Jeongguk hates being unprepared. Every aspect of his life is outlined to the last detail and he has multiple contingency plans. He trained from the moment he turned ten in the event that his name was picked at the Reaping. He would get the syllabus for each subject at school, studying for tests and beginning projects months in advance. Christmas gifts are bought a year in advance, and his friends are banned from throwing him surprise parties for his birthday. He knows that, providing he lives to be an adult, he will marry Jiyoon who lives next door and will go to work with his father in the family jewelry shop. Jeongguk does not like surprises.
However, no amount of planning could have prepared Jeongguk for what the soul mate words that magically appear on his wrist say when he turns fourteen. He looks down at the writing – tight, black letters that look like words from a book – and frowns. The concept of soul mates is well known and believed throughout Panem. However, it is not a cause for celebration. These words signify that Jeongguk will only know who his soul mate is when he’s about to lose them. There are also those who never have these soul mate words inscribed on their skin. Those people are lucky. They never have to feel the pain of knowing who their soul mate is minutes before losing them. He rubs his thumb over the words. Part of him wishes they would wipe away and he could live life as if this never happened. To his dismay, but not to his surprise, they stubbornly remain inked on his skin.
It’s not the fact that the words are there that catches Jeongguk off guard, because there was always a chance that they would appear when he turned fourteen. It’s the fact the words are something no one in Jeongguk’s close circle of people he talks to would say.
“It would have been an honour to die at your hands, Jeonggukie.”
Jeongguk’s frown only grows. No one, not even his best friend Hoseok, calls him Jeonggukie. He expressly forbid it when he turned eleven. Jeongguk shakes his head, choosing to put it all from his mind. It doesn’t matter who his soul mate is. They’re going to die anyway. He’s still going to marry Jiyoon. He’s already practically proposed, even, and she already said yes.
She has soul mate words on her wrist too, but they both opt to ignore them. Fleetingly, Jeongguk wonders if her words are from him and vice versa, but Jeongguk doesn’t particularly want to think about losing her.
Three years pass and there’s no sign of his soul mate. He and Jiyoon are going steady. He’s already started working in his dad’s shop, and he’s getting stronger every day from his training; he’s ready whenever they call him. And they do call him, a few weeks after he turns seventeen. His name is called for the Reaping, along with this girl named Park Chorong, and the people of his district cheer. Jeongguk has seen Chorong in training, between he and her, District 1 has a golden chance of winning this year – just like every year.
On the train ride to the Capitol, Jeongguk watches the rest of the Reapings from the different districts. The tributes from District 2, Oh Sehun and Jung Soojung, while nothing to sneeze at, do not particularly interest him, not at this point. He and Chorong will form allies with them, and only when the four of them are left will their strength be an issue. Nonetheless, he decides to keep an eye on them, so as to minimize the chances of surprise.
The rest of the Reapings go as they usually do. A few people cry, and some stand stoic. Jeongguk’s about to go to his cabin when District 12 comes on, because really – District 12 is a non-issue at this point, when something catches his eye. When the escort calls a name, Park Jimin, before she’s even finished, there’s a loud voice announcing that they volunteer as tribute. Jeongguk raises an eyebrow, and as he watches, the camera pans to two guys doing some weird handshake before the volunteer walks up to the platform.
The escort asks for a name. "Kim Taehyung," the volunteer boldly declares. His voice is deep, smooth and clear. It makes Jeongguk shiver. As Jeongguk watches him, he feels as if there’s something drawing him towards Taehyung. It’s a little disorienting. Jeongguk frowns and absently rubs the inside of his wrist through his sleeve when it starts to itch slightly. Taehyung stands on the stage, smiling brightly and making faces at the camera. There’s a woman wailing in the crowd and Taehyung snatches the microphone from the escort to say, “I’ll be fine, mom. Jimin, you lazy ass, take care of her for me.”
The escort takes the microphone back, but is hiding a small smile. As she calls the name of the female tribute, some girl named Kim Hyojung, Taehyung makes more faces at the camera and elicits more chuckles from the crowd. Jeongguk bites back his own little laugh. The Reaping is always a sombre event for the outlying districts. It’s kind of refreshing for someone like Taehyung to be chosen.
But, Jeongguk knows better than to be fooled. For all he knows, underneath that cheerful exterior may lie a brutal killer. It would be a shock to anyone else, but because Jeongguk hates being surprised, he has to prepare himself for the seemingly impossible. He keeps his eyes trained on Taehyung as the peacemakers lead them away, Taehyung does aegyo for the cameras, poking his cheek and waving a V sign by his eyes.
Jeongguk is going to have to watch out for him.
District 12, for the first time, takes everyone’s breath away during the Tribute Parade. Their stylist, a newbie named Ahn Jaehyun, took their concept of ‘coal’ and reinvented it. Taehyung and Hyojung are on fire as they ride through the venue. Jeongguk has to admit that even he’s impressed. Taehyung is as animated as he was during the Reaping, blowing kisses at the crowd and doing so much aegyo that even Jeongguk feels an overwhelming urge to pinch his cheeks. When the parade is over, and they’re in the tribute area, he and Taehyung make eye contact.
When Taehyung smiles brightly, Jeongguk realizes his smile is a rectangle shape and he’s missing a tooth. Jeongguk thinks it might be a little bit cute. He refuses to smile back, though, opting instead to turn around so his stylist can get his gaudy costume off.
Afterwards, when he’s alone in his room, Jeongguk watches the Reapings again. If he skips all the others and goes straight to Taehyung’s moment, well, no one will know.
During the training period, Jeongguk keeps a close eye on Taehyung. The other tribute is, for lack of a better word, odd. He's not exceptional at the exercises, except archery, but he’s also not terrible either. His oddness is shown through his interactions with the other tributes. He manages to strike up a conversation with everyone, and he has such genuine reaction to things that gives him an almost childish, innocent quality.
Usually, unless an alliance has formed, the tributes from the various districts don’t interact with each other. Taehyung, on the other hand, skips from training station to station talking to anyone who’ll listen to him. He even puts the twelve year old tribute from Ten, Lee Yejin, at ease, letting her climb his back and giving her piggy back rides around the room.
Taehyung even talks to the Avoxes, despite the fact they can’t reply, and Jeongguk notices how they smile and sneak him rice cakes when they can.
When Taehyung comes up to him, he offers to help Jeongguk with his ‘dangerous plants’ test. As they work, Taehyung jokingly says: “I figure you’re probably going to be the one to kill me, so, if I’m nice to you, you’ll go easy on me right?”
Jeongguk doesn’t reply. He knows that people will die, that they have to, he really doesn’t want to be the one responsible for Taehyung’s death. The words on the inside of his wrist are itching again. He notices they always do when Taehyung is around, but this Taehyung can’t possibly be his soul mate. As much as Taehyung is like a literal ray of sunshine, their personalities, their worlds, are so far removed that there’s no way his soul could have decided that Kim Taehyung was its one true mate.
And yet, Jeongguk can’t help but wonder.
When Taehyung’s score for the private sessions is a nine, Jeongguk isn't not that surprised. If his half assed displays with the bow and arrow in the training area were any indication of his potential, then his true abilities must have been phenomenal. He supposes that Taehyung displayed his prowess with a bow and arrow only for the Gamemakers.
Jeongguk gets a ten, and Chorong gets an eight. All in all, Jeongguk’s feeling confident about this year’s Hunger Games. He just hopes someone else kills Taehyung before he has to.
