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Amen

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They’re lying in bed kissing lazily, mouths moving in sync, when Jungkook walks in on them.

Yoongi is the first to notice. He’s always half aware of their surroundings; semi-cautious of trouble occurring when they least expect it. His eyes catch the way the Jungkook’s dark form pauses just shy of the bed, rather than continuing to sweep across the floor the way the shadows of the swaying branches outside do.

It makes Yoongi still and look up, his lips halting and hovering over Hoseok’s. Jungkook stares back at him with wide eyes. He doesn’t look scandalized; he looks horrified. Not because his older brother is kissing a man, but because his older brother is kissing someone he is not supposed to kiss.

Hoseok notices Jungkook half a beat later. He has always been the type to become completely immersed in any one action and kissing is no different. It takes him a moment to register that Yoongi’s tongue is not delving deep into his mouth and their lips have stopped sliding against one another like artic ice bergs. Only then does Hoseok slip out of his haze and prop himself up on unsteady elbows to see Jungkook. His breath catches in his throat and his fingers twist into Yoongi’s thin sleep shirt.

Jungkook shakes his head, one hand clutching at the door frame. He looks like he’s trying to deny what his eyes are telling him. “If they find out they’ll kill you,” he whispers hoarsely. And then he is gone and the shadows merge.

Yoongi forces himself to breathe and looks down at Hoseok. Hoseok stares right back up at him, eyes wide and afraid.

“Is he going to tell?” he asks in a shaky little voice, still a little rough with disuse.

Yoongi makes a disagreeing noise at the back of his throat. “No,” he says without hesitation, but his voice is low and choppy, a sign that he too is slightly shaken at being discovered. “Jungkook wouldn’t.” Not his baby brother, who though has just entered into that phase of punk adolescence and ripped jeans, is still his the same kid who has always looked up to Yoongi and has his back when no one else would.

“Are you sure?” Hoseok says, eyes wide and worried. He bites down on his lower lip, already reddened and sore and Yoongi brings up a thumb to gently pull away the abused skin from Hoseok’s worrying teeth. He bends down and kisses him reassuringly.

“He won’t,” Yoongi says again and when a small protest bubbles out of Hoseok, he shuts him up with another kiss.

*

Jungkook doesn’t tell. But someone else does.

Yoongi knows it’s not Jungkook because Jungkook is the one who warns him.

“They’re gathering in town,” is the first thing he says after throwing the bedroom door open, chest heaving and breathless from having run all the way home. “They know.”

The pen in Yoongi’s hand drops. It clatters to the floor, audaciously loud, and rolls and rolls until it collides with the wall and comes to a faltering stop amongst the dust bunnies down there.

“How?” he hisses, half standing out his chair. “Who?”

Jungkook’s eyes round with distraught. “I don’t know,” he says, voice tinged with desperation. “I just heard them talking about it. I was at school with Jimin and Taehyung. We stayed late to play basketball. We took the shortcut through the village center and they were there…”

Yoongi wracks his brain. Who could have seen them? They’ve always been careful to make sure no one sees, never making more than eye contact when necessary and skin contact when it becomes unbearable.

Except that the unbearable moments have become more and more frequent of late…

His phone buzzes. Yoongi snatches it up and looks at the dialer ID. Namjoon.

“You’ve got to hurry to Hoseok’s house,” Namjoon says in a gravelling voice. The connection of this backwater village they all live in is shit and it makes everyone sound either too low or too high. To begin with Namjoon already has a deep voice, and through the phone line it comes out sounding like the grate of stone on metal.

“Why-“

There’s the sound of rustling as the phone exchanges hands, and then Seokjin is speaking, quickly but clearly. “The men in the village. They’re gathering with weapons. Pitchforks, spades, I think some of them are bringing alcohol and lighters. It’s not good. It’s really fucking not good. You messed up Yoongi.”

“But how,” is all Yoongi can say hazily, his mind feeling like it’s fogging up. He leans back heavily on the wooden table, his hand gripping it tightly for purchase. Everything feels like it’s falling apart, both metaphorically and physically. Jungkook watches his worriedly, looking like he’s ready to catch Yoongi if he falls.

“It doesn’t matter,” Seokjin snaps, a sure sign things must be bad because Seokjin is usually nothing but sweet, if a little firm at times. He has to be if he wants to counter balance Namjoon’s innate roughness. Seokjin and Namjoon. Hoseok and Yoongi. When they’d discovered that they weren’t the only homosexual couple in a homophobic village it had been nothing short of an absolute shock to both Hoseok and Yoongi. At the same time it was relief, cool and clear. Now they weren’t the only ones sneaking around, watching each other’s backs in between frantic kisses. Now there were four of them, keeping watch and protecting one another. So the tattle tale couldn’t have been Namjoon or Seokjin who either. Yoongi is firmly sure that it is not any of his friends.  

To tell the truth Yoongi doesn’t really care who to blame anymore. If he really needs a culprit, then it’s probably himself. They had promised to be careful. To hide their affections unless absolutely alone. But in the past few months they have been taking too many risks, playing with fire. A kiss behind the butcher’s shop, Yoongi pressed up against the chipped paint of the wooden wall. Linked hands under the school desk when the teacher had their back to them all. Late nights sneaking out of windows so that slick hands could roam against bare skin and the rustling of the woods would swallow their moans.

Too many risks.

“Hoseok’s house is closer to the village center,” is what Seokjin then says and Yoongi gets it. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. The phone call is ended before he even hears what Seokjin next has to say, and Yoongi grabs for an inconspicuous black hoodie and hat.

“Go to Jimin’s,” he orders Jungkook who jumps at suddenly being addressed. “Don’t come back unless I or one of us come for you. In case the villagers come here.”

Jungkook nods, obedient, and Yoongi feverently hopes he does as he’s ordered. He presses a quick kiss to Jungkook’s sweaty forehead and then time is up. He’s out of the house, dashing down the long path fenced by swathes of trees that are bare and sparse with the oncoming winter. His fingers are frantically dialing Hoseok’s number, the digits memorized by heart. He can’t afford to save Hosoek’s number in his phone book in case a stranger picks it up and makes the link between the two of them. It’s unlikely, but they’ve always tried to be careful.

Not that it worked anyway.  

The call goes straight into voicemail. Hi this is Jung Hoseok here! Unfortunately I’m a bit preoccupied at the moment but please-

“Fuck,” Yoongi swears loudly as he ends the call and tries again. Voicemail again. Hoseok’s tinny sunshine voice coming through.

Please, please, please, please be alright, he begs internally as he skids down a slope and tries to take a shortcut through the woods to Hoseok’s house. Hoseok lives about twenty minutes away from the central village which is where everything happens. School, shops, the village elders, they all reside there. Yoongi lives almost forty five minutes away. It means a bigger house and quieter mornings, but it also means waking up to complete darkness in the thick of winter to get to school on time and always been too far away from Hoseok.

He trips over some tree root buried deep in the leaves and goes flying, hands and knees scraping as he tumbles. Yoongi gasps but gets right back up, running again. He can feel something sticky on his palms but he doesn’t dare to look. He just wipes it down on his jeans and continues. He’s out of breath and Hoseok has always teased him about his short endurance span. This will probably be the one and only time he regrets not taking up Hoseok on his training regime.

Please be alright, Yoongi begs and squeezes his hands tightly as they pump through the air. He almost relishes in the pain. The throbbing in his hand. The burning in his chest. He doesn’t care how much it hurts, so long as Hoseok is okay.

*

Hoseok is not okay.

He’s hiding with his back to his bedroom wall, heart thudding as he hopes the man in his backyard who just looked up has not seen him. There’s a whole group of them, at least thirty or so. The one at the front seems to be giving a speech and from the bits and pieces that Hoseok can hear through the tiny opening in the window, he knows he’s in deep trouble.

The village has always been deeply religious as most reclusive villages do as a mechanism to maintain morale during the harsh winters and difficult summers. However ever since the arrival of the priest and his church that he has built right in the middle of the village, the village’s tolerance of same-sex couples has plummeted. There are sermons that dictate homosexuals ‘sick’, petitions that encourage those to confess their sins, and ceremonies where the sinner is told to make a sacrifice. And sacrifices always cost more than they are worth.

Hoseok has seen it happen. To his neighbor that Hoseok had never really known, other than the fact that he was friendly to everyone and open about his sexuality. Back then no one had ever cared. So long as you could bring in the harvest and support the village, who cared who you liked.

But then the priest had arrived three years ago and established his doctrine and the next thing Hoseok knew, his next door neighbor was being dragged to the church and forced to knees in front of the entire village.

After that incident no one dared to show homosexuality of any nature. Even kids playing together were furiously scolded and warned to know their limits.

Hoseok has never seen his next door neighbor since the incident but rumors state that he was banished. Hoseok hopes that is all that happened to him.

It’s for that very reason that he and Yoongi have sworn to keep their relationship a secret.

“What we have is not a sin,” Yoongi had said quietly one night when Hoseok had snuck into his bedroom and curled himself around Yoongi’s tiny form. It had been the night after Yoongi’s mother had left, citing that she was tired of this village and its narrow minded views. Hoseok had thought it narrow minded of her to have also left Yoongi and Jungkook behind. But if she hadn’t then Hoseok would have never had Yoongi, and Hoseok doesn’t know where he’d be without Yoongi.

Yoongi grounds him, centers him, in this world where everything that he is is apparently wrong. An error. An abomination. One that should be tied to the stake and purified with the ashes of a fire.

“It’s not a sin, but not everyone knows that. That, or they’re afraid to acknowledge it.” Yoongi had said, eyes closed and mouth barely moving. There’s something terrible about that truth and sometimes Hoseok thinks that Yoongi’s mother had the right idea.

The sound of glass cracking makes Hoseok flinch, reminding him exactly of where he is and what predicament he is in right now. He should have left the moment he saw them arrive, but then again that might be the problem with Jung Hoseok. He’s too trusting of people and whilst Yoongi always says with a fond, exasperated smile that that is his best quality, Hoseok doesn’t feel it shine quite as brightly here.

Downstairs the first licks of a Molotov cocktail spreads, greedily consuming with long fiery fingers. And upstairs Hoseok clenches his fists and tries not to give in to despair as the first kicks thud against the door of people who either think he is damned, or want him to be.

*

There’s a knock on Jimin’s front door and he jerks his head up, instantly alert. The town has been abuzz with activity all evening and Jimin’s father had told him to sit still and be good while he goes to see what’s going on.

It’s been an hour and his father has still not returned.

He opens the door expecting his father with news. Instead there is Jungkook, out of breath and sweaty hair plastered to his forehead.

“What’s wrong?” Jimin asks, one hand out to help steady his best friend. Jungkook just gulps for breath and shakes his head, refusing the hand.  

“Inside,” he says between breaths, eyes darting around warily. Only upon seeing that the clearing is completely empty does Jungkook dare to enter. But even then he slams the door firmly behind them and fumbles for the lock, bolting the door harshly.

“Jungkook? Jimin asks again, worried. This is the first time he’s ever seen his friend look so…hunted.

“Honey?” Jimin’s mother calls down the hallway from where she’s in the kitchen, cooking dinner. “Who is it?”

“Just Jung-“ Jimin starts but then Jungkook’s eyes flare wide and he slaps a hand over Jimin’s mouth. “Mmmghg what?” Jimin hisses as he peels off Jungkook’s sweaty palm.

“Tell her it’s Taehyung,” Jungkook whispers quickly, and the fear in his eyes is enough to convince Jimin to do so.

“It’s just Taehyung,” he says, hoping the uncertainty in his voice doesn’t carry.

“Oh?” his mother hums in response and Jimin is half fearful that his mother will wipe her hands on a cloth and come out to greet Taehyung. But then he hears the sizzle of a pan and knows his mother won’t abandon her cooking just to come say hi to their next door neighbor. “Tell him he’s free to stay for dinner if he wants.”

Jimin looks to Jungkook, who shakes his head quickly.

