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revolt of the #cyberwarriors

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Semester 1, 2016

“And that wraps it up for this semester,” Professor Song says, clapping her hands together and beaming at the class—or, rather, what’s left of the class in the dire period known as Finals Hell. “It’s been great having you all, and good luck on your Cybernetics essay. I’ll be collecting them the day of the exam. Don’t forget what I mentioned today about the impact of the government’s new bill!”

Jeongguk stares at his laptop screen, at the blinking cursor at the top left corner of a blank word document. Helpful, past Jeongguk. 10/10 effort. Honestly, he’d just been fucking around in class scrolling through his Facebook feed and liking all the photos on Instagram under the #dogstagram and #bboy tags respectively, but now he wishes he’d paid a little more attention, so he knows at least what topics he should cover.

Hanbin, sitting in front of Jeongguk, looks back at him and gives him an eyeroll. Jeongguk rolls his eyes back, packing his laptop in his bag and hoisting it over his shoulder. Ugh. Whatever. He can just download the lecture recordings and slides when he gets back to the dorms.

“So I put my grades through a calculator,” Junhwe, one of the other guys in Jeongguk’s Digital Cultures class, bemoans as they head out the seminar room. Junhwe puts a hand to his forehead, sighing dramatically. “Apparently, I’m gonna need 357.45% or some shit to get an A on this subject.”

Jeongguk lets out a bark of laughter. Yeah, he’s probably in the same boat as Junhwe on this one.

“Godspeed to you,” Jinhwan says, eyebrow raised. “What did you do all semester, stare at the professor’s rack?” Junhwe clears his throat guiltily, and Jinhwan throws his hands up in the air. “Forget I asked.”

“You’d be better off trying to seduce the professor,” Hanbin says, adjusting his beret. “Ask her to give you one bonus mark every time you eat her out.”

“Are you kidding me?” Jinhwan almost bursts out laughing, and Jeongguk thumps him on the back. “Get real, there’s no way Professor Song would stoop to your level.”

“You never know,” Junhwe says morosely, looking a little wounded, like a puppy who’s just been kicked. “I’ve been told I have a skilled tongue.”

“Need to know basis,” Hanbin says loudly, plugging his ears. “Topic change, please!”

“Seriously, though,” Jeongguk says, frowning, and the three boys turn to him. “What the hell was she talking about when she mentioned the thing about the government bill?”

“Ah, Padawan,” Hanbin says, throwing an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders. Jeongguk wrinkles his nose and shrugs Hanbin’s arm off. “Were you swiping on Tinder again during the lecture? The Internet Protection Bill!” Jeongguk shoots him a blank look and Hanbin heaves a sigh. “Basically,” he continues, flicking Jeongguk's forehead, “it's like the current porn filter the government has on our network… Except on steroids.”

“Like, Popeye steroids,” Jinhwan adds. “If the thing goes through they could like… We’d be worse off than the Great Firewall of China.”

“Dude, what if they check my Internet history? What if they finally block the porn site I’m accessing through that VPN? What if they arrest me for downloading that one clip of the horse—” The panic in Junhwe’s voice is quite real, and Jeongguk scoffs. Junhwe has more than five external hard drives full of debauchery stashed away in his dorm room, and that one time Jeongguk had gotten an eyeful of some skinny molerat lookalike fucking what looked suspiciously like a frozen turkey, well. Perhaps this Internet Protection Bill thing would be good for his sanity, and what's left of Junhwe's dignity.

Hanbin stops as they reach the central library, giving a little salute. “Gotta study up, mi amigos,” he says, walking backwards up the stairs. “Adios and see you on the other side of hell.”

“We're totally getting shitfaced after finals,” Junhwe adds, pointing a finger at Hanbin. He swivels around to face Jeongguk and waggles his finger. “And you, mister, are not going to bail on us this time round.”

“If I survive the semester,” Jeongguk says, batting Junhwe’s hand away from his face. He should head back to his dorm room and start on all the shit he has due, make notes for his finals, and maybe check out that example essay structure the professor had uploaded. You know, actual work.

“You’ll be fine!” Junhwe says, thumping Jeongguk on the back. “I’m gonna go cram now. See ya!”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, stomach twisting into a knot. “See ya.”

 

 

3:13AM, 24 June, 2016

Jeongguk’s close to wringing off his own balls.

In true Jeongguk fashion, he’s left the damn essay until the night before it’s due—the same day he has a final exam on the same topic.

It’s not his fault, Jeongguk thinks desperately as he smashes words into the document, gritting his teeth. It’s Youtube’s fault. Youtube and its endless supplies of How Things Are Made videos, Guys Try On Ladies' Underwear For The First Time, and terrible, terrible, Youtube spirals. Jeongguk is now well-acquainted with the condom production process—did you know the workers blow the condoms up in high-tech air-blowing machines to test the batch for holes? No? Well now you do.

Unfortunately, neither his essay nor exam are on condom production or women's lingerie. So.

Jeongguk rubs his eyes, fighting the sleep threatening to glue his eyelids shut. There are too many words, too many academic sources, too many tabs on browser open from last-minute research, and the drowsiness is kicking in. God, that example structure hadn’t helped at all, and he’s got a little timer in the corner of his desktop reminding him he only has six hours to go before his GPA sinks lower than the depths of Satan’s hell caves.

Six hours, five minutes, forty seconds. Thirty-nine seconds. Thirty-eight.

The light flickers.

Jeongguk looks up at his ceiling warily, throat dry. Oh. Oh no. This better not be a fucking power shortage, or a blackout, because he really can’t afford to get anything lower than a B for this essay or risk flunking out of the course.

As soon as the thought flits across Jeongguk’s mind, the power plug his laptop is connected to gives off a series of orange-white sparks, and his laptop screen flashes blue, then lines of green, then red. Jeongguk stands up, pulling the charger out, but there’s a flash of blinding white, and then—nothing.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk whisper-yells. He presses the power button, but the screen is as black as his imminent future. It’s three in the morning and the power just went out and he’s got a fucking essay due and fuck, fuck, fuck.

Murphy’s Law is sure out to get him today.

There’s a blast from above him, and Jeongguk ducks, shielding his head as the lightbulb blows out and shatters above him, plunging his room into pitch darkness. Jeongguk extends his arms in front of himself, stumbling around. He trips over his own two feet, head meeting the edge of the table with a loud crack, and the last thing that flashes across his mind before he blacks out is fuck Durex and Victoria’s Secret panties.

 

 

“God, Taehyung,” is the first thing that Jeongguk hears when he comes to. “You almost gave the entire neighbourhood a power outage.”

Jeongguk cracks open his eyes, blinking slowly. His head is pounding, and his vision blurry. This is not a voice he recognises. Jeongguk squints. There are a group of fuzzy silhouettes in front of him. Tall, shadowy figures.

The lights. Laptop. Essay. Oh shit.

Jeongguk is definitely not in his room anymore.

“I knew we should’ve asked Seokjin to do this,” a new voice says. “Kim Taehyung, you can’t be trusted around these circuits.”

“Come on,” the person Jeongguk assumes is Taehyung says back. Now that Jeongguk’s vision is back to normal, he can see a group of boys around his age clustered in front of him, some standing, some squatting, one sitting. The one called Taehyung, though, is facing away, so Jeongguk can’t see his face, but he’s in a brown leather jacket, a pair of sunglasses perched atop his head, and a vintage camera bag slung over his shoulder. His voice is deep and husky, a touch of childish whininess ringing through. “At least I got him here safely, cut me a little slack.”

“‘Safely’ is subjective,” says the one sprawled out on a sofa in the corner, headphones slung over his neck, looking grumpy. “He’s been knocked out since you landed here with him and it doesn’t look like he’s coming to anytime soon.”

“Everything will be okay, Yoongi,” says the princely-looking one in a blue dress shirt and slim-fit jeans standing closest to Jeongguk’s bed. Yoongi harrumphs, and Taehyung sticks out his tongue at him. The boy speaking folds his arms, fixing Taehyung with a look of amusement. “I wouldn’t have been able to do a much better job anyway, so let’s just wait and hope for the best.”

“Yeah,” the boy in the sleeveless, baby blue tank top says, grinning cheekily. “Seokjin would’ve gotten too distracted with customising the desktop into a Super Mario theme to even finish the mission.”

“Um,” Jeongguk croaks out, wincing, and the group in front of him stop bickering, six pairs of eyes turning to look in his direction. “Who—” Jeongguk clears his throat. “Who are you? What’s going on?”

“Oh!” Taehyung’s eyebrows shoot all the way up into his hairline, face lighting up with delight. “Oh, goody, he’s awake!”

“Good morning!” Tank-top boy bounds up towards Jeongguk from where he’d been crouching near the base of Jeongguk’s bed, crescent-eyed smile bright and slightly overwhelming. “Sorry about your laptop, Taehyungie here didn’t mean to cause that power surge. He’s just incompetent and breaks everything he touches.” Taehyung wrinkles his nose and whacks the boy on the arm, and the boy yelps indignantly before looking back at Jeongguk, and clears his throat. “Uh. How are you feeling?”

“Uh.” Jeongguk sits up, looking around the room. It’s white, plain, and undecorated, almost too clean to be real. He turns his gaze to the group in front of him, unnerved. “Fine, I guess, but who are you, and where am I?”

“I’m Jimin,” tank-top says, raising a hand. He gestures to each of the others in quick motions. “That’s Taehyung, Namjoon, Hoseok, Seokjin, and the one sulking in the corner is Yoongi.”

“I’m not sulking,” Yoongi says—rather sulkily. Hoseok snorts. Namjoon rolls his eyes. “Just get on with it. I need to reorganise my tag system and update my music database.”

“Okay, you asked where you are, right?” Namjoon redirects his attention to Jeongguk and strokes his chin. “Well, to put it simply… You’re in Cyberspace.”

“Cyberspace,” Jeongguk deadpans.

Jimin nods. Taehyung grins widely.

Jeongguk frowns, wincing as he tries to sit up higher. “Uh, is this, like, a new study space? Student hangout? How do I get back to the dorms?”

“No, no,” Namjoon says, waving his hands in front of his body. “Uh, you’re in Cyberspace. As in, the thing you study. Where the Internet is located. The World Wide Web. Digital network.”

“And us, we’re Keepers of the Domain,” Jimin cuts in, puffing out his chest like a parakeet. “Cool, huh?”

“Um.” This is weird as fuck. Jeongguk’s just woken up in god-knows-where and there’s a dude with a haircut like a blond Pidgeotto and nerd glasses telling him that he’s in Cyberspace. Like, the digital world. Like, the impossible. Were there mushrooms in the stew he had earlier that night? Maybe the dorm cafeteria accidentally mixed magic mushrooms into the casserole. It wouldn’t be the first time their food was contaminated.

A little blue bird lands on Jeongguk’s shoulder, and Jeongguk stares. The bird chirps. Jeongguk stares more.

“Oh, sorry,” Jimin says, reaching a hand out. The bird hops off Jeongguk’s shoulder onto Jimin’s fingers, and Jimin brings the bird to eye-level. “Hey, buddy, you gotta stay with me, okay? Don’t let those hate tweets get to you.”

“Each of us are in charge of a different Domain,” Namjoon says. “Me, I’m Naver. Yoongi there’s Spotify, Hoseok’s Youtube, Seokjin’s Facebook—”

“I’m Instagram,” Taehyung interrupts, grinning and putting his sunglasses on. He points above his head. “Look! You can tell which Domain we manage from our icons.”

It’s then that Jeongguk notices the little rounded square symbols floating above their heads, half-transparent, but bearing the symbol of their Domain. The familiar brown camera with rainbow stripes flashes atop Taehyung’s head, shining bright, before fading back into partial transparency. Oh. Instagram. Instagram indeed.

“And I’m Twitter!” Jimin pipes up. The blue icon above his head lights up too, a blue bird that Jeongguk sees every day in his web browser application. The bird perched on Jimin’s hand chirps happily. “Tweet, tweet!”

Jeongguk narrows his eyes. He’s either still dreaming, or delusional, or exam stress has gotten to him and he’s having a very vivid hallucination. Or maybe he’s hit his head on the table and passed out, and now he’s having these vivid, intense hallucinations. That must be it. It wouldn’t be the first time hallucinating either—that one time he’d pulled a 72-hour essay marathon, he started seeing little red-horned gremlins all around his room. At least the people he conjured up in his imagination this time were kind of pretty damn hot and not green-skinned atrocities. Yeah, Jeongguk can play along.

“Alright, Cyberspace.” Jeongguk frowns. “Why am I here?”

“Well, you’re…” Namjoon scratches the back of his neck. “You’re here to save it?”

Jeongguk blinks. Wait. “I’m here to save Cyberspace?”

“That’s right!” Jimin says, spreading his hands out in the air and making jazz hands. Little birdie flaps away, landing on Jimin’s head and settling into his hair. “You are the Golden Sun Spear.”

“Don’t make names up, Jimin,” Yoongi grumbles, sliding a hand down the left side of his face in exasperation. “That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard.”

Jimin pouts, doing a little indignant jump and flapping his arms like a five-year-old throwing a tantrum. “But if he's going to defeat the Silver Moon Shield, shouldn't he have a matching name? Golden Sun Spear! Sharp and bright.”

“Unlike you,” Hoseok interjects, and Jimin shoots him a pouty frown.

“What?” Jeongguk blurts out. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“Huh, I thought you would’ve known about the Shield at least,” Namjoon muses, adjusting his thick-framed glasses. He turns to Taehyung. “Hey, you sure you brought over a Cybernetics expert?”

Taehyung shrugs and laughs sheepishly. “Uh. About that…”

“Well, this puts a hitch in our plans,” Yoongi says, uncrossing his legs and recrossing them in the other direction. He lets out a little indignant puff and rubs his forehead. “Lord, we were meant to get an expert, but we get a kid who doesn’t even know the basics. Alright, listen up. The Shield is a plan the new government’s implementing to filter us out. The trial’s passed, and it’s very close to actually being launched. And if this gets past the lawmakers and becomes a full-blown, wide-reaching filter, all of our lives here in Cyberspace are in danger. Simply put, if we don’t stop this, we’re fucked.”

Jeongguk just stares at Yoongi.

“Think… The Great Firewall of China,” Namjoon adds. He paces around, hands behind his back. “Think North Korea’s Red Star Shield. That’s what’s going to happen to the Internet here in South Korea if we don’t do something. A complete filter, freedom of access and freedom of information at the mercy of the government. Records and metadata kept and stored to be used at their disposal. And us, the Keepers of the Domain, without the connections from the millions of people who visit us every day, we’ll lose our powers and disappear.”

“Right.” Jeongguk’s heard stories about the restrictive shields set up for the networks in China and North Korea, limiting citizens’ Internet access and ability to browse the web in peace. “But can’t you just figure it out yourselves? Why am I here?”

“Well, if Taehyung had done his job properly,” Yoongi says, fixing Taehyung with a scathing glare, “it wouldn’t be you here. But we can’t open the portal again. It was a one shot thing. Damn it.”

“Hey, we can just train him up,” Jimin murmurs. “He’s still a human, which means he can still store more energy in his non-digital body. Calm down, Yoongi.”

“Look, uh, I’ll make this simple for you. There’s a massive attack coming, and we wanted to get a Cybernetics expert, a human from the real world, to help us with our defense. We tried a plan out with just us, but our bodies have… limitations.” Namjoon takes Jeongguk’s wrist, holding it up, and Jeongguk winces as a spark of static electricity flashes off his skin, dissipating into the air.

“Ow! What the—”

“Still should’ve picked better,” Yoongi murmurs.

Taehyung huffs indignantly. “Okay, sorry, I screwed up a little. He might not be a Cybernetics expert, but he still has the ability to create connections between different Domains, right? Because of the times he’s visited us before.”

Jeongguk runs his hand down his face. “I’ve never met any of you before…?”

“But you have,” Jimin says, grinning lopsidedly. “Your handle’s @jeongguk_97? You’ve visited me many times. Every day, in fact.”

“I quite enjoy pictures of your puppy,” Taehyung adds, nodding furiously. His sunglasses threaten to slide off the bridge of his nose, and he adjusts them. “Very cute. Consider your use of filters next time, though, Amaro on full strength is kind of tacky.”

“Look on the bright side, Yoongi,” Seokjin says, slinging an arm over Yoongi’s shoulders. “It might be for the better we got a regular guy who’s always online. The more Domains he’s visited, the more connections he has with us—and Taehyung said he was online a lot, so I daresay he has hundreds, maybe even thousands of connections.”

“So, what do you say?” Namjoon asks, turning back to Jeongguk. “You think you can help us?”

As much as this has piqued Jeongguk’s interest, it’s too much, too sudden. Jeongguk’s got next to no idea where the hell he is, let alone trying to defeat some kind of formidable enemy here—it really is time for him to wake up now.

“I, uh, don’t think I’m right for this,” Jeongguk says, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the block he’d been lying on. “Look, it’s been great chatting with you and all, very interesting, but, um, how do I get home from here?”

Taehyung laughs weakly, fiddling with the strap of his camera bag. “Um, see, about that…”

“You can’t,” Jimin says, exchanging guilty looks with Taehyung. He turns to Jeongguk apologetically. “Not yet, anyway. Taehyung, he kind of… closed the portal back out of Cyberspace by mistake. We don’t have enough power to open it unless we gather all the Keepers and get their energy, but we need to save it for the battle. The only other way out of here is to defeat the Shield and use the opening to forge your way out.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes, massaging the back of his neck. If he concentrates enough, maybe he can snap back to reality and finish that damn essay on time. Do the study he needs for his exam. Watch that episode of Haikyuu!! he’d been meaning to watch. Tiptoe out to the kitchen and make himself a midnight snack—

“Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk’s eyes flutter open to Taehyung staring him straight in the face, looking over the rim of his sunglasses, lips pursed in a pout.

“I’m really sorry. Will you help us?” Taehyung asks as he slides his sunglasses off, eyes wide, and Jeongguk falters, the sharp denial he’d been about to deliver dying in his throat. The way Taehyung’s eyes are shining, glimmering, all beseeching and puppy-like, makes Jeongguk hesitate, breath catching. “Please? I promise I’ll help you get you out of here.”

“You said you had an assignment to do, right?” Jimin asks, grinning. Jeongguk opens his mouth, then closes it, nodding. Jimin kicks Taehyung’s butt gently, and Taehyung tumbles forward, landing in Jeongguk’s lap, then yelps and pushes himself off, hands raised in front of his body in apology. “Hey, as punishment for screwing up, Taehyung here will help you finish it after everything’s over, since he got you in this mess in the first place. Time operates differently here in Cyberspace compared to the analogue world, so we’ll get you back before anyone notices.”

Analogue world?” Jeongguk asks, bewildered.

“The, uh, non-digital one,” Namjoon says, scratching the back of his neck. Jeongguk stares. “The tangible, physical one you live in. Fuck, you’re really just a student, huh?”

Seokjin comes up to Jeongguk, resting a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder. Jeongguk shrugs Seokjin’s hand off, uncomfortable with a practical stranger’s sudden bodily contact. “Sorry, don’t listen to them. Please, we could really do with your help. I mean, we’re not going to force you into anything, but please think about it? This attack, if it succeeds, means the death of the Internet as you know it. It won’t just affect us, it’ll affect you too. Your freedom of access; to use the net however you want, without government interference. Consider it, at least?”

Jeongguk hesitates. Granted, he might not have been paying attention through most of his classes, but he knows enough that even he recognises a filter on the Internet could be really bad. Junhwe had mentioned that with this new Shield, people would get arrested just for viewing things deemed ‘unsuitable’ by a bunch of suited men sitting in parliament. And, okay, as much as Jeongguk teases Junhwe about it, he enjoys his fair share of porn too. So.

“Fine,” Jeongguk says reluctantly. Taehyung lets out a breath he’d been holding, and the corner of Seokjin’s lips lift. “I’ll consider it.”

“Yay!” Jimin bursts out clapping, giving Taehyung’s a high-five, and Namjoon grins. Yoongi throws his hands up in the air in defeat while rolling his eyes. He fits his headphones back over his ears.

“But, um,” Jeongguk says with a frown, “can I get some sleep first?”

Hoseok shrugs. “Well, none of us need what you call sleep,” he says, adjusting his red cap and running his fingers through his hair, “but I guess we could create a file on the network for you. You’re going to have to rejig the CSS with some custom code to suit your style though; everything comes as a blank page.”

“What do you mean I have to custom code it?” Jeongguk asks, arching one eyebrow. “And suiting my style?”

“Huh.” Namjoon purses his lips. “Right. Student. You’ll see.”

 

 

 

<!DOCTYPE html>

<html>

<head>

<style>

body {

    margin-left: 1000px;

    background: #ffffff url("COMFORTABLE_BED_PLEASE.png") no-repeat top left;

}

.container {

    text-align: center;

}

.center_div {

    border: 5px solid gray;

    margin-left: auto;

    margin-right: auto;

    width: 100%;

   background-color: #ff0000;

    text-align: left;

    padding: 8px;

}

</style>

</head>

<body>

<div class="container">

<div class="center_div">

    <h1>GIVE ME A BED</h1>

    <p>GOD I DIDN'T ASK FOR THIS wtF</p>

</div>

</div>

</body>

</html>

Okay. This entire situation is ridiculous. Even though Jeongguk’s technically a second-year, he’s only ever taken one class on web coding and all he remembers is the lecturer reminding them all to ‘close your brackets!’ so that’s not helpful at all. He thinks he’s got something down—there does appear to be a blocky, grey-lined thing in the white room, with glaring red sheets covering it, so at least the bed, or a resemblance of a bed, is a thing that exists.

Jeongguk grimaces as he sits down, feeling the bones of his butt grate against the hard surface. This thing is as red and as uncomfortable as the fires of hell, if the fires of hell were tiny, rectangular, and bruised butts. It’s like he’s been thrown into fucking Minecraft, everything blocky and in 8-bit. Too bad no codes exist for softness or fluffiness.

“Hey.”

Jeongguk jumps, turning around to face the direction of the intrusion. It’s Taehyung, Instagram logo bobbing up and down loftily above his head. He’s gripping his camera bag, ripped black jeans showing his bare knees, and—Jeongguk hadn’t noticed it before, but apart from the pair on his head, Taehyung has four more pairs of sunglasses tucked into the neckline of his t-shirt. Jeongguk gives a tiny nod of acknowledgement, and Taehyung offers a small smile, waving and motioning inside with his hands. “Can I come in?”

“I guess,” Jeongguk mutters, shrugging half-heartedly. Honestly, his head is still spinning, a migraine coming on from all the code he’s just written, so he’s not in the best mood for small talk, but Taehyung seems friendly enough. Maybe he could tell Jeongguk more about this place, or figure out a way to snap Jeongguk out of this dream; get him home.

“Sorry. It’s a lot to take in, right?” Taehyung asks, plopping down next to Jeongguk on his bed and wincing. “Ow. Damn. Why is this so hard?”

Jeongguk’s tempted to snort and retort with an inappropriate joke, but this place is so far away from home and familiarity that all Jeongguk can do is let out a weak laugh. “Because I’m in an unknown place with you ‘Keepers’ telling me that I have to save Cyberspace, been thrown into a blank room and told to code my own furniture, but I can’t code for shit, that’s why.”

“Ah.” Taehyung looks at his feet, chewing his lower lip. “Sorry.”

Jeongguk glances at Taehyung out of the corner of his eye. Taehyung’s kicking his feet, shoulders hunched and lips pursed. “You made a huge mistake, didn’t you, bringing me here?”

“No!” Taehyung scratches the back of his head, seemingly embarrassed at his outburst. “I totally meant to pick you.” Jeongguk raises an eyebrow and Taehyung grins guiltily. “Okay. Maybe not. Truth is, Yoongi sent me to get a Cybernetics expert, but none of those experts seemed interesting. They were all old farts with personalities of dried squid flakes. And none of them looked like they had enough guts to defeat the Shield. I just… I just thought that you were a better choice than any of them, you know? To me, anyway.”

Jeongguk furrows his brows, pointing a finger at himself. “Me?

Taehyung tilts his head to look at Jeongguk, blowing a strand of hair off his forehead. “Yeah,” he says softly, a smile playing on his lips. “You stood out to me.”

Jeongguk’s stomach does a little flip at the unexpected praise. Well, he guesses it’s praise. Doesn’t matter—right now, there’s the more pressing issue of how he can get the hell out of here.

“So, the Shield,” Jeongguk says, massaging his temples. “I keep hearing about that. I can go back home if it’s defeated, right? How do I—we—even defeat this thing?” Jeongguk crosses his arms. “If I’m in Cyberspace, then do I get a, I don’t know, a Digimon to help me? Like, I could really use an Omnimon right now.”

“Trust me,” Taehyung says, rolling his eyes. “If we had Digital Monsters to help us out, we wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of getting a human from the analogue world to help. Namjoon, Yoongi, and Hoseok have been working on something, so I’m sure they’ll explain after you get some rest.”

“This is too much.” Jeongguk exhales slowly. His brain is going to activate meltdown mode soon. “I have a headache.”

“Ah, sorry,” Taehyung says, springing to his feet, lips downturned again. “Seokjin told me to leave you alone, give you a bit of space, but I felt bad that I dragged you all the way here without even asking, and that I can’t even offer you a way out, so I just wanted to, I don’t know. See how you were doing.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Jeongguk says, lying down on the blocky bed. Maybe if he goes to sleep here, in his dream, he’ll wake up in reality on time to finish his essay and cram for his exam. “I’m going to sleep now.”

Taehyung shuffles on his feet, tugging down his jacket on and smiles uncertainly at Jeongguk. “Right, yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Taehyung frowns. “Well, when you wake up. There’s no real distinction between today and tomorrow here since we’re always awake and don’t follow one time zone, but to humans, you need sleep, so I guess today’s what you call today and tomorrow’s when you open your eyes—”

Despite everything, Jeongguk finds himself laughs. “You’re rambling.”

Taehyung stops mid-sentence, and Jeongguk hides a smile. He’ll punch himself later for thinking this, but Taehyung’s kind of cute. “Right. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

 

 

Jeongguk wakes up to the sound of squabbling.

“I should do it! Come on, let me.”

“I’m better at materialisation, I’ve been here longer than you have.”

Jeongguk cracks an eye open, groaning. The six boys from last night are crowded around his poor excuse of a bed, much too energetic and too loud for Jeongguk’s sleepy haze and grogginess. “What’s going on?”

“Hey, Jeonggukkie’s awake,” Taehyung announces, bounding over and dragging Jeongguk upright by the arm. Jeongguk wails a little inside as he sits up and slumps over, elbows on his knees, running a hand through unkempt hair. “Since it’s for him, I think he should decide!”

“Decide what?” Jeongguk rubs his eyes. Jimin shoots Jeongguk one of his blinding smiles and Jeongguk stares back dazedly. “I swear, all that’s happened since I’ve been dragged here is… More dragging around, and bombshells.”

“The problem that concerns us today,” Yoongi drawls from where he’s lounging on a body-length sofa, “is one of your sustenance.”

“He means ‘what do you want for breakfast?’” Seokjin translates with an eyeroll. “Which one of us do you want to provide you breakfast?”

“Not that you actually need food,” Jimin tacks on. He clears his throat, like he’s about to give a big class presentation worth 60% of his final mark. “Your body here is just a digital one, so you don’t need food to survive, but we just thought you’d feel weird if you didn’t eat. Your synapses are probably telling you you’re hungry.”

“…Huh?”

“You have a digital body,” Namjoon explains placatingly. “It’s made of ones and zeroes, digital data, blah blah, but you still feel stuff like hunger and pain because the currents running through the nodes in your body are emulating your human self, and it’ll be a while before they forget those patterns.” Namjoon smiles as Jeongguk looks up at him, even more confused than before. “Forget it. Do you want food or not?”

“You should choose me to make it for you,” Hoseok announces, puffing out his chest. “As the Keeper of Youtube, I have video tutorials on anything imaginable. Look, how to boil the perfect ontama. How to frost a wedding cake… Cooking with Dog…”

Namjoon rolls his eyes and rubs his hands together. “Leave it to me. I can search up anything you want, just name it, Naver will have it.”

“Hey,” Taehyung says, pushing in front of Namjoon and grabbing Jeongguk’s arms. “I’m Instagram, I have the best pick of any of these #food photos!”

“Did you just…” Jeongguk blinks a couple of times, then narrows his eyes. He swears he saw a hashtag zoom past his eyes as Taehyung spoke, followed by a quick flash of photos. “Did you just talk in hashtags?”

“#youbetcha,” Taehyung responds with a devilish grin. “#whatchugondo #swaglyfe.” The letters swim in front of Jeongguk’s face, and he bats at them in bewilderment, sending them flying back in Taehyung’s direction.

“I have them too!” Jimin retorts, waving a hand and materialising a round plate. “Look, Pizza Hut’s new #stuffedcrust #pizza. Top of the range.”

Seokjin smirks, waving his hands in a similar manner, and a foot-long woodfire pizza appears on a platter. “You were saying, Jiminnie?”

Jimin harrumphs, the plate on his hand vanishing, and he punches Seokjin on the arm gently. “Show-off.”

“Anyway,” Namjoon says, folding his arms and raising an eyebrow at Jeongguk. “Your choice. Who’s serving you breakfast today?”

“Um.” Jeongguk turns to look at Yoongi, who’s just been watching the spectacle unfold with his headphones clamped firmly over his ears. “I don’t know?”

Yoongi stares back, eyebrows raising incrementally as Jeongguk continues to stare at him. “Hey, don’t look at me, kid, I’m just chilling with my music, no food here. They can deal with it. If you want music recommendations, though,” Yoongi gestures to himself with his thumb. “I’m your man.”

“Okay.” Jeongguk looks back at the five pairs of keen eyes in front of him and unfurrows his eyebrows. “I guess I’ll go with Taehyung…”

Taehyung beams. “Yay! What do you want?”

“Um—”

“How about poached eggs and bruschetta?” Taehyung interrupts, clicking his fingers, and a table complete with drinks, cutlery, and a steaming plate of food appears in front of Jeongguk’s nose. “Latest submission in the #foodstagram tag. From some couple on their honeymoon in a restaurant in Italy, apparently.”

Jeongguk breathes in deeply. Holy shit. It smells amazing. For someone who’s been living off cup noodles and caffeine for the past week or so, a gourmet breakfast is a welcome change. He picks up the knife and fork. “Thanks, I guess.”

Taehyung shrugs. “My pleasure.”

Damn, Jeongguk thinks as he takes the first bite, then proceeds to shovel the rest into his mouth. Jimin gapes in disbelief, clinging to Seokjin, as Jeongguk practically inhales the plate. Digital food is delicious. He could get used to this.

“So there’s a meeting soon,” Namjoon says, as Jeongguk finishes the last of his meal. “With the other Keepers of the Domain.”

“There’s more of you?” Jeongguk asks around a mouthful of egg. There it is. The bombshell. No wonder they were feeding him. “You never told me this?”

“We didn’t want to overwhelm you,” Namjoon says gingerly, and, okay, fair enough, Jeongguk was a lot less agreeable last night than he is right now, with abundant amounts of sleep and a sated appetite. “But yeah, there’s thousands of us, scattered all over the Network. We’re only meeting with the major Keepers today, the ones who will be most affected by the Shield. We have to sort out our plan of attack.”

“And break the news to them that we only managed to get a Cybernetics student, not an expert,” Hoseok adds.

“Sojin is going to kill us,” Jimin says, momentarily morose.

“So be on your best behaviour, you little shits,” Yoongi says. He turns to Jimin. “Don’t you dare bring up those Igloo Australia tweets. Although I do love seeing her get dragged. And Hoseok.” Yoongi turns to Hoseok. “No goat editions of Taylor Swift songs. We couldn’t get anything done for an hour last meeting because of you.” Hoseok chuckles. “I’m being serious!”

“Yessir,” Jimin says, saluting. Yoongi narrows his eyes and Jimin smiles back. “Best behaviour, I promise.”

“Let’s move to the Central Node,” Seokjin says, reaching an arm around Jimin’s waist and pulling Jimin towards him. “The others are probably already there, and I’m sure they’re curious who we brought back from the analogue world.”

“Somehow,” Namjoon says, sighing, “I’m not looking forward to the reaction.”

