listening in, hoping for some drama on a grey Tuesday, but it seemed like Jerk was too dumb or too angry to do battle. He wrenched himself away from Jin towards the window and Jin sighed in some relief and propped his umbrella between his feet. He fished his phone out, and flicked through the couple of texts awaiting him.

From: Jimin

To: Jin

Did you get the beer smell out of your hair? Sorry last night blew :( We love you Jinnie!

Jin smiled softly. Tae and Jimin had organised a meal in Jin's favourite restaurant followed by a night at the theatre in honour of Jin finally getting over his breakup. It had all gone well till part way through Act 3 some drunk on the balcony had accidentally knocked his drink over the edge and square onto Jin's head in the stalls. The light plastic cup had done no damage, but beer streaming down his neck and dripping from his forehead onto his clothes while people recoiled from him had done wonders for his self-esteem. Tae had got splashed too, but he wasn't soaked like Jin. Jin had laughed it off and reassured Jimin and Tae that he was fine. He hadn't told them that he'd seen his ex in the audience smirking at his discomfort. He'd lost hours of sleep last night wondering if anyone had filmed it. He'd told himself that tomorrow would be a new day.

And what a day. He quickly replied to Jimin, and skipped over to Namjoon's text.

From: Namjoon

To: Jin

Hey, you busy on Saturday? Party.

Jin smirked.

From: Jin

To: Namjoon

Who are you, and what have you done with Joon? Yes I'm free! Send details. Can I bring the kids?

Jimin and Tae would kill him if he let them miss out on a party. Though Jin wasn't sure what Namjoon's definition of a 'party' was. He allowed himself a smile, sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly. No matter how sucky a day was, his friends were the best.

It sounded like the rain was picking up and he glanced out of the window to check. Sure enough, there were rivulents twisting and winding down the pane, the background beyond them almost obscured. Jerk had his face firmly turned towards the window, and Jin almost looked away again, till he noticed Jerk's hands and the way they were positioned in his lap, linked together, clenching till the knuckles were white. Jerk's shoulders were hunched, and when Jin tilted his head out, he could see Jerk abortively swallowing. Could see that his nose was pink. And that his face was quietly mirroring the window. He hadn't made a sound.

"Are you crying?" Jin felt a wash of guilt roll over him.

Jerk hunched his shoulders and stared out of the window more steadfastly. He was crying.

"I'm sorry," Jin tried. "I was rude to you. I was having a bad day, and I took it out on you."

It struck him that Jerk might have had an even worse day than Jin had. It struck him that Jerk might not be a Jerk at all.

"Please accept my apology," he pressed, lowering his voice to avoid giving the bus a second show. "I really mean it."

Damn it, now that he looked at him properly, Not-Jerk was just a kid, probably younger than Jimin and Tae. Might still be a teenager. Had Jin just made a teenager cry on the bus? What kind of ass was he?

"Here," he rummaged in his pocket, praying that he had an unused hankie. He did. Small mercies. He thrust it towards Not-Jerk's hands, and was horrified when Not-Jerk visibly pressed himself into the side of the bus to get away from Jin. Maybe he had social anxiety, and Jin was making it worse.

"I am sorry," he said again, and laid the handkerchief down gently on the knee of the young man's jeans, returning to his own space. This really was the cherry on top, wasn't it.

The bus trundled on, new passengers getting progressively wetter and exasperating the standing passengers who had to share space with them. Jin glanced out of the corner of his eye and saw that Not-Jerk had picked up the handkerchief. That was probably going to be the extent of their communication unless Not-Jerk was getting off before Jin was.

Ten minutes later, Not-Jerk did begin to shuffle uncomfortably, reaching for some kind of art folder he'd had propped between his legs.

"Are you getting off here?" Jin said warmly, trying to save the kid asking him by standing in advance to step out into the aisle. "Do you want the newspaper? I should have asked you earlier!"

The kid shook his head. He'd stopped crying, but his face still betrayed him. Jin noted the way the kid held himself as he passed Jin by, head lowered, the way he clutched on to that art folder. Jin had to stifle a joke about the newspaper being molded to his butt, sensing that it wouldn't go down well.

The bus was a lot more empty by now, only one or two still standing through choice. Jin had a clear view of the boy as he pressed the stop bell and waited for the driver to brake, two stops before Jin's.

The boy was wearing a flimsy jacket with no hood. Jin watched him press the folder to his chest, trying to wrap his jacket around it, his wet eyes darting out at the rain, unable to protect it without bending it out of shape.

Jin's reaction was pure instinct. He hurried down the aisle towards the boy, whose eyes widened in what was almost comical horror.

"Take my umbrella," Jin said, holding it out.

The boy stared at him, agape. If anything, he edged a step back.

"You'll get soaked out there," Jin gestured. "It'll make me feel like less of a fool if you take it."

"I couldn't," the boy whispered, but he was still staring at Jin in sheer disbelief.

"You couldn't make me feel like less of a fool?" Jin joked, hoping to raise a smile.

"It's yours." The boy said. Jin wondered if it was the wrong time to notice that the boy was more than casually handsome. He had very striking features: huge eyes hiding under his fringe, a pillowy lower lip, a prominent nose that somehow kept his face soft, and cheeks that were begging to have a thumb gently brush the tear tracks away. Steady, Jin.

"I want you to have it," Jin said. "That's an important folder isn't it? It's art? You don't want to risk rain damage."

The boy's hugged his folder closer, protective, blinking from Jin's face to the umbrella, and back again.

Jin thought he was going to take it, but then the bus pulled to a halt and he was almost jerked off his feet.

"I'm sorry about earlier," the boy rushed out, just managing to meet Jin's eyes before darting off the bus.

Jin should have let him go.

Jin rushed off the bus, the doors whooshing shut behind him.

"I'm sorry about earlier too," he reminded the boy, putting the umbrella up hastily as rain pelted him. "I feel really bad about it actually. My name's Jin. Please take this, it'll protect your work."

"But then you'll get wet?" The boy looked at him with consternation, but Jin didn't miss the anxious way he tried to wrap his folder into his jacket again.

"Well.." Jin risked taking a step forward, the umbrella covering them both. "I do have a solution. Let me walk you home. I'll see you to your place, then I'll head home."

The boy's jaw dropped slightly at the idea. Jin caught sight of the cutest little overbite he'd ever seen. "Unless you think I'm a serial killer," he joked. "In which case, you're free to take the umbrella and send me on my way."

"If you're a serial killer I'm already in trouble," the boy said, and finally, finally Jin got a smile. It was a small one, but it still lit his entire face. He'd already taken a bit of a lashing from the rain in those seconds before Jin got the brolly over him, and he shook his head in minute, hurried movements, like a baby bunny trying to dislodge raindrops. Jin didn't miss the way the folder was being held closer to the centre of the cover.

"So, is it art?" He asked, gesturing.

The boy blinked. "Yes. Its my college portfolio." He began walking cautiously, and Jin kept pace.

"I'd love to be good at art," Jin said. "I can visualise so many cool things, but my hand and brain don't seem to be wired together."

"It just takes practice," the boy said softly. Jin caught sight of his name stuck on a label on the top left hand corner of the folder. Jungkook.

"And talent," he prompted. "Do you enjoy the course?"

Jungkook nodded. "I'm learning a lot." It appeared he wasn't going to elaborate.

Jin followed Jungkook across the road and into a residential area. Around them the rain sizzled across puddles and danced on car roofs. The temperature was dropping as the sky darkened and Jin decided this was the evening he was breaking his healthy eating streak. When he got home he was ordering in the greasiest pizza and wings he could. And making himself a hot water bottle.

"My name's Jin, by the way," he said, trying to strike up conversation again.

"You already said," a smile budded on Jungkook's face, and Jin felt warmth in his chest.

"I was just testing you to see if you'd been listening," he teased lightly. "I didn't want you mixing me up with Gene Kelly. Or Mary Poppins."

Jungkook scoffed quietly, and his smile grew a few millimetres. "I'm Jungkook," he said, "just in case you were going to mix me up with another nineteen year old student who can't fend for himself or protect his own artwork."

Jin noted that the kid was legal without meaning to. "There's nothing wrong with accepting help," he said cheerfully. "It's a valid means of protecting your work. I get help all the time. Just last month my best friends helped me smush oreos all over my ex's car. And they ate the other halves so there was no wastage. Can you imagine how tough it would have been to cover the entire car on my own?"

Jungkook blinked. "Did she deserve it?"

"He did." Jin watched carefully but Jungkook's microexpressions didn't change.

"I'd like friends like that," Jungkook said wistfully.

"Well as I always say: be the friend you want to meet," Jin said. "You best stock up on cookies."

Jungkook gave a little laugh.

"To be frank, you're pulling ahead of them already, they never laugh at my jokes." Jin added. "Woah-" He'd nearly walked on as Jungkook halted on the street.

"This is me," Jungkook said softly, turning in at the gate of a nice looking semi-detached house. Jin supposed he still lived with his parents.

"I'll see you up to the front door," he protested, but Jungkook shook his head quickly.

"No, thank you," he said, and blasted Jin with those doe eyes in a way that left him quite transfixed. "You're really kind."

"When I'm not picking fights on buses, sure," Jin smiled. "Hey I could buy you a coffee some time to apologise properly?"

Jungkook shook his head again. "I owed you the apology, not the other way around."

"Then you buy me a coffee," Jin proposed with a smirk. "I'll give you my number-"

Jungkook was already backing off. "I'm straight," he said abruptly, his eyes bugging.

"Oh god, no, I wasn't implying- I mean I wasn't hitting on you-" Jin's protest faltered as Jungkook backed out into the rain, but the small sincere smile flickering on Jungkook's face as Jin floundered made him just stop and smile back, shaking his head.

"Thank you," Jungkook whispered, then he turned and dashed up to the front door, bent over to protect his folder.

Jin waited just long enough to see that he had keys to get in, then walked on. He was a twenty five minute walk home from here, but it was worth it to see Jungkook home mostly dry. I didn't care if you were straight or not he thought. I just didn't want to be the guy who ruined your day.

X-X-X

The first thing Jungkook did was put his art folder on the side table. It had a few droplets on it, but was otherwise intact. His heart was hammering and swelling with gratitude at the same time.

Shakily, he shut the front door over and turned the key.

"Oh hang on, I think Jungkook just got home," Xal was saying in the livingroom. "Baby, is that you?"

Jungkook brushed the damp hair out of his eyes with shaking fingers.

"Kookie?" Xal's voice upped its pitch.

Jungkook impelled himself to turn the handle and walked in.

Xal was on the sofa, a huge fluffy towel folded up neatly beside him, his lights and camera equipment set up around him, clearly mid-recording. "You're soaking" Xal cooed, then stopped short. Stared at Jungkook, his face slowly morphing into anger. Jungkook felt himself begin to quake, his stomach roiling.

Xal clapped twice, sharply, to mark the point where he'd cut the footage. He rose up from the couch, and surged forward, looking Jungkook up and down.

"Someone gave you a ride home," he accused, his voice cold with fury.

Jungkook shook his head. It felt like a stone had lodged itself in his throat. He should have been smarter. He should have taken that umbrella from Jin and ditched it as soon as Jin was out of sight.

Xal looked past Jungkook to where his folder, almost bone dry, lay on the table. His head snapped back and Jungkook cringed in fear.

"Oh, you are screwed baby boy," Xal breathed out. "I'll deal with you when I've finished filming. Now go outside, and stand till you're drenched. And you better look like you've just got home when you walk back here, understand?"

Jungkook nodded, gulping.

"Don't start crying!" Xal snapped, pointing at his eyes. "People don't cry because they got wet do they?"

Jungkook shook his head, trying desperately to rein the hot tears back. He slowly turned, the hairs on the back of his neck bracing for a blow, and headed back out into the cold rain.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

Xal's face melted into a warm smile. "You're soaking!"

Jungkook had his hands wrapped round his elbows, as if crossing his arms would help. He clenched his jaw in an attempt to stop his teeth chattering.

Xal shook his head. "I knew you'd forgotton your umbrella this morning." He picked up the fluffy towel beside him and shook it open. "Come here and say hello to everybody!"

Jungkook shuffled forward, the plush carpet absorbing his footsteps. His hair was plastered to his head, hooding over his eyes. His clothes clung to him. Rain beaded his eyelashes.

There was a glitter in Xal's gaze as Jungkook reached him, and he swung the thick towel around Jungkook's trembling shoulders. "Koo-kie," he shook his head reprovingly.

"Hi everybody," Jungkook said to the camera, clutching the towel close, trying to remember not to look at himself in the viewfinder or stare at the lights. He shuddered, and Xal moved in behind him, rubbing his big hands up and down the outside of the towel.

"I'm going to take this one away and dry him off," Xal winked at the camera. "Don't forget to send me a thumbs up if you enjoyed this vlog. And if you're new feel free to subscribe and hit the bell to be notified when I upload! We've had a lot of requests for the boyfriend tag-"

At this point he let Jungkook go to point rapidly in all directions around them. Jungkook knew he'd add the screenshots of the requests in the edit. Then Xal put his hands on Jungkook's hips around the towel and gave a gentle squeeze. Jungkook obediently bunched the towel in one wet fist and pointed up with the other. He wondered what the boyfriend tag was. A glance at the viewfinder showed Xal grinning over his shoulder.

"We'll do it if we get... how many likes on this video.." Xal pondered. "Hmm, how many do you think, Kookie?"

Jungkook's near-frozen brain was giving him nothing. He hazarded a guess, dreading that he would be wrong. "Thirty k?"

There was a pause, and Xal whistled. "That's ambitious, baby. Okay, well, Kookie said it! Thirty thousand likes! Thank you guys, you're the best. My other channel is in the description box if you like playthroughs. I post on there once a week on Sundays. We love you all!"

He waved, and Jungkook took the cue and waved also, trying to raise a smile at the dark eye of the camera.

As Xal let him go to stop the recording, Jungkook brought the corner of the towel to wipe his face. Waiting and shivering.

Xal switched each of the lights out in turn. The silence was so deep Jungkook could hear the blood pulsing in the channels of his ears. Or perhaps it was rumble of the distant rain.

Xal finished and turned on him. His initial flare of anger had turned into something more calculating.

"Who was it?" He said. "Was it someone from your class? What's his name?"

Jungkook could feel his stomach fluttering nervously, hunched deep in the towel. "I took the bus," he managed, using his words like they cost a fiver each. "There was a man with an umbrella. I tried to say no."

Xal regarded him, mouth like a knife wound on his handsome face.

Jungkook couldn't lie. He knew Xal had cameras at the front door. He'd see Jin in the footage if he looked. And he'd look if he thought Jungkook was lying to him. Jungkook had to protect Jin.

"Did he flirt with you?" Xal came in close, the muscles in hands and forearms corded as he resumed rubbing Jungkook's arms through the towel. "Did you flirt with him?"

Jungkook shook his head frantically.

"Did he walk you home?" Xal's eyes glittered, and Jungkook felt a rash of goosebumps spread through his freezing body. He nodded. "I'm sorry, Xal."

"I don't think you are," the friction of Xal's hands on his arms grew unbearably painful and then Xal let him go. "Strip. Shower quickly. We're handcuffing you to the bed tonight. I'm going to remind you who you belong to."

"B-" Jungkook choked down his protest at the look on Xal's face. He let the towel drop and began the labourious job of peeling his wringing clothes off, his heart thudding. Xal helped, none too gently.

He was mad. Jungkook tried so hard not to make Xal mad, but he'd failed again. He could feel bitterness and self-loathing trickle from his head down into his chest, flooding it. He couldn't do anything. His one attempt at asserting himself and his own space on the bus had resulted in his being rude to one of the nicest people he'd ever met. He deserved punishment.

But still, he was terrified of the handcuffs. Xal used them sparingly, not enough for him to get used to, and the feeling of utter helplessness was crippling.

At Xal's direction, he hurried upstairs and into a hot shower. He couldn't enjoy it. Xal was leaning against the bathroom wall, keeping one eye on him and one on his phone. Jungkook knew what would happen. Xal would leave him lying on the bed for hours while he edited and posted his vlog, while he disassembled his equipment. Then he'd let hell loose on Jungkook.

He could feel his knees buckling a little at the thought, his breath rattling with terror. He met Xal's eye through the steamed up shower door, and felt his chest clench tighter. He couldn't do this. Couldn't. Not tonight. Not when Jin had been so kind to him and reminded him of Hoseok and how Xal used to be. Not when he'd been treated like a real person.

He look a deep shuddering breath as he exited the shower. Xal thrust another towel at him. "Dry off. I'll be back in a moment."

Jungkook had a precious minute alone. He wrapped himself up in the towel, scrambling for the right words to use.

Please Xal, I'll be good, please don't use the handcuffs.

Please Xal, I'm still sore from last night. I know I was bad, but can we do it another night, please?

Please Xal, I love you. Please don't hurt me.

"Okay, baby boy," Xal had stepped back into the hall, and a moment later he filled the frame of the bathroom doorway. Jungkook gave a small gasp at the sight of the handcuffs, transfixed. Xal was running his fingers over the metal hypnotically, turning the cuffs in his hands, enjoying the clink of the small chain.

Jungkook stared at the handcuffs and broke.

"Sowwy!" He burst out.

Xal blinked. "Kook?"

"Kookie sowwy!" Jungkook didn't know if he controlled it or not any more. He put his hands over his eyes. "Kookie bad." He could hear his words slurring, and the shame he used to feel was replaced by pure desperation.

"Are you feeling little, baby?" Xal's voice changed instantly. Tender. Gentle. The way Xal used to be with him.

Kookie nodded from behind his hands. He could feel his entire body quivering, and he distantly realised he'd dropped the towel.

"Hey, its okay..." Xal said softly, and Kookie risked a peek through his fingers to see the the handcuffs disappear into Xal's pocket. He almost wept with relief, but instead gave himself over to the waves of numbness. He felt Xal drying him off, felt himself being sat down carefully on the toilet seat, and then felt pyjamas being slid on.

"Shh," Xal whispered into his ear as he worked, unplucking Kookie's right hand from his face to slide a sleeve on. "There's my good boy. It's okay. Kookie really is sorry, isn't he?"

Kookie nodded. He let Xal do the same with his left hand and watched him button his pyjama shirt up the front.

Xal crouched down infront of him. "We'll talk about it later when Jungkook is feeling big. What do you need? Cuddles?"

Kookie didn't want Xal's cuddles. He didn't want Xal to touch him at all.

"Big Ted," he whispered.

Xal patted his knee. "I'll get him. Come on, we'll make you a bed on the couch. You like that, don't you?"

Kookie stared into Xal's eyes, letting the fuzzy waves twist round his head, knowing somewhere in his subconcious that he still had to prove it to Xal.

A few minutes later he was tucked up on the sofa, lying against Big Ted, a huge adult-sized teddy bear, who Xal had propped in the corner. Kookie snuggled into Big Ted, laying his ear against Big Ted's chest, husky and tired, his head feeling warm and swollen like a balloon. They had a blanket over them, and Kookie sqeezed Big Ted a bit, just to feel grounded.

Xal worked on his laptop at the other end of the sofa. Kookie just lay there, curled up, his eyes lidding with exhaustion.

"Hey, Kookie," Xal's voice came some time later. "I'm going to make us some mac and cheese. Would you like that?"

Kookie felt the back of Xal's finger rub up and down the bridge of his nose. He kept his eyes shut and held on tighter to Big Ted. "Yes." He mumbled.

"You're so beautiful," Xal said suddenly, and it was jarring enough for Jungkook to feel clarity breaking through the fog he'd submerged himself in. He fought to keep his body relaxed.

The finger on his nose brushed gently against his exposed cheek. "I love you," Xal said quietly. "You know that, don't you?"

"Yes," Jungkook mumbled obediently. Xal had loved him once. Loved him to the ends of the earth. Jungkook didn't know what he'd done wrong for things to change.

"I'll just be in the kitchen," Xal said, and Jungkook heard the kitchen door brush open a moment later.

He let his eyes open to slits. Xal had left the door half open, but his back was turned.

Jungkook cast his gaze around their livingroom, trying to orientate himself enough to think, but not enough to come out of it completely. There was time for Xal's mood to swerve again.

It was Xal who had first told him about little space. Jungkook clearly remembered the day Xal had eagerly brought up website after website, and Jungkook had almost chuckled, imagining that it was some kind of joke.

"I think you're a little," Xal had told him, his eyes bright and hopeful. "You space out all the time, you like soft things, you love being called baby."

Jungkook hated being called a baby. But he was still at the stage where he wanted Xal to be happy above all else. "Okay," he said, scrunching his nose at the photograph on the screen. "I don't have to dress up like that, do I?"

"Not if you don't want to," Xal said. "But if you feel little, you need to let me know, okay? I'll look after you."

It didn't take Jungkook long to find out that being little meant no punishments. That being little was an instant way to diffuse Xal's anger. But he feared it. He feared it when he started to develop real affection for Big Ted, when he was supposed to be just acting and his brain went to static. He feared that this was Xal's plan all along: that he was trying to bury Jungkook and leave Kookie in his place.

He always swore to himself that he'd never use it again, but that was just another thing he couldn't do.

He wriggled his head under Big Ted's, feeling the texture against his hair. He needed to escape. He just didn't know how. It was insurmountable.

He thought of Jin. Of his honest brown eyes and his duffel coat and long fingers on the umbrella handle. Of the way his eyes had near popped out of his head in embarrassment when Jungkook had told him that he was straight. The light woody scent of figs that Jungkook's nose had caught on the bus.

As he drifted off, he pictured Jin's face in his mind.

 

X-X-X

Jin thought of Jungkook quite a lot on Tuesday night, during his takeaway and Netflix binge. Jungkook popped into his head a couple of times on Wednesday too. Perhaps even once on Thursday.

By Saturday, so much had happened. He'd got his car back from the garage. He'd had three drunk voicemails from his ex, which started with gloating over the theatre incident and quickly descended into telling Jin they should get back together. Jin deleted the voicemails without sending a response. The theatre had got in touch with Jimin who'd booked the tickets and offered them three free tickets to any upcoming performance as compensation. The petty cash had gone missing at work, creating a hullaballoo of accusations and interrogations which Jin found almost comical.

"So it's a corporate party?" He asked Namjoon, cradling his phone between his shoulder and cheek as he rifled through his wardrobe. "Suits?"

"Not as such," Namjoon's caramel voice burred through the phone. "The address is to Turret Taylor's actual home. He uploads to youtube, and he's made a pretty big name for himself online. Just got signed. So it's a celebration. A lot of youtube people, a lot of music people, a lot of plus-ones."

"Or plus-threes in your case," Jin grinned, tugging out a pastel blue shirt. Perhaps this one. Or that red silky one. Was that too racy? Probably. Maybe the baby pink with the soft collar?

"I think I'm going to produce a couple of the songs on his debut album," Namjoon said. "So I'm allowed a plus-three. I'm looking forward to seeing the kids, actually. And you. Life moves too fast nowadays. How did we get this old?"

"We're only twenty-four, steady on," Jin chuckled. "Right, I've got my outfit ideas narrowed down. I'll see you before you know it."

"I'm pretty sure I'll see you first," Namjoon was grinning. "We can place bets on how high Jimin's platform shoes are going to be."

"High enough to kick your ass for saying so," Jin settled on the pink. "See you in an hour."

Turret Taylor's house was huge and impressive. Fairy lights lined every shrub and tree in the garden. Jin could feel the music thrumming in his body even when he stepped out from the taxi. He wondered if it was Turret's own music he was hearing, because it sounded pretty damn boisterous.

There were bouncers at the door, and Jin flashed them his best bank-note smile and was admitted. The party was in full swing. Turret Taylor had his very own dancefloor in the room which most people had migrated to. There was a lot flashing coloured lights bouncing off the chandelier and a muddle of high heels and open-necked shirts.

"I come bearing alcohol," Namjoon stole up beside Jin, raising his voice above the pound of the music.

"How did you know?" Jin took the glass gratefully.

"I've already had two, he's going to need a bit of work, isn't he," Joon laughed.

"You'll fix him up," Jin said with certainty. Namjoon was a musical genius as far as Jin was concerned. When they'd first met at uni Jin had always assumed the younger was a bit of an odd-ball. Now he knew that all the mouthing silent words and scrambling for notebooks to scribble in was because Namjoon was always composing. Namjoon found music in everything.

He and Namjoon sidled into the hallway away from the worst of the noise and sat on the steps to catch up, but soon Namjoon was summoned for a business chat by a few suits who insisted on shaking Jin's hand in their sweaty palms before stealing his best friend away from him.

Jin wandered back into the main party room. The catering staff were laying buffet food out on the long table at the side of the room, and Jin was willing to bet if Jimin and Tae had made it by now, they'd be somewhere nearby.

He picked his away around knots of people, scanning the closest neighbours to the table, trying to listen out for Jimin's giggle or Tae's deep laugh over the thump of the music.

He gave a start when he saw Jungkook. Or at least, someone who looked awfully like Jungkook. He was standing near a group of three young men and a young woman, but it wasn't clear if he was with them or not.

Jin headed towards him. That was Jungkook, wasn't it? He was wearing some makeup: not a lot, just something light and glowy over his face and some kind of warm copper shadow on his eyelids, close to his charcoal eyes. Maybe some tinted balm on his lips. He wore black jeans and black boots, making his legs look even longer. His thin dark blue shirt was tucked into the band of his trousers, making his tiny waist even more prominent.

He looked hot. He looked worlds away from that adorable, awkward kid Jin had walked home this week. So much so, that Jin wondered if Jungkook had a brother. But surely a face like that couldn't exist twice?

"Jungkook?" He stopped at a safe distance, and gave a goofy grin and a little wave when Jungkook's head shot over his way. It was him alright. This was great. He could introduce him to Tae and Jimin when they arrived. "Fancy meeting you here!"

He saw surprise first on Jungkook's face. Then a flash of pleasure, which was quickly snuffed out. Jungkook stared at him a moment longer, then looked back to the buffet table.

"You remember me, right?" Jin said, brow furrowing. "Jin?"

"I told you," Jungkook said, his voice cold. "I'm straight."

"What?" Jin shook his head in confusion. "I'm just saying 'hello.' Are you alright? You seem off."

"Kookie," one of the young men in the group said suddenly and his hand snaked around Jungkook's waist drawing him into the group. Jin shook his head. Jungkook was a strange one. Complaining about Jin saying hello in case it somehow affected his straightness but it was okay if his friend held him like that?

He rolled his eyes and walked off. He made some small talk with a couple of girls who admired his shirt and wanted to know if he was a model, then Tae and Jimin arrived and dragged him onto the dancefloor.

"We have a plan!" Jimin pressed both hands to Jin's ear to be heard half-way through a particularly tuneless song with a heavy beat. "We're going to overthrow the DJ! We need some good music. Are you with us, Jin?"

"Don't listen to Jimin," Tae called into his other ear. "We're just going to see how far we can get before someone stops us."

At that precise moment, Jin caught sight of Jungkook across the room again. He hadn't seen him for the last couple of hours. He'd been able to put being given the cold shoulder out of his head.

What he saw now, though, made his stomach burn in outrage.

Jungkook had his back to the wall, and the 'friend' was pressed against him, one of Jungkook's legs tucked under his hand, the other hand on Jungkook's jaw. They were making out.

Jin hated being lied to. He hated being taken for a fool. And he was pretty sure he hated being treated like he was some kind of predator when he was nothing of the sort.

"They're hot," Tae followed Jin's gaze.

"Don't think they're single though," Jimin announced in his other ear, standing on tiptoes to look too. Sometimes Jin wondered if the kids had a hive mind.

"I'm going to find Namjoon, don't get into trouble!" He warned them, patting them both on the head and summoning the foundation of a smile.

Tae and Jimin were sufficiently tipsy to not notice how Jin was affected. Jin edged his way out of the dancefloor, quietly stewing. Had he been so intimidating to Jungkook that Jungkook had felt the need to lie? He couldn't help but steal another glance across the room. The other guy, a handsome biracial fellow, broke off the kiss, smiled and said something, and he and Jungkook linked hands and began to make their way around the room. Were they heading for a free room? It wasn't any of Jin's business, but he couldn't shake his confusion and annoyance off. Plus, they were heading his way to get to the door, and he and Jungkook had just made eye contact.

The other guy was stopped on route by an excited couple who bombarded him with questions. Jin watched him give a smile as wide as the pacific, listening to them carefully as they chattered.

Jin took his chance. It was snide of course, but he couldn't help it.

He sidled up to Jungkook, still anchored in place by his boyfriend/new lover's hand.

"Straight, huh." He said, raising an eyebrow.

Jungkook's mouth popped open. Jin was about to walk on, when he heard Jungkook mumble something.

"What was that?" He turned back. Jungkook flicked a glance at his partner, who was still caught up in animated conversation.

"Ask Jung Hoseok." Jungkook said, just audible enough for Jin to hear it.

"What? Who is that?"

Jungkook stared at him, his eyes liquid, and Jin felt a new sensation in his chest, an unfamiliar one. "Please," Jungkook said. "Ask Jung Hoseok. Please, Jin."

He stared at Jin like he was staring into his soul, then he turned away, looking at his boots.

"What's that's supposed-" Jin started, but there was something in Jungkook's body language, that made him step back, and just a moment later, the partner finished his conversation and led Jungkook away, oblivious to Jin.

Something was wrong. Jin didn't know what it was. But the last look Jungkook had given him was so beseeching and helpless and desperate. Something in Jin's gut told him that he couldn't let this go.

As a burst of commotion came from the DJ booth, Jin ran the name over and over in his head so he wouldn't forget. Jung Hoseok.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

"My friend Maria knows a Jung Hoseok!" Taehyung offered.

It was a shade after two am and they were huddled in around a table at a twenty-four hour ramen bar. Jin and Joon had just finished explaining to Taehyung and Jimin why it was not considered a polite guest activity for Jimin to rugby tackle the DJ's spinny stool while Tae went ham on the dials.

"Jin didn't tell us no." Taehyung had whined.

"He was too distracted by the hot guys making out in the corner," Jimin smirked, then quickly supressed it and fashioned his face into something more morose and sorrowful.

"You're lucky Namjoon rescued you!" Jin pointed his chopsticks at each in turn. They were even more lucky that a handful of drunken partygoers joined their revolution at the last moment, grappling with Turret Taylor's bouncer and providing cover while Namjoon yanked the kids away by their scruffs.

Now it seemed Taehyung was keen to make amends.

"Are you sure Maria knows a Jung Hoseok?" Jin raised a brow. "You're not just wishfully thinking that she could know a Jung Hoseok?"

Tae nodded his head, then took in the second question and shook it instead. "She's mentioned his name before. Definitely. Will I text her for his number?"

"That would be great," Jin admitted. "Thanks, Tae."

"It's the six degrees of separation!" Jimin chimed in. "Who else do you want to find, Jin? I want to play!"

"Just Jung Hoseok for now, thanks Jimin," Jin rolled his eyes.

"Who is he?" Namjoon was curious.

"A friend of Maria's...?" Tae looked up from his phone owlishly.

"No - I mean who is he to Jin? Why the sudden interest?"

Jin contemplated withholding the information till he had something more concrete. But these were his best friends. He crossed his arms on the table and leaned forward conspiratorily. "One of the hot guys making out? I think he could be in trouble."

"Are you sure that's not wishful thinking?" Jimin teased.

"No I mean it. I met him earlier this week. He was acting strangely tonight. He gave me Jung Hoseok's name and asked me to contact him. I could be mistaken, but I have a gut feeling that something's wrong. I think he was trying to hide the problem from the other guy. Or maybe the other guy was the problem."

"Be careful," Namjoon cautioned. "I know you, Jin. You have a saviour complex."

"No I don't!" Jin protested.

"Yes, you do!" The other three said in perfect unison. And then followed it up with high fives to celebrate their synchronisation. Jin rolled his eyes and smiled. Just because he'd been stupid enough to stick around his ex thinking he could help him.

Taehyung's phone dinged. "It's Maria! Ohh. It's a Jung Hosung she's spoken to me about!"

Jin wondered if he could get away with a third eye-roll. "Thanks anyway, Tae."

"Oh but she does know a Jung Hoseok too," Tae continued cheerily, scrolling down his text. "Nineteen years old. Lives at at the bottom of her street with three roommates, one of which is his boyfriend Yoongi. She's friends with Yoongi."

Jimin clapped his hands. "I love the six degrees of separation!"

"She says we should go visit her tomorrow and you can drop in on Hoseok then," Tae said brightly.

Jin supposed that made the most sense. He could have got Tae to get Maria to get Yoongi to give him Hoseok's number, but perhaps a face to face chat would make a lot more sense, and cut out the risk of Chinese Whispers. He just hoped he had the right Jung Hoseok.

"Where does Maria live?" He asked.

"Other side of the city. Just outside, in the suburbs." Tae said. "Don't worry about a thing, Jin, just bring yourself. I'll make sure we get there."

X-X-X

"Tae," Jin prodded his friend's shoulder. "Tae, wake up. I think this is our stop."

Tae's face was adorably crumpled. He yawned and stretched his limbs out before his eyes popped open. "Jin, we gotta get off here! Hurry up!"

Jin followed him, amused. Going on a journey with Tae was like taking a puppy out. Tae rotated between wanting to make friends with everyone, sleeping at unsuitable times, and playing games. He'd invented an intense version of 'Eye Spy' which involved choosing 'objects' such as 'MH' for moustache hair or 'EF' for ear freckle. Jin made awkward eye-contact with more than a few fellow passengers while he was examining their features for a 'LB,' 'NP' or 'IC.'

He had admitted defeat after 'P' for philtrum, and Tae had spent the next five minutes giving an oral essay on why Jin had the best philtrum of all time, drumming up support from their fellow passengers, before thankfully nodding off.

Now Tae was full of energy again, bouncing out of the station and up the road, making Jin pick up his pace as they entered a residential area with somewhat worn houses and flats lining a road filled with potholes.

"Maria!" Taehyung cried out in delight ten minutes later as a young woman with dyed black hair and a nose ring threw open her front door. They enveloped eachother in an excited hug.

"Do you want to come in?" Maria offered, shaking Jin's hand as Taehyung rushed past them to see her hamster. "I made chocolate cake."

"I'd rather leave you to handle Tae's sugar rush," Jin grinned. The truth was, his mind had been full of Jungkook since last night. That look in the teenager's face. That desperation. He needed to satisfy himself that Jungkook was okay. "Which is Hoseok's house?"

"Opposite side of the road, last one. It's a four-in-a-block, they're ground right."

"And Yoongi knows I'm dropping in?"

Maria blinked. "Was I supposed to tell him?"

Jin shrugged. "No, it's fine. I'll pop over. Save me some cake!"

Standing outside what he hoped was Hoseok and Yoongi's flat, Jin tried to get his story straight. Did Hoseok know a Jungkook? If so, did Hoseok know why Jungkook might have sent him here?

He buzzed for ground right, wondering if the thrumming in his head was his own excitement or the far off rhythm of a train.

A tinny voice came through the intercom a moment later. "'lo?"

"Hi," Jin said, feeling suddenly awkward. "I'm looking for Jung Hoseok, do I have the right flat?"

His only response was the front security door being unlocked. Jin took a deep breath, put on his best professional face, headed in. He could hear the rattle of the flat door being opened.

The young man who opened up looked like he'd been ready to head out. He had gel-styled hair and a faux-leather jacket and Korean features.

"Jung Hoseok?" Jin said hopefully.

"That's me," Hoseok nodded. "I don't know you, do I?"

"Um, I'm Jin. I'm a friend of a friend. Of a friend. Um...of a friend. Sorry to drop in on you without warning. It's a bit complicated, but basically, an acquaintance of mine, Jungkook asked me to come find a Jung Hoseok. Do you know a Jungkook?"

Hoseok's expression tightened. "Jeon Jungkook?"

Jin had no idea, but his story was already sounded tenuous at this point. "Yes."

"Come in," Hoseok stood back from the door.

The flat was cute and homey. Jin could smell a magnolia candle burning somewhere. He added his shoes to the stack at the door, and trailed after Hoseok, admiring the photographs on the hallway walls.

"Yoongi, this is Jin," Hoseok reported to a shorter young man with a downturned mouth and feline eyes, who was perched on the arm of a worn sofa, polishing off some kind of meat dish. "He's..."

"Sort of friends with Maria from up the road," Jin volunteered quickly.

Hoseok looked at Yoongi for confirmation, and when Yoongi nodded, continued with more certainty. "And he has information about Jungkook. You remember me telling you about Jungkook?"

Yoongi nodded again. "Something happen to him?"

Hoseok blanched at the thought, and Jin quickly waved his hands in reassurance. "No, he's fine. Well, not fine, I don't think anyway, but I saw him last night. So there's no emergency, um probably."

Yoongi and Hoseok observed him and Jin wished he could take a rewind on that sentence.

"Take a seat. How do you know Jungkook?" Yoongi asked.

Jin related both his brief encounters. Yoongi remained impassive and thoughtful, but by the time Jin had got to the second encounter, various emotions were flitting across Hoseok's face.

"The guy Jungkook was with," Hoseok leaned forward, eyeing Jin intensely. "White-Hispanic? Tall, broad shoulders, dark hair?"

Jin nodded.

Hoseok's mouth twisted. He thumped back on the couch, staring at the cracked ceiling. Yoongi reached over to run his hands through Hoseok's hair absently, still thinking himself. "And all Jungkook said was 'ask Jung Hoseok'?"

Jin nodded. "I'm hoping you can fill me in."

Hoseok dragged his eyes from the ceiling with a sigh. "I can tell you what I know. I doubt its enough to help."

Yoongi heaved himself up, taking his now-empty plate with him. "I'll put the kettle on."

Hoseok watched him go, and Jin didn't miss the way Hoseok's eyes travelled to Yoongi's butt. Then the teenager levelled his eyes at Jin. "Before we start, I'm not proud of this. It's probably the thing I'm least proud of in my life. But if Jungkook wants me to tell you about it, then I will."

Hoseok had elongated features, particularly his forehead and his gorgeous - almost feminine - cheekbones. He comported himself as if he were older than his nineteen years. "We were in the same History class at school," Hoseok began. "Kook and I. I was a transfer in, half-way through the year. I was just fifteen. I wasn't 'out' because there had never been a closet. My parents always told me to follow my heart and it had been working for me, so I was a force to be reckoned with when I wanted something."

He held up a finger to indicate a pause and moved across the room with his long legs, opening an ottoman and rifling through its contents. Somewhere near the bottom there was a school yearbook, its corners bent. Hoseok found himself and turned the book towards Jin. Jin peered at Hoseok's rounder cheeks, emo haircut and confident expression as he beamed at the camera. "There we go. I led a pretty blissful existence." He pointed along the page. "There's Kook."

Jin felt physical pain in chest at how precious fifteen year old Jungkook looked. He didn't look much different, just a whole lot more puppy fat on his cheeks and nose. The eyes were still huge and terrified as he stared at the camera. He wasn't even smiling.

"I thought he was cute," Hoseok said matter of factly, leaving Jin with the yearbook, and sitting again. "Our History teacher had a policy of making us sit alphabetically, which put me beside Jungkook. Jeon and Jung. Although I arrived half-way through the year he made the rest of the class from K onwards move up a seat just to satisfy his OCD. It didn't take long for me to work out that Jungkook was shy. You'd get one word answers from him, and when he looked at you he seemed scared you might eat him. It didn't deter me in the slightest."

"So you made friends?"

Hoseok scoffed in cheerful outrage. "You say that like it was an easy thing. I worked my socks off on that kid. I was aways missing a pen and needing to borrow a spare of his. That was two interactions down, because I'd have to thank him and return it at the end of class. I pretended I didn't have a clue about History just so I could whisper questions to him. People noticed. They told me not to bother with him. He doesn't talk to anyone. You're wasting your time with him. Jungkook's a bit retarded, haven't you noticed? Except he wasn't retarded at all, He just had this strangulating shyness. And damn, if I didn't see it as a challenge to get through to him. He had an older friend in the year above, and I sometimes saw them together across the cafeteria. It was a different Jungkook. He was laughing, joking, chatting freely."

Jin ran his fingers over the brightly patterned throw rug he was sitting on, trying to imagine.

"But if anyone passed too close to their table he'd clam up. If any kids came to speak to his friend, which happened routinely, Jungkook would all but hide behind his friend. Or stare down at his lap till they'd gone. I saw his friend trying to include him, gently encouraging him, but to no avail."

Hoseok stopped then. "Xal, that's the friend's name. Xalvador Rouco."

When Jin didn't react, Hoseok sighed. "Remember the name, it'll become relevant later. I wanted what Xal had: I wanted Jungkook to look at me with his eyes shining and a smile on his face. And I was a hormonal teenger, and I was attracted to him. I didn't know what his sexuality was, but I was hoping it would be orientated in my direction. I worked so hard on him in History. He was the sweetest kid, Jin. And he was funny, once you got him going. After a month or two, he began to look at me with real wonder in his eyes. And I was a total sucker for him. I'd been asked out by a couple of girls, and even by one boy, but I wanted Jungkook. A lot of our conversations had started to verge on flirty, and everything seemed on track."

Hoseok shifted uncomfortably, before continuing. "I know I sound like a selfish brat, steamrolling my way into his life just because I could, treating him more like a challenge than a person. I swear that by this point I really did care about him. I thought I was in love with him." He shrugged. "Maybe I was. It's hard to tell with highschool kids. Anyway, one day, I walked past him and Xal in the cafeteria, and said 'hey, Kook!' And you know what, he grinned at me and said, 'hi Hobi' and asked me what I was having for lunch. Jeon Jungkook instigating conversation. Xal was stunned. I can't tell you how happy I was that afternoon."

"So you asked him out?" Jin guessed, smiling at Yoongi as he returned with a very domestic looking tea tray and set it between them.

"I asked him out," Hoseok confirmed, welcoming Yoongi's returned presence at his side. "I mean, I didn't use the word 'boyfriend,' but we'd been flirting back and forth. One day our History teacher actually called out Jungkook for talking in class, Kook was mortified. It felt like we'd passed the final hurdle. I bent and whispered in his ear: 'How about I take you out to a movie at the weekend?' I'd never seen him outside school, and for some reason Kook didn't like having a mobile phone, so this would be a significant first step."

"And he said no?" Jin asked.

"He was delighted." Hoseok said. "It was as if he'd been waiting and hoping I'd ask him. He said yes straight away, asked what we'd see, and where we'd meet, and my heart just soared. I wasn't planning to put any big moves on him. I was hoping he might kiss me at the end of the night, but even if we only managed a cuddle I'd've been content with that. I knew he was soft and precious and needed to be nurtured. I laboured over every single element of that night. I read movie reviews to make sure to pick one he'd like. I booked the tickets on my mum's credit card, just in case. I bought popcorn and juice for us to smuggle in. For the first time in my life I had a crisis over what I was going to wear. I'd started dating when I was thirteen, but this felt like the first date I'd ever been on in my life. Each time I spoke about our date, I'd started calling it a 'date' and Jungkook hadn't balked, he seemed really enthusiastic."

Jin glanced back down at kid-Hoseok and kid-Jungkook in the yearbook. Babies. Babies with hormones.

"I was twenty minutes early," Hoseok said. "I'd nicked a bit of my dad's aftershave to dab on my jaw and neck. I'd washed my hair twice just to get it right. I thought I was hot stuff, but I was also trembling in terror. It was the longest twenty minutes of my life, checking my phone every two minutes even though he didn't have one. And then I saw him, coming round a corner, eager to see me, and I think my heart near burst at how beautiful he was. And then Xal rounded the corner after him. I thought he was dropping Kook off, seeing him to the door, being an older-brother of sorts. Kook hugged me and I greeted him and waited for Xal to say goodbye."

Jin winced. "He stayed."

"He sat between us," Hoseok said. "He sat between us and he had his arm round Kook's shoulder the whole time, and Kook seemed perfectly fine with it. He wasn't shy around Xal, remember. He could have protested, could have asked to sit beside me, could have told Xal he wasn't welcome. He did none of those things. I had a lump in my throat the whole movie. I had never really experienced rejection before."