“Ah, I think he’s got to be home for dinner tonight,” Jimin calls back. “We’ll be in my room,” he then says before his mother can say anything more and proceeds to grab Jungkook by the wrist and tug him into his bedroom. He closes the door behind them and then pads over to his window, flipping up the latch and throwing up the frame.  There’s a jar of tiny pebbles on his windowsill and he tosses a few at the opposite house’s window. It takes a few seconds but then there is movement and the curtains are drawn, window thrown up, and Taehyung’s head pops out.

“Get in here,” Jimin hisses and jerks his head. Taehyung tilts his head but he squeezes out his window and stretches across, slipping easily into Jimin’s room, a maneuver made smooth by practice. 

“Oh, hey Kookie,” Taehyung says as he catches sight of him. “So?” he says to Jimin who is busy closing his own window and pulling the curtains close roughly.

Jimin looks to Jungkook. “Explain.”

“My brother and Hosoek are dating,” Jungkook blurts out and Jimin’s mouth drops wide open. Taehyung’s eyes round.

“But the village…” he breathes. “That’s what’s going on, isn’t it?”

Jungkook nods gravely. “I think they found out and…” Words failing him as he imagines what could happen if the village does catch them.  

Jimin’s brows dip. “Are they going to be okay?”

Jungkook shakes his head. “I don’t know,” he admits and bites at his lower lip, his hands fisting at the bottom of a grey hoodie that he thinks belongs to Yoongi. He’s not too sure because Yoongi always wears baggy clothes so that they can fit both him and Jungkook’s growing frame. So we can save money, he says as he fends off the protests, insisting that Jungkook chooses all the patterns and designs from the seasonal wagon that comes round every few months with new clothes and fresh food from foreign lands. . If it weren’t for these travelling salesmen, Jungkook thinks that this village would sink into stagnation.

Thought stagnation might have been better than the change that the priest brought.

Jungkook hates the way the priest has changed the village with his words and wealth. The village has long been self-sufficient, relying only on what they can grow on the lands and take sustainably from the woods. Traders appear sparsely enough for the village to not become dependent on them, and instead see them as a fresh source of supply, to be interesting and nothing else. However in the past few years the number of traders has dropped, stating that the village is too far out of the way and not worth the trouble. Add to that the increasingly cold winters and the village is not doing as well as it used to. Only the sheer stubbornness of the village elders has maintained their existence here deep in the woods. Even then people are slowly leaving, one by one.

Then one day a priest arrived with shining words and more importantly, support from the Church. Secured food supplies, clothes, equipment. All the village had to do was accept the Church’s teachings and it would all be theirs. It wasn’t a hard choice to make.

His father had joined up as a devout almost immediately and the fruits of doing so had appeared almost instantly. New wood and paint to repair their old house with, fresh fruit for the morning, a handful of copper coins every two weeks that could be exchanged for flour and butter and sugar, stocks which the village strictly regulated. Give it a year though and the priest will have those changed to the paper bills that the main cities like to use, or so Jungkook has heard from the tradesmen who still shake their head when they rack up piles of copper coins and bemoan how they’ll have to spend hours in some bureaucratic office getting it all converted to proper money.

The village is backwater but it’s their village. Their ways. Their rules. The village is so ridiculously stiff when it comes to maintaining their community and place in this isolated little location, yet they then become so pliant to a stranger just because doing so allows them to stay. Jungkook snorts at the contradiction of the elders and wonders if they will only realize how much they have changed when it is too late. 

It had almost been hilarious at how disappointed his mother had looked when their father had returned, ecstatic, explaining just how amazing and how perfect the church was and look at what he had gotten today and lets all go to Church next Sunday and-

“I’d rather be a pauper than a puppet,” his mother had said and that night left with a tiny suitcase and all the love in the house.

Jungkook sometimes wishes that she had taken them too because he is choking on this village. He slides down the wall and pulls his legs up to his chest, tries to get into a position that will let him breathe.

Jimin kneels, eyes wide with worry. “Are you okay Kookie?” he asks in a gentle voice and Jungkook shakes his head. Thinks he will never be.

He’s hyperventilating now. It’s not the first time. He’d done it three nights after their mother had left and his father had gone into a rage and tried to drag Jungkook and Yoongi straight to the church to be signed up for the next ceremony. Back then it had been Yoongi who had told their father to back off, a dark snarl on his face that had been enough to send him fleeing. Then he had found Jungkook huddled under the table and had clambered down under there with him, one hand running through his hair and a gentle lullaby that their mother had used to sing on his lips.

But there is no Yoongi now. This time the one Yoongi is searching for is Hoseok. Not Jungkook. Jungkook is grown up and has to take care of himself now. But he feels so at loss, like the ground is shifting and he is falling through the cracks.

“It’s okay,” Taehyung rumbles, his voice low and shaky when he’s emotional like this. He drops down onto the floor next to Jungkook and wraps his long arms around Jungkook’s waist.

Jimin drops to his knees in front of Jungkook and runs his fingers through Jungkook’s hair just like Yoongi once did. “Shhh,” he whispers and something pops in Jungkook’s chest. It’s a balloon, blue and forgotten in the sky. But now it’s popped and he’s free to inhale as much as he wants.

He looks at both them of them and Jimin and Taehyung’s eyes are like mirrors, worry reflected there. Jungkook feels himself tear up and Jimin makes a frantic little sound like he’s worried. He grabs Jungkook into a roundhouse hug that includes Taehyung and Jungkook lets out a tiny squeak in protest at how hard Jimin is hugging them both.

“Can’t breathe Jimin!” he protests but Jimin doesn’t let up.

“Not until you feel okay,” Jimin says with a shake of his head and Taehyung laughs.

“But what if he really can’t breathe Jimin,” he says, body vibrating with laughter.

Jimin pulls off slightly as he realizes the reasoning there. He looks to Jungkook. “Could you really not breathe?” he asks anxiously and for some reason it cracks a smile on Jungkook’s face.

He shakes his head gently. “Hug me again,” he demands and Jimin grins, then complies. His arms come around Jungkook and Taehyung squeezes harder and for the first time that night Jungkook finally feels himself calm. He closes his eyes and lets their comfort wash over him. And finally he can breathe.

*

Yoongi stumbles to a stop outside of Hoseok’s house because the sheer destruction is mind blowing. The windows and front door are broken, glass sparkling across the lawn. The potted plants that Hoseok’s mother had planted and tended to so carefully before Hoseok’s father had died of a sickness one too-cold winter are strewn carelessly about. Yoongi’s heart skips a beat because he knows just how fond Hoseok are of those plants. A reminder of the better times, Hoseok had said once.

Yoongi steps inside almost fearfully. His shoes crunch on glass and broken bits of furniture.  Fire flickers, small embers still licking about scorched walls and it takes all of Yoongi’s willpower to not imagine Hoseok smoking and bones blackened.

He knows the way to Hoseok’s room, can find it with his eyes closed or in the middle of a moonless night.

His hand is trembling as he pushes open the slightly ajar door and uncovers the destruction inside Hoseok’s room. The lamp is overturned, as is the chair. Paper layers the floor, a mixture of homework and lyrics and choreography sketches. Hoseok’s wardrobe is thrown open and his mixture of hoodie and shoes torn down from their neat racks. On instinct Yoongi’s hand grabs one of Hoseok’s snapbacks and he brings it to his chest.

For a moment he stands there, eyes closed and imagines all the times of them in Hoseok’s bedroom. Of the time where they had lain down on Hoseok’s bed, fingers touching at the tips, and Hoseok had told Yoongi all about his dreams to leave the village one day and explore all that there was out there. Of course he couldn’t. Not with his mother and her unstable mind, wandering elsewhere after his father’s shocking death. They have loved each other a little too much, Hoseok had said once. And love can do beautiful and terrible things.

Yoongi had rolled over onto his side so that he could look at Hoseok and Hoseok had turned his head, a soft smile spreading.

It’s okay, he had said in response to Yoongi’s downturned lips. It’s just a dream and dreams are always just little bit too far out of reach.

Yoongi’s frown had only deepened because this was Hoseok, always worrying about someone other than himself. Yoongi wished he would treasure himself more, but that is a pipe dream and if that’s the case then Yoongi will be the one to treasure him on his behalf.

“I’ll take you there one day if you want,” Yoongi had said quietly, words that he would normally only speak with pen and paper, not with lips and tongue.

Hoseok spoke with his body. The spread of lips, the gleam of teeth under the moonlight, the curve of his eyes. All that had been enough to sweep the dusty crevices of Yoongi’s heart into one pile and that belonged solely to Hoseok. He curled his fingers around Hoseok’s hand and brought it to his chest, a promise unto itself.

“We have to take Jungkook with us as well,” Hoseok had said softly, and this was why Yoongi was so in love with Hoseok. Because he cared. Not just about Yoongi, but about the things that Yoongi cared about, and even though Yoongi never showed those things, Hoseok somehow knew them. Yoongi had smiled into Hoseok’s hand and whispered, “Yeah, let’s.”

“Ah but if we do, then Taehyung and Jimin will want to come,” Yoongi had said, snorting slightly as he imagined Taehyung bouncing up and down, demanding that they take him along for this ride, Jimin whining that they better not leave him behind. 

Hoseok had laughed, a nice rippling little thing that echoed in the quietness of the night and spread tiny wings, flying far and high. “We’ll have to bring Seokjin-hyung and Namjoon-hyung as well. Otherwise we’ll never be able to control those three terrors.”

It was a nice thought, all seven of them, leaving this village and its stifling ways behind, a whole new world theirs to take.

“Yeah, okay,” Yoongi had whispered, closing his eyes. There had been a shuffle of the sheets as Hoseok had turned as well, shifting until his forehead was pressed up against Yoongi’s and his knees knocked at Yoongi’s shins. There hadn’t been any kissing or touching that night but Yoongi liked nights like these where it felt like nothing existed other than the two of them. No Church, no rules, no sins.

They could like each other as they so wished and only the moon above would know.

*

Hoseok doubles over as a foot makes contact with his ribs. He swears he hears a crack, but then the pain takes over and everything become blurry, his vision, his hearing, his sense of space and time.

“What about the other one?” one man says gruffly, backing away from where Hoseok is curled into a ball.

It takes a few seconds for Hoseok to register what they mean, but then he gets it. Yoongi.

He coughs and claws at the dirt, trying to get up, because don’t you dare touch Yoongi. Don’t you even fucking dare.

But his strength wanes and the world sweeps around in dizzying streaks of green and he has no idea where he is.

They had dragged him from his house, beaten and bruised and they had mocked him the entire way to where ever he was now.

“So you like pretty boys huh? Or maybe he’s a girl. Doesn’t that Min Yoongi always wear baggy clothes? Who knows what he actually is?”

Hoseok hisses angrily because these are boys on the cusp of manhood, delusional and easily impressionable. They range in age but Hoseok recognizes a few of them. Knows that they are the villagers who were young enough when the priest first arrived to readily accept his words, not because of food or supplies or because they truly believed in his teachings, but because it was interesting and new and a fun way to kill time. And over the three years they have grown up to become cocky and arrogant and extremely adverse to homosexuals. They are the main reason why no one dares to be true to themselves anymore. Dogs of the church, loud and yapping and more bark than bite, but still a mean enough bite.

Hoseok hates what they say now. Yes Yoongi is small and slight and sometimes they tease Yoongi for being prettier than some of the girls in the village, but that isn’t why Hoseok loves Yoongi. He has never superimposed Yoongi onto a girl, because well heck, the risks are not worth that. But Yoongi, the Min Yoongi, all time sarcastic, eye rolling Min Yoongi, now he is worth all the risks.

He’s someone who can sit there, mired in quietness but for a tapping pen and then something will change in him, as if electricity has suddenly sparked under his skin. His eyes will light up and his brows furrow and his mouth will come down in a hard line. Pen will touch paper and a battle with begin to see if Yoongi’s hand can keep up with the thoughts that race and touch and crash about his head. It’s one of the most exciting things to ever watch and Hoseok can spend hours watching him until Yoongi notices and his brows twitch with embarrassment and he scolds Hoseok off.

