It's a dark place, this part of Seoul is.
Beneath the lurid nocturnal brilliance of the gaudy neon lights belies piceous darkness, on the prowl for weak underlings to devour at night.
They can run, but they can never hide.
It's been three years on the underside of Seoul, and Jimin thinks he's seen enough to size them up at a glance.
The first kind of people come in to escape. They come in, having spent eight hours in a 6' by 8' pigeon hole, struggling in the vicious chokehold of superiors' shouted orders and demands, frozen by the dreamless prospect of a dog's life, running from the frigid metallic sheen of the other side of the city where it's cold even in summer. They run to seek sizzling bolts of warmth from a partner they've probably only just met that night. A partner who's most likely all-smiles and emanating enough heat to shame the sun when you first meet them, but turn cold with demand for recompense thereafter. A partner who charges by the hour. Jimin sees a nagging, shivering tiredness beneath the lust in their eyes. They don't stay long - an hour of shared bodily heat and orgasm is often enough to tide them over, at least for the night.
The second kind, as well, come in to escape, except more literally than the first. Dark and wild and fierce on-the-run, they are no longer the bright-eyed boys they once were, because what's left in their eyes is only fear and a last-ditched attempt to live, gripping at their bones as they are sent hurtling to break free from the iron grip of the law. They are the perpetrators (but also victims, but not like anyone'll believe them) of destitute contrabands, starved thievery, delirious murder - you name it. These types don't stay long either, because knife-sharp constabulary always gets to them, forever hot on their heels.
The third kind may or may not have it the easiest; the only thing they have to escape from is their own poverty. They're only fifty thousand won shy of a night's stay, but if Seoul's treatment of their office employees and criminals amount to that, then this cannot be any better. Jimin sees nothing in their eyes but an indolent despair. Stripped off the comforter of monetary aid and humane needs being fulfilled, these people are those who have neither been taught to fish nor given the fish. They don't stay long because hotel management gets to them faster than they get the cash to stay.
If there's anything all three have in common other than the last, desperate impetus to run, it's definitely that they know the home that lasts as long as the night.
One day, however, he meets one who isn't quite like the rest.
His garments are torn and tattered and barely more than bare skin in winter. The collar of his red flannel shirt is torn off on one side and turned up on the other, singlet within revealing scar-marked collarbones, sharp enough to cut a man. Not that all this is particularly surprising. But he's young - he can't be the third type because he's much too young to be ignored by Seoul's welfare, if any, to be left a vagabond. He can't have been freshly ravaged by an over-zealous lover either - he's just about as alone as anyone can possibly be at 3am in a no-tell motel. Even those looking for a good fuck come in much earlier.
Maybe he's the second category, Jimin thinks. Criminals are getting younger by the day in this side of the city.
When Jimin looks up from his clothes to his face, he would have gasped had he not already been far too desensitized. His right cheek is coloured dark red, bordering on blue, indication of not good circulation but rather, big hits taken in the recent past. A cut right below his left eye paints a bright red trail from his cheek down his white singlet, narrowly missing the chasm that is his neck and collarbones, as if to tell an incomplete story of how and why he got here. It looks a little bit strange to Jimin for a glistening gold chain to hang low on his collarbones, starkly contrasting with the destituteness of everything else. A little bit like the calm in a storm.
It's his downcast eyes which tell Jimin that he isn't any of the types he'd seen before. His eyes, so dark as to almost be obsidian, speak nothing at all, not fear nor tiredness nor lazy despair. They are vacant lots, like empty houses whose owners have gone faraway, not planning on returning home soon.
Jimin hopes he only sees nothing in them because he hasn't met his gaze full-on yet. Another part of him hopes there's going to be nothing in them if it's going to be the usual - fear, tiredness or despair. It's never a pretty sight, really.
When he hands in the particulars form, Jimin can see his long, bony hands, white like porcelain (like he's been gripping something a little too hard for much too long), green veins jutting out from beneath as if they have something to prove (as if a reminder that he's still a living being and not a corpse).
As Jimin processes his details, the boy's eyes fixate on nowhere but the algid marble floor. Jimin thinks that perhaps his eyes, dark and black and hauntingly knowing, see beyond the tiles to the depths of hell and back. Perhaps his eyes, dark and black like onyx, are a reflection of the world far below, be it hell or heaven or plain nothingness.
Busan? A strange feeling stirs in Jimin's gut as he realizes that they technically come from the same place. It's not a good feeling, though, because Jimin would never have come all the way here had Busan really been home for him. He figures it's probably the same for the one in front of him.
Jimin's fingers move across the keyboard and as he gets to the birthdate bit, he realises he is right - he's young. Younger than he thought, in fact. Barely sixteen, even, far from legal. What on earth was a child doing here rather than tucked into bed four hours ago? Even if he is, in his defence, in this part of the city, it still made for a worrying prospect.
"Excuse me, do you have a passport or an ID with you? You need to produce them if you're not yet legal." Jimin tries to keep his voice as gentle as possible, barely keeping his voice from shaking. It's a first for him here, feeling a sensation close to second-hand uncertainty. He forces himself to let go of a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.
At the sound of this, the boy looks him in the eye and it's only for a split second, but Jimin can't help the shiver that splits down his spine, as if someone's captured his soul and rended it into smithereens, dividing them to reside at each forgotten nook and cranny there is on earth.
Jimin had gotten it wrong. It isn't true that his eyes are none of the types he's seen before.
They are the sum total of all of them combined.
It's appalling because it definitely isn't everyday that an sixteen year-old has eyes which seem as though all human experience is washing through them, but most appalling of all is how the cold in his eyes grip and impale anyone who looks into them. They're an enigma, really, because while they scream something wild and defensive for Jimin to back off and stop intruding, they do also scream help.
It's a bit like the fight-or-flight mechanism of animals, of hapless prey on the run from their predators.
For a split second the boy pauses and just stares at Jimin, the cold in them gripping and impaling him with those ebony eyes of his, shouting go away and help and something unspeakable all at once. He looks down, and without digging into his bag (torn and tattered and destitute just like his clothes and entire person, really), mutters a soft, barely audible, "I don't have an identity card. Or a passport."
His voice, thick with fear, despair and tiredness dripping all at once, is rough, a bit like sandpaper used slightly more than twice. But it gives good purchase, the resonance of it all. A bit like sandpaper, even.
Jimin stops and stares, mouth slightly parted open in words he doesn't know how to say, and had it been anyone else Jimin would have denied entry, but okay is all he says after few moments' silence, handing the boy the brass keys. Jimin finds no surprise in that as brass keys meet fingers, they are as cold as the keys themselves, a kiss of snow-cold apathy.
"Have a good stay," comes Jimin's voice as gently as he can, reverberating softly, bouncing lightly off the marble tiles of the empty lobby as he stares at Jeon Jeongguk and his slouching, retreating figure into the distance. Perfunctory as the words may have sounded, Jimin does actually mean them this time.
The second time Jimin sees him, he doesn't look any better; worse, in fact.
The cut below his eye had healed a bit, now more of a scab rather than a bleedingly open fissure, but there are new wounds. But though the battle bruises around his eyes and on his cheeks have faded, his lip is split, red and blue and black all at once as he's trembling in the sub-zero of the winter air even in the supposed warmth of the hotel reception, the colours a crude amalgamation of raw pain and livid cruelty. Even when it's freezing, sheens of shiny sweat glosses over his philtrum and his temples. Probably because he's been running from someone; a predator, maybe.
Their eyes don't meet that night.
"Room 1310, right?" Jimin asks, keeping his voice as steely as possible. The boy nods, eyes as downcast as ever, just a brisk nod of the head before he's gone, enveloped by the piceous black of the hallways.
Jimin prays that the dark doesn't devour him.
The third time Jimin sees him, he isn't able to resist it.
Maps of a deep, dark red and blue encircle his eyes, looking a bit like overdone Halloween makeup, mixing with the omnipresent dark grey rings of nights spent knocked out instead of sleeping. Someone had probably tried to blind him, make sure he saw less than he already did. Similar bruises litter his neck, would-be white and smooth expanse of skin had someone not decided to deface his perfection.
