Actions

Work Header

Proximal Glitch

Work Text:

The culmination—a cheap shot, really, and a picture perfect end for this calamity they've created.

Imagine a boy on the ground with blood seeping from his wounds, into the cracks of the concrete. This is him giving back to the world. Imagine him laughing and thanking it for everything it's ever done for him.

The other boy asks, “Is this what freedom means to you?”

He's on his knees, reduced and pathetic. Looking up from between the mess of his hair and giving in to circumstance, staring at his bloodied partner in crime. This crime committed against each other. They're at the pinnacle and the payoff.

“You should know the answer to that by now,” the one on the ground replies. His words are squished by his cheek pressing into the cold ground. When he smiles, his white teeth scrape against the cement.

They're covered in soot and fault that the rain tries generously to wash away, to pull down toward the drain. Clean them as it may, fault sticks.

They feel like they should be saying sorry—to who, they don't know. To themselves, maybe. For themselves, more accurately.

“You think you're gonna die?”

“I'm not even close to dying.”

“Oh. I'm sorry.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

The two feel like they could have done better.

The wind cackles at them, but they're ridiculing themselves harsher than any outward force ever could wish to. You are your own worst critic, the people say.

“I hope you regret this,” says the one on the ground.

“It was your fault as well.”

“Then let's regret it together.”

“Let's.”

- - -

The overture, and then everything else—back when self destruction pretended to stop being just a fad.

It's something Jungkook practises, like religion, only not as clean, and not as promising, and not as wholesome, and not as fulfilling. And maybe it isn't like religion. Maybe it's just an addiction in disguise. And maybe he's just a hedonist.

He, who allows himself mindful indulgence in the liberties granted by o glorious life, shall rejoice in the yada yada yada. Jungkook's not religious and there's no reserved place for him in heaven. Sure, he'll still be here after the rapture, but that doesn’t mean he won't have any means of escape.

Enter: the invention of the century.

In another life, Jungkook may have been a heroin addict, or a sex addict, or any other unsustainable type of person, with a heavy reliance on something else to escape from the too many other somethings of the world. This may not seem as destructive as chasing the high or an empty craving for dopamine, but it's on par nonetheless.

He might have been different in another life, but probably not, because character can only vary so much. Besides, this is the only life he's got, so he's just got to suck it up.

So in this life, he's an escapist. Addict. VR junkie. Call it what you want.

At this point, he should be proud just for surviving this long. Most of the others his age are dead. Wilfully, most often. Jungkook's never thought once about killing himself. Give the kid a fucking medal, because he's truly a hero of the ages.

And that's sarcasm, mostly, but sometimes they really do treat him like one. It's ridiculous, and out of pity, maybe, but it still counts. Just ask the stacks of white sobriety chips he has. That means one day clean. That means one day wasted.

Honestly, Jungkook thinks, why the hell would he want to come back?

He'll toss a thousand stupid white chips, clean chips, desire chips, into the wind if it means one day in escape. He even has a few blue ones accumulated over the trial years, which represent a month. And hell, he'll toss those too, easy. They mean nothing now. Even from the start, they've only ever been discs of plastic.

So Jungkook lies back on his hard mattress and prepares himself for the showcase of his personal disaster. Grabs the rusty goggles and pulls them on. Cold metal clamps tight around his head and the big green lenses block his vision as the draping wires slowly drain his consciousness and take it to some better version of hell.

Log on. Welcome to virtual reality.

- - -

“You're halfway dead, I'd say.”

“No, I'm fine.”

“Maybe three quarters dead, actually.”

“I'm fine.”

“Sure you are. I'm just saying, don't you want to be alive again?”

“Fuck off.” Jungkook spins in his metal bar stool to look at the guy. He adds, because he remembers that it's polite, “Please.”

“I'm just saying,” the guy repeats. “There's nothing better than life.”

The man's leaning one elbow on the bar counter, swaying slightly in the seat of his stool as he stares at Jungkook. Someone nearby says something with a hum of a voice that blends in with the other hums. Glasses clink. Jungkook sips his drink, and the man taps his finger against the vinyl countertop. Neither of them know it, but this is a big moment.

“Yeah, right,” Jungkook mutters.

“Oh.” With long fingers, the guy fiddles with some paper he's holding. He raises his eyebrows. “So you are one of those people, huh?”

“Hm, was it that obvious?” Jungkook lifts his drink with a skinny wrist and sips. The liquid ripples with the natural tremble of his weak body. Chains of his medical alert bracelet clink gently against the glass.

“Just checking. Need to make sure I'm not wasting my time.”

“So you consider this time well spent?”

“Incredibly so.”

“Doing what?”

“Asking your permission to bring you back to life.”

“So I look dead to you?”

“Halfway dead, I've already told you. Or maybe it was three quarters.”

“Right.”

“So can I?”

“What?”

“Revive you.”

“No. Leave.”

“I promise it's fun.”

“I really don't care.” He's not done his drink but he puts money under his glass anyway. That's enough of the world for one day.

“Then what do you care about?”

Jungkook's walking away saying, “Leave me alone.”

“Come on,” the guy calls after him. He doesn’t bother to get up from his stool and just swivels it around, like he's sure Jungkook will be coming back. His arms support himself as he leans back on the counter. The lighting from above lets his hair hide the intention in his eyes. Still, the challenge comes out in his voice. “Even a social recluse like you should be able to handle this much.”

Jungkook stops. “Who said I couldn't handle it?”

The guy shrugs and purses his lips because he's hiding a smile. “Just seems like it, really.” His smile gleams in the way nice smiles don't. “Wanna prove me wrong?”

Jungkook's walking back quickly, sitting down on the cold metal of the stool. It's about pride, he tells himself. Obligation, as a living, breathing human.

“Kim Taehyung,” the guy says, and hands Jungkook a pamphlet.

He flips through it without looking at the pages. “Is this for one of those idiotic brainwashing clubs?” And he goes to hand it back. Shaking his head, Taehyung pushes it back toward him.

“No, shut up. It's a healing group. And, hey, you have to tell me your name, remember?”

“What?”

“Your name. I told you mine, you tell me yours. Conversation rules.”

“Uh. Jeon Jungkook.”

“Well, Jungkook, if you can't even remember how to have a proper conversation—”

“Who the fuck ever said that?”

“You just proved it. Keep up, Jungkook.”

“Why are you such a dick?”

“Because you were a dick first. The world reflects back what you give to it. That's the first lesson. One of our teachings, actually—” Taehyung grabs the pamphlet from Jungkook's hands and opens it to somewhere in the middle. Then he sticks it in Jungkook's face and points to some fancy serifed text, saying exactly what Taehyung just had. “See?”

“Fascinating.” Jungkook pushes the pamphlet out of his face to see Taehyung giving him that intense stare again.

“Isn't it?” He flips through the pamphlet again. The glossy pages make an unpleasant squeaking noise between his fingers. “Fascinating— that there are so many people out there to help people like you—”

“Excuse you, Kim Taehyung. I don't need help. Is your only purpose here just to sell your organization? 'Cause then I'm out.”

Taehyung laughs. “Well, my initial purpose was to just chat you up, but then it turns out you're an addict, too. And I've always liked people like you. So two birds, one stone, hey?”

He smiles wide with teeth that look like they've only ever bit into freedom. Speaks with a tongue that's never tasted confinement.

When Jungkook laughs, it's crafted of self-loathing and mockery. “You like people like us?” Laughs harder, and it's himself that's the funny one. “Us?”

Taehyung's eyes tell of curiosity and some perverted form of fascination.

“Yes, you. Specifically, at this moment, the singular you. Is that so weird?”

Beyond weird. Us,” he scoffs. “Those pathetic, filthy fucks covered in their own vomit and shit and piss, taking up space in hospital wards. That's us.” Jungkook cackles and people might be staring but he doesn't care because they don't count. Embarrassment in this world means nothing.

Everything in this world means nothing.

“Well, then, maybe I'm weird,” Taehyung shrugs, and gives Jungkook a careful smile that's quite difficult to discern. Sometimes, very rarely, Jungkook will find certain expressions have escaped his reach of understanding.

He crafts a grin in return because it's usually a safe response, and says, “I think I'd even go so far as to say you're crazy.” Taehyung cocks his head so his hair follows gravity and flutters off his forehead, falling with the movement. The look he gives Jungkook is still unreadable, but it's warm, nonetheless.

“Most people would argue you're the crazy one, Jungkook.”

“And yet you approached me.”

“Maybe I'm into it, then. The crazy.”

Look around at the faces of contempt in the people sitting near them. As they look upon this wretched boy, emaciated and bitter. It's all his fault. They blame him and he blames himself. The beautiful epicentre that all the fingers and their sharp nails point to.

With each word, they prod at his body, this bag of bones, addict, addict, addict.

There's nothing that he owes, not to the world for barrelling him over and leaving him in the dirt, not to the people who spit at him words like shards of glass from their bleeding mouths.

Jungkook asks, “Don't I disgust you?”

“Frankly, you interest me. Deeply.” Taehyung snickers and Jungkook almost does too.

“Christ, what's wrong with you?”

Taehyung leans in. “You wanna find out?” On Jungkook's face he feels Taehyung's breath. The heat of his body. The smell of the world clinging to him, gasoline and pollution and old money. He smells real. Jungkook rolls his eyes because Taehyung is ridiculous, but Taehyung steels a more serious gaze and continues, “Really. Imperfection's your ticket to reality, Jungkook. I could teach you all about imperfection.”

“You're crazy, Kim Taehyung.”

“Crazy serious.” He tucks the pamphlet back into Jungkook's hand and says, “So you've proven me wrong. You can handle conversation. So what? So let me prove to you—”

“What? Prove that I'm dead?”

“Uh, half-dead, excuse you.”

“Actually, I believe it was three-quarters.”

Still too close to Jungkook's face, Taehyung chuckles. Jungkook's just proud he hasn't flinched back like his instincts are telling him to. Right to Jungkook's face, Taehyung promises, “Give me one opportunity and I'll prove to you why you'll want to be alive again.”

“I'm already quite alive.”

“Only a quarter. That doesn't count.”

“Or wasn't it half?”

“Shut up with that.”

“Fine, fine.”

“So can I take this as permission?”

“What? To bring me back to life?” Jungkook scoffs, and is quite pleased with himself for remembering exactly what jeering exasperation is supposed to sound like. It's just been a while.

“Yes. Don't say it like that, because I'm serious.”

“Okay. You can take this however you want, Kim Taehyung.”

“Alright then.” He stands up, and before he leaves, slams his hand on the counter to make Jungkook jump. And he points a finger at his face, bending over so they're eye-to-eye. “You'd better show.”

The flecks in Taehyung's eyes dance and Jungkook watches them, because no one in virtual reality is capable of having eyes like this, so detailed and realistic. For a brief moment he feels choked by how real Taehyung is, and how he's not turning his nose up at Jungkook. How he just smiles when Jungkook nods.

The pamphlet is covered with crazy but Jungkook keeps it anyway, tucks it into his pocket as he walks home. He doesn't bother with reading much, because that's a waste of time. And he needs all the time he can get to spend in VR. A second gone is a second wasted.

He decides to spend just over a week there. That's less than normal, but now he has motivation, doesn't he? Somewhere to be.

Meetings are every week. That means he has one opportunity a week to go see Taehyung if he suddenly decides to. Who knows? Maybe he will. Maybe he'll surprise himself. Maybe one day, randomly, he'll feel like giving it all up, throwing out the goggles, suddenly being able to go longer than a few days without it and not lose his mind. Who knows?

The world is, apparently, full of surprises. And Jungkook's just patiently waiting for his own.

As he's putting the tubes into his pallid forearm, it occurs to him that he may need more time than a week. Just because. So he sets the dial to bring him back in two weeks. Then decides again and changes it to three. He has no valid reason yet, but he's sure he'll come up with one.

It's fine. Who cares. There's no one he has to apologize to at this point.

So with the old, bloody tubes puncturing his veins, Jungkook does up the clasp at the back of his head as those silly-looking goggles obscure his vision in green before it all starts to blur, and he lies back down, logs on, forgets, and finds freedom.

- - -

“Fucking undead,” Jimin is grumbling.

“It's your fault you can't shoot for shit,” Hoseok says, and Jungkook cackles.

Here is paradise, trapped in the ones and zeros of cyberspace is his mind, transformed into a tiny volts shot through wires.

“I'd be doing better if I didn't have to constantly keep an eye on your weak ass.” Jimin pokes Jungkook's breastplate. “And you too, asshole.”

“Who said we couldn't handle ourselves?” Hoseok asks.

“It's pretty obvious you'd be dead without my backup.”

“I think Jungkook and I'd do fine without your useless backup.” Hoseok twirls his sword and sheaths it against his side.

“You— come here—” Hoseok's already running off, cracking laughter against the open sky.

The moors skirting the village, in summer, perpetual summer. Go north and it's always winter. There's no need to plan for the weather here. It's convenient that way.

“I'm headed back to the village,” Jungkook calls after his friends, who are screaming and giggling like idiots. He can't judge; half the time that's him. Still, he mutters with a smile, “Losers.”

In the village is an apothecary's shop, a quaint thing made of logs and stone. The hinges of the door creak when it's pushed open and the warmth of the fire occasionally spits sparks.

“I'll need three stones of dragon's coldblood for that spell,” the mage tells him. She has a voice like old wood, muted and pleasant.

“Got it,” he says, and flips through his inventory for the items he'd just picked up.

So here is how he betters himself. His self-worth lies in the levels and items of his avatar. The mage upgrades his weapon, and he, himself, is improved. It's surpassed being unhealthy a long time ago.

An echo from the other universe. There's that Kim Taehyung in his mind again, asking, Don't you want to be alive again? He shakes it out like he does all those other thoughts. Reality haunts him even now. Sometimes it's like it will be trapping him forever.

“Thanks,” he tells the mage, and runs out the door, slamming it as hard as he wants because it's not programmed to break like the silly ones in the real world. Runs toward the hills skirting the village, knowing he is alive. He is good. He is fine. He is free.

- - -

It's as a warning. Red alert. Whatever you want to call it. Either way, it's his fall from heaven. Down, down, down from the clouds, because, oh silly, that's not where humans belong. They belong here. It's not hell on Earth, precisely, because Earth is hell, but the intention of the statement is clear, regardless.

Here is indeed an undesirable set of circumstances for Jeon Jungkook, who doesn’t believe that he belongs here nor there. Heaven, nor hell, and for that matter, nor Earth. Often he'll even have a hard time believing he's human. That's what alienation does.

The only place he's ever felt at home is among his friends up in the cyberspace world, real people turned to pixels. There, everyone has ridiculous skills and strong bodies nothing like in reality, but Jungkook knows he would be able to recognize those people's faces if he were to see them in real life. The database uses your real face; that's how it works. Really, it's quite like reality.

Like it enough to replace it.

Still, he's back. So before he has time to think about Kim Taehyung or that pamphlet or anything else, he has to think about himself.

He pulls off the goggles and they rip out some hair as they go. That's nowhere near the worst part. Dried sweat plasters his clothes to the spaces between his protruding ribs and bodily grease smothers his senses, everywhere from his surfaces to deep into his pores. Filthy to the core.

This is always the worst part.

With a shaking hand, he grabs the now-empty tubes and pries them out of his arm, lets the holes bleed thin blood onto the dried rust-coloured stains left on the sheets from all the other times. Clean that later, he thinks. Deal with it all later. Later.

He grabs the bottle of water placed on the floor next to the mattress and guzzles it. The drip tubes may have been providing his body with the liquids he needs, but his throat's gone dry. He chokes and water shoots out of his nose and it hurts like hell, but he keeps drinking. That's called desperation.

In living beings, the need to stay alive is, quite obviously, inherent.

When he gets up he's so shaky he falls. He's used to that. So he waits, knelt pathetic on the floor until he can see straight again. Then he stands again as his knees scream and his muscles cry and as he is probably doing both.

It's at this moment that he'll think to never do this again. The pleasure of virtual reality is not worth this pain. Yet, the rule of addiction is that it's a cycle. And so, cycle back he will. Just wait.

He goes to the bathroom and vomits into the toilet, because the shift between worlds with such a weak body is beyond nauseating. Intolerable. It's all sour stomach acid and water and, like every other time, he regrets drinking the water. And then takes the opportunity to regret every other thing he's ever done. His body violently curls in on itself with each retch. To him, this is what it means to be alive.

What a way to come back to the world.

- - -

“When I said you'd better show, I meant soon.”

“I'd say this is soon enough.”

“I'd say this is three weeks later.”

“That's plenty soon.”

Taehyung sighs. “Your sense of time is skewed.”

Here is Jungkook, fixed and ideal, like he wasn't sobbing into a toilet a few hours ago. He smooths out the wrinkles on his baggy t-shirt and says, “Don't try to tell me what's wrong with me.”

“But that's why you're here.” The sound of Taehyung's heavy shoes on the concrete floor boom in the emptiness of the dark hallway. “Because there's something wrong with you.”

“There's nothing wrong with me—”

“So then why are you here?” Taehyung stops and leans against the wall, so Jungkook stops as well. They're in some underground building, a dim place lit only by sodium vapour lamps. From above, the booming beat of heavy vehicles on the pavement echoes as they whiz by.

Jungkook shrugs. “I'm curious.”

“About?”

“A few things.”

Their voices bounce off the concrete walls, scattering wider and emptier as they stretch further into the darkness at the end. With a nod, Taehyung continues to lead them down the hallway.

“Any other reasons?”

“Not in particular.”

“Well, then.” A grin a little like the Cheshire Cat, yet mad in some completely other way. “Just wait till I give you a few more.”

Jungkook's throat bobs as he swallows, nervous but unsure as to why. That's normal, mostly. He's only been back in this world for so long, is still a little disconnected from himself.

“I hope you know what you're getting yourself into.”

“Of course.” Jungkook's done this before.

“Just checking. I know I didn't explain much. I'm never very good at that part. But I know I gave you the pamphlet,” Taehyung says, and stops in front of a door. It's the second last one, right near the end of this extending corridor. He's got his hand on the doorknob and is looking at Jungkook with a halfway wild smile. His sharp canines look sharper and the whites of his eyes stand out starker in the dingy light. “Room B-144. Remember that, it's important.”

As he turns the loose doorknob, he stops to say, “Oh, and— Just don't think about it too much at first. You'll be fine. Other than that, it'll be fun. I promise.”

“You know I've been to these sorts of things before?”

Pause. Taehyung furrows his brow and then shakes his head and pushes open the heavy door. It grates against the floor and the metallic grind echoes out in the eerily quiet building. While he steps inside, Taehyung's muttering, “They never read the fucking pamphlet, jeez...”

On the floor is a group of people, fifteen or so, scattered about, some sitting, some leaning, some lying down, like they're all bored and waiting for something spectacular. Each person looks up with impassive eyes as Jungkook and Taehyung walk in.

Like a slap, Jungkook remembers it. The callous truth, omnipresent whether he likes it or not. That Taehyung is the first real person he's talked to in months. And that the only reason he could handle it at the time was because he'd been drinking, and there was only one of the guy. The truth that Jungkook, at this point, is a social recluse—just like Taehyung had said, a fact still unable to be disproved, no matter how hostile he gets toward it.

Jungkook's air turns to liquid and he feels it gurgling, punching the walls of his lungs. Stuck. The air is stuck and his feet are stuck and he, invariably, is stuck.

Taehyung's saying something and then he's grabbing Jungkook's wrist and pulling him to the back. Saying some more things.

“—really, they're just people,” Jungkook hears beyond the white noise. “Come on, I'm really not good at dealing with this part. Can you— um.” Then there's a twinge somewhere on the left side of Jungkook's body, building, focusing. On his arm. No, his hand. The back of his hand. And not just a twinge, but actual pain.

“Shit—” Jungkook wrenches his hand back and Taehyung's looking at him with wide eyes.

“Sorry,” he's explaining. “That always happens. Probably should've warned you. Or been prepared.”

“Wh- I'm bleeding, you fuck!” Jungkook's on the cold concrete, his hand against his chest, leaning back onto the elbow of his other arm.

Taehyung sits down next to him. “Eh, your fault, really, for being socially inept. I'm just here as your guide. Most people don't even get one.” Jungkook grumbles but has no excuse. “Besides, I thought you would've been better. Seemed fine around me, so.”

“Well you're just one person. I can deal with that, easy.”

“Ah,” Taehyung hums and leans back onto his elbows, laying almost flat. He's wearing a bulky bomber jacket, keeping his back from freezing against the floor. “You know, though.” And he looks up at Jungkook with intent. “That kinda thing will stop happening. If you keep coming back, that is.”

“Yeah,” he scoffs. “They always say that. Never works.”

“Then they've been doing it wrong.” Taehyung shrugs. Then he says, “We start soon. Any questions?” And he smiles at Jungkook, shows his canines again in that way that makes Jungkook want to add a little distance between them, just in case.

“No, I know the routine. Introductions, sob stories, successes and failures, mostly failures, shitty encouragement, then those stupid sobriety chips.”

“Oh,” Taehyung says and shakes his head, “we don't do chips. No, no, nothing like that.”

Some synapse in Jungkook's brain shocks back and he realizes, Taehyung's being secretive. That's it. That's what that look's called, that tone.

Secretive.

He's running it through his mind, a little proud of himself for having figured that one out so quickly, because normally ones like that takes a bit more time. He lets the word, the tones and expressions and mannerisms associated with it, tumble around in his head as it all comes rolling back from the deep recesses of his memory. It feels good. To know.

It feels very human.

As he's thinking, some tall guy walks in, scraping the metal door against the ground and letting it screech, then slamming it closed like he's making a statement. The clang resonates through the spacious room, banging up into the rafters of the high ceiling. The force of it makes the feeble, buzzing lights up above sway.

Everyone goes quiet, and Jungkook focuses, just because he feels like he should. This guy has an astounding presence like no other. Authority, Jungkook recognizes.

Sharp light cuts across the man's face, and he wears his expression like a weapon. Next to him, Taehyung straightens, leans in. Jungkook notices himself doing it, too. The man speaks quietly, a deep and relaxed mutter. Very sure. Very right. Jungkook likes it.

“Okay. I think we have some new people this week, so I'll start from the beginning.” He sits down on the floor cross-legged. It's hard to see his face in the feeble light, half-shadowed by the enveloping hood he's wearing, but all the attention in the room is focused on him. He says, “I'm Kim Namjoon. I'm here because I'm going to help you.”

Namjoon leans forward. So does everyone else.

“And you're here because you all have a problem.”

- - -

It's some windy hour in some month that Jungkook can't name because he'd stopped keeping track of the world not long after it'd stopped keeping track of him. With Taehyung, he's walking up the dark stairwell and into the grey afternoon light of the streets. They're both pulling their cloth masks on to add at least some protection from the smog.

“Just tell me one thing,” Taehyung is saying.

“No.”

“Even just your age. Favourite colour. Any pets?”

“I'm going home.”

Cars are driving fast on the wide street beside them, like they're trying to outrun all their emissions. Erase the guilt their terrible actions stain themselves with.

Jungkook can tell them right now that guilt is permanent, so they might as well just give up.