Jin was starting to think he knew where this was going.

"Kook scampered off to the toilet immediately after the film ended," Hoseok added. "Xal had bought him a giant drink and all the sweets he wanted from the official kiosk. I stood there in utter misery. And Xal, who I barely even knew, turned to me and said 'he wanted me to tell you that you're not his type.'" He grimaced at the memory. "I was devastated. Not just that I wasn't Kook's type, but that he'd used his friend to tell me. I thought Kook and I were friends. I thought he trusted me. I thought that even if he was straight as a ruler, or thought I was ugly as sin, he would just let me know. Not lead me on, thinking that we had something. I left the cinema foyer. I mumbled something to Xal, something like 'thanks for letting me know, tell him I had to go,' and I walked away while Kook was still in the toilet."

"He blames himself," Yoongi interjected. "But it wasn't his fault, it really wasn't."

"Kook was silent and withdrawn at our next History class," Hoseok said. "It felt like confirmation of Xal's words. That he hadn't wanted anything to do with me in the first place. And I couldn't speak to him, I just couldn't. I was so hurt. I felt so betrayed. If he'd tried to speak to me, tried to explain, if he'd tried anything I'd probably have caved and we'd have patched it up somehow. I adored the kid, after all. But he said nothing, wouldn't look at me, and I just sat there trying not to cry, mad at myself, mad at Xal, mad at Kook. It was almost the end of the year by this point, and the classes were shaken up the following year. He was in a couple of my classes but we weren't assigned to sit together and I chose to sit with other kids. I had been making other friends in other classes, and after a while I began to pick myself up and get on with life. I still saw him with Xal in the cafeteria sometimes. They always sat very close."

Jin's mind worked overtime to figure out where this was going.

"I forgave him later on, in my own head, I mean," Hoseok said. "I can't hold grudges for long. I decided we were both immature, and I'd tried and failed and that was that. I was happy again, honestly happy. The whole next year went by and I honestly hardly thought about him. Then when we were seventeen, Kook was one of the school leavers. I was staying on to do my final year, but I'd heard that he and a bunch of others were leaving. I figured he was probably leaving because Xal was. Xal was the year above us. They were inseparable, after all. I thought about finding him and wishing him all the best, but I guess I got distracted."

He paused, and Jin saw the tears fill up in Hoseok's eyes. Yoongi resumed the hair petting.

"There was a note slipped into my locker," Hoseok said. "The day most of the leavers were signing off. I still have it, in the drawer in our room. Hold on." With a few rangy movements he left the room.

"Hoseok has a heart of pure gold," Yoongi regarded Jin over his cute crockery as he brought his tea-cup to his mouth. "You give him a hard time for any of the dumb calls he made at fifteen and I will end you."

Jin held up his hands in surrender.

"Good," Yoongi said and set his teacup down. "He beats himself up about this all the time."

Hoseok returned. The note he held in his hand was folded in half and he held it out to Jin almost reverentially. Jin took it carefully and opened it up.

Jungkook's handwriting was quite tidy for a boy, a little slanted to the right.

Hoseok.

I'm finishing school today, so I wanted to say goodbye. I hope you'll be happy your whole life, and maybe one day when you're a famous dancer I'll be in your audience. Thank you for being the best friend I ever had. I'll never forget you and I hope you'll remember me sometimes.

Jungkook.

Jin looked up.

"I hadn't spoken to him in two years by that point," Hoseok said hoarsely. "Two years."

Jin looked back down. And now it was four years later and Jungkook had sent Jin to Hoseok. His best friend. His only friend. Those conversations with Hoseok in History had meant the world to Jungkook, that much was clear.

"I had no way to get in touch with him." Hoseok continued. "I went as far as getting a hold of Xal's number, but Xal didn't respond to my messages. There had been rumours at that time that they were together, that they were dating eachother. I'm pretty sure they moved out of the area, maybe out of the city. There was nothing I could do, but stew in guilt. If only I hadn't been so caught up in my own damaged ego after that botched date. I realise in hindsight that he was so innocent at fifteen. I don't think he knew it was a date-date. I think I'd misinterpreted a lot of his conversation as flirting when it wasn't."

"Maybe that's all he knew," Jin ventured. "Maybe he thought it was normal because his conversations with Xal were flirty. After all, he did end up dating Xal didn't he? It's Xal you were describing earlier: the tall biracial guy from last night?"

Hoseok nodded, getting up again to take Jungkook's note back, carefully folding it. "Move on in the yearbook, you'll find the year above us. Next page. Yeah, there. Is that him?"

Jin looked down at Xal's handsome features. He was sixteen here, his shoulders not yet broad, some mild acne scarring on his face, but unmistakably the guy who was making out with Jungkook last night. "That's him." He said. "So Jungkook isn't straight then. Why did he lie twice and say that he was?"

He took note of Xal's full name. Xalvador Rouco.

"Well I'll say it if no-one else will," Yoongi said. "Xal did not want to share Jungkook with Hobi at the cinema. Jungkook clearly wanted to see Hobi. If he'd wanted Xal to join them he'd probably have mentioned it at school. Even if he invited Xal, a good friend would have let Kook and Hobi sit together. More likely, Xal just invited himself."

Jin agreed. Hoseok sighed and nodded. It was clear he and Yoongi had trod this conversational path before.

Yoongi was warming to his theory. "He made sure to tell Hobi that Kook had known it was a date-date. Therefore it looked like Kook had led Hobi on. When Hobi left abruptly, upset, who knows what Xal said to Jungkook when he came out from the bathrooms. But he said exactly enough to make sure they didn't speak again. And now it appears Xal is dating Jungkook. You tried to see Jungkook to his door, Jin. If I had a possessive boyfriend, that's the last thing I'd want. What did Jungkook say to make you back off?"

"That he's straight. Implying that I was coming on strong," Jin said. "Which I wasn't, but it worked. He kept me away from the property."

"Then at the party," Yoongi said. "He's standing right beside Xal and you come wandering up and he probably knows Xal is going to sock you one if he catches you two talking. So he tries the same trick again. You back off, drama with the boyfriend is avoided."

Jin nodded. "That makes sense. But then he specifically asks me to go to Hoseok. You think Xal's a possessive jerk and Jungkook is trying to warn me? You think he maybe wants out of the relationship?"

"Yes to the first, probably to the second." Yoongi said.

"I'd really like to see him, Jin," Hoseok added earnestly. "To know that he's okay, to see if he wants to be friends again. Sounds like going to the house is a no-no. But if you could pass my number and address on to him? Is he still in the city? Will you see him somehow?"

Jin nodded. "Here's my phone, stick it in."

Jungkook had been so desperate. If it wasn't for his catty jibe, Jin would probably have never spoken to Jungkook again. This wasn't about getting Jin to back off. Jin had to agree with Yoongi's conclusion. This was about Xal. Xal's action back at the cinema could be played off as immature. But Xal was twenty now, and something still seemed off. If he indeed couldn't handle Jin saying 'hello' to Jungkook, that was a huge red flag.

Don't worry, Jungkook, he thought. I'm on this case. If you're in trouble, I'm going to save you.

X-X-X

Xal had left his phone open on the table. Jungkook rarely paid attention to Xal's phone, but a picture of the two of them from last night caught his eye on screen. Xal had picked out Jungkook's outfit and the bits of makeup he should use and made Jungkook stand for half a dozen photos at the start of the party. Jungkook wasn't surprised that it was for his Instagram.

He leaned over towards the coffee table and nudged the phone round with his finger so he could see the photo better. Xal was sitting beside him, but he was talking to his friends and wasn't paying attention.

"I'm getting much better at figuring out the algorithm," Xal said. "And what my audience is looking for-"

He and Jungkook were standing side by side, but at photogenic angles on the front steps leading to the porch of Turret Taylor's house, the marblesque border around the doorway directly behind them, people blurry in a warm hue in the background between their heads. The garden fairy lights were twinkling on the far edge of the picture. They both held a glass of champagne in their hands. It was a well taken photo, with so much contrast between glowy golds and deep blues and blacks. Jungkook scrolled down to Xal's title.

Jungkook and I at @TurretTay's bash. Congrats mate, you smashed it! Can't wait for the album!
Our new joint account: @Kooxal!

Jungkook's curiosity bit and he couldn't help but click the link.

The brand new account had 9.5k followers already. There was only one picture posted on the account, and it made Jungkook's blood run cold as he tapped to open it up.

Welcome to our new joint account! Yes, my boyfriend is cuter than your boyfriend.

And there, in the picture for all the world to see were Jungkook and Big Ted, curled up in their blanket, Jungkook's eyes closed.

He hadn't even noticed Xal take the picture.

He felt tears welling up. It just looked like he was napping, he knew that, knew that Big Ted wouldn't mean anything significant to people aside from cuteness, but...

Heart hammering, he moved down to the comments.

justdebbiehere Baby kookoo awwwww

x.x_hellboyno_x.x babiee!

martin_2.1 Play more COD Xal!!

czx.traffic Eres un ángel en la tierra

nejilu.luanna im crying

oxmxtty cute!!!!!aaaa

quenni_99 I'm dying this is so cute

jamzam51602 te amo Kookie

notice_me_xal Kooxal forever!!

lucymeres9870 can i borrow him for a week?

iluvflowerpower19 Awww

weasy_was_taken Kookie is sooo cute

june.song88 i like you jungkook

laura.henry @dzayeuder

pxnda_89so cute baby

boogerly Plz upload the bf tag kthanksbye

madnadjita_mitra I want to put him in my pocket and keep him forever

ky_152019 كيوت

guoguodebingtic U are my youtube OTP

may_1314 He is toi much handsome

tran5878 he looks so tiny. BABY.

emmaledger Beautiful baby!

lafty_star_ I NEED that bear, where did you get it?

Kooxal_fan I just want to presses kisses all over his face and tuck him in

dzayeuder @laura.henry Little Jungkook confirmed!

viviheiro Are you going to make a joint youtube too?

mandaf.salmarov all i see is two dollies

They were endless. And so many were using the baby angel emoji. Usually accompanied by the actual baby emoji or the bunny emoji or love hearts.

Jungkook felt the tears begin to spill. His gut began to contract with spasms of nausea. He kept very quiet and still, reading comment after comment.

"Hey, are you alright, Jungkook?" One of Xal's youtube friends said. Jungkook thought it might be the hostess of the evening.

"What's wrong baby?" Xal turned immediately, his eyes narrowing when he saw his phone in Jungkook's hand. "Why have you got my phone?"

"To check our joint Instagram account apparently," Jungkook burst out, unable to contain himself.

There was a pause, and in his periphery he was aware of the other four people staring at he and Xal uncertainly. Jungkook didn't care. He couldn't believe Xal had done this to him. Jungkook tried so hard to be good, and he'd put his makeup on so carefully just for Xal's stupid photoshoot yesterday, knowing that Xal would probably use it online somewhere. But this...

"Oh baby," Xal gently took the phone from Kook's limp hand and swallowed him in a hug. "I was going to surprise you when we got home tonight! I knew you'd cry, you sap. This is going to get you so much exposure. I reckon at least half my fans will follow. And when we do ads the profits will be 50/50."

"Oh Xal, that's so sweet!" The hostess said, relief showing in her voice.

"Hey," Xal's big hand was on the back of Jungkook's neck, hiding his face in Xal's chest, the other hand pulling him flush against Xal's body. "Hey, shhh. I know it feels a bit scary now that it's finally happening, but honestly, Kookie, you deserve it. A lot of my fans are really our fans anyway, they adore you. I'll help you choose what photos to post. You've been so supportive of me and I just wanted to be supportive of you."

"Why don't you do that for me?" One of the other girls slapped her boyfriend's side. "Why can't you be more like Xal?"

"You don't have to thank me, baby boy," Xal murmured. "What's mine is yours and what's yours is mine, right?"

Jungkook nodded numbly into Xal's chest. Because it was true.

"Damn, I wish I'd brought my vlogging camera," the other guy complained. "You two would have been a title and thumbnail right there."

Jungkook let his whole body sink against Xal, keeping his face buried because it was the easiest thing to do. He breathed in Xal's cologne and tried to stop trembling. Xal gathered him up onto his knee, arms wrapped round him.

"Anyway," Xal said, "about the collab-"

Jungkook thought of Jin again. Jin, Jin, Jin. Would Jin find Hoseok? Would Hoseok tell Jin about Xal even if he did? He shut his eyes, feeling washed out and weak. If Jin didn't help him, then nobody would.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

Of course, despite his determination to get to the bottom of what was happening with Jungkook and figure out his next step, Jin had to put everything on the back burner.

Because Monday.

He gouged his knuckles into the inner corners of his eyes and yawned, wincing blearily at the screen. He hadn't got much sleep last night. Possibly because everything Hoseok had told him was running through his head, although he had his suspicions that it also had something to do with Maria's chocolate cake.

A glance to his left and right told him that Keith and Ahn were slacking off as usual, several tabs up on Google.

Jin pursed his lips and kicked his chair back an inch or two to get a better glance up and down the office. He was in the clear. He hooked his ankle round the desk and tugged himself back in.

He had a perfect record of actually working when he was on the clock.

But once wouldn't hurt.

He minimised his spreadsheet and brought up the web browser. People usually had a Twitter or a Facebook or something. He heisitated over his keyboard for a moment, then he typed.

Xalvador Rouco

He wasn't expecting to hit the jackpot. YouTube came up first: 'Xal1717,' followed by Instagram and then a second Youtube: 'Xalvador Rouco' and then a Twitter. Was this all for the same guy? It made sense that he did Youtube actually, it would explain why he was a guest at Turret Taylor's party.

Jin clicked the first hit.

"Guys, I do not like this-"

This was him alright. Xal was in the bottom corner of the promoted video, gaming headphones atop his head. A jumpscare had him shrieking out in what sounded like Spanish, before he levelled his player's gun at the on-screen monster and blasted it into oblivion.

"I fricken knew it!" Xal clutched his hand to his broad chest as he swung his player round the darkened shack. "Let's find this map before his friends show up-"

"You should mute that or find some earphones. Boss'll hear it."

Jin startled, jerking in his chair. Keith was behind him looking over his shoulder. As Jin hurriedly hit mute, Keith whistled. "Didn't know you watched Xal!"

"You know him?" Jin wondered if Jimin's six degrees of seperation was supposed to be this effective.

"Sure, he's getting into the big league," Keith said, then frowned at Jin. "Wait, you mean personally? No. I follow him though, he's a good gamer. And he is from around here, he said so on a vlog once. You like his playthroughs?"

"Haven't watched them, he seems entertaining though.." Jin watched Xal take down another monster with a series of impressive headshots.

"He is. He's a funny dude," Keith nodded. "I haven't seen this one yet, might check it out tonight. It's always better watching horror games in the dark, don'tcha think?"

"Hold up," Jin said. "Did you say he was on a vlog? So he doesn't just game?"

"He has a personal channel which is mostly vlogs. I don't watch it as often but it's taking off. About to pass the gaming channel in subscribers, which sucks if he starts uploading on here less. Check 'Featured Channels'. Yeah, there it is."

Jin clicked the link. As before, the highlighted video, the most recent one apparently, began to play. Xal was sitting on a grey sofa, wearing a burgundy sweater, phone in hand, looking very relaxed. He began talking, giving a toothpaste-ad smile to the camera. With Xal still on mute, Jin's eyes hovered over to the title of the video.

KOOKIE GETS COMPLETELY DRENCHED!!

"What?" Jin said. It had over three hundred and fifty thousand views and it was from six days ago. As in last Tuesday.

"Kookie? Oh that's Xal's boyfriend," Keith supplied. "He's shy as hell. Pops up once in a while on Xal's channel."

Jin began tracking along the progress bar at the bottom of the video, watching the small pop-up box show continue to show Xal talking. The video was fourteen minutes long and when Jin reached the thirteen minute mark, he saw movement. He clicked.

The images played out silently, and Jin's eyes bugged at the sight of Jungkook. Jungkook was wringing wet, abolutely sopping, shivering, his clothes and hair glued to him revealing his slim frame. Xal was wrapping a towel round his shoulders. A towel, Jin realised, he'd had sitting beside him on the couch this whole time.

Had it rained badly in the days before Tuesday? Jin wracked his brain. He didn't think so. And he was pretty sure Jungkook was wearing those clothes on the day they'd met. It was the same jacket, that was for sure.

Jungkook had made a dash from the cover of Jin's umbrella to his front door, but there was no way to account for him being this soaked. Not if it was the same day. So either this footage was from a previous week or...

"Manager coming," Ahn muttered over their short cubicle partition and Keith booked it back to his own desk while Jin hurriedly exchanged the Youtube video for his spreadsheet.

He knew exactly what he was doing tonight.

X-X-X

"Hey baby, you hungry?" Xal pounced on Jungkook the moment he was in the door.

Jungkook shook his head, clutching his art to his chest. Xal plucked it from him and set it aside, helping Jungkook out of his jacket. "Need the toilet?"

Jungkook shook his head again. "Is something going on?" He said cautiously, allowing himself to be manhandled out of the sleeves.

"We've hit thirty four thousand likes for the boyfriend tag!" Xal hooked the jacket up on the coatstand and seized Jungkook's hand in his. "I had another video ready to go out tomorrow, but I think we gotta ride this wave now, you know? You ready to do this?"

"I don't know what I have to do.." Jungkook protested, as Xal tugged him through the livingroom and on into the kitchen. His voice came and went like a piece of laundry whipping in the wind.

"I'm going to talk you through it, don't worry Kookie," Xal had everything set up in the kitchen already, with his lights and camera on the other side of the breakfast bar. "I know its your first full video. Hold still, I'm going to put some tinted moisturiser on your face. It'll stop you looking washed out."

Unlike last time when 'washed out' was exactly the look Xal had been doing for. Jungkook obediently held still while Xal ran a wipe over his face and then squeezed some tan liquid into his left hand. His warm fingers spread the cool cream over the bridge of Jungkook's nose and across his cheeks, then smeared it over his brow, smoothing and blending under his chin and neck. Jungkook inhaled the scent of Xal's cologne.

Xal stood back and looked at Jungkook's face critically as he wiped off his hands. "You look good, baby," he said finally and Jungkook breathed a sigh of relief. "Just a little bit of rosy balm here and we're good to go."

Jungkook's lips tingled as Xal dabbed the colour on. Question after question was tripping through his mind, but he really didn't want to rock the boat today.

Xal had been mad at him last night for complaining about the new Instagram.

"But it was a private picture," Jungkook had whined, his own anger having quickly given way to reluctant acceptance. "I don't want people to see me like that."

Xal's grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled. "It's just a picture of you napping, Kook, you had to be such a drama queen in front of my friends, didn't you?"

Jungkook had a sinking feeling that he was going to pay for it when they arrived home, but there was a niggle in his chest that wouldn't let it go. That told him Xal had crossed yet another line. "But when you took that I was feeling... you know!"

Xal send him such a scathing look that Jungkook curled himself up against the passenger side door. "Do you know how many Littles feel alone and neglected and don't have a voice? I post one picture that might have given them some comfort and encouragement and you're selfish enough to want to take that away from them?"

"I didn't- I wasn't-" Jungkook floundered, but Xal was having none of it.

"We're going to make bank off this Instagram and already you don't want to pull your weight. I'm slogging away trying to build us up a nice nest egg, and all you ever do is undermine me!"

"I'm sorry." Jungkook whispered. It was the only way to stop the tidal wave that was Xal's temper.

"You will be when we get home," was the retort.

He'd cried into his pillow last night as Xal loomed over him, each thrust animalistic, angry.

He'd stolen out of bed this morning while Xal slept on, trying to ignore the jolts of pain as he got ready for college. He'd had all sorts of half-plans on the bus on the way home. Perhaps he could offer to cook dinner tonight. Or try to initiate a movie and a cuddle session. Maybe he should just apologise as soon as he arrived and hope that Xal was in a better frame of mind.

He hadn't expected this.

"There," Xal said cheerfully, screwing the lid back on the balm and reaching for the wipes. "Gorgeous, baby."

Jungkook's mouth was dry, his tongue sticking to his palate. "What should I do?"

Xal patted one of the breakfast bar stools. "Up here. Now you've seen me do videos before. It's okay to make mistakes. If you do, we might have to repeat whatever question we're on. Remember to smile. Most importantly, remember to smile at me. I've got a few props which I'll bring in along the way. If you need to take a break, wait till we get to the end of a question, then let me know. Okay?"

"Okay," Jungkook said, bewildered. Uneasy prickles worked their way up and down his spine. "Where are the questions?"

"On my phone. Don't look so scared, baby. I've already filmed the intro and everyone knows its your first video and that you're a bit shy. Just try to be natural and smile, okay?"

Jungkook nodded, sliding his hands under his thighs, flat against the stool. He couldn't help thrumming his leg anxiously.

"I'm going to snap my fingers, and I want you do a little up-down on the stool like you just landed, okay?" Xal finished fiddling with the camera and settled himself in the twin seat beside Jungkook. "On three. One, two, three!"

Xal snapped his fingers as Jungkook pressed up from the seat and let himself thud back down. Even that small movement sent sharp pain ricocheting from his ass. But he didn't have time to think about it.

"You gonna say hello to everyone?" Xal prompted him with a grin.

"Hi everybody," Jungkook said to the camera, taping a smile on his face.

"Did you know they've got our last video to thirty four k likes?! That's pretty damn cool, huh?"

Jungkook nodded. There was a fraction of a pause in which he realised Xal wanted him to say more, and he almost choked. "Should have asked for forty," he said and Xal tipped his head back and laughed.

"C'mere," his boyfriend said, reaching out to tug Jungkook's stool closer. "You know what we gotta do now, Kookie?"

"The boyfriend tag." Jungkook nodded.

"You don't know what that is, do you?"

Jungkook shook his head. "Is it a game?"

"More of a quiz," Xal reached one arm round to hold the back of Jungkook's stool and with the other held his mobile phone between them. "First up: Where did we meet?"

Jungkook scanned down the questions and got the gist of what was going on. "At my house." He said.

"Do you remember how old we were?" Xal prompted him. Jungkook remembered that he was supposed to smile at Xal as well as the camera. He turned. Xal was so close their noses were almost touching. "I was three and you were four," he said. He tried to smile but it wobbled, and his heart clenched like a fist behind his breastbone. He'd screwed up.

"Are you nervous?" Xal's own smile was pulling at his lips, and Jungkook felt a hand tousle the back of his hair. "You don't bite, do you guys? Here, this might help." He set the phone down and tilted his stool, reaching across to the box at the edge of the counter.

He produced a photograph, and held it up the camera, adjusting its position, watching in the viewfinder to make sure it focused. He held it there for a few seconds, then handed it to Jungkook. Jungkook had to squeeze his hands out from under him to take it.

"Your mum found it the other day and sent it in the post," Xal leaned his head in.

Jungkook ran his fingers round the edge of the photocard. He remembered those furnishings. His mum's hairdo was ridiculously out of date now. And, literally wrapped round her leg, his two obsidian eyes peeked out at Xal. Xal was wearing dungarees and bending down further than neccessary to talk to him.

Jungkook had never seen this photograph.

"Your brother took it, I think," Xal said. "He was messing about with a disposable camera that day."

"They told me you were coming," Jungkook remembered. "They said I was going to have a friend."

"You actually remember? I thought I might be the only one."

"No, I remember," Jungkook said, staring at his childish terror. "I remember being scared. I remember I cried when mum prised me off her. I remember how patient you were."

"They'd bribed me," Xal chuckled. "They said I could get an icecream on the way home if I got you to play with me." He looked up and Jungkook startled. "I can still be bribed with icecream, you know. Except now I know my own worth. There needs to raspberry sauce and sprinkles or no dice."

Jungkook had got so caught up in the past he'd forgotton the camera.

"Question two," Xal rolled on. "Where was our first date?"

"We didn't really have one?" Jungkook said uncertainly.

"True," Xal pulled the edge of his mouth to one side and nodded. "You guys thought I was kidding when I said we were childhood sweethearts, did you? Well, I wasn't. We were best friends until the lines started to get a bit blurry. I guess our first date was wherever we went after we officially became boyfriends. Kook was sixteen and I was seventeen. So yeah, no first date, really. Question three. You read it Kookie."

"Where was our first kiss?" Jungkook read. "Um, that was in your bedroom." He felt his cheeks heating up. He remembered it so well.

"She kisses so good," Xal informed him, thumping to lie back on the bed beside him. "It feels amazing. You ever wonder what it feels like to kiss someone?"

"I suppose," Jungkook responded. He wanted to go back to talking about superheroes. But Alice was Xal's favourite topic at the moment and Jungkook should be a good friend and listen.

Xal rolled over onto his side, propping himself up with one elbow. "You want to find out?"

"Not really," Jungkook said honestly, turning to look at him. He was alive to every movement in Xal's face: every blink, lift of his eyebrow and mouth twitch.

"I think you'll like it," Xal said, a roguish smile filling his features. "Try it."

"What, on you? Ew!" Jungkook was scandalised. He shoved at Xal playfully, and Xal shoved back. Soon they were tussling on the bed, and Xal eventually wrestled Jungkook's wrists on either side of his head, leaning over him.

"Just try it," he said, in between pants, and pressed his face in.

Jungkook felt a lot of things. Xal's lips and then his tongue, hot and searching. His own confusion. Xal's grip tight on his wrists then loosening and reaching to cup his jaw. A sense in himself that he'd unwittingly unlocked a new level in the game that was life and not really knowing what to do with it. The tightness his chest from lack of oxygen. Trust. Trust because Xal always looked after him, always knew what was best.

"Jungkook," Xal groaned as he let him go and rolled over to the side.

"Yeah?" Jungkook said. His lips were tingling.

Xal laughed. "Is that all you got to say to me?"

"What do you want me to say?"

"Tell me to break up with Alice."

"But didn't you just say-"

"Jungkook," Xal said again. That gentle tone he always used on Jungkook when Jungkook was being slow. His eyes were glittering. "Kookie. Do you love me?"

"I've always loved you," Jungkook frowned, offended that Xal needed to ask.

"Good," Xal said. "Then let me do this, okay? I promise I won't hurt you."

And when he leaned in and stole Jungkook's second kiss, Jungkook let him. Because he loved Xal. He loved Xal with every fibre of his being. And even though he didn't understand or feel very comfortable, all that mattered was making Xal smile.

"You were so freakin' innocent," Xal said. "You'd never kissed anyone before, had you?"

"We-ell..." Jungkook said, just to see the look of shock on Xal's face. "No," he said, watching Xal's face morph from relief to anger to fake amusement.

"You had me there, you tease," Xal poked his cheek playfully. "I thought I had to go beat someone up retrospectively. Anyway, yeah, I guess we were just experimenting when we had our first kiss. We were both probably really bad at it then, but we'll never know, huh."

"Oh no, I remember you being bad at it," Jungkook fired back. He was chancing his luck, but it was his only opportunity to attack Xal without repercussions. Unless he went too far and Xal stopped the video, of course.

"Oh you brat." Xal's hands came up and Jungkook ducked his head for half a second thinking he was about to be hit, then Xal's fingers were under his sensitive armpits and they were tickling.

Jungkook couldn't help but splutter out giggles. "Get off, get off-"

"Now we'll see how well you know me," Xal finally released him.

Xal's phone rang. Xal clapped immediately and swore, reaching for it. The smile dropped off Jungkook's face.

"Oh, its your mum," Xal said, getting up off the stool to pause the recording. "Hey Youn Hana! How's things?...We're great! We're just recording the boyfriend tag for Youtube!...Yeah, he didn't know either. He's having a learning curve today!... No, not at all! You know you can call us anytime!...Sure thing. Hang on-"

Xal passed his phone to Jungkook.

"Mum?" Jungkook said. Xal made his way over to the fridge.

"How are you, sweetheart?"

"Fine." It was Jungkook's standard answer.

"Is Xal taking good care of you?"

"Same as always."

"Of course he is," his mother breezed. "I'm going to watch this boyfriend tag thing when it goes on Youtube. If I can get your father to show me how to find it. I'm sure you two'll be adorable."

"How is dad? How are you?" Jungkook missed his parents, he did. But they'd never been very hands-on. And they loved Xal more than they loved him. He'd accepted that in his own heart a long time ago. He didn't blame them. Xal was charismatic and could hold a conversation. Jungkook would still hide behind someone given half a chance. He couldn't compete.

"We're looking forward to our holiday! I'm going to give your brother a call and then get packing. I don't want to disturb your video. I'll text Xal when we get home and we'll arrange a family dinner. Love you, darling."

"Love you," Jungkook echoed. Xal was ready to hook the phone from him.

"Have a brilliant trip, Youn Hana. You're heading out the day after tomorrow, aren't you?...Of course, I remembered! And you deserve the break...yeah, we'd love to. Good to see the nephews and niece too. It's been a couple months, we probably won't recognise them!...No, we don't need any money, we're doing just fine. Thank you, though...Yes, you too. Bye!...Bye."

Xal sighed as he tucked the phone away. "Your mum has the worst timing."

Jungkook was afraid to ask if he was doing well or badly. Xal set a glass of juice on the counter infront of him, two straws in it. "We're going to restart by taking a drink at the same time. We're going to lean down together on three, and smile around the straw as we take a sip - keep eye contact with me - then we smile at the camera, and then we sit back up straight. Got it?"

Jungkook nodded. Xal went back to the camera, then returned to his stool. "Okay. One, two, three!"

They nudged against eachother's cheek and missed the straws, which danced to a safer place in the glass on the first attempt. Xal pushed the straws back into position and then clapped.

"One, two, three!"

Jungkook got his straw in his mouth successfully the second time, but froze, forgetting what else he was supposed to do.

"It's okay," Xal said as Jungkook cringed. "We can do it a hundred times till we get it right. Get the straw in your mouth. Look at me as you sip. Look at the camera. Lift your head. Got it?"

Jungkook tried to calm his panic saturated brain. "I think so," He said weakly.

They got it on the fifth go. "So," Xal said, not missing a beat. "Now we'll see how well you know me. Next question. When is my birthday?"

Jungkook's eyes lit up. This one he knew. "April the twelfth."

"Correct. And am I a morning or evening person?"

"You're an evening person."

"Ka-ching. And here's a good one. What's my weirdest habit?"

"Well you put your milk in before your cereal," Playing it safe seemed like the smartest thing to do.

"Hey!" Xal pretended to be affronted. "That's because I don't want soggy cereal. Please tell me you guys are with me on this. Comment down below if you put the milk first or if you're a cereal-first heathen. Next. What was your first impression of me?"

Jungkook's gaze fell back down to the photo on the counter. It was easy to soften at the sight of young Xal. "I was scared of you at first," he said. "Because I was scared of everyone. But then you were nice to me, and you played with me, and I wasn't scared any more."

"Do you remember what we used to play?" Xal prompted him softly.

Jungkook's vision glazed over as he remembered. "Yeah, we played lots of imagination games. We liked being pirates. I always wanted to be first mate. We pretended my brother was the enemy pirate captain even though he wasn't playing. We got into trouble so many times for using waterpistols inside the house."

"And you remember Sock-Busters?"

"Yeah!" Jungkook grinned at the memory. "We had a CD with a bunch of songs on it, and whenever the Ghostbusters song came on your mum wanted us to skip it because she didn't want us singing about ghosts. So we shouted Sock-Busters to drown out the word 'ghost' and we would always throw our socks in the air."

"And sometimes we made up our own songs and wanted to put on a talent show for the parents," Xal spluttered. "I don't know how they endured us. Next. What do we argue about the most?"

"We don't really argue," Jungkook felt himself being yanked out of that cosy place in his mind. "Do we? I mean, we argued last night...um...but-"

He was so sure Xal was going to clap, but Xal just grinned. "We did. I was an ass last night. But you forgave me, didn't you? That's how I know this one's a keeper, he's so sweetnatured. And we don't argue much. Next question. What shoe size do I wear?"

Jungkook wondered if he was in trouble for blurting out about the argument. He successfully navigated the shoe size, Xal's favourite restaurant, TV show, sports team, drink of choice and music. He sipped anxiously on their drink and Xal often bent to join him, putting their heads together.

"Before we finish, I got a special request on twitter," Xal dove for the box again. Jungkook couldn't get a read on Xal's mood. It was so hard when Xal was constantly grinning at the camera. He hoped he wasn't in trouble. His body couldn't cope with Xal being rough tonight.

He stared wide-eyed at the headband with bunny ears attached.

"This is for you @wiltedsalad," Xal checked his phone. "Her tweet had a little viral moment this morning. Seems like a few people think you might be a bunny disguised as a human, Kookie."

"Have I to wear it?" Jungkook asked, looking at the fluffy white ears.

"Sometimes I think he has the IQ of a bunny," Xal laughed. "Yes, baby. You've to wear it."

Jungkook obliged.

"He's cute, isn't he," Xal said to the camera with a wink, as Jungkook tried to adjust the band into a comfortable position. "Give him a thumbs up for being a trooper, guys. What noise do rabbits, make, Jungkook?"

"Huh?" Jungkook blinked, brain scrambling to think of the answer.

"Exactly!" Xal laughed, and slapped the breakfast counter. "Damn, you do suit those," he said approvingly. "Okay, final question. What are my three biggest fears?"

Here was another loaded question. "Moths..." Jungkook said heistantly, looking to Xal for approval. "You really don't like moths."

Xal nodded and shuddered. "Don't get me wrong," he gestured to the camera. "Spiders, cool, creepy-crawlies, cool. But moths... ugh."

"And you're also scared of failure," Jungkook said, aware he was skating on even thinner ground. "I mean, you're sort of a perfectionist over things when other people wouldn't bother..." he trailed off, mentally bracing himself for Xal to get annoyed at him.

"I'll give you that," Xal said. "I do get a bit hung up on getting things right. And I keep refreshing the page after I've posted a video. Up till recently I was reading every single comment, and I'm still trying to even though its getting out of hand now. I just appreciate you guys so much, and the way your support me. What else, Kookie?"

"You aren't scared of anything else," Jungkook said, wrinkling his brow. "Death? Everyone's scared of death I suppose." He hoped it would be enough to appease Xal. He just couldn't think of anything else.

"Yeah that doesn't count," Xal laughed. "Let me think..." He took his time, leaning back and staring up at the kitchen ceiling. "Hmm, its probably losing you, baby."

"Losing me?" Jungkook whispered.

"Yeah," Xal turned to look him in the eye, his brown eyes boring into Jungkook's, fixing him in place. "We've been together our whole lives, haven't we? Being without you would be like losing a limb. Or a few limbs. Can you imagine living without me?"

Jungkook shook his head. He couldn't. Even his fanciful imaginings of changing his situation, his spluttered message to Jin at the party, it seemed so silly now. He belonged with Xal, and he knew it. He looked down at the photo again. Xal had been his rock. Xal had shared his toys with him and taught him how to do things. He was patient even when Jungkook couldn't get the hang of his shoelaces. When the two families went on holiday together and other children came up to them to play, Xal always made sure Jungkook was included, even when Jungkook shrank back and the other children pleaded with Xal to leave him behind. Xal had encouraged Jungkook in art, even though he wasn't any good at it himself. He'd punched bullies for Jungkook. He'd stood up for Jungkook, protected Jungkook, he'd loved Jungkook. Almost every memory Jungkook had contained Xal. No he couldn't imagine it.

"I love you to the ends of the earth," Xal said, his voice still light, but bearing emotion. "I'd rather fight off a thousand killer moths and crash and burn than lose you."

The lump in Jungkook's throat was bulging like an accordion. He had no idea if they were still filming. He supposed they might be because Xal hadn't clapped. He was supposed to say something back. But he clammed up.

"Hey," Xal said softly. "You're not going to cry on me are you? Not in the middle of our boyfriend tag?"

Jungkook shook his head valiantly, still unable to speak.

Xal leaned in and kissed him. Jungkook could see it coming and parted his mouth just a little. He didn't know what to expect, but Xal didn't linger long, pulling away.

"Here's lookin' at ya, kid," his boyfriend drawled in his best Bogart impersonation. "Guys, didn't Kookie do well on his first full video? Show him some love in the comments. If you want to persuade him to be in another video in the future then you've got thirty-four K likes to beat! My Instagram, Twitter and gaming channel are in the description, but tell them what new Instagram they can check out, Kook!"

"Kooxal," Jungkook said, making concerted effort to smile.

"@kooxal," Xal corrected. "Yeah, we did it, we made a soppy couple's account. Follow us!" He reached out and drew a space with his hands between him and Jungkook, narrowly missing their almost empty glass. Jungkook supposed that was where the name was going to go on in edit. "Don't forget to send me a thumbs up if you enjoyed this vlog. And if you're new feel free to subscribe and hit the bell to be notified when I upload! Guys, as always, we love you. We love the socks off you." He gave a comical wink. "Show us how a bunny says goodbye Kook."

Jungkook went blank for a moment, then realised it was a joke and waved at the camera.

"Bye!" He was getting so nervous now it was the end. Terrified of Xal's reaction. He'd done okay, hadn't he? He'd answered the questions and tried to be honest. He hadn't been too rude to Xal had be?

Xal's hands clapped together. "Well done, baby."

Jungkook's heart soared, feeling the tension in his body unwrinkle. "I did good?" He hardly dared to believe it.

"So good," Xal grinned and held out his arms. Jungkook couldn't miss the opportunity. He dove into Xal's arms in excitement. Xal hugged him tightly, and Jungkook burrowed his nose into Xal's neck, flooded with relief. He'd done well. Xal was pleased with him. Happy with the video.

Then Xal clapped twice behind Jungkook's back before curling back round him. "Okay. We did it."

Jungkook realised the last part was going to be included, but he didn't care. "I didn't know what to say," the words tumbled out of him frantically. "I'm sorry if-"

"You were perfect." Xal said, pushing him back just enough to see his face. "My perfect boy."

Then he pressed in for a real kiss and Jungkook opened up willingly. He was half on his own stool, half on Xal's lap, and when finally Xal broke off the kiss, he felt himself being turned around so his back was against Xal's front. Xal slipped one arm round Jungkook's waist, and with the other hand flicked open the button of his jeans.

"What are you doing?" Jungkook frowned, looking down at the slow tug at his zip.

"What do you think?" Xal murmured in his ear, reaching down to mouth at Jungkook's neck. "Lay your head back on my shoulder, baby. There we go, gonna make you feel good."

Jungkook's chest clattered sickeningly. "But the video's still on!"

"It's not going on Youtube," Xal laughed. "I'd get a strike. The boyfriend tag will end where I clapped. Just relax, baby boy."

His hand slipped into Jungkook's boxers. Jungkook was used to this sensation, but he couldn't shake the thought that the video was still recording.

"Stop squirming so much," Xal growled in his ear. "Be good."

"Let's switch the video off first," Jungkook pleaded. "Then we can do whatever. Just in case, Xal."

Xal paused, and Jungkook let out a breath of relief.

"I need one more video," Xal said. "Just sixty seconds or so. It's just a little tease, the camera's only capturing us from the waist up, and we're behind the bar anyway. Nobody can see anything except us. Can you just be good for one more minute?"

"But Xal-" Jungkook grabbed Xal's wrist to stop him continuing. "I don't understand."

Xal sighed impatiently. "There's a big youtuber coming into town soon," he said. "He's just broke into the top four in Gaming. If he collabs with me, my gaming channel will skyrocket. We've been talking back and forth, and he said he'd do it if I send him a private video."

"Of us?" Jungkook was aghast. "No, Xal, you don't know what he might do with it-"

"Shh," Xal dipped back into his boxers, despite Jungkook's tug on his wrist. "He's not going to risk his career, plus we're not naked, there's nothing to see, it's just a tease we agreed on."

"Do it on your own then!" Jungkook wriggled, unable to struggle too harshly because Xal now had a good grip on him. "I'm not doing it- I'm not-" he felt the fringes of static at the extremity of his vision and, skin crawling in terror, he pushed it away. He was not going there again, not ever. He had to deal with this as Big Jungkook.

"Jungkook," Xal growled. "He said it had to be both of us. Are you going to ruin all your good behaviour?"

"Please, Xal, please tell him no. If he really respects you he'll still collab, and if he doesn't you don't need him! You'll get there without him! Please!" Jungkook could feel tears brimming up in his eyes, his fear getting to full boil. Again, the fuzziness was pulling at him. The words he needed to use to make Xal drop everything. But he could still see that Instagram picture, and he couldn't, he couldn't.

"Let's go upstairs, just you and me," he said desperately. "We can use the handcuffs. We can do whatever you want. Just not this. Please."

"You want to use the handcuffs?" Xal's tone travelled through the spectrum from angered to aroused.

Jungkook nodded urgently. "I want it to just be us, Xal, just you and me."

Xal was thoughtful. "I bought a new toy for us the other day," he said, his voice taking on a peculiar shade. "Can we play with that too?"

Jungkook nodded. "Yes, yes, just switch the camera off first."

When Xal helped him off the stool and Jungkook hastily buttoned his jeans with clumsy fingers, heart plummeting, wondering what he was letting himself in for. Xal switched the camera off, then bent to switch the lights off at their sockets. When he stood, his eyes were raw and his smile wicked. "I can't wait to see it inside you," he murmured.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

"Are you still sore? Was I too rough last night?" Xal brushed the hair up from Jungkook's forehead to plant a kiss there.

"Mhmm." Jungkook kept his eyes fixed on the TV and bunched the throw blanket up to his chin. The glimmer of hope he'd given himself at the weekend was long buried. He could feel his windpipe along its whole length. Whenever he shifted even an inch, he could feel how raw he was down there. And despite feeling so tired, almost numb, he couldn't avoid the tug of nerves inside him at Xal's attention.

"Our video's doing incredibly well," Xal said softly, plopping down at Jungkook's side. "Do you wanna see?"

Jungkook shook his head, determined to stare at the gameshow till his eyes ached in their sockets. He was aware of Xal's gaze hovering over him, and that would have been enough to receive undivided attention. In the past.

"People really love you, you know," Xal murmured, reaching his arm round to play with the hair at the nape of Jungkook's neck. "They like seeing us together."

Jungkook watched the gameshow host; built like a rugby player and talking like an express train. The camera panned the studio audience who were stifling giggles.

"Do you want me to turn it up?" Xal was still trying. "You surely can't hear what they're saying."

Jungkook didn't mind the indistinct voices. He preferred it. He shook his head again.
Xal lapsed into silence, and Jungkook dared to hope that he would go away.

"Here," his boyfriend said at length, putting his phone under Jungkook's nose. "Can I post this to Instagram?"

Jungkook spared it a fraction of a glance. They were about eight or nine and playing on the beach. His little face was overflowing in happiness and there was a bucket and spade in his hands. He nodded.

"You're sure?" Xal prompted. "I want you to be happy with what goes up. It is a joint account, after all."

Jungkook nodded again. The game had entered a quick-fire round and a couple of the contestants were getting flustered. One woman's makeup was visibly cracking under the pressure, and the face of the man beside her was turning a shade of bacon.

"Jungkook." Xal said sadly. "Do you hate me?"

"Sometimes," Jungkook choked out, flinching at his own words, pain spiking at the movement.

Xal didn't strike him. "I wish you'd said 'yes'," he said quietly. "Because then I could have told myself you didn't mean it."

Jungkook watched one of the contestants jump up and down, pumping her fists in the air while her name on the podium lit up gold.

"Do you still love me?" Xal whispered, almost breathless. If he hadn't been right by his ear Jungkook wouldn't have heard it.

He turned his head. Xal looked like he was going to cry which was a curiosity. Xal stared back at him: imploring, ashamed. Jungkook was more aware of being expected to register some particular emotion than of actually feeling anything.

"Sometimes," he said again. It was the most honest answer he had.

Xal fumbled under the blanket for Jungkook's hand and held it in his, squeezing softly whenever Jungkook glanced sidelong at the TV.

"I can do better," Xal said earnestly. "I need to do better. I get so carried away, Kookie. This Youtube stuff isn't important. You're important. I want us to be happy again. It tears me up seeing you unhappy. Especially because of me. Please give me the chance to fix things."

