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underground, the stars are legend

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Jeongguk is twenty years old when he's drafted.

The ship is cramped and dark, the corridors and cabins so narrow that Jeongguk could touch both sides were he to fully extend his arms. It's been three long days of just waiting, anticipation and anxiousness stifling the already stuffy air, causing everyone on board to hold their breath. The MD5 is an old model; its sisters have long been bricked, recycled into something new and likely more useful, up to the standards of current technology. Back in its day it was nothing but a cargo ship, but now the funds are running low and reinforcement is, so they've been told, absolutely vital. Thus, Jeongguk and his squadron had boarded a ship that looked dangerously close to falling apart at the seams three days ago, clad in brandnew combat gear that seems out of place in the rusty corridors, too modern, too untouched and pristine, the chest plates reflecting the flickering neon lights lining the labyrinth of passageways that stretch through the ship like cobwebs.

Jeongguk throws a glance at the watch worked into his sleeve. It's set on a countdown, the seconds ticking away steadily. The longer he stares at it, the slower the numbers seem to move. He blinks a few times, then looks back up, stares at the low ceiling instead. It's as dirty as the rest of the ship, pipes covering almost every inch. A few of them are leaking. He sighs, checks his watch again. 45 minutes left.

Half an hour before landing they're called into the cargo deck. The squadron is supposed to leave ship through the former loading ramp- the instructions are precise, the operation calls for swiftness. Jeongguk wonders, not for the first time, what exactly is awaiting them on Kyriel. The rest of his team is thinking about it too, he knows, sees is in their tight expressions and the way they clench their fists by their sides when they think no one is looking. The air feels even heavier now. Deep inside the ship the machines rumble, the floor vibrating under the soles of their heavy boots. The MD5 creaks and groans as the course changes from flight to landing. 23 minutes and 19 seconds, Jeongguk's watch says. He takes a deep breath and straightens the straps of his backpack. They're already cutting into his shoulders, his baggage too heavy and his armor too thin. When he's checked every piece of it twice, he can do nothing but wait. Loaded silence settles, the only sounds coming from the ship's core. Jeongguk wishes he had a way to look out into the endlessness of space, anything to give him the illusion he isn't trapped in here. He wants to see the planet he's going to spend his next few months on as they approach, but as it is, there isn't a single window in the metal walls. 8 minutes and 37 seconds. Jeongguk wipes the sweat from the back of his neck, takes a deep breath and closes his eyes.

Kyriel is classified as a jungle planet, breathable atmosphere and potable water. Vegetation itself is said to be hostile, but still it is a planet any human being could survive on.

Among the recruits and students of the academy it's known as the cursed planet. Jeongguk had heard the seniors talk about it back when he was new, all gangly limbs and doe eyes. He'd asked them, fumbling a little and forcefully avoiding their eyes, why they had a special name for Kyriel when all other planets were identified by either names or strings of numbers. He knew that the jungle planet had a history of war, but so did others.

"It's cursed," a sharp eyed senior named Min Yoongi had said, "because nobody returns from it."

Jeongguk had looked up at that, meeting Yoongi's piercing gaze. There had been nothing but severity in his eyes, not even the tiniest spark of humour, no twinkle giving away a lie or joke.

"You're scaring the kid," another senior had said, looking decidedly more kind. He'd turned towards Jeongguk, smiling a little. "People do come back from Kyriel."

And just when Jeongguk had released the breath he'd been holding, Min Yoongi had laughed, a bitter, scratchy sound. "They don't come back the same person, though," he'd said quietly. "They're not themselves anymore."

Jeongguk smiles to himself as he remembers what Namjoon had said before he left. "Let's hope you don't get your roll call for Kyriel, kid."

3 minutes and 46 seconds. Next to him, someone is mumbling into clasped hands. Jeongguk wonders if the man is praying, wonders if the gods could hear him out here, if they actually exist. Kyriel lies at the edge of Parsec XVII, dancing precariously close at the horizon of a black hole. Time passes differently due to the massive gravitational forces at work; the days are short, the nights long. Jeongguk had always thought space was lonely, the sheer vastness of it almost incomprehensible, but this particular part of it is truly desolate.

There is no sign of war on the planet when they land. It's a quick and quiet affair, and before Jeongguk can process much he's standing in a clearing, the ship taking off, vanishing into the dark sky. In truth, he isn't nervous; never had been. He's antsy, overflowing with energy after days on the cramped ship. He feels like he could take on come whatever, standing on this foreign planet with only weapons and a mission. But the night is silent and the jungle around them unmoving- so unlike anything he's ever associated with war that it's slightly unnerving. Jeongguk has been trained to fight, his numerous skills and talents honed for this very day, three long years of merciless preparation. Now that the time has come, he doesn't know what to do at all.

