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Hivemind

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CHEMISTRY

They say in the early days, back when the tech wasn't as good, they used to fry people's brains by accident.

You ever hear about the six-member boy group that debuted eight years ago? No? Yeah, exactly. The agency hooked 'em up, flipped the switch, and - bam. All they got was six vegetables. They're still sitting in some hospital ward now, all in a row like a bunch of creepy dolls...

But that was eight years ago, and the technology is much better now. Really.

That's what they tell Jimin, anyway. That's what the lawyers and doctors all rush to tell his parents, who require multiple reassurances before they begrudgingly let him sign his name to the contract.

Even so - Jimin's pretty sure that somewhere in the reams and reams of legal documents he's imprinting with his electronic sig, there are probably a few key, all-important clauses that state that if by some remote, far-off, infinitesimally unlikely chance something does go wrong, then Bighit's not to blame.

... complete liability is to be assumed by the trainee - fully advised he was proceeding at own risk - agency assumes no fault, responsibility or liability...

Jimin signs anyway.

They all sign, in the end.

 

But that comes later. They don't hook him up straight away, naturally. At first, they don't even know it's going to be him.

Out of all the trainees, it comes down to Jimin and two other boys. One is a dancer, the other is a vocalist, and they're both insanely talented. Jimin's good and knows he's good (good at dance anyway, and he could be good at vocals given enough time, given enough practice)... But when he's sitting in the waiting room between the both of them, he doesn't feel so good, does he?

The vocalist goes in first, and then the dancer. They each pass through the doors to the lab and they don't come back, until it's just Jimin, with his sweaty palms and the low hum of the lights overhead.

Finally the doors open again. The doctor doesn't bother to say his name - just beckons him with an impatient hand. "Come on then."

The lab is cool and quiet. The assistants briskly help him undress, then re-dress in the theatre cap and gown, lie him down on the stretcher, strapped still with wide bands on his upper arms and around his ankles.

"Ready?" says the doctor, voice muffled by the mask. He doesn't wait for Jimin's answer.

He flicks the switch.

 

They say sometimes it hurts.

They say sometimes it feels really good.

They say a lot of things, but the truth, Jimin quickly realises, is that they have no fucking idea.

 

He's tried this before, albeit from the other side of things, when he went to a Big Bang concert a few years ago as a special birthday treat from his parents. And his brother has been to a football game where they were trialling something similar, and from the sound of it the experience was pretty much the same.

He still remembers the concert clearly. How it felt in the moment when the temporary implant kicked in and he wasn't Jimin anymore - he wasn't an 'I' but instead an 'us' - an Us that watched from the stands, and stood in the seats, and sweated and sang and danced on the stage - Us, crying out with ten thousand voices, all different and the same at once. Strictly filtered and edited for bandwidth and comfort, of course, so you didn't get your neighbour's headaches, sneezes, urge to pee; or for that matter G-Dragon's itchy armpits, or TOP's blistered toes.

It was amazing.

But it was just enough as could be covered by the cost of a concert ticket - two and a half hours, with the ecstatic but all too brief high already fading as you shuffled your way back to the skytrain.

It doesn't even compare to the real thing.

 

"Ready?" the doctor says, and flips the switch without waiting for the answer, because the truth is that Jimin is never going to be ready. No one ever really is.

 

First, there's darkness.

And then there's light.

 

****

MELODY

Bang PD brings in three trainees for trial runs but it's not even a question, let alone a contest.

The first one syncs up ok but it's like talking to someone over a faulty connection. Like a conversation beamed via satellite, just that few seconds' pause that makes everything awkward. Low compatibility, Namjoon thinks with a shrug. Too bad.

The second one comes through clearer but that in turn just highlights how poorly he fits, personality-wise. There's no spark there, none of that instant click Namjoon felt with the others. I don't like him, Jungkook says with unexpected directness, once the second trainee is gone, and everyone agrees.

Then there's Jimin.

The moment he's there, he's there. He's with them.

He's tentative, nervous, shy - all of that coming across so obviously as they gather around him in their shared space, their virtual world - but he's there, with them, a note struck clean and clear. They can all feel it. They all know it's true.

So this is it, huh? Jimin says, with a little laugh. Um. So this is a test, right? When do we start?

Yeah, this is a test, Namjoon says, but you've already passed.

 

After that, things start happening really, really fast.

After three long years of what felt, at the time, like a wasted youth - training and training, and waiting and waiting and waiting - suddenly there's no time left at all. As soon as Jimin signs his contract, they all go in for their surgeries, implants finally made permanent, and the countdown to their debut begins in earnest.

Now that they have Jimin, now that they're complete and locked in and bonded together forever, the clock is ticking. Every passing day and hour means added interest to the mountain of debt that Bighit is eager to have them start paying back.

The odds are low, everyone knows that. They're more likely to end up broke than famous; more likely to be famous than successful.

"Did you know," Seokjin says with fake cheeriness after yet another long day of dance practice and media training, "the single leading cause of bankruptcy last year was implant debt?"

It's a made-up statistic, they all know he just made it up - there's no lying through the bond after all. But honestly it sounds about right. The only ones who can afford the permanent, top-of-the-line implants with broadcast capabilities are the super rich and idle, and the incredibly desperate and ambitious.

He's under no illusions about which category they all fall under.

That's why, when Hoseok stands and claps, saying "okay then, from the top, one more time!" they all struggle to their feet and get into position, despite their groans, despite the heartfelt oh god why that echoes clearly through the bond from Taehyung.

One more time.

Tick. Tock.

 

"What's it like, with the bond?"

That's the first question anyone ever asks.

Sometimes he says, "Well, it's kind of hard to explain."

Sometimes he says, "First, you have to imagine a space. A room or a clearing or a cloud, like a distant memory or a dream of a place you once saw in your childhood. Then you have to imagine there's people present with you. Although they don't exactly look like people, you have to remember that.

"Perhaps they're like notes in a song, or beats layered on top of one another, each one distinct and unique. Perhaps for you they're something entirely different - colours, or lights, or sounds. But they are with you. Present at all times.

"There are no lies in that place. There is no hiding. Whenever you close your eyes, they're there. And when you open them, they're still there.

"It's like - it's like being in a waking dream. A shared consciousness. A place where you're never alone, and you can never, ever wake u-"

Ah, this again? Quit exaggerating, Joon-ah, Yoongi says, interrupting rudely. Just tell her it's like a chatroom you can't quit, that's close enough. Hurry up, we're all waiting for you to bring back the ramyun.

So yeah. Mostly, he goes for the first option.

 

Technically Yoongi's right - he is exaggerating a little.

When they made him the leader, they also handed him the keys, such as they were. The first thing he's told is that he can't keep the bond turned up all the time, that would probably (definitely! according to the existing medical literature he looked up on the datapad he wasn't supposed to have, since they're on media lockdown until debut) drive them all crazy.

Good to know.

But he can turn it down, and he does most of the time, keeping it tamped to a low-level hum of awareness rather than the full-blown merge that they keep for performances and concerts.

He'll always feel them - six consciousnesses, six minds hovering at the edges of his own, six notes that make up a melody - but when it's dialled right down he doesn't always have to listen. Thank god for that.

With everyone constantly up in each other's heads, the illusion of privacy becomes that much more precious. Everyone learns to ignore what they can't avoid, slowly figuring out where the boundaries are.

When Namjoon gets into an argument with one of their producers that has him storming out of the studio, all he wants is to be left alone. He doesn't have to say it - the 'keep away' vibes he's furiously emitting are enough to make everyone shut up for a few hours, until Yoongi senses he's calmed down enough to be dragged back inside.

Or when Taehyung gets caught up in a long, emotional, semi-tearful conversation with his family. He gets homesick the most out of any of them, though he hates talking about it; it doesn't feel any more to right to listen in on his feelings than it would to eavesdrop on the words themselves. So they give him space until he's calmed down. When he comes bouncing back into the dorm, a huge smile as though he wasn't almost crying just a half hour ago, everyone simply accepts it at face value.

And when Hobi and Yoongi start fooling around, or whatever it is they're doing… They try to be as discreet as possible, but it's kind of hard not to notice. The best they can do, and the best that the rest of them can do, is pretend not to notice.