First his eyes, then his lip, and now his neck? Whoever the perpetrator definitely seems to be sending him in a downward spiral to hell. The sheer prospect of the boy's sadistic tormentor (or tormentors, god forbid) and the perverse enjoyment he derives from the aggravation of such an activity sends Jimin's blood boiling even more fiercely in the deep of his gut.
The rest of him isn't much better. The flannel he wears isn't the same red one but it's in no better shape, half of the sleeves gone and defenceless against the relentless winds of the cold. Moribund would be an understatement. Cheeks sunken like valleys even more than the first time he'd come in, he probably hasn't eaten a morsel in the span of three days at all.
When he breathes, it's shallow like he hasn't breathed at all, unnoticeable save for the smoky cigarette-like huff of desperation his breath engenders in the wintry night air.
Only the gold chain around his neck still shimmers amongst the debris, jutting out a bit like an unmoved, firm presence. The stillness in the storm.
Nevertheless, it's a sorry sight and Jimin would have been sorry, but what comes out of his mouth instead, is,
"Are you okay?"
It probably was the most foolhardy statement to make (it definitely was a statement and not a question) and as expected, the boy doesn't take it well, because he flinches a little. He takes it like a hit, probably like a blow to the face, a strike to the sheen. The way he flinches reminds Jimin of the wounded puppy he used to see as a child on television for that one campaign against animal cruelty; fierce and fearful all at once with attempts to growl in between whimpers, like flight-or-fight instincts screaming something along the lines of go away and help and something unspeakable all at once. It makes Jimin's blood boil, really, for a fellow human to be reduced to the extent in which even he animalizes himself. Just when Jimin thought this world couldn't get any more fucked up.
"It's none of your business." His eyes meet his and it's glaringly fierce but it grips onto Jimin in a last-ditched chokehold, screaming go away and help and something unspeakable all at once. The rough purchase of his voice trembles with a hotpot of rage and fear and beneath the words Jimin hears the timbre of his voice screaming the screams his eyes scream. It's familiar, the defence mechanism is.
But even against all odds, the boy is still wild and defensive, and for this, Jimin gives him his respect and lets him decide for himself.
He slips the memo in between the brass, Hands it to him for the night. Hopes he reads between the lines.
The next night, it's 3.01 am and he is nowhere to be seen.
For a while Jimin worries if he'd done wrong. Had he run away? Eventually he figures that if that were to be the case, it's definitely better than him having finally become an actual corpse and not just undead (yet), thrown limply into the ditch, bones crashing in a dull thud against concrete.
The air is colder that night and not a single soul walks in, even when Youngjae arrives to take over his shift at 5am.
He chances a last look at the glass doorways before heading into the storeroom for his break.
As he takes the bed, he tries to convince himself that things happen all the time. Lights go out when their filaments melt. Candles blow out in the wind. Even stars die.
But when stars die, they sometimes create black holes. Jimin doesn't get any sleep that night.
As Jimin reclines on the bed, left arm tucked behind his neck to tilt it slightly upwards in a faux nonchalance, he does a pretty decent job keeping the tears from breaking in his chest. All of a sudden, a loud sound from the storeroom door jerks him upright in shock.
It's him. He came.
Jimin almost sighs in relief because he's alive, but he quickly realises that there's nothing to be really relieved about, because there might not be long before he isn't.
As he kneels on the storeroom ground, a pool of blood quickly collects on the tiled floor. He clutches his left shoulder, green flannel now blotched with a dark red patch growing larger by the second. As Jimin drapes a hand over his shoulders, he feels a wetness penetrate the work shirt he'd forgotten to change from but that isn't what he's worried about. He keels over, left cheek blotched with blood, head landing on Jimin's shoulder and Jimin doesn't have to ask if he's okay.
If there's one thing that he's grateful for, though, it's that he chose to trust him after all.
Whipping out his mobile phone from the hidden depths of his sling bag, Jimin thanks the heavens that there's still battery left. Pressing "1" on quickdial, his heart throbs like a woodpecker on a red letter night as he waits for the other end of the line to pick up.
When the boy awakes again, Jimin has barely passed the middle realm between sleep and reality, exhaustion kicking in at full force at his bones as he crouches over the bed, elbow joints creaking as he barely supports himself upright.
As he shifts a little, Jimin jolts awake, heaving a sigh of relief as he sees Jeongguk blink the last vestiges of sleep away.
"Feelin' okay?" Jimin tries as gently as possible, yawning a little, tongue thick with sleep and the slight satoori that escapes whenever he's drowsy.
Jeongguk blinks around, brows furrowing, evidently nonplussed at the unfamiliar surroundings. "Where am I?"
"A safe place, so don't worry and just rest, 'kay? Your shoulder's slightly dislocated but it'll get well soon enough."
Jeongguk all but blinks flummoxedly at Jimin, who realises he hasn't actually introduced himself.
"Oh," Jimin starts, sheepishly scratching his head a little. "I'm- "
"Park Jimin, right? You always wear your name tag a little high above the pocket." A pause and Jimin sighs, relieved, because at least he's sound enough to recall the events thus far.
"You remember me," Jimin grins and he ruffles the top of his hair, careful to not hurt him. "I'm glad."
"Thanks for saving me." The boy's eyes are straight on Jimin's, meeting his full-on, brimming with sincerity. Jimin's heart skips a beat because it's the first time he's seen anything other than spine-chilling in them.
"Thank you for letting me," comes Jimin's reply and Jeongguk's gaze never wavers the entire time. It's up to Jimin to break away, who stands up as he looks away into the distance for the person who did the actual, technical job of saving him.
"Now let's get Namjoon-hyung to examine you again before we get you some food."
Luckily, there's nothing wrong with Jeongguk sans the healing shoulder, a particularly deep cut on his left cheekbone and some external abrasions, except that no matter what, Jeongguk vehemently struggles against them taking off his shirt for some reason.
When he finally agrees to let Namjoon conduct a bodily check up on his bare upper torso, he makes a strange request.
"Please wait outside. I don't really want you to see it," A pause. "Jimin-hyung." The boy's voice is barely audible, more of a whisper than anything else and Jimin doesn't have the heart to turn him down. Especially not with the way he calls his name. (It does things to Jimin's heart. Breaks it into smithereens, actually.)
"Okay," Jimin breathes back. "Okay."
When all the checkup procedures are done, it's a slightly more assuring sight for Jimin to see Jeongguk ravenously inhaling the simple fare of kimbap and ddeok that Seokjin's whipped up for him.
"Good," Seokjin chuckles lightly. "He seems to enjoy my gourmet cuisine. We can definitely buff him up real soon,"
"After you're all done healin' and fattenin' up here, guess we should teach you a few moves so you can protect yourself." Hoseok pats Jeongguk's head, grinning his usual megawatt smile and even Jeongguk has to smile back, if the starry glistening in his eyes counts as equivalent to his version of a smile. "It's dangerous up 'ere and you're a good kid, ya know that?"
Jimin's always thankful for his hyungs; without them, the underside of Seoul would be one more hell of a shit place without their resources. The base is like a haven for them, a covert anchorage against all things brutal and belligerent on the streets of Seoul above ground and although Jimin technically stays at his job almost all of the time, he knows he's welcome back under its cover anytime.
Hopefully, it'll protect Jeongguk, too.
The next off day for Jimin is two days later, and when he drops by the base, the knot at the bottom of his stomach loosens a little as he sees that Jeongguk is taking on a more earthly complexion, now less of the blood-starved vampire he'd been.
He's still noticeably reticent, though, gaze averting Jimin's when he drops in. Even Taehyung and Hoseok, embodiments of the glistening midday sun, have failed to bring him out of his shell, leaving many questions - stuff like don't you have school and why are you running away and where you are running from - unanswered and hanging like a dropped jaw.