They comm the only base they can establish contact with and take off, the jungle only opening its gates reluctantly. Once they're in, Jeongguk turns back and watches the ferns and ranks close behind them. He gets the creeping feeling that the jungle won't let them back out. The camp is a three hour march away, but with the heavy undergrowth and scrub blocking their way wherever they turn, it takes them four.

"There's the cargo," is what they're greeted with. Jeongguk doesn't understand until much later.

 

It stays quiet. The air, though- the air is charged, thick on Jeongguk's tongue and in his throat all the way into his lungs, like it's just waiting to choke him. Their squadron joins with another and moves land inwards, the brush getting thicker, limiting their vision. Jeongguk, despite the impenetrability of the jungle, feels oddly exposed. His fingers itch with the need to do something, anything.

"Where are we going?" he asks a soldier from the other squadron, walking alongside him with a rusty knife as an extension to his arm, trying to clear their way.

"The old air field. The hangar- they say there's movement there," the man says, and it's the only exchange of words they have in two entire days.

The forests of Kyriel are strange- otherworldly, quite literally- everything tinged a dark blue, the surfaces of trees and plants grimy and the ground beneath their feet too soft. More often than not, dense fog hangs heavily between the trees, impairing sight even during the few hours of daylight. Kyriel's sun, Jeongguk remembers from his studies, is far away; its light is weak and pale, barely breaking through the treetops. It's quiet at all times, no sign of life other than the soldiers, and even they keep their lips sealed tightly, as though they're afraid of disturbing the oppressive silence. After five days, Jeongguk has almost forgotten that they're supposed to be at war.

 

On the seventh night, they're attacked. The enemy has escaped through the woods and into the dark before they have a chance to strike back. They leave the bodies where they are.

 

The airfield is a bust. They find nothing but debris, bones sticking out of the wrecks like like pale fingers held up in warning.

"What happened here?" one of Jeongguk's comrades asks, voice shaky.

"We weren't around for this," is the response he gets from the other unit's men, but Jeongguk looks at them and thinks that even if they weren't, they must know what happened in this godforsaken place, this cemetery of machines and men.

 

War creeps upon them like a sickness. The first attack was only an early symptom, war cracking its bony knuckles before extending a hand and closing its fingers around their throats. The planet itself is merciless, giving them neither shelter nor sight. Some days Jeongguk feels as though he's submerged in 360 degree combat, even though they're only moving, either chasing or escaping.

Over the course of mankind's history, many have tried to put into words what happens in war, but most have said that there is no way to truly describe it. Jeongguk has spent three years of his life training, learning, reading all of its conceivable facettes- and yet, now that he finds himself in the middle of it, he realizes that he knows nothing; that nothing possibly could have prepared him for this. Because this isn't the terrifying, loud terror of war- it's quiet, dragging, anxiety and fear slowly crawling from his fingertips into his head, weaving a tight net across his skin until he feels like he can barely move.

Even when everything is stagnant, there seems to be no time for words or smiles. Jeongguk watches as people he once knew change, and wonders how much change one can undergo before losing themselves.

 

A man from a unit they haven't yet met comes delivering a message. Jeongguk takes in his dirty uniform, his bitten down fingernails, the dark circles lining his eyes, partly covered by strands of greasy hair. His eyes themselves are dull like the jungle at night, his wrists dainty, waist too thin. But he exudes a strange confidence, the kind that isn't on purpose. He looks like he's been through hell- but he's alive and right in front of them.

The first platoon needs a man to work the mortars and to scout the area.

"You're cargo, right? Company four, second platoon?"

Their squad leader nods in confirmation. When the man asks for their best, he points to Jeongguk.

 

The first platoon. Jeongguk has heard about it; it's spoken of only in hushed whispers full of reverence, a legend among recruits. They're the cursed men to match the cursed planet, condemned to stay until the war is over, the first and the last.

When Jeongguk meets them, they don't look like the material of legends. There is something different about them, though, about the sharp and hard glint in their eyes and the way they move, like they're part of the jungle and not fighting against it. They blend with the darkness of the wood like shadows.

So Jeongguk joins the first platoon. It is then that he meets Jimin.

 

The first time he really takes note of Jimin is after a surprise attack, the enemy charging out of the undergrowth together with a burst of gunfire. When every last one of them is neutralized, Jeongguk leans against a tree, wiping blood from his face while trying to catch his breath. The jungle around them is dripping crimson. His eyes fall onto a soldier only a few feet away; he's kneeling down beside one of the bodies, and for a split second Jeongguk thinks he's mourning a comrade, but then he identifies the dead man as an enemy. Jeongguk watches, unable to tear his gaze away, as the soldier methodically strips the dead man of all his possessions, expression steely, never changing. Jeongguk almost flinches when he looks up and sharp eyes find his own.