Most of the time, it works.

 

Sometimes, looking the other way isn't an option.

"Hyung, I told you," Jimin says, bright red and nearly crying with furious indignation, "it wasn't my fault!"

"Well, if it wasn't your fault, then whose was it?" Hoseok demands, holding up the mangled remains of his new headphones. "You're the one who borrowed them, you're the one who left them in your jeans and then threw them in the washing machine, you're -"

"How many times do I have to say this?! I'm not the one who put them in the wash! I swear I was going to give them straight back but then-"

Yeah, so. Sharing a group consciousness doesn't help with everything. Namjoon's definitely made mistakes. Turning it up during an argument over washing the dishes was a mistake, and one he won't make again. (The dishes are, sadly, history.) But sometimes it can help.

He turns it up then, with a mental nudge, a quick sharp blast of Hoseok's sharp frustration and Jimin's genuine hurt washing through all seven of them - before turning it down just as sharply.

Jimin and Hoseok fall silent.

"I shouldn't have yelled at you, Jiminie, I know you didn't mean for this to happen," Hoseok says after a moment, at the same time as Jimin says, "I'm really sorry, hyung, if I'd given them straight back then they'd still be okay."

"Awww," Hoseok says with a big grin as he wraps Jimin up in a hug, ruffling his hair. "What a good kid."

"Stop it, ugh, you're so embarrassing," Jimin groans, looking both relieved and very put upon as he tries to squirm out of Hoseok's grasp.

They both pause when Jungkook pokes his head into the room. "Um," he says, looking incredibly sheepish. "Sorry. That was my fault. I was the one who put Jimin's jeans in the wash without checking the pockets first. Eeep!"

As Hoseok and Jimin start giving chase, Namjoon sighs and puts his own headphones on to try to drown out the shrieking. Too bad he can't turn this down, he thinks.

 

Honestly, it's not so bad. The bond become a comfort rather than a burden more quickly than he would've expected. Sometimes he finds himself reaching out just to know that they're okay.

Alone in the recording studio on one of those rare days off in the frantic cycle leading up to debut, he dials it up a little to check on how they're going.

Back at the dorm, the maknae line is bickering over video games - Jungkook wrestling with Jimin for the controls and Taehyung egging them both on mercilessly, their glee bubbling through the link, fizzy as champagne.

In the next room Yoongi is napping next to Hobi. Hoseok scrolls through social media feeds with one hand and absently pets Yoongi's hair in the other, both of them exuding lazy content.

Seokjin, busy studying, looks up from his tablet when he senses Namjoon's attention. Checking up on the kids? Seokjin says lightly, as though he's not capable of acting just as foolishly as every one of those 'kids'.

Maybe, Namjoon says.

Well, don't forget to look after yourself too, Seokjin says. Get back in time for dinner, okay? You should probably leave now, actually.

Yeah, yeah, he says. Give me another five or ten.

Noooo, don't make us have to wait for you, hyung! Taehyung interrupts. I'm hungry already!

And pick up some snacks on your way back, you ate all of mine yesterday, Hoseok adds.

Uggghhh, fine! Namjoon says. "So damn annoying," he says to himself. "Who's meant to be the leader here again?" But he shuts his computer down and stops by the convenience store on his way back anyway.

 

****

SURRENDER

Namjoon is their leader, and he's a good one.

But when they dance, when the music starts - that's Hoseok's time.

The media sometimes gives the impression that the bond lets you physically take over someone else's body, pulling their strings like they're dolls. Aside from sounding like exactly the kind of horror movie he doesn't watch, it simply doesn't work that way. (Not unless you count when he backhugs Yoongi and dances him around like a long-suffering puppet, which he does enjoy doing from time to time.)

This is how it works: when they dance, Hoseok is their pilot, their director, their centre. He's there with each of them, beside each of them, saying bah bah bah bah bah, now turn step forward pivot, Seokjin you'd better stay on the beat or I swear -

A conductor and his orchestra. Except instead of the string section there's this, these fourteen arms and fourteen hands, cutting left and right with knife-like precision. Fourteen feet and legs, stomping out the percussion. Seven heads tilting, seven bodies moving, all dancing in rhythm, breathing in rhythm, hearts beat-beat-beating in perfect rhythm.

They are his to lead, if only for a few minutes at a time.

 

Two days before their debut, Hoseok wakes up at three in the morning in a cold sweat.

He'd been dreaming again - remembering, actually, though he knows it's a memory coloured by overexaggeration, a distortion of what really happened. Still, as he lies there in the dark, he can't stop himself from reliving the moment.

It's been almost a year now since his mic cut out midway through a verse, up on the festival stage with Jo Kwon.

He'd somehow stumbled through the rest of the verse and then Jo Kwon had picked up smoothly where he'd left off; the rest of the performance had gone off without a hitch. Afterwards everyone in the dance crew and Jo Kwon himself assured him it wasn't his fault, that it was a technical error, that it could've happened to anyone…

But he's never forgotten the feeling - how quickly the warmth and love of a thousand people had turned to indifference and disdain. Even through his temporary implant, he'd been able to sense the exact moment when he lost them, even before he looked out into the crowd and saw it in their eyes.

Through the bond, Hoseok can feel the others starting to stir. Fuck. If he can just calm down, if he can just keep it tamped down enough so that they won't wake up... Stomach churning, mouth bone-dry, he flings back the covers and heads to the kitchen. Maybe a glass of water will help.

He's not stupid. He knows why he's dreaming about that stage again.

In two days, they're going to debut into a market already crowded with idols, every group slicker and more polished than the last. They're all way too deep now to pull out; and even if they did, they'd still be tied down by the weight of trainee debts.

("You know that's half the reason they do it, right?" Yoongi said once, just after they found Jimin but before they went under the knife for the permanent implants. "To let the audience in, but also to stop us from dropping out. Once we're in, we're in permanently. We're stuck with this financially, mentally, physically, all of it."

"Yeah, I know," Hoseok replied. "But you signed too, didn't you?")

They can't back out now, but the prospect of what could lie ahead is like a shadow looming over him.

What if they fail? What if all this was for nothing? And what if he's the one that messes up and ruins it for everyone? All their hard work could be undone in moments, if they fuck up badly enough...

He gulps down the water and sets the glass back down on the counter, his hand shaking.

"Hoseokie-hyung," Taehyung says from behind him, shambling up with bare feet. It's not a surprise, it's not possible to be surprised because of the bond, but Hoseok tenses up nonetheless. Taehyung ignores it and wraps him up in a hug, all warmth and arms, nuzzling the back of his neck. "Hyung, just stop it."

They're all awake now, more or less. He can sense them stirring in their beds, in varying states of muzziness and weariness and concern. Tears start prickling at the back of his eyes, a sob rising up in his throat. He's such a mess that he's making it worse for all of them, he's going to mess it up for everyone, he's gonna -

"Shut up, shut up, shut up," Taehyung says, gently, still yawning, not letting go as he physically shuffles Hoseok out of the kitchen and manhandles him back into their shared dorm room.

Just bring him over here, Tae, Yoongi says, sounding terse and annoyed at having his precious sleep disturbed. Or he'll keep us awake all night.

The words are harsh but when Taehyung tucks him into Yoongi's bed - against his feeble protests - Yoongi very determinedly spoons him, arm around his waist, nose tucked into the crook of his neck.

"Quit being stupid and go to sleep, Seok-ah," Yoongi whispers, his voice all raspy. "You're really pissing me off, you know that?" he says, even though through the bond Hoseok can feel him saying just the opposite. Yoongi twines their hands together and slowly Hoseok's heart rate slows, his breathing steadies.

Even back at the start, Yoongi was always kind to Hoseok, even though he didn't have to be, back when Hoseok was just a dumb young rival competing for a spot in the line-up. He was always affectionate without being obvious about it, as long as he never had to admit it, showing up with food at a late night practice or dragging him out of the studio when Hoseok was falling asleep on his feet.

Even before the bond, he always knew how to make Hoseok feel safe.

He falls asleep like that, in Yoongi's arms, a soothing presence in his head and his heart, keeping the nightmares at bay.

 

And that's the way it goes.