“You ready?” Taehyung asks, resting a hand on a hunched-up Jeongguk’s shoulder. “We’re going to move from our Node through the network paths until we get to the Central Node. The paths are quite a sight.”

Quite a sight they are. Namjoon opens a circular hole in the wall of the domed room Jeongguk had first appeared in, and Jeongguk’s jaw drops open. Extending from the exit are, hundreds, thousands of metallic wires, some red, some blue, green, yellow, glowing and flashing as they crackle, sending pulses and currents along the path. Jeongguk looks up to see thousands of the same wires leading in all directions, forming a breathtaking backdrop of a million unique patterns.

“Come on,” Taehyung says, extending a hand expectantly. Up ahead, the others have already begun to move, stepping through the exit to tread on the wire path leading from the opening. Jeongguk hesitates, before reaching out and taking Taehyung’s hand. “That’s it. It’s not far away, I’ll get you there.”

As Jeongguk walks out, the circular door closes behind him and its white glow fades. From the outside, Jeongguk can see the Node properly, a white sphere, seemingly floating in the middle of nowhere, wires extending from it. In the air, strings of numbers, letters, and symbols float around, speeding along the wire paths, some being absorbed into the Nodes, others warping and morphing into different shapes, heading towards its unique destination. Jeongguk gapes. It’s truly a network—layers upon layers of wires and electric currents intersecting, each connected to different white spheres like the one he’d just stepped out of, an infinite structure. Jeongguk looks down, and instantly regrets it. There doesn’t seem to be a floor, only an endless blue-black chasm, colourful glowing wires and strings of characters disappearing into the far distance until they’re barely visible flashes of light.

“Holy shit,” Jeongguk chokes out, turning his eyes back to the path, back to Taehyung in front of him, leading the way. “I’m going to fall and die. What is this place?”

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Taehyung says, grinning. He gives Jeongguk’s hand a squeeze. “This is the the transport system of Cyberspace, where all the information is processed and sorted before it’s sent to the correct Node for deciphering. Hold on tight, you’ll be alright.”

“I feel like I’m walking into a deathtrap,” Jeongguk hisses as he narrowly avoids a pulse of electricity from a wire passing overhead. The following string of numbers wraps around Jeongguk’s head and flashes neon green in front of his eyes before zooming off into the distance. “I’m going to get electrocuted, get me out of here.”

“Relax,” Jimin shouts from up ahead. “You can’t get electrocuted here, we’re all part of the network. And if you fall, the next set of wire connections will catch you. It’s all safe here.”

“Uh, except for the wormholes,” Yoongi yells. He points into the distance, and Jeongguk sees a dark tunnel-like thing, warping the numbers and letters floating around it, sucking it in like a black hole. “If you fall into one of those, you’ll be sent somewhere really far away, and I’m not hauling your ass back from wherever that might be.”

“If you won’t, then I will,” Taehyung says, sticking his tongue out. “Grumpypants.”

Despite the fact he still feels like he’s about to plunge to his death, Jeongguk laughs, gripping Taehyung’s hand even tighter, putting one foot before the other along the glowing wire path. The steady pace and Taehyung’s firm grip calms Jeongguk slightly as he navigates across the Network, and the nervous thumping of his heart slows and quiets to a steady thrum.

“We’re here,” Namjoon announces moments later. Jeongguk turns his attention back to the front to see a huge glowing dome, one where all the connections are leading to. The dome is emanating light all around, brighter than the other Nodes Jeongguk’s seen on the way here. “The Central Node.”

Jeongguk shades his eyes as they approach, watching as Namjoon steps forward, disappearing as he’s consumed by the light.

“Come on,” Jimin says, smiling reassuringly. He grips Jeongguk’s free hand, pulling him forward. “Let’s go in.”

The inside of the dome is white and nondescript, with circular rings of seats going all the way from the centre of the dome to the outer edges, each with a panel hovering at eye-level. There’s a group already seated near the middle, icons floating above their heads.

“You recognise their Domains?” Seokjin asks as he motions for Jeongguk to sit down in a seat close to the centre of the dome. “They’re pretty major, you should know them.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, scanning the group. Amazon, eBay, PayPal, Netflix, flavours.me, Yik Yak. “Yeah, I recognise them.”

“Oh?” Amazon turns his head, cupping his chin in his hand. “Is this the human you were talking about? Nice to meet you, I’m Jinyoung.”

“Jaebum,” eBay says, raising a hand. “And Youngjae looks after Ao3, Bambam’s Netflix, Yugyeom’s Livejournal, and Mark there is the Keeper for Yik Yak.” He surveys Jeongguk. “Ah, yes, you bought a pair of golden Nike Airs the other day. I hear you’re meant to be the expert who’s helping us defeat the Shield?”

“Not quite,” Namjoon says, raising his hands. “Let’s not jump the gun. We still need to discuss this with everyone.”

“Suit yourself,” Jaebum says, shrugging. He turns his attention back to Jeongguk. “Welcome to Cyberspace.”

“Waddup!” At that moment, a boy wearing a loose tank top and backwards snapback struts in. There’s hip-hop music playing in the background, the sound following him as he takes a seat next to Mark. His logo floats above his head, bopping in beat to the music, and he gives Mark a shoulder-bump before waving to Namjoon. “Hey, homie, long time no see.”

“Jackson!” Namjoon says, walking up and bumping fists with Jackson. “Nice to see you.”

“Keeper of Tumblr,” Jimin says, amused, as Namjoon and Jackson continue to chat, “Jackson Wang.”

“Everywhere he goes, there’s a song blasting behind him,” Taehyung adds. Jeongguk raises an eyebrow, and Taehyung sighs. “Autoplay.”

Ah. Jeongguk rubs his temples. Tumblr autoplay. The bane of his life. How many times has he clicked on a Tumblr blog during class and had the whale-moaning refrains of Justin Bieber’s Boyfriend blast through the entire room? (The answer: too many.)

The doors open a second time and a group of girls walk in, scanning the boys with judging eyes. Jeongguk’s eyes flicker over their icons. There are some he recognises, and one he doesn’t. His gaze follows as they move to sit down, DeviantArt, Etsy, Flickr…

“Sojin,” Namjoon says, moving quickly to shake the hand of the girl in body-fitting business attire. Sojin takes it, flashing a smile, before sliding into a seat opposite Jeongguk, observing him with calculating eyes. “Jeongguk, that’s Sojin, she’s the Keeper of Wolfram Alpha.”

“Nice to meet you,” Sojin says, nodding. She motions briefly to the three girls sitting to her left. “Yura, Minah, and Hyeri. You’re intelligent enough to figure out which Domains they’re the Keepers of, I trust, considering your expertise.”

“And I’m Solar,” the girl with the Wikipedia logo says, adjusting her green dress and flashing Jeongguk a warm smile. She motions to the girls next to her who have Soundcloud, PayPal, and Pinterest icons floating above them. “Moonbyul, Whee-in, and Hwasa.”

“Cute human you got there,” Hwasa remarks, sizing Jeongguk up with a sweep of her eyes. Her Pinterest icon flashes above her head. “I’d pin you. Too bad you’re not my style.”

“Who are we still waiting on?” Whee-in asks, tucking a bunch of foreign currencies away in her wallet and flashing a business-like smile.

“Just us.” Jeongguk turns to the entrance to see a group of seven boys walking through. Leading them is a guy in a smart business suit, hair combed back in a Draco Malfoy-esque style, the LinkedIn icon floating above him. Namjoon gets out of his seat, shaking LinkedIn dude’s hand. “Sorry for the delay.” He rests a hand on Myspace’s back. “Chanyeol here had some technical issues.”

“As long as you’re here, Joonmyun,” Namjoon says, motioning for them all to sit down. “I see Jongin and Sehun are still out of action?”

Joonmyun grimaces. “Yeah, unfortunately. They were hit pretty hard. I’ll update everyone when we start the meeting.”

Jeongguk lets out a long breath, looking around. These are some of the most popular websites in the world, all gathered in one place. If he scans their icons fast enough, it feels just like he’s staring at his mobile phone screen, swiping through the applications. Swipe, swipe, Twitter, Naver, Instagram, Tumblr—

“UNICEF?” Jeongguk murmurs, eyebrows rising to meet his hairline. Talk about a combo breaker. “What’s UNICEF doing here?”

UNICEF turns to smile at Jeongguk. The white dove on his shoulder coos. “Hello! I’m Yixing. You must be Jeongguk! I’ve heard all about you.”

“Don’t look so surprised, Hoseok’s been spreading information to all the other Nodes,” Taehyung explains as Jeongguk eyes Yixing up and down suspiciously. “We need all types of Keepers here, not just the ones for the trending Domains. A while ago Jimin connected through to inform the Network we were successful in bringing someone from the analogue world to Cyberspace and send through these meeting details.”

“Shall we get the meeting started?” Namjoon says, before Jeongguk can collect his thoughts. He can’t remember the names of half of them already, and he hasn’t even been told what the Keepers from this new group are called.

“The short one with the eyes and multicoloured glasses, Google,” Taehyung whispers as Namjoon heads to the centre of the dome, to the speaker’s seat. Jeongguk jumps. It’s like Taehyung’s read his mind. “That’s Kyungsoo. Jongdae there manages 4Chan. You know. The site with the trolls.”

Jeongguk nods, then points to the ash-blond one sitting quietly in a seat on the edge, arms and legs crossed. “I can’t recognise his.”

“Minseok? He’s GoDaddy,” Jimin supplies helpfully. Jeongguk chokes, and Jimin shoots him a look. “Nothing strange, you pervert. Just a webdomain management site.”

“Kids?” Sojin interrupts with a tap of her manicured fingernails on the armrest of her seat. She waves her palm over the screen in front of her, and a document pulls up on everyone’s display. “We have a Shield coming and no way to combat it, no plan. Your meeting notes, if you can even call them that, were less than helpful. I think we should get cracking.”

“To give those of you who missed last meeting an overview,” Minah says, standing up and flicking her wrist to change the display on the screens, “There’s a faction inside the South Korean government creating a filter, a shield, which is going to restrict access to us Domains.”

“And once that takes place,” Yura continues, “Their version of the Internet, an Intranet of sorts, will be set up with only approved items being stored in their database. None of us pass this approval test. We’re in grave danger.”

“How good can this new Intranet be?” Yugyeom asks, blinking rapidly. “Surely this shield can’t defeat all of us?”

“It can.” It’s Whee-in, eyes intense. “This Intranet—they’ll replace all of us with theirs. Their own video streaming function, music players, search engines, photo-hosting sites, text-exchange service. Solid, impenetrable, with a Gatekeeper System filtering content every second of every day.”

“We can’t let that happen.” Sojin finishes. She closes her eyes. “You all know what happened to Jongin and Sehun.”

A gloomy silence settles over the Keepers, and Jeongguk looks around in confusion.

“They’re Keepers,” Taehyung whispers, leaning in so his lips brush Jeongguk’s ear. Jeongguk flinches instinctively, then settles back. “Sorry. They’re the porn sites. Sehun’s xHamster, and Jongin’s Pornhub. They got attacked by government filters a while back. Still recovering, which is why they can’t make it.”

“Jesus,” Jeongguk spits out. Yeah, sounds familiar alright, he’s been on them at Junhwe’s place. Normally, they’d be filtered out with the existing porn ban, but Junhwe said he had a way around it, something about a VPN. Junhwe had helped Jeongguk set it up on his laptop, too.

“We know first hand how much damage these filters can deal,” Sojin says with a sigh. “Count those two lucky, though, because we’d already prepared VPN bypasses to keep them stable and functioning. I didn’t want to say it out loud, but there’s a chance that this time—this Shield—is going to wipe us all out, and we’re not going to have the backups ready. We could barely bring Jongin back.”

“But we know that the Shield is susceptible to our skills,” Yoongi drawls. “IP address bypasses, VPN setups, proxy servers. We defeated their trial last time with Cyberwarfare techniques, just the small group of us. If we overthrow it this time, they might be inclined to give up, knowing that their plan failed twice.”

“But that time it was only a tiny trial,” Jaebum says, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “This time, it’s a large-scale Shield. Full implementation. We won’t be able to hold them back, even if we gather more Keepers.”

“Y’all,” Jackson interrupts, standing up. His voice is morose, and everyone turns their attention to him. “There are too many posts and edits of inhumanly beautiful K-Pop idols flooding my database right now, I can’t concentrate.”

Baekhyun rolls his eyes. “Yeah, and I’ve got posts of Itchy Areola and the Biebz’ dick spamming my database, but I don’t feel the need to whine. Your point is?”

“You’re whining right now,” Chanyeol mutters, and Baekhyun jabs him in the ribs with an elbow. “Ow!”

“Itchy Areola?” Jeongguk whispers.

“Iggy Azalea,” Jimin translates. “I would know. I have about a hundred variations of her name coming through on my Domain every second. Iguana Aubergine… Itty-bitty Armadillo… Humans can be quite creative.”

“Can. We. Get. A move on.” Sojin looks like she’s about to impale all the boys under the sharp tip of her stilettos right now. The boys stop bickering and laughing, turning their attention to the front, and both Joonmyun and Namjoon mutter a quick apology. Jeongguk gulps. Bow down to Queen Sojin. “Namjoon. Your Node was in charge of getting us a Cybernetics expert. I see he’s with us today. What’s the plan?”

“Well,” Namjoon says, shifting in his seat and stroking his chin. “There’s just a tiny problem with that.”

“Taehyung kind of screwed up,” Jimin explains, as Sojin raises her eyebrows inquisitively, and Taehyung shrinks under her scathing gaze. “He brought Jeongguk over from the analogue world. And Jeongguk here is just a regular dude. I mean, he’s a Cybernetics student, but not an expert by any means.”

“Good one, Taehyung,” Baekhyun—the boy with the Reddit icon—grumbles. Joonmyun hits him on the arm. Baekhyun turns his gaze to Jeongguk, narrowing his eyes, then arches a perfectly plucked eyebrow. “Hey, I know you. Reddit user thatgoldenbboy! Always lurking on r/bboy. How’s your tailbone doing? Saw that video you posted of you landing right on your tushie while trying that backflip. Need some ice for that burn?”

“No thank you,” Jeongguk says tersely.

“Let’s not make fun of him for his online activity or search history,” Namjoon says, pacifyingly calm, “even if he does ask the stupidest things on Naver Jishik,” he finishes, with a pointed look at Jeongguk. Jeongguk recalls a particularly dumb post he’d made last week on ‘How do mermaids have sex if they don’t have vaginas?’ and cringes. “Look, Yoongi and I we’re thinking. This doesn’t have to be a massive issue. So what if he’s not a Cybernetics expert? He has connections to us.”

Sojin purses her lips. “True. That may end up more useful than expertise. Go on.”

Namjoon nods. “His strange activities on the World Wide Web are important to us, because the more hours he’s connected, the stronger the connections he has with us are, and that makes him powerful. He can harness all our power and concentrate it on one part of the Shield to break through and destroy it.”

Solar nods. “It makes sense. I just found his connection with Wikipedia. It’s quite strong—you’ve been doing your last-minute essay research on Wikipedia, haven’t you? In any case, I think I can channel my power through.”

“Can’t we do that without him?” Youngjae frowns. “If all we need to break through this Shield is our power joined together, can’t we just join it ourselves?”

“You obviously weren’t there the last time we tried that,” Jongdae says dryly. “Kyungsoo, care to explain?”

“My servers overheated and crashed from the information overload,” Kyungsoo says. His voice is tight and pained, as if recalling a particularly traumatising period of his life, like somebody eating all of the side dishes that came with his fried chicken order and leaving none for him. “Google was down for an entire hour. It was the most painful day of my life.”

“So that’s why we need a figure who isn’t originally part of the Network,” Joonmyun says, motioning to Jeongguk. “Like Namjoon said, it’s not as big an issue as we thought that he’s not an expert. We can just teach him, right?.”

“Great,” Hwasa says, grinning predatorily. “Then we’ll train up lil cutie here and he can lead the cavalry.”

“Wait.” Jeongguk stands up. “Wait, what? Me?”

“Yes, you,” Sojin says, flicking a strand of hair over her shoulder. “Who else? We don’t have much choice. We just told you, everyone else’s digital bodies have limitations. You’re the only one who can connect our powers together and use it effectively without overheating and having a breakdown like Mister Do Kyungsoo here.”

“But…” Jeongguk shakes his head. “How am I even going to do this? I don’t…I don’t know anything about this place, or how to attack this shield thing? Cyberspace? Do we have weapons?”

“He really is a noob,” Jongdae says, lips pulling into a cat-like smile. “Namjoon, you got a loooooot of coaching to do ahead of you.”

“Back off, he only just got here a couple of hours ago,” Yoongi says, sighing deeply. “All he’s done is yell about wanting out of this place, sleep, and eat. He’s like a sloth.”

“Takes one to know one,” Taehyung mutters under his breath, and despite himself, Jeongguk snorts.

“Okay, shut up, you created this mess for us in the first place, so you solve it.” Sojin waves her hand, and the documents on their panels update, a series of equations on them. “Here are my calculations for when the Shield will advance. Estimations of power, force, best point of attack. I can’t believe I’m the only one out of you who can do this stuff.”

“You are the expert of mathematical calculations,” Namjoon says, hands raised. “I’m not going to argue with you, Queen Sojin.”

“Let’s wrap it up.” Sojin rolls her eyes and turns to Joonmyun and his group. “Prepare the Network so it can harness our power. The connections need to be perfect, we can’t risk any mistakes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Baekhyun murmurs.

“We’ll try gather the other Keepers,” Jaebum says, standing up. His group follows suit. “We need all the power we can get. Come on, let’s go.”

“Solar, you think you can come up with some backup plans and options for retreat?”

Solar grins. “Anything for you, Sojin.”

“And you boys,” Sojin says, turning to Jeongguk and sizing him up with a judging eye. “You know what you have to do.”

“Us?” Jimin asks. He grins, looping an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders and yanking Jeongguk towards him. “Yeah. We have to teach this one the ways of Cyberwarfare.”

 

 

“VPN.”

“That’s…” Jeongguk ducks as a shock of electricity narrowly misses his face. “Um, virtual something!” Namjoon sends a blast of binary code at Jeongguk and Jeongguk throws himself to the side. “Private network! Virtual private network!”

“Correct,” Namjoon shouts, pleased. “And what does it do?”

“It…” God. Jeongguk knows this. If he’d been paying any attention in his classes this semester, maybe he would remember, but no, he’s currently being grilled alive by Namjoon. Literally, if the fireballs zooming towards his face are anything to go by. “Bypasses something, goes around something.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.” Namjoon blasts a stream of liquid ice at Jeongguk. Jeongguk yelps and tries to duck, but he’s too slow, and the jet of ice freezes Jeongguk to the spot. “If this were the Shield, you’d be gone.”

“Bypasses surveillance technology,” Jeongguk grits out. Namjoon grins, then waves his hand, letting the frozen hand gripping Jeongguk go. Jeongguk collapses to the floor, holding his chest and shivering. “I swear to god,” he gasps, rolling on the floor. “This is more intense than my final exams.”

“It’s good revision!” Namjoon says, walking up to Jeongguk and offering a hand to pull him up. “We can’t stop now. Get up, you need to get this right.”

“This isn’t class!” Jeongguk yelps, as Namjoon begins his attacks again. “And you’re not my tutor!”

“Does that matter?” Namjoon shouts as he sends another sequence of fire-laced digits at Jeongguk. “Hey kid, you’ll thank me when you pass your finals!”

“Yeah, but unlike my finals,” Jeongguk shouts back, jumping to avoid a particularly vicious line of HTML, “I could actually get killed here! Be careful with that thing!”

Namjoon sighs, putting his hand down, and Jeongguk lowers his defensive stance too. Thank god. Maybe Namjoon will let him stop now. But no, Namjoon flicks his fingers as soon as Jeongguk’s arms are down by his side, a bright flash of something burning orange heading straight for Jeongguk’s nose. Jeongguk barely manages to duck—there’s something hot on Jeongguk’s eyebrows, and he bats at them, feeling the tips of his fingertips burn. “Fuck, you set my eyebrows on fire!”

“Oops,” Namjoon says, looking at his hands. “I didn’t mean to send one that strong. Guess that’s why they call me the God of Destruction.”

“I can’t do it! No more, I can’t do it, so just…” Jeongguk lets out a frustrated grunt, sinking to the floor in a squat. Granted, he’s not really trying, because this entire thing is ridiculous. How can they expect him, a regular dude, to learn all these fancy things to save a bunch of Keepers he doesn’t even care about? “Just, don’t make me do this anymore. I’m done.”

“You can’t give up,” Namjoon says, walking up and crouching down so he’s eye-to-eye with Jeongguk. “You can do it, I know you can. The more you know, the stronger your attacks get. I know you couldn’t break through the practise shield that Hoseok set up, but soon enough, you’ll get stronger, and it’ll be a piece of cake.”

Jeongguk rolls his eyes. Namjoon’s just being nice. Jeongguk’s weaker than a newborn puppy here. “Let me…” Jeongguk slumps over, sitting down on the ground. “Let me take a break.”

“Okay,” Namjoon says, hesitant. “Okay, rest for a while. It must be a lot to take in. I’m going to have a chat with Hoseok about how his research is coming along.”

Jeongguk unfurls his body, lying on the hard, white ground. It had seemed simple when Namjoon first explained what they’d be doing during training—just a couple of drills, exercises to get the gears in his brain turning, but as with everything, it’s easier said than done. After the meeting yesterday, Namjoon had taken him to the training room where he’d set up a couple of dummy shields for Jeongguk to try and break through. It had ended up with Jeongguk furiously stomping on one in frustration and hurting his foot instead. Physical attacks do shit-all here. He needs Cyberattacks. The ability to wield and use powers only available in Cyberspace—and he doesn’t have the first clue about how to do that.

“Hey.”

Jeongguk opens his eyes at the intrusion. It’s Taehyung standing over him, waving a hand in Jeongguk’s face. Jeongguk waves back half-heartedly as Taehyung sits down next to him, cross-legged.

“Namjoon said I shouldn’t bother you,” Taehyung starts, after a lengthy silence, “but I thought you might, uh, want someone to talk to. How’s it… How’s it going?”

“Life sucks, and I no longer have eyebrows,” Jeongguk says stonily. “That’s how it’s going.”

“You still look great,” Taehyung says, and Jeongguk opens his eyes again to see an amused grin on Taehyung’s lips. “The no-eyebrows look has a certain charm to it.”

“Next thing you know, I’m gonna get my nose burnt off and turn into the second Voldemort,” Jeongguk grumbles. “Beautiful.”

Taehyung laughs, deep and throaty, shifting so he’s lying on his belly next to Jeongguk. Jeongguk raises his arms so his head is on his hands, looking up at the ceiling. Taehyung glances at Jeongguk, nibbling at his lower lip, hesitant. “Hey, the others told me not to be nosy—no pun intended—but I was just wondering… What’s it like?”

Jeongguk raises a non-existent eyebrow. “What’s what like—getting my ass kicked?”

Taehyung shakes his head. “I mean, the analogue world. The human world. Out there. I like to think I know about it, but…” Taehyung lets out a wistful sigh. “I couldn’t stay for long enough to see, I mean, when the portal was open. I was too busy trying to get you through it. Is it really like the stories?”

“It’s…” Jeongguk hesitates. What can he say? It’s normal. Boring. He goes to classes, hangs with his friends, studies, sometimes hits Hongdae or Gangnam for late nights and clubbing. There’s a dog café in Myeongdong he’s quite fond of (the owners there already know him by name because he goes so often), and during finals week, he’s locked up in his dorm room living off ramyeon and energy drinks. All other times, he’s hanging out at the dance studio in Sinchon. His life in a nutshell. Rinse, repeat. “Normal, I guess?”

“But what do you mean by normal?” Taehyung asks with a pout. He leans in, so close that Jeongguk can see Taehyung’s long eyelashes fluttering as he blinks. “You know how I’m the Keeper of Instagram? As a Keeper, I get access to all the accounts, and some of the things I see…” Taehyung sighs wistfully, eyes misting over. “Beautifully arranged gourmet dishes. Rustic cafés. Sunrises and sunsets from all over the world. Aesthetic blogs. Designs from the greatest creative minds. Breathtaking scenery of waterfalls, beaches, bushlands, cityscapes. Milestones, birthdays, weddings, the moment two people fall in love. I’ve always wanted to live in the real world. It must be so good to be human. Everyone seems to be having fun.”

Jeongguk smiles wryly. Maybe he isn’t giving the real world enough credit, but Taehyung seems to be caught in an illusion. “Sorry to burst your bubble, but none of us actually live exactly the way we do on Instagram, for the record. It’s… How do I put it? A selective construction. We only put up our best moments to show the world, but more often than not, we leave out the bad stuff. Everything you see has literally been filtered through rose-coloured glasses.” Jeongguk reaches up to take Taehyung’s sunglasses off his head. Perpetua, the engraving on the arms of the sunglasses read. “Just like these.”

“I was afraid that might be the case…” Taehyung’s eyebrows knit together, and he takes his sunglasses out of Jeongguk’s hands. “So there’s more to it? More to the real world than what I see on Instagram?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says. He leans back, letting the moments of his life he’d kept hidden flood back. The uncertainty during middle school. The excruciating pressure during his last year of high school, studying for the suneung, and how he’d gone through the daily motions feeling like a walking corpse. His first girlfriend, first fight, first breakup, wincing whenever he heard her name for months after. His struggle coming to terms with the fact he’d fallen for the leader of his dance team, a boy. A lot undocumented, kept to himself, and certainly not shared on a platform like Instagram. “We keep a lot of it hidden away. When our lives don’t go the way we want. I do it too. So if you think you know me, then,” Jeongguk grins lopsidedly. “You might want to think again.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says. He looks one part intrigued and three parts crestfallen. “Namjoon told me I was wrong. He says there’s a lot of terrible things happening all the time, but I never saw it, so I guess I never believed him.”

“I don’t blame you.” Jeongguk sits up, stretching. “All you know is what’s sent to you.” He leans back on his hands, yawning. “Speaking of which… Any more good food pics? I’m starving.”

Taehyung grins, bounding up to his feet. “One ribeye steak, coming up.”

 

 

Jeongguk wakes up with an incredibly sore butt.

Ah, that’s right, he thinks, grimacing as his sleep-induced haze lifts. He sits up in his Minecraft-style bed of blocks, massaging his back. Cyberspace. He’s still in Cyberspace.

“Hey there, sleepyhead,” Taehyung greets as Jeongguk walks into the common room. He’s sitting at the table with Jimin, both of them scrolling through their Instagram and Twitter submissions. “Did you rest well?”

Jeongguk blinks. It’s oddly quiet, unlike the hubbub that had smacked him in the face the morning before. “Yeah. Where are the others?”

Jimin stretches out over the table, and his birds settle in his hair. “Namjoon and Yoongi are off creating Stoppers for the Network. Hoseok and Seokjin are over at the EXO Node checking up on Jongin and Sehun. They’ll be back soon. We all thought you could do with a rest.”

“Thanks, I guess,” Jeongguk murmurs, pulling out the chair and sitting at the table with Jimin and Taehyung. He folds his hands together, pressing his lips into a line. “Listen… It’s been fun and all, but I really need to go back before the guys in my dorm file a missing person report. Is there really no way back for me? Out of this dream?”

“You still think you’re dreaming, huh?” Jimin says gently, raising his head to look at Jeongguk. He snaps his fingers, and his Twitter feed disappears. “Sorry, Jeongguk, I really wish we could say this was a dream, but it’s not.”

“Don’t worry about the missing person report,” Taehyung adds. “Like Jiminnie said when you first got here, time really doesn’t flow the same in Cyberspace.”

Jimin nods. “Yeah. It runs about three hundred times faster here than out in the analogue world. So if you needed a solid calculation… Every ‘day’ here is only about 5 minutes out there.”

“Hey, I promised you I’d get you back,” Taehyung says, when there’s no response from Jeongguk. “And I will.”

“I’m so confused,” Jeongguk groans. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here. There’s no clock, no day or night, and nobody else but me needs sleep. None of this makes sense to me.”

Jimin lets out a tinkling laugh. “You’ll get used to it. I was the same when I first joined as a Keeper.”

“When you first joined?” Jeongguk sits up straight, curious. “You mean you weren’t here from the beginning?”

“Nah.” Taehyung shrugs and leans back in his chair. “We all came at different times. Out of our Node, Namjoon was the first, and Jiminnie here was the last to join us. None of us remember much about how we got here, or where we came from.”

“Probably better that way,” Jimin says with a smile. “Better to live in ignorant bliss.”

“Oh.” Jeongguk hesitates. He looks between Jimin and Taehyung. “So is there anything that you remember?”

Taehyung exchanges a look with Jimin, and then turns back to Jeongguk, pondering. “Not really.” Taehyung bites his lip. “Sometimes I get flashes of things from before—just little moments, like hazy visions of running along the Han river, familiar faces—but I don’t know if they’re from my past life or if that’s because I’ve absorbed so much from the information on my database.”

“All we know for sure is that we have one task,” Jimin adds. “The reason we were brought into Cyberspace—to protect the Domain we’ve been assigned to. Every so often, new Keepers turn up, and older Keepers disappear, but we don’t know where from or where to. It just is.”

Taehyung catches Jeongguk’s flabbergasted expression and grins at him. “So there you have it. We’re pretty much just like you, thrust into the digital world with no explanation whatsoever.”

Jeongguk nods. So the Keepers have just about as much of a clue about this place as he does. “So that’s why you look human?”

Jimin blinks. “Huh. You know what? I’ve never thought about that. Taehyungie, you think Namjoon knows why?”

Taehyung shrugs. “Who cares? It’s probably because we interact with humans the most.” He grins devilishly and strikes a pose. “I like to think I was some dashing supermodel in my past life.”

Jeongguk laughs along with Jimin and Taehyung. Taehyung certainly looks like he walked out of some hipster fashion magazine. He has broad shoulders, a chiseled jawline, tanned skin—and if this were the real world, at a club, or university society event, Jeongguk would gravitate towards Taehyung, maybe share a few drinks, get talking. But too bad, this isn’t the real world, and now is definitely not the time to be checking out these digital beings.

“What Taehyung means to say,” Jimin says with a thump of Taehyung’s back, “Is that he has no idea either.”

“Hey, it’s not like we can change anything even if we did,” Taehyung says, putting an arm around Jimin’s shoulders and pulls Jimin in close to him. “We just have to do the best with what we’re given, right, Jiminnie?”

Jimin nods. “And right now, that means finding a way to protect our home and stay alive from the Shield.”

The entrance to the Node slides open, and Jimin waves as Namjoon, Yoongi, Seokjin and Hoseok file in, getting up to take Seokjin by the arm and peck him on the cheek. Seokjin grins, putting an arm around Jimin and bringing him in to peck him on the lips. Jeongguk raises an eyebrow. So Jimin and Seokjin are… together? Is that even possible here?

“How did it go?” Taehyung asks as Namjoon and Yoongi both collapse on the couch. Hoseok pulls out a chair at the table, sitting next to Taehyung and slumping over on the table. Seokjin sits down on the single-seater next to the one Namjoon and Yoongi are sitting on, and Jimin settles on Seokjin’s lap, leaning on Seokjin’s chest. “The Stoppers? How are Jongin and Sehun?”

“Not bad, but not great,” Yoongi says with a groan. “Stoppers are holding for now, but we could still do a bit more to make sure they really stick to the borders of the Network to fend off as much from the Shield’s attacks as they can.”

“And Jongin and Sehun are recovering nicely,” Seokjin says, stroking Jimin’s hair absentmindedly. “They’re still shaken, obviously. The burns all over Jongin’s body aren’t going to go away, but the VPN managed to save most of their database.”

“It was a pretty big hit,” Hoseok adds, lying on his arm. “They’ll be okay, but it’s scary, thinking that something like that could happen to any of us.”

“And this time, it might not just be one or two Keepers.” Namjoon sits up, tapping a finger to his lips. “If Sojin’s calculations are right, we have about six analogue hours until we’re hit. So we need to get up to speed before then… And that includes training Jeongguk up.”

Jeongguk gulps. Six hours analogue time. So that’s…

“Two and a half months,” Taehyung mutters into Jeongguk’s ear. “We got two and a half months to do this. And then I’ll get you home.”