"You're new, aren't you?"

Jeongguk nods. "Yessir."

The man's face shifts, a smirk taking the place of the odd vacancy. "It's Jimin." He gets up and shrugs into the jacket he's just taken off the body. It's bloodstained and dirty as everything is these days.

"Jeongguk. New scout."

Now Jimin seems genuinely interested. He takes a step towards Jeongguk, watching him attentively. "Scout and mortar? My god, you got a thing coming." He rolls his head from side to side, the sound of bones and joints cracking too loud in the silence. Jimin musters him for a while longer, head tilted and brows furrowed as though he's trying to figure something out, then he walks away without another word.

 

When he was still a student at the academy, Jeongguk liked to think that he'd never become numb to death. He knew what he was preparing for, couldn't go a day without being reminded of it, but he swore that while he wasn't afraid of fighting and dying, he would never be indifferent to the frights of war. He grew up being told that soldiers were doing what needed to be done. It wasn't an easy job by any means, called for the kind of courage and determination that can't be found in every man- but it didn't call for inhumanity.

He figures out what makes the men of the first platoon different from him- they're not only unafraid to die, but also unafraid to kill.

He watches Jimin bury a knife in the head of a dying man lying helplessly in the brush, barely stopping, and turns away. He watches him put a bullet through the heart of a kneeling man, pleas dying on his lips as he drops to the ground, and turns away. One must be heartless to do such things without even the slightest hesitance, without flinching, he concludes. What scares him about it is that Jimin probably hasn't always been that way, had once arrived on this planet with mixed expectations and feelings just like him- and somewhere along the way, somewhere in the depth of the jungle, he'd lost his heart.

They advance into an area that resembles a swamp, the ground becoming less and less stable until it's just mud and mire.

Seokjin calls Jeongguk, tells him it's his turn now. "Explore the area. Be mindful of traps. Report back as soon as you can, we'll set up camp here."

Jeongguk nods, makes to gather his backpack and weapons.

"Jeongguk," Seokjin says, staring out at the swamps pensively. "Take someone with you. This is a hostile strip of land, but maybe that's not the only danger about it."

Jeongguk nods again. "Who can you spare?"

"Our second scout is injured, no way he'll make it through that." Seokjin frowns. "The original first platoon fought in similar terrain once, back when this war was more combat and less hide and seek. But there aren't many of these men left, and I doubt they'd volunteer to-- you can try, though."

Jeongguk finds the group sitting in a circle under a tree, mindless of the damp ground.

"I need a scout," he says, walking up to them. Five pairs of eyes fall onto him. They don't look kind.

"Find one somewhere else," a man who has been introduced to Jeongguk as Taehyung says. He sounds tired. Jeongguk doesn't move.

"Look, kid. That swamp? It's a fucking death trap. We've been through it, and no one who's done it once is gonna chance their luck again. It's nothing personal, but take someone else."

"Our lives might depend on this."

The man next to Taehyung murmurs a 'fuck off' into his hand. He perks up when Jeongguk clucks his tongue in annoyance.

"Listen, cargo. You're just another scout, and this is a fucking suicide mission. Why do you think did we had you come here to replace our former scout? Because he died out there in that godforsaken jungle, just like the one before him, and the one--"

"I'll go."

Jeongguk whips around to find Jimin looking at him with an unreadable expression.

Taehyung protests, but Jimin doesn't say anything else. The next morning, they're on their way.

 

Something about the swamps makes Jeongguk's skin crawl. Now, it well and truly feels like they're cut off from the rest of their men, civilisation, the world.

Whenever he turns back he can see only gnarled trees, their heads bowed over murky waters like they're wary and tired. Kyriel is a planet as old as time, and it feels like it has a will of its own, a foreign power lying in the strange, loaded silence that stretches between the trees. The water is too turbid for Jeongguk to catch his reflection, but it calls out to him, sings a tempting melody, the dead asking him to join them at the bottom of those dark pits.

Jimin isn't exactly a fun companion, but then again Jeongguk hasn't had an easy and lighthearted conversation in weeks, so at this point he's used to it.

"Why'd you volunteer?" he asks, on the second day only. It's the first thing either of them have said beyond hushed warnings. He alternates between watching his steps carefully and throwing quick glances at Jimin as they make their way through a particularly tricky passage. There's nothing to see, though. Jimin's face remains unreadable.