“Come on. The first step to being free is giving yourself up. I can't help you do that if I don't know who you are.”

“What if I don't want that?”

“Are you telling me Namjoon didn't completely sell you on the idea of freedom?”

“Well...” Jungkook shrugs, because that's not it.

The air's burning hard enough to kill. There's a cloth mask covering his nose and mouth but that doesn't stop the continuous tickle, scratch, claw as it tumbles thick down his windpipe.

He wonders how these cosmopolites do it.

Through this pulsing city founded by its technology, Jungkook feels the weight of pollution and the inherent sadness that accompanies it push down on his weak bones. Or maybe it's just gravity. The gravity in this world always feels a bit different.

“Guy's got a way with words,” Taehyung says. “Only been doing this a few years longer than I have, and he's already the leader.”

A lady in fancy city clothes bumps Jungkook and she begins to say some apology. One look at him, though, and the lady gives him a sour eye and struts off. And he might have felt offended, could have despised her for it, or at least felt something, if he hadn't been so used to it.

She must have seen it cloaking him, that unshakeable gloom of a body not taken care of. The grease of his hair or the wrinkles in his countlessly reworn shirt. A fact screamed by his stiff joints an pained posture: addict, addict, addict.

The city people don't like the ones like him here. That's fine, because he despises them right back.

And yet Taehyung's looking at him with shining eyes as he babbles about liberty of the soul and whatever else is going on inside of his head.

And it's jarring, being treated human. But it's nice.

The mask is hiding his mouth but Jungkook can see his smile in his eyes. What a free spirit. And then here Jungkook is, suffocated by this actuality that Taehyung dwells so naturally in.

Taehyung continues some thought Jungkook wasn't listening to. “You have a lot of room to grow, a lot of chains to break. We all do, but you especially. So let me help you. It'll be fun.”

Jungkook shakes his head, feeling his limbs drag. Hates his voice as it comes out weak. “It's just too much, all at once. You must know how people like me are. I can't handle it out here too long—”

Taehyung stops him. “Can't or won't?” And he crosses his arms, raises his eyebrows, challenging, questioning, aren't you better than this?

Jungkook really thought he was.

He sighs, and after a while mutters, “Twenty-three.”

“Huh?”

“I'm twenty-three. Red, I'd say. No pets.”

Taehyung's eyes regard him with a smile again and it feels worth it.

“Well, I'm twenty-five. And I've given up favourite colours, and I don't believe in owning animals. And you will call me hyung.”

Jungkook laughs. “Uh, no way, why would I-”

“Because if we're gonna do this then we need to build camaraderie.”

“And if I don't want to build camaraderie with you?” He's mostly teasing.

Taehyung shrugs. “I guess it's your choice, really. But just remember that's the most important part, Jungkook. All of this has to be entirely by choice.”

Taehyung stops walking in the middle of the street so the bustling people have to walk around them. For the fist time in years, Jungkook doesn't feel ignored by the city. It's probably because of Taehyung, his confident, belonging presence.

“So promise me, Jungkook,” he says, and that look is back in his eyes again. Secretive and crazed.

“What?”

“Promise everything you do from this point on will be entirely by your choice.”

Namjoon's words, near verbatim. Like he knows them by heart.

“Uh, sure? I mean—”

“Because if we're gonna do this,” he says, and Jungkook can feel the voltage of the guy's mind as he gets closer, “it's gotta be serious.”

The wind blows and whips his hair wild like it knows what kind of person Taehyung is.

“Listen,” Jungkook's saying, backing away, “I don't even know if I'm gonna be coming back here, I mean—”

“Oh, you'll be coming back,” Taehyung chuckles. “I see it in your eyes. You'll be back.”

He's walking backwards and grinning, pointing a finger at Jungkook while saying, “You've got a fucking boner for freedom, Jeon Jungkook! And you can't deny that!” Then he's howling laughter as he turns around, running back to the door to the underground building they just came from.

Jungkook stares, dumbfounded, without even realizing the grin colouring his features as well.

- - -

He catches up on sleep because in VR, your mind might be resting, but it's not really resting.

Normally he'll dream of something related to video games. This absolute, inescapable preoccupation that his mind runs on. Normally he'll dream of himself being back in virtual reality, in those places he knows as well as he would a home, with those people he's familiar enough with to call family.

Yet this time, it's Namjoon's voice he dreams of.

That serene voice like calm waves in the open ocean saying glorious words bigger than the open skies. Back in that cold, squalid concrete box of a room, sounds echoing off the steel rafters and pipes in the high ceiling, Jungkook sees Namjoon like a projection of reality with his white hair and weird ideas.

Saying, you all have a problem, and with us, you're going to solve it. For real. We don't half-ass things here. So you're either all-in or you're not going to make it.

Saying, just like Taehyung had, the world reflects what you give to it.

And so, commit acts of freedom and the world will have no choice but to let you go.

To get the world to give you up, you must first give up yourself.

Because all these chains have been put upon you only by yourself.

In his dream, Jungkook looks down and sees the shackles he's been ignoring for years. He moves and they clank with metallic laughter. Choking his limbs, his mobility, his mind. And then he looks up and Namjoon's sitting right in front of him, cross-legged, dangling a key in front of his face.

He says, You have to want it, kid.

The cold key touches his lip as it swings, pendulous. Each swing and it ticks like the mechanism of a clock.

Namjoon says, How bad do you want it?

His face morphs, and now it's Taehyung, in all his wild liberty. Enraptured, Jungkook stares.

With a small grin and a hollow whisper that echoes the way a deity's might, Taehyung goes, Promise everything you do from this point on will be entirely by your choice.

Jungkook lets his mouth fall open and leans forward so the cold key rests on his tongue. Taehyung lets it go. As Jungkook swallows it, the ridges slice down his throat like razors and splintered glass. Blood spills in his throat, into his stomach, wells up until it drips from between his teeth when he smiles at Taehyung's gentle gaze. Red drips down his chin and onto his hands in his lap, and melts those chains like acid.

Through viscous blood, he gurgles to Taehyung, I promise.

- - -

“H- Hello.”

God, why the fuck is he here?

No, this is for a reason—

Oh, he's gonna die, he might as well just die—

“Hey, Kook.” Taehyung turns from the two people he's talking to and gives him an easy smile, with his hands in his pockets, leaning on one leg. In Jungkook's head, last night's dream comes floating back, that glistening key. He involuntarily swallows.

“Hi there,” one of the other guys says. He's too pretty so Jungkook looks away, at the other guy he doesn't know. This one looks angry, though, so Jungkook looks away again, now back at Taehyung. Taehyung raises his eyebrows and smiles, hinting, come on.

Jungkook nods a greeting quick and jerky at the two strangers, then goes to tell Taehyung he has to talk to him. His voice is stuck, though, caught on his frayed nerves and torn to shreds by his awkwardness.

Instead, he forcefully grabs Taehyung's arm and tugs him away, out of that same meeting room as yesterday, away from those two unknown people. Into the hallway.

Taehyung's giggling, “That's okay for a first attempt, I guess.”

“Shut up.”

“They're nice people, really. Seokjin and Yoongi.”

“I don't care, I just— I know. Yeah. Whatever.”

“Next time, I guess.” Taehyung shrugs, then looks pointedly at Jungkook.

He doesn’t know how to respond, so he just nods. Moments pass while he tries to think of a way to say what he came to say without sounding stupid. Maybe he's overthinking all this. Maybe not. Maybe it's the biggest thing he's ever done. Maybe not.

Taehyung says, “So let me guess why you're here.”

Jungkook scowls. “I was— getting to that.”

“Alright. So tell me, then.” With his hands behind his back, Taehyung leans against the concrete and smirks.

“I want it,” Jungkook blurts. It's the first thing that fires to his head, so he just follows it. Familiarity of instinct, perhaps.

“Uh-” Taehyung's eyebrows are raised so they're hidden under his fluffy hair. His lips pressed together, he looks at Jungkook like he's simultaneously the craziest and best thing ever.

“Freedom,” Jungkook says. “That whole... giving up yourself shebang.”

And Taehyung pauses a bit before he throws his head back and laughs, letting it echo loud in the dark hallway. Then looking back at Jungkook, he says, “Of course.”

“So I want you to help me.”

“So help me help you. Can you tell me what the first step is?”

“I have to give up myself.”

“How do you do that?”

“I have to know myself.”

“Okay.” Then he grabs Jungkook's wrist. “Follow me.”

“Where? What?”

“We,” Taehyung turns around briefly, “are first going to get to know each other.” Even in the dim, metallic light, Taehyung's eyes have an unquenchable flame about them. Continuing to lead them down the hallway, he says toward the darkness, “It'll be fun. I promise.”

“Taehyu—”

“And call me hyung.”

Jungkook scoffs. “Yeah, no.”

“Ugh. Whatever.” The eye roll can be heard in his voice, and Jungkook smiles.

“Maybe one day,” Jungkook says, and the grip on his wrist slackens a bit before it tightens again. “When we get to know each other better.”

It's incredibly dark and Jungkook can only see Taehyung's back, but he can hear the smile, a real one, not a smirk, in his voice when he says, “Maybe.”

- - -

Hazy atmosphere, approximately midnight, rich music and the background babble.

It's later into the night. Or day. Jungkook doesn’t know. The bar is dark because it's another one of those basement buildings that have become so common when the cities began to get too crowded. The tallest buildings reach far beyond the clouds. No room to build up, might as well build down.

Jungkook likes it here because it's warm and he can get drunk and it's dark so it's hard for people to see him. That's why it had been his place of choice when he had to let his body recover for a while before heading back into virtual reality.

“Lozenges,” Taehyung is explaining to him. “For your throat.”

“What?” He has to speak a bit louder than his usual relaxed mumble because the louder music is competing with him.

“I don't fucking trust them.”

“You— Jesus Christ.”

“I'm serious.”

“I'm sure. Say, do you ever think of yourself as crazy?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No. But I get told that a lot, so either the entire world is lying to me or there's something I'm not seeing about myself.”

“I'm guessing it's the latter.”

“Well, I prefer the possibility of the former.”

“Of course you do.”

“Yes. See, this is good, Jungkook. Cordial disagreement is a healthy thing between friends.”

“So you think we're really getting to know each other better, then?”

“Substantially. Well— you're at least more open compared to the last time we were sitting here.” Taehyung grins and tips his glass at Jungkook. “So, to you, for being a little bit less of a bitch. Congrats, buddy.”

Jungkook shakes his head but can't conceal his laugh. “Shut up and just tell me about your fucking lozenges.”

The only reason Jungkook knows it's getting later is because more people begin to file in as time passes. Voices begin to pile up, a concoction of basses, sopranos, tenors, altos, everything that would regularly be too loud for Jungkook's reclusive ears.

Yet he sits on the bar stool, intently looking at the way Taehyung's hands move, uninhibited, as he tells some tale from his life, his free expressions, his unrestrained, all-encompassed self. He, as a whole, from his very core to the words he says to the way he thinks, is everything Jungkook finds fascinating.

He is contemporary, cosmopolitan, connected in every way Jungkook's not. Refreshing in his glamourous, technological mind. A child of this world, not running from it, scared, like Jungkook is. One of those people that are just comfortable to be around, easy to talk to.

So Jungkook's exploring and discovering things about Taehyung and subsequently the world and then further about himself, and of course, he might be getting lost in it. Overwhelmed and overtaken, perhaps voluntarily. He doesn’t even realize the nearby yelling until there's a crash.

Glass hitting the vinyl countertop and shattering into a spray of microscopic splinters, a firework display as they glimmer in the dim bar lighting. Suspended in the air, beauty as a result of hideous anger. A musical shudder as they fall to the ground.

“—Whoa, fuck,” Taehyung mutters, looking over Jungkook's shoulder to catch sight of the action. Jungkook, too, turns around and watches.

At the other end of the bar is a couple, a pretty girl and pretty boy, faces ugly with disdain, with hatred. Everyone in the bar is looking at the commotion but the couple's rage incapacitates their awareness of surrounding. All they see is a red vignette about the face of the one they love.

She says he doesn't try hard enough, he says she expects too much. He says she's not worth it, she says she'd never want to be, not for him. He says he doesn’t love her, she says she never did in the first place.

Taehyung mutters, “Ouch,” with some morbid humour, like this is some sitcom and not the absolutely real disintegration of trust and love. A swirl of his drink. Another sip, eyes on the couple over the rim of his glass.

Jungkook moves his eyes to the melting ice in his and turns back around in his stool.

Some abrupt scuffling, and from the corner of his eye Jungkook sees someone hit the ground, a wail as the glass on the floor cuts into flesh. It's in part physical pain, he knows, but flinches more so because he can hear the other types of absolute agony, stemming straight from the heart.

As abruptly as it started, it's over. The couple gone. Everyone in the bar having returned to their muted conversations. Some employee sweeping up the glass, the remnants of blood getting smeared by the broom in streaks like paint on dry canvas.

Yet the blackness sticks to Jungkook like grime.

After a huff, Taehyung says, “Man. That there? That's the second worst thing, that they just did.” Jungkook furrows his brow. Taehyung clarifies, “Hurt someone. The second worst thing you can do to someone is hurt them.”

“Then the hell's the worst thing?”

“Make them live with it,” Taehyung answers plain as day.

Ice clinks in Jungkook's glass as he takes a sip and watches Taehyung look somewhere past him with a small frown on his pouty lips. Then he grins and that expression dissipates.

“Everyone hurts someone at some point, though. Inevitably.” He shrugs. Jungkook nods.

Taehyung says, “So I guess it's not really that big a deal.”

He says, “As long as you're sorry afterward, right?”

Jungkook grins because Taehyung's is contagious, puts him at ease. “Right.”

“But, really...” And Taehyung leans closer to Jungkook and studies his face. Jungkook goes still at the scrutiny, and then Taehyung asks quietly, “How do you feel?”

He's frowning now, a crease between his eyebrows that Jungkook has to cross his eyes to focus on, that's how close Taehyung is.

“What?”

“Dizzy? Too cold? Too hot? Anything?”

“Uh— No?”

“Oh. Because you look kind of uncomfortable. That was... kinda hectic. Plus it's hot in here, and I know it's been a while. If you wanna leave, just tell me.” His deep voice rumbles and Jungkook feels the vibrations between the hot air of the crowded bar between them.

Now that Taehyung's closer, Jungkook sees his eyes better in the fractured light. Drooped eyelids and fat pupils of a mind wandering in a somewhat different atmosphere than what he's really in. Taehyung looks a little intoxicated and Taehyung looks a little sexy.

“Uh—”

“You're good, right?” Taehyung is asking.

“Yes,” Jungkook says, but it's only a breath that might not have been heard over the bass. So he nods to clarify, getting lost in the fall of shining sweat from Taehyung's forehead down to his low collar and dipping collarbones, the deep shadow of his cupid's bow above heavy-looking lips, the movement of his throat as he says something. All the while, with Jungkook thinking of sex and the chemical backlash that comes with being alive.

“—Hey, you listening?”

“No,” Jungkook says, then tries to pull his mind back and remember how to lie. “Yes.”

Taehyung smiles and this time there's a bit of teeth there, reflecting the blinking lights and making him look a little more sinister. Like he knows what Jungkook was just thinking. Fuck, does he? Jungkook wipes his sweaty palms on his pants.

“Maybe we should leave,” Taehyung tells him.

“Right.” He follows a drop of sweat fall from Taehyung's hair, down the side of his face, to dip into the space below his earlobe that— God, Jungkook wants to bite, so badly.

Again Taehyung's saying something but Jungkook's brain feels hot and viscid. Thoughts and consciousness leak into his arteries and begin to flow around his body, thick things that clog his blood flow. He tries to remember how to think but he can't think to know what remembering even is and—

He blinks hard and—snapshot. The subdued lights of the bar are a blur around him. Blinks, again, and he's stumbling up a dark stairwell. Again, and he's outside, leaning on some body and breathing in the cold, starry air with desperate gasps.

Cold fingers are digging in his pocket, then gently twisting around his ears, and then there's his cloth mask covering his face, supported by strings. Looking up, Jungkook sees Taehyung now putting his own mask on with one hand while Jungkook clings to his other arm.

He's mumbling, “You've got to tell me these things, Kook. I can't just tell how you're feeling.”

“Sor—” He chokes, coughs.

“Don't you dare,” Taehyung says, and lifts Jungkook up so he's standing a little more, supporting his own weight. “Not your fault.”

Jungkook nods. Pulls himself back to stand fully on his shaky, skinny legs. Indignant, he crosses his arms. He wants to explain that, no, he's not weak, didn't get overwhelmed or anything like that. But the truth that his brain short-circuited at the mere thought of sex also doesn’t lend himself much credibility, so he stays quiet.

He expects pity. Hidden disgust, contempt, over the fact that he's managed to lose himself this far. Some form of that empty commiseration that he's so used to from people from other organizations, whenever his weak body would betray him.

But Taehyung's laughing. A clear, open laugh, entirely unexpected, and honestly, a little nice.

Jungkook looks up and sees Taehyung's wide smile, lit by the old streetlamps, as he throws his head back and laughs at Jungkook, just like he knows Jungkook can handle. That loose laughter as he treats him like just another human.

Equal, no more and definitely no less.

Jungkook slides his tongue between his teeth, but he can't help the grin, the happiness, that he tries to conceal. Why bother, anyway? Taehyung is free and Taehyung is fine. So Jungkook lets himself go, too, lets his loud laughter echo into the night that is suffocation for the city but only helps him breathe clearer.

What a completely, utterly ridiculous excuse of a life he's living.

With Taehyung's lead, he makes a joke of himself and this shitty tragedy he's become.

As Jungkook breathes to calm himself, he thinks he'll give up anything to feel this forever. This detachment, but in the good way. Not the detachment from reality he's so used to, but the detachment from everything he's ever done wrong and everything wrong with himself. To peel off his imperfections and start anew, fresh and free.

Taehyung's snickering, “Oh, Jungkook. We have a long way to go together, don't we?”

Looking at him, Jungkook sees a manifestation of chance. Taehyung, who is opportunity and independence and escape all in one beautiful bundle.

Jungkook looks up at where the stars would be, hidden by the city's light pollution and smog, and says, “Yeah, hyung. We really do.”

- - -

Metal rusting and flaking looking like corn flakes off the body of a decade old Toyota minivan, and a tiny Jungkook running toward it with his stubby legs tripping on the comparatively mountainous curb. Cheesy bumper stickers that boast her child is an honour roll student and that she's a proud parent of a terrific kid and ask what would Jesus do? and other such beauties all at the same time.

Right now he bathes in that kind of praise.

He hops up into the vehicle and she turns around with her glass smile that he's been the one to craft and will eventually be the one to shatter and asks, “How's my little golden boy?”

And he says, “Perfect!” because he is.

Sometimes expectation is a vice.

- - -

“This is the easy part,” Taehyung is telling him. Compresses air and explosive colour at the push of a button. They're wearing masks but Jungkook's reeling both at the pollution of the city and the fumes of this depravity.

“You can't do this then you can't do anything,” Taehyung says at the brick wall. It's a brown disguised as a red pretending that it might also be some type of orange—deceptive and lying just like the city the wall makes up. Like the hateful people that dwell in it.

“This is how you discover your capability. An important part of knowing yourself.” A shake and spray and from the wide arc of Taehyung's hand follows a clean line of white. Frozen in time for a moment, the colour of the puritans tarnishing the unblemished surface. Then the lines of paint begin to drip.

Fancy, Jungkook's recklessness thinks.

“This is illegal,” Jungkook's morals say.

“Oh, boo-hoo. Who's it hurting?” Practised, confident movements as Taehyung creates some picture on the dark wall. “The city? Fuck it, what's it ever done for you?”

“The city pays my rent. Government funding. Medical care shit.”

“Good. At least they're doing something.” With his back facing Jungkook, Taehyung keeps painting, spraying some massive symbol onto the wall. For a second, he's on his toes so he can get the small designs at the crown. Jungkook's sweaty palms twist around the can he's holding.

RAL 9010, Pure White, it says.

“This is how you give back to the city,” Taehyung explains. “To the world. All those people that treat you like shit—” He strikes a sharp, aggressive line for punctuation, then carefully fills in the small area beneath it. “Fuck them all.”

“But it's illegal.”

“All those laws are restrictions. We're ridding ourselves of those. Storming propriety into the ground, all that.” With a final spray, he takes a few steps back to where Jungkook is standing.

The emblem cries paint in narrow drips that drag down the wall. Tears shed for the destruction of the city and its citizens under the technocracy. Brutal industrialization to taint the land. A neon sign high above buzzes and scarcely illuminates the two standing in the alley, marvelling.

“Okay,” Taehyung whispers, and puts a hand on Jungkook's shoulder to turn him around. His hand moves around Jungkook's body and grips his wrist to lift the hand that holds the can of spray paint. “Now you.”

And he steps forward to bring them close to the empty wall, opposite of what Taehyung had just painted.

“This is stupid,” Jungkook mutters, but lets Taehyung guide his hand to draw the same symbol. “They're just gonna erase it after. This is pointless.”

“But see, it doesn't really matter what it is. What matters is how it feels.” Circle, quick line down the centre, fill in the left, leave the right empty. Jungkook finds himself amazed at the complexity of the image, its absolute grandeur. Wants to memorize it, recreate it. Yet the heat of Taehyung steady breath near his neck is beyond distracting. In a warm rush that passes through his cloth mask, Taehyung murmurs, “So how does it feel?”

Stark white against the dirty brick. Moonlight casts down to reflect cleanly off what they're creating, and Jungkook's realizing that this immense contrast is being created by him. So maybe it feels a bit like freedom. A spray of paint like a blade, and he hears the crack as the fractures in those chains of his mind's eye snap a little deeper.

“Exhilarating, no? This is what living is, Jungkook.”

Hissing from the can, paint against the wall, and maybe Jungkook's enjoying himself.

“This is the fun that comes with life. The fun I told you about.”

Finished, they step back, and the white emblem reflects off their moonlit eyes.

“This is why you want to be alive, Jungkook.”

- - -

“My ass is fucking freezing,” Taehyung gripes.

It's the next meeting and Jungkook's sitting on the concrete again, listening intently.

“Shut up, I have to hear this,” he whispers back.

Before the enthralled group of people, Namjoon is sitting cross-legged like a sage. Under the spell of his slow murmur, Jungkook closes his eyes and soaks it all in.

“Freedom is not a permission, but a right. It must be fought for.”

The light from above hits the top of that draping black hood and makes the silver hair beneath it barely visible. What little of it that pokes out gets washed with a dose of weak lamplight to bring it to vaguely resemble a masked halo.

“Nothing is ever just granted to you. Don't expect this journey to be easy.”

The cars on the pavement above, on the surface of the city, rattle the pipes high up in the ceiling and shake the hanging lamp. As it moves back and forth, each person's shadow twirls around them.

Into his ear, Taehyung whispers, “I could repeat all this for you word-for-word, Jungkook. Why's it gotta be from him?”

“Because you probably won't do it as good.”

“Eh, true.”

“And besides, there's no way you have this memorized.”