When the music plays and the dance begins, they are the ones who surrender. They're the ones who let Hoseok take control.

But when he's getting down on himself, when he's stuck and drowning - it's just the opposite. They're the ones to seek him out, tugging him back into the light, back into himself, back with them. Whether it's Jimin giving him a much-needed back massage after a hard practice, or Seokjin making his favourite soup when he's ill, or Taehyung bundling him into Yoongi's bed in the middle of the night, they're there for him.

You're not alone, they say, in a dozen different ways. You're good. You're gonna be okay.

 

He turns in his sleep, so when he wakes up, it's to find he and Yoongi are almost nose to nose, legs tangled up together. Not the first time they've woken up like this, but it's not usually after something as innocent or comforting as cuddling.

Hoseok shifts a little so he can brush back the hair from Yoongi's forehead. Still on the edge of wakefulness, Yoongi bats his hand away, but then makes a little discontented sound and squirms his way in closer, burying his face in Hoseok's chest. He's only ever like this when he's half-asleep, so Hoseok savours the moment while he can.

"I owe you one, hyung," he whispers. He kisses Yoongi quick on the side of his neck, lets his voice drop a little, lets his tone get teasing. "Let me make it up to you later."

"You'd better," Yoongi says, cracking an eye open. "But save that shit for after the showcase, alright?"

"Ugh, both of you, stop thinking dirty thoughts," Taehyung says, throwing a pillow at them from the next bed. "I'm trying to sleep!"

Hoseok laughs and chucks the pillow right back. But they're both right. They can fool around later. First, there's a job to be done.

 

Two days later, they're finally on stage for the first time. Now that the moment's finally here, waiting for the lights to come up, there's no time left for him to even think about feeling afraid.

The bond burns so bright and he's right there with them, beside each of them, believing in all of them so hard, and feeling that same belief coming right back at him.

They've brought him this far, but now it's his turn to take the lead. We can do this, he tells them, meaning it fiercely, we're gonna be so good.

The lights are going up. He takes a deep breath. And five, six, seven, eight!

 

****

CLOSER

They all smile and laugh when the interviewer asks about how close they are. There's only one right answer to give, so Seokjin gives it. "Oh, very close," Seokjin says, pulling Jungkook into a hug for emphasis. "There's no more secrets between us!"

"So," she says, smiling, throwing them another softball. "What's the most embarrassing habit you've learned about another group member?"

"Rap Monster sometimes wears the same pair of dirty socks twice," Hoseok says instantly, cackling when Namjoon shoots him a glare.

"Sometimes J-Hope goes to bed after practise without taking a shower," Namjoon shoots back.

"V-hyung likes to eat icecream after everyone else has gone to sleep," Jungkook pipes up. "And when he finishes it, he never replaces it."

Taehyung gasps at the betrayal and scrambles for a response, everyone laughing along including the MC who says, teasing, "Is this true? You eat the icecream but never replace it?"

It's all in good fun, and none of it's false.

But it's not exactly the whole truth.

 

A dirty idol secret they don't tell you until it's way too late: if you're bonded to someone who's getting turned on, it's kind of impossible not to get turned on too.

It was embarrassing at first, trying to figuring out if the boner you popped was your own or if it was someone else. Bad enough in the morning, or when someone's in the shower - in the first few months, before they get used to it, Seokjin can't count how many times he's making dinner or doing his laundry when suddenly he gets the urge to jerk off.

Even worse when it happens in the middle of a dance practice. But they all knew pretty quickly who was to blame for those ones.

"I can't help it," Hoseok defends himself, on the first of what turns out to be multiple occasions. "Dancing gets me hot!"

Yoongi, sitting in a corner with a towel over his lap, just glares. "Everything makes you hot." He pauses, thinks over what he just said. "Wait, I mean -"

Maybe, in other circumstances, if everybody wasn't in each other's heads twenty-four seven, then someone would've just laughed at Yoongi, or he would've passed it off as a slip of the tongue, and everyone would have moved on. But the ah, fuck that echoes through the bond has everyone going suddenly very quiet.

"Okay, okay, okay," Seokjin says hastily, clapping his hands. "Time out, everybody. Take a walk! Drink some water!"

"Everyone back here in ten - uh, make it twenty minutes," Namjoon says, and throws him a grateful glance.

Together they shoo the maknae line out of the room, leaving Yoongi and Hoseok frozen and staring at each other. Everyone's boners have died right off. At least there's one upside.

"Turn it down, turn it down," Seokjin hisses to Namjoon, who whispers back, "I am, I am!" as he shuts the door behind him.

They walk down to the convenience store together, Seokjin struggling with the impulse to eavesdrop on to what's happening over the bond. "I hope they sort things out," he says with a sigh. He rummages absently in his pocket and realises he left his wallet at the studio.

Namjoon grabs a bottle of Seokjin's favourite drink without needing to be asked and says, "I'll get it for you. And yeah, well. They'd better." But he's more concerned than angry, as worried for Yoongi and Hoseok as he is about the group.

As they walk back to the studio, gulping down their drinks, he can sense Yoongi and Hoseok both settling down. The panic ebbing away, and in its place something quieter, something calmer.

"So I guess they talked it out instead of…" Namjoon makes a jerking off gesture. Seokjin hits Namjoon right in the arm. "Ow," he says, "but you were thinking it too!"

He totally was. He can't deny it.

Everyone gets back on time, and they pick up dance practice where they left off. Yoongi and Hoseok can't quite look at each other for the rest of the session, but by the next day everyone is back to normal.

No one ever really talks about what Hoseok and Yoongi are doing, but there kind of isn't a point. Everyone knows anyway.

Hoseok and Yoongi are at least considerate enough to try to keep it to themselves, but there's always going to be bleed-through. Seokjin definitely has more than his fair share of erotic dreams, thanks and no thanks to them - though by the time they debut, he's so accustomed to it that he honestly doesn't care. It's not that much different from Namjoon watching porn or Jimin rubbing one out in the shower.

Just another part of idol life that started out being really weird but got normal really, really fast.

 

Another dirty idol secret: if you thought shared boners and wet dreams were bad, just wait until you start doing live shows!

Ever since their debut, Seokjin's realised there are few things headier than performing to a live audience.

The performance is an adrenaline rush in itself. All seven of them in the spotlight, moving like one creature, thinking with one mind. This is what they've worked so hard for - these moments when they can shine and show themselves at their best.

And it's not just the seven of them up there on stage. The bond connects them to every Army shouting along with the fanchant, with every sob and scream and cry. With their every smile, every head tilt or high note, the audience screams and feeds that excitement right back to them.

There's no better high. There's no sweeter rush.

But for the same reason that dance practices can sometimes be challenging, then music shows and festivals can be their own special kind of hell. Their own headlining concerts are the absolute worst.

On the one hand, well, they're definitely doing their jobs correctly.

On the other, Seokjin never asked to be so acutely and arousingly aware of Jimin's thighs and Namjoon's mouth; the low rasp of Yoongi's voice and the thrust of Hoseok's hips; and good grief, the fans are thinking what about Taehyung and Jungkook?!

It's one thing to be aware that your bandmates are all distressingly attractive and also find you distressingly attractive. It's another to be acutely, helplessly aware of each time they jerk off or get hard.

When the two things are combined and compounded by a tidal wave of audience desire, all of those people wanting you to be with them, wanting you with each other -

"Fuck," Seokjin says in the safety of their locked, soundproofed dressing room, legs trembling, stroking himself with his hand, all slippery with lube. "Fuck."

Next to him is Namjoon, one hand down the front of his pants, thinking pretty much exactly the same thing.

He doesn't need to turn around to know that Jimin is straddling Taehyung's lap, the two of them exchanging sloppy kisses and grinding on each other with shameless abandon; or that in the far corner of the room Yoongi is on his knees, Hoseok's fingers tangled in his hair.

(Jungkook is the only one of them who still retains some sense of embarrassment. He flees to the bathroom after most performances and locks himself in, only coming back again when it's all over. Seokjin is privately thankful. It was difficult enough getting used to seeing little Taehyungie like this. He's not quite ready to look Jungkook in the eye as they mutually jerk off, thanks.)