“But seriously,” one of the guys scoff, “liking guys? Disgusting.”

Hoseok snorts into the dirt. What’s so ‘disgusting’ about that? Hoseok thinks it’s more ‘disgusting’ that this guy can’t even appreciate love. Love is not about genders or looks; it’s about character and personality and Yoongi fits to his puzzle piece like magic. Like they used to be one segment until life decided to divide them up, but the edges are smooth and they will always slide back together.

“What do you think the priest is going to do with them?” another asks, nudging Hoseok’s leg with one foot. “Get them to confess and repent? Banish them?”

They’re talking like Hoseok and Yoongi are criminals, not even human anymore. It lights fire in Hoseok’s veins and he wants to get up and punch them and make them see that what they are is not wrong.

Loving someone isn’t a crime. Stopping someone from loving should be one though.

But he can’t. The pains in his legs are unimaginable and he has to bite down on the insides of his cheeks to try and override the need to cry with more pain. He tries to focus instead on what the guy has just said. It’s true, Hoseok has no clue what the Church intends to do with them. The only other example he knows of is his neighbor and no one knows how that ended, other than badly. 

There’s a new voice that comes closer. “Get him up,” the newcomer says in a deeper, raspy voice. “Priest wants him over there.”

At first there are grumbles, but then there are hands – unkind – and they lock under his armpits and yank him upwards. Hoseok bites back a cry, but then he realizes where he is. The forest was cut down a year or so ago to make way for a lawn of dead grass and a structure of dirty white that is not physically large, but mentally towering.

In front of the Church construct is something being built. A base of wood, twigs and branches and bits of dead bark. A taller pillar is lodged in the center of it, three times as thick as Hoseok’s torso and it takes him a blurry few seconds before he realizes what they are building.

Burned at the stake. What a way to go.

Hoseok chokes and tries to struggle, but the two men carrying him just tighten their grip and pick up their pace.

“No,” Hoseok gasps, a dry thing like the branches on the floor.

The man to his right laughs. “Don’t worry, you won’t be alone. We’ll find your little lover soon enough.”

“This is murder,” Hoseok whispers. “You’re going to be murderers.”

“Nah,” the man to his left drawls. “The priest ordered it so I’m sure the Church will forgive us and all. Plus it’s not like we’re shooting you in the head or anything. It’s an um, what does the priest say, a cleansing.”

Fear pools in Hoseok’s veins. They don’t care. They don’t fucking care that they’re about to kill him, and then Yoongi if Yoongi doesn’t get away. They’re going to kill two people in cold blood just because it doesn’t agree with the Church’s teaching and they don’t think it’s wrong.

The first scents of smoke fill the air as one man kneels by the pile, kindling it slowly into life.

Run, Hoseok pleads, prays. Please run Yoongi.

But privately Hoseok knows that Yoongi won’t abandon him. Yoongi isn’t the sort. He’s the type to always come back, no matter how hard it is, how much it hurts. And that’s why Hoseok fell in love with Yoongi.

But these men will never understand and Hoseok doesn't feel like explaining. 

*

Yoongi finds Hoseok unconscious, tied to a wooden stake, fire licking at his feet and the men laughing.

“Careful there,” one says with a raucous laugh. “We don’t want this one to burn before we find the other one. Bossman says they need to be purified together.”

Yoongi’s blood boils. They don’t even recognize the priest as a religious figure. They’re acting more like gangsters or thieves, acting blindly under a leader. Or perhaps not blindly. They know what they are doing is wrong but they’re using authority as a way to turn a blind eye to their misdoings.

His hands fumble with the gun. He’s never held one before, but his father has always kept one in the living room drawer just in case wild beasts appear. It’s happened before but back then the village men had banded together with fire lit torches and pitchforks to chase them away. Guns had always been this strange foreign tool that the traders had decided to start selling one day, but only Yoongi's father had been daring enough to purchase and adapt to one. It’s almost funny to think he here is wielding one now,  only this time the hunt is for humans instead of animals.

The rebound of the first gunshot makes Yoongi’s arms shake. He almost falls back with the impact, but he digs his heels in and charges into the clearing.

People jump and back off as he waves the gun around. “Get back,” he snarlsas he points the barrel towards them. He has five bullets – four now – but they don’t need to know that.

“Min Yoongi,” one man says darkly under his breath. His name spreads across their lips like wildfire and they all back off, like he’s infectious or something.

He points the gun at the closest man. “Get out of here,” he demands and cocks the gun just so that the sound can scare them. They flinch.

“This isn’t worth it,” one man says and takes a step backwards, dropping the dagger in his hand.

“What are you talking about,” another guys hisses. “If we let them go the Priest will be angry. And he’s the one supplying us with the goods.”  

That gets the men motivated. Yoongi recognizes them as the brash bunch of twenty or so year olds, a grade or two older than Yoongi and out of school. They follow the priest around, heads bowed and eyes shining. But then behind his back they scorn him and drink and laugh raucously. The older generation turn a blind eye to this because the priest is happy and the kids are happy and they are happy because they get their food and clothes and equipment and well, who cares that society is going down the drain if everyone gets what they want.

This is the problem Yoongi thinks. That everyone is too complacent, too willing to indulge in themselves. Too starved of real love to realize that the true treasure does not lie in materialistic means.

“He’s only got one gun,” one person says, gripping a spade between meaty hands. “And there’s more of us.” Their eyes gleam and their arms tense and slowly they converse. Yoongi has lost his advantage. They may not have guns but they have spades and pitchforks and long bats and numbers. And in a pack they are comfortable.

Yoongi’s hand wavers and that is the final point. A pitchfork is thrown and Yoongi stumbles and falls as he tries to avoid it. The sharp prongs land just centimeters away from his foot and Yoongi shakes with the realization that these men truly don’t care whether he is alive or dead, injured or not.

Yoongi shuffles back his hands and the dirt scrapes against his raw palms. They sting.

“Please-“he says to the approaching feet, and then his words are chopped off as a shovel smacks into his side, hard and relentless. Yoongi chokes as he falls to the side, the gun falling out of his hands.

There are feet and hands, hard and heavy against his skin and they rain down on him. Yoongi curls in on himself and tries to protect his head, his chest.

Then there’s someone grabbing at his neck and dragging him up. Yoongi kicks out, trying to wriggle free but a hard blow to his head sends his vision reeling. When the whiteness fades he is at Hoseok’s feet and they are trying to get him up on the other side so that they can tie him to the stake.

Yoongi panics. He kicks out hard and manages to catch his captor’s hand. There’s a curse and he is dropped heavily onto the floor.

“Fucking kid,” the man hisses, forgetting he is barely two years older and not that much wiser. He kicks Yoongi in the sternum, eliciting a sharp gasp.

“Knock him out. It’ll make dealing with him easier,” one person suggests.

“Or we could threaten him with his gun,” another says and Yoongi sees feet come close, the gun held loosely in one hand. The safety is off and Yoongi realizes that this person doesn’t know how to hold a gun. At least his father had taught him the rudimentaries of how to use it. The safety, the trigger, the loading of the bullets, the firing.

This person holds the gun lazily with one hand like it’s a joke. He points it at Yoongi and a grin flickers across his face, pleased when he sees Yoongi’s face widen with horror.

“Bang,” he says playfully, one finger over the trigger, but he doesn’t press down.

Then suddenly there’s yelling and a hoarse voice that sounds awfully like Namjoon and shocked, the man with the gun presses down on the trigger out of reflex. Yoongi doesn’t quite see the bullet, but he feels it.

It’s like a puncture, sharp, and Yoongi gasps as he folds in one himself.

“Fuck,” the man swears, dropping the gun and staring first at his hand, then at Yoongi. “Fuck. I didn’t mean to-“

He runs.

Yoongi can feel it now, the blood seeping and staining the black hoodie and the shirt he’s wearing underneath. It’s just one bullet but it feels like a hundred.

His hand claws at his chest and he feels suddenly so weak, so sapped.

“Yoongi!” comes a gasp and feet skid. Seokjin’s face swims into vision. Yoongi coughs, blood bubbling at his lips. “Fuck, Yoongi.”

There’s yelling and what sounds like the crunch of bones in the distance. Yoongi wonders if it is Namjoon. He’s always been particularly good at destruction.

There’s pressure on his chest, Seokjin trying to stop the bloodflow, but Yoongi knows it’s too late. He can feel blood seep into his lungs and he is drowning in his own fluids.

“Don’t,” he manages and clutches at Seokjin’s wrist.

There are tears at Seokjin’s eyes and they fall like crystal drops. “We were too late,” he whispers, head close to Yoongi’s cheek.

“Jungkook,” Yoongi whispers and Seokjin’s head comes up, his eyes hardening. “At Jimin’s.”

“I’ll find him,” Seokjin promises.

Yoongi lets out a tiny sigh of relief. “Take him away from here,” he begs. “Anywhere. Anywhere better than here.”

“I will,” Seokjin promises. “I swear it.”

The yelling in the distance has faded and briefly Yoongi wonders if he’s lost his ability to hear. But then there’s the crunch of footsteps and Namjoon’s familiar heavy breathing. Namjoon sinks to his knees and Hoseok is in his arms, clearly unconscious. Yoongi scrabbles for him and Seokjin helps move him over.

Hoseok’s face is a canvas of black and blue. Blood drips down from his temple and Yoongi wipes it away gently.

“His legs,” Namjoon whispers and curses. Yoongi looks down and sees that they are twisted inhumanely. Broken. Hoseok had always loved to dance, Yoongi thinks forlornly. “We’re going to have to carry him out and-“

“Namjoon,” Seokjin says softly, gently. But Namjoon continues talking to himself. About how they’ll have to hike it for the first few miles. Then maybe they can find a wagon or some traveler and get proper transport. And if they get to a city they should be able to find a doctor or something and-

“Namjoon!” Seokjin snaps and Namjoon freezes. “They won’t make it,” he says matter-of-factly and the despair in Namjoon’s eyes is like a stone dropping to the bottom of the lake. Irretrievable.

Yoongi wants to say something to him. That’s it’s okay. That it’s alright to leave them behind. Just take care of Jungkook and the others. Only the blood is swirling in his throat and when he tries to speak he is choking on it.

“Shh,” Seokjin says and pats him on the back so that he can cough up the blood. It splatters the ground, surprisingly dark.

Yoongi reaches out for Hoseok and Seokjin lowers him so that he is face to face with Hoseok.

“Do you want anything?” Seokjin asks softly and somewhere out of sight Namjoon chokes on a sob and kicks at the wood pile fiercely.

“The gun,” Yoongi says in a hoarse voice. “Can you get me the gun?”

Seokjin inhales sharply, but nods. He shuffles out of view for a few moments, but then he’s back and gingerly placing the gun into Yoongi’s hand. Three bullets left.

In his peripheral vision Yoongi can see the fire flicker. In the commotion the stake has been knocked over and the flames lick at the dry grass. It’s a farfetched hope but Yoongi privately wishes it would burn down the church with them. Free the village from its clutches. But then again, who is to say that the Church will not send another envoy, build another construct. There is no escaping them here; the only choice is to flee.

“Get out of here,” Yoongi whispers and Seokjin’s face scrunches up with sorrow. He drops to his knees and presses a kiss to Yoongi’s matted hair, then another one to Hoseok’s cheek. “Go on,” Yoongi says, fondness seeping through despite the pain. Seokjin has always been nothing but good to them. He wishes him what he and Hoseok could never have – a future.

Namjoon sniffs and there’s a warm hand pressed to Yoongi’s shoulder, and then he’s gone. They’re both gone.

Yoongi closes his eyes and hopes they get to Jungkook in time. Gets him out. The dream of the seven of them isn’t around anymore, but it will have to do with five.

Around them fire flicks, a backdrop of red and orange and smoke in the sky. Hoseok’s eyes are still closed and his breathing is uneven. Yoongi rakes his hand through his hair and holds it there.

He can feel the heat of the fire grow and rise like a hungry serpent.