Jimin understands that it'll take time, though. It isn't even surprising that with the little faith he has left in humanity, he's going to be slow to thaw, much less to warm. It'll take time, but it'll culminate into an eventuality, at least hopefully. Bangtan's a warm place; Jimin's never met a better gang of homies who'd fight for each other to hellfire and back, backs glued to backs.
A week later, Jeongguk is no longer confined to the bed, though moving around does prove to be of considerable difficulty.
"He's a real quiet one," Hoseok mentions in passing to Jimin when Jeongguk's in the shower and out of earshot. "He hardly laughed at most of my jokes."
"That's probably 'cuz he didn't get them, hyung," Taehyung quips at the side, shoulders draped around Jimin's in a friendly half bear-hug. "He answered me when I made small talk with him earlier."
"His eyes look different, though," Hoseok is still smiling but not as brightly as the usual, the way he becomes in his rare thoughtful times. "When you're around."
At the sound of this Jimin's ears cannot help but perk up. "In what way?"
"Can't quite explain," Hoseok shrugs. "Just, kind of like brighter? Maybe more hopeful. Around us, they're kinda slightly more like dead fishes,"
Jimin's stomach does a triumphant little flip; maybe it'll all work out after all.
Two weeks later, Jeongguk's shoulder is healed almost completely and having considerably gained some meat, he starts to seek tutelage from Hoseok, taekwondo black belt and Seokjin, unofficial hapkido maestro of the lower streets. Even Namjoon's reckless and amateurish karate skills and Taehyung's otherworldly t'ai chi ch'uan comes into handy.
"He's got potential," Hoseok mentions in passing one day. "It's hard to believe he hasn't actually had training from elsewhere."
"With proper training and practice, he could make a good police officer." Seokjin agrees.
Still, physical strength can't possibly amount to mental strength and the brutal willingness to fight and strike. With the way Jeongguk sometimes comes across as a docile animal, flinching at any small movement, Jimin can't help but have his reservations.
He's happy, though - at least he's now got the capacity to defend himself in this world. But whether or not he'll take up on this ability is now his call, and Jimin hopes he picks it up.
Jimin drops by after covering Minho's afternoon shift, only to see Jeongguk busy shoving Seokjin's bibimbap into his mouth. Must have been a tough day of training today, thinks Jimin. It's a good sight, he thinks, as he pats Jeongguk's back slightly to prevent him from asphyxiation by choking on rice.
"Slow down," Jimin scoops half of his own share onto Jeongguk's plate. "No one's gonna steal your food,"
Jeongguk's mouth is full of rice and meat and vegetables, but his eyes are smiling, brimming with gratitude and best of all, hope. Beneath his left eye on the cheekbone is a leftover scar, a wound that decided not to heal, quirkily shaped like a tiny heart.
"I bet this isn't barely enough for you," Jimin's voice is clandestine, hushed as a whisper behind Seokjin's back. "Want to head to the night markets afterwards?"
Jeongguk's eyes widen; he doesn't have to verbally respond for Jimin to take it as a resounding yes.
"'Kay," Jimin starts as he seats himself and Jeongguk down on the makeshift wooden table, which wasn't really makeshift as much as it was supposed to be makeshift, the old, crabby plank serving a term long overdue its intended purpose. "You've probably already eaten this before, but if you haven't, these are called- "
"Lamb skewers," Jeongguk finishes Jimin's sentence for him, rare voice ringing lucid, pleasantly surprising Jimin with the forwardness.
Chuckling, Jimin hands Jeongguk one of the sticks, gesturing for Jeongguk to help himself to the food on the plate. "Good, you've eaten this before. Good shit, right? Best of all is the fact that we even need to poke the meat into the sticks ourselves," Jimin grins, eyes curving a little with mirth. "Perks of cheap and illegal night markets on this side of the city."
Jeongguk takes a bite of his share of the meat, thoughtfully chewing a little. "Good. But not as good as the ones I can make," and the slightly bold response has Jimin's eyes widen a little, mouth ajar in an amused whoa.
There's a bit of silence as the both of them chew their food and Jimin wonders what exactly Jeongguk is thinking. A few moments later, Jimin's questions answer themselves.
"When I was little, my hyung would teach me how to make these things. He'd always snag the stove to himself, telling me to go play and wait for him to finish cooking, but I wouldn't stop pestering him till he let me help him."
At this moment in time, Jimin can't help but notice how far away Jeongguk is, bodily heat palpable from where he sat beside Jimin, hot breaths marrying the winter air to make visible but wispy strands with the wind, yet nevertheless far away. It's not a bad thing, really, for Jeongguk to be lost in the dreamy reminiscence of sweet, domestic memories, but despite images of a happy past, something feels worryingly off in Jeongguk's present, is what it seems to Jimin as he ponders the million dollar question,
"How about now?"
It definitely wasn't the brightest move for Jimin's mouth to start moving on its own volition and vocalize whatever curiosity he had. Gravely stupid, even, considering how painfully hard it'd already been to get Jeongguk to warm up even a little. Jimin condemns himself when he sees Jeongguk's shoulders tighten up as he stiffens up smaller, the same prey instinct acting up.
"You don't have to answer if you can't- "
"He left," comes the terse response, voice ringing from miles away. "I don't really know where he is." Jeongguk shifts uncomfortably in his seat, voice tight and uncertain and Jimin gets the impression that if he probes any more, it'll shatter into shards.
Had Jimin been any better at speaking, he'd probably have supplied something fruitful in response by now, something that could help, something (nice words, kind words, anything) that could hold him tight and tell him that it'll all be okay.
Except Jimin knows that it may never actually be okay, so he settles with the other option and pulls Jeongguk in, enveloping around him like a story in a book, a newborn in a blanket, like something precious and breakable.
The bodily heat is palpable as Jimin wraps his arm around Jeongguk's back, barely being able to encircle the entire width of it to reach the other end of his waist. Jimin notices that Jeongguk flinches a little when his hands brush over the ridges of his ribs, but knows better than to ask. Jimin's right temple reaches his collarbones, touching the gold chain slightly, the cold of the metal dissipating a little with the warm-bloodedness of Jimin's warmth. Jeongguk's tension dissolves into the embrace, the defensive mechanisms gone with the wind as he relaxes into the touch, the knots in his back muscles loosening with comfortable abandon. There's no mistaking it; he's alive.
"I hope this isn't too shabby either," Jimin wants to say. He lets his warmth do the talking instead.
When they leave the market, it's already half past eight, the sky taking on the deep sea navy like it always does in winter. Apparently the gods aren't quite with them because it begins pouring, the winter rain feeling a little like bullets of ice as it hits whatever part of their skin which isn't already covered in winter wear.
While frigid winter rain isn't exactly the most comfy of conditions to be doing just about anything in, making a run for the metro while simultaneously dodging the bullet curtain of near-hail hasn't been quite as fun as it is with Jeongguk, Jimin realises as they hook their shoulders around each other to prevent slipping on ice and laugh inebriatedly at the way neither of them seem to be very good at keeping their balance, flailing arms and keened knees as if in a joyous childhood dance.
It's almost sub-zero degrees but Jimin has never felt this warm; Jimin has never felt Jeongguk's skin this warm.
Jimin has never felt this happy and it's the first time he hears Jeongguk laugh.
Things can be good, Jimin hopes, and he hopes to make it last.
"Stop trying," comes the voice, ringing loud and clear over the far other end of the abandoned basketball court, right above where the main entrance is located. "We can all hear you from the inside."
Five minutes have passed, all spent on attempting (and failing) to pry open the crusty second lock to the (not-so) secret entrance to the base, and Jimin looks over his shoulder sheepishly at a certain broad-shouldered motherly figure, hands resting snugly on his hips, face unreadable and ominous.
"You're going to be wholly accountable for this, Park Jimin. First, sneaking out to eat lamb skewers," Seokjin's voice retains its usual calm, giving nothing away except tinges of an inward smirk as he struggles the lock open with a rusty key, the former upending sadly on the ground in several pathetic metal pieces. "Second, breaking the last lock we have."