The bond amplifies everything, makes the sensations inescapable, means Seokjin can feel what all of them are feeling, even dialled down. That first orgasm usually sets them all off, one by one, a chain reaction of satiated lust.

This time, it's Jimin who climaxes first, gasping against Taehyung's neck, spurting into Taehyung's hand. Moments later, Seokjin follows. In the corner of his eye, he sees Namjoon slumping in his seat, his head thrown back and chest heaving; and through the bond, he can feel the rest of them finishing in turn.

Forget everything you know about refractory periods, he thinks to himself mockingly. Turns out you can come seven times in two minutes, provided you're an idol.

It's incredibly messed up.

It's totally fucking hot.

It's - it's incredibly fucking messy, Seokjin thinks ruefully, waiting for Namjoon to hurry up and finish with the wet wipes. "Can you at least pass me one?" he says. "I'm trying not to drip this all over my costume," holding out a hand full of come to make his point.

"Alright, alright, alright," Namjoon says, pissily, hurriedly thrusting a handful of wipes in his general direction.

When and how did this become my life? Seokjin thinks to himself with a resigned sigh, wrinkling his nose as he cleans himself up and then starts changing into his street clothes.

When you decided it would be easier to become an idol than an actor, Yoongi snipes back, grabbing at a bottle of water.

When all the acting agencies turned you down and you got stuck with us instead, Namjoon says in almost the same moment.

Because you did something stupid in a past life and this is your punishment! Taehyung says, with the distinct undercurrent of glee he always has when he teases his hyungs, kicking off his stage shoes and slipping his feet into a pair of sandals.

Are you all finished now? Jungkook interrupts plaintively, from somewhere else in the building. I can't find our manager and, well, you know what it's like backstage at these things, ugh...

Seokjin knows exactly what he means. Every group has their own private dressing room but even so, you can't walk backstage at any music program without tripping over idols making out, holding hands, and generally displaying way too much PDA.

Time to go find the maknae, Hoseok says, adding out loud, "Everybody decent? Jimin?" he adds pointedly.

"I'm ready, I'm ready!" Jimin says, casting with one final look at the mirror.

We're on our way, Seokin says to Jungkook, as they start trooping out of their dressing room.

At least the day is over now. They'll go find Jungkook, round up their manager and staff, and then head back to the dorm to collapse. Then tomorrow, he reflects with a mixture of resignation and anticipation, they'll do it all over again.

 

Another day, another show, another softball interview.

"So tell us," the host says, very jocular, with a winning smile, "how would you rate your closeness as a group?"

"Oh, we're all very close," Seokjin says, with a smile just as wide, just as dazzling. "Ten out of ten. Couldn't be closer."

And where, he thinks to himself, is the lie?

 

****

TUNED IN

"Hello Armys," Taehyung says, beaming into the camera. "How is everyone today? Did everyone eat well?"

He pauses for a moment and lets the responses wash over him. As far as connections go, the livestream ones are very low bandwidth for reasons both technical and practical. One hundred and eighteen thousand viewers and climbing, the screen tells him, but the feedback feels more like a softly affectionate hug than the overwhelming mixture of emotions and desire they feel during a concert.

I love you… oppa! … come to Norway… I love you… you're the cutest… I love you…

"I love you too! Ah, I'm so glad we can be together today," he says, clapping his hands excitedly. "Do you know where I am? Can you guess what we're doing today?"

He picks up the camera and swoops it around in a wide circle.

"Yes!" he crows. He's been waiting to do this concept forever. "We're in a dog cafe!"

The response from two hundred and thirty-three thousand viewers and climbing: a collective, overexcited scream.

 

They were one of the first idol groups to really pick up on the potential of low bandwidth, full spectrum livestreams. At first they were just doing what they used to do, a lot of talking heads and question/answer sessions, like every other group. It was Namjoon who pointed out what a waste of potential that was.

"Just look at the porn industry," he said enthusiastically.

"We know you do, Joon-ah," Yoongi said drily. Hoseok sniggered.

Namjoon pelted a stuffed toy at Yoongi's head and continued without a missing a beat. "Broadcasting has been visual and auditory since forever. Now we've got access to the full five senses and the idol industry still doesn't know what to do with it. But the porn industry has the right idea, seriously. It's not just about looking and hearing. It's about the full range of sensory perception, about creating a totally immersive, interactive connection."

"But what do you think we should do, exactly?" Jimin said, fascinated but puzzled. "I mean, how is this going to work?"

"Well, Seokjin-hyung could do that food show he's always wanted to do, and people could actually taste what he's eating," Namjoon said instantly. "I bet you and Hobi's dance practices and stretching exercises would come across really well. And Jungkook really likes collecting scents and perfumes, so maybe -"

Taehyung had leapt to his feet, chair falling backwards. "Oh my god," he said, staring into the middle distance. "I know exactly what I want to do."

 

"Awww, this little guy," Taehyung croons, nuzzling his face into the mini poodle's neck.

He closes his eyes and lets himself just feel the softness of the dog's fur, the clean but doggy smell of it, the sound of it panting near his ear. He really luxuriates in each sensation, taking his time to just be in the moment; and through the bond he feels five hundred and eighty-one thousand viewers go all melty and soft.

The poodle licks at his face and he laughs in genuine surprise before letting it go, watching it scamper across the room to join its fellows.

"Now then, Armys," he says, scanning the crowd of dogs with a critical eye. "Which one do we cuddle next?"

 

Namjoon's right - their viewing levels do get a big uptick when they start doing new things with the livestreams.

Eat Jin is a big hit, and Seokjin regularly finds himself flooded with restaurant offers whenever they travel to a new city.

"How did he manage to swing this?" Hoseok says, shaking his head in begrudging admiration. "He's doing something he loves, that he'd be doing anyway, and now restaurants are paying him to do it!"

Seokjin just blows him a hand kiss, and smugly stuffs another piece of squid into his mouth.

Jungkook does a couple of streams about his perfume collection which are nearly wordless, yet prove incredibly popular. He follows it up with a series of sports challenges, again saying barely anything and just letting his body do the talking on the obstacle course or in the pool.

("It suits me," he tells Taehyung, on the car ride to another schedule. "It's less pressure. I don't have to make up things to say or try to be funny or clever. I can just stick to what I'm good at doing."

"You know they'd like you anyway, Kookie, even if you were just talking," Taehyung says. He ruffles Jungkook's hair softly. "Just like we like you."

Jungkook just shrugs and looks out the window. Taehyung sighs and hugs Jungkook. This kid, he thinks.

Jungkook elbows him in the ribs. I'm not a kid! And they trade insults back and forth for the rest of the trip, Taehyung needling constantly until Jungkook is smiling again.)

Yoongi does music reviews and radio shows - though instead of having the camera on him, he is the camera, letting the viewers experience the stream through his eyes. Management insists at first that he should really be in front of the camera, that they're idols and visuals are part of the product.

He counters by saying, "This way they can see just what I'm seeing - what's more interactive and intimate than that?" Yoongi's right and the fans love it anyway, getting excited over all the close-ups of his hands.

Usually Namjoon plays a piece of music, or reads out loud from a book. It shouldn't be interesting, but somehow it is because his enthusiasm makes it interesting. Even when he's tripping over a million words per minute and losing himself in philosophical asides no one really follows, his passion comes through loud and clear.

Jimin and Hoseok end up doing most of their streams together from the dance studio. They make a good team, bickering back and forth; and for some reason their massage sessions end up being really, really popular. Taehyung can't possibly imagine why.

"We should do more paired streams, mix things up a bit," Namjoon says at their latest team meeting, after one of Jimin and Hoseok's more popular dance practices. "Jin-hyung can take someone to his next restaurant."

"I volunteer," Jungkook says, always the second in line for food.

"Taehyung, you have the dog cafe coming up today, you should take another person with you."

"I volunteer again!" Jungkook says instantly.

"Either Jimin or Hoseok should take a break for one of the dance sessions and have someone else as a guest."

Everyone just looks at Jungkook expectantly before he even speaks. He sheepishly raises his hand again.

Namjoon scrolls through the notes on his phone. "Yoongi-hyung, you should do one with somebody else. Maybe it should be - " he hesitates, looking at the list.

