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little brave, breathe

Chapter Text

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Early in the twenty-fourth century, the Chasm opened: a rift in the mortal realm through which came beings of great power and magic, ones infused with charm and charisma who extended treaties and friendships to the humans despite their mortal skepticism and fear. Helpless to fight off the ambassadors in the wake of their comparatively primitive technology, humans hesitantly agreed to the peace talks. And from there was born an era of prosperity for beings of all species – human and elf, vampire and werewolf, fairies and pixies and gollums and seelies.

Some objected to this new world. Battles began that were quashed, rebels rose up but quickly surrendered. The entire century became a time of transition.

But that is not this story.

As the twenty-fourth century gave way to the twenty-fifth, the surprise humans felt at no longer being alone in the universe faded. With the influx of magic through the open barrier to the mortal realm, the human world changed. The environment grew richer, damage wrought by climate change brought about by hapless selfish humans almost entirely reversed. With the sharing of technology and science, cures were found for cancer, alternative renewable energy sources were developed, pollution removed. Into the Chasm went humans to explore new mortal planes and establish new worlds. On planet Earth, renamed the Mortal Homeworld, human and animal populations flourished, the planet’s health and ecosystems restored.

The new world wasn’t perfect, of course. Humans as a species were mercurial, always striving for things out of reach, for power and wealth. The different classes persisted, poverty still ran rampant in cities, some people across the world suffered from hunger despite the renewed resources.

But the biggest change? Humans became infused with magic.

Life spans increased. The typical human lived to three centuries rather than less than one, though their childhoods and adolescent stages remained the same. And soulmates spiraled into existence.

Soulmates.

Designated by tattoos that swirled into existence on a human’s sixteenth birthday. Matched in size, color and location on their soulmate—or soulmates. Romantic or platonic. A trio of sisters sharing a spiral on their right ankles, a quartet of two boys and two girls with paw prints padding up their spines, a boy and a girl with a tiny matching heart behind their left ears, twin boys manifesting their parents' ankle bands on their sixteenth birthdays. The possibilities were endless.

No human was ever alone again.

Soulmates.

Jeon Jungkook had spent his childhood reading about them. Wondered whether he would have one perfect romantic match, or a few platonic best friends for life, or multiple romantic partners. Genders and romantic designations, a source of prejudice and bias in earlier centuries, no longer mattered to society as a whole. Not once humans realized they weren’t the only beings in the universe and understood there were better things to worry about.

Jungkook stayed up the night of his sixteenth birthday. With bated breath and trembling lips he watched the clock turn from 11:59pm to 12:00am. Stripped off his clothes and stood in front of the full-length mirror he had bought and hung for this specific occasion.

No tattoo.

Looking back, Jungkook felt shame at his behavior that followed.

He snatched up his phone, took pictures of every aspect of his skin, including the folds of his ears and beneath his fingernails and between his toes and even his privates. Everywhere. He came within inches of shaving his scalp—froze with the clippers in his hand in front of the bathroom mirror. Drowning in panic, he scoured the photographs instead, searched himself over and over again until dawn rose and his alarm went off for school.

Numb, he dressed. He went downstairs. His mother and father stood there with a cake that proclaimed Happy Soulmark Day!

His father asked to see the mark. Jungkook mumbled that he didn’t have one. His father said, “Speak up, boy, you know I hate when you mutter like that.”

“I don’t have one. Nothing showed up.”

What followed was probably the most embarrassing moment in his young life. His mother stripped him and checked him herself, his father watching almost clinically. They saw themselves the proof he had no soul mark, not even a new freckle. Their mirrored tattoos, a spiraling letter J in toxic green on the right sides of their necks, seemed to gleam brighter as they turned on Jungkook with pure shock and suspicion.

Then came the doctors. The soulmate specialists. The mocking and laughing and taunting and bullying from his classmates. No one would ever love an Unmarked. They called him strange, they called him odd, they called him an aberration, they called him unlovable.

Disgusting.

Abnormal.

By his eighteenth birthday, Jungkook had hardly spoken a word to anyone in six months.

By his eighteenth birthday, he lived on the streets, after his parents sold their house in the suburbs of Seoul and moved to Europe without him.

By his eighteenth birthday, Jeon Jungkook learned that he would live alone and unloved. As no other human in the mortal plane lived.

Forever.

-

Jungkook hummed under his breath as he swept the mop in large, sweeping circles over the ugly linoleum flooring. The high school, buried deep in the tangle of streets in a rough part of Seoul, sat quiet and restful this time of night, the school day long ended. He had gotten the job as a night janitor a few weeks prior and was determined to do a good job.
His back ached from spending the night on a bench in the park, and he winced a little as he scrubbed determinedly at a large mud stain. Stain removed, he picked up the mop, dunked it in the rinse bin, squeezed it to drain the excess water, then applied it to the floor again. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. This was the last hallway, all he needed to do afterwards was collect all the trash in the building and haul it out to the enormous dumpsters.

Muffled voices nearby made him pause as he put the mop away in the janitor closet.

Surprised to find he wasn’t alone, he crept towards a classroom and hesitated outside the open doorway, keeping to the shadows. No one wanted to see a teenage delinquent with sweat on his face wearing ragged blue janitor overalls clutching a bundle of trash bags.

A tall man dressed in neat grey slacks and a white collared shirt with a grey vest overtop stood in front of the holoboard, typing in midair on the suspended hologram keyboard. A crowd of people looking to be in their thirties and forties watched him with expressions ranging from apathetic to interested, no more than twenty or so students in total, some with holopads open in front of them, others without even a backpack beneath their desk.

The differing attention spans didn’t seem to matter to the teacher, who stepped back from the board and clapped his hands together. Jungkook blinked, surprised. Behind wire-framed glasses that caught and reflected the fluorescent lights as he turned, the teacher looked younger than he had at first glance, maybe no more than a handful of years older than Jungkook. The man grinned a little when the clap seemed to stir awake some of his audience, and dimples popped out on his cheeks, making Jungkook want to giggle. He also felt a strange urge to touch the man’s soft-looking hair, colored a surprising teal that swept sideways over his forehead, but that was neither here nor there.

“So. Shakespeare,” the man said in a strong baritone, gesturing to where the holoboard now had Romeo & Juliet scrawled across it. “Why does he matter? Why do we study him?”

Some in the audience shifted a little. A couple of them yawned.

“There’s no wrong answer here,” the teacher continued, unsurprised and seemingly unbothered by the lackluster participation. “Some people simply enjoy the beautiful and entertaining way he spun his stories, even the more gruesome ones like Macbeth. Some people enjoy the riddle of the complex dialogues and mannerisms of his characters, enjoy trying to figure out the different meanings he intended.”

“Why doesn’t he just say what he means?” one young woman spoke up, brandishing a used copy of Romeo & Juliet. “Reading this gives me a headache.”

“Because Shakespeare, unlike a lot of our modern twenty-fifth century authors, is open to interpretation,” the teacher answered easily, rolling with the interruption. “He doesn’t tell us what to think. He teaches us how to think. Take this line.”

Without even peering at the open book—a real book, with paper and ink and everything, oh, Jungkook itched to touch it—on the podium, the man recited, “’These violent delights have violent ends, and in their triumph die; like fire and powder, which, as they kiss, consume; the sweetest honey is loathsome in his own deliciousness, and in the taste confounds the appetite; therefore love moderately: long love doth so.’”

Jungkook shivered. He had not a clue what the pretty words meant, and clearly neither did the audience, but he thought he could stand here and listen to the man’s voice for hours without being bored. Smooth, deep, thoughtful, an edge of humor dancing along every word.

He dared to step a little closer, cocked his head to listen more.

The teacher repeated the lines again, then peered expectantly at his audience. “Any guesses to what he meant?”

Crickets.

Unfazed, the man shrugged and answered his own query. “Love gently. If you love too hard, too fast, it may not last.”

A pause. Then, “Well why doesn’t he just say that?” complained the same girl.

The teacher grinned easily. “Because then I wouldn’t be paid to teach English literature, among other things.” A titter of laughter rewarded his statement and he seemed pleased.

He swiped a hand in the air, summoned the keyboard again. “I’ll write it up on the holoboard then we’ll break it down together. Your assignment this week is to pick your own favorite quote from Romeo & Juliet and interpret it in your own words. How does it make you feel? What words would we modern folk use to convey a similar message?”

As he turned, the teacher caught sight of Jungkook hovering wide-eyed in the doorway. Their eyes met. Jungkook felt a lurch in his chest and he flinched, scuttling back from the classroom and darting down the shadowy hallway.

Somehow breathless, mind swimming, Jungkook clocked out then hurriedly fetched the bags of trash he had already piled together and hauled them to the dumpster. Then he jogged to the park, disappearing among the tangle of city streets.

-

Namjoon froze at the sight of the boy in the doorway. Eyes wide like a doe, sparkling a little despite the clear exhaustion in the lines of his face. A janitor’s overalls had been pulled off his shoulders, sleeves tied around his waist, displaying distracting muscles beneath a stained and faded white t-shirt. Dark hair fell in a messy tangle around his forehead.

Cute.

As their eyes met the boy jolted back as if scared. Namjoon had to furiously stifle the urge to reach out, to call out for the boy to stay if he wanted to. He had been teaching this night class for adults for weeks now and had never seen such a look of awe and interest directed towards him from his students let alone a casual observer.

Hopefully the boy would be back.

-

Jungkook worked nights cleaning the high school five evenings a week. It didn’t pay much, not enough to pay rent even in the cheapest area of Seoul due to the rising cost of living, but it was enough to contribute to a small pile of savings. He had been kicked out of his first apartment when the building had been condemned, and needed to save up before he could afford to find another.

From what he could tell, even as he kept to the shadows from the embarrassment of being caught that first night, the handsome teacher taught night classes three evenings a week to adult students intending to finish their high school diplomas.

Despite his innate embarrassment leftover from the first encounter, he just couldn’t stay away. He rushed to clean the other hallways and classrooms before the class began, leaving him to mop the hallway directly outside the room and take as long as he feasibly could in order to listen in. The teacher discussed a variety of topics, from English literature to math to science to history.

Weeks into his gentle stalking, he saw the lights go out in the classroom at the start of the lecture and a glow eke into the hallway from the holoboard, which had expanded to take up the entire front wall. Jungkook surrendered to his curiosity again. He finished his mopping in record time then crept, not to the door at the front of the room like last time, but the back door, and peered around the jamb. No one noticed him in the darkness.

On the holoboard shone a painting of a pond with pretty flowers scattered across the mirror surface. Jungkook gazed hungrily at the unfamiliar picture.

“Water Lilies, by Claude Monet. Painted between 1896 and 1926. Has anyone heard of Monet before?” Several nods and shakes of the head. “Monet is praised as one of the fundamental pioneers of the Impressionist art movement.”

“Impressionist?” called a voice.

Despite himself, Jungkook dared to take a couple steps into the classroom, eyes still fixated on the painting, on the sunlight dappling the water’s surface, the tiny blue flowers, the flat lily pads. He felt as if the scene were moving but that was ridiculous, he scolded himself. This was a painting, not a video.

“Impressionism. A style of art characterized by depicting the visual impression of the moment. The style uses patterns of light and color to convey movement, as opposed to stillness.”

Jungkook blinked. The pond was supposed to look like it was moving?

Cool.

An abandoned chair sat against the back wall, probably an overflow from the few desks in the room. Cautious, moving slow as a mouse with a cat nearby, Jungkook sidled over and dared to perch on the very end of the seat, every muscle tensed with the expectation of being called out. But none of the students turned to see or realized he had joined them. And the room was far too dark for the teacher to see this far to the back of the room.

-

Namjoon suppressed the smile threatening to break out on his face.

After weeks, the boy was back, the pretty doe with curious eyes. He looked skinnier than last time but it may be the overalls now covering his shoulders, Namjoon considered. He deliberately avoided staring directly at the boy, wary of scaring him off, instead darting glances at him out of the corner of his eye as he moved on from Water Lilies to Bridge Over a Pond of Water to Woman With a Parasol. The boy’s eyes grew so wide and full of awe that they threatened to fall out of his head.

Namjoon wondered how to play it, thought about it even as he led the discussion. Wondered if he could somehow introduce himself without scaring the boy off, talk to him without bringing that look of abject terror back. Perhaps the boy hesitated in fear of reprimands for not doing his work, but Namjoon thought it was more than that.

As class wound down, Namjoon looked down to check the syllabus for the topic of his next lesson, looked up to review it with the class. The boy had already disappeared.

So it continued on.

Sometimes Namjoon would catch a blur of movement at the doorway, would sometimes earn an extra audience member on those rare occasions he projected images onto the holoboard. To encourage the boy, Namjoon worked more art discussion into his classes, solely to try to draw the boy out of his shell. Nothing worked, but he earned a more regular spectator.

Namjoon decided to try an alternate approach.

He grabbed an art history book from his collection, took the time to refresh himself on the material, left scribbles in the margins and dog-eared some of the pages. Then he deliberately left it on the chair in the back of the room that had become the janitor’s chair, and left a post-it on top saying simply, For you. An extravagant gift, no doubt. Books with real paper had become coveted antiquities with the onset of the technological revolution that occurred once the Chasm opened, but Namjoon’s parents had been avid collectors of old-world technology. He had been passed their collection when they died a couple years prior.

That night he led a discussion on Da Vinci with his heart in his throat and sweaty palms, wondering if he had gone too far, worried that the gesture would make the boy uncomfortable. He noticed the boy sneak in as per usual only to hesitate by the chair. He scrubbed his palms viciously with the towel draped over his shoulder, making Namjoon grin, and eventually picked up the book before sitting down. On edge, worried, Namjoon wrapped class up earlier than he usually did to the delighted murmurs of his students, and turned the lights on. He turned back from the switch, gazed sadly and expectantly towards what would surely be an empty back wall, only to see wide eyes and a quivering mouth staring back at him.

That mouth shakily mouthed the words, Thank you, before the boy blushed scarlet and all but ran out of the classroom, hugging the book to his chest.

Namjoon felt warm to the tips of his fingers.

-

A book. An actual book!

Jungkook finished his shift and clocked out, hefting his backpack and jogging home towards the park. He wondered which bench would be close enough to a streetlight to read yet far enough to still hide in the shadows, mentally calculating and muttering to himself.

He nearly ran into a shorter boy with ocean blue hair that made him blink in surprise before hurriedly muttering an apology and sidestepping him.

Jungkook read all night. About famous artists and their inspirations and their paintings. Stared at the paintings so hungrily and traced his fiercely scrubbed fingertips over the pictures so delicately that he imagined he could feel the pattern of oil and watercolors under his skin. He had never before held a book. He had access to holopads and the large holoboard in his parents’ house growing up but never a real book made of paper and leather and ink and memory. To his shock, there were notes scribbled in the margins, snippets of poems and musings about the paintings.

How many books must the man possess, to treat them so casually?

For days, he did nothing but work and study the book, hungrily memorizing all he could, knowing he would have to return it. When he thought he had held on to it for a time bordering on impoliteness, Jungkook arrived at work and steeled himself. He would thank the teacher in person when he returned it. That’s what a normal person would do.