"No scouts left after you," Jimin says after a while. Jeongguk stops short.

"What do you mean, no scouts left? They'll send reinforcements sooner or later."

There's a brief pause in Jimin's movements, almost imperceptible. "Right," he says.

 

There are bodies in the swamps, lying by the winding paths or leaning against trees, looking like they've long since become part of the jungle. No way to tell if they were once an enemy or one of their own. Jimin barely spares them a glance, only stops sometimes when they've got a gun lying besides the rotting bones. Then, he picks it up and checks for ammo. So far, he hasn't found a single bullet.

"Why are they all out of bullets?" Jeongguk asks, staring at a skull. Its empty eyes look back at him.

"Men who fought to their last breath," Jimin says, already moving again, "are usually out of bullets."

"You still got rounds left?"

Jimin huffs out a laugh. "I ran out of ammo a long time ago."

 

The bodies are the only thing they find. Other than that, it's all the same. Jimin doesn't talk much, and whenever he does answer one of Jeongguk's questions, Jeongguk kind of wishes he hadn't.

He's not even sure what they're looking for. "Life," Jimin says when he asks. "Life to bring death to."

With time passing, Jimin seems to warm up to him a little bit. He's more talkative, less monosyllabic. His statements are always gloomy and bland, but it matches their environment, Jeongguk guesses. He remembers thinking the men of the first platoon seemed like they were part of the planet when he first joined them, and he finds himself wondering to what extent that is true. The planet has left its marks on them for sure, and not just wounds obtained in the war.

"How long have you been here?" he asks Jimin, late at night when they're both awake, staring into the dark and listening for any sign of enemies approaching. Any sign of life. For the first time, Jeongguk catches something washing over Jimin's face, barely visible in the glow of his communicator.

"I was in the original first platoon," Jimin says after a while. He shifts and leans his head against the tree behind him, tilting it back to look up. Jeongguk follows his gaze and sees only a roof of leafs. No stars.

"I've been here forever. Feels like I've never been anywhere else."

That night, Jeongguk lies awake and tries to remember as much from his time in the academy as he can. He finds that while he hasn't forgotten, the memories are strangely blurry, like they're someone else's or from another lifetime, almost surreal. One thing he suddenly remembers clearly, though, is what Yoongi had told him, back when he'd been just a junior- People who come back from Kyriel aren't themselves anymore.

 

In the second week- they're on their way back- Jimin starts talking to him at night. Neither of them can really sleep, so in the end they stop pretending and exchange stories in hushed whispers. Jimin tells him that when he first came to Kyriel, there really was a war raging on the planet.

"Are you saying it's not a war now?" Jeongguk questions cautiously, shifting to lie on his side. Jimin hums.

"Then what is it?"

Their eyes meet and there's something strange about the look Jimin gives him.

"It's a game."

Jeongguk ponders what Jimin might have meant the entire next day. Maybe he'd been referring to the torturous uncertainty of the deadly game of hide and seek that seems to be played all over the jungle. Maybe he means that it's a game to him now instead of war. Maybe that's the only way to stay sane.

 

The camp their platoon had set up before they left was attacked while they were gone. They lost six men. The ones still alive look like they're surprised to see Jimin and Jeongguk return. "Ahead is clear," Jeongguk says, and so they move.

 

In an unspoken agreement, Jimin and Jeongguk stick to each other's sides. Not always, but at night they keep coming back to find one another. Now that they're with the others again they talk less, but it's something. Jimin is less snarky with him these days, more kind, almost cautious. One night Jeongguk finds himself thinking that maybe he wants to be the one to recover Jimin's lost heart from the jungle and return it to him.

 

Eventually, things change. It seems like they've entered enemy territory, if the sudden increase in attacks is anything to go by. There still aren't any fronts, just single men charging at them, or groups of three at most. At first, awful as it sounds, it's almost like a breath of fresh air. Jeongguk is reminded that he's here for a reason. That he's still alive, not just a shadow hauning the jungle of a forgotten planet. But the imminent danger of surprise attacks sets them on edge during the day and keeps them awake at night, and their energy is already drained from weeks of aimlessly roaming the woods. Since there's only ever a small amount of enemies at once, Jeongguk has time to look at them after they've fallen, to take in their faces and see them as people, and it stirs something deep within him, wakes a part of him he'd thought dormant if not gone. Jimin still robs the dead of their belongings, looks straight into their unseeing eyes, mindlessly discards personal items. Jeongguk sees a crumpled picture of a family, the parents and their two children smiling happily at the camera. He walks away, feeling sick.

 

"They must be desperate, to waste their forces on these small attacks," a soldier says. Some of the men mumble their agreement, a few stay silent.