During the interviews, Jeongguk can’t keep his eyes off of Taehyung. Jaehyun put him in a fitted suit and, with every step he takes, Taehyung trails flames behind him. His makeup looks like burning embers and his dark hair is styled to perfection. Jeongguk manages to tear his gaze away from Taehyung just long enough that he can answer his own questions without raising any sort of suspicions.
Unsurprisingly, Taehyung’s interview is a laugh riot. The hosts, Defconn and Jeong Hyeong Don, barely have to do anything because Taehyung’s just a natural at it. Jeongguk learns that there was no deep emotional reason for Taehyung volunteering, it was just a pact that he and his best friend made when they turned twelve. By the time Taehyung’s short interview is over, Jeongguk is sure that Taehyung has won the heart of every citizen of Panem.
The audience chants Taehyung’s name as he goes back to his seat, and despite himself, Jeongguk can’t help but feel a little bit proud.
That night, Jeongguk sneaks up to the roof of the Training Centre to try and clear his mind before he goes to the Arena. He’s not surprised to see Taehyung there first. He figures that many tributes go to the roof to do a bit of meditation before they face their almost certain death, and seeing as Twelve is in the penthouse, it’s even easier for Taehyung to get up there.
“Mind if I sit with you?” Jeongguk asks. Taehyung looks up at him and smiles gently, the space where he’s missing a tooth visible.
“Not at all,” he replies. He’s sitting on the ledge and scoots around so Jeongguk can sit next to him. “Who would have thought that a tribute from District 1 and a tribute from District 12 would be spending what could be their last night alive, together?” Taehyung muses out loud, swinging his legs from where they dangle over the side of the building.
Jeongguk nods, stretching his arms above his head. “I don’t think anyone would have thought it would be happening,” he says, letting his palms rest on the concrete behind him and stealing a glance at Taehyung’s face. Taehyung’s profile is exquisite, and the words on the inside of his wrist burn just a little. He rubs at the skin and bites his lip. He wants to ask Taehyung if he has the soul mate words on his wrist, but he’s afraid of what his answer may be.
“Do you want to live?” Jeongguk asks instead, and he cringes. Of course he wants to live, no one in their right mind would want to leave their family behind.
Taehyung laughs, bright and happy and in direct contrast to the situation they’re in. “I’m only eighteen. Sure, I wanna live,” he says, turning to look at Jeongguk with a smile. “But I’m from Twelve. I mean, I’m not going to be totally helpless out there as long as I get a bow and arrow, but the odds are stacked against me.” Taehyung nudges his shoulder gently. “Just, if you’re the one who has the ultimate honour of killing me, make it quick alright? Extreme pain makes me cry like a baby. I have an image to maintain.”
Jeongguk manages a breathy chuckle, but the thought of ending Taehyung’s life doesn’t sit right with him. He swallows thickly, trying to chase the image of Taehyung’s blood on his hands away from his mind. “If you get a bow and arrow though, you’ll probably kill all of us there. You can hide in the trees and pick us off one by one.” He’s not exactly sure why he feels safe enough to give Taehyung ideas about how to kill the tributes, when Taehyung could kill him using the ideas, but Jeongguk’s plans for the future did not include a Taehyung Contingency plan and Jeongguk isn't exactly sure how to act around him. He feels vaguely like he’s reading from a book in a different language, and he doesn’t like it but at the same time it feels invigorating.
Taehyung makes a non-committal noise. “I dunno. I might just use it to hunt for food, I’m not really a part of the whole murder scene. Make love, not war and all that jazz.”
Jeongguk looks at Taehyung like he’s crazy. He kind of feels like Taehyung has to be insane to maintain that mentality in the face of the games. “Are you kidding me?”
Taehyung turns to look at him and breaks out into that wide boxy smile. “Not at all, man. I know it sounds weird to trained killers like yourself, but I’m more a fan of defense than offence. I mean, if someone tries to kill me and I have a weapon of any sort, then fuck yeah I’m gonna defend myself. But I’m not going to actively go murder anybody.”
“Huh,” Jeongguk says thoughtfully, looking back out at the sky. The starts are twinkling behind the hazy cover of clouds. He wonders if his family is seeing what he’s seeing, and he wonders if they worry at all or if they have firm faith in his abilities. In his ability to kill other people. For the first time, the thought makes him sick.
“Plus,” Taehyung begins after a few moments of silence. “My mom would want me to survive, but she wouldn’t want me to kill anyone when it can be avoided. I wanna make her proud.” Taehyung’s voice has gone soft at the mention of his mom, and Jeongguk turns to look at him again.
“What’s she like? Your mom? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“Nah, I don’t mind. She’s really pretty and hard working,” Taehyung says. He's not looking at him anymore, but Jeongguk can see the side of his smile. “I lost my dad in a coal mining accident, and now it’s just me and her. She works so hard, but I learned how to hunt from my dad so I can help put food on the table sometimes. ...and yes, hunting’s illegal, but the peacekeepers down in Twelve are, like, really cool and turn a blind eye. They buy meat from me too, so,” Taehyung turns to look at him and grins. “Can’t exactly turn your gift horse over to the government to get shot can you?”
Jeongguk smiles a little at that. “Yeah, I guess not.”
They fall into comfortable silence again, Taehyung swings his feet over the edge of the roof and once again Jeongguk’s struck with an ache in his chest. Taehyung’s probably going to die, and he barely knows him but it hurts. He absently rubs at his wrist then inhales deeply, letting it out through his mouth.
“Do you wanna live?” Taehyung asks, he nudges Jeongguk’s shoulder again gently. Jeongguk turns to look at him with a softer smile, seeing how Taehyung’s mimicking his first stupid question.
“’Course I do,” Jeongguk says, nudging Taehyung’s shoulder in return. “I’ve trained for years in order to survive. I don’t want to go in there and die.”
Taehyung nods. “Big, strong, strapping young man you are,” he says in a sing song voice, grinning over at him and nudging his shoulder once more. “Well, like I said, if at any point you have to kill me, please go easy on me. I don’t want the world to see me as a giant cry baby.”
I don’t want to kill you anyway, Jeongguk wants to say. “You have my word,” is what he actually says.
Taehyung smiles. He smiles a lot, Jeongguk notices. It’s really nice. “Thank you.”
Silence reigns between them again, but it’s peaceful and soothing. After a few moments, during which the quiet sound of Taehyung breathing nearly lulled him to sleep, he looks down at his watch. It’s nearing midnight and he has to try and get some sleep. “I’d better get going,” he says, though he’d much rather stay and sit with Taehyung.
Taehyung nods, standing first and holding out a hand to help Jeongguk up. “Sleep well, Jeongguk,” he says, his eyes curving into crescent shapes as he smiles brightly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He leans in and presses a kiss to Jeongguk’s cheek. “For good luck.”
Taehyung practically skips off after that, not giving Jeongguk a backward glance. Jeongguk’s face feels warm and his wrist tingles.
The events before getting on the hovercraft to go to the Arena pass in a blur. Jeongguk doesn’t let himself succumb to the nervousness, but he does feel a little uneasy. His mentor, Kwon Jiyong, dubbed G-Dragon for the way he manipulated oil and matches to kill his opponents, sends him off with words of encouragement and a ruffled head of hair.
During the ride, Taehyung seeks to liven the mood by telling a series of jokes, each one worse than the last. However, despite how terrible the jokes are, Taehyung tells them with such conviction that no one can help their laughter, even the strict Capitol officials who administer the trackers are seen cracking smiles.