Determined, Jungkook worked harder than he ever had before, finishing his duties in enough time to stalk the classroom. Nausea twisted his belly and sweat broke out on his forehead but he had to do it, had to thank him. It had been a long time since someone had shown him such kindness and the teacher deserved better than no acknowledgement.

The teacher dismissed the class and Jungkook hid behind the door as the adults left, chattering amongst themselves. When the coast was clear, Jungkook moved into the front doorway, hugging the book, and cleared his throat.

“Yes?” Distracted from piling his small personal holopad into his shoulder bag, the teacher looked up. Then he froze like a statue.

Unnerved by the reaction, Jungkook tensed even further, knuckles shining white on the book. “I-I…I just…”

The teacher came no closer, perhaps sensing his nerves. “It’s okay. Take your time.”

Jungkook took a shaky breath, summoned enough bravery to step forward into the room. “Um. I-I wanted to say thank you. For the book.” Though it hurt, he offered the book to the teacher.

The teacher made no move to take it. He reached up to take his glasses off, tucking them in his collar to dangle by the earpiece like a gentleman. “You read it already?”

Was that strange?

“Um. Yes?”

The teacher’s grin grew so wide that Jungkook just stared at him. “You liked it then, I’m so glad.”

“Um. Y-yes. I wanted to say th-thank you,” Jungkook managed to say, and offered the book again, confused.

“It was a gift,” the teacher said, with no pity or sympathy in his voice. Just fact. “You may keep it, to do with as you wish.”

Jungkook felt his eyes widen even further. “What? You’re giving it to me? Forever?”

“Yes,” he said kindly. “I noticed you had an interest in my lectures about art, so I thought you’d enjoy it.”

Suspicion came first. “This is a book.”

“Yes.”

“A real, actual book. I could sell this for millions of won in the street, why would you give it to me?”

An elegant shrug. “I don’t think you’re the type of person to do that with a gift so geared towards your interests.”

“You don’t even know me.”

“Call it instinct.” The man peered at him, then gently, so gently, smiled a little. “It’s okay, really. I want you to have it.”

Suspicion gave way to joy, air and light cascading in his chest and Jungkook felt like he could fly. “Really?” He sounded breathless to his own ears. “I can keep it?”

“Yes.” The teacher showed no impatience at the repetitions. He stepped a little closer, the pair no more than an arm’s length from each other.

This close, Jungkook could see the sparkle in his eyes, the red divots on the bridge of his nose where his glasses sat, the darker roots of his teal hair. “Thank you. Thank you so, so much.”

“I’m Kim Namjoon,” the teacher said, and offered his hand.

Jungkook stared. Skin to skin contact between strangers was not a casual thing. Contact between soulmates would trigger the flash of heat from their matching tattoos. Jungkook could see the infinity symbol on the inside of Namjoon’s right wrist, bared by the rolled-back sleeves of his collared shirt, but his own wrists were hidden beneath his uniform. Namjoon couldn’t know that he was Unmarked.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to,” said Namjoon gently when Jungkook didn’t move.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to. Jungkook loved skinship, but only with those he trusted, and those individuals were few and far between since his parents left him here. But somehow, for reasons Jungkook didn’t want to dig through, he didn’t feel that familiar instinctive urge to run away.

So Jungkook wiped his hand thoroughly on the somewhat-clean pants of his overalls and gripped the hand, marveling at the strength and how big it felt compared to his own, then bowed a perfect ninety degrees. “Thank you, Namjoon-ssi,” he chirped as he straightened.

If Namjoon showed any disappointment at his infinity symbol remaining cool to the touch, he didn’t show it. He just smiled expectantly, and kept holding his hand, and Jungkook blinked. “Oh, I’m Jeon Jungkook.”

“Jungkook,” he repeated softly, and butterflies danced in Jungkook’s stomach.

He had never felt this fluttery before. Unnerved, he dropped his hand and stepped back, hugging the book again, pleased when Namjoon looked proud at the gesture.

“You’re welcome to sit in on my classes whenever you wish,” Namjoon said next, as the pair turned in easy acquiescence and left the classroom.

Not really thinking about it, Jungkook ever so gently laid the book in the folds of his cleanest shirt and tucked it carefully in his backpack, unaware Namjoon watched him with another small smile. Jungkook hefted the four large trash bags awaiting him as they walked along, marveling at the offer. “Oh, I couldn’t, um, I couldn’t pay tuition—”

Namjoon waved that away, keeping easy pace. Jungkook thought the older man’s eyes traced the silhouette of his biceps but maybe that was wishful thinking. “I wouldn’t ask for money. And if your boss would have a problem with it, send him to me. Looks like you manage to get your work done before my class starts regardless.”

“You’re a good teacher,” Jungkook admitted shyly, as they walked through the big double doors into the warm night and paused as Jungkook locked up behind them. “I-I was never a good student.”

He could sense curiosity in Namjoon but the older man seemed too polite to ask about his background.

“All that you need to be a good student is curiosity, an interesting subject and a halfway decent teacher. So I’d say you’re a wonderful student already.”

Jungkook blushed, busied himself with tossing the trash bags into the dumpsters. He pulled hand sanitizer from his pocket and doused his hands liberally, hating the imaginary dirt and slime he could feel clinging to his skin. Namjoon already showed far too much deference to a mere janitor. Jungkook didn’t want to disgust him any further.

“So I’ll see you at my next class?” asked Namjoon when they paused again on the sidewalk.
Jungkook peered up at him. “You really don’t mind?”

“I wouldn’t offer if I minded, Kook-ah.”

The nickname brought warmth to his cheeks but Namjoon immediately waved his hands and stuttered, “S-sorry, that was forward of me—”

“It’s okay,” said Jungkook quietly, hoping against hope that his instincts weren’t wrong. He liked him. Liked the respect Namjoon treated him with. For now, at least.

“It’s okay,” he admitted more shyly, before fixing his eyes on his ripped sneakers.

“Okay. Then you can call me hyung.”

Jungkook felt a flare of warmth. “Namjoon hyung.”

He could have sworn Namjoon blushed. “Kook-ah. Get home safe, okay? You live nearby?”

Jungkook nodded vigorously. “A few blocks that way.” He gestured broadly, reasoning to himself that it wasn’t a lie.

“Okay,” repeated Namjoon. “I’ll see you soon, then.”

Jungkook started to walk off, then hesitated and peered back. “Thanks again for the book, hyung,” he said, and blushed violently again, before scurrying away, bravery gone.

“You’re welcome, Kook-ah,” Namjoon called after him as he disappeared down the street.

 

 

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Chapter Text

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He had called the teacher hyung! And Namjoon hadn’t minded!

Jungkook knew he had a stupid grin on his face as he ran down the sidewalk to the nearest money exchanger, nearly bouncing in place as he fed the old machine his most recent paycheck and received cash in return.

The exhilaration stayed with him as, errand complete, he continued down the sidewalk. He left the cash carefully tucked into the side pocket of his bag, in easy reach. When he reached a familiar intersection, two girls dressed far too skimpily for the weather, with far too much makeup caked on their pretty faces, waved to him from a stoop.

“Hi noonas, hi!” he called out as he jogged by.

“Someone is happy tonight,” Lisa called after him with a laugh, as Joy smiled at him before striding towards a nearby idling car with a sway in her step.

Jungkook giggled and merely waved over his shoulder as he kept going, not wanting to see the interaction take place. He had once been naïve to Lisa and Joy’s occupation, and accepted an invitation to crash on their couch for a few days several months back.

He was still scarred from the sounds and noises that had come from their bedrooms.

He wasn’t so naïve to how this corner of Seoul worked anymore. The gangs, the drugs, the weapons, prostitution, clubs. All intertwined with a pattern to the hierarchy that Jungkook couldn’t follow. Apparently this area of Seoul had once prospered, in the time immediately after the Chasm, when inter-human violence seemed to die off in favor of their intrinsic suspicion towards their new non-human neighbors. But it had been nearly a century since the surprise wore off, and humans mostly went back to their old ways.

Lisa and Joy had once nudged him towards the gangs that inhabited this lost corner of Seoul, talking about protection and family and a home. But Jungkook had seen many things from his time in the shadows. And he didn’t think a group of people that made their initiates hurt people and sell drugs and pass tests sounded like a family he wanted to be a part of.

He had been okay on his own for this long. He would be okay.

Especially with the stock of cash in his bag, cash that would now be enough to—

He slinked into an alley, knocked three times on the old buckled metal door. Blinking in the harsh overhead light that blinked and fizzled intermittently, he jumped back when an enormously tall man with full sleeves of tattoos shoved the door open and leaned against the jamb. A black soulmark snaked around his left eye, made his entire countenance three times darker than it already seemed.

“What?”

Jungkook swallowed, fought to hide his nerves and keep his voice steady as he said, “I’m here t-to see Az.”

The guy looked him up and down. “What’s he want with a street rat like you?”

Jungkook fisted his hands, but kept his voice polite as he replied, “Just let him know J is here.”

The guy—bouncer, maybe?—looked unimpressed, but he disappeared into the shadows of the warehouse with an ordered, “Stay put.” Jungkook waited, shivering and sweating by turns as he fought to calm his racing heart.

Az was his only option. He ran these streets, even the gangs didn’t dare mess with him. A businessman, a gambler, a cheat. All those things and more. Only fools trusted him, and Jungkook may be naïve, but he wasn’t a fool.

But the man had access to the thing that Jungkook most wanted—a home.

The bouncer reappeared and gestured soundlessly for Jungkook to follow. He stepped inside with trepidation, tightened the straps of his bag as they walked. The warehouse was one huge open space, dominated by tables where people counted drugs and money and hologuns and other paraphernalia that Jungkook didn’t dare look too close at. At the far corner of the massive space stood a desk laid atop a stack of wood like a stage, giving the man who sat there a bird’s-eye view of his little kingdom.

Not a man, Jungkook mentally corrected. A gollum.

Gollums, according to lore attained in the years since the Chasm, were creatures of dark caverns and caves. They abhorred sunlight. Viciously intelligent, they were capable of understanding and speaking any language known in the universe. Some of them infiltrated the human world and eked a living out of the mortal underbelly, where their skills in treachery, deceit and underhanded machinations made them a perfect fit.

Eight feet tall and slimly built, gollums had slimy-looking skin that resembled a reptile’s scales, but in shades of sickly yellows, oranges, purples, greens. Az, predominantly a dark sapphire, wore jeans and a white collared shirt open over his scaled chest. His forked tongue slid from between his thin lips and seemed to taste the air, his bright red pupils dilating as he turned to look down at Jungkook.

“If it isssn’t little J,” he hissed, his longer tongue causing every s sound to last a full second. “Didn’t think I’d catch you around here anytime sssoon.”

Jungkook swallowed, throat dry as a dessert. “I have what you asked.”

The gollum made a noncommittal sound, got up to walk soundlessly down the makeshift stairs to tower over Jungkook’s head. “All of it?”

With no choice, Jungkook grabbed the envelope of cash, the result of months of living in the street and working at the school. “Every penny. I met my end of the deal.”

“Let’sss ssseee, then, ssshall we?” The gollum extended a damp hand, one with webbing between the fingers.

Jungkook hesitated. “The k-key first.”

Az rasped a laugh, tongue flicking again. “Sssmart ssstreet rat. But money firssst.” Az cocked his head when Jungkook didn’t move. “No money, no apartment.”

And that was the crux of it. Az maintained control over all of the low-income housing in this part of Seoul. He dictated rents, controlled the landlords, built and tore down buildings with the ease that Jungkook tore into lamb skewers when he was hungry. Without Az, he couldn’t find a home.

Seeing no choice, Jungkook extended the envelope, and one of the goons snatched it out of his hands. The man returned to the desk, handed Jungkook’s hard-earned cash to Az. And the gollum pocketed it.

“Our bargain?” called Jungkook, tensing.

Az looked down at him. “You’re short the funds.”

Jungkook gaped, and a frisson of foreboding made his head swim. “No, no, you told me to get you five million won and you’d set me up in that apartment, rent free—”

“Fifteen million.”

“That wasn’t what we agreed on!” shouted Jungkook, realizing the futility of arguing with a slum lord but desperate times called for desperate measures. “We shook on it!”

“Are you daring to doubt my word?” Az asked, quite mildly, but his men took a step forward, and Jungkook now saw the hologuns, guns that shot chemical lasers that burned and eviscerated, tucked in their waistbands.

Jungkook steeled himself. Think, Jungkook, think. “I-I apologize for losing my temper. I understand the deal is off. I’d like my money back.” All of his money, nearly every cent he owned.

Az laughed, a rasp of noise that stung his eardrums like nails on an old antique chalkboard. Jungkook winced.

“That money coversss the cossst of this conversssation, little J,” hissed Az.

“You fucking snake,” spat Jungkook, temper lost, grieving his own stupidity. He just wanted an apartment, a place to sleep, one with a door and a lock, a home—

“What did you call me?”

Jungkook was past noticing the warning in the gollum’s tone. “Give me my money back!”

Az stared down at him. Even his men seemed surprised. The gollum chuckled a little, then waved a hand. “Take him out back and get rid of him. I’m bored. And I shall not let such an insult stand, even from a street rat like him.”

The two sidekicks stepped down from the stage, and three others came out of the shadows. Jungkook took one glance at them all.

And ran.

Shouts of surprise met his retreat, as though they were shocked by his audacity, but Jungkook refused to die like this. He knew he had a short half-life as a street rat regardless, but not this, he wouldn’t go out like this—

A hand grabbed his shoulder from behind and he simply reacted, reached back with a wild shout to grab the wrist and pull. His assailant went flying over his shoulder and Jungkook kicked a table over to collapse on top of the fallen man. Squeals of shock hurt his ears from the girls cowering behind the table as Az shouted, “Jussst kill him, you idiotsss!”

Small pops erupted behind him. Jets of scorching red and blue lights flashed. One passed by his cheek so close that Jungkook cursed at the burn, and he dodged behind a pillar. Breathless, cheek aching, he rummaged in his bag, grabbed a flare stolen from the road repair crews—

He lit it and threw it wide.

Cries and curses met his ears as the flare met a stack of wooden crates that lit up like kindling beneath a match. Jungkook seized his chance and ran. He burst through the outer door, skidding into the opposite wall of the alley.

Footsteps followed him. He dared a glance over his shoulder, saw only two men giving chase, one wiping tears from his eyes as they sprinted after him. Jungkook ducked his head and redoubled his speed, reaching a main thoroughfare where pedestrians still haunted the streets, spilling out of pubs. He knocked into people, ignoring their indignant cries, running until a stitch burned his side and he gasped terribly for air.

He dared another glance behind him, still running, and collided horribly with someone else much shorter than him. They fell to the pavement in a breathless tangle of limbs, the man beneath him swearing in an irate voice, “Yah! Watch where the hell you’re going, you fucking moron—”

Jungkook looked down and froze. Delicate porcelain features, sleepy eyes, bright blue hair that reminded him of the paintings in Namjoon’s book, blue like the ocean—

The man stared back at him.