For a moment, Taehyung's quiet, and he huffs, “Oh, yeah?” Then he begins a slow murmur next to Jungkook's ear in a calm, even tone.

As Namjoon says it to the group, Taehyung says it to him personally.

“This is your journey for freedom.” Jungkook swallows hard and feels his spine tighten, straighten at that deep voice, that warm breath barely skimming the shell of his ear. “You have to want it.”

He looks down, at his knuckles turning white as they grip the calf of his crossed legs.

“Everything you do has to be in light of this goal,” Taehyung whispers. Sneaking a glance at him, Jungkook sees the guy's unfocused eyes, round and right up close to his, his chin nearly on Jungkook's shoulder. Pinpricks pass in the space between their faces that feels like thousands of kilometres and a few simple centimetres at the same time as Taehyung keeps going, with Namjoon in the background.

“You have to be prepared to do anything for it. To give up anything.” Long fingers are twisting the medical alert bracelet around Jungkook's wrist. Delicately, Taehyung flips over the flat oval piece of metal so the small, engraved words are face up.

Virtual reality addict, prone to fainting, dissociation, anxiety, other.

Keeping their eyes locked, Taehyung taps the bracelet lightly few times, then shifts his eyes deliberately toward Namjoon. Jungkook's gaze follows, and he sees Namjoon looking up from under his hood at the two of them, some expression on his face that Jungkook can't recall. Hell, he may never have actually seen this expression in his entire waking life. It's foreign and foreboding, purposeful and promising.

Then there's a strong grip of cold fingers around his wrist. Taehyung. He squeezes, and lets go. Backs away.

When Jungkook blinks, the world suddenly zooms out again, tunnel vision gone. As if that moment never happened, Taehyung is back to carefully listening to Namjoon, and Namjoon is passing his gaze over the group aimlessly. All over again.

Glancing down, though, where the ghost of Taehyung's grip lingers, Jungkook sees his bracelet is still flipped over. Maybe it's part of who he is. Maybe it's part of what he has to give up.

The exposed words fill him with contempt, and so he flips it back over again. Still, as the metal chain links clink together, Jungkook's reminded of his dream, those shackles which had rung with the same sound. For a moment, he's tempted to rip the bracelet off. But he needs it, he knows. In case something happens to him.

So instead, he just twirls it around and plays with the clasp, as if to reassure himself that if he were to ever wish to, he could easily remove the damn thing. A flick, click— easy. And then he'd be free of it forever.

- - -

“I'm going down to my room for a second,” Taehyung says, “to get something.”

“You live here?” Jungkook's sitting near the back corner of the room and Taehyung's getting up. Namjoon's finished talking, and quiet murmurs of the others are filling the hollow silence.

“Yeah, just one level below this one,” Taehyung says like it's obvious. “I'll, uh—” He looks around the room. “I'll be back.”

The heavy thumps of his shoes are all Jungkook is left with, and then the metal slam of the door as it scrapes shut. The ambient murmurs continue and Jungkook sits patiently.

“You know,” a voice says. “There are things he's not telling you.”

Jungkook turns to the voice. It's one of the guys Taehyung had been talking to the other day. “Um.”

The guy says, “Like, secrets, I mean. He's got secrets, man. We all do.”

“Oh.” Sweat cools Jungkook's palms immediately, so he tries to focus his attention on that instead of this scenario. The guy's wide eyes. The concentrated black of his pupils. The urgent quiver of his lips as he babbles.

Jungkook curls his slippery fingers.

“I'm sure you have some, too. Secrets.” Those rolling eyes tumble over the room before they focus back on Jungkook. “Who doesn't? Everyone in this world's got something to hide.”

The guy smiles. “I'm Yoongi, by the way. Used to be like you.” He lifts his wrist, skinny like Jungkook's, with a medical alert bracelet on it, dangling over colourful tattoos that lace around his skin. “Now I'm fixed.”

“Yeah, okay,” Jungkook says quickly, dismissively, hoping Yoongi will leave. He doesn't. Just traces those tattoos with a bony finger, like he can't quite believe they're there.

“So don't you want to know?”

“What?”

“The secrets.”

“No.”

“That's a lie,” he spits, whispering. “But it's fine, you'll find out sooner or later, anyway. When they think you're ready.”

“Okay. Can you—”

“Fuck off? Yeah, I can. Sure.” Yoongi scoots away and Jungkook feels himself breathe again, not even realizing he hadn't been. “I'm just saying... You'll want to go back.”

Truth wedges a knife right between the folds of his brain. The truth that meetings are weekly.

“And the more often you go back, the less they'll think you're ready.”

He's been here a week. That's the longest he's been back in years.

The dam of ignorance cracks and all that desire comes rushing back full force. Self-restraint is something he doesn't possess. He feels like he will never find solace in the waking world.

Behind it all he thinks he hears Yoongi smirking and saying, “You feel it, don't you? The urge. Just know that succumbing to it makes you weak. Your connections to that world make you weak. You are—”

Someone else says, “Shut up, Yoongi.” Briefly, Jungkook thinks it might be Taehyung. His saviour. He clutches his head and presses his fingers into the side until the physical force on his skull is painful enough to distract from the pounding inside his head. Looking up, though, he sees the pretty guy from the other day, holding Yoongi by the arm, saying, “Sorry about him. Just...”

Then they walk away and Jungkook is left with the booming drum of craving and absolute need trapped in his blood and punishing him for his faults. Each heartbeat makes him twitch. Each breath is a staccato.

He's not playing for martyr points. He really is just pathetic.

In his mind what happens is just a blur of frames, melding together to make some disjointed memory. His white knuckles on the cool steel door handle. His cheek pressed against the rough concrete of the hallway. His legs shaking as he rushes down the stairwell. His arms giving out as they catch himself when he falls at the bottom step. Each door in the subsequent hallway locked, except for one.

He pushes the door open and there's Taehyung, back facing him and fiddling with something at a table.

“Hey, fucker, this is my room, so no—” He turns around, then says, “Oh, god, Jungkook.”

Quickly shoving something in his back pocket, he runs forward just in time to catch Jungkook as he falls forward.

Some more images, mostly just blurs as his body is shifted around, some grunts from Taehyung complaining about something, saying something. Then everything is green.

He thinks he should protest, say, No, I'm not weak. But he is, and he knows that. So when his body and mind immediately relax at the satisfaction of an addiction surrendered to, a craving fulfilled, he accepts it.

And lets himself go.

- - -

He falls upwards. That irregularity should be the first sign something's wrong. And yet then he's seeing beauty. So he steps across the line and pretends it's not blurring further and further each time.

It starts out on the glittering landscape of where he last logged off. Vast perfection to bandage the wounds the world gave him. The big beauty of bright hills and a grand sky that wobbles in the sun's light. Perfection you can only ever get here.

Out there Jungkook's a lonely puzzle piece left in the wrong box. Here he blends right into the picture, a comfortable fit. There's nothing for him to do but smile.

He squints in the sunlight even though he technically doesn’t have to, only because it makes it feel even more real, looking at the invisible wall at the far-off end of the map. The horizon can never be reached but the end of the world is only a stroll away.

He runs off knowing that, here, he is free to lose himself and become someone else entirely.

Cobblestone streets clatter under Jungkook's boots as he bounds through the village. Here, he is a boy with vitality, with capability, with joy. Suspend your disbelief, please. This is meant to improve upon reality, not emulate it. And so he's headed home. Third cottage on the wide street heading west from Centre Circle. Left side. A few doors down from the village blacksmith. Home. Real home.

With the people he loves. This version of himself that he loves.

Because everything's so easy, how can he not love it?

“Hey, you're back,” Jimin says when he comes in. “How was it?”

“Fine.” Jungkook shrugs.

Hoseok, not looking up from his work on the crafting table, says, “You were gone a while.”

Jimin asks, “Yeah, you been going to one of those healing group things?”

“Yeah, yeah. Um—”

“God, those things are such a joke, huh?” Jimin laughs.

Suddenly nervous, yet unsure why, Jungkook chuckles. “Totally.”

Hoseok says, “It's like they're trying to fucking convert us or something. Mad weird.”

Maybe it's guilt that Jungkook feels. Like he's betrayed his friends in some form, by becoming so involved in the outside world, by forgetting about this place, these people, altogether.

Hoseok, sharpening his dagger in the lantern light, says, “We're going on the raid tonight. They said they could use some help, so.”

Jungkook's shoulders relax at the change of topic, and he reminds himself they don't care what he does, anyway. If it's difficult for Jungkook to imagine Jimin and Hoseok as real people, then they must find it equally as difficult to do the same for him.

He shakes the uneasiness out of his head.

“Well, too bad you're weak as fuck, so you'll be useless anyway.”

“Psh. You just watch. I'm gonna get the coolest loot. And share none with you.”

“Fine by me.” He opens the collective chest in the corner of the room. “It's just over at the Cobalt Mines, right? Level 83 raid's not gonna get you guys much, anyway.”

“Eh, we could use the coins, though,” Jimin says. As he stands, he lifts his hunter's quiver and adds the extra arrows he had been making, then slings it over his shoulder. “You should come along.”

Jungkook shrugs and flips through the inventory. “True. Always lots of silver and gold in mines. But I've got to level up.”

Laughing, Jimin says, “Oh, right, I forgot.”

“Our little Kookie hasn't reached the new level cap yet!” Hoseok cackles and stands as well.

“Guys, shut up. I hate you.”

“It's okay, little boy.” Jimin ruffles his hair.

“Don't call me boy,” Jungkook grumbles, and swats Jimin's hand away.

Hoseok opens his inventory, hovering blue shapes that he flips through with a loose hand. The faint futuristic glow illuminates his face. It's almost impossible to think that exact face could appear somewhere on the streets of Jungkook's city, drowning in the dreary mass of others. A flick of the wrist and Hoseok has on his typical gear, light armour and some fancy rapiers that Jungkook's warrior classification disallows him from using.

“You know,” Hoseok says, twirling one of the thin blades before putting it back in its sheath, “I still think you should try dual-wielding.”

Jungkook shakes his head. “Warriors can't dual-wield as well as rogues can. And I like two-handeds better anyway. Stronger hits.”

“Your loss,” Hoseok shrugs and says, and tucks his dagger into the concealed slot at his hip.

“Come on, let's go,” Jimin says. “Kook, you sure you're not coming? I know you like raids.”

“Nah. You have fun with your lame, low-level raids, hyung.”

“Alright, We're gonna go kill some fuckers, loot some shit, have fun, you know. Do what this place is meant for.”

“You'll be jealous, kid,” Hoseok says, grinning, right before he and Jimin bound out the door laughing before Jungkook can tell them to shut up again, leaving him scowling in the warm cottage with the flickering fire.

Before he can stop himself, tell himself it's dangerous, he's wondering what Hoseok and Jimin are like in real life. No doubt their faces look the same; that's how the system works. But things other than that. What do they stand for? What do they want? Would they, too, be as interested in that organization as much as Jungkook is?

Come to think of it, Jungkook's not entirely sure why he's involved with that place himself.

Then he thinks of self-determination. Of Taehyung. Of the welcoming feeling of being treated as valid, as whole, as human. And perhaps that's why.

- - -

Coming back is, all the same, terrible.

It's the torture of full-body pain, it's nausea soaking his blood like venom, it's the dizziness that accompanies the brutal jolt between worlds, and yet again he's considering this feeling horrendous enough to give up the contentment of virtual reality forever.

It's also shame, because this time he's not alone, and he can't hide it. There's Taehyung right next to the bed, staring with wide eyes as Jungkook gets up, falls on his knees, then begins to drag himself toward the corner of the room before he realizes he doesn't know where the bathroom is and lies face down on the concrete floor.

Taehyung silently hands him a bucket, and Jungkook at least has the self-respect to turn away from him to violently vomit stomach acid into it. Some comes out his nose and it stings and he can't stop his eyes tearing up.

“Welcome back,” Taehyung says when he's gone quiet.

There might be condescension there, Jungkook thinks, but he looks up and turns around and sees it's more just friendly humour.

“Want a run-down on what happened while you were gone?” If Jungkook wasn't too busy choking then he would shake his head. Taehyung goes on like Jungkook isn't dying a pathetic death right in front of him. “Uh... Let's see. Namjoon said some more shit. I'll tell you later, I guess. Um...”

Jungkook tries to say shut the fuck up but instead he hacks and sputters.

“There was an arson account last week. Another one, if you'll believe it—”

He tries again. “Sh—” Cough. “—Shut the fuck up.”

“You ever hear of those?” Taehyung is saying like he didn't hear, but Jungkook sees him hiding his smile. “They happen quite often— But you don't read the papers, do you?”

“Fuck off,” he coughs again, hard, and his throat feels clearer. “You've got me confused with somebody who ever gave a shit. About news. Or the world. Or anything, for that matter.”

Taehyung laughs, and then allows Jungkook the moment of silence he needs to mourn his dignity and catch his breath. Cruel but caring.

Pant. Pant. Sorry, Mother.

“Man, you've got it bad,” Taehyung says from his chair once Jungkook's breathing like a human again. He's sitting on it backwards with his legs spread wide around the backrest and his arms resting on the top. “I mean, I knew it was bad, but I didn't know it was this bad.”

“Asshole. Rub it in, why don't you?” Jungkook wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and stays clutched to the nasty bucket of vomit, not really sure what to do with it.

Taehyung just grins and rests his chin on his arms. In his hand are a few bloody plastic tubes, and Jungkook realizes he must have had the courtesy to take them out for him before he brought Jungkook back. How thoughtful. Taehyung asks, “Why didn't you tell me?”

“You never asked.”

“Well, I'm asking now. How bad have you got it?”
“...Over five years, now.”

“Shit, the thing only came out, like, six years ago.”

“Yeah, well. I was eighteen, finished high school. The fuck else was I gonna do? School? Job? Or constant video games. Like, duh.”

“Guess you regret that now.”

“I already know plenty about what I regret. You don't have to tell me.” Blood from his arms smear on the bucket. He tries to stop the flow by pressing on the injuries with his other hand, but they're too spread out. Holes mar his arms like track marks. Disgusted, he looks away.

Jungkook asks, “How long?”

“Two weeks,” Taehyung replies, knowing what he means.

“Not enough,” Jungkook says, shaking his head.

“More than plenty, actually. It's all just in your head. Remember?”

“Yeah. Not like that makes it any less fucking real. Less fucking painful.” Taehyung is silent, and Jungkook looks up to see him pursing his lips. Jungkook continues, “You wouldn't know.”

And Taehyung pauses for a minute before saying, “Yeah. You're right. I wouldn't know. And I'm never gonna know, not if you don't tell me.” He gives Jungkook a gentle smile. “Just open up a bit. And I'll understand.”

Jungkook coughs and spits the phlegm from his throat into the bucket. He mumbles, “Yeah.”

“I know pride's a big deal,” Taehyung continues, “but there's no shame in giving up pride for the sake of honesty. Even if it's just for a bit”

Surprising, yet at the same time, expected. Because Taehyung is a kind person, behind all the odd dogma and snarky talk. Jungkook nods, but it doesn’t feel like enough, not after what Taehyung just said. Maybe the guy doesn't really understand the magnitude of his words, but Jungkook does. Feels it for the earth-shaking yet completely comforting revelation that it is. So he vocalizes it and says, “Thanks.”

There's something tranquil about the room, completely juxtaposing the absolute chaos just experienced by Jungkook's consciousness. It washes over Jungkook's skin and makes him feel fresh, unburdened, in a way he hasn't felt in years.

With a clatter of the chair, Taehyung stands up seeming to be free of his solemn air, having returned to his grinning, teasing demeanor. He says, “And, since you don't want pity, I won't be giving you any. So...” He gives Jungkook a once-over, at his hunched form on the floor of Taehyung's room, and looks pointedly at the vomit bucket he's clutching. “You're cleaning that up yourself.”

“I know, I know,” Jungkook laughs and rolls his eyes.

“Then,” Taehyung adds, “you're gonna find me up in the meeting room. We've got somewhere to go.”

- - -

They're walking along the long asphalt path that borders the ocean. Warm wind blows and whips Jungkook's shirt around his frame. It's Taehyung's shirt, really. He's borrowing it, because it'd be a waste to wear his dirty one after having borrowed Taehyung's shower. It's still baggy, but it fits him better than all his own shirts do, those ones he'd bought before he'd become addicted and emaciated.

Ocean air blows and Jungkook breathes it in. They don't even need their masks out here. Miraculous.

“Where are we going?” he asks.

“Dunno,” Taehyung shrugs, and looks out to the ocean so the setting sun reflects off the water and straight into his eyes, making them glimmer. “Nowhere. Anywhere. Just wanted to show you the world, really.” He gestures to the ocean. “It's nice, hey?”

“Yeah.” Nostalgia tingles through his body, tugs his lips up into a gentle smile. “It's been a while since I've been here.”

“Figured that. You only ever really went between your house and the hospital to pick up that IV drip stuff, hey? And the bar. S'why I brought us out here. Thought it would be good.”

Jungkook nods. “It is. Used to come here a lot, actually.”

“What did you do?”

“You know, just, like, dates and stuff. Walks. That kind of thing.”

“Ooh,” Taehyung gives him a silly grin and elbows his side. “Ultimate lady-killer Jeon Jungkook, huh?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” he chuckles a little sheepishly and scratches the back of his neck. “Just little things, you know? I remember the last one, before all this shit happened, I was sitting right over there on a date with this one guy from my comp-sci class, just chatting.” His hand lifts to point at a pile of rocks down near the sunny shore, but his eyes move to Taehyung, to watch for any kind of reaction at his mention of a male date.

But Taehyung's just following the direction of his finger and looking out toward the sand. “Well, trip down memory lane, then, hey?”

And Jungkook grins. “You bet.”

Slow steps on the pavement, they keep walking. Nearby trees shake out their leaves in the salty sea air. Orange light colours Jungkook's pallid skin, and he revels in the warmth.

“I don't know,” he begins, “why I never realized it.”

“Realized what?”

“How nice this place is. This world.” His eyelids flutter shut and he tilts his head up, letting himself lean slightly against Taehyung to guide him along the path. “Maybe it's because I only ever saw the city. The smog and cars and stressed working people. Guess I just forgot this kind of thing exists, too.”

He opens his eyes to look at the sky, glowing warmth of the evening. Taehyung says, “I'm glad I could remind you, then. That being out here is good.” With a sly grin, he goes on, “And maybe your pale ass will finally get some sort of tan going, as well.”

Taehyung runs his fingers over Jungkook's forearm, not cringing at or even mildly hesitant to brush over the holes and scabs littering his skin.

Jungkook laughs, “Shut up.”

That touch drifts down to his wrist, farther then to wrap around his palm. “Let's go down to the water,” Taehyung suggests.

But before he can lead Jungkook toward the shore, Jungkook's gripping Taehyung's hand hard and running off, pulling him from the pavement and onto the sand. As they run, they kick their shoes off and scatter them out over the beach.

Wild and reckless, Jungkook jumps into the water first, splashing through the lapping waves until he's in past his knees. Taehyung gets pulled along with him, Jungkook's sudden enthusiasm nearly knocking him over.

“Hey, you fuck, you're getting my clothes wet! And your clothes— Shit, those are my clothes—”

Jungkook cackles skims his fingers over the glinting water, splashing it up at Taehyung's face. “The fuck are you gonna do about it?”

“Wh— You asshole—” Again he gets a face full of water, and Jungkook's laughing even harder. “C'mere!”

The ocean water rushes around their feet as they run after each other, cold drops shaking from their hair and clothing.

“Jeon Jungkook, you're fucking crazy!”

Pushing wet hair out of his eyes, Jungkook turns around to see Taehyung bent over, breathing hard and smiling.

“Nah, crazy's all you, hyung!”

There's water soaking Jungkook's t-shirt and pulling it tight to his body like a layer of plastic wrap, showing the unsettling ridges and valleys of his ribs, the web of bones on his chest. He doesn’t even think of covering it, and just brings his hand up to shield his eyes from the screaming light of the low sun to look at Taehyung.

“I'm not crazy,” Taehyung's yelling with virtue, as the truth and nothing but. “I'm free!” Full voice casting out over the vast ocean, Taehyung then looks at Jungkook with absolute sincerity, points a finger at him to spotlight his point. “And so are you!”

And maybe this is acceptance. Maybe this is inclusion. Maybe this is the complete disregard for everything wrong with Jungkook, all while allowing him the freedom and fairness to be himself, unchanged.

The rays of sun bound off the clear water and white sand, ripple as they warm the world. With the breath of the sea wind, the fat, cumulonimbus clouds tumble with their typical signals of impending instability. Beneath that sky the two stand, shallow ocean waves lapping around their calves and grinning silly at each other like they're each the best thing the other has ever known.

- - -

Cut to the meeting room in mid-afternoon. Down and hidden from the sun, dark like nighttime. A room full of pariahs, and Jungkook's just one of the many.

Namjoon's telling them, “Indoctrination relies on your credulity.”

“And so, strengthen your mind, and fight it. This filthy city wants to take you over. Do not become a slave.”

Wide-eyed Jungkook drinking it in like sweet poison.

Rattles coming from the metal rafters up above and Taehyung leaning to whisper to him, “When do you want to go back?”

“What?”

“VR. When do you want to go back?”

Jungkook shakes his head slowly like the drone of Namjoon's speech. “I don't.”

“Huh?”

“I don't want to go back.”

“Like... ever?”

“Ever.”

“You've got to at some point.”

“No. Cold turkey, Tae. That's how I'm doing it.”

Another dull sound of a car whipping by on the pavement above.

Jungkook says, “Complete cut-off.”

Namjoon says, “Don't give in. Because if this is where living gets you then maybe you have to rethink how you live.”

Taehyung says nothing.

- - -

“It's easy.”

“It's immoral.”

“What isn't?”

Here is Jungkook walking in the bustling city streets as the sun falls.

Taehyung says, “This is how you make the world yours.” Pockets jingling with keys and cash, wallets, small devices, things that don't belong to him. “Test your capability. Through conquest and all that.”

“It's not conquest. It's theft.”

A quick dart of the hand and Taehyung's got another silver cellphone shoved in his pocket. Not his. “It doesn't matter what it is, Kook.” He slings an arm over Jungkook's shoulder and with a light shove, bumps him into a man wearing a long felt coat. Big pockets. Easy.

Thin fingers slip between the fabric and brush the solid leather of a wallet before Jungkook's even thinking. A snap of realization and he pulls them back. The man keeps up his brisk walk, oblivious.

Enticement goes like sweet syrup down his throat as he swallows.

Taehyung says, “What matters is how it feels.”

Those same words, again, in that same alluring tone. Caked white paint on Jungkook's fingers cracks as he straightens and bends them. Tries to keep them at his side. To keep impulse at bay.

Yet he recalls the charged rush that would come in a deluge each time he would paint. As he would leave his mark on the world, getting better, quicker, each time. That same bliss beginning to now push on the floodgates, trickle through. Teasing, tempting whispers from the back of his head.

And this, possibly, could be something just as good. Better. A marvel on the mind, let loose in all his capacity.