“So,” Yoongi says, sizing Jeongguk up with a judging eye. “You think you’re ready to learn some new Cyberwarfare techniques?”

 

 

It ends up being Hoseok taking Jeongguk to the training room this time round, Namjoon saying he had a couple of things he still needed to work out before going back to Sojin to strengthen the hold of the Stoppers.

“Okay.” Hoseok flashes a smile at Jeongguk, who’s sitting on the floor, stretching out his legs. “So the technique I’m teaching you today is the Alternative DNS Server technique. It’ll come in useful if the Shield ever attempts a DNS Filter attack.”

Jeongguk nods. Honestly, all these new words and new terms are still going over his head, but if, like Taehyung said, this is what’ll get him home, he’ll give it a shot. “What do I have to do?”

“Not much,” Hoseok says, extending a hand, and Jeongguk grabs it, hoisting himself up. “If you do it right, though, all the Keepers you’re connected to will be able to multiply, for a temporary amount of time. It’s very useful when they have the filters up, because then we can get past the filter guards.”

“Huh.” Jeongguk clenches his fists. “Okay. Teach me.”

“First, you have to stand like this.” Hoseok splits his legs apart like he’s sitting atop a horse and shifts his weight down so he’s planted firmly on the ground. Jeongguk follows suit, feeling a little silly. “Good. Now I need you to put your hands together, like this—”

“Don’t tell me…” Jeongguk narrows his eyes. This pose looks awfully familiar, like something a blond-haired, orange-jumpsuited kid from a particularly convoluted anime would do. “Kage bunshin no jutsu?

“Kage no what?” Hoseok stares blankly at Jeongguk. “No, I need you to shout ‘DNS’, then point at the Keeper you want to multiply, and concentrate all your digital power into the beam. Try on me!”

“Uh.” Jeongguk furrows his eyebrows. First of all, what digital power? Second of all, is Hoseok seriously expecting Jeongguk to be able to point a finger at him, shout a couple of letters, and he’ll multiply?

Hoseok drops his arms to his side. “Just try it. Imagine the particles in the air drawing towards your body, and release it in one go. Even if you don’t get it the first time, you’ll get there.”

“That’s exactly what Namjoon’s been telling me,” Jeongguk grumbles. “Okay, okay, I’ll try.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes, imagining the air around him lighting up with energy, tiny particles of light floating towards his body, being sucked in, condensing into a little ball of energy. Digital power, huh? It feels more like he’s trying to make a Rasengan, except all this is only happening inside his head. There’s no way he could actually pull off a flashy attack like this. He’s no Naruto.

“Concentrate it! Now shout it out and let it go!”

Jeongguk yells out the three letters, squeezing his eyes shut tighter, directing his palms towards Hoseok. There’s a flash of something bright, lighting the back of Jeongguk’s eyelids an orangey-red, a shock of heat emanating from his palms, and then—silence.

Jeongguk cracks open an eyelid. Hoseok’s still standing there, looking a little frazzled, but very much alive. Jeongguk hasn’t accidentally killed him or anything. Jeongguk turns his head slightly, and a makes a strangled choking sound.

“Is that…?” Jeongguk’s face contorts into an expression of horrified disbelief.

There’s a long pause.

“Yes, I do believe that’s me, except…” The toddler sitting on the floor, decked head to toe in exactly the same outfit as Hoseok, gurgles happily. “Well, he appears to be three years old.”

This is weird as fuck. Mini-Hoseok crawls towards Jeongguk on his hands and knees, tugging at Jeongguk’s pant leg, and Jeongguk lets out a long breath. It’s barely been three days since he’s been here—if his sense of time is still accurate in this strange place—and he’s been stuck in a creepy white room, been forced to walk along a tightrope of glowing wires, shoved into a conference room with a group of weirdos, dodged countless fireballs and icicles, and now, there’s a baby at his feet. This is getting out of hand.

“This is ridiculous.” Jeongguk walks towards the exit, blindly smashing at the white wall to open the passageway. Hoseok watches speechlessly. Mini-Hoseok drools. “I’m calling it a day. I need a break.”

“Okay,” Hoseok says, softly. “Go take a rest with the others. I’ll report back to Namjoon on our training session.” There’s a poof, a cloud of colourful smoke, and mini-Hoseok’s gone. “You did well, Jeongguk, you managed to materialise me. Well, me minus fifteen years.”

“You don’t need to sugarcoat anything,” Jeongguk mumbles as the panel opens. “I’m hopeless at this.”

Hoseok’s awkward laughter is more than enough of an answer.

 

 

Jeongguk walks into the common room to see Yoongi lounging in his usual place on the couch, Jimin laughing as he stands on his tiptoes to brush Seokjin’s fringe back, and Jimin’s bluebirds circling around Seokjin’s head, making a mess of Seokjin’s hair.

“Park Jimin!” Seokjin’s growling. Jimin giggles a little, and one of his birdies flits back towards him, perching on his finger. The other three are still trying to make Seokjin’s hair into their new home. “Get your Tweets out of my hair.”

“But they look so cute on you.” Jimin grins and pats Seokjin’s cheek. “Just marking my territory.”

“Gross.” Yoongi turns over, sliding one ear of his headphones off. “Go make a new room for all your PDA, I don’t want to see that shit.” His eyes meet Jeongguk’s. “And I don’t think Jeongguk here wants to see it either.”

“Oh!” Jimin turns around, waving happily at Jeongguk with his bird-less hand. “Welcome back! How was training?”

Jeongguk pushes past Jimin to slump down in the one-seater next to Yoongi’s, silent. Jimin’s smile slips off his face. His eyebrows knit together. “Jeongguk?”

“Don’t talk to me,” Jeongguk mumbles, curling up into a little ball. He’s never felt so frustrated, so useless, and he knows he should snap out of it, tamp down the annoyance bubbling in his chest, but he can’t stop thinking back to training, back to Hoseok’s disappointed face. Why does he even care? It’s not like he owes them anything. He rests his forehead on his knees. “I’m fine.”

Jimin and Seokjin exchange looks. “Are you sure?” Jimin says, tentative. “I mean, if you ever need someone to listen—”

“Guys, guys, guys!”

Jeongguk raises his head. It’s Taehyung, barrelling into the room like a cannonball, a bajillion pairs of sunglasses dangling from his belt loops. He’s waving one pair around in his hands, toothy grin on his face, and he makes a face of delight when he sees Jimin. “Jiminnie! Take a look at this!”

“Um.” Jimin glances in Jeongguk’s direction, shuffling to his feet. He’s not great at being subtle; Taehyung’s smile droops ever so slightly as he processes Jimin’s muted reaction and follows Jimin’s line of sight to Jeongguk curled up on the sofa.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, stopping in his tracks. His eyes go wide. Jeongguk curls up more, wrapping his arms around his knees. “I thought you would still be training with Hoseokkie. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jeongguk mutters. “Don’t mind me.”

“That’s not nothing.” Taehyung purses his lips, tucking his sunglasses away in his back pocket and walking towards Jeongguk. “When you look like Yoongi when he’s just had to sit through six hours of someone’s Private Spotify Session filled with nothing but repeats of Michael Buble’s Christmas album and Ginuwine’s Pony, something’s wrong.” Taehyung squats down in front of Jeongguk, resting his chin on the arm of the sofa. “I wanted to show you all these new filters I got, but that can wait.”

“For future reference,” Yoongi says slipping one side of his headphones off, “it was actually quite a cathartic experience. I no longer found Justin Bieber’s pre-pubescent voice crooning into my ear nearly as nauseating. But what’s up, kid?”

“Training’s not going well, it seems,” Seokjin says gently, when Jeongguk doesn’t answer. “Hoseok might’ve pushed him too hard. He deserves some rest.”

“We do have a war to prepare for, in case you’ve forgotten,” Yoongi says, rubbing his temples. “I don’t think we really have time to slack off right now.”

“Oh, lighten up, Yoongi,” Jimin says. “We’ve all been so uptight lately. We should all calm down a little. It’s not good to be on edge all the time. And we especially shouldn’t be upsetting the newbie.”

Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s hands in his. “Hear Jimin? No sad! I refuse to let you have the sads.” Taehyung scrunches his nose, deep in thought, then snaps his fingers. “#pupstagram!”

Okay, Jeongguk might still be feeling porcupine levels of prickly, but… Somehow, just like he’d materialised Jeongguk’s food in the morning, Taehyung’s holding a gorgeous, fluffy, white puppy in his hands, beaming at Jeongguk. Jeongguk makes a little noise at the back of his throat. The puppy stares back, sticking a tongue out to lick Jeongguk’s hand, and Jeongguk’s heart melts. He can’t be angry in the face of adorable fluffballs.

“Oh, no, a Maltipoo,” Jimin wheezes, abandoning Seokjin to run up to said puppy. One of his birds perches on the puppy’s back, and the pup’s ears twitch. “You’re so cute! Hey girl, should we find you a friend? Yes? Yes? Okay, wait a moment.”

There’s a poof, and a second puppy appears on Jeongguk’s lap, sleepy and tiny and precious. From the looks of it, this one is a little Corgi boy. The Corgi yaps, stretching, and sniffs the Maltipoo. Taehyung sets her gently on Jeongguk’s lap next to the Corgi, grinning. “Aren’t they cute? Let’s call them… Butter and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.”

“How about Sausage and Steak?” Yoongi suggests, eyeing the cacophony, and Taehyung shoots Yoongi a wounded look. “Hotdog? Galbi? Spitroast? Kentucky Fried Dog?”

“Don’t listen to the meanie, Princess,” Jimin says in a baby voice, cuddling the Maltipoo’s ears. “As a certain great white shark would say, puppies are friends, not food.”

“Prince and Princess,” Seokjin says, walking towards them and crouching down next to Jimin so he’s eye-level with the pup. Jimin grins, resting his head on Seokjin’s shoulder. “Very regal. I like it.”

Despite himself, a grin spreads over Jeongguk’s face as Prince nips Princess on the nose, then licks it when she yaps. Taehyung’s laughing too, tickling Princess’ tummy. Taehyung’s expressions are mesmerising, the way they change from delight to adoration to joy. Taehyung might have terrible timing and bring with him lots of noise, but he’s got an irresistible charm and magnetic personality, and somehow, a calming effect on Jeongguk’s short fuse.

“Better?” Taehyung asks, grinning up at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk gives a small nod, stroking Prince’s soft paws. Taehyung’s so close, Jeongguk can count his eyelashes, long and pretty. “Thought so. Pups make everything better.”

“This reminds me of that time I was getting a lot of hate tweets and Seokjin materialised an inflatable pool with floating rubber unicorns in it,” Jimin says wistfully. “Good times.”

Seokjin rubs Jimin’s back. “Anything for you.”

By now, Jeongguk’s slid off the sofa, sitting with his legs spread on the ground, the two tiny pups playing in the space between his legs. Taehyung’s sitting cross-legged next to him, absently stroking Princess’s soft fur. It’s so charming how he can do this, revert between his playful self and his serious side, mesmerise Jeongguk with his multifacetedness. Against all of the moral fibers of his being, Jeongguk’s eyes wander until they land back on Taehyung, tracing the profile of his face, high cheekbones, sharp jawline, curve of his lips inviting.

“Like what you see?”

Taehyung’s smirking at Jeongguk, having caught Jeongguk staring, and Jeongguk violently jerks, averting his eyes as quickly as he can and pretending to be preoccupied by Princess’s paws. Jeongguk squeezes the soft pad gently, and Princess squirms, trying to jerk her paw away. Aw. Puppy paws are so soft. A glance back at Taehyung informs Jeongguk that yes, Taehyung’s still looking at him with that amused smile, and no, fuck, Jeon Jeongguk is not blushing like a schoolgirl.

“Hey, Jeongguk,” Jimin says with an angelic smile, breaking the awkward tension between him and Taehyung, and Jeongguk thanks him silently. “I was just searching through my database and… You recognise this, right?”

Jeongguk looks over at Jimin, squinting, and lets out a little chuckle when he sees the picture that Jimin’s projected into the air. It’s a photo Jeongguk had tweeted two, maybe three years ago, of him sitting spread-legged on the grass with his puppy between his legs. “Mr. Spreading Legs Strikes Again,” the tweet reads.

“Aw, hey, it’s Gureum!” Taehyung’s cooing at the image projected into the air. “I have that Instavid of you trying to teach Gureum to fetch. You’re terrible at dog training. Don’t quit your day job.”

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, offended. Gureum’s just an uncooperative (yet lovable) brat. Dogs are complicated. Taehyung wouldn’t understand. “Look, she was just more interested in licking my face than the squeaky toy.”

“She seems to have you wound around her paw,” Seokjin says, corner of his lip lifted in a smile. “From the album you uploaded consisting entirely of Gureum? I’d say you’re in pretty deep. She’s got you whipped.”

“Hah,” Jimin says, snorting, wiping away the image of spread-legged Jeongguk. “There’s more. Your nineteenth birthday? Really?”

Jeongguk groans as the picture appears, the one he’d taken while drunk, right after he got his first tattoo, goaded on by Junhwe.

Seokjin tilts his head, quirking an eyebrow, but doesn’t say anything more. God, Jeongguk thinks, setting Princess down in his lap and rubbing Prince’s tummy, It’s so weird to think that Jimin has access to everything he’s ever tweeted. Every stray thought, 140 characters or less, random pictures of random things, the stuff that Seokjin wouldn’t see—that Taehyung wouldn’t see either.

“I’ve seen the finished product,” Taehyung says, grinning and pulling up an image. “Nice. But why’d you choose an hourglass? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I wanted to remind myself,” Jeongguk says, shrugging. “That time is precious. That I shouldn’t waste it. Doesn’t seem like it did much though,” Jeongguk finishes, laughing stonily.

“Good thing it wasn’t a Prince Albert piercing you decided to get,” Jimin quips. He sweeps his eyes down to Jeongguk’s crotch, cringing, and Seokjin rolls his eyes. “Uncut. Ooh, yeah, that would hurt.”

“Oh god,” Taehyung says, raising a hand to Jimin’s face to smush it. “You need to like, #chill.” The hashtag wraps around Jimin’s head, sending a gust of cold wind in Jeongguk’s direction. “#CHILL.”

“There is no chill in my life,” Jimin says solemnly, brushing the frost from his fringe. “Only pain and constant timeline refreshing. And too many unwanted dick pics. Do you know how many times I’ve been caught off-guard with pictures from @DiphallicDude?”

“Why are you three still here,” Yoongi says. Jeongguk jumps, startled; he’d almost forgotten that Yoongi was in the room with them, with all the ruckus that they’d been making. “Go take your yapping animals and hang out in the other Node with Yugyeom and Youngjae. Trash should go mingle with other trash.”

“Did you just call all of us trash?” Jimin mock gasps. Yoongi smiles fakely, and Jimin makes a big act of putting the back of his hand to his forehead and pretending to faint. “Oh, my heart is positively bleeding.”

“As someone who cares deeply about the environment, I am obligated to pick you up,” Taehyung says seriously, hand gripping Jeongguk’s shoulder. Jeongguk’s heart gives a traitorous thud. Prince yaps. Princess turns and continues napping between Jeongguk’s legs, using Jeongguk’s thigh as a pillow. Taehyung breaks into a bright smile. “How does tomorrow morning sound?”

Seokjin groans, bringing his palm to his face. “You stole that line from Jackson, didn’t you?”

Taehyung shrugs, grinning. Jeongguk can still feel the heat of Taehyung’s hand on his shoulder. “If you look past the autoplay, he’s quite a riot.”

“Seriously,” Yoongi says, throwing a cushion at Taehyung’s head. “I am trying to get my beauty sleep and the yapping is killing my concentration.”

“You don’t even need sleep,” Jimin grumbles under his breath. Yoongi growls at Jimin, lifting his leg a fraction, and Jimin beams back nervously, hands moving to cover his crotch. “I mean, sleep away!”

“Sorry, Jeonggukkie, going to have to take Prince and Princess back for now.” Taehyung bends over to scoop a pup up in each arm, and Jeongguk pouts. “And you should get some rest too, it’s been a long day for you.”

Now Taehyung mentions it, Jeongguk is feeling knackered. His frustration had overpowered it, but after some well-needed puppy therapy—and more than a fair share of staring at Taehyung—he’s calmed down considerably, and the sleepiness is taking over. “Yeah,” Jeongguk says, standing up and brushing the fur off his clothes. “Yeah, I’m going to go rest. See you tomorrow.”

“Bye!” Jimin waves with both hands, and Seokjin gives a little salute from where he’s standing behind Jimin.

“I’ll take you to your room,” Taehyung offers, slinging his arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders, and Jeongguk flinches, nerves on edge, Taehyung’s touch too intimate and amplified.

Why is this happening? Jeongguk doesn’t like it when people are in his personal space, and he’s got his guard up especially high in this weird place, but Taehyung is an anomaly. Taehyung’s presence is… More than welcome, which is more than Jeongguk can say for about 99% of people in his life. And despite his initial annoyance and Taehyung for bringing him to this place in the first place, knowing that Taehyung’s there for him… It makes him want to smile.

“It’s open,” Taehyung says, motioning to a circular entrance in the wall, and Jeongguk jerks out of his daydream. “Jeon Jeongguk’s royal palace.”

“Thanks,” Jeongguk mumbles. He takes a step forward. Taehyung’s arm falls off his shoulders, and Jeongguk hesitates, turning around. “Not just for this, for… You know.”

Taehyung beams. “I know. And it’s nothing. Let me know any time you need something, or someone to talk to. I’m always here.” Taehyung gives a little wave, and Jeongguk nods, that pleasant, giddy buzz in his chest. “Sleep well!”

 

 

Jeongguk wakes up to the smell of eggs and sausages, accompanied by Taehyung and Jimin’s grinning visages. He’s ushered to the training room, where Hoseok unleashes a new barrage of attacks on him to give him a real ass-kicking, and slumps back to the common room hours later like a wounded cat, watching as the others play around and tease each other, the only downtime they have from war preparations.

Namjoon and Yoongi do a good job of trying to keep Jeongguk out of it, probably mindful of how much is going on in Jeongguk’s mind, but he hears snippets of conversation from when things go wrong anyway. Solar from the MAMAMOO Node getting injured when the girls were testing out Booster cannons. Minah almost getting sucked into a wormhole when the GIRLSDAY Node were out laying out the test Stoppers Namjoon and Yoongi had been preparing with the others. They’re all putting their lives on the line, to save their homes. Even the upbeat Taehyung, who’s been assigned the task of looking after Jeongguk—“You were the one who brought him here in the first place, so take responsibility!”—sometimes walks in looking haggard and worn-out, sitting at the table next to Jeongguk and smiling tiredly when Jeongguk imitates him.

The training room is empty today. It’s been about two weeks, and Jeongguk’s quickly growing tired of attacking this round bubble shield that Namjoon’s made for him. He’s already run through all the attacks that Namjoon and Hoseok have taught him, but no matter what he does, the shield just sits there, unperturbed.

Jeongguk can feel it, feel that the others are starting to get annoyed at his lack of progress. They try not to show it, but every time Namjoon and Yoongi come back from a meeting and check up on Jeongguk’s progress, only to see the practise shield as intact as ever, Jeongguk can see Yoongi’s lips pressing into a tight line, displeased. He can only imagine the scolding Taehyung is getting, for having brought someone as useless as him over to this world, at a time so critical and crucial to them all.

“How’s it going?”

Jeongguk jolts, turning to face the entrance. “Seokjin.” Seokjin’s leaning against the wall, dressed in a blue and white shirt and tight black pants, arms crossed. Jeongguk stands up straight, brushing creases out of his pants. Namjoon had told him this morning that he’d be overseeing training today, so seeing Seokjin here is a surprise. “Where’s Namjoon?”

“Discussing something urgent with Sojin,” Seokjin says, pushing off the wall and walking towards Jeongguk. “I caught him rushing out and he asked if I could help you with training today.”

Jeongguk nods. Namjoon and Hoseok are both helpful, but he could do with a fresh approach. “Thanks, I guess.”

Seokjin peers over Jeongguk’s shoulder. “Practising breaking through the shield, huh?” Seokjin remarks, scratching the back of his head. “I heard from Hoseok that you were having a bit of trouble with it. Show me what you got.”

“A bit of trouble is an understatement.” Jeongguk closes his eyes, sending a blast from his hands which barely grazes the shield. This is probably his tenth? Twentieth? Training session now, and he’s no closer to a breakthrough than he was on day one. “I can’t even get close to destroying this thing.”

“You know, before you get too focused on trying to destroy that thing, we have to get you through the safeguards and defense system first,” Seokjin says, slightly amused. “Have either Namjoon or Hoseok taught you how to bypass DNS Redirection filters yet?”

“DNS what?” Seokjin laughs and Jeongguk shakes his head. “I don’t think so.”

“I guess I just found something to teach you today, then.” Seokjin rolls up his sleeves. “So the principle behind this is transformation. You know what URLs are, right?” Jeongguk nods. This much he knows. “Well, normally, these addresses are specified in base ten. The DNS Redirection filter catches these keywords and blocks these from communicating with the servers. But if you transform the address to something other than base ten, you can get past these redirection filters.” Seokjin claps his hands, grinning. “I’ll teach you hexadecimal first. https://facebook.com. That’s my address, in base ten. Now, change it to hexadecimal, and it becomes https://0x66616365626f6f6b2e636f6d0a. You following?”

Jeongguk starts nodding, eyebrows knitted in confusion, then shakes his head. Seokjin takes one look at him and bursts out laughing.

“Too much, huh? Yeah, Jimin had the same reaction first time I taught him. Just listen for now, then. There’s a couple ways you can get around DNS Redirection. Changing the URL or IP to either dotted decimal, decimal, dotted octal, hexadecimal, or dotted hexadecimal. Once you can convert base ten to those in your head, you’ll be able to defeat that attack.”

“That’s going to take forever,” Jeongguk says. He shakes his head. “Even just…even just you telling me this is confusing me, how can I hope to learn this hexadecimal dotted octal thing and be able to use it?”

“You’ll get there,” Seokjin says, patting Jeongguk’s shoulder. He hands Jeongguk something that looks like a photo album, and when Jeongguk takes it, a light shines from it, projecting a series of photos onto the walls. “Those are the ASCII to decimal, octal, and hexadecimal conversion tables. Try to memorise these. It’ll help.”

“Whatcha doing there?” It’s Yoongi, stepping through the entrance. He yawns as Seokjin waves a hello and turns his gaze to Jeongguk. “Ah, training the kid.”

“Good timing,” Seokjin says, walking up to Yoongi. Yoongi eyes Seokjin suspiciously as Seokjin flashes him a smile. “I’ve just taught him the basics of bypassing the DNS Redirection filter. Could you take over?”

“What?” Yoongi holds his hands up. “Whoa, why me?”

“You’re the best out of us at dealing with Connection Reset Packet attacks. Namjoon caught me as I was heading in but I can’t stay long either.” Yoongi raises an eyebrow, motioning for Seokjin to go on. Seokjin sighs. “Scheduled Facebook maintenance—major upgrade, we’re doing another crackdown on fake accounts and making everyone change their Facebook names to real ones.” Seokjin turns back to Jeongguk and gives him a wave. “Have fun, you two. Jeongguk, I’ll see you later!”

And then Seokjin’s gone, leaving just Yoongi and Jeongguk in the training room.

Jeongguk falls silent. Out of all of them, Yoongi’s probably the only one who Jeongguk hasn’t had a proper conversation with. Jimin’s not scared to sneak up on Hoseok and scare the living shit out of him, but he doesn’t approach Yoongi with a ten foot pole. Nobody bothers Yoongi, especially not when he’s napping on the couch.

Yoongi’s also the least impressed with Jeongguk. The others have accepted Jeongguk now, accepted that he’s what they have to work with, and don’t give Taehyung much grief for his choice, but Yoongi doesn’t make his displeasure a secret, grumbling every time Jeongguk can’t get something right. Taehyung just shakes his head, putting a hand on Jeongguk’s back and telling him not to mind Yoongi, that Yoongi’s just tense because deep inside he’s worried about all the Keepers’ safety, about Jeongguk’s safety too, in case he can’t defend himself when the Shield hits. Jeongguk just nods. If this is what he sees from Yoongi, as a guest, he can only imagine how much shit Taehyung’s getting.

“‘kay, kid,” Yoongi says, yawning and leaning against the wall. “Let’s get this over with quickly. What have you learnt?”

“Namjoon’s taught me VPN and SSH attacks,” Jeongguk begins, hesitant. “Hoseok tried to get me to master Alternative DNS… And Seokjin’s got me working on this,” Jeongguk motions to the wall, where Seokjin’s projections are still up. “URL and IP Encoding.”

“And according to Seokjin, I’m meant to teach you how to Ignore Packet to combat Connection Reset Packet attacks,” Yoongi says, nodding. “I sure hope you know what a packet is.” Jeongguk’s silent. “Seriously? Aren’t you studying Cybernetics?”

“Studying,” Jeongguk emphasises. “You know I’m not an expert.”

“But this should be one of the first things you learn,” Yoongi says, voice laced with impatience. He clicks his fingers, and a diagram pops up. “Okay. A packet, or network packet, is formatted data, with two parts to it, the control information and user data. Control information are the technicalities, the source and destination addresses and so forth, and user data is what the person wants to send to the address. If you’re hit by a Connection Reset Packet, communication is completely blocked, and all alternatives rerouted to the block. So you want to be able to avoid it if possible. Ignore it.”

Something flies at Jeongguk’s face, and Jeongguk ducks just in time for a brown envelope to embed itself into the wall behind him, sharp corner slicing into the surface.

“What was that for!?” Jeongguk yells, turning to face Yoongi. Yoongi shrugs, dropping his hand. “You could’ve blinded me.”

“That’s how fast the packets will come. You’ve got to be able to avoid them, or create a repelling shield. Then, the packet just bounces off harmlessly. That’s the principle behind Ignore Packet. Concentrate and shape your power into a repelling force field around you.” Yoongi launches another set of brown packages at Jeongguk, and Jeongguk curses, throwing himself to the floor. “Get up!”

“How do I do this thing in the first place?” Jeongguk yells. “You haven’t taught me anything, just told me to do this and do that, I—” A packet hits Jeongguk square on the head, paralysing him momentarily. “Stop! Stop.”

Yoongi grunts and squats, taking his headphones off. “You’re doing it wrong. I don’t understand. You should’ve mastered power shaping by now. What have you been doing since you’ve been here?”

“Training,” Jeongguk grits out between his teeth. He pushes himself off the ground, wincing as his head throbs. “Every day.”

Yoongi runs his hand through his hair. “Really? You don’t seem to have improved much.” He strokes his chin, looking Jeongguk up and down, brow furrowed. “Maybe Namjoon was wrong about being able to teach you Cyberwarfare in this short time… I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off anymore.”

Jeongguk laughs, but there’s an uncomfortable pressure building up in his chest, and an ache in his throat, so heavy that he’s close to choking.

Yoongi sighs. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Jeongguk, but your attacks right now are about as good as Drake would sound trying to sing Trot. Which is to say, they suck.”

Jeongguk’s never been one to be hung up on other people’s opinions of him, but this, this is a jab out of left field, and it leaves Jeongguk reeling. It’s unfair. It’s so fucking unfair. Jeongguk grits his teeth, hands curled up into fists. It’s not like he asked for this to happen to him, for him to be transported to this strange world and be told he’s the key to saving Cyberspace. He never asked for it, and fuck if he’s going to be humiliated by Yoongi any longer. Jeongguk stands up, silent, and kicks the wall before making his way out of the training room.

Jimin’s sitting on the sofa scrolling through his feed, and he makes a little noise of surprise as Jeongguk storms past him. “Jeongguk? Hey, hey, what’s going on?”

“Ask Yoongi,” Jeongguk spits out, whirling around to face Jimin. Taehyung, who’s been sitting quietly in the single-seater opposite Jimin, turns his head, making a little whimper as he catches Jeongguk’s expression.

Jimin scans Jeongguk up and down, then turns in the direction Jeongguk came from. Yoongi’s there at the entrance, one hand extended towards Jeongguk, a scowl on his face.

“Yoongi,” Jimin starts, slowly, “what did you do?”

“Nothing,” Yoongi says, grumpy. “I was just training him after your boyfriend bailed for maintenance.”

“That wasn’t training,” Jeongguk shouts, gripping the back of the sofa Jimin’s sitting on. “That was you throwing shit at me and expecting me to know how to defend myself. Well, I don’t.”

“Throwing stuff at you?” Taehyung knits his eyebrows. He takes his feet off the armrest, standing up and walking towards Jeongguk. Jeongguk looks down, not wanting to meet Taehyung’s eyes. If he sees the concern in Taehyung’s face, the dam might really break loose. “Are you hurt anywhere? Yoongi, what the hell?”

Yoongi throws his hands up in the air. “Okay, look, I forgot to turn on my manners, I do that sometimes when I’m stressed, I’m sorry. I just got back from talking with Mino from the WINNER Node, and the backups he’d spent ages working on are a complete dud. We don’t have much time left, and all our asses are on the line, so—”

“Shut up.”

“Jeongguk?” Taehyung bites his lower lip, reaching a hand towards Jeongguk and resting it on his arm. “Hey, Jeongguk—”

Jeongguk jerks his arm away, and Taehyung’s hand slides off his arm. Jeongguk fixes Taehyung with the coldest look he can, but it’s difficult when it’s Taehyung, who’s been nothing but helpful and apologetic since Jeongguk’s been brought over here. Taehyung worries his lower lip, looking at the hand that was thrown aside and Jeongguk looks away, a little sorry. He’s not angry with Taehyung, not exactly; he’s more frustrated about the whole situation, not having a say in his role, the harsh training, not knowing when it’ll end and he’ll be free, and his own lack of ability to get it right.

“Hey, Jeongguk, calm down, I’m sorry,” Yoongi says, taking a step towards Jeongguk. Jimin’s watching the whole thing with wide eyes and a gaping mouth, completely silent. “I shouldn’t have been so tough. I apologise.”

“Jeonggukkie,” Taehyung says, gently, as Jeongguk still doesn’t answer. “Jeonggukkie, please look at me? If there’s something troubling you, I’m here to listen.”

That’s it. That’s what sets off the floodgates. The last bolt holding back the barrage of waterworks breaks, and weeks of pent up frustration unleashes in one heated moment. Jeongguk crouches, hugging his knees, tears spilling out and trailing down his cheeks. Yoongi’s rooted to the spot, opening and closing his mouth wordlessly, and Taehyung flaps his hands around uselessly.

“Don’t—don’t cry?” Taehyung stutters, staring at Jeongguk with a panicked expression and then turning towards Jimin. “Oh my god, what do I do—Jimin, help?”

“Do I look like I know what to do?” Jimin splutters, sounding equally panicked. He turns to Yoongi. “Hey, you made Jeongguk cry, can you make him, like, uncry or something?” Yoongi just stares back at Jimin guiltily, and Jimin turns back to Taehyung, opening and closing his mouth.

Taehyung takes a step closer to where Jeongguk’s crouching on the ground. “Uh, um, J-Jeongguk?”

“Don’t talk to me,” Jeongguk says, rubbing furiously at his eyes. Taehyung stops, just standing there clenching and unclenching his hands. “I never asked for this. I don’t want to be here. I can’t be this…” Jeongguk waves his hand above his head. “This Golden Sun Spear bullshit you’re looking for.”

“Jeongguk…”

“I’m a university student, for christ’s sake,” Jeongguk continues, sniffling. Taehyung’s still looking at him with that panicked, wounded, guilty gaze, and Jeongguk angles his face away from Taehyung. “Look, I’m barely twenty. I live off cup noodles and spend more time marathoning anime and playing games than I do studying. And you bring me here, by mistake, and then you tell me I’m meant to help save Cyberspace?” Jeongguk laughs, dusting off his knees and standing up, running his hand down his face once to catch the free tears. “That’s not going to happen.”

Taehyung shakes his head. “But Jeongguk, you don’t know—”

“I’m done,” Jeongguk says, tiredly. “This Shield thing, Cyberspace, I’m done with all of it. I want to go back home. You’re the one who fucked up bringing me here, so fix it. Get all the Keepers. Open the portal for me.”

Taehyung looks at Jeongguk, mouth hanging open, and his eyes are glassing over, tears gathering at the corners. Yoongi’s pressing his hand to his forehead, then ruffles his hair in annoyance. Jimin’s sitting there, frozen, tension and guilt on his face.