Jungkook gave it a day. Maybe a day and a half if he was lucky. He sent Xal a smile as thin as polythene and Xal pounced on it.

"I love you, I love you, I love you," his boyfriend planted a kiss on Jungkook's cheek. "You're my world, Jungkook. You're everything. I'm going to prove it to you."

Jungkook's gaze drifted back to the winning contestant graciously receiving her award. It was the middle tier prize, and you could tell she'd been after the big one but had to pretend to be pleased.

Xal snuggled in beside him, stealing some of the blanket, and Jungkook let his exhausted body lean against him. He'd won first place in a national art competition today. The Art department at college had submitted three of his pieces in the 'Young Artist' category and the judges had liked the one Jungkook would have least expected. There was a cheque for a grand still in his locker at college. Xal had full access to Jungkook's bank account, so he'd never be able to cash it in. Not without telling Xal he'd won.

He'd been terrified and hopeful at the prospect that he'd gain attention from his fellow students, but aside from a few throwaway 'well done's and 'congratulations' he'd still been vastly ignored. It had been easier to swallow the disappointment and relief after his stupid leap of faith with Jin on Saturday.

Xal linked their fingers and was running a rough thumb in shapes over the back of Jungkook's hand. His familiar scent filled Jungkook's senses and Jungkook rested his head on Xal's shoulder in an attempt to get more comfortable.

The credits were rolling on the gameshow, and already a preview box showed what was coming up next.

"Can I turn it up just a little bit?" Xal murmured.

"Mhmm," Jungkook inclined his head in a nod. It didn't matter.

X-X-X

"Okay, so what you have to do is bribe the chef," Jimin said excitedly.

"To do what? Poison him?" Namjoon raised his eyebrows.

"No," Tae scoffed. "To make his food extra spicy of course."

The kids looked between Jin and Namjoon's blank faces.

"They don't get it," Jimin told Tae with a sigh.

"It's going to make him drink tons," Tae explained. "Which is going to make him run to the toilet every two minutes. That'll give you plenty of time with Jungkook."

"Still think you should bring us on your mission," Jimin pouted. "You two are going to screw this up."

"Absolutely not," Namjoon pointed a warning finger at him. "I'm already pulling in favours to make this happen. If this goes horribly wrong then I'm on the chopping block. I can only afford to keep my eye on one of you at the time and that's Jin."

"Jin's very responsible, you don't have to watch him," Tae said, glancing at Jin to see if he'd earned any brownie points.

"On the contrary, I've got to make sure he doesn't go full white knight on some innocent couple because he's still rebounding from his ex. He's working off a hunch, not facts, remember?"

"I already told you I'll be cautious," Jin said, playing with the armrests of the uncomfortable library chair. "I'm not going to make a scene, or jump to conclusions. I just need to speak to Jungkook when Xal isn't listening and make sure he's safe."

Namjoon massaged his temples. "I know. That's why I agreed to set this up for you."

Jin understood Namjoon's misgivings, but he also had a gut feeling about this.

He'd binged Xal's videos. He was pretty sure he'd seen every one Jungkook had cameo'd in, and several others besides. The comments were full of gushing compliments, but people were seeing what they wanted to see: a young man clearly nervous around cameras, being encouraged and cossetted by his more worldly boyfriend. If Jungkook looked uncomfortable, which in Jin's opinion he blatantly did, people pinned it on his shyness.

And that boyfriend tag. Jin's heart had been in his mouth as he'd watched yesterday. He'd paused so often he was almost watching frame by frame. He'd even watched parts twice. On the surface, it was cute: the way Xal 'teleported' Jungkook into his seat by snapping his fingers, the coordinated way they'd gone for a sip of their shared drink at the same time and then smiled at eachother, the way Jungkook had forgotten about the camera when he was talking about their toddler photo and his open joy at the end when he'd successfully completed the video. It was the perfect propaganda piece.

There was the odd comment here and there questioning if Jungkook had been badgered into doing the tag, or if he really wanted to wear those bunny ears, but they were few and far between, drowned out by overwhelming approval.

Jin didn't know much about Youtube, but it looked like it was a huge hit already. It had even appeared on 'trending' for a while.

He stared at Jungkook's doe eyes in every scene he was in, barely able to tear his gaze away from him. Those same eyes had stared at him on Saturday, so beseeching and afraid, begging him to speak to Jung Hoseok, a person Jungkook hadn't had a single exchange with in years.

He had to know. And no matter how much the others might tease him, he knew this wasn't about his ex. He felt like he knew Jungkook. He cared about him, no matter how crazy that sounded.

"Oh, hang on," Namjoon's phone vibrated on the library table. "Turret's texted."

Jin tried to contain his thrill. "He's sent you Xal's number?"

"Yep. And Julisa's."

"Okay, did he say if Friday was too soon?"

"He's down for Friday, he's hyped about his first official music video."

Turret was the key to the mission. Namjoon wasn't in charge of the storyboard for Turret Taylor's future music video, but he knew the guy who was. Including a couple of Youtubers in cameos would be an homage to Turret's roots and would pull in views. Namjoon had recommended Xal and a Youtuber called Julisa Okasanjo who had also been at Turret's party. He'd put it to Turret that the company wanted to pay for dinner to have a preliminary chat about the video. Turret was unaware that this was not standard procedure for a new signing and had happily gone along with it.

It was better plan than the alternative, which involved Jin hanging around the local colleges trying to figure out which Jungkook belonged to, or spending the day at his bus stop waiting to see if he'd show. He was pretty sure dinner with Namjoon was the option least likely to end with the cops being called.

"I'll text Xal and Julisa now," Namjoon said. "It's such good exposure for them, they're bound to jump at the opportunity. Turret's told them to expect my text. What time shall I say? Seven pm?"

"Seven would be good," Jin nodded.

"Wait!-" Jimin exclaimed, almost throwing himself across the table, thrusting out a hand to stop Namjoon as he began to type.

"What?" Namjoon startled as the librarian sent them an anxious look. She adored Jimin and Tae and was very tolerant of their inability to whisper. Jimin sent her an apologetic look for calling out made a little begging gesture with his hands. Her face softened immediately.

"What?" Namjoon persisted anxiously, half glancing over each shoulder as if Xal was about to appear and pounce on him. He was decidedly not keen on this 'hero stuff' as he put it.

"You're not going to tell Xal seven pm!" Jimin said. "You need to tell him quarter past. So he and Jungkook are a fraction late and Jin can make sure he's seated across from them before they get there. Otherwise its going to look odd if you have to start performing musical chairs."

"He makes a good point," Jin nodded.

"I always make good points," Jimin was affronted. "I still think you should bring us. We want to rescue the cutie too, don't we Tae?"

"Never mind," Tae patted Jimin's shoulder consolingly, pointing at a bookshelf towards the back. "Let's go flip the books so the spines turn inwards again. Someone's turned them back."

"They're doing... what?" Namjoon leaned in towards Jin, craning his neck as Jin and Tae scampered to concoct more misbehaviour.

"It's the Mystery section," Jin explained. This wasn't his first rodeo with the kids in the library.

Namjoon blinked twice. "Okay. So seven to Julisa and quarter past to Xal. Fingers crossed everyone can make it."

"Don't forget to tell them its a plus-one," Jin said. "It would be just the thing if Xal left Jungkook at home."

"You will be careful, won't you?" Namjoon said, his thumb flicking over the screen. "If this guy really is an abuser he might be a dangerous customer."

"You know me, I'm always careful," Jin said.

"I know you," Namjoon corrected, but there was a smile on his face. "You have empathy for miles. It's endearing and honourable and its going to get you in trouble some day."

"So long as that day is not Friday." Jin said. His heart was already working doubletime with anticipation.

Jungkook, I'm coming for you.

X-X-X

He found himself skulking around outside the restaurant, half hidden behind his car, scoping out the entrance like a two-bit detective. This was going to be a pricey night judging by the Bentley and Mercedes he was parked between. The Palacio de Vidrieras was a red brick building with stained glass windows, set against a smudgy purple evening sky. It had been wet earlier, but the rain had slackened to fine drizzle and now was just spitting. Jin watched the proceedings at the front door carefully. Namjoon had texted to say that everyone else had arrived and it had just gone ten past. He hoped the group wasn't too hungry tonight. Even with Namjoon generously offering to split half the bill, this was going to take a hefty chunk out of Jin's savings.

But it would be worth it.

When he saw Xal and Jungkook getting out of the Uber, his heart stopped for a moment. He'd spent so much time watching them on his laptop this week, it seemed strange to see them in the real world. Almost out of context.

He hurried across the parking lot. Much like buses, Jin was sure there was a polite protocol for restaurant dining which involved each new arrival in a party sitting beside someone else rather than leaving a gap. Namjoon had arrived early and taken the head of the table. If they'd played their cards right the last three seats should be at the end.

They took his coat for the cloakroom and Jin knew his wallet was going to be screaming later. He resigned himself to not taking any holidays for a year, and followed the waiter to his table. Xal and Jungkook were just being seated side by side at the end and Jin could have sang for joy. It had worked. The sole empty seat was across from Jungkook.

"Wow, you're all very punctual!" He said jovially, making a beeline for Namjoon, then doing some quick handshakes round that end of the table. He eyed the two young couples - guessing that Turret was the one with bleached hair and eager eyes, and that the bored red-head was his date. Julisa was a curvy young woman wearing a dress that was tight in all the right places and tighter in some of the wrong ones. Judging by her ring she was engaged. She and her fiancé both looked like they were trying to hide how wowed they were by the restaurant. Jin greeted everyone as warmly as he could before heading for his seat.

"Xal," Xal said, rising from his seat to shake Jin's hand over the table.

Jin mustered up his friendliest face. "Lovely to meet you! I'm Seokjin. Call me Jin. Nice to meet you too."

He reached out for Jungkook's hand next, and Jungkook just stared at him, eyes blown wide.

"Kook," Xal prompted softly, and Jungkook hastily got up and presented his hand.

"Kook? It's a pleasure," Jin said, keeping his voice light. He squeezed Jungkook's hand quickly twice as they shook. Jungkook continued to stare, and Jin began to panic that he was going to give them away. He schooled his face into a concerned look and flicked a glance at Xal.

"Don't mind him, he's shy around new people," Xal said quickly. "Sit down, babe."

Jungkook sat down with a thud, and apparently the implications of what was happening had caught up with him because he dropped his eyes to his lap.

Relieved, Jin turned his attention on Xal, even though he wanted nothing more than to speak to Jungkook. "You guys together?"

"Yeah," Xal said. "I'm one of the Youtubers. You on your own tonight?"

"I'm Namjoon's plus one, actually. He's a good friend."

"Is that Turret's producer? Oh cool. Does he want you in the video too?"

Jin laughed. "I don't know about that. It's not really my sector. I'm just here for the food."

Xal's smile was like bank notes. "You look the part, you should consider branching out into new things."

Was he flirting? There was a bit of Jin that thought he was flirting. Or was it just an attempt at a charm offensive?

"Well if it comes down to being buff you've got me beat," he said cheerily. "Though to be fair, I think you've got Turret beat too."

He could practically see Xal's chest puff up. "Gotta hit the gym daily," he sent an appreciative glance at his own arms, his shirt tight around his biceps. "I usually go when Jungkook's at college. But we go together on Thursdays, don't we baby?"

Jungkook had been staring down at his gleaming cutlery and pristine white napkin. "Yes," he said softly.

"What are you studying?" Jin asked politely, aware that Xal was tracking his expression.

Jungkook swallowed hard. "Art," he said.

"Oh cool! You must like this place then!" Jin pretended he was performing for a commercial and wasn't as deeply emotionally invested at all. "The colourful glass work is really cool. I like how they've set it off against all the dark woods. And that ceiling looks like it should belong in a museum. It's a pretty awesome view all in all!"

"Yeah I'm enjoying my view a lot," Xal grinned, and Jin knew then that he was flirting. Another curve ball. He wasn't sure if he should casually shut it down or play into it. It was surreal enough seeing Xal in the flesh. Up close, he had some mild acne scarring and his slightly crooked nose was more noticeable, but he was still ridiculously handsome. It felt like the three of them were in their own little island surrounded by a sea of low chatter and clinking glasses, and it was all Jin could do to keep his heartrate steady.

The waiter came round to take drinks orders and as Xal lifted the menu, Jin took the opportunity to have his first proper look at Jungkook.

Jungkook wore a dark green button down. His hair was somewhat curly, and his fringe had been parted slightly, revealing a bit of forehead and dark eyebrow. Jin drank in Jungkook's long eyelashes and the sculpt of his jaw, the lilt of his lips and the aeygo-sal of his eyes. He identified each endearing freckle he'd discovered when binging Xal's channel. The kid was a picture.

Jungkook peeked a glance up at him and Jin had to clamp down on those thoughts very quickly. Jungkook was clearly scared, glancing up at Jin and then over at Xal (still engrossed with the menu) then back at his lap. Jin reminded himself that mission did not hinge on Jungkook's attactiveness. He wasn't more worthy of being saved because Jin thought he was hot. In fact, it probably would have helped Jin's concentration if he had a totally different face.

Carefully, he reached out his leg under the table and felt for Jungkook's. Jungkook must have had his legs tucked under his chair, and Jin had to slouch a little to tap him with his foot. Jungkook tensed up immediately. Jin didn't look at him, and instead watched Xal order drinks for them both, nudging the toe of his boot against Jungkook's calf. Hoping that Jungkook understood he was here to help, not here by coincidence or as part of a conspiracy.

He withdrew when the time came to place his own drink order and he smiled at Xal when he finished. "You guys must have been together for a while if you didn't have to ask what he wanted to drink."

"Three years," Xal smiled back. "We were friends before though. On that note, why don't you open your menu, Kookie? They'll be coming round to ask about food soon. How about that one for starter? You like that. And then for main you could go for this one, you had that last time we were out remember? Or how about that one down there?"

It was like he was coaching a child through their options rather than a grown young man. His voice was soft and tender, and Jin realised with a frightening thud of his heart that he would have fallen for this hook, line and sinker. He would have been completely entranced with them, thought they had the most adorable relationship. Even now, there were tendrils of doubt in his mind as he watched Xal’s face and saw nothing but love.

He let his eyes dip to his own menu, till he felt a little movement against his leg. Jungkook. He quickly reciprocated with a gentle nudge.

"Sorry, must have brushed your leg," Xal said apologetically.

Jin tried to stifle a blush. "Oh sorry, I should stick to my end of the table."

Xal tilted his head ever so slightly. It was pretty obvious that Jin had nudged his leg back deliberately. Jin's biggest fear, that Xal would realise it was meant for Jungkook, wasn't realised, but as a mischevious smile spread on Xal's face, Jin gulped. The leg rubbed up against his, and he knew that this one wasn't an accident.

"Not at all," Xal said. "It's fair game under there. You wanna play, Kook?"

Jungkook just blinked at him and shook his head. Xal chucked under his chin. "You shouldn't be so shy," he said. "Jin could be our friend. Why don't you ask him what he does for work?"

"Oh I'm in the business sector, its very boring," Jin dismissed quickly, trying to save Jungkook. "Here's the waiter coming back. Any idea where the toilets are in here?"

"I think they're over there," Xal pointed.

Jin nodded, scraping his chair back. "Could you order for me, if they ask? I'll have whatever you're having."

Xal's eyebrows raised. "Sure thing."

Jin smiled at him in thanks, deliberately didn't look at Jungkook and headed towards the bathrooms. His palms were sweaty. Okay. So far so good. Xal was charming, but Jin had already known that from Youtube. He seemed a little controlling, but not a bad guy.

Now Jin had to wait and see if Jungkook would follow him. If he didn't, Jin would have to make sure he visibily drank a lot over dinner so that he could follow Jungkook whenever he went later on. Namjoon would try to catch Xal's attention if it came to that so that the couple didn't go together.

Jin was really hoping Jungkook came now. He was itching to know.

The toilets were buried in the basement of the building, a maze of winding corridors seperating them from the restaurant. Jin followed the signs on the patterned walls and eventually alighted upon the men's room.

There was one customer inside, drying his hands. Jin went over to the mirror set in the wall, framed by mosaic, and pretended to check his hair. The other customer was soon gone. Jin double-checked that the cubicles were empty. Flamenco music was playing from the speakers. His heart was thudding in his chest.

He didn't know how long he should wait. It would look too obvious if Jungkook left right on his heels, but if Jungkook wasn't coming then Jin didn't want to linger down here too long and look suspicious. He glanced at himself in the mirror again. If you're wrong about this, we are having words, mister he scolded himself, still jittery.

It felt like a full five minutes before the toilet door opened. Jin turned back to the mirror again, just in case. But it was Jungkook. It was Jungkook standing in the doorway, looking at Jin through the mirror's reflection.

Jin turned. Jungkook slowly let the door close behind him. He was very still, his eyes deeper than the ocean, boring into Jin's.

"We don't have much time. I've been on Xal's channel," Jin said quickly. "I've spoken to Hoseok. He told me everything he knows. He lives across the city, but he'd like to see you."

Jungkook didn't move, but Jin watched his eyes fill up.

"Are you in trouble?" Jin pressed. "Is it Xal?"

Jungkook nodded, and Jin felt the full impact of the confirmation ripple through his body.

"Do you want to leave him?" He said.

Jungkook nodded again.

"Okay," Jin said. He could feel adrenaline coursing through him. "Okay. I'm going to help you. Do you want to leave right now? You don't have to see him ever again. We can sneak out the back. My car's here. You can stay with me.. or you know, with Hoseok and his boyfriend... or if you have anyone..." he trailed off as Jungkook looked increasingly like a rabbit in the headlights. Perhaps Jin sounded like Xal 2.0. Jungkook had no real reason to trust him. And besides, he might not be prepared to leave everything behind. His art folder would be at home. Maybe even a pet or some other precious item.

"Well that's the first option," he added hastily. "The second option is, we can meet up, you and me, and we you can tell me anything you want and we'll figure out a plan from there. Will you be at college on Monday? I could meet you at lunchtime. What time is that for you?"

"Twelve thirty," Jungkook whispered, still staring at Jin like he was some kind of alien.

"Twelve thirty," Jin repeated. "Got it. Which college are you? Is it the one across from the firestation or that one that's up that huge hill?"

"Across from the firestation. Wismouth."

"Okay, I'll meet you at the front gates on Monday. You're going to be okay. I'll make sure of it."

Jungkook heisitated, opening then closing his mouth.

"Yeah?" Jin prompted gently.

"I didn't think-" Jungkook said. "I didn't think you'd-" he broke off, his arms coming around to clutch himself.

For Jin it was instinctual. In that moment he forgot that he didn't want to spook Jungkook, or muddle too many emotions into the situation.

He held his arms out.

Jungkook's face crumpled. He all but flew at Jin, almost knocking him off his feet. His arms came round Jin's back, squeezing tightly. His whole body was trembling. Jin placed one careful hand on the back of Jungkook's head and one round the small of his back.

"I've got you," he murmured into Jungkook's hair. Usually hugging strangers for the first time was a little uncomfortable. Jungkook fit against him like a glove. There was something so right about it, and Jin knew in that moment that he'd fight to the death to save this kid.

"I've got you," he repeated again, Jungkook's nose buried in his neck, molded into him.

Then the toilet door opened.

Jin had time for just one thought, which was damn, whoever walks in is going to find this really weird, I'm not sure how to laugh this one off.

But he didn't have to worry about a casual explanation, because of all the restaurant's customers, it was the only one that it could not be that was filling the doorway, his jaw slackening in shock then gritting shut.

Xal's eyes blazed, pure unbridled rage in his feverish gaze. "What. The."

X-X-X

Chapter Text

You're dead, Jin's mind supplied unhelpfully. You're dead you're dead you're dead.

Jungkook had gone stiff in his arms. Xal stepped forward, the veins in his temple bulging, murder in his eyes.

Put Jungkook behind you, Jin's mind suggested, but his body just wouldn't cooperate. Staring doom in the face, all he could feel was his heart contracting in terror and his knees turning to cloth.

"Xal!" Jungkook cried out breathlessly, and suddenly he was pulling away from Jin, spinning round, and rushing towards Xal arms outstretched, his weight on the balls of his feet like he was crossing hot coals.

Jin wanted to reach out for Jungkook and pull him back. Without Jungkook melded against him, he felt the chill in the toilets, the cheery Flamenco music now sinister in the background.

Xal caught Jungkook about the waist as the teenager careened into him. Jin saw his expression mollify somewhat as he tightened his grip.

Jin couldn't blame Jungkook. In fact, it was the smart thing to do, to pretend Jin had been coming on to him, and that Xal was his saviour. If his brain had been working, Jin might have thought of it himself. It kept Jungkook safe.

As Xal's molten eyes met his, the mantra resumed in Jin's head. You're dead, you're dead, you're-

"Kookie got lost!" Jungkook's voice was agitated and breathy. "Kookie couldn't get out and he got scared and then he found man from the table and man from the table said he'd make Xal come and then Xal came!"

Jin thought his shocked expression mirrored Xal's exactly. Jungkook was rubbing his forehead against Xal's chest, nuzzling his nose in.

"Baby..." Xal said, his whole face transforming. "Baby, did you slip?"

"Kookie didn't like it, no windows, just a big box that went on forever and ever and ever-" Jungkook's vowels were chewed up and muffled.

"He walked in, really upset," Jin felt like he was losing track of what was going on. This wasn't a curveball, this was a whole new game. "I don't think he fell, but it is a bit of a maze down here. He kept asking for you."

The last shreds of anger fled Xal's face as if they'd never been. Jin watched his shoulders relax. "I knew you weren't right when you left the table," he said softly, his other hand unclenching and coming up to support the base of Jungkook's head. "I should have followed my instincts and gone with you, but the producer was talking to me. It's okay, Kookie. I'm here now." He looked back up at Jin, his expression contrite. "I'm really sorry about this. Could you- would you mind standing guard at the door and let me know if anyone comes down here?"

"Of course!" Jin hastened forward, trying to hide his nerves. "Is he alright? Does he need to see a doctor?"

Xal moved away from the door to let Jin hold it open, steering Jungkook with him. Jungkook looked like he was trying to clamber up into Xal's arms. "Okay, okay," Xal said, his voice gentle. "Give me a second, baby, I'll lift you up, you just need to let go for a second- there we are. Good boy. Up we go."

With a deep breath, he had both arms under Jungkook's butt, and Jungkook's legs were about his waist like a monkey. Jungkook looked at Jin over Xal's shoulder. His eyes were glazed over, but they still looked Jin up and down as if to confirm he was okay. Jin nodded to him, trying to appear reassuring instead of bewildered.

"He's in little space" Xal explained, jogging Jungkook up in his arms to make his grip more comfortable. "You heard of it?"

"Sort of," Jin said. He'd always thought it was something to do with a kink where adults chose to wear diapers.

"He doesn't need to see a doctor, its a healthy thing, it's his way of dealing with stress. He mentally regresses for a while, as if he's about three years old, and then he usually sleeps it off." Concern layered Xal's tone. "I don't know what triggered it just now. He's never slipped in public before."

"The corridors are quite narrow and dark," Jin offered lamely, glancing up the empty one he was supposed to be guarding, "and the patterns on the wallpaper might have created some strange looking shapes."

"And he wasn't himself when he asked to go to the toilet," Xal mused. "Were you, sweetheart?" He was rocking Jungkook softly in his arms.

Jin's mind was scrambling with all the implications of this. Was Jungkook acting? He hadn't been mentally three years old before Xal had interrupted them. Was it the fright that had set him off? Or had he known that this would make Xal do a complete one-eighty?

"I was trying to reassure him that we'd go get you, but I didn't know whether to bring him up or bring you down," he lied. "He seemed a bit off balance."

"God, yeah, I'm glad you didn't bring him up," Xal said pensively, looking around them, then turning to face Jin. "I don't want people seeing him like this. I think he'd find it embarrassing when he remembers later. We're going to have to ditch and go home. Would you apologise to Turret and the producers for us? I'm really grateful for the opportunity but Jungkook comes first."

"Don't worry about it," Jin said, a sudden idea coming into his head. "Did you come by car? I can give you a lift home if you need one."

"You're a lifesaver!" Xal exclaimed. "What about that, Kookie? Jin is going to take us home!"

"Wan' go home," Jungkook mumbled, his eyes fully glassy. Hoisted up on Xal's waist as he was, he couldn't find anywhere to lay his head, and Jin could see him struggling to hold it up. He couldn't be acting. He was so vulnerable that it spiked terror into Jin's heart. If Jungkook wanted to get away from Xal, it was scary to think that it could be connected to the way Xal treated him when he was like this. Or that Xal could be the cause of the stress that was pushing Jungkook into this state.

"Jin, would you mind stepping outside for just a second?" Xal said. "He hasn't actually been to the toilet yet has he?"

"Don' need," Jungkook said into Xal's hair, narrowly missing bumping their heads.

"Yes you do, that's why you came to the toilet, remember?" Xal said softly. "Xal's going to help you go. Come on, let's go over to the urinals. Then Xal is going to put Kookie down..."

Jin had no choice but to step out into the corridor and let the door sweep shut behind him. He checked his phone for a signal, his fingers trembling. Nothing. He typed a quick preparatory message.

From: Jin

To: Namjoon

Jungkook's not well. I'm taking them home. Please make our excuses. I'm fine, will text you later and bank you my half of the bill tonight, promise!

Jungkook had saved the situation by a hair's breadth, but at what cost? The poor kid was going to be in endless Psychology appointments when Jin helped him get out of this. And despite the jolt of seeing Jungkook in that state, Jin was all the more determined that he'd been the one holding his hand through all those hypothetical appointments. What had started as a rescue operation was swiftly growing into something greater.

Xal emerged from the toilets, Jungkook wrapped round him in a piggyback.

"I'll text Namjoon," Jin said. "He'll cover for us. I'm parked out front, we just need to make a quick detour past the cloakrooms."

"Thank you so much for doing this, Jin," Xal said. "I wish I'd brought my car. I don't want people staring at him or making him uncomfortable."

"Don' like it-" Jungkook whispered urgently in Xal's ear. "Kookie got lost here and he needed Xal and man from table had to magic Xal to come-"

"Shh, its okay, Xal's here now," Xal soothed. "Shut your eyes for me, baby. Jin's taking us home okay?"

"Okay," Jungkook whimpered, and Jin watched him obediently clench his eyes shut.

"He doesn't usually dissassociate this much," Xal observed, his frow furrowing. "Especially the way he's using the third person about himself. Something down here really spooked him."

"Or maybe it was building up in his head," Jin said hurriedly, knowing that there wasn't anything remotely scary about the patterned wallpaper. "I'll lead the way."

Xal put Jungkook down when they arrived at the restaurant, his arm holding Jungkook tight to his side, huddled in. Jin navigated the least populated route to the front door, his phone buzzing with a text before he'd even had a chance to send his to Namjoon.

From: Namjoon

To: Jin

He's coming!

Well that would have been helpful if there had been a signal in the toilets. Jin sent his text, got their coats, and before he knew it, Xalvador Rouco was leaning into his back seat, putting Jungkook's seatbelt on him, while Jungkook tried to cling to Xal's sleeves.

"Can you hold his hands for a moment, while I jump round the other side?" Xal asked. "I think he might kick off if he thinks I'm leaving."

"Sure," Jin said. "Hey, Jungkook, it's me, Jin from the table."

Xal carefully unplucked Jungkook's grip and Jin obediently took first Jungkook's left and then his right hand in his.

As Xal darted around the car, Jungkook's unfocused eyes searched for Jin.

Heart thudding, Jin softly squeezed twice with both hands. "I'm going to bring you home," he said fervently.

There was a pause, but as Xal opened his door and shuffled across to the middle seat, Jin felt Jungkook squeeze back. Twice. And just for a second Jungkook's vision seemed to clear and Jin saw those same desperate eyes from the party.

He kept holding on till Xal said: "I'm buckled in. Hey Kookie, here I am."

"Wan' Big Ted," Jungkook whispered to him, immediately turning and snuggling into Xal's side. Xal put an arm round Jungkook's shoulders, and Jin reluctantly shut the card door and got into the driver's seat.

Don't let him see that you know where they live, he reminded himself as he pulled out of the parking lot. Keep asking for directions.

"So what got you into Youtube?" He asked casually, glancing at them in his rearview. Jungkook seemed drowzy, but he gazed up at Jin through lidded eyes. Xal's eyes were keen and alert.

"Our parents are well off," Xal said. "I wanted to find a way to be financially independant, for our house to be ours, not to have to rely on family. I already watched a lot of Youtube. I'm a gamer, actually, I only started my second channel recently and took up vlogging. It's been working out really well."

"Did you get lucky or was it a hard graft?"

"Mostly graft. Of course Youtube's going to favour a mixed race, gay guy who's considered pretty clean cut... but meeting deadlines can be stressful and editing is monotonous. I've not been short for video ideas yet, but I'm sure that'll come. Do you watch Youtubers?"

"Only if my friends show me something," Jin paused at a junction. "Straight through?"

"Mm-hmm. Hey, has he nodded off? I don't want to move and wake him if so."

Jin checked in the mirror. "Not quite. This must take a lot out of him."

Xal smiled so fondly that Jin wondered if Jungkook was just crazy, or if Jin was crazy, or if something was crazy, because there's no way this guy wasn't head over heels for his boyfriend. Right?

"He does get stressed out easily," Xal said. "Always has. I think being in little space just takes it all off his shoulders." He met Jin's eye in the mirror. "He's cute, huh."

"He's really cute. Seems like you're luckier than you think."

"He's the best thing in my life," Xal said, lowering his voice confidentially. "But he's not the only cutie in this car."

Jin was pretty sure this was a test. If Jin seemed affronted Xal could pretend he was talking about himself.

"I can't say I've been called cute in a while," he remarked casually.

"So, you're single?" Xal pounced.

"I am," Jin injected amusement into his voice, even though his mind was scrambling.

"Just checking," Xal sounded smug. "And you think Jungkook's cute, right? Do you think I'm cute?"

"You have the shoulders of a tank. You'll have to settle for handsome."

"I'll take that," Xal grinned. "Turn right here. Then its second left."

"Do you always chat up your taxi drivers?" Jin drove as directed. He knew exactly where he was and had to concentrate on not giving that away. Being able to potentially show up at Jungkook's house without suspicion might prove helpful later.

"Never," Xal's voice grew more serious. "I know I sound flippant, but I'd genuinely like to get to know you better. I'd like both of us to get to know you better. You looked at me like you knew me. You made an effort with Jungkook when most people ignore him. You've been so cool about the little space stuff. And you're hot. Of course I'd like to get to know you better."

"I'd like to get to know you both better too," Jin said. "But I'll give you the heads up now, I'm into monogamy."

"That's cool," Xal said. "I think Kook probably is too. But maybe down the line its a subject we could get round to... oh right here, please. We're half way down the street, two down from that lemon coloured house?"

"Oh I see it," Jin nodded, pulling up. "That is one serious shade of lemon."

Xal chuckled. "Hey baby boy," he soothed. "Look, we're home. Jin brought us back. Will we go in and find Big Ted?"

Jungkook huffed into his side, he really did seem sleepy.

"I'm going to have to carry him in," Xal unclicked his belt. "You mind if I go unlock the door first? He's not at light as he looks."

"Go ahead," Jin smiled generously.

The second Xal was out of the car, he turned in his seat. "Jungkook."

Jungkook cranked his gaze open a notch. "Iz okay," he slurred, his dark lashes fanning his big eyes as he met Jin's eyes. "Iz okay if Jin don' want help Kookie."

"I want to help you very much," Jin said hoarsely, his eyes welling up with hot tears at the thought of abandoning this kid.

"But Kookie iz..." Jungkook paused, uncertain then touched his head. "Wrong."

Jin cast a frantic glance to see Xal at the front door. "Hey," he said. "Jungkook. You're not wrong. You're good. You saved me tonight. I'm your friend. I will help you."

He wanted so desperately to remind Jungkook that he'd come to college on Monday, but if he really was in the mental state Xal described, he might repeat it back. Jin would just have to show up and hope he remembered.

"Friend?" Jungkook repeated, his brow wrinkling.

"Friend." Jin said, fighting every instinct to hit the gas and book it before Xal returned.

He saw the penny drop. "Friend," Jungkook whispered back. Then he smiled, and his smile was so beautiful it near broke Jin's heart. He smiled back, trying to stifle the tears that threatened to fall.

"Here I am!" Xal said brightly, opening Jungkook's door. "Woah, did Jin make you smile!?"

"Uh-huh," the smile was still beaming on Jungkook's face, even as he reached out for Xal to pick him up.

"Seatbelt first," Xal reminded him. "Jin, here's my card. That's my personal mobile number. Please don't be a stranger."

"I won't," Jin said, taking it. "Thanks."

He watched Xal manouvere Jungkook out of his seat and up into his arms. He watched them head up the path and through the open front door.

He watched the door close and slumped back in his seat, his breathing suddenly rapid.

Mission complete.

X-X-X

"Big Ted!" Kookie felt his heart fill up with love as Xal brought his woolly friend downstairs. He had three friends now. Big Ted. Hoseok. Jin. Three whole friends. He bounced up from the sofa to swallow Big Ted in a big hug. "Let's build castle," he told Big Ted, kissing his plastic black nose.

"Look at you," Xal said in wonderment. "You're usually so drowzy when you're little. I think this is the first time you've wanted to play. You're doing so well baby, you're really opening yourself up to your little side."

Kookie gave Xal a big smile. He was so happy. He had three friends, and Jin was going to help him. He wanted Xal to feel happy like he did.

"You can help us," he said kindly.

Xal chuckled, finishing a couple swipes on his phone and tucking it away. "I'm allowed to help, am I? Okay. What do I have to do?"

Kookie's castle used the sofa as its back wall. He took the detachable back cushions to make walls round the sides. Xal brought down an armful of pillows and cushions downstairs, and Kookie went through the difficult task of picking out which cushions might stand up and make his castle walls higher. Hazy waves rolled pleasantly though his head, each hissing, sizzling out on the sand of his brain.

As he busied himself, muttering to Big Ted about his construction, he saw Xal slip his phone out of his pocket then return the phone to his pocket in the same motion as if he'd changed his mind. He stopped to see if Xal was feeling okay.

"I'll get a sheet for the top," Xal smiled.

"Iz not igloo, iz castle," Kookie protested to Big Ted, but he didn't mind. Xal brought two chairs to be the entrance, and by attaching the sheet to both of those at one end, and draping the rest over the big cushion pile on the back of the couch, he managed to create a roof. Eagerly, Kookie crawled in beside Big Ted.

"Space for one more?" Xal asked, and Kookie moved up to sit in Big Ted's lap and make space.

The roof brushed Xal's hair and messed it up, but Xal seemed happy. Kookie was glad. This was nice. It was like a den. Like Xal and Kookie used to make.

"I think Jin could be really good for us," Xal mused. "I felt a real connection with him. It took me aback. It felt like he truly cared about what I was saying, you know?"

"Jin is nice," Kookie told Big Ted to fill him in.

"I hope Jungkook feels the same when he's big," Xal smiled. "I'd like to see Jin again. Do you want to see him again, Kookie?"

"Mmhm." On Monday, Kookie thought, but that was a big Jungkook thought, and Kookie closed his mouth tight to stop his secret slipping out.

There was a buzz, and Xal checked his pocket. "He's sent us his number!" He grinned. "God, I thought I'd scared him off. That's good news. Do you want to send him a text, baby?"

Kookie viewed the mobile phone with some suspicion.

"You pick emojis to send him," Xal scrolled through them. "I'll tell him they're from you to say thank you."

Kookie remembered he liked the little faces. He took the phone in both hands.

The doorbell rang. It sounded very far away from Kookie's castle.

"I ordered pizza," Xal expained, hurriedly clambering out. "One minute baby."

Kookie looked at all the pictures. Which ones did Jin deserve? Which ones would make him happy like Kookie was happy? He found the handshake and pressed it. Then he thought and pressed it again. Then he put the fireman, because firemen saved people and Jin was going to save Kookie. It was hard not to get distracted by the emojis that wanted to make him sad: the family ones and the one with the hand and the phone and the baby angel one. He furrowed his brow. Needed to find nice ones for Jin. He could hear Xal talking at the door in the distance. Maybe the rain and the umbrella to show that he remembered how kind Jin was to him, even if it got big Jungkook into trouble..

Xal's phone buzzed, and Kookie startled. Xal had a text appearing at the top of the screen. Kookie wanted it to go away, and he'd seen Xal swipe before, so he tried to swipe too. But it didn't work. Instead, it took him away from his text to Jin, and into Xal's texts with a person called Deven. Kookie huffed. Then he saw his own name. He felt big Jungkook telling him to read it, so he moved up a few texts, all across the last few days.

From: Deven

To: Xal

What do you mean he won't do it?

From: Xal

To: Deven

Jungkook doesn't want to. Sorry man.

From: Deven

To: Xal

You said he does whatever he's told!

From: Xal

To: Deven

He does. But he wasn't comfortable with the tease, and I didn't make him do it. So it is what it is.

And then the text that had just come in.

From: Deven

To: Xal

I'm not happy about this Xal. Did you even ask Jungkook? You wimped out. Your loss.

Something funny settled in Kookie's chest, but he didn't really know what it was. He knew that big Jungkook was a bit confused about it, but he didn't want to let go of his happy feeling and the nice static at the edge of his consciousness.

"Is pizza allowed into the castle?" Xal crouched back at the entrance with a carboard box which smelled so good Kookie's mouth was watering. "Did you pick your emojis?"

"Got lost," Kookie pouted. "Again." He hadn't got lost the first time, but it was all part of the pretending. To save Jin. He'd become Kookie again to save Jin. Because Jin was his friend and big Jungkook really, really liked Jin.

"Oh baby, that's not for you to read," Xal chided him gently, quickly exiting the conversation thread and bringing Kookie's text back. "Is that the emojis you want to send him?"

Kookie nodded.

Xal cocked his head at the two handshakes, the fireman and the umbrella in the rain. "Are you sure? Will we send him a heart as well?"

"Okay," Kookie agreed, reaching for the cardboard box that smelled so good. His belly was rumbling already.

"Watch out, it's hot," Xal sent the text quickly, and typed a few words on another before sending that too. "Blow on it first before you take a bite."

"Okay." Kookie held his pizza slice up reverentially. It had lots of cheese and pepperoni and it smelled like happiness.

"You know," Xal shuffled in beside him, tucking an arm round Kookie's back and reaching for his own pizza slice. "We could probably salvage tonight. We could invite Turret and maybe Julia over to our place and see if they can fill me in on what we missed. Maybe we could invite a few friends. Make a night of it. We could ask Jin. Would you like that?"

"Yeah!" Kookie said, giving his pizza one more blow and then digging in. Xal kissed his ear.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you," Kookie repeated. He was half talking to Big Ted, but he did love Xal a lot. When Xal was like this Kookie just wanted it to go on forever.

X-X-X

"Xal, that's the door," Jungkook paused in unravelling the bunting. "Do you want me to get it?"

"No, it's okay Kook. I got it," Xal hopped up. "It's my collab for this week."

Jungkook went back to his work. Xal had people over once in a while to play computer games. He'd suspected Xal was going to abandon him at somepoint to film anyway. It just meant that Jungkook was going to have to be on the ball to get the decorations up and snacks and food out.

Xal's collab person popped his head into the livingroom. "Hi Jungkook."

He wasn't quite as big as Xal, with paler skin and pleasant features in a disorganised sort of way. His clothes were designer and It looked like he was trying unsuccessfully to grow a moustache.

"Hi," Jungkook said politely. He didn't have the faintest clue who this guy was.

"This way, my gaming room's upstairs," he heard Xal say from the hall.

"I'll see you later, yeah?" the Youtuber had a sing-song emphasis in his speech which made Jungkook want to wrinkle his nose.

"Sure," he said softly. No doubt the guy had been invited to stay for Xal's impromptu house party this evening.

The Youtuber ducked his head back and Jungkook heard two sets of footsteps thundering upstairs.

He cast his gaze around the livingroom. He and Xal had gone shopping yesterday, and although Xal had described the evening as 'low key' the money he'd spent on props and alcohol wasn't. He'd even decided to give the party a theme and was encouraging his guests to dress up. Jungkook was surrounded by streamers, bunting, inflatable props and a random assortment of still-packaged hanging decorations.

Jin was coming. The fact that Xal was actively inviting Jin into their lives was almost laughable if Jungkook didn't feel so guilty about it. Xal had been nice to him all day yesterday. When he'd tried to initiate sex and Jungkook had said he was too tired and they'd cuddled instead.

It was like Xal knew Jungkook was going to leave him. The thought of actually doing it made Jungkook's insides quake, but he knew he had to. He was falling apart mentally. Friday night proved it. He'd glided into that state so easily, and although it had been a snap decision to save Jin, it frightened him now about how natural it had felt. When it wasn't natural at all. He was nineteen years old, not a toddler. Even his emotions had been childlike. He'd made a vow to himself on Saturday morning when he woke that he was never, ever going to relinquish control of his own mind again. Not for anything.

He shuddered with shame. Get on with the decorations, Jungkook.

Xal wanted each corner of the livingroom set up as a season. Jungkook stuck paper snowflakes to the ceiling, added fake snowfall to exactly one half of the fireplace and taped pale blue and white balloons to half of the window frame. Then he continued across the other side of the window frame with yellow and green balloons, pinning up a floral garland and paper raindrops. Summer involved fake ferns and paper pineapple concertinas and colourful paper umbrellas. By the time he'd finished Autumn the other half of the fireplace had orange and golden fake leaves strewn over it and glittery red, orange, brown and gold bunting was up on the wall. And that was before he'd blown up half the props.

There was no time to admire his handiwork. Next he set about examining all their food purchases from yesterday. Xal seemed intent on feeding an army when they only had about a dozen guests coming. Jungkook grabbed a pen and notepad to note down what needed heated and for how long.

As he worked his mind strayed to Jin again. Jin, who'd seen Jungkook at his lowest and still, still wanted to help him. Jungkook got butterflies when he thought too much about Jin. He got anxious too, and when he got anxious, the fuzzy feeling tried to sweep in, and they weren't doing that again. No, he shouldn't think of Jin. But it was hard not to.

He cracked open the snacks with about thirty minutes to go and laid them out in different bowls. He set up a drinks table but left some bottles in the fridge to keep the chill. Maybe he should cut up more lemon slices? No, he had plenty. And the straws and cups and plates and napkins were ready. Everything looked good. Xal would be pleased.

Then he remembered his outfit. Xal had wanted him to wear a plastic sunflower crown and Jungkook had agreed, just to keep the peace. Even though as a scarecrow he was clearly supposed to have a straw hat to match the straw poking out his chest pocket. Still, his red and blue checked shirt and denim dungarees were comfy. He just had to get the crown on, find a mirror and draw some stitches on the side of his mouth and try to make some kind of diamond shape on his nose. He wondered what Jin was coming as. He knew he couldn't really risk speaking to Jin tonight, but just seeing his face would be reassuring. And then tomorrow...

Jungkook shook his head. Focus. He positioned his flower crown on his head. Where had he left the facepaint marker? In the kitchen?

He heard someone coming down the stairs, and he turned back to the livingroom, a little bit of him still wanting to see Xal's approving face.

It wasn't Xal. It was the collab guy.

"Hi," Jungkook made an effort not to be shy. "Can I get you a drink?"

"I'd love that," the Youtube guy said, and as Jungkook turned towards the drinks table, he caught sight of the guy's Youtube name emblazoned on his t-shirt: 'DevengeGames'. Xal was wanting to start merch soon too.

"What would you like?" He said. "There's more in the fridge."

"Mmm, let me think," the voice was sudden and hot against Jungkook's ear and he startled. He tried to turn, but the Youtuber's meaty fingers seized his hips and held him. "I think I'd like you."

Devenge Games. Deven. It clicked in Jungkook's head in a second. "Let me go!" He prised at Deven's hands frantically.