Anyone but Hoseok. Yoongi's thought is unmistakable. Too loud and too sudden to suppress or ignore.

"Wow," Hoseok says into the dead silence. He laughs, but he's pissed off, and not a little hurt. "Wow, that's - that's something. Okay, I get it." He pushes back his chair and walks quickly out of the room.

"Hyung, wait," Jimin calls, getting up and running after him.

Jungkook looks at Yoongi like he's just shot somebody, and honestly, Taehyung feels almost the same way. Seokjin and Namjoon exchange glances.

"I didn't mean it like that," Yoongi mutters. "I just don't - it wouldn't be -" He trails off, not looking at anyone. But he's not changing his mind. Through the bond, the sentiment lingers: anyone but him.

Taehyung doesn't get it. Everyone knows Yoongi has a soft spot for Hoseok, as much as Hoseok does for him, and that they seek each other out after music shows and concerts almost exclusively. He doesn't get it, and from the way everyone's feeling, no one else does either - Hoseok least of all.

They can't lie, but they don't have to tell the whole truth. Whatever Yoongi doesn't want to say, they can't make him say it.

 

"Armys, I have a special guest today. Can you guess who it is? Yes - it's our Jungkookie!" Taehyung says, beaming broadly. "Say hi to everyone, Jungkook!"

Jungkook waves shyly from around an armful of large dog. "Hello!"

He's really thankful he has Jungkook with him today. He's been nursing a headache all broadcast and having someone to help share the limelight is really going to help.

Jungkookie, he thinks. Can you talk for a few minutes? My head isn't getting better.

"Uh," Jungkook says, floundering a little. "Um. This is Millie!" he says at last, hugging the dog, with an adorable smile. Or, well, Taehyung thinks it's adorable, and at least eight hundred and forty-two thousand viewers very firmly agree.

Oppa! … I love you… I love both of you… So cute! … Puppies… I love you… Come to Sri Lanka... I love you…

 

Of course, most of them aren't literally thinking those words. Most of them aren't even thinking in Korean.

The thing that Namjoon didn't really predict, that no one did, is how well the livestreams would go down with international audiences. If their popularity in Korea has been a kind of squiggly line, lately drifting steadily higher, then their overseas success has been one big upward curve.

The magical thing - or at least Taehyung thinks of it as magic, since the linguists and scientists are still working on how to properly explain it - is how little language matters once everyone's plugged in and sharing the same pool of emotions. It's not like they're discussing matters of international diplomacy after all; and it turns out I love you as a feeling is pretty much the same no matter where you are in the world.

I love you, they say, and more specifically, I love you (like this, doing this, in this way).

You can hear a lot, if you just listen hard enough. And no one listens harder than Taehyung.

 

Everyone's livestreams do well, but Taehyung's might be the most popular of all.

The fans love it when he spends half an hour walking around on bare feet, very seriously squishing various textures and substances just to see what they feel like. They love it when he goes through his wardrobe, stroking the different textures, telling them stories about every single shoe. They love it when he goes down to the convenience store, talking throughout as though they're standing right beside him, helping him choose the right packet of shrimp chips. They really, really love it when he cuddles puppies for an hour straight at a time.

He's quirky, and he's cute, and he's the perfect weirdo boyfriend they wish they could have, and almost none of this is by accident.

Taehyung's never been the best at anything - not the best dancer, not the best singer, and much as he'd love to, he can't actually rap. He's not particularly good at leading people or organising things. He's definitely not a golden child like Jungkook, who worries about everything but excels at absolutely anything he turns his hand to. He's pretty, sure, but so is everyone else.

So what does he have to bring to the table?

Taehyung's not the smartest but he's not stupid either. The fans might come because of Jimin's dancing, or Yoongi's rapping, or because they hear a song or watch an MV. But they stay because they love them. Or they think they do, anyway.

Back when they debuted, back when they performed for their first live audience, that was when Taehyung decided: he'd be whoever Armys wanted him to be. He'd do whatever he could to make them stay. As long as the cameras are on, as long as they're plugged in, he'll be V as hard as he can possibly can.

He's lucky. He's always been likable. He doesn't need to adjust himself too much. Give the people what they want, they say, and he's been fortunate that mostly they seem to like him. But he can't take that for granted - none of them can. So when they tell him how much they love him, and why and how, Taehyung listens, and listens, and listens.

 

"Okay, we're going to finish up soon," Taehyung says, as brightly as he can. His headache has been getting steadily worse - the viewers won't feel it, thanks to the filters, but he sure does.

Hyung, Jungkook says worriedly, your headache is really bad. Let's finish it up right now.

Yeah, okay. We've given them an hour, I guess it's time to wrap it up anyway.

"Actually, Jungkookie and I have to go right now," he says, with his cutest, most apologetic smile. The headache is killing him now but he doesn't let it show, can't let it show... "Sorry, Armys!"

Nine hundred and fifty-three thousand viewers sigh their disappointment and gratitude (and even now, he listens a little harder).

I love you (you have to do this again)... I love you (that part was my favourite)... I love you (smile like that always)... I love you, I love you, I love you...

"We love you!" Jungkook says, sweet and innocent. He makes his puppy wave its paw at the camera. "Bye bye!"

"Bye!" Taehyung says, smacking a big fake kiss on the camera lens. "Love you!"

Head pounding, vision blurring, Taehyung stays standing long enough to turn off the broadcasting equipment.

Then he turns to Jungkook, saying, "Yeah, I don't feel too good," before the ground starts rushing up towards him and everything goes black.

 

****

BODY LANGUAGE

When Taehyung crumples into a heap on the cafe floor, Jungkook feels the connection break.

It hurts. It's like a punch to the head, a knife in the eye, though - a small mercy - the pain quickly fades. It's still enough to make him cry out and stagger back a step, hand to his forehead, before lunging forward again, too late to catch Taehyung before he hits the ground.

All the way across the city, he can feel the other five hurting too. But from the one person lying in front of him, there's only silence.

Jungkook drops hard to his knees. I can't feel him. He scrabbles for Taehyung's neck, for his pulse, almost sobbing in relief when he feels Taehyung's chest rise and fall, his heartbeat steady beneath his palm.

He's dimly aware of manager Sejin calling an ambulance, of the staff members clustering around them both. Mostly, though, he's drowning in the thoughts coming through the bond so thick and fast and panicky that Jungkook can barely tell where each of them starts and ends.

What the fuck?

Kookie?!

Where is Taehyung?

Kookie, what happened?

Fuck, no, don't say he's - no, fuck, no -

He's alive, Jungkook says, on the edge of hysterics. He's alive, and we're waiting for the ambulance, but he's gone and I don't know what to do!

For the first time in three years, all his hyungs are at an utter loss.

Ask for the name of the hospital, Namjoon says after a moment. When the ambulance comes, find out the name of the hospital, and we'll drive straight there. Okay?

It's not the answer he was hoping for, but it's something, so he holds onto it like a lifeline. Okay, hyung, he says, sniffling, swiping at his eyes with his sleeve. I'll ask.

The five of them are there to meet him at the emergency ward as the doctors take Taehyung away. They fold him in their arms wordlessly; immediately he bursts into tears, and soon the rest of them are crying too.

They hold him tight, wrap their arms around each other; but it's not enough, not nearly enough to disguise the fact that Taehyung is missing, that without him they're incomplete.

 

The doctors send Taehyung home after an overnight stay - no permanent damage, thank god - but his implant is completely fried.

In the end that doesn't matter, because a couple of days after his collapse, the manufacturer issues a recall, announcing all implants will be deactivated pending further notice. Turns out the technology wasn't so perfect after all and Taehyung is just the latest in a string of adverse incidents.

They aren't given much notice. Bang PD calls them all into a meeting, managers and doctors on hand, gives them a brief rundown, and says the devices will be turned off in an hour's time.

Namjoon and Yoongi ask a bunch of questions about potential liability and long-term side-effects and the impact on their trainee debts and a lot of other really, really important things that Jungkook vaguely hears, as well as sensing their muted annoyance at the agency's non-committal answers.

Mostly, though, he's just... terrified.