 

Jimin and Jeongguk huddle together at night, one of them always watching over the other while he sleeps.

"I've seen this before," Jimin tells him. "They're wearing us out."

 

The attacks increase in frequency and success. Jeongguk fears that Jimin was right; that the enemy is tearing them apart bit by bit, piece for piece. Seokjin sends them out again, has them scout their surroundings and report back to him via comm. They pick up a trace and leave the platoon behind to track it, follow it through the jungle for days. At the end of it they find a shipwreck. It has torn a wound into the forest's body; seems almost alien out here.

"That's one of ours," Jimin says, running his hand along the metal planes of the side as he walks. He stops when the exterior wall ends abruptly. The ship has a gaping hole in its fuselage, the metal molten at the edges, pipes and cables protuding like stray limbs.

"Shot down." Jimin takes a step back, peeks inside. The jungle is already stretching his spindly green fingers, trying to make the foreign object its own.

"How long ago?"

Jimin shrugs. "Must've been a while. They haven't sent a fighter like that out here in quite some time."

Just for good measure, they search the wreck for bodies. There's nothing to find, neither remains nor weapons nor nutrition. The enemy must have gotten to it at some point, whether it was soon after the crash or much later. If anyone survived the fall, the enemy must've gotten them too. They turn their backs to it, a strange feeling churning in Jeongguk's gut.

 

For a long time, it feels like they're being hunted. Then, the hunt turns into a twisted battle, one where everyone involved is both hunter and prey. It's the closest they've gotten to combat, and Jeongguk is no longer ashamed to admit that at times he's terrified. The only ones who aren't scared in war are the dead. It must show in his face along with the fatigue, because after a particularly harrowing day, Jimin's hand inches closer and closer until it's covering his. Finally, he interlaces their fingers in the dark.

 

Intel says the enemy has a base camp further south, so they change direction. Taehyung suggests they take it for themselves instead of destroying it- they haven't had an actual settlement in too long, Jeongguk learns. For the first time since his arrival months ago, he questions the authorities. He's cursed the war itself before, the enemy, the planet- but now he starts thinking, his mind wandering dangerous paths at night, ones that he shouldn't heed. They lose a man from the original first platoon to a festering wound and there's actually time to give him a soldier's burial, to pay respects. Jeongguk sheds a few tears by his cold body. When he looks up, he sees Jimin staring, expression empty, eyes dark.

"Do you want to know the truth about this war?" he asks, later when they're lying side by side, staring up into the canopy of branches and leafs overhead.

"The truth?"

Jimin lets go of his hand and shifts so he's facing Jeongguk, props his chin on his open palm.

"The truth."

Jeongguk knows that years ago, a ship with a senator aboard was shot down on a diplomatic mission, just above the landing platform. He's learned that that is a clear declaration of war. The enemy had a militar outpost on this planet, one that had to be destroyed. Thus, only a week later their first troups had been sent along with a squadron of skyfighters. He'd seen pictures, shiny and polished and everything war is sold as, the bravery of a nation, the glory of impending victory.

He turns to look at Jimin, his dark eyes and sunken cheeks, the scar above his protuding collar bones; the sorrow etched into his features, usually concealed by a mask of indifference. Jimin has stories in his eyes, the kind that no one wants to hear. He keeps them there, a lazy swirl of terror, suffering, fear, of pain, loss, grief.

"The military made a mistake, back when they shifted their forces into this parsec. They made a mistake to let their soldiers fight on this planet. And they know it by now. The truth is that they're not only out of patience, but also out of resources. We've lost everything on this planet, and there was never even anything here to gain. No prize, no victory. They know. That's why we're the last ones. That's why you're our last scout. That's why we called you cargo- it's what your squadron was. A last delivery of resources, a last attempt at salvaging what's been done. We either succeed, or we'll rot here. Dead or alive."
Around them, the jungle holds its breath. It is frozen like Jeongguk's bones.

"Why didn't you- you could have told me earlier," Jeongguk hisses, accusation swinging in his words. Jimin buries his face in his palm.

"I wanted you to believe in something. Belief is what fuels a soldier. I wanted you to learn to how to survive here, so you could make it even after you find out." He sighs, Jeongguk stares. At last, Jimin looks up, their eyes meeting. He lets out a soft chuckle on an exhale.

"You're our last scout, after all."

 

It starts raining. Then, it doesn't stop. Jimin and Jeongguk leave their platoon to walk ahead and send back warnings for traps. The closer they get to the base, the more enemies they see, either in the flesh or traces of them, unmistakably alien in the jungle.