Jeongguk takes in one more shaky breath, looking down at his feet. “Take me home, Taehyung.”

 

 

Jeongguk’s curled up on his side on his bed when a gentle knock interrupts his ruminating. It’s been five, maybe ten minutes, since he stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him, and much of the anger has now dissipated to a quiet, melancholic homesickness.

“Leave me alone,” Jeongguk mumbles, when the knock sounds again. There’s a pause, and then Jeongguk hears the sound of the panels of the door opening.

“It’s me.” Taehyung’s distinctive low, husky voice rings through the room. “Sorry. Can I come in?”

“You’re going to come in even if I say no,” Jeongguk says with a sigh. He’s been around Taehyung long enough by now to figure out that rules are only a guideline for his free spirit. Taehyung does what he pleases, and he’s entirely unapologetic about it.

There’s a soft chuckle, and Jeongguk’s mattress dips down as a weight settles on it. “You’re right.”

That’s all Taehyung says. Jeongguk keeps expecting something else, but Taehyung doesn’t speak after that, just rests a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder and sits there in silence, rubbing with his thumb. Jeongguk bites his nail, still turned towards the wall, facing away from Taehyung, wondering if he should speak, or if he should just stay like that so that Taehyung will go away.

He hadn’t meant to accuse Taehyung like that. God, Taehyung’s probably getting enough shit from the others for bringing Jeongguk here. Jeongguk doesn’t want to add to it, the pressure, the guilt, but it’s also difficult to feel bad when the only reason his life has been turned upside down is because of the person sitting next to him.

It’s Jeongguk who breaks the silence.

“Why?”

Taehyung shifts, and the hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder lifts off. Jeongguk turns around, sitting up so he’s leaning against the headboard, frowning at Taehyung, who turns his gaze to Jeongguk.

“Why what? What is it?” Taehyung’s voice cracks as he replies to Jeongguk.

“Why did you bring me here?” Taehyung opens his mouth, and Jeongguk holds up a hand. “I know, you needed a human to save Cyberspace, blah blah, heard that shit. That’s not what I meant. Why me?”

Taehyung hesitates this time before speaking. “I told you before. I meant it. You were the first person I found interesting when I crossed the barrier into the analogue world. I was meant to go further, keep looking until I found an expert, but…” Taehyung shrugs. “There was something about you that drew me in. I couldn’t look away. You had the most amazing expression on your face. So… determined and fired up in that moment I saw you, like you were going to steamroll whatever got in your way. Guts and determination. I was drawn to that. It wasn’t a mistake like I told the others. It was always meant to be you. I took a gamble.”

“Ah.”

“I’m sorry,” Taehyung says, after a pause, fiddling with Jeongguk’s blanket, and Jeongguk almost feels apologetic for the way Taehyung’s lips are downturned in guilt. “I shouldn’t have done that. I never asked you, didn’t give you a choice. It’s my fault. I didn’t realise how much you’d dislike it here, or how harsh Yoongi would be. I’ll—I’ll convince all the Keepers to open the portal to let you back home, somehow. I’m so sorry. Please don’t hate me.”

No. Jeongguk might be a little resentful, but he doesn’t hate Taehyung, not by any means. Actually, Jeongguk thinks dryly, he’s much, much closer to liking Taehyung than hating him. And he doesn’t hate Cyberspace, either. Other than when he’s getting his ass kicked during training, the others are fun to hang around, and the food isn’t half bad. Even Jimin and Seokjin’s constant flirting is kind of cute. Being able to blow things up, albeit inconsistently, is pretty cool.

“That’s not it,” Jeongguk says, slowly. He frowns. It’s more that he doesn’t feel in place, can’t live up to expectations, can’t deal with the pressure of everybody’s lives on his shoulders. That burden is too heavy for him to bear alone—he’d crack before he pulled through. “I don’t hate you. I just can’t… Can’t deal with the expectation that I’m going to make a breakthrough or suddenly reveal that I’ve been hiding my Cybernetics genius. Me learning all those attacks in time? It’s not going to happen.”

Taehyung shifts where he’s sitting on Jeongguk’s bed, angling himself so that his body is facing Jeongguk’s. His lips are pursed. “But why do you think that?”

“I’ve never…” Jeongguk lets out a long sigh. “Look. What you saw that night—it wasn’t determination or passion driving me. It was panic. Fear. What was driving me wasn’t the determination to get something right, but the fear that I would get something wrong. Disappoint someone.” The words that come out of his mouth mock Jeongguk. He’s never voiced them out like this, and now that he has, it just makes them all the more real, and him all the more vulnerable. Jeongguk closes his eyes. “Taehyung, I don’t know if you can understand this, but I’ve never had a dream. I’ve just done what seemed like the easiest option. I went to university because my parents wanted me to. I’ve never been spectacular. I’ve never even had anything I really wanted to do for myself. Everyone here’s relying on me, thinking that I’m capable enough they can just train me up, but in reality, I’m just…” Jeongguk’s voice drops to a whisper. “Useless.”

Before Jeongguk can react, before the tears threaten to spill out of Jeongguk’s eyes again, there’s a warm body on his, and—oh. Jeongguk sits there, frozen, as Taehyung wraps his arms around him, pulling him into a tight hug, burying his face in the crook of Jeongguk’s neck. Jeongguk’s throat goes dry, blood thumping in his ears. Oh.

“Don’t say that.” Taehyung murmurs into Jeongguk’s neck, after a long moment of silence. Taehyung loosens his grip, and Jeongguk pulls back, breath hitching as Taehyung holds him by his shoulders. “Please don’t ever think that, Jeongguk. You’re more than enough.”

“Oh?” Taehyung’s eyes are open wide, face mere inches away from Jeongguk’s, and Jeongguk gulps, giddy anticipation and crushing disappointment coursing through his body as Taehyung drops his hands from Jeongguk’s shoulders. Jeongguk lets out a long breath, meeting Taehyung’s eyes again. He holds Taehyung’s gaze for a beat, before dropping his eyes to his hands. “Why do you say that?”

Taehyung frowns, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his. “Nobody’s useless. You’re not useless. You’re more capable than you think. We’re our own worst critics.”

Despite everything, Taehyung’s words of encouragement make the corner of Jeongguk’s lip twitches. He interlaces his fingers with Taehyung’s, feeling the smooth skin of Taehyung’s palm against his. “And how long have you known me that you can say that about me?”

“Well,” Taehyung purses his lips, “it doesn’t matter how long it’s been. It matters how much I’ve seen. And I’ve—” Taehyung’s lips curl up into a smile now. “I’ve seen some things.”

“Don’t speak like you know me,” Jeongguk grumbles, but Taehyung’s got a point. And, well, having his entire Instagram history on database for perusal makes Taehyung a better judge of him than many of his acquaintances.

“I might not, yet, but I do know who posted an Instavid of themselves stacking it on a longboard,” Taehyung says, waggling his eyebrows, and Jeongguk groans. “And I also know how many draft videos you uploaded for your second one until you got the trick right. I know from that that you’re persistent and you’ll do things until the end.” Taehyung gives Jeongguk’s fingers a squeeze before he unlocks their hands. “The point is, I don’t have to know everything about you to understand your potential.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” Taehyung grins. “Hey, look at me, I sometimes question myself too. Why I was brought here. What am I doing in Cyberspace. But then I just think to myself how far I’ve come: I was just the Keeper of a small Domain, but I grew, and now I have millions of followers. No one expected that from me. Started from the bottom, now we here.”

“Don’t quote Drake at me,” Jeongguk groans. Taehyung looks at him with innocent, doe-like eyes, and a wicked smile. “Never mind. Look, it’s not the same. You’re…” Jeongguk motions to Taehyung. “Digital. You don’t live in my world, and I don’t live in yours.”

“But in both worlds, there’s still never been anyone who just succeeded at everything they did on the first go,” Taehyung says. “What you said before, about what I see being unreal, a construction, it got to me. So I dug deeper, and I saw what I had let slip past. For every happy snap, there’s also a post which makes me want to cry. I mean, I might not be the best judge of this, but it seems to me that a lot of other people are also taking it one day at a time. You said that there were moments people didn’t like to share on Instagram, and I’m sure there are, but I see my fair share of sadness and loneliness, too. Perfection, that’s overrated, isn’t it?” Jeongguk makes a noise of frustration at the back of his throat, annoyed at yet another one of those feel-good spiels he so often hears from Jinhwan, and Taehyung holds his hands up defensively. “Hey, all I’m saying is, you don’t need to be a genius. You don’t need to be the best in the world. You just need to believe a little, and I believe in you, Jeon Jeongguk.”

No matter how chagrined Jeongguk feels, those words still plant a small seed of warmth in Jeongguk’s chest. He brings his hand to his breastbone, feeling the warmth spread through his body, right down to his fingertips, as Taehyung beams at him. Taehyung’s round eyes are bright, eyelashes fluttering as he blinks, and all of a sudden, Jeongguk is teary all over again. It’s the first time anyone’s said those words to him and meant it genuinely.

“I’ve seen what you can do. You’ve come leaps and bounds since you came here, to Cyberspace. You should believe in yourself a little more. It’s the doubt that’s holding you back.” Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s hands in his, again, squeezing them comfortingly. “Please don’t give up. Not yet. Not until you prove them all wrong.”

And what can Jeongguk say? When Taehyung’s looking at him like this, saying the words he’s needed to hear his whole life? When Taehyung’s holding on to him like this, giving Jeongguk the strength that no one else has been able to give? Taehyung is an anomaly, one that sends Jeongguk’s brain into meltdown and sets a hurricane of butterflies in his stomach; a force of nature Jeongguk can’t stop.

Taehyung tilts his head, squeezing Jeongguk’s hand again, flashing that beautiful smile of his, and Jeongguk sighs.

“Okay. Okay. One more time.”

 

 

 

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}p.source{text-align: center;} lots of cushions pls

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“Looking good,” Taehyung says, looking around, swinging his legs as he plops down on Jeongguk’s new couch and stretches out like a lazy cat. He’s got a pair of sparkly gold sunglasses on today, ones with gold leaf on the arms, and he’s made himself rather at home here, lying on his side, elbow digging into the soft cushion and hand supporting his head. “Oh, god, this is so much better than your old plank of a bed.”

“It was about time.” Jeongguk mutters a few more lines of code, and a set of red mesh curtains surround his bed, cloaking it in a distinctive lace pattern. Taehyung hums in approval. “If I’m going to stick around, I might as well make it more comfortable to survive in, you know.”

“You want some paintings?” Taehyung chirps, sitting up straight, eyes lighting up like a little child behind the lenses. “I can conjure up some paintings for you! How about that series of self-portraits by that one artist who took acid to document its effects on the human mind—”

“I’m good, thanks,” Jeongguk says. He frowns. “Why would someone even do that kind of dumb experiment?”

“#art,” Taehyung says sagely. Jeongguk rolls his eyes, and Taehyung giggles.

“Art,” Jeongguk repeats, watching as Taehyung’s hashtag twirls around his head before dissipating into the air. “Amazing.”

There’s a pause before Taehyung speaks again. “Thank you, Jeongguk,” he says, and this time, his face is serious. “For agreeing to try once more, for me. You’re a good person.”

“Oh.” Taehyung’s praise sets another rush of butterflies loose in Jeongguk’s belly, and he flushes to his ears. He’s not used to praise. Praise is unexpected, and the easy compliments flowing off Taehyung’s tongue never fails to catch Jeongguk off guard. Jeongguk drops his hands to his sides, shrugging in embarrassment. “Thanks, I guess?”

Taehyung simply smiles once again, moving around so he’s sitting back upright on the couch, leaning against the backrest. “The others are thankful too,” Taehyung says, scratching the back of his neck and setting his vintage camera bag aside. “Even if they don’t show it, you know. Especially Yoongi. He doesn’t like to acknowledge that he can be wrong, and he’s as stubborn as a mule. And Namjoon, well, his training methods are sometimes not ideal.”

“You don’t say,” Jeongguk mutters, pointing to his eyebrows. “I could’ve been left eyebrowless.” Jeongguk stretches, then sinks down his much less board-like bed. “Anyway, you here to drag me out to training?”

“What do you think?”

“If you are, I’m not going.”

“I’m not Namjoon,” Taehyung says, taking off his sunnies, stashing them in his shirt pocket, and rolling his eyes. “I’m not going to hurl fireballs at you, if you’re curious about my training methods.” He fumbles around for his bag, pulling out an old lomo with a grin. “But nah. I figured you had enough of training after the Yoongi debacle. I’m gonna take you somewhere fun today. Already sorted plans out.”

“I’m kind of terrified what your concept of ‘fun’ entails,” Jeongguk mutters, but he’s grinning too. “Okay. I could use some fun.”

“Firstably,” Taehyung says, standing up to grab Jeongguk’s hand, interlacing their fingers and dragging him towards the door with a wink, “we have to go outside this Node. Come on, before Namjoon walks in and decides to cane my ass for taking you out of this place without his authorisation.”

It’ll never get old, the sense of amazement Jeongguk feels when he steps onto the wires, darkness stretching out around him, millions of colours flashing in the distance, numbers and letters floating in the empty space, zooming to their destination. Taehyung stops in front of a white Node moments later, banging his fist on the panel in a semblance of a knock, and after a few seconds, the panel opens to reveal a confused face on the other side of the door.

“Taehyung!” It’s one of the boys from the meeting, the one with a Netflix logo floating above his head. Bambam, if Jeongguk remembers correctly. Taehyung gives him a little high five and walks in, Jeongguk following closely behind. “Hey,” Bambam shouts, angling his head back, “Taehyung brought his boyfri—

“Shut up before I Geoblock your ass,” Taehyung says with a sunny smile, and Bambam sighs in resignation, letting them both pass. Taehyung’s fingers are still interlaced with Jeongguk’s. Jeongguk flushes. Boyfriend. Haha. Boyfriend.

“Who is it?” a voice asks from the central room, and Jeongguk walks in to see that it’s the boy with the Amazon logo—Jinyoung. “Oh, Taehyung. Here to visit us on our day off?”

Youngjae takes a look at Taehyung, who’s waving at Jinyoung happily, then looks at Jeongguk and points an accusatory finger at him. “You brought your boyf—Jeongguk along too?”

“Yoongi was being an asshat,” Taehyung explains, pushing Jeongguk forward, and Bambam lets out a knowing ‘ah’. “He means well, but you know how he can be.”

“Oh yeah,” Jinyoung says, eyebrows raised. “Jimin told me all about that time Yoongi went for his crown jewels because he disturbed Yoongi while he was concentrating on retagging his music database.” Jinyoung winces. “I felt his pain. What a brave soldier.”

“Anyway,” Taehyung says, pushing Jeongguk down into one of the seats and patting his back happily. “I thought we could all do with some downtime, stop thinking about the Shield. Jeongguk’s here to play for the day.”

“We could do with some fresh blood,” Jaebum says, shrugging. “So, Jeon Jeongguk, huh? Let’s see.” Jaebum closes his eyes and the eBay sign above his head lights up. He snorts. “You bought your dog a Pikachu outfit?

“You think you’ve seen things,” Jinyoung says, shaking his head. “You know what’s in his Amazon viewing history? The Natural Harvest. I don’t know what you were planning on doing with that.” Jeongguk scowls as Taehyung cackles and thumps him on the back.

“Hey,” Yugyeom says, sitting up tall and twirling his pencil in his fingers, “you have a Livejournal account? Whoa, didn’t know you were into—”

“Sports anime slash, apparently,” Youngjae finishes off, squinting into the distance. “Fandom: Haikyuu!! Pairing: Kageyama/Hinata. Naff. Nfffsfg. Nice.”

“Oh my god.” Jeongguk can feel himself getting progressively redder and redder in the ears. “Aren’t you like, abusing your powers or something?”

Youngjae shrugs. “No one cares here. We’re not going to judge you for your interests, be they…” Youngjae squints again into the distance, as if looking at something. “Piercings, tattoos, soulbonding, cuddlefucking, or vibrating buttplugs. Remote control ones at that.”

Taehyung splutters, choking on his own spit, and turns to whack Jeongguk on the arm, holding back his laughter. Jeongguk stares up at the ceiling, muttering curses under his breath, not meeting Taehyung’s eyes. Fun, he said. Fucking fun.

“Well,” Jaebum says, after a hefty pause. “That escalated quickly.”

“Your tastes are very singular,” Jinyoung adds. Bambam’s eyebrows shoot up into his hairline. Jinyoung holds his hands up in front of him. “Not that I’m quoting from 50 Shades of Grey. Even though it is the number one product on my database. Unfortunately.”

There’s a hubbub after, followed by several cushions being chucked across the room and a resigned Youngjae curling up into a ball while Taehyung screams ‘pillow fight!’ into the abyss. Bambam somehow materialises a Thor hammer and hurls it at Yugyeom, who lets out a comedically high-pitched screech before the hammer hits him square on the head with no force whatsoever and deflates like a sad balloon. For the first time in a while, Jeongguk finds himself laughing as he simply watches the catastrophe unfold, no longer the strange, alien other, the constant topic of focus, the purported saviour. Taehyung’s right. This is fun. It reminds Jeongguk that he’s allowed to laugh here, act like a dumb kid his age without the weight of a digital world on his shoulders.

“Wassup!” The door bursts open, and this time it’s Mark and Jackson barging into the room. Jinyoung freezes mid-action, where he was just about to throw a cushion at Jaebum’s face, and redirects the projectile to Jackson’s smug face. “Mmph!”

“Pillowfight?” Mark says excitedly, holding up one of the cylindrical cushions on the sofa, only to get flicked on the forehead by a long-suffering Jaebum. “I guess not, then.”

Jackson splutters as the feathers from the pillow stick to his tongue, then spots Taehyung in the room and does a double take, extending his arms for a hug. Taehyung gets up to give him a chestbump. “Long time no see, man. Namjoon not here today?”

“Nah,” Taehyung says, shuffling over and patting to the spot next to him. Jackson sits down, Mark settling on top of Jackson’s lap quite comfortably, Jackson’s arms wrapped around his waist. “Just me and Jeonggukkie.”

“Huh,” Jackson says, nodding pensively, then his face lights up. “Hey, wanna hear a cool story?”

“No,” Bambam practically shouts, but it’s too late; Jackson’s already fired up.

“#therewasahottieatthegymandididntgethisname #buthewascheckinmeout #awwwwwyeeeee.” Jackson flexes his biceps. “#workout #workingout #gym #muscles #liftforbuddha #flexedonthebeat #andthebeatgotsicker #doyouevenliftbruh.” The tags wrap around Jeongguk, flashing in front of his eyes, filling his mind with images of sweaty men flexing in too-tight lycra workout shorts. Oh, god.

“Someone stop me before I commit Domainicide,” Youngjae says morosely when the last wisps of the words disappear, looking into the distance.

“This is hashtag abuse,” Yugyeom wails. “You and Taehyung, you both need a hashtag ban.”

“Yeah, Jackson,” Mark says, elbowing Jackson hard in the ribs. “Be more like me. Less hashtags, more drunken college debauchery and bad decisions.” Bambam rolls his eyes and Youngjae snorts. “As one particularly concise user writes, ‘College is like riding a bike. Except the bike is on fire and you're on fire and everything is on fire and you're in hell.’”
“With all the stuff you have access to on Yik Yak,” Jinyoung says, laughing as he thumps Mark’s back, “you sure are pretty damn vanilla.”

“Ha ha!” Jackson gloats, bounding up and giving Mark a noogie. “Vanilla Tuan.”

“Hey!” Mark ducks and slaps Jackson on the butt. “I could be into stuff that gives dangerous adrenaline rushes! Like… like… receiving exam papers back… and filing taxes… and job interviews…”

“Neapolituan, then,” Youngjae says dryly. Jaebum chuckles, then tries to hide it when Mark shoots him a wounded look. “Amazing, three shades of grey.”

“Hey, Neapolituan, I got one for you,” Jackson says, smirking. Mark scowls, but Jackson just barrels on. “You know what you should call your dick?” He strikes a victorious pose, pointing his index finger at Mark’s nose. “February 29, because it only gets attention every four years. Ha!”

Jeongguk groans internally, and Taehyung bursts out laughing.

“You totally jacked that off Yik Yak,” Jinyoung admonishes, tsk-ing and shaking his head.

“It was on Tumblr first!” Jackson protests, but Taehyung’s having a laughing fit all by himself in the corner, and everyone’s gaze turns to him.

“Heh,” Taehyung manages to wheeze out between bouts of laughter. “Jacked off. Heh. Jackson jacks off. Get it?” Jeongguk stares. Taehyung’s giggles fade to slow chuckles. “Hey! Somebody else laugh at my joke!”

“Oh, do shut up,” Youngjae says, smushing the heel of his palm into Taehyung’s cheek. “You get worse every time I see you.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” Yugyeom pipes in. “At this rate, you’ll be worse than Jackson.”

Taehyung waves his hand. “Go back to tending your Varnish Error 503 goat, Yugyeom.”

“Can’t.” Yugyeom lets out a little sob. “It’s all about the Bulletproof Boy Scouts right now. There’s so much filthy, filthy porn. My eyes are soiled.”

“My sweet innocent pumpkin pie,” Jackson croons, sidling up to Yugyeom and cradling his face, then squishing it between his hands. “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen reblogged pictures of diphallic dicks.”

“Oh, don’t corrupt the young one,” Jinyoung says, rolling his eyes and sending a pile of books raining from nowhere onto Jackson.

It starts with Jackson shrugging the books off him, scowling, and sending a barrage of hashtags in Jinyoung’s direction along with strategically placed pictures of hipster photography. Yugyeom then retaliates by sending an entire goat to Jackson’s face. That’s when things get messy, and Jeongguk has to dive for cover behind the couch.

“Christ, Yugyeom,” Youngjae says as he watches the goat chase Jackson around the room, trying to gore him. “Call Varnish back or we’ll be spending the rest of the day cleaning up Jackson’s digital entrails.”

“He’s called Varnish?” Jeongguk whispers to Taehyung, who’s also hiding behind the couch with him, silently laughing. Taehyung nods his head, and Jeongguk honestly does not have an appropriate reaction to match this situation, so he just sighs.

“You want me to summon the mafia?” Bambam suggests helpfully. Jinyoung grabs his hands before Bambam can do anything, and Bambam pouts. “Aw, it’s been so long since we’ve done this. Let us have some fun!”

“You think this looks fun?” Jackson yelps as Varnish gears up for a headbutt. “Mark! Help!”

“Alright, alright,” Mark says, and Jeongguk swears he’s going insane, because now there’s a yak in the room. “Yik! Go calm Varnish down.”

“So,” Taehyung says to Jeongguk, peeking over the back of the couch, “what do you think?”

“I think,” Jeongguk yelps, as Yik turns to the corner and spots Jeongguk behind the couch, “that we need to move our asses or we’re going to be yak dinner tonight.”

“Aren’t yaks herbivores?” Taehyung asks, grabbing Jeongguk’s hand and materialising a longboard. He pushes Jeongguk onto it, just before Yik and Varnish charge through the spot Jeongguk was just sitting in. “Quick, use your board skills!”

“Okay, that’s enough!” Jaebum sends an entire car crashing into the middle of room, interrupting the funfest, and Jeongguk barrels right into it, wincing as his body lands against the windscreen. “I’m sorry you had to see this, Jeongguk,” Jaebum continues apologetically, and Jeongguk gives a little smile. To the side, Taehyung’s doubled over in laughter, and Yugyeom’s finally gotten a hold of his damned goat, calming it down with a bale of hay generously supplied by Taehyung.

“If Namjoon hears about this,” Jackson grumbles, dusting himself off, “he’ll come here and kick all your sorry asses.”

“But Taehyung is on our side, isn’t he?” Jinyoung says with a cat-like grin, ruffling Taehyung’s hair, and Taehyung just grins back brightly.

“What happens here stays here,” Taehyung says, fistbumping Jinyoung, “but I think I should get Jeonggukkie back before the others get worried.” Taehyung waves to the others, dragging Jeongguk out by the collar of his shirt before he’s trampled by Yik, still wandering around curiously next to the second-hand car. “We’ll come play again!”

They’re almost back at their Node when Taehyung turns to nudge Jeongguk. “So?” he asks. He’s flushed from walking so fast, cheeks dusted red, and he licks his lips to wet them. “Have fun today?”

“I guess,” Jeongguk mumbles, scuffing his shoe on the wire, trying his damn best not to think about Taehyung’s tongue resting on the corner of his lips. “I mean, apart from the goats and yaks trying to gore me to death. That part was terrifying. And…” Jeongguk smiles. “I didn’t think about having to save Cyberspace once.”

“Good.” Taehyung stops in front of the door of the Node, facing Jeongguk. There’s a small grin on his lips, eyelashes fluttering as he blinks. “I had fun today too, you know, I haven’t been out much since we found out about the Silver Moon Shield. And I don’t want this—” Taehyung coughs as he motions between him and Jeongguk “—to stop.”

“This.” Jeongguk repeats slowly. Taehyung avoids his gaze. “Right. This. Yeah, I don’t want it—Yeah, uh, same.”

Taehyung looks down at his hands. “So, I’ve been thinking. I kind of need to brush up on my Cyberwarfare skillset too. And you know, two birds, one stone. How about it? Training with me.”

“Training with you?” Jeongguk hesitates. He’s not sure he’ll be able to concentrate, if Taehyung’s in the picture, but—well, anything to be around Taehyung. “I mean, I guess, since I’m staying—’

“I’ll make it fun,” Taehyung says, beaming. He hits the open button to the Node door. “Just like today.”

And for some reason, Jeongguk can’t wait.

 

 

Boom. Jeongguk raises his arms, a flash of light flooding the practise room, and Jimin covers his eyes.

“Holy shit,” Jimin says, eyes popping out of their sockets as the light fades and the room becomes visible again. His jaw drops open. He points to Jeongguk, then to the figure next to him. “Did you just…?”

“Yep,” Jeongguk says smugly, dusting his hands. Before him sits a shattered practise shield, and next to it, another him grinning the same smug grin at one flabbergasted Park Jimin. Jimin looks between the real Jeongguk and the other one, squinting. Jeongguk laughs, raising his hand in the air and waving. “Real one’s here. That’s my Proxy.”

Jeongguk snaps his fingers, and doppelganger Jeongguk disappears in a puff of smoke. From behind Jeongguk, Taehyung bursts out into applause, bounding up and looping an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders.

“I taught him this so he could get around any IP Blocking the Shield might have up,” Taehyung says to Jimin, puffing out his chest. “He’ll be able to use his Proxies to carry us past the blocks. Look how fast he learnt!”

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Jimin says, whistling. He gives Taehyung a sweeping look up and down. “I didn’t know you were smart enough to know Proxy, let alone teach it.”

“Pot, kettle,” Taehyung says, point to Jimin and then to himself, waggling his eyebrows. Jimin wrinkles his nose at Taehyung. Taehyung looks at Jeongguk, squeezing Jeongguk’s shoulder. “But it’s not that I’m a good teacher. Jeongguk’s just picking it up real quick.”

That’s not exactly true. Taehyung, as unorthodox as his training methods are, does a good job of drilling exactly what Jeongguk needs into his brain, but in a fun and relaxed way that doesn’t feel as stressful as Yoongi hurling weapons of mass destruction at his face, and Jeongguk finds himself progressing faster under Taehyung’s tutelage than ever.

“Learn anything else?” Jimin asks, tilting his head and leaning against the wall. Jeongguk looks at Taehyung, who gives him a nod, and he rubs his hands together.

“DNS!”

Holy—

All around the training room, doppelgangers of Park Jimin stand, sit, and squat, looking every bit as authentic and real as the original Jimin, who’s gaping at Jeongguk. Taehyung sneaks up behind one of the copies, kicking it in the ass, and the copy disappears in a puff of black smoke, the soot spreading around the room and sending Jimin into a coughing fit.

“Holy moly,” Jimin says, rubbing his eyes after his coughing’s died down. The soot around his eyes has been rubbed away, leaving him looking like a reverse panda. Taehyung giggles, taking out his lomo and snapping a shot. “I think we need to call Namjoon.”

 

 

Namjoon, after seeing the outcome of Taehyung’s training sessions (read: being left in the same sooty state as a certain Park Jimin), leaves Jeongguk in Taehyung’s ‘capable, but slightly worrisome’ hands.

For the next few days, Jimin hovers around Jeongguk like a fruitfly around a particularly overripe banana, citing that, “I’m just a little concerned for your wellbeing, you know, around that one,” but Seokjin coaxes him back to only bugging Jeongguk during mealtimes and when he’s in the common room lazing around.

It’s another one of Jeongguk’s rest days when Taehyung bounds into Jeongguk’s room, bellyflopping onto Jeongguk’s ottoman and beaming at Jeongguk like a cheshire cat.

“Okay,” Jeongguk says, sighing and swiping his screen away. He’d been catching up on his latest fix of Haikyuu!!, but clearly, Taehyung has something else on his mind. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” Taehyung says, but that tone of voice is far from ‘nothing’, Jeongguk knows—he’s heard it before, the same voice Taehyung uses when he’s up to no good. “Just bored. Slow Insta day, and the others are off at a meeting. You wanna have some more fun?”

Jeongguk chuckles. After that little escapade to the Node of the Farm Animals, as Jeongguk fondly calls it, Taehyung had taken him exploring the far corners of the interwebs whenever they had some time off from drilling attacks into Jeongguk’s fighting vocabulary. The trip to the GIRLSDAY Node a few days ago (or Jeongguk estimates, for lack of solid time here) had been short but perilous, with Sojin bluntly threatening to make Taehyung a eunuch if he didn’t knock off his vandalising of the Node walls with #instaspam. Today, Taehyung will probably steer clear of that particular Node for fear of Sojin actually following through, but there’s definitely something playing on his overactive mind.

“Kinda,” Jeongguk says, grunting as he sits up and pushes his blankets and pillow aside. “Where to today?”

“I think it’s about time,” Taehyung starts, waggling his eyebrows, “to take you to the most interesting part of the Network.” Jeongguk narrows his eyes, motioning for Taehyung to go on. Taehyung beams. “Seokjin just told me yesterday that Jongin and Sehun are ready for more visitors. You haven’t properly been introduced to them yet, have you?”

Jeongguk shakes his head. Those names are very familiar, Jeongguk having heard the others discuss how well they’ve been recovering, the two Keepers who were hit by the first hit, but he can’t for the life of him recall which domains Jongin and Sehun looked after. “Not yet.”

“Well then,” Taehyung says, bounding up and dragging Jeongguk up from his bed and out of the room by the arm, interlacing their fingers in a way that makes Jeongguk’s breath catch in his throat, “come with me!”

The Node they arrive at is vastly different from all the nodes Jeongguk’s visited thus far. Instead of a perfectly smooth, round, white dome, it’s in the form of a hexagon, six entrances leading out and forming network paths in six different directions.

“Whoa,” Jeongguk says, stopping in front of a door and gazing up at the monolith of a node. “Impressive.”

“Wait ‘til you get inside,” Taehyung says, pounding on the door. “They have a pinball machine.”

“A wha—” Jeongguk starts, but the panels of the door are sliding open, and a face that looks startlingly alike to Taehyung’s is peering back at him.

“Baekhyun!” Taehyung says, raising his hand, and Baekhyun’s mouth forms an ‘o’, giving Taehyung’s raised hand a high-five and drawing him in for a shoulder bump. “Long time no see.”

“We’re here to see Jongin and Sehun?” Taehyung leans in, grinning. Jeongguk’s still staring, trying to figure out if Taehyung’s been hiding the existence of a twin from him. “I think it’s about time Jeongguk’s introduced to them.”

Baekhyun scrutinises Jeongguk, looking him up and down, then smirks. “Good choice, Taehyung. I’ve taught you well.”

“And no,” Taehyung says, turning to Jeongguk with a wink, “we’re not related, for the record.”

“I’m the more handsome twin,” Baekhyun pipes in, motioning for them to come in, and Jeongguk arches his eyebrow at Taehyung, who just grins widely and shrugs.

The interior is different from the other Nodes, too. Instead of the pure white walls, the walls here are black, with angular lines of white running across the walls in angular, maze-like patterns. Baekhyun leads them down a narrow corridor which then splits into six paths, where he turns down the middle fork and arrives at a door.