So they wanted to burn them. Purify them. Whatever. There’s nothing wrong with them. This way of an ending, this is of their choosing.

Yoongi can’t quite reach Hoseok, so he presses a kiss to two fingers and moves those fingers over to Hoseok’s lips.

If this world is not ready to accept their form of love, then so be it. They’ll move on and find another world where they can hold hands out in the public, kiss without fearing of being seen, and love without it being a sin.

“See you in the next world,” he whispers and raises the gun with a shaky hand, the last of his strength. His finger comes down on the trigger, once, then twice, and then it falls out of his hand and onto the ground.

And finally, they are free. 

Chapter Text

There’s a hammering on the window, loud and insistent. All three boys jump at the sound of it, as if it is a bullet being fired into the room rather than sharp knuckles rapping on the window pane.

“It’s me,” comes a familiar hiss, low and annoyed. “Seokjin. Now open up. Quick.”

Jimin’s eyes fly open wide and he rushes to throw aside the curtains. Outside is Seokjin, face tight and eyes wide. Behind him is Namjoon, back to them all as he surveys their surroundings with wary eyes.

Jimin unlocks the latch and throws up the window. It’s a tight squeeze but Seokjin manages to haul himself in; Namjoon wriggles in after. Then it’s locked again and the curtains thrown back and five pounding hearts fill the space of Jimin’s tiny bedroom.

Jungkook is the one to break the silence of speech. “My brother…” he begins with pale, worried eyes. His fingers are dug deep into Yoongi’s hoodie and a thousand different scenes are playing over in his head. Yoongi and Hoseok aren’t with Seokjin and Namjoon. Are they safe? Hiding it out somewhere and having sent Seokjin to come collect him instead. Or are they hurt? Captured and bound by the church and their words. Or maybe even-

“We’ve got to go,” Seokjin says, his words thin and sharp as ice. Jungkook’s breath catches in his throat and his fingers still.

“Where,” he whispers, his voice hushed but magnified by the sheer terror in it.

Seokjin shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. Anywhere but here.” He reaches out for Jungkook’s wrist, takes it with a cold and clammy hand and Jungkook can’t help but shrink away from the touch.

“Not without Yoongi,” Jungkook says and takes a step backwards. He’s not afraid of Seokjin, but he’s afraid of what going with Seokjin entails.

Seokjin closes his eyes and a makes a frustrated little sound at the back of his throat. He nostrils flare and his lips are pressed tight. He looks like he trying for patience, and failing.

Namjoon steps forwards. “Yoongi isn’t coming with us,” he says shortly, stoically.

Jungkook feels the hyperventilation coming back again, the tight squeeze of shiny latex enfolding around his rib cage and breathing is now a task.

“Breathe Kookie,” Jimin murmurs, running a warm hand up and down his back. Jungkook focuses on his touch, on the one-track motion and he matches the concaving and relaxing of his diaphragm to the rhythm of Jimin’s hand.

“Then Yoongi and Hoseok-hyung?” Taehyung asks, eyes so wide that they reflect the moonlight outside. The sky is dark, the moon a half shard that pierces the black velvet night. There are no stars tonight.

Namjoon falters and chooses to answer with a lowered head and a shake.

Jungkook feels like his heart has been pierced and blood is spilling out and over. It’s not a matter of oxygen anymore; it’s a matter of drowning in one’s own fluids.  

“He asked us to take you away Jungkook,” Seokjin says softly and Jungkook latches his eyes onto Seokjin’s, watching the way his lashes catch fragments of light as they flutter down. Seokjin can’t look him in the eye.

“Did he suffer?” Jungkook manages to ask, his words tiny and sorrow spiked.

Seokjin hesitates for a moment and then shakes his head. “He was with Hoseok to the very end.”

Which means, yes he may have suffered, he may have been hurt and broken and crying till the very end, but because Hoseok was there it all pales in comparison.

Yoongi would have braved it to the very end, and so Jungkook feels like he has to do the same. But he can’t. The blood in his heart bubbles out and comes out as a twisted sob. There are tears which blur his vision but they don’t quite make it down his cheek. Because Seokjin is there and he pulls Jungkook into a rough hug where neither can see the other but that’s okay. Seokjin’s hands may be cold but his chest is warm, and Jungkook buries his face in the nest there and lets his grief spill over.

*

It is only a few harsh minutes later that Seokjin has to extract himself from Jungkook’s tight grip and bring them back to the reality of the situation.

“They’ll realize what is going on sooner or later,” he says, trying for stern and gathered, but ending up at loosely bound. He busies himself with wiping away Jungkook’s tears with a thumb under each eye. “We need to be gone before they start looking for you.”

“Why do they want me?” Jungkook says with a sniff, eyes still a little red.

“You’re the closest relative to Yoongi,” Seokjin tries to explain as kindly, but as realistically as possible. Jungkook is young, but he’s not blind. Even then though he has not been exposed to the cruelty of the village as Seokjin and the others has and it is hard for Seokjin here to be kind when what he really wants to do is just grab Jungkook by the scruff and leave.

But Jungkook needs to understand, and to make him understand Seokjin needs to be kind. It’s not easy. For Seokjin kindness is for kittens and the three maknae terrors when they’re hatching up their next prank. Kindness isn’t something he doles out consciously. Not particularly when all he wants to do is kick a wall and swear and curl up under blankets in Namjoon’s lap with a bottle of soju until dawn comes.

“They might go after you as compensation for failing to get Yoongi,” he says slowly, picking his words carefully. “Hoseok has no family other than his mother and even the church wouldn’t stoop as low as to touch her. Your father is a devout of the church and they’re unlikely to do anything to him. That just leaves you.”

Jungkook does a little hiccup-y gulp. “And that’s why Yoongi wants me to leave.”  

Seokjin nods again. “He asked us to find you and to take you away.”

“But to where?” Jungkook says with balefully wide eyes.

“It doesn’t matter,” Namjoon says with a shrug, his voice low and distant, eyes peering at the slip between the curtain and the window pane as if he feels they are going to be jumped at any moment. “The world is a big place Jungkook.”

“And we’re never coming back here again?” Jungkook says and he’s not certain if its hope or sadness in his tone.  

“Do you want to?” Seokjin asks him carefully, but he sounds surprised. There is nothing left in his village for Seokjin or Namjoon, not family, not friends. He was under the impression that now that Yoongi is gone, the same goes for Jungkook.

“But Jimin and Taehyung,” Jungkook says, turning slightly and Seokjin swears internally. He’s forgotten that they’re not arbitrarily coming along. Of course not. They have families of their own, mothers and fathers who have not exiled them from the house and home for loving people who they shouldn’t.

“I’m coming with you,” Taehyung says instantly, his eyes bright and burning as strongly as the embers in his orange dyed hair. Seokjin knows that he got the dye cheap off some one-time trader who had popped by the village to test the waters out. It had taken the trader three days and two purchases to realize that no one in the village other than Taehyung was interested in his unusual assortment of goods. But then again Taehyung has always been a little out of the ordinary.

“Your mother and father-“ Jungkook begins, but Taehyung cuts him off with a shake of his head, the fringe swaying as he does so. It’s getting long, Seokjin thinks, too long for village decree.

“They won’t notice a thing. Me being there or not, it makes no difference to them.”

Seokjin’s heart gives way a little and the kindness seeps out. The sympathy. It’s easy to forget in a strongly homophobic village that your sexual orientation is not the only reason for parents to be detached.

“I’ll go grab my stuff,” Taehyung says, a little too quietly, and then is out the window. He turns briefly to shoot Jungkook a bright smile, if a bit forced. “It’s okay Kookie,” he grins. “I want to see the world out there as well.”

Jungkook returns with a slightly uncertain smile and then Taehyung is out the window and back in his house. Jimin pulls back the curtains but leaves the window open and then it is three pairs of eyes staring him down.

“Your mother and father still care for you,” Jungkook says in a tiny voice and everyone knows that he would love – adore – for Jimin to come along, all five of them together forever, but his words are true. Out of all seven of them, Jimin has always had the most stable and loving of families. His father is hard working and well respected; his mother is kind and friendly. Jimin has no reason to leave the village.

The door opens and all four of them jump. It is Jimin’s mother standing there, her shadow long and illuminated by the lights of the hallway. “Go,” she says in a quiet voice, eyes downcast and lips quivering.

“What?” Jimin says in a shocked tone.

“Go with them,” his mother says in embellishment, her voice steadying slightly. “Namjoon is right. The world is a big place and this village will only constrain you. Go with them. See the world with your own two eyes.”  

“But appa-“ Jimin exhales and his hands tremble at his side.

“Your father would want this for you as well,” his mother says with a soft smile and there is a glimmer of tears at the corners of her eyes.

 “But-“ Jimin takes a step forwards and his mother takes one as well, closing the distance between the two of them. She enfolds him into a loving hug and Jimin rests his head on her shoulder. He fits perfectly in her fold, but he is still growing and one day he will be taller than her. She may not get to see that day come.  

“This village has changed,” she murmurs into his hair, stroking the downy part at the back of his neck with one hand. Her marriage band glints, copper and silver, beaten into shape by her husband twenty years ago. It’s a simple thing, quite unlike what the village has become these days. “This is not a place I want you to grow old and die in. Go. Spread your wings. See what is out there.”

“But you and father,” Jimin chokes. “Come with us.”

She shakes her head. “We’ll only slow you down. Five is a good number. You should be able to get passage via a trader’s wagon. Head to the closest city and from there wherever you want.”

“Don’t say that eomma,” Jimin pulls away with tears of his own glittering. “We can make it work.”

His mother smiles, a fond little thing that Seokjin recognizes as the kind of look parents give when they know words cannot convey what they truly want to so and so they try to transfer it all with one look.

“Your father and I will grow old and die here. We’ll be buried with the bones of our ancestors. That is the way tradition has been but it doesn’t have to be that way for you Jimin.” She smoothens a hand over his cheek lovingly. “Now pack your stuff. You don’t have a lot of time.”

Jimin swallows hard and nods, rubbing roughly at his eyes. He stumbles about the room, digging out a backpack from underneath his bed and shoving in random items. Seokjin sink to his knees and helps him, filtering out the unneeded stuff and including back the things that he knows are Jimin’s treasures.

“Take care of him for me please,” he can hear Jimin’s mother say to Namjoon, and Namjoon replies with a quiet promise and a bow.

There’s a quick knock at the window and a hiss and everyone looks up to see Taehyung slip back in with the grace of a panther, backpack slung over his shoulder. His eyes are flinty, like being back at home for just a moment or two has cemented his desire to leave.

“I’m ready,” he announces and gives a polite nod to Jimin’s mother as if her presence doesn’t come as a surprise to him at all.

“Me too,” Jimin echoes, standing and clearing his throat to try and rid of the gritty roughness in his voice.

“Take this,” his mother says and holds out a pouch that clinks when it drops into Jimin’s open palm. Jimin pulls the strings and his eyes widen at the incredulous amount of coins in there.

“Eomma this has got to be at least a month’s worth of-“

“Take it,” his mother says shortly. She pulls close the string and turns Jimin around so that she can tuck the money in deep, safely. The she spins him round and presses a kiss to his forehead. Jungkook tries to ignore the thump in his chest at the memory of the last person who did the very same thing to him as well. “Be safe,” she murmurs and then lets him go. Jimin bounds forwards and hugs her tightly one last time.

When he finally lets her go, turning to hide the tears in his eyes, she lets him and turns to Jungkook instead. “Take one of Jimin’s spare bags and his clothes. You won’t have time to return home and Jimin won’t need them here anymore.”

Jungkook nods noiselessly and lets her hand him a bag and pack it with clothes and supplies. She vanishes into the kitchen briefly and comes back with a pack full of food which she gives to Seokjin.

“This is too much,” he says wide mouthed.

“It’s repayment for the care you will give to my son and his friends,” she says fiercely and Seokjin accepts it without another word. He even lets her tuck his hair behind his ear, a motherly action he hadn’t felt in ages.