"Shh, don't be like that," one arm wrapped fully around his waist, pulling him back against a hard chest. The other hand gripped his jaw, covering his mouth. "We don't want your boyfriend hearing, do we? This collab is going to make him very successful. You wouldn't want me to cancel it, would you?"

Jungkook didn't care one iota about Xal's collab. He kicked back against Deven's kneecaps, but his socked feet didn't have much impact. So he pushed his torso forward, reaching desperately under him for Deven's leg to knock him off balance. The sunflower crown fell to the carpet.

Deven chuckled, side-stepping. For the millionth time, Jungkook wished Xal let him go to the gym more than once a week. He aimed a punch over his head where he was sure Deven's face was, and although it connected, Deven only suppressed a small grunt of pain.

"I didn't think you'd be feisty," Deven said. "You look so docile in all your videos. I'm not gonna hurt you, I just want to play. Your boyfriend made me so mad when he made all these promises to make me a film and then skipped out on the deal. So I decided that wasn't enough any more. You're wasted on him, you're freaking gorgeous. I didn't even fancy Asians before I saw you. Settle down now. Do you want some money for it? I've got a couple grand in my wallet..."

Jungkook forced himself to still. His insides were swarming with revulsion.

"Ahh," Deven's triumphant voice was slick against his ear. "So money talks, huh? Okay. You can have every single note in my wallet if you're good for me. I'm going to need help getting into those dungarees. Agreed?"

Jungkook forced himself to nod.

The hand fell from his mouth.

"Xal!" Jungkook screamed with all his might. Deven cursed, and used his arm to crush Jungkook's chest back against his. Jungkook didn't mind. Xal was coming, he could hear him pounding on the stairs.

"Get off him!" Xal's face was crimson with fury, his fists clenching. "Right now, Dev, I'll kill you!"

Jungkook felt a wave of relief, till Deven chuckled in his ear. "I don't think you want to fight me, Xal. You'd win, and then I'd have to ruin your career."

Jungkook watched Xal's face freeze. He remembered what Xal had told him, that Deven had broken into the top four of some Youtube list.

"I just wanna play with him," Deven wheedled. "I lied to you to get here, but you lied to me first. So we're even. Let me play with him, just a little bit, and I'll give you a shoutout on all my platforms. Interfere, and you can say goodbye to that brilliant collab we just spent hours working on. And I'll dig up every bit of dirt I can on you and ruin you online."

Xal was torn. Jungkook could see the horror and indecision on Xal's face and that frightened him more than anything.

"Xal," he whispered. "Xal. Help me!"

Chapter Text

Xal was shaking with rage. Jungkook could feel the tension in Deven's grip round his chest and waist: he was almost being tilted back a step, a human shield. He could feel lava pooling in the pit of his stomach with every second Xal stood there and did nothing.

"We can do it together," Deven's voice was directed at Xal, but slick in Jungkook's ear. "I don't mind."

Xal's hand began to move slowly, reaching behind him. Jungkook was transfixed, panic rising like bile inside him. He felt Deven's grip stiffen apprehensively.

Xal brought his mobile phone out and held it up like a weapon.

"Jungkook wants you to get off him," he said through gritted teeth. "I've already told you to get off him. Do you want this uploaded to Youtube?"

Jungkook felt Deven's grip tighten, then slacken. Deven tousled Jungkook's hair before Jungkook realised he could break free and burst out of reach, staggering back a few steps, nearly backing into the drinks table.

"Did he hurt you?" Xal panned the phone towards him, and Jungkook felt shame heat the back of his neck. He shook his head. He knew it made sense for Xal to record, but the thought of the world seeing him so helpless made him want to sob.

"Get out of my house," Xal seethed, turning the camera back on Deven.

"You won't post it," Deven accused, stalking towards Xal. It was false bravado. Jungkook could tell by the timber of his voice and the way he abortively stopped before he got too close. Xal's aura was pure violence, and the recording phone was Deven's only hope for remaining unscathed. Still, Deven tried. "I've got screenshots of your texts saying he'll make the video with you if you tell him to. You want that broadcast to your subscribers?"

"And I've got the screenshots telling you that he didn't want to do it, so we didn't," veins bulged on Xal's temple. "And you saying you'd come and collab regardless. And now I find you about to molest my boyfriend."

"We were just messing around, weren't we Jungkook?" Deven said. "Having a laugh. I wasn't touching him anywhere inappropriate. You've jumped to conclusions!"

Xal panned back to Jungkook. "Did he just tell you that he wanted to play with your body?!"

Jungkook nodded, wrapping his arms around himself. He could feel the fuzziness at the edges of his brain, ready to sweep in and consume his fractured mind. He bit down hard on his lip. No he'd just sworn to himself that he'd never let his head go back there again, not after Friday night. He couldn't, he mustn't.

"He misunderstood," Deven smirked, skirting round the potential range of Xal's fist, sidestepping the coffee table and all the snacks. "But baby, remember, my house is three times the size of his."

There was black fury in Xal's eyes, but he kept fliming. Even though Deven was getting further away, the renewed attention made Jungkook want to curl in on himself.

Deven smirked. "You just gotta make it worth a guy's while. You don't earn, you don't get. Learn what you're good for. Nobody wants a little prude."

"Get. Out." Xal shoved his phone into his pocket, and Deven's eyes blew wide. He hurried out towards the hall and Xal followed him with precise steps, each one a threat.

Jungkook's mind was crippled. The weight of fighting off the haze was unbearable. Deven's words easily slipped through the flimsy net of his psyche and stabbed at him, over and over.

little prude

earn it

what you're good for

He stared at the carpet as it swayed before his vision, desperately trying to stay big, even though being big meant remembering that he was just a thing: a toy, a belonging, an accessory. This guy had only watched him on Youtube, and he knew it.

There was a distant slam.

"Thank God we have guests due," Xal was in Jungkook's periphery, pacing into the livingroom, wringing and shaking out his hands. "I was thinking of going for one of the kitchen knives. I was really thinking about it." The anger was still potent in his voice. "I looking at his smug face and thinking, you know what, it doesn't matter if you're the fourth biggest gamer - you're not going to ruin me online if you're dead. Gahh! The scumbag. Hey, its okay, he's gone, angel. Come here."

Jungkook's eyes were blurring, the whirlpool of his mind dragging him down, but he saw Xal's larger frame moving in on him. He cringed and tried to shy away. Then Xal's hands were on his biceps, trying to wrap him in a hug.

He wrenched himself back, a cry muting in his throat.

"Jungkook?" Xal's voice was half questioning, half warning, the layer of anger only compressed beneath the surface. His hands came again, rough, enveloping, and that was enough for Jungkook to snap his mind out from the inviting fuzzy warmth.

"Don't touch me," he whispered, turning aside.

"...What did you just say to me?" Xal was incredulous. He waited a beat as if Jungkook might back down, but Jungkook meant it. Even Xal's gentle touch at his elbows was searing through his checked shirt.

"I just gave up the collaboration of my career for you," Xal's voice rose, hardening. "Do you realise how many opportunities I've just lost? And there's no guarantee because I filmed him that he's not going to try to screw me over online. He has millions of followers! Do you have the faintest idea of what I just did for you, and you're turning away from me like I'm dirt!?"

"You invited him here," Jungkook felt the tremor in his voice. "You knew what he was like and you let him come in."

"I didn't know he was going to try to feel you up!" Xal snarled. "Maybe I should have let him, huh? Because then at least somebody would have thanked me!"

There was another pause, and Jungkook could hear Xal panting for breath, giving him an opportunity to crumble, to apologise, to show gratitude.

Xal didn't know that he was just the same as Deven. He just didn't know.

"Okay," Xal said, finally, his breathing shallow. "Okay. Come here, baby."

He tried to draw Jungkook in towards him, and Jungkook resisted. It was an involuntary action. His skin was crawling; branded by their touch.

He sensed Xal's pure rage. He watched the hand fly towards him. He felt himself being knocked off balance, banging his elbow against the wall, and his hip against the table. He heard the bottles rattle. It was only after all of that that he felt pain erupt across his cheek.

"How dare you-" Xal crowded in, as Jungkook muddled his footing and reached a hand up to shield his smarting cheek. He felt Xal smush a fist into the back of his shirt collar, choking him, yanking him upright, face to face with one of the angriest versions of his boyfriend he'd even seen.

"Go to our room," Xal's voice got lower and more threatening, and raw panic bloomed in Jungkook's chest. "Sit on the bed, and think about the sacrifice I just made for you and how you repaid me. Do not disturb my party. Don't even think about showing your face down here. I'll deal with you later."

Jungkook scuttled upstairs the moment Xal released him. He heard the doorbell ring just as he closed over their bedroom door.

He couldn't sit on the bed. The bed was where- he turned on his heel, pacing, almost frantic, trying to find somewhere he could settle.

Eventually, as the sounds of greetings ringing out in the hallway, he slumped down with his back to the door and sat on the carpet, bringing his knees up under his chin. He slowly rubbed the throbbing heat of his cheek, his body quivering.

little prude

earn it

what you're good for

It hurt, because it was true. He was worthless, there to be used, to be chewed up and spat out. It didn't matter if it was Xal, or Deven, or anyone else.

Jin came into his mind, his glimmer of hope, the promise of tomorrow.

He felt shame and despair mingle together. Even Jin was too good to be true. He'd called him a friend, sure, but Jungkook had been in his headspace then. It was the kind of exaggeration you told a small child, and Jungkook had taken it to heart, thought that Jin meant it.

Jin didn't mean it. He couldn't. Jungkook wasn't worth someone like Jin's time. What could Jungkook possibly offer Jin?

little prude

He wondered if Jin would even be there tomorrow. They'd arranged to meet before Jin realised Jungkook was beyond repair.

Jungkook pressed his forehead into his knees, the faint sounds of music and laughter echoing up from downstairs.

Jin might not show, but Jungkook would. Just in case. He was that desperate now.

X-X-X

"Hey!" Xal's face brightened as he opened the door. "That's my favourite drink! How did you know?"

"I'm horribly observant," Jin handed the bottle over. "Should I take my shoes off?"

"I dunno," Xal's mouth twisted with mirth. He was wearing a loud Hawillian shirt and a lei around his neck. "Can a penguin survive without his feet?"

Tae and Jimin had helped Jin stick orange cardboard cut in webbed shapes onto his shoes, while berating him for not deciding to be an ice prince, or a sun god, or, Jimin's personal favourite, the colours of the wind.

Jin had insisted on being a penguin. Penguins were fuzzy and friendly. More tap dancing, less spy. Plus he already had facepaints, a tuxedo print jumper with long black sleeves and black jeans in his wardrobe.

"My socks are orange, I think I'll risk it," he said.

Xal hovered as Jin slipped his shoes off, and Jin didn't miss the simmering heat in his host's gaze as he bent over.

"You've got a nice place," he said as he straightened. Xal seemed somewhat on edge. Hosting anxiety? Or was he onto Jin and this was all an elborate trap? The music and chatter filtering from the living room seemed to suggest the former.

Xal's gaze softened slightly, but his shoulders were still strained. "It's nicer now you're here, for sure. Can we talk in a few?"

Jin nodded. He followed Xal into the livingroom and surveyed it with a keen eye. They'd had gone all out on the decorations. The seven or eight other guests were mostly occupied with refilling their party cups. Jin recognised Turret chatting to Julisa and her fiancee. No Jungkook. Was he in the kitchen? Jin wondered if Xal was watching and decided to play it casual and attack the snack table first.

"You have to join!" A young woman in a racy Santa Claus mini dress and Christmas hat with a fluffy white bobble on the end clutched at Jin's arm. "We're forming a Winter team! Come and take a picture with us!"

"I'm a Summer penguin," Jin said with a straight face, stuffing some crisps down his neck.

"Huh, no, penguins are Winter animals," Christmas girl frowned. She was definitely not on her first drink. "Come on, while we outnumber the others!"

"Are we consolidating our forces?" Jin grinned. "Are we plotting against the other seasons?"

He let himself be dragged into the Winter corner. Another young woman in a white tutu, sparkly leotard and tights was waiting for them, a drink in both hands. Jin shortly found himself as the middle of a glamourous sandwich, both of the women leaning into him to keep their balance and performing a precarious foot pop in their heels. Their drinks wobbled precariously. Some bearded fellow dressed as Mother Nature was tasked with taking the two dozen photos that ensued.

The main downside to this was that Jin couldn't scan the room to see when Jungkook slipped in. The upside was he could smile vacantly at the camera and listen to the conversation Xal and Turret were having.

"People are going to be talking about it for months," Turret crowed.

He was still going on about his party. Jin had heard Namjoon's rant about the Youtuber's inability to get past his own successes.

"I'll bet!" Xal said smoothly. "You really knocked it out the park! So, can you fill me in on what the music video plan was? Do we have a date set? Did they discuss what kind of cameo Julia and I will have?"

"It was all pretty vague," Turret waved a hand. "I think that's just how labels work. But when they get down to it I think it'll be mindblowing. Like an eclipse on the music scene, you know?"

"Oh, sure," it was almost comical how valiantly Xal was trying. "So I didn't miss anything important?"

"Well did you stay till the end? Some drugged up lunatics attacked my DJ! It was awesome! I-"

"I meant on Friday," Xal smiled thinly. "At the dinner."

"Nah, you didn't miss anything, it's early stages, man, early stages. You know, that's given me a great idea! I think we should splice some party footage into my music video! I filmed the hell out of the light display with the chandelier and the paddling pool filled up with ice in the kitchen - did you see that? - and the dancefloor of course. I need to send it all to Namjoon and the others! My fans would love to feel like they'd been at my part-"

"Woops, I think that was the doorbell. Brilliant idea though, Turret. Would definitely run that by your team." Xal decided to book it. "Feel free to grab another drink!"

As the last of the party guests arrived, Jin was finally released from his duty as a professional penguin.

"What's your Insta?" Christmas girl asked him. "I'll tag you."

"I don't have one," Jin said, doing another scan for Jungkook. Where was he?

"With a face like yours you totally should," Ballerina girl said. "We could help you set one up!"

"Maybe later. Look, they're starting games, you two should represent us. Make way, you lot! Winter is coming!"

Xal sidled up to him. "Nice escape."

"I could say the same to you," Jin remarked.

"Come over to the window, let's talk," Xal's brown eyes were pulsing with emotion. Jin followed him to the window seat, waving off the offer to join a rogue version of spin the bottle.

"Where's Jungkook?" He asked bluntly. He'd delayed asking for fear of looking keen, but now he was going to look more suspicious for not asking.

"In bed. Officially, he's not feeling well," Xal sat down, one knee up, the other leg stretched out on the carpet. He fiddled with his lei.

"And unofficially?" Jin's stomach went cold with worry.

"He's in disgrace," Xal said matter of factly, staring out into the street, then meeting Jin's eye, testing him.

"Is he little?" He asked cautiously.

"Oh no," Xal frowned in consternation. "I wouldn’t leave him alone if he was little."

Jin didn't know how Xal could possibly know that Jungkook wasn't little right now. Unless... unless Jungkook was only ever little when Xal was present. He pinned that thought for later.

"You seem distracted," he said, trying to hold neutral ground. All he could think about Jungkook. Upstairs. Alone with a house party playing out under his feet. Could he hear Julia's side-splitting laugh as her bottle spin landed on her fiancé? Could he hear the tempo of the music? Did he have food and drink like they did?

In what world did Xal think he could send a nineteen year old to their room like a scolded child?

"I am," Xal said frankly. "Can I be honest with you?"

Jin nodded.

"I was quite forward with you on Friday," Xal said. "I'm not usually like that. But I do try to follow my gut instinct, and I had a gut instinct about you the moment you arrived at dinner. It was almost overwhelming. Like you were going to change my life. It's never happened to me before. I don't know if it was the way you looked at me like you knew me, or the way you tried to include Jungkook. I felt like we had a connection. Did you feel anything like that?"

Jin remembered his nerves the night of the 'mission', deliberately notching his charm up, focusing on Xal and taking in his features while trying to show Jungkook he was actually here for him.

"I definitely felt a connection," he said. "You interest me."

Xal nodded eagerly. "And then you saw Jungkook when he was little, and you weren't repulsed. You wanted to help him. He turned to you for safety. When I first walked into that bathroom- you'll laugh - I thought he was having a secret affair behind my back! I've never seen him trust another person before. I think that's what cemented it for me. There's something special about you."

Jin hoped his big grin looked authentic. "So what's on your mind now?"

Xal contemplated him, his dark eyebrows furrowed. "You've seen Jungkook in his headspace, you know how much he relies on me," he said. "But even when he's big, he needs a lot of care. He always has. I'm not complaining, I love the kid to death. But you have to understand, Jin, that I've put all my eggs in one basket with him. Almost every decision I made as a child was for Jungkook. We'd play the games he felt comfortable with, I didn't get to make other friends because he was scared of them, I spent hours helping him with his schoolwork because he'd zone out in class and was too shy of the teacher to ask for help. Sometimes I didn't get time to do my own homework. I've devoted my life to him."

There was no bitterness in his voice, only matter of fact. Jin believed him.

"And now we're adults, and we're boyfriends," Xal said. "And sometimes I want to do something for me, you know? I'm trying to pursue this Youtube career. I just want him to be supportive, but he's getting harder and harder to manage. It feels like he's actively trying to make me lose my temper sometimes. We're only truly at peace when he's in little space, and he's adapting to it well and I want to encourage him to explore it. But I'm also aware that I'm going to be left high and dry in the bedroom the more frequently he slips."

"Have you talked to him about it?" Jin said.

"He shuts me down a lot," Xal said. "Just before the party, he completely shut me out. Jin, I jeopardised my whole career for him this evening. He knew, and he still shut me out."

The pain was clear in his tone, but it only served to make Jin more anxious for Jungkook. "What happened?"

He was brushed off. "The details don't matter now. The point is that I feel like I'm losing him. When I say he's my whole life, I'm not exaggerating. I suppose I'm grasping at straws, but when you showed up, and I got that gut feeling, I felt like you were going to be my saviour somehow."

Xal was still keeping some of his cards close to his chest. "I feel like you've got a cast list and I still don't know my part," Jin said. "Are you looking for someone to confide in? You hinted that you wanted more."

Xal looked him over again, and Jin's brain said It's a trap, it's a trap, it's a trap...

But it wasn't a trap. Or rather it wasn't the kind of trap Jin was thinking of. He felt as if Xal was sizing him up, drawing him in, trying to see how he could mould Jin to his will and purpose.

"I do have a mental picture of where I'd like things to go," Xal said carefully. "I don't think its fair for me to lay that out just yet. But I think you like us, and we like you. We don't need to put a label on things, but if you wanted to hang out, come over more often, we could get to know you better. See where things go. Would you be okay with that?"

"I would definitely be okay with that," Jin said. He was probably going to have to get a restraining order out on this guy when he finally helped Jungkook leave.

"There would have to be a couple of ground rules," Xal added. "You might think I'm getting ahead of myself, I need to make sure you know our position while things are casual. You'd interact with Jungkook only when I'm present, and your relationship with him would be completely platonic. Ideally you'd help me care for him, encourage him with his little space, and mediate with him when he's being spiteful. As for you and I...if things progress well, we can do anything and everything. Whatever you want. The only proviso is Jungkook would have to consent to it. Because ultimately he and I will still be the romantic relationship."

Wow. So Jin had a pretty good idea of what Xal wanted now. It was a friend with benefits scheme. And it sounded like he wanted to wield Jin like a weapon to control Jungkook even further.

"It's a lot to think about," he blagged. "Can I take some time out and get back to you?"

"Sure, sure," Xal said quickly. "I hope we can make something work."

"Do you want me to go upstairs and speak to him about the way he treated you?"

"No," Xal said, his tone taking on an edge. "He's being punished. He might see you and think its a reward."

"Okay," Jin said, trying to hide his disappointment. Jungkook was just metres from him, and Jin wanted nothing more than to sneak him out of this house and take him home and just hold him and assure him that he was safe.

Instead, he had Xal's gaze tracking him through the party games for the next two hours before he could make his getaway.

Tomorrow, he thought. Hang on, Jungkook. I'm coming for you.

X-X-X

He pulled up round the corner from Jungkook's college at 12:15pm. Early, but he'd been so terrified of being late. He got out of the car quickly and hurried round towards the front gates. He'd taken a half day off work. For all he knew, this might be the day. He might be making up a bed on the couch for Jungkook tonight.

He could feel butterflies corkscrewing through his stomach.

When students started spilling out of the doors for lunch, Jin's eyes darted left and right, desperate to see those doe eyes. So much was banking on this meeting. In the movies this was when people mixed up the time or location, or someone got held up and it resulted in a miscommunication and-

He saw him.

It almost took his breath away. Jungkook was walking out of the door. He was wearing that thin jacket again, hugging his art folder like a shield. His hair looked more curly today. He was a picture, but his head was ducked, and people flowed around him as if he were completely disconnected from them.

When Jungkook finally stopped and began to raise his head, Jin could see that his chest was heaving as if he was struggling to breathe. Jungkook's gaze darted about blankly, scanning right over Jin and the courtyard, before swallowing hard and turning on his heel to return indoors.

"Jungkook!" Jin yelled, startling both himself and the people milling past him.

Jungkook froze, then turned back. He was giving little shakes of his head, like he couldn't believe Jin was really here. Jin waved and beckoned him, and as Jungkook nervously stepped towards him, he saw wonder dawn in the kid's face.

"You thought I wasn't coming," he accused gently as Jungkook neared.

Jungkook gave him a wobbly smile and nodded. Jin wanted so badly to touch him, to hold him tight against him. But he'd already created a bit of a scene amongst the lazy lunchtime traffic and Jungkook might not appreciate it.

"My car's round the corner," he said. "Come on. I'm going to buy you lunch."

Jungkook was silent at his side as they walked, and Jin decided to let him be for a minute, to give him time to think. He slowed his pace when he realised Jungkook wasn't quite keeping up, his steps precise and careful. When they reached the car, Jungkook heisitated at the passenger door.

"I'm still not a serial killer," Jin said, hoping to raise another smile.

"That's what all the serial killers say." Jungkook remarked, but Jin felt a burst of joy at the small smile he'd ellicited. And the fact that Jungkook got into the car and clicked his seatbelt on.

"There's a diner not far from here. You wanna be in charge of music?" He said.

Jungkook's huge eyes grew huger. He shook his head anxiously.

Jin chuckled softly. "That's okay. Hey look, my friend Jimin made me a mixtape. Let's stick that in." He hoped the music would calm Jungkook's nerves a little.

"Where do you normally go for lunch?" He asked, trying to make general conversation. It was crazy how little conversation they'd actually had.

"Inside the college cafeteria," Jungkook was so quiet Jin could hardly hear him over the power ballad.

He turned the music down slightly. "You never go out anywhere?"

"Not allowed," Jungkook whispered.

Jin felt his grip on the steering wheel tighten, pressure building in his chest. No wonder Jungkook was so shaken. Even this was like a jail break for him.

"Hoseok's going to text me when he gets out of his class in forty-five minutes or so," he said. "I said we might phone him if you were up for it. Is that alright with you?"

His chest wrenched further at the sight of abject fear and joy mingling in Jungkook's expression.

"Okay." Jungkook said cautiously. "If he wants to."

"He's really excited about it," Jin reassured him. "He tried to come here to have lunch with us, but I asked him to give you a bit of space first. Just so we can figure out what to do."

Jungkook had anchored his hands in his lap, his art folder tucked between his legs like he did on the bus. Jin couldn't believe he'd ever looked at Jungkook and thought he was some kind of jerk. From the adorable slope of his nose to the little puffs of skin at the edges of his mouth, Jungkook was just radiating innocence. Jin had to be careful not to abuse that like Xal had done before him.

He pulled into the diner. "I used to go here all the time," he said. "They do a mean steak."

It was only when he saw Jungkook face front on again that he realised there were faint marks on his left cheek.

"Was that Xal?" he murmured, pointing.

Jungkook's hand flew to cover his cheek. "I upset him," he said. "It was my fault."

"Maybe it was your fault you upset him," Jin countered. "Maybe. But this, these streaks on your face aren't your fault. Do you believe me?"

Jungkook nodded dutifully. Jin sighed. A step at a time.

Jungkook was slow walking into the diner as well. At first Jin thought Jungkook was paranoid Xal would appear, Jin himself was feeling a bit unreasonably paranoid about that too, but then he realised Jungkook was favouring a leg. Or maybe both legs. Jin frowned. The teenager was wincing slightly as he walked. Jin nearly blurted out that they could go to the hospital if Jungkook needed it, but choked it back.

A step at a time.

They were settled into a booth with a semi-circle red couch and a red and white checked tablecloth. The diner was quite busy, seemingly it served a local high school as well as some nearby office buildings. There was music playing, black and white posters on the walls, and a general hubbub in the air. Jin hadn't just chosen to come here for the food. There was a sense that they could have anonymity here.

The waitress came to bring menus and take a drinks order. Jin ordered water, then looked at Jungkook. Jungkook just nodded, and Jin had to amend his order to two waters.

"So what kind of art do you do?" He asked when the waitress left.

He was surprised when Jungkook offered his art folder up immediately. Perhaps he trusted Jin more than Jin realised. He opened the folder reverentially. They were sitting here together because of this folder.

Jin wasn't much of an art lover. Namjoon had dragged him to a couple of galleries before. Namjoon was one of those cool people who would just stand and stare at a portrait in its huge gilded frame and see meaning in brush strokes, and textures and nuances of colour. Jin would look at the same portrait and be bored approximately five seconds later.

So he wasn't expecting to feel anything. Was it because he knew Jungkook?

"These are... they're excellent," he said. "This one, this one, you're ridiculously talented Jungkook!"

Not just talented, either, but capable. Capable of so much. This was the work of an intelligent person, a feeling person. Looking through the paintings and the sketches in this folder, Jin felt that he had underestimated Jungkook. He'd got so caught up in his own narrative of rescuing Jungkook, and Xal's false narrative that Jungkook was a child. But these were not the work of a child.

"Honestly, they really speak to me," he said, glancing up at Jungkook, noting that he was getting rapt attention. "I'm not just saying that because the artist is sitting here. I swear."

"I... I won an award the other day," Jungkook's cheeks blushed pink, looking up at Jin through his eyelashes. "First place in the junior category."

"I'm not surprised at all," Jin couldn't decide if he preferred staring at the art in his hands or the art across the table from him. "You should be so proud of yourself."

He paused at one of the last pictues in the folder. It was a charcoal sketch and it was clearly a self-portrait. Jin recognised Jungkook's features immediately, even though the face was twisted in anguish and the hands over the cheeks seemed to be both rubbing something in and clawing down. He swallowed hard looking at it. Charcoal-Jungkook was trying to tear his face off.

"Did you do this recently?" He asked quietly.

Jungkook nodded. He looked almost guilty, worrying his fingers into his napkin. Jin peered closer at one of the charcoal hands, the one that wasnt yet clawing. It was wet with whatever it was rubbing into the cheek it covered, and it seemed like the hand itself was frothing down.

Jin had a sudden idea of what charcoal-Jungkook was rubbing into his face and he carefully closed the folder, feeling a swell of anguish in his belly.

"Thank you for showing me, it means a lot," he said. "And thank you for coming here. I know you must be nervous, but I promise you're safe. Once we've got our food we can talk through everything, bit by bit and then decide what to do. Is that okay by you?"

"Yes." Jungkook said. He was tearing his napkin into little pieces. Jin wondered if he'd even noticed he was doing it.

"Can I take your order?" The waitress returned with their waters.

Jin promptly ordered the steak. He turned to Jungkook. Jungkook was staring back at him expectantly.

"What do you want?" Jin asked. "You can pick anything."

Jungkook's eyes nearly popped out of his head. Jin could see him begin to panic. "I've to pick?" He whispered.

"Could we have just two more minutes please?" Jin asked hastily, praying that the waitress didn't think anything of it.

"Sure hon,'" the waitress was only mildly irritated. Jin made a mental note to leave her a good tip.

"I'm sorry," Jungkook pleaded the moment the waitress left, getting himself a little worked up. "I'm sorry. I didn't know you wanted me to choose. I didn't mean to-"

Jin risked it and scooted nearer on the couch, placing a steadying hand on Jungkook's knee. "Hey, it's fine." He said. "I said I was paying and that I'd been here before and you thought I'd order for both of us. I should have warned you. My bad. Why don't you have a look now. I can recommend something if you like, but you can pick whatever you want. Whichever one you like."

"Whichever one..." Jungkook repeated, mesmerised, looking over the menu in bewilderment. Jin wanted to help him, but even more so, he wanted to see Jungkook make a choice for himself. The seconds dragged, but Jin waited it out.

"Can I have pancakes?" Jungkook said. "With syrup and bacon?"

"That's a great choice," Jin said. "They do amazing pancakes in here."

Jungkook's face lit up, and Jin was pretty sure it wasn't at the prospect of the pancakes.

I want to give you the world, he thought suddenly. He wasn't just emotionally invested. Somewhere between the art and watching Jungkook make choices he was never allowed to make, sitting in a diner he was never allowed to be in, with a person he was never allowed to be with, Jin had caught feelings.

He grinned back, and Jungkook smiled harder. His front two teeth and that slight overbite was the most endearing thing Jin had ever seen. When the waitress came back, Jungkook even gave the order himself, albeit in a soft voice. Jin felt ridiculously proud.

"Do you remember me telling you about my friends Tae and Jimin?" He said, leaning across the table conspiratorily.

"The ones with the oreos," Jungkook said eagerly.

"Yeah! That's the ones! Hopefully I'll introduce you to them soon. They really want to meet you. They got into some mischief of their own at the weekend. Do you want me to tell you about it while we're waiting for the food?"

Jungkook's whole face was aglow as Jin recounted Tae and Jimin's recent adventure which involved them viewing the lengthy 'Do Not' rules poster at their local swimming pool as something of a challenge, and had nearly resulted in them getting banned. By the end of the tale, Jungkook had grown comfortable enough that he was giving Jin banter, and as far as Jin was concerned, this couldn't be going any better.

Then his ex walked through the diner door with a couple of friends.

Jin shouldn't have been too surprised. After all, they used to come here together. They both liked it here. It was just his luck.

"My ex has just shown up," he muttered, dipping his head a little. "You know, the one with the oreo'd car. That's bad timing."

"Is he angry?" Jungkook went very still, his eyes darting left and right like he was trying to check his peripheries.

Jin chuckled lowly. "Not now, no. But he has sent a few drunken messages trying to get back with me. I don't know what he'll do sober." He took a hasty glance. "Damn. He's spotted me. He's coming over. Sit tight, I'll try to deal with him."

"Do you want me to pretend to be your boyfriend?" Jungkook said quickly, shuffling up the seat to get closer to Jin.

"N- well, okay, that might actually put him off quicker," Jin amended, lifting his arm to tuck Jungkook into his side.

"Jin!" His ex called out, but was temporarily stuck, his route blocked by a pram and a waiter bending over a nearby table. Jin pretended he hadn't heard him.

"So, boyfriend," he smiled at Jungkook. "What really interesting thing can we pretend to be talking about before he gets here?"

He didn't quite have time to interpret the look in Jungkook's eyes, before Jungkook's face was coming closer, and his fingers slid gently round the back of Jin's neck, tilting his head down.

Then Jin's ears were suddenly stuffed with cotton, his common sense departed, his brain spluttering like a failed engine, his body like putty and his lips on fire.

Because Jungkook was kissing him.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

"Jin!...Jin!...Jin!" Flynn had commited himself now, a sentry at their table, his voice getting increasingly outraged.

There was a part of Jin that wanted to respond to him. For politeness. To make him go away.

Then there was the part of Jin that was so consumed with Jungkook that he could barely register where they were. His ex was rendered as a mere blip in his peripheries.

Kissing Jungkook was the tip of a rollercoaster: his stomach swooping up into his chest as the rest of him plummeted. Jungkook demanded, and Jin gave. Every single nerve in his body was sparking.

"Jin!" Flynn's voice rose to objectionable levels.

Reluctantly, Jin broke the kiss off. Reality jarred him. He felt his back twinge at the awkward angle he'd been sat at. He could feel the vinyl of their couch beneath him and the slight stickiness of the floor. Music and chatter floated around him. He could sense nearby customers looking their way.

Still, he could barely tear his eyes from Jungkook. Jungkook was staring at him in a way Jin couldn't fully interpret, his big eyes bright and begging.

Jin still had an arm round Jungkook's shoulder and he squeezed gently. His lips were smarting in the best way. He needed to adjust his trousers slightly. Half of his brain was congratulating while the other half berated itself.

He feared that the berating half had a point. "What do you want?" He turned to Flynn. Flynn exercising his supreme talent of being the root of all Jin's problems.

"To say hello," Flynn crossed his arms. "If you're finished with that very public display."

He was looking good and there was a bit of Jin that acknowledged it. His haircut was fresh, he wore denim and an obnoxious magenta tee and there were two pinpricks of red on his cheeks. He smelled of the aftershave Jin bought for his last birthday.

Jungkook laid his head on Jin's shoulder. I think we've been convincing enough, Kook Jin thought, as nearby diners set their cutlery down like they'd reached the important part of a TV show.

"Hello," he replied neutrally. "How are you doing?"

"Not as great as you, it seems," Flynn cast a resentful glance at Jungkook. "You didn't even let the bed get cold, did you."

"I think we're both big enough boys to admit that Jimin was right about us," Jin said. "Flynn and Jin sounds more like a drink than a relationship. We're going to do a lot better without eachother."

"God, you're always so petty about everything," Flynn clicked his tongue against his teeth.

"'Least I'm not blowing up my ex's phone every time I get drunk," Jin returned smartly.

Flynn had the decency to look sheepish about that. "It won't happen again. I've downloaded one of those apps. You know the ones where you have to complete maths puzzles to access bits of your phone on a night out."

"That would be a lot more convincing if you weren't a maths genius," Jin frowned.

"I have it set on hardest."

"You could just delete my number," Jin suggested. "Go off and live your best life."

Flynn observed him for a moment, and it was easy for Jin to remember all the reasons he'd once liked him, the good times they'd had. Already he'd broken from Jimin and Tae's painstaking mental training. Names were not supposed to be used when labels like 'ex' or 'jerkface' would suffice.

"I think you'll come back round," Flynn said slowly, contemplating. "Honestly, this kid has 'rebound' written all over him. No offence, kid. Maybe I screwed up once or twice, but you can't deny what we had. Maybe you need a few days with him to get it out of your system, but I think you'll text me eventually. Ask to meet up. Talk it out. I think we can fix this."

Jin could feel Jungkook trembling in his arms. Was Flynn making him think of Xal? Was he somehow angry on Jin's behalf without knowing any details of the breakup? Why was he shaking like a leaf?

"See," Flynn hadn't missed Jungkook's reaction either. "He knows."

"You need to back off," Jin said. "Go, join your friends. Don't talk about me, don't think about me. Just go."

Flynn held up his hands. "Okay, I'm going. It was good to see you, Jin. Especially here. This was pretty much our place, wasn't it? Guess I'm on your mind more than you realise."

Jin sighed heavily as Flynn navigated his way back around the tables.

"Are you mad at me?" Jungkook piped up in a tiny voice. "For kissing you?"

"A little more warning would have been appreciated," Jin chuckled softly. If anything, he was still reeling from it, from Jungkook's taste and the heat of his mouth and the softness of that lower lip. He slowly uncurled his arm from Jungkook so they could seperate. Jungkook's whole body stiffened as he did so and he hung his head.

"I enjoyed it a lot. I half forgot he was there," Jin tried to reassure him. "How the heck did you learn to kiss like that?"

Jungkook hesitated, and Jin quickly realised his mistake.

"See, it was so good I'm talking like an idiot," he said hurriedly. "Thank you for helping me. He probably would have stuck around longer if you hadn't."

"It was good for me too," Jungkook said, his shoulders slumping in relief, almost whispering.

Jin was torn between elation and guilt. "It's a relief that I wasn't terrible." He tried to stick to levity.

"I'd like to do it again," Jungkook looked up at Jin through his lashes. "Sometime," he amended, his eyes skating to their surroundings.

"Me too," Jin said, biting his tongue on just how much. "But we don't have to rush anything, okay? We should focus on getting you safe. I don't want you to jump into something you're not ready for, when you should be concentrating on yourself."

Jungkook blinked at him for a while, like was trying to size him up. "Okay," he said finally, almost reluctantly, and Jin almost took it back, even though he knew he'd said the right thing. Jungkook was not ready for another relationship.

Food came. Jungkook poked at his streaky bacon and gloriously drizzled golden pancakes like he was inspecting a precious artifact. Jin chuckled as he reached for his steak knife. "Dig in."

Jungkook attacked his lunch with gusto. Jin adored him. It was ridiculous, but he adored him. Every little moan of enjoyment Jungkook made, the way he stuffed his cheeks like a hamster, the awed expression on his face with each mouthful. Jin might actually like Jungkook more than steak, and that was something he needed to reflect on deeply.

He waited till Jungkook was more than halfway through before he gently brought the conversation round to their purpose for being here.

"So," he said. "Xal spoke to me at the houseparty. And I've heard what Hoseok remembers. I'm embarrassed to say how many Youtube videos I've watched with you in them. I think I have a measure on your situation. Do you want to add anything? Give your perspective?"

Jungkook looked like a kid who'd been told they were leaving Disneyland. "I'll try," he said, shifting uncomfortably, easing his fork down.

Jin stole a glance across the diner, to make sure Flynn wasn't about to pop into view again.

"I don't remember the time before Xal," Jungkook immediately commanded Jin's attention. "Our fathers met through business. I was scared of my own shadow, terrified when the toilet flushed, convinced there were monsters under my bed. More than anything else, I was scared of people. I think my parents had expected me to follow in my brother's footsteps and when I failed to match his milestones, they began to despair. So they brought Xal to be my friend." He paused. "Do you have a best friend?"

"Yes," Jin said.

"How long have you known him?"

Jin thought of that first year at uni with Namjoon. "It's been, wow, six years, I guess. We've been close for at least five."

"Do you trust him?" Jungkook pressed. "Does he have your back no matter what?"

Jin thought about it. "Yes. No matter what. It's who he is."

"It was like that with Xal," Jungkook said. "Except, he was there my whole life. We were closer than brothers. Everything I learned was introduced to me by Xal. He was the lens I saw the world through. He would do so much for me, and I would thank him, and he'd brush it off easily and initiate play. I was still shy with everyone else, and I wasn't very good at school, but I was happy. I idolised him. I loved him."

"And then he changed?"

Jungkook shrugged. "Sometimes I wonder if I was the one who changed," he said softly. "I don't know if it was puberty, or Hoseok, or something else. When Hoseok started making friends with me, I felt so special, so grown up. I'd never made a friend on my own. I remember telling Xal about him, and Xal was proud of me. He had plenty of friends, and he'd even dated a couple of kids in his year by this point. I wanted Hoseok to be my second friend so badly. Maybe it was selfish, because I didn't need more than Xal. But Hoseok made me feel like we were equals."

"And then Xal invited himself on your cinema date," Jin nodded.

"He changed his mind about me going just the day before," Jungkook said. "I was crushed. I'd been looking forward to it so badly. Xal said that he'd heard Hoseok was gay and a player and that he was going to use me. I told him Hoseok wasn't like that, but Xal didn't ask me for things often, and I resigned myself that I couldn't go."

"But Xal changed his mind again?"

"I think he saw how upset I was," Jungkook said. "He said he'd come too and keep an eye on me. I saw Hoseok once in between but I didn't tell him Xal was coming too because there was a part of me that was scared Hoseok might cancel. I had the best time at the cinema. I had my two favourite people with me. I was giddy. I couldn't even tell you what film it was."

"But then Xal told Hoseok that you didn't like him," Jin said. "When you were in the toilets."

"Did he?" Jungkook folded his hands into his lap, looking horribly young for a moment. "I'm not surprised. But I would never have believed it then. Xal told me that Hoseok left because he'd realised I was boring and he hadn't had a good time."

His lower lip quivered.

Jin couldn't help it. He slid round from his almost-evicerated steak and raised his arm. Jungkook slotted himself back in, and Jin slowly rubbed up and down the sleeve of his jacket.

"I was so ashamed," Jungkook whispered. "I knew I wasn't good enough, but I'd dreamed that Hoseok didn't mind. When I found out I'd disappointed him, I retreated in on myself, too afraid to speak to him again, and he didn't speak to me."

He was still hurting from it, just like Hoseok was. Of all the things that convinced Jin of Xal's unabashed wickedness, this was it.

"Then, maybe a year later, Hoseok passed me in the corridor. He was with his friends and they were talking to him, but he caught my eye and smiled at me. It was just a throwaway smile, but I felt like he'd forgiven me. I remember somebody crashed into me from behind because I just stopped walking. I was so grateful to him, but I didn't dare approach him by then, because Xal and I were dating."

"And how did that transition happen for you?" Jin was deeply curious. "It doesn't sound like you had any romantic feelings towards Xal up till that point."

"Xal started kissing me," Jungkook said. "And then other stuff. And then he explained that we were boyfriends and what that meant and what I had to do."

"And then you started to fall for him?" Jin was grasping at straws now.

Jungkook frowned. "No, I've never fallen for Xal. He's my best friend. Was. Was my best friend. I loved him and I would do anything for him if he told me. That's all it was. That's all it ever was."

Horror sank deep in Jin's chest. "Does he know?"

"I suppose so," Jungkook shrugged. "He doesn't ask me about my feelings very often."

Jin couldn't let Jungkook go back home to Xal. Couldn't. He held him tighter, and rather than squirming, Jungkook nuzzled his head against Jin's shoulder.

"So," Jin choked out. "Just to clarify. You've never consented to this relationship?"

"I don't tell him no," Jungkook amended. "Or at least, not often."

"Oh Jungkook," Jin breathed, reaching with his free hand to clasp over Jungkook's interlaced ones. "I can't- you know this is all wrong, don't you? Of course you do, that's why you asked me to help you. I just, I just wish with every ounce of my being that I'd been here sooner. Or that someone had. He's taken so much from you. It's utterly unfair."

"I'm okay," Jungkook said. "Now. With you. You let me decide things for myself. That was really my first kiss, you know. Because I wanted to. Because it was my choice."

You're going to break me.

"Well it definitely wasn't my first kiss," Jin said slowly, "but it felt like it should have been. If that counts."

"It counts for me," Jungkook said, uncurling a hand from their little nest in his lap to steal one of Jin's chips.

"Hey!" Jin mock-protested, secretly delighted.

"Oh. My. God. Jungkook!"

Jin almost got whiplash. There were two teenage girls in school uniform standing at their booth.

"I told you it was him!" The first said to the second. "Oh. My. God. Oh. My. God. I'm such a big fan! I love Xal's channel! I can't believe how cute you are in real life! Can I get a picture with you? Is Xal here? Oh wow. This has never happened to me before. I'm sorry, I'm so awkward. Hi. I can't even. You're literally perfect."

The second looked at Jin and Jin's arm around Jungkook's shoulder and Jin's hand linked with Jungkook's under the table. She frowned.

You're screwed, you're screwed, you're screwed, Jin's brain informed him.

X-X-X

Jungkook's instinct was to bury himself in Jin's chest and hope that they would go away. Panic surged in a huge fog, threatening to send him straight into dangerous territory.

"Hi," Jin was saying cheerily. "It's so cool to meet you guys. I'm a friend of Jungkook's. I don't think he's ever been recognised in public before, so he's probably a bit shellshocked! Is that right, Kook?"

Jungkook nodded. It had happened once or twice with Xal at the gym or the supermarket and Xal had been delighted. It had never happened to Jungkook alone. For people at college and on the bus he was as familiar as furniture.

He tried not to cringe under the twin gazes from the schoolgirls. He felt Jin squeeze his hand and let go. But it was too late, they'd been sitting close. They'd been talking about kissing. Earlier they had been kissing. How much had the girls seen or heard?

"Slip into our booth for a second," Jin was saying. "Let us level with you."