“Jongin and Sehun are probably fucking around here in the rumpus,” Baekhyun says as he puts his hand on the knob. “Fucking around in, fucking in, I don’t know which one it is. It’s amazing how fast they recovered, those exhibitionists. Either way, my bets are that Jongin doesn’t have a shirt on—”

The door swings open, and there are two boys engaged in some type of wrestling match, the one on the bottom laughing as he gets pinned under the shirtless boy’s arm. Baekhyun clears his throat, and the two of them startle, stopping mid-motion to look to the door.

“Taehyung!” the shirtless one exclaims, eyes widening. Jeongguk’s eyes travel to his torso, where there’s a large scar marring his chest. Shirtless gets up from where he’s straddling the other boy, dusting his pants off. His gaze turns to Jeongguk. “Oh, I see. Is this Jeongguk?”

“I’ll let you have your fun,” Baekhyun says, doing a mock-bow and grinning devilishly. He walks out the door, then sticks his head in the room once more before he leaves. “Call me if things get nasty!” he shouts, and then he’s gone, the door shut tight behind him.

“So,” Taehyung says, motioning to the shirtless one. “Jeongguk, that’s Jongin.”

Jeongguk squints at Jongin’s logo, then splutters. “Wait, you’re—Pornhub?

“And I’m xHamster,” the other boy says, tugging his tank top down and extending a hand. “Oh Sehun at your service.”

“I don’t need any service—” Jeongguk is trying to say, but Jongin’s taken him by the arm and is tugging him inside to the beanbags scattered on the floor where they were wrestling just a moment ago. Taehyung flashes Jeongguk an innocent smile, and Jeongguk makes a note in his mind to learn black magic or something later on so he can curse Taehyung to hell and back.

“Thanks for coming, Taehyung,” Sehun says, sitting back onto the beanbag. “We were getting sick of everyone looking at us all pityingly. Especially Seokjin—god, every time he came over he treated us like we would break.”

“We’re hardier than that,” Jongin says with a grin. “Sojin makes it sound worse than it actually is. The VPN saved us. We were only out for a couple of days. Our databases are back up and running now, wanna see?”

“Oooh,” Taehyung says, clapping his hands together. “Yeah! Jeonggukkie, come sit, you must’ve missed watching porn.”

Now, Jeongguk’s been relocated to a rainbow beanbag, right next to—lo and behold—a pinball machine. Sehun shifts next to Jeongguk, slinging an arm around Jeongguk’s shoulders, and Jeongguk lets out a little sob.

“So,” Jongin says, settling down on Jeongguk’s other side, in the blue beanbag to his right. Taehyung’s seated on the rug in front of Jeongguk, feet held together, flapping his knees like a butterfly. “Jeon Jeongguk.”

“Aha! Found your account. Let’s see… avid watcher of Twink Threesomes,” Sehun pipes in, and Jeongguk sinks down into the beanbag, groaning in embarrassment as he covers his face. This is it. This is how he will go down, with his entire porn watch history revealed to Kim Taehyung, who will no doubt laugh in glee at Jeongguk’s discomfort.

“Quite a watch history you have here,” Jongin continues, perusing the screen in front of him and scrolling down. “Hmm, you must’ve been one of the ones with a VPN.”

Well, yeah. Junhwe had set that up for him, and he’s thankful for that. One of the main reasons Jeongguk had become certain of the fact he liked guys was through the stuff he’d seen online. Unlike his other friends who’d be whispering about girls’ racks, eyes glued to girl groups when the videos played during lunch breaks, Jeongguk was more interested in the way the guys under the ‘gay’ tab of Pornhub moaned and grabbed the sheets as they were fucked into the bed, into the couch by another man. As much as is it embarrassing, Jeongguk couldn’t imagine not being able to access those videos for when he needs to get off.

“Oh, look,” Taehyung says, pointing to one of the videos on Jeongguk’s watched list. “Hot Asian Solo Jerk Off. Looks interesting.”

“I resent that,” Sehun says with a wrinkle of his nose. “Like they can group everyone living in an even remotely Asiatic region together as one and get away with it.”

“Tell me about it,” Taehyung says, rolling his eyes. “I get so much of that in the #asian hashtag. Anyway, got anything good?” Taehyung gets up from his spot on the floor and plonks down next to Jeongguk, snuggling in uncomfortably close to Jeongguk, and Jeongguk gulps, uneasy. “Entertain us.”

“Sit back, Jeongguk,” Jongin says with a grin, pushing a couple of buttons on the screen, “and let us show you the new submissions on our database.”

Lord almighty. Jeongguk had thought Youngjae and Jinyoung were blunt, but this is veering on the end of So Blunt You Could Probably Hit It And Stay High For Days.

Jeongguk ends up covering his eyes for the better part of the next hour, wailing as Jongin and Sehun and Taehyung crack up over the mass of new videos on their database. Who knew there was a special subsection of porn for footfucking? Who knew you could shove an entire grown man’s head up a vagina? Well, now Jeongguk does, and he’s pretty sure he could’ve lived without that knowledge for the next century, Thank You Very Much.

“There’s also this video of someone shitting eight basketballs out of their ass, I guess,” Sehun says, and Jeongguk chokes on his own spit.

“Oh, oh, how about the one with the frozen turkey—”

Taehyung,” Jeongguk hisses, clapping his hand over Taehyung’s mouth. Taehyung giggles, falling backwards, and Jeongguk lands on top of Taehyung, chest to chest, his thigh wedged in between Taehyung’s legs, against Taehyung’s crotch. Jeongguk clears his throat awkwardly, scrambling up and looking away. “Oh my god, no. No! No frozen turkeys!”

“Just because you’re not allowed to store naked people on your database,” Sehun says to Taehyung, rolling his eyes and pulling up another video. “Man shoves mango-sized vibrator up ass?”

“This is not the reality I wanted!” Jeongguk yelps as a man appears on screen with a gigantic blue egg-shaped thing, which he proceeds to wiggle up his ass.

“Look,” Jeongguk says, peering at the video through the slits of his fingers. There’s a loud screeching, squealing sound, and Jeongguk chokes. “Oh my god, if it’s not alive, inanimate things, especially sex toys, should not make those noises, oh my god—”

Sehun laughs. “Okay, okay, I think we should stop teasing him now. Let’s show him stuff he actually likes. Let’s see… How about this one on your to-watch list?”

Oh. Jeongguk’s throat closes up as a video starts on the large screen. It’s a video he’d bookmarked a while back, having only watched the very beginning and deciding he wanted to save it for a day when he really needed it. LATE NIGHT LOVEMAKING, the title screams. Jeongguk can feel his palms getting clammy already, as the camera focuses, two guys making out lazily on the bed, candles flickering on the nightstand.

“You like the romantic stuff, huh?” Taehyung mutters, grinning as he looks up at Jeongguk. Jeongguk offers a weak smile back. “Didn’t peg you as a romantic.”

“I’m just full of surprises, I guess,” Jeongguk says back, flushing as his voice cracks. Taehyung gives him one of those blinding smiles and pats him on the cheek before turning his attention back to the video.

The two guys are moaning now, one of them atop the other, grinding his hips. They’re both naked, and the guy on top reaches to the nightstand drawer to take out a bottle of lube, coating his fingers and leaning back to kiss the other guy as he traces his fingers around the rim, pressing into the entrance. Ah. Jeongguk bites his lower lip as the moans fill the room, the guy on the bottom wrapping his legs around the other guy’s waist, drawing him in, reaching for the condom on the nightstand. That’s definitely a boner Jeongguk’s sporting.

“You got pretty good taste, I gotta say,” Taehyung murmurs. Jeongguk turns his attention to Taehyung, and his pulse quickens as he sees the faint blush on Taehyung’s cheekbones, Taehyung’s pupils blown wide. Seems like Jeongguk’s not the only one getting affected by this. “It’s nice. I like this.”

Jeongguk shuffles in his seat as he clears his throat, adjusting his pants so his boner isn’t as obvious. Taehyung’s still leaning on him, arms touching, and Jeongguk feels like his skin is burning. Now that he’s seeing it again, Jeongguk’s realising that the bottom in the video, moaning breathlessly as he’s getting fucked into the bed, hands grabbing the metal bars of the headboard, looks much too similar to Taehyung.

Taehyung moaning underneath him, Taehyung’s beautiful pink lips stuttering out Jeongguk’s name, Taehyung getting fucked fast and hard into the mattress, cheeks flushed and hair matted to his forehead—

Jeongguk launches himself out of his seat, fanning himself, as the Taehyung lookalike in the video keens one last time, hitting his climax, come spurting all over his chest.

“Damn,” Jongin says, appreciatively, as the video draws to a close. “That was a damn good dicking.”

“So, Jeongguk,” Sehun says, looking up at Jeongguk. Jeongguk sits back down, wiping the sweat on his forehead off with his forearm. “You like that?”

“I don’t think that’s a question,” Jongin says, motioning to Jeongguk’s crotch, and Jeongguk flushes, hiding the tent in his pants. Taehyung’s looking at him, gaze intense, and Jeongguk looks away, tugging his shirt lower. “That’s our mission successful.”

“Giving people boners all day, errday,” Sehun says with a grin. He leans back into the beanbag, arm slung over the back, smirking at Jeongguk, who’s now plotting the demise of every single person in this room. “So I’m curious, Jeongguk, do you like getting it up the butt or getting it in?” Sehun purses his lips. “Or alternatively, eating them out? Hmm. Think that nose might get in the way…”

“Honestly,” Jongin tacks on solemnly. “Your nose is so impressive you could probably stick that in and they’d mistake it for your dick.”

“Are you sure his dick is that small?”

“Let’s check.”

“You’re not checking his dick out,” Taehyung wheezes out between bouts of laughter, slapping Sehun and Jongin’s hands away. He looks straight at Jeongguk. “Only I have that right.”

Jeongguk splutters, holding his hands in front of himself and waving them frantically. Taehyung’s still looking at him, corner of his lips lifted, eyes dark and piercing, and Jeongguk gulps, feeling his ears and cheeks heat up from the rush of blood.

“Stop fucking around,” Jeongguk finally mutters, reaching out and smushing Taehyung’s face, but Taehyung just takes Jeongguk’s wrist and pins his hand back down on the beanbag, leaning in to peck Jeongguk on the cheek.

“Who said I was fucking around?” Taehyung asks, lips mere inches from Jeongguk’s, eyes still burning hot, and this time, the rush of blood coursing through Jeongguk’s body heads in a very, very different direction.

“Oh,” Jeongguk breathes.

Then, before Jeongguk can form coherent words, the corners of Taehyung’s eyes crinkle, and he’s backing off Jeongguk, cackling as he rolls into the beanbag, and Jeongguk’s left breathless and weak and so, so confused.

 

 

The rest of the day passes excruciatingly slowly, and if Jeongguk didn’t know any better, he would’ve chalked it down to some kind of illness, because the way his body is burning up, heating up whenever Taehyung leans into him, shoots him a smile, brushes his bangs out of his eyes, is not natural.

If he hadn’t been aware before, Jeongguk is now much too aware of Taehyung’s presence next to him.

Taehyung is very touchy. This Jeongguk’s known for quite some time now, but somehow, after Taehyung’s little prank, the tension’s gone up tenfold. Before, it was just a funny flip of his heart in his chest when Taehyung shot him that dazzling smile or took Jeongguk’s hands in his. Now, it’s positively embarrassing how Jeongguk’s acting, like a blushing fourteen-year-old schoolgirl, jumping every time Taehyung’s arm brushes against his, leans his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder, hits Jeongguk on the shoulder as he laughs.

After several hours of this, Jeongguk’s nerves are frazzled and on edge.

When they leave Jongin and Sehun’s Node, Jeongguk still hasn’t calmed down, every touch making him skittish. Thankfully, Sehun and Jongin attribute his very inconvenient boner down to the obscene amounts of porn they’d been watching throughout the day, and Jeongguk makes a hasty escape from Taehyung as soon as they reach their Node.

Lying on his bed and staring up at the red mesh curtains dangling from the ceiling, Jeongguk frowns.

Taehyung…

What is he to Jeongguk?

Jeongguk hadn’t thought about it before now. Or rather, he’s well aware of the flirting going on between him and Taehyung, the mutual attraction, but hasn’t had the courage to consider it or act on it. Granted, he’s been spending most of his days focusing on the more pressing problem of how to save Cyberspace, and it’s always just been on the back of his mind, the longing, but also the fear that came with it.

It’s so easy to fall for Taehyung. Taehyung has a double-sided charm, with his carefree smile and boundless energy, but also those moments of morose lucidity, strangely wise insights pouring out in small windows of serious discussion. Jeongguk can’t remember when it was, but somewhere along the way, he’d relented, let himself be swept up in the tornado that was Kim Taehyung, letting Taehyung have his way with him, the way he doesn’t let anyone else. Little things at first, like letting Taehyung wrap his arms around Jeongguk’s shoulders, letting him fiddle with Jeongguk’s hair, to where they are now, around each other almost 24/7, Taehyung lying on the floor of Jeongguk’s room whenever they’re not training.

And this? The connection he has with Taehyung? Jeongguk wants it. But he’s been shying away from it, because if he acknowledges this, acknowledges that he may want something more with Taehyung, then he has to acknowledge something even more important.

That at the end of the day, Taehyung isn’t even real.

A horrible, metallic weight settles on Jeongguk’s chest as he lets those words sink in.

As tangible as Taehyung may seem—as all of them may seem—Jeongguk has to face the reality. These Keepers, they’re only still digital representations, made up of digital data and codes. When it comes down to it, they have no true bodies, no true thought, their only purpose of existence to be the Keepers of the Domain they are so assigned to.

Taehyung had told him before. He can’t remember where he’d come from—just that he’s here, and his mission is to protect Instagram.

No matter how human he seems, how much emotion he displays, how real his worries are, how self-aware he is, it’s all transient.

At the end of the day, there’s also no guarantee that after this, after all of this, when the battle is over and done, they’d see each other ever again. Jeongguk can’t stay here, in Cyberspace. And Taehyung sure can’t leave here—this is his life, his identity.

At the end of the day, Jeongguk is just a tool here, a single stitch in the grand tapestry, and once they’re done with him, that’s that. He’ll be back in his tiny cubicle of a college dorm, eating ramyeon and pulling all-nighters for his assignments.

Back home. Back to normal.

Jeongguk rolls over in his bed, worrying at the nail of his thumb with his teeth.

Isn’t that what he wants? To get out of this place, go back to his normal life? To leave all this behind as some kind of fantastical dream, reroot himself back in reality? Yes. That’s right. In his mind, the rational part of his mind assessing the situation clearly, he knows very well that should be focusing on getting out of here. He should remain objective, see the Keepers for what they are, see this place for what it is—digital beings in a digital prison.

So why does it make him so giddy, the quickening pulse of his heart when he thinks about Taehyung’s bright smile greeting him every day?

Why does it take his breath away, whenever Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s hand in his, boyish playfulness glinting in his eyes as they set off on another adventure in the vast digital network?

And why does it feel like his heart is going to rip into a thousand pieces when Jeongguk lets himself think about the inevitable—never seeing Taehyung again?

 

 

“Hey kid, you with us?”

Jeongguk jolts, looking up, his eyes meeting Yoongi’s. Next to Yoongi, Hoseok’s squinting, brows furrowed as he inspects Jeongguk’s face from across the round table. Namjoon’s giving the Node a debrief on the meeting he’d had with Sojin, and the next steps of the resistance and plans going forward, but Jeongguk’s missed everything he’s been saying. He tried to tune in from the beginning, but as Namjoon’s explanations had gotten more and more complicated, Jeongguk had taken to studying the way Namjoon’s jaw moved as he spoke, the motions of his hands, the furrow of his brows. Thinking about how natural it all looked.

How human they all seem.

And also, half his attention is being spent on trying to ignore the way Taehyung shifting in his seat, arm brushing against Jeongguk’s every time he wiggles impatiently, evidently as bored by Namjoon as Jeongguk is.

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, with a quick smile. “I’m listening.”

Yoongi raises one eyebrow, unconvinced, but motions for Namjoon to continue speaking anyway. Jeongguk sinks back into his seat, a strange shiver washing over him. It’s one of those days—those days that the whole foundations of his existence have been shaken. It’d been a sleepless night last night, the sudden clarity of the situation squeezing his chest in an iron grip.

As Hoseok cuts in, explaining the logistics of one of the finer points of the battle plan, the word Jeongguk’s been searching for comes to him.

Friends.

That’s what they are, and that’s what they’d all be, if this was back in his regular life. As much as Jeongguk had felt out of place and foreign at first, it’s been long enough that he now feels like he blends in with them. Even sitting in the common area of the Node with Yoongi isn’t strange or terrifying anymore, having apologised sincerely for his attitude towards Jeongguk at the beginning, and they sometimes get into pleasant discussions about music. Jimin’s like the adoring yet annoying older brother he’s never had, Namjoon and Hoseok like mentors, Seokjin warm and maternal, supportive at just the right moments. It’s not something Jeongguk’s quite consciously realised until now, but whether out of the sheer amount of time he’s been spending with them, or some other reason, they’ve become a good group of treasured friends. Friends, and—Jeongguk glances over at Taehyung sitting next to him—maybe even more.

“We all clear?” Namjoon asks, clapping his hands once, and Jeongguk tunes back in to Jimin grinning and saluting Namjoon with a loud, “yessir!”

“Um,” Jeongguk mumbles, to himself. “Right.”

“Do you need me to repeat all that?” Jimin asks when they’re walking out of the meeting room, a grin on his face as he loops an arm around Jeongguk’s neck and pulls Jeongguk in. On Jeongguk’s other side, Taehyung’s wiping the lens of one of his many pairs of sunglasses, and he makes a little growling sound and lunges in to mock-nip at Jimin’s fingers. Jimin jerks his hand away, releasing Jeongguk, laughing loudly. “Chill, I won’t touch your boyfriend,” Jimin says, raising his hands.

“I’m not his—” Jeongguk starts, but he bites his tongue. There’s no point. Jimin’s just teasing, and everyone here knows that. “Never mind. I’m gonna get some rest. I didn’t sleep well.”

“What happened?” Taehyung asks, frowning, like he isn’t the cause of everything that’s screwing with Jeongguk’s life lately. “Is something wrong?”

“Just,” Jeongguk says, shrugging a little sulkily. Jimin quirks an eyebrow. “Lots to think about.”

“You can always tell me!” Taehyung grins, moving closer and sliding an arm around Jeongguk’s waist, pulling Jeongguk in. Jeongguk feels the twist in his gut, his heart rising in his throat, and he twists out of the way, throwing Taehyung’s arm off himself. A faint expression of hurt flashes across Taehyung’s face, before it’s replaced by worry.

“Sorry,” Jeongguk says, turning around to face both Taehyung and Jimin. His head hurts. “I didn’t mean to do that. But I’m. Tired. I’m going to, uh.” Jeongguk gives a terse smile. “Go to my room. I need some time alone.”

“Yeah,” Jimin says slowly, eyes glinting like the last piece of a puzzle has just clicked into place. “Yeah, you do that. Get some rest.”

 

 

“Jeongguk-ah.”

Jeongguk groans. There’s a melodic alarm sounding in the room, and someone whispering his name into his ear. Jeongguk rubs his eyes, squinting against the light, and comes face to face with—

“Taehyung?” Jeongguk blurts out, jolting and scrambling to try sit up. All Jeongguk succeeds in doing is kicking the blankets off himself, and Taehyung laughs. “What are you…?”

Taehyung beams at him, full of sunshine, then leans in and gives Jeongguk a peck on the lips before snuggling in, his head on Jeongguk’s chest and his thigh draped over Jeongguk’s. “Mmm. Good morning.”

Oh. Oh, holy shit. Taehyung is so warm, his skin so soft against Jeongguk’s, breath even against Jeongguk’s neck, and Jeongguk’s brain short-circuits for a moment before he regains his senses. “T-Taehyung, what are you doing?”

“Hmm?” Taehyung peers up at him sleepily, and Jeongguk’s heart lurches in his chest, smitten by the way that Taehyung looks right now, hair messy, chin resting on Jeongguk’s chest. A devilish smile spreads across Taehyung’s face, and he scoots up, pressing his chest against Jeongguk’s, and planting another kiss on Jeongguk’s lips, this one longer, more drawn out. Taehyung’s hands slide down the line of Jeongguk’s waist, and he slips them underneath Jeongguk’s top, hooking his thumb on the waistband of Jeongguk’s briefs and sliding them down. Jeongguk lets out a gasp as Taehyung grinds his thigh against Jeongguk’s crotch, moaning into Jeongguk’s open mouth, and yeah, okay, Jeongguk would be lying if he said he didn’t want this, but—“Wait, wait, wait, Taehyung, this isn’t—isn’t this too fast?”

“I’ve never heard you ever complain about morning sex,” Taehyung says with a laugh, but he pushes off Jeongguk so that he’s straddling Jeongguk, holding himself up with hands next to Jeongguk’s shoulders. “What’s up?”

It’s then that Jeongguk notices this isn’t his room in the Node. The red mesh curtains are gone, replaced with plain white walls, baby blue curtains decorating the windows, a writing desk in the corner. Jeongguk squints. There’s a framed picture on the table—one of him giving Taehyung a piggyback ride, in front of his university gate. A calendar hanging next to the desk has the days crossed off in red marker, one by one, and May 6—today, apparently—is circled. Jeonggukkie and Taehyungie’s one year anniversary!!!, it reads.

“One year anniversary?” Jeongguk breathes out, incredulous, and before he can say any more, Taehyung’s beaming at him, placing another kiss on Jeongguk’s lips.

“Congratulations!” Taehyung sing-songs, rolling off Jeongguk and lying next to him, stretching his arms up. He grabs Jeongguk’s shoulder, hooking his leg in between Jeongguk’s, and tugs so that Jeongguk’s on top of him. “How did you put up with me for an entire year?”

Taehyung’s so close. He’s so close that Jeongguk can see the way his eyelashes flutter as he blinks, feel the rise and fall of Taehyung’s chest as he breathes. Jeongguk gulps, wetting dry lips with a flick of his tongue. “This is going to sound stupid, but… Where are we?”

Taehyung snorts and whacks Jeongguk’s arm. “Are you making fun of me? Look, that one time I forgot where I was when we were in our bedroom, I had four bottles of soju, cut me some slack—”

“Bedroom,” Jeongguk breathes. “Our bedroom.”

Taehyung grins, reaching down to fiddle with the edge of Jeongguk’s top, and yanks it up over Jeongguk’s head, throwing it to the side. He flips Jeongguk over again, stripping off his own top, and straddles Jeongguk once more, grinding his crotch against Jeongguk’s. Jeongguk’s body reacts against his better judgement, and he finds himself sporting a handsome boner inside his pajama pants.

This doesn’t make sense. None of this makes sense. Jeongguk’s limbs are heavy, like he’s trying to move through liquid, but god, god, the sight of Taehyung on top of him, getting him all worked up like this, god, this is what Jeongguk wants.

“Jeongguk-ah,” Taehyung says, skimming his fingers down the side of Jeongguk’s face, index finger trailing until they’re on Jeongguk’s lower lip. It’s like he can hear Jeongguk’s thoughts, and Taehyung moves to kiss Jeongguk, before shuffling down, hands digging to grasp Jeongguk’s hipbones. “Don’t think too much. Do you want to be with me?”

“I—” Jeongguk chokes, as Taehyung nudges his knees apart, tugging Jeongguk’s underwear off. “Yeah. I do.”

Taehyung grins, palming Jeongguk’s cock. Jeongguk lets out a choked whimper, and Taehyung’s hands slide up to the soft flesh of Jeongguk’s inner thighs, pushing them apart. “Then stay with me. Stay—”

Taehyung’s mouth wraps around Jeongguk’s cock, and Jeongguk throws his head back, feeling the rush of heat, feeling his whole body tense. It’s ridiculous, how turned on Taehyung makes him feel, and he scrabbles at the sheets, clenching them in his fists as Taehyung takes him deeper, warm heat surrounding his cock. Jeongguk closes his eyes, squeezes them shut, and the moment Taehyung hums, low in his throat, Jeongguk shudders and blows his load, Taehyung’s beautiful pink lips never leaving Jeongguk’s cock, sucking him dry.

And then the white room is swirling, spinning around, a grey haze seeping in, and Jeongguk jolts, a full body jerk. The haze clears, and Jeongguk feels like he’s just emerged from underwater, senses suddenly impossibly sharp.

Jeongguk looks around, stomach sinking as he takes in his surroundings. He’s back in the Node, in his single bed with the red mesh curtains he’d designed himself, and there’s something very warm and sticky between his blankets. Jeongguk sticks his hand down his pants, past the elastic band of his briefs, and muffles a groan as he takes his hand out.

“Fuck,” Jeongguk whispers, eyeing the come that’s covering his hands. Taehyung. Fuck, he’s just… “Taehyung. Fuck.”

Jeongguk throws his blankets off, peeling his underwear off with it, and bundling it all up. His heart is still jackhammering, the full extent of what’s just happened sinking in. A sheen of cold sweat forms on the back of Jeongguk’s neck.

More than anything, more than shame, more than guilt, more than embarrassment, he feels…

Loss. Devastation.

Jeongguk jumps to his feet, pacing around the room, hugging the dirty sheets to his chest. This isn’t right. Why is he so disappointed over something as dumb as this? Over a figment of his imagination? That what he’d just experienced, what had just happened, wasn’t, and couldn’t ever be reality. It’s been more than a year since Jeongguk’s had a wet dream as intense as that, and he would do anything to return back to that land of dreams, that domestic bliss.

Fuck. Taehyung isn’t even real. He’s not real, but why does this feel so real?

The wrenching in Jeongguk’s chest is almost unbearable.

Jeongguk mutters a few lines under his breath, and his sheets, blankets, and underwear disappear in a puff of white smoke, leaving behind only Jeongguk’s shaking hands and pounding heart as evidence.

 

 

“Okay.” Jimin crosses his arms and raises an eyebrow at Jeongguk. Jimin’s bird lands on Jeongguk’s shoulder, chirping at Jeongguk. “Tell me what’s going on in that head of yours.”

The rest of Jeongguk’s nap had passed restlessly, to say the least. Jimin had been the one to wake Jeongguk up, and now they’re in the training ground where Jimin’s teaching Jeongguk a new technique, but his mind is all over the place today, and he hasn’t been able to concentrate at all.

“Let me guess,” Jimin drawls. “You finally figured that you have the hots for Taehyung and had a wet dream about him, resulting in your running around the room like a headless chicken trying to hide the evidence.”

Jeongguk gapes, then closes his mouth, narrowing his eyes at the specificity. “Wait, how the hell did you—”

“I might’ve walked into your room by accident while it happened,” Jimin admits sheepishly. “It was an accident, I swear! But if it’s any comfort, I understand.” The corner of Jimin’s lip quirks up. “I was the same when I started falling for Seokjin.”

Jeongguk purses his lips. He hasn’t asked so far, about the level of human emotions these Keepers can feel. Maybe it had been a self defense mechanism—if he could distance them from humans, treat them as digital beings, cold and mechanical, then maybe it would be easier to part from them. Disregard them. But Jeongguk can’t do that anymore, not after…

“Can you…” Jeongguk clears his throat. “Can you tell me more? About you and Seokjin, I mean.”

“What is there to tell?” Jimin asks, shrugging. Birdy flies back to Jimin, settling in his hair and chittering. “Shh, shh, Tweety, I know. I was the last to join this Node. I don’t know what happened to the Keeper before me, but they left the Node, and Seokjin was the one who helped me adjust. I had less clue than you when I was dropped here, you know. Seokjin taught me the ropes. And somewhere along the way, I realised that I needed him next to me. That I didn’t want to leave him. And he was special. There was something different. Thankfully, the feeling was mutual.” Jimin quirks an eyebrow, a knowing smile playing on his lips. “But that’s not what you want to know. You want to know if the Keepers can have feelings too, don’t you?”

“I guess I just…” Jeongguk scratches his head. “Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen you all laughing and chatting and that kind of stuff, but I just always wonder. Is this all… Is this all real? You’re not putting on a show for me?”

Jimin laughs, throwing his head back. “Hey, do you think Yoongi would be bothered enough to fake something like that? No one here’s putting on a show. I’m pretty sure you’ve already figured, but we learn from and absorb the qualities of the people who access our Domains. New words, feelings, images, life experiences. And this means the full range.” Jimin’s voice drops low. “To you, we might just be digital beings, Keepers of the Domain, but it doesn’t mean we don’t pick up new things, and human emotions. We’re intrinsically the same—just that our job is to protect the Domains we’re assigned to. We make mistakes. We hold grudges. We feel happiness. We hurt. And most importantly, we love, too.”

“Don’t talk to me about love,” Jeongguk says with a wrinkle of his nose, laughing incredulously. “I don’t understand that shit. But that’s comforting.” A series of images flashes in Jeongguk’s mind, Taehyung’s bright smile, Taehyung’s fingers interlaced with Jeongguk’s, Taehyung clapping and laughing in delight when Jeongguk mastered the Proxy attack. “That means all of that was real.”

It terrifies him.

“I’m not sure I should be the one telling you this,” Jimin says with a sidelong glance at Jeongguk, “but Taehyung cares for you a lot, you know? He talks about you a lot. To everyone, not just us in this Node. Worries about you, too.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk mutters. He closes his eyes. None of this was meant to happen. What has he gotten himself into? “Yeah, I know.”

Jimin walks up to Jeongguk, placing a hand on Jeongguk’s back and patting him comfortingly. “You’re worried, aren’t you? It’s only natural.” When Jeongguk gives a noncommittal grunt, Jimin smiles gently. “Hey, tell you what, I’ll go get Taehyung, and you two can talk this out.”

“Wait—” Jeongguk starts, grasping Jimin’s hand before he can turn around and leave. “Wait. I need to think about this. Let me—let me do this myself.”

Jimin studies Jeongguk for a few seconds, then gives a small grin. “This is so strange. You never listen to me.”

“Well,” Jeongguk grumbles, feeling heat in his cheeks. “Sometimes you need to make an exception.”

“I’m not complaining,” Jimin singsongs, ruffling Jeongguk’s hair, then clapping his hands together. “Now that’s done, let’s get back to working on strengthening your blasts, shall we?”

 

 

Jeongguk’s sprawled out on the floor of the common room after getting his ass kicked by Park Jimin (who knew he had so much firepower in that tiny frame?), cursing at his aching muscles, when none other than Kim Taehyung walks in.

“Jeonggukkie!” Taehyung exclaims, taking his pink sunglasses off in one swoop, and he sits next to Jeongguk, reaching over to press a hand against Jeongguk’s forehead, eyebrows crinkled together in concern. “Jeongguk, are you okay?”

“What?” Jeongguk reaches up in alarm and brushes Taehyung’s hand off. “What are you talking about?”

“Jimin said you had a fever,” Taehyung says, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his. “You didn’t look great during that meeting either. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have pushed you so hard during training last time, your body’s still not used to the digital—”

“I’m not sick, Taehyung,” Jeongguk cuts in, laughing weakly. Well, not from any physical ailment. The lurching of his stomach from thinking about Taehyung, though, is another story. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about me.”

“But Jimin just told me you were burning up and needed destressing,” Taehyung says, waving his arms around. He pauses mid-motion, frowning. “Wait, what does he mean by that? Does he want me to teach you yoga?”

“Destress—” Jeongguk chokes on his words as the insinuation hits him. “Oh, holy crap, I’m going to kill Park Jimin, I told him not to say anything—”

“I have lots of meditation videos, too,” Taehyung continues, almost babbling. “All these pilates and yoga groups make accounts and—oh wait, they only last for ten seconds. Never mind. What were you saying?”

“Uh.”

Sooner or later, Jeongguk’s going to have to admit things to himself. And, even though he desperately wants to avoid the conversation, he’s going to have to talk to Taehyung. He’s become an expert at running away from his problems, suppressing his emotions, his feelings—and Jimin’s probably seen through him and all his denial.

Which is why the elephant in the room is sitting right in front of him, looking mighty confused.

“I promise I won’t tell,” Taehyung says, zipping his lips shut. “You know you can trust me with anything, right?”

Looking into Taehyung’s eyes, taking in the slight crease of worry marring his forehead, a rush of something overwhelming surges through Jeongguk’s body, a mixture of protectiveness and anticipation and dread.