Jeongguk is constantly soaked to the bone. During the day the air is heavy, humid and stifling, at night he lies and shivers in his damp clothes. His skin is as raw as his nerves. He pretends he doesn't notice the worried glances Jimin throws him.

On their fifth night ahead, Jeongguk wakes up to Jimin's index finger pressed against his lips. The woods are lighter here, the jungle letting some of the starlight fall through. It drenches everything silver, cold and pristine shine on a dark, marred planet. Jeongguk's eyes fly open and Jimin is close, their bodies pressed together. He's staring right back at him, and there's something unfamiliar in his eyes, too close to fear. A soft but insistent press of his finger against Jeongguk's lips, then he slowly draws back. Jeongguk strains his ears and hears it- voices, footsteps, the rustling and clanking of armor. They don't have enough bullets left to take an entire unit. Jeongguks knows, if they find them, it's a death sentence. All around them, the jungle holds its breath, listening to the soldiers' footsteps. And Jeongguk- Jeongguk is weak. He's tired, he's scared. So he shifts forward, buries his face in Jimin's chest, presses into the damp material of his shirt until he thinks he can feel the warmth of Jimin's skin. It's cowardly, unfit for a soldier, but never has he felt more human than now, defenseless and at the night's mercy. Jimin tangles his fingers in his hair, pulls him yet closer, tugging too hard. Jeongguk thinks he feels a kiss pressed to the crown of his head, but he can't be too sure. Nonetheless he can finally breathe, only now that he's so close to Jimin he should feel suffocated. He exhales shakily against Jimin's chest, and they wait.

 

The base looks out of place in the jungle, as out of place as Jeongguk has always felt here. They stare at the makeshift gates and the giant ships lined up behind, the troops marching in and out. It's a clearing, nature pushed back violently to make space for death and destruction. Jeongguk crouches in the brush at the edge of the forest and watches with Jimin right next to him, their shoulders barely touching. The brushwood surrounding the clearing seems to slowly edge closer, draw the circle tighter like it's lurking, waiting to unleash its chokehold and take back what is rightfully its own.

"Jimin," Jeongguk starts on their way back, carefully, avoiding Jimin's eyes. "How many of our forces are actually left on this planet?"

For a while, the soft ground giving under their feet and the occasional branch snapping is all Jeongguk gets in response. Just when he thinks Jimin is ignoring him, the other takes a deep breath.

"There were enough, earlier on. We got separated a long time ago, though. Then we lost contact. There's no way to tell."

"What about my- the squadron I arrived with?"

"Lost contact," Jimin says, words clipped.

"So we're alone."

Jimin stops to untangle some vines blocking their way, looking at Jeongguk over his shoulder while he rips at them impatiently.

"At least we're still here."

 

No matter how hard Seokjin tries, he doesn't reach Jeongguk' squadron. In the end they conclude that whether anyone of company 4 unit 2 is still alive or not, they're on their own. They work on a plan. The jungle breathes down their necks, urging them to act.

To take out the base, they actually need heavy artillery. Jimin spends half a day cleaning the pipes he's been carrying with him for months. Jeongguk stands by and watches, wondering how many times Jimin has done this. How many times he's prepared for battle, open combat, fire and explosions instead of man against man.
Jeongguk has seen skulls shattered and guts spilled, he's heard what the agony of death sounds like, has felt hot blood on his skin. None of it prepared him for the havoc that their heavy weaponry wreaks. They hit two of the ships before the counter attack rolls in like an unstoppable wave, taking a third of their squadron down. A man falls right next to Jeongguk, stretches his hand out in a last silent call for help, and Jeongguk freezes, his blood running cold. Someone shouts his name, and Jeongguk turns, slowly, sees Jimin approaching with a frenzied look on his face, covered in blood and dirt.

"Jeongguk! Fall back!"

A ripple goes through Jeongguk's body, and finally he gets up and runs, runs until his legs are about to give out. Even hours later, his ears are ringing with the sounds of fire and piercing screams. It's already dark when Jimin sits next to him, procures a semi clean rug from the depths of his backpack, and worldlessly wipes the grime of Jeongguk's face. Only when he's done does he speak up.

"You did well," he says quietly.

"I froze."

Jimin smiles softly. "You're human."

Jeongguk sighs in frustration. "I could've done better, I-"

"There's no doing good in war," Jimin cuts in. "You live, or you die."

It's quiet. Jimin is staring at him inquisitively, but Jeongguk refuses to acknowledge it. He flinches when Jimin raises a hand to his shoulder, rests it there. They stay silent. After a while, Jimin lets his hand wander further up until he can mold his fingers around the side of Jeongguk's neck. Jeongguk becomes painfully aware of his thumping pulse.