“I’ll take care of them, I swear it,” Seokjin promises and she smiles like that’s all she needs.

“Now go,” she says. “Take the west exit. It’s not the fastest way to the main road but it will be the one they will not expect you to take. From there look for a trader. Pay him, but not too much. Don’t show them the entire contents of the pouch. It will make haggling easier. And make sure they take you all the way to the city. Got it?”

“Eomma,” Jimin says, sounding a little shocked. “How do you know all this?”

His mother grins. “I was a trader’s daughter before I became your father’s bride.”

Jimin’s mouth drops open.

“You’ll know how to make a good bargain. It’s in your blood.”

“Father too?”

His mother winks at him. “Well he did pretty well in wrangling me off my father and convincing me to marry him.”

Jimin gives a surprised little laugh and his mother runs a hand through his hair. It lingers there as if she knows this may be her last chance to touch her son. “Now get going,” she says, her words now soft as down. “And know I will always love you.”

Jimin blinks back tears as she steps back and watches Namjoon open the window, keeping watch as each of them slip through and into the night. She watches as they make their careful way through the square and into the woods, and Seokjin watches as Jimin's eyes never leaves her face until she is finally swallowed up by the pines and he is forced to turn around to focus on the road, and now it's just the five of them.

*

They find a trader surprisingly easily.

He’s camped in some clearing on the fringe of the woods. His two horses snuffle at the grass and he is sprawled on the ground, a hat covering his eyes from the dance of the flames at his campfire.

They approach him cautiously, not wanting to alarm him.

“Excuse me?” Seokjin raises his voice.

The body on the floor jerks and the hat flutters to the floor. Dark eyes from underneath sharp brows narrow up at him.

“Who are you?” he asks, voice rough and rich all at once. It’s shockingly similar to Namjoon’s, but the tone and inflexion differ.

“Kim Seokjin,” Seokjin offers.  

The trader pushes himself up into a sitting position and raises an eyebrow at the four other boys huddled behind him.

“And what do you want?”

“Passage out of here and to the closest city.”

“For all five of you?” the trader says in an incredulous tone. “No way. That kind of weight is going to slow down my horses majorly and I can’t risk missing the next seasonal meeting over at Jongno. It could mean losing out on business prospects and new trail routes!”

“Please,” Seokjin begs.

“We can pay you,” Jimin says, stepping forwards, his eyes steeling like he’s being faced with a fight.

The trader shakes his head. “Still no,” he says firmly. “Like I said, business prospects.”

Jungkook squeezes his way to the front. “If you don’t help us then they’ll catch us.”

“Who?” the trader asks, eyes rounding as he takes in Jungkook’s ragged appearance and expression.

Shouts in the distance cut Jungkook off before he can speak.

“Who is that?” the trader asks, his sharp eyes catching the fire light as he turns.

“The villagers,” Seokjin inhales and he glances around furtively, as if he can see them coming, dark shadows in an even darker forest.

“From that little isolated village in these woods?” the trader frowns. “The one that’s supposedly really hard to get to?”

“Yes, that one,” Namjoon growls, “And they’re after us. So please, we need to get out of here. Help us!”

“What did you do?” the trader gives them a deeply suspicious look. He takes a step backwards and one hand glides down to the waistband of his pants, slipping under the shirt. Namjoon can see the gleam of something shiny there.

“Nothing,” he says truthfully. “They’re after us because we don’t agree with their doctrine.”

The trader looks surprised. “Doctrine? About what?”

Jimin swallows thickly and says in a voice like golden syrup, deep and swirling and sticky, “of guys liking other guys.”

“Oh,” the trader says with a small pop of his mouth.

Jungkook watches him cautiously. Will this man be like the men back in the village, uncaring but still able to inflict terrible things?

“I though this village was pretty easy going. Since when it did it get all callous like that?” the trader scratches at the back of his head. “And so you guys are trying to escape from that? But they won’t let you?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that, but in essence, yes,” Seokjin says hurriedly because they can hear the footsteps get closer now, heavy boots crunching underfoot. Towards the edge of the woods the trees give way for undergrowth of thick bracken and dead wood. It is easy to hear people come and go.

“Are you going to help us or not?” Taehyung demands, finally losing his patience after being quiet for so long.

The trader looks taken aback at being addressed so suddenly and so sharply. “I-“ he starts, but yelling fills the air.

“I see a fire!” one man shouts, his voice course and unfamiliar.

“Hurry up, over here!” another yells and Jungkook’s stomach does a flip. Are these men really after him? Will they really incriminate him just based on his brother?

Yoongi, help me, he begs silently and the trader takes two smooth steps backwards and throws open the wagon door.

“Get in here, hide,” he hisses and Seokjin takes a moment to once-over him. “Quick,” he urges and then Seokjin darts into the unfathomable blackness of the wagon. Taehyung is next, then Jimin. Namjoon practically shoves Jungkook in and then he’s in and the trader is closing the doors behind them.

“I’ll get them to leave,” he says, eyes bright in the enclosing gloom. “Sit tight and we’ll talk after they’re gone.”

Then the doors close and a latch folds over, plunging them into an all-encompassing limbo, uncertain of whether this strange trader will really keep his word, or simply betray them all.

*

Devoid of light except for the tiny cracks in the wagon door, they can rely only on sound.

Breaths are forced down in favor of straining to hear the trader speak with the village men.

“Hello there,” the trader says, voice suddenly cheery and upbeat. “What brings you out here?”

There a grunt and surprised shuffle. Traders, whilst known to drop in now and then, are still a surprise when they do.

“Are you here to do business with the village?” one man grunts, taking it upon himself to take lead.

“Not entirely,” the trader replies smoothly. “I’m learning the routes. I’m not here for business, but perhaps that will change in the future.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes it is so,” the trader replies, a touch snarky. It doesn’t brush the men the right way. “So how can I help you gentleman?”

“We’re looking for a boy, around fourteen, black hair, slight. His name is Jungkook.”

Jungkook feels his heart clamoring in his chest, running about on tiny little legs, up and down the walls and in circles. Him. They’re really are after him. He feels a crushing grip on his hand and turns to see Taehyung’s wide eyes close to his. Fear dilates his pupils.

“Haven’t seen him,” the trader says lightly.  

“We believe he may be accompanied by three or four other boys. It would be hard for someone to not hear five boys crashing about the woods.”

“Well I can’t say I have the best of hearing,” the trader quips, “but nevertheless I will keep an eye out for them. Now if you don’t mind I need to get to sleep. I have to get up early to head back to Jongno…”

For a moment Jungkook thinks they’re going to get away with it. That this trader and his tongue will secure their freedom. But then, “I don’t think I trust you,” one man growls and Jungkook stops breathing. “I say we search the wagon. Just in case.”

“I think not,” the trader replies with in something bordering on a snarl. “The contents of the wagon are my property and I would think that adults should know a thing or two about respecting another’s privacy.”

“If you’re so worried about us checking your wagon, then perhaps you do have a thing or two suspicious in there.”

A hand slaps against the wood of the wagon and they all jump simultaneously. The door however does not open. Instead there are more voices, clearer now, closer perhaps.

“A trader guards his goods well,” the trader hisses, his voice seeping through the cracks and Jungkook throws his hand over his mouth. If he can hear the trader up so close he fears the men will hear him and his panicked breathing.

Except it’s not his breathing that he hears. Jungkook turns his head incrementally to see Jimin, pupils white with fear and chest heaving. He’s breathing far too loudly and Jungkook slaps his free palm over Jimin’s mouth.

Shhh, he mouths at Jimin and Jimin stares at him, focusing until his pupils shrink and he the fear recedes. The two of them stare at each other, matching their breaths to one another as the voices outside continue.

“I say we break our way in. This man is suspicious,” someone argues and is supported with cheers.

“If you do that you risk business ties with the city,” the trader growls.

“So be it,” one man jeers. “We have the church’s support.”

“For how long?” the trader scoffs. “I’m out of here. Consider my business done here.”

There’s a click as the door is secured by an outward mechanism and stomps as the trader rounds the wagon and clicks for his horses.

“But checking the wagon-“ one guy hisses only to be cut off.

“There’s word that they’ve seen a boy towards the north exit,” a new voice says, slightly out of breath as if he has run all the way here.

Jungkook freezes. He recognizes that voice.

“What are we waiting for then?” someone scoffs. “We’re wasting our time here. Let’s go help them out.”

There’s a murmur of agreement and the collective fading of footsteps.

But that voice.

Jungkook throws himself forwards, ignoring Seokjin’s sharp hiss. He squints through the crack between the door and outside he can see the retreating backs of ten or so men. One man however is still staring after the wagon.

It’s been so long since Jungkook has seen his father’s face properly.

So long since he’s actually looked him in the eye.

Ever since their mother left and Yoongi had fought back, Jungkook has long associated his father with everything that has gone wrong in the family. He stopped looking at his father in the eye and avoiding speaking with him unless absolutely necessary. Maybe though he was just avoiding the real problem all along.

“Excuse me,” his father says to the trader who is stomping out the last dregs of embers. “Can you give him this?”

“Give who what?” the trader asks archly.

“You know who,” his father says, refusing to back down. He holds out a clenched fist and the trader accepts silently as something silver pools into his hand. He looks questioningly at Jungkook’s father.

“Tell him, it ah, belonged to his mother. He’ll know what it is,” his father says in a rough voice. “And tell him I’ll take care of Yoongi and Hoseok. Make sure they get a proper burial and all.”

Jungkook’s hands tremble against the wood varnish.

His father takes an unsteady step backwards. “And that I’m sorry.” His voice sinks an octave.  “For everything.”

“You should tell him yourself,” the trader says, fingers clenched around whatever Jungkook’s father has just handed him.

His father shakes his head. “He would never forgive me.”

“For doing what?”

His father bites down on his lip, a little habit Jungkook realizes that he does a lot as well. “For making family secondary,” he murmurs and suddenly the grey lines in his hair and the dark etches in his cheek become apparent. He father looks a hundred times older than he really is and the church is no longer his salvation.

“You could change that starting now,” the trader suggests, but Jungkook’s father shakes his head again.

“It’s too late,” he says quietly.

“Only if you make it be.”

His father snaps his head up and stares straight at the wagon. Through the crack their eyes meet, though Jungkook is unsure his father can see. Their relationship is like a one way mirror, never truly connecting. “You think one day he’d forgive me?” he says softly, not really to the trader, nor to Jungkook. Jungkook wonders if he’s talking about Yoongi since it has never really been Jungkook who has had the feud with their father.

The trader snorts. “Maybe,” he says and turns, ending their exchange. “Now by your leave.”

Jungkook’s father nods and a small smile spreads over his face. It looks painful, like the upturn of lips cracks at tough mask his face has long settled in. “Thank you,” he bows to the trader and backs off into the woods.

The trader boards the front part of the wagon where there is a seat and a handle to which the reins are lashed to. The trader leans behind him and with a quick flick of the hand opens a small window that connects to the wagon. Partial light floods through and Jungkook blinks, seeing only the shadowy back of the trader. “This is your last chance if you want to say something to him,” he says in a low voice.

Jungkook shakes his head, forgetting that the trader cannot see him. “It’s alright,” he whispers and turns back to watch his father’s retreating back. Jungkook doesn’t let his eyes leave his father’s figure until it is swallowed by the trees and then the bushes and then it’s all gone with the dust: the church, his father, Yoongi, Hoseok.

All gone and dead and buried.

Jungkook sinks to the floor of the wagon and wonders at the hollowness in his chest.

“Here kid,” the trader says, his voice breaking the silence. A hand sticks through the small window and Jungkook turns to see an open palm proffered to him.

“A pocket watch?” Seokjin says, puzzled. He watches as Jungkook reaches for it with a trembling hand, his fingers clasping around the cool touch of metal. He traces at the intricate network of overlaid steel that is the lid, and when he presses down on the button at the top the lid pops open to reveal a clock inside, the delicate hands frozen in place.

“Is it broken?” Taehyung asks, head popping over Jungkook’s shoulder.

“It’s always been broken since mother left,” Jungkook says in a murmur. The day his father had first returned with word of the church and the night his mother had thrown her pendant at him, packed up her suitcase, and then left, in that exact order. It had been her wedding gift from his father, the only reason apparently that his father had allowed his daughter to marry the man. He shows ingenuity and creativity in such stagnancy, his mother had quoted him once when Jungkook had asked how they had married. It had appeared though that in the end all things sink into the mud if left for long enough.

The pendant had broken upon contact with his father’s left temple and then the door. Yoongi had been the one to pick up the pieces and repair the exterior. The clock interior however he could never repair, and since their father was the only clocksmith in the village, it remained unfixed.  

Despite that Yoongi had taken to wearing it, hiding it in the folds of his hoodies. Jungkook holds it to his chest now. If he closes his eyes he can imagine the way Yoongi once used to sit there and clutch at it. Perhaps even the warmth of his father’s hand hours ago, and once upon a time, his mother’s touch.

“I’ve changed my mind,” the trader says. “I’ll take you to Jongno. For nothing. I'm a businessman but I'm not a cruel man. Leaving you there would be like leaving you for the dogs. Anyway, we’ve left a few hours earlier than I expected so we should still make it in time for my meeting.”

“How long will it take?” Jungkook asks, his heart rising in crescendo for a very different reason this time round.

The trader shrugs, the faint outlines of his shoulder in the oncoming dawn. The sky is a lightening blue and it has never looked so wide before, uncluttered by treetops as it is now.

“A few days at most. We’ll have to make more stops to rest the horses, but I’d say four days?”

“And then?” Jungkook’s heart is going to burst out of his chest. His fingers clench down so tightly on the pendant that there will be imprints later.

“And then whatever,” Seokjin says, his voice warm as he clasps a hand on Jungkook’s shoulder. “We can do whatever we want. We’re free now.”

“Free,” Jungkook echoes and the trader laughs.

“Free is an interesting way of putting it.”

“How so?” Namjoon asks, the rumble of his voice comforting.

“You free yourself of one thing only to become chained to another,” the trader lilts as he shifts the reins and angles the horses onto the left path.

“But at least we choose what we next become chained to,” Namjoon says with a shrug.

“Perhaps,” the trader laughs. “Perhaps. Now why don’t you guys get some rest? It’ll be light out in a few hours and until then there’s nothing really interesting to see.”

It’s not a bad idea. Now that the trader mentions it there is tiredness lapping at Jungkook’s consciousness, heavy and tugging.

“There are blankets in the corner. You can use those.”

Seokjin tugs out the blankets and they curl up amongst the crates and shelves that Jungkook can’t quite see in the glimmering darkness, but he can smell spices and wheat and the faint hint of something grassy and soothing. It is like the woods are still with him, the pine scent fresh on the blankets, home accompanying him on his journey to find a new home.

*

They sleep until afternoon, waking only when the wagon pulls to a stop.

Jungkook rubs at his eyes and winces at the bright stream of sunlight through the flung open doors.

“Rise and shine sleepy heads,” the trader grins, sharp toothed.

Namjoon grunts and buries himself further under the blankets. Taehyung and Jimin don’t even register the change. Seokjin is the only one to shift and yawn widely.

“Where are we?” he asks sleepily and stretches, arm nearly colliding with a shelf stacked high with paper that smells like old books and cream.

“We just got onto the main road. It’s been around six hours or so since we left the forest behind. I had to stop and water my horses. Thought you guys would want a chance to stretch your legs as well.”

Jungkook nods and bounds out eagerly. His legs are stiff and the sunlight feels amazing on his skin. Deep in the woods sunlight is filtered and at times magical. Here though there is nothing fantastical about the way the light shines down, bright and harsh. But there’s beauty in the lack of pretense.

Seokjin stumbles his way out after Jungkook, a little less gracefully.

“The others?” the trader says, looking in at Namjoon, Taehyung and Jimin’s still sound asleep forms.

“Leave them,” Seokjin yawns. “They’d prefer sleep.”

The trader smirks and closes the doors behind them.

Jungkook is paying attention. His eyes are fixated on the world around him. The blue sky is no longer what draws him in. Instead it is the dirt gravel to his left, a long stretch with interspersed wagons and horses that clop along at a casual pace. There are traders who wave at each other, grinning and nodding and sometimes even pulling their horses to the side so they can engage in friendly and even heated conversations. The horses are of all kinds, brown with white stockings, midnight black, tan, palomino. They whicker in greeting to one another, soft muzzles moving and Jungkook is fascinated with the velvetiness of it. He has never seen horses in the village. The tight squeeze between pine trees is too much for their larger bodies.

And then, barely able to drag his eyes away from the main road and its teeming occupants, to his right is a large stretch of a lake, blue and shimmering and reflecting the wagons parked around it. The trader’s two horses have drip their heads elegantly into the water, drinking their fill. The water is so clear that it reflects the clouds above and Jungkook is so stunned by it all.

But what takes his breath away is the endlessness of it all. Sure he can see the main road and the horses and the lake and the sky, but that’s not all of it. There are places beyond these that his eyes can make out. In the distance is the faint sketching of mountains, green and grey. He can see the woods behind them, a clustered blur now. Elsewhere there are large white birds soaring which later he will learn are sea birds, heading back out to the ocean.

“And the city?” Jungkook breathes. The trader laughs loud and friendly and points and Jungkook has to squint to see the haze of brown and grey in the distance.

“It’s still pretty far off,” the trader says, ruffling Jungkook’s hair good-naturedly.

“And are there places beyond the city?” Jungkook asks, eyes wide with awe.

The trader nods. “Of course. There are more cities beyond those. And forests and mountains and oceans and deserts. And in each place there are different people and different cities. Different ways of living and learning. The world is a pretty vast place.”

Jungkook can see that now.

The village was such a small and stagnant place in comparison. Jungkook regrets that Yoongi and Hoseok never got to see such sights.

“Jungkook,” comes a tired little groan from behind him. He turns in time to see Taehyung stumble out of the wagon and wrap his arms around Jungkook’s shoulders. “Where’d you go?” he yawns and greets Jungkook with a faceful of morning breath.

“Gross,” Jungkook wrinkles his nose.

“Can’t help it,” Taehyung mumbles and buries his face into the junction of Jungkook’s neck and shoulder. “No toothbrush.”

Of all the things Taehyung forgot to pack, it’s typical that one of them is his toothbrush.

Jungkook sighs and turns his eyes back to the world around him. It’s glorious, like the paintings his mother used to draw. He wonders if she is out there somewhere, still creating art. He wonders what he would say if he ever met up with her again.

One hand slips up to grasp at the pendant again. It’s warm, up against his neck. There are memories in this clock, of his mother, his father, Yoongi. They’ve all held it at some point in their lives and now it’s his turn to take up the baton.

He presses the button and pops it open again. Tucked on the underside of the lid is a tiny photo, taken four years ago on his parent’s anniversary. He missed it earlier in the gloom of the wagon, but he sees it now. His mother smiling, a broad careless thing, and his father is looking at her with nothing but love in his eyes. He can see the way Yoongi has inherited their mother’s smile, all gums and teeth. Jungkook on the other hand has taken after their father, flyaway hair and a slighter stature. He misses them all so very much.

“Do you want to find her?” Taehyung asks in a sleepy little mumble as he looks down at the photograph inside the clock.

Jungkook closes the clock with one hand. “Maybe one day,” he says softly, and he thinks that he’ll leave that one up to fate. But for now his time is with these four other boys. He hears the doors of the wagon bang open and Jimin trips out, staggering over to them and collapsing against Taehyung’s back.

“Heavy,” Jungkook complains, but lets them. The warmth is comforting and it reminds him that he’s not alone.

Seokjin drags Namjoon out, yawning and complaining and they all sit there, five of them at the water’s edge.

Jungkook stares at it all, fascinated. He remembers the times when Yoongi’s eyes would grow wide and glitter as he described the dozens of places out there, his voice growing more and more excited and his hands flying about animatedly. Hoseok would smack his shoulder and tease him that he’d be too lazy to walk all the way there and Yoongi would stick out his tongue and smack him back good-naturedly. Jungkook thinks that maybe he should have seen their relationship sooner, but on second thoughts realizes that even if he did, what would it change?

What matters is now and Jungkook is living in it.

“Hyung was right,” Jungkook says softly, loud enough for the other four boys to hear.

“About what?” Seokjin asks, looking down over Namjoon who is dozing on his shoulder.

“The world is a big place,” Jungkook says softly, holding up his hand outstretched to the blue sky and the blue lake and the blue beyonds.

Seokjin laughs, a soft vibrating thing. It’s very different from his laughs back in the village. Then they were more like crystal, tinkling and pretty to hear. Now they feel freer, lighter. Jungkook thinks he likes Seokjin like this.

Namjoon groans and slaps a hand down on Seokjin’s chest. “Stop moving,” he grumbles, eyes still closed.

“Open your eyes silly,” Seokjin teases, poking his cheek once.

“Why?” Namjoon whines.

“Because you’re missing out,” Jungkook says with a grin. It hurts his cheeks but it feels so good to want to smile, to laugh.

“On what?” Namjoon groans.

“On everything,” Jungkook says gleefully, spreading his hands out wide.

Namjoon opens one eye ominously, glares at their surroundings, and then closes it again, tucking himself back into Seokjin’s shoulder. “Not worth it,” he grumbles, making Jimin and Taehyung laugh. Seokjin shakes his head and runs a hand through Namjoon’s hair and Jungkook finds himself joining in with Jimin and Taehyung.

He feels lighter out here under the sun and the sky. For the first time in his life he can taste the air, the breeze, the happiness, all on the tip of his tongue. Laughter bubbles out of his lungs, light and airy and Jungkook is no longer drowning in the stagnant waters. He’s flying with wide open wings and finally, finally, he is free. 

And it feels good.

Chapter Text

Jungkook is twenty five when he finds himself on a trail heading back to the village.

It’s an accident.

He was simply trying to find a shortcut back to Jongno City, and in the process of crossing a hill and skirting his usual crossroads he discovers himself on the very same road that ten years ago the five of them had been fleeing by.

Then he had been hidden in the back of a wagon, the insane thud of his heart the only sound in his ears, a sweet signal that he was alive and he was escaping. Now he sits astride his horse, heart thudding for a very different reason. “There there,” he murmurs to her quietly as she nickers nervously, eyeing the forest with deep suspicion.

The memories of that night are blurry, their escape harried and cloaked in darkness. Time has smudged into a charcoal image.

Jungkook has never been able to find the path back to the village on his own and he has never tried asking Donghyuk for directions in case Seokjin somehow finds out and explodes with fury. Seokjin for one has never harbored the desire to return. Sometimes Jungkook thinks there must be something wrong with him because he seems to be the only one who does.  

And here the opportunities lies, tantalizingly close.

Jungkook looks skyward. The sun is arcing just to the right. He still has a few hours before dusk and that is plenty of time to get in and be out. He may not remember the way here but the path from the fringe of the woods to the center is one firmly imprinted in his mind.

He licks his lips. “Should I go?” he asks his mare, and she tosses her head, fine strands of her almond mane flying about. Jungkook knows her well. A toss means she doesn’t like it, but she can do it. A straight out refusal is when she bucks and doesn’t let him dismount. Jungkook pats her reassuringly, fingers combing through the tangled hair. He should brush it later when they stop to set up camp.

Jimin always rolls his eyes and complain that Jungkook doesn’t name her. Jungkook doesn’t see reason to. She is his horse and she doesn’t need a label to prove it.

“Let’s make it quick,” he says with a click of his tongue and cracks the reins. His mare starts up a gentle trot, her hooves crunching loudly on the bracken flooring.

The undergrowth grows thicker but she surges through, not protesting when the branches tug at her coat. Jungkook slows her down and takes out a long stick that he keeps handy. He uses it to push aside the bracken and they continue on.

Ten years is a long time. In ten years he has grown eight inches, seen the entire eastern continent and has developed a reputation as a top topographer of Jongno. It means he travels and plots new trails and landmarks on a rough sketch of papyrus that he sources from Jeonju. Upon returning to Jongno, Jungkook will then spend days carefully drawing out the map with a steady hand and a thick ink dipped brush. Donghyuk, the trader who saved them that day ten years ago, will then professionally produce the map and distribute them to whichever client requests for one. They make a good team.

They aren’t the only one.

Seokjin has settled down in the city, helping Donghyuk out with the running of his business now that he has expanded to more than just the trade of goods but the production of them as well. Donghyuk himself has long stopped his travels as a merchant trader and handed the metaphorical and physical reins over to Namjoon who does his job well, bartering and trading and returning with bulging pockets.

Jimin and Taehyung travel as well. Jimin with his itchy feet and need to move acts as a messenger, first and foremost for Donghyuk and his company, but also for anyone who hires him. He travels tirelessly from place to place by horse or foot to deliver or collect and repeat. Taehyung on the other hand has picked up a unique hobby of collecting rare and unusual items which he will then procure and bring back for Donghyuk to appraise.

In ten years they have all changed. For the better, Jungkook thinks.

Sometimes though he’ll wonder that if they have changed that much, then just how much has the village changed? Surely even that place could not be frozen in time.

His mare nickers to bring his attention back to in front of them. She pushes past some bushes, gentle against her thighs and Jungkook’s breath catches in his throat as he recognizes the clearing. The trees look absurdly the same, twisted and wrought in their own strange ways.

Jungkook reins her in and dismounts. He doesn’t tie her to a tree in case she needs to bolt. And if she does, it will only be because the situation is dire. Jungkook trusts his steed to stay loyal.

“I’ll be back in a bit,” he murmurs to her, scratching behind her ears. She exhales gentles over his face, bathing him in hot air that smells vaguely like hair and Jungkook makes a face. He lets her go with a gentle rad on her muzzle, knowing that this is just her own way of saying take care. “Be good,” he says and chooses to take only his knife and walking stick from the saddle bag at her side. He doesn’t remove it from her for two reason: the first in case they need to make a quick escape, the second being that he doesn’t plan to stay for long.

Jungkook slips the knife into the holster at his waist and grips the stick tightly as he cautiously starts down the trail.

The trees are the color of the dirt you have to dig to find, dark and rich. Their gnarled shape and leafless branches give way to a more defined path and then the structures of houses and huts.

The village has not changed one bit. The circle of elder cabins remains the same, polished and dark cedar. Jungkook can pick out the apothecary, the blacksmith, the general store. Their signs are still marked with the same symbols, if in need for a bit of a paint job. In the distance, just above the treetop, Jungkook can make out the spire of the church, tall and golden and reflecting the afternoon light.

Jungkook swallows and forces himself to continue forwards.

It’s been ten years, he tells himself. They can’t hurt you now.

Still, he puts one hand to the knife at his hip, the cool touch of metal reassuring.

Only then does it strike Jungkook that the village center is surprisingly quiet for a late Thursday evening. He walks up to the closest house and peers in through the window. His first impression is that either the window glass is extremely murky, or the insides are not lit. All he can see in his watery reflection in the gloomy, so he pulls away and grimaces when his fingers come away from the pane coated in dust.

The next house is no better. Nor the one after that. They are all dark, uninhabited.

Finally he tries opening one of the doors. It is unlocked and swings inwards easily, if slightly stiff as if with disuse. It creaks and Jungkook grumbles to himself that he didn’t think to bring the flashlight in the saddle pocket, trying to not feel unnerved by the silence of a village that had always been bustling in one way or another.

Jungkook is forced to stand there for a moment and squint, waiting for his eyes to adjust.

The first thing that he can make out is the fuzzy outlines of furniture, tables and chairs. He takes a hesitant step inwards and the floorboard squeals audaciously loudly. Jungkook winces and freezes.

When nobody comes out yelling at him for intruding he straightens up and takes another step inwards.

Outside the sky is darkening slightly and it makes it easier to see inside of here. He can pick out another doorknob and he wraps his fingers around it, twisting. To his utter shock it comes right off in his hand. He stares at it and sees the rotten end of the wood. Just how long has this house been in disarray?

Despite his misgivings, the sense that something is seriously wrong here is what drives Jungkook forwards. Knife in hand, he edges into the room, his supple boots treading lightly.

The air is stale and musty, as if this house has been uninhabited for years.

The room he is now in is a bedroom. There is a desk in the corner with an untidy sheaf of paper that looks ragged and hole ridden. Jungkook tries not to match it up to the state of Yoongi’s desk in the days long ago. He looks to his right instead where there is a bed and frowns when he sees something on it, long and dark.

“Hello?” he says, voice raspy and uncomfortably loud. It echoes in the empty room and there is no response.

Jungkook takes another step forwards, his fingers gripping into the knife tightly.

There is definitely something on the bed, around his height and width. Jungkook leans forwards to examine it but it is even darker here in the bedroom, what with a tiny window that does not admit the evening sun’s light. He slides the walking stick out his belt buckle and sinks into a half crouch, prodding at the thing with one end of it. To his horror there is a crunching sound, like floorboards giving way or paper tearing.

What is this thing? Jungkook wonders fearfully, brow dipped. He prods at it again and the same tearing sound ensues. He can’t get anything more from just prodding at it so gingerly Jungkook puts down the stick and slips on his glove, thick and black and useful for touching foreign items. The object is firm at firs touch, but as Jungkook applies pressure he feels it give way and collapse in. Beneath that first layer he can feel something sharper, more solid. His fingers curl around the first of what feels like several and he runs one finger up and down the length. It’s no longer than his hand and thick as two fingers. On a whim he curls his hand around it and grips tightly. When he tugs, it comes loose.

Jungkook holds it up to his eyes and squints  and promptly drops it with a yelp, falling back and onto his ass. He scurries back, ripping off the glove by the wrist, turning it inside out and throwing it to the ground.

It’s a rib. A fucking rib bone.

He stares back at the black shadow on the bed and then like a puzzle piece sliding into place he realizes what it is. A body. In some state of decay where the bones have weakened enough to be removed and skin is but a fragile web. Revulsion builds in his throat and Jungkook has to force down the nausea.

He leaves the glove and stick on the floor as he rushes out the house and back to his horse. She neighs worriedly, muzzle nuzzling his hair worriedly as he frantically rummages through her saddle pack to find the flashlight.

“Stay here,” he orders and runs back to the village, and against all internal screams of not to, back into the house.

The flashlight flickers on and now he can see the house properly. The walls are a moldy yellow-white; the floorboards cracked. Jungkook realizes now how lucky it was that he didn’t step into one of the gaping holes to his left. He would have fallen through and could have injured his leg.

The furniture is dusty. The bedroom is dank.

And on the bed is indeed a body. Its eyes are gaping holes and clothes settle flat against the skeleton, a mocking mimicry of humanity. Jungkook doesn’t recognize who it is but it is clear that he (if the clothes are anything to go by) was a villager once upon a time.

Jungkook backs out of the room and wonders how long has this man has been dead here for.

He checks the next house and finds two bodies there lying side by side in a bed. The longer hair of the second body and the shorter shedding around the first body suggests a couple. The tarnished wedding band, a marriage. Their half collapses skeletons tell Jungkook that even love could not parry death.

Jungkook checks three more houses and whilst some of them are empty, others have bodies in the exact same manner.

Finally the nausea surpasses a threshold and Jungkook falls to his knees at some bush and throws up the contents of the lunch he had on the road earlier, bread and cold meat. It slithers to the grass in a mushy brown pile and Jungkook has to turn his head away from it in case it invokes another wave of nausea.

He’s too busy trying to hold it all in that he doesn’t hear the approach of feet. He only notices the newcomer when the man sinks to his haunches and offers Jungkook water.

Jungkook jumps and nearly falls, but the stranger catches him by the shoulders.

“Are you okay? Did I surprise you? I was just worried.” The stranger has a rumbly voice that reminds him of Namjoon, only it’s not as deep, just, well like the rolling of rocks down a hill, each stacking higher and higher.

Jungkook coughs and takes the water canteen when the stranger offers it again. The first gulp he uses to rinse out the bitter taste of vomit, spitting with relief to the dead grass underfoot. The second he swallows with relief, cool and sweet against the burning sensation in his throa.t

“Better?” the stranger asks, eyes beneath thick black brows worried.

Jungkook nods and hands back the bottle. “Thanks,” he says, voice still a little rough as he wipes away the excess water on his chin.

“Choi Ikje,” the stranger says by way of introduction.  

“Jeon Jungkook,” Jungkook responds, voice hoarse.

“What brings you here?” Ikje asks as he uncaps the bottle and takes a swig of his own, wetting dry lips after he recaps it.

“I was in the area,” Jungkook replies tersely, unsure of what is the right thing to say. One wrong word and this Choi Ikje could turn from friend to foe.

“Really?” Ikje raises his brows. “Not many people know about this village. Only traders and the villagers, except they’re all kind of dead.”

Jungkook chokes. “All of them?”

Ikje nods. “Well at least the ones who stayed. At least half the village up-ed and left. They’re the smart ones. Those who stayed perished.”

“How?” Jungkook croaks. “Why?”

“Disease,” Ikje replies and Jungkook stiffens.

“Aren’t we in danger then?”

Ikje shakes his head. “Transmitted only by direct touch.” A frown flickers over his face. “You didn’t touch any of them did you?”

Jungkook thinks guilty back to the glove and his stick. He’s glad he left both of them behind. “Not directly,” he tells Ikje who then relaxes.

“Good,” he says with relief. “I mean they’ve been dead for so long that it is unlikely for the infectious particles to still be around, but hey, caution.”

“How do you know they died of an illness?” Jungkook asks, voice dry. Ikje hands him the bottle and he takes it gratefully.

“I’m a medic. I can recognize the signs,” he says, eyes sharp as flint. “I should also give you some vaccine later just in case.”

“What’s a medic doing all the way out here?”

Ikje gives him an appraising once over.

“What’s a traveler doing all the way out here?” he shoots back.

“I told you,” Jungkook says evasively. “I was in the area.”

Ikje snorts. “As was I.”

Jungkook gives a little sigh. Their conversation is going in circles. “I used to live here,” he confesses. “In this village.”

Ikje’s eyes widen incrementally. “When?”

Jungkook has to suppress the urge to shrink away from Ikje’s beacon like gaze. “Ten years ago.”

Ikje’s eyes widen even further if that is even possible. “What did you say your name was again?”

Jungkook wriggles uncomfortably. “Jeon Jungkook.”

Ikje snatches at his wrist, his grip surprisingly iron-vice. “Come with me,” he orders, voice tightening.  

“Wait, where? Why?” Jungkook protests, struggling in vail. “My mare!”

“Grab her and come with me,” Ikje says, not letting go.

“Why?” Jungkook twists hard to set his wrist free and rubs at the sore skin there.

“My client,” Ikje says, eyes dark as pitch now. “I want you to meet her.”

“Her?” Jungkook echoes, mystified.

Ikje nods. “Her.”

*

His client is a woman with a waterfall of hair that tumbles down her back, dark as midnight but with streaks of grey threaded through.

“Min-ssi,” Ikje calls out and the woman turns gracefully.

Jungkook feels a blow to his stomach, a round house kick square in the centre. He grinds to a halt and stares to her, recognition clear as day. Her eyes widen and a gasp falls out of her mouth.

“Eomma,” Jungkook whispers, unable to help the words that spill out.

“Jungkook,” his mother says softly and there is no mistake. Her face has aged and her eyes possess a weight that never used to be there but there is no denying it. After thirteen years he has found his mother again and Jungkook isn't sure if he is pleased or terrified.

*

Either way Ikje forces him to stay. He pushes Jungkook down next to their fire and practically forces food and water and some pill into his hand. He doesn’t seem perturbed that they are mother and child who have tension crackling within the space between their shoulders. He just busies himself with cooking and lets them be. Jungkook holds his tongue and watches Ikje work, not wanting his eyes to stray or his tongue to slip.