Jimin doesn't even know how Jin-hyung managed to get wind of the fact that they'd snuck out for skewers (okay, on retrospect, the remaining vestiges of barbecue smoke on their clothes were a huge giveaway) but whatever the punishment is, it wasn't going to be pretty.
"Hurry up, change out of your drenched clothes and go take a shower," is all Seokjin says, but before Jimin gets a chance to gleefully enter the room scot-free, his hyung cuts him off with a "Park Jimin, I heard your off-day was tomorrow?" before handing him a list of chores for the base.
Touché, thinks Jimin sadly. He'd already planned on renting a DVD to share with Taehyung and Jeongguk.
In truth, Jimin doesn't really mind at all; he could think of it as a thank you gift to his friends for taking great care of Jeongguk. (And hopefully making him one of them one day, but Jimin'd learnt over the years to never hope for too much.)
In the room where Taehyung and Jeongguk shared a bunk, Taehyung is soundly asleep, softly snoring, mouth ajar in the goofiest way possible. The two absconders try to shake their winterwear off their bodies as quietly as possible, peeling them off layer by layer, and Jimin can't help but notice that Jeongguk never really takes his chain off, even when he's down to the black singlet he wore underneath his usual flannel shirt. It's the first time Jimin notices that the item hanging from the chain is, in fact, a locket shaped in a slightly lopsided heart, possibly dented from one of Jeongguk's unfortunate brawls.
"Do you never take that off?" Jimin throws caution to the wind, unable longer to handle the curiosity brimming inside of him.
Jeongguk freezes for a bit before glancing up at Jimin, brows furrowing slightly with caution, eyes dark and unreadable. It could probably have been because he is essentially half-dressed in mid-winter but when Jeongguk looks at Jimin this way, Jimin feels naked, a shiver traversing up his spine from the cold and something else inexplicable, like his soul is being given a once-over. It's much like the time at the counter, except that this is more curious than it is cold, unlike then.
After a split second, Jeongguk seems to regain himself as he continues grabbing a towel and fresh clothes. "Yeah," comes the response, and while it's a little terse and tight, Jimin appreciates that there's even a response at all.
There's a slightly looming silence that settles in stealthily over them afterwards, nuts and bolts in the creaky heater cranking audibly, but Taehyung, less of a sound sleeper than he seems, saves them by bounding up and pushing them down in a tackle because you punks, how dare you not invite me to skedaddle with you.
"I'm off to work," Seokjin hands a broom each to Jimin and Jeongguk. "I don't think any of it was your idea so you can refuse to help Jiminnie if you want, Jeongguk,"
"Okay," Jeongguk quirks a slight smirk, earning a little knock on the shoulder from Jimin.
Luckily, Jeongguk is a good and acquiescent dongsaeng beneath the burst of uncharacteristic teasing, so they get started on the first on their list - the kitchen floor.
Kitchen, rooms and living hall later, Jimin gains the sting of lactic acid in his muscles and a newfound appreciation for Seokjin-hyung (or rather, Seokjin-eomma) even before getting started on the toilet.
"I don't think I want to know what that is," Jimin mutters, voice tight with attempts to refrain from breathing as much as possible. "You're the dongsaeng, you do it."
Jeongguk is silent, but as he stares at Jimin, his eyes communicate much more than he would have had he spoken, a mix of protests and fearful pleas all at once.
Just then, Hoseok comes bounding into the room, announcing his arrival with his voice, as usual. "Your hope and angel has returned from work!" As he enters the toilet, flashing goofy grins at the two of them and ruffling their hair for a job well done my young padawans, Jimin and Jeongguk stare at him, both smirking a little, both knowing exactly what the other is thinking.
Hoseok glanced back at them, eyes flickering to and fro, an expression of confusion and unrest flickering over his face. "What? What? Why are you guys staring at me like that?"
"Goddammit, Taehyung," Hoseok moans, keening on the railing of the basketball court. "Your school could have released you on time for once, even if it's just to save my ass,"
"At least it was just a turd, right? It might have been worse," Taehyung grins, teeth shining as he pats his hyung, trying his best (and not exactly succeeding) at comforting a rather green Hoseok, who is at present holding his tummy and mumbling something about "what do you mean it was just a turd".
"You came back in time for the best part, though," Jimin smiles, brandishing the mop and bucket in his hands a little. "Let the battle commence."
Court cleaning is always the best part, if not the only good part, mainly because it wasn't so much of court cleaning rather than it was court fighting, water games being the gang's rare indulgence even in winter. As Hoseok and Taehyung begin 'sword fighting' with their mops, Jimin and Jeongguk share a glance, poker faces unreadable. Jimin frowns in silent contemplation whether to go hard on striking Jeongguk, but he certainly doesn't expect a bucket of cold water to quickly shower over him as if a requiem, a Cheshire cat grin spreading across Jeongguk's face.
"Brat," Jimin grins, returning the favour as he flings the wet mop towards Jeongguk, writing words in the air that fling and stick to their clothes like bullet rain. "How dare you," Jimin threatens, but in truth, all he's thinking is that it isn't quite a bad look at all. Beats the cold, desperate eyes any day.
While they get all fired up with weapons of water, conveniently cleaning the crusty basketball court, Jimin notices a person leaning on the metal railing at the far end and on closer inspection, he realises it's Namjoon and almost opens his mouth to shout a greeting, stopping when he sees the austere look on his face, gaze either trained on Jeongguk, who is at present brawling and laughing with the two others.
He decides to ignore the feeling sinking like an anchor to settle at the pit of his stomach, saving it as a mental note to ask Namjoon about later.
Dinner is dosirak, leftover and taken away from Seokjin's work, but though the messy lunchboxes make for simple fare, it warms the inside like it should.
"You guys really are idiots, aren't you," Seokjin chides between a mouthful of cabbage. "Playing with water now of all times. Just watch if you catch a cold."
"It's fine, hyung," Hoseok chimes in, the ironic oldest of the bunch. "It's only a once-per-year activity, learn to live a little, hyung," but all he gets is a hard whack on his head.
Namjoon, however, is quieter than he already usually is, and Jimin can't help the nagging suspicion that something happens to be extremely off, but he saves it for tomorrow anyway; a day lived is a day saved.
Wanting to save it for tomorrow is a plan unfortunately foiled, because Namjoon drops by Jimin to help with the dishes, a sure sign of something untoward brewing, firstly because it's rare that Namjoon isn't holed up in his room right after dinner, either studying or settling something he never lets in on the rest of them.
It takes two cutlery sets and five minutes of silence before Jimin plucks up the courage to open his mouth, but before he does, Namjoon's voice rings deep and cautious in the dead of the empty kitchen.
"You'd better be careful with that boy."
Namjoon's gaze is cold and Jimin reads nothing in them but reservation, his brows knitted in a nearly invisible manner, telltale to no one but the people at the base.
"Why?" Jimin asks, coming off more as a tight whisper than a question.
"You'd know better than to ask why."
"Then," Namjoon stops cleaning altogether, stopping to turn and stare directly into Jimin's eyes, voice tight and glazed over with frost as are his eyes. "What exactly do we know about him? What exactly do you know about him?"
Jimin doesn't know whether to take it as well-meant advice or a challenge, but the way Namjoon's acting so guarded about the entire thing isn't exactly sitting well with him, stirring a little cauldron of instinctual defensiveness in Jimin's own guard. Namjoon has always been like this, a little bit too much on the cautious side, even teetering on the edge of aggression. This part of his hyung never sits well with Jimin - why deny him even this modicum of trust?
"We don't need to know more than we should."
It's the first time Jimin's this curt with a hyung, but Jimin washes his hands and wipes them on the cloth towel, leaving the kitchen without further word.
Laundry is, luckily enough for them, the last chore of the day.
"Hey," Jimin holds up the grey windbreaker he wore yesterday, pushing it close to Jeongguk's face. "It still smells a little like lamb," he giggles, slightly dizzy with physical exhaustion and the warm recollection of recent memories.
"It's stale," Jeongguk notes and they fall into easy laughter.