Shocked at himself, Jungkook backpedaled, crawled away. All of his earlier adrenaline had faded, oh god, his cheek hurt so bad and he felt tears rise to his eyes and he had just wanted a safe place, a home—

Footsteps. And suddenly two men were looming above him, reaching down with hands to grab, to hurt—

The ocean-haired man rolled fluidly to his feet, stood defensively over Jungkook’s prone body. Jungkook gaped up at him, horribly confused.

“Back off,” the man growled, deep and rumbling like rocks tumbling against one another yet somehow musical, smooth. Pretty.

“Step off if you know what’s good for you. Az wants him dealt with—”

“Az forgot him the moment you chased the kid off his territory,” the new guy interrupted, and he sounded almost bored.

Jungkook blinked, whipped his head around. He had indeed made his way out of the close tangle of streets that everyone knew was Az’s home turf.

The two cronies seemed almost confused at the argument. Jungkook would have laughed at the way they glanced uncertainly at one another if his life didn’t hang in the balance.

“Kid, how about you promise never to encroach on Az’s territory again, yeah?” the man with the ocean hair asked, without looking away from the goons.

Jungkook nodded vigorously, cheek throbbing. “P-promise.”

The goons looked at one another again. “Come back and you’re dead, J,” one finally hissed, before they turned their backs and slowly walked away.

Jungkook froze, still sprawled on the cold concrete. “Th-they l-listened to you,” he stammered, fear still crawling down his spine.

The new guy snorted. He turned to face Jungkook, revealed the shirt he had pulled up to reveal a smooth, white belly and the edges of a black soulmark climbing up his pec, which made Jungkook feel all sorts of funny, but of greater importance was the small hologun tucked in his waistband.

Ah. That made more sense.

“I’m a DJ. I work nights,” the guy said, offering a hand to Jungkook to help him up. “Can’t be too careful wandering these streets late at night. Not gonna hurt you, little one, I promise.”

Jungkook thought the boy had great audacity to call him little when he himself was so much shorter, but that wasn’t Jungkook’s main concern. Of more importance was the sharp pain in his cheek and the wetness he felt spreading there, and he realized he was bleeding.

He ignored the extended hand. Instead he sat up and hugged his knees to his chest, allowing himself a moment to shiver and shake and try to breathe through the pain. He had to recollect his thoughts, make a plan.

All of his savings. Gone. He had been living on the streets for months, trying to save enough, earn enough, to find himself a place to call his own, a place to rest and feel safe instead of just surviving on the streets.

All of it. Gone. He didn’t know what to do now.

The new guy paced in circles around him, muttering to himself a little. He seemed to make up his mind and spun towards Jungkook to say, “Okay, we really need to get your cheek cleaned up. I know you don’t know me but there’s a café nearby, will you accompany me there? We can get you fixed up?” His lips quirked a little. “Maybe a hot chocolate, too?”

The picture he painted sounded too good to be true. What did this guy care?

“Why?”

The stranger blinked. “What?”

“Why help me?”

The guy scoffed and shrugged a shoulder. “I’m guessing you don’t work for Az, seeing as how you were on the run from his guys.”

Work for that snake? Jungkook scowled.

The man’s lips twitched. “Figured. Seems to me like you’re a kid who got caught up with the wrong crowd. Can’t blame you for that. I promise, I’m not going to hurt you.”

Too tired to riddle it through, Jungkook didn’t really think before clasping the man’s wrist and letting him haul him to his feet, too overwhelmed and hurting to think of soulmarks and his own Unmarked status. He reached up to his cheek and winced when he touched it, and when he drew his hand away, his fingers were coated in blood.

“Hologun must have just caught you,” the boy said, watching him with narrowed eyes. “You’ve got a nice burn there and face wounds bleed like a bitch.”

Jungkook just nodded.

“I’m Yoongi,” the boy said. “Min Yoongi.”

“Jungkook.”

“Nice to meet you. So will you come with me?”

Jungkook felt too tired to think of the reasons he shouldn’t. He opened his mouth but before he could answer a familiar voice shouted, “Jungkook-ah?” Footsteps ran up to them and Yoongi threw an arm out protectively in front of Jungkook only for a tall figure to grip Yoongi by the collar and swing him around, pinning him hard against the side of the building.

“Whoa, whoa,” shouted Yoongi, glaring but keeping his hands raised in the air, not making a move for the hologun in his belt. “Take it easy, big guy.”

“Namjoon hyung?” cried Jungkook incredulously, looking at the teacher who no longer resembled any teacher Jungkook had ever seen. The vest and glasses had been ditched, the collared shirt unbuttoned to show a tank top underneath that clung tantalizingly to outlined pecs and collarbones. His pretty teal hair was ruffled and looked like the darker shadow to Yoongi’s ocean blue hair.

“Hyung! It’s okay!” Jungkook called and ran up to desperately pull at Namjoon’s shoulder. “He helped me!”

“Your face is bleeding,” stated Namjoon through gritted teeth, not relaxing his grip.

“It wasn’t Yoongi hyung!” The honorific slipped right out and made both of the men blink, Namjoon’s grip faltering for the first time. “He helped me, I promise. Please let him go.”

Namjoon blew out a disgruntled breath and released him, took a step back. He and Yoongi watched each other, wary, as if sizing each other up. Jungkook quietly sniffled, trying to control himself, and the sound seemed to startle them out of the confrontation.

Namjoon stepped closer to Jungkook, close enough for the younger boy to feel the warmth of his body. Namjoon raised a hand in the air, close to Jungkook’s face, but waited for his nod of permission before gently cupping his chin and tilting his cheek towards the streetlight. Goosebumps spread over the point of contact and Jungkook quivered, pliant beneath his touch.

“It’s okay, I-I’m okay,” Jungkook stammered, unsure what to do with such concern.

“Your face is bleeding,” repeated Namjoon in a tight voice. He drew a handkerchief from his pocket like a gentleman and softly pressed it to the cut, making Jungkook wince. Namjoon crooned something under his breath.

God. Jungkook had been so stupid, he had almost died, died, and no one would have known, no one would have known to mourn him except the pigeons he sometimes shared bread scraps with in the park—

Get it together, he hissed at himself.

“I’m fine, thanks for asking,” drawled Yoongi sardonically, dusting off the shoulders of his black tee and black jeans.

Namjoon ignored that. “What happened?” he asked Jungkook.

He kept stubbornly silent. He didn’t need to confess his own stupidity.

Yoongi crossed his arms. “Looks like he crossed Az. I ran off some of his goons.”

“Az?” Namjoon’s eyes sharpened and darted from Yoongi to Jungkook. “No, Kook-ah, tell me you didn’t.”

Namjoon knew of Az? What did a well-off professor know of the slumlords running these streets?

“I-I…I needed something and he said he could help, we had a d-deal—” Jungkook stuttered to explain, horribly embarrassed and afraid. He didn’t want either of them to know he was homeless and had been trying to find a home. They didn’t need to know how pathetic he was.

“Okay. Okay. No one can blame you for that,” Namjoon said grimly, one of his thumbs stroking Jungkook’s jawline in a soothing way. To Yoongi he said, “Thanks for helping him.”

Yoongi merely inclined his head, watching the pair in his sleepy curious way.

“How’s the pain, Kook-ah?” Namjoon asked him.

Jungkook hesitated.

“Don’t lie, little one,” cautioned Yoongi. Namjoon cocked a brow but otherwise didn’t comment.

“Hurts a little,” Jungkook mumbled. Yoongi bent down to pick up the backpack he had dropped. From the main compartment which must have opened when he fell, spilled a familiar book. It hit the pavement inches from a dirty puddle and Jungkook gasped, went to his knees to retrieve it. Jungkook furiously wiped grit off the cover. For the first time, tears started to swim into his eyes. “Your book, oh, your book, hyung, I’m so sorry!”

Namjoon shushed him, eased him up off the ground and a little closer to briefly kiss his temple. Shocked at the comfort so easily offered, Jungkook froze, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to snuggle against the broad chest in front of him.

“You matter far more than that book, Kook-ah,” Namjoon told him. “We need to get that cut cleaned up.”

“I was going to take him to the café nearby. The place closes soon but I’m friends with the night shift barista, he should have a first aid kit.”

“Hope you don’t mind that I accompany you.”

Yoongi rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t bother trying to convince you otherwise.”

“Yoongi hyung, I’m sorry I ran you over. And interrupted your night,” Jungkook said suddenly, biting his lip. He was always such an inconvenience, always in the way.

To Jungkook’s absolute shock, Yoongi reached up and ruffled his hair. “You’re cute. Like a bunny. It’s all good, I never mind running off assholes. Let’s go, I want coffee.”

With that, Yoongi led the way out of the alley they had congregated in, Namjoon tucking Jungkook’s hand in his arm before they followed.

-

Silver Spoon Café looked like a homey beacon amidst the seedy bars and convenience stores that littered their route there. It wasn’t anything much, really, a simple concrete building that stood out through its lack of neon decorations and noisy patrons. Jungkook could see through the glass that no customers sat at the counter.

Inside, a long counter dominated the far wall, behind which sat the various coffee and espresso machines. A swinging door led to what must be the kitchen. The rest of the room was dominated by thick rugs and cozy looking furniture arranged into smaller conversation areas, while stools lined the counter. It smelled cozily of fresh coffee.

A gentle bell chimed as the door swung shut behind them, and a bored voice immediately called, “We’re closing in ten, and if you’re drunk, we reserve the right to refuse service.”

“We’re not drunk,” drawled Yoongi in response, walking deeper into the café.

“Yoongi hyung!” cried a voice, and moments later a cute boy popped up behind the counter as if he had been sitting on the floor. He hopped it easily and bounced over to Yoongi to sweep him up in a hard hug despite Yoongi’s audible grumbles. “How’s my favorite little DJ hyung? Your show tonight was so good!”

Yoongi cleared his throat and extricated himself, but not before patting the boy’s back. “Take it easy, Tae. This is Namjoon and Jungkook. We had a bit of trouble tonight, were hoping we could borrow your first aid kit.”

The boy turned to bow towards the other two, then straightened. Jungkook immediately wanted to hide as beautiful brown eyes latched onto his. This boy was so pretty. Delicate cheekbones lined a narrow face, hair the color of lavender drifting forward into his friendly eyes. What was it with these guys and their cool hair colors? His own dark hair seemed drab by comparison. The boy wore a thin shirt with strategic holes cut throughout, baring bits of smooth skin colored a pretty tan, with wide-legged pants, a neat black apron tied around his hips.

“You poor thing,” cooed the boy as he walked closer, peering at Jungkook’s cheek without reaching to touch, which he appreciated. “Ouch. Kim Taehyung,” he offered belatedly. “Come on into the back, we’ll get you patched up, no worries.”

Namjoon helped boost Jungkook up on the counter in the kitchen, and he shivered at the grip of large hands on his waist. He had felt more skinship in the past few hours than he had in years, and he simultaneously yearned for more and shied from it.

He didn’t know how to do this.

This part seemed easy though. Namjoon stayed close, a comforting warmth, leaning on the counter beside him. Yoongi started pacing the length of the kitchen, pulling at his lower lip, seemingly lost in thought. Taehyung rummaged around in the cupboard next to the massive oven and emerged after a minute crying a victorious “Ha!” with a familiar bright red container.

Jungkook tensed. Memories of doctors poking him with needles and running tests and hooking him up to machines flashed through his mind, made him nauseous again, made him sway. Next thing he knew Namjoon stood even closer, one arm around his back, the other cupping his uninjured cheek.

“Hey, hey, Kook-ah. You okay? Maybe we should get you to a hospital,” said Namjoon worriedly.

“No!” shouted Jungkook loud enough to make them all jump. He leaned out of Namjoon’s hold and covered his face, trying not to cry. “No hospitals, please,” he mumbled pathetically into his sleeves. “I’m sorry, I just don’t like…”

“He’s scared,” murmured Yoongi gruffly, boosting himself up to sit with Jungkook, pressed waist to waist. “You’re okay, little one. We’re just going to clean and bandage your cheek, okay? No needles.”

Hating himself, Jungkook peeked over at Yoongi’s calm expression. “Promise?”

“Promise.” He even extended a pinky, and Jungkook giggled as he intertwined it with his own and shook.

“My little hyung is so cute,” cooed Taehyung, making Yoongi roll his eyes. “He may look all bad ass but hyung basically adopted me when I moved here alone last year and didn’t know anyone. Daegu boys for life!”

The sentiment made Yoongi grin a gummy smile that made Jungkook blink, awed a little at the transformation from gruff to warm, even knowing a hologun lay squirreled away in his waistband. Namjoon shuffled aside again, remained leaning against Jungkook’s free side so that he sat sandwiched in between the two men.

No other position had ever felt so safe.

Taehyung opened the box in his outstretched arms to show Jungkook. “This is a pretty standard kit, nothing fancy. Got your usual antiseptics and wipes and bandages and gauze. No needles, no tubes, nothing like that.” Only when Jungkook nodded hesitantly did Taehyung smile at him a little and set the bin aside, rummaging through it for a moment before coming up with a bottle and pile of gauze. “This here is an antiseptic, it might sting a little, okay? But I bet Yoongi hyung and this tall glass of water wouldn’t mind holding your hand,” he cooed.

Jungkook watched a blush highlight Namjoon’s cheek instead of watching Tae dab the gauze with the liquid.

“Kim Namjoon,” Namjoon belatedly offered to Tae. “I teach night classes over at the high school where Kook-ah works. We’re friends.”

“He gave you the book?” Yoongi directed to Jungkook, who nodded sheepishly.

Then Jungkook hissed as Taehyung put pressure on his injured cheek, fighting back a whimper by biting his lip. But Yoongi and Namjoon each held one of his hands and let him squeeze as hard as he wanted.

“This looks like a hologun burn,” Taehyung noted quietly, his tone bearing no judgement. But Jungkook thought his eyes went a little darker. Cooler.

“Um.” How to explain, how to explain?

“Az double-crossed him,” said Yoongi gruffly. “He was on the run from his crew when I met him.”

“Ah.” Taehyung’s eyes warmed back to their usual brown, his smile returning. “For a moment I thought I got taken in by a pretty face and was treating a criminal, shame on me.”

Jungkook blinked. Pretty? Him?

“Looks pretty superficial, you got lucky. But it may scar a little bit, there in the middle,” Tae murmured sympathetically, cleaning the wound until all debris was removed. He poked and prodded at it a little bit then nodded decisively. “Luckily no need for stitches, Kookie, so no hospital trip for you. Can I call you Kookie? It suits you.”

“Um. Okay, Taehyung-ssi.”

“Please, if you call these two grumps hyung, you can call me hyung.”

The fact that Jungkook had met three people he could now call hyung made him want to simultaneously scream and spin in delirious circles.

“Oh. Taehyung hyung.” He wrinkled his nose. “Sounds weird.”