“Taehyung” Jeongguk says slowly, worrying his bottom lip with his front teeth. Taehyung nods, looking at him quizzically. “Taehyung, can I ask you a question?”

“I think you just did,” Taehyung says, grinning. “But go ahead.”

Jeongguk crosses his legs and clasps his hands together, looking at his twiddling thumbs. He takes a breath. “Do you… like me?”

Taehyung raises an eyebrow, bemused. “What? Of course I do, you’re great. Everyone here likes you, even Yoongi, believe it or not—”

“No, no,” Jeongguk interrupts, looking up at Taehyung and shaking his head. “I mean… Not as a friend. Like…” Jeongguk licks his lips. “Like in the way Seokjin likes Jimin.”

“Like—oh.” Taehyung’s expression turns serious, and he straightens up. “Oh.”

“What you said the other day.” Jeongguk shrugs. “When we were with Jongin and Sehun. About how you weren’t joking. Did you mean it?”

The right corner of Taehyung’s lips turns up. “Yeah. I wasn’t joking. I meant it. But you looked so terrified. I didn’t want to push it.”

Jeongguk lets out a long breath. Now that Taehyung’s said it, he’s not sure how to react, or what he should do. “So I wasn’t hallucinating.”

“What about you?” Taehyung wets his lips and looks away, drawing his knees into his body. “I mean, I don’t expect anything, this place is probably weird for you, and you haven’t been here for that long, there’s more important things to concentrate on, and we’ve only just met—”

“I do,” Jeongguk blurts out. He runs his hand through his hair. His mind has gone blank, the only thing he can think about at this moment is how much he wants to pin Taehyung down on bed and breathe him in. “I like you. I like you a lot. More than I want to admit.”

“You do?” Taehyung looks up at Jeongguk, eyes bright. “But you… You looked so frightened. And then you shoved me aside after the meeting.”

“I was scared,” Jeongguk admits. He meets Taehyung’s eyes. “Look, I’m still scared, but… I don’t think I can leave it anymore. So there’s that. I know that it’s ridiculous and sudden and I have no idea what the hell I’m doing saying this, considering we’re from two different worlds, literally, but—”

“I don’t care.” Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s hands in his, gripping them tight. “Hey. Hey. I’ve been waiting for this. I don’t care. You’re special to me.”

“Yeah,” is all Jeongguk can respond with. He gives Taehyung’s hands a squeeze back. “You are too.”

“Well then,” Taehyung breathes, the tension between them thick enough to cut. “What are we waiting for?”

Jeongguk’s not sure who closes the space first, but one second they’re staring into each other’s eyes, hesitant, and the next, Taehyung’s lips are crashing onto his, warm and soft and so perfect, so dreamlike. Jeongguk lets out a moan, parting his lips and leaning into Taehyung, one hand roaming to brace the back of Taehyung’s neck and the other on Taehyung’s waist. Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s head in his hands, and the awkward angle makes him fall backwards, so that Jeongguk’s now on all fours over him, panting heavily.

There’s a split second’s pause before Taehyung speaks again, voice low and husky. “Do you wanna…?”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says breathlessly, heartbeat thrumming in his chest. “Fuck, yeah.”

 

 

Jeongguk makes quick work of their clothes when they get to his room, fumbling with the buttons of Taehyung’s khaki shirt and ripping it off, throwing it to the side.

“Easy there, tiger,” Taehyung says, stumbling backwards until he trips over Jeongguk’s bed and lands on his back. Jeongguk leans in, pressing a rough kiss to Taehyung’s mouth and moving to work on getting Taehyung’s pants off. Jeongguk lets out a grunt of frustration when the belt buckle catches in the loop.

“You should wear less clothes,” Jeongguk grumbles, and Taehyung props himself up, resting on his elbows and looking down at Jeongguk. “You don’t even need them.”

“And you could just materialise them away,” Taehyung says with a grin as Jeongguk continues struggling with the belt. “Try it! This is what we’ve been trying to teach you.”

“Shut up,” Jeongguk mutters, yanking Taehyung’s pants off. Taehyung’s wearing blue boxers with a purple elastic band, and Jeongguk can see a dark, wet spot spreading at the crotch, the telltale sign of precome. Taehyung reaches down, rubbing the front of his boxers, and Jeongguk gulps.

“Can’t have you fully dressed, can we?” Taehyung says, sitting up and dragging Jeongguk down, so that he collapses on top of Taehyung. Taehyung presses a kiss to Jeongguk’s lips, biting on Jeongguk’s lower lip, and flips them around, so that Jeongguk’s lying on the bed and he’s on top, straddling Jeongguk. “Tell you what, I’m going to do this the hard way.”

Taehyung takes his sweet, sweet time undoing Jeongguk’s buttons one by one, peeling the fabric aside, leaving sloppy kisses along the dips of Jeongguk’s collarbones, running his hand down the plane of Jeongguk’s chest. By the time Taehyung gets to Jeongguk’s pants, his cock is achingly hard and uncomfortable, constrained by the fabric of his pants.

“Come on,” Taehyung says, undoing the zip of Jeongguk’s pants and sliding them over his thighs. Now Jeongguk’s in nothing but his briefs, lying spread eagle on the bed, legs hanging off the edge, and Taehyung’s over him again, peppering his neck with kisses. “Come on, sit up for me.”

“What are you going to do?” Jeongguk asks, sitting as Taehyung’s requested, but Taehyung says nothing, simply moving to kneel in between Jeongguk’s spread legs. Jeongguk gasps when Taehyung’s hands skirt over his waist and find the grooves of his hipbone, gripping Jeongguk’s hips so tightly Jeongguk can practically feel bruises blooming across his skin.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Taehyung says, with a twinkle in his eye. By now, Taehyung’s taken Jeongguk’s hand, kissing the back of his palm, skimming his lips down Jeongguk’s fingers. He darts his tongue out, and Jeongguk whimpers. This is what Taehyung could be doing with his tongue on his cock. Fuck. Taehyung curls his tongue around Jeongguk’s fingers, and Jeongguk’s so hard and straining against his underwear. Taehyung moves one hand from Jeongguk’s hip to encircle Jeongguk’s wrist and lock Jeongguk’s hand in place as he pops Jeongguk’s fingers out of his mouth with a devilish grin.

“You like that?” Taehyung asks, licking Jeongguk’s palm again, and Jeongguk lets out a groan of frustration.

“Is this how you’re going to suck me off?” Jeongguk asks, a little breathless. Taehyung’s head is tilted, and Jeongguk can see the way the tendons and veins of his neck stand out against the smooth skin of his neck. “Are you going to suck me off or suck my fingers all day?”

“All in due time,” Taehyung says with a low laugh. He shimmies Jeongguk’s briefs off, and Jeongguk’s cock springs out, slapping against his belly and leaving a trail of precome gleaming on his stomach. “Oh, you’re so hard already, is it because of me?”

“Fuck, Taehyung,” Jeongguk grits out, as Taehyung gently kisses the inside of his thighs, nipping everywhere, but avoiding paying any attention to Jeongguk’s erection. “Fuck, just—just touch me already.”

“But teasing you is so fun,” Taehyung says, nipping Jeongguk’s thigh once last time and getting up in Jeongguk’s lap, grinding against Jeongguk. The friction is so lovely, the relief and contact Jeongguk needed, and Jeongguk is dizzy, gripping the sheets in his hands. If Jeongguk had a mirror, he’s pretty sure he would look the definition of ‘wrecked’. “How do you want it today? Tell me what you want.”

“I want—” Jeongguk licks his parched lips, trying to concentrate on forming words and Taehyung continues grinding against him. “I want your mouth around my cock. I want you to suck me off. I want to be inside you, I want to fuck you, so bad—”

“And that can be arranged,” Taehyung says, pecking Jeongguk on the lips and sliding down, so that he’s kneeling between Jeongguk’s legs again. “Hey, Jeongguk, lie back. Close your eyes.”

“You’re a piece of shit,” Jeongguk bemoans, lying back and covering his eyes with his forearm. Without his sight, the sensations of Taehyung gripping his thighs, breath ghosting on his skin, is amplified a hundredfold more, and Jeongguk swears he’s going to come just from desperation alone. And finally, finally, Taehyung grips Jeongguk’s cock in his hand and brings the tip to meet his lips, kissing the tip lightly.

Then, Taehyung’s touch is gone, stillness in the room, and Jeongguk is just about to uncover his eyes to check out what’s going on when a warm, wet heat envelopes his cock and oh, oh fuck, that’s Taehyung’s mouth on his cock, that’s Taehyung deepthroating him right now, warm and slick.

“Just for the record,” Taehyung says, popping Jeongguk’s cock out of his mouth and wiping away the stray strings of spit, “nobody could mistake your nose for your dick. Your dick is much bigger. And cuter.” Jeongguk splutters, and Taehyung grins up at Jeongguk. “But your nose is big and cute too. Everything about you is cute.”

Before Jeongguk can get a word in, Taehyung’s got his lips wrapped around Jeongguk’s cock again, and all that comes out of Jeongguk’s mouth is a guttural moan. Jeongguk reaches down so that he can thread his fingers through Taehyung’s hair, push him down, further, so that the tip of his cock touches the back of Taehyung’s throat, and Taehyung makes a sound, hands shooting up to clutch at Jeongguk’s hips.

“I wanna…” Jeongguk gasps in between the frantic rhythm Taehyung’s bobbing his head, “I wanna fuck you now.”

Jeongguk barely finishes his sentence when Taehyung’s smirking up at him, licking the tip of Jeongguk’s cock kittenishly before jumping up on the bed next to Jeongguk, then clambering over him and sitting on Jeongguk’s chest. Taehyung turns his head to look over his shoulder at Jeongguk, then waggles his eyebrows and gets on all fours, lips back on Jeongguk’s cock, but this time in reverse, and Jeongguk gulps as Taehyung’s cock hangs about his lips, erect and dripping precome.

“Not fair if you get all the fun, hey?” Taehyung says between sucks, waggling his ass. Jeongguk laughs as smacks Taehyung on the ass, massaging his buttcheeks, before taking Taehyung’s cock in his hand and giving a rough jerk, making Taehyung let out a delicious moan while his mouth is still secured around Jeongguk. God, Taehyung’s cock is mere centimetres away from Jeongguk’s lips, and Jeongguk strains upwards, mouth open, thirsty for Taehyung’s cock inside his mouth, but Taehyung keeps moving just out of reach, giggling as Jeongguk whines and sticks his tongue out, eager for Taehyung to fuck his mouth.

“You tease,” Jeongguk growls, gripping Taehyung’s hips tighter and bringing his hips down, taking Taehyung’s length into his mouth, swirling his tongue around the tip of Taehyung’s cock and licking stripes up the shaft. Taehyung tastes so good, and before long, Jeongguk’s bucking into Taehyung’s mouth as he sucks Taehyung off, so close to release.

“Not like this,” Taehyung says, when Jeongguk’s thrusts start to become erratic. He encircles the base of Jeongguk’s cock with his thumb and index finger, squeezing gently, and Jeongguk lets out a keen as he feels himself platforming, coming down from that high. Taehyung lets go, turning himself around so that he’s now straddling Jeongguk, facing him, and he smiles. “No touching. Lie still. Just watch.”

And holy shit, holy shit, Jeongguk can’t believe his eyes, he can’t believe that he has to humanly resist grabbing Taehyung and fucking him right there and then, because Taehyung materialises a tube of lube out of nowhere and coats his fingers with it, reaching behind himself so he can slick himself up, letting out little whimpers and moans as he fingers himself open. Jeongguk tries to arch his hips up, longing for contact, but Taehyung just pushes himself down by the chest with his free hand and kisses Jeongguk messily, teeth clashing, biting at Jeongguk’s lower lip and delving his tongue into Jeongguk’s mouth.

“Hurry up,” Jeongguk groans, when Taehyung pulls away from him and works a third finger inside himself, putting on the most obscene performance Jeongguk’s ever seen. “Hurry up, stop teasing, holy shit—”

“Patience,” Taehyung says, pecking Jeongguk on the lips one last time, and then he takes Jeongguk’s cock in one hand and positions the tip at his entrance, barely grazing. And finally, finally, he sinks down onto Jeongguk's cock, tight and hot, and Jeongguk lets out a whimper, gasping when Taehyung reaches forwards to interlace their fingers together as he clenches around Jeongguk. Taehyung moves Jeongguk’s hands up, so that they’re pinned above his head, and lifts himself up, sinking down again in one smooth motion, riding Jeongguk slowly, then increasing his pace as Jeongguk lets out keening whines, bucking up to meet Taehyung halfway.

“Let me…” Jeongguk gasps as Taehyung slows down again, clenching hot and tight around him, “Let me be on top.”

Taehyung gives a breathy laugh and loops his leg behind Jeongguk’s knee, flipping them around, so that now Jeongguk is caging Taehyung in, cock still inside, and Jeongguk loops Taehyung’s knees on his shoulders, pounding inside Taehyung, holding Taehyung down, fingers still interlaced. Jeongguk mouths at Taehyung’s neck, sucking and nipping patterns on the pale skin of his neck, making little red marks that will later turn into purple blooms.

“Close?” Taehyung breathes, pulling free from Jeongguk’s hands and reaching his arms around Jeongguk’s shoulders to leave nail marks in his back. Jeongguk nods, unable to speak, and Taehyung digs his nails in, clenching hard, and that’s all Jeongguk needs to tip over the edge.

When Jeongguk comes, electric shivers travel through his whole body, reaching the tips of his fingers, and he lets out a loud groan, back arching and eyes fluttering closed, hot come shooting into Taehyung’s ass and dripping out, slow and sticky. Jeongguk reaches down, taking Taehyung’s cock in his hand and jerking Taehyung off to completion, his come spurting out in strings all over Jeongguk’s chest, flecks landing on Jeongguk’s face. Taehyung bends down, Jeongguk still pulsing inside him, and kisses Jeongguk on the lips, darting a tongue out lick his own come off Jeongguk’s chin, then kissing Jeongguk again.

“Shit,” Jeongguk says, after they both catch their breath. Taehyung’s so warm around him, the overstimulation easing on uncomfortable, and Jeongguk swears he could come a second time when Taehyung giggles, wrapping his legs around Jeongguk’s body and falling to the side so they’re both lying on their sides. “Shit, that was amazing.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t try it earlier,” Taehyung grins, stroking patterns into the back of Jeongguk’s hand with a finger. “From the stuff I have in my database, it seems like fucking like rabbits is something humans are interested in right after food. And perhaps cute pictures of animals.”

“Well, I…” Jeongguk shrugs, post-coital calm washing over him. “I didn’t know if it was the same here. You know, your bodies being digital. I did wonder though.” Jeongguk frowns. “And I mean, I haven’t really enjoyed it, not since…”

“It’s okay. I know about your exes,” Taehyung murmurs. “And your gym crush. I know. I saw. On your Instagram. And Jimin and Seokjin showed me what you’d posted on Twitter and Facebook and it all made sense.” Taehyung buries his face in the crook of Jeongguk’s neck. “I knew that was the reason and I didn’t want to push it. Sorry.”

“Guess I can’t keep secrets from any of you, huh?” Jeongguk says, smiling ruefully. Two failed relationships and a sexuality crisis has turned him into a bit of a cynic. “Yeah. That was a long time ago though, and I’m over it.”

“I like you, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, and those four words are so plain, so undecorated, so forward, and Jeongguk feels his heart thump irregularly once again. “I really, really like you.”

And then the worries from last night, the ones keeping him up, momentarily forgotten in the euphoria of feeling Taehyung hot around him, resurface, an arrow right to the heart. It’s not going to last. It might be sweet for now, but bittersweet, and the bitterness will soon overpower.

“This is Cyberspace,” Jeongguk says quietly. His head is spinning, and he can’t seem to find the right words. “We’re not… This can’t…” Jeongguk sighs, hugging Taehyung in tighter. “I’m going to have to go back to the real world, you know?”

“Yeah.” Taehyung’s serious now, his playfulness all gone. “I know. But it still doesn’t make this—” Taehyung motions to the two of them “—any less real.” Jeongguk looks back at him, brows furrowed, and Taehyung cracks a gentle smile. “Are these feelings you have for me real? Do they feel real?”

Yeah. Yeah, they do. Jeongguk’s never liked someone so much before, never found it so painful when thinking about the fact they have to part. Not even with Sewon, or Seohyun. Maybe that’s why they’d broken it off, calling him too cold, telling him he never cared enough.

“They’re real.”

Taehyung beams, and it’s like the rays of sunshine piercing through the clouds on a rainy day. “Then nobody can tell you otherwise.”

 

 

These are the stray thoughts running through Jeongguk’s mind when he’s lying in bed that night, curled up warm against Taehyung’s back.

He likes Taehyung. He really does. It’s true Taehyung’s not real, not in the analogue world, but he’s so tangible, so there, that it doesn’t matter if he’s just an image. Technically, everyone is attracted to an image. Pornstars; videos and photos on the Internet of singers, actors, celebrities; graphic novels, Anime characters; Facebook posts, Instagram-filtered realities. It’s all an image, isn’t it?

It’s the twenty-first century. The world runs digitally, and there’s no way to escape it. Everything in everyone’s lives are on the Internet, their loves, fears, deepest darkest secrets buried in the text streaming around the World Wide Web.

Cyberspace stands for so much more than simple fun and games. It’s a network of life, and the more Jeongguk thinks about it, the more uneasy he becomes. Censorship would mean a loss of freedom, and also… His friends here would cease to exist.

All of them, even the ever-disagreeable Yoongi, would no longer be there anymore, contactable through a digital crossing. It would mean the end of their existence—an online death. A Cybernetic death. Deleted. Gone.

The bottom line is, he doesn’t want Taehyung to disappear. He will do anything in his power to stop Taehyung from fading away.

And that’s why he has to fight for it.

 

 

Jeongguk wakes up to Taehyung cuddling him, face buried in the crook of his neck.

“Morning, sleepyhead,” Taehyung mutters as Jeongguk blinks, rubbing his eyes. Taehyung looks wide awake—but then again, Jeongguk remembers with a wry smile as his brain catches up in sleep deprivation, Taehyung doesn’t need any sleep. “You knocked out for quite a while.”

“You tired me out,” Jeongguk mumbles, pulling Taehyung in and taking a deep breath in, closing his eyes as he holds Taehyung tighter, fits their bodies together. “It was good. Mmm. Don’t want to move.”

Taehyung laughs, shuffling around so that his back is no longer pressed to Jeongguk’s chest, but that he’s facing Jeongguk. He pecks Jeongguk on the lips. “Unfortunately, Namjoon called a meeting. We have to go meet them in the Central Node. Something about the next stage of action.”

That’s right. The thought jolts Jeongguk awake, his bubble of sleepy grogginess burst with a sharp pinprick of reality. The Shield. That’s what he’s here for. He can’t let himself forget that, even if basking in Taehyung’s presence gives him the same intoxicated effect induced by three shots of absinthe.

Jeongguk sits up in bed, tugging his shirt on. “Let’s go.”

They’re the last to arrive in the Central Node, the five others already sitting on the couches and beanbags waiting for them when Jeongguk sets foot inside the room. Jimin stops chatting to Seokjin and whirls around at the sound, waving cheerfully, waggling his eyebrows and even giving Jeongguk a gentle whack on the arm when Jeongguk walks past him to sit in an assigned seat. Taehyung seems oblivious, settling down with his usual grin, but Jeongguk can feel all five pairs of eyes focused on them.

“Good morning, lovebirds,” Yoongi says dryly, one arm and leg dangling off the edge of the sofa as he grunts and sits up from a lying position. “Looks like you had a big night.”

“You two went at it hard,” Jimin says, shaking his head in amusement. “My eyes. Forever soiled.”

Jeongguk frowns, narrowing his eyes at Jimin. “Wait. Wait, how did you…?”

“Let’s just say,” Hoseok says delicately, “that you were very vocal last night.”

“That,” Namjoon says, “And also Taehyung, you, uh, you didn’t disconnect from the shared information network. We could all…” Namjoon waves his arm and clears his throat awkwardly. “See. And hear. Everything.”

“Oh my fucking god,” Jeongguk says, face steaming red. Flashbacks of Taehyung on top of him, riding him slowly, clenching around Jeongguk’s cock, surface to the front of his mind. “Oh, fuck.”

“Nobody needs to know about how well you rode Jeongguk, Taehyung,” Jimin says very loudly, winking and nudging Jeongguk. Jeongguk bats his hand away, sulking. “Hehe. It was cute.”

“God damn it, Taehyung,” Hoseok says, but he’s laughing now. “Keep your professionalism.”

“I’m totally professional! Who says I didn’t do it on purpose?” Taehyung says, grinning from ear to ear. “Maybe I wanted you all to see how the Great Kim Taehyung gets it in.”

“Professionalism my ass,” Yoongi mutters under his breath. “You’re a walking disaster.”

“Oh, my sweet little pumpkin pie Jeon Jeongguk,” Jimin starts, making exaggerated love-eyes at Jeongguk. Jeongguk makes a face and mushes his hand into Jimin’s face. That doesn’t seem to deter Jimin one bit, though. “You do have a nice ass, for the record,” Jimin says with a wink. Seokjin clears his throat, and Jimin makes a cute face at him. “Don’t worry babe, yours is still my favourite.”

Taehyung beams. “Heh,” he says, twirling a finger. “#strokegamebomb, #td4w.”

“I swear to fucking god if you abuse the hashtag function one more time,” Yoongi growls, “I’m kicking your ass straight into the Silver Moon Shield alone.”

Yoongi’s words seem to stir something in Namjoon’s mind, and he stands up with a jolt. “Right, the Shield,” Namjoon interrupts with a frown, and claps his hands. “That’s why I called this meeting.”

“Hold up for a moment, Namjoon,” Yoongi says, rubbing his temples. “I need to reboot. Some group called Bulletproof Boy Scouts just dropped an album and the traffic crashed my database.”

“Oh, you too?” Jimin pipes up, the nest of birds in his hair still chirping nonstop. “Yeah, my Tweeties are going haywire. Godspeed us.”

“This is just like that time some kid called Rap Monster dropped a mixtape and my servers went nuts,” Yoongi says, groaning. “Fucking fans, go pet a cat or something.”

“Rap Monster?” Seokjin arches his eyebrows. “Who calls themselves Rap Monster?”

“I think it sounds cool,” Namjoon says defensively. Everyone stares at him. Namjoon shrugs. “What? It’s got character.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says, nodding seriously. “I’d listen to someone called Rap Monster.”

“That’s just you. Ugh. The Biebmeister just dropped a new single too. Can't believe people listen to this shit," Yoongi says, shaking his head. "Youth these days. What happened to real music?”

“It’s lost to consumerism and the commercialisation of feelings, youth, bodies, and sex,” Namjoon says, staring into the distance. “But in the end, there’s no such thing as ‘fake music’. All music is real music. Even music released by dickheads. You can choose not to like it, but others are allowed to enjoy whatever they like as long as they acknowledge the artist’s faults. Don’t be an ass about it.”

“Yeah, okay, chill,” Yoongi says as he narrows his eyes. “That asshole B-Free can still suck my dick,” he finishes stonily.

“Ooh,” Jimin says, frowning. “Ooh, Yoongi, I think you just set off a fanwar. #shitgoingdown #popcorn.”

Back to the point,” Namjoon says, seemingly have returned from his nostalgic trip down Morality Lane, “the Shield. I just got intel from Sojin that the government is planning to pull up the rollout—we’ve got less time than we originally anticipated.”

“Wait, you mean…” Hoseok’s eyes go wide. “You mean we’ll have to finalise our plan of action now?”

“Yeah.” Namjoon lets out a breath, the atmosphere now tense and morose. “Sorry, Hoseok, I know you’re still working on it and it’s not perfect, but we’ll need it as soon as possible. You can still keep tweaking it, but we’ll need something ready to go, even if it’s bits and pieces.”

“Okay. So, we don’t have as much time as we thought. What do we do?” Seokjin says after a lengthy pause. He turns to Jeongguk. “Jeongguk, I know this is a lot to ask, but—”

“I’m with you.” Jeongguk says. Jimin makes a little noise of pleasant surprise. Jeongguk turns to Taehyung, who slides his hand into Jeongguk’s and gives it a comforting squeeze, smiling warmly at Jeongguk. “I’m—I’ll do whatever I need. I don’t want to see Cyberspace destroyed. I don’t want to see you,” Jeongguk motions to the others in the room, “all disappear. I’ve thought about it, and I’ll help.”

“Thank you.” Hoseok comes up and wraps his arms around Jeongguk, giving him a suffocating hug, and Jeongguk stands there, frozen at this sudden display of affection and gratitude. “Thank you, Jeongguk, I know we’ve been hard on you, but we were—just—thank you.”

Namjoon claps his hands again and raises his voice. “Okay. Here’s what we’ll do. Hoseok, it’s time to plan, let me know if you have any problems. Yoongi, you help me with reconfiguring the logistics on this Node, and come with me while I talk to Sojin. Seokjin and Jimin, go coordinate with the other Nodes on our joint action path and see what firepower they’ve rounded up. And Taehyung?”

Taehyung salutes, taking Jeongguk’s arm. “Guess it’s time for Kim Taehyung’s Intensive Training Course.”

 

 

According to Sojin, there’s no predicting how the Shield will form and start its wipe. “They could attack individual Keepers, or individual Nodes, or expand from a top-down model and take us all down in one go,” Yoongi reiterates soullessly after his meeting with Sojin. “Best bet is to trick it into a gap, but that’ll require lots of Stoppers. Namjoon and I have made most of them, which is good, but we don’t have any spares. So in other words, we’re fucked if we don’t get this right.”

Hoseok pulls something up, a complicated graph of hypotheticals, and while Jeongguk understands next to none of it, it passes Namjoon’s judgment. Seokjin and Jimin head off to the EXO and GOT7 Nodes and end up coming back to the Node each day covered in goat hair and white stuff in their hair which looks suspiciously like come.

As for Jeongguk, he spends all of his waking hours in the training room with Taehyung, getting blasted over and over and over again with all sorts of simulated attacks.

They haven’t talked about the possible outcomes. Even if they try to joke and be lighthearted in their time together, everybody is on edge, afraid of losing their home, and Jeongguk doesn’t want to bring up the what ifs swimming around in his head. What if the Shield destroys Cyberspace? What if, during the battle, one of them gets blasted by an attack and fatally injured? What if not all of them survive? And what if they actually, despite all odds, defeat the Shield? It shouldn’t be this way, but Jeongguk is possibly most terrified of asking that last question—because he knows then, like Namjoon promised him in the beginning, he’ll be sent back to the analogue world, and, well…

“Jeonggukkie, you okay?”

Jeongguk startles, and blinks to see Taehyung’s face in front of his, eyes wide and inquisitive. Jeongguk gives a weak smile, nodding, and Taehyung grins back, ruffling Jeongguk’s hair as he backs away into an offensive stance.

“Don’t tire yourself out. Let me know if there’s anything bothering you.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, taking a step back into offensive and raising his fists, crouching. “Yeah, I will.”

He doesn’t, though. Of course he doesn’t. The training goes smoothly otherwise, and by the end of it, Jeongguk’s too knackered to even think about doing anything but curling up into Taehyung and sleeping with Taehyung warm next to him.

The next session, Taehyung teaches him a defense mechanism called Mirrors. “You use this against an SSL Attack,” Taehyung explains, as he snaps his fingers and materialises something shiny and round. “Point this at us if the wires from the SSL Attack try to capture us. You’re the only one who can’t be immobilised by those wires. We’ll reflect away from the wire and land in a safe spot opposite.”

Maybe it’s just the desperation, and the fact that all the others are working so hard to prepare for the forthcoming battle, but Jeongguk masters this with relative ease, and by the end of the session he’s creating Mirrors large enough to deflect three Keepers at a time. Namjoon is surprised and impressed, and gives Taehyung a high-five when Jeongguk shows him what he’s mastered.

“Just one more to go,” Namjoon says, grinning, a wisp of hopefulness in his voice. “The final attack. Everything you’ve mastered so far are defensive mechanisms to ward off the Shield’s attacks, but there’s still the Cyberlord to deal with. It’s the strongest part of the Shield. We’ll still need something to knock it down once and for all.”

“Wait,” Jimin says, frowning, “You mean our attacks aren’t enough? We’ve just been collaborating with the other Nodes to get our attacks in sync.”

“Well, no one’s sure at this moment,” Namjoon says, stroking his chin. He turns to Yoongi. “What did the girls say?”

“No guarantee.” Yoongi uncrosses and re-crosses his legs in the other direction. “We could be strong enough, or we could not. The Shield is gathering power at an incredible speed, and right now it’s unpredictable. It’s better to be prepared for all circumstances.”

“The problem is,” Hoseok muses, “We’ve already taught Jeongguk everything we know. We don’t have anything else. This has to be attack that only he can do.”

“Then…” Jeongguk gulps, feeling six sets of eyes turn to him. “It’s up to me?”

“We’ll work together. We’ll help you come up with something,” Seokjin says, resting a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder, but Jeongguk knows this is more blind reassurance than anything else at this point.

Something that only he can do.

Jeongguk stares at his hands back in the training room. In however long he’s been here, he’s learnt about the limits of his body, what he can and can’t do, and also what he’s capable of that none of the Keepers can do. The other day, when Jimin had stumbled into the room during a particularly intense sparring session with Taehyung, Jeongguk had mistaken Jimin for a doppelganger Taehyung created and attacked Jimin, drawing his digital energy out and sending it in a blast towards Taehyung. Both Taehyung and Jimin had been knocked out for a good long while before they both came back to—and apparently Seokjin’s database had been flooded with messages on various Facebook timelines asking IS TWITTER DOWN???, and omg i can’t get on instagram SOMEONE CALL 119 IT’S A NATIONAL EMERGENCY. Whatever had happened that day—and Jeongguk really has no idea, because he tried again the next day, this time with Taehyung as the guinea pig, and there was nothing whatsoever—seems like his best shot at this moment.

“You think that’s the answer?” Taehyung asks as he braces himself for an attack, arms held in a cross in front of his chest. Jeongguk closes his eyes, concentrating the suction in his hands, throwing it towards Taehyung, and Taehyung’s digital energy draws out for a split second, then settles right back in. “Ow! Hey, you’re getting there, it was stronger that time.”

“It’s not enough,” Jeongguk says, panting, a sudden fatigue washing over him. He stumbles, vision going hazy, then supports himself with his hands on his knees and wipes at his mouth. “Let’s go again. I’ve almost got it. I can feel it.”

“Don’t wear yourself out,” Taehyung says, voice laced with concern, but he raises his arms again. “I believe in you. One more time, then I’m making you rest.”

The same thing happens. Taehyung’s energy draws out for that precious split second, then snaps back inside, sending Taehyung hurtling and a huge wave of dizziness at Jeongguk, who can’t support himself this time and ends up falling on his knees to the ground.

“Okay. We’re done for today,” Taehyung says, picking himself up and rushing to Jeongguk’s side, helping him up so they can both hobble to the edge of the room and sit there, backs pressed against the walls. “Catch your breath.”

Jeongguk’s breathing is stabilising when Taehyung speaks again, just one word.

“Jeongguk…” Taehyung says, but this isn’t a on-the-fly exclamation. Taehyung’s drawn out his name, the way he does when he’s actually talking about something serious.

“Hm?” Jeongguk turns his head to face Taehyung. Taehyung smiles, taking Jeongguk’s hand in his and placing it to his own face, and Jeongguk runs his thumb over the smooth plane of Taehyung’s cheekbone. “What is it, Taehyung?”

“After this,” Taehyung says, voice cracking. Jeongguk freezes, hand stopping in mid-motion. “After this is all over…”

This is it. The ultimatum. Taehyung’s worrying his lower lip, wrinkles where his eyebrows are drawn together, and when he looks into Jeongguk’s eyes, they’re filled with an immense sadness. Jeongguk’s heart picks up speed, lurching uncomfortably. Taehyung’s going to say something, and that’ll be it.

But then Taehyung smiles, shaking his head, and that look is gone.

“Don’t worry. You’re worn out. We’ll can talk about this tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Jeongguk says, heaving an invisible sigh of relief. They’ll have to face the music, but he’s still not ready, and he’s thankful Taehyung’s let it drop today. “Yeah. Tomorrow. We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

 

 

“Jeongguk. Jeongguk!”