Therefore it is his mother who speaks first. “You’ve grown,” she says and Jungkook can see the way her hand twitches like she wants to reach out to touch him.

He doesn’t let her. Not yet. He doesn’t trust her and her intentions.

“Of course,” he replies, perhaps a tad too curtly. “It’s been thirteen years.”

She winces and he feels bad. But it has been thirteen years.

“I know,” she says, voice as faint as the wind. “Would you believe me if I said I came back for you all?”

Jungkook would. But she’s too late. Ten years too late.

“I thought you were dead,” she says softly, ignorant to his harsh thoughts. “I heard from a traveler that the village had collapsed. He had met some villagers who had fled and asked him to spread the story of disease so that no other trader would go there and get infected. They warned me not to go back, but I had to. They then suggested I take a medic with me, so I hired Ikje here.”  

Ikje hums in acknowledgment and turns over whatever he is roasting on the fire.

“Did you find…” Jungkook gestures with his hands, unsure of what he wants to say.

“Your father?” His mother assumes. “Yes.”

Jungkook swallows. “And he is…”

“Dead,” his mother says shortly and Jungkook cannot discern her tone. It is not sorrow-wrought but neither is it irate. “The fool stayed.” She calls him fool the way a woman scorned would.

“Where was he when you found…him?” Jungkook dares to ask.

His mother is silent for a moment, her face shocking pale against the firelight. The sky is dark now and shadows dance.

“In the back yard,” she says slowly. “I found his bones in front of two crosses. Why a grave is there I could never fathom-“

“Yoongi-hyung’s,” Jungkook says in a wavering voice and he closes his eyes against the tears that threaten.

He can hear the sharp inhale of his mother’s breath. “How do you know?” she whispers, voice drawn tight like a ready gun.  

“Father promised to bury him properly. The church would never allow hyung to be buried in their graveyard so he must have buried him at home. With Hoseok-hyung as well.”

He can see the imprint of their smiles, bright and big, on the back of his eyelids. Fresh grief scratches at the doorway of his heart once again.

You would have thought ten year sufficient time to get over a death, but death it seems never truly leaves someone behind.

“Hoseok?” his mother gasps. “That sweet boy who was in the year below Yoongi at school?”

“Yes, him,” Jungkook whispers and his hands sneaks up his neck to where the pendant is. He clutches at it like a lifeline.

“Why-“

“Yoongi-hyung loved Hoseok. And the church did not condone that. They died trying to escape.”

“When did this happen?” his mother demands, her voice faint. Jungkook opens his eyes and she looks like she herself is about to keel over. Ikje watches her with careful eyes as he continues to turn the meat.

“Ten years ago,” Jungkook croaks. It feels like only yesterday.

“Is that why you left?” she asks and Jungkook nods.

“And why did you come back?”

Jungkook swallows and clutches at the pendant even tighter. “I was in the area,” he says. “And I couldn’t help myself.”

A sob finally wrenches its way free of his mother’s throat and she throws herself across the campsite to embrace him. Jungkook lets her. The time of petty grudges has long passed and she is the last living relative he has.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers into his ear and he slowly wraps his arms around her tiny waist. She’s grown thinner, older. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Why did you leave?” Jungkook finally summons the courage to ask, thirteen years too late.

“I couldn’t stand the way the church was controlling everyone. The village was bad enough as it was before and this was the last shred. I was born and raised in the city. I loved your father enough to move to this stagnant little village, or at least I thought so. I guess I didn’t love him enough to stay through that.”

“And us?” Jungkook whispers. “Did you not love us enough to take us with you?”

His mother pulls back and there is guilt spread on her face like butter, fresh and gleaming, quick to spoil. “I should have,” she says in a cracking voice. “If I did then maybe Yoongi would still be alive. But I didn’t. I was selfish. I thought you would hold me back. I convinced myself that you would have a better life growing up in a stable environment. I could have never imagined…”

Jungkook closes his eyes to that thought. His brother Yoongi who somewhere deep inside always harbored the small hope that their mother would return. He had never told Jungkook but Jungkook had known from the way he had scorned their father’s name and chosen to take up their mother’s maiden name instead. Min Yoongi¸ he had said to the village elder one day when addressed. My name is Min Yoongi, not Jeon Yoongi. Okay?

“No, you didn’t,” Jungkook says harshly, but he feels entitled to it. His mother is right. One possibility of Yoongi still being alive is one that she has squandered and Jungkook wants to hate her for that. But then it would also mean Yoongi’s chances with Hoseok would have forsaken and that in itself is also a crime.

Jungkook’s façade crumples. “I’m sorry. That was cruel of me.”

His mother shakes her head. “You have every right. I should have stayed. Or taken you two. Or convinced your father to leave. He was a good man and I never deserved him, nor you two.”

She sits down on the log next to Jungkook and smoothens her long travelling pants. She is no longer the skirts and dresses mother he once knew, the woman who cooked and cleaned and tucked them to bed on time. His mother has changed and so has he. Perhaps, for the better.

“What will you do now?” she asks after a while when Ikje has rolled out a bedspread and declared himself retired for the night. He’s snoring softly now and it’s just the two of them and the stars and moon above.

“I have a job,” Jungkook tells her, feeling like there is so much he wants to say to her. “I have to return to the city soon.”

His mother hums softly and though their shoulders are not touching he can feel her warmth. “I would like to see my son at work.”  

There’s an unasked question hanging in the air. Jungkook could ignore it now and rebuff her, but he has long forgiven her and so he takes it with two hands and brings it to his chest. “Come with me?” he offers and his mother turns, eyes shining.

Then she notices the pendant hanging at his neck. “You have it?” she says, reaching out to pick it up. She presses the button and it pops open, revealing the broken clock that he has chosen to never get fixed. Inside is the photo of the four of them, faded now, a fairy tale moment from once upon ago.

His mother’s eyes soften as she traces a finger first over Yoongi’s face, then over his father’s.

“Do you want it?” he asks, reaching to unhook it from his neck. It was originally her wedding gift.

His mother however shakes her head. “Keep it,” she says gently and closes the lid, laying it down on his chest again. “It belongs to you now.”

Jungkook nods and grips at it, emotions thick in his throat.

“Ikje needs to make another round of the village tomorrow so he can finish up his medical report for the guild, but we can leave after that,” his mother says into the blue distance.

Jungkook nods and then pauses. Thinks for a moment. “Can we do something else before we leave?” he asks.

She turns. “Whatever you want.”

“Their graves,” Jungkook says, voice thick. “I want to see their graves.”

He knows that his mother knows exactly what he is talking about. “Okay,” she says softly and reaches over to stroke his hair just the way she did when he was a child and in need of a warm hand and hug. She begins humming and Jungkook recognizes it as the lullaby she always used to sing to him before bed. Jungkook closes his eyes and leans into her touch and song and it soothes him.

*

His father’s bones have been covered up with a sheet and they will bury him later, marking his grave with an identical cross. For now though Jungkook’s focus is on the two graves at the back of his house and their beautiful, if a little rough, crosses.

It is clear that it was his father who made them. Cedar smoothened down with a knife and tied together with hemp rope. Carved just above the cross section on one is a simple M.Y, and on the other a J.H. It appears that their father acknowledged Yoongi’s desire to keep a part of their mother tied to him. Maybe somewhere deep inside their father had hoped for her to return as well.

Jungkook sinks to his knees and clasps his hands together, closes his eyes and hopes that wherever they are, they are together.

When he opens his eyes his mother is mirroring his position. She stays on her knees longer than he does though, and Jungkook wonders if she is begging Yoongi for forgiveness. Jungkook knows that that for all of Yoongi’s harsh tongue he would forgive her in a heartbeat.

He turns around to give her a moment’s privacy and is greeted with the sight of his old house. He doesn’t dare to enter, not because the doorway has fallen in or that he can see from here that the staircase is chipped, but because he doesn’t want the memories or material objects in there.

This is enough. To see that Yoongi has been laid to rest. And soon, his father.

Ikje buries their father for them. Jungkook fashions a hasty cross and they pack it in tightly with the earth and wish him to a happier place than here.  

When they leave they go by the east exit which is the fastest route to the main road. It forces them to go by the church and Jungkook wasn’t sure what he had been expecting. Perhaps for the holiness and worship of the place to preserve it in perfection?

However the church like everything else in the village is decayed and falling in one itself. The cross still stands tall, but the spire is severely eaten at and half the construct is rubble on the ground. From the rusty glint of the roof Jungkook expects that the cross won’t stay standing for much longer either.

It appears that even religion cannot combat the march of time.

Jungkook briefly wonders what became of the priest. Did he flee at the first signs of disease, or did he stay and succumb to it?

Either way it Jungkook finds that that can remain unanswered.

 He turns, heading back to his mother and Ikje where they stand patiently, allowing him his moment. Ikje gets into the driver’s seat, and his mother slides into the open space next to him. Jungkook saddles up and mounts his mare and with a nod to Ikje they both crack their reins and leave the village and its disarray behind.

He’ll take them to the city and show his mother his job as map plotter and maker. He’ll then introduce her to Seokjin, Namjoon, Jimin, Taehyung, Donghyuk, the lady at the bakery who always slips him sweet treats when he returns, the old man who always grumbles about how Jungkook must be cheating when he always wins at Yutnori but will challenge him again regardless, the little girl from the flat two floors down who has probably grown two inches in the span of time he has gone and…

Ten years is a long time for many things to change. Some for the worse. Some, as Jungkook glances at his mother, for the better. She smiles and waves back at him and without even thinking Jungkook smiles back. He tries to hide it by turning his face back to the road, embarrassed that he is so pleased at such a small show of attention. His mare nickers and shakes her head, her equivalent to rolling her eyes. He leans forwards and pats her.

“Take me home girl,” he whispers in her ear and she neighs and enters a trot, pulling slightly ahead of the wagon. Jungkook adjusts, gripping with his legs and adapting to the rhythm. He feels the ground fly beneath them as they grow closer to the city and its inhabitants, the people and the place that for all his travelling, has become his home.

Home is such a strange word. He never thought he’d call a place home again, not after the trauma of losing Yoongi and his placehold in the village. But ten years is enough time for him to put the past to rest and to realize that here is a place with friends and family who are not going away, who know and look out for him, who care for him.

It’s not like anything will drastically change around him. The same people will come and go. Jungkook will continue his travels across the world with his mare. And when he comes back to Jongno Seokjin, Namjoon, Jimin and Taehyung will be there to greet him.

But it’s the subtle things that have shifted. His mother for one. Jungkook hopes she will become a permanent fixture in his life. His father, Yoongi, and Hoseok for another. No longer will he wonder what became of them. Closure at last.

He feels unburdened from his regrets and his worries, the hooks that the past has always had dug into him finally loosening and releasing him.

Jungkook may have thought he was free ten years ago, but now he realizes that this is true freedom. Acceptance. Conclusions. Putting the past behind him and the future in front of him. The way it’s meant to be.

He takes a deep breath and inhales the sweet air. His mare whickers, picking up on his buoyant mood. He leans forwards to press his cheek to the warm skin of her neck there and runs a hand idly up and down it, stroking.

In the far distance he can see the smudge of grey that is Jongno.

I’m going home, he thinks, a dozen different people coming to mind, and he grins.

Chapter Text

 

 image

So I received a message from the wonderful Whoo a week or so ago with this wonderful fanart of Namjin!! I couldn't not show this off so here it is!! Isn't it just the best!!! I've added the link here if you ever want to check it out from the original source.

(I did copy and paste the image off his/her tumblr and I've heard that sometimes links can change so if the image ever disappears/the link doesn't work, do let me know and I'll update it. Alternatively, if anyone knows any better way to insert images into a03 do let me know as well!) 

Anyway, thanks so much Whoo for taking the time to send me the image! I love it to bits <3

A/N: I know I haven't been the most responsive of authors this past year + but I am trying to change that this year. If you've commented etc I will try to get round to it soonish!