Taehyung catches Jeongguk’s eye and winks. He mouths, did you sleep well? Jeongguk nods, hoping that his blush isn’t too evident. Taehyung grins and gives him two thumbs up. He makes Jeongguk feel weird. He thinks it’s because he never prepared for someone to make him feel like this. Jeongguk can’t call it a crush, not yet, but he can feel the potential of it. The fact that Taehyung could very well be dead before the day is over makes his stomach churn unpleasantly.
When they reach the Arena, each tribute is led off to their different stations. Jeongguk’s stylist helps him into his suit. They don’t hug, or speak, but Jeongguk can see the quiet respect in her face. Jeongguk thinks there’s a hint of sadness there too, but she’s probably used to this and has guarded herself against feeling. The automated female voice tells him how much time he has left. He takes his stylist’s hands in his own and squeezes. No words are exchanged, but she gives him a little smile and he knows that she understands.
He then steps into the cylinder and is elevated to the launch pad to wait for the time to be counted down. As he waits, the overly deep voice booming in his ears, he looks around the Arena. It’s nothing special. A lake by the Cornucopia and a lush forest surrounding the outer circumference. Once again, Taehyung catches his eye in the midst of his gazing. Taehyung smiles brightly and gives him another thumbs up.
Jeongguk’s about to respond when the gong sounds. Instincts kick in and Jeongguk immediately takes off towards the Cornucopia. He’s not entirely sure what he’ll pick up. A pack of some sort, of course, but he's not sure which weapon. He’ll stay around for the initial blood bath, he decides, and maybe see if the other Careers will form an alliance with him and Chorong. Jeongguk can’t really see him well, but he feels Taehyung moving. Out of the corner of his eye he can just make out Taehyung dodging someone’s knife and then grabbing a bow, a quiver of arrows, and a backpack and before he disappears into the forest.
As Jeongguk uses the weapon he picked, a sword of some sort, to kill the tribute from Six who came at him with a knife, he finds himself desperately hoping that Taehyung will be okay.
That night, Jeongguk’s heart is in his throat as he watches the skies to see which tributes have fallen after the first day. Eight faces pass and Jeongguk thanks all the gods he’s ever heard of that Taehyung’s face isn’t one of them. He rubs his wrist. Though he can’t see the words, they weigh heavily on his mind. He still doesn’t think that Taehyung is his soul mate and part of him is refusing to entertain that possibility. However, despite that, he sends up an extra prayer to whoever might be listening. He’s not sure why. In order for Taehyung to survive this Game, Jeongguk would have to die.
Jeongguk, for the first time, doesn’t want to plan that far into the future.
The next morning brings the sick realization that, in the blood bath of yesterday, Jeongguk killed at least three of the eight faces he saw in the night sky. He manages to hold back the nausea that threatens to overpower him, crawling to the lake so he can splash his face with the cool water. There are blood stains on his hands that he doesn’t think he’ll ever be rid of.
As he makes his way back to camp, he moves into a conversation about which tributes they need to look out for. They all know that their biggest competition is each other, but no one mentions the obvious.
“We need to keep an eye on that dude from Twelve,” Sehun is saying just as Jeongguk walks up to them. "He got a nine in the evaluation, and clearly the Capitol loves him. Does anyone know what weapon he took?”
“I think he got the bow and arrow,” Chorong says, sorting all their weapons out while Soojung is going through their food, figuring out rations. “He was the only one in the training who tried it out, and I’m not seeing it here.”
“Fuck,” Sehun hisses. “We don’t know how good he is at climbing trees. He could literally pick us off where we stand. We really need to keep an eye out for him.”
Jeongguk knows better than to admit that he gave Taehyung that idea. He also knows that ‘keep an eye out for’ really means kill and it takes all his self-control not to throw up then and there. “C’mon man,” he says. “He’s not a killer. We’ll get to him later, if he doesn’t get himself killed by the other tributes first
Sehun eyes him critically before nodding. “I suppose you’re right,” he says, grabbing his spear and pointing it at Jeongguk. “C’mon, you and I have the first shift of tribute hunting. Get your sword.”
The thought of killing more people, quite a few of them are younger than he is, makes him feel almost unbearably sick. As he gets his sword he wonders why that is. He’s been trained for years for this very moment, trained to be a killer. He doesn’t know why all of a sudden the thought of doing what he’s been trained to do, doing what it takes to win, to live, fills him with uneasy dread. He pushes it back, filing it away in the Open Much Later folder in his mind. He’s always been the kind of person who compartmentalizes and it’s never been more useful than right now.
As he and Sehun head out into the forest, he desperately hopes that they don’t meet Taehyung during their hunt.
Each night Jeongguk watches the skies, two fingers pressed to the words inked into his skin. He’s not really sure what to hope for anymore as the days go by.
Within the first week of the Games, thirteen of the twenty-four are dead. Things are slow enough that Jeongguk and his allies aren’t really fiercely on their guard anymore. They’re sure that they’ve driven the other tributes deep into the forest, and none of the other tributes would risk going up against the Careers. They use their self-created respite to go hunting for food just in case their own supply runs out, leaving Chorong behind as guard.
“Little over ten left,” Sehun tells him. Soojung has moved a little ways off, and Sehun hangs back even though he’s supposed to spread out too. “It’s going to be me and you, you know that, right? I won’t' go easy on you at all. Just because you’re from One doesn’t mean shit.”
Jeongguk shivers. In the multiple plans he created for the Games, he knows that facing off against the male from District 2 is a possibility. He also knows that this alliance can only last so long. Still, something about the way Sehun so nonchalantly talks about killing him – he sounds as if he’s talking about the weather – is unnerving. Jeongguk keeps the unease from showing on his face, though, because he will never let Oh Sehun see him vulnerable.
“That’s good,” he says, head held high as he makes his way through the forest. “When I win, I want it to at least be a fair fight.”
Next to him, Sehun snickers. “When you win,” he mocks. “It’s a pity you won’t live long enough to venture into stand-up comedy.”
He’s about to reply, has a scathing retort on the tip of his tongue, when he hears his name being screamed. It probably says a lot that his first thought is Taehyung but he doesn't have time to think about that now. The sound comes again, from their camp, and he realizes that it’s Chorong. Terror grips Jeongguk’s heart as he races back. He can vaguely register the sounds of Soojung and Sehun running after him.
Chorong and another tribute – a Niner, Jeongguk thinks – are in a hand to hand combat. Chorong appears to be holding her own, and if Jeongguk can just get to her, he can help her win this fight. The tribute from Nine is strong, though. Clearly, Jeongguk and the rest underestimated her. Jeongguk absently tries to recall what number she was given for the evaluation because when the fuck did a tribute fromNine became a threat?
Chorong’s name rips from his lips like a war cry, just as the tribute manages to pull out a tiny knife (Jeongguk wonders where the hell she got it from), and slits Chorong’s throat. Blood sprays from the wound as Chorong falls to the ground, desperately scrabbling at her throat. Jeongguk has his sword out, two hands wrapped around the hilt, and the tribute has barely moved away from Chorong before he swings it, completely beheading her. A canon booms as he kicks the lifeless body away, the head rolling sickeningly in a different direction, and drops to his knees beside Chorong. He holds her close, trying in vain to get the bleeding to stop by pressing his hands to her throat.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He says as tears spring unbidden to his eyes. The sound of her gasping for breath through the blood is nauseating. He didn’t even really know her, but she was from home. He felt like it was his duty to protect her at least until it was just them and their allies left. The canon sounds just as her weak pulse slows to a stop. Jeongguk lets her slide out of his arms and then the hovercraft appears to pick up the bodies.