As they finish up everyone's laundry (Jin's baby pink socks and Hoseok's Donald Duck boxers included) the only things they have left to wash are themselves. Jeongguk takes off the apron and Taehyung's hand-me-down green sweater, revealing a navy undershirt and Jimin doesn't mean to peep, but curiosity, as always, gets the better of him as he chances a quick glance at the chain and locket, especially since it wasn't tucked into the singlet for once.
As his eyes flicker to the chain, Jeongguk catches his gaze and Jimin feels a slight flush creeping up the back of his nape, mouth ajar as he contemplates how to explain that he hadn't really meant to stare and how he was really just curious about the locket but as usual, his mouth is far from attuned to his brain and he simply goes,
"Can I see it sometime? I mean, what's inside the locket. It doesn't have to be soon, you can- "
The response catches Jimin by surprise, but the affirmative mood of it all, including Jeongguk's gaze, slightly shy but it's without animosity. It spreads a huge, almost teeth-baring grin on Jimin's face, his eyes and dimples folding into crescents.
"Great," Jimin breathes, the exhaled air forming a mist with the words.
Jimin's lying on the top bunk of Taehyung and Jeongguk's shared bunk, propped up slightly by the wooden bed frame, Taehyung's soft snores reverberating lightly from the bed below him.
It's a little bit funny, Jimin thinks, how he used to be the previous occupant of the bed before he'd landed a permanent job at the hotel, but there isn't much of him left in the sheets and the pillows; it's all Jeongguk, Jimin thinks, as he takes in the natural scent of someone both familiar and foreign. No matter how foreign, though, there's no mistaking it - it's all Jeongguk, and Jimin knows it.
It's a little bit funny, Jimin thinks, how Jeongguk's scent is so distinct to him within weeks of getting to know him and have him in relative physical proximity, because after all, noses are a little more frozen in the winter; a little less sensitive to the olfactory aspects of things with smells; of living people.
Which is also why it's a little bit funny that distinct and recognisable Jeongguk's scent is, there always is something unrecognisable in it. Something Jimin cannot name.
It's frustrating, really. Jimin wants to know all of it; even a single whiff of something alien stirs a funny impetus in the deep of his gut.
Jimin wants to know all of him.
It's getting stronger, though, the scent is. It's getting closer.
He's getting closer.
"Oh," Jimin mutters, more like a shocked breath than much else. In his reverie he hadn't noticed Jeongguk scaling the flight of mini stairs up to the top bunk; but then again he's always been a stealthy one. "Sorry, I'll get down now-"
"You don't have to," comes the response. "You can stay." Jeongguk sits himself upright on the space between Jimin and the wall. "The bed's pretty big."
Jeongguk's eyes are not meeting Jimin's, his back turned to place his items on the top shelf, to adjust a towel a little more symmetrically around his neck, but his ears are red, notes Jimin. Probably from the shower, right?
Whatever it is, it's definitely got Jimin's heart thumping like a trigger-happy woodpecker.
"You're not going back to work?" Jeongguk asks, turning to face Jimin as he ruffles his own hair with the towel, sending the smell of cheap lavender shampoo wafting and it's funny, because gone are the traces of thrift-store chemical, replaced with a fragrant floral aroma quite unlike cheap lavender shampoo. Unmistakably, Jimin's chest thumps just a little bit faster.
"Nah," Jimin tears his eyes away in escape to the ceiling, feeling his neck heat up a little. "I'm taking the morning shift tomorrow. Plus, I'm dead beat, no thanks to Jin-hyung,"
Jimin's eyes flicker to the side of the wall behind them, where coats and jackets hang on tarnished metal hooks. There's a little addition to the hook on the wall nearest to the bunk and Jimin's heart leaps.
"You took it off?" Jimin asks, voice more of a hushed whisper, dripping a little too ostensibly with enthusiastic surprise.
"Yeah." Jeongguk responds, terse and nearly inaudible, but even from the tilted angle and the semi-concealment provided by the towel, it's apparent that his face is getting redder by the second. It's a huge step to take, showing him is.
"Then..." Jimin adds after a short pause of palpable silence, unable to suppress his curiosity any longer. He wants to know all of him. "Can I see it now?"
Jeongguk places the heart-shaped locket in Jimin's hands, no longer snow-cold fingers and icy room keys but warm, living. Human.
As Jimin struggles the gold locket open, he hardly keeps his fingers from trembling, less mentally prepared than he'd thought he'd been. To be holding an entire childhood in his hands is heavy, no matter how far they've come.
When the pendant opens up to reveal what's within, the two people in the portrait are almost night and day, that much Jimin can tell. There's a younger boy with jet black hair and large doe eyes and an older boy who looks to be around seventeen with dirty blond hair, foxy eyes and skin the colour of snow.
If there's anything that's similar between the two, it's got to be the way they smile.
It's got to be the way they both look genuinely happy, all toothy grins and dancing crescent eyes. For a moment, Jimin forgets how to breathe - they're like a pair of stars in the dark, really, emanating enough light and heat to sustain lives and systems and worlds and galaxies and universes.
At least they once were, back in time, if the tarnishes, scratches and dents on the locket are anything to go by.
If there's anything that's similar between the Jeon Jeongguk in the locket photo and the Jeon Jeongguk who first appeared at the doorstep of a shifty no-tell hotel the night autumn meandered into winter, it's definitely the sparks of tenacity at the very deep of his eyes, the latter a promising young star in a universe where hopes and dreams thrived like lush greenery, the former a supernova's last-ditched attempt at illuminating a destitute dystopia.
Either case, Jimin wants to preserve this very light. Keep the fire burning on immeasurable fuel. Make it last forever.
It's a huge project, though, and Jimin knows it. What he doesn't know is how exactly to make it work and whether he actually can.
But at the very least, Jimin knows how to keep him warm. He may not be his brother, nor can he bring him back, but he'll be his blanket for whenever he needs him, a safe fortress shielding him from the winds and rains of life.
Jimin is also one to act upon his intentions, so he wordlessly pulls Jeongguk in. Looks him in the eyes. Heaves a sigh of relief, because the glimmer is still there. He's a strong one, that much Jimin can tell. He'll make it.
"You're safe here, with me."
When Jimin leaves for work the next morning, Jeongguk is still curled up snugly on his side, mouth slightly open, clinging to Jimin by the arm like a delicate, fragile critter. Jimin's heart clenches a little at the sight.
Still, work is work, so Jimin replaces himself with the blanket he'd used when he was still residing at the dorm with Taehyung as a student. It's a little dusty, but true to his teenage years, it still reeks of himself while simultaneously being the warmest thing that he's ever owned.
One thing he can never put his finger to, however, is where exactly his brother's gone. From Jeongguk's brief anecdotes it's clear that he loved him, so it couldn't have been a case of heartless abandonment.
Still. Something feels terribly and unsettlingly off about the entire situation, what with him suddenly being gone, carried by the long legs of the wind to somewhere far off and unreachable. A feeling of unrest settles in Jimin's gut, throbbing with a dull but constant suspicion that his brother may not even exist anymore.
It's a known fact that things happen all the time. Lights go out when their filaments melt. Candles blow out in the wind. Even stars die.
But when stars die, they sometimes create black holes, and Jimin doesn't want the dark to devour Jeongguk.
When Jimin drops by again after work, Hoseok is sitting on the communal table, facial expression uncharacteristically solemn.
"Hyung," Jimin starts and Hoseok looks up, evidently jolted from whatever reverie he was engrossed in. "Where's Jeongguk?"
"Shower," Hoseok responds, voice low and quiet, lacking the usual verve it held.
Moments of contemplative silence later, it's Jimin who breaks the stale air.
"What's the matter, hyung?"
"Jimin-ah," Hoseok looks up from the oak of the table top at Jimin, eyes carrying an unsettling uncertainty. "Don't you think something's a little off for Jeongguk not be where he should have been? To not still be in Busan? By right, it's still national law for him to attend school but he's been here for pretty long and he's even younger than Taehyung is," Hoseok pauses, breathes, collects the courage for whatever he means to say. "Could it be wrong for him to even be here at all?"