Quietly Jimin slips an arm around his waist and Hoseok holds his hand, interlacing their fingers, just as they always do when he's in need of comfort. But Taehyung, who'd normally be the first to jump all over him, Taehyung doesn't even look around. He's just one step away, but completely unaware of all the turmoil Jungkook's feeling.

Taehyung's already cut off from the rest of them, already disconnected. That's what they're all going to be like very very soon. That's what really makes him scared.

Jungkook-ah, Seokjin says, very careful and calm, we're going to be okay. I promise.

He nods, but can't quite make himself believe it.

 

It ends quietly, without any fuss or pain.

It ends when he's lying with his head in Taehyung's lap, long fingers playing with his hair, while Jimin and Hoseok huddle over a tablet together on the other end of the sofa. Namjoon and Seokjin sit on the floor, talking quietly, and Yoongi curls up in an armchair with his phone, fiddling with a playlist.

One moment there's six of them - incomplete, but still almost a whole - and the next there's just him. A single mind, a single soul, rattling around like a dried pea in an empty can.

He's never felt so completely alone.

 

Jungkook was the fourth member to be cast and by far the youngest, with the rap line already a tight-knit unit by the time he turned up at their dorm.

They'd welcomed him anyway - made sure he ate well and had enough clean clothes and went to school on time. Namjoon made him playlists of music released before he'd even been born ("this is so good, and it was super influential, so you have to listen to it at least once!"); Hoseok danced with him for hours and pinched his cheeks at any given opportunity; and Yoongi let him sit by him in the studio whenever he just needed some peace.

Later Seokjin arrived, a friend to Jungkook almost instantly, sometimes playing the role of the wise older hyung and sometimes acting even sillier than Hoseok. Then Taehyung and Jimin, the annoying, affectionate brothers he'd never had.

Bonding with them had been easy, honestly - one of the easiest things he'd ever done. He had fit with them so perfectly, the piece in the middle that connected to all the others. Not the first and not the last, not the loudest or smartest or silliest.

Wherever he lacked, they were always there to fill the gap. They spoke for him when he fell silent, smoothly covering in interviews when he paused or hesitated. They guided him when he was lost or needed the encouragement to take on a difficult task. At any moment, at any time, he could say, hyung, what do I do?, certain in the knowledge he would get an answer every time. (Sometimes several, sometimes contradictory, but that was okay too.)

They were there when no words were needed at all. When he was homesick, or ill, or tired out from the relentless grind of schedules. When all he wanted was to be held, to be cared for, to know he was loved.

The bond meant he was never alone. Sometimes he found it hard to believe he ever had been, or would ever be again.

 

Dinner is… strange.

"Pass me the sauce, please," Seokjin says.

The words don't come with the familiar, unspoken internal prompt - it honestly takes him a full five seconds to realise Seokjin is asking him. "Sorry, hyung," he mumbles, flushing, pushing the sauce across the table.

Later, he's prodding at his noodles despondently when Yoongi cracks a joke. At least - he thinks it's a joke?

He'd never realised, really, how much he depended on knowing what Yoongi felt, rather than how he sounded. But Jimin laughs and so does Taehyung, and Namjoon rolls his eyes so he guesses it's meant to be a joke and smiles weakly too.

Is this what it's going to be like forever? Trying to figure out what they really mean, instead of just knowing it? Reading their body language, listening to the tone of their voice, and just straight guessing?

Intellectually he knows this is how people normally interact, how he's always had to interact with everyone outside of this room anyway. His skills at this have atrophied, but they'll come back with time and practice, just like exercising any other muscle. He still knows his group better than anyone else in the entire world and that has to count for something.

But here and now, with these six people he's shared so much of his life with, so close but so distant - all he can feel is the lack.

 

Jimin finds him the next day in the dance studio, trying and failing to get the moves right for an end of year solo. He keeps fumbling the steps, keeps tripping over himself. Keeps wishing for Hoseok or Jimin to be with him, really with him, not even telling him how to dance but just being there in his head, reassuring him that he was doing okay.

"Look, don't be so hard on yourself. You're getting there. You just need more time," Jimin says when he stops with a frustrated growl.

"No, I'm not," he says, jabbing at his phone to turn the music off. "I'm never going to get this stupid dance down."

"Jungkook," Jimin says, moving closer. "Are you okay?"

Yesterday, Jimin would never have needed to ask. He would've just known.

"I hate this," Jungkook, knowing he sounds like a child but unable to help himself, flopping down to the floor and burying his face in a towel. He feels tears rising, feels his throat closing up. "I just hate it."

He's always been the one who was most comfortable in his own skin. Even puberty hadn't rendered him clumsy or awkward. Dancing had come easily to him, as easily as running and climbing and hugging and laughing. He's never felt like this before - never felt so confined by flesh and bone, never felt that his body was a cage rather than something complete and inseparable from himself.

He doesn't even have the right words to say what he means, to truly express how he feels, because he's never needed them before - not with Jimin, not with the others.

"How am I meant to do this?" Jungkook says, more tears leaking out now. "How am I going to do interviews or MC a show when I can't even get this choreo right on my own?"

He's bigger than Jimin, has been for ages, and usually never lets Jimin manhandles him, which is probably why Jimin tries to do it so often. But this time he lets Jimin wrap him up in a hug and rock him back and forth, lets him say all the soft, stupid things he's craving to hear.

"You're gonna be okay, you big baby," Jimin says, gently, blotting at his eyes with his sweater sleeve. "You're the most talented out of all of us. You work so hard and you get better all the time - you know that, right?"

He turns and rests his face against Jimin's shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut. Wishing they could be as close as this in their heads again, close as thought and breath.

"You can do this, Jungkookie," Jimin says. "We'll do it together, okay? We'll learn it together. We'll take as long it's gonna take."

He nods, still all choked up. "Will it ever get better, hyung?" he manages to say.

"Of course," Jimin says instantly. "Of course it will get better."

(Later he'll consider that Jimin is only two years older, that he's lived with the bond just as long as Jungkook has, that it's really pretty unlikely that he knows any more about it than he does himself.

But in that moment, when Jimin says it, he absolutely believes what he says to be true. And that's enough, isn't it? Even without the bond. Even without having Jimin inside his head, inside his heart.

That's trust. That's love.)

"Now, let's dance," Jimin says, standing up. He holds his hand out. Jungkook takes it, and lets himself get pulled to his feet. "Let's learn this one together."

"Okay," he says. He takes a deep breath, nods, says again, "Okay."

"Okay, Jungkookie," Jimin says. He smiles, and Jungkook finds himself smiling back. "Let's take it from the top."

 

****

SEVEN

Yoongi was the one who resisted the idea the most.

Idol life was meant to be a pathway, a stepping stone, seven years of his life in exchange for a bigger platform, opportunities to write and produce, connections and finance for the career he'd have afterwards.

Seven years of singing and dancing like a trained monkey, fine, but now they wanted to chain him down with these implants too? Let people inside his head?

"If I sign up to this, then I want support for my solo work," he says to Bang PD. "Two albums over seven years, and at least two MVs per album. Time to produce it, time to promote and tour it, and complete creative control."

"Done," Bang PD says without hesitation, and Yoongi immediately wishes he'd bargained harder, that he'd valued himself a little dearer. (Though it makes him feel a little better when he finds out later that Namjoon reached a similar deal.)

What's done is done, anyway. He'd argued and protested and bargained, but in the end, just like the rest of them, he signed too.

 

Initially Yoongi thought he would go mad with the constant stream of chatter, the low dull roar of seven minds working at once.

For the first few weeks he spent a lot of time in the studio, because if he couldn't be alone in his head at least he didn't have to look at them all the time as well.

But it got better. He learned to filter it out, let it run in the background like white noise. Even learned to begrudgingly admit that yeah, the bond actually did make some things easier.

Composition and collaboration was that much simpler when he could hear exactly what the other person was trying to express, without the noise and mess of trying to translate it into imperfect speech. Sometimes he and Namjoon and Hoseok would just bat beats and melodies back and forth for hours, working on rhymes and lyrics until the others yelled at them to be quiet, it's 3am and some of us are trying to sleep!