The two girls scrambled to join them, and it was all Jungkook could do to hold himself together. He felt the static at the edge of brain, so keen to come out and destroy him, to consume his panic and render him an infant. He wanted Jin to hold him, but Jin was easing his body away from him, creating a gap.

"Jungkook's ditching college," Jin lowered his voice conspiratorily. "His parents will kill him if they find out. And they're always keeping tabs on him and Xal online. You'd be doing him a massive favour if you didn't take a picture of him or didn't mention that you'd seen him. He'd really owe you one."

"Oh!" The first girl was disappointed, but Jin's steady charm was winning her over.

"I'm sorry, I'm really shy," Jungkook managed to say. "It's really nice to meet you. Thank you for coming to say hello. What's- what's your names?"

"I'm Hilary and this is Ebony. Aww it's okay! You're so cute! You and Xal are my OTP you know! I had such a big crush on him when he started out, I totally thought he was straight! But you and him are so perfect together, really."

"Where is he?" Ebony asked.

"Probably at the gym," Jungkook said. Thinking about Xal was sending him into acute terror.

"You can tell him about Hilary and Ebony when you get home later," Jin added. "He'll be so chuffed. He loves his fans. When Jungkook tells him you covered for him and didn't post about seeing him out of class.. that's going to mean the world to him."

"We won't," Hilary said fervently. "Pinkie promise."

Jungkook realised this was directed at him and untangled one of his hands from the other, trying to stare with his whole soul at Hilary as he extended his pinkie.

Hilary barely muffled her squeals. Jungkook offered his pinkie to Ebony next.

"You guys are the best," Jin said. "Hope you have an amazing day after doing such a good deed!"

"Yeah," Jungkook's throat was scratchy. "Thank you. My parents would kill me."

"Can I ask you something," Hilary said cautiously.

Jungkook felt his heart wrench into double speed. "Uh huh?"

"Did you know there's Kooxal fanfiction?" Pink blossomed on Hilary's cheeks. "I'm just asking because, um, it might make a good video. You could laugh at the really bad ones. Or something."

Jungkook didn't know. He wanted Jin to hold him so badly, wanted to crawl up into his lap and shut his eyes and cuddle in, but he knew he couldn't even reach out to him. Ebony in particular was watching closely.

"I'll ask Xal about it," he mumbled, and Hilary seemed too embarrased to push him further.

As the girls slid out of the booth and made their way back over to a not-too-distant table, Jin gave Jungkook a gentle nudge. "We should go. I don't think they took a photo before they came up, and we don't want to leave them with temptation."

Jungkook was almost dazed, hugging his art folder and trailing after Jin, who had tracked down a waiter to deliver cash and an excuse. He noted Jin looking out for Flynn as they headed for the door and his vision started to blur.

If Jin falls in love with his ex again he won't want Kookie.

Jungkook. he scolded mentally.

Me he tried to snarl back at his brain.

When they got back in the car, Jungkook had another thought about a cuddle. But Jin was reminding him to put his belt on and turning the key in the ignition. He got the buckle in on his second go, his fingers sweating and shaking and his consciousness cloudy.

"I'm just going to park up the road," Jin said, his voice barely penetrating.

Xal is going to be so angry with Koo- with me.

So angry.

Jungkook shut his eyes and tried to still his body, as if he might become one with the chair.

A short while later he felt a hand brush his cheek.

"Hey," Jin said. "Hey, you're alright. We're safe. Everything's going to be fine. Can you look at me?"

Jungkook prised his eyes open. There was concern in Jin's warm brown eyes.

"'m not little," Jungkook protested, his voice starting to slur.

"You're Jungkook, that's all that matters," Jin neatly sidestepped. "I've texted Hoseok to ask for a bit more time before we phone. We're going to talk through this rationally okay?"

"Okay." Jungkook nodded. He wasn't feeling little. He wanted Jin to hold him, but the stupid gear stick was in the way.

"Those girls might still post something," Jin said. "I think we've mitigated things as much as we could, they did seem to buy our story. Hopefully they don't have any photos anyway. But we can't absolutely guarantee that word won't get back to Xal. I'm going to propose something now, Jungkook. I know it's going to sound like a lot, but I need you to know its an option."

Jungkook nodded again. Looking up through the windscreen at the swollen grey sky.

"You don't have to go back home," Jin said, searching him out. "You can come back to my place and stay with me. You don't have to see Xal ever again. I know its sudden and it doesn't give you a lot of time to think, but its a very real option. Or if you have any reason to not trust me we can get you across the city to Hoseok, at least till we figure things out."

"Hoseok has a boyfriend," Jungkook said. "He won't want me."

"Granted they don't have a lot of space," Jin said, "but Hoseok would much rather be cramped and have you safe. Yoongi agrees with him. I do have more space and you're welcome to it."

"I wanna stay with you," Jungkook said. A sky like that was asking to be painted.

Jin looked pleased. "Good, that's decided. You've got your art here and I'd imagine anything else could be replaced. We can get you new clothes and belongings. Is there any reason why you'd need to go back?"

Jungkook hesitated.

"You don't owe him a single thing," Jin prompted him. "He's a rapist and a bully. You do not have to break up with him face to face. In fact, it would be far safer not to."

Jungkook agreed, even though he still couldn't fully contemplate life without Xal in it. He felt out the haze flickering at the edge of his mind. Not quite exploring it, but not letting it dissipate either.

"Do you have to go back home?" Jin asked him gently.

"No-" Jungkook started, then he shook his head, guilt flaring through his body. "Yes. I have to go home."

Disappointment and concern was written all over Jin's face. "Are you sure?" He said.

Jungkook nodded. Jin wouldn't understand, couldn't understand. "Tomorrow," he said. "Can you come again tomorrow? Lunchtime? I might not be ready, but I'll try to be."

"If that's what you want," Jin said cautiously. "Please think carefully, Kook. The longer you stay with him, the bigger the risk we get found out. And if you start packing bags he's going to notice. Are you absolutely sure you can't just leave everything behind?"

Jungkook gulped and nodded. He could never live with himself if he left now. And he couldn't tell Jin either, because he'd be ashamed. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"It's okay," Jin reached over to take his hand. "Truly. Just, please be careful. I'll wait for you tomorrow lunchtime in the same spot."

"What happens after that?" Jungkook kept his voice low. Jin's hand felt soothing round his. Like Jin wasn't going to change his mind. Jungkook had to make sure Jin didn't change his mind.

"Well, I've thought about it," Jin said. "Once you're safely at mine you can decide if you want to contact Xal to tell him its over. Do you have your own phone?"

Jungkook shook his head. Jin gave a soft sigh.

"Then we can use my phone to call or text, I'm probably going to have to change my number anyway. You don't have to contact him though. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that regardless of what you do, he won't take it well. He doesn't know where I live and if you don't go to college he won't know how to find you, but he might create some big story about you being kidnapped or a missing person. Especially if he goes online with it.”

Jungkook swallowed hard. Nodded.

”I think we should call up the non-emergency police number as soon as you're home with me tomorrow and briefly explain the situation. I can leave contact details with the police.” Jin continued. “We might also need to go see a lawyer about a restraining order. And if you want to charge him with anything criminal we'll discuss that too. Depending on whether he lets loose with anything online we might also have to issue a statement. But the main thing is that you're safe and we don't have the police hunting for you, agreed?"

It was too much: police and lawyers and phonecalls and statements. Jungkook peered through the windscreen at the tree-lined pavement they were parked beside. He liked the way the leaves were wishy washy in the breeze.

"You don't need to worry about any of this," Jin assured him. "All you need to worry about is getting out of there safely. Now if something happens and you can't meet me tomorrow, then don't panic. I'll come every single lunchtime till I get you."

He squeezed Jungkook's hand again, and Jungkook squeezed back. He should kiss Jin again.

"What about your family?" Jin said softly.

"They love Xal," Jungkook said. "My parents are on holiday anyway. I don't know where. I don't know my brother's number."

"Okay," Jin said. "That's fine for now. Do you feel like speaking to Hoseok before I take you back to college?"

Jungkook felt like his whole world was in a washingmachine, tumbling and turning on its head. "Yes please," he said meekly.

Jin pulled out his phone. Jungkook was swamped by a wave of nerves dashing the warmer, cosier haze to pieces. He clutched onto Jin's hand, his other trembling as Jin said "hello, he's here," and passed the phone over.

"Hey," Hoseok's voice burred in his ear. "It's me. Long time no speak, huh."

Jungkook nodded, squeezing Jin's hand tighter. That was Hoseok's voice. The last time Hoseok had spoken directly to him they'd been walking into the cinema and Jungkook had been so happy and innocent.

"Jungkook?" Hoseok said. "Hello?"

"Hi," Jungkook whispered.

"Hey." Hoseok's voice was warm and reassuring. "It's good to hear you. I've been wanting to speak to your for days but Jin said to wait. I've missed you lots, Kook. I mean it. I kept your note you left me. I really want to be friends again."

Jungkook could feel tears tracking silently down his cheeks. He was holding onto Jin like an anchor. "You've always been my friend," he said.

"Not a very good one," Hoseok said, his voice hoarse. "But I intend to be from now on. If you need anything at all, you phone me, okay? And Yoongi and I will come and see you as soon as we can. I'm going to give you the biggest bear hug you've ever had. And we can talk."

"Okay," Jungkoook couldn't help but smile, even as wet and salt trickled into his mouth. "I've missed you lots too."

"We're gonna make up for it," Hoseok said. "I promise."

When Jungkook handed the phone back to Jin he felt a huge weight lift off his shoulders. He stopped wringing the life out of Jin's hand and rubbed his cheeks dry.

As Jin said goodbye and hung up he looked like he was going to cry too. Jungkook couldn't understand Jin. Jin had appeared from nowhere, like a guardian angel, asking for nothing and giving Jungkook everything. It was Xal 2.0. Except Jin seemed different, and Jungkook didn't know how different, but it was a risk he was willing to take.

"Can we kiss before I go back to college?" He asked Jin brazenly.

Jin heisitated. "I don't know if its the best idea, I don't want you to feel..."

"-Please?" Jungkook interrupted, pouting, making his eyes big.

It worked. "Okay," Jin said finally. "As long as we're clear that this is your idea."

Jungkook pressed his face forward eagerly. Jin was a good kisser. "It's definitely my idea."

X-X-X

He didn't feel quite so bold as he plodded up the road from the bus stop later that day. What if Hilary or Ebony betrayed them? Jungkook didn't know what kind of traction a photo or tweet about him might gain, and he was afraid to know.

What if the girls had taken a picture back when they were kissing? What if Jin's ex did some digging and discovered that Jungkook was Xal's boyfriend? What if, what if...

His legs were buckling in fear as he turned in at their gate.

Just one more night. One more. The chances of Xal finding out about he and Jin in the diner were so slim. So, so, slim. He just had to stay calm. He had to make sure Xal was tired enough to sleep in the morning, and then they'd get out, and by lunchtime Jin would come and pick him up and it would all be over.

It's going to be okay he told himself as he opened the front door. It's all going to be okay.

"Kookie, is that you?" Xal called from upstairs. "Come up here!"

Jungkook put his art folder down on its usual spot. He'd wanted to leave it with Jin, but Xal might have noticed, and Jungkook couldn't afford to be any more suspicious than he already was. He clambered up the stairs, trying to ignore the sting low in his core as he went. Xal didn't sound angry. It was okay.

Xal was in his gaming room. "How was your day?" He asked, spinning round in his chair. He had his gamer's headset on. Behind him was the full set up of screens, mics, consoles and keyboards.

"Okay," Jungkook said softly, slipping his hands behind his back to hide their shaking.

"Good," Xal said. "I want to talk to you about Jin later."

Jungkook felt his heart seize in a vice.

Xal swung his seat back round to face the screens and waved at the second chair. "I'm gonna do a livestream in a few: play some games, answer some questions, that sort of stuff. People want you in it. Come and sit down."

Jungkook had never done a livestream. "What do I have to do?" He slowly lowered himself into the seat. Deven had sat here last. That thought made him wince more than the pain.

"Don't act like you're sore for starters," Xal frowned at him. "Is it really still bad?"

Jungkook nodded.

"That's good," Xal said. "So you've learned your lesson then."

Jungkook nodded.

"Well I won't make you apologise again," Xal turned back to the screens. "But you can show me how sorry you are for yesterday by being well behaved today."

Jungkook found the display almost blinding. Xal had all his social feeds up, and Jungkook tried not to look at the comments.

"Give me good energy, big smiles for the camera," Xal instructed him. "You're gonna be useless at the games, but that's fine, it'll be more of a novelty thing. If I want you gone then I'll pretend I hear our landline ringing and you leave to 'answer' it. Don't come back in till I'm done if that happens. Got it?"

Jungkook nodded.

"And stop looking so terrified," Xal scolded him. "You'd think you were still in trouble."

Jungkook imagined Hilary and Ebony freshly in from school, seeing that Xal had a livestream.

I just have to make it through this, he thought. Just this. If I can distract him for the rest of the night he might stay off his phone. Just have to get through tonight.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

mseui56 나는 너를 사랑해 .JK, 진지하게 너와 결혼 해. 너를 사랑해.

bellabella8310 This is hilarious

allisa.face Kookie so precious I can't even

t.wojciechowsha Xal y u tell us to go easy on him

ironduckies7111 Xal's face! Dyinggg

ayal147 Haha Kook is running rings round you!

martin_2.1 Xal when are you going to play more COD!!

faride1998 You guys are so cute together!

danielmirandaintv Que fofos!

9iiayx OMG Jungkook is SO good at this

notice_me_xal Kooxal is the gift that keeps on giving!

moondiaz94 Looked how shocked Xal is LOL

_killerlook101 What a team up! Go go go

hazaifa10122 Xal! احبك

thomasdoubledynn That headshot doh

wilsonsenachan You guys are crushing it

xiarouge4 Jungkook is the prettiest baby dont @ me

Jessinalloyd How did Xal not no Kookie is good at games

baby_damaris This. Is. Hilarious.

luve98_yemi Блин, Чонгук, ты такой весёлый

elif_rexy_ Xal is hot when he's confused

21waynems When your boyfriend is a better gamer than you

schmeterling_jj Kooooookie Hiiiiiii!! Yor doing great babie!!

masterdepreso7 Xal's face tho

guoguodebingtic Did not think I could love you two more!

Saracentral319 Kookie is way too tiny for bad boy games - what were you thinking!?

Kooxalno1 Two cuties smashing up the opposition!

GarryRozan99 Why have they never gamed together before

Melon_umberella Jungkook one-upping Xal at his own game. ROFL

Jungkook hazarded a glance at the comment stream and his fingers stopped crunching the buttons in terror. "Am I... am I doing it wrong?"

"No, go, go, move, hide over there," Xal urged him. "We need cover. There's two groups converging on us at once. If we let them take eachother out we can pick off the stragglers."

"Okay..." Jungkook did as he was told, his character stooping and hurrying after Xal's avatar around some disused crates to an empty spot under a rusty stairwell. The comments he'd just read were tripping through his head and in the corner of his vision more and more were spilling up the screen.

There was a hollow sensation in the pit of his stomach. He'd been so worried about Hilary or Ebony spamming the chat that he'd messed up. He'd tried so hard to play well, to make Xal happy, to keep him distracted. Once Xal had explained the controls the game hadn't seemed that hard. He hadn't realised he was overachieving.

"Damn, you've never played this before?" Xal said, sending Jungkook a sidelong glance as they watched the two pulsing dots on the map draw closer.

Xal knew he'd never played this before. Jungkook hadn't played videogames in years. Not because he wasn't allowed, gaming was just Xal's thing. When Jungkook was younger he'd sit cross-legged on Xal's bed, watching the cut scenes and Xal's gameplay, a sketchpad unopened on his lap. Nowadays Xal would film up here and he'd be somewhere else in the house enjoying the peace.

He swallowed heavily now. "You're just giving me good directions."

It was the right thing to say, he could tell from the shift in Xal's body language. The unease in his belly lifted slightly.

"Kookie's an artist, I've told you guys before," Xal lifted one hand off his controller and tugged Jungkook's chair towards him, his character returning to its default stance. Jungkook kept his own crouched down, holding his joystick down as he was rolled into Xal's personal space, inhaling his scent, feeling Xal's lips brush against the soft of his cheek in a quick peck. "He's all about that hand-eye-coordination, aren't you baby? Didn't know it would pay off so well here-"

"-They've found us!" Jungkook interrupted him, his eyes widening as he saw a flicker on the edge of the screen. He spun his character quickly, firing his ridiculously oversized gun at the two masked attackers before they could take out Xal. "Quick, this way-"

"Woah, who's leading this mission?" Xal mock protested as Jungkook wove through the deserted warehouse, moldy crates sprouting from the barren landscape like rotten teeth.

"I think we should have started with a bigger group," Jungkook said, narrowing his gaze as he took aim through the broken slats of a grubby blind. "They still have how many each? Half a dozen?"

"We got a budding pro on our hands guys!" Xal laughed and Jungkook felt his hair being ruffled. "Yes we should have had a bigger group. If I'd known you were going to last more than five minutes I'dve roped some friends- look out! Damn, I'm hit - have you got any health packs left?"

"No," Jungkook lined up a perfect shot. "Are you dead?"

"Will be in a minute. Arghh! Yep hit again. I'm done. What are you still shooting for?"

"Oh," Jungkook realised. "You don't want me to try to win?"

"Without me?" Xal pouted, clearly humouring.

Jungkook felt a sense of reluctance as he released the buttons on his controller and his avatar stood up, still and exposed. His character was nameless, but he'd been far more powerful, brave and ingenuitive in the past twenty minutes than Jungkook had been in his entire life. He winced slightly as red splattered on his screen indicating that someone had nixed him outright with a headshot.

"I got you baby," Xal drawled dramatically, even though his own character now had flashing red on the screen. "We're going down together."

Jungkook glanced at the freeflow of comments again, but Xal gripped his chin suddenly, firmly, turning Jungkook's head towards him, his breath fanning Jungkook's face. Jungkook stared at Xal's tan face and brown eyes and perfect teeth as they drew ever closer to his and Xal gently tilted his head and kissed his mouth.

He's going to taste Jin was Jungkook's first irrational, panicked thought. Then, this is live. If look uncomfortable I'm screwed.

As Xal began to pull back, Jungkook anxiously wrapped his arms round Xal's broad shoulders and hugged him, turning his head away from the cameras so they'd see the back of his head. He prayed Xal couldn't feel his frantic heartbeat.

"You always manage to surprise me, Kookie," Xal rubbed a hand up and down his back. "Oh dang, is that the phone ringing downstairs? Think it might be your mum calling?" He pretended to check the time on his mobile.

"Oh, it might be," Jungkook glanced once more at the gushing comments and felt a bit sick. "I better run and get it. Bye guys! Thanks, for um, for talking to us on the stream!"

He spent the next forty-five minutes downstairs in a state of uncertainty, first pacing, then sitting, scrubbing the makeup from his cheeks, then going to water the plants just to give himself something to do.

When Xal finally loped downstairs, Jungkook was back on the sofa, knees pressed together, battling the static in his head, his mind inching ever close to the precipice. He went rigid as Xal walked behind him, the fine hairs on his neck rising. But Xal merely dipped in close for a moment, rubbed up and down the bridge of Jungkook's nose with the back of his forefinger, then strolled past into the kitchen.

Jungkook almost let the warmth of the head fog take him then, his relief so absolute. But he clenched his jaw and clung on. He had to stay in control. Couldn't go back there. Promised himself.

Xal chuckled from the kitchen and Jungkook heard the tap running. "You just played your way into being in a lot more videos baby boy. We were a hit."

There were so many excuses and apologies on the tip of Jungkook's tongue but he bit them down. His fingers were trembling and he clasped them togther. "It went well? You're happy?"

Xal leaned on the doorframe and downed his glass of water in one go. "Couldn't have gone better," he grinned. "Proud of you. Wouldn't have believed you were an amateur. You're so damn naturally talented."

Jungkook didn't know about that. Xal laughed again at his expression. "It's a compliment, you should take it. I'm going to make us a celebratory dinner."

"Can we have wine?" Jungkook said, hitting upon the idea. Xal was good at holding his spirits, but he got drowzy on red wine.

"Sure, if that's what you want," Xal winked at him before turning back into the kitchen. "Why don't you wash up and get comfortable. I'll rustle up the food."

Half an hour later they were tucking into spaghetti bolongnese. Or rather, Xal was wolfing it down, while Jungkook worked more slowly, twirling his around the plate. There was an enticing smell coming from the onion, garlic, tomato, pepper and beef, but he kept picturing a bath draining, water swirling in circles around the plughole as he twisted his fork.

"So, Jin," Xal took a large gulp of his Chianti. He'd poured them both a generous glass, which meant opening a second bottle because he'd used half of the first in cooking. His cheeks were already pink and his eyes bright. "Tell me what you thought of him."

Jin. Jungkook's gateway to a whole new life. Jin with his thick brows and his adam's apple and his plush upper lip and those shoulders. Jin who looked at Jungkook like he was a real person, not a shell. Jin, who he could probably sketch from memory.

Jin who he was supposed to have met just once while mostly in little space.

"He was kind," Jungkook said, shrugging slightly. "I don't really remember."

It was safer this way. He watched Xal's microexpressions, still afraid that it might be a trick and Xal knew somehow.

Xal plunged his fork into what remained of his spaghetti and dressed it up. "I like him," he said frankly. "He's hot. Like, our level of hot. He's got this aura about him. And you're right, he was kind. He might have been shocked when you slipped, but he recovered so quickly. I think he could be good for us."

Jungkook stared at him. "I don't understand. Good for us, how?"

Xal chewed eagerly, contemplating him. "Mostly sex."

Jungkook blanched. "You want us to.. to sleep with him?" Xal had inflicted many toys on him. But not a person.

"Longterm I think that could be on the cards," Xal said. "I need to get to know him first, see how he ticks, see if he really is a good match. Not gonna lie, I have been fantazising about a good cop, bad cop scene. But its going to take some persuading I think, before he gets comfortable with a threesome. In the meantime, I could take him for a few test runs. You won't be spending any alone time with him, don't worry."

"So...are we not boyfriends any more?" Jungkook could feel his eyes bugging out of his head.

Xal tipped his head back and guffawed. Jungkook watched him, perturbed. He didn't think it was a funny question.

Xal swiped the real tears from his eyes, moving to wrap Jungkook up in a cuddle. "You're too precious sometimes. No, baby, I'm not leaving you. God!" He chuckled again. "He's just going to be our friend. And when you're in little space he'll help me look after you. And if you don't feel like sex one night, then I can ask Jin. Do you see? I'm planning everything out with you in mind. Now you can have a night off whenever you like. And you can feel safe staying in little space a bit longer because there'll be two of us there. Isn't that a good idea?"

This isn't real. You're leaving him tomorrow. It isn't real. It's just tonight. Play along.

"I guess so..." Jungkook said. "But we only just met him."

Xal stole the fork from his numb fingers and made himself another mouthful from Jungkook's plate. "Kookie, he's not another Deven. But if he were to make you even the slightest bit uncomfortable, he'd be dead. I'm not compromising your safety or our happiness for anything."

Jungkook supressed a shudder as Xal dug back into the pasta, then opened his mouth obediently as Xal fed him the next forkful.

"Are we not boyfriends anymore," Xal sniggered, rubbing his nose against Jungkook's cheek. "Cutie."

As the evening wore on, Xal consumed most of their second bottle, vastly satisfied with himself, and sat skimming through his phone. Jungkook sipped from his own glass, wary each time Xal paused to read a comment more carefully. The alcohol eased his tension gradually, the panicked fog receding to a light mist. As time passed, the safer he felt. He curled up on the couch and basked in the casual grownup warmth, listening to the Linda Ronstadt record Xal had playing in the background.

He tried not to think too much about tomorrow. He still felt shame and sadness if he dwelt on it too much. But his freedom was too precious, and it was selfish, but he wanted it badly. If Xal slept on in the morning, then Jungkook was going home with Jin at lunchtime. If he hadn't been a bad kisser, or too pathetic or too useless. If Jin was still interested. The only thing that mattered now was that Xal had a heavy sleep.

He was almost dozing off himself when Xal nudged him.

"Hey," Xal's voice was thick with alcohol, his cheeks flushed. "Baby. Help me out, huh."

He'd already undone the top button on his jeans, but he liked it when Jungkook got the zip with his teeth.

Jungkook stifled a yawn and pushed himself up from the couch to take his spot on the carpet.

This is the last time he told himself, as Xal's fingers tangled through his hair, tugging him in, already crooning praises at him. The very last time. Gonna make sure he sleeps for 12 hours straight.

X-X-X

"Help meee!" Taehyung whined, wedged into the corner between Jin's Fiddle-Leaf and the coat stand.

"Woah, the livingroom looks huge now," Jimin observed looking back down the hallway.

"Do you think it looks too bare?" Jin glanced over his shoulder and bit his lip. "Is it just me or are the dents left in the rug really noticeable?"

"Help meee!"

"You could do with beanbags. Or.... we could move your little dining nook to the centre. Yeah! And move your coffee table in beside the bookshelf. We could pop a plant on it! I am so getting this home renovation stuff!"

"Help meee!"

"I guess..." Jin tried to envision what his open plan livingroom/kitchen would look like if he let Jimin get his hands on it.

"Oh, wait," Tae realised. "I can just crawl under."

"Yeah, you're meant to be guiding us through the door, we are the ones holding the sofa up you know," Jimin scolded.

Tae did a tuck and roll under the sofa and opened the door to the spare room with a 007 pose. Jin grinned and rolled his eyes, heaving the couch's weight off the wall they'd been leaning it against, straining until Jimin took up the slack.

"Okay, Jimin, you head towards the front door," Tae directed. "We need to line up the death corner so Jin can back himself into the plant pot and then we pray."

It was a tight squeeze indeed. Jin tucked in as far as he could while Jimin had to climb under the sofa while still holding his end. "Thanks for the assist there, Tae," he groaned as he emerged on the other side, sweat beading his forehead.

"No problem!" Taehyung said breezily at the door, while Jin edged his grip towards the right to balance things out.

Eventually, they got the sofa into the spare room, and Jimin flopped on it in exhaustion.

"It's just as well Jungkook's adorable," he mumbled into one of the armrests. "Or I'd sue you."

Jin perched himself on the other armrest and wiped his brow. The spare room was small, and had been a bit of dumping ground, but now that they'd chucked everything in Jin's bedroom there was space for the sofa and an emptied bedside cabinet.

After the torment of sitting through Xal's uploaded livestream, Jimin and Tae sandwiched on either side of him for comfort, Jin had decided that Jungkook needed more privacy. His own space that he could retreat to. Now he gazed around trying to figure out how he could make the spare room more homey. Maybe he'd bring a cute lamp through.

"I'll fetch the bedding," Taehyung hopped out of the room, and Jimin rolled onto his back on the couch to look Jin in the eye.

"You really like him, huh?" Jimin said solemnly.

Jin considered being flippant, but he was still burdened from watching Jungkook and the way his eyes had kept darting to where the comments had been. He wouldn't rest till Jungkook stepped over his threshold.

"It's gone past 'like'," he said honestly. "I know, I know. It's not the right time. For either of us, but especially not for him."

Jimin studied him and smiled.

"Plus you're an old man," Tae added, dumping folded sheets and pillows on Jimin's belly and heading back for the quilt.

"He's not wrong," Jin admitted, shaking out the first sheet as Jimin sat up to help.

"You're what- five years older than him? That's okay," Jimin said. "I mean, I wouldn't date a sixteen year old, but-"

"Thanks Jimin," Jin groaned. "We're not going to be dating. Or at least, nothing fast. That's not what this is. I need him to feel safe here, not that he's stuck between romance and becoming homeless. We just have good chemistry, that's all."

Like really, really good, best-chemistry-Jin-had-ever-experienced chemistry. When Jungkook had asked for that parting kiss before he returned to college, Jin hadn't expected the fireworks. Thinking about it still gave him butterflies in his stomach...and a bit further down. There was something so captivating about the way Jungkook had looked at him when they'd finally parted, his lips rosy and wet, his huge eyes yearning.

Their undeniable chemistry was irrelevant of course, because Jungkook was coming out of a horrendous situation and his mental health came first. Though there was a sneaky bit of Jin that wondered if someone who'd never truly been single might need a gentle relationship to ease themselves out of the longterm one, rather than going cold turkey.

"He would never be homeless," Jimin fought the first pillow into the pillowcase, punching it into submission. "Me and Tae would adopt him. He's going to be our Maknae and we're gonna show him all the good video games and take him to the beach and give him heaps of cuddles."

"Which is why you're staying away this evening, okay?" Jin warned him. "You and Tae are going to be amazing big brothers, but you will overwhelm the hell out of him on his first night."

"You know what I was thinking?" Tae returned and dumped the quilt on Jin's head. "I think we should make some sort of code."

"Some sort of code?" Jin released himself and smacked Tae with the other pillow.

"For example, imagine Jungkook gets all settled in and then we're going to the shops and we see Xal and we want to warn Jungkook not to go there. We could phone you and say: 'the chicken has fled the coop!' Or 'That's a code 99 outside WHSmith!'

"Or you could just text me and say that Xal is at the shops," Jin pointed out.

Tae pouted. "That's no fun."

"Can we make up a real one then?" Jimin put on the puppy eyes which he and Tae had perfected with Jin in mind.

Jin grinned. "If you like. Let's work and talk at the same time though, huh?" He wanted to be early for Jungkook.

Jimin reached for the quilt cover. "It has to be something you'd say normally, so that no-one but us knows it's a code. Like 'what movie are we going to see tonight, by the way?' or 'what time is it right now?'"

"Oh, oh, I've got one!" Taehyung put his hand up like he was in class as Jin helped Jimin bunch up the cover at its corners to line it up with the quilt. "How about 'I can't hear you clearly, can you speak up?'"

"What if you actually can't hear the person?" Jin vigorously shook the cover down the quilt, keeping a tight grip on his corner while Jimin held the other.

"Then you just add 'literally,' or 'not as part of the code'" Jimin said, getting excited. "Yeah, that's great, because you could do so many variations! Like 'there's a lot of static at your end, I can't hear you' or 'I think my ear's a bit blocked, could you repeat that?' And then you'll know Xal's about!"

Jin chuckled. "Okay, okay. That's the code. But it's still fine to text. Also, I don't want you two to go actively looking for Xal like you're undercover cops or something. Jungkook will never have to see him again if I can help it. I don't want him even knowing who you two are."

He sensed from the disappointed looks on their faces that he'd just thwarted their next scheme.

"Okay," Taehyung acknowledged. "But only if we get to meet Jungkook soon. You can't squirrel him away and keep him to yourself. We're going to use him to outnumber you and Namjoon in all the group votes."

Jin smiled. "Okay, agreed. Though I think we might be seeing more of Hoseok and Yoongi, and they have bags of maturity, so you might find out your elders still have the upperhand."

A few minutes later they were surveying the room. Jin wished it had a window. He stared at the blank walls and imagined Jungkook pinning some of his art up, making the room his own. He tweaked one of the patterned cushions they'd propped on top of Jungkook's quilt and took a second glance over the items he'd left on the beside cabinet: a new toothbrush, a folded washcloth, a box of tissues and a little clock. Maybe he and Jungkook could do some online shopping for some bits and pieces in the first couple days.

"It looks good, Jin," Jimin backhugged him, and before Jin knew it Tae had him from the front.

"You guys are the best," he twisted his arms to try to pat both their heads. "Now, remember, you're banished till at least tomorrow. And please text before you come over."

The little clock showed that it was noon. Jin hustled the kids out the front door. He wanted to park up early so there was no danger of being stuck in traffic.

Sitting in the car, he found himself rubbing his palms over and over on his jeans. He'd taken today and the rest of the week off work. Fortunately Ladawn was scheduling the holiday rotas for the next fortnight, and she owed him one.

The thing he feared most was that Jungkook wouldn't come with him. Jin couldn't make him, of course he couldn't, but that livestream had proven how much Jungkook had risked by going home last night. Why had he?

"Do you have to go back home?" Jin had asked.

"No-" Jungkook began, then he'd shaken his head, refusing to meet Jin's eye. "Yes. I have to go home."

Jin had wanted to ask why. Did Jungkook feel that he had to say goodbye to Xal somehow? Was he trying to go back for belongings? Or was he just not certain that Jin was safe? It was killing him that he didn't know.

Jungkook's last words on the subject were still resounding in his head.

"Can you come again tomorrow? Lunchtime? I might not be ready, but I'll try to be."

The uncertainty wore at Jin's brain. Surely Jungkook would be ready. But what if he rolled things onto tomorrow again? Or what was Jin supposed to do if Jungkook changed his mind altogether?

He got out of the car at twelve twentyfive and slowly made his way round to the front gates. His heart was thudding. He couldn't help it. If he could just see Jungkook coming across the grounds, see his eyes, he would know in one glance if the spare room was going to have an occupant tonight.

As people began to stream out past Jin, milling around, he kept searching. He knew what to look for now. He knew the shape of Jungkook's head, the way he lowered that head, the unconscious huddle he made around his art folder.

It took him a second longer than it should have to spot Jungkook. Because Jungkook wasn't alone.

Jin's heart jumped into his throat. He didn't want to draw attention to himself by walking away too fast. He turned his back as they approached, pretending to be on his phone, dreading that Xal would recognise him from behind.

But Xal wasn't looking for Jin, of course he wasn't.

"And they said they'd really like to sponser a video that you were in too!" Xal was saying. "This is huge, Kookie. I think this is the big time. I pretty much woke up, saw the email, dived into the shower and came straight here. I just couldn't wait till tonight to talk about it."

"You never take me out to lunch," Jungkook said as they passed, Jin wondered if Jungkook had spotted him and was trying to explain.

"I wanted to surprise you," Jin glanced at their backs warily. Xal was holding Jungkook's hand, swinging their arms a little. "There's a nice diner not far from here that's got good reviews..."

Jin's heartrate quickened, ballooning in his throat.

"Oh I heard there's a nice Thai place somewhere down there," Jungkook quickly pointed in the opposite direction of Jin's car and the diner. "Could we go there instead? Please?"

"Of course we can, baby." Xal was magnanimous. "Let me tell you about the sponser..."

His voice drifted into the blend of other students around them as he and Jungkook walked away.

Jin was in a cold sweat. That was close. Horribly close. Xal must have walked right into the college and been waiting for Jungkook outside class, otherwise he'd have seen that Jungkook wasn't going to the cafeteria. They'd got lucky. But the whole thing had nearly blown up in their faces.

He considered going home. He had said to Jungkook that he'd come every lunchtime, Jungkook would know that he'd come back tomorrow. But a trace of hope lingered, so he nipped back to the car for forty minutes. His phone was blowing up.

From: Jimin

To: Jin

Did you get him??

From: Jin

To: Jimin

Weirdly enough, went to the college and started losing my hearing! So no.

From: Jimin

To: Jin

What's happened to your ears?? How did that stop you finding Jungkook??

From: Taehyung

To: Jin

Don't worry, I've re-educated Jimin about the code. Stay safe, Jin! Play the long game if you have to!

From: Jimin

To: Jin

I thought we agreed it was just a verbal code! If you need us to come distract Xal while you grab Jungkook let us know. We've wandered into the wrong lecture anyway, so we can be on standby.

From: Hoseok

To: Jin

Is Kook with you? All go okay?

From: Namjoon

To: Jin

Did you get Jungkook?

Jin fired out a few texts, telling Jimin and Tae to get to (the correct) class and stand down, and telling Hoseok and Namjoon the bad news. It was probably going to be tomorrow. But still he waited, watching each minute pass on his car's clock.

He headed back towards the gates, a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face in an attempt at disguise. He decided to stand just inside the gates so Xal didn't have a clear view of him all the way down the street. Fortunately there were a few clusters of people wandering around, so he wasn't as conspicious as he felt.

He almost did a doubletake when Jungkook and Xal wandered through the gates, even though it them he was waiting for.

Jungkook stopped and put his arms around Xal's shoulders. "Thank you for lunch," he said, pulling Xal into a hug. "I'll see you later." His gaze was darting around over Xal's shoulder, looking for Jin. When they finally caught eyes Jin nodded to Jungkook and he saw Jungkook's tense expression ease a little.

"You're welcome, baby," Xal slid his hands round Jungkook's waist. "We should do this more often, huh. Come on, I'll walk you back to class."

Jin's heart sank. Jungkook had been ready to go today, but it wasn't going to happen. He mouthed the word 'tomorrow' at Jungkook. Jungkook gave him a micro-nod as he released Xal and stepped back. Xal lowered his head in for a kiss and then linked Jungkook's hand with his again, leading him indoors.

Jin wasn't sure if he felt deflated or relieved. They hadn't been caught. Jungkook wasn't going to delay any further. Those were good things. But the fact that they were so close today... he shook his head. Tomorrow was okay. If Hilary and Ebony had posted nothing last night they were probably safe on that count. Jin couldn't afford to linger around the college any longer than he had. And judging by Xal's excitment there was a chance he might also come and pick Jungkook up after college. They emphatically did not want another near miss. Tomorrow was okay.

He turned and headed back to the car. Now that the stress was over, his belly was sending him an ultimatum. Food first. Then maybe he would go pick up some beanbags after all. Some spare clothes for Jungkook until he had the time to shop for his own. Maybe bring in more groceries.

It was a surreal afternoon. Jin loaded up the car with his purchases and kept himself busy by folding Jungkook's new pyjamas, underwear, sweatpants and a couple of tees into the little beside cabinet, and restocking his fridge and food cupboard. When he'd finished, he flopped down on a beanbag infront of the TV and wondered how he could make the evening go in quickly.

He'd comfort-ate twice his body weight at lunchtime so he made himself a quinoa salad for dinner, and picked at it while he watched members of a comedy panel rag on eachother.

His phone was ringing. He slipped it out of his pocket, hoping his work hadn't caught on to his fast-tracked annual leave request.

It was Xal. Jin blinked at the screen for a moment, before answering.

"Hey, how're you?" He tried to sound relaxed.

"Jin, where are you?" Xal was strained.

"At home, why?" Jin pushed himself up off the beanbag. "You sound strange.. what's going on?"

"Jungkook," Xal said breathlessly, his voice sounding wraught, almost out of control. "I was filming upstairs and I heard him come in from college. I've just gone downstairs. His art is here so I know he came home, but his shoes and jacket are gone. He's disappeared, Jin-"

Jin was already rushing towards his own jacket and shoes. "Have you checked everywhere? He doesn't drive, does he? Could he have gone to a corner shop for snacks or something? Gone for a stroll?"

"I've called for him," Xal said, and Jin thought he sounded like he was going to cry. "He wouldn't go out to the corner shop without telling me, but I'm going to run there now and check. I don't know- I'm scared someone came into the house, Jin. Everything was perfect at lunchtime. Can you help me? I can't call the police if he's only been missing for thirty minutes."

"I'm coming over," Jin grabbed his housekeys and carkeys from their dish. "On my way."

His brain was scrambling as he threw himself into the car. What had happened? Xal was frantic, barely restrained. If Jungkook had chosen to run away then he surely would have taken his art. And why bother going home at all in that case? Jin was pretty sure he and Jungkook had communicated clearly and had an understanding that he was coming to get Jungkook tomorrow. Something odd must have happened. Jungkook wouldn't compromise his escape to Jin's by doing anything unusual beforehand. Unless he'd had some kind of mental break... or someone had taken him.

He drove to Xal's in state of near-terror, keeping his eyes peeled out for any lone figures. Jungkook didn't even know where he lived, its not like he was heading to Jin's.

He pulled over at the side of the road, having a sudden thought. He speed-dialled Namjoon.

"Hey, it's me. Could you do me a favour? Jungkook's gone missing."

"Gone missing?" Namjoon's voice was shocked. "How do you know?"

"Xal called me, its a long story," Jin hadn't got round to explaining that Xal was actively pursuing him as some kind of friend with benefits. "Can you drive past that diner Flynn and I used to go to all the time? And then past Wismouth College near the firestation. They're not far apart. Just in case he's there. I'm going to go look for him near his house."

"Of course, I'll head out now," Namjoon said. "I'll call you if he's there."

"He probably won't be, but just in case," Jin said. "Thanks, Joon."

"Stay safe," Namjoon said worriedly. "I hope you find him."

Jin hoped so too. As he drove the final five minute leg to Xal's, he came to terms with the thought he'd been mentally surpressing.

He loved Jungkook. There was no getting around it. No amount of self-scolding or statistics could erase it. Maybe he wasn't in love with Jungkook, but he was as damn close as he could be at this point. If something had happened to him-

He parked hastily outside Xal's house, having just enough presence of mind to put the handbrake on and lock the car on the way out. Xal's car was in the drive. He knocked on the door anxiously.

Xal opened up almost immediately. He looked a state. "Nothing?" Jin said, unable to think about acting casual concern.

"Nothing," Xal confirmed. "But I've found something. I don't know- it's in the livingroom. Come through-"

Jin hurried in, his heart thudding in fear. His first glance at the livingroom showed nothing unusual.

His next glance showed Jungkook stepping in from the kitchen, a glass of milk in his hand.

"Jin?" Jungkook said frowning. "Xal invited you over?"

Jin's jaw dropped, a spark of joy and relief, before horror dawned on him anew.

He saw it in Jungkook's terrified eyes a split second before there was an almighty crack between his ears, and the carpet was coming up to meet him, half his brain shutting down, black flickering infront of his eyes. He almost slipped into unconsciousness, but fought it, hands scrabbling to get his body up as Xal's vicelike fist clenched in his hair and dragged him across the carpet through spilled milk.

"Go," he croaked to Jungkook, through swimming eyes, as Xal's body landed on his, easily wrenching his arms behind him. He was struggling, but he could barely feel his limbs. The pain across his head was blinding.

"Knees!" Xal roared as Jin felt the black flickers grow into patches infront of his vision. He saw Jungkook slump to his knees, and then there was a jerk and cold snap around one wrist, a hard yank and then a snap around the other.

Then he blacked out.

X-X-X

Chapter Text

When he came to, perhaps only seconds had passed. Jin's eyes cranked open and attempted to focus. Jungkook was still on his knees. Xal stood over Jungkook, screaming at him, but the words had no discernible form, like something was stuffed in Jin's ears.

He thought his way around his body, checking to see what hurt. His head was skewered on a bolt of pain, stabbing up from the base of his skull. When he moved it even a fraction, hot salt water filled his mouth. There was a tight grip around his wrists, pulling at his arms, forcing his upper back to dig into something hard and resisting. Cold trickled down his spine.

His senses slowly restored themselves, like limbs recovering from pins and needles. Now he could make out the teacloth that Xal had dropped on the spilled milk and the wet patches on his own jeans. He could see Jungkook's glassy stare as Xal hurled expletives in his face. With very gradual movements, Jin turned his head and saw that Xal had cuffed him to the radiator in the back corner of the room. Jin's cuffs were looped round the the metal pipe which came out from the floor.

He wasn't going anywhere.

He took a steadying breath as panic flooded him. He had to think. Xal sounded mad enough to kill: his muscles taut, his eyes raw and blazing, spittle flying out from his unrestrained mouth. Jin prayed the neighbours were coming home soon.

"Hey..." his voice crackled like an intercom system.

Xal's tirade continued. Jin was just starting to discern individual words and they were vile. Jungkook's whole body was trembling and his eyes were large, liquid, vacant.

"Hey," Jin tried again, his throat grating.

This time Xal heard. He paused, panting, and rounded on Jin, an insane glitter in his eyes. "Look, your lover's back with us already." He sneered. "I thought I hit him harder than that."

"He's slipped," Jin looked Xal in the eye, even though it make his stomach quake. "Can't you see he's slipped?"

Xal gave a start and twisted to look at Jungkook. "Oh, so that's what you do now, is it? You screw around behind my back and then you fall into little space to get out of it." His anger rose as Jungkook didn't react. "Look at me! Look at me!"

"Xal-" Jin tried desperately.