Another opportunity, granted again by Taehyung as he leans on Jungkook to veer them a little farther left, into a short old woman with a slack shopping bag draped over her shoulder, hanging open over her back.

It would be so easy.

“Go on,” Taehyung mumbles next to his ear with a grin. “Our goal is for you to do what you want. Let you be yourself.”

“I—” It ends in a breath. No counterargument. Because he wants to, with absolute intensity. So instead, he nods to a woman in heels, a purse hanging loose from her elbow. She's walking toward them. “Her.”

“Wicked.”

They weave through the crowd and it feels like too soon that she's right there, and Jungkook feels the pressure heavy on his mind and body until he realizes, What the fuck do I care? Rich bitch with her stupidly opulent purse and extravagant style, she's just another one of them.

A filthy glare from behind her framed glasses that are probably worth more than her life as she meets Jungkook's eyes. What a degenerate addict, she's probably thinking, seeing his skin-and-bones body, the unhealthy malnourishment that's plastered to him. And he doesn't feel too guilty anymore, even has the cheek to give her a smarmy grin, right before she's walking past and he slips a hand in her purse.

Sunglasses and a crisp wallet and a single left glove.

“Shit, look at that.” Taehyung whistles low, and Jungkook feels giddy with pride. Accomplishment colours his step. Taehyung reaches out to fiddle with the sunglasses in Jungkook's hand before he pushes the handful into Jungkook's pocket for him. “Keep it. You don't get swanky shit like that everyday.”

Jungkook nods, giddy. Leaning closer to Taehyung, he's saying, “You know how this feels, Taehyung?”

And Taehyung looks at him as they're walking, their faces an inch apart but not close enough. A pleased glimmer in his eyes and an impressed smile. He raises his eyebrows.

Jungkook purrs with his eyelids dropped low, running on adrenaline, “It feels good.”

In response Taehyung gives his an excited grin, yet not surprised in any way. “I knew you'd like it,” Taehyung murmurs to him and him only as the crowd buzzes in the backdrop.

While bouncing on his feet Jungkook pulls Taehyung's arm farther over his shoulder and looks ahead, subtly nodding, saying, “That guy next.”

- - -

Choppy transitions between heaven and hell as his very chemical makeup shifts. Volatile reactions. Incendiary shocks as his brain rewires.

He's tumbling through elation and misery in the span of days, hours, minutes.

This is by his own volition, so maybe he deserves this. He's vomiting for the third time since coming back. Above him the white light crackles and buzzes as his weak body drapes itself over the toilet. This is too familiar.

Maybe he's not cut out for this. Life, and all that.

He pushes his shaking body up and leaves the bathroom, going back to the cold, dark hallway of grimy world that treats him worse than he's ever treated himself.

He'll pretend not to hear it while he leans on the wall outside the door to collect himself before going back in. But he does, a cracking whip against his eardrums as it gets beat into his head by way of a soothing voice.

Giving in means you're weak, and being weak means you're not yourself, not ready. Ready for what, who knows. Apparently it's a big deal, though. Apparently it's the sole reason for being alive.

Jungkook wants it. Whatever it is. He wants it like he's never wanted anything before.

That Yoongi's voice echoes, that reminder Jungkook can't escape. Just know that succumbing to it makes you weak. Your connections to that world make you weak.

All that makes him wish he was stronger, strong enough to fight it, strong enough to beat it into the ground until it's gone and no longer a part of him.

He rocks on his feet and feels delirious.

Maybe he's beginning to understand it. What it means to give himself up. Does an addiction constitute as part of the self? Or maybe the world's just spinning so quick he's looking at the blurs thinking he can make something out of it. Or maybe he's dehydrated. Or maybe he's suffering withdrawal.

If he were thinking clearly he might have known that complete cut-off is never easy, not when VR is one of the most fundamental parts of him. Without it, who is he? Hell, even with it, who is he?

It takes two weeks for him to break and he's not surprised. Not even disappointed.

One day he's coming home, in one moment feeling fine and in the next suddenly remembering what it's like.

Some voice says in his right ear, Don't you miss it?

There's no one to his right when he turns but now there's a different voice in his left ear saying, Don't you miss us?

Because he sees the goggles and the little IV machine and he remembers, oh, how he remembers, everything all at once like an avalanche, suffocating him, but so pure and white and maybe it's a little relaxing too and maybe just one hour, just one, maybe a few, maybe a day, just one, or a couple, just a week, just a little.

He might be thinking about how pathetic this is if it weren't for the absolute, overwhelming, blood-rush, brain-shock excitement of what he's in now. Now. Now. Forget about the impending delirium of later. Get lost in this instead.

It's not denial if you deny that as well.

Those tubes get shoved in his arm like he's trying to stab them all the way through to the other side. He misses so he has to do it a few times and each time he pulls them out and sticks them back in more and more blood drips across his skin, red like a correction for something done wrong. He's shaking but it's fine because he won't be here in a few minutes. It might be good to get himself a bottle of water but he's already at this point so fuck it. Fuck it all. Maybe Taehyung will be disappointed. Fuck it. So what he lied to Taehyung. So what he lied to himself. People lie, Jungkook, get fucking used to it, Jesus Christ. His vision shakes worse than his body. Sorry mom I'm sorry sorry Taehyung I'm sorry sorry Jungkook I'm sorry sorry Jimin Hoseok I left you sorry sorry I'm coming back sorry. And there's regret somewhere for everything he's done and everything he's breaking but it's getting overshadowed by how good he knows it's going to be and then he's already gone, clasping his goggles around his head, praying they squeeze his brain hard enough it bursts so he dies while he's lost in paradise.

- - -

Hoseok is saying, “The muster point is right there,” and pointing to some part of the map.

Jimin says, “Well the gate's right there so why don't we go from here and flank them from the left—”

“No, then these guys from the forests will be able to join them easily so—”

“But if we go this way we can block this route and—”

“Yeah, but then there's no effective way to stop—”

Their fingers point and paint pictures in the air and Jungkook's eyes follow them. If he gets creative maybe he'll be able to see the image of a cat, or a sun, or a smiley face traced out in the air. He is nodding. Agreeing. Yes, that is a good point, a fine point, that thing you said. Maybe he's trying for confirmation. Some sort of proof for the fact that, yes, he is here. In his home of five years. His comfort zone. Getaway. Whatever.

Now Hoseok's saying, “Jungkook?” and waving a hand in front of his face.

“Yeah. Good idea,” he responds, but to what he doesn’t know.

Both Hoseok and Jimin look at him with concern but some part of him can't help but cling to the fact that it's not real concern. Just electricity and images. Pixels. Transmissions. It's not real emotion and that hand waving in front of his face is not a real hand and, fuck, this world isn't real either, and neither are them and neither is he. Not really, not if you think about it.

Maybe he's thinking too much.

Maybe he's thinking too little.

It's never bothered him before but now suddenly it is.

This place used to be comfort and escape and glory but suddenly now it's not and he doesn't know what to blame. Maybe he'll blame himself again because if he follows the web of fault then eventually it all traces back to him anyway. That's often the case, he's found.

Guess what, mom? Jeon Jungkook fucked up again. Oh, you're not surprised?

“Kook, stop it, your mom's not even here—”

Jungkook laughs because what Jimin just said was really, really funny. What? Had he said something? Oh, that, too, is really funny.

“She fucking hates you anyway,” one of them says, and that's not so funny, so he stops laughing.

“What?”

“And now she's dead and you never gave her a second chance at loving you.”

“I-”

“Are you sorry?”

“I've always been sorry—”

“Kook,” Jimin snaps, “stop it.”

“What?”

“You alright, man?” That's Hoseok. Jungkook blinks but not really because this is a simulation.

“Um—” He remembers where he is and that he's supposed to be loving this but now he really doesn’t know what he's supposed to be doing and—

“Kook, you abandoned us,” Jimin says, but when Jungkook looks at his mouth he sees the words don't match.

Nevertheless, he says, “Sorry,” because he feels like he can never say it enough.

“How could you?”

He wants to laugh but it's not as funny anymore. In fact, it's almost scary. Either it's a glitch or he's losing his mind and he wants to believe it's the former but he knows it's the latter, coupled with some weird guilt entangled dangerously with self-blame. Personal poison.

“Maybe get some rest, hey?” Hoseok says, and Jungkook knows that one's for real because he knows these two are good people.

“Take a break,” Jimin tells him.

It's weird because this used to be what his break was, and reality used to be the inconvenience. Now VR feels like suffocation.

- - -

“Where've you been?” Taehyung asks with his patented smirk decorating his whisper. It's been two days he's been gone but apparently that's enough to highlight his failure.

“Shut up. At least I'm back in time for the meeting.”

“You broke,” Taehyung supplies, and Jungkook says nothing, just keeps his eyes on Namjoon. Around him people shift and he lets his eyes float to them. The blond one that's always biting her nails. The one whose left shoe is constantly tapping the floor, tap, tap, tap. Focusing on anything but Taehyung.

Because, yeah, he feels ashamed. Sorry Mom, Taehyung, world.

In the group of people is that Yoongi guy, leaning into Seokjin's lap and fiddling with his medical alert bracelet. Jungkook wonders if he's broken before, too. Or if Jungkook is alone in his failure. Seokjin's fingers card through Yoongi's hair and they smile at each other, and Jungkook looks back at Namjoon.

Anger, possibly, or frustration, or envy, or something else. More of these emotions that rattle his brain stem.

He feels the sigh gentle against his neck. “...It's not a big deal. You know that, right?”

It feels like the biggest deal in the world, a massive blow to topple his pride that he's so carefully been building up. Around his arm, where those ugly marks of his shortcomings sneer at him, Taehyung's hand grips hard, not the slightest bit disgusted.

“No one expects you to be perfect. Especially not me.”

Touch that feels like acceptance.

“I...” Jungkook lifts his head to look at Taehyung who meets his tired puffy eyes with a challenge against the dejection as if Jungkook's happiness is equivalent to his own. With a small grin and an embarrassed bump against his shoulder, Jungkook tells him, “Thanks.”

- - -

The thing about self-hatred is that it's a cycle. The thing about recovery is that it's a process. The things about guilt is that it's eternal.

First he's just headed home, not loving life but not really minding it either. Walking up the stairs to his apartment with his head floating somewhere between the words Namjoon fed him and the way Taehyung's skin looked impeccably soft today. Somewhere nice.

Three flights of stairs used to be nearly impossible. Now they're only a mere struggle. He's still weak and attenuated, but slightly less so compared to back then. A personal victory, maybe.

But what he's got to remember is that he's gorgeously unstable. It's not that happiness easily tips to misery tips to anxiety, but that happiness is misery is anxiety. It's that he might be standing strong one minute, but that craving is a sly assailant, and he's inordinately weak.

Surrender runs in his blood.

By the time he's locking the door behind him, seeing the goggles and machine in the corner of his eye, he's already given in a millennium ago.

All that happiness is made of is chemicals and all that sadness is made of is chemicals as well, and so who cares? Jungkook doesn't. Never has, never will. He's come this far but he's started out from so low that it doesn't really mean much. Sacrificing this is nothing.

He's fumbling with the familiar tubes because resolve crumbles like dry sand. His eyes are wide in the dark as he stabs his arm, misses the vein, again, misses. Someone's judging him in the supposed quiet. Everything he's hearing is probably not actually there.

Those haunting voices cackle as he cries.

“You've done it again, boy.”

“One more thing you'll never be able to atone for.”

I'm sorry.

Stab. Miss.

Tears drip and mix with blood and carve rust down his skin.

Stab. Miss.

If he could think clearly he might realize this is halfway purposeful.

Stab. And it goes in. A small backwash of blood into the clear tube before the fluid begins to force its way into his bloodstream. The perceived fever seems to subside, a miniscule calm before it flares up again, this time in anticipation and the vehement hatred of it. Of him.

There's too much at this point, so he just open his heart and accepts it all as part of himself. (Thanks to Taehyung, he now has a better idea of who that is. Maybe that can be his one saving grace.)

Thoughts rupture through the barriers he's haphazardly created over the years and unwillingly he's thinking of his mother and those memories.

She's here in her apron and she's crossing her arms and he's standing tall but his head's barely reaching her hips. He's here as a scolded child, weak and having committed a wrong.

Sorry, he's saying, but apologies are just scotch tape trying to hold together a crumbling building. Sorry, he's saying, and everything's breaking just a bit more.

But she's ruffling his hair and saying, It's okay. Because she loves him and he's a good boy and this is the last time he's going to do something like this, right?

And this good boy nods. Promises of perfection and pride that tie them to the tracks as the train careens toward them, promising a destructive death together, as mother and loving son. Down the tracks comes the future, rushing in with all the stupid mistakes he makes.

He's human and sorry for it.

She probably wanted to die with a son who did great things, who excelled in his high-paying career, who had pretty girlfriend, with marriage peeking around the corner along with the comforting promise of children. A son to be proud of. Instead she died with disgust on her tongue.

He's human and not sorry enough for it.

Now Hoseok's here saying, “You'll never be good enough.”

And Jimin's here saying, “You can't even be good to us.”

“Perfect little boy. What are you gonna do with yourself now?”

“Oh, boy. What now? What now?”

“Now that you're so far from what you were supposed to be.”

All these apologies being spilled from his lips are too full, too heavy, and they break like a sad water balloon against the floor. There's so much meaning packed into them but he and these phantasms straight from his imagination are the only ones around to listen.

Jungkook blinks and now there's Taehyung. Not really, though, and he knows that.

It's hard to see in the dark but he recognizes it as him, his features that he often spends too long studying, the nice slope of his nose that Jungkook often wants to brush against with his own nose in some gesture of affection, but he feels he doesn’t deserve even so much.

This imaginary boy's crouched in front of him, head cocked and smiling. Jungkook feels his hands, previously reaching for the goggles, get grasped between cool fingers and pulled back to himself.

The catheter pumping fluid into his arm now feels ice cold. This is what regret feels like. Moving forward slowly so Taehyung's eventually straddling him, smirking with those plump lips, he breathes hot against Jungkook's face.

It feels so real Jungkook wants to cry. Out of fear of his own mind. Guilt that he's thinking these things. Regret that this is what he's come to. Shame that this is who he is.

Taehyung whispers, so, so close, “Set yourself free.”

And Jungkook's never wanted to lose himself so much. Has never wanted to be rid of himself so entirely. Because he would be so much better if he were not himself.

Blink.

And Taehyung's gone. Jungkook's breathing hard, sitting up. The pathetic part is he's used to this kind of thing. Not the first time, probably not the last. The only evidence any of that happened is the copious amounts of cold sweat caking his body.

So he gets up. Pries the tubes from his arm so hard they catch on his skin and blood spills onto the floor like ink blots. And in the shower, he washes it all off. No one will ever know of this moment of weakness.

While he showers, he scratches at the left-over scabs on his arms from those old holes created in those other moments of failure. Scratches until blood's rushing out with the scalding water, down the drain in swirls of hateful red.

Set me free, Taehyung, he's muttering. Let me give myself up.

- - -

“Hold still.”

“I've heard this hurts.”

“It does. Hold still.”

The real world is an ironic breath of fresh air. Being with Taehyung out in this sullied city distracts from the cacophony in his mind, the discord between what he thought he wanted and what he now wants and the enmity he feels toward both.

That metal needle digs beneath Jungkook's skin and he yelps and jumps away.

Taehyung says, “This is nothing, Kook.”

“Fuck you, it hurts,”

“It's no worse than those IV tubes you used to love shoving in your skin.”

Taehyung pulls Jungkook back toward him and leans close to his shoulder again, pushing the loose sleeve up.

“Asshole. That's different.”

“Sure, sure,” Taehyung just chuckles in a warm breath that raises goosebumps on Jungkook's skin. Again, the tattoo machine begins to buzz, puncturing ink into Jungkook's shoulder.

Jungkook's fairly sure he's lost his stability, but with Taehyung, he feels like he gains it back tenfold. Reality has never been comfortable for him, but virtual reality has lost its quality of glamourous escape as well. Everywhere he goes, he feels trapped, maybe by fear of his own mind, or what his consciousness will eventually do to him.

But Taehyung's presence calms him. Oddly, this wild boy with his roaring mind is a source of peace.

They're down in Taehyung's room, that dimly lit concrete box two floors beneath the ground. Quiet aside from the eerie footsteps that echo from above.

“Not that bad, see?” Taehyung murmurs, focusing on his work.

Jungkook leans back on the headboard. “Whatever. Just don't fuck it up.”

“Relax, I won't. I've done this hundreds of times.”

“Oh, have you now?”

“Alright. Twice. Same deal.”

“On who?”

“Some other people, also part of the organization. We do each other's tattoos. It kind of... brings us together, I guess.”

It's warm and Taehyung's presence in relaxing. Jungkook closes his eyes and listens. The metallic hum as Taehyung details his skin with the machine, Taehyung's steady breathing as he concentrates, the buzzing of the old lamp so he can see what he's doing in the low lighting. Jungkook watches it cast stark shadows against the crease of Taehyung's brow as he furrows it, beneath his lip as he nibbles on it.

Cute, some part of Jungkook's mind provides out of nowhere. And he agrees. Very cute, and very distinctly Taehyung.

Jungkook asks him, “How did you end up here?”

Taehyung doesn't look up from his work. “How did you end up here?”

“You, of course.” He's a little confused that Taehyung would even ask.

“You'll think that.” Pause, and Taehyung leans over in his chair to grab a cloth from the desk to wipe the collecting ink before starting back up again. “Truth is, Jungkook, it was all you. Coming here. Doing all... this. Your own will. I was just there.”

“I'd say you were pretty influential in all this.”

“But I'm not the reason.”

“You're one of the reasons.” Jungkook nods at the design being embedded in his shoulder. “You're the reason I'm getting this.”

“Eh, if you hadn't, they would've just made you get one eventually.”

“What?”

Again, Taehyung stops to wipe the ink and says, “Nothing. You asked how I got here?”

Tangled in his words, there it is again. These little social cues that Jungkook's been getting better at detecting and worse at ignoring. Now it dances in his mind, taunting. He's intent enough to notice it, to acknowledge it, but not enough to decipher it. All he really know is Taehyung's awfully secretive about a lot of things Jungkook still can't go deep enough to know, and he's only just realizing this now.

“...Yeah. And why you're still here.”

“That wasn't in your original question.”

“Well I'm adding it now.”

The small white lamp flickers and dips them into darkness for a brief moment. Taehyung keeps working. “I'm here because it interested me. I'm still here because I want to be.”

“That's awfully vague.”

“Well it's hard to pinpoint it. You try. Why are you here? Really.”

The answer hits Jungkook in the heart and the head, but really, he's known it all along.

You.

“It's hard to answer, isn't it?”

“Yeah.”

Taehyung wipes the ink, a cool pass of a cloth on Jungkook's shoulder. The buzzing is a rhythmic on, off, on, off. Jungkook's getting lost in the lull. Usually his mind is muddled and right now it's even worse. In a comfortable way, though. A relaxed way.

His words spill from his mouth to stain the air around them before he can think to stop them. “Do you think this is working?”

Through those pouty lips comes a sigh, and Jungkook wants to lift a finger to poke them to see if they're as pillowy as they look. Taehyung gently stretches and pulls at the skin on Jungkook's shoulder, but all he's really doing is buying time. “Working for me, or working for you?” he asks, because he knows what Jungkook means.

“I don't know.”

“Yeah. Me neither.” In regards to what Taehyung's referring to, it's unclear.

“There's a lot you don't know.”

“Surprise, surprise.”

“Shouldn't it be?”

“Not really. I'm human, with all the faults that come with that. I'm weak. Stupid. We all are.”

“All as in just everyone here, or everyone in the world?”

“Everyone. Ever.”

“Ever?”

“I know what you're asking. And I'm saying yes.”

“Even him.”

“Even him. Because... Namjoon over there might've reached 'enlightenment' or fucking whatever, but I feel like all he's really done is lost it.” Taehyung's eyes flitter up at that last comment, some odd apprehension twisting in the colours. With an even gaze Jungkook stares back, and then almost physically feels the chasm between them closing.

“We used to be friends.” Speaking slowly, calmly working again. “If you can believe that.”

“Not anymore?”

“Oh, no. He's changed.”

“Haven't you?”

“Of course. I guess that's the goal. So Namjoon's ahead of us, technically. But I haven't changed much, not like he has.” He purses his lips, dotting ink in small strokes.

“Sometimes I'll think that about myself,” Taehyung says abruptly. “Since this is apparently honesty hour or whatever, I'll admit that, too. Like, who would I have been? If...”

Jungkook nods, because he gets it. Reaching out off the bed to put a hand on Taehyung's thigh, he says, “Me too.”

“He used to be amazing,” Taehyung almost whispers, like it's a secret kept even from himself. “Smart and nice and funny. And...”

“...And now?”

“He's amazing in different ways,” he says finally, but it doesn’t sound like the truth. It's fine, because Jungkook's long accepted the fact that secrets are the unspoken pillars of communication.

The fact still remains, though. That, although slighter than the fibre of a feather against their skin, was a confession, through and through. A recognition of the recognition that both of them, on some level, feel.

But Taehyung shakes his head and that entire moment disentangles from his hair to fall on the concrete around them, forgotten.

“It's done,” Taehyung says, and it takes Jungkook a moment to remember what he's talking about. A cold cloth on the skin of his shoulder and he remembers, right, symbols of belonging, and all that.

That never happened, Taehyung's eyes seem to say. Forget that was just said.

An excited smile, like whatever that heavy feeling between them was an illusion, Taehyung says, “Now we match!” And he pulls down the collar of his shirt just enough to show the symbol clinging to his collarbone, snaking off to disappear somewhere beneath the fabric. The same one that they've painted countless times on all those walls.

“Sweet.” Jungkook grins, and turns his neck and raises his shoulder to look at his own.

Seeing it, its twisting shapes and intricate design, he feels pride, honour, connection. Strengthened bonds, between himself and the people of the organization. A sense of belonging which he hasn't felt privy to in years.

No feeling feels better than this sense of welcoming. Acceptance for who he is, what he's done. After years of estrangement, it's a nice change.

- - -

Namjoon's got their attention, holding it like a prisoner. Manipulating it like dough. Moulding it around his words. Through words come ideas. Through ideas come character.

He's saying, “The pressure for conformity must not control you.”

Everyone is agreeing because that's just how it goes.

“Do not do as you're told simply because you're told to.”

Jungkook nods because Namjoon's right if you think about it. And Jungkook's thinking about it.

“Every action you take must be voluntary.”

Namjoon takes Jungkook's character and folds it like paper. Maybe he's making a pretty crane or a cute little flower or some other thing. Anything Namjoon wants, out of all Jungkook is.

“Do what you want to do.”

He thinks of the lingering pains from the tattoo on his shoulder which matches the one on Yoongi's arm that's apparently also printed on Seokjin and apparently a lot of other people as well, and thinks this must be the ultimate self-determining moment of his life that he's been waiting for.

“That is the path to freedom.”

- - -

Music drones through Jungkook's ears, makes his head heavy like it's waterlogged.

In front of him is Taehyung saying, “C'mon. You chickening out, Kook?”

Making him eat his words.

“No,” Jungkook grumbles, “I just don't feel like it.”

“Come on! It'll be fun!”

“I don't wanna have fun.”

“That's bullshit. You're an addict for fun.”

His glare is cold but the atmosphere is too hot to care. All Taehyung does is snicker at him.

“You told me,” Taehyung leans against the wall, “that you wouldn't be going back. That you would cut yourself off.”

“So? What's that got to do with this?”

“So... I just got the impression you could handle a bit more, is all.” It's dark but Jungkook sees the challenge in Taehyung's eyes, worlds brighter than the flashing coloured lights around them.

“You can't expect it to be immediate. It's a journey.”

“Yeah, so you've got to take the first step.”

“It's too early for this. This is too much—”

“We wouldn't be here if we knew you couldn't handle it.”

Jungkook grimaces because he knows it's true. His fingers run through his hair and he mutters, “Fuck... First step, huh?”

“Yeah. First step.” Taehyung's teeth look blue in the weird lights when he smiles. He grabs Jungkook's hand and pulls him away from the wall. “Come on, I'll take it with you.”

Tumbling and shoving through the hot bodies to stop right in the middle of the crowd, because that's the kind of person Taehyung is.

Here he is, this beauty that's moving on the floor like it's not the music controlling him but the other way around, him compelling it to pulse and quiver at his glorious whim. Jungkook can't help but stare, despite the moving mass of bodies around him, despite the unfamiliar volume of the bass, despite it all.

Movements holding the strength of freedom, eyes closed and lips softly smiling, dispelling inhibition like the disgusting hindrance it is.

Slowly letting Jungkook's hand go, Taehyung tells him, “Just loosen up, you'll be fine.”

So Jungkook finds the rhythm, lets himself be. Lets it wash over him but not control him. He dances with his arms up, cramped by people but feeling entirely the opposite. Lights glint off his medical alert bracelet, off the sweat running down his temple.

For a moment more fleeting than the flash of the lights, than the tick of the quick beat, Taehyung and Jungkook lock eyes in the heady atmosphere.

This is not Jungkook tolerating it or submitting to it because he has to. This is him doing it, by impulse, by will. This is him wanting it. This is him loving it.

The two smile at each other, and again, Jungkook's mind drifts to sex. Lust and allure and charm gleaming in Taehyung's intense look through the haze.

“Sometimes I wonder,” Taehyung says, leaning closer so Jungkook can hear, “how I got someone like you to come along with me.”

His breath against Jungkook's skin is hotter than the air around them. Stale alcohol sticks heavy to Jungkook's tongue when he says, “Someone like me?” Something airless and sweltering about his tone. “What's that mean?”

“Just...” Taehyung clarifies, “you.

“And who am I, Taehyung?”

“I couldn't tell you. You've got to find it out yourself.” The crowd around them is pushing them closer, but it could just be their reaction to unmistakeable magnetic pull between them. Taehyung's hand is flat on Jungkook's abdomen. “Just know that whoever you turn out to be, I'm gonna be amazed all the same.”

“I know.”

“You do?”

“I do. I've known it from the start.” Jungkook steps closer so that hot hand is pushing firmer against his body. “Sometimes I wonder how I ever got so lucky as to come across someone like you.”

“Someone like me?”

“Someone who sees me,” and he moves a hand to run down Taehyung's bicep, “just for me.”

Taehyung's eyelids move like they're heavy. “And who are you?”

“I think I'm getting an idea,” Jungkook says, breathless with excitement and something else.

A smirk on those fat lips as words roll from the black space between them, that space that Jungkook realizes he'd really like to stick his tongue into. Pretty words from Taehyung's silver tongue that murmur, “That's good, Kook. Really good.”

“Why's that?”

Once more their eyes flicker to each others', this time weighted with intention. Here is this magnificent boy, the one who helped Jungkook see the world through open eyes. And Jungkook realizes he may now be able to handle the dance floor and the pulsing crowd of people, but he cannot yet handle this manifestation of volatility that is Taehyung.

“Because now you've got some idea as to what it is you've got to give up.” A darker tone that makes Jungkook press his lips together before laughing a little. Taehyung continues, “We've got a long way to go, and this is just the beginning.”

Sweat gleams down the side of Taehyung's face and Jungkook wonders if it would taste like sex or freedom or both.

“Next step, straight after the first step,” Jungkook's saying but not really thinking.

“Now you're talking.”

Closer, closer, closer, until Jungkook's tongue is pulling tight and pressing hard against the roof of his mouth. More tension to gnaw at the humid space between their moving bodies.

Taehyung speaks his pretty mind with his pretty lips. “Are you having fun yet?”

Eyelashes that flutter as he blinks. Cheeks that bulge slightly with his smile. Light that bounces off the sweat of his neck, his collarbones. Soft and healthy skin. Jungkook licks the back of his teeth because he wants to bite that skin, leave marks on the pristine surface. Wonders what that would be like. What Taehyung feels like.

Taehyung says, “You'd better be.”

Jungkook's wondering what Taehyung fucks like. Marvelling somewhere in his muddled head about the fact that he's got all this fun right at his fingertips. Just waiting. Taehyung's fingers press into his abdomen. Waiting.

Taehyung says, “But you could be having more fun.”

No doubts about that.

Jungkook makes a decision and hopes this time it won't end up completely destroying him.

“So let's go have fun.”

- - -

While looking at Jungkook Namjoon is saying right to his eyes, “This is about you. As a being. Your own being.”

“My own being.” Jungkook nods. Reverence makes his eyes wide so he can take in this sight. Now he can boast he's been given a mission straight from the mouth of a god.

“Not that I don't believe Taehyung.. but do you believe you can do this?”

“I do.” He nods again.

“Because we are so much more than what you might have thought we were. You are so much more than what you thought you were. Capability is infinite. After that, it's all about what you do. So you have to be prepared to do anything.”

“I am. For anything.”

A smile tainted with twisted pride, and yet his eyes stay round and all-seeing.

“Good. You believe yourself?”

“Of course.”

“So promise me.”

With devotion he says, “I promise.”

- - -

Taehyung's waiting for him outside, just at the top of the staircase. As Jungkook comes up, he puts the small thing he was fiddling around with in his back pocket and pushes himself off the wall.

“You good?”

“Super good.”

“Sweet.” He begins walking into the dusk of the inner city. When he turns around, Jungkook sees the smile and wild anticipation in his eyes. Through his mask, Taehyung says, “Are you ready for the real thing?”

Toward the cold night of the metropolis, where the black building loom higher and higher and block them from seeing the stars, Taehyung starts running, weaving through the sparse crowd, laughing.

“Because this is only the beginning, Jungkook!”

Not knowing why, Jungkook's laughing too, forgetting inhibitions about the disgusted scowls from the city people and only thinking about Taehyung.

Taehyung is calling back to him, “Come on, Kook! The world's not gonna wait for you!”

So he runs, feet slapping an unsteady beat against the pavement as he searches for the pattern of the rhythm of the waking world. Virtual reality is just a hum in the background, a lost wavelength whose frequency he can't adjust to anymore.

- - -

“This is insane.”

They're silhouetted by streetlights and Taehyung's just smashed his elbow through a car window.

“Remember that one time, a while ago, when I told you not to think too much about it?”

“We're gonna get arrested.”

“So just don't think about it.”

“That doesn’t magically make it legal.”

“Well bitching about it's not gonna make it legal either.” With the old Pontiac still sputtering, Taehyung reaches through the window to pull the lock on the other side. “Consider this a lesson, to never leave your car running with the keys in, even if you've got the lock on the key fob with you.”

“Who cares, I don't even have a car.”

As Taehyung pulls open the door a bit of rust sprinkles off the side. On the side there's a bumper sticker that says WWJD and Jungkook wants to laugh at the memory it wrenches back.

“Have you ever driven a car?”

“No.”

“Okay.” Then Taehyung climbs in the car, but doesn’t sit in the driver's seat, and instead pulls himself over to the passenger's side. Holding out his hand, motioning for Jungkook to get it, he says, “You drive.”

“Wh— I just fucking said I don't know how.” It's whispered quick and angry. His eyes flicker to the dark streets, wondering what's hiding behind the shadows of the backstreets, the dumpsters. Someone to see this, maybe. To catch them in this crime, ruin him forever.

Then he remembers he's sort of already done that himself.

“So just figure it out,” Taehyung says. He's bent over so he can properly look at Jungkook without the roof of the car getting in the way. “It's not hard.”

Old cans skitter across the pavement and Jungkook jumps. “This is theft!” he's snapping, but slowly bending down to see the interior of the car. Ugly suede seats and stains peppering the beige roof liner.

Taehyung says, “Who the hell's gonna miss this shit? If anything, we're doing someone a favour.” He taps his hand against the cracked leather of the steering wheel. “Get in. Drive.”

“Do you want us to die?” he's hissing, but one foot is already stepping into the vehicle.

Taehyung laughs and says, “No, so you'd better not kill us.”

Before he can remember the difference between bad ideas and bad situations and realize that this constitutes as both, Jungkook's sitting in the lumpy seat, testing his feet out on the pedals.

“See, this one's even automatic,” Taehyung reassures him. “It's easy. One on the left there's your brake. Foot on that, then use this and switch it to drive.”

Palms sweaty from anxiety and maybe anticipation.

“This is so dumb,” he's muttering, but a smile's poking at his cheeks. The car lurches a little when he moves the stick and his heart's beating fast like he's supposed to be scared.

“Foot off the brake and the car's gonna start moving a bit. Then hit the accelerator when you feel like it. That's on the right.”

“Kay...” He bites his lip, trying to fight the swelling feeling in his chest. But it overflows and a laugh bubbles through his throat. This massive metal box is moving down the empty streets, rolling along at his control. His volition. “Where do I go?”

“That way.” Taehyung points straight ahead.

“And then?”

“Just keep going. Don't worry, we won't get lost. I'm a good guide, I promise.”

Jungkook's too nervous to take his eyes off the road but he can still feel the warmth as Taehyung beams at him.

Taehyung says, “This is gonna be fun, I promise.”

And Jungkook doesn't doubt it in the slightest.

- - -

“That button there's for the top. Bring it down before we get on the highway.”

Now they're blasting this jalopy convertible down the long road and Taehyung's telling him to step on it a bit harder. Immediately he's doing it. That dial ticks a bit farther, up a couple notches before it stutters, and it feels good.

What's mind-blowing is that 100 miles per hour doesn't feel like 100 miles per hour. Not really. Death doesn't tickle his toes and there's no god screaming in his ear to stop. All he hears is the wild buffet of wind against his ears and Taehyung to his side screaming something about happiness and something about freedom and absolutely nothing about caution.

They've ripped off their cloth masks, because breathing pure pollution is nothing compared to the destruction they inflict upon themselves.

“This is so against the law!” Jungkook's yelling over the wind while stepping harder on the gas to test how much this ramshackle car can really take.

Taehyung's got his feet kicked up on the dashboard and his hands stretched up to the stars. “Who cares? You owe nothing to the world! What's it ever done for you?”

Laughter spiked with adrenaline as Jungkook shouts, “It's trapped me!”

“That's what I've been saying!”

“But hyung, this is crazy!”

“You know what's really crazy?” Frenzied to fire up the soul, Taehyung belts his notions at the indifferent sky. “Going at this speed, the only thing deciding between you being a bloody streak on the pavement or a lawless living god is whether you fuck this up or not! Crazy, huh? Isn't it crazy to be so in control of your own fate?”

“This is gonna fucking kill us!”

“Or it's gonna make us counterculture gods! It's life, Jungkook! You never know what's gonna happen!”

Vivid energy to bring him to life. All this inside of him, all this now running loose. Above are the stars that glimmer quietly and down here are these two, creating a nuclear explosion out of themselves just for the hell of it. For the fun of it. An untamed inferno pulsing, cracking into the head to the heart to the soul.

Self-destruction and the very spirit of it all.

Jungkook screams it at the world, forcing it to hear him, forcing it to hate him. And Taehyung's right next to him, doing the exact same thing.

Taehyung, who is personal identity and acceptance and freedom and everything else. Taehyung, who is Jungkook's brand new addiction, filling in the vacant space the old one left him with.

“Look at what you've done to me!” Jungkook's yelling over the bluster of the wind around the convertible, pressing harder on the pedal because he can.

“Look at who I've made you!” Taehyung laughs back.

And maybe it's not healthy, but the speed and the rush of this danger are driving these thoughts straight out of his head as he drives farther out on the empty highway, and he decides this and everything else to do with Taehyung must be the healthiest things he's ever done. Swears it on his life while asking that anything stating otherwise kindly destroy him.

- - -

This is a big deal and this time both of them are entirely aware of it.

They've got the car parked on the precipice of a cliff that veers off the highway, looking out over the stretching lands below. Up here, where inhibitions feel like a nightmare already being forgotten as they progress into the waking world. Where they can do anything, wish it and have it granted.

The top of the convertible rolled back, looking up at the great sky they often feel so isolated from, they let this boundlessness envelop them.

“Taehyung,” Jungkook breathes in awe, “this place is awesome.”

“I know.” Taehyung's grinning like he always is, simultaneously comfortable and wildly excited. “This used to be Namjoon's favourite place.”

A sly smile pulls at Jungkook's lips. He's infinitely more sure of how to carry these expressions now. “Namjoon 'your friend' or Namjoon 'leader of whatever-the-fuck'?”

“Jackass,” he snorts. “My friend. Normal Namjoon.”

“So you're saying now he's not normal?”

“No, no— Jeez, stop cornering me like this. Fucker.”

Jungkook laughs despite there being a pestering voice in the back of his head asking if saying that stuff is allowed. But he's with Taehyung, and with Taehyung, everything's allowed.

“I'm just curious,” he says, because he is. “I've never known someone as well as I know you, but I feel like I still don't know you enough. Like I never will, even.”

It's a little melancholy, but Taehyung just shrugs because he's got that coveted judgement that's able to disregard what's deemed unimportant. Or maybe he's just good at pretending. Who knows? Jungkook doesn't.

“I'm very complex, Jungkook. Maybe,” he teases, “you've never really known me at all.”

With a roll of his eyes, Jungkook says, “I think I've whittled down your complexity to stupid jokes and the occasional batshit spiel about freedom.”

“I'm quite offended,” Taehyung scoffs with a mock hand to his heart.

“Don't be. I like your stupid jokes.”

“And my spiels?”

“Eh.”

“You have to like my spiels, Kook. They're part of who I am.”

“Fine, your spiels are okay.”

“But you have to like them as much as you like me.”

“I don't think I'll ever like anything as much as I like you,” Jungkook says— maybe confesses. He hopes Taehyung isn't reading into it too much, but he can never tell. What Taehyung's really thinking has always been a perpetual enigma to him. And for a second Jungkook will think he's understood it, understood him, but then again, he really hasn't.

In his periphery he sees Taehyung lean back, maybe with a smirk or maybe not. Jungkook's not ballsy enough to look, to risk eye contact. Because that would mean acknowledgement, and he's still not quite sure if he could handle what that would entail.

Of course, no doubt he wants it. From that initial blow of sexual consciousness in the bar to every other moment Taehyung's enthralled him, he's wanted it.

It. Jeez, Jungkook, just say it, you're not a kid.

Truth is he wants to fuck Taehyung and he wants Taehyung to fuck him and he wants that boy's lips all over his own and that tongue all over his body, those hands in his hair and his hands in that hair and he wants to suck those collarbones and that neck and all that perfect skin and Taehyung's cock, too, obviously his cock, and Jungkook's thinking he just might die if he has to live any longer in this unstable limbo of that unexplored abyss of what is allowed and what isn't and the ultimate deciding factor of whether he could even handle Kim Taehyung and his beautiful face and hot body and—

Taehyung is saying, “You know you have to properly ask for the things you want?”

Jungkook comes back to Earth and though neither him nor Taehyung have moved, he feels indescribably closer to him. Like the whole planet's shrunk, and it's just them sharing this dense air. With his eyebrows raised in that I know something you don't and I could teach you all about everything kind of way, Taehyung's amused gaze pours molten instinct into Jungkook's belly.

“Are those the rules?” Jungkook hears himself saying, feels his eyelids start to hood, mirroring Taehyung.

“It's more manners.” Jungkook hears the clink as Taehyung fiddles with the zipper of his jacket, as the motion exposes a bit more skin around his neck. “There are no rules.”

“That's good. I don't want any rules.”

“What do you want?”

His hand is reaching across the console driven by his will and his want, and that's saying something. He's looking into Taehyung's eyes and realizing they're really close.

“You.”

Again with that fucking smirk like he knows something, and it's infuriating but hotter than hell and Jungkook can't deny that. Sex and sin stacked upon saintly imperfection. That wonder of humanity. While Jungkook might not know a lot, he knows Taehyung is everything he could ever wish for. Everything he could ever need.

There are things you can't let get away, and Jungkook's learning to take hold of the moment. To desire experience. So he grips the coarse fabric of Taehyung's jacket and tugs him close, so those lips he's fantasized far too much about are just barely touching his, not even a breath's width apart.

In a hot rush Jungkook repeats, “I want you.” Like confirmation, like proof, of this concept of himself.

Then Taehyung's leaning forward to replace the smug smile on his mouth with Jungkook's lips, and Jungkook stops feeling like some concept and begins to feel more like the living being that reality makes him. Instinctual, visceral, completely animal and completely alive.

Those lips feel soft and delicate just like Jungkook thought they would, but their movements are drastically less so. Taehyung kisses like transgression and ascension at the same time. An absolute clash, a cute boy that burns with hell's passion.

Kisses that have a firm pressure to smooth away all the faults Jungkook's ever committed, creating a brand new canvas, ready to be designed, brought to being, all over again.

Jungkook can't help the moan in his throat, it feels good.

His fingers tighten when he feels Taehyung smirk and he pulls at Taehyung's collar because he wants to and because he can. The best part is Taehyung follows his grip, allowing him all this and implying so much more. He leans from the passenger's seat until he's crawling to sit in Jungkook's lap.

Hot body. Hot mouth. The fuse in Jungkook's mind burns to the base, detonates his nerves. Taehyung's lips move deliberately and press firm against Jungkook's, insistent. A response to a craving, Jungkook slides his hands over Taehyung's thighs that grip him on both sides.

Taehyung pulls back a little and Jungkook finds himself leaning forward to chase his lips, because maybe he's slightly starved for this, but stops himself when Taehyung regards him with that trademark amusement. With his forehead knocked against Jungkook's and lips parted for those headier breaths, Taehyung says, “We could've been doing this earlier if you hadn't bitched out all those times and actually done something.”

It's a little accusing but it's raspy and satisfied as well, in that just right way that only heightens Jungkook's awareness of how completely on him Taehyung is. Hips pressed together. The total physicality of the moment.

“Why've I got to be the one to initiate?” Jungkook asks, breathy and just wanting to get back to it.

“Because, Kook, you're forgetting. This is supposed to be about you.” Kissing Jungkook again, he mumbles, “Remember?”

He's forgotten. As of late, everything he's been doing seems to have been done with the interest of Taehyung in mind. His inspiration to live, his desire of life, of everything.

An now, together, they are breathtaking. It's not that they've been a long time coming but more that he's been a long time coming, finally catching up, able to match Taehyung, reciprocate all that he offers, return it tenfold. He can do that now. Jungkook bites Taehyung's lip. He can do that now.

Limits are only of the mind. He remembers Taehyung saying that to him at some point. Anything is possible, so he moves his hands to grip Taehyung's hips and rolls them down onto his. Makes fantasy a reality.

An experience.

Taehyung moans and a compressed fire wells up in Jungkook, coming loose from inhibition. It's been a while since he's kissed anyone, but it all comes back, a recollection from his high school days, before he became addicted to virtual reality and before he dropped that and became addicted to Taehyung instead. Following his lead, his sure and experienced movements, Jungkook feels like he can do anything.

A searing tongue pushes between Jungkook's lips, pries his mouth open. Wet muscle that licks over Jungkook's teeth, rubs hard against his tongue until he's fighting back, just going with it, having fun. He groans, a little airy and a little cute.

Taehyung mumbles, “Top or bottom?” and follows it with a nip to Jungkook's lower lip. Because he's been waiting so long for this, and wants to get on with it. As he sits back a little his weight presses further onto Jungkook's crotch, against his cock that's already embarrassingly hard.

“Um,” is all Jungkook can say, because he honestly never thought he would make it this far. Thought he might pass out, that Taehyung might just be too overwhelming, too outright, too much.

At his hesitation, Taehyung just grins and murmurs with a slow, teasing cadence, “Anything you want.” And rests a steady hand against Jungkook's abdomen, moving down slowly, viscous tension dripping from his fingertips to beneath Jungkook's skin.

Jungkook's fingers dig harder into Taehyung's hips, shifting a bit lower from the hard hipbones to the nice swell of his ass. Tense knuckles. Feeling this, Taehyung rolls his hips slowly and Jungkook whimpers because it's too much, and fuck, maybe he will end up passing out.

He buries his head in the crook between Taehyung's shoulder and neck and tries to catch those sounds in his throat when Taehyung does it again. And again. Jungkook says, “I— Fuck, I dunno. You're just—” And again he grips Taehyung's ass, hard, with intent, with desire.

Taehyung chuckles and the low tone vibrates pleasantly between them. “If you wanna fuck me, I'm completely down for it.” His voice is a lovely rumble and that subtle colouring of lust stabs Jungkook in the lungs. “I'm here to help you find yourself, to lose yourself. If you think sticking your cock in my ass is gonna help you do that, then by all means, go right on ahead.”

A little absurd, but the silliness of the statement reminds Jungkook that this is just him and Taehyung. There's nothing that can go wrong, not really. Nothing he can fuck up. Jungkook leans back to raise his eyebrows at Taehyung with a soft giggle.

“Must you be so vulgar?”

“Vulgarity is the spice of life, Jeon.”

And, because Taehyung's adorable, he winks. Then he reaches down to the side of the seat to pull a lever, sliding the seat all the way back and giving them room between the dashboard. And he sucks on Jungkook's swollen lips again, both responding to the desperation.

This is all about enjoyment.

“Just know,” Taehyung mutters as Jungkook pants between his parted lips, “that living is all about the experience. So if you ever, at any point, find yourself curious about how it feels to get fucked—” and he rolls his ass so deliberately against Jungkook's straining erection, with hooded eyes as he bites his lip, “—good—” roll, “—hard—” roll, “—deep...” And he grins at Jungkook's whine when he stops, as if Jungkook isn't losing his mind right underneath him. “Then just let me know.”

Back to kissing Jungkook again, he's unzipping and shucking off his jacket. It's a selfish kiss, forceful and honest, because this is what they've wanted ever since they first saw each other. Jungkook's mind is wiped clean and every space replaced by Taehyung, Taehyung, Taehyung.

His contented groan from his throat. His hand moving up to brush a thumb across Jungkook's working jaw. The fingers then sliding back to grip his hair, possessive. The other hand that stays on his lower belly, pushing hard and dragging, down and down and down to the loose waistband of Jungkook's pants.

Everything is amplified and Jungkook prays for it to consume him.

Fuck dignity. Fuck expectation. This is what he lives for. Taehyung is who he lives for. Sex is self-determination.

“This is part of who I am, right?” Jungkook's words are a muffled mumble. “This is part of what makes me, right?”

“Absolutely,” Taehyung breathes with conviction overcome by lust and desperation. He grinds the heel of his palm down on Jungkook's cock through the fabric of his pants and Jungkook can't help the little ah breathed into Taehyung's mouth as aching heat pulses from his groin and rocks his hips upward.

“Fuck,” he's hissing next, because Taehyung's undoing and dipping his fingers into Jungkook's pants, curling those fingers around Jungkook's leaking cock. “Tae,” he gasps as Taehyung pumps, letting him use the hand still in his hair to guide Jungkook's head down so he's nipping at Taehyung's neck, sucking marks into the juncture and revelling in the small approving hums Taehyung rewards him with.

Jungkook drags his teeth over Taehyung's Adam's apple, licking up the tightening muscles of his throat and loving the way the vibrations of Taehyung's low groans tickle his tongue, the way how when he sucks just a bit harder just beneath Taehyung's jawline he'll feel Taehyung's lower back tense up as he arches forward.

“Yeah, just like that—” Taehyung encourages, getting muffled as Jungkook dots kisses up the smooth column of Taehyung's throat to return to kissing him, mouth open and tongue all over, messy and winded. That hand around Jungkook's dick tightens and a thumb flicks over the slit, digging in and smearing hot precome down the side on the stroke back down.

“You—” Jungkook mumbles, “fuck, your— ah—” He hooks a thumb beneath the band of Taehyung's pants, other hand moving up to tug at the hem of his shirt, hoping that's enough to communicate it because he really can't think right now, let alone speak.

Taehyung gets it because Taehyung gets everything. He sits back and tugs his shirt off, then quickly does the same for Jungkook. Cold air clings to his skin, stinging his already perky nipples, but he doesn’t mind. There's that tattoo on Taehyung's collarbone that Jungkook can now draw by heart, practised on the numerous walls of the city. It matches the one on Jungkook's shoulder. Maybe it's his imagination, but the ink embedded beneath his skin emanates a distinct warmth. Jungkook just looks up at Taehyung and finds himself grinning, a little silly.

“What?” Taehyung asks him, still breathing hard as he fumbles with his belt.

“Nothing,” Jungkook giggles and shakes his head. “Just. We're gonna fuck on some cliff under the stars, hyung. That's so fucking awesome.” His eyes glimmer as he whispers it with awe, almost like it's some secret.

Taehyung furrows his brow with a puzzled smile and lightly smacks the side of his head. “You dork,” he chuckles. “Get your pants off.”

In the end the car is cramped and they're incredibly impatient, so Jungkook's pants are only pulled down to around his knees, but that's fine. Taehyung throws his onto the passenger's seat along with their other clothing after digging through the pockets to fish out a small bottle.

“Gimme like two seconds,” he tells Jungkook, popping the cap open.

“Wait,” Jungkook says, seizing Taehyung's hand. Looking into his mildly confused eyes, he can't help the small blush as he mumbles with an embarrassed smile, “I wanna do it.”

Taehyung raises a shocked eyebrow before he grins, nodding as he hands Jungkook the bottle. “Okay.”

But first, Taehyung lifts Jungkook's wrist and twirls the medical alert bracelet around it.

“You don't need this anymore, do you?” he asks casually, then undoes then clasp, chucks the damn thing over the edge of the convertible, somewhere onto the gravel. With a wink, he says, “Because now you've got me.” And he hands Jungkook the small bottle.

The lube is cold and the night air is colder but they are burning and that's all that matters. One finger in Taehyung's ass and he nods, wiggling a little and scrunching his nose. Two and his lips fall open, a high breathy sound pushed out of him by some force, his fingers gripping bruises into Jungkook's arms. Jungkook hesitates and Taehyung reassures him, saying, “Keep going. I'm fine, I just don't do this too often,” while he rocks his ass down onto Jungkook's fingers as he builds up to three.

The angle is a little uncomfortable, with Jungkook having to reach and Taehyung's thighs holding up the brunt of his weight so as not to crush Jungkook. That's fine, though, because it gives Jungkook the opportunity to see all of Taehyung, his smooth torso, the bruised surface of his neck, the sweat dripping from the hair next to his ears, the curve of his hard cock as he pushes, back, back, back, with each motion of Jungkook's fingers, then the flex of his abs as he's suddenly groaning from deep in his throat, muttering things like, Fuck, there— Kook, there, oh God—.

Drops of precome well and slide down the shaft of Taehyung's cock and Jungkook has to clamp his eyes shut and just breathe for a moment because Taehyung is so hot and this is so hot and his mind is short-circuiting and he can't handle it, he might just end up coming right now because this is devastatingly sexy.

He curls his fingers and watches Taehyung sigh harsh, inhale sharp, try to mutter something and end up choking on his words. Curl, again, and he stabs at Taehyung's prostate, abusing the rough, swollen gland, over and over.

“You keep— mmph,” Taehyung clamps his teeth, like he's trying to bite something, and then settles for dragging his lip in between his teeth until he tears the skin, attempting to collect himself before trying again. “If you— fuck, you keep doing that I'm, oh— gonna—”

And he reaches down to grab Jungkook's wrist, digging his nails into his skin. Jungkook just smirks, because Taehyung's giving him an accusatory look, fat lips parted something beautiful as he pants.

“Piece of shit, you— gah,” Taehyung grunts and winces as Jungkook pulls his fingers out, leaving him empty.

“Sorry,” Jungkook's chuckling, but Taehyung hears the sarcasm and threads a hand into Jungkook's hair to tug, just above his neck, and a small oh escapes Jungkook as his pulsing cock twitches at the warm ache. Now Taehyung's the one smirking and Jungkook's back is arching slightly at the promise in his taunting gaze. His eyelids droop as Taehyung's fingers tighten around the strands.

Then Taehyung's using his other hand to reach below him, lubing up Jungkook's cock and aligning it to his quivering asshole, poking it against the loosened opening before slowly sinking down. And it's real, this is real, so fucking real. This is Taehyung and this is Jungkook and the rest of the world can go fuck itself because they've got each other, and they are larger than life, abstract ideas and exceeding plenty.

Nothing in Jungkook's life has ever felt enough but now there's Taehyung and Taehyung has always, from the start, been too much. Taehyung, who uses destruction as a statement, who wields theft as the redressing of inequity, who probably has the potential to burn down the entire city, who would most likely commit to doing so if only he were aware that he were able to.

This is sex in the back of a filthy car acquired via opportunistic vehicle theft, between someone who seeks salvation and someone who claims he can provide it.

“This is absolutely insane,” Jungkook whispers as Taehyung slowly, slowly adjusts, moving down, enveloping Jungkook's cock in that hot, tight muscle. It makes Jungkook's dick throb, a force that then rocks through his entire body, making him bury his head in the crook of Taehyung's shoulder and press fingertips deep into the supple flesh of his ass. Inflicting pain as a form of self-control, Taehyung's warning growl reminding him he's got to wait, wait, wait.

Into his ear Taehyung says those words again, that mantra that's so convincing, so astoundingly practical, it's a wonder it's never occurred to him before they met.

“It doesn't matter what it is.” A breath tight yet teasing. “What matters is how it feels.

Lower, lower, and his ass is flush against Jungkook's skinny hips, his dick buried in the scorching heat of Taehyung's body, that mess of lube dripping from the crack of his ass and down to his balls. Sopping, filthy squelching, and Jungkook loves it.

“So how does it feel, Kookie?”

He almost chokes on the absolute truth when he responds, “So fucking good,” into the juncture of Taehyung's neck, a whine that worsens with desperation when Taehyung clenches around his entire cock, then rocks, a fluid movement that rubs Taehyung's dick up against Jungkook's lower belly.

“I—” Jungkook chokes, not entirely sure what he's trying to say, just feeling like he's got to say something to communicate this blooming tension he's feeling.

“I know, Kook,” Taehyung's muttering assurances, threading fingers into Jungkook's hair and gripping painfully as leverage to help roll his body. “I know.”

Jungkook's toes curl with the swift snaps of Taehyung's hips, breath shaking. Each grind makes Taehyung grip his hair harder, shooting lavish pain down his spine. His hands reach anywhere they can, from Taehyung's arms, waist, thighs, ass, just wanting, needing.

“You're so fucking hot,” Jungkook hears himself gritting.

“I know,” Taehyung says again, smug.

“So fucking tight.”

“I know.”

“You're just— oh,” he cuts himself off when he snaps his hips forward and presses deep, making Taehyung release a happy sigh as he clenches the tight muscle of his asshole snug around Jungkook's cock. A blunt smack and Jungkook's thrusts up again, Taehyung pushing down to shove that cock into himself farther.

“Fuck,” Taehyung's grunting, “that's good, there, yeah— mmph— God, Jungkook.”

There's nothing Jungkook can do but moan like a bitch, dig his nails into Taehyung's back and rake, losing his mind and making Taehyung lose his, too. Each grind and Taehyung grunts in pleasure, grinding harsh onto Jungkook's dick and slapping the backs of his thick thighs against Jungkook's, his tight balls bouncing with each upward motion.

“C'mon, Kook,” he's hissing into Jungkook's ear, breath shaking yet intention firm, “fuck me hard. Harder. I know you want it.”

Jungkook does. Grabs Taehyung like he loves the blood he draws and pounds into Taehyung just the way he wants to.

“That's good, yeah, you're so good,” Taehyung's groaning, a visceral reaction to just speak his mind, probably out of habit more than anything. Jungkook loves it, though, loves the praise, because this feels like the first thing he's ever truly done right. So he fucks into Taehyung harder, vicious and raw, because Taehyung likes it like that and Jungkook, in turn, likes it when it makes him retaliate. Blunt words punching from Taehyung's throat, fingers pulling strands of hair from Jungkook's scalp.

“You've wanted this for so long, haven't you?” Taehyung snarls, syllables getting jumbled by the force of their motions. Jungkook can only whimper and flush even hotter, because Taehyung's known, of course he's known, the whole goddamn time. “Answer me.”

“Yes, yes, fuck, wanted— ah, wanted you so bad.”

“Yeah,” he purrs, briefly combing his fingers through Jungkook's sweaty hair before tugging again in that way that makes him fuck harder. “So dirty, Jungkook. The things you must've thought about me. You thought I didn't see it?”

“Sorry,” he grumbles, not very sincerely, really only able to concentrate on the abrupt clenching of Taehyung's asshole each time he fucks him just right, then nips at the skin of Taehyung's jawline.

“Don't be. I fucking love the way you look at me.” He lets Jungkook bite him all over, lets him draw blood, lets him do as he pleases. “Like you'll fucking die if you don't have me. Like I'm everything. All you'll ever want.”

“You are,” he admits in a gush of breath.

“So have me. All you fucking want— God, I'm yours.”

“Then I'm yours, too.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung chuckles, groaning and panting, eyelids fluttering. Using Jungkook's hair, he tilts the boy's head back so it's his neck that's exposed instead, leans in and sucks hard to burst the tiny blood vessels beneath the skin. He growls, “Mine.”

It's a simple word but it makes Jungkook feel stupid with pleasure. This is validation. This is belonging. The muscles in his thighs and abs start to tighten and his balls feel marvelously heavy. He goes to wrap a hand around Taehyung's cock, pumping and tugging out drops of precome, not wanting to be the one to come first.

“Mm, there you go, shit, Kook—” he cuts off in a breathy moan when Jungkook digs a thumb into the slit of his cock. Their skin slaps and sweat drips and drips, bruises and trace amounts of blood brought about by each other barely illuminated by the moonlight.

Repeated grunts and Taehyung comes, spurting hot against Jungkook's chest, muttering Oh God yes as he grinds erratically. That fluttering ring of muscle tightens around Jungkook's cock and his toes curl, still pumping Taehyung as he comes because he wants to be good for him, wants to make this so good.

“Tae,” he sobs at the overwhelming pleasure, Taehyung rolling on his cock, panting next to Jungkook's ear.

“Go on, Kook,” he's cooing. “Come in my ass, go on.”

So he does, comes right into Taehyung, filling him up soaking his insides, come spilling out hot as Taehyung rocks through his orgasm, dribbling from his hole and smearing on Jungkook's dick. It's filthy and lovely and Taehyung's humming happily as Jungkook whimpers, spurt after spurt until he's finished.

Mind buzzing, all Jungkook can do for a moment is sit, hands still on Taehyung's hips, breathing. Returning. Taehyung starts to move from his lap but he only grips harder, hugging Taehyung close.

“Not yet,” Jungkook slurs, feeling so spent. He buries his head into Taehyung's chest.

“C'mon,” Taehyung's laughing with languor, bringing a hand up to pet his hair. “We can't stay here forever.”

“I wish we could. That was the best moment of my life.”

Taehyung shakes harder with laughter, and it's a little raw on Jungkook's cock as Taehyung sits up and slips him out. “We can just do it again, you know.”

Jungkook looks up at him and scrunches his nose, grinning. “Okay.”

They're getting their shirts back on, Jungkook reaching over to the passenger's seat to grab Taehyung's pants, when a small metal square falls out of the pockets.

“What's that?” Jungkook asks.

“Nothing.” Taehyung shrugs. “Just a lighter.” And he grabs it and puts it back in the pocket before climbing into the passenger's seat and tugging his underwear and pants on, giving Jungkook room to pull his back up.

Later, Taehyung's grabbing a sturdy stick from the ground and showing Jungkook how to jam it between the bottom of the dash and the accelerator to hold down the pedal.

“This is a life skill, Jungkook,” he's explaining, then jumping back to Jungkook as the unmanned car starts to sputter forward.

With Taehyung's arm slung over Jungkook's shoulder, the two watch the incriminating old car careen toward the edge of the jutting cliff, off the night black drop and into the ocean where a heavy splash is heard some seconds below.

- - -

If chaos is easy to get lost in, Taehyung is the most convoluted maze Jungkook has ever known. Composed more of intrigue than anything. Temptation in human form.

Today is, again, something new. It's always something new. Something exciting. Taehyung is exciting. Jungkook lives for excitement.

“Do it quietly,” Taehyung is telling him.

“Yeah, yeah, I got it.” And Jungkook carefully lifts the detached pane of glass from its frame.

He props it up against the adjacent wall. The square opening that's left is barely big enough for a person to fit through, low against the ground and leading to an underground storage cellar.

Taehyung says, “They've never locked this thing. Idiots.” He crouches low and slips through the glassless window, hopping down into the dark space below and leaving Jungkook crouched on his hands and knees, staring in. “Come on!”

So he follows. His still unnaturally thin frame is at least useful for something, as he fits through easily. He hits the ground, pain shocking up his shins in the dark, confounding him briefly before Taehyung pulls a small chain and a bare light bulb flickers on.

They're in a wine cellar, beneath one of the specialty stores. That means mad expensive, Taehyung had told him earlier.

“The best in the city, apparently,” Taehyung mutters, legs swinging in a slow gait as he steps between the shelves. A dull chime of individual music notes as he runs his fingers over the separate glass bottles. Clink, clank, goes the muted tune of thievery. Then he grabs one and pulls out a metal device from his pocket, working it at the cork of the bottle.

Jungkook giggles and bounces on his toes, looking around. “Why are we here?”

“Why do you think?” The cork loosens with a pop and Taehyung looks up at him with a smirk. He throws the cork into a corner and takes a swig from the bottle, then looks as the label and frowns. “Pretty fucking average if you ask me.”

Another swig.

Jungkook rolls his eyes. “Wine is supposed to be classy, hyung.”

“Well, actually, it's supposed to be romantic.”

Taehyung grabs his arm and pulls him closer and hands him the bottle. Jungkook takes a drink himself before sneering. “And we're all about romance, aren't we?”

“Absolutely.” Taehyung kisses him like it's the truth, then gestures around them and says, “Take all you want. They'll never catch us. Never do.”

It's some fancy French thing that Jungkook picks, a green and gold label on the mulberry glass. A pretty colour, he notices. Very pretty. He's not really thinking before he's mumbling, more to himself than to Taehyung, “Can I break one?”

“Do whatever you want, Kookie,” Taehyung says easily. His hands are in his pockets, bent over at the waist to inspect the lower level of bottles. Not really listening. That is, until thick glass shatters against the concrete, and he jumps to attention.

It's loud and it's dangerous and it's beyond risky but Jungkook doesn’t care.

That mulberry beauty is spilling, pouring between the cracks between the old wooden shelves, pooling around the broken glass and staining the bottoms of Jungkook's shoes. Lifting a foot to bring it down with a shallow splat. And again. Jungkook splashes in the wine like a kid splashing in rain puddles, a silly grin on his face. Maybe a bit beyond silly. Maybe a bit more frenzied.

“Look, hyung!” he's tittering. Splish, splash, go his feet, like rain boots.

“The fuck...” Taehyung stares at him, frozen for a moment before his lips crack into a smile. Because he looks into Jungkook's eyes and sees it. The cinders of inhibition. That which makes danger only a concept and precaution only a word. In Jungkook's eyes Taehyung recognizes a look that sees the world for what it is. His own.

“You're impossible,” Taehyung's chuckling while shaking his head. And he hands Jungkook another bottle. “One more.”

A heavy smash. And another.

“I like this colour,” Jungkook is commenting. It makes Taehyung laugh even harder.

Their voices are echoing loudly, and even worse are the breaking of the bottles. They're not noticing. Jungkook is living here, right in the midst of the moment. Taehyung's arm slung over his shoulder as he hands him bottle after bottle, breathing next to his ear, one more, one more.

His hand massages down Jungkook's back like he's proud. Lifting Jungkook's fingers to lick the sticky wine from the spaces between them, saying, “I can't believe you.”

Saying, “You're fucking incredible, Jungkook.”

Saying, “One more.”

Eleven bottles' worth of wine end up staining the concrete.

Jungkook's scanning for another one that might catch his eye when footsteps begin to stutter from the corridor. Quick slams as someone comes running.

Yet Jungkook doesn’t panic. It's odd, considering the simple sorts of things that used to make him jump, eyes widen and blood quicken. Instead now he is laughing.

“Hyung, take this,” he's telling Taehyung is a rushed whisper, grabbing the nearest bottle and handing it to him before reaching for another one.

“Don't get caught,” Taehyung warns with a smirk before hopping up the stacks of crates and climbing out the window. Jungkook splashes through the soupy pools of wine, ripples from his footsteps distorting the reflections of the weak light, and follows after Taehyung right as the shop owner swings open the cellar door. But they have already escaped.

Out the window and into the free air.

As he runs, he thinks of nothing but now. The cars whizzing by and the skyscrapers looming, but more importantly, Taehyung, himself. What he used to be and who he is now. What he couldn't do and the infinite possibilities of what he can attain now. All that used to hold him back and all that he is leaving behind.

Broken shackles.

The dirty looks shot toward their backs as they run and weave between the city's bustle do nothing to tamper with their mood. They've come too far, gotten lost way up in the craze and catharsis of the high. Jungkook catches up to Taehyung and twists their fingers together to begin pulling one another through the dark city.

They end up back in Taehyung's room, beneath the footsteps from the floor above and surrounded by the hollow, barely audible murmurs of those in the rooms around them.

Two bottles of wine, one each, clasped between their fingers by the solid neck. That, and the sticky sweet film dried onto their fingers. But that's not what this is about. Not really. Not at all.

They collapse onto Taehyung's bed, panting hard and giggling. Taking easy swigs of the wine. The thing is it's wrong and it should not be easy.

Taehyung says, “That's a good six hundred dollars going down your throat right there.”

Another gulp. This time Jungkook first swishes it between his teeth like he's cleansing them with it. It's sweeter than victory.

“No way.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung scoffs. He takes a quick drink and lets his head fall back, hair draping around his face, allowing himself to just savour it. “There's ones that go for way higher, I know.”

“You've done this before?”

“Of course.”

“With Namjoon?”

“Right.”

“Tell me about him,” Jungkook says, and leans forward.

“Why?”

“He's interesting. Important, both to you and to me. But I know nothing about him.”

“I honestly don't know if I could tell you much.”

“Just tell me anything. You used to be friends, right? Tell me about that.”

“Alright.” Another drink, and Jungkook does the same. “Just let me drink a bit more.”

So later Jungkook's sprawled across Taehyung's lap, wine almost finished and him already long gone.

“Namjoon is...” Taehyung's giggling while fiddling with Jungkook's hair, a little sticky from the earlier splashes of wine. “Namjoon is my reason.”

“What?” Jungkook hums, folding and unfolding the hem of Taehyung's shirt. Attention being paid to other things. “You have a stain,” he notices.

“Yeah, so do you.” Taehyung flicks Jungkook's forehead. “Like, everywhere. Also, shut up. Didn't you want to know about Namjoon?”

“Yeah. Keep going.”

“Namjoon is my reason.”

“What?”
“Like, for being here. You asked earlier, how I got here. Why I'm still here. You remember?”

“No.”

“Oh. Well he's why.”

“Why?”

“Because.” A frown and a shrug, a little sad. The honesty makes Jungkook want to pet Taehyung's head, comfort him. But he's also tired and is so comfortable just lying here, so instead he pats Taehyung's thigh. “Well, it's not his fault, I'm trying to say. It's mine. But.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean... Like, I found out about this place first. Right? Used to be run by some other wacko dude. Now that I think about it, he was probably just another poor fucker like Namjoon. Caught up, and all that.”

There's something about his tone.

Through the sweet muddle of wine, Jungkook recognizes it. Somewhere in the back of his mind is an echo of a voice telling him to listen up. This is important. This is honesty. Brutal honesty, the kind that both betters and worsens you.

Taehyung takes another sip of his wine before he puts the near-empty bottle on the floor next to the bed.

“But it interested me, because I was even younger and even stupider than I am now. So I dragged Namjoon in, too.”

Jungkook just nods, quiet. There is a delicate balance here, something creeping free of the clasping fingers of secrecy. Any noise might ruin it. Might make Taehyung realize he's probably spilling more than he should.

“And sometimes I feel bad, you know? All the time, actually. Because Namjoon could've been something great. Like, I don't even know. That's how great. I can't even understand that sort of greatness, man. I'm talking rocket-scientist level. You know? And so, yeah, I feel guilty.”

A breath of a sigh with thick regret twisting in it like smoke, invisible yet palpable.

“Is that why you're really still here?” Jungkook asks, barely heard above the vacant sounds banging around them.

“Sure. I think all of us here must have some weird obligation to the system in some form that we just can't shake. God knows I've tried. And, fuck if I'm not trapped.”

“Me as well?”

“You tell me, Jungkook. You know yourself best.”

He does. He knows all the little glorious words from this place could disappear into a column of smoke in a fire and he would stay if it meant Taehyung would as well.

Taehyung continues, “I don't know. Sometimes I say this is my escape from the imposed conformity of the big city, but then other times... This place feels worse. Does that make sense?”

“Of course.”

“Maybe that's...” He twists Jungkook's hair to the point where it's a mild pain. “Maybe that's why I'm still here.”

Boom, rush, boom, goes his heart. Pounding from the clarity.

“Thank you,” Jungkook murmurs after a while, feeling more sober than he probably is.

“I— Sorry, I shouldn't have—”

“No, no. I liked it. The honesty.”

“Yeah.” Taehyung's eyes are tired. “You don't get much of that around here.”

Even from yourself, Jungkook thinks. What he says out loud is, “It's a nice change.”

“I think we could all use a little change.”

“So why don't you?”

“Hm?”

“Change,” he says. Hidden behind it, shrouded by nuance, is leave. Why don't you leave?

“Dunno,” Taehyung says, but Jungkook knows he does. “Why don't you?”

“Dunno,” Jungkook says, but they both know he does.

Guilt.

His 'sorry, Mom' becomes Taehyung's 'sorry, Namjoon' and all that becomes the entirety of humanity's apology to one another. We all could have been better and done better and treated each other better than this.

“I'm glad you're here with me, though. Does that make me selfish?”

“No.” Jungkook smiles up at Taehyung from his lap. “It makes you human.”

“Because I'm not saying this is atonement or anything. It just makes me feel better. Every time you smile I feel like less of a shitbag.”

“That's good. It's the same way for me with you.”

They are each other's unhealthy absolution.

But then it's gone.

All that disappears, again, with a flick of the wrist. Just like that brief lucidity they shared while doing Jungkook's tattoo, Taehyung dispels it. He's smiling in that adorable way that makes him look nothing like a tumultuous boy that could burn down a city.

Jungkook finds himself grinning in the same manner, although he's not sure why. It's reliance, perhaps. Because Taehyung is his happiness. Taehyung is his comfort. Jungkook is affected by him more than he could even recognize.

He wonders what this feeling is, looking into Taehyung's eyes. Kind of like he's horny, but different. Warmer.

“Let me blow you,” Jungkook blurts, then blushes a bit when he realizes what he said. But the way it makes Taehyung laugh brings about a pleasant tingle in the back of his head, so he decides to just go with it.

“Why all of a sudden?” he chuckles.

“Because.” Jungkook's sliding off Taehyung's lap to kneel on the floor next to the bed. Repeats the words Taehyung had said to him a few times. “Sex is good for the soul.”

“But I'm bad for you.”

“That's a lie, Taehyung. You said it yourself. We've made each other better.”

“Well, I've made you something. I can sure as hell tell you that.” He rolls his eyes but lets Jungkook adjust his legs, run a hand teasingly up his thigh, undo his zipper.

“Fuck my mouth,” Jungkook whispers with a sly smile as he pulls out Taehyung's hardening cock. So Taehyung grips Jungkook's hair like he knows he likes and does just that, voluntarily forgetting their previous conversation in favour of the delirium of sex.

- - -

Like everything else, it's finite. That world so carefully woven by Taehyung, beginning to unravel. To transform.

For some reason today is different. The same, but different. They're walking from Taehyung's room and up the sordid staircase with expectation in their step, yet what exactly they're expecting is a mystery. Taehyung is quiet. That never happens. Jungkook knocks his knuckles against his as their feet pace slow slaps up the concrete. Weaves their fingers together tight, like there's something he's trying to hold together. Some crumbling fiction.

A short squeeze of the hand is all Taehyung gives him until they reach the top of the stairwell. Then he pulls Jungkook to the side to press him between his warm body and the cold concrete. Jungkook's stomach swoops, even though they've done this countless times now.

“You need to listen today,” Taehyung tells him.

“I listen everyday,” Jungkook says back, but he's not really listening right now, focusing more on the heat and proximity of Taehyung. Will he ever get accustomed to it, he wonders.

“Yeah, but,” Taehyung mutters, and leans even closer to kiss Jungkook quickly, “today is important.”

“You say that everyday,” Jungkook mumbles and kisses Taehyung again. Slower.

“Yeah, but today is big,” he's trying to explain, but Jungkook's lips keep interrupting him between words. He moves his hands to Jungkook's waist and pushes him back harder against the wall. A little flush and a giggle and Taehyung says, “You're distracting me. This is important.”

“What's so important?” All Jungkook's really thinking about is the ease at which Taehyung just handled him. How instead of being here they could be back down in Taehyung's room, Jungkook pressed against a wall but under an entirely better context. Right now, all this talk stuff can go fuck itself.

He's really only here for Taehyung.

But Taehyung's saying, “I can't explain it. I'll fuck it up.”

He's pulling away and tugging Jungkook down the hall, saying, “Namjoon will do it right.”

So they're here, suffocating in this charged air. Jungkook feels it, everyone feels it. That long-awaited something, about to come to life.

Taehyung pets his fingers down Jungkook's spine as they sit cross-legged on the floor. It's sending a distracting tingle through his body, lightening the meaning.

Namjoon's at the front, again, saying, “You get only one life and one death.”

Then Taehyung's fingers are in Jungkook's hair, and his attention flits away even further. He wonders if he knows how distracting he's being.

But Jungkook's listening. He's had enough of ignorance. This is his cognisance, his consciousness.

“One life, one death,” Namjoon's droning.

“Make them good.”

“Make them count.”

- - -

He doesn’t know why he doesn't ask Taehyung.

He could. But he doesn't. Maybe it's because it feels like the only time the guy's ever been truly honest with Jungkook is when they were drunk. There's an increasingly apparent evasiveness about everything Taehyung tells him that he's only just beginning to put together. Maybe it's because he knows he wouldn't get the truth. At least, not the full truth.

Taehyung isn't a liar, but he isn't honest either. Jungkook can see that now.

“Just one question,” Jungkook is saying.

“Go fuck yourself,” goes Yoongi, again.

Perhaps it would have been more productive to ask that Seokjin guy. Yet, for some reason, Jungkook feels like he would be just as secretive as Taehyung, if not more. If you think about it, Yoongi's in a similar situation as Jungkook. Scars of holes left in his arms, albeit Yoongi's a bit more faded.

There's a brief reminder of that addiction, but Jungkook swallows it down and thinks of Taehyung. What he might think.

“Please, I just want to know.”

“No, let me go to my room,” Yoongi grunts and pushes Jungkook's weak body with his own equally weak body into the wall.

“Just one question,” Jungkook pleads, tossing pride out the window.

The echoes of Yoongi's footsteps down the hallway slow, then stop. Around them is the occasional strident grating of the heavy metal doors against the concrete from other parts of the building. Yet Yoongi is silent before he speaks, not turning around.

“You know this is risky, right?”

“Just one,” he repeats. Because he knows, but doesn't care.

“Fine. Go.”

“Why are you here?”

Apparently that's wrong.

Apparently you don't just ask that, idiot. Apparently that's against the rules. Apparently yes, there are rules.

“This is dicey and you need to know that.”

Jungkook nods mechanically. Frankly, he's terrified.

Here's Yoongi being an asshole but still trying to help at the same time. Right after Jungkook had asked the question, Yoongi went and grabbed his wrist like he was trying to break it and pulled him into his room, just one of the many lining the hall. Shape-wise, it looks like Taehyung's, but the bed is neater and there's less of a mess of clothes on the ground.

Yoongi's speaking quickly, fingers fluttering at his side, drumming at his thigh. His eyes look like marbles. Roll, roll, roll. He's got loopy eyes and it makes Jungkook want to barf. Want to leave.

But he feels like he should stay. It's a gut instinct, that this is yet another thing he ought to know.

Amidst all he thought he knew, coming loose.

Yoongi mutters with flickering eyes, to the door, to Jungkook, to the door, “I can't tell you much but I can tell you this.”

He says, “What took me too long to realize and what you need to realize now is this.”

Right as the door open he says, “You're not free, you've been sucked in.”

Click.

It's Seokjin that breaks the spell. A crack of the doorknob and the tension building in Yoongi like a high tide just falls. Jungkook even sees it. The relaxed fall of his shoulders, the drooping of his eyelids, the relaxing of his thrumming fingers as he takes one look at Seokjin.

Yoongi smiles a soft smile like everything is alright. “Hey,” he breathes.

“Hey yourself.” Seokjin shuts the door and doesn't even look at Jungkook, doesn't even seem to notice him, until he's got his taller frame wrapped around Yoongi. Almost cradling him. It's disturbing, how Yoongi, that tense, thousand-volt live wire, just melts in his arms.

Jungkook shuffles his feet.

“I think it's soon,” Seokjin's muttering into Yoongi's ear.

“That's good,” Yoongi murmurs. He leans back against Seokjin and hums. “I can't wait to spend forever with you.”

Sweat slicks Jungkook's palms so he clasps them behind his back. He feels like he's intruding on some offbeat courtship.

Then Seokjin looks up at Jungkook. Despite his warm gaze, the room feels ice cold. Jungkook doesn't belong here. “Are you going, too?” Seokjin asks him gently.

“What?” he asks. It comes out as more of a rumble of spit in the back of his throat, then a cracked rasp, but he doesn't bother to repeat himself.

Yoongi furrows his brow, now rocking with the slow movement of Seokjin's back hug, holding onto the arms wrapped around him. “To paradise.”

“Um?”

“To spend a free forever with your Taehyung.”

“I—” It's still sinking in. “N— No?”

“Has he told you?” Seokjin asks with concern. Now Jungkook's throat won't even open to let him speak. He just shakes his head. With conviction, Seokjin tells him, “You should ask him.”

By the time he realizes he's backing out of their room, the cold doorknob is digging into the small of his back. He thinks he might be saying okay, okay, okay, thank you, okay. But maybe not. Hopefully he's not speaking his mind. Hopefully he's not asking what the fuck is wrong with you? Hopefully not out loud.

“It'd be nice if you could join us, Jungkook.” Words Seokjin gifts with a serene smile that Jungkook knows are anything but.

A brutal tug on the metal door and he's out. He makes sure to turn his back just at the last second, keeping those people in his vision for as long as he can. Until the hefty door slams shut.

He runs, feet hitting the concrete louder than hatred and echoes chasing him down the corridor.

“They've all fucking lost it, man. I swear—”he blurts as he wrenches open the door to Taehyung's room. Inside, they guy's leaned back on his bed, flicking a lighter on and off right in front of his face, staring intently at the fickle flame.

Without even looking up he says, “Oh, no, they've all lost it a good while ago. You were just too dissociated to really think about it.”

That small fire illuminates his face and his hair amidst the absent light of the room before he puts the lighter away. Jungkook walks to the bed and sits opposite of Taehyung.

He breathes, “They were saying something about paradise.”

It was intended to be accusing, but it comes out feeble. Confused.

“Who's 'they'?”

“Seokjin and Yoongi.”

“Ah. They.” Taehyung gives him a mellow smile and tilts his head. “And they talked about forever, right?”

“Yes.”

The strain of Jungkook's body, the rigidity in his jaw, the painful clench of his teeth—all that is lost on him until Taehyung leans forward and strokes a hand down the side of his face. And it floods out. Like a barely-clinging chunk of a glacier, straining, straining, melting, until crash, and it falls into the water below. Taehyung melts Jungkook.

“Well.” Cool fingers from beside his ear to the space beneath his jawline, down to his neck. Looking in his eyes, comfortingly close, Taehyung murmurs, “We're all searching for our own paradise, aren't we?”

The answer is obvious. “Yes.”

“Just like you.” Jungkook nods. Taehyung's eyes are beautiful. Mesmerizing. “Like you and your virtual reality. We're all just looking for escape, aren't we? But, Kook, we just don't want to do it alone.”

He shakes his head, then lets it fall gently closer to Taehyung's palm. They maintain that fluid eye contact.

“No, we want to do it with each other.” A pat on Jungkook's thigh, and there's that look again. Smiling and secretive. There's something he's not sharing but Jungkook can't bring himself to care. Not when he has Taehyung to content him. “Because you know, don't you? Why you went to VR. Go on, tell me.”

There's the smallest pause as he thinks, breathes. But with Taehyung there is no such thing as nervousness. “I... I just hated how much I thought. About it all. All that guilt. Figured I would reach some ascended state of not giving a fuck once I shut my brain off like that.”

“There are better ways to lose yourself, you should know.”

“You have made me all too aware.”

Taehyung nods. “So that's it. That's what they were talking about. That's all.”

“Okay,” he says in a whisper. As if anything more than a feather of a voice could shatter all this around them.

Taehyung is comfort and solace and relief. All that and so much more. Taehyung is Jungkook's everything.

(And he's not thinking about this part, but he's a lot more like Yoongi that he would think.)

- - -

He goes into VR.

It's not that he breaks, no. It's rather calculated, in fact. Purposeful. No fumbling stabs of the IV tube into his skin, no sobbing, no vomiting. He'd like to think he's over that. Although it's probably still, at this point, an undeniable, inherent part of him.

Just something he has to get over later. It's liberating, knowing he has all this time left to himself to do what he pleases. And what he pleases to do is to fix what he can.

He's always hated unfinished business, and he feels like he's got too much of it at this point. Maybe it's never too late would be a good motto right about now.

“Hoseok? Jimin?”

He can't help the flood of memories, the nostalgia, as he opens the door. This is, after all, where he's spent the good past few years of his life. In a simulation.

“Guys?”

“Kook?” That's Jimin, Jungkook immediately recognizes.

“Hey.” Jungkook waves, and Jimin gives him a warm smile. His avatar looks the same, and Jungkook is sure his does too. Nothing changes here. Everything is constant. No unwanted surprises. “Where's Hoseok?”

“Oh, Hoseok? He's not here.” Jimin shrugs. Looking around the homely cottage that they've shared for years as a home base, Jungkook almost wants to cry. Maybe out of joy that he's gotten strong enough to give this up. Or maybe out of longing.

“Where is he?”

To be honest, this is not the scenario Jungkook had been expecting. It could have been that he'd return, after all this time, to be coddled and excitedly interrogated by his two friends (as self-centred as that assumption may seem). It could have been that they'd ask question after question. Where have you been, why did you leave, how did you do it? Hell, it could have even been anger. Anger, the kind that bites, at having abandoned them, that anger that he was so sure they must have felt at some point. And then he'd expected to have said his goodbye. End of story.

But he'd never expected this, whatever this is. This causal indifference, this utter absence of reaction. Jimin flips through his game menu, scrolling through the settings in a floating screen at his fingertips.

There's a minimal pause as Jimin looks at him with brief confusion. Then understanding worries at his brow, awash in his eyes.

“I mean... Like, he left, man. A while ago.”

“Oh.”

That's all he says but his tone conveys enough. A bit more of that fabricated reality crumbles.

“A— And you?” Jungkook asks.

Jimin smiles and shrugs. Goes back to adjusting some settings in his menu. “Me too. I'm just here to find my stats. Like, the hours I spent in here and shit.”

“Why?”

“Because that's how they do it, man. They log your hours, sort of to put it in perspective. Those healing centres. You know, you've been going to those places yourself, right? That's how you managed to quit.”

“Y— Yeah.”

Jimin hums, reading through some things on that screen, before he goes on. “You— I know this is cheesy or whatever, but you've really... inspired us, I guess? Yeah. 'Cause, like, if you managed to quit, then why can't we? Y'know? We all sort of accepted this fault as part of our lives. Our eternity. But you did it, bro! You quit! That's so awesome! And so we figured we could do it, too.

“Hoseok's at some centre over in whatever city he's in, and my real body's out cold on some cot right now. But we're getting better.” Jimin nods at Jungkook. An honest, grateful smile of someone who has so much in store for him. “And that's all thanks to you!”

“That's...” Jungkook doesn't know what to say. Other than sorry. (Back to this, again?) Sorry that he lied to them and sorry that he did this to himself. Because they're getting better, really, they are. And yet there he is, fucking around with some twisted people in that twisted place, relying on Taehyung to quell the impulses until hopefully they one day disappear. There had been an easier, better way, yet he'd put himself through hell, unknowingly. He's probably still there, honestly. “That's incredible, Jimin.”

“Why are you here, by the way?” Jimin asks. Jungkook's previous answer, to say goodbye, to say sorry, doesn't seem so appropriate now. “You here to lock your account, too? I'm actually surprised they haven't had you do that yet.”

“Uh.” Jungkook shakes his head side to side, trying to replace the internal reeling of his mind with physical motion. “Yeah, yeah. It— It's just... hard, you know?”

“Of course, man. They say this is the hardest part. C'mon, I'll do it with you.”

Jungkook just pulls up his menu, going along with it. This is probably for the best, anyway. Cold turkey, remember? That's what this was supposed to be.

There's so much this was supposed to be.

“Hoseok's already done this, actually,” Jimin's explaining. “So I guess it's just us two to go, huh?”

Right there, right below the account settings tab, at the very bottom of the page, are the fateful words. Lock account. He taps it and a dialog box comes up.

This action is permanent. Are you sure?

“Let's do it,” Jungkook mutters with certitude.

“Let's.” Jimin gives him a smile, perhaps their last one ever. Jungkook finds himself wondering, has it really been five years? “Guess I'll see ya, Kook.”

Could those really be their last shared words? It's a curious feeling, saying goodbye to people he's never really met. People who probably live on some other part of the globe. There's something jarring about this moment, as Jungkook realizes he never even knew his best friends' last names.

A final wave is all Jungkook can give Jimin because he can't think of anything to say. Then Jimin's avatar disappears, like he's logged out. Yet it's so much more significant.

Jungkook hits OK on the dialog box.

- - -

Back, real world, body crumpled on the mattress in the uncomfortable position he left it in because he knew he wouldn't be gone long. With this real body, the one that feels the inconveniences of adrenaline-mediated stress. Hormones. Neurotransmitters. Their prepackaged malfunctions.

The reality of the moment bashes inside his skull, pricks at his brainstem, down his spine. Shock, shock, shock. It's over, shouldn't it be? Hadn't this been the goal?

But it's not immediate loss or misery or any form of impending depression that he's feeling, like they say will happen to you upon the initial big step of quitting. It's desire he's feeling. The crushing, pulsing need for more, more, more.

Desire which he associates with Taehyung.

Because he's lost that other addiction, perhaps far before he even knew it. But he's still got the thought of Taehyung, his Taehyung, drifting, clinging, digging into to every fibre and every nerve in his brain.

So here is this boy, body and mind, running through the moonlit city in search of salvation. All that he needs and all that he wants. All. Shoving open the heavy door of the organization, taking the dark staircase down, running through the hall and taking yet another staircase down to the hall below to rush, pant, rush, into Taehyung's room.

“Taehyung,” he huffs, but doesn't allow himself the pause to breathe because he needs this now. What he wants is to be breathless. To have not enough and to keep taking, taking, taking, chasing satiation.

It's nighttime and Taehyung's sleeping, but he jolts awake when Jungkook shoves the blankets onto the floor, jumps on him, shakes him awake.

“Taehyung,” he repeats.

“Wh— Umph— What? Huh?”

“Wake up,” Jungkook breathes hard.

“The fuck, Kook—” Jungkook kisses him, hard. It's more of a bite than anything. Way beyond a playful nip. It's meant to hurt. There's intention there, the dangerous kind. The destructive kind.

“I need you,” he's mumbling, shoving words into Taehyung's mouth and tongue into his throat. “Now. Need you now.”

If there's anyone that understands desperation, it's him. Addict, addict, addict, those city voices used to chant. But look at him now. Look.

What a mess.

Then Taehyung's chuckling against his mouth, biting back, and Jungkook snarls because, yes, this is what he came here for. Who needs pixelated escape when you have sex on legs right at your disposal, your whim? What he needs is something real, something that counts. It's all self-destruction regardless.

Taehyung is his tether and Taehyung is untethering him both at the same time.

“Fuck me,” Jungkook's growling. Taehyung slides his hands up to Jungkook's hips and flips the two of them to give himself the upper hand.

Another bite, and through teeth Jungkook spits, “Come on, fuck me. Fuck me till the blood scares you.”

At that, Taehyung laughs. A delightful sound, albeit slightly unhinged. “Oh, my little Kookie's going crazy, is he?”

Truth is he's been crazy long before he ever met Taehyung, only now it's a different type. Something a bit more packed. Immense danger compressed between these two simple yet complex beings.

And here they are, at the inevitable detonation. Everything can only ever get worse, no matter what lies are told to you to try to hold your diegesis together.

Jungkook doesn’t tell Taehyung that he went back into VR. Jungkook doesn’t tell him why he's doing this, why he's so frantic, so insistent. Perhaps the guy understands anyway, because Taehyung tends to see through Jungkook like glass. But still Jungkook doesn't tell him anything, not in words. Like this seclusion is some form of victory.

Eat or be eaten. Teach yourself based off your surroundings. Your world is only about yourself. What he has to practise is self-sustenance. Fuck reliance. Fuck interdependence. Fuck the fact that Taehyung is Jungkook's pillar, his only source for stability. He's sure, if he falls for long enough, that he can orient himself right to hit the ground running. Either that or he dies upon meeting the blunt force of unforgiving rock-bottom.

Either way he'll be fine.

They've had time to become familiar with each others' bodies, but it's the feeling of the moment that makes this all so new. Clothes off and right from the get-go is Taehyung shoving two fingers into Jungkook's asshole, straight after manhandling him to get him on his hands and knees. Kind enough to use lube but not enough to take it slow.

Three now, and Jungkook knows it's so soon but what he needs is more. He grunts, “Hurry up. I don't— ah.” Taehyung's curling those fingers, those long, elegant fingers that know exactly what they're doing, and pulling a wicked moan from Jungkook's throat.

“What was that?” Taehyung's voice rumbles deep, a cocky lilt to it because everything he does has to involve some level of snark.

“I said,” Jungkook hisses, and reaches behind him to grab Taehyung by the hair and tug him down so his sweaty, hard body is pressed almost entirely against Jungkook's back, so he can feel his erection up right against him. He growls a taunt, “Hurry up.”

Taehyung bites his shoulder and uses his entire weight to push Jungkook's upper body down onto the bed. Shoves his cheek into the mattress with one hand while the other stabs unforgivingly at his prostate.

“You're gonna do what I want,” he's snarling, and all that makes Jungkook moan into the fabric, letting it muffle how loud he's being.

Back arching at each shock of pleasure, Jungkook pants back, “You're gonna make me do what you want.”

As if that works as retaliation.

It gets him what he wants, though. It gets Taehyung to abruptly pull his fingers out and wipe them crudely on the sheets, to coat his cock with more lube before he pushes into Jungkook's asshole. It makes Taehyung groan, a pleasured, prolonged sound wrenched out of him as he buries his head in the space between Jungkook's shoulder blades and nips at the delicate skin there.

He doesn't even wait before he begins to pull back, and Jungkook's glad.

“God, yeah, I want it to hurt,” he's mumbling, as if Taehyung doesn't know that. “Come on, faster.”

The fact that it feels this good is just an added bonus. It's not pleasure he's really seeking. He just wants to get fucked till he can't think, because all this that's going on and falling apart is just too much to deal with.

That crescendo of ruination, climbing and reaching straight for the culmination.

This isn't about them so much as it is about himself. His needs, his escapism.

Taehyung snaps his hips forward and Jungkook tries his best to bite the sheets, because he knows he's going to end up being loud but he needs to pretend to have at least some form of dignity maintained.

“Fuck, Jungkook,” Taehyung's moaning. He's got one hand wound into the strands of Jungkook's hair, pressing his face down and almost suffocating him. The other is on his hips, fingers with white knuckles digging throbs into the good, fleshy part he likes to hold onto. “Look at you. Look at what I'm doing to you.”

Shit, yes, look at what you're fucking doing to me. Jungkook's grunting harsh with each brutal slam of Taehyung's hips. He loves it. The way the thick tip slides against his prostate. The way it makes him shove his hips back and whine, beg for more. That greedy way Taehyung fills him up. That pulse of the big vein that runs down Taehyung's cock, each thrust making him hotter and hotter.

“God, you're such a slut for it,” Taehyung grits and fucks into Jungkook until he's beyond aching.

“I'm a slut for you,” Jungkook moans. He wants this and he needs Taehyung to know how badly.

Satisfying slaps as their skin meets, and Jungkook feels the burning of bruises beginning to form on his ass. Pleasure makes him dizzy. Pleasure makes him forget. He just whines into the mattress, clasps the sheets between his sweaty fingers in an effort to quell some of the tension.

Then there are fingernails raking up his thigh, so incredibly hard. Jungkook can imagine the red marks they leave, red like rage, like passion. Blood beading as Taehyung goes over them again. His hand reaches Jungkook's ass and he lifts it to bring it down in a quick slap. Then squeezes, pulls at the reddened cheek, and fucks deeper.

“Fuck, c'mon, take it,” Taehyung growls low.

Yeah, that's right, give it to me.

An adjusting of his hips and Taehyung's fucking deeper, shallower thrusts that each force pleasured grunts from Jungkook's lips. It's hitting his prostate dead-on and he can't help the quick clenches of his hole, that muscle all spasming and uncontrolled. It draws satisfied mumbles of praise from Taehyung that make Jungkook's dick throb, dripping filthy precome all over the sheets.

“You're so fucking good,” Taehyung's saying, and Jungkook just nods frantically.

Moving a hand to Jungkook's balls, Taehyung gently massages them as they tighten even more. It's a jarring contrast compared to how bluntly he fucks him, and it makes the delirium even better.

Slowing to make those deep, deep, strokes of Taehyung working his cock in and out of Jungkook's slick hole feel even deeper. His thumb slides up to press against Jungkook's perineum, to get wet with the lube dribbling out and drag it back down to his balls, to massage them, squelching.

Jungkook lifts his head to look back at Taehyung in the darkness. “You fucking playing nice?”

He barely finishes his sentence before Taehyung laughs and respond with an easy shut the fuck up before using that hand in his hair to shove his face down again. And snaps his hips, quick and brutal all over again.

Fast, raw, like goddamn animals. Despicable. Intolerable. Honest.

Jungkook shifts his hips higher and lets Taehyung have him like he wants to. Make me yours, make me something, make me anything.

Taehyung smacks his ass again and it makes Jungkook sob with pleasure.

“Fuck, hyung,” he keens into the mattress. Brings the thin sheets back into his mouth to bite, to muffle the words that keep tumbling. “Oh, God, keep going, I'm gonna come, you're gonna make me come, please—”

Pushing down harder on the back of Jungkook's head, Taehyung moves to wrap a hand around Jungkook's cock, pushing his thighs open wider with his knee and just taking.

“You wanna come?” he's snarling, aggression doing less to hide the stuttering of his panting breaths as he thrusts, quicker, harder, again and again. “Then come.”

Jungkook spurts hot white all over the sheets with his face shoved into the mattress by Taehyung's harsh hand. Unrelenting, he fucks Jungkook through his orgasm and lets him ride it out, pain mounting on pleasure as Jungkook fumbles with the sounds spilling from his throat.

Then Taehyung's mumbling Kook, fuck before his hips snap a final time, burying his dick in Jungkook's ass as he groans and comes, cock twitching and muscles tense, violent. He comes inside, because it's retaliation for what Jungkook constantly loves to do to him, despite how it drips out unpleasantly afterwards.

They collapse next to each other.

Jungkook's body hums and quivers in the aftershocks and he wonders if this is what satiation is really supposed to feel like.

A detached, floating voice floats through the air, and he realizes it's his own. But it speaks these words like it knows something Jungkook himself doesn't.

Like smoke, insignificant translucence that's enough for deathly suffocation, it echoes.

“Hyung, I need something more.”

- - -

This filthy city wants to take you over. There's no such thing as bloodless justice. You have to right this wrong.

Namjoon's words echo and Jungkook wonders about their truth.

They're walking hand in hand down the wide avenue. A skip in Taehyung's step, determination in Jungkook's. Taehyung rolls Jungkook's chapped fingers with bitten nails between his soft ones and hums like he's counting the steps they take toward demise.

What do you think you need?

Step, step, step down the silent night street.

Anything. Just more.

Every third or fourth streetlamp they pass seems to be busted, but that's fine because everything will be illuminated soon.

I can give you more, Jungkook. There's always more. If you think you can take it.

The moon is a sliver, low on the horizon and almost gone. Just saying goodbye.

I can take anything.

There's something carefully naive about the way he truly thinks that.

“Just so you know,” Taehyung says, “this is technically not allowed.”

“Allowed by whom?” Jungkook asks.

“You know.”

They think they're walking with purpose but they might just be running from the lack of it.

Taehyung says, “Just so you know this is dangerous territory.”

“How so?” Say it, Taehyung. Because Jungkook doesn't know, but he feels the proximity of the truth burning a hole straight through his skull. “Is it against the rules? Because, Taehyung, I thought there were no rules.”

Or maybe it's not the truth that's burning, but something else entirely.

“Well, there actually are rules.”

“So you lied to me.”

“Yes.” Taehyung looks at him but looks back to the street before Jungkook can discern his expression. “I lied to you the same way you lied to me and the same way we lie to ourselves. Everyone fucking lies, Jungkook.”

Jungkook feels a grin pulling at his cheeks. “For some reason you've got me thinking of Namjoon.”

Taehyung scoffs. “Yeah? Wonder why.”

Then he stops, so Jungkook does too. Fingers intertwined like porcelain promises, Taehyung stands staring up at a building and makes Jungkook look up at it, too.

“You know what, though?” Taehyung awes, a steam of breath in the cold suspended there like it's patiently waiting to fall. “I'm glad those rules exist. I've wanted to break them for so fucking long.”

- - -

Just before dawn, a cold Monday warmed by a hot fire. How they got to this point is beyond them. They're in this city that runs on death and Taehyung's only adding fuel to the fire.

Moments ago it's Taehyung telling him, “This is the only happily ever after you're getting, so you might as well make the best of it.”

It's Taehyung telling him, “I don't know what you've known before this but it doesn't matter because we're gonna destroy all of that.”

It's Taehyung telling him, “You cross the line once and give yourself up and then you draw another line and go even further than that.”

All this as he opens a trapdoor beneath the abandoned building and pulls out jugs of gasoline, saying this is his long-awaited door to eternity, pouring that preparation all over the place, lighting it in multiple places and running, running, running for their pitiful lives.

In this moment, straight before the avalanche, Jungkook feels like world breathes for them. Like the wind howls for them. Like this fire burns for them.

Taehyung's got that lighter in his hand, the one he pulls from his back pocket, the one Jungkook noticed but never really acknowledged. He reels his arm back and chucks it far into the flames they've just created.

“You should know I've always wanted to do this,” is Taehyung's style of mea culpa.

There's too much to apologize for to just finish with a sorry.

They both have so much, surface tension breaking and that flat bubble spilling like admission.

Flames that lick upwards like snake tongues, long and sinister, and it's all their fault. Hot gusts as it builds and builds only to destroy and destroy some more. It strengthens with the goal to weaken. Beautiful red, not sweet like mulberry-coloured wine, but aggressive and explosive like it's got something to prove. Like it wants to bring the world to its knees and spit regret in its face.

Ashes burst in the scorching currents. Loud crashes, and those windows on the first floor of the building shatter outwards from the pressure.

Jungkook's sweating and wants to take a step back.

Taehyung takes a step forward instead.

With arson shimmering in his eyes, Taehyung says, “You think this is the end, Jungkook?”

The best and worst part is this isn't even the crowning point. There's more to come, because there's always more in store if you're willing to face it.

Sweat collects on Jungkook's forehead and drips into his eye, stinging. The immensity of the fire scorches front of them, blasts distorted air against their fronts. Jungkook squints. It's pain and discomfort that's perfectly enough to remind him that this is his doing. His and Taehyung's.

Their hands clasped together, Taehyung continues to Jungkook, “No, we're not even close to the end.”

Drip, drip, goes his sweat.

It's not very easy to fix things but it doesn’t have to be this hard, either.

“Wait, Taehyung—”

But the boy's already running forward, into the very building they just set fire to. Into the scarlet heat and vermillion sparks and most likely into black death.

Years spent in virtual reality hiding from guilt and he's just forgotten what this feels like. Virtual reality was his paper shield. Now he remembers. Cruel clarity. Cruel world. Fault falls on him the same way a burning chunk of building falls to the ground. Punishing.

Most humans, unsurprisingly, are familiar with the unfair nature of life. It's rather unforgettable, actually. One of those unshakeable things like tree sap sticking uncomfortably to your hands or the discomfort of sweating beneath the sweltering sun, those inescapable things.

Slapped in the face by spiteful circumstance fueled by his own mistakes, Jungkook has tried to hide. He knows that now. He was hiding like a coward. Maybe he's known it all along.

Ask yourself a question and you can probably answer it without even thinking.

Have you ever felt regret?

Jungkook hadn't known what he'd wanted, but it certainly wasn't this.

Jungkook hadn't known what he'd wanted and perhaps that was the dangerous part. Irresolution brings about mistakes.

He was just searching for that freedom again. That feeling when they were on the beach, when they were painting harmless symbols on walls, when Taehyung would smile. That free feeling. Of happiness and of promise. Promise of healing, perhaps. And now he feels like he's disintegrating all over again.

Because, to his untrained eye, Taehyung had been free. But Jungkook sees now, not jaded but still ever cynical, that this boy is a prisoner among prisoners. A tongue chained by fear of the truth. Untrusting of even his own words.

And who do you turn to if you can't even believe yourself?

A screech of old wood and a hunk of the building's corner streaks bands of fire as it falls to the ground. Jungkook watches the flames and all he can think is Taehyung's in there.

Taehyung's in there.

Why is Jungkook not in there, too?

So he runs.

Up the same steps Taehyung ran in through, between the blackened crisps of what remains of the door frame.

Nothing in the world ever happens solely for you. This fire is burning only to destroy.

“Taehyung!” he yells into the smoke, through his cloth mask that's always worn throughout the city. It's as loud as he can go, but he's never been the loudest person to begin with. The fire crackles like thunder. “Tae!”

It might be that he's crying because all the cinders are getting too near his eyes and making them water. It might be something else. Either way it doesn't matter, because the tears evaporate the minute they touch his cheeks. It's hot. It's inhuman.

The anger and injustice of an entire lifetime. Taehyung is destructive, inside and out.

There's a flash of a jacket going up the stairwell, with the whole wall on the left side stripped down to its structure of wooden pillars. Also up in flames.

“Taehyung!” Jungkook runs after him, up the stairs. Heat seeps from the building's core and melts through Jungkook's soles. At the landing, it's Taehyung waiting for him, grabbing his arm and pulling him close so the only fire Jungkook can see is the one in Taehyung's eyes.

“We're going to the top, Kook,” he says underneath his mask, and pulls Jungkook with a vicious jerk of his arm.

“Please—” Jungkook's saying, but Taehyung doesn't hear him and Jungkook doesn't even know what he's supposed to be asking for.

Just not this. Anything but this.

Because the thing about grandeur is everyone thinks they can handle it until they've actually got to deal with it.

The thing about addiction is everyone thinks they can control it until they've actually got one.

All those things people tell you to stay away from are warned about for a reason.

He said he could take anything and he said he wanted more but what he really just wanted was to be okay.

To be accepted.

Jungkook reaches out to grab Taehyung's arm so he's got it gripped with both hands. Digs his heels into the wood that's peeling and flaking in the dry heat. The resistance makes Taehyung turn around and cock his head, confused. Like, why don't you want to ruin yourself?

“Please.” And Jungkook asks the greatest thing he's ever wondered about Taehyung. “Why?”

Defeated words from a not-yet defeated boy. Because Taehyung's got fight in his bones, but it's not the good kind of fight. It's the kind that gets him killed. And Jungkook needs to save him from himself.

Taehyung says, “Why not?”

He tugs his arm back and Jungkook just grips harder, lets himself trail the force and fall forward onto Taehyung. He steps back, and Jungkook doesn’t let go.

“Why?”

Taehyung laughs, looking up at the disintegrating building around them, and then says, “Because I'm sick of waiting for some fucking okay on a suicide pact so I can finally get what I deserve.”

Taehyung says, “Because I destroyed Namjoon, so I might as well destroy myself.”

Taehyung says, “Because I want to.”

He turns to keep going for the next flight of stairs, to eventually bring himself to the highest level so when it all burns he can fall into the cinders and die while suffocating on all the smoke that's climbed up to accompany him.

“No, you don't,” Jungkook spits, and wrenches Taehyung back with as much aggression as he can muster from his weak body. Shallow breaths and a distant mind, the smoke they've created consumes them both. “You don't want this. You— You can't.”

“What the fuck do you know? Weren't you on board with this, huh? Weren't you?”

Another crash and everything breaks just a drastic bit more.

“But—” Jungkook hacks, coughs ashes up from his throat. “You're supposed to be the stable one, helping me get myself back and shit! You can't just— fucking, go crazy or whatever!”

“Who says? Huh? Now you're trying to hold me back, too, huh? What if I want to? What then? Huh?”

“Don't do this to yourself!”

“I'll do whatever the fuck I want to myself!”

“I said that and look what happened to me! Don't become like me, not after you've helped me come so far!”

Taehyung shoves Jungkook with real force behind his motions. And Jungkook, because he's the one who's been addicted to virtual reality for years and had that grant him this malnourished body he's still recovering from, goes tumbling back. Taehyung rips that mask off himself.

No. Please.

“This is fun! Fun, Jungkook!” He flings the mask to the far wall, into the climbing fire there, where it burns in an instant. It's getting too late. “Fun.

“There's nothing fun about ruining yourself!”

There's sweat pouring down Taehyung's face and soaking his collar. Delirium in his eyes. Jungkook wonders if he notices himself swaying.

“Make up your mind,” Taehyung's saying. “What do you want out of this?”

“You,” Jungkook sobs. The air before him is wavy, a massive blur through the tears he's only just realizing he's shedding and the bending air beneath the heat. It's hard to see but there might be tears mixed with the drops of sweat running down Taehyung's face.

“You're crazy,” he's shaking his head. Then his head's lolling, eyes unfocused. Jungkook recognizes that immediately, having previously experienced it countless times himself.

“I'm not crazy, I just really don't want you to die,” he says in a weak voice, and Taehyung's tense shoulders start to slouch. Jungkook takes a step forward. Right as Taehyung falls over, into his shaky, fumbling arms, Jungkook's saying, “Because you're my everything.”

Taehyung's chuckling, “That makes you crazy in and of itself, Jeon,” before he's out cold and forcing Jungkook to have to deal with his limp body.

Going back down the stairs, he thinks there could have been a better outcome. But there could have been a million far worse ones, so he'll settle just fine with this one.

On the way, he accidentally knocks Taehyung's head against the wall. Maybe it's the loopy feeling from the lack of oxygen and overdose of smoke, but Jungkook giggling, whispering sorry, sorry to Taehyung's limp frame as he struggles to carry him out.

Out from the smoke and fire and hatred and into the cold air, colder still as they get farther away. With the early, dark dawn comes rain, cool and pelting against their sooty skin.

Some streets down and Jungkook collapses, dropping Taehyung's body and cursing when he does so. Not knowing what to do, he just kneels on the curb and stares at him. Blood, he notices, is beginning to seep from the gash next to Taehyung's forehead. Oops, he thinks. Probably from when he knocked the guy against all those walls.

Taehyung's eyelashes flutter, and the first thing Jungkook says when they open is, “Sorry.” He reaches out to wipe at the blood, but it keeps gushing. “I hurt you.”

“It's fine.” Taehyung smiles at him, then grimaces at the pain, still lying flat against the concrete.

And here may be an awfully familiar scene.

“Is this what freedom means to you?” Jungkook's asking him sadly.

“You should know the answer to that by now,” Taehyung says. Face sooty and bloody and still, he smiles. Some twisted apology.

“You think you're gonna die?”

“I'm not even close to dying.”

“Oh. I'm sorry.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

“I hope you regret this,” Taehyung says.

“It was your fault as well.”

“Then let's regret it together.”

“Let's.”

And Taehyung reaches out a pathetic hand, which Jungkook takes without hesitation. Then he lies down on the concrete so he looks just as silly. He takes off his mask and hooks the elastics over Taehyung's ears instead, just like Taehyung had done for him so long ago. It's more a statement than anything.

“We've come a long way together, haven't we?” Jungkook asks those nostalgic words with a fond smile.

“We really have, Kook.”

And they're here with dawn peeking over the horizon, rain not washing away their sins but at least cleaning their sooty bodies, at least weakening the fire they'd created somewhere behind them.

Welcome back to the world, all over again.

- - -

“I don't know what I expected,” Jungkook mutters.

“Not this?” Taehyung snickers softly.

“Never this.” Jungkook rubs his thumb over the back of Taehyung's hand. “I don't know what you expected, either.”

Taehyung repeats, “Not this.”

Jungkook shrugs his shoulders. There's an oxygen mask in Taehyung's empty hand and he fiddles with its elastics. It's meant to be on his face, and Jungkook even insisted he put it on like the nurses told him to, but he was stubborn and refused.

“No one ever expects suicide pacts to really be the answer, do they?”

Taehyung giggles and Jungkook frowns at him and huffs. It's a bigger deal than that, he wants to say.

Jungkook asks, “Will you tell me why?”

Taehyung sighs, not melancholic or anything. Just relaxed. “It's just... All I had was Namjoon. And it was my fault he was there. I didn't really have a reason to leave.”

A gentle flutter of Jungkook's eyelashes as he looks down, then back at Taehyung.

“Can I be your reason?” It's mumbled so soft and that's how Taehyung knows Jungkook means it entirely.

“If you want?”

“Of course I want.”

Jungkook squeezes Taehyung's fingers and hopes it communicates all he's trying to say. Maybe it works, because Taehyung squeezes back, just as firm. They let each other know that living with guilt doesn’t necessarily have to be torture.

“You knew about that, by the way?” Taehyung asks, talking about the pact, the promise, that he'd tried so desperately to keep Jungkook from, to not scare him off. “How long?”

“Took me a bit of time. Like you said, I guess I was just too dissociated. Eventually I figured it out, though. As I got my head back. Like, that time you told me what Yoongi and Seokjin were saying was nothing. I think I just wanted to believe that.”

“But you didn't really?”

“No.”

Taehyung laughs and lets his exhausted head fall back against the white pillows. “And then you went and lost it,” he teases with a drawl, and Jungkook smacks his arm, careful of the single IV tube.

“Shut up.”

“That was fucking hot, by the way. Like, if you ever wanna do that again—”

“Shut up,” Jungkook grumbles and hits him again.

There's a nice silence as Jungkook just sits next to Taehyung's cot, tracing patterns on the skin of his hand.

Quietly, Jungkook asks, “What happens now?”

With a shrug Taehyung says, “Whatever you want to happen.”

“No, but,” and he quiets down as if anybody cares enough about these two sorry boys to listen in, “with the fire. That building.”

A shake of his head and Taehyung says, “Nah. News says Namjoon took the fall for it. Stepped up and confessed.”

“Oh.”

“Jeez, you still don't keep up with the world? I've been trapped in a hospital bed the entire day and I still know more than you.”

“Alright, alright, you're better than me. Whoop-dee-doo.” He rolls his eyes, then asks, “Do you know why he did that?”

“I've got an idea. That fucker... He never did want to die. Not yet. I guess that's why he put it off for so long, got everyone so antsy waiting for it. 'Cause it was his decision, in the end. Really, Jungkook, I should've been dead long before I met you.” Around Taehyung's fingers, Jungkook's grip tightens. “But I guess that rational bit of Namjoon's still there, somewhere.”

“He's gonna be in prison.”

“Yeah, but he's gonna be alive.” An exasperated shake of head, but kind of like he's proud. “Besides, people like him always manage to weasel their way out of shit.”

“And what about everyone one else left... there? With no leader.”

“Dunno. Maybe they'll kill themselves and maybe they won't. Not my problem.”

Jungkook nibbles on his lip, not really sure what he's trying to ask.

Taehyung sighs and says, “If it's those two you're wondering about, they're probably not going to. Seokjin's found paradise buried balls deep in Yoongi's asshole, and I'm guessing the last thing on those two's mind is figuring out the best way to die. Too busy fucking.”

He says it so simply, but a snicker escapes his lips at the last word. So Jungkook, too, laughs.

“You're so stupid,” he's muttering, then leaning forward to bury his head in Taehyung's chest.

“Well, it's true,” Taehyung's protesting, but Jungkook just shakes his head and laughs harder into the fabric of Taehyung's hospital gown. “It's not even that funny.”

“I know, I know. Just...” Jungkook pulls back so he's eye level with Taehyung. “Everything just feels fine. Right now. I dunno.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung's humming with a grin.

Jungkook lifts a hand to poke at the side of the bandage around Taehyung's head. “How's your head?” he asks.

“Good. Nurse actually said it seemed like you needed hospital treatment more than I did.”

Jungkook laughs. “Yeah, I got told I have to eat more. And sleep. And, like, not look dead in general.”

“Yeah. She's right.” Taehyung pokes Jungkook's ribs, where they still protrude unhealthily beneath his loose shirt that contrasts terribly with his wan skin and bloodshot eyes.

“Ow, hey, fucker,” Jungkook grumbles, and swats his hand away.

“Well, we've got all the time in the world left to get you to stop looking so dead.” Taehyung grins at Jungkook. Dazzling and happy, pleasant tingles like dizzying heights and adventure and experience and nothing like malfunction.

Jungkook leans in and kisses Taehyung. They both taste like the city, like regret and promise and everything in between.

“Fuck the organization,” Jungkook breathes. “I'm gonna live forever with you.”

“So you're making my survival a statement?” Taehyung raises an eyebrow.

“Yeah. Is that dirty? To just give up other obligations like that?”

“Dirty as hell. I like it. It's very you.”

Another simple kiss, just because they can.

“I never was able to give myself up, huh? I'm still me,” Jungkook sighs.

“That's a good thing. You're very wonderful.” The comment makes Jungkook blush and duck his head.

“You are, as well,” he murmurs with a grin and a scrunched nose.

“And I could never give myself up either. Sometimes I wonder what I've been doing there all these years.”

“Who knows? What are people ever doing?”

Jungkook leans his head against Taehyung's shoulder.

He asks, “Does this make everything okay?”

“Probably not. Makes it all just a bit less shitty, I'd say.”

But Taehyung cards his fingers through Jungkook's hair and nothing has ever felt more fulfilling.

“Guess that's enough.”