Dancing became bearable with Hoseok watching over all of them, ready to prompt, ready to keep them on the beat. He learned to associate dancing with Hoseok's voice in his head, his direction and encouragement coming quick as thought, until he found it hard to imagine doing without.

Gradually he stopped thinking of the chatter as white noise, and started to listen instead. Because someone had to look out for the maknae line and make sure they didn't do something dumb in front of the media, and check they were eating properly, and stand up to the managers for them when they were too tired…

So yeah. The bond wasn't so bad, he guessed.

 

But it's still far from perfect.

"I can't help it," Hoseok says at dance practice one time, after getting everyone low-key aroused. "Dancing gets me hot!"

Yoongi, sitting in a corner with a towel over his lap, just glares. "Everything makes you hot." Wait wait wait no that wasn't what he meant to say at all. "Wait, I mean -"

Ah, fuck.

Everyone clears out pretty quick after that, Namjoon turning the bond down as low as he can so Yoongi and Hoseok can hash it out in something like privacy. He doesn't know if he wants to thank Seokjin and Namjoon, or blame them, because this is not a conversation he ever wanted to have.

"So. You think I'm hot, huh?" Hoseok says, flushed, looking anywhere but Yoongi.

"Yeah, but I - okay, fine, what about it?" Yoongi says, starting from embarrassed and ending up at defensive in five seconds' flat.

"I don't mind, " Hoseok says, still looking away.

"You don't?"

"Yeah, I mean." He shrugs and scratches the back of his neck before finally looking up, still blushing. "We're kinda stuck together, aren't we, so we should just clear the air and make the best of it, right?"

"What does that mean, exactly?" Yoongi says warily. Waiting for the catch.

Hoseok laughs. "I guess it means I think you're hot too, hyung."

"Oh," Yoongi says blankly. Then, "Oh."

They don't do anything right then, but a couple of nights later he can feel Hoseok lying awake in the bed across the dorm. Awake, and apparently in need of some relief.

Hey, Yoongi says at last. Get over here.

Hoseok gets out of bed and pads his way across the darkened dorm. Yoongi wordlessly lifts up the covers and lets Hoseok crawl in beside him, lets him get real close, Hoseok's thigh settling between his legs.

They kiss, clumsy at first both with unfamiliarity and because the dark makes them misjudge their distance (ow, Hoseok thinks, as their noses bump; sorry, Yoongi says, and tries again at a different angle), and then with increasing enthusiasm.

When just grinding against each other isn't enough, they tug down their boxers and slick up their palms, fingers overlapping as they bring each other off. Yoongi muffles his gasps in the crook between Hoseok's shoulder and neck as he comes all over their hands; Hoseok follows a moment later.

Everyone else is still fast asleep. Maybe they'll wake with sticky sheets tomorrow, but that's nothing new.

Well, Hoseok says. That was fun.

Yeah, Yoongi says. But now we're all gross.

Hoseok stifles a laugh and kisses him again, quick and surprisingly sweet. Deal with it, he says, and then rolls out of bed, heading to the bathroom. After a moment, Yoongi follows.

As they clean themselves up, Yoongi steals glances out of the corner of his eye at Hoseok's flat abs, his thighs, his cock. Hoseok looks back much more blatantly, and just smirks when Yoongi catches him.

Let's do this again, Hoseok says as they turn out the light and go back to their respective beds.

Fine, Yoongi says. Your bed next time though.

After that it just makes sense for them to find each other, late at night when they're as close to alone as they can be, or backstage after a music show or a festival.

He doesn't get off with Hoseok exclusively, of course, because in those heady moments of post-show lust sometimes it's hard to tell where anybody starts or ends. He's kissed all of them, done more than kiss almost all of them, when he's been in that desperate state.

But it's true he does look for Hoseok more than anyone else when they close the door to their dressing room, maybe feels his heart stutter a little when Hoseok looks for him too - tongue darting out to lick his lips, smirk curling his mouth, saying hurry up, hyung as he starts to strip.

He tries not to think about it too much. Tries to concentrate instead on making Hoseok fall apart, as thoroughly as possible; and on being undone in his turn.

 

There are no lies in the bond, but there are still secrets. There's parts of themselves they can hold back, kept out of the light and hidden in their innermost selves.

Yoongi starts out with plenty. Too many.

At the start, he's still bitter at being roped into this, still cynical about the idol industry, furious at himself for selling out, hungry enough to admit he'd make the same choice anyway if it meant a real shot at lasting fame. All of these, he keeps to himself.

Secretly he believes that the bond isn't the end, but only the means to one. Yoongi has big plans for his career beyond the group, and after the shackle is off he has no intention of sticking around. They don't need to know that, would only make them resent him, so he silos that away too.

But as time passes, something happens.

Yoongi's always liked these six idiots, and now he knows - every day, every moment - how much they like him too. With Namjoon's passion and Hoseok's enthusiasm, he can't help but believe in the worth of the music they're making together. He can't help but feel proud and protective of the maknae line and how hard they work, annoying as they are. He even starts enjoying the variety shows, for crying out loud, for which he definitely blames Seokjin.

He stops thinking of re-signing after seven years as a definite 'no', and cautiously puts it in the 'maybe' category instead.

Why does he change his mind? Is it the bond, blurring the lines between where he starts and where they end? Or is it simply that he's growing, changing, that he would've felt this way regardless?

He'll never really know. Maybe, Yoongi realises, the reason doesn't matter, as long as the feelings are true.

So one by one, his secrets disappear, are dissolved and neutralised and harmless, until finally there's only big one left.

 

They're discussing the livestreams, with Namjoon partnering them up into pairs for future broadcasts. "Yoongi-hyung, you should do one with somebody else. Maybe it should be - "

Anyone but Hoseok.

It just bursts out of him. Emphatic and tactless and true. But he can't take it back. They all know it's not a lie. Yoongi stares down at his feet; he can't bear to look up and see what expression Hoseok is making, though he can't escape the stab of hurt that radiates through the bond.

"Wow," Hoseok says. "Wow, that's - that's something. Okay, I get it."

He walks out, and a moment later Jimin follows. Everyone else looks at him like he's a murderer.

"I didn't mean it like that," Yoongi mutters. "I just don't - it wouldn't be -"

 

So this is the last secret, the big one, the only one he's held onto after all these years:

He's in love with Jung Hoseok.

He's been in love with him since almost the very start, since this skinny kid showed up at their dorm looking all lost and lonely. Initially Yoongi had pitied him, thinking this one won't last long. He'd only meant to be kind when he told him to "go sleep in the bed for fuck's sake, you're gonna throw your back out if you sleep on that shitty couch."

But then the kid had smiled, his entire face lighting up with gratitude, and Yoongi had thought, oh, shit.

Yoongi would do a lot for that smile, he soon came to realise.

Like ditching his family on New Year's Eve to eat chicken and watch TV with Hoseok in the dorm. Or singing like a fool to girl group hits in a noraebang, complete with girl group dances, laughing until his stomach hurt. Or working on a song together in a tiny studio for hours, stealing looks sideways at Hoseok's profile all lit up in the light of the computer screen.

For Hoseok, he even learned to dance and like it.

But that was as far as it was going to go. He was never going to act on it, or think about it, or do anything at all.

Yoongi had a plan, and that plan was spending seven years as an idol and absolutely no more, followed by a respectable career in rap and production. In no way, shape or form did the plan include 'falling in love with your fellow idol' or 'falling for a guy, any guy, whatsoever'.

So Yoongi kept it a secret.

After all the other secrets fell away, somehow this one became precious. Something to be treasured and hidden away, something for himself alone. No one ever needed to know. And it became important to him that no one did know.

When his every move was scrutinised, and everything he said and rapped and wore was analysed to the nth degree, and he could never be truly alone (no matter that he'd grown to love the company) - it felt good to have this one final thing that he could call his own.

So he locked it away, like something rare that would wilt in the light of day.

Anyone but Hoseok, Yoongi thinks.

Because he knows exactly what it'd be like if they had to do a livestream together. Hoseok would be ridiculous and screech a lot and laugh hysterically at the dumbest of his jokes; and Yoongi would smile too much and make bad puns and he'd probably want to kiss Hoseok, right there, in front of the world.