"Stay alive, kid," Jimin says. He taps against Jeongguk's throat with two fingers, once, twice.

"You're our last scout, after all."

 

The enemy has taken the two remaining ships and evacuated their wounded. They can't leave the planet, the damage on their ships too big for hyperdrive, but they're out of reach. There's a sense of foreboding in the air, a twisted anticipation. They all know- whatever they do next might determine how this war turns out. Either way, it could determine the end, whether it be the end of the war or simply their own. The decision they come to sinks like lead into Jeongguk's gut.

"Find the ships," Seokjin tells him. "They have a communicator on at least one of them. Even if we win, we can't contact home." It doesn't need to be said. Jeongguk knows, shares a look with Jimin, sees the apprehension in his eyes mirroring his own. Without help from home, they'll rot on this planet even if they win.

Seokjin steps closer, rests a hand on Jeongguk's shoulder. "Our fate is in your hands, Jeon. Find those ships. Contact home." Jeongguk nods. "Return safely," Seokjin adds, and Jeongguk doesn't reply.

It's a mission assigned to him and only him, but when Jeongguk gathers what's left of his belongings and straps a knife to his belt, Jimin stands by his side, waiting to fall in step with him as he always does.

 

They forgo sleep in favour of progress. There are tracks and traces, but the rain makes them hard to chase. Their mission is a race against time.
In the end, it's easier than they thought it would be. They stumble across the ships more than track them down, and Jeongguk sends out a message while Jimin stands guard, voice and hands trembling.

"Headquarters. Here speaks soldier Jeon Jeongguk, first platoon. The war is drawing to a close." He takes a deep breath. "If we survive- take us home. Over."

 

What follows is a chase. The enemy tracks their call and knows that soldiers must be around. Jeongguk and Jimin watch the searchlights cut through the dark of the night from behind brush and trees, roots digging into their knees and thorns slicing at their skin. The jungle wants them gone. They have a run in with a search party and only narrowly escape, shots tearing through the wilderness. Jeongguk's left thigh bleeds like the trees hit with bullets to their sides, and he barely manages to keep up with Jimin as they run. That night he doesn't speak while Jimin cleans his wound with nimble fingers, the rain washing away the blood, sits slumped forward focusing on evening his breath. Jimin stops his ministrations and looks at him.

"Jeongguk." He's only whispering, voice almost inaudible despite their proximity. If Jeongguk closes his eyes, he can see the jungle parting to reveal thin rays of light, searching, waiting to pin him in their spotlight and have his death sentence spoken.

"Jeongguk," Jimin says again, lifting Jeongguk's chin with a light touch. Their eyes meet and Jeongguk knows, realizes that he was wrong- that Jimin's heart isn't lost in the jungle but instead hidden away, shielded behind walls of brashness and indifference so it won't break.

Still he can't speak, only stares at Jimin with wide eyes. Jimin fits a hand against his cheek and although he's the one comforting Jeongguk, he looks the most vulnerable Jeongguk has ever seen him.

Jimin leans in and rests his forehead against Jeongguk's.

"We're still here," he says softly and Jeongguk closes his eyes, tries to get lost in the sound of Jimin's voice, oddly strong in its fragility, and the feeling of his warm breath hitting his skin. Jimin moves closer, leans in until there's no space left to fill. His lips touch Jeongguk's when he speaks, whispers-

"We're still here," he repeats, an exhale against Jeongguk's lips, and in the next second they're kissing, too much teeth and tongue and desperation, Jimin's fingers threading through his hair and Jeongguk clutching Jimin's shoulders like they're his lifeline. When Jimin draws back, looks at him with too much in his eyes, Jeongguk knows that this is how he'll fall. Not at the hand of an enemy, not by a bullet or a knife or an explosion, not even by starvation or sickness deep into the jungle. He sees the truth in Jimin's eyes and his heart at the tip of his tongue, there for Jeongguk to lean back in and take it, and he knows.

This is how he'll fall.

 

The last fight is the hardest. The jungle shifts, tilts until it showcases a new reality of head-on battle, its usual dark colours covered by blinding explosions and deep red. Jeongguk and Jimin aren't around for it- they're far off, westwards where they'd been chased until the enemy unit got a call for attack. When they finally return to where they'd last seen their squadron, there's not much left. The forest has been transformed, from nature to a tainted place of cruelty and hatred. Jimin and Jeongguk run.