“You look like a bunny when you do that! So cute,” gushed Taehyung, even as his hands evenly applied two butterfly bandages to the laceration. “Okay, now you keep this nice and dry for the next two weeks, okay? If you get the bandages wet you need to replace them, I’ll give you a few new ones but you can always come see me for more.” He added a wink, making Jungkook giggle. Taehyung leaned back and rubbed his hands together. “Speaking of Kookie, Jin hyung made some cookies earlier, how about some, and maybe some hot chocolate?”

The three of them all saw the way Jungkook’s eyes lit up.

But inside, Jungkook was calculating the few coins socked away in his backpack, the only ones he had left after tonight’s disaster. He could afford a hot drink, he thought, if he filched a couple meals from the shelters that week, much as he hated going to those places. It would be worth it, to once, just this once, have some sweets. And enjoy the company of his nice hyungs.

Nice, successful, incredibly handsome hyungs.

Oh god. He was in so far over his head.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Namjoon, Yoongi and Jungkook slid into a booth out in the main room of the cafe, Jungkook wanting to moan at the softness of the padding. He kept it in, barely, more entertained with the way Yoongi and Namjoon were now eyeing each other, as though now that they had been reassured Jungkook was okay, wariness set in.

“Nice timing you had tonight,” said Namjoon first, voice stiff.

“You too,” Yoongi shot back coolly. “You let the kid wander off alone at night to strike deals with mobsters then what, follow him for fun?”

“I made it home then decided I wanted a drink and went back out, is that a problem? I had no idea he had dealings with Az.”

“It’s not like I wanted to,” interjected Jungkook sulkily. He knew he hadn’t been smart but he didn’t want his hyungs thinking he was some criminal. A bad person. He wasn’t. At least, he didn’t think so. Unmarked and an aberration, yes, but still a good person. An okay person. Forced to make dealings with criminals to stay alive in this shithole called Seoul, but still.

An okay person.

Jungkook jolted back to himself as Namjoon stroked his shoulder and said, “I know, Kook-ah. All of us can tell you don’t usually go looking for that kind of trouble.”

Yoongi snorted. “You could have accompanied him and prevented him making that mistake in the first place, I thought you were his hyung.”

“I am his hyung, you’re just some punk with a hero complex—”

Jungkook fought not to cower in his seat. He hated now that he had slid between his hyungs, originally wanting the comfort he had felt in the kitchen, but now he felt pinned between the confrontation. He hated fights. Running for his life was one thing, but he hated, hated fights. His anxiety always seemed to flare and he didn’t know how to turn it off.

Unnoticed by his hyungs, Jungkook hunched his shoulders and did his best to fade into the upholstery.

“Punk? Punk? Your hair is two shades off of mine, professor.”

“I’m sorry, I’m too distracted by the cotton candy on top of your head to hear you.”

“Listen, asshole, Jungkook never would have been hurt if you didn’t let him run off into the night alone. You realize how dangerous this part of Seoul is, how dangerous Az is?”

“Oh, I had no idea, thanks for enlightening me.”

“Then you should have known better than to let him go off alone!”

“You have no right to come down on me, you’ve known Kook-ah all of what, two hours?”

“As compared to your what, two weeks?”

A stranger come through the swinging door of the kitchen just as Jungkook covered his face with his hands and started to cry, the adrenaline crash and fear hitting him hard.

“What the hell is going on here?” called the new arrival with astonishment, rushing over to the table. Taehyung outpaced him, grabbing Yoongi by the arm and pulling him up and out of the booth before sidling in next to Jungkook.

“It’s okay, little Kookie,” whispered Taehyung, bundling him in so easily, so naturally, that Jungkook simply melted against him as he cried. “Hyungs just have to let a little testosterone out, that’s all. No one is angry with you, everything’s okay, I promise.”

But it looked like the fight was over, because Namjoon had leapt away from Jungkook as if terrified of himself, now standing next to Yoongi. Both of them wore distraught expressions, as the newest stranger, a gorgeous man with model-like proportions of wide shoulders and a handsome face, fisted his hands on his hips and glared them both down.

“Shame on you both,” he scolded, like a mother with errant children. “Can’t you see the little one has had a hell of a night and is frightened out of his wits? He certainly doesn’t need you two puffing out your chests and playing at who is the best hyung.”

Yoongi raised his hand.

“Yes?” demanded the new guy imperiously.

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Kim Seokjin. I own this cafe. Now who the fuck are you?”

“Min Yoongi.” He narrowed his eyes back. “Night DJ for 91.4 radio.”

Namjoon blinked. “Agust D? You play all the old school R&B and hip hop.”

“Yeah, that’s me. And?”

“You played the Lupe Fiasco retrospective the other night, that shit was great. Haven’t heard his tracks before.”

“Right? He was active back in the early twenty-first century, he’s so underrated—”

“Gentlemen,” barked Seokjin. “Is now the best time?”

“Later?” Namjoon directed to Yoongi.

He nodded back. “Later.”

“Kim Namjoon,” offered Namjoon, who didn’t reach for a handshake. Neither did Seokjin. Both of them knew the possible soulmark consequences of surprise skinship. “I teach night classes at the school where Jungkookie works, we met a few weeks ago.”

Seokjin’s face went blank. “Jungkookie?”

Yoongi and Namjoon stared at him.

“The boy you just defended against us,” Yoongi drawled slowly.

“Ah!” As if reminded, Seokjin spun around on a heel. “Come here, come here, let me take a look at you.”

Jungkook startled back to himself, still wrapped snugly in Taehyung’s arms and pressed against his chest. He liked it, a lot. He felt safe. But Seokjin’s eyes brooked no argument. With Taehyung’s gentle encouragements in his ear, he slid up and out of the booth to face the stranger, wiping the tears from his cheeks.

Pathetic, he chided himself.

Jungkook fought not to shake as he timidly met Seokjin’s flat stare with his eyes. “Um. H-hi? I’m J-Jungkook.” Then he bowed, figuring he should, but pressure throbbed at his cheek and he swayed dizzily. Taehyung caught him before he could stumble.

Seokjin continued to stare at him with a face of stone. But then a smile blossomed on his face as he made grabby hands at him and cooed, “Oh my god, you’re so adorable. I’m Kim Seokjin, call me Jin hyung, okay? Do you like chocolate? I’m going to give you all the chocolate. Let me lock up and then I’ll give you all the chocolate.”

Despite it all, Jungkook giggled. It made the others grin.

The five of them settled into the booth after Jin locked the doors and dimmed most of the lights, five near strangers huddled together in an empty diner in the middle of the night, bound together by nothing more than circumstance. And, for the eldest four, the joy of seeing Jungkook’s wide stunned eyes at the sight of an enormous slice of chocolate cake.

After they demolished the cake leftover from the day’s business, Seokjin—Jin hyung, Jungkook reminded himself—moved behind the counter again, reemerging some minutes later with a tray of steaming mugs, announcing, “This little party has perfect timing. I just made a new tea today, I needed some taste testers before I add it to the menu.”

Yoongi wrinkled his nose. “I don’t like tea, I like coffee.”

“Fine, tough guy,” retorted Jin, passing a mug to each of them except Yoongi.

Yoongi frowned. “Why don’t I get one?”

Jin stared. “Seriously?”

“Seems rude to single me out, is all.”

“Unbelievable.” Jin plopped the last mug in front of Yoongi. Jungkook, sipping contentedly at the tasty tea, a burst of something like orange on his tongue, watched as Yoongi sniffed at the steam.

Then Yoongi pushed it aside. “I don’t like tea.”

Jin dropped his forehead to the table with a thunk, as Taehyung patted his back in consolation, stifling giggles behind a palm.

“Who are these people crashing my café, disrespecting my art, hating on me in my own house,” bemoaned Jin dramatically.

Jungkook felt laughter bubbling inside him. He stifled it, though, not wanting anyone to think he was mocking them.

Yoongi rolled his eyes as he sank back in his seat and crossed his arms. “Hyung, you’ve known me for months.”

“And regretted it every day,” Jin said instantly, popping back up.

“That hurts, hyung,” deadpanned Yoongi. “Hurts real deep.”

“Are they always like this?” Namjoon asked Taehyung in a stage whisper, eyes crinkled with his smile.

Tae nodded emphatically, making Jungkook want to giggle again. “I’m so happy someone else is here to witness it, it’s usually just the three of us.”

“How do you get them to stop?” Namjoon asked him, glancing back and forth between Yoongi and Jin’s ongoing bickering as if he were watching a virtual tennis match.

“Like this.” Taehyung cleared his throat and said louder, “Oh dear, oh boy, Jungkookie is out of tea and dessert.”

Jungkook blinked down at his half-full mug of tea and three-quarters of a chocolate chunk cookie sitting in front of him. “Huh?”

But Jin had already popped up and strode for the counter, mumbling, “I’ll have him try my new white chocolate chip, yeah, that’ll be good.”

And Yoongi slid his abandoned full mug towards Jungkook with a look of concern, saying, “Here, little one, finish this mug, hyung doesn’t like tea very much, it upsets his stomach.”

Namjoon absolutely died laughing, throwing his head back on a cackle. Body trembling with mirth, Taehyung giggled, collapsed against Jungkook’s shoulder with the effort.

“That worked a hell of a lot better than me whining for attention,” stated Taehyung with pride when Jin returned with a half-dozen more cookies and plopped them in front of Jungkook.

Jin and Yoongi just rolled their eyes.

Jungkook, when no one watched him or commented or, worse, asked for payment, continued to nibble on the treats, feeling more full than he had in weeks. Content to sit and listen, contributing every so often, he settled back in the comfy booth as his hyungs—his hyungs!—chatted.

“Opened this place about two years ago now,” Jin said, when Namjoon asked. “But it’s just a stopgap. I’ve got another place in the works but it’s still being built. It’s in a more remote town on the coast. I’m after the quieter life at some point, but for now, Seoul suits me just fine.”

“Amen,” sighed Namjoon, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “The city is far too insane for me.”

“Seconded,” Yoongi echoed.

“So why stay?” Taehyung wondered, before Jungkook could speak, not that he would have the courage.

The eldest three exchanged wry glances.

“Probably because of this,” Namjoon said, quiet and honest, as he bared his right wrist and the small black infinity symbol decorating it. “I figure the odds of finding my soulmate would be greater in a more populated place. Not sure it’s worth the noise and chaos, though.”

“Here goes nothing,” said Taehyung, cheerful as ever, and reached out to grab Namjoon’s hand.

Namjoon laughed and squeezed it in return. “You know that’s not how it works, Taehyung. You don’t have an infinity symbol on your wrist.” Both of Tae’s wrists, bared by his short-sleeved shirt, were clear of soulmarks.

“It doesn’t matter! There’s tons of studies out there about soulmarks not working in the traditional ways,” Tae argued, eyes lighting up.

“Tae-ah.” Yoongi caught the younger boy in a gentle headlock, curbing his sudden enthusiasm. “You know that two individuals have to have the same distinct marking. Same pattern, same location. Then they touch, the mark heats, and boom. Soulmates.”

Jungkook wondered if he felt brave enough to attempt to change the subject. He hated talking about soulmarks. Hated the inevitable questions about his own, hated the entire concept even, because he was Unmarked.

As if to check Yoongi’s accuracy, Taehyung leaned back and pulled up his t-shirt, baring his smooth chest. Jungkook squeaked and hid his eyes behind his sweater paws, making them all laugh, but not before he caught a glimpse of the tiny black paintbrush hanging low on the right side of Taehyung’s ribcage, a few drops of black ink splattered around it.

“Why did you test me if your soulmark is nothing like mine?” asked Namjoon with a laugh.

“I told you, I’ve read stories about soulmarks!” Taehyung said, eyes lit with enthusiasm, letting his shirt drop. “Experts say it’s because magic is a dynamic thing, it’s always changing. Maybe in the days right after the Chasm opened soulmarks functioned correctly, but magic has been diluted, now. Some of them don’t function like they’re supposed to. I even heard of soulmarks changing!”

Jungkook felt like needles were digging into his spine, and his entire body stiffened. It went unnoticed by the hyungs, who dove into a conversation about soulmates and marks, swapped theories about how to meet a potential soulmate, whether walking around with your hands outstretched to seek out a stranger’s touch was more sensible than being guarded.

It made Jungkook want to run.

So he did.

Ensconced again between the four of them, Jungkook simply melted in his seat and crawled beneath the table, swiping up his backpack from the floor and sidling out to stand on the other side. The others gaped and chuckled at him, asked if he needed the bathroom, water, more chocolate—

Needing it to stop, Jungkook said, “I’m okay, I’m fine, I j-just need to get home.”

Home. What a joke.

They all started getting to their feet, asking why he had to leave, if he wanted to take any treats for the road, if he wanted company on the walk—

Jungkook stammered a “Thank you,” threw the only coins he could find in his bag down on the table, bowed again, and bolted.

-

“Did I make him uncomfortable, hyung?” Taehyung asked Seokjin with a wobbly lip.

“Shh, I’m sure he’s fine,” Jin soothed, pulling his younger employee closer and hugging him around the shoulders. “I think we may have overwhelmed him a little.”

Yoongi and Namjoon both looked guilty. “He’s a really sweet kid,” Namjoon said. “He works as a janitor at the school, we met because he kept sitting in on my classes.”

“That’s so cute!” Taehyung bounced in place. “Do you think he wants to be friends? Where does he live, anyway?”

Namjoon shrugged. “Tonight was the most we’ve talked in weeks. He’s not very talkative, he seems shy, so I have no idea.”

Jin looked inquisitively at Yoongi.

“I don't know either.” Yoongi scrubbed a hand through his hair, looking frustrated. “We just met tonight. Sorry I came at you, by the way,” he said more gruffly to Namjoon, who shrugged it off.

“Me too. There’s something about the kid, I can’t help feeling protective. I wonder why he felt the need to do a deal with Az,” he murmured. No one else saw his hands fisted beneath the table.

The others couldn’t fathom a guess, and eventually Yoongi sighed. “I get the protectiveness thing, though. He seems naïve. Tough, but young. He got more upset about your book landing in that puddle than he was at running for his life, and that’s just messed up.”

They all murmured agreements, several of them looking towards the doors where Jungkook had disappeared, wondering where he went. If he was safe.

Namjoon’s eyes softened. “He loves art. His eyes just light up whenever my lectures even touch on it. I had that book sitting around in my collection, thought he’d enjoy it. He read the thing cover to cover in three days and tried to give it back to me. He didn’t understand it was a gift.”

“Generous gift.” Jin let out a low whistle, eyed Namjoon with more respect. “What’s a boy with a collection of actual, real books doing living in this part of Seoul?”

Namjoon tapped his soulmark, then shrugged. “They aren’t mine, trust me. I’m not that rich. My parents left them to me after they died.”

Jin hummed, reached out to squeeze his shoulder in sympathy. “Nice to know you aren’t a trust fund brat living it up with us hooligans for the fun of it.” He winked when Namjoon snorted a laugh, then glanced out the windows again, as though hoping Jungkook would come back. “The little one seems very alone,” he mused, tugging at his lower lip.