Jeongguk stares down at his blood soaked hands. He files Chorong’s death away in the ‘Open Later’ folder in his mind. He has a Game to win.
Chorong’s death weighs heavily on his conscience in the couple days that follow, despite his best efforts to file it away. Realistically he knows it wasn’t his fault, but part of him still feels responsible. But they had to go hunting, he reasons, and it’s not unreasonable for her to be left guard. She trained just as hard as he did back home. Truth be told he did plan for her to die, in theory, but he never thought she’d be dead so soon in practice.
Unsurprisingly, Sehun and Soojung are no help and offer no comfort. They may be allies, but this is still a serious Game of life and death. No one is friends here.
The next few days are excruciatingly slow. The other tributes have hidden deep in the forest, and Jeongguk and the others haven’t felt the need to go after anyone. But the restlessness is eating at him, and he feels uneasy being the only District One in the alliance. He knows they’ll turn on him before they turn on each other.
So he decides to go tribute hunting, as a way to get away from the Twos, and also a way to try and speed up this Game. The faster the rest die, the faster he can turn on his allies and win.
“I’m going hunting.” Jeongguk says, as he packs one of the backpacks with some food, water and extra knives. He doesn’t wait for a response, slinging the bag over his shoulder, slipping the sword into one of the loops of his pants.
He moves stealthily through the forest as he looks for the other tributes. After the blood bath on the first day, and the attacks from others in the days that followed, Jeongguk has about four or five kills under his belt. His ability to compartmentalize becomes more and more useful every day. Right now, in the Arena, he can’t let himself succumb to the grief and guilt of murdering other human beings. If – no, when he gets out of here, then and only then will he let himself give into it.
The fireball coming his way catches him off guard, but his instincts are sharp enough that he manages to dodge it just in time. Even so, it passes dangerously close to his ear, singeing some of his hair. He starts running, attempting to dodge a volley of fireballs that follow. A few of them graze him and the intense pain is nearly debilitating, but he pushes through it. He has to keep moving. He’s not even sure where he’s going, but he knows he has to get away from the fire.
Out of nowhere, though, a huge tree appears in his path. He manages to not hit it straight on, but his shoes catch on one of the roots and he’s sent tumbling. He hits his head on something, and the last thing he thinks before everything goes black is that he’s glad he got away from the fire.
“Hey, wake up!”
Jeongguk blinks an eye open and squints against the light. He’s presented with dark eyes and a concerned frown as Taehyung peers at him from only a few inches away. Jeongguk's heart does a weird surprised flip before Taehyung breaks into a bright smile. “Whew, thought you’d be knocked out for the rest of the Game,” he says, sitting up and gently helping Jeongguk into a sitting position, back resting on a rock. “How’s your head feeling?”
“Like shit,” Jeongguk grumbles, still a bit out of it and extremely confused to see Taehyung helping him.
Taehyung nods. “As expected. You hit it hard enough that a lump formed. But don't worry, I got you all cleaned up and tended to your burns. You're welcome.”
Jeongguk blinks at him in astonishment. “You did all that for me?”
“Well, duh. I gotta get on your good side, remember?” Taehyung grins at him. “You hungry? You’re probably hungry, you’ve been out for like three days.”
“Oh, shit,” Jeongguk breathes. “Really? What did I miss?”
“Yeah. Oh, a chick from Five, a guy from Eight and Yejin from Ten,” here, Taehyung looks a little sad and angry. Jeongguk doesn’t ask and Taehyung doesn’t offer any commentary, but he does move away and Jeongguk slowly turns his head to follow the movement. To his surprise, Taehyung has a slow burning fire going and has fashioned some sort of spit. There's some kind of rabbit, he guesses, coated in some sort of herb on a rod in the middle that Taehyung moved over to turn.
“This should be almost done,” Taehyung says, abandoning the rod to get a bottle of water from his bag. He opens it and places it to Jeongguk’s lips. “Drink.”
Jeongguk does, making a noise of assent when Taehyung tells him drink slowly, but he still nearly drains the bottle. “Sorry,” he murmurs, pulling away and wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
Taehyung just smiles. “It’s okay, man. You’ve been out for a long time. I’ve gotten a couple sponsor gifts and one of them included this thing to, like, purify water? And there’s a stream not far from here. So drink up. I can easily get some more. Plus, I also drank the water that was in your pack.” Taehyung smiles his box smile brightly. “Sorry ‘bout it.”
Jeongguk can’t help but give a little smile in reply. “It’s fine.” Then he raises an eyebrow, Taehyung’s words about sponsors finally sinking in. He sips at the water instead of guzzling it so he doesn’t make himself sick. “You got sponsor gifts? Have you killed anyone?”
“Not a single soul.” Taehyung admits, but he doesn’t sound self-righteous about it, no hint of judgement in his tone and Jeongguk appreciates that. “But I guess I make the people in the Capitol laugh, and this is a reality show, so I guess they like me. I even got a rice cake.”
“Jesus.” Jeongguk breathes. “All I got from my sponsors were healing salves and weird potions.”
“Dude, that’s a good thing though. Rice cakes aren’t going to help you when you’re infected and dying. There was a salve in your pack that helped a fuck ton with your burns.” Taehyung moves back over to the spit and takes the rabbit off of it. “I only roasted one, so we’ll have to share this one while I put another one on.”
“That’s fine.” Jeongguk says, taking the stick when Taehyung offers him the first bite. If this were anyone else, Jeongguk would worry about being double crossed. Taehyung, though, just seems to exude goodness, and it’s so refreshing that Jeongguk trusts him wholeheartedly.
“So,” he says conversationally, chewing on the meat as he hands it back to Taehyung. It’s not the cuisine he’s used to back in One, but whatever herb Taehyung rubbed on it takes the gamey edge off and it actually tastes pretty good. “Is this the start of an alliance?”
Taehyung shrugs, smiling as he takes a bite. His missing tooth coupled with how openly and readily he grins makes him look younger than his eighteen years. “Probably. I mean, I did kinda save you. It’s the least you can do.”
Jeongguk supposes that God, if there is one, really does laugh at man’s plans. He spent his entire life planning everything down to the last detail and yet, no amount of planning in the world could have prepared him for the fact that he and a tribute from District 12 would become allies. And he certainly didn’t plan to begin crushing on said tribute.
He never expected it, but after they ate and Taehyung got more water, tended to his burns and the cut on his head it became even clearer. They slept in the same sleeping bag, Taehyung curled almost protectively around him and this is the closest thing to home Jeongguk was going to get in the Arena. And the thing is, not only are they allies, but Jeongguk is starting to realize that he really likes him.
As time passes, some days go with no kills at all and Jeongguk can sometimes kid himself into thinking this isn’t a Game. He opts to lose himself in the purity and innocence that Taehyung exudes naturally. It’s like Taehyung’s this ray of sunshine in the bleak world of the Arena, and Jeongguk is beginning to think that he doesn’t fear dying as much as he used to. Taehyung’s laugh alone is enough to bring a smile to his face. It doesn’t hurt that Taehyung is probably the most beautiful person he’s ever seen. He wonders if the people watching at home are rooting for the unlikely pair. He wonders if Chorong’s parents hate him for letting her die.
He wonders if, in another world, he’d be able to meet Taehyung’s parents; wonders if Taehyung’s father would still be alive. He wonders if maybe he’d be able to tell them he was dating their son.
The phantom itch on his wrist continues, and Jeongguk desperately wants to ask Taehyung about it. But he’s not entirely sure what he’d ask. Taehyung’s name isn’t even mentioned in the words and at the end of the day, either Taehyung is his soul mate and he loses him, or Taehyung isn’t his soul mate but he dies in the Arena regardless. Jeongguk doesn’t know which would hurt worse, but either way will be bloody. That’s just how the Game goes. There is no happy ending here.
So, Jeongguk decides to live in the moment. For someone who never likes surprises, likes to plan down to the last detail, it’s extremely out of character. But Taehyung is comforting warmth at night, a joy and a laugh during the day, and Jeongguk really doesn’t want to focus on when he is inevitably going to lose him.
Taehyung’s made camp in a secluded enough space that they don’t really have to deal with the threat of other tributes. Jeongguk kind of likes it. They have fresh water, and food, and the gifts Taehyung gets from his sponsors keep things interesting. Jeongguk figures that another reason Taehyung gets so many gifts is because he’s easily the best looking tribute this year. In the back of his mind, he thinks that Taehyung could win this.
He doesn’t let himself dwell on the fact that in order for Taehyung to win, Jeongguk himself would have to die.
They’re lying on a flat rock, basking in the sun as they eat cherries. One part of Jeongguk is always on high alert in the event that they’re ambushed, but the rest of him relaxes. When he was picked as a tribute, he didn’t think that he’d spend so much time of the Game not even fighting for his life. He wonders if the people from his district think he’s copping out. He wonders why he doesn’t care what those people think.
“Hey.” Taehyung says, nudging Jeongguk’s ankle with his toe. Jeongguk turns to look at him. Not for the first time, he’s taken aback by the sheer beauty Taehyung possesses.
“Yeah?” Jeongguk replies, nudging Taehyung’s ankle in return.
Taehyung giggles slightly, eyes curving into crescent shapes, nudging Jeongguk again. “You got a girl waiting for you back home? Or guy. I don’t judge.”
It’s only then that Jeongguk realizes that Jiyoon hasn’t crossed his mind since he entered the Arena. He swallows thickly, wondering about how he feels about her. They were a couple, but only because it was… easy. Expected. She practically lived next door, their parents were friends. He supposed liked her well enough. She was pretty, and smart, and had a nice smile, but it wasn’t exciting.
Taehyung is exciting. Jeongguk is afraid that saying ‘yes’ might result in Taehyung pulling away emotionally. He hopes Jiyoon isn’t watching as he shakes his head. “No. Do you?”
“Nah,” Taehyung says, scratching his tummy. “Wasn’t really anyone back home that I liked.”
“Oh?” Jeongguk asks, eyebrow raised as he sits up and looks down at Taehyung.
Taehyung shrugs, looking up at him. “It’s not that I’m picky, I just. I dunno.” Taehyung shrugs again, grinning up at him.
Jeongguk doesn’t know what comes over him, maybe it’s the ever-present threat of death hovering over them. Maybe it's the constant tingling itch of his wrist making him crazy. Maybe it’s because in the last few days, Taehyung’s become his one constant, and Jeongguk just feels like clinging to him. Whatever it is, Jeongguk leans down and kisses him. It’s chaste and quick, more a brush of mouths than an actual kiss, but it makes him feel… he doesn’t want to say alive but that’s the only word for it. The words on his wrist burn. He’s never kissed a guy before, and he doesn’t even know if Taehyung swings that way. All he knows, is that he really wants to do it again. But properly.
Jeongguk leans up, his cheeks flushed bright red. “I, uh. I don’t know why… Just, emotions running high I guess.”
Taehyung just stares at him before a bright smile appears on his face. “Look at that. District 1 super star is sweet on District 12 peasant.” He says in a sing song voice, laughing softly. He pokes Jeongguk in the tummy, and Jeongguk smiles despite himself. “Honestly? I wanted to kiss you ever since I saw your Reaping video. I was like, damn, he’s hot as fuck.”
Jeongguk laughs breathlessly, feeling giddy and weightless. He doesn’t know how his family is reacting to this. He doesn’t know how Jiyoon is reacting to this. He doesn’t know how the Capitol is reacting to this, either, but there’s that tell-tale beep of a sponsor parachute and when they look inside there’s a bucket of chicken waiting for them so he figures they’ve done something right.
“Dude!” Taehyung exclaims happily. “Sweet!”
Taehyung immediately reaches in and pulls out a chicken leg, biting into it. “Dude, we need to like make out every second of every day,” Jeongguk shakes his head, smiling a little to himself as he pulls out a wing. In the middle of eating, Taehyung leans in and kisses him. It’s not a deep kiss, just lips pressed to lips, and Taehyung’s mouth is greasy. It shouldn’t make Jeongguk feel as amazing as it does, but he can’t help it.
“I’m gonna go hunt a little,” Taehyung says. “Come on, come look for the herbs I showed you and halve the work.”
A couple days have passed since their kiss, and they’ve shared a few more since then. When Jeongguk ignores everything else, he can kid himself into thinking that this is happiness, but it always comes crashing back that this will end bloody and in tears.
“Alright, your highness,” Jeongguk says jokingly, taking a sweeping bow as he follows after Taehyung.
“You’re a dick,” Taehyung laughs. “Okay, we’re gonna be parting ways a little, so uh. Every so often we have to whistle and let the other know we’re okay, alright?”
There’s an uneasy feeling in the pit of Jeongguk’s stomach. In the back of his mind, he wonders if they’re being a bit too reckless. Just because they’re in a pretty secluded area of the Arena doesn’t mean that the other tributes haven’t been hunting them down. Taehyung usually falls asleep before the fallen victims appear in the sky, but Jeongguk diligently watches. All the Careers besides Chorong are left and, a couple from the other districts. The end is nigh, and adrenaline will be running high. But he puts that out of his mind, desperately wanting to believe that he and Taehyung are safe.
They go their separate ways, kissing each other once before they go and making sure to whistle every so often.
Everything goes well for a time: Jeongguk looking for the herbs Taehyung pointed out to him and Taehyung whistling every so often. As much as he tries not to, the sound brings a smile to his face. He hums as he works. Once more he can hear Taehyung whistling but this time the sound gets cut off in a pained cry. The hairs at the back of Jeongguk’s neck stand up and instantly his body kicks into gear. He can hear Taehyung yell his name, pain colouring his voice, and he yells back. He doesn’t care if he alerts all the other tributes to their whereabouts, he needs to reassure Taehyung that he’s on his way.
His sword, he has it on him at all times, is out by the time he reaches Taehyung. He got caught in some sort of wire trap, the wire biting through the fabric of his pants and into his legs. Jeongguk drops to his knees beside him and starts cutting away at the trap. It’s useless at first, but Jeongguk is nothing if not stubborn.
“It’s okay.” He babbles. “I’ll get you out of here, and we’ll go back to camp alright? I promise, I –”
“Jeongguk, watch out!” Taehyung shouts, and on instinct, Jeongguk rolls away. He looks behind him and sees the male tribute from Seven throw a sharpened stick. Before Jeongguk can even properly think about it, he’s tossing his sword. He flicks his wrist just so, and the sword manages to decapitate the tribute before it falls to the ground.
“Tae –” Jeongguk begins, turning back to him and then the horror sets in. The sharpened stick had hit its target. It’s lodged in Taehyung’s stomach, and Taehyung manages to pull it out before falling. Jeongguk’s beside him in seconds, tears springing to his eyes. “No. No, no, no, no, Taehyung, please,” he says frantically, reaching to press his hands to the wound, and he's horrified to find that they come away completely soaked in blood.
“We had,” Taehyung says in a weak voice, clutching at Jeongguk’s arm. “A good run, huh?” He manages a laugh that sounds painful even to Jeongguk’s ears. “Damn. A tri-tribute from Seven did… did me in?”
“Tae,” Jeongguk rasps, cradling Taehyung in his arms. “Taehyung, c’mon, you’re going to be fine.”
“Wishful thinking,” Taehyung whispers. He smiles weakly up at Jeongguk and then frowns a little. “Quit… quit cryin’. It’ll all… it’ll all be okay. I promise. C’mere, I wanna kiss you,” and who is Jeongguk to deny Taehyung’s dying request?”
He leans down and presses his lips to Taehyung’s own, lingering for a moment. “Win it for the both of us, yeah?” Taehyung manages, mouthing the words against Jeongguk’s lips. “Or I’m kicking your ass in the afterlife.”
Jeongguk pulls away, managing a choked laugh through his tears. “I swear on my life,” He says softly. He rocks Taehyung gently, pressing his forehead to Taehyung’s lightly.
He can hear Taehyung’s breathing grow ragged and his heart is breaking.
“It would have been an honour to die at your hands, Jeonggukie.” Taehyung rasps out. And Jeongguk feels like his world is ending. Suddenly, he’s not at peace with it anymore. This isn’t fair, this life isn’t fair! How can the universe just cruelly rip Taehyung away from him when he barely had him in the first place?
“I change my mind,” Jeongguk says desperately. “We’re winning this together. C’mon, man. Taehyung, please. Who’s going to convince the Capitol to give us weird gifts? Who’s going to make the meat taste good? Tae? Taehyung? No. No! Taehyung, please! Answer me! Taehyung wake up!” Tears are streaming down his face as he shakes the still body in his arms. “Taehyung, stop fucking messing around, I swear to God, I’ll kick your ass. Taehyung, please. Please!”
But the canon sounds, and the sparkle has already left Taehyung’s eyes. Jeongguk holds Taehyung close as he sobs, hiding his face in Taehyung’s neck. He knows staying there for too long is not a good idea, that he’s an easy target since he has no weapons. The thought of using Taehyung’s bow and arrows makes him feel sick. But he’s not ready to part with Taehyung yet. He doesn't want to let go.
“Why couldn’t we have met somewhere else?” Jeongguk knows Taehyung can’t answer. “Why couldn’t we have met somewhere else and fallen in love and you tell me that when you’re old and grey and actually ready to die?” Jeongguk’s breathing hitches and a ragged sob rips from his throat. “Not when you’re fucking eighteen, I just met you,” he pulls Taehyung even closer, not sparing a thought to getting Taehyung’s blood on him. “I only just met you and I’ve already lost you. How the fuck is that fair, Tae?” He sniffles and makes the mistake of pulling away. Tae is already starting to look clammy, and the dullness of his eyes makes Jeongguk feel like throwing up. “Oh god, oh fuck,” He manages, hiding his face in Taehyung’s neck once more. “Oh god, god, you’re really dead. You’re re-really dead.” Something inside his chest twists and dies, too, and he weeps brokenly into Taehyung’s skin, holding him close and clinging to whatever warmth is still left. His body is wracked with broken sobs, sobs that sound guttural and animalistic to his own ears.
He rocks Taehyung like he would a sleeping child until he realizes that it’s time to leave. Taehyung wouldn’t want him to mourn forever. Taehyung’s life was characterized by brightness and, despite the pain in Jeongguk’s soul, he doesn’t want to taint Taehyung’s memory by dwelling too much in grief. Besides, he promised Taehyung that he would win this. He won't linger here and be killed, and fail Taehyung again.
Jeongguk gently, tenderly, lays Taehyung on the ground. He kisses the pads of his index and middle finger before slowly closing Taehyung’s eyes. He leans in and presses a kiss to Taehyung’s forehead. “May we meet again,” he says quietly, before making himself get to his feet. Jeongguk watches Taehyung for a few more moments, he waits until the hovercraft comes to take him away. His knees go weak as he watches Taehyung’s lifeless body hang limply from the giant claws. He actually does throw up this time.
In the moments that follow, Jeongguk manages to dig deep down inside himself, past the despair and grief, to drown in his anger and slip into the killer he’s been training to be since he was ten years old. It's easier this way. On his way back to the Cornucopia, he comes across one tribute, a boy from Four. Before a plea for his life can even leave the boy’s lips, Jeongguk’s sword slides home in the softness of his stomach. He yanks it back out and he doesn't look back as the boy's body hits the ground.
The canon sounds. After a few more minutes and no sign of other tributes, he takes a moment to tally the deaths from the beginning of the Games until now. Jeongguk realizes that it’s just him, Sehun and Soojung left. It’s almost over, and he’s going to win this for Taehyung. He promised that we would.
Days without any action seems to have left the Twos sloppy; as Jeongguk approaches their little camp, he realizes that they’re both asleep. He could kill them both now, but he’s itching for a real fight so he walks up to Soojung and spears her through the heart with his sword.
As he expected, her cry of pain wakes Sehun, who is on his feet in an instant. Jeongguk is ready for him, delivering a sharp kick to the face that sends Sehun back to the ground again. Jeongguk grabs his sword, watching for a moment as Soojung bleeds to death before returning his attention to Sehun. “Just the two of us right?” Jungkook says, waiting for Sehun to stand up. “That’s what you wanted.”
Blood pours from Sehun’s nose and when he opens his mouth to speak, red also stains his teeth. “Where have you been?” He asks, pulling out his own weapon: a spear. “This could have been over a long time ago.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Jeongguk says, approaching him. He fakes Sehun out with his sword before landing a swift round house kick to Sehun’s neck. The tribute cries out in pain before falling to the ground, gasping for air. Once he’s down, Jeongguk drops his sword and pounces on him, grabbing him by the collar.
Suddenly, Sehun is the embodiment of the Capitol, of the evil that they’re allowed to perpetuate. “He didn’t deserve to die,” he spits out, fist connecting with the side of Sehun’s face “He was only eighteen!” The impact sounds like a crack of lightning, and Sehun lets out an animalistic pained cry. “He could have been everything!”
“What are you talking about?” Sehun shouts, thrashing under him and managing to roll them over so he’s on top. He presses his thumbs to Jeongguk’s throat, snarling down at him. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, but I’m going to kill you.”
Jeongguk gasps for air, black spots already starting to appear in his vision. He contemplates giving up, he’s not sure he wants to continue living this life. He closes his eyes, and unbidden, Taehyung's limp body hanging from the claws flashing in his mind, and brings with it a cold fury. A fury at himself, at the Capitol, at everything. He promised Taehyung he’d win for the both of them, and he can’t let Taehyung down again. He already let him die. He can't take the easy way out. He can’t let it all be for nothing.
Sehun has the upper hand, but he's no match for the adrenaline Jeongguk's fury brings, and in the next moment Jeongguk is flipping them over. “I’m winning it for him, you pretentious asshole,” he growls, thumbs pressed dangerously into Sehun’s throat. All Jeongguk sees when he looks at Sehun is the Capitol, the Presidents who allowed these Games to happen, the people who find entertainment in watching young children being horribly murdered. “He was the best of us all, the purest. He deserved to live.” Jeongguk’s fists almost have a mind of their own, punching Sehun’s face as hard as they can while Jeongguk continues condemning the Capitol for their wickedness.
The sound of the canon booming startles him out of the haze of anger. When he looks down, Sehun's lifeless body lies bloody and mangled beneath him. Panting, limbs still thrumming with hatred, he rolls off the body and throws up.
He can tell that the Games have changed him, and he’s not exactly sure what version of Jeongguk will go back home to his parents. All the same, he wants to grab Taehyung’s hand and say, ‘I won. Just like I promised, I won it for you. For us.’
The reminder that Taehyung is dead, his soul mate is dead, hits Jeongguk so hard that he actually stumbles back. He reels, chest hollow and yet aching, suddenly racked with shivers. Jeongguk is vaguely glad that he doesn’t actually have to hold onto the ladder that the hovercraft lowers for him, because he’s not sure if he could do it. The personnel on the hovercraft bathe him and tend to wounds he doesn’t remember getting.
He wants to ask them what they did with Taehyung’s body, but they’ve probably already sent him back to District 12 so his family could bury him and put him to rest.
During his winning interview, Jeongguk is mostly quiet. They replay the scenes between him and Taehyung, and even though he knew they were filming everything it can’t help but feel like an invasion of privacy. The only thing he says for the entirety of the interview is ‘he was my soul mate’. He rolls up his sleeve and lets the cameras show the entirety of Panem the words he has inscribed on his wrist.
There’s a collective noise of sympathy from the audience and even Defconn and Jeong Hyeong Don look a little teary eyed.
Jeongguk isn’t the first person who met, and lost, their soul mate in the Arena. In the event that this happens to a victor, they’re allowed to visit the soul mate’s district to grieve with the family. While Jeongguk is thankful for this provision, he would have found a way to make it to District 12 regardless. He wonders if Taehyung’s family and friends blame him for his death, for not being around at the time Taehyung needed him the most. He wonders if Taehyung’s mother hates him.
He goes home first. The train ride back to District One is deathly quiet. His mentor and stylist do not disturb him and for that he is grateful. He hasn’t eaten, he doesn’t feel like he deserves to eat while Taehyung’s lying six feet under and his family is probably struggling to survive in the deplorable conditions of Twelve. Jeongguk’s mind always returns to Taehyung and part of him hates himself for it. He barely knew the boy and yet he feels like his life will never be whole again. He wants to know what kind of cruel God would allow soul mates to be found in such a horrible way.
His nights are descents into hell. When he’s not kept awake by the horrors of the arena, he’s plagued by vivid nightmares reliving his murders. During a dream scene of when Jeongguk won, Sehun’s face morphs into Taehyung’s and Jeongguk wakes up screaming. Jiyong wordlessly offers him a weird purple-pink pill, and assuming that it’s to help him sleep, Jeongguk refuses. He deserves this, he deserves to live like this. He’s tainted and impure, a murderer. He doesn’t deserve peace.
When he arrives in One, he’s greeted with cheers from his fellow citizens. It leaves him feeling sick to his stomach. They’re applauding, they’re praising him, for killing innocent people. Innocent children. He knows that this is what he trained for, but they never prepared him for the toll it took on his psyche. He feels as if there’s something wrong with him. He’s not supposed to care about the people he killed to survive, but he does. His hands are stained with blood and they’ll never be clean again. Jeongguk wants to cut them off.
He spends a few days with his family before going to District 12. He doesn’t see Jiyoon during that time. Part of him feels bad. He probably really hurt her by saying he doesn’t have anyone waiting at home, but he can't really find it in him too care about it too much. Providing she’s never chosen in a Reaping, she still has the rest of her life to find happiness with someone, and maybe live a long life before realizing that person is her soul mate and they’ll only die when they’re old and ready to die.
The ride to District 12 is fraught with unease. Jeongguk doesn’t know what to expect. He's exhausted. Sleep has been evasive since he left the arena, but on the nights that it does come his dreams are filled with nightmares of his own hands stealing the life from Taehyung. He denies Jiyong’s sleeping pill every time it is offered, he truly feels like he deserves this punishment. The weight of the world presses down on him when he steps off the train.
Park Jimin, the boy from Taehyung's Reaping video, and Taehyung’s mother are there to meet him at the train station. The world stops when he sees them. He stops when he sees them. They are the ones who deserve to grieve; they knew Taehyung his whole life. Fleetingly, he feels excruciating jealousy, but then Taehyung's mother begins to make her way towards him.
Jeongguk braces himself for hatred, for blame. It takes him by surprise when, instead, she wraps her arms around him and pulls him in for a tight embrace. Everything Jeongguk had been trying to hold back comes crashing in and he clings to her as he sobs. She’s crying too, but still trying to comfort and soothe him and Jeongguk wants to say this isn’t fair, he should be comforting her, but he’s crying too hard to get words out.
He feel another pair of arms wrap around them, and he pulls away briefly to see Jimin. Jeongguk moves his arm to bring Jimin into the embrace, fingers digging into Jimin’s side. He doesn’t know, or care, how long they stay there just crying in the middle of the train station. Before they break away, Taehyung’s mother whispers, ‘thank you’ and Jeongguk feels his knees buckle as he lets out a broken sob. His wrist throbs almost painfully, the words burning into his skin.
They take Jeongguk to Taehyung’s old house. Taehyung’s mother insists he eats something; he still can’t stomach anything, but this is Taehyung’s mother asking. The least he can do is eat some of the buttered toast she offers him. He manages to stomach two slices and a cup of unsweetened tea. It’s nothing near to the cuisine he’s accustomed to in One, but Jeongguk can tell how much Taehyung’s mother cares and somehow the simple food is easier on his stomach, so for that he is thankful.
“Can I see his room?” Jeongguk asks, hesitantly, when he’s finished. He knows that it's probably a weird and invasive request, but he desperately wants to see the little piece of the world that was exclusively Taehyung’s.
“Of course,” Taehyung’s mother says. She leads him to a door painted bright orange. Taehyung never mentioned what his favourite colour was, but somehow this bright colour suits the Taehyung he came to know in the arena. “I’ll leave you alone,” she says very quietly, unlocking the door and opening it so he can step inside.
The walls are painted in a myriad of colours in no particular pattern. It completely reconciles with the Taehyung he knew and he can’t but smile a little. There are homemade plushies on the bed. Touching one gently, he wonders if it's too much to ask Taehyung’s mother to let him have one. The walls are decorated with badly drawn stick figures, a height measuring line, tic-tac-toe games, hand prints and paintings of flowers and birds and trees.
He walks up to the spot where the hand prints are painted and realizes that Taehyung’s parents’ prints and Jimin’s are also there. He stamps down the rising jealousy and looks for Taehyung’s. There are a series of hand prints ranging from “Taetae 6mnths” to “Taetae 18yr”. He places his hand on the most recent one and closes his eyes. “I’m sorry,” Jeongguk murmurs. “I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you, I’m sorry I let you die.” Fingers curl into a fist on the wall and he has to take a step back before he punches it.
“Hey,” he hears someone say from the doorway, he turns to see Jimin standing there. He looks as wrecked as Jeongguk feels. Jimin comes to stands next to him and look at the hand prints.