For Namjoon to have his qualms about anything isn't much of a surprise. But even Hoseok, who'd been the epitome of reckless abandon, has voiced his suspicions, and it's disquieting, really. Infectiously, unease begins to stir at the pit of Jimin's gut, a nagging, sinking feeling that things will go awry sooner or later.
It's all the worse when Jimin recalls Jeongguk's reservations about unravelling the truth of his family, including the snowy-skinned, golden-haired hyung who has mysteriously disappeared from his life, save for the golden locket his memory has been retained in. No matter how far Jeongguk's run from the tormentors of his past, the present may buckle and fold under the chase of haunting truths left unsettled.
"I hope not," is all Jimin can muster.
It's 4am in the middle of Jimin's shift and as expected, there aren't many customers at this hour. What Jimin doesn't expect is for his phone to suddenly vibrate, jerking him unawares from the short forty winks he'd begun to indulge himself in.
"Hello," Jimin mumbles, barely conscious. "Park Jimin speaking."
At the sound of this voice, Jimin jolts awake, the low, drawly resonance of Namjoon's voice catching him by surprise.
"Namjoon-hyung," Jimin chokes out, a dark feeling of unrest settling at the bottom of his stomach. "Is anything the matter?"
"Could you come down to the base right after your shift ends? I need to have a word with you."
Jimin doesn't get a single wink of sleep more that night.
When Jimin reaches, the base is half-enveloped in darkness, semi-lit only by the door and the singular open window on the ceiling, the natural light shining in from the dawn.
Namjoon is seated, stern and sagely at the communal table and Jimin first poses his question to him through his eyes, searching Namjoon's for a hint no matter how impenetrable, and the answer Jimin gets sends a sinking feeling down his gut.
"Jimin," Namjoon starts. "I think I know who his brother is." He hands a brief newspaper article to Jimin, whose hands quake a little with uncertainty.
Assailant and killer of own uncle on the run; suspected dead.
Between the words "killer" and "dead", Jimin isn't sure which to feel worse about.
"Thing is," Namjoon's voice is low and quiet, no more than a breathed whisper. "I knew the man. There's more to his family than meets the eye. The whole thing is unmistakably even more fucked up than we think it is."
"Then...how about Jeongguk? What will he do? Will he have to go back?"
"I can't say Jeongguk is safe for sure here, but he wouldn't be either way. I tried contacting Social Services, but they don't really give a shit about anything that happens outside Seoul. Busan doesn't even have a Social Services; you know that."
"All his things are stuck back there," Jimin's voice is tight and hushed as he sits stiff and uncomfortable, placing a hand to his forehead, elbows propped on the wooden tabletop. "Passport, ID and all. He'll need to collect them somehow." Jimin breathes. "And we're not even talking about his feelings here."
"It's been more than a month. His brother can't go on hiding forever. News may appear of him, dead or alive, and either way, it isn't going to be pretty. One thing for sure is that even if he survives, he's murdered his own uncle. He isn't going to have a life, per se, anymore." Namjoon places a hand on Jimin's shoulder and it barely contains the mixpot of fear and second hand grief that's brimming up in him. "You need to understand this, Jimin. There isn't much of a chance for them to reunite anymore."
The pin-dropping silence after Namjoon's words is broken by a stir in the darkness of the hallway leading to the bedroom, the sound of something falling to the ground with a dull thud followed by a rapid thumping; someone running up the emergency stairs to the second exit of the base. The knot in Jimin's gut twists and clenches even tighter.
As Jimin picks up the gold locket from the ground, the locket is open; Jimin isn't sure whether it's already been open before it hit the ground or whether it's been pried with the impact of the ground.
Either way, Jimin fights with all his remaining might to contain the waterworks from breaking in his chest as he abandons all caution to the wind and runs.
"Jeongguk," Jimin pants, holding his knees to prevent keening over from the combined effect of the cold, the shock of recent events and the frantic search. "Jeongguk, I know you don't want to listen to anything now but if you'd just hear me out- "
"When I was young," Jeongguk starts, voice tight with a veneer of nonchalance and a false composure as he leans on the pole, and in the dark of the night Jimin can vaguely make out that it's a ball he's holding. It's not the first time Jimin's seen this basketball; it's always been in the corner of the room in the base, one of Jeongguk's few possessions. "We always played basketball. See that?" Jeongguk points to above him to the end of the basketball pole, where the hoop and board hung precariously at. "He always used to sit there, refusing to get down even when I asked, always the useless, timid little brother. There was one time he fell and that's how he got the scar at the top right of his forehead and I'd call him Harry Potter and we'd laugh-"
"Jeongguk," Jimin tries. He tries not to cry, too - if anyone deserves to cry it definitely isn't him. "Jeongguk, you're rambling-"
"He did it for me. To avenge me. If he dies, it's my fault. If he goes to jail, it's also my fault." He buries his head in his arms, tossing the old basketball he'd been cradling. "I'm always the stupid, useless little brother. I shouldn't have run. It's all my fault, and I don't know how I'm ever going to live it down," His voice is reduced to a quiver by now, tears breaking in chokes and sobs. "I miss him so much, Jimin-hyung, but it's all my fault that he's gone,"
As Jimin buries the top of Jeongguk's head in the crook of his neck, he absorbs every quaver and shake, feeling a warm and growing wetness pool at the sleeve of his shirt. A mysterious, inexplicable rage grows in his gut at the sound of Jeongguk shouldering it all; whatever the uncle did to get himself killed, he probably deserved it. It shouldn't always have to be Jeongguk's fault. It isn't. All Jeongguk did was try to survive.
"It shouldn't always have to be your fault. It isn't. All you did was try to survive. If it's anyone's fault, it's definitely theirs. Not yours nor your brother's." Jimin's voice is uncharacteristically tight and livid for someone as soft-tempered as him, and even the tension in Jeongguk's shoulders begin to dissolve in the protective bulwark that was Jimin and the firm grip he held him in.
"All we can do now is pull ourselves together and hope for the best," Jimin tries, voice resolute. "And don't you dare forget the we in this whole equation, because we're here for you." A breath, and he abandons caution to the wind again. "I'm here for you. And don't you dare forget that."
Jeongguk says nothing, but Jimin takes the small sigh he lets out into his arms as an answer.
If they were going to go for broke, they might as well do it together.
It isn't long before news come knocking on their door, carrying with it the apex of the growing, brooding sense of unrest they've had the past week.
"They happened to find him dead somewhere near our area," Hoseok runs a hand in his hair as he slouches on the bench outside the room at the police station, not meeting Jimin's eyes at all. "Tough luck. Funny how they both even happened to run towards the same part of Korea." Hoseok isn't laughing at all, his expression dead serious, looking just a little delirious in the way indicative of how he hasn't really digested the gravity of things in all their entirety yet.
"His uncle's men got to him first," Namjoon says, not really talking to anyone in particular. "He's with the forensics now."
When Jimin finally finds the courage to look through the glass windows into the room, Jeongguk's eyes are that of dead fish as he sits slumped on the chair in the empty morgue, staring into the middle distance.
"It's best to leave him to himself for now. For someone his age, he's taking it pretty well."
Just then, a cold foreign voice rings clear in the dead of the hallway, breaking Namjoon's line of conversation.
The voice seems to strike a chord within Namjoon as he tenses up instantaneously, stiffening as he turns to look at the owner of the voice.
"Can we have a word with you?"
"Kim Namjoon-ssi, we understand that you own a basement in Guryong." The officer's voice drips with false honey and cold condescension as he relishes in every bit of the way Namjoon flinches at the comment. "Is that right?"
Namjoon nods wordlessly, eyes unreadable and trained on the officer.
"While we recognise that you have full property rights to the place, you must also understand that it's not a residential area."
"What are you getting at?" Namjoon's voice is rough with agitation as he stirs uncomfortably at the insinuation.