“He’s not alone, though,” stated Taehyung, starting to wipe down the neighboring tables with a rag. He looked over, confused, when the other three stared at him in silence. “We’re all going to be friends, hyungs, can’t you see it?”

The other three exchanged wry glances.

“I feel like it’s inevitable,” commented Yoongi, and shook his head with a tiny smile as Taehyung dropped his rag and Namjoon, in his haste to pick it up for him, bumped into a chair and sent it clattering to the ground.

Seokjin watched the others bicker and play as they helped Taehyung clean the café, and cast another curious glance out the window. It felt too soon to tell, too soon to make assumptions…but Jin wanted to know if the others had noticed how worn Jungkook’s clothes seemed, how dirty and beleaguered his skin, how he clutched a backpack to him as if it would be taken away at any moment.

Wondered just where Jungkook had gone after he rushed out.

-

Jungkook cast a nervous look around, then scaled the fence, panting as his muscles bulged with the effort to ascend iron railings. He decorously picked his way over the sharp ends, then dropped to the other side, cheek stinging. Immediately the large fountain in the central courtyard obscured the sounds of traffic and pedestrians stumbling home from the bars with the cheery sound of bubbling water. Tension seeped from his shoulders like magic.

He had probably upset them all.

He viciously lectured himself, wondering why, just why, he couldn’t have acted more normal for once in his life. Jungkook knew three things about himself, felt like he had known the all his life despite the relatively recent revelations: one, he was gay. Completely gay. Two, he was Unmarked. No soulmark, so he would never have a soulmate. He would be alone. Forever. And three, he was homeless and living on the streets.

The only one of those things that seemed repairable was the homelessness. But his only effort to save up money for a shitty apartment had failed so epically he didn’t know how he could face those people ever again.

It would take months to save the money again.

So far he had escaped the notice of authorities by being smart and never staying in one place, but he always came back to this park. More often than he should, anyway. He liked this park, felt safe in it, with the gangs and drug dealers inhabiting the distant and more reedy parts of the city. This park lay more uptown, closer to the hipster scene where young families lived above trendy bakeries. Probably closer to where Namjoon hyung lived, he thought, thinking of the book he had been given, but he ignored that train of thought.

Maybe he was better off steering clear of all of them from now on. They didn’t need his problems.

This night, he found his usual bench, took the single ratty hoodie he owned out of the backpack and covered himself as if it were a blanket, then curled up on his side. He closed his eyes, hugged the book to his chest, and listened desperately to the running water of the fountain but the shakes set in anyway, they always did. As if the adrenaline he used throughout the day to pretend he was just as normal as everyone else caused a fatigued crash.

This night felt worse, so much worse. He had been so fucking stupid, thinking he could trust Az, thinking he had a way to secure the home he so desperately wanted. Now the product of all his hard work had been stolen just like that, and he had nearly died from his own stupidity—

He shook even harder. And hatred for himself blossomed deep in his chest because he had caught himself looking around at his new hyungs and wondering, just wondering, if they would stay his hyungs upon discovering the truth about him.

Any of the truths.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Perhaps the social interactions of the previous evening drained him more than he thought, because birdsong and sunlight woke Jungkook up the next morning, instead of waking before the sun to move along. A couple, matching cursive symbols on the backs of their left hands, stared at him as they strolled by arm in arm with a little white dog on a leash. Jungkook hauled himself into a sitting position and ran a hand over his greasy hair, staring down at the ground to avoid their curious and concerned looks. When the couple moved on, Jungkook blew out a shaky breath and got to his feet. He did his best to straighten his rumpled clothes, gave them a covert sniff to assess and determined that he needed to do a laundromat trip soon.

He snuck into the public park restrooms, relieved himself, splashed water on his face and hid in a stall to scrub himself with wet wipes and pull on a clean t-shirt. A few teenagers cast him curious glances as he let himself out and he ducked his face, hiding.

On his way out of the park, he paused at the sight of a small crowd, most of them in exercise gear or walking dogs, clustered around something taking place beside the big fountain. Jungkook cocked his head at the cheers and clear heavy bass beat audible over the crowd, and hopped up on a bench to peer over the many heads.

A boy in a baggy hoodie and sweatpants danced in the middle of the ring of spectators, a small holopad on the ground from which blared music at a surprising volume. Nearby sat an upside down ball cap half-filled with loose change.

Jungkook stared, eyes wide and amazed. The stranger was so handsome, the type of handsome that made Jungkook immediately want to melt and die, with a huge smile and dark hair tucked beneath a backwards snapback. He moved sharply, every muscle movement precise yet delicate.

Jungkook watched him avidly for three entire songs, lost in wonder and curiosity. He had never seen a human move like that, dancing as easily as breathing.

A loud shout nearby drew attention to two hologuards—ten foot tall robots made of strange metals painted over with old-school policeman uniforms—hovering up the path, barking about beggars and public disturbances. The dancer immediately grabbed up the hat of coins and stuffed it down his shirt, saluting the one hologuard even as he ducked the net flung in his direction. He swept up his holopad from the ground and darted off, only for the other guard to snatch him by the collar and haul him into the air. The dancer grunted and kicked.

“Citizen. You are in violation of city code 10.9.3—” the robot began in a dismal monotone, the other approaching with a set of cuffs.

“It’s called hip hop,” the boy said, rather cheerfully, Jungkook thought, despite the circumstances.

Jungkook liked the boy’s dancing. It made him smile. The boy seemed nice. He would never be sure why those thoughts coalesced into what he did next, but he didn’t question the urge.

He rushed forward amidst the dissipating crowd, elbowing his way through and ignoring the irate calls at his back. Close to the altercation he faked a trip and stumbled, straight into the robot gripping the dancer’s shirt. The machine seemed to startle. It dropped the dancer and rounded on him immediately but Jungkook was already running by, fisting the boy’s t-shirt.

Jungkook shouted, “Sorry, officer!” over a shoulder, dodged left and dragged the dancer by the other cop, then took off in a sprint. The dancer had no choice but to follow along or fall behind. He kept up easily.

Paranoid, a small part of him thrilled at defying the humanoid authority figures who had never done anything for him except tell him he couldn’t sleep in public places, Jungkook ran a handful of blocks. A police-issue hovercar zoomed over their heads, and Jungkook ducked into an alley.

“This way!” he panted, the boy still keeping pace with that same bemused expression, and led him through a bazaar, hopping the counter of a stall selling exotic fruits. He landed in a crouch, the dancer crashing breathlessly beside him, and sent a nod of greeting to the older elven woman, hair silver but face free of lines. “Halmeoni.”

“You know I do not understand your terms of endearment,” Lyra said back with her gentle cadence, barely batting an eye at the two street rats behind her counter.

“Yet you never tell me to stop,” Jungkook parroted back, finishing their usual exchange. He relaxed against the boards of the stall, waved away the dancer’s wary glances overhead. “We’re good, don’t worry.”

“If you say so. You’re crazy, kid,” the dancer said. He shook his head at Jungkook with a disbelieving laugh, an admiring look in his eyes. “The hell made you think to take on a couple robocops? You don’t even know me.”

Jungkook shrugged, earlier confidence long gone as the adrenaline faded. “Felt right.”

The dancer hummed, then suddenly snatched his hand, bare skin pressed to bare skin. Jungkook gasped at the forwardness, watching as the dancer extended a foot as if to stretch his hamstring, lifted his sweats to the knee and bent his head to look at the back of his bare calf.

Bendy, Jungkook thought, and immediately blushed, horrified at himself.

“Damn,” the dancer said, peering at the sun etched in black on his leg, as though no heat shone through it. He dropped both his foot and his grip on Jungkook, then shrugged at his shocked expression. “Felt right,” he echoed. “I’m Jung Hoseok.”

“J-Jungkook.”

“Nice to meet you. Call me hyung, you helped me dodge a fine so we’re friends now,” he said decisively. He gestured to a food stall nearby. “Come on, I’ll buy you breakfast as a thanks.”

Jungkook stiffened all over. “That’s not necessary,” he said, stiff now, wondering if the other boy could tell how destitute he was.

Hoseok just cocked his head. “It’s just breakfast, Jungkook-ah,” he said kindly. “I want to do something to prolong this kindness spiral we’re in, I dig it. Good vibes and all. Excellent start to a friendship.”

Jungkook hesitated. He could see that he wouldn’t be getting out of this anytime soon, and he didn’t really want to. Hoseok seemed fun, and freely affectionate in a way that suddenly reminded him of Taehyung from last night. But he still didn’t want the dancer to spend money on him, he hated the thought of being in his debt. Hoseok seemed to want friendship, but still. He didn’t like it.

“Dance lessons,” he said.

Hoseok blinked. “Come again?”

“I don’t want breakfast, but maybe you can teach me to move like that? Like how you danced in the park.”

Everything about Hoseok simply blossomed and brightened, grin shooting out like a ray of light, and Jungkook thought again how appropriate his soulmark seemed.

“You liked my dancing,” he crowed, getting to his feet to bounce around him. “Ah, that’s so awesome. Hell yeah I can teach you to move, let’s go.”

Lyra scowled at them as Hoseok bumped into a table of dragon fruits, catching two before they hit the ground. She threw the fruit at them then waved them and their gratitude out of her stall.

Jungkook bit in, sweetness exploding on his tongue. “Go?” But Hoseok was already tugging him out of the bazaar, winding through the crowds. “Go where?”

“My next stop. I like performing on the street, gives it a sense of adventure, and I earn decent tips sometimes. I make more as a bartender, but still. Every little bit helps.”

“You work at a bar?”

“Yeah.” He made a face, still leading Jungkook down the sidewalk by his hand. “I hate it. Drunk people annoy me, they’re so obnoxious. I’ve been trying to find quieter work, maybe as a barista or waiter or something, some job where I don’t have to fend off drunk people quite so much. But no luck yet. I just dance in my free time.”

Soon they arrived at an intersection that seemed no different than any other, tossing the fruit rinds in a disposer. Hoseok clapped his hands. “All right, here we go.” He set his holopad and magically emptied cap out of the line of foot traffic then queued up a song with a fast rhythm and heavy bass beat.

“Here?” Jungkook blanched, as people stopped and stared at the commotion.

Hoseok dragged him to the center of the sidewalk, not even bothering to excuse himself as people cursed at the traffic disruption, and spun Jungkook to face him. “Okay, keep your shoulders and knees loose, head up. Repeat after me.”

He demonstrated some move that involved a fluid motion to his arms that seemed to migrate down his hips and knees, then peered at Jungkook expectantly.

“Are you nuts? I can’t do that, hyung!”

Hoseok waved that off. “Come on, just break it down. One. Two. Three. Four.” At each count, he moved just slightly, the earlier move broken into clearer steps.

Jungkook swallowed. “Couldn’t I go practice in that alley or something?”

“No time like the present. They don’t care.” Hoseok waved carelessly at the people who were indeed still staring at the badly dressed kids in the middle of the sidewalk.

Jungkook didn’t want this. He didn’t feel safe here, with all the people staring at him. Az may still be hunting him, though he was far from the gollum’s territory. But these people didn’t really see him, did they? Just a street kid in dirty clothes. Perfectly anonymous.

He shut his eyes and moved.

“Yes! Good, good, now put more rotation in your shoulder.” Hoseok bopped around him, studied the move from all angles, had him repeat it once, twice. “You’re a natural!” Jungkook beamed at him. “Now go again, faster, bring it all together.”

When Jungkook had the first move down, Hoseok taught him another, then another, waiting until he mastered each before he ordered him to do all three in a row. And suddenly he was dancing, not as fluid, not as strong, not compared to a dance god like Hoseok beside him, but decent enough.

God, he felt so free, so weightless—like nothing mattered but the music beneath his feet and in the air. He had never felt anything like it before, it was addictive.

Hoseok insisted on splitting the sparse coins that had been thrown into the hat, and it took a five-minute argument before Jungkook caved. The younger boy couldn’t help but notice that Hoseok didn’t ask much about him or where he came from, and held back a guilty feeling. For all he knew Hoseok thought he was a regular university kid kicking around the city on his free day. He didn’t want to risk Hoseok treating him differently if he knew the truth.

He didn’t want any of the hyungs to know the truth. Any of his truths.

Still, he caved to the money, and they each bought lamb skewers at the cart nearby when their stomachs started to rumble, then continued to dance well into the afternoon, wandering the streets and finding new corners and audiences whenever it looked like they caused too much of a disturbance.

And suddenly the sun was setting, and Jungkook realized he was late for work.

“Crap!” he burst out with, stopping the newest routine Hoseok had taught him and standing there like a deer in the headlights. “Work! I’m going to be late.”

“Jungkookie—”

“Sorry, hyung!” he called back as he sprinted to his backpack and hoisted it over his shoulders then took off down the street. “Thank you for today!”

“Meet me in the park tomorrow at noon! You’ve got more work to do, Kook-ah!” Hoseok shouted after him with a laugh.

Jungkook reciprocated with two thumbs up and ran off, his own smile brighter than the neon hololights on the buildings nearby.

-

He was late for work.

It didn’t matter much, as he started and ended his night shifts on his own recognizance, and the exact shift hours didn’t matter much as long as he got his task list done. But still. He had never been late, had never performed his tasks less than perfectly, even the nights where he finished in time to sit in on Namjoon’s classes.

As he got to work he kept glancing up at the clocks on the walls, mourning. He wouldn’t finish in time to catch the lecture.

He was right. The class wound down just as he sprinted towards the lecture hall with his work finished, panting a little. The door opened and people spilled out just as he arrived, melting into the shadows to hide. When they all disappeared through the outer doors he crept to the door of the classroom.

Namjoon stood at the podium packing up the holopad that contained his lesson plans, tucking it in the shoulder bag hanging at his waist. He looked as handsome as always, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, a sky blue collared shirt tucked into black slacks, hair casually rumpled from what Jungkook now knew stemmed from the habit he had of playing with it when lost in thought.

The older boy looked up and spotted him, a look of relief crossing his features. “Kook-ah! You’re here. When you didn’t show I thought that you might have taken the night off.”

Night off? Jungkook kept his face blank. He couldn’t afford time off.

“No, I’m here, hyung.” He slinked forward like a criminal, eyes on the floor. He hated the worry he had caused Namjoon, he had no right to do that. “I’m so sorry I missed your class, hyung, I promised I wanted to be here, but, but I was late for work which was all my fault so I c-couldn’t finish everything in time, I’m sorry—”

“Hey, hey now,” interrupted Namjoon gently. He approached, stretched out a hand then paused. “Is it okay if I touch you, Kook-ah?”

Surprised he asked, Jungkook blinked. The question made him pause and take stock, made him assess his own mental state, whether he felt safe or comfortable enough to appreciate another person’s touch. Namjoon’s touch. After a moment, he realized he would like that, as if the touches he had been granted so far from his hyungs had opened the gate to wanting more. He had been touch starved for so long.

Soak it up now while he had the chance and lose his mind when he eventually became alone again? Or reject it now to protect himself from the future pain?

Fuck it. He had been lonely too long.

He trusted Namjoon.