There’s a heavy pressure on Jeongguk’s shoulders, rocking him back and forth. Jeongguk squints against the bright light, clapping his hands to his ears. He’d fallen asleep right as his head had hit the pillow that night, tired out and not wanting to let his mind run loose on the possibilities of what Taehyung could’ve said. There’s a high-pitched screeching sound reverberating through the entire Node, and Jeongguk sits up groggily.

It’s Jimin. His hands are on Jeongguk’s shoulders, and he’s shaking Jeongguk violently.

“Jeongguk, you have to get up, the Shield—”

“There’s no time!” Jeongguk hears Namjoon shouting in the other room. “We have to get to it, now!”

“It’s…” Jimin clenches his jaw. There’s none of his usual playfulness in his tone, face grim and very serious. “It’s here. We grossly miscalculated.”

“What?” Jeongguk sits straight up, a burst of adrenaline pumping through his body. Taehyung. Taehyung isn’t next to him. “Wait, where’s—”

“Taehyung? He’d been out helping Hoseok lay down the Stoppers when the warning came. Our connection’s been lost, we can only hope for the best. Come on, we gotta go, we’ve already got casualties, Shownu from the MONSTA X Node was taken out by a DNS Redirection guard tunnel. Kihyun was hauled off by an SSL Attack Wire. The Shield is moving, and fast.”

Jeongguk’s heart stops in his chest, body numb. His throat is dry, and he can barely croak out his words. “Yeah. Yeah, I’ll—I’m coming.”

“You’re here?” Namjoon asks breathlessly as Jeongguk steps out of the Node. He’s hoisting a large cannon-like object, Seokjin helping him on the other side.

“Y-yeah,” Jeongguk says, licking his lips. He scans around. It’s just them and Yoongi. Seems like neither Taehyung nor Hoseok have returned. “Taehyung…?”

Namjoon shakes his head. “We can’t wait for them. We have to evacuate. They know where to go—Hoseok has the plans. The Shield is doing a top-down, going for the Nodes first. At this rate, we’ll be hit in no—”

There’s a low rumbling, the ground underneath them shaking, and out of the darkness a rapid stream of steel-like liquid materialises, immediately sealing the entrance to their Node and spreading like wildfire, encapsulating the entire Node in a spherical ball before Jeongguk can even blink. A red sign appears on the surface of the sphere moments later. IP Blocked, it reads, in big, bold letters.

“…Time,” Namjoon finishes, staring at the impenetrable steel sphere where their Node had been just moments ago. “Fuck. We just lost our Node.”

“Come on, let’s move,” Yoongi says, shouting as he moves further ahead. We’re assembling with the others at the Central Node, so we can protect our base against the Shield. That’s what Sojin calculated would be the most effective.”

Jeongguk wants to protest. No. They can’t just leave without waiting for the others, without waiting for Taehyung. But this, this is dangerous. The chance that they’ll all be crushed if they stay here, targeted by the Shield’s attacks, is too imminent to ignore. Jeongguk keeps his eyes trained on the path behind him as they move in their group of five, the steel-encased Node drawing further and further away.

“It’ll be okay,” Jimin says quietly, resting a hand on Jeongguk’s back. “It’ll be okay. Taehyung and Hoseok can take care of themselves. They might be silly, but they’re not incompetent.”

“We’ll head straight from here, along the main network path,” Namjoon explains, without dropping his pace. “We’re lucky the Central Node hasn't been hit yet. We managed to lay enough Stoppers to protect it, but that’ll be where the Cyberlord should be heading. We just have to get there before it’s blown to smithereens and we lose our method of communication.”

“Jeongguk, you ready?” Yoongi asks, grunting as he heaves the cannon-like object up and over his shoulder, where it’d slipped off. “For the battle.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” Jeongguk mutters back, and Yoongi gives a short, humourless laugh, motioning for Jeongguk to take the back half of the cannon onto his shoulder. Jeongguk obliges, resting it on the junction between his neck and torso, feeling the smooth metal cold on his skin, and Yoongi gives him a solemn nod, quickening his pace again to march behind Namjoon wordlessly.

Jeongguk counts his steps and matches his breath to his pace, treading precariously on the millions of colourful wires one foot in front of the other, his mind a mess.

He reaches six hundred in his step count when without warning, Yoongi stops in front of Jeongguk, whole body tensing up. Jeongguk almost runs into him, but manages to hold back in time, the cannon digging painfully into his shoulder. Namjoon, also taken off guard, practically trips over his own feet before coming to a stop, his own cannon balanced precariously on his shoulder.

“Hey,” Seokjin says, slowly, squinting and pointing into the distance, “Do you see…?”

From the expanse of darkness in front of them, there’s a white dot approaching, quickly growing in size, until Jeongguk can make out the outlines of hundreds of nets, each with a label on them. Jimin makes a choking noise at the back of his throat, and Jeongguk turns to Jimin, looking for an explanation.

“URL Filtering,” Jimin says, gritting his teeth. “Jeongguk, we’re going to need your help now. Do you remember how to cast a VPN?”

Jeongguk gulps. “Yeah?”

“Yeah, you’re going to have to cast it on all of us, now.”

The nets are fast approaching, and by now, Jeongguk can read the labels on the ones heading in their direction—Naver, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify. The others have diverted, heading in all other directions.

“We don’t have time,” Yoongi says, setting the cannon down on the network wires and facing Jeongguk. Namjoon leans his next to Yoongi’s. “It has to be now.”

“I believe in you,” Seokjin says, putting a hand on Jeongguk’s shoulder and squeezing comfortingly, and Jeongguk gulps, nodding. It’s time to put his training to the test—in a very real situation, where a slip-up could mean life or death.

Jeongguk closes his eyes, focusing his energy.

“VPN!”

When Jeongguk opens his eyes, the four of them standing there a moment ago are gone, fading into a strings of encrypted numbers and letters, barely noticeable against the dark background. The nets are fast approaching, and Jeongguk holds his breath, unsure if their transformation will complete in time before they're captured by the filters. Jimin is the first to unravel, slipping through the ropes of the Twitter net and emerging unscathed on the other side, the net disintegrating after its unsuccessful attempt. Seokjin, Namjoon, and Yoongi follow soon after, sliding through the nets with ease and materialising on the other side, panting as their nets also fade into thin air.

“That was close,” Namjoon says, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “I just sent an information packet out to warn anyone else still connected to the network that the URL Filters are coming.”

“We better get a move on before that happens again,” Yoongi mutters, picking the cannon back up from the rainbow wires. “Come on. We don’t have much time.”

The walk is dreadful and silent. Jeongguk trudges on behind, deep in thought, worry clouding his mind and bogging him down, until his feet feel like lead. What if they don’t find Taehyung? What if Taehyung’s been trapped, captured by the Shield’s attack, and Jeongguk hadn’t been there for him?

What if he never sees Taehyung again—

“There…” Jimin points into the distance, squinting. There’s a shiny steel sphere, the same as their Node which had been captured by the Shield’s IP Blocking. “Shit. That’s the GOT7 Node. Did they manage to get out in time?”

“We have to help them,” Seokjin says, rolling his sleeves up. The spherical structure looms closer, Jeongguk gulping when they stop in front of it. “Jeongguk, do you… Do you remember how to bypass the IP Blocking?”

Jeongguk closes his eyes. It’s been drilled into him, and he’s practised it a hundred—no, a thousand times—so it could be used in a moment like this. He summons the digital energy inside him. “Proxy!”

Next to Jeongguk, a carbon copy of him puffs into existence. With a nod, his doppelganger walks through the steel, limbs cutting through the metal like a diamond drill through titanium. There’s a tense silence, everyone holding their breaths, before his doppelganger emerges from the sphere, supporting the frames of two figures, who are dumped on the wires before it disappears in a bloom of smoke.

“Shit, they’re out cold,” Yoongi says with a grimace, putting his hand to their heads. The smoke clears, and Jeongguk sees that it’s Jackson and Jinyoung, passed out with metal burn marks covering their arms and legs. There’s a groan from Jackson, a gasp from Jinyoung as his eyes fly open, and Yoongi breathes a sigh of relief.

“Hey,” Namjoon murmurs, putting his hand on Jackson’s shoulder. “Hey. You two alright?”

“Sore.” Jackson groans, sitting up and rubbing his temples. “But alive.”

“Glad to hear. Did the others get out?” Jimin asks, brows drawn together in worry. Seokjin’s eyes are also wide, and he’s holding Jimin close to him. “Are they all safe? Heading towards the Central Node?”

“Yeah,” Jinyoung says, pressing his hands together to stop them from shaking as he also sits up. “Yeah, we—we kept the entrance open while the others got out. Thank you for coming for us. We would’ve… Would’ve died in there if not for you.”

“It was all Jeongguk,” Yoongi says gruffly, turning away. “Anyway, we should get a move on.”

“Can you stand?” Namjoon asks, supporting Jinyoung and Jackson up as they wobble to their feet. “Come on, before we lose any more time.”

As Jinyoung and Jackson join the back of the group, Jeongguk walks up to their side, question burning on his lips. “Hey, Jinyoung.”

“Hm?”

Jeongguk pauses. He doesn’t know if he wants to hear the answer. “Did either of you see Taehyung or Hoseok?”

“Sorry, kid,” Jackson says, pursing his lips. “No one came by. The Shield caught us by surprise. We barely had time to set up the temporary expander and get the others out before the IP Blocking got us.”

“Ah.”

Jeongguk fades into silence, worrying his bottom lip with his teeth as he continues trudging along. So nobody’s seen them. Taehyung’s still effective missing, and nobody’s seen him.

Jackson exchanges a look with Jinyoung. “Hey, Jeongguk, I’m sure he’s fine. He always manages to get out of sticky situations.”

“Shit!” Yoongi’s voice sounds from the front of the pack. He ducks as a flash of fiery red and white blows past him, the others behind him also ducking instinctively. “Shit, the Stoppers here are wearing out. We gotta run before they explode.”

“How long?” Jimin asks, picking up his pace.

“I don’t know, but any moment—”

There’s a series of ear-splitting explosions from the dangling Network wires next to them, flashes white and blinding. Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut as he ducks, crouching, hands clapped over his ears and screaming at the pain. The wires underneath his feet tremble, shaking as several more Stoppers explode, and then the world comes to a standstill.

Jeongguk cracks open an eyelid, then blinks as a fuzzy picture appears. There are two shadowy figures in the distance in front of him, silhouettes blurred, and Jeongguk squints as they get closer and closer, vision coming back into focus, the figures’ faces coming into the light—

Taehyung.

His hair’s a mess, and he’s gripping his shoulder, wincing as he runs towards Jeongguk, but it’s him. He’s alive.

Relief floods through Jeongguk, and inadvertently, he lets out a choked sob. Taehyung’s safe. Thank god.

“Holy shit,” Taehyung says, running up to Jeongguk and wrapping his arms around Jeongguk in a violent hug. Jeongguk chokes, breath getting knocked out of him, and he curls his fingers into the fabric of Taehyung’s jacket, Taehyung’s lomo digging into his stomach. Jeongguk takes a deep breath, breathing Taehyung in. “Holy shit, holy shit, I heard our Node had been hit, holy shit—”

“We got out right before it happened,” Namjoon says, rubbing his face. “We have to keep moving. You two weren’t supposed to come back. You should’ve gone straight to the Central Node.”

“But how could we go without making sure you were safe?” Hoseok asks, running a hand through his hair, lines of relief drawn on his face. “We saw the other Nodes on our way, and they’d been incapacitated by the IP Blocking. The Stoppers are already at their limits, and we didn’t manage to lay them all down. We had to make sure you all made it out.”

They make haste, the nine of them running along the wires, all Jeongguk concentrating on the in and out of his breath and the warmth of Taehyung’s hand in his. Taehyung gripping his hand tight like this, knuckles white as they run side by side, brings out a surge of determination Jeongguk didn’t know he had in him before. They can do this. They’d make it to the Central Node; meet with the rest of the Keepers; defend their Domains to the death.

“There,” Jimin breathes, slowing down. The glowing white dome pulls into view, a crowd of Keepers already gathered in front of it, murmuring and restless. “We made it. There.”

Jeongguk’s grip on Taehyung’s hand relaxes as they come to a standstill. He’s sure he’d been squeezing so hard he’d cut off all of Taehyung’s circulation, but Taehyung hadn’t said anything. Jeongguk turns his sight to the platform right in front of the entrance to the Central Node. Sojin’s standing atop it, the battle plans and diagrams Hoseok and the rest of the strategy team had come up with displayed in floating screens behind her. Sojin raises both hands in the air, and the hubbub quietens.

“Alright. All of you listen up. As you very well know, we’ve been hit by a surprise attack. The Shield launched earlier than anticipated, which means we’ve lost time to put our plan into action. But don’t worry, we’re sticking with the original formations as discussed—nothing will change except the speed we move.”

There’s a murmur amongst the crowd. “Change speed?” Jeongguk hears Mark ask. “Wait, how do we—”

“You’ll have to use your Boosters,” Sojin explains, ever so patiently. “It’ll hurt, but it’ll work.”

“Good thing we brought ours along,” Yoongi murmurs to Namjoon, who pats the cannon-like object on his shoulder and grins. “We’ll probably have enough between the two of us to boost all the Keepers from our Node.”

Sojin raises her hand again, and the screen behind her changes display, coloured dots arranged in patterns and moving towards one end point.

“This is how we’ll work. We think the Cyberlord will be infiltrating from where the Stoppers are weakest—that’ll be here, where we didn’t have enough time to close the gap. That’s where all the attacks from the Shield are filtering through, and that’s what’s been attacking us so far.” Sojin points into the crowd. “EXO Node. Flank the left. GOT7 Node. You’re on the right. VIXX Node, you guard the base. Same with you, MONSTA X. WINNER, monitor the rest of the Network to replace Stoppers and make sure nothing else comes through the boundaries. We need your stronghold to make sure the Central Node is safe from attack. MAMAMOO, you come to the front of the battalion with me and GIRLSDAY, you’re our best fighters. We’ll pave the way and advance to the gap. Hopefully we can off the Cyberlord before it gets close to here.”

“And us?” Namjoon asks, scratching his head.

Sojin purses her lips and points to the black dot on the screen, BTS. “BTS Node. You’ll be right behind us, backup. You have Jeongguk. We can’t have him at the front, not yet, but we’ll need him close by so he can stabilise the connection between us and give us power-ups and boosters as needed. You ready?”

There’s a worried murmuring, and Sojin stomps her boot into the ground, sending a quake through the wires underneath their feet. “I said, you ready?”

“Ready!” everyone choruses back, raising their hands in a salute. Sojin nods, satisfied, walking so she’s at the front of the stadium, foot up on the table.

“We’re fighting for our lives and our freedom.” Sojin clicks her fingers, and she’s immediately clad in armour, holding what looks like two scythes in her hands. “This is where the revolt of the Cyberwarriors begins.”

 

 

Yoongi and Namjoon make fast work of the Boosters. The girls march in front, weapons out, and Jeongguk settles in the middle, the others on his left and right. He’s been connected to all the Keepers now, their energy buzzing through him, tens of connections all centralised in his body. Out of them, the strongest is Taehyung’s. Taehyung’s right next to him. Of course he is. Taehyung hasn’t let go of Jeongguk’s hand since they met up before the Central Node. Jeongguk squeezes Taehyung’s hand tighter, unwilling to loosen his grip. He feels like if he does, he’ll lose Taehyung.

“Shit,” Whee-in says, stopping in her path, raising her arm. She’s holding two large coin-like disks, edges sharp, like circular saws. Her PayPal icon bobs above her head. “Shit, Solar, look.”

Jeongguk squints into the distance and his stomach immediately drops. Those are…monsters, gruesome and horrific, some flying, some crawling on the ground, leaving a trail of slime behind them, in an array of colours, but they all have one thing in common—their fang-like teeth and massive, gaping mouths.

And they’re heading towards the Keepers at an alarming speed.

Taehyung’s grip on Jeongguk gets tighter. “Packet Filtering monsters,” he gasps, clinging onto Jeongguk, and Jeongguk looks to him for explanation. “Be careful. If we get bitten by them, if we get a viral infection from them… We’re gone.”

“SSH,” Jeongguk murmurs. He can stop them. “Shell.”

There’s a monster fast approaching, body green and covered in oozing warts, toxic-looking gas emerging from its mouth, a string of numbers and letter flying out in spit-like strings when it hisses.

“Fuck,” Baekhyun yelps, closely avoiding the jaws of the monster clamping down on him. He fumbles, two hands going together. “Shell!” he yells, pushing his palms out towards the monster, and a blast of white-hot light emerges from his hands, encasing the monster in a hard cocoon. “That was close!”

“Jeongguk,” Yoongi’s saying, as he bats off one of the flying monsters with his cannon. “Jeongguk, you can freeze them all at the same time!”

Jeongguk squeezes his eyes shut, feeling the power circle in his chest. He pictures all the monsters being encased in the crystalline liquid, trapped in place as the shell sets around them. He imagines them, safe from the gaping jaws. Reluctantly lets Taehyung’s hand slip out of his. “Shell!”

A barrage of hot crystal liquid flows from Jeongguk’s palms, finding dozens of the gruesome monsters, encasing them, and they drop one by one in their crystalline coffins.

“Good job, Jeongguk,” Sojin says, panting heavily. “I didn’t know you learnt SSH.”

“They made me,” is all Jeongguk can say, but his hands are shaking from the exhilaration and adrenaline now taking effect.

“We have to hurry,” Hyeri says, shaking Sojin by the shoulder. “We lost time. Boosters are almost out.”

“Let’s see what else this bastard Shield has in store for us,” Moonbyul mutters, flexing her arms. “Bring it on.”

“You okay?” Jeongguk hears Seokjin muttering to Jimin as they rush forward, steps light and superspeed from the Booster shot. Jimin hums, smiling sweetly up at Seokjin, and fuck if Jeongguk’s a cynic about love, he feels an incredible sadness wash over him. They’re heading into this knowing it might be their last battle, the last time they ever see each other. And he and Taehyung are on the same boat.

They’re not even a hundred steps out when there’s a loud shout from Jeongguk’s left.

“What the fuck?” Jongdae’s yelling, staring up into the network wires above them. Jeongguk turns his gaze up and his breath catches in his throat.

It’s like a spiderweb. There are tiny strings, white wires, materialising in the air, snaking and working its way down to them. Yoongi curses, aiming his cannon into the air and firing, and the strands of the webs blow apart momentarily, before joining back together and changing direction to target Yoongi.

“DNS Filtering,” Jimin breathes, pressed into Seokjin. Seokjin wraps an arm around Jimin, clutching him tight. “We can’t get caught by the webs. They’ll capture us and dissolve us alive.”

“Shit, shit, shit.” Jeongguk turns his head, and it’s the EXO Node, two of them in the corner caught in the sticky webs. Jongin’s trying to cut the strands of the web, get the wires off Sehun, but to no avail—Sehun’s hoisted up into the air by his legs, body dangling in the air as he’s sucked up into the bulbous mass of webs up above, the last thing out of his mouth a chilling scream. Close by, Jongdae’s cursing loudly as he tries burn the wires off Minseok with a weapon. Minseok isn’t making a sound, only gritting his teeth as the webs wind around him tighter, tighter, until he resembles a mummy. “Shit!”

“It’s too late,” Jongin’s saying, voice cracking. Joonmyun’s face is grave as he pulls Jongin out of the way of a web tendril. Taehyung’s speechless next to Jeongguk, mouth opening and closing, no sound coming out, before he settles for grabbing Jeongguk’s arm and pressing himself into Jeongguk’s side. “It got them. It got them.”

“Jeongguk,” Sojin says, fixing Jeongguk with a stern gaze, but Jeongguk can see the grief and panic underneath her mask. “Jeongguk, I need you to make our doppelgangers, now.”

Jeongguk grits his teeth. He’s only done it for the seven of them before, when practising—he has no idea if he can do it for more than a dozen of them—but this is their only chance. He can save them.

“I’ll be here,” Taehyung says, holding Jeongguk. “Go, do what Sojin asked.”

Jeongguk’s hand presses into the ground, fingertips digging into the wires. He concentrates, feeling the connections of all the Keepers in his mind’s eye. “DNS!”

A loud boom reverberates, and when Jeongguk opens his eyes, he sees double.

“Go,” Sojin—or her doppelganger?—is shouting, waving her arm to the front. There’s a flurry of movement, and half the group sprint out of the way, past the reach of the fine webs, out of the way of certain death, leaving their lookalikes behind to encounter the wrath of the attack.

“Taehyung?” Jeongguk yells, pushing his way through the doppelgangers. Jeongguk’s heart leaps into his mouth. Taehyung hasn’t left, still in the middle of the crowd, gaping up stupidly as a string snakes right towards him, curling around his neck. “Taehyung!”

“Not me!” a familiar voice sounds, from afar, and Jeongguk turns his head to see a second Taehyung waving in the distance. The heart which had been threatening to burst out from Jeongguk’s heart settles back in place. “Doppelganger! Hurry, Jeongguk!”

No later than Jeongguk has caught up to the battalion, breaths heavy as his added speed from the Booster wears off, a flurry of movement catches his eye, this time from the right flank.

It’s Jaebum, holding the scruff of Jinyoung’s neck and forcing Jinyoung down so they’re squatting on the ground. Jeongguk blinks, confused, before a rapid brown envelope flies over their heads, smashing into the wire wall behind them.

“Avoid the Connection Reset Packets!” Jaebum shouts as he drops to a crawl. There are more now, brown parcels, flying at them left right and centre, at ridiculous speeds. “You’ll fall to your death if it gets you!”

“Shit!” Namjoon curses as he narrowly avoids a packet, stumbling into Yoongi, who stumbles into Seokjin and sends him and Jimin tumbling down like dominoes. Taehyung’s on his belly next to them, having dropped to his belly, and he tugs Jeongguk down with him.

“Hey, hey,” Seokjin’s saying, yelping when Namjoon steps on his back accidentally trying to get up. “Hey, watch it.”

“You rather I get hit by a packet and fall to my demise?” Namjoon grumbles back.

Before anyone can retort with a smartass answer, there’s a scream from the far right, and Jeongguk whips his head around as a packet slams right into Youngjae’s face. A split second later, a gaping chasm opens at Youngjae’s feet, swirling like a vortex, and there’s a bloodcurdling scream as Youngjae is sucked into the chasm, the opening disappearing as fast as it had appeared, no sign of Youngjae left.

Just, nothing.

“Fuck,” Hwasa says, a heavy pause later. “Fuck, boys, we have to get out of here.”

“We’re going down like flies!” Jackson yells, cursing as he grabs Mark’s arm and pulls him forward when he stumbles and falls to his feet. “We’re not going to make it!”

“Then we just have to get the fucking fuck out of here, don’t we?” Bambam yells back at Jackson, and Jeongguk swears Jackson shoots Bambam a scandalised look that screams ‘language!’.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin pants, out of breath as he crawls up next to Jeongguk. “Hey. Do you have enough energy for Ignore Packet? To create the repelling field around us all.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, gritting his teeth as the packets continue whizzing above them. “I don’t know how much power I have left. I could only repel them individually, I could never get the force field up for very long, remember?”

“They’re not going to last much longer,” Taehyung says, pointing to the outside.

The girls are surrounding them, enclosing the boys in a circle. Hwasa’s got an intense look of concentration on her face as she powers up, shooting an invisible blast from her hands and knocking a packet out of its trajectory. Next to Hwasa, Moonbyul, Whee-in, and Solar are all hard at work, blasting the packets out of the circle where the boys are still trying to sort themselves out and get back on their feet. Where Jimin’s pointing, Yura and Hyeri are far off, away from the main group, back to back and sending blasts out of their hands, but it doesn’t look like they can withstand much more, sweat trickling down Yura’s forehead.

“We have to save them,” Seokjin says, jumping to his feet. A sound of protest comes out of Jimin’s mouth as Seokjin shushes him and runs to the outskirts, dispelling one packet as he rushes towards Yura and Hyeri.

“Jeongguk,” Jimin says, and this time, his voice is strained and panicked. He grips Jeongguk’s upper arm, and Jeongguk winces at the pressure. “Jeongguk, the repelling field. Please. I can’t—I can’t lose Seokjin.”

Jeongguk’s exhausted. He’s exhausted, to the point where he feels like he might faint, the force of the earlier attacks catching up with him. But then, from his other side, Taehyung looks into his eyes, gives his hand a squeeze, and his strength comes back.

“Okay. Here goes.”

Jeongguk imagines. Imagine a bubble, passing from his body into the ground, full of force, strong enough to repel everything and anything which comes into its field. Expanding, growing, covering the ones he loves, the ones he needs to protect, the ones who are about to lose their home. Holding strong.

Jeongguk opens his eyes.

The packets are flying amok—but outside the invisible hemisphere. Jeongguk gapes, standing up. The hemisphere moves, with him as centrepoint.

“Thank you,” Yura croaks out. She collapses as soon as Seokjin lets go of her arm.

“We move,” Sojin says, picking Yura up from the ground and hoisting Yura onto her shoulder. “All of you, stay close to Jeongguk. We’re almost at the gap. How long do you think you can hold for?”

“Not much longer,” Jeongguk admits. He can feel it draining him, but he’s determined to hold. Taehyung squeezes his hand once more. “Let’s move.”

Hold the field. There’s nothing else in Jeongguk’s mind as he moves, one foot in front of the other, following Sojin’s lead. Hold the field. You can’t let it drop. You can’t let it drop. If you let it drop, they’ll die. If you let it drop, Taehyung will die. Hold the field.

“There,” Jimin breathes, countless steps later. Jeongguk’s eyes fly open. There’s a chasm in front of them, a gaping hole where the white, circular Stoppers don’t appear, where the Network wires stop. It looks like a wormhole, but Jeongguk knows it isn’t. “Where the attacks have been coming from.”

“Where the Cyberlord will strike,” Namjoon muses. He inspects the gap. “Seems like we made it in time. It’s just been small attacks so far.”

“Guard up,” Sojin commands, and all the Keepers around Jeongguk nod, faces grim, materialising their respective weapons. “Assume formations.” Sojin raises her wrist to her mouth, speaking into a wristguard. “VIXX, MONSTA X, WINNER, is the Central Node safe? No mishaps on your end?”

There’s a crackling sound as a connection’s established. “N speaking. All accounted for in VIXX and MONSTA X. Central Node is safe, we’ve got it surrounded.”

“Mino here. WINNER all accounted for. Seungyoon and Seunghoon covered the outer border of the Network, Taehyun and Jinwoo the inner. All Stoppers are in place and holding. How about you?”

Sojin grimaces. “We lost three. Sehun, Minseok, Youngjae. But we’re at the gap—I’m cutting connection. Be on call. We’ll contact you if we need backup. Keep the Central Node safe!”

“Jeongguk,” Namjoon says, as Jeongguk stumbles on his feet, vision fuzzy, “you can drop the field now.”

Jeongguk practically collapses when he sucks the force field back into his digital body, the shock of it sending him reeling. Taehyung gasps, rushing to Jeongguk’s side, managing to catch Jeongguk in his arms just before Jeongguk’s head hits the ground. “Jeongguk! Jeongguk, hey, hey, hang in there. I’ve got you.”

“You got me,” Jeongguk mumbles back at Taehyung, smiling. He’s glad that his strength recovers so quickly when Taehyung’s around. Yoongi had told him, they never know when the Shield will spring its next attack, so they have to be aware at all times. “Look after yourself first.”

Before Taehyung can reply, a low rumbling fills the air, the wires underneath their feet shaking and trembling, connections overhead snapping and falling in sparks of light. The rumbling intensifies, putrid black smoke emerging from the chasm before them, and a scorching flash of silver light burns into Jeongguk’s retinas and temporarily blinds him.

“What the fu—” Taehyung chokes out when the light dims. The edges of the gap crack. Everyone takes a step back as the ground rumbles more. Pieces of Network shatter, falling into the chasm, as snaking silver hands reach through and rip the gap apart.

Jeongguk watches on in horror as the chasm expands, shining silver flowing through the gap to stabilise in front of his eyes. The metallic fluid gathers together, warps, solidifying into a gigantic silver shield, two solid pillars emerging from the base, crunching the wires underneath it as it stomps forward.

“Oh,” Jackson breathes, exchanging a look with Namjoon. Jimin gulps, stepping closer to Seokjin, and Taehyung lets out a shaky whimper. “So this is the Silver Moon Cyberlord.”

 

 

“Jeongguk! Get down!”

Jeongguk grunts as he rolls on the ground, crawling towards a set of Network wires heading up, providing him a temporary cover.

It’s utter chaos.

This thing, this Silver Moon Cyberlord, is unlike anything he’s ever seen. At first glance, Jeongguk had thought it would be slow, sluggish, because of its size—but then its liquid silver arms had snaked out, sweeping across their entire group and sending them all flying.

Jeongguk’s been separated from the others. Taehyung’s on the other side of the Cyberlord, on his knees, panting. The Keepers, they’ve all been attacking, pulling out all their firepower, yet it barely seems to affect the lumbering beast afront. Their energy is scattered, panicked, and Jeongguk can’t even draw on them anymore, like the way he’d practised.

“Watch out!” Yixing shouts as the Cyberlord rumbles, shooting out a barrage of sharp crescents from its body. Hoseok lets out a yelp as he’s hit in the leg, the silver crescent digging deep into his flesh. Yixing lets out a disappointed sob. “Is this Cyberlord really not going to enter into peace talks with me?”

“We underestimated!” Sojin screams, flinging a blast of numbers at the Cyberlord. This only incites it, and it spins around, the gust of wind knocking Sojin back into Namjoon, who falls with a grunt. “Namjoon, this thing, it’s got to be five… No, ten times more powerful than our predictions! Will any of our attacks works?”

“Nothing we can do now!” Hwasa grits out, sending a round of pins into the Cyberlord’s leg. The Cyberlord barely responds, simply stomping forward to its destination, the Central Node. “How do we stop this thing?”

“We gotta do the coordinated hit like we planned,” Mark says, somersaulting onto the Cyberlord’s back. In the distance, Mark’s yak Yik charges towards them. “Come on Yik, gut it!”

“What we said earlier about sending my Tweets to blind it while you all attack the body to bring it down won’t work!” Jimin yells. His hair’s a mess, the blue Tweets fluttering around and chirping angrily. “It’s massive! I don’t even think it has eyes!”

“Well we gotta do something!” Yugyeom screeches as Varnish is knocked back, hooves scrabbling in the air, bleating weakly. “My goat is going to get killed!”

“Might I remind you that Youngjae’s already been killed?” Bambam yells in Yugyeom’s direction as he dodges another barrage from the Cyberlord. “Jesus, Yugyeom! Nobody cares about your goat!”

There’s an ominous trembling of the wires, and in the blink of an eye, a worm-like growth spurts out from the body of the Cyberlord and shoots towards the Keepers. Minah screams and dives out of the way, and the growth rapidly changes directions, heading right for Jinyoung. Jackson curses, rushing towards Jinyoung to push him out of the way, but he’s too late—the mouth of the worm opens, thousands of shark-like teeth lining its insides, and it pounces on Jinyoung, digging its teeth into Jinyoung’s body, and swallowing him whole. Jeongguk can only watch on in horror as the worm thrashes, body convulsing, and it disappears as fast as it had appeared, all trace of Jinyoung gone.

“Jinyoung…” Jaebum chokes out, running to the spot Jinyoung had been snatched away. “Jinyoung just—”

“DNS Redirection,” Yoongi says sombrely. He crouches, wiping at his forehead. “I’m sorry, Jaebum. He’s gone.”

A shrill scream interrupts them—Minah, who’d been standing the closest to the Cyberlord, is in the mouth of another worm-like creature. Sojin sends a graph blast in the monster’s direction, but just like Jinyoung, Minah’s gone too, swallowed into the belly of the beast.

“Fuck!” Namjoon has to hold Sojin back as she screams, sound piercing into Jeongguk’s eardrums. “Minah! We lost her!”

“Hexadecimal IP,” Seokjin murmurs, holding Jimin tight. Jimin shakes his head, telling Seokjin not to go, but Seokjin just gives Jimin a reassuring smile and pries Jimin’s grip. “Jeongguk, take a rest. I know how to do this. I’ll keep you all safe.”