“One time,” Jimin says after a few moments of silence. “Taehyung rigged up a zipline between two of the tallest trees in the woods beyond the fence.” Jeongguk turns to look at him, but Jimin’s still looking at Taehyung’s hand prints on the wall. “I told him not to do it, that I wasn’t gonna be the one to drag his dumb body back home when he got hurt. But the idiot still did it, with a fucking towel,” Jimin chuckles softly, sniffling through his tears. “He hit his head so fucking hard, I was so scared. But when I ran to him, the jackass gave me a bloody smile and a thumbs up as he spat out a damn tooth. ‘Try it, Jiminnie!’ He said. When the shock of the impact, and the adrenaline of the zipline wore off, he burst into to tears and I had to piggy back him back home. What an asshole.”
Jeongguk can’t help but laugh softly. “So that’s how he lost the tooth. What an asshole,” he agrees softly, looking down at his feet.
The semblance of happiness reigns for a few moments, the ghost of their chuckles dying as grief fills the room once more. Beside him, Jeongguk hears a hitched sob. “Jimin?” He asks tentatively, not sure what to do. He reaches out to touch him but draws his hand back, uncertain.
“I’m sorry,” Jimin says, covering his face with one hand. “I’m sorry, I just,” his shoulders shake as he tries to hold back his sobs. “I just miss him,” he manages, before he starts crying for real, one arm wrapped around his stomach. Jeongguk feels like he’s suffocating, anger at himself bubbling up in his throat. No matter how much grief he feels, Jimin and Taehyung’s mother are feeling ten times more. Taehyung was a part of their lives for years. Jeongguk doesn’t deserve to mourn for a second when these people are going through so much pain.
He gently touches Jimin’s shoulder by way of comfort before leaving him in silence. Tears spring to his eyes, obscuring his vision and he swipes angrily at them as he stumbles his way past Taehyung’s mother and out the front door. He drops to his knees on the porch, gasping for air. His wrist burns, an ever present reminder of what he lost. Inside, he can hear Taehyung’s mother’s muffled sobs and the grief surrounding the house takes hold of him and squeezes. He wants to scream but the only sound that comes out is a hoarse sob.
Jeongguk combs his hair back from his forehead and immediately wishes he hadn’t because he catches a glimpse of the words on his wrist. Suddenly he’s furious. At what, he’s not sure, but white hot anger courses through him and it’s a welcome respite from the pain. He hates the words on his skin, hates that he only knew his soul mate for a couple weeks, hate that his life is ruined because of those words. He hates the constant reminder that happiness will never be his because Taehyung is dead and there’s no one in this world who will fill that spot.
He scratches at the words with his nails, hissing at the angry red welts he leaves, but that doesn’t help anything. The tight black letters shine through the scratch marks as if they’re taunting him. He looks around desperately for something, anything, that can get those infernal words off his skin. Jeongguk’s gaze falls on a broken pottery shard and he scrambles across the porch to it. The rough wood scrapes his palms but he can’t find it in himself to care.
Fingers closing around the sharp edges, Jeongguk zeroes in on the word die and he’s never hated a word more. He presses the shard to his wrist, sinking deep into the physical pain so he can ignore the soul crushing emptiness he’s felt ever since Taehyung died in his arms. He slices at the word die and the two words framing it until all that’s left is a bloody space between honour and your. At some point, he started sobbing hysterically, grasping the shard so tightly that it cuts into his hand.
“Jeongguk?” He hears from behind him in a voice thick with tears. Jimin sounds so concerned that Jeongguk hates himself, because Jeongguk doesn’t deserve any comfort or concerned from the people that actually knew Taehyung. “What the fuck are you doing? You idiot, Taehyung wouldn’t want this!” He grabs Jeongguk by the collar of his shirt and drags him back into the house. Taehyung’s mother is still seated at the table, staring at her hands.
Once he has Jeongguk in the bathroom, Jimin wets a cloth with alcohol and attends to his wounds. Jeongguk’s so numb that it doesn’t even sting. “It's hard, I know hurts so much, but Taehyung would want you to live," Jimin says. “I can’t believe –” the words stop. As he was wiping at the bloody mess of Jeongguk’s wrist, he realized what Jeongguk was trying to accomplish. "Oh," Jimin starts, looking up at Jeongguk with immense sadness and pity while reaching for the bandages. "Oh," he repeats, quieter. “I’m sorry.”
And Jeongguk hates him too, he hates everything. He hates Jimin for realizing, he hates the pity, and he hates Jimin for showing him compassion when Jimin so obviously needs it more. “Don’t you dare apologize to me,” Jeongguk snarls, pulling away from him. “I don’t deserve it. I don't deserve any of this. You knew him forever and I just… I just…” Jeongguk starts crying again and lets Jimin pull him in close. He curls his fingers into fists and presses them against Jimin’s chest. “He was everything,” Jeongguk sobs. “He was home when I had no home and I… I’ll never get…”
Jeongguk’s voice trails off into bitter and broken sobs and he hates himself for seeking comfort from Taehyung’s best friend. Jeongguk is the one who should be comforting him.
“Do you… do you want to see his…” Jimin’s voice breaks and Jeongguk knows within a second what he’s talking about.
“Please,” Jeongguk says quietly, hiccupping softly as he tries to control his tears. Jimin gently leads Jeongguk out of the bathroom and they walk up to Taehyung’s mother.
“Eomma,” Jimin says softly. Taehyung’s mother looks up, startled, and the sadness in her eyes makes Jeongguk feel like dying. “He wants to see it.”
Jimin and Taehyung’s mother lead Jeongguk to where Taehyung is buried. The gravesite is behind the house and is littered with lilacs, daisies, roses. There’s a framed picture of Taehyung as a young child resting against the tombstone, which reads ‘In loving memory of Kim Taehyung. Friend, Son & Soul Mate.’ Jeongguk’s breathing hitches at that, subconsciously squeezing Jimin's arm where his fingers are still curled, and he turns to give Taehyung’s mother a grateful look.
Taehyung’s mother leaves first, leaving Jimin and Jeongguk alone. He is struck with the urge to do something for them, to help in some way make everyday life a little easier. “Jimin?” Jeongguk asks, he keeps his voice quiet feeling as if any sound too loud would be jarring and disrupt Taehyung’s final rest.
“Yeah?” Jimin replies just as softly. He keeps his gaze on the photo of Taehyung; Jeongguk can see him swaying on his feet.
“I’ll see if I can arrange to give you some of my winnings every month, okay?” Jeongguk tells him. He hopes that Jimin doesn’t see it as an act of pity, but as something Jeongguk wants to do to genuinely help. He feels like it’s the least he can do. “I’m not trying to pity you or anything,” he says by way of explanation. “I just want –”
“I understand.” Jimin whispers. “Thank you.”
Jeongguk nods, rocking back on his heels. A cool breeze caresses his face and suddenly he feels just a little bit calmer.
“I’ll be inside.” Jimin says after a few moments. He reaches out to gently touch Jeongguk’s hand before turning and walking away. Once he’s gone, Jeongguk walks up to the tombstone. He stares at the words inscribed on the stone, feeling undeserving and yet extreme gratitude at Taehyung’s mother including Taehyung’s relationship to him on the gravestone. He kneels down beside it, running his fingers over the engraved ‘Soul Mate’.
The cool breeze caresses his face again, and he relaxes against the cool stone, tears coming to his eyes.
“I won it, Tae.” He says softly, his voice choked by tears. “I won it for us, Tae. Are you proud of me?”
There’s silence, but as the wind passes through the leaves of the trees, Jeongguk can swear he hears Taehyung laughing. And he can tell himself that the breeze that continuously caresses his face is Taehyung. Jeongguk manages a small smile, running his fingers along indents of the words on the stone, tracing Taehyung's name.
“I won it for us.”