He did his best to hide the mental turmoil but knew Namjoon must have seen or sensed it, because even when he tremulously nodded, Namjoon moved slow as a turtle as he stepped within arm’s reach and lifted his hand again to gently rest it on Jungkook’s shoulder.

Instantly Jungkook shuddered, warmth spreading over his frame as though Namjoon’s hand radiated heat.

“There’s no need to apologize, Kook-ah,” murmured Namjoon. “You’ve done nothing wrong. I was simply worried when I didn’t see you, that’s all.”

“Worried?” About him?

“Yes. I thought maybe your cheek had become worse.” He peered at the injury, made a satisfied noise under his breath. His eyes remained so kind, voice so gentle, as he softly squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “But your cheek looks good as can be expected. We’ve become friends, you and I. And without my favorite student, no one was awake to hear my lecture on Van Gogh, so it was a very disappointing evening.”

“Van Gogh, he’s in my book!” Everything about Jungkook simply brightened. He even clutched Namjoon’s wrist. “The Starry Night!”

“Yes, exactly.” Namjoon smiled, the enthusiasm contagious.

“Was it really the view from his asylum window?”

“Absolutely.” Namjoon grabbed the rest of his things and hit the lights as they left the room together, even hefted one of the large bags of garbage despite Jungkook’s protests. “His room at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. Though the village below was his own imagination of course.”

“Your book—”

“Your book,” Namjoon gently corrected with a huff of laughter as they went outside to the dumpsters and heaved the trash inside.

“Yes, that’s what I said, your book.” Jungkook giggled when Namjoon muttered, “Cheeky,” under his breath. “Your book says it’s at the Modern Museum of Art all the way in New York City.”

“It’s been there for centuries now. I saw it when I visited a few years ago.”

Jungkook spun on him, halfway out of his overalls so that the sleeves swung pathetically and slapped his t-shirt covered chest. “You’ve seen it in person?”

“I got into a summer academic program offered to foreign high school students by Columbia University,” Namjoon admitted, and if Jungkook didn’t know any better, he would think that a pink tint colored the older boy’s cheekbones under the glow of the streetlights.

“You’ve been to New York City,” repeated Jungkook, awed. He finished stripping off his coveralls, bundled them into an outer mesh pocket of his backpack. He had learned after his very first shift that the odor of garbage mixed with bleach and cleaning chemicals spread to his meager belongings and made his nose sting and ache. He was sure that the odor clung to the jeans and shirt he wore under his coveralls too but hoped Namjoon was too polite to mention it.

“I went partly to work on my English skills,” he said, first in English which made Jungkook blink, then repeated in Korean.

Jungkook clapped in delight, bouncing around his hyung as they made their way down the street. “You’re so smart, hyung!”

No one really bothered to study languages anymore. New ones cropped up every day courtesy of explorers in and out of the Chasm. Technology had invented instant translators centuries ago, but it seemed Namjoon still enjoyed linguistics. It was sweet, in a way, that Namjoon didn’t rely on tech the way the rest of the universe did.

It only made Jungkook admire him more.

Namjoon was definitely blushing now. “Not really.”

“Are too.”

“Are not.”

“Are too!”

“Are not.” Namjoon rolled his eyes. “Aish, two seconds around you and I turn into a child. The things you do to me, Kook-ah.”

It was Jungkook’s turn to blush. “Sorry, hyung.”

Namjoon gently nudged him with an elbow. “I never said I didn’t like it. I enjoy spending time with you.”

He goggled. “Me?”

“You’re fun, and very sweet. Sweet Kook-ah.”

He covered his face and whined, “Hyung!”

“Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Come on, I’m starving. Hyung will buy you a hot chocolate.”

Instantly his spine stiffened. “You don’t need to do that, hyung.”

Namjoon paused, eyed him curiously. “And if I want to?”

Damn. He didn’t have a good comeback for that. “But…but…”

“Please? I’ll unleash the puppy eyes and pout very hard and possibly cry if you don’t let hyung buy you a hot chocolate,” Namjoon fired off.

Jungkook paused his steps to stare up at him, considering.

“Okay, no, I won’t do it now that you’re looking at me,” Namjoon continued, making Jungkook giggle again. “Let hyung buy you a hot chocolate. It would make me happy.”

He had run out of ways to graciously reflect the offer before voicing a single one. It was like the situation with Hoseok and breakfast all over again.

“Um. O-okay, hyung.” He knew that Namjoon felt curious about him, about his situation, about what could have possibly driven him to try to strike a deal with Az. He wondered just how much of the attention the older boy offered stemmed from that curiosity, and maybe he would lose interest once his curiosity was assuaged.

But god, he hoped not. Really, really hoped not.

“Okay,” said Namjoon simply, and they turned their steps towards the same café from the previous evening in tacit agreement. “I hope nothing was wrong, earlier.”

“Hyung?”

“You mentioned that you were running late tonight. I don’t want to pry or make you uncomfortable, I was just wondering if you were okay?”

He looked so concerned, and it made Jungkook feel light and fuzzy. “Oh, no no, I’m okay! I made a new friend today, actually. I think.”

“You think?” Namjoon gave a light laugh.

He shrugged a shoulder. “I’m not so good at making friends. But he was so cool, hyung! He’s a street dancer, I met him in the park.” He tactfully didn’t mention running from the robocops. He didn’t think Namjoon would like to hear that. “He runs all over the city and dances on the street and people give him tips and stuff. He was teaching me some moves and I didn’t realize what time it was.”

“Ah. That sounds like a lot of fun, Kook-ah.”

For a moment, Jungkook thought that Namjoon’s voice sounded a bit strained, as though he weren’t saying exactly what he felt. But when he peered closer, under the guise of scratching his own forehead, the older boy’s expression had cleared. Maybe Jungkook was just rusty with people.

“It really was. But I’ve never been late to work before, I didn’t like it. And I hated missing your lecture.”

The thought of the missed lecture made his heart hurt.

The feeling only compounded the rest of it. His stomach rumbled and tried to eat itself but that was a constant sensation, nothing new there. His head felt a bit light but again, that was just hunger, he could deal with that. The cut on his face felt itchy, again no big deal. But over and under and mixed with it all was a bone-deep exhaustion that had started to seep in a few weeks ago and only seemed to be getting stronger with each passing day, an exhaustion that had magnified exponentially after his disaster with Az.

He just needed to keep going. Another hour, another day, another week, another month, another season. Until he figured out just what he was doing here, on the streets of Seoul. Exactly what use there was in fighting to stay alive and eke out a place here, Jungkook wasn’t sure yet.

Sometimes he just felt so tired. He thought it must be a result of never truly feeling safe in his own skin. His own Unmarked skin. But there was nothing that could be done so he just had to bear it.

“Hey, Kook-ah, look at me. At me, little one.”

The surprise of hearing the nickname that Yoongi had coined made him look up and around as they paused outside the doors of the café.

“It’s okay,” Namjoon murmured in a low voice, squeezing his shoulder again only after Jungkook nodded and granted permission. “You’re okay, Kook-ah, I promise. You are excellent at your job, and getting caught up and running late is something that happens to everyone. You still finished your work as you always do. It’s all right. And you’ve got me now, don’t you? We can talk about Van Gogh. About anything you want.”

“Y-you’d do that for me? But I’m not your student, I can’t pay you—”

“I would never imagine asking you for money,” Namjoon interrupted gently, and he sounded more firm than usual. “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I enjoy mentoring and teaching and learning alongside my friends. There’s no reason I couldn’t teach you about Van Gogh just like I teach my students. Because we’re friends.”

Jungkook studied him, Namjoon’s body well-lit now by the generous café windows. Maybe there were miracles after all, even for an Unmarked like him.

He didn’t know what to do with the gratitude causing his chest to ache, so he stood there tense and shaky, with his hands clenching and unclenching into fists. “H-hyung…can I…”

“Anything,” murmured Namjoon. “What do you need, little one?”

“H-hug?” He nearly choked on the word. “P-pl…please?”

He jumped when Namjoon moved but his hyung only opened his arms wide, absolutely wide open, standing there vulnerable while Jungkook stared at him and tried to summon the courage to move forward. It took moments, precious moments, in which a part of Jungkook wondered whether Namjoon’s patience with him would fail. It had to, at some point.

It didn’t. Namjoon seemed perfectly content to stand with his arms outstretched for however long Jungkook needed.

On a fierce exhalation of air, Jungkook ducked his head but jumped forward at the same time, so hurriedly that his forehead banged into Namjoon’s collarbone. But his arms wrapped hard around Namjoon’s trim waist and his cheek seemed to fit so well in the hollow between the older boy’s collarbone and neck. Namjoon let out a tiny exhalation, a puff of breath that stirred Jungkook’s hair, before his arms gently embraced Jungkook in their grasp.

Every single bit of exhaustion riding Jungkook’s frame and mind seemed to simply…evaporate. And for the first time since he stepped into Az’s warehouse the previous evening, all of his fear simply floated away.

“Thank you,” Jungkook whispered, needing to say it, overcoming his crippling shyness to convey it because Namjoon had to know, the other boy needed to know what this meant, that it meant…everything. This hug meant everything to Jungkook.

“Any time. Really.”

“Hey, what’s all this?” called a new voice, a slight pout in the words. Jungkook looked up but stayed within the circle of Namjoon’s arms, Namjoon content to keep him there.

Yoongi strode up the sidewalk, leather jacket open over a dark shirt and jeans with a flannel wrapped around his waist. Grunge was a good look for him. His oceanic hair caught and reflected the red neon from the bar sign across the street. Despite his tough, don’t-mess-with-me stance and look, he wore a pout as pronounced as Taehyung’s when the barista didn’t get his way.

It made Jungkook giggle a little.

“A hug, hyung,” said Namjoon dryly. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept.”

Yoongi continued to pout as he paused next to the pair on the sidewalk. “It’s just mean to tease your hyung, that’s all.”

Namjoon slid a look to Jungkook, who read him easily and grinned as he stepped aside.

“Far be it for hyung to feel left out,” drawled Namjoon, who leapt for Yoongi.

Yoongi let out an actual squeak and danced aside, darting for the door of the café. “That was not an invitation!” he yelped as Namjoon caught him from behind just as he opened the door.

They tumbled into the café, Jungkook following and still raucously giggling as Namjoon hefted Yoongi from behind and all but carried him forward.

“Let go of me, you overgrown beanpole!”

“No name-calling in my shop,” called Seokjin lazily from behind the counter, cleaning the espresso machine.

“Hugs!” Taehyung dropped the mop he was using and it fell with a harsh clatter to the floor as he jumped at Namjoon and Yoongi, encircling them both. Yoongi squeaked again and the three overbalanced and fell to the floor.

A strange choking, gasping noise made all four of the older boys look up and around to Jungkook, who stood a few paces away, one arm around his stomach and the other clapped over his mouth. Seokjin stepped toward him, concern on his face, but Jungkook immediately lost all control and dropped his hands, bending at the waist as he roared with laughter.

Jungkook just couldn’t control himself. He had never imagined his hyungs to act as goofy as kids, to be so freely affectionate and open with each other. He enjoyed it, so much. Enjoyed Yoongi’s fake affront when anyone could tell he liked snuggling into the taller boy’s arms, enjoyed Namjoon’s dimples as he grinned wide, enjoyed Taehyung bopping around them and nuzzling in like a puppy, enjoyed Seokjin watching them all with a fond indulgence in his eyes.

So this was happiness.

He liked it.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

In the wake of Jungkook’s outburst of laughter, Taehyung attacked him next, and this time Jungkook didn’t shy away from the hug that the older boy banded him in.

“You have the cutest laugh!” cooed Taehyung, leaning back to pinch his cheeks. “We need to hear it more often, Kook-ah. Come on, you’ve got to try these new cookies I made, I need a taste tester.”

Used to the routine now, seeing through Taehyung’s attempts to give him food for free, Jungkook settled easily into a booth as Tae darted off to fetch the treats. He knew he was accepting charity, but…well, he told himself that Taehyung truly needed a taste tester, and if he knew it to be stretching the truth, he let himself have this.

It just felt too good, to eat warm chocolate and be surrounded with his hyungs’ laughter.
Namjoon slid in next to him, Yoongi on his other side, the pair bickering over music again. The normal routine. But this time Namjoon stretched his arm along the top of the booth and let his hand dangle down to fiddle with the hairs at the nape of Jungkook’s neck. Jungkook shuddered a little, but leaned into the caress. It felt nice. Brought an unfamiliar tingling sensation to his skin.

If the others noticed the newfound closeness, they didn’t comment, though Seokjin’s eyes held a twinkle as he and Taehyung slid onto the benches after serving drinks and cookies. Jungkook snatched one up and began to nibble, heat rising to his cheeks as the others cooed at his cuteness.

Taehyung reached out and squeezed his hand, Jungkook giggling at the grasp. Then Tae used his free hand to whip his shirt up to peer at his paintbrush tattoo, letting it drop again with a disappointed expression when no heat flooded the soulmark.

Jungkook felt heavy again. He felt like a liar. Forget the incredulity about his beautiful hyungs hoping for him to be a soulmate match—sickness swamped him at the thought of their curiosity about his soulmark, the one thing he never discussed.

For the first time in his life, Jungkook felt a stirring of anger about being Unmarked, rather than just sadness. Whose fault was it anyway? That he was destined to live life alone. Were soulmarks preordained? Jungkook pictured some wizened asshole sitting cross-legged on a cloud beyond the Chasm, twiddling his fingers like some sadistic puppet master, creating soulmarks on human bodies.

Jungkook mentally sent a couple middle fingers to the sky and felt a little better.

Jungkook was distracted as Yoongi ran a hand through Tae’s hair and Jin squeezed his young employee’s shoulder. “Taehyung,” murmured Yoongi with quiet affection. “You and Kook-ah have already hugged. It would have happened by now.”

Tae winced a little, but looked at Jungkook and squeezed his hand again. “Sorry if I made you uncomfortable, little one,” he whispered. “I know I’m too obsessed with the soulmate thing.”

“You didn’t,” Jungkook blurted, squeezing his hand in return. He didn’t like the other boy’s upset expression. But how best to explain his hesitation without revealing the truth? “I…I—”

“It’s okay,” Tae cut him off, rueful. “I know I’m a lot, I know I tend to make people uncomfortable.” He paused. “My parents threw me out, did I tell you that?”

The café fell silent. The gentle chink of Yoongi’s mug touching the saucer as he put it down sounded loud as a gunshot.

Taehyung smiled a little at all of the shocked expressions. “That’s why I left Daegu for Seoul. They caught me with a boy, and, well. They didn’t like that. I’m gay.” He sounded breathless, spoke fast, as though not practiced with saying it out loud. “They wanted to send me to some sort of camp, a religious thing for problematic boys—”

“The fact that camps like that still exist after all humanity has gone through since the Chasm opened fucking sickens me,” muttered Jin, uncharacteristic hatred on his face.

“There is nothing wrong with you,” hissed Yoongi, face murderous, and for the first time Jungkook understood just why Az’s goons ran off when faced with him.