That’s right. Jeongguk gulps as Seokjin closes his eyes, putting his hands on Jimin’s shoulder and muttering a couple of words under his breath. Jimin’s breath leaves him as his body warps, warps into a series of honeycomb structures, perfect hexagons floating in the Network. If he changes them to hexadecimal, they’ll be unrecognisable to the DNS Redirection monsters emerging from the Cyberlord’s body.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung shouts as he sprints across the opening right after the rapidfire ends. Jeongguk pulls Taehyung behind the wire barrier, and Taehyung collapses onto Jeongguk, panting. “Jeongguk, are you okay? You didn’t get hit?”

“I’m fine,” Jeongguk says, helping Taehyung up. He puts his hands on Taehyung’s arms. “Taehyung, I’m going to go help Seokjin. Wait, I’ll warp you first.”

Jeongguk doesn’t give Taehyung any time to protest, holding onto him tight and muttering Instagram’s address in hexadecimal, and Taehyung’s body shifts into the same honeycomb structure that Jimin is.

“Jeongguk, are you sure?” Seokjin asks, and Jeongguk gives a determined nod. Seokjin nods back in confirmation. “Okay, we can cast it widely together.” Seokjin pants as he runs up to Jeongguk, joining hands. Next to the Cyberlord, Jongin and Chanyeol are trying to avoid the third DNS growth. There’s a squelch and a horrified yell when Chanyeol missteps and is sucked up into the Cyberlord. “There’s no time, we’re losing everyone.”

“Yeah, yeah, I got—” Jeongguk closes his eyes. He presses one palm to Seokjin’s, and one palm to the wires, feeling the positions of all the Keepers. “Stand back.”

It’s a chant he’s done many times, practising back at the Node. All of the Domains, in hexadecimal. It flows out Jeongguk’s lips, and when he opens his eyes back up, the hexagons are floating around the Cyberlord, pushing back against the monstrous figure, trying to force it back to the gap it had infiltrated.

It’s eerily silent now, all of the Keepers in their hexadecimal forms, and for the first time since Jeongguk’s been tumultuously catapulted into Cyberworld, he feels… Alone.

Alone, and faced with a monster he can’t destroy alone.

But no later than that realisation hits Jeongguk, the Cyberlord releases a howling screech, the sound of metal on metal amplified a thousandfold, and Jeongguk’s incapacitated as he collapses to the ground, covering his ears in intense pain. He watches helplessly as the Cyberlord howls again, this time, hair-like wires sprouting out from the centre of the circular body to snake and wrap around the Keepers in their hexadecimal forms.

“SSL…” Jeongguk chokes out, stumbling as he raises his hands, running towards the Cyberlord. He has to summon the Mirrors, to reflect the Keepers, so they’re not entangled in the SSL wires. “Mirror!”

Three of the Keepers reflect, transported behind the Cyberlord, out of reach of the wires. The Hexadecimal IP warp wears off, and they return to their regular forms—Hoseok, Joonmyun, and Solar.

“Mirror,” Joonmyun pants, scrambling to his feet, holding his hands in front of him as he summons a Mirror, too. He holds it up, arms shaking. Hoseok’s lips press into a grim line, and he follows suit, Solar powering up next to him, the four of them just focusing on getting all the Keepers out of the SSL attacks.

The Cyberlord turns, thin wires whipping around and encircling four Keepers, dragging them away from the scope of the mirrors, up high into the air. The wires tighten, wrapping around the body of the Keepers, and the hexadecimal warp weakens, the captured Keepers reverting back.

“Jongin!” Joonmyun shouts in panic. “Yixing!” He’s running up to the Cyberlord and holding the Mirror up high, but to no avail. It’s already too late, Jongin’s face frozen in a contorted expression, eyes bulging, mouth gaping, and Yixing’s face is similarly frozen, eyebrows knitted together, lips turning a shade of blue. Above them, the other two Keeper’s faces warp back into shape.

“Jaebum,” Jeongguk breathes, the same time that Solar lets out a choked sob and falls to her knees, Moonbyul’s name on her lips.

“Four more, gone,” Hoseok says, voice weak. “The Shield got them.”

Gone, just like that.

Jeongguk whirls around, searching the motionless figures of the Keepers currently collapsed on the ground, not yet recovered from the effects of the warp reverting back. There, that’s Jimin and Seokjin huddled together, Yoongi and Namjoon in the corner next to Sojin, and…

Where’s Taehyung?

Jeongguk feels his stomach lurch. The feel of his bile rising up, up, into his oesophagus, until it threatens to spill out of him, acidic and burning and freezing at the same time.

“Jeong…”

Jeongguk whirls around, to the spot which hasn’t seen, a pile of rubble and Network wires piles behind him. There, there’s a hand reaching out the rubble, reaching for its lifeline. The rubble unearths with a crackle, and Jeongguk almost collapses to the ground in relief, Taehyung’s face grimy and dirty, but visible through the rubble and debris. His sunglasses have been crushed under the impact. Taehyung groans, coming to, and he sits as he helps both Whee-in and Yugyeom, collapsed next to him, up, coughing as he discards his broken sunglasses.

“Jeongguk…” Taehyung croaks out, stumbling to his knees and falling towards Jeongguk, scrabbling so he’s clinging on to the edge of Jeongguk’s shirt. “Jeongguk, you’re—you’re okay.”

“Don’t speak,” Jeongguk chokes out, rushing to Taehyung’s side and pulling Taehyung in tight. “Don’t—don’t talk.”

“Hey.” It’s Seokjin, having just recovered from the hit, still grunting and scrambling so he’s on his elbows, voice barely audible. “Hey, keep track of the Cyberlord. He’s going right for the Central Node.”

“Fuck,” Namjoon says, putting his armour up and closing his eyes for a short moment before opening them again, the look in his eyes more fiery than ever. “Fuck, we gotta stop it.”

“It’s—” Yoongi coughs as he stands up, Namjoon supporting him with an arm around Yoongi’s waist. “Do we have enough firepower to even slow it down? Before it gets to base and fucking destroys everything.”

A crackling sounds from Sojin’s wristband, and Mino’s voice sounds low and gruff over the speaker. “Yo. Uh, there’s this massive thing headed towards us. About one stretch away. Don’t tell me it’s the Cyberlord?”

“Mino?” Sojin gasps. “Shit, sorry, we couldn’t get it at the gap, we didn’t have enough—”

“Come on, we have to catch up! Distract it!” Hwasa yells, breaking into a run. The others follow after her, feet pounding into the wires. “Get it moving in a different direction or something, anything!”

Sojin lets out a yell of annoyance as she lets her arm drop from her face. Her grip tightens around the scythe-like parabolas she materialises, and she hurls one in the Cyberlord’s direction like a boomerang.

“It’s almost here,” Mino says, gruff and low. “We can see you on the maps. We have to destroy the Cyberlord before it reaches the Central Node. We’re heading out.”

“No—” Sojin yells into the transmitter, but there’s silence from the other side of the line.

“Hey,” N’s voice crackles over Yoongi’s transmitter. Jeongguk’s breath catches in his throat as the top of the Central Node’s dome draws into view. “Shit, hey, is that you guys there?”

“Yeah,” Yoongi grits out, and by this stage, they’re close enough that they can all see all the other Keepers guarding base. “It’s us. We couldn’t stop it. Fuck.”

“Oh.” It’s Seungyoon and Seunghoon, arms up, staring at the massive silver beast towering over them, so close, so close to the Central Node, so close to destroying the part of the Network holding them all together. “Shit.”

“Where are the others?” Hongbin asks, rushing up to N and Leo, unleashing a flurry of attacks on the Cyberlord. Of course, they bounce right off, deflected by the Cyberlord’s hard shell, barely dealing any damage at all. “Where’s—are the others still catching up?”

“There are no others,” Yoongi grits out. Hongbin stares for a moment, mouth opening and closing, before the horror settles on his face. “They’re gone.”

“Gone…” Leo says, voice barely audible. “Gone.”

“And there’s nothing we can do about it but destroy the thing that took their lives,” Sojin says, scrambling up from where the Cyberlord knocked her down. “Come on. Think.”

“There’s the…” Jimin’s flung to the ground by one of the Cyberlord’s wire whips, smacking right into the wall of the Central Node. “Jeongguk, your—”

“Power harnessing,” Taehyung finishes, looking into Jeongguk’s eyes. “Drawing out our digital energy.”

Jeongguk’s breath catches. He’d barely been able to draw Taehyung’s energy out, let alone—let alone the digital energy of tens of Keepers. “But I’ve never—It’s not ready. How do we know it’ll work?”

“Have you tried it before?” Jooheon asks, the rest of the MONSTA X Node powering up together to deal a blow to the centre of the Cyberlord’s defense.

“Only with Taehyung…” Jeongguk mutters, ducking as Jooheon’s thrown back from the force of the Cyberlord’s hit. “It’s not—I’m not—”

“It’s the best we got,” Seokjin says, holding Jimin back as the wire whips lash at his back, drawing blood. “We’re out of options, Jeongguk.”

“It doesn’t matter that it might not be enough,” Namjoon says, falling to the ground as Hyuk and Hongbin pummel into him from the force of the attack. “Jeongguk, Jeongguk, please, can we try?”

And what choice does he have? Jeongguk can barely move from where he is, the scene before him almost too much to process. In these short moments, half of the Keepers he’s met have been killed. One after the other, in an endless wave of death and destruction. All the training, all the plans, everything he’s been doing for god knows how long now, all boiling down to this decisive moment, this power that he and only he wields marking the difference between life and death.

For the Keepers who have taken care of him; the kind Seokjin; Jimin, who’s always there to offer a helping hand when things got difficult; Hoseok, bright and full of hope; Namjoon, ever insightful and ever wise; even Yoongi, the tough exterior masking his caring side. And Taehyung. Of course, Taehyung, the one who kept him going, the one who made him felt like he was worth something, made him felt like he was wanted, and needed, for the first time in his life.

He’ll be damned if he doesn’t even try.

“We’ll give you our digital energy,” Taehyung murmurs, coughing from where he’s kneeling on the ground next to Jeongguk. “Jeongguk-ah. We’ll transfer it to you. All of us.”

“Yeah,” Jeongguk says, fists clenching. “Yeah, let’s try this.”

“Okay!” Sojin yells, motioning for everyone to move back behind Jeongguk. The Cyberlord’s gotten to the ceiling of the Central Node now, smashing at the dome with liquid silver limbs, terrible screeching sound emerging every blow it lands. “Behind him, come on, join the Network, focus your power into the Network.”

Jeongguk closes his eyes.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Draw on the power. Draw it out of their bodies, just like he’s done in practise, just like he’s done with Jimin in the room clapping him on, with Taehyung be his side gripping his hand tightly and sending his energy through Jeongguk’s body. Just like the ten, twenty times he’s practised with Taehyung, except on a much larger scale.

Instagram. Spotify. Naver Jishik. Facebook. He feels the energy of the Domains swirling inside him, gathering. The other Domains join. The energy balls up, bright inside Jeongguk’s body.

His skin feels like it’s on fire. To his side, he vaguely feels Taehyung’s fingers interlacing with his, but the pain has him incoherent, dizzy to the extent he can’t find his bearings.

But it’s not enough, not yet. There’s not enough in him yet to knock down this Cyberlord.

Wolfram Alpha. Pinterest. eBay. Youtube. Twitter. Sparks are emerging from his fingertips, and the white-hot heat is almost bursting inside him, trying to force its way out of all his orifices. Jeongguk keeps it in, holds it in, waits for the rest of the Keepers to join, extracts the last of the energy he can.

“Now, Jeongguk,” Taehyung whispers into his ear. “Now.”

Jeongguk’s eyes fly open. The ball of energy shoots out of him, and it’s like his organs are being ripped out of his body by a molten claw of lava, the golden spear-like shape forcing its way out of his body through his chest, heading straight for the Cyberlord.

The hit lands.

“The Golden Sun Spear…” Jimin breathes, as the Cyberlord writhes around, limbs lashing and pieces of its body disintegrating into dust, the burning force of Jeongguk’s attack having hit straight into the body, destroying the centre holding it together. The Cyberlord falls to its knees with a metallic screeching howl, the rest of its body crumbling into waste, filtering through the Network wires into nothingness. “You did it. Jeongguk, you did it!”

Jeongguk collapses to the ground, entire body seizing.

“Shit!” Namjoon curses, rushing over. There’s a gaping hole in Jeongguk’s chest, where the spear had forced itself out. “Oh, shit.”

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung screams, fingers still interlaced with Jeongguk’s. Through his blurring vision, Jeongguk can see Taehyung’s face above his, hear the panic in his voice. “Jeongguk—Jeongguk, stay with me.”

“Tae—” Jeongguk gurgles, words coming out in a wheeze. He can’t breathe. His lungs have been fried to a charred black, and he can feel his heartbeat thumping in his ears, rapid and arrhythmic. “Taehyung.”

“He’s dying,” Seokjin says, voice soft. “Digital death.”

“No,” Taehyung says, anger in his voice. “No, he can’t. Not after he did this. Not after he saved all of us.”

“I’m sorry, Taehyung,” Sojin says. “I’m sorry. He made a brave sacrifice.”

“It wasn’t meant to be a sacrifice!” Taehyung screams. Jeongguk tries to squeeze his hand, tries to tell him it’s okay, to stop screaming, but his body is paralysed. There’s something wet and warm splashing onto Jeongguk’s face, and—ah. Taehyung’s crying. “He was meant to survive this! We were all meant to survive this! He can’t leave so fast, not after we finally—finally—”

“Taehyung-ah.” It’s Jimin. He’s got his arm around Taehyung’s shoulder, pulling Taehyung away from Jeongguk. “Taehyung, hey, come here.”

Taehyung shrugs Jimin off and kneels next to Jeongguk, hugging his unmoving body. “Jeongguk.” Taehyung’s hands scrabble at Jeongguk’s wound, shaking as they pass right through the hole in Jeongguk’s chest. “Jeongguk. Hey, Jeongguk, don’t leave me.”

Jeongguk opens his mouth. He wants to say Taehyung’s name. Can feel it on his lips, on his tongue, pressed up behind his vocal cords. Taehyung’s name comes out in a breathy wheeze as Jeongguk finds the strength to reach up, other hand finding Taehyung’s face. Taehyung takes Jeongguk’s hand in his, holding it to his cheek, warm and wet from tears.

“We never even finished our conversation,” Taehyung says tearily. “I wanted to ask you to stay. To become a Keeper with us.”

Jeongguk smiles weakly and looks up at Taehyung with adoration. He can’t feel his arms anymore. He can’t feel his legs. His fingers and toes are a string of 0s and 1s. Soon, his arms and legs will fade, too.

He’s fuzzing out, flickering out of existence.

“I’ll find you,” Taehyung whispers, arms wrapped around Jeongguk’s body. “I’ll find you, I promise. I will always find you. I love you.”

The last of his strength, the last breath of air in his lungs. “I love you, too.”

And Taehyung’s lips are on his, warm, salty from his tears, desperate against Jeongguk’s unmoving body. Jeongguk’s crying now, too, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. He’ll never have this again.

Goodbye hurts a million times more than the burning hole in his chest.

Jeongguk’s vision fades to black.

 

 

Socks.

It smells like socks.

Jeongguk’s eyes fly open.

It’s a ceiling. Lights, and a ceiling. Jeongguk blinks. His throat is tight.

Taehyung. Cyberspace. He defeated the Cyberlord, and he’s—

Shit!

Jeongguk’s hands go to his chest. Where there should be a hole, it’s solid. The lights on the ceiling flicker. They look familiar. They look like—

The ones in his dorm room.

Jeongguk sits up, blood rushing from his head from the sudden action, and he winces, head pounding.

Clothes on the floor, strewn in a mess, empty containers of cup noodles in the trash, the alarm clock on his nightstand. Jeongguk makes a dive for the clock, gulping as he registers the numbers.

7:03AM, 24 June, 2016.

Four hours. That’s it. That’s how much time has passed. It feels like a lifetime, but it’s only been four hours. 7:03AM, on the day that his final essay is due.

Jeongguk throws the clock aside, scrambling to his feet, rushing to his desk where his laptop’s still on, display flashing a screensaver. There’s nothing wrong with it. No power shortage, Internet’s working fine, proceeding as usual.

Connections in Cyberspace: The Effects of Government Censorship on Internet Freedom

Cold chills run down Jeongguk’s spine. This isn’t his writing. This isn’t what he was working on before… Well, before all that happened. What’s before him is a 3,000 word document, a perfect final essay. Jeongguk logs into his assignment submission portal, cold sweat making his palms slippery.

Jeon Jeongguk. Student ID: 97090131. Submitted: 7:02AM.

Jeongguk frantically clicks the download button, tapping his fingers on the edge of the desk as he watches the download bar turn green. With shaking hands, he opens the document, and searches the properties.

Document Author: TH.

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk whispers. His eyes fix on the two letters flickering on the screen. This isn’t right. The entire thing feels like a hyperrealistic dream, but it can’t be. Not with this in front of him.

Cyberspace, meeting Taehyung, meeting all the others, living a completely different life, having an existence which meant something for once in his life. Wanting someone. Being wanted. Being loved. The best reality he’s ever had.

The loss hits him like a freight train.

The sun’s coming up, rays of light peeking in through his curtains, but Jeongguk just sits there in the darkness, cross legged on his dorm room floor, laptop on the ground in front of him. He goes through his bookmarks frantically.

Paypal’s gone. Tumblr’s down. Reddit and Soundcloud too.

Jeongguk shakes his head, breath coming out shaky. Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube are still up, but his accounts aren’t there anymore.

With shaking hands, Jeongguk types in his Instagram URL.

@jeongguk_97

Nothing.

Online activity wiped clean. No trace of his existence anywhere on the Internet, anywhere in Cyberspace. Like…

Like Jeongguk’s died a digital death.

Jeongguk slams the lid of his laptop shut.

 

 

“So, as many of you might’ve heard,” Professor Song says, walking around the room and collecting essay papers from nervous students, “the Internet Protection Bill was overturned by government this morning.”

“What happened?” Jinhwan asks, eyes wide as Professor Song reaches for his essay paper. “Wait, what about our exam—”

“Don’t worry, I’ll still consider answers based on the scenario that it’s still in effect. It was a surprise decision. The roll-out of the Shield failed, and that was the condition for the Bill’s passing.”

“So…” Junhwe’s eyebrows knit together. “Does that mean my porn’s safe?”

The entire class groans, and Professor Song claps her hands together to shut them up. “Phones on silent in your bags, bags to the front. I’m handing out exam papers now.”

The clock ticks. Jeongguk scans the questions on the exam paper before him. The technicalities of IP Blocking. What the tactics to overcoming DNS Filtering are.

Jeongguk’s stomach twists, ugly lurching forcing bile up his throat.

The best method to divert SSL Attacks, what TCP protocols include…

Jimin wasn’t lying when he said Jeongguk would ace his exam.

Jeongguk’s still sitting at the exam table ten minutes after the exam ends, head in his hands, as the others are filing out of the room.

Jinhwan bounds up to his side, squatting down, peering up at Jeongguk. “Earth to Jeongguk?”

Jeongguk blinks, flashing a shaky smile at Jinhwan. “Oh. Hey.”

“Don’t worry, it’s just an exam. I’m sure you did fine,” Jinhwan says, patting Jeongguk on his back. Jeongguk feels like laughing and crying at the same time. The exam isn’t what Jeongguk’s concerned about, but he’ll take it. “Hey, you never replied to my message. Did you take a social media hiatus to study?”

“Huh?”

“Your Facebook and Instagram, dude,” Junhwe says, tugging Jeongguk out of his seat and walking him towards the door. “I tried to FB invite you to the end-of-sem party and saw you deactivated. And then I checked and your Instagram was gone. Did you get hacked?”

“I…” Jeongguk furrows his brows. “No. I didn’t.”

“Guess they got deleted when the Shield collapsed, huh?” Hanbin leans in, invading Jeongguk’s personal space. He takes Jeongguk’s phone out of his hand and swipes it unlocked. “I’ll remake ‘em for you.”

“Don’t—” Jeongguk tries to grab the phone back from Hanbin, but Hanbin’s already got it in his hands, Junhwe and Jinhwan looking over his shoulder at the screen, too. Hanbin looks back to Jeongguk, then spins the phone screen to Jeongguk’s face, display on Jeongguk’s latest Instagram search.

“Who’s Taehyung and why are you searching for him on Instagram?”

Jeongguk shakes his head and snatches his phone back from Hanbin. “Just. Don’t worry.”

“Aiight, dude, just wanted to help. At least answer your texts if you’re not gonna remake your accounts.”

Jeongguk grunts, sliding his phone back in his pocket and trudging behind the group, who move on to bickering about what they should have for lunch.

So this is it.

His life is back to normal. No more training. No more life-or-death situations. Just university exams and hanging out with friends. Instant noodles and movie nights and hooking up with random people at the clubs only to forget them the next morning. Too many cans of energy drink and pulling all-nighters to finish off last-minute essays. This is how it should be. He should be happy. Relieved.

So why does he feel utter desolation weighing him down like iron weights?

Why does it feel like with every step he takes, he’s slowly dying, his heart being run through a paper shredder?

And why does that last, devastating image of Taehyung’s face hovering above his appear so vividly every time he closes his eyes?

 

 

Jeongguk never sees Taehyung again.

Or Jimin, or Namjoon, or Seokjin. He never sees any of his friends from Cyberspace ever again.

A year’s passed, but it still haunts Jeongguk. Sometimes he’ll wake up in the dead of the night with tears on his face as the afterimages of Taehyung’s angelic smile fade from his vision. He’ll log on to Instagram, flicking through the filters, smiling to himself as he thinks about Taehyung trying on all his new pairs of sunglasses. Wonders how Taehyung’s doing, if he’s monitoring Jeongguk’s life through his Instagram posts.

Jeongguk moves on. Tries to, anyway. Some days, it’s easier. Some days, Jeongguk feels distanced enough that he thinks maybe, maybe it was all just a dream, a bittersweet, heartrending dream.

He always ends up back in the deep, though. The feeling of Taehyung’s lips on his, skin on skin, when he’s fucking some stranger in the bathroom of a Gangnam club at four in the morning. Taehyung’s fingers interlacing with his, Taehyung nuzzling in by his side, Taehyung mumbling his name as he settles on top of Jeongguk with a groan, hot and tight and perfect, the best Jeongguk’s ever had.

It will never just be a dream to him.

Jeongguk makes the decision sitting in the stairwell of some danky club Junhwe’s dragged him to. It smells of cigarettes and alcohol and vomit, and Jeongguk’s head is spinning from the shots he’s downed, nauseated and disgusted with himself for letting yet another stranger he doesn’t care for stick their hand down his pants.

He needs Taehyung.

He wants to see Taehyung again, just one more time.

And it might be silly, to make a choice like this because of a fleeting thought, heightened emotions, but right now, Jeongguk’s willing to try anything.

If what he needs to do to see Taehyung again is to break down the mystery of Cyberspace, then that’s what he’ll do, even if there’s next to no chance of success.

“Hey,” Junhwe slurs, stumbling to sit next to Jeongguk on the stairs. “Hey, what’s wrong dude? Come back inside.”

Jeongguk looks at Junhwe, bleary-eyed. The answer’s never been clearer.

“I’m gonna become a Cybernetics expert.”

 

 

Semester 1, 2026

“Cyberspace.”

Jeongguk waves his hand in the air, and the hoverslide presentation whizzes to the next panel. “Can anyone tell me what it is?”

There’s a long silence as Jeongguk scans the lecture room. It’s the first class of the semester and there are already absentees and slackers, those in the back row evidently not paying attention to his Cybernetics class, eyes focused on their Google glasses instead.

“Space which is cyber,” a student at the front finally says, deadpan, and everyone laughs.

Jeongguk sighs. He’s got a tough bunch this semester. “Don’t laugh. You’re right. Cyberspace is essentially that—a space created by a combination of hardware and software which allows for communication across networks. This idea of space, though, is more of the mathematical meaning than the physical meaning. So while Cyberspace might not exist as a 4D, tangible space, the interactions on those fluid networks create a community—a virtual one represented digitally, in the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Thirty pairs of befuddled eyes stare back at Jeongguk. Jeongguk purses his lips. He really has become a Cybernetics expert. An undergraduate major had turned into first class honours, postgraduate study, to full funding for his research on network connectivity for his PhD—and now he’s confusing the hell out of his first years undergrads.

“Okay. Imagine you’re in your laptop, your tablet, your Google glasses. You’re walking in this world, in this network, and there are connections going from you to every single interaction you’ve had through that device. Every website you’ve visited. Every application you’ve downloaded. Every other device you’ve made a connection with. That’s Cyberspace.”

“Can we actually go into Cyberspace?” a pink-haired girl sitting in the middle asks. “Like. Actually be in it. Not just at a computer.”

A wistful smile plays on Jeongguk’s lips. “Well… Theoretically, there may be a passage through Cyberspace,” he says slowly. “Academics and scientists have been investigating it for over a decade now. But, uh, nothing’s been proven yet.”

“You’re proof.”

Jeongguk whips around to face the direction the voice had come from. The double doors to the lecture room swing open, and standing there, in all his sunglassed glory, is—

“Taehyung,” Jeongguk chokes out. He feels like he’s been punched out of his body. Time has suddenly slowed to a crawl, the world surreal. Jeongguk’s swimming in thick, viscous liquid. “Taehyung?”

“The one and only,” Taehyung says, voice soft. Jeongguk takes a step towards the door, knocking the pile of handouts on the lectern over when he stumbles. The papers fly everywhere, and the students are murmuring now, but all Jeongguk can hear is the ringing in his ears. It’s really Taehyung. Taehyung’s standing there, there, at the entrance of his lecture room, in the same vintage jacket he’d been wearing the first day Jeongguk had met him over a decade ago, sunglasses hanging off his belt, old lomo resting on his hip off a cross-shoulder strap case. “I found you.”

“Oh,” is all Jeongguk manages to wheeze. “Oh.”

The concerned murmuring gets louder. “Um,” one of the students say, putting a tentative hand up in the air, “Professor Jeon? Are you alright?”

“Excuse me,” Jeongguk mumbles, rushing towards the door, taking Taehyung’s hand and dragging him out the classroom. He walks down the corridor double speed, Taehyung in tow, until he reaches the empty lecture room at the end, and he pulls Taehyung in, slamming the door behind them.

Jeongguk leans his back against the door, heart hammering. Holy shit, it’s really Taehyung.

“What the fuck,” Jeongguk wheezes. His eyes are watering up, ten years of longing and heartache breaking through the dam. He reaches his hands out, and Taehyung steps closer, taking Jeongguk’s hands in his.

“Hi, Jeongguk,” Taehyung says, interlacing their fingers. Taehyung’s lips are pulled into a wide grin, but his eyes are misting over, too. “I said I'd find you.”

Jeongguk doesn't say anything. Can't say anything. His throat's closed off, Taehyung’s face a blur as the tears trail down his face, leaving hot, wet marks on his cheeks. He just squeezes Taehyung’s hands tighter, pulls Taehyung in, until Taehyung's in his arms, and Jeongguk's clinging onto him in a bone-crushing hug. Jeongguk buries his head in the nape of Taehyung's neck, just breathing him in. Just holds Taehyung, taking it in, taking it all in, Taehyung in the flesh, Taehyung there, in front of him, in his arms.

“God,” Taehyung mumbles into the crook of Jeongguk's neck, vibrations of Taehyung’s voice tickling Jeongguk's skin. Taehyung takes one step back, gently holding Jeongguk’s head between his hands, just tracing the planes of Jeongguk’s face with his fingers. “God, I missed you. I thought I was never going to see you again. And now you're a Cybernetics professor.”

“How?” Jeongguk whispers. “How are you here? I tried for years. Years, to find a way back. The portal you dragged me through the first time. Researched the theory, learnt the technicalities, the technology, the codes—”

“I’m sorry it took so long,” Taehyung murmurs, eyes watering up. “You defeated the Cyberlord, but there was—there was so much damage done to the Network. We tried to fix it up, all the Keepers, and open the portal again to summon you back, but we lost too many Keepers. Couldn’t even get close creating the bridge, and there were so many other things we had to prioritise—”

“It’s okay,” Jeongguk says, holding Taehyung close again. “It’s okay. It doesn’t matter. You’re here. You’re—” The words won’t come out of Jeongguk’s throat now, as he does a quick mental calculation. He holds Taehyung at an arm’s length, staring. “Three thousand years. You came back for me. After three thousand years, are you crazy—”

Taehyung chuckles, pressing a finger to Jeongguk’s lips to stop him from rambling. “Not quite. The Shield scrambled the time relativity, so it wasn’t that long. Only about a hundred years or so, no biggie.”

Jeongguk laughs in disbelief, searching Taehyung’s eyes, and a rush of emotion bubbles up in his chest as he flips them around and backs Taehyung against the door of the classroom, crashing his lips against Taehyung’s, breathing Taehyung in.

And god, god, Taehyung’s lips on his, Taehyung keening into his mouth, after all these years, still feels like perfection. He tastes so familiar, but so foreign; sweet and inviting, but hot and demanding; and Jeongguk can’t help but let the tears flow as he deepens their kiss, tongue delving into Taehyung’s mouth, hands scrabbling as he clings onto Taehyung’s sleeve, runs down Taehyung’s side, pressing their bodies close.

“Jeongguk,” Taehyung whimpers, as they break away momentarily to take a breath. Jeongguk’s panting, hair dishevelled, and he’s sure his pupils are blown like Taehyung’s. “Fuck, I missed you. I love you.”

Jeongguk’s students are probably still waiting in the room, restless. Some of them would’ve left now, and Jeongguk’s sure to get scolded by his supervisor, but right now, nothing else in the world exists right now but him and Taehyung, Taehyung and him. Right now, all that matters is Taehyung, so soft and pliant under him, looping his arms around Jeongguk’s neck to draw him closer, keening into his mouth as Jeongguk slides his thigh in between Taehyung’s legs.

When they finally break apart, Jeongguk’s knees are weak, knuckles white from gripping Taehyung’s shirt so tightly.

“I missed you too,” Jeongguk says, choking on his words. “Taehyung. I love you.”

“So,” Taehyung says, breathlessly. He grins widely as he gives Jeongguk another peck and tucks a pair of sunglasses into the neck of Jeongguk’s shirt. “Portal’s still open for another day.”

Jeongguk’s heart drops. Of course. There’s a time limit. There’s a silence between them, as Jeongguk just studies Taehyung, takes all of him in. “Do you—Do you really have to go back?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung mutters, eyelashes fluttering as he blinks. “But you know… The others want to see you again.” Taehyung looks down at his feet, pulling Jeongguk in, resting his head on Jeongguk’s shoulder. “I know it’s sudden, but… Do you want to come back with me?”

Jeongguk closes his eyes. Holy shit. This isn’t—isn’t enough time for him to decide. Leave his life here behind; disappear from the analogue world once again. Yet, the thrum of excitement is buzzing under Jeongguk’s skin, electricity coursing through his entire body. There’s so much he has to tell Taehyung, so much to share, so much he wants to know. And Cyberspace—how much would it have changed in the time he’s been away? If this is somewhere Taehyung will be, if Taehyung’s next to him…

“Yeah. I’ll come with you.”

“You will?” Taehyung raises his head from Jeongguk’s shoulder, mouth agape, searching Jeongguk’s face. Jeongguk smiles back, taking Taehyung’s hands in his and interlacing their fingers.

“Why do you think I became a Cybernetics expert?” Jeongguk murmurs, as Taehyung bursts out into tears again. Jeongguk wipes the trail of tears off Taehyung’s cheek. “If not for you? If not to find a way back?”

Taehyung launches himself into Jeongguk’s arms, sending Jeongguk stumbling back as he wraps his legs around Jeongguk, clinging on like a barnacle. “Thank you. Thank you, Jeongguk. For everything.”

And as Jeongguk takes Taehyung’s hand in his, walking down the corridor of the very university where he’d first been launched into the bewildering world of Cyberspace, he can’t help but think that the universe has a peculiar way of making things work out. Taehyung squeezes Jeongguk’s hand, looking lovingly at Jeongguk. Jeongguk smiles back, squeezing back. This is it.

The start of another adventure in Cyberspace.