"What I'm getting at here, Kim Namjoon-ssi, is that unfortunately, you and whoever's taking residence in there will have to be evicted by latest next week. It is also unfortunate that you will not be given compensation, but judging from the way we have reduced the fine to the minimum, we have been lenient."
"No one said anything about restrictions on property usage," Namjoon's voice is soft and distant as he looks in the general direction of the ground, seeing nothing in particular, looking very much unable to take in the unforeseen spate of less-than-savoury information.
"It's the way things are, Kim Namjoon-ssi." The officer's voice rings clear in the hallway adjacent to the one Jeongguk's in, and even with Jimin's clandestine eavesdropping, his blood starts to boil at the way the voice is gloating and chiding all at once, dead and cold as fish as are the rest of Seoul. Very much the microcosm of this city, in fact.
"I don't suppose you'd feel much of a loss, losing something so small as a tiny basement? Nothing compared to the old, grandiose times of being the glorious forerunner of the Cheonmin Liberals." The officer's eyes are trained on Namjoon's, cold and triumphant with gloating victory as Namjoon seems to have conceded defeat, eyes glued to the cold tiles, unable to return the glare. "Though of course, those halcyon days, too, are over, huh, Leader Kim. Or should I say, ex-Leader Kim."
Namjoon doesn't respond.
"We expect the cellar to be empty by the time next week comes rolling around. If not," the officer turns his back on Namjoon, throwing him a final sidelong glance. "The consequences will be yours to bear, Kim Namjoon-ssi."
Eyes flickering back and forth from Jeongguk and Namjoon, Jimin sees that they aren't so dissimilar at all, their backs slumped on chairs in delirious contemplation, eyes blank and lifeless.
After all, they've both just lost the largest parts of their lives.
But because problems come in torrents, they've nothing much to lose anymore on this side of Seoul. Not that they really had much to begin with.
"It's not safe," Jimin's chiding voice drips with concern. "I'm going to take a week's leave and head down to Busan with you. I don't even care if I get fired- "
"It's fine," Jeongguk's voice cuts the entire conversation short, not looking up from the ground at all. "I can handle this on my own."
Namjoon's hand on Jimin's shoulder, eyes saying something along the lines of let him finish up what he has to do. He's right; this really hadn't much to do with Jimin in the first place, and this very fact tugs annoyingly at Jimin like a dull, incessant headache.
Before Jeongguk heads back to the room for the night, it catches Jimin by surprise when Namjoon gently pushes Jimin back down onto his chair with a soft I'll do it, before heading into the room with Jeongguk.
Curiosity always gets the better of Jimin, and this time, it does, too.
From the front of the mahogany door, Jimin hears Namjoon's deep and resonant voice floating from the inside, low and soothing.
"You probably already know this, but your brother was a brave man. He was a good man."
There is no response on Jeongguk's part, but Jimin can almost hear the gears and cogs shifting in his head, going something along the lines of all my fault and stupid, useless little brother and the very recollection of his voice that day wrenches at Jimin like a cloth wrung dry.
"But you aren't any worse. At least, that's what he told me."
This time, there's a response.
"What did he say?"
"He said that out of every single person who has existed in his life, including himself, he's the proudest of his one and only little brother. I may not remember much about him, but this much I remember."
"I believe him, and he was a good comrade of mine, so live on for him, alright? Live on for yourself. I believe he wanted you to have this." There's a clunking sound of metal hitting metal, and something awful twists in Jimin's chest.
The door clicks shut after Namjoon leaves and Jimin's no longer anywhere to be seen; he knows where he doesn't belong, but if there's anything Jimin knows, it's that Jeongguk's fighting a storm this very moment, grappling on the ground with tears and sobs and the locket.
If there's anything more Jimin wants this very moment, it's to help him battle the storms.
But he knows where he doesn't belong, so he just prays the dark doesn't devour him that night.
It's two whole weeks since Jeongguk's left for Busan; since every single one of them were sent packing from the base they'd always called home.
Since things fell apart.
He'd barely kept his thoughts away from the recent events, with the only small mercy being that the graveyard shift doesn't host all that many customers for him to mess up with. He hopes everyone else is getting on swimmingly, wherever they are. He wonders how Jeongguk is getting on, if it's the only thing he wonders. But even now in room 109, store-bought bread in hand, he barely manages to take a single bite of his jam sandwich.
It's been hard, living when he really isn't. He figures Jeongguk must have it a lot worse.
There are two raps on the storeroom door and whoever's in front of him isn't Youngjae or Minho but Jeongguk, and in a less-than-hoped-for condition to boot.
While Jimin is happy to see him, living and existent in front of him, he also has questions, and too many of them to boot. Before the questions even leave Jimin's mouth, blood rushing to his chest to thump relentlessly like the restless drum of a storm, Jimin sees the crimson red on his split lip. The bruised eye. The watery swell of his aqueous humour. His eyes are as stoically unreadable as they always are, but to Jimin's trained eyes, they look like nothing but a blatant plea for help.
Jimin reckons they'd probably need some privacy to talk this over, so Jimin sits Jeongguk on the storeroom bed as he grabs the keys to 1310, unoccupied ever since two months ago when he'd been towed to the base, bleeding by the shoulder.
When Jimin latches the door, it falls close with a dull click and Jeongguk is shivering despite the room being small and largely unventilated. Swiftly, he turns the heating system on, closing the windows and also the curtains, just for good measure. It's stuffy but also rather cozy, very much a womblike environment. Jimin observes how Jeongguk relaxes a little; hopefully he'd succeed in getting him to talk to him today.
Sitting Jeongguk down on the bed, he switches on the night lamp as he sets the kettle boiling. He puts on his sunniest smile, whipping out a packet of emergency hot chocolate from his own bag. He shakes it around a little so all the chocolate powder collects at the bottom of the pack, the plastic lightly crackling in quiet of the room.
"Care to share?" Jimin asks; he knows it's a step to take but relishes in the fact that he can recall it any time and claim that he was offering to share the hot chocolate.
There's a whole minute of silence and Jimin pours the sweet mixture into two cups, a quarter of it in his own thermos and three-quarters in the room's white porcelain cup. Handing Jeongguk his share, he opens his mouth to explain that he was just talking about the drink but the words don't have to leave his tongue because Jeongguk actually speaks up first.
"They took it out on me again. Then hyung..." The words stay on his tongue like a tonne of lead, as hard to get out as they are to take in, but he doesn't even have to vocalize them for Jimin to hear him anyway. "So I ran."
The words are terse but do a sufficient job of encapsulating the whole situation. Whoever they are, they deserve to be thrown in lifetime jail- no, purgatory hell, thinks Jimin, uncharacteristically fiery for once.
"Where did they do it this time?" Jimin's voice is tight with a barely contained fury and indignation. He does his best to hold it in, though, and only because Jeongguk isn't the one who should deserve this.
When Jeongguk declines to answer, Jimin drags the flannel top from Jeongguk's torso. Jeongguk flinches; Jimin thinks it's the friction against the unhealed scars that causes him to wince but when he looks down at his bare chest, a switch inside of him flips as he takes in a small gasp.
"Fuck," Jimin barely whispers and it's rare that he's cursing even under his breath, but the sight is too much to take in all at once. Jimin feels the boiling cauldron inside of him threaten to spill over, second-hand fear, rage and sorrow bursting at the seams all at once. "Who did this to you?" Jimin asks this question to which Jeongguk gives no response but he really already knows the answer and it's all the worse; it makes him almost want to rush onto the streets even if it's 4am and cold out. It makes him want to help Jeongguk any way he can, exact revenge with a dagger, sniper, sword, anything.
"Is that why you never let me see beyond your clothes?"
There comes no answer, only a barely visible flinch and as Jeongguk tightens up slightly, Jimin is reminded of a small animal curling into a ball for defensive purposes. Jimin's fist curls into a ball, uncharacteristically offensive and protective because no one should ever be treated like this.
"Have you contacted Social Services? Has anyone contacted Social Services for you? Fuck, do you want me to contact Social Services for you?" Jimin's voice is more frantic than he's even ever heard himself but Jeongguk just shakes his head, desensitized.
"No, don't," Jeongguk pleads and it comes out only slightly more than a shaky breath. "I can't do that. I can't do that to them. It'll be useless." He breathes, burying his face in his palms. "And I'd already fought back. I fought back as much as I could. But I couldn't hurt them much. I took a dash for it when there was an opening."
"After all they did to you? You can't even -" The tears were already breaking in his chest by now. Fuck, goes Jimin inside. "You can't even do this for yourself even after all they did to you?"
His eyes are downcast and Jimin isn't able to look in them. There they are, the same vacant lots Jimin saw the first time, so empty and so devoid of hope, so unbecoming of a boy of fresh, young sixteen.
"I'm going to become stronger. It's the only way I can repay my brother. But I can't do it now, not yet. I don't know how to hurt them, no matter how I try." A pause of silence. A breath. "They raised me up. We were happy." Another pause, hanging pregnant in the air. "Even my brother. We were happy. I couldn't hurt them."
Jimin breathes a sigh and as sweet-mouthed he usually is, it's the second time he barely manages to bite the words back, expletives of all indecent kinds as well as unspeakably rude words about how undeserving they are to have Jeongguk as a child and how they ought to be struck by lightning, really. He bites them back, though, because Jeongguk's the only one who really owned and understood his childhood. Jimin doesn't deserve to step in where he doesn't belong, that much he knows.
Instead, he decides to step in where he does belong. Where he can belong.
Jimin breathes and the words hang tight on his tongue, afraid of the consequences. After all, Jeongguk's life is his to keep; his choices are his to bear. But he chances a look at Jeongguk's eyes and the light is fading.
Jimin decides that there aren't any consequences worse than that, so he abandons all cautions and says it anyway.
"Then stay here. With me."
After he says this, there's a long silence and no one dares to breathe; the words are left ringing like a dropped pin in the stale air of the room.
He cradles the sides of Jeongguk's shoulders, careful not to break anything (broken enough as they already are), and had Jeongguk been stocked up properly with nutrition as a normal teen would have been, they would have been too broad for Jimin's narrow threshold to hold. But there Jeongguk fits just right, snug in his arms, as petite and small-shouldered Jimin is himself.
Wordlessly (because Jeongguk doesn't need any more words, because words don't fix anything) Jimin brings himself down to the dip of Jeongguk's collarbones, chiseled again like valleys. He decides to start from there, where it's just millimetres from the most hollow part of his chest where his heart's supposed to be. Places his lips on that scabbed part of the skin where it's already bruised a dark maroon, gentle as he can, careful not to tear the wounds that are already there. When he's done he moves his lips from scar to scar, an emotion close to unalloyed wrath coursing through Jimin's veins as he finds that there are at least ten on the top part of his torso alone.
Jimin skips the hollow part of his chest for now; he'd wanted to save the hardest part for the last. He traverses across the expanse of skin at the abdomen and though he's only notches away from emancipation, his tummy area is all muscle, giving good purchase against Jimin's slightly chapped lips. When Jimin traces the curved part at the side, the bridge at the waist connecting his ribs to his hipbone, he feels a slight vibration as he feels Jeongguk bite back a shudder. His stomach does a little triumphant somersault at the revelation of this sensitive area; best of all is the fact that this part is entirely unscathed and unscarred and open to make his, so he applies a little more pressure, lathering him with kisses so he knows he's his now, so he knows that nothing (except his lips) can touch him anymore.
When Jimin finally reaches the middlemost part of his torso (the most hollow part of his chest where his heart's supposed to be) he tastes something wet and salty. He doesn't even know who the tears belong to by now; it's probably a mix of theirs both. Jimin kisses the soft area especially slowly and gently, only lightly brushing across the skin with his lips, like feather and dust, like he's cradling a baby phoenix fresh from purgatory hellfire. There are no physical wounds there, but Jimin knows it's the most fragile part; it's always the most fragile part because home is where the heart is.
And home is exactly where Jimin finds Jeongguk.
When their lips finally meet, it's a salty taste, their cheeks and entire faces almost entirely wet with rivers of tears. It tastes like blood and tears and just a little bit like the hot chocolate from earlier; it's a salty taste but nevertheless a good taste - not the taste of sorrow, fear, despair or tiredness, but the taste of warmth and newfound emotion; of hope.
It's been close to five years on the underside of Seoul, and Jimin thought he'd seen enough to size them up at a glance.
The first kind of people, the thrill-seeking office workers, come in to escape. Not even the new prostitution law fazes them.
The second kind also come in to escape. But even if they can hide, it isn't like they can run - not from the constabulary, least of all, icy and knife-sharp like a gust of wind in waning winter.
The third kind come in to escape, too, but we all know (they do, too) that poverty is, viciously and cyclically enough, something you can never run from.
If there's anything all three have in common other than the last, desperate impetus to run, it's definitely that they know the home that lasts as long as the night.
Then again, not even his best buddies can build a home that's made to last. After the eviction, the entire gang had been forced to split ways, no matter how supposedly bulletproof the base. Though Taehyung and Hoseok have rented a room to share, the remaining vestiges of physical proximity between the rest of them have dissipated without further trace, with Namjoon spending just about his whole life at the hospital dorms and Jin chipping in for a corner of his boss's house. The occasional dinner date isn't nearly enough to keep the camaraderie intact. Even Jimin has taken permanence in the hotel storeroom upon gaining permission from the manager of the hotel on the grounds of being a senior worker.
As for the remaining one...
"You know," comes a voice, ringing with a sandpaper resonance, rough but fresh and clear and young all at once. Jimin thinks it gives good purchase. "You really shouldn't be working the graveyard shift anymore. The way things are, you might as well work at a graveyard."
"Says the one who comes in barely before sunrise," is Jimin's reply, not having to even look up to know the owner of the voice, to see the dark of his eyes. "It's 3.25am. You're a little late. And just because you're now legal and a junior officer at the station doesn't mean you can skip the honorifics and wake me up in the middle of the graveyard shift to grab your room keys."
"Well," the voice's owner pauses for a moment and Jimin almost hears him smile. "I'm not counted under the graveyard shift," comes the rebuttal, lilting and crisp.
"And why is that, Probationary Constable Jeon Jeongguk?" Jimin looks up and the eyes sure are familiar; Jimin used to think that they were a stygian black. But how wrong he was, because it's actually just extra dark brown. In fact, under the right conditions of light and clarity, such as now, with the dark of the sky outside the hotel and the semi-lit environment the scant bulbing supplied, he could see sometimes see gold in the glisten of every small movement his radial and circular muscles made. The kind that sometimes made him feel like his soul was being given a once-over. The brown and gold of it all reminds Jimin a bit of a chocolate fondue, the kind he only got to eat once in a childhood on his tenth birthday, the kind liquefying in a slow bubble over a small candle. The kind which had the capacity to be warm, sweet and satisfying all at once.
"Because I'm alive." The owner of the pebble voice sets his chocolate eyes straight on Jimin's, poring into him, probably giving his soul a once-over. Jimin's heart skips a beat.
"Because you saved my life." His hands reach out towards Jimin's left hand. He pries Jimin's fingers open. Places something metallic and lukewarm into his palm. Jimin looks down at his palm and there's a piece of paper, brown and weathered around the edges by the inexorable passage of time but every word is still lucid on the memo, sending memories and feelings of deja vu down Jimin's spine. There are new words scribbled on the back of the note.
Wrapped in the memo is a pair of keys, leading not to 1310 or 109 but to somewhere better.
"Because you save my life. Every night, at 3am. And if you ever are willing to give me a chance, I'd like to save yours, too."
Three types of people come in to escape. One other thing they all have in common is that they all know the home that lasts as long as the night.
One day, Jimin meets one who isn't quite like the rest.
Because he's here to stay.
The world isn't always as cold as it seems.
I'll be here if you need a home. My shift ends at 5.
The world wasn't always as cold as it seemed.
79 Jeong-gu, Myeongdong, Seoul, South Korea.
You're the only home I'll ever need. I love you.