Taehyung slid down in the booth to cuddle against Yoongi’s side, let his cheek rest on his shoulder, still clutching Jungkook’s hand. “I know that now. The things they were saying scared me, so I took off. I’m much happier now. I was too much for them.”

“You’re not too much for us. I’m bisexual,” stated Namjoon without prompting. He looked calm as Jungkook and Taehyung both whipped their faces around to look at him. “So I get it. I’m open to whatever gender my future soulmate would be. I like to think we’ve come pretty far in the past few centuries as far as stigmas and prejudice, but not as far as we should be.”

“You’d think humans would look at the other races in the universe and find better things to worry about, but nope.” Yoongi rolled his eyes.

“It’s like humans became more insular when faced with elves and such, rather than more open. Ridiculous.” Jin nodded fiercely in agreement.

Jungkook marveled at the simple demonstrations of courage. He could never imagine being so content in his own skin that he could just casually admit one of his secrets.
Maybe, one day, he would be strong enough to tell them. But Jungkook wasn’t ready for them to see just how total of a mess he was. It was awful enough that Namjoon knew he didn’t attend university, that he worked as a janitor. But he lived on the streets. He wouldn’t be able to handle their pity and shock if they knew that.

So he kept quiet.

Taehyung continued to stare at Namjoon, still cuddled against Yoongi, who pressed a casual kiss to the younger’s lavender hair. “He reacted the same way when I told him I was bi,” Yoongi told Namjoon.

“Same reaction as when he saw me kiss my ex-boyfriend,” Jin said wryly, still gripping Taehyung’s shoulder. “Gay,” he clarified when Yoongi glanced at him curiously. “Which should be obvious, I mean, have you seen my face? It would be an insult for this face to conform to a heterosexual lifestyle.”

Even Jungkook managed to giggle, the outrageous statement very Jin, and served to dissipate the heaviness among them.

Jungkook finished a third cookie and hugged his empty mug of hot chocolate to his chest, feeling drowsy and at peace, the still-warm porcelain warming his fingers which always seemed to feel the cold. He curled his knees to his chest and only dimly realized that this forced his weight harder against Namjoon’s arm, which didn’t falter.

But after a couple minutes of content silence, Jungkook glanced up and opened his mouth, a strange instinct to blurt out something about himself that he would be sure to regret later but he just felt so warm and safe and he wanted to prolong the feeling—

And suddenly realized that Yoongi and Seokjin had their eyes locked on each other, Yoongi appraising, Seokjin sly.

And Namjoon watched Taehyung carefully, as Tae looked back at him with unabashed curiosity.

And Jungkook, despite Namjoon’s hand stroking his neck and Taehyung’s hand in his and Yoongi’s warm weight against his side, felt abruptly and horribly alone.

He forced himself to nudge Namjoon, hating to steal the attention from Taehyung, who deserved all of it and more. “Hyung? I-I need to use the restroom…”

“Of course, little one. Sorry.” Namjoon unfolded his long legs and stood. Jungkook hated the loss of warmth as he dropped Taehyung’s hand and moved away from Yoongi, but escaped to the bathroom gratefully.

-

Namjoon sat down again as the boy all but ran into the bathroom, door shutting firmly behind him. He wondered if he had done something wrong.

“You and Jungkook seem closer tonight,” remarked Yoongi.

Namjoon sighed, trying to rub the weariness from his eyes. “He was late for his shift at the school tonight. I didn’t see him during my class, wondered if maybe he was sick or his cheek had gotten worse. But he came running in just as I was packing up and he looked so upset, so distraught.”

“Did something happen?” interjected Jin, leaning forward with concern.

“No, I don’t think so. He was upset because he missed my class. He thought I would be angry,” Namjoon said, with wonder and frustration. “He thought I would be mad at him.”

“Kook-ah.” Taehyung looked to the restroom, expression sad.

“I assured him I wasn’t and mentioned I had lectured about Van Gogh. He looked at me like a scolded puppy, he was so damn sad. I told him I’d be happy to talk to him about Van Gogh—” about absolutely anything— “and he nearly started crying. I asked what he needed and…and he asked for a hug.”

Collectively they all melted. “Really?” Jin murmured.

“He hugged me.” Namjoon felt his smile grow despite himself. “He hugged me. And I don’t think he ever wanted me to let go. He’s got me completely wrapped and I don’t think he has any idea.”

He caught Jin glancing at his soulmark and Namjoon brushed fingers overtop it. “We aren’t soulmates.”

“Not to be blunt, but I’m shocked none of us are,” returned Jin frankly. He looked around when they stared. “What? Do all of you feel this comfortable with strangers all the time? Because I sure as hell don’t.”

Namjoon hummed noncommittally. Their interest and care for one another was definitely no passing intrigue, and a soul group would be an easy explanation, except they all had different marks. Come to think of it, he still didn’t know Jungkook’s soulmark.

“I think that goes for all of us, Jin hyung,” Yoongi said ruefully, but he sounded anything but unhappy about it. “Jungkook is fucking adorable. And alone.”

“It’s going to take time for him to trust us,” Taehyung added, now hugging Yoongi’s arm to his chest. He blinked when the others looked at him. “We already established we’re all going to be friends, right? If not more.” He waggled his eyebrows.

The others chuckled, but exchanged appraising glances with one another. None seemed opposed to the outlandish suggestion, and Namjoon filed it away to consider later. Of utmost importance was the boy who ran and hid at not only any sign of conflict, but affection. It would take time to earn his complete trust.

Namjoon watched Yoongi carelessly wipe chocolate from the corner of Tae’s mouth with a thumb then pop it in his own mouth, watched Seokjin casually stroke Yoongi’s shoulder.
Namjoon wasn’t going anywhere. He hadn’t felt so alive, so cared for and interested in caring for people like he did for these boys.

Yeah, he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Did Jungkook mention why he was late to work?” Yoongi wondered, steering the conversation back on track.

“Said that he met a new friend. A street dancer who was teaching him some moves, and they lost track of time.”

They all looked a little concerned at that, and Namjoon felt relieved that it wasn’t just him.

“Jungkookie is smart, hyungs, he wouldn’t trust someone without being given good reason,” Taehyung said. Yoongi scowled and opened his mouth, but Taehyung pointed a finger at him. “The situation with Az was extenuating circumstances, obviously. Something tells me he felt that Az was the only answer to his problem. I bet he sees clearer now.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Yoongi said, but he looked uncomfortable, gaze darting to the bathroom door. Then he glanced at Namjoon. “Did he say where he met this friend?”

-

Jungkook closed the bathroom door behind him, relieved himself even though he didn’t really need to because all the lies made him feel ill and this was something he could keep honest. He then washed his hands and braced his hands on the sink, staring into the mirror.

The laceration on his cheek looked ugly, scabbed over and red around the edges, but it didn’t itch as much and didn’t look infected. He took the time to dampen paper towels and scrub his face, careful around the wound, and then his arms and chest beneath his shirt for good measure, applied some of the deodorant he had recently sprung for.

Then he continued to stare at himself.

Why did his chest hurt right now? Why did it feel tough to breathe?

Because watching his hyungs fall for one another made him feel more alone that he had ever felt living on the streets.

He wasn’t so naïve as to be ignorant of the fact that Namjoon, at least, found him attractive. Had caught the older boy eyeing his biceps, his chest. And once he thought he caught Yoongi staring at his ass when he turned around quickly. And Taehyung openly called him adorable and cute, and Jin watched him appreciatively when he hauled a box of cleaned utensils into the kitchen for him. And now that they had opened up about their sexuality, he understood all of the looks a bit better.

He wasn’t so naïve.

But his hyungs could find affection and love with each other. They had no need for a homeless kid getting in the way, a stupid one who nearly died from trusting thugs.

He steeled himself, dried his damp cheeks, and returned to the café. And as the others warmly welcomed him back, wondered if he would ever truly belong.

-

The next morning, Jungkook plopped himself on a park bench near the fountain after a sleepless night spent wandering the city. He drew out his art book, turned to a chapter he nearly had memorized.

A voice in his ear whispering, “What are you doing?” made him squeak and jump, flailing to face the intruder.

Hoseok stood there busting with laughter, arms wrapped around his waist as he bent over with the force of it. “Sorry, Jungkook-ah,” he managed to stutter through the wild laughter. “Couldn’t help myself.”

Jungkook pouted and got to his feet. “That was mean, hyung.”

“Aw, I’m sorry.” He walked around the bench, pulled Jungkook’s stiff form in to hug and press a noisy kiss to his cheek. Jungkook blushed to the roots of his hair and hoped that Hoseok didn’t notice how dirty he was.

“You have a book!” Hoseok exclaimed next, as Jungkook tucked it away.

“I didn’t steal it!”

Hoseok cocked his head. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Those bunny eyes could never live a life of crime.”

Jungkook looked away, muttered an apology. So defensive. Always defensive. Hoseok didn’t deserve that. “It was a gift,” he clarified shyly.

“Wow. That’s a very thoughtful gift.” If Hoseok found anything odd in the discrepancy between Jungkook himself and his revered possession, he didn’t comment on it. Indeed, if the older boy noticed anything at all amiss, he kept it to himself, striding towards the open area by the fountain and setting up his holopad. “So, do you remember the routines from yesterday, Kook-ah?”

“Yeah.” Feeling forgiven, Jungkook grinned a little, barely holding in his excitement. He liked to dance, felt freedom in the movement he wasn’t accustomed to feeling otherwise.

They got right into it, Hoseok guiding and leading them through the same routines from yesterday before walking him through new ones. He liked the music better than the day prior, these beats lower and more rhythmic before accelerating and picking up at the chorus.

No crowd accumulated like the previous day but it was a workday, Jungkook reasoned, and the lack of people allowed him to move a little less self-consciously than he might have otherwise. During their breaks Hoseok asked him about his work, and showed not a lick of reaction to the fact that Jungkook was a janitor, relaxing him further.

Halfway through another song, Jungkook didn’t even realize Hoseok had stopped moving and stood there tense and straight, staring off into the distance, until the song ended.

“Hyung?”

Hoseok didn’t turn to him. Instead he called, “Hey!” very sternly towards a figure standing near the fountain and obviously observing them. “Can I help you with something?”

Unnerved by the suspicious tone, Jungkook slid closer to Hoseok and clutched the back of his t-shirt. But moments later he relaxed and stepped around him, calling, “Namjoon hyung! What are you doing here?”

Namjoon came forward sheepishly, reaching to rub the back of his neck. “Hey, Kook-ah. Sorry to interrupt, I was walking by and thought I recognized you.”

Wound up from dancing and pleased to see his hyung, Jungkook darted forward and hugged him, that same warmth from the previous evening rising in him again. He worried for a moment he was being too forward but Namjoon immediately hugged him back, chuckling a little against his hair.

“Nice to see you, too, little one.”

Jungkook didn’t realize Hoseok and Namjoon watched each other over his shoulder, quietly assessing. He pulled away, wondering why he didn’t really want to, and motioned to the dancer. “Namjoon hyung, this is Hoseok hyung! He’s a really good dancer. He’s been teaching me. Hoseok hyung, this is Namjoon hyung, he’s my friend who gave me the book!”

The older two continued to look each other up and down, but nodded a greeting in stiff formality.

“Just in the neighborhood?” clarified Hoseok, a knowing glint in his eyes. Both men knew that wasn’t the case.

“I like going for walks on my days off,” he replied easily, unbothered by the scrutiny.

The pair fell into suspicious silence and Jungkook glanced between them, uneasy. “Hyungs? Is everything okay?”

They both blinked, and turned to Jungkook with matching grins. “Everything’s fine, Kook-ah,” Namjoon reassured him, reaching out to ruffle his hair. “Mind if I hang out and watch? It’s a nice day, don’t make me go back to my apartment and grade papers yet.”

Jungkook giggled, and though his cheekbones flared red again, he nodded. Hoseok took his hand, shooting another look at Namjoon as though staking a claim, and dragged him back towards the music, leaving Namjoon to perch on the rim of the fountain.

-

Namjoon listened to the bubbling water, the low bass of the music. He couldn’t help but bop his head to the beat, enjoying the tune, even as Hoseok and Jungkook began to dance again. It tickled him to see Jungkook glancing at him every so often, and he made sure to send a smile or nod back in his direction. The younger boy seemed to smile so much more readily these days.

But Namjoon noticed the dirty white t-shirt, ripped jeans and sneakers falling apart at the edges. Noted the ever-present backpack lying near the speaker. He realized that Jungkook was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the night before at the café, and it made something sink in his chest.

He had always known Jungkook was alone, coming and going as he pleased. Working nights at a high school instead of attending university classes during the day as he should be. But to be wearing the same clothes all the time, to be clutching a backpack as though it held all things important to him…

Oh god. For weeks he had hoped his suspicions were wrong, but…

Namjoon felt sick.

And he knew, without even thinking it through, that Jungkook would refuse help from him. That he wouldn’t want to be seen or treated as a charity case, even if that wouldn’t be Namjoon’s motivation.

It would take time. But his blood boiled at leaving the kid on the streets any longer.

His mind ticked with ideas, possibilities, even as Namjoon stood up and applauded when a song ended. Jungkook’s shy grin scrunched his nose adorably.

“You’re great, Kook-ah.” He nodded towards Hoseok and added, “You, too.”

Hoseok seemed less suspicious of him, or maybe that was the glow of exertion. “Thanks for staying to watch. We’re wrapping up for a bit, though. Gonna drag this kid to lunch, hyung’s treat.”

Jungkook instantly protested, as Namjoon knew he would, but Hoseok overrode him with a simple, “It would make hyung happy,” which made Jungkook blush again and mumble agreement.

“I’ll leave you guys to it. Jin hyung has a new recipe he wants to try out, he wanted to know if we could make it to the café tonight after work,” Namjoon made up on the spot. “You in, little one? You’re welcome as well, Hoseok-ssi” he added to Hoseok, who watched him, considering.

Jungkook nodded enthusiastically. At least he had lost reservations about eating for free at the café.

“I’ll see you both tonight, then.”

Namjoon walked away, though a part of him didn’t want to. However another part, the larger part, had begun to think and plot in a way that would make Jin hyung proud.

-
Jungkook all but danced into the café that night, high from the day of dancing with Hoseok. Everything felt brighter even as his legs ached with the exertion, and so high was his mood that he swept Taehyung away from his mop and into an impromptu two-step that had the pair giggling and tripping over themselves every ten seconds.

“Jungkookie, I taught you better than that,” called a voice from the door, making the five boys look up and over.

Unsurprised since they came there together, Jungkook giggled again. He went over to grab Hoseok by the hand and lead him over. “Hyungs! This is Hoseokie hyung. He’s teaching me how to dance.”

“Nice to see you again,” said Namjoon sincerely. Jin nodded a welcome, occupied in pouring hot chocolate into the mug with the bunny decal on it. He may have bought it for Jungkook but told him it was sitting around the shop.

Yoongi narrowed his eyes at Hoseok’s Supreme cap. After a long pause, Yoongi nodded his head. “Yo.”

“Sup.”