 

It isn't over. The planet is a living, breathing thing that wants them gone, floods them in its tears and tries to suffocate them with creeping vines, stab them with sharp thorns. There's no way to know if any of their friends made it out. Jimin says that maybe they made it, got onto a ship and left. Jeongguk says nothing. Either way there's no sign of any ally. Instead, the jungle seems to shrink until they're trapped, the space bustling with remaining enemies. There's hatred, outright rage on their faces- they too are prisoners of Kyriel now. They might not have lost, might still be alive- but there's nowhere to go. Ironically, the same goes for Jimin and Jeongguk. They're moving targets promising fleeting relief if killed. So they run. Every weapon possible is drawn on them; the last desperate uproar of men defeated. They get too close and Jeongguk chokes on poisonous fumes, narrowly escapes foreign arrows and knives thrown their way.

"We have to go back," he tells Jimin, out of breath even though they've been leaning against a fallen tree for too long. "We have to find a way back to the ships and call home, they have to pick us up-"

He breaks off. Jimin's lips are pressed into a thin line. He looks tired, so tired. Jeongguk lets it go.

Their comm blinks far into the next night, and Seokjin speaks to them.

"Two units are still here," he tells them, words rushed like he's on the run too. "I'm with them, but we can't contact the headquarters. Where are you?"

Jeongguk checks the coordinates on his cracked watch, gives Seokjin their position.

"You're closer to the ships than we are." A pause, filled with static. "Jeongguk, you have to go back."

 

"Wait for me," Jeongguk says. Jimin is panting, one hand against a tree trunk to keep himself upright. His eyes are bloodshot, there's an ugly gash on his left cheek. For a few seconds they're suspended in time, just looking at each other. Jimin is beautiful, Jeongguk thinks, always has been. His beauty is diminished, hidden beneath exhaustion and grime and blood- but it's there, a stark contrast to everything around them.
The ban breaks when Jimin pushes away from the tree and straightens his shoulders.

"I'm coming with you," he says quietly.

Jeongguk smiles. "Because I'm your last scout?"

Jimin adjusts the knives dangling from his belt, then looks up.

"No." Jeongguk holds his breath.

"Because where you go, I follow."

 

Jeongguk is twenty-one years old when the war ends.

As soon as he opens his eyes he's blinded by harsh neon lights, so different from the dimness of the jungle that for a moment he's disoriented, blinking against the bright neon and clean white. The next thing Jeongguk feels is the pain thrumming through his entire body, his fingertips numb and limbs heavy, lungs hurting and throat rasping with every breath he takes.

It takes days for him to really come to his senses. Part of Jeongguk is stuck on Kyriel, fighting or running in the woods, his muscles cramping up and lungs aching with the need to scream. There are visitors, but he doesn't speak to them.

"Congratulations," someone says, voice too kind, too serene, "you're a hero of war."

Jeongguk's mind is hazy and slow, but he thinks it's a lie; all lies. There are no heroes in war. He's seen supposed legends bleed, scream, fall.

"You're safe now," someone tells him when he fights, tries to break free and reach out for something that isn't there.

At last Taehyung enters his room, looking battered and broken. It's something familiar, something Jeongguk knows- so he listens.

They'd recovered Jeongguk a few miles from the ships, only a day after his call. They tell him a story and Jeongguk remembers his own; remembers running, running, running, tasting poison in the air and salvation on Jimin's lips.

"It's alright," someone says, and Jeongguk screams until they dope him up on tranquilisers.

 

"I have to go back," Jeongguk rasps, picking at the wound on his left forearm. It's just starting to heal. A week has passed and he's been labelled 'in his right mind', stable enough to let him talk to others.

Taehyung smiles sadly and reaches out to stop Jeongguk's restless fingers from drawing blood.

It's been a week and the full story has been disclosed to Jeongguk in military fashion; factial, impersonal, cold.

"He wasn't there when we found you," Taehyung is saying, but Jeongguk isn't really listening.

"I have to go back," he repeats.

When he dares to glance at Taehyung the other looks broken, shattered beyond repair.

"Jeongguk, he's-"

"Please."

Taehyung is looking at him like he's crazy, and Jeongguk might just be. People don't come back the same. He returned from the cursed planet with his own personal curse on him, an ache etched into his bones, tugging at his very core.

"I have to," he says. He needs to. Jeongguk is empty, hollow. He's the one who left his heart in the jungle; he knows now.

Taehyung regards him for a long time. Finally, he nods.

 

The war has been over for two weeks when Jeongguk climbs into a speeder and returns to memories and nightmares. The planet is as quiet as it was the first time he landed, assessing, waiting. Jeongguk gets off the ship and adjusts his weapons, more out of habit than anything. There's a new austerity to his thoughts, his mind and heart and body stuck on nothing but a name, its syllables running through his blood.

The jungle welcomes him with open arms.