"Shut your mouth or I'll shut it for you!" Xal snarled back at him. "And you can stop trying it on with me, Jungkook. I'm this close-"

Jin saw Xal's fist forming. His stomach baulked. He strained against the cuffs as if it would help, and only succeeded in a wave of dizziness sweeping through him.

Xal punched the sofa. The violence of the punch made Jin's lungs and chest seize, the pressure to breathe almost insurmountable.

Xal's own breathing was loud, rattling. He shook the fist loose, his frame trembling. "Okay," he said, softening his tone. "Okay. It's okay, Kookie."

Jin could have wept with relief. There was nothing more he wanted than to gather Jungkook to him. Instead, he had to settle for Xal crouching down by Jungkook, taking his face in his hands. Jungkook was silently crying, staring into middle distance.

"Hey," tension still radiated through Xal's voice. "Hey Kookie. Can you look at me, sweetheart? There we are. Okay. Let's get you up. Come on, up we go."

Jungkook was like a ragdoll. Jin's heart broke seeing him so helpless, and so... gone. Huge goopy tears poured down his face, and as Xal bodily lifted him up onto the sofa, his only motion was to stuff some of his finger joints into his mouth.

"Don't suck your fingers, angel," Xal's anger toned down to a simmer. He gently tugged Jungkook's knuckles away from his mouth. They glistened with spit. Xal reached over to grab tissues, and Jin spotted his phone lying there on the coffee table, well out of reach. Xal carefully wiped Jungkook's hand and his mouth, and then his eyes. Jin could see the uncertainty in his expression as he held a hanky over Jungkook's running nose. "Blow your nose for me, baby," he instructed. Jungkook continued to cry.

Xal tried again. "Come on, big blow."

Jin saw his fear as Jungkook didn't respond. Xal abortively turned towards Jin, throwing him a sidelong glare, daring him to speak, as he mopped up Jungkook's snot as best he could.

"You know what I'm gonna do?" His hands were shaking almost as much as Jungkook now. "I'm gonna get Big Ted. Would you like that?"

Jungkook whimpered low in his throat. Xal seized upon it. "That's right. He's coming to give Kookie big cuddles. I'll just be a minute, baby." He hastily turned Jungkook so that he was facing away from Jin, and rested the side of his head against the back cushions, packing more cushions around him. He cast a dark look at Jin, a promise of what was still to come. "You make one sound and I'll get my toolbox." Then he swiped Jin's phone from the table and hurried out towards the stairs, feet reverberating.

"Jungkook," Jin kept his voice low, heart clanging against his ribcage. "Can you hear me? You need to get out of the house. Go to one of the neighbours. Tell them to phone the police. Can you do that?"

There was no response from Jungkook. The way he'd been propped up, Jin could only see the back of his head.

"Jungkook," he tried again, frantic. This might be their only window of opportunity. "I know you're in there. You can do this. Just get away. Get out of the house before he comes back down."

Nothing.

Jin gulped hard. Jungkook wasn't with him. For all the terror Jin had felt in the last few minutes, he could only imagine how much more magnified it had been for Jungkook. God, he probably thought he was watching my murder.

There was still room for him to be right about that.

Xal was banging about upstairs. He sounded angry again. Jin's teeth were chattering. "Hey," he said. "Just hang in there, Jungkook. Just hang on. Please hang on."

More banging. Then Xal was thundering downstairs and Jin shut his mouth tight as dread consumed him.

"Where is he?" Xal was exasperated, his face pink and sweaty. "Did you move him?"

When Jungkook failed to reply, Xal paced past them into the kitchen. Jin could hear him opening cupboard doors.

He was pretty sure this was the giant stuffie that had featured on the Kooxal Instagram page. Tae and Jimin had been awwing over that photo of napping Jungkook just this morning. How did a toy of that size go missing?

It doesn't, a voice in his head pointed out. Someone deliberately moves it. And that someone wasn't Xal.

Xal dashed back into the livingroom, knelt at Jungkook's side, face flushed. The veins at his temple protruded. "Where did you put him, baby? Where's Big Ted?"

"Wan' Big Ted," Jungkook choked out, and hearing his voice made Jin close his eyes for a precious second.

"I know, I'm trying to get him. Where is he?" Xal searched Jungkook's face desperately.

"Wan' Big Ted," Jungkook said again, and then he let out a loud sob. Xal's face morphed in horror. He scrambled up onto the sofa, folding Jungkook up in his arms, reaching out for the throw blanket laying across the back to wrap it around Jungkook's shoulders and cacoon him in.

"Kookie is safe," he said, rocking his boyfriend. "It doesn't matter if Jungkook was bad. Kookie is safe. I've got you, baby. Don't cry. I've got you."

Jin felt the taste of iron fill his mouth and realised he was biting down on his own lip.

"Big Ted," Jungkook mumbled through his hiccuping sobs. Xal pressed Jungkook's forehead into the crook of his neck and stroked the back of his hair, still gently rocking.

"Where is he?" He pressed softly. "Where did Kookie put him?"

"Kookie gave him away," Jungkook's cries quietened but Jin was cut at the raw pain in his voice.

"You gave him away?" Xal was aghast. "How? Why?"

Jin knew. The realisation sucked the air from his lungs.

Jungkook had looked so ashamed when he'd declined to come with Jin yesterday. He had asked for more time. Jin had wondered who or what could possibly be holding him back and now he'd found out.

He was here, chained to the radiator, pain rippling from the back of his head because of a stuffed toy. The impact of that thought hit him as harder than Xal ever could.

"So he would be safe." Jungkook's voice was tremulous. "To make him safe."

"Safe..." Xal paused uncertainly. "Safe from me?" And when Jungkook nodded into his neck Jin heard Xal's sharp intake of breath.

"What the hell were you doing with Jin.." Xal was incredulous, "that you thought I'd destroy Big Ted? What the hell were you doing Jungkook?"

"Want him," Jungkook pleaded, as if Xal could somehow conjure the toy back.

"Well he's gone isn't he?" Xal snapped. "He's gone. And you'd better believe that when you're out of this headspace it's not Big Ted you'll be crying over!"

Jungkook had showed signs that he was dipping into little space yesterday. Jin remembered how shaken he'd been after the encounter with the girls at the diner. He'd been fighting it. It embarrassed him. But it had been there.

If only Jin had pressed him, found out why he wouldn't just come with him. If only. He strained at the handcuffs again. It felt like his circulation was being cut off.

"Please Xal," Jungkook said, his voice so breathy and helpless that Jin felt his own eyes swim. "Please, want Big Ted-"

"You can't have him!" Xal snarled. "Are you stupid now? As well as being a dirty little trait-"

"Xal, don't," Jin interrupted, unable to restrain himself. "He's suffered enough because of you."

Sudden silence. It hung in the air like a shroud. As the seconds ticked on, Jin could hear the wind picking up outside the house, rattling the garden gate.

"You," Xal purred. "I had a gut feeling about you, Jin. I made an offer to you that I've never made to any other living person. I trusted you."

He slowly heaved himself up from the sofa, wrapping the blanket around Jungkook's still form. "I'll deal with you after you've slept," he decided. "Let's see what Romeo has to say for himself."

Jin gritted his jaw as Xal approached. Xal considered him, his anger melded into a chill half-smile. "Maybe I will get my toolbox. Just in case."

Jin almost snarked back, but then Xal turned and strode into the kitchen.

Oh my god he's gone to get it. He's actually gone to get it. Jin could hear rummaging and each inhale of breath became an extreme effort. He yanked harder at the cuffs, trying to wrench his hands out but only succeeded in sharp hot pain coming from his wrists and a wall of dizziness blasting through his head. He tried to yell, but his throat could only manage a rusty hacking sound.

Xal's toolbox was a Stanley; black with yellow trimmings. It sounded heavy. Jin could barely take his eyes off it. Xal planted it on the carpet in front of Jin with a meaningful thud, dropping down to sit beside it.

"You've been having an affair with him, haven't you." Xal's eyes bore into Jin's.

"Look, I don't know what you think you've heard," Jin tried, wheezing. "But we can have a calm rational conversation about this when I'm not chained to a radiator. If you let me go, I'll pretend the part where you bludgeoned me over the head didn't happen-"

"'Bludgeoned'," Xal scoffed. "I could have killed you if I'd wanted to. You went down like a bowling pin. I barely touched you."

"And I'm barely handcuffed," Jin tried. "If you take these off it'll be like we're two sane people who have a misunderstanding to sort out, not like you're a psychopathic lunatic. They're quite hit and miss on Youtube, you know."

Xal smirked softly. "See, this is what I liked about you." Then his gaze darkened. "I haven't decided what to do with you, Jin. It all happened too fast. But we're not taking those off any time soon."

"Fine," Jin said although it really, really wasn't. If Xal kept talking, he wouldn't open the toolbox. Jungkook might sleep and hopefully recover. And Namjoon would hopefully figure out that something was up and send help. "Why don't you tell me what you think I did?"

It was braver than he felt. But he had to make sure Xal spoke first. He still didn't know what exactly Xal had found out and who from.

"What you did is graft on my boyfriend behind my back," Xal's smile was sinister. "And I'll tell you how I know."

Jin swallowed. He mustn't confess. Not till Xal had shown proof. "Go on," he croaked.

Xal pulled out his own mobile phone. Jin's heart thudded mercilessly as Xal flicked his finger over the screen, then turned it towards him.

"Hey Xal!" Came Turret's cheery voice. "Got footage together for the music video. Here's some clips. What do you think? I'm wondering if I should cut to just the very best bits, leave the audience wanting more, you know? But it was such a damn good party, its hard to know how much I should send off to my label. Let me know what you think! Peace, man."

Jin watched as Turret's camera panned here, there and everywhere, picking up lights and drinks and flashes of dresses and feet pounding the dancefloor and people chatting here and there. Xal skipped forward in the footage, then let it play.

In the background of one shot, Jin was marching up to Jungkook to accuse him of lying about his 'straightness.' It was far less subtle that he'd remembered; he was clearly headed for Jungkook. Xal was in frame holding Jungkook's hand and talking to other people. Jin and Jungkook's short exchange was captured in full; not their words, but the fact that there was no introduction, the fact that there was an urgency to their conversation, and most tellingly, the way Jin glanced uncertainly at Xal as he backed off at the end.

He looked at Xal now, who paused the rest of the film. "He sent me this about an hour ago," Xal said. "This was filmed a week before we met you." There was a cold fury in his gaze. "So then I started thinking about the night we 'met' you. Jungkook deliberately followed you to the toilets, I'm sure of that now. If he hadn't slipped into headspace on his way there, you'd have had a nice little chat, and maybe more. And then I remembered those emojis he wanted to send you, do you remember those?"

Jin nodded faintly. He could see where this was headed.

"I'd thought they were meaningless at the time. But one of them was an umberella in the rain. And I remembered that Jungkook, not too long ago, was supposed to come home soaked, but arrived only a little damp. He said a man with an umbrella had walked him home because of the weather. He apologised, and I forgave him. I drew a line under it because I was convinced it wouldn't happen again. And so I didn't pull the CCTV footage until just now. Guess who was on the CCTV footage."

This was bad. But it could be worse, it could be much worse. "And that's it?" Jin asked, hoping against hope. "You decided we were having an affair based on that?"

"You tell me what I'm supposed to think," Xal levelled his stare, power and malevolence emanating from him. "And I'll tell you if your lies are working."

He rapped his nails on the toolbox casually. Jin tried his hardest not to stare at it.

"I met Jungkook that evening, the rainy one," he said. "I was rude to him on the bus, and I felt bad, and it was pouring and he didn't even have a hood on his jacket. He was polite, but he didn't show any interest in me. I was walking him home to be nice, Xal, not because I wanted something from him. It was nothing."

It wasn't nothing. It was one of the most defining moments in Jin's life. It might be the moment that cost him his life. But he had to sell the point.

"He's not allowed to take lifts from people or get caught up with people, especially not men," Xal said. "He knew he was disobeying me."

"He was trying to get home," Jin said. "He was walking from the bus stop, and I was following him, holding up an umbrella. What could he have done? If you watch that CCTV again you'll see him actively backing off up the garden path to get away from me and back to you."

He thought Xal might be buying it. The crazy part was that it was actually the truth. So far. Jin knew he'd have to embroider the rest.

"And then I happened to be at the party, and I saw him and I tried to say hello, just to be friendly because I recognised him. He blanked me." Jin said. "And I was a bit drunk so it really annoyed me. So I walked up and accused him of being rude. That's what you're seeing in the footage. He told me to go away. And then I clicked that he had a boyfriend and maybe that I was imposing and I backed off."

Xal rolled his tongue over his teeth. "And then you both lied to me at the dinner table the following week."

"I was embarrassed," Jin said quickly. "I'd had this awkward encounter, made a fool of myself, and then there you both were. As for Jungkook, well he slipped not long after that, he was probably edging into his little space by the time I rolled up. Perhaps he was worried I was a stalker and set out for the toilets to tell me to leave you both alone. But it was just a series of coincidences. And then I really started to like you, Xal, and damn, I thought we were going to have a good thing going. I guess not."

He shrugged his shoulders and winced at the dizziness.

Xal's eyes narrowed. Jin blinked to focus his gaze again and tried to look as innocent as possible, channelling the image of wide-eyed Jungkook in his head. Xal's fingers stopped drumming on the toolbox, but still stroked the edges.

There was the buzz of a phone. Not Xal's.

Xal contemplated Jin as he pulled Jin's phone out from his pocket. Jin remembered all the texts about Jungkook on his phone and his insides began to shudder.

"It's a text from 'Namjoon'" Xal reported, "that name's familiar.."

Jin held his breath.

"He says there's no sign of Jungkook," Xal's eyes darted up from the text like a jumpscare.

"He's my best friend," Jin said quickly. "You put me in a panic. I called him. I remembered that Jungkook's college name was on his art folder, I saw it when I was following him home that time. I thought Jungkook might have retraced his bus route to college. My friend works nearby. I asked him to check that there wasn't a teenager wandering around looking lost."

He wondered if he'd said too much.

"Did you tell Namjoon where I live?" Xal asked, fiddling with one of the clasps on the toolbox.

"I wish I had," Jin said honestly, and Xal barked out a short laugh. He sidled closer to Jin, threat in every pore.

"Just need your fingerprint to get in," he said. "You can let me borrow it, or I can crack open the box, your choice."

Jin held still as one of his fingers was gripped roughly and it took two attempts before Xal got his phone to open. He typed quickly, then showed the sceen to Jin. "Like it?"

From: Jin

To: Namjoon

Found him! False alarm. Thanks SO much for checking. Text you tomorrow.

"Do you want me to critique it?" Jin said, his heart sinking.

"Nah," Xal sent the text. "Just wanted to see your face to know that it'd work. Let me check your calls to make sure you didn't ring anyone else. Nope, just him. Alright, that means we're good. We've got all night, you and I. All night to find out if you're lying through your teeth."

"I've told you everything I can, what more do you want?" Jin protested.

"Well I want to go through every single photograph and message on your phone," Xal said. "And I'll get round to that. But I think there's a much better, possibly even quicker way to find out if you've told me the truth."

Jin could not afford to have Xal look through his texts. "What's that?" He said cautiously.

"Kookie," Xal sang in a soft voice. "Time to wake up, baby. Xal's got some questions for you."

And to Jin's horror, he opened the toolbox.

X-X-X

Kookie hadn't been asleep. He'd been half-asleep.

At first the fogginess had filled every tissue papered layer of consciousness. All he could think about was his abandonment of Big Ted and how much he needed him. The way Big Ted had looked at him when he'd carried him out of the door this morning. How he'd looked at him when big Jungkook brought him on the bus, how guilt-ridden big Jungkook had felt when he'd quietly asked the three school girls in the back row to take him and look after him. Big Jungkook wanted to go with Jin so badly. And Big Ted couldn't come, because Big Ted was part of little space.

Big Ted was his truest friend. In the last two years he'd been the only friend at Kookie's side. Big Ted had loved him without judgement, and big Jungkook had let him go so that Big Ted could live and be loved and so that Xal wouldn't get to him when big Jungkook was gone.

Kookie still wanted him back. And that was selfish too, because Big Ted deserved so much better.

He'd hardly heard Xal's anger. His head was hot with swollen glassy ridges which mashed and frothed on the sand of his mind.

But now, as he lay curled in the blanket, helpless as a turtle that had been flipped on its back, and half-asleep, he felt the stormy fuzzy waves begin to recede. He could think. He could feel big Jungkook creeping back in.

He could hear Jin's voice, coupled with Xal's. At first it comforted him, hearing Jin. Big Jungkook had been mean to Jin, and he felt bad about that, but Jin was safe. Jin sounded like home.

Then he remembered why he'd slipped in the first place. Xal had hit Jin. He'd hurt Jin really bad. Jin and Kookie were both in trouble.

As Xal called out to him, he rubbed his fists into his eyes. There was a loud ripping sound.

"Don't do it, Xal- don't-" Jin sounded scared. There was shuffling and some muffled sounds and then Kookie felt Xal's broad palm on his cheek, thumb rubbing under his eye socket as if to unwrinkle all the creases Jungkook had just made. Xal helped him sit up.

He looked for Jin first. He knew Jin was here.

Jin was behind him, sitting with his back to the radiator. There was thick black tape over his mouth and his cheeks were red. His nostrils flared and his eyes were fever bright.

Kookie gasped. "Jin!"

He scrambled to get up and get the tape off Jin's mouth, but he was tangled in his blanket and by the time he'd kicked it off, Xal's hands were on his hips.

"Uh, uh, uh, baby," Xal steered Kookie to sit down again. "Not yet."

"Jin!" Kookie whined, pointing to show Xal. "Look! He-"

-"He's too charming for his own good," Xal said. "Now stop wriggling. I've got some questions for you."

Kookie looked at Jin again. Jin didn't like the tape. He couldn't breathe properly. "But-"

"Plus, it suits him," Xal sneered, pressing Kookie back into place. "Now, let's try blowing your nose again."

Kookie didn't remember trying it the first time. He frowned, then eyed Xal critically. "If Kookie blows his nose can he take the tape off Jin?"

Xal chuckled. It wasn't a very nice chuckle. He brought the hanky up under Kookie's nose. "I don't think bad little boys should be trying to make deals, do you?"

Kookie wasn't bad. He looked at Xal, aghast.

"Blow." Xal ordered. He sounded a bit angry again, so Jungkook blew.

Xal was pleased with that. He wrapped the dirty tissue in a clean one and left it on the table. He stroked Kookie's face with his rough fingers. "I will make a deal with you, Kookie. I'm going to ask you some questions. If you tell Xal the truth, then Xal will give big Jungkook and Jin less punishment, okay?"

Jin mumbled something furiously from behind the tape.

Kookie nodded up and down. He wasn't stupid. Xal thought Kookie didn't know that he was big Jungkook too. Xal wanted Kookie to tell on himself. And on Jin.

"Good boy," Xal said. "Let's start with an easy one. Can you tell Xal why you gave Big Ted away? What was I going to be angry about?"

Kookie thought quickly. He felt like big Jungkook was taking over, but he pushed him to stay at the edges. Xal liked Kookie much better than big Jungkook, so Kookie should handle this.

"Had a bad dream," he said. "Dreamed that Xal turned into a monster and he ate Big Ted. Kookie was saving Big Ted in case Xal woke up and ate him."

He wanted to turn to Jin to show him that Kookie wasn't stupid. But he thought maybe Xal would know he was making up pretend stories then.

Xal was surprised. "It was because of a nightmare?"

Kookie nodded emphatically. "Dream came true, because Xal got scary tonight. Shouted at Kookie. Hurt Jin. But can't eat Big Ted."

He watched Xal's gaze track slowly to Jin. "Did Jin try to kiss or cuddle Kookie?"

Yes Kookie thought. "No," he said. "That's Xal's job. Jin is nice. Jin drove Xal and Kookie home."

Xal hesitated, still stroking Kookie's face and head. "And did Jin walk Kookie home in the rain?"

Kookie was less sure about that one. The real anwer was yes. He hadn't heard Xal and Jin's words when they were talking. How did Xal know? Jin must have told him... mustn't he?

"Yes..." he said gradually. "But Kookie did tell Xal there was a man. Xal was angry, remember?"

"I remember baby. And then did you see him at Turret's party?"

Jin must have told Xal lots of things. Maybe he wasn't as good at this as Kookie. "Uh-huh," he said. "Didn't tell Xal because Xal was angry last time. Kookie sorry."

Xal's face changed. "Thank you, baby," he said. "You can take the tape off."

Kookie felt good. He hurried, legs wobbly, over to Jin and knelt beside him, trying to pick at the tape with his fingers. Big Jungkook pushed even harder to come back, and he took his advice and worked on the tape slowly. He saw Jin close his eyes as he peeled. It must hurt. The skin looked irritated underneath. There was some blood on Jin's lips and Kookie scampered to get tissues to wipe it up.

"I jumped to conclusions," Xal said. "My bad, Jin. I... I was completely convinced you were trying to steal him from me."

"Your bad?!" Jin exclaimed, the tape flapping as Koo- as Jungkook hadn't got it all off yet. His consonants were a bit sloshed. Jungkook got the rest of the tape, dabbed at Jin's lips and then felt gingerly on the back of Jin's head, his fingertips feather-light. No bleeding back there. But it was clear from the swelling lump that Jin had taken a bad knock.

Xal had put his hands in his pockets, deeply puzzled. "I overreacted. I apologise."

"You can apologise after you've got these cuffs off me!" Jin growled. He was so mad at Xal that Jungkook almost believed they'd had nothing to hide.

"You'll go storming off," Xal shook his head. "I need you to calm down first. I need to know that you've accepted my apology and that this will stay between us before the cuffs come off."

"It's going to take me days to calm down," Jin growled, his voice sounding raspy. "Are you gonna leave me like this for days?"

"Look, it was an honest mistake," Xal said. "And you can't deny you withheld information from me. I'll get you a drink of water."

"I can get the key!" Jungkook got to his feet. At Xal's stare his enthusiasm trailed off slightly. "You know, for later. When Jin feels calm."

Jin scoffed. He was a better actor that Jungkook thought. He supposed if Jin didn't seem indignant it might make Xal suspicious again.

"Did you...unslip?" Xal asked him.

Jungkook shrugged. "I guess so. Mostly." He hadn't even been able to fight it when he had slipped. He'd seen Xal swing at Jin and he'd immediately clocked out. Just like that. It was frightening, and he'd broken his promise to himself, but he couldn't focus on anything but getting Jin released right now.

"Okay, you can go get the key," Xal said. "Bring it to me."

When Jungkook got back downstairs, Xal was holding Jin's jaw in his fingers and tilting a glass of water to his mouth. Jin drank urgently.

"I think you should take him to the Minor Injuries clinic," Jungkook said quietly as he approached. "He might need a head scan."

Their plan still could go ahead if Jin was okay. Jin could still get him tomorrow at college and it would still all be over, just like it was supposed to be today before Xal showed up.

"Yeah, I guess I should," Xal set the glass down held his hand out for the key. Jungkook reluctantly passed it to him.

"Hey, you were right too," Jin said, as if he was gradually coming to terms with his own mistakes. "I should have told you I'd met Jungkook before. Even though it was brief and uneventful. Being too embarrassed by my own behaviour was not a good basis for starting a relationship. I apologise too. And to you, Jungkook."

"That's okay," Jungkook said quietly. They just needed Xal to undo the handcuffs. And it looked like Xal was considering it now Jin was apologising.

An incessant buzzing came from Xal's pocket.

"It's 'Flynn,'" Xal said, checking.

"Oh that's my annoying ex, must be drunk again," Jin dismissed. "Just reject the call."

Xal did so. Jungkook felt like he was breathing frigid air.

"You know, I think I can drive myself to Minor Injuries," Jin tried to change the subject. "It hurts, but it's not that bad a bump. I better get off before they close though, I don't want to spend four hours waiting in A+E."

"He's left a voicemail," Xal said, his tone odd.

"He always does," Jungkook could hear Jin trying to act normal. "You got that key?"

"Let's hear it," Xal said, tilting his head slightly like he was thinking deeply.

"What?!" Jin paled. "That's private, Xal, what the hell?"

"He's just your drunk ex," Xal said. "I just wanna, I dunno.. let's hear it."

He put it on loudspeaker.

"Hey, Jin. Jinnie." Flynn slurred. "I forgot I'm really good at maths, funny, huh? Anyways, I was calling to tell you. One of my friends, you know, from lunch at the diner. Really good guy. Anyways. He thought the guy you were making out with looked familiar. Couldn't place him. You know, place, like the fish. Haha! Anyways. He worked it out. And he showed me a picture and I swear down its the kid. The guy you were making out with. Who you were all loved up with. He has a boyfriend, Jin. Yeah, bet he didn't tell you that-"

Jin didn't look at Jungkook, but his mouth formed the word 'go.'

Jungkook didn't want to leave him, was terrified about what Xal might do. But if he didn't go then how could they get help? He started backing off towards the livingroom door. Softly, quietly, so Xal didn't turn.

"Anyways. It's a YouTuber. The boyfriend. My friend used to watch him. You should look him up. It's Xal1717. Or something like that. Anyways. If you're dumping the kid and want someone else to make out with you know you can hit me up. Yeah. Anyways, I love you-"

Jungkook slipped out the livingroom as the voicemail ended. He sprang to the front door and yanked the handle.

It barely moved. Locked. Of course. Jungkook turned to the side table, there was a dish where Xal kept the housekeys-

It was empty.

He sensed Xal rushing him, and he turned just in time for his back to be pressed up against the front door.

"And where-" Xal's hands were on either side of Jungkook's head, penning him in. "Do you think you're going?"

"I made him do it!" Jin yelled from the livingroom. "Listen to me Xal, it was my fault-"

Xal lifted one hand from the door to curl it around Jungkook's throat. Jungkook stared at him in terror. There was a flash of Kookie, and he mentally pushed back with all his might. If he was done for, he was going to be done for as Jungkook.

Xal looked like the devil, naked power in his stance and wickedness in his eyes.

"Jin wants to take the blame," he said, ignoring Jin's desperate cries. "But I think he's just protecting you."

"You're right," Jungkook looked him dead in the eye. It was over anyway, all over now. "I was the one who kissed him. Not the other way around. I kissed him twice." He felt almost triumphant at the way Xal twitched, but then Xal gave him an eerie smile and squeezed ever so slightly on Jungkook's throat.

"You promised," Xal said, whispering into Jungkook's ear, barely audible above Jin's yells, "that if I let you go to college you wouldn't chat with guys and you'd come straight home. That's all over now, you know that, don't you? You're not leaving this house unsupervised again. And you'll be punished for cheating on me." He pulled Jungkook off the door by the grip on his neck, and Jungkook choked. "And when it hurts, and you're begging and crying, and trying to slip into little space, just remember that you hurt me more."

Jungkook was led by his neck back into the livingroom. Jin quietened down when he saw him. "Xal," he tried. "Can we-"

"I'm coming to put that tape back on you, Jin," Xal said conversationally, dragging Jungkook over to the toolkit. "You're sly as sin. You thought you had me eating out of the palm of your hand, didn't you? But I knew. I knew something wasn't right about the two of you."

Jungkook gasped as he was pushed. He used his hands to brace against the fall and they burned on the carpet. Xal laid a hand on the centre of his back and pushed him right down so he was lying on his belly on the floor.

"Shame we never invested in a second pair of handcuffs," Xal mused. He was even more terrifying now than when he was actually angry. Jungkook's wrists were snatched and placed together in the small of his back, one brawny hand holding them in place. Then he heard the loud rip again.

"Xal you don't have to-" Jin tried again. It was nice of Jin to try. That was Jungkook's only real regret, that Jin would be punished too. He felt Xal wind the tape around his wrists, binding them together tightly. It hurt, but he kept quiet. His nose was pressed into the wet carpet fibres. He could smell milk. Then Xal rolled him over and took his ankles, winding the thick sticky tape around them too. Jin would have fought. Jin would have kicked and screamed. But Jungkook knew there was no point. Xal had the housekeys on him, and both the phones in the house, and he was much stronger than Jungkook. The neighbours went out for movie night on Tuesdays, so there was no one through the wall to hear them. There was no point.

It didn't stop him being scared. He'd been caught lying to Xal after sixteen years of telling him the truth.

"And I guess that was the diner you didn't fancy going to at lunchtime," Xal shoved Jungkook's bound feet off his lap. "Oh you've ran rings around me, haven't you baby boy?"

"It was me who-" Jin looked so distressed, Jungkook could see him from where he was lying on his side. His heart ached.

Xal loudly ripped another piece of tape from the roll, cutting Jin off. "Stop complaing, Jin, he looks hot like that, doesn't he? We're giving you a free show."

Jungkook felt Xal's hand seize his neck again, but it was to keep his head in place as Xal laid the tape down over his mouth. It tasted of chemicals. Jungkook could feel it adhering to every baby-fine hair on his lower face, as Xal smoothed it over with both hands.

Xal liked gags, so Jungkook knew how to breathe through his nose, knew not to waste his energy. He also knew that he could get it off with some effort because it wasn't wound round the back of his head, but his wrists were another matter.

"I know exactly how to punish you," Xal said suddenly, the manic casualness blending into excitement. "Damn. Oh you won't want to let me out your sight afterwards. But first, we gotta decide what to do with Jin, here. Do we kill him? He deserves it, but its risky. Or do we punish him too, and see if he takes to training better than you do? This is hard."

"Just remember," Jin warned, his voice stretched like thin elastic. "My best friend knows that Jungkook was missing and that I was going to help you look for him. If something happens to me, who do you think the police will want to interview first?"

"So I'll make sure not to leave any evidence," Xal chuckled. "Your turn for tape, Jin. I need peace to think about my next move."

Jungkook startled as Jin's phone rang again.

"Look who's so popular," Xal grinned. "It's Jimin this time. Another ex? Has he also seen you making out with my boyfriend?"

"He's just a friend," Jin said.

Xal's feet passed by Jungkook's head as he strode closer to Jin. "You know, I think I'm gonna let you take this one. Let me just pull my screwdriver out to remind you what happens if you say anything I don't like."

He stroked the tip of the screwdriver over Jin's upper lip and then over his lower one, then he held the phone up in front of Jin's face.

"Jin?" Jimin said. Xal had put the phone on loudspeaker. "You having a quiet night?"

"Yeah, just chilling now, you?" Jin replied, making effort to sound normal. Xal ran the screwdriver over the shell of Jin's ear.

"Can you hear me okay?" Jimin said. "I don't think the signal's so good."

"No, I can't hear you that well," Jin said. "Speak up a bit."

Jungkook could hear Jimin clearly, but he supposed Jin's hearing might have taken a knocking when Xal hit him.

Jimin paused. "I was just calling to tell you that Macey's pregnant!" He called out.

"That's great news!" Jin said, and he sounded genuinely joyful. Even Xal seemed surprised at how good Jin was at acting, and paused in petting him with the screwdriver.

"Really hope its a boy!" Jimin said. "Hey I'll call you tomorrow, unless the signal just got better?"

"Not for me," Jin said. "Yeah ring the others and let them know. Talk to you soon, Jimin!"

"Oh, I'm disappointed," Xal said as he hung up the phone. "I thought I was about to get another newsflash about my cheating boyfriend. Well, you know what, I'm gonna get me some dinner. I can't make big plans on an empty stomach."

He ripped the tape again and slapped it on Jin's mouth. Jin didn't resist. Xal cast another glance at Jungkook, then strolled into the kitchen, Jin's phone still in his hand.

Jin winked at Jungkook.

Jungkook stared at him.

Jin winked again. It was as if he was trying to tell Jungkook that it was okay. Jungkook didn't understand. He heard Xal stabbing through plastic with his screwdriver, then the slap of the microwave door and the churn as it heated his ready meal.

Jin winked at Jungkook a third time. Jungkook dared to hope that it meant something. Namjoon and Jimin were friends with eachother, weren't they? Had Jimin given Jin some kind of message to say they were coming to help? Maybe Macey didn't exist? But then how did Jimin know Jin was in trouble? He nodded to Jin to show he understood, even though he didn't, and Jin sank back against the radiator in relief.

Jungkook hadn't eaten yet, and the smell of Xal's Indian curry made his stomach gurgle. Xal stepped over him and made himself comfortable on the couch, flipping the TV on and channel surfing as he scarfed his food down. There was a detachment to it that made Jungkook think that Xal might just kill them both.

"Namjoon," Xal said suddenly, sitting upright. "Oh god. Namjoon. He's the producer isn't he, Turret's producer. He can ask Turret where I live."

He shoved his plate aside and hurried towards Jin. "I gotta check your texts now."

Jin tried to fight him, but Xal gave Jin's forehead a push, bouncing him off the radiator, and Jin's eyes rolled in pain. Jungkook whimpered then, but a sound barely pushed out of his throat, muffled by the tape. Xal manhandled Jin's forefinger over the fingerprint ID and opened the phone, immediately rising and pacing as he flicked through it.

Jungkook rolled his body to watch. Xal's expression changed from confidence to panic. "'The code'?" he said, his eyes growing wider. "You were at the college... they all know... Hoseok??"

Jungkook gulped.

Xal paced some more, swearing to himself, shaking his head like he was trying to rattle sense into his brain. The fear of being caught radiated from his every step.

"We gotta go," he said. "Before they come looking. We gotta get outta here."

X-X-X

Chapter Text

Xal pounded upstairs. Jungkook rolled onto his front to relieve the ache in his arms and turned his head to make eye contact with Jin. Jin didn't wink. There was a new desperation in his unfocused stare.

Jungkook laid his cheek back on the carpet. He could feel the painful thump of his heart reveberating along the floor. Xal knew he'd been in contact with Hoseok. Maybe even knew Jungkook was planning to leave him. Definitely knew that the phonecall from Jimin had contained a code. This was a race against time. Jin's friends had a five or ten minute head start, but they also had to contact Turret and get the address from him. Then they had to get here.

Xal was going to beat them to it. He was banging about upstairs, opening drawers and slamming doors, sounded like he might be talking to himself, but he was going to beat them to it.

Jin knew. Jungkook could see it in his face, strained by the tape. His heart thudded even harder. He knew what Xal would do to him: he'd keep him in sight at all times. Cuff him to the bed when they went to sleep. Take away what little privileges Jungkook had. Hurt him till he broke, till Kookie took over or till Jungkook didn't dare try anything ever again. The inevitability of it was horrifying, but absolute. Jin's fate though, was undetermined. Xal couldn't kill him - not when Jin's friends knew about him. He couldn't let him live either - because Jin would raise hell. So what would he do?

Xal thundered back downstairs. Jungkook felt his stomach contract and dip but the front door unlocked instead. Cold, frigid air swirled through from the open livingroom door and hit his lungs. A moment later he heard the purr of an engine, and doors slamming.

Xal hurried back into the livingroom, rubbing his hands on his jeans. He ignored them, grabbing the toolbox, contents rattling, then crossed into the livingroom. He rummaged in the cutlery drawer, then Jungkook heard one of the kitchen knives being unsheathed from the block. An involuntary whimper choked in his throat as he suppressed a rising panic. For a moment he couldn't breathe.

Xal re-emerged, and Jungkook immediately wriggled to eyeball Xal's hands. The knife must be in the toolbox. Safe. He felt the whimper roll into a sob of relief. Xal jogged past him and back out the front door. How much time had passed? Was there hope that Jin's friends were getting close?

When Xal came back, he made a beeline for Jungkook, grabbing the throw from earlier and laying it down beside him. Xal was panting a little, his eyes bright and frantic. The next thing Jungkook knew, he was being rolled into the blanket, giftwrapped so that the tape on his wrists and ankles was hidden. Jin was making loud but muffled protests from the radiator.

"Oh, don't worry. I'm not leaving you behind." Xal snarled.

Then Jungkook was being heaved up into Xal's arms, held bridal style. He fought to steady his breathing, the pressure on his lungs intense. "Put your face into my neck," Xal ordered. Jungkook obeyed. He could smell the mixture of Xal's cologne and his sweat. Then he was being hefted out of the livingroom door and towards the car which had been reversed up the drive close to the front door. He shivered at the cold and tried to peep out into the dusk.

"Face in." Xal snarled. The wind was intense, leaves from the front garden whipped into a frenzy. The low breathing of the car engine sounded even louder in Jungkook's ears as he was lowered into the back seat. Xal leaned over him, dragging the seatbelt across his body, and Jungkook realised then that this wasn't Xal's car. This was Jin's.

Xal seized his chin, grip agonisingly tight. "I'm going to put your head down and you're going to stay in that position till I get back with Jin. If you so much as move, I will stab him. Child lock is on anyway. Nod to show me you understand."

Jungkook nodded. Xal palmed the back of his neck and bent him in half at the waist, his head hovering just above his knees. "I really want to stab him, just so you know," he sneered in Jungkook's ear, then ducked out, slamming the car door.

Jungkook was frozen in place. If he heard someone: a neighbour, a passerby...should he risk it? But Xal could be checking. He could return at any time. What if the moment Jungkook popped his head up led to Jin bleeding out on the driveway?

He kept still. Shivered again. Wind buffeted the car. His back ached from the physical strain but he wouldn't budge. His mouth felt brittle like sandpaper, his tongue bulky and useless behind the sour tape.

He gave a start of fright when the other back door opened a minute or two later. Xal was holding Jin under his arms, dragging his legs. Jin's head was lolling. There was a red mark on his face. Had Xal hit him off the radiator again? His eyes kept blinking as Xal grunted and bundled him into the car and Jungkook let out another whimper of fear. Jin must have fought when he'd been uncuffed and recuffed.

"Good boy," Xal told Jungkook, but the praise didn't make Jungkook buzz with relief like it usually did. "Stay like that." He clicked Jin's belt in place then pushed his head down too. Jin made a shriek like a wounded animal behind the tape and Xal shushed him angrily, glancing down the street.

"I'm going to lock the front door. I'll be watching the car." Xal slammed Jin's door.

Jungkook made a muted sound, just enough to get Jin's attention. Xal had deliberately shoved Jin's injury with his rough hand.

"Mm," Jin managed in response. He tilted his head slightly to meet Jungkook's eye and show he was okay, but seemed overcome by a bout of dizziness. He was shivering too. At least Jungkook had a blanket. Maybe he could wriggle the blanket off and slide it across to Jin? He tried twisting a little, but he was sitting on it too, and with the seatbelt in place there was no give.

Xal slid in behind the wheel, putting his toolbox on the passenger seat in front of them. "If I see either of you with your heads up, I will pull over and I will pick a weapon. Are we all clear on that?" He spat, fumbling with his own belt and wiping his hands again. "Let's get out of here."

As the car began to move, Jungkook felt a wave of despair. Jin's friends would get here soon and see an empty house. They would lose the trail. He cast another anxious look over Jin. Jin could be internally bleeding right now, could die and it would be Jungkook's fault.

"Lucky for me you didn't buy the GPS add on when you bought the car," Xal said, voice taut. He was turning the wheel. Perhaps Jungkook could visualise the route if he kept watching the wheel. He had to do something to help Jin.

"So here's the plan," Xal said, throwing the indicator on and drawing to a brief pause before making another turn. "Listen up, Jungkook. Jin has been stalking us. At first we liked him, things seemed good, but he developed an unhealthy obsession with us, especially with you."

Jin was shaking. Jungkook didn't know if it was with anger or the cold.

Xal continued. "He's been binging our Youtube videos. I'm pretty sure his computer records will confirm that. And he invented a lot of stories that weren't adding up. The phone companies will confirm I called him earlier today. That was to inform him we'd decided to end our relationship and to tell him stay away from us. He didn't take it well."

Jungkook could hear the smugness creeping back into Xal's voice. The car trembled in the wind, but Xal held their course steady.

"We caught him lurking about out on our street earlier on, not long after my call. All my recent CCTV has accidentally been wiped, but you and I both saw him. We thought we'd get away from the house for a bit to see if things died down or if we needed to call the police for protection. We snuck out. Who knows what stories he'd told his friends, or what he was planning to do to us. We're scared of him. He's psychotic. If he dropped his phone and smashed it that's nothing to do with us. We were gone by then. We just hope he didn't follow us."

Jungkook's mind scrambled. Had Xal really covered the bases? Of course he'd promise to keep Xal's story if Xal let Jin go, but would Xal let Jin go?

"And sure, Jin's ex might say he saw you two together," Xal added, "but he's pretty keen to get back into Jin's pants. He'd say whatever Jin wanted. It was probably a lookalike anyway, given Jin's obsession with you. When we get to the house tonight we're doing another livestream and we're going to mention that we've had to deal with some scary stuff recently, but that we're getting through it together."

When we get to the house? Jungkook frowned.

"Of course, Jin," Xal said conversationally, "this all depends on you. Perhaps you want to reassess your position, now that I've exposed you. Maybe there's still space for us to come to an arrangement. Or maybe you want to fight me, and we can work our way through the toolbox. But Jungkook will be prepared to tell my version of events regardless."

Jin hissed at him behind his gag.

Xal laughed. "You tried to steal my boyfriend from under my nose. This isn't even close to justice. And yes, I think I'll let you watch his punishment. We'll see how you react to that, and then I'll have an idea of what we can do with you."

He punched the radio on, effectively ending the one-sided conversation. Jungkook was reeling. He was losing track of where they might be. Xal was still monitoring them in the rearview and he didn't dare raise his head. His body was wracked with discomfort.

When Xal paused in his driving for more than a few seconds, Jungkook realised they'd met their first red light. He was pretty sure he could hear other engines burring under the radio DJ's chatter. He made sideeyes at Jin. Jin was probably thinking the same. If someone saw the tape on their mouths, they'd take the licence plate and call the police. But what would Xal have done to them by then?

"Just remember," Xal's voice cut in. "If I'm going down, you're going down."

Jungkook kept his head ducked. He was a coward, but he had to choose the option that might preserve Jin's life.

They drove on for about forty-five minutes, judging by the radio, until Xal said, "okay, you can sit up now. If I see a car coming I'll say 'heads' and you better get back in posiiton."

Gratefully, Jungkook lifted his head and sank against the seat. The relief was intense, even though his hands were smushed against the small of his back and the blood rushed to his head at his sudden movement. Jin also sat up, but far more gingerly.

Jungkook stared out of the windows. The country road was devoid of streetlights, Jin's car's full beam stark against the almost total darkness.

He recognised it. He didn't know if it was the width of the road or the shape of the overhanging trees lining their route, but he recognised it. So there hadn't been any point in memorising the car's turns after all. They were going to his parents' house.

Sure enough, another ten minutes and only one 'heads!' warning later, they were pulling up outside the electronic gates. Jungkook caught sight of the familiar sign: Rosewall House. Jin of course, didn't have a clue where they were and was studying his surroundings.

Xal hopped out and pressed in the security combination at the gate. He and Jungkook's brother both had a set of housekeys, and the likelihood of Jungkook's brother randomly showing up while their parents were on holiday was about zero. It was reasonably remote. It was perfect for Xal.

Xal drove Jin's car up into the garage. It lit up as the doors opened and the brightness burned Jungkook's retinas. His dad had a Mercedes-Benz, a Tesla and an Audi A8, and Jin was staring at all three like they'd arrived at a mafia den.

Xal pulled the handbrake, switched the engine off, and let out a deep rattling breath. "Right." He said. "I'll take the tape off, but just know, I've got a whole roll here." He undid his belt and leaned between the seats, reaching for Jungkook first. Jungkook leaned towards him and held still obediently as Xal picked at one corner of the tape with a nail, then gradually drew it off. It didn't hurt as much as it would have if he'd just ripped it, but it still hurt. Tears pricked his eyes. He took a huge gulpful of air as the tape finally came off, and coughed. The area around his mouth was stinging. Xal kept an eye on him as he did the same with Jin's tape. Jungkook dropped back against the headrest again, and let his breathing regulate itself. He hadn't realised how much he'd adapted his oxygen intake to compensate for being unable to use his mouth.

"I'll open the house up," Xal announced, getting out of the car with his toolbox.