Jin rolled his eyes as Taehyung slid into a seat across from Hoseok and peered at him curiously. “Um. Hoseok-ssi—”

Hoseok bounced in his seat. “God, you’re cute. Call me hyung, like Jungkookie does.”

Taehyung all but beamed back, and Jungkook snuggled against Namjoon’s side, smiling a little as the two cheeriest people he knew got along like a house afire.

“Those two are gonna be trouble,” Namjoon murmured to him, breath warm on his temple. Jungkook nodded vehemently and curled his knees to his chest, cupping his mug. Namjoon bore the brunt of his weight without protest. Had his hyung looked the slightest bit uncomfortable, Jungkook would have flinched away, but Namjoon merely slid an arm to rest over his shoulders.

Content, Jungkook settled in.

“Hoseok hyung,” Taehyung corrected himself. “You look really familiar.”

“Really?”

Taehyung peered at him more closely. “You don’t work at the House of Cards, do you?”

Instead of looking pleased at the recognition, Hoseok’s smile faded to a look of concern. “You go to the House of Cards?”

“No, no.” Tae shook his head hard, even cowered into Yoongi’s side a little, Yoongi petting his hair. “Oh, no. I only went there, um, once. When I first came here from Daegu, I was trying to find work.”

“Before he met me,” Jin butted in, proud.

“I just asked about a bus boy job, maybe to be trained as a bartender, but, um. They said the only position I’d be good for was a dancer.” Tae grimaced, and Yoongi scowled.
Jungkook felt uncomfortable. He knew why the others looked so upset, knew the reputation of the dancers at a bar like House of Cards.

“Sometimes they do more than dance, right?” Jungkook ventured to ask.

Hoseok looked unbothered as he took a sip of coffee. “If they do, that’s their choice. They’re a good group of people. Just stuck in a hard place. A little less skill behind the bar and I’d be right up there on stage with them. But slinging drinks tips more, and I don’t have to take my clothes off.”

“I remember you from that night I stopped in,” Tae told him, a little shy. “You were lighting shots on fire!”

“Ah. The flaming b-52, yeah, that’s a popular one. I rake in tips doing those.”

“Small world.” Namjoon looked at Hoseok with none of the combativeness he had earlier on the street. Hoseok smiled, mouth stretching easily as a rubber band.

The conversation turned to the café, as Taehyung told Hoseok how he ended up there and about the drinks and pastries they made.

“Hoseok hyung is looking for work during the day. Hyung, he can work here!” Jungkook suddenly spoke up, interrupting their conversation as he remembered Hoseok’s earlier confession to him.

Hoseok’s eyes widened and he looked to Jin, but Jin looked crestfallen. “Oh, Hoseokie, I’d love to hire you, but the café can’t afford it. I can barely afford Taehyung’s salary, we’re hardly breaking even.”

Jungkook flinched. He hadn’t meant to put anyone on the spot, he got too excited.
Hoseok didn’t look mad, though, only understanding, and he patted Jin’s shoulder. “Well, you’ve got a hell of a shop here. Let me know if that changes.”

“You’d be first on my list.”

The talk turned to more inane things, as Taehyung brought up the latest anime he had become obsessed with. Jungkook fought to control the embarrassment curdling his gut. His skin still felt itchy.

“You’re okay, little one,” Namjoon murmured to him, making him jolt a little.

Jungkook peered up at him, still half-tucked behind his arm. “Y-yeah?”

“Yeah. You’re good, I promise. That was a very kind thought you had. Want another cookie?”

He wasn’t a child to be swayed with kind words and desserts, and Jungkook, wrinkling his nose, said haughtily, “I’m not a baby, hyung.” They may call him little one but he wasn’t a kid.

“I know that. We don’t call you little one because you’re little, Kook-ah.” His lips quirked. “That would be bold of us considering you’re tall, if not taller, than half of us here.”

“Hey. I heard that,” Yoongi interjected, scowling over at them.

Jungkook giggled, even as everyone tuned in to their conversation.

“We call you little one because of exactly what you’re doing now,” Namjoon continued with a chuckle, peering down at him where Jungkook hunkered down and cuddled into his side.

“You get all little and cuddly,” Taehyung chirped, scrunching his nose at Jungkook right back when Jungkook did it to him. “It’s cute, Kook-ah.”

He scowled, not realizing the expression made them all want to coo and make grabby hands at him. Not realizing their self-restraint, he crossed his arms. “I’m not cute.”
Taehyung squealed and he glared.

“We can stop using it if you want,” Namjoon told him, voice sincere. Always sincere, always thoughtful. “If you don’t like it, we’ll stop.”

“Really?”

“That’s how it works, Kook-ah. We’d never want to do or say anything to make you uncomfortable. If we are, you say so and we’ll stop.”

Jungkook thought he understood consent, and the difference between making an assumption that took someone or something for granted, versus audible discussion and confirmation. He thought he understood so much, until Namjoon came into his life.

He wanted to learn so much more.

And he liked being called little one. Damn it.

“I like it,” he muttered.

Namjoon murmured in his ear, “Speak up so everyone knows, little one.”

Oh god. He shivered. “I like being called it,” he said louder, refusing to say it aloud for fear his cheeks would catch fire from how hard he blushed. From how hard he was already blushing.

Mercifully, they didn’t tease him, maybe recognizing how much courage it took to override his easily triggered embarrassment.

“Stop being so adorable,” Hoseok complained, and hid his face in his crossed arms on the table. “I’m going to combust.”

Yoongi patted him on the back. “Welcome to the club.”

Jungkook scowled halfheartedly at them. But then he pouted, and nuzzled back into Namjoon. “And yes, I’d like another cookie.”

Okay, so it felt a little belittling to cave to their endearments, let them look after him. But even a social recluse like Jungkook recognized the respect in their actions. They looked after him because they wanted to, not because they thought he couldn’t look after himself.

That realization made him feel, somehow, both powerful and safe.

He liked it.

“Man,” Jin groaned from behind the counter, letting the cooler shut. “I forgot to restock the milk for tomorrow.”

Taehyung was already getting to his feet. “I’ll go, Jinnie hyung,” he called cheerfully, swinging his coat on. “That twenty-four hour market down the street will be open.”

The hyungs all looked at one another then out the glass windows at the darkness that had fallen, but before anyone else could speak, Jungkook popped up.

“I’ll go, too!” The huge grin that spread on Taehyung’s lips made it worth the hyungs’ concern as Jungkook zipped his hoodie up further and shuffled over.

“Jungkookie!” crowed Taehyung, smacking a kiss on his cheek. “Awesome, let’s go.”

“Guys…” began Namjoon hesitantly, glancing out the window again as a crowd of bar patrons stumbled by. Yoongi put a hand on his shoulder, and they had a silent conversation. “Okay. Be safe and come straight back, okay?”

“Yes, Daddy,” simpered Taehyung, and scampered off with a giggle as Namjoon blushed scarlet.

Outside, the night lay cool and dark and damp, a typical autumn evening. Taehyung bundled Jungkook close, walking arm in arm, Tae enthusiastically telling him about a recent episode of a drama. Jungkook couldn’t really follow the details but he enjoyed anything that put that sparkle in Taehyung’s eyes.

They got the milk without any issues, Jungkook falling silent as the young teenaged girls in the shop giggled at them and fawned while trying to act coy. Taehyung sent them a small smile but Jungkook kept his blushing face hid. Taehyung teased him mercilessly on the walk home.

As they walked by an alley, a sudden commotion made Taehyung pause. Well-versed in what occurred on streets like this after dark, Jungkook urged him on, but also hesitated when they heard a male voice cry out in pain. He and Tae exchanged a glance, and then that same surge of instinct that he felt the day he helped Hoseok evade the hologuards rose to the forefront of his mind, as though his brain knew something about the situation that the rest of Jungkook didn’t. All he knew was that he couldn’t stand by, couldn’t let this happen.

Whatever it was.

He and Taehyung dropped their grocery bags and ran into the alley.

The dirty streetlights and neon signs cast only a dim haze on the scene but it was enough to see three men grouped around a fourth, a shorter boy with vivid pink hair, who stood pinned with his back up against the wall. A man had a hand around his throat but the boy still struggled, even as the others started to tear at his shirt.

Jungkook saw red. And he didn’t think much after that.

Later he would remember flashes. Flashes of throwing himself forward in a wild tackle, screaming something like, “Leave him alone!” Taehyung snarling like an animal at his side and jumping on one of the men’s backs. Jungkook managed to catch the asshole pinning the boy, throwing him back and tackling him to the ground, slamming his head into the pavement through more luck than design.

He, Taehyung and the supposed victim scrambled to their feet and stood back to back as the others snarled like predators robbed of their prey and swarmed them. Fists to the face, ribs and chest made Jungkook cry out. But he fought back. Aimed his feet for shins and kneecaps and privates, leg muscles strengthened from his year on the streets in a way that these prissy rich drunks couldn’t match.

When the chaos cleared, the men ran off limping and cursing. Jungkook and Taehyung still stood back to back with the boy they had saved, all of them panting, aching and bleeding.
Jungkook just kind of melted to the pavement, collapsed on his hands and knees. Taehyung knelt at his side with a sniffle, blood gushing out of his nose.

“Are you guys crazy?” the boy hissed at them, swiping at the blood leaking from his own nose.

Pretty, Jungkook couldn’t help but think, even through the considerable pain in his body, even as he nuzzled his cheek against a trembling Taehyung’s. The boy looked short and compact, like Yoongi hyung, but thicker with muscle. Cotton candy pink hair fell forward into a black eye poorly obscured with makeup that, from the sickly yellow and purple shades at the edges, looked days old at least. He wore a casual white shirt and ripped skinny jeans, but Jungkook could make out the edges of the strap of a red thong rising above the waistline as the boy crouched beside him.

Fascinating.

The boy ran hands over both him and Taehyung in a clinical fashion, making Jungkook hissed as he pressed on sore ribs and cheekbones, then sat back on his heels and blew out a breath.

“No broken bones,” he murmured, voice high and sweet now as some of the worry left them both. “You crazy idiots. What were you thinking?”

Jungkook still wasn’t sure. “Just evened the odds,” he mumbled, eyes drifting close as the adrenaline crash hit him hard.

“Couldn’t let them hurt you,” said Taehyung in a small voice.

The boy stared at Taehyung for a long moment. Then he turned to Jungkook. “No, no, none of that, don’t close your eyes,” the boy said briskly, tapping Jungkook’s sore cheek and ignoring his whine of complaint. “What’s your name, kid?”

What was it with people calling him ‘kid’ and ‘little one?’ Jungkook was tall, damn it. Though he didn’t feel that way at the moment.

“N-not a kid.”

The boy rolled his eyes. “Seriously not the time for attitude. What’s your name?”

“Jungkook.”

“And yours?”

Taehyung looked up at him with wide, watery eyes. “T-Taehyung.”

“Okay, Jungkook, Taehyung. I’m Jimin. Where did you guys come from, huh?” Jimin cast a look around, grabbed the backpack from the alley nearby when Jungkook made grabby hands for it, dragged over the grocery bags with miraculously intact milk cartons still inside. “We need to get off the street, do you know a place?”

Dimly, Jungkook heard Taehyung telling him about the Silver Spoon, unable to really concentrate through the sudden ringing in his ears. But he made himself focus as Jimin suddenly pressed a hand to his own temple and wobbled dangerously. Jungkook shot up, pain forgotten and ignored, and caught the smaller boy as he collapsed.

“Shit, shit. Oh no, no, please. Jimin? Wake up!” Jungkook lost his head a little, shook the unconscious boy, but was rewarded by a groan of complaint and fluttering eyelashes.

“Oh god, okay, okay.” On autopilot, Jungkook shouldered his pack, then slung one of Jimin’s arms over his shoulders and trudged forward as Taehyung got under the other. “Come on, we have to get out of here, they might come back.”

Bleeding, bodies smarting in dozens of different places, the pair put one foot in front of the other, limping and staggering ungainly. A few people cast them looks but none paused to ask if the three young boys were okay, except for a couple of drunk women who came too close for comfort. Taehyung had begun openly crying and the sight made Jungkook ache far worse than his bruises.

“It’s okay, it’ll be okay, we’re gonna go somewhere safe,” Jungkook kept repeating to himself desperately, unsure if he was talking to Taehyung or a barely conscious Jimin.
He was just trying to keep his own panic back.

They made it three blocks, to the familiar buildings that surrounded the café, when sprinting footsteps rushed them. Jungkook tensed and held back a sob but he looked up and glared fiercely, overcome with the need to protect both Taehyung and the half-unconscious boy.

Yoongi hyung.

His ocean-haired hyung rushed up to them like a guardian angel and it was miraculous just how much of Jungkook’s panic receded.

“Tae-ah, my Tae-ah, my Kook, hey, little one, look at me,” murmured Yoongi, desperately cupping his face with one hand, the other brandishing his hologun, and it was only then that Jungkook realized he was sobbing.

“Th-they hurt him, a-and we…we had t-to stop them…”

“Okay, little one, hey, it’s going to be okay,” Yoongi said without a single stutter, eyes calm and fierce on his. He holstered his gun. “I’ve got you, now, okay? We’ve got you. Come on.”

Without another word Yoongi went to Taehyung’s side as Taehyung collapsed into desperate sobs. The four of them staggered towards the entrance to the café and stumbled inside, the cheery bell a harsh counterpoint to their state.

Namjoon, Hoseok and Jin sat at the bench, all of them jumping to their feet with surprised exclamations.

“The hell happened?” demanded Namjoon, who reached them first. Jungkook jolted in surprise. He had never heard his hyung sound so fierce.

“I don’t know, I went after them and I found them on the street like this.”

“Jiminie?” shouted Hoseok, darting to the new boy’s side.

“You know him?” grunted Jin as he swept the boy up in a bridal carry.

“He dances at the House of Cards, I’ve known him for months.” Hoseok cupped the pink-haired boy’s face, staring at him with a deep look of concern.

The boy stirred, eyes cracking open. The corner of his mouth twitched up in a mocking semblance of a smirk. “Hoseok hyung.”

He let out a harsh cry of pain as they settled him onto a bench before immediately passing out, and Jungkook lurched forward despite Namjoon trying to examine him, just as Yoongi cradled a crying Taehyung.

“No! No, don’t hurt him,” sobbed Jungkook, pain and relief causing his vision to go dim. He knew his hyungs wouldn’t hurt the boy but he wasn’t thinking straight.

“We’ll take care of him, okay? Both of you. Little one, hey. Look at me, baby, at me,” Namjoon cupped his face much like Yoongi had, assessed the damage.

The nickname escaped everyone’s notice. But Jungkook heard it.

“Th-they hurt him. C-couldn’t let them hurt him…” Jungkook sobbed again, and suddenly he sagged much like he had on the sidewalk. It was all too much, too much stimulus and fear and adrenaline.

He was so sick of living in fear.

Namjoon picked him up much like Jin had with Jimin, and the last thing Jungkook was aware of was Namjoon’s low voice murmuring, “You’ll be okay, baby. We got you.”

And then everything kind of went dark after that.

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Jungkook drifted awake slowly. A crackling noise came from nearby, