It’s like a nightmare come alive.
Jeongguk can think of nothing else as he flies over Elenia with Taehyung in his arms, sickened with a sense of dread. It’s as if the color and vibrancy of the world has been ripped from its very veins. The greenery of the landscape fades, the blue of the sky dimming. He senses turmoil in the balance of things as the spirit energy is ripped away from those who rely upon it.
Even worse is the state of the spirits themselves. Jeongguk hears their cries of misery, some in pain and some too numbed to speak. Campus erupts into panic as familiars begin to lose their minds, some lashing out at their invokers or fleeing into the air. Many fall unconscious, the energy they need to survive recalled to the one place that’s supposed to sustain them.
The heart of the land is breaking, and to Jeongguk’s horror, Taehyung is breaking with it.
“It’ll be okay, Tae,” Jeongguk consoles, worried eyes flicking over Taehyung’s furrowed brow. His nails dig into Jeongguk’s bicep as his teeth grit in pain, a shine of sweat clinging to his skin. On the few occasions his eyes open, they’re utterly flat—lifeless like the weight in his arms.
“She’s hurt,” Taehyung says, curling closer to Jeongguk’s chest. “It’s—ruining everything.”
Jeongguk doesn’t need Taehyung to confirm it. He feels Malyah’s despair in his heart, but as a partial spirit himself, he doesn’t understand why he’s unaffected. He still feels just as healthy as before, the well of power within him untouched.
More importantly, he needs to understand why Taehyung is suffering in his place. He thinks he has a theory, but he can’t be sure until he confirms it.
“It’s because you used the gem, isn’t it?”
There’s a heavy quiet aside from the flap of Jeongguk’s wings as they head for the Everwood. Taehyung presses his face into Jeongguk’s neck, clinging to his shirt with a weak grip.
The sigh that leaves Jeongguk is shaky. It makes sense now why Taehyung’s eyes remind him of the Everwood, since it seems the Everwood merged with Taehyung himself.
“I used it so much that it’s intertwined with my energy now,” Taehyung whispers. “Since I’m not actively keeping you sealed, the Arboretum no longer needs me, but my life force will still always be connected to the Everwood. It’s why I’m so comfortable there and why Malyah considers me one of her own.”
Jeongguk’s chest tightens with guilt. He hates that Taehyung went to such lengths just to keep him alive, always so quick to sacrifice his well-being or freedom. He had always longed for someone to make him a priority, putting him first in their life and acknowledging his efforts, but now he wishes Taehyung would put himself first. His comfort as a human wasn’t worth Taehyung throwing his life away and binding himself to one of the world’s only sources of magic.
“Don’t you dare,” Taehyung sushes, pressing his finger over his lips. “Don’t you apologize for what I’ve done, Guk. They’re things I chose to do out of love for you and I’d do them again in a heartbeat.”
When Taehyung’s hand lifts away, Jeongguk’s lips contort into a frown.
“And if the roles were reversed? If I did the same for you because I care for you?”
There’s no answer, but Jeongguk feels the way Taehyung tenses in his hold despite the clear fatigue he endures.
He supposes it’s a human thing to justify one’s own actions while refusing to apply them to those you love. Denial or double standards or whatever the hell they’re called… Jeongguk both understands them and can’t explain them at all.
Fortunately, there are still a few simplistic pieces of his nature as a spirit that make such complicated emotions clear.
“I’d do anything for you, Taehyung.”
The words are almost inaudible, but Jeongguk knows Taehyung hears them when his grip tightens in his shirt. He looks out over the sickly landscape, his own breath held like that of the earth below.
“I know,” Taehyung whispers, his weary voice pained. “I know, Guk.”
The aura around the mountain is eerily quiet, the air thinned and lifeless. There’s a fog that grows more dense as they travel below the clouds, thickening so much that they can barely see. Fortunately, Jeongguk can sense the Everwood through his heart, but the ominous quality to the energy only puts him on edge.
By the time their feet make contact with the flat ledge that leads to the Everwood, Taehyung can hardly stand. Jeongguk carefully lowers his legs, supporting his weight with an arm wrapped around his middle. It’s difficult to wedge their way into the cave that way, but Taehyung presses onward even when he appears ready to collapse.
His state has Jeongguk worried sick. He hasn’t seen Taehyung so pale and shaken since the last time he’d spent too long away from the Arboretum. He supposes his well of warlock magic is so great that he’s been able to remain conscious, but it’s clearer with every step that he won’t last much longer.
The Everwood itself seems to be in similar straits.
There’s something wholly wrong about the cave’s current darkness. Where the surrounding gemstones would usually flicker and shine bright, they’re now dimmed and colorless. The few within arm’s reach will occasionally flash the color of violet from Jeongguk’s natural pulse of power, but it seems even that energy is leeched away too.
There’s no natural hum or resounding clarity to the space anymore. Were they not here with a purpose in mind, Jeongguk thinks he’d be inclined to stop and mourn. The ruin is distinct, overwhelming enough to bring him to his knees if he weren’t remaining strong for Taehyung. In their shared hearts, he knows Taehyung feels the same, the sorrow cutting deep.
The further they travel into the Everwood, the more labored Taehyung’s breathing becomes. Jeongguk bites his lower lip in concern when Taehung leans into his side, clutching to the front of his shirt as he puffs weak gasps of air.
“Tae…” he murmurs worriedly.
Taehyung shakes his head before slowly lifting it to meet Jeongguk’s gaze. It’s still as disconcerting as ever, dark and empty. If Jeongguk could look into his own heart, he thinks it’d appear the same.
“We need— to find her,” Taehyung grits, the soles of his boots dragging across the gravel on the floor. “Before—it’s too late.”
“We will,” Jeongguk breathes, tugging him a little closer. He’s confident they’ll find her here, but it’s her state he’s concerned about.
Whatever it is, it likely isn’t good.
The granite trees are more lifeless than ever. It’s much darker in the wider part of the cave without the gems embedded in the ceiling overhead. He and Taehyung weave through the darkened branches at a slowing pace until Jeongguk is nearly carrying him to the lake.
He feels Taehyung’s sharp inhale like a spike to his chest.
To their shock, the surface of the lake is an inky black instead of the usual glowing aqua. It’s aura is foul and tainted, the bubbling substance now toxic without the spirit energy to crystalize it into diamond. A darker shadow hangs over the island, the Eldertrees no longer glowing and the flowers in the grass withered and shriveled.
The sense of loss that falls over the both of them is immediate. Jeongguk knows Taehyung shares the pain in his heart, likely even more severe knowing his deep-rooted connection to this place.
They have to fix it, and based on the way Taehyung trembles in his arms, they have to act fast.
He cups the back of Taehyung’s neck when he turns into his shoulder, pressing a kiss to his temple and whispering comforts into his ear when he can no longer look at the scene. It’s not much, but he still wants him to feel supported. He won’t live to see Taehyung fall victim to whatever’s happening here.
“You can stay here while I take a look?” Jeongguk suggests softly. “If this is too much for you.”
Taehyung shakes his head against him. The shadows under his eyes grow as he pulls back, almost entirely reliant on Jeongguk to keep him upright.
“I— I need to see it,” he breathes. “Please take me there.”
Jeongguk nods, lifting him into his arms with ease. There’s still a prickle of satisfaction when Taehyung asks him to act as a familiar would, but it's presently swallowed by his growing desire to protect. To make things safe for him again.
Taehyung is too weak to hook his arms around his neck, his hands tucked against Jeongguk’s chest as they take to the air. Compared to the last time they were here, the night they were illuminated in brilliant color and full of vibrant life, the current state of things is almost incomprehensible. They had celebrated the birth of a new beginning, but now it feels like the beginning of the end.
It’s cold on Malyah’s island, the perilous air sending a chill down Jeongguk’s spine. He swallows thickly as he ventures deeper into the trees where he knows her den lies, treading with utmost care. Taehyung’s brows knit together in pain where he lies in his arms, eyes closed and jaw tightening as a massive form comes into view.
The air is sucked from Jeongguk’s lungs when recognition dawns on him.
“No,” he whispers, his body flooding with icy fear. Malyah lays on her side, her rich brown coat now grey and dusted. The light between her antlers barely flickers, shining only with her long, labored breaths. Gruesome lesions of darkness litter her hide and ooze out into puddles of blackness on the ground.
Taehyung groans, nails digging into Jeongguk’s skin. “Help—her,” he pleads, tears beading at the corners of his eyes. “Jeonggukie—it hurts—”
Jeongguk’s face crumples, a sense of helplessness slowly creeping up his spine and settling like acid in his gut.
He hates standing by as those he loves suffer without a logical solution to work for. There aren’t any obvious answers—no enemies to defeat or potions to cure them. They don’t even seem receptive to his magic, and any energy he summons is ripped from the air in seconds.
“It—it’ll be okay,” Jeongguk reassures weakly, his throat choked. “Let me see if I can help her and then we can get you feeling better.”
His hands begin to shake as he lays Taehyung below a nearby Eldertree, brushing his fringe away and pressing a kiss to his horns. He murmurs a few more baseless comforts into his curls, whispers of summers and sweets and the cozy bed they have to return to. His mind races for dreams that Taehyung can cling to, tiny pieces of light in an onslaught of darkness.
“We’ll have apple crisp when we get home, okay?” he says softly, brushing a knuckle over his cheek. He curls a hand around Taehyung’s limp fingers, squeezing them tight.
Taehyung’s skin is cold, but he still manages to quirk his lips. His eyes barely blink open, shining only with a flicker of violet that sparks Jeongguk’s heart with a tiny flame of hope.
Jeongguk’s eyes sting as he gently lowers Taehyung’s hand. He rises to his feet and faces Malyah with determination, slowly crossing the space to look over her wounds.
They grow more abhorrent the closer he gets and he holds an elbow over his face. He doesn’t think Malyah is even aware enough to notice his presence until the whisper of a familiar voice floats though his mind.
Jeongguk’s brows furrow. “I’m— I’m here to help you, Malyah,” he states, circling around to her head. Her muzzle is splayed open awkwardly, the whites of her eyes now a deep black.
The deadened look makes him feel ill.
“Away?” Jeongguk whispers. “I—I can’t do that. There’s no way we’re leaving you like this.”
The tiniest of desperate feelings tingle in the back of Jeongguk’s mind. It could just be his imagination, but it feels like the shadow around him grows as the warnings in his head do. Begging him to flee.
Run, dark one—
His stomach roils. Even if he were to escape now, it’d be impossible to leave quickly with Taehyung in tow. He came here to fix this, not to flee from what they can’t outrun.
“Why?” he asks breathlessly. “Who did this to you? Are they here now?”
The Elderbear groans with a noise that chills Jeongguk to the bone, resonating through him with sickening strength. More inky darkness pours from her wounds and Jeongguk’s heart aches, his hands held helplessly by his sides.
He is coming for—
He stills, awaiting her slow intake of air.
—for your heart.
Taehyung cries out a few feet from behind them. Jeongguk’s stomach swoops at the sound, a primal sense of protection fueling him instantly. His wings flare as he bristles, nearly launching across the space as Taehyung is held up by what appears to be invisible bindings.
“We meet again, little Jeonggukie.”
Jeongguk isn’t sure why he bears his teeth and rumbles low in his throat, but the instinct feels right. Shinah holds a hand before Taehyung, his limp form hovering in the air through his magic.
“You did this, didn’t you?” Jeongguk growls. “You hurt Malyah, hurt everyone—”
“I did,” he admits nonchalantly. “I knew the best way to summon you and Taehyung here was to attack her at her weakest. Fortunately, you left me a little ticket straight to her heart.”
Jeongguk’s stomach plummets when Shinah reveals his lotus pendant, swinging it haphazardly around his finger.
Even so, his presence doesn’t make sense. Yoongi was supposed to keep him captive—
“I suppose you’re wondering what my purpose is,” Shinah muses, curling his fingers so that Taehyung cries out again. The sound makes Jeongguk see red, useless power trickling from his fingertips that vanishes as quickly as it appears. “To be entirely honest, nothing has ever changed, not since you became my—”
Yoongi launches himself over the lake with a burst of his own magic, running beneath the trees with his hands clenched in fists. He looks more wild and uncomposed than Jeongguk’s ever seen him, his eyes swollen and hair askew.
“I’m— I’m sorry,” Yoongi pants, “I got too careless. He plotted to escape by weakening Malyah and all the magic Hobi put in place to stop him. He waited until— until Hoseok was—”
Yoongi’s chest heaves as he turns his look of fury on Shinah. Jeongguk is more than sympathetic, fully understanding of the rage at seeing his partner fall. He struggles to drop his stance of aggression with it happening right in front of him.
All he can see is Taehyung’s lifeless form, his consciousness finally having fled and his chin hanging over his chest.
The sight infuriates him, extending his sharpened nails.
Yoongi advances a step and Shinah tuts, holding up a free palm that freezes him where he stands. “Now, now, headmaster. We know it wouldn’t be the best decision to try anything rash. Not only will I harm Taehyung if you attempt to touch me, but you’ll also lose your only key to healing Malyah, Taehyungie and the rest of your precious little spirits.”
Jeongguk’s heart lurches in a mix of fear and loathing.
“Spit it out,” Yoongi snaps irritatedly, glaring at him in contempt.
“You see, Taehyungie here is of my blood—my own life energy passed down from our dear late parents. Although it’s forbidden to manipulate the energy of other warlocks, I’ve decided to, well… toss that rule out,” he grins. “And since we’re brothers, it’s quite easy to make demands of his blood as I will it. Moving him, dragging him… choking him.”
Taehyung coughs and sputters, a dribble of blood on his chin.
Jeongguk is moving with a snarl before he can stop himself, but Yoongi is there in an instant to hold him back.
“Don’t, Guk!” he shouts, tugging on his shoulders with gritted teeth. “I get it, trust me. I do. But you have to think about the source of Taehyung’s energy, not just his petty threats. He needs this place healed if he wants to live.”
Shinah laughs, the sound grating and malevolent. He lowers Taehyung to pat his cheek with his open palm. “Yoongi is wise on occasion, perhaps because he was never a true human at all,” he remarks, turning his stilted gaze on the shaking form of Jeongguk. “But for Jeonggukie, you possess a human heart thanks to your pact with my brother. I suppose I should thank him for weakening you by bestowing such a curse.”
“It’s not a curse,” Jeongguk snarls bitterly. “Taehyung gave me a gift I can’t ever repay by allowing me to be human.”
Shinah shakes his head dismissively. “Did he, now? I’d argue that humans are reckless and thoughtless, their decisions based much too heavily on the irrationality of their hearts. When it comes to your love for Taehyung, it appears to be your greatest weakness, wouldn’t you agree?”
Jeongguk stares him down with a look of disgust. He’d never call it a weakness, but he knows his words are wasted on Shinah. It’s clear he has no understanding of the strengths love brings.
At the same time, a part of him pities the warlock knowing the hell he must have endured to make him think that way. Taehyung claimed he was the primary target of his parents’ abuse, reaching for goalposts that perpetually shifted out of reach. His heart was trampled upon and used, left alone in a nightmare of imprisonment. He likely had no hope to be accepted into society for who he was, especially with no access to Taehyung’s grandfather.
“You wouldn’t understand,” Jeongguk retorts, calming his breathing. He sharpens his instincts with his human logic, a little colder and more calculated than flying into a blind rage. Beside him, Yoongi seems to assess the situation similarly, his jaw locked tight.
Shinah’s gaze hardens, flashing with such purpose that Jeongguk’s breath catches.
“I would, since I’m more familiar with your heart than even Taehyung is.”
Jeongguk can’t help the cynical snort that leaves him at such absurdity. Taehyung knows his heart even better than himself most days.
A shadow falls over Shinah’s face, the look making Jeongguk prickle with tension. A strange power trickles through the air that has the hair rising on Jeongguk’s neck, sweeping through him like a frigid breeze.
“Jeongguk,” Shinah orders, “come here.”
Jeongguk blinks. A second later, he’s gripping over his heart as it sears with heat, gasping in wide-eyed pain.
Yoongi holds his shoulder worriedly, his own hands shaking. He turns his accusatory gaze on Shinah. “What the fuck did you do?”
Shinah simply shrugs, lowering Taehyung to the ground in an unceremonious heap.
“Called upon my familiar, that’s all.”
Jeongguk thinks his heart stops beating. He hears Yoongi’s pointed intake of breath, the grip on his shoulder becoming painful.
“You’re full of shit,” Yoongi says bitingly. “Jeongguk’s pact is with Taehyung.”
“His primary pact is with my brother,” Shinah corrects, ravenous eyes flicking over Jeongguk, “but my influence still exists in his heart. His Tranquil state has always been mine, just inaccessible thanks to Taehyung’s constant presence. He is essentially my familiar as well.”
Jeongguk stares into the grass below in shock, feeling so nauseous that his surroundings spin. To have two invokers, his heart torn in half when it should belong to Taehyung…
It’s wrong. It’s all wrong—
“At first, I planned to simply force Jeongguk to reincarnate and reform our pact without Taehyung butting in,” he drawls, “but I’ve realized that it’s much easier to let Jeongguk come to me. He’s too strong to kill outright, but all I need is access to his Tranquil state to claim what’s rightfully mine.”
His gaze rakes hungrily over his form, and for the first time in his life, Jeongguk feels truly exposed.
He had only ever entrusted his vulnerabilities to Taehyung. He never formed a mutual pact with Shinah, rejecting his presence so strongly that he unconsciously sealed off his own Tranquil state out of preservation.
There’s no freedom in a forced pact—not when he knows the freedom of loving Taehyung.
“I’ve come here to offer you a deal, my little Jeonggukie,” Shinah purrs, his smile sinister. “First, I’ll repeat myself just so you understand who you truly belong to.”
His gaze pierces Jeongguk’s and sends shocks down his spine, the force of it quivering his wings.
His body goes rigid.
Jeongguk’s felt something like this before—a grip around his heart that coaxes him forward. There are times Taehyung loses himself in his wants enough that Jeongguk can feel them, but he’s always been happy to indulge in them. Beneath every request is a question at its core—never a demand or an order. Even if control over his familiar is available to him, Taehyung has always given him the freedom to choose.
He never once tried to control him, especially not like this. The grasp on his heart squeezes until he can no longer inhale, the magic compelling him to drag his feet across the grass as if resisting an invisible force.
He loathes every single second of it—despises the way Shinah smiles when he begrudgingly arrives by his side. He brushes a rough hand over Jeongguk’s cheek and the touch makes him turn away in disgust, but Shinah merely laughs.
“I can see why Taehyungie kept you,” he murmurs, swiping his thumb over Jeongguk’s lip. “Gorgeous in both human and spirit form, but even more with the influence of my shadows. You have me to thank for those dark wings and your power over death.”
He tries to move to caress Jeongguk’s wings, receiving a snarl and sharp nails puncturing his arm in response. Jeongguk flashes his teeth as blood trickles from his wrist and into his palm, tempted to injure him further but resisting with the pale form of Taehyung crumpled behind him.
He doesn’t care if Shinah is responsible for his connection to darkness and the onyx wings on his back. It’s Taehyung that’s always treasured them, treating them with reverence and care. It’s Taehyung who’s always accepted him for who he was.
His heart belongs wholly to Taehyung.
“Clearly, he didn’t leash you very well,” Shinah smirks, ripping his arm free. “I could’ve made this work by killing my brother and being done with it, but I feel that might make things a bit... sticky between us. However, I have no problem letting him and the rest of these weakling spirits die if you refuse me.”
Jeongguk’s breathing is ragged. He looks from Taehyung to Malyah to the darkened trees, his eyes darting at the desolate scene around him. Yoongi looks defeated, pure misery dashed across his frustrated face.
The weight of their fates on his shoulders is crushing.
“What do you say?” Shinah whispers, leaning forward to breathe over his ear. “Everybody wins, Jeonggukie. Taehyung and Malyah are safe, the Everwood is restored and you’re freed of your pesky human heart. Free to be mine as you were destined to be from the start.”
Jeongguk shudders, gripping his arms tightly around himself. While the choice is his personal nightmare in every way, the logical answer is quite clear. The pain of Taehyung’s death while he walks free would be far, far worse than his imprisonment by another’s hands.
It’s just hard to accept the end of his beginning with Taehyung. A farewell to their love and their hard work, all the effort and respect they're poured into their love washed away.
He locks eyes with his brother, unaware he’d been crying until he realizes the outline of Yoongi is blurry. Hot tears streak his face, trickling over his cheeks.
“Remember what we discussed,” Yoongi breathes, his own eyes glimmering. “Remember the stained glass panels.”
Confusion flits over Jeongguk for a brief moment, the image of the extravagant window he’d just surprised Taehyung with flashing in his mind. He remembers the day he had sat at Yoongi’s desk, daydreaming of Taehyung with a question on his tongue.
A question Yoongi answered, informing him that accessing his Tranquil state would almost certainly result in his death.
Something settles in Jeongguk’s gut, a strange calm he had completely overlooked. He meets Yoongi’s gaze again, hoping it flashes with the understanding he feels.
If he and Shinah venture into his Tranquil state together, it’s likely they’ll both lose their lives… but unlike Jeongguk, Shinah has no chance to reincarnate.
With his death, Jeongguk could end this.
Shinah’s gaze flicks back and forth between him and Yoongi. He sighs, running a hand through his hair in a motion that’s oddly casual. “It’s true that I love power… but believe it or not, I’m not exactly a bad person,” he starts, inches from Jeongguk’s face.
There’s a strange softness to Shinah’s expression now, almost awkward and uncertain—strangely human, in a way. He lifts his hand to Jeongguk’s cheek and thumbs over his skin, wiping a tear aside. Jeongguk’s eyelids flutter shut as he turns away, swallowing down the disgust he feels at being touched by anyone but Taehyung.
“Come with me, Jeonggukie,” he whispers, his voice remarkably sincere for the cruelty Jeongguk knows he’s capable of. “I promised you during all those days we spent talking that I’d free you.”
Jeongguk hesitantly meets his stare, unsettled by the wildness in his eyes, but he has to admit that the words stir another forgotten memory in him. One in which a boy close in age to Taehyung would sit with his back against his cage, sniffling with bitter tears as he shared his sorrows. Jeongguk had felt badly for him, but he knew at Shinah’s core was a selfishness and lust for power.
Shinah wasn’t interested in being friends. He was interested in tempering a weapon.
“What Taehyung has given you isn’t freedom,” Shinah breathes. “It’s imprisonment. A human heart is a disservice to something as magnificent as a phoenix. He’s trapping you, Jeongguk.”
You’re wrong, Jeongguk thinks, but he swallows down his answer. He knows Yoongi feels the same—that there’s much more power in loving openly and freely than manipulating energy and magic at his demand.
If it’s taken Taehyung trapping him to get where he is today, he’d fasten the shackles himself and toss his key into the abyss.
“Come with me,” Shinah implores, trailing fingers down Jeongguk’s arm before gripping at his fingers. “Taehyung was always weak. Freeing him from his responsibilities as an invoker will be a mercy.”
Jeongguk’s heart aches, both his human and spirit halves. He gazes at Taehyung’s lifeless body as a sob chokes him, desperate to see him smile one last time.
He hasn’t forgotten the rest of Yoongi’s warning… that there’s no guarantee he’ll return. He may never remember Taehyung again—might never be human ever again.
Or, he could simply die, his energy returned to the earth as it does with all humans.
“What will it be, Jeongguk?”
He takes a shuddering breath, looking to the shaking form of Yoongi once more. His brother looks helpless and devastated, an expression Jeongguk hates to see him wear.
They’ve all had so much suffering. So much pain and death, fighting just to exist in a realm of contentment.
But among their struggles, Jeongguk’s learned more than he thought possible. He’s learned about the human heart, how to overcome the challenges put before him with his own power. He’s learned to walk on his own two feet and fly with his own wings—learned the value of friendship and loyalty, how to forgive and how to heal.
Most importantly, he’s learned how to love—how the heart can love in a million ways that are likely undiscoverable in a single lifetime.
One of those ways is an act of sacrifice—a death to preserve the hearts of those he cares about.
The decision is simple when he leaves it up to his heart. Shinah will never understand that his greatest power lies within the way he loves.
“Take care of him, Yoongi.”
Yoongi’s face shines with tears among his gritted teeth, but he still holds his head high, nodding with quiet determination. His stubbornness makes Jeongguk feel fond, proud to call him his family.
Steeling himself, Jeongguk encloses his hand around Shinah’s rough palm. His heart thuds painfully in his chest, the words leaving him like a blow to the gut.
Shinah’s eyes light up. For the briefest of moments, Jeongguk thinks he sees a flash of Taehyung’s usual vulnerability, the tiniest family resemblance surfacing in his surprise.
It only makes his chest ache more for the invoker he knows he loves.
“I see,” Shinah acknowledges, unable to hide the victorious smile he wears. “I knew you were bright, but I didn’t think you’d be this wise. You’ve made the right decision, though I suppose your heart knew who it belonged to all along.”
A reserved sense of quiet falls over Jeongguk, his mind devolving into static at what he’s about to do—possibly walking away from Taehyung forever, never to see him again.
It’s too painful to consider. He looks away, teeth biting his lip hard enough to draw blood.
Shinah withdraws a gem from his pocket, its presence so immediately oppressive that Jeongguk recoils. It’s full of so much spirit energy that it’s mindnumbing, shimmering with colors that have no names. He tosses it beside Malyah, nodding at Yoongi.
“That contains every ounce of spirit energy I withdrew from this place,” he grunts. “My half of our deal is upheld.”
He takes both of Jeongguk’s hands, holding them between them.
“And now, you will open your heart to me, phoenix.”
A single tear slips down Jeongguk’s cheek. Behind his brother, he sees Taehyung’s messed head of curls and his shining horns.
When he tears open his heart, the vision of Shinah’s hungry smile and his delighted laugh before him, he clings to the memory of Taehyung’s grin pressed into his kiss instead.
“You better come back, Guk!” Yoongi cries, his voice slowly fading. “You hear me? You have to come back!”
Jeongguk thinks he’s smiling through tears as his surroundings slip away.
His first thought within his Tranquil state is that he’s seen it more recently than he thought.
It was always in the distance, calling him. Any time he danced with death, the afterlife shined like a beacon in his mind’s eye. The open blue skies are still here, the lotus at his feet adorned with petals of black and the wisteria trees dripping with shades of pink and purple.
Any time he had been tempted, Taehyung was always there to bring him back to life. The love that Taehyung lived by had always been more alluring than the escape of death, the feeling of his hand more secure than anything Jeongguk could procure himself.
He just hadn’t realized that his version of death was actually facing his own heart—facing the wreckage Shinah caused within it.
“Not much different than before,” Shinah acknowledges, glancing around with his hands in his pockets. He toes at one of the flowers, stepping on another seconds later. “You were always softhearted, Jeonggukie. This is certainly proof of that.”
Jeongguk doesn’t disagree. The garden is beautiful, airy and light. Not at all like the death and destruction he had envisioned.
Although he doesn’t entirely remember it, where they currently stand doesn’t appear to be the most central part of his heart, like they’ve entered along the outskirts. He’ll have to venture deeper to find the answers he seeks.
“It’s time now, isn’t it?”
Jeongguk’s eyes flick to Shinah’s face. He seems softer here, maybe even a little younger.
He nods once, staring out at the path that awaits them. It winds through trees and shrubs, covered in flowers and vines.
Side-by-side, they start after it together.
As they walk, Shinah begins to speak.
His tone is low and deep, more humbled and cordial than it had been in the Everwood. He talks to Jeongguk as if they’re old friends, hands in his pockets and his eyes to the dirt path below their feet. Minutes, hours or days—Jeongguk loses track of how long they travel onward, the concept of time unneeded within his own heart.
Jeongguk doesn’t find Shinah’s voice soothing at all, but he still hears the tiniest flicker of Taehyung within it. Whenever his chest begins to feel like it's caving in and fear infiltrates his defenses, he clings to that instead, imagining Taehyung is still with him.
Shinah talks about his upbringing, the torment Taehyung’s parents put them through. He discusses how he killed them when he caught them torturing a spirit, the closest one to human that they’d ever managed to achieve. How he took the spirit as his own instead.
“He was good to me,” Shinah murmurs, the scales on his neck glinting in the tepid sun. “Made me laugh when I thought I forgot how. Made me smile without even thinking about it.”
Shinah smiles now, his cheeks arcing into a heart shape, and Jeongguk sees Taehyung in it.
“His name was Jaeha,” he recounts softly. “More beautiful than any human I’ve ever seen. He was a thanatowl when my parents captured him.”
For a moment, Jeongguk remembers the feeling of the cage surrounding him. He remembers the gleam of overhead light against the bars, the desperate hope that the room’s opening door would reveal his best friend.
“I treated him as my familiar. As my friend and confidant, but it wasn’t enough.”
Jeongguk nods silently, following the path laid before them.
“When I tried to love him, he feared me,” Shinah says, smiling sadly at the sky. “My parents' influence lingered long after I broke him free of their torture. When he saw my scales, he’d freeze up and begin to cry. He’d fight and scream and try to escape.”
Jeongguk’s steady rhythm of breath breaks for just a moment.
“He never truly accepted my love, but it didn’t matter. I needed him as my familiar. Warlocks find their strength in the spirits they possess, so I forced him to stay by my side. It didn’t seem to help much.”
There’s a flicker of darkness in the corner of Jeongguk’s eye. He doesn’t pay it any mind, following the path set for him—trusting his heart to guide him.
“The more he resisted, the more warped he became,” Shinah breathes. “Even then, I told him I loved him, and he still only tried to escape. It became a tug of war until he was unrecognizable, destroyed by the differences in our hearts.”
Jeongguk recalls the Ire and the moment he trapped it against the Eldertree. He remembers how it begged to be set free from its torment, fearful of opening its heart.
The thought of its death fills him with sorrow.
“If he just loved me back, it would have fixed things,” Shinah whispers, finally stopping in his tracks. “I would have given him everything, but he hated me for what I was. I couldn’t blame him, but it was inevitable. He was destined to live and die as my familiar.”
Jeongguk stops too. He lets loose a long breath, admiring the pump of his heart in his chest—the strength that lingers within it thanks to the healing he’s been through.
“Love isn’t just give and take or making demands,” he murmurs, his lips quirking upward. “It’s about compromise, balance and understanding. It’s forgiveness and sacrifice.”
The path beneath him is paved with all of the traits he’s cherished. Jeongguk can feel them through the soles of his shoes, rising up to beat through his heart. The compromise of his pact with Taehyung, balancing the stark differences of their spirit energies. Understanding the worries of the heart and forgiving each other when it causes hurt.
Making sacrifices out of love.
“Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, your paths just might intertwine,” Jeongguk remarks, feeling warmed as he recalls meeting Taehyung at the Everwood after his seal was broken, their hearts leading them together again.
“Like ours,” Shinah says, firm and matter-of-fact.
Jeongguk finally glances his way. The smile he wears is one of sorrow.
Shinah is no longer beside him but many yards away. His path is much darker than Jeongguk’s, tunneling into a starless night. His eyes widen in panic as he spins to retrace his steps, finding himself unable to return. He can’t step away—can only walk headfirst into the fate that awaits him.
“You walk a different path than I,” Jeongguk observes. “The path of death.”
“No,” Shinah chokes, his eyes wild. Tears fall from them, crashing to the ground like droplets of light. “No, Jeongguk! How could you do this to me—”
“This is the path you chose when you tried to end my pact with Taehyung,” Jeongguk answers sadly. “You sacrificed your life in exchange for harming my heart, and so the path of death is now yours to walk. As a phoenix, I’ll return to the garden to be reborn.”
Pure, unadulterated terror falls over Shinah’s face. He looks like a frightened child, clutching at his hair and shouting incoherent cries.
“There’s nothing to fear, Shinah,” Jeongguk soothes, calling out from his sunny path. “There’s solace to be found in death. Now’s the chance to leave your fears behind and take to the sky.”
It’s an eternity before Shinah slowly turns to him with a crumpled expression, but Jeongguk only sends him a gentle smile. He watches as the warlock wipes his tears on his sleeve before staring out at the path laid before him.
At the end, a figure now awaits.
A gradual awe seems to grip Shinah, his lips uttering a name that looks a lot like a reverent prayer. Jeongguk can no longer hear him, but he can feel the cry in his heart.
His pace starts slow, quickening after much hesitation until he’s stumbling forward. He falls often, occasionally scraping his knees, but he still moves onward with determination.
Jaeha waits with arms outstretched, pulling him into an embrace when they finally collide. He smiles into his shoulder, holding him tight before he takes Shinah’s hand and guides him into the dark.
Neither of them look back.
Alone, Jeongguk thinks he finally finds peace.
Jeongguk’s path continues long after Shinah departs. He stops to admire some flowers along the way, at ease within the gardens that house his power.
It’s incredible how dense they are, beautiful and intricate. He finds it curious that he doesn’t remember them, but he tries to enjoy his walk anyway, humming tunelessly and staring up at the sky.
There’s magic here, the kind that’s thick enough to choke on. He never realized just how powerful a true phoenix could be and now understands why they’re referred to as legendary. If he’s honest with himself, the temptation of power means little to him. It makes for mediocre company.
As he walks for what feels like an eternity, Jeongguk finds he begins to grow lonely. He misses his friends and the sounds of their laughs, picturing each of their smiles.
He misses Taehyung and the feeling of their interlaced fingers. Misses the tenor of his low voice and the quirk of his lips, the color he brought to his life with his unwavering presence. Even if he isn’t destined to continue this life, he still wants to hold him one more time and rest his head on his shoulder. He wants to tell him how much he loves him so Taehyung can carry it with him forever.
Jeongguk thinks of Taehyung until the path finally breaks into a garden that takes his breath away. There’s a wisteria tree much larger than the others, tempting him to rest his weary legs. He decides to sit beneath it, pulling his knees to his chest in inhaling the sweet spring air.
It’s beautiful—comfortable and refreshing, but Jeongguk still feels alone. He stretches out his achy legs and leans back on his palms, glancing down when they catch on a lumpy strand of woven vines.
His brows furrow as he lifts the circlet before his face.
A moment later, his eyes are widening.
He wore this circlet once. Taehyung had rested it in his wavy hair, much smaller now that he’s grown. It was the day they promised…
Promised to be together forever.
Breath catching, Jeongguk’s head whips upward. Beyond the shadow of the tree, standing among the waving grass…
Taehyung smiles, a halo of sunlight around his head.
Jeongguk doesn’t realize he’s moving, dirt on his palms as he scrambles to his feet. He doesn’t notice the tears choking his throat or the petals in his hair that scatter as he runs.
He only sees Taehyung’s smile growing, his arms outstretched and his eyes glistening with color. Jeongguk barely believes he’s real until they’re colliding in a rush, grunting when he throws his arms around his neck and buries his face against him.
Taehyung holds him so tight he can barely breathe. He strokes the back of Jeongguk’s head, calming him with soft words of comfort as he cries into his shoulder. His entire body trembles with relief, so at ease in Taehyung’s presence that he’s surprised he can stand.
“You—you came back,” Jeongguk says breathlessly, lifting his head for Taehyung to cup his cheeks. He kisses away the stray tears—kisses him until Jeongguk is sighing in contentment. Kisses him until his nose is scrunching and his giggles fill the air.
“I kept my promise this time,” Taehyung murmurs warmly. “I couldn’t miss the opportunity to make it up to you. The second I realized your heart was open to me again, I had to find you.”
Jeongguk smiles, but it doesn’t last forever. Not when he remembers why he’s here in the first place.
“Shinah… Shinah is…”
Taehyung’s eyes become sad, as if he already knows. He takes Jeongguk’s hand and gazes out over the gardens, his curls rustling in the breeze.
“Few people can guide a human heart to the afterlife peacefully,” Taehyung says softly. “You should be proud of yourself, Jeongguk. I know I am.”
Jeongguk’s heart swells at the words. He interlaces their fingers, squeezing tight.
“Then you know why I’m here.”
Taehyung doesn’t look at him. He sighs around his gentle smile, returning Jeongguk’s grasp.
“I do. And you’re right, I want to be angry with you for sacrificing yourself. I think I scared Yoongi a bit when I woke up,” he laughs lightly. “I have faith that you’ll come back to me, but… I’m going to miss you every second until then.”
When he meets Jeongguk’s gaze, it wavers with unshed tears. Jeongguk remembers when they cried together here many years ago, clinging tight and promising to be together. A time when they were forced to part.
“We’ll meet again,” Jeongguk reassures, swallowing down the crack in his voice. “I promised you I’d come back and love you even more.”
Taehyung nods, eyelids fluttering shut as he breathes deep. He gently pulls Jeongguk to him until their heads knock together, arms wrapping around his waist.
“You’ve always come back to me, Jeonggukie,” he whispers, breath puffing over Jeongguk’s lips. “No matter how long it takes, I’ll be waiting. It’s a promise I intend to keep this time.”
Jeongguk’s inhale is shakier than Taehyung’s, his grip clinging tight to his shirt. He doesn’t want to let go, wishing he could bargain with his own heart just to keep him here, but he knows his time is almost up.
He chose to walk this path for Taehyung’s sake. There’s no turning back now.
“I love you, Tae,” Jeongguk exhales, pouring every piece of himself he can muster into the words. The force of them rises from his feet and pounds like his heart, willing them to stay together with every fiber of his being. “So much that it feels like living even when I know I’m dying.”
Taehyung huffs a laugh, his tears finally spilling over. He presses his lips to Jeongguk’s so tenderly that Jeongguk aches from it.
“I love you, too,” he breathes. “It feels like I’m not living unless I’m with you.”
Words aren’t enough, Jeongguk decides, so he kisses Taehyung again. He kisses him until he feels a pull in his chest that tells him he lingers too long, clinging to a life he left behind in an act of love.
When he and Taehyung part, clinging to one another until their very fingertips brush, Jeongguk feels half of his heart part with him.
“You have to come back,” Taehyung says, smiling through tears as Jeongguk walks off, hating every step that separates them. “You have to catch me when I fall, remember?”
Jeongguk turns, hesitating at the edge of the garden. He doesn’t just commit the sight of Taehyung to memory, his shining horns and his colored eyes, his curls and the shape of his smile… the way he looks at him like he holds the world in his hands.
He engraves him into his heart.
No matter what path he walks, he’ll carry Taehyung with him forever. He’s sure of it.
“I will,” he whispers, his heart feeling like it’s shattering. “I’ll be back. I promise.”
Taehyung sends him a final smile as his form slowly fades, and as Jeongguk turns to walk the next path before him, he realizes he no longer feels alone.
It’s when the spirit realm itself is before Jeongguk that he begins to panic.
There’s an extravagant castle of golden luxury ahead, a magic barrier surrounding it. He knows that crossing it will mean his rebirth into the spirit realm.
It’s not the path he wants. He wants to remain human and stay with Taehyung. He wants to keep the body he’s grown to love and keep hold of his human heart, to return to Taehyung as if nothing has happened and pick up right where they left off.
But Jeongguk knows he’s lucky to be reborn at all. Resisting the path laid for him would be fruitless.
His feet still drag, dirt kicking up in a cloud. His boot knocks a particularly hard rock that catches his eye as it slides into the tall grass. Curiously, he approaches to peer down at it.
His breath catches as a sparkle of violet greets him, a faceted gemstone of flickering flame. It’s warm when he wraps his fingers around it, pulsing with calm, serene power.
A power that’s all too familiar.
He remembers this gem, watching it shine in the hilt of the blade that marred his spirit form over and over. Even though it was used to torture him, the energy in it protected him—treated him with a kindness and love he only found through Taehyung. It allowed him to live.
The gem was embedded in the blade Shinah plunged into his wisteria trees, left abandoned in his heart this whole time. It prevented Shinah from fully causing his death, protecting him yet again.
It’s other half is embedded in the staff Taehyung now carries, the one handed down from his grandfather.
The sound of his racing pulse drowns out his surroundings as a line of light erupts from its core, revealing a treacherous path that intersects the one he currently walks. It guides him directly through trees and overgrowth, but Jeongguk cares little as he slowly follows it, turning away from the spirit realm and the power it offers him.
This path… it’s one that feels right, a path he had carved through his own human heart. Although it’s lined with challenges and healed wounds, sometimes treacherous and rocky, the space for him to walk upon is surprisingly clear.
A smile slowly grows on Jeongguk’s face, the gemstone clutched tightly in his hands. He starts off at a walk, gradually breaking into a run.
When he’s led by the colored shards of love he’s gathered, fusing them together to form a delicate picture of what happiness is, finding his destination seems all too easy.
Taehyung wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve. He stands atop a precariously placed ladder in the loft, reaching with all his strength to retrieve a book at the back of the tallest shelf.
He grits his teeth, annoyed when his fingertips brush over its spine but can’t manage to slide it into his grasp. He would have never placed a book here, not unless he had wings to carry him just a few inches higher.
After one last fruitless attempt, he sighs, slowly pulling his aching arm back and rolling his shoulder. His sleeve is covered in dust, the cloud of it watering his eyes. He supposes he’ll have to get Namjoon or Seokjin to help the next time they arrive to aid him, but he desperately wishes he could just ask the man that put it there in the first place.
He wishes he could see Jeongguk.
It’s been six months without him. Six long months of looking to the sky in hopes he’ll see the flickering darkness of his wings. During the day, he keeps himself busy enough, but there are too many nights where Taehyung thinks his heart might just give out if not for the bracelet worn round his wrist.
Jeongguk’s energy still pulses within the red band he gifted to him, soothing and kind at the times he needs it most. Taehyung knows energy still lingers in objects after death, just as it does in his grandfather’s staff, but he’s bent on believing the Jeongguk he came to love is still alive. He's sure his heart would somehow tell him if he wasn’t.
A long breath leaves him as he leans his head against the bookshelves, wishing he wasn’t surrounded by such an aura of defeat. There are some days where he does nothing but cry, comforted by his friends and the spirits that have come to love him. There are other days that he forces his feet to move forward, sometimes counting the steps just to remember he’s moving.
But today is a day in which he has to remind himself to breathe, the pain in his chest so great that he wonders if his heart is truly shattered.
He misses Jeongguk so much—misses the warmth of his embrace and the kindness in the crinkle of his eyes. Jeongguk was the only one who ever truly accepted him, loving him even at the times he felt he didn’t deserve it.
His life is empty without him, such a large piece to his existence that he no longer feels whole.
Taehyung sighs, twisting where he stands to glance at the window that casts an array of light over the desk. His heart is heavy in his chest when his eyes flick over the design, the match to the stained glass panel Jeongguk had designed himself. Unbeknownst to him, Jeongguk had Yoongi install one in the Arboretum as a surprise.
Taehyung hadn’t had a chance to see it until the day he returned without Jeongguk beside him.
The sight chokes him up now, tears crawling up his throat. He turns away, unable to look at it knowing Jeongguk isn’t there with him now. Knowing how hard they worked to form the pieces when he isn’t there to share it with him.
It’s unfortunate, however, when the ladder begins to wobble.
Taehyung feels gravity leave him in an effortless rush. He falls through the air with a sense of dread, awaiting the moment he hits the ground.
There's a strange acceptance in it, he thinks, knowing full well that Jeongguk is no longer there to catch him. He'll survive, just as he's managed to do while waiting for him to return, but he knows he'll emerged battered and bruised. Like his heart he's worked tirelessly to heal, he's strong enough to manage alone, but he'll never truly heal. Not when Jeongguk took a part of his heart with him when they parted.
He inhales, muscles tensing in preparation for impact.
Instead, he collides with a pair of arms.
Taehyung's heart shoots into his throat, his entire body going rigid. He's terrified to open his eyes, squeezing them tightly shut. He curls his fist and fingers catch in the material of a sleeve.
It can't be real. It can't be. He's spent so many months hoping, clinging just to the thought—
A rush of air leaves his lungs as his eyes snap open. Above him, Jeongguk's scrunched, smiling face greets him like the rising sun, a pair of darkened wings glimmering at his back. His eyes shine with shards of violet, overwhelmed with love and light.
Tears roll over Taehyung's cheeks, but he can't fight the brilliant smile that stretches across his face. He reaches up with shaking hands to trail his fingertips over his skin, almost afraid to believe the sight before him is real.
"You—you kept your promise."
Jeongguk hums, bringing their heads together. He gently brushes his lips over Taehyung's soft pair, breathing him in like the space between them never once existed.
It's seamless, the pact between them unbroken even in death. With the countless shards of light and love in their eyes, Taehyung thinks they blend to form an array of color more beautiful than any stained glass window, strong and tempered like that of the human heart. Delicate enough to be cherished, worshiped for eternity.
"I'm back," Jeongguk sighs, smiling into their kiss. "I'm home."