The thought of putting this thing he's treasured up for such close scrutiny still makes his palms sweat. He's not ready for this to become public property, fodder for the masses, just one more piece of his soul that he's sold in the name of clicks, bucks, fame, fans.

So no. He's not doing this.

Anyone but him, Yoongi thinks, but without really thinking, and watches Hoseok walk away.

 

Yoongi finds Hoseok soon after that, says gruffly, "Look, I'm sorry about before."

"It's fine, hyung," Hoseok says, shrugging it off. "You don't have to apologise."

"But I'm trying to fucking explain it, would you give me a chance to just-"

Sighing, Hoseok grabs Yoongi by the shoulders. "It. really. doesn't. matter. okay!" He gives him a little shake with every word, and by the end of the sentence he's laughing, his face all crinkled up. He's impossible to argue with when he's like that, so Yoongi just gives up and after that things kind of go back to normal.

Then Taehyung's implant goes haywire, and the whole day and then the entire week is lost to much more pressing matters anyway.

Jungkook's the most broken up of all. He's practically inseparable from Taehyung when he comes home from hospital, making sure his hyung is kept warm and fed and entertained.

"Wow, Kookie, you've never been this respectful before," Taehyung says, looking pale and drained but still grinning. "I should go to hospital every day."

Instead of swatting at Taehyung like he usually would, Jungkook stands stricken. Yoongi senses - as Tae doesn't, no longer can - that he's on the verge of bursting into tears.

So he has to step in and defuse that situation (he successfully leaves them curled up in bed together, happily watching anime). Then there's a dozen other minor crises of work and home that need attending to; and then they're being called into a meeting to be told that the bond is being turned off, as of basically right now.

Instead of one, now they're seven again, each separate and individual and completely self-contained.

He's free to have all the secrets he wants now.

Instead he finds he still has just the one, and as he watches Hoseok laugh at Jimin and Taehyung's bickering, Yoongi starts to think that maybe that secret's not as precious as he spent all these years believing to be.

Maybe Hoseok isn't part of the plan - but if Yoongi is just honest with himself, he can admit the plan went off the rails a pretty long time ago and it's time he stopped using that as an excuse.

Maybe this secret isn't something he was ever meant to keep just for himself.

 

Two days later Hoseok heads out after breakfast, saying something about heading to the studio. Yoongi gulps down the last of his coffee, grabs his bag, and goes straight after him.

"Hey," he says, a little breathless, finally catching up with Hoseok when he stops to wait at the lights.

"Hey yourself," Hoseok says, plucking one of his earbuds out. He smiles at Yoongi, head tilted to the side. "What's wrong, hyung?"

"Nothing's wrong," Yoongi says. "I just." He swallows. "You remember, before, when we were talking about the livestream. You never gave me a chance to explain."

"Oh, that?" Hoseok says. He shrugs, honestly confused. "Don't worry about it, hyung. It's not like we're going to be doing more broadcasts anytime soon anyway."

The light changes and Hoseok steps off the kerb. Yoongi hurries to follow, saying, "No, I mean - I think you took it the wrong way."

"Uh, I took it the wrong way?" Hoseok says, side-eyeing. "Then I'm not sure how I was supposed to take it."

"Hoseok-ah, I was scared," Yoongi says, trying to keep up.

"Scared of what?" Hoseok says, barely paying attention, half-reading something on his phone screen.

"Scared I'd be too obvious," Yoongi says, swallowing, finally just grabbing at Hoseok's hand to get his attention. They stutter to a stop in the middle of the street, the crowd forced to split and flow around them. "Scared everyone would see. Please, just listen."

Hoseok stops, then, stops and really looks at him. They can't share their thoughts anymore - he missed his chance to do this the easy way so now he's only left with the hard one - but the nerves he's feeling must come through somehow because Hoseok starts looking concerned.

"Too obvious?" Hoseok says, more gently than before, head tilted. He tangles his fingers up in Yoongi's. "About what?"

"That I love you," Yoongi mumbles, looking down at his shoes.

For a moment Hoseok doesn't say anything. Just sucks in a deep breath, and Yoongi's heart just plummets. He's fucked it up for good now. He's read this whole thing wrong. He's -

Hoseok laughs and holds his free hand up to his ear. "Wait, what was that?" Hoseok says. He's suddenly beaming now, his smile as bright as day. "Say it louder, hyung, I didn't hear you! Wow, I can't believe this is finally happening!"

"Shut up," Yoongi says, red up to his ears. He shoves Hoseok in the chest - but Hoseok just grabs his other hand too, using Yoongi's momentum and turning it into an embrace.

"I love you too, hyung," Hoseok whispers, and presses a quick kiss to his ear. "And you were always obvious, you idiot. To me, anyway."

They hold hands all the way to the studio, walking faster and faster and faster. As soon as the door is closed they fall to the couch, shedding jackets and scarves and jeans as quickly as they can.

Hoseok kisses him all over, sweet and soft and so happy that Yoongi thinks his own heart might burst. He pulls Hoseok down, pulls him closer, thinks just maybe he'll never let him go.

It's not the same as it used to be. He doesn't feel that double-echo of desire that used to pulse back and forth through the bond, Hoseok's want feeding his own and vice versa. He doesn't sense the other five hovering at the edge of his awareness, doesn't feel the need to hold back for fear of showing everyone too much.

It's just them, the two of them, and it's different, but just as good. Better, in fact, because now there's no more secrets, because now he knows Hoseok loves him back.

 

They walk back into the dorm, hand in hand, and it's stupid because everyone knew they were together anyway but now they're really together.

"Everyone, Yoongi and I are in love! Congratulate us!" Hoseok announces, and Yoongi doesn't know how he ever fell for this walking embarrassment. But then Hobi looks at him with hearts in his eyes and he remembers exactly why.

"Yeah yeah," Taehyung says, looking up from his video game with Jungkook. "What else is new - gah!" he shrieks, as Yoongi accurately pelts a piece of lego at his head.

Jungkook mumbles something and barely looks up from the game, comprehensively beating a distracted Taehyung. But he's especially sweet to them both at dinner and seems more relaxed than he has in days; whereas Jimin pretends to be disgusted but gives them the fondest glances whenever he thinks they're not looking.

After dinner they all slouch around, the tv on but no one paying any particular attention to it. Hoseok curls up by his side and slowly nods off. Yoongi must look particularly foolish and smitten as he carefully adjusts Hoseok's head on his shoulder so he doesn't get a crick in his neck, because Seokjin says, "You were both pretty stupid about this, you know that?"

"Stupid and annoying," Namjoon chips in, stuffing a handful of snacks into his mouth.

Without opening his eyes, Hoseok says, "Okay, so you two just volunteered yourself for extra drills at dance practice tomorrow."

They both groan and protest.

"What?" Hoseok says, cracking one eye. "You know I can't be there to help you with every single step anymore. We've got to learn all this the hard way now, and you know you two are gonna need the most practice of all."

"I'm honestly not that bad," Namjoon says indignantly.

Hoseok closes his eyes again and snorts. "Sure."

Dance practice, followed by media training, followed by vocals and composition… It's going to be difficult, everyone knows that, even more than it was before. They'll have to re-learn all the things they learned, learn how to function as seven parts that make up a whole rather than a whole made up of seven.

But no one's even mentioned giving up. No one's even talked about stopping. They've experienced a major setback, sure, but so has everyone else in their industry. The ground has been levelled. Everyone's reset back to zero.

First it'll be a race to see who's fit and ready for their comebacks first. Tonight's their last free night before they buckle down in earnest, a frenzy of preparation they haven't seen since before their debut. In some ways this will be like starting all over again - trying to keep their existing fans happy, and by striking early when other groups might be slower in recovery, hopefully gaining some new ones.

Then it will be an endurance test to see which groups can make it without the bond locking them in, who stays together and who falls apart. Already there's rumours of idols breaking contracts, leaving groups, starting lawsuits...

Looking around the room, feeling Hoseok's warmth by his side, Yoongi doesn't need the bond to feel certain about whether they'll stick it out.

Yoongi, who once counted down the days to seven years, now finds himself counting upwards. New plan, he thinks, time for a new plan. Seven can just be the start.