"I'm sorry," Jungkook blurted out the moment Xal slammed the door on them, his voice scratchy. "Jin, I'm so sorry. I wish I'd never met you on the bus that day. I wish I hadn't asked you to go to Hoseok. I'm sorry... I'm sorry about Big Ted. I'm sorry I kissed you. I didn't mean for any of this to happen to you. I-"

"-Hey," Jin's voice was low, but remarkably steady. "Hey. Jungkook."

Jungkook stalled.

The raw marks left by the tape were still clear to see on Jin's face. Sweat lined his brow. His arms were wrenched behind his back and his ankles were taped together. But somehow, Jin was not bowed.

"I don't regret any of it," Jin said firmly, his voice dry. "Not meeting Hoseok, not kissing you, and especially not meeting you on the bus that day. We might still get ourselves out of this. But even if we don't, I need you to know that I don't regret a single thing."

Jungkook gaped at him. He felt tears spill down his cheeks before he even knew he was crying. "You don't understand-" he began but Jin silenced him with a simple look.

"I would do it all again," Jin said steadily. "I mean, sure," he gave a lopsided smile, "if I got the chance I'd do some things differently. But I would never give up the day I met you. Not for anything."

Jungkook felt his heart breaking. "Thank you," he whispered helplessly. What else was there to say?

"I think I have something to tell you, if we get out of this," Jin smiled softly. Jungkook already knew what it was. He could see it in Jin's eyes. He was grateful Jin didn't say it out loud now.

Xal came back and opened the car boot. Jungkook watched him heave two bags into the house at once. He wondered what Xal had packed in such a short space of time.

He soon found out. "Let's get you upstairs first," Xal eyed Jin, opening his side. "You need another knock on the head?"

"I'll come quietly," Jin said.

Xal inspected him. "Maybe there's hope for you yet. I'm gonna cut your ankles free. You'll be wobbly and I'll have a knife at your back, so if you fall, try to pitch forward."

Jungkook was left alone again. Xal not killing Jin was all he cared about. The guilt of what he'd done to Jin consumed him. The guilt and fear, guilt and fear. They kept one-upping eachother, flooding him in wave after wave.

When Xal came back. he had a bottle of water with him. "Thirsty?"

Jungkook nodded. Xal squeezed his jaw so that his mouth popped open and tilted his head back. Water gushed in over his tongue and he drank furiously. Xal chuckled, almost calm. "You needed that, huh."

He wiped the tear tracks from Jungkook's cheeks with his thumbs. "We're going to fix this," Xal said to him, his face close. "Whatever's wrong with us. We're going to fix it. You still have to take your punishment, because I've already had mine. Yours won't be for a few hours yet. But when its done and you've learned your lesson we can move on from this."

Jungkook wondered if Xal was waiting for a thank you. He'd be waiting a long time.

"Hmm," Xal contemplated him. "You're clearly not sorry yet. Thats okay, you will be. How about we get the tape off?"

Jungkook stared at their kitchen knife, gleaming under the garage lights.

"Keep still, baby boy," Xal said, undoing Jungkook's belt and unrolling the throw blanket, sliding him up the back seat to get access to his feet first. Jungkook watched him work. Then his body was manipulated so Xal had access to his hands. When those came free, Xal sat him on the edge of the seat, legs dangling to the garage floor and helped him rub his wrists. There were pink rings round both of them, and his fingers were swollen and numb. After a while, he felt the blood begin to circulate and the sparks of pain made him wince.

"Come on, I'll carry you," Xal let go of his wrists and felt for his waist. Jungkook let himself be lifted up into Xal's arms, his body rocking against Xal's shoulder as he was brought indoors.

Xal dropped him down on one of the armchairs in the lounge. Jungkook gazed around. Nothing much had changed since they were last here. A couple of new ornaments. The same old fashioned hearth, and wooden beams in the ceilings. The room was still cream and gold and as spotless as a showroom. His parents always had the cleaner come last thing before they went on holiday.

It didn't feel like home. But it did feel familiar and kept expecting to hear his parent's voices. Jin was silent upstairs. He was probably exhausted. Jungkook felt like the softness of the chair and the budding warmth of the central heating was pulling him into slumber too, relieving the ache in his back.

"Food," Xal brought him some chopped watermelon in a bowl. "Try and eat all of that while I unpack some things."

Jungkook cradled the bowl in his lap and mechanically placed watermelon chunks into his mouth, chewing and swallowing each at a time. His throat hurt a bit. Xal had brought some of his filming equipment, some of their clothes... he saw his art folder among the collection and tilted his head in surprise.

Xal was setting up one of his lights, but paused when he saw Jungkook had finished the melon. "Good boy. Okay, we're going to put your pyjamas on. I brought a long sleeved set. Strip for me."

Jungkook did as he was told, slowly discarding each item of clothing. Xal watched approvingly, unpacking the pyjamas when Jungkook was naked. He dressed Jungkook like a doll. Like he was in a little headspace. Jungkook didn't fight him, didn't argue.

"Gonna put a bit of make up on, just to blend out some of that redness around your mouth," Xal said as he slid new socks on Jungkook's feet. "Then I'll explain what we're going to do in our livestream."

Maybe that's why he was being so nice. He needed that livestream as a timestamp to show that he and Jungkook were away from home and happy together. Jungkook wondered how quickly things would change when the stream ended. He didn't dare imagine what would happen if he misbehaved during the stream.

And yet, it was a chance. Jin's friends would watch it. If Jungkook could get a message to them somehow...

"Don't think too much, sweetheart, it doesn't suit you," Xal dabbed one of his foundation creams on with a blender. "Besides. If you screw this up for me, I'm going to kill Jin. There's no point in my keeping him alive if I don't have this for a bit of insurance."

"I won't say anything," Jungkook said softly. "I'll stay quiet." Jin's safety was more important.

"I don't want you to stay quiet," Xal corrected. "I just don't want to hear any more codes and I definitely don't want any outbursts." His breath fanned warm over Jungkook's face. "We'll put a little bit of balm on, your lips look dry."

Jungkook submitted to that too. Then he stared down as Xal deposited his art folder in his lap.

"After our last livestream a lot of people requested to see your art," Xal explained. "We're not gonna show them all, that'll get boring. I'll pick out about ten. What you need to do is show them to the camera and explain a little bit about what the picture's about. Just a sentence or two. Smile at me. We're not going to mention college. And I'm going to explain to them that we've had some concerns about a stalker and I want you to cuddle in when I hold you. Got it?"

Jungkook nodded.

"Right," Xal opened the folder. He had meagre interest in art, and even less in Jungkook's. When they were younger Jungkook had always ran to Xal with his creations, his little heart bursting in anticipation of Xal's commendation. It was around the time that Xal decided they'd be boyfriends that his interest in Jungkook's only hobby began to decline.

Xal perched on the arm of Jungkook's armchair, emptied the folder and gave it back to Jungkook, piling the works on his own lap. When he found something he deemed appropriate, he put it to the bottom of his pile. The ones he didn't want were delivered back to Jungkook who dutifully slid them back into the folder. It was a quick conveyor belt.

The last one was the one Jin had paused over in the diner. Jungkook knew why. It was clearly a self-portrait. Even Xal recognised it, and Jungkook's heart began to pound sickeningly as Xal paused over the image of Jungkook tearing his own face off.

"God..." Xal said, his voice cracking a little the more he stared. "Kookie. I-"

Jungkook held up the open art folder. He knew there was no way that one was going on the livesteam. Xal slotted the artwork back in.

"Is that how you feel?" He whispered, his eyes suddenly filling. "Is that how I make you feel?"

Jungkook hadn't felt the urge to hug Xal in a long time. In years. For a moment, he considered it. He imagined that the Xal who had loved him and raised him was still in there.

Then he remembered otherwise. He merely shrugged.

Perhaps it was his abrupt dismissal, but Xal blinked sharply and the moment was gone. "These ones will be fine," he said of his remaining pile. "You don't have any of me though. You can sketch something out quickly, can't you? Say you're working on it as your current project. Put us both in it. Make it look good."

"How long do I have?" Jungkook asked.

"Until I'm in my pyjamas and have everything set up with the laptop. Five, ten minutes?"

"Okay," Jungkook said. He had an idea.

He sketched out Xal sitting on a wall, his legs spread to acommodate Jungkook standing in between them. Jungkook's head rested on Xal's chest, and Xal's arms were around him. He focused his efforts on the faces, making sure they would be recognisable. Make sure that the faces were expressive with emotion. Then he lightly sketched some roses woven through the wall.

It was a long shot. Hoseok might remember that his parents lived at Rosewall. Jungkook had commented on the generic name in jest once or twice. It would only work if Jin's friends knew how to get in touch with Hoseok with their concerns. But it was the best he could do.

And if Xal did notice at least it would be before the stream started. So hopefully Jin wouldn't suffer for it.

He went back to focusing on the figures, on the tenderness in Xal's eyes. They were Jin's eyes, really, but shaped like Xal's. The hands holding Jungkook so softly were Jin's but shaped like Xal's. It was a fantasy picture.

"That's really good," Xal seized it suddenly, and Jungkook held his breath. "That's brilliant, Kookie. I want to keep it forever. Get it framed."

As Jungkook had hoped, Xal was fixated on them, on their expressions, and not on the backdrop.

"This is what we're going to be like again," Xal nodded, still admiring the sketch. "I promise. You've been feeling neglected, haven't you? It's the Youtube thing, it's been time consuming, I know. But now we're doing more and more together you'll not feel so alone. We can make this picture real, Jungkook. We just need to work together. Hold on, I need to put my boxers and dressing gown on."

Jungkook noticed that Xal took his time getting his top off and he supposed it was supposed to be for his benefit, so he watched. He did admire Xal's body: the bulked out muscles, the six pack, the veiny arms. The body Jungkook wasn't allowed to have because Xal liked him 'soft and tight' and his gym time was strictly monitored.

"You like that?" Xal gave him bedroom eyes. He had Jin upstairs handcuffed to a bed and he'd taken all Jungkook's freedom and he thought Jungkook might get aroused at his torso for the first time ever?

He nodded.

Xal finished setting up. He'd pulled a side table towards them for the laptop and had the camera on a tripod beside that. He checked how Jungkook looked in the lighting and hummed in approval. "Okay. One minute. Need to make sure Jin doesn't make any noise."

Jungkook didn't argue. Xal made it to the door then frowned. "No, you come with me and wait on the stairs. I don't want you on the internet."

Jungkook got up obediently and shuffled after Xal on stiff legs. If he could just get the Rosewall message out without getting caught, they might have a chance. He had to keep Xal happy. He had to try to smile. He had to make sure it was clear to the viewers that this was the drawing he was working on right now.

X-X-X

When Xal and Jungkook finally returned to the guest room, both dressed in nightwear, Jin's mouth was furred and dry, his head thick. More than an hour had passed and he longed to sleep, but he wanted to see Jungkook even more.

Xal crossed over to Jin's side of the bed and undid the binding over his mouth, gentle for the first time. Jin spat out the soggy sock, almost gagging at the sight of it. Jungkook stared at it in horror. "Can I get water for him? Please?" He begged Xal, his hands twisting.

Xal nodded benevolently. "Just from the bathroom next door, Kookie."

So their livestream had gone well. Jin didn't know if that was a good or a bad thing.

"I don't entirely blame you, you know," Xal told him, flicking the wet sock off Jin's chest and onto the carpet. "He is gorgeous."

"He's smart and funny and creative," Jin said hoarsely. "He's resourceful and thoughtful and self-sacrificing and humble and-"

"-And not yours." Xal narrowed his gaze.

"Not mine." Jin agreed, looking Xal straight in the eye. "He's his own person. Jungkook belongs to Jungkook."

Xal snorted. Jungkook creaked the door back open, a glass of water in his hand. He looked between them tentatively.

"Hurry up," Xal told him.

Jungkook's touch was even more delicate as he raised Jin's head, careful to avoid the bump, and poured the cool water in a gentle trickle down Jin's parched throat.

"Thank you," Jin whispered when Jungkook finished. The feeling of relief was immense.

"Alright, sweetheart, up onto the bed," Xal said. "Just as well your folks and I have a kink in common, huh?"

From his pocket he brought out another pair of handcuffs, pretending to examine them. "They're pretty heavy duty too."

Jin could see Jungkook's gulp as he stared at them and the way he backed off a tiny step, wringing his hands again. He had to try to negotiate. "You have the house locked up, don't you? It's not neccessary to-"

"Shhh," Xal put a finger to his lips menacingly. "I could stuff that sock back down your throat. Or something else."

Jin shut up. Jungkook trembled as he lay down on the bed along from Jin.

"You can't complain, Kookie," Xal reminded him, slipping a hand under Jungkook's pyjama top to caress his stomach. "You wanted to get into bed with Jin, and now you're getting that chance. Hands up."

Like Jin, Jungkook's cuffs were wrapped around one of the bars of the solid head of the bedframe and then around his wrists. The fearful look in Jungkook's face made Jin want to kick and scream. Xal relished it.

"I'll wake you up when its time for your punishment," he stroked Jungkook's cheek. "Try to sleep baby." He swooped in and pecked Jungkook's mouth. Jungkook shuddered as Xal got up and hovered in the doorway looking at them.

"See, under different circumstances, this could have been a dream come true," he remarked, before hitting the lights and closing the groaning door behind him.

Jin could hear Jungkook trying to catch his breath.

"I'm here," he murmured. He had a throbbing headache and he'd rubbed his wrists raw and he was sure his cheek was going to be black and blue, but he was here.

"I don't like handcuffs..." Jungkook said into the darkness in a small voice.

Jin felt his stomach burn with fury at Xal. "Me neither," he said. "In fact I wish I was Iron Man right about now."

"Oh? Why?" Jungkook said cautiously.

"Well doesn't he manipulate iron? He could just melt these off or something. Or melt the bed, whichever."

Jungkook chuckled quietly. "I think you're mixing up your comic book characters."

"Are you trying to tell me that Iron Man is powerless against iron?"

"It doesn't work like that..."

Jin could imagine the pout. "Well, how about your explain it to me?" He said. "You sound like you know a thing or two about all these superheroes. Which one is your favourite?"

Jungkook sighed, but it was a faintly amused sigh. "Iron Man."

"Ohh," Jin grinned. "Well, that's my bad."

He let Jungkook speak for a while, listening to how he spoke more than the words. As Jungkook warmed to his topic, still talking in a soft voice, he seemed less aware of the handcuffs, less aware of the promised punishment awaiting him. Jin wanted to hold him so badly, but this was the best he could do. He made soothing noises of agreement from time to time as the wind howled outside and rattled the curtained window.

After a while, Jungkook became drowzy. He took longer pauses between his words, and Jin sensed that he was going to nod off.

"I tried to leave a clue," Jungkook mumbled, after a protracted silence in which Jin wondered if he was asleep. "On the stream. I did my best."

Jin didn't know if Jungkook was fully conscious. "That's good, Kook," he murmured. "Sleep now. Rest up."

He could feel himself drifting too. The adrenaline had wiped his body. He was physically and emotionally exhausted. Once Jungkook's breathing indicated that he was out, he closed his heavy lids and let himself go too.

X-X-X

A bright disc of light blazed into Jin's face and he snapped his eyes open only to immediately squeeze them shut again.

"You didn't say there was another one," a young male voice said. "He's cute an' all, but isn't this going to get messy?"

Jin could see bright red-orange behind his eyelids. It was only when the light drifted that he dared to open his eyes a fraction, looking between his lashes, blinking at the dark spots that floated before his vision.

"Don't worry about him." That was Xal. "Jin and I are old friends, aren't we Jin? He's going to watch you and I'm going to watch him."

"Sure, whatever," the other young man said. He was using the light from his phone as a torch, making it impossible for Jin to see his face in the dark. The torch was now pointing between him and Jungkook on the bed, but began drifting over Jungkook's still sleeping form.

"Who are-" Jin started.

The young man with the torch shushed him. "Don't wake the baby up," he said teasingly. "That's my job."

He tipped the phone under his chin, highlighting the ridges of his cheeks, making himself look ghastly. Then he reached for Jungkook's face in the dark. "Wakey wakey!"

Jungkook's eyes spilled open. He took one look at the spectre in front of him and gasped, writhing to get away. The cuffs held him in place, even as his legs scrambled.

"Hey don't be scared, it's me, see?" The man teased. "Get the light, would ya, Xal?"

If anything when Xal rolled the light controls up to a dusky gold, Jungkook recoiled even further.

"Did you miss me, little prude?" The young man said, tucking his phone into his back pocket. Jin was still troubled by dots in front of his vision, but he could make out that the guy was white, fairly built, with a smudge of a blonde moustache and expensive looking clothes. He wore a hoody which had the two words 'DevengeGames' emblazoned across it as one.

Jungkook's eyes were huge. He stared past the man at Xal, his mouth hanging open.

"I dropped everything when Xal called me," the man told him. "I couldn't stop thinking about you. I need to get you out of my system. And your boyfriend can post the collaboration after all. It's a pretty good deal." He ran his fingers over Jungkook's front. "Are these poppers? No, they're buttons, aren't they. That's okay. Let's slide the first one out."

"Xal!" Jungkook cried out, wrenching himself away from the man, his legs accidentally kicking Jin's side, his arms strained taut against the cuffs.

"Deven will stop if you slip," Xal reported. "That's the rule. But I wouldn't try inducing it, because I've told him he can wait around and start again later."

"Please!" Jungkook's chest was heaving up and down in terror, the top button of his pyjama shirt now hanging open. "Xal!"

Xal seemed impassive, but his arms were folded and his eyes tumultuous. "Just remember that you hurt me more," he maintained, his voice hard. "Take your punishment. If you apologise to me at the end, I'll forgive you for cheating."

"Cheating on you?" Deven laughed. "Who's been a naughty boy. Where was my phonecall though? Come on now-" he clambered fully onto the bed and swung a leg over Jungkook's waist, sitting on him, pinning his sides with his knees, holding him down. "What button comes after number one? Tell me."

"You're sick," Jin could barely speak. "You're both sick in the head. Xal - he's terrified!"

"It's number two!" Deven cooed, slipping the next button loose.

Jungkook was thrashing his head back and forth on the pillow. "Nononononononono-"

"He's slipping!" Jin yelled at Xal.

"He's not, he's just being fussy," Xal retorted. He looked pointedly at Jin's crotch. "You aren't helping your case much, by the way. I'd start getting into it if I were you."

Jin didn't have words for him. He was struck dumb. He could barely fathom how Xal could allow this to happen, could instigate it, let alone expect Jin to feel anything but fury and nausea and horror. He would rather die than fake pleasure at Jungkook's suffering.

"Will we try the next one together?" Deven said to Jungkook. "What number comes after two?"

Jungkook was trying to buck him off. "Get off him!" Jin roared, kicking with all his might at Deven's side. His shoes made contact with Deven's ribcage. Deven howled at the sudden pain, and Xal pounced on top of Jin, snatching at his legs-

Ding Dong!

The echo of the sound resonated in the near distance, above the silence of the rest of the house and the whip of the wind. Each of them froze in place on the bed.

"Did you invite someone else?" Deven demanded, his hands scrabbling under his bulky hoody.

Xal shook his head, face paling. He looked between Jin and Jungkook. "Not a sound."

"Go check," Deven urged. "I can keep them quiet."

The three of them stared at the gun he had produced from his waistband.

"Don't do anything stupid, Dev," Xal said, putting a hand out to steer the direction of the gun away from Jungkook. Like Jin, he was studying the illegal weapon, trying to figure out if it was real.

It looked real enough to Jin as the cold dark eye of the barrel stared him down.

"Xal," Jungkook whimpered. He was shaking like a leaf.

"Shhh, don't scream." Deven put a finger to Jungkook's lips.

"I'm going to check," Xal hoisted himself off Jin. "Don't any of you move."

Jin didn't have much of a choice. Deven thumbed Jungkook's lower lip absently as he waited. "It better be nothing," he remarked. "I didn't come all the way over here in the middle of the night for blue balls."

"Maybe karma's come calling," Jin challenged him. "Maybe you should get out of this while you still can. You don't know how many people he has hunting him."

"He's not screwing me over this time," Deven teased Jungkook's lower lip between his thumb and forefinger, staring into his eyes. "Why do you think I brought the gun? I don't care who's out there, I'm getting what I came for."

Jungkook's chest was heaving up and down. Jin couldn't tell if he was in or out of headspace, or whether he was just in shock. "I'm here, Jungkook," he said weakly. "I'm here."

Deven frowned at him. "Yeah, why are you here-"

"-It's the police," the guestroom door groaned loudly as Xal burst in. "They're at the gates. They'll be able to see the lights on downstairs. I don't know how- they've followed us somehow-" his panicked gaze shot between Jin and Jungkook but was unable to pin it on either one of them. Jin felt a dreadful tendril of hope.

"Well fix it!" Deven's own peacocking had a bucket of cold water chucked over it. "I'm not getting arrested, Xal! I haven't even done anything yet!"

Ding Dong!

Xal paced forward and back in a small semi-circle. "It's fine, it's fine... okay. Deven, you stay here with Jin. Jungkook, you're coming downstairs with me. We're going to tell them our stalker story and you're going to cuddle into me and make sure they believe it."

He hastened to Jungkook's side and took the handcuff key from his dressinggown pocket. "Get off him, Dev. I need him to make it believeable. They can't have tracked us, its impossible." He tossed the cuffs aside and tugged down Jungkook's sleeves over the marks on his wrists, anxiously straightening his pyjamas. "If you don't play along, Dev is going to have to shoot Jin, you know that, right?"

"Kookie knows," Jungkook said quietly, trying to hug himself.

"I told you he was slipping!" Jin growled. He still wasn't sure, but even if Jungkook was acting, delaying any further assault was the priority.

"Shut up" Xal said, bending to heave Jungkook into his arms. Jungkook held on like a koala. "Dev - watch him. Don't listen to a word he says. I'll be back in a few."

Jin could hear him murmuring to Jungkook as he crossed the corridor and descended the stairs.

"He better come out of it fast," Deven said, his entire body agitated. His eyes were too bright and there was a tremor in the hand that held the gun now. Death wasn't just staring Jin in the face, it was shimmying at him.

"So, Xal's what, taking you for a test drive?" Deven asked. "He gonna kill you if you don't get hard? That's kinda messed up."

"He is messed up. And I reckon he's invited you here to pin it on you," Jin said.

Deven narrowed his eyes. "I'm not killing anyone."

Jin frowned pointedly at the gun.

"Unless I have no choice," Deven amended. He was high. In the panic of all that had gone before Jin hadn't noticed just how dilated his pupils were. "I wasn't even gonna pull this, but the doorbell spooked me. I just need to get Kookie out of my system. That's all. Have you seen his pictures? He's the cutest, innocent thing, then he's hot as hell, then back again. I don't get it. I just wanna get my hands on his skin."

"Without his consent." If anything the complete power imbalance was making Jin bolder.

Deven shrugged. "To be honest, seeing him scared might not do it for you, but it does it for me. Xal better not be getting himself arrested downstairs, because I need this."

"You're vile."

Deven chuckled. "Whatever. You're nice to look at too, y'know. Bit different, but nice. We could go a round later on." As Jin's face morphed in disgust, a glint appeared in Deven's eye. "Or maybe you and Jungkook could put on a show for us?"

Jin could think of nothing more disgusting than breaking Jungkook's precious trust. "I'd rather you shot me," he said frankly.

Deven hummed, then his ears perked up at the sounds of voices drifting upstairs. "Did he invite them in?" He hissed. "What the-"

Jin thought about risking it then, risking it all and yelling. If the police were there, they would surely be able to rescue Jungkook from Xal. If Jin was going to wind up dead anyway-

But then, he saw the wild expression on Deven's face. He wanted Jungkook. He wouldn't just shoot Jin and escape - he'd go down there and shoot whoever he needed to.

He held his tongue. The minutes stretched on unbearably. Then the voices increased just a little in volume before becoming more subdued. A while later, they heard Xal on the stairs.

"They're gone," Xal reported, panting, still clutching Jungkook in his arms. "It was just the local police on patrol. They know his parents are on holiday and noticed the lights on. They were just checking on the house. There's photographs of us on display, so they believed us straight away. Had them eating out of hand."

He set Jungkook down on the bed and Jungkook scampered across the rumpled quilt towards Jin.

"Hey," Jin said softly as Jungkook tucked himself up into a tiny ball, his hair rubbing against Jin's chin, his nose buried in the soft of Jin's jumper.

"Okay, well, where were we?" Deven said, satisfied, reaching towards Jungkook.

"We're on a break, that's where we are," Xal interrupted. "He's slipped. Could barely keep him focused downstairs. You know the rule."

There was a pause, and Jin thought Deven might just turn and shoot Xal. He could tell from Xal's expression that he was aware of the same. He hadn't been expecting the gun. The physical upperhand he would have had on Deven was gone. Every scrap of control Xal thought he had was being taken from him.

"When will he slip out again?" Deven grumbled, casting another glance over Jungkook's curled up body.

"I dunno, we'll come back up in an hour or so," Xal said. "I'll make you a drink. We can talk."

"Aren't you gonna cuff him again?" Deven pointed.

Xal scoffed. "You don't get how little space works, do you. He's exhausted anyway, he'll sleep. Come on."

Jin let out the heaviest sigh as the two went downstairs. His whole body was drained, exhausted. He wanted to cry with frustration.

"Hi," he said to Jungkook. "Kook, its me. Are you awake? Its safe for now. It's just you and I."

Jungkook gave a low moan like he was trying to sleep. But things were desperate now, and Jin couldn't afford to let him.

"Can you wake up for me?" He asked. "Jungkook, do your parents have a landline? Is there a phone upstairs?" Jungkook might just manage making an emergency phonecall if Jin talked him through it.

Jungkook yawned, then buried his face back in Jin's jumper. "Goicky," he mumbled.

"What? Can you say it again?" Jin encouraged.

"Got..." with clear effort Jungkook creased up his face and he lifted his head to look up at Jin with big lidded eyes. "Got the key."

Jin was transfixed as Jungkook unfurled the fist that he'd had tucked into his body. He'd swiped the handcuff key.

His heart began crashing against his ribcage. "Can you get the cuffs off me?"

"Mmm," Jungkook nodded, yawning again. "Tired."

"I know. Please Jungkook. You're being so brave. You can do it."

Jungkook nuzzled into Jin's sweater once more, then made what seemed like a labourious journey to Jin's wrists. Jin strained his ears for the sound of Xal discovering his key was missing. He was sick with fear now. They had such a chance.

When his hands came free the first thing he did was reach for Jungkook, press their foreheads together for just a second. Then he fumbled for Jungkook's hand, leading from the bed to the window. They were high up and a climb down in these winds could be dangerous. "Are you feeling little? Can you tell me if there's a way out of the house without passing them by?" It looked like a big stately house from the outside, but a castle couldn't be big enough for Jin right now.

"Not little," Jungkook rubbed his nose, then held out his free hand infront of him and wiggled it, see-sawing between his thumb and pinkie. "Not big. Come with Koo- with Jung- with me."

Jin was afraid to trust him when Jungkook was half out of it. But Jungkook knew the layout of this place. The terror of indecision gripped him as they slowly opened their door, each grate of the hinges ten times magnified in his mind. But Jungkook seemed more alert than he had been before and set off at a pace down the darkened corridor, away from the main stairs.

It was an old house. Lots of parts had been refurbished, but a lot of the original building had been retained. Jin squeezed his eyes shut each time the floorboards creaked. He couldn't hear Xal and Deven, but he imagined them around every corner, his fear so absolute he almost wanted to return to the guest room.

Jungkook opened what looked like a cupboard door at the other end of the corridor and Jin was surprised to see narrow winding stone steps. Perhaps it used to be the servants' staircase? Was the house that old? Or was Jungkook about to lead him into a dead end? It was pitch black and cold, and he kept a hand on the banister for fear of slipping and crashing headlong as he hurried.

When they reached the bottom, Jin almost crashed into Jungkook. His legs were like wet cement and his throat was on fire. He felt like he'd ran a marathon.

"Shh," Jungkook said. "Put your hands here. Shoulders. Follow Ju- follow me."

Jin did as he was told. He was just starting to make out shapes of boxes and odds and ends in the dark. It seemed Jungkook's parents had been using this area as a storage space. It was eerie down here. It felt like he was crossing a minefield, knowing that one boot to the wrong noisy item might give away their location. He wondered if they were passing under or alongside Xal and Deven now. He couldn't hear them, only the gentle swish of Jungkook's pyjamas and the shuffle of his own feet.

When they reached another door there was a strip of light beneath it. Jungkook put his ear to the door, listening hard. Jin did the same. He could hear Xal and Deven talking, but couldn't quite catch their words.

"Kitchen," Jungkook whispered, shivering in the cold. "Wait now."

Jin gently allowed the hands resting on Jungkook's shoulders to wrap around his forearms, slowly turning him and tugging him into a hug, allowing him time to pull back. Jungkook's arms threaded themselves around Jin's waist, and his head plopped on Jin's shoulder.

Jin loved him. Wholeheartedly loved him. Jungkook was a fighter. He was the one saving Jin, not the other way around. Jin ran his hand gently though the back of Jungkook's hair, and breathed in his scent and shared their body heat. He wanted to stop time right now, to just be with Jungkook in the inky blackness around them. But he knew they were both listening carefully for their opportunity and that the next step of their escape was probably the most risky.

The light strip below the door went out. Xal and Deven's voices became even harder to discern. They must have moved rooms. Reluctantly, Jin seperated from Jungkook, feeling for his hand again.

Jungkook turned the door handle. The door creaked. Jin felt his breath catch. Nothing. Jungkook waited another moment, then slowly pushed the door open an inch or so. Waited. Another inch. Waited. Then he squeezed Jin's hand twice.

This was it.

The large kitchen had veranda doors at the back leading out in the garden, and Jungkook steered Jin around a dining table to reach them. The room was still, counters and cupboards fuzzy in the near-dark.

There was some shelving near the doors containing what looked like a teapot set. Jungkook upended the sugar bowl's contents into his hand and Jin watched several keys tumble out, each labelled. Spare keys, perhaps. Jungkook found the one he wanted and sat the rest on the nearest counter, fumbling for the lock. Jin kept picturing the kitchen door opening behind them. He didn't dare turn around.

Jungkook pushed the doors and they slid open, beckoning Jin to hurry out so he could slide them back over. The wind rippled through Jin's hair, then froze his bones to doubly remind him that he was alive.

Jungkook hurried ahead of him from the outdoor porch to the garden path. Jin's sliver of hope was blossoming. But they weren't safe yet. Where was the nearest house to call the police? Could they hide out amongst the roadside trees till a car came by?

"Help," Jungkook whispered loudly, his word almost caught away in the wind. Jin stooped to help him lift a garden bench, his muscles crunching as his legs staggered.

They got the bench under a shed though Jin winced at the noise as it landed. "Up," Jungkook prompted him.

"You first," Jin said, getting onto the bench and cupping his hands to give Jungkook a leg up. Jungkook put his foot in Jin's hands and Jin remembered he was only wearing socks and thin pyjamas. He summoned all his strength to boost Jungkook up onto the roof of the shed. The hardest bit was coming next: he was going to have to get himself up there.

He saw a small square of light reflected in Jungkook's eyes before he realised that a new room had lit behind him upstairs in the house. Horror gripped him.

He imagined that he was at the gym and it was just one pull-up. He placed his hands. The cold wind was sending hair into his eyes. He took a deep breath. He heaved.

His legs scrabbled to find a purchase. Jungkook was tugging at his upper body to keep him up, his chest scraping across the top corner of the shed. And behind him, from somewhere in the house there was shouting.

Perhaps the terror gave Jin that extra power to inch the bulk of his body weight up on to the roof. He lay there for a second, unable to move, pain rippling through his arms.

"Come on!" Jungkook dragged at his sleeve. "Jin!"

Jin grit his teeth and pulled the rest of his legs over the top. The sensation of dizziness was almost overpowering.

It was an easier journey from the shed roof to the high garden wall. Jin could still hear Xal and Deven shouting.

"The tree," Jungkook pointed ahead breathlessly.

It was only two metres away from the shed, just outside the property and almost touching the wall, but Jin wasn't sure he'd make it. Jungkook put one step infront of another, his arms outstretched like he was on a tightrope wire, and sort of flopped against the tree when he arrived. Jin couldn't do that with his dizzy head. He'd fall. He slowly lowered himself into a seated position, clamped the wall between his knees, and bummed his way along as quickly as he could, using his hands for balance, shutting his eyes to avoid the worst of the dizziness, scraping his legs as the wind taunted him like he was a skittle.

"Hey! Pst!"

Jin nearly fell off the wall. "Tae? Tae?!"

"Yeah, we're in the tree! Oh my goodness, look Jimin, its Jungkook! Hi Jungkook! We've come to save you!"

"They're on the wall!" Deven screamed from the kitchen.

"Come on, Jungkook, I'll help you climb down," Jimin said. "Jin will catch up. He's always a bit slow."

Bang.

"Go with them!" Jin screamed at Jungkook as brick exploded out of the wall just below him.

"Give me the gun!" Xal roared. Jin couldn't look, just had to keep pushing himself along till he finally felt his knee hit tree bark and then he opened his eyes, unhooked his legs from the wall and just threw himself at the tree, grabbing at whatever he could, as the thinner branches smacked his face. A tree branch near his head snapped off and fell to the ground. Another bullet?

"I got you!" Tae said from somewhere below him and Jin felt a hand grip his left ankle. "I'll guide you!"

"Run, Tae!" Jin tried to shake him off, but Tae's grip was like iron. "Foot here," he said firmly. "Then the next one here."

"He has a gun, Tae!" Jin screeched at him over the sound of Xal bellowing at Deven. Tae brought his first foot down again, planting it in place. They were making good speed.

"Doesn't matter, we're bulletproof!" Tae yelled back. "One more and then we can jump- down here- okay, I'm jumping!"

Jin heard the thud as he hit the ground and jumped too, throwing himself into the air and aiming himself away from where he thought Tae was.

His legs buckled at he landed, but Tae was there, hauling him up.

"Jungkook and Jimin-" Jin gasped out.

"Ahead of us!" Tae yanked him on. "Come on! Joon's car's out front!"

Namjoon. With a car. The pounding in Jin's ears didn't match the pounding of his feet as they tore across the undergrowth to the front of the building. Perspiration poured from his forehead, stinging his eyes. The pain in his lungs and legs was almost unbearable.

As they reached the road, he could see Namjoon's car waiting, Joon at the wheel, white as a sheet. Jungkook had ran into the waiting arms of Hoseok, who was standing in front of the car, his arms tight around Jungkook's body, his mouth wide in disbelief. Jimin was running back towards Jin and Tae, as Yoongi held the back door of Namjoon's car open and yelled at Jimin to get back in the car.

Jin let out a sob. They'd all come. Somehow, his brilliant, amazing friends had figured out where they were. And they were going to make it.

Then he heard a car engine from inside the walls of Jungkook's parents home.

"Get in the car!" He screamed with all his might. "NOW!"

Jimin froze mid-run, Yoongi grabbed Hoseok and Jungkook's shoulders with an almost superhuman force and began packing them into the back seat.

"Round to the front, Jimin, give them space!" Namjoon's voice was fraught with stress. He kept looking out of the window behind him and then back and Jin and Tae.

Jin saw the gates open as he and Tae were metres from the car and the Tesla streamed out, circling them, blocking Namjoon's path.

"Get out of the car!" Deven shrieked, brandishing the gun, practically throwing himself out of the car. "Everybody out!"

"I've just called the police, again," Namjoon told him boldly. "I think they're gonna believe us this time. You should run while you still can."

Jin saw Xal's wideeyed stare from behind the Tesla wheel. His run stuttered to a halt as his strength worse out. He walked the last few steps towards them all. It was over. Xal clearly knew it too.

"Jungkook, get out of the car!" Deven ignored Namjoon. "I'll put you over the bonnet. We gotta be fast. Come here or I'll shoot them!"

Jin could see Hoseok and Yoongi moving to block Jungkook from view in the back seat. Deven's panicked eyes caught sight of Jin and Tae. "Come here or I'll shoot him!" He snarled, and fired in Jin's direction. Jin felt the heat of it as it whizzed past his ear. He and Tae stopped in their tracks. There was grappling in the backseat, hissed words, and then Jungkook got out, Hoseok and Yoongi quickly following him, trying to drag his sleeve and pull him behind them. Xal quickly got out of the car too.

"Get back in, you're going to drive us away when I'm done!" Deven ordered him, his free hand reaching greedily towards Jungkook, gun still on Jin.

"Dev - the police are coming now" Xal said. "And you're not touching him, I don't know if he's in little space or not."

Deven scoffed. "You're not the boss of me, Xal. Come and undo my jeans, Jungkook, then lay over the bonnet. Or I'll shoot!"

Jungkook's eyes scattered towards Jin and he pushed himself out of Hoseok and Yoongi's arms towards Deven. Xal was shaking his head. "Go back, Kookie."

"Stop telling me what to do or I'll shoot him!" Deven roared at Xal, swinging the gun towards Jungkook instead.

Xal saw red. Jin could see murder in his face. His whole body was coiled to strike, but the gun was pointing square between Jungkook's eyes.

In that moment, Jin and Xal had common ground. They made eye contact, and Jin nodded to Xal, motioning with a hand for Tae to duck.

"Hey Deven!" He yelled as Jungkook fearfully reached towards Deven's waistband. "You'll be dead before you touch him!"

Deven reacted, thinking he was armed, and the gun swung towards Jin. Jin hit the deck to avoid Deven's bullet as Xal lunged. Jin could hear another vehicle coming - let it be the police, let it be the police - as Xal and Deven fought for the weapon in the headlights of the cars. Then, only seconds later, the gun went off and Deven suddenly screamed and sagged. Xal got to his feet, panting. Jin could see the spray of blood on his chest and the gun in his hand.

"Jungkook," Xal said beckoning Jungkook to him, shaking his head as his eyes kept falling to Deven. Deven was groaning loudly, clutching his belly. The approaching vehicle suddenly burst into sirens and blue and red lights as it screeched in just metres away. Xal still held the gun though it was pointing low, and he glanced across at Jin sprawled on the grass, then back at Jungkook, then back at Jin. He could shoot Jin. He could keep them apart forever more. He had that power.

"You need me," Jin called desperately from where he lay flat out. "To make sure he's safe. You need me."

Xal's gaze wavered between them again. The police megaphone was blaring out at them, but Jin could only see Xal's expression as he stared at Jungkook, his head shaking slightly, tears filling his eyes.

Then Xal backed off a pace, slowly lowered the gun to the road as he slid the hand nearest Jin into his dressing gown pocket. Jin didn't know what the bit of folded paper was that Xal brought out, but Xal slid it across his body as he carefully got down on his knees, until he laid the paper over his heart. His eyes never left Jungkook, even as he wept, even as the police stormed in. He slipped the piece of paper into his inner dressing gown pocket just before police wrenched his arms behind his back.

Jin didn't think he could move. Deven's body was twitching on the ground infront of Namjoon's car. The police had surrounded them - had made Namjoon and Jimin put their hands on their heads and were probably doing the same to the others.

"You saved him," Tae said, just a metre away on the grass, also flat on his front. "Jin, you finally saved him."

Jin watched Xal being cuffed and then lugged to his feet.

"It was a joint effort," he said. "Mostly, he saved himself."

X-X-X

Jin had never been much of a fan of hospitals. There was that time he'd tried bus surfing as a teen and had the stuffing knocked out of him when the bus driver swerved. There was the time he'd broke his arm during an elaborate outdoor game of The Floor is Lava. And then there was all the times he'd had to visit sick relatives. The hand sanitiser was extra slimy, the wings stark and aseptic, and the lift always stank of weed.

Fortunately, they only kept him in overnight. They dressed his wrists, examined the back of his head, checked his eyes and his blood pressure, ran a couple of scans, asked him a bunch of common knowledge questions and took his bloods. When the last scan result came back as normal by four in the afternoon the following day, Jin was a free man. Getting out of the hospital scrubs and back into his own sweaty, dirty clothes seemed almost like a reward. He eagerly took his head injury card like it was a trophy and thanked the pharmacist for the box of regular painkillers so cheerfully that he almost induced a smile.

"You look like a cheshire cat, not someone who's going to have to give a statement to the police," Namjoon commented as Jin rattled his box of painkillers cheerfully. Xal had destroyed his phone, but Namjoon had contacted his parents to give them the heads up and assure them he was okay. He and Jungkook could finally go home, wrap themselves up in blankets, and just sleep.

"Already did it this morning," he grinned at Namjoon. "How about you?"

"Last night. Tried to find out if the other guy was alive or dead, but he was still in intensive care."

That sobered Jin up a bit. "Have you seen Jungkook this morning? Is he still an inpatient?" They'd kept Jungkook in overnight too. Jin figured it was more to do with the shock that anything else, because Jungkook had almost no physical injuries. He wanted to have a chat with Jungkook's doctor about getting him a psychologist, but possibly that had already been arranged.

"They discharged him two hours ago. I bought him lunch in the cafeteria. Hoseok and Yoongi went home to sleep, they stayed with him for as long as they could, but they've been up all night now. Managed to persuade the kids to go home too. So just gotta call a taxi and drop you two off first and then I can get a kip of my own."

"Thanks, Joon," Jin said. He didn't know when either of them were getting their cars back. "Have Jungkook's parents or brother been contacted?"

Joon shook his head. "I don't know. To be honest, Jungkook hasn't been very talkative. He kept asking to see you, and I didn't want to push him too much. I left him in the cafeteria while I came to check on your discharge. I'll wait out at the front door for you."

Thanks to previous visits, Jin knew exactly where the hospital cafeteria was. Jungkook was sitting alone, poking at a juice carton. Someone had given him an adorably oversized jumper and slacks and slip on shoes. His wrists were hidden from view, but he probably had dressings like Jin's.

"I've always wondered if hospitals and airlines are in direct competition to produce the most inedible food," Jin said conversationally, drawing up a seat.

Jungkook startled. "Did you get your last scan back? Namjoon said you were still waiting-"

"It's back, it's clear," Jin smiled. "Its still tender and I'm a bit dizzy if I move too fast but guess I lost a couple of brain cells and not much else."

He'd been lucky, he knew. And sure, he hadn't let it all sink in yet: how he'd nearly died, or how Jungkook had nearly been raped in front of him, or any of the terror of last night. But right now, he felt like he might be the luckiest guy in the world.

"Let's go home, huh?" He held out his hand to Jungkook.

Jungkook didn't take it. "I have to tell you something," he said.

Jin felt a twinge of panic at first, then remembered that he'd said the same thing to Jungkook last night. He was glad that he hadn't blurted out that he loved him in the backseat of his car. He didn't want Jungkook associating a pleasant memory with trauma.

"I have something to tell you too," he said. "But you can go first if you want. It's okay."

Jungkook's body language exuded nervousness. Jin wanted to reassure him, but he also didn't want to take the moment away from Jungkook. "Go on," he said, smiling softly.

"I hate that you got hurt because of me," Jungkook said quietly, looking Jin in the eye and then glancing down at his hands again. "I know I apologised last night, but I didn't tell you everything."

Jin nodded.

Jungkook swallowed abortively. "I'm not coming home with you," he said.

Jin felt his whole world cave in around his feet.

"Sorry?" He whispered.

Jungkook nodded. "I stayed to tell you because you deserve it. Because I know you're not Xal and you won't force me to go with you. Because you're the best person I ever met, Jin."

"I don't understand..." Jin still could barely speak above a whisper.

"I kissed you because I was scared you were going to get back with your ex," Jungkook said, his body trembling, staring at the floor. "I was trying to make you want me. So that you would help me. I thought that I wouldn't get anything if I didn't earn it. And that's the only way I could think of to earn it. I thought otherwise you might get bored of me or think I was a prude. I didn't know what was going to happen last night. I thought you'd take me home yesterday and I'd keep kissing you and have sex if you wanted and you'd keep me safe. I know it was wrong. I was so desperate to be free, Jin. And you were the first person who'd ever wanted to help me. The guilt's been tearing me up, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Jin couldn't compute this. "What?" He said. He tried to reach out for Jungkook again, but Jungkook scraped his chair back and Jin retracted his hand like he'd been stung.

"I can't go on and on lying to you," Jungkook shakily stood, his legs trembling like a fawn's, backing off as he spoke. "If I went home with you and kept tricking you like I was going to do, I'd never forgive myself. You've risked everything because of my lie and you nearly died because of it. I have to go, Jin. I'm sorry."

"Kook... I still don't... I don't understand what you're saying?"

Jungkook took a deep breath, and clearly using every ounce of courage he had, he looked Jin right in the eye. "I told you the truth the first time," he said. "I'm straight. I've always been straight."

X-X-X
X-X-X

Additional Author's Note: Hang in there for that happy ending tag! We're nearly there and I promise it is going to be the fluffiest fluff lol. You have been THE most amazing, supportive group of readers. Honestly, I'm still wowed. Also thank you Inseongmnia for the mood boards on tumblr because I've never had any fanwork before! And you did three, so I'm wildly honoured :)

I'm thinking about doing a Q+A again at the very end of this fic. Write 'Q' before your question if you want the answer posted up here alongside the final chapter :) I'd be more than happy to answer anything about Saviour/the characters/BTS in particular/my other fics or any general questions. Also now I have the experience of 5 fics on Ao3 I might have advice for anyone starting out writing on here: plotting, characters, keeping to a schedule, getting reviews, working round Ao3's updating issues etc.

(If you ask any questions without the Q then I'll answer you in my review reply as normal and won't post it up here).

Chapter Text

As a kid, Jin always had a conspiracy or two up his sleeve. Perhaps his favourite was the suspicion that everyone and everything would freeze up around him whenever he looked away or moved to another room, only to restart when he reentered their vicinity. His childish mind swiftly moved past the fact that it was an egocentric concept. After all, his perspective was the only one he had, and when he slept the world might as well not exist. So why couldn't it all be reacting solely to him as he moved through it?

His mum said he had an overactive imagination. His dad said his mum had let him watch The Truman Show one too many times. Still, young Jin was always peeking out the corner of his eye, in case he could catch something freezing or unfreezing and expose the whole charade.

He felt like the world had frozen now. Not just the bubbly, clattering, motion-filled hospital cafeteria, but everything outside of it too. And everything inside of him, so that there was nothing left but the sick pounding of his heart, and Jungkook's huge liquid eyes staring at him.

Jungkook managed to hold his gaze for a whole second more, before abortively swallowing and wobbling backwards. And Jin knew three things.

That he was in love with Jungkook, even if he'd fallen headlong in a matter of weeks.

That Jungkook had just dealt him a devastating blow, one he might never recover from.

That Jungkook was leaving, was going to walk away, out of Jin's life like he'd never been there at all. Was going to rejoin the world that Jin had once believed was frozen because he wasn't there to see it.

"Wait," he croaked out.

Jungkook gave his head a tiny shake, still backing off towards the cafeteria doors. "I have to go."

"Five minutes," Jin managed. "Have I done enough to earn five minutes? Just five. Then I won't stop you, I swear."

Jungkook paused. The tense lines in his body showed that he was seconds from booking it. But then he nodded reluctantly and shuffled back towards the table, stopping at a metre's distance. He was rubbing his elbows in an attempt to comfort himself and Jin knew that tell now.

"Do you have somewhere to go?" He said quickly. "Are you going home? To Hoseok's? To your parents'? Will you have someone with you?"

Jungkook stared at him. "Why do you still care?" He whispered, as if Jin had hurt him by asking.

"Please tell me," Jin said. "Tell me you have a plan." Jungkook was nineteen, so legally an adult. If he appeared of sound mind then the medical professionals wouldn't stop him.

"I..." Jungkook dropped his gaze again, staring at his borrowed slip-on shoes. "I can't go back home. Or to my parents'. I can't bear to." His voice was pitched as a whisper and his hands rubbed his arms now too. "Hoseok doesn't have space, I wouldn't do that to him and Yoongi. I'm gonna... I don't know. It doesn't matter."

"It matters very much," Jin countered. "You need somewhere to stay. To be safe. Where are you going to sleep tonight?"

Jungkook's silence told him all he needed to know.

"I know you don't want to stay with me," Jin said, fighting to keep his voice from wobbling. He was having flashes of that kiss in his head, the best kiss of his life. Jungkook must have been so disgusted pretending to be attracted to him. "I won't make you. But you need to book into a hotel. You need a roof over your head and you need food."

Jungkook tried to protest, but Jin cut him off. "I know you don't have money, but money is the least important thing right now. Please Kook, go in the taxi with Namjoon. He's safe and he's straight. He can take you to a hotel and book you in and pay for your room and board. He doesn't even need to tell me where you are, okay? I promise I won't follow. I'll pay Namjoon back. That way you have somewhere to sleep and eat, and you can figure out what you want to do. Namjoon can leave you his number in case you want to contact any of us."

Jungkook wiped his face furiously as tears began to trickle. "But I lied to you, I tricked you," he whispered. "I don't understand. I thought you'd hate me."

Jin's arms twitched as he fought the compulsion to open them. He was sure Jungkook would flee if he did. "If you can, try to register with a GP Surgery near the hotel," he continued. "I know its hard, but the doctor can arrange for a psychologist to see you. You've been through a lot of trauma and they can help."

"'m really sorry," Jungkook said, looking overwhelmed and lost. "Don' wan' you to have to think about me. K- I was cruel. Hurt you. Don' deserve help."

"If you're really sorry," Jin said, and dammit his voice cracked then and he knew he was betraying himself, "then you'll go with Namjoon and pick a hotel to stay in and be safe. If you do it then I forgive you."

He felt like he was forcing Jungkook, but he had to, didn't he? Jungkook was so wracked with guilt and self-loathing that he could end up sleeping rough, wandering the streets at night, putting himself in danger.

Jungkook gulped. "Okay," he said. And Jin winced, because he sounded so small.

"I'm gonna walk you to Namjoon," he got up slowly so as not to spook Jungkook, "and I'll explain what he needs to do. I won't try to contact you, but Jungkook: you are welcome in my house any time. Any day, any week," he swallowed down a tight lump in his throat. "Any year. And I'll be completely respectful of your sexuality. I'm not going to expect anything from you."

Fifteen minutes later, as he watched Namjoon and Jungkook climb into a taxi, he was finally able to stumble into a corner, gulping loudly, to sob his heart out. For the Jungkook he was in love with who didn't even exist and for the Jungkook setting off in the taxi who he might never see again.

Heedless of his despair, the world continued on around him.

X-X-X

Waking up each morning was a surreal experience for Jungkook. He spread his hands between the sheets, feeling the cotton and polyester fabric with his fingertips. He sat up, reached for the glass of water he'd placed beside the bed, and took a sip.

Next, he looked at the empty space beside him on the double bed, taking it in, remembering what it meant.

Then it would depend how he felt. Sometimes he'd cross over to the window and open the curtains. Sometimes he'd turn the TV on. Sometimes he'd shower. Or he might do all three of those things.

Afterwards, he'd brace himself and go down to breakfast. He'd made a deal with himself that he could order room service for dinner if made an effort with breakfast. Sometimes if he could smuggle a piece of fruit and a bread roll upstairs to his room after breakfast he'd eat that for lunch. Sometimes he skipped dinner because he was too nervous to pick up the phone to call room service or because he got too giddy and guilty over all the options on the menu. It just depended how he was feeling each day.

Namjoon had left him money. Usually Jungkook had to ask Xal if he wanted to buy something, and Xal would buy it directly, rather than hand Jungkook the cash. Jungkook's eyes had bugged in horror when Namjoon had deposited the notes in his hands. He'd never seen so much money. Except, perhaps, for his winner's cheque which was still languishing in his locker at college. But he doubted he'd ever retrieve it.

He kept the majority of Namjoon's money in the safe, alongside the short list of phone numbers that Namjoon had written out for him. Namjoon's mobile and house number. Hoseok's number. The hospital's number. The Out of Hours NHS number. The non-emergency police number. Jungkook hadn't called any of them yet. He didn't think he would. He also hadn't gone to a doctor. The thought of it made him so nervous that he quickly dismissed it.

He'd had to make one shopping trip. It was unavoidable. He'd been shaking the entire time, his shopping list running over and over in his lowered head, terrified he'd forget something and have to return. He bought a toothbrush and toothpaste, disposible razors and deoderant. He bought a pack of boxers and a pack of socks and some joggers and a couple of t-shirts. Then he selfishly used Namjoon's money to buy a sketch pad and pencils and swimming trunks. He hadn't touched the sketch pad yet. The hotel had a swimming pool, and Namjoon had told him about it when he was booking him in. Jungkook supposed that meant Namjoon expected him to use it. He didn't want to be ungrateful by not using what Namjoon was paying for.

Though Namjoon wasn't really the one paying.

He swam often. Twice a day usually. He hadn't been swimming in a long time because it wasn't part of Xal's prescribed gym routine for him. It was nice. It helped clear his head. When the sun shone through the high windows it created a yellowy serpent of light wiggling along the bottom of the pool. He enjoyed the way the water moved when he thrust into it. He liked the smoothness of the tiles beneath his bare feet. He did his best to go when there weren't many people around. The lifeguard had asked him if he was enjoying his holiday yesterday and Jungkook hadn't known what to say back. He wasn't sure if he wanted to go swimming today.

He'd avoided the news channels and the internet too. He didn't want to know, not yet. He'd agreed that Namjoon could tell the police where he was but thankfully they didn't seem to want to speak to him right now. Namjoon himself had only called the hotel once and left a message with reception to say that Hoseok wanted to see him and to please call him. Jungkook wanted to get in touch but he needed to pluck up the courage to face reality first.

He had written a letter to his parents and posted it yesterday. They'd be back home from their holiday by now. He supposed they would take Xal's side but there was a fraction of him that hoped he was wrong. He didn't write much. Just that he hoped they'd had a good holiday and that they were well. And that he and Xal weren't boyfriends any more and they might not be able to get in touch with Xal because he was probably in prison. And that Jungkook was sorry but he'd had to move the bench under the garden shed. He thought about adding the hotel's address to the letter, but he didn't.

Most times, he'd just lay on his back in bed and look at the white pattern in the ceiling, trying to distinguish something from all the overlapping muddles of his mind. Some days when he really missed Big Ted he would cuddle a few pillows and let his mind float or sink as it pleased, but it was never the same and he always had a crushing feeling in his chest.

But this morning, he wasn't sure if it was his fourteenth or fifteenth day now, he felt a lot of his loose thoughts begin to gel together as he sipped his glass of water and looked around the stillness of his hotel room.

He needed to get a job. A job meant money. Money meant he could look after himself. A job meant going out and speaking to people, or going on the internet and he was going to have to do one or the other. He'd have to decide in the next few days.

He wanted to go back to the gym. He'd always liked the gym. He'd been avoiding the hotel gym because it wasn't very big and there were a couple of burly men who seemed to be in there constantly, their muscles glistening with sweat. He needed to be brave if he wanted to do a proper workout. He should try to go today. Start a routine.

He'd never been with a girl. He had to change that. He'd been so innocent when Xal had decided they were gay and that they were boyfriends, he hadn't had time to kiss girls before that. He was a man now, and as a straight man it should be top of his agenda. Even though his stomach crunched at the thought, he didn't have a choice. He needed to prove Xal wrong. Identify himself. Settle it. As soon as possible.

He just didn't know how he'd find a girl who would want to sleep with him.

On his way down to breakfast, as he slunk past reception, he saw a new cream and dark gold sign with today's date written in fancy lettering across the top. So it was day fifteen. Fifteen days since the hospital and thirty since the bus... His gaze trailed down the sign.

Welcome
To the wedding of Felicity Evans
And Carl Yang
#felicityandcarl19

There was an arrow at the bottom of the sign pointing in the direction of the hotel bar. Jungkook hadn't been in there, but he guessed there was a wedding reception hall on the other side.

He'd have an opportunity tonight.

The idea cemented itself in his head over breakfast, as he crammed two slices of toast, a bowl of cereal and bacon and eggs down his throat and swiped an apple for lunch. He would lose his virginity tonight, his real virginity. Then he would know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was straight, that he was in control and everything else would fall into place. He'd be moving forward, leaving every vestige of Xal behind him.

Of course, he had to go to shopping again, and supermarket clothes wouldn't cut it. He didn't know this side of town at all, and he had to shyly ask the hotel receptionist where the nearest shopping mall was.

The first thing he did when he arrived was buy a hat. His whole body was trembling as he tugged the new purchase over his head and tried not to make eye contact with anyone. It was busy, even though he was sure it was a weekday. If anyone recognised him he'd have to run.

He bought a dark red shirt and dress trousers and black shoes. Each transaction was a small victory, though his fingers slipped over coins and fumbled with notes and he couldn't look the sales assistants in the eye. He wandered over to the drug store before realising that makeup might be gay. Lots of gay guys didn't wear makeup, but did straight guys ever wear make up? Didn't he need it to smooth his skin out and look attractive?

In the end he bought one CC cream and a lip balm and more disposable razors and a pack of condoms. He discovered there was a self-service kiosk but his cheeks still flamed red as he used it. It was a nice day, but he barely noticed as he studied the pavement, walking the forty minutes back to the hotel with shopping bags in each hand.

That afternoon he washed his hair carefully, trying to style it with the hotel hairdryer, parting it so his eyebrows would show and he'd look more grown up. He applied the cream and the balm lightly. He sprayed the deoderant liberally around his body and put his new clothes on.

He looked at himself in the mirror, turning this way and that, body throbbing with nerves. He looked good, didn't he?

He was in a state of near terror when he slunk towards the hotel bar that evening. As he'd suspected, there were plenty of fancily dressed wedding guests milling around, and he could hear the disco music blasting from the open reception doors.

He ordered a drink. He almost wept with relief when he wasn't asked for ID. He choked the drink down, letting the warm waves fog his nerves, heating his head and chest. He immediately ordered another.

Now, armed with his drink and liquid courage, he began to walk around the bar area and veered in towards the reception itself. He knew he wasn't supposed to, but the only girls who were the right age at the bar were all with boyfriends or husbands. He had to hope there would be some single girls on the dance floor. He needed someone who wasn't a virgin because then neither of them would know what to do. But he couldn't find someone who was too experienced, or she wouldn't want him. How was he supposed to know just by looking at people?

The first person who stopped him was a man, striding into Jungkook's path with an easy charm, intent in his eyes and a voice thick with alcohol.

"Hey, you look lost," he smiled, even as Jungkook froze. This wasn't supposed to happen. "You wanna come join me at my table?"

Jungkook shook his head dumbly. This wasn't supposed to happen.

"You the groom's side or the bride's?" The man asked, then chuckled at himself. "Stupid question. Well I'm Felicity's cousin, Jon. If you don't mind me saying, you're gorgeous."

If it wasn't for the alcohol Jungkook would have ran, or been rooted to the spot like a rabbit in the headlights.

"I'm straight," he spluttered out. "I'm looking for um..girls."

Jon whistled lowly but didn't seem too offended. "My bad. Come over to my table anyway, I suppose if I can't have you I better let the ladies have their chance."

Jungkook concentrated all his efforts on not letting his glass slip from his shaky hands as he followed.

A lot of Jon's table were up on the dancefloor, but one by one they returned for drinks, or to drag eachother up.

"Hi, I'm Kerri!" One young woman shook Jungkook's hand with more enthusiasm than the others, her eyes bright and her makeup starting to crack. Come dance with me!"

Jungkook downed his second drink before he allowed her to drag him up. He'd need it.

He knew how to dance. Xal liked dancing with him. He also knew how to kiss, and when he and Kerri smuggled themselves back into a corner he decided to try. He attempted just a peck at first, to make sure she wanted it, but she eagerly tugged him towards her and pushed her tongue into his mouth. She tasted of alcohol.

Jungkook worked hard to make it good for her. He couldn't bring himself to start all over again with another girl. This was it, make or break.

"How old are you?" She asked when they finally parted. Her breathing was shallow, and her eyes wandered all over his face.

"Nineteen," he said. He didn't want to lie. He didn't want to tell another lie ever again because living with just one made his heart ache.

She smiled. "I knew you were a baby face. At least you're legal."

"Do you want to... I mean, I have a hotel room upstairs.."

Kerri laughed. "You don't mess about, do you? Typical boy."

Jungkook brightened. Yes. Typical.

"Aren't you gonna ask how old I am first?" Kerri raised an eyebrow teasingly.

"Isn't that..rude?"

Kerri laughed like he was hilarious, swooping in to kiss him again.

"I'm twenty-four," she said when they broke apart.

Jungkook wished she were any other age. "Okay," he said. "Do you still want to?"

"You're keen," Kerri grinned. "Just a quickie?"

Jungkook nodded. His stomach did somersaults as they linked hands and he led her through the reception, and the hotel bar, and then back along the silent, peaceful corridors to his room.

He'd made the bed. He'd left everything tidy. As he flipped the side lights on, Kerri was already playing with the belt loop in his trousers, dipping her warm hands under his shirt.

"You'll need to get the zip on my dress," she whispered up into his ear, before flicking her tongue against the shell. Her fingers made quick work of his zipper and slid down his front into his boxers. Jungkook could feel her touching him in places only Xal had ever touched him.

It didn't feel any different.

He undid her zip with sweating fingers and after a couple of wriggles her body con dress slipped off onto the carpet. He looked at her. She was attractive. She had red curls and a curvy figure and she hadn't been wearing any underwear.

It didn't feel any different.

She kissed him again, pressing her body against him and again he worked hard for it, just like he'd done at the diner, when he thought his entire future and freedom depended on the success of his kiss. When he'd thought that his future and freedom was worth doing anything for, even worth hurting the person who deserved it least.

And now that his body and mind were suddenly aligned, he realised something with clarity. The kissing didn't feel any different. Compared to Xal.

Kissing Jin had been much, much better.

He was dizzy. Finally allowing himself to think Jin's name broke the dam. "I can't- I can't- I'm sorry-" he spluttered, backing away from her, tripping over himself because his trousers were still at his ankles.

"Are you kidding me?!" Kerri's mouth opened in outrage. "Are you serious right now?"

"I'm, I'm really sorry," Jungkook said, dazed, bewildered, tipsy and certain.

Kerri huffed. "Well thanks for wasting my time. You need to come back over here and zip my dress back up for me."

Jungkook did as he was bidden, his mouth still apologising while his mind ran in completely different circles.

"Save it," Kerri sighed eventually, sliding back into her heels. "It's fine. I'm sure I'll find someone else to hook up with. If I see you out there chatting up other girls you're getting a drink poured over your head, fair warning."

When she left, Jungkook yanked up his trousers, rushing to the safe for Namjoon's list. He snatched up the hotel room phone and dialled.

"Hello?" Namjoon's voice came.

Jungkook felt doubt and panic rush in.

"Hello? Namjoon said again. Then, as Jungkook heisitated, he added. "Is this Jungkook?"

"Yes," Jungkook said breathlessly. "Can you- Will you-" He trailed off, silence hanging between them.

"...Do you want Jin to come and get you?" Namjoon's voice was warm and understanding.

"Yes." Jungkook gasped gratefully. "If he still... if he wants to."

Namjoon chuckled softly. "He wants to."

X-X-X

The car rattled along muddy lanes that soon deteriorated into woodland tracks. Every pothole jolted Jin out of his seat.

"Someone remind me why we're taking this death road," Namjoon groaned from shotgun.

"Because this isn't the Trip Advisor Top Ten Recommended Hikes," Taehyung said patiently from the back. "It's supposed to be an adventure."

"You'll have to check your suspension at the garage as soon as we get home," Namjoon informed Jin.

"I mean, you could try to avoid one or two bumps, Jin," Jimin remarked, as they clattered over a particularly uneven piece of road. "It's like you're attracting them. What do you think, Houston?"

Houston was too busy lolling his tongue out of the window, letting the fresh air squish his face like playdough.

"I think," Jin said. "That it'll be a miracle if the seven of us make it back in one piece."

Tae gasped in outrage. "He forgot you, Houston! There's eight of us, Jin!"

"He doesn't care," Jin manouvered the car over a particularly gnarly tree root making a bid for freedom across the track.

"But Jungkook will," Jimin said slyly. "I'm gonna tell him you missed the most important member of the party out. I reckon he'll trade you in for a new tent partner."

"Doubt it, I've packed all his favourite snacks," Jin didn't rise to the bait. In truth, sharing a tent with Jungkook was very much on his mind. It would mark a real progression in their friendship. Jin just had to make sure there were no tents within the tent, so to speak.

Namjoon's phone buzzed. "Yoongi wants to know how much longer we're going to be."

"We're only about five minutes out, sheesh!" Jin rolled his eyes.

"This is because you're driving like an old man," Tae counselled. "You're suppose to go fast and fly over the bumps rather than feel out every nook and cranny."

"You wanna walk?"

He actually thought that had shut them up.

"How long does a five minute car journey take to walk?" Taehyung stage-whispered to Jimin a moment later.

Jin let them tease. He'd get his own back by pretending to leave without them on the return leg.

"Took your time," Yoongi said as Jin finally pulled up and got out of the car. He immediately realised he's undervalued his air con. It was almost stiflingly warm out, the pine trees smelling sweet, sweat already prickling his scalp.

Houston bounded out from the car as the others opened their doors, and made a beeline for Jungkook, crouched a couple of metres away, securing himself the biggest and heaviest load to carry. The Pointer immediately pushed his nose into Jungkook's belly, wagging his tail, demanding attention. Jungkook giggled and scratched behind his floppy ears, almost knocked over by Houston's enthusiasm. He beamed up at Jin and the others. "Do you need help unpacking?"

"I should think so. Apparantly it's all your snacks back here," Jimin popped Jin's boot open. "Not that I'm calling favourites or anything." He winked cheekily at Jungkook.

Tae and Jimin had managed to treat Jungkook with kid gloves for about a day after he first arrived at Jin's; regularly seeking Jin's approval, being very gentle and tender and almost serious around him.

Then the gloves had come off. And Jin could hardly get rid of them, they were so intent on playing video games with Jungkook, and taking Jungkook out to the theatre or the cinema or the bowling, and sandwiching Jungkook between them and teaching him how to be a menace to his elders. Jin loved them for it. If anything, Jungkook had blossomed because of the kids. Even now, as he scrambled up to help Jimin, Jin could still see the awe in Jungkook's eyes. Houston trotted after Jungkook, an equal amount of awe in his own expression.

"It's adorable how much that dog loves him," Hoseok heaved his rucksack onto his back. Unlike the rest of them who were in shorts, he was wearing full length trousers. According to Yoongi, Hoseok and creepy crawlies did not mix well.

"Honestly, I'm feeling the pressure," Namjoon quirked an eyebrow. "I'm forbidden from ending my relationship under any circumstances."

It was half true. When Namjoon started dating a dog owner two months ago, Jin had seized the opportunity for a bit of animal therapy for Jungkook. For Houston it was love at first sight, and Jungkook was equally besotted. Even Ayanna herself had marvelled at the connection the two had. Namjoon had inherited Houston this weekend while Ayanna was away on a girls' trip. As far as Jin was concerned it was perfect timing. Assuming Houston didn't try to invade his and Jungkook's tent tonight.

His eyes could help but track back to Jungkook as he helped the others unload their luggage. Jungkook was doing the heavy lifting. He'd been going to the gym religiously every day for the past twelve weeks, and his efforts were already showing. His tiny waist was even more defined, his shoulders were beginning to pack some solid muscle and Jin frankly wished Jungkook was wearing longer shorts, because it was going to be painful watching those thighs.

"Thirsty, Jin?" Jimin smirked as he passed by and Jin skelped him one. Yes, he was struggling a bit at the moment. But it would pass. The last thing he wanted was Jungkook catching on.

When the cars were finally locked up, and they each had burgeoning rucksacks strapped to their backs, Jimin and Tae led the way up the crooked footpath. Jungkook, laden with twice as much as anyone else, followed them, Houston close at his heels. Namjoon and Yoongi were debating whether this was classified as a hill or a mountain, so Jin fell into step with Hoseok at the rear of the group.

"He's doing great, Jin, really great," Hoseok said. "Chattering away in the car. Thriving. I'm so proud of him."

"Me too," Jin said. He felt the slightest heaviness in his heels as they climbed. "He's been looking forward to this so much."

Jungkook hadn't had it easy these past weeks. When Namjoon called Jin late that night with the good news, he'd dropped everything. When he'd finally brought a silent Jungkook home (in a taxi in case the car triggered him) Jungkook's eyes had widened at the spare room. Jin hadn't been able to look at it since the hospital, let alone touch it, so it had remained ready and it had been surreal observing Jungkook standing by the sofa bed with his meagre belongings in his arms. Jungkook slept in there still, although they'd upgraded his bed and reclaimed the couch for the livingroom. He hadn't once complained about the room's smallness or the lack of ventilation.

He hadn't complained about anything really. In fact, forcing Jungkook to have an opinion was one of the hardest tasks Jin had. It had taken him weeks to discover that Jungkook did not approve of his pizza toppings, didn't understand the convoluted plotline of his favourite TV show and found the fragranced diffuser in the livingroom too strong on his nose. Sometimes Jin wondered if he and Jungkook were discovering Jungkook's preferences at the same time. He encouraged Jungkook to disagree with him as often as possible.

The trial loomed over their heads throughout. The last Jin had heard, Deven was still in hospital due to infection complications from his gunshot wound. The police had kept Xal in custody, and word had spread online that an incident had occured between the two. Jin hadn't realised how famous Xal and Deven were, particularly Deven. Twitter was aflame in the days after the news first broke. Reaction channels stretched half hour videos out of the rumours. Neither Xal or Deven had been active online since the night of their arrest and if anything that had fueled the conversation further.

It was all going to blow up when the trial finally rolled round. And that might be least of their worries. Xal would twist and twist and try to get out of as much as he possibly could. Deven's gunshot wound was arguably self defence, the gun was Deven's, Xal had permission to be in Jungkook's parents' home, Jungkook had been with him and confirmed everything was fine when the police first attended.

And there was a lot about Jin and Jungkook's kidnapping that Xal could try to sell with his stalker story, or a threesome story with kinks. He'd lawyer up well, and the prosecution had to do the same or risk losing. Jin was worried about Jungkook giving testimony against Xal and how that would impact his mental health, but he had to keep reminding himself that the trial was still months away, and potentially could be delayed even further depending on Deven's recovery.

Xal had also clearly been in contact with Jungkook's parents. They'd glared daggers at Jin for the entire duration of Jungkook's single visit and they'd made comments about Jungkook having his head swayed and his strings pulled. They seemed to be incapable of believing that their son's ex boyfriend had been abusing him for years. To Jin it sounded horribly like they were going to put their money behind Xal's case, and that they fully expected him to be exhonorated and for Jungkook to come to his 'senses'.

Jungkook's reaction to this had been surprisingly stoic, but it had to hurt. The only saving grace to their visit was that the parents had got in contact with Jungkook's brother who had driven up to see him, listened to Jungkook's shaky summary of what had happened and had tore into their parents. He'd even offered that Jungkook stay with him and his family, but to Jin's huge relief, Jungkook had gratefully declined. His brother had bought him a mobile instead and called about once a week. It almost broke Jin's heart seeing Jungkook's supressed delight each time his brother's name popped up on his screen.

"I assume his psych appointments are going well?" Hoseok asked.

The others were striding ahead and Jin pressed on to keep up the pace. The higher they climbed the cleaner the air seemed: fresh and crisp, with the sky as blue as a blackbird's egg. The trail was a little rocky but stable and already, Jin could look down at the 'death-road' and the sun-dappled trees below. "He's going twice a week," he said. "He's managing to go in alone now, I just sit in the waiting room till he's done."

Hoseok whistled. "That's progress. He couldn't even speak the first time, could he?"

Jin shook his head. The change in Jungkook in twelve weeks had been nothing short of phenomenal.

"You don't notice," Hoseok said. "But I catch him looking at you a lot."

"Not you as well," Jin groaned. "We're okay as we are. We're finally comfortable, and I'm not messing with it. I don't know if he's ready to define his sexuality even to himself. He still associates so many things with Xal. He needs time."

"Maybe," Hoseok shrugged. "But the way he looks at you is the way Yoongi looks at me."

Jin knew their friends meant well, but he was done with false hope. And he'd discovered all too well what it was like to be Xal these past weeks. To have Jungkook depending on him and admiring him and so eager to please. It would have been easy to hoard Jungkook to himself, to tell Tae and Jimin not to visit, to alienate the brother and keep Hoseok at arm's length. All too easy to persuade Jungkook into a relationship, because Jungkook was just so trusting and so thankful to him.

Jin and Xal weren't so unalike. His relationship with Flynn had in many respects been a project: trying to mould Flynn into the perfect boyfriend, thinking he could sort out the drinking problem, all-night partying and the self-destructing of his promising career. It was only now with Jungkook that Jin saw how damaging it was to try to fix people without their consent. And commenting on Jungkook's sexuality when he had clear stakes in the outcome would be such a Xal move. No, Jin wasn't going to do anything. Jungkook had to call all the shots on his own terms and choose labels as and when he wanted.

Which did suck, because he knew that no one else could make him feel the way he felt for Jungkook.

X-X-X

The others dropped their rucksacks and flopped back on the grass, but Jungkook was too transfixed, starting out at the view. He'd never been rough camping before. He'd never climbed a mountainside. He'd never looked down on a sun soaked landscape quite like this. He gazed out at the grass and the heather and the bracken, at the deep-green trees below him and the more distant roads with cars like little toys. He breathed in the clean air. He felt the sun on his face. He listened to the others swigging water and bantering above the bubble of the stream they were planning to camp beside. The stream Houston had practically dunked his head into before rushing Jungkook, shaking his floppy head and spraying his bare legs with droplets of water.

Jungkook laughed and dropped to hug him. This was what true freedom felt like and he was hooked on it. Houston rubbed his cold, wet nose into Jungkook's neck eagerly and Jungkook giggled and nudged him off. "Do you want me to slip you a treat?"

Houston did. He wuffed. Jungkook could swear that dog understood him.

After sneaking a dog biscuit past Namjoon, he got stuck in with setting the campsite up. He liked being useful. And he liked belonging. He didn't feel like he was some of kind of charity case now. Jimin and Tae made him feel like one of them. They had made him laugh so hard the other night that he'd cackled. Then they'd started taking the mick out of his laugh and his crinkly nose and he'd cackled harder.

Namjoon was so successful and so much more intelligent than Jungkook yet he was interested in Jungkook's opinions. He'd ramble on animatedly about his love of music for as long as Jungkook would listen. And he and his girlfriend had let Jungkook take Houston out on walks.

Yoongi had been an uncertain figure for Jungkook at first. He'd worried that Yoongi thought he was trying to take Hoseok's attention away. But Yoongi actively encouraged Jungkook to spend time with Hoseok. And he was just as protective of Jungkook as he was of his boyfriend. Just last week Jungkook had been out with Yoongi and Hoseok and he'd been recognised by a couple of Deven's fans who demanded to know what had happened and had been quite verbally aggressive about it. Hoseok had gently steered Jungkook aside as Yoongi had fought fire with fire and sent the fans packing. When he'd returned to Jungkook and Hoseok he'd ruffled Jungkook's hair and asked if he was okay in such a gentle voice. He'd made it so easy for Jungkook and Hoesok to rekindle their friendship which was going from strength to strength.

And then there was Jin. Sometimes Jungkook didn't have words for Jin. Jin was patient with him in a way he couldn't possibly deserve. Jin had taken him to the GP and then to the psychologist and to his parents. Jin had let Jungkook live in his house without a question of rent or demanding anything else. When Jungkook had nervously proposed his idea to try doing art commisions for work Jin had encouraged him. He'd listened to Jungkook explaining how guilty he felt for not announcing to his 'fans' that he was safe, and they'd discussed the possibility of Jungkook issuing a statement and whether he might in fact start his own Youtube channel for art and photography. It was something Jungkook had never imagined himself doing before, because Youtube was always Xal's thing. Jin hadn't made a single decision for him, leaving it entirely to Jungkook.

And only two weeks into his stay at Jin's house, Jungkook had felt himself slip with no warning or trigger. It had frightened him sufficiently that he'd rushed from his room to the livingroom where Jin was watching TV, clutching his arms but unable to articulate what was wrong without humiliating himself.

"Want to join me?" Jin had said softly, moments after observing him.

Jungkook had hurried to the couch and Jin had wrapped an arm round his shoulders. Jin smelled good. He felt safe. Jungkook had snuggled into him, trying to get comfortable, feeling Kookie-like thoughts tripping through his head. When he woke, he realised he'd been rubbing his hair under Jin's chin, his body flopped over Jin's in the position he usually slept on Big Ted, his nose in Jin's tee. He'd flushed with embarrassment, but Jin had merely stroked the back of his head and said "roommates should always have hugs, it's good for the soul," and Jungkook had never been so grateful for Jin not making a big deal of it, for being there for him while he tried to banish that messed up part of his brain. It was the first of many roommate hugs on the couch.

Jin was different from Xal, because he'd had so many opportunities to control Jungkook, and he hadn't taken a single one. He thought about Jin all the time now. He couldn't help but admire the way Jin moved, the inflections in his face when he spoke, the way he loved his friends. He'd been sketching Jin's face a lot.

"Come onnn," Jimin hauled Yoongi up from the grass. "We're going to get wood for the fire. Come on, Namjoon, Hoseok."

"What, all of us?" Namjoon frowned as Tae bundled him up.

"Yes all of us. We need lots and lots of wood to keep it going all night," Jimin ordered. "Jin and Jungkook, you two stay and try to start the fire off, okay?"

"Okay..." Jin sounded suspicious.

"Come on, boy!" Tae patted his kneecaps and after a glance at Jungkook, Houston ran after the group.

Jimin and Tae glanced back as the others moved out of sight, heading towards a patch of woodland not far off on the moutainside. Jungkook smiled at them. They'd done as he'd asked. It wasn't subtle, but Jimin and Tae rarely were.

"What was that all about?" Jin raised his brows, gathering some twigs together and stacking them with some stones around to start their fire for the centre of camp.

Jungkook shrugged and began to help him. Their hands brushed as they worked.

"Honestly, I'm only here for the food," Jin chatted. "I'm dreading the 'games' Tae and Jimin have packed. I just know they're hatching a plot. They have the look in their eyes."

"I could help you with the cooking," Jungkook offered.

"Sure. You can be my sous-chef." Jin looked happy with their work. "Whose bag is the lighter in?"

"I'll get it," Jungkook said. "I have paper too."

The fire took easily, the scrap of newspaper quickly curling and blackening while the flames spread to the twigs. Jungkook sat back to watch it and Jin joined him, a few careful inches away.

Jungkook shuffled and narrowed the gap. Jin didn't react, just gave their infant fire a poke with a twig.

"I have something I want to burn," Jungkook told him. He reached into the pocket of his shorts and brought it out. He'd folded it. He handed it to Jin.

Noticing the neat folds, Jin frowned at him and investigated.

His reaction to Jungkook's self portrait was as viceral as the first reaction he'd given in the diner.

"This isn't me anymore," Jungkook said simply, looking down at himself clawing his face off. "The feeling is gone. It's been gone for three months and it isn't coming back. Will you watch it burn with me?"

Jin's eyes were bright with tears, happy for him, understanding everything Jungkook was trying to say. "I'd be honoured," he said.

Jungkook put the picture on the fire. He watched the flames consume his tortured expression, his hopeless desperation, his violent idea.

He wished he could burn the other picture too, the Rosewall one that Xal had. He'd tried to destroy it after the success of Xal's livestream, by crumpling it into the ball, but Xal had stopped him.

"I wanted to keep that!" Xal had said, anxiously, plucking it back out of Jungkook's hands, smoothing out every destructive line Jungkook had put in it.

"Sorry," Jungkook had said innocently. "I forgot."

Xal had studied it carefully again as he straightened it out, and Jungkook's heart had leapt into his throat, terrified that Xal would notice the wall with the roses and realise that Jungkook had just tried to leave a clue on the livestream, But Xal was far too pleased with their success and how well Jungkook had behaved. He'd merely looked at their expressions fondly before folding the picture and putting it into his pocket.

It was that picture he'd held to his heart when the police had come. And it was probably still on his person now. Jungkook wondered how long it would have taken Xal to notice the wall with the roses and realise that Jungkook was the one who had tipped Namjoon off. He wondered if Xal had destroyed the picture himself by now. He supposed he would never find out because despite Xal's request for contact, Jungkook had no intention of speaking to him ever again.

Jin was sitting cross-legged, watching the image of despairing Jungkook disappear into oblivion. He laid a hand, palm up, on his own knee. It was an invitation, one Jungkook was free to ignore, but Jungkook took it. Jin squeezed his hand twice. Jungkook squeezed back twice, and he didn't let go.

He could sense Jin watching him out of the corner of his eye, uncertain. Jin didn't pull his hand away. Jungkook could feel the air between them change, like somehow their connected hands were sharing their thoughts. Still, Jin didn't make a move.

"I've a had a lot of time to think," Jungkook said softly.

"About what?" Jin replied, his voice suddenly shaky.

"About a lot of things," Jungkook said. "Mostly about you." He paused. "About me and you."

He heard Jin suppress a choke. "And... what do you think?"

"That maybe it took me a while to catch up to you, but I'm finally here."

Jin turned towards him. Jungkook soaked in every feature of Jin's face.

"There's no rush," Jin said slowly. "I'm not... I'm not going anywhere. You can take your time."

"I know," Jungkook said. "But I'm sure of it now." And he leaned in towards Jin's mouth, uncertain if Jin would let him.

Jin leaned in too, and Jungkook felt his jackhammering heart soar high.

X-X-X

Jin's third kiss with Jungkook lacked the heat and the insistence of the first two.

It was pure and soft and simple and intimate.

And real.

As they parted, there was motion in the corner of Jin's vision.

Taehyung had just emerged from round the corner, his mouth open in delight. Then he seemed to collect himself. "Coyote!" He yelled at the top of his voice, pointing away from Jin and Jungkook. "It went that way! Come on, let's check it out!"

Jin could hear Namjoon arguing that this was the wrong country for coyotes and Jimin backing up Tae's ridiculous assertion. As their voices faded he turned back to Jungkook, unable to stop the smile splitting his face.

"Let's do it again," Jungkook said, and leaned back in.

X-X-X

Author note: And we're done! I really hope you were all satisfied with the ending! I've never been more tired/busy while churning out a fic, so I can honestly say your reviews pulled me through. Thank goodness I can review reply to thank you all individually (which I will do tomorrow) because some of you have been absolute MVPs though this. And I've got to say I loved all the conversations that went on in the comments too! That always made my day.

Also Inseongmnia I am still in love with my first ever fan work! Your moodboards depicted Jin and Jungkook and the story so well. I'm not on tumblr, but if anyone wants to check it out and send a like on my behalf: the user name is jinnie-bby.

Thank you so much to taeilsho, Mis, BangtanTEAR7, Weebo and robinsparklez for providing questions for a Q+A! I love you guys!

Q - Where did you get the inspiration to write this? it's different from the typical 'tragic abuse savior uwu' story and I'm kinda in love with it.

Thank you! I reckon reading a lot of fanfic at the time was what got me thinking along those lines for a story. I was on the bus a few years ago and I had the idea of that initial bus scene, which led to an abusive boyfriend concept, the interview with the school friend, then the 'I'm straight or am I' ending. I didn't think I'd do anything with it, and only developed it for this fic! I'm glad you found it different, I tried to give the main characters a lot of grey areas and didn't want Kook and Jin to have an unrealistic happy ending that totally glossed over the trauma.

 

Q - How did you come up with the characterisation of everyone involved in your story? I am very curious about how you wrote Jungkook being quite out of character.

A - Gonna try not to write a full essay on this ;) I had a basic concept for the three main characters and when I decided to make it a BTS fic I cast Jungkook pretty much immediately. I think shy-Jungkook is a huge trope, and I enjoy it a lot. I don't believe that in real life he was ever as extremely shy as we and BTS all say he was, I think it gets exaggerated. But I needed a character who'd been super shy and was malleable because of that, so Jungkook was still the clear choice. I think there's no question that he's hugely influenced by BTS so it was almost like a 'what if Jungkook was even shyer, and a young 'blank slate' but instead of BTS there was a different influence in his life' and that's where the Jungkook in this fic came from.

For the other characters, the saviour and abusive boyfriend, I really thought about Tae and Jimin in opposing roles, and Yoongi was considered at one point too. In the end, I decided the abusive boyfriend was just so awful I had to go with an OC and I'd originally imagined the boyfriend doing all sorts of awful non-con stuff online which I wasn't comfortable actually writing, so that's where Xal and the Youtube thing came from. I also loved the idea of a genuinely good person turning bad and only half knowing it.

As soon as I knew it was BTS I had an image of Hoseok in a leather jacket being interviewed in his house about school days, so that was a cert. Casting the saviour role was harder - I don't think I knew much about the personality of the saviour at the time, but I just love Jin and Jungkook's real life dynamic, and though I didn't get to use it so much here, as soon as I considered Jin I know it was a done deal. I wanted him to be very relatable and likeable so that we'd be uncovering the mystery through his eyes, but I wanted there to be grey area with him too, just a little one, where he could turn out like Xal if he wasn't careful.

And I love the Jimin and Tae comedy pair up, so that just happened as I was writing the first chapter. Namjoon seemed like a good calming counterbalance in the friend group and I had to make sure Hobi didn't look like a potential romantic interest for Kook, esp given their past, so he needed a loving boyfriend, and Yoongi worked well there though I regret underusing him!

Oops, wrote an essay anyway lol.

 

Q - How much research was put into portraying abusive relationships and littlespace in this fic? You described Jungkook's thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in detail, which shows that you had some understanding of these topics.

Oddly none at all, and I don't have direct experience of it either. With the littlespace, I've read enough fanfic to know I'd have to tread carefully to be able to sell this as realistic. Esp given that the little space is not Jungkook's idea or desire at all, and he's been trained to use it as a defence mechanism. That's why Jungkook didn't have baby paraphernalia other than Big Ted, because Xal doesn't want to push it too far too fast, he's trying to ease Kook in, and ultimately his main goal is control. I was trying to describe that half awake-half asleep feeling you get when you're about to nod off, and kind of added that to zoning out, which something real-Kook does anyway to try to portray the little space.

I've always found power imbalanced relationships interesting in fiction so probably I've picked up a thing or two about how abusers work in the past. Just needed it to be realistic sounding enough without being strictly accurate. So pleased you thought it worked!

 

Q - Which of your fics do you like the best?

Oof! I do like all of them. The support this one got knocked my socks off, and my baby-Kook Orphanage fic got a lot of attention retrospectively, but that makes me feel sorry for my other two which were interactive and arguably harder to do. Plus the two-shot was such a goal for me as I've never written a short story in my life.

In the end I think its Sapphires. Not because Sapphires is the best, but because I had the concept idea for Sapphires as an actual child and being able to realise that idea as an adult feels kind of special.

 

Q - Are you planning to write more Jinkook fics? Will you perhaps write a prequel on the relationship between Xal and him over the years? And perhaps of Jin and Flynn because His friends had said he had 'saviour complex' but what happened between them? Maybe even a sequel? To see how Jungkook recovers and build his relationship with Jin and his life and how they cope and everything. Or after they've done so? :)

I'm hoping this last chapter did enough to cover some of those requests, because I'm pretty certain I'm not writing a prequel or sequel. I am so honoured that you'd read one though! Sincerely, thank you! But I think I'd be way more likely to start something fresh.

I 100% need to, need to, need to take a break and stop being addicted to reviews (if you've read other fics of mine you'll have noticed this is a recurring theme lol) but I do have a concept idea for a future fic in mind. It's literally just an idea of a setting with no plot or anything lol, so it might not happen. But Jin would be the main character and platonic Jinkook would heavily feature with Kook being toddler/child and Jin being a teen/ young adult. I don't know if that counts as a Jinkook fic as you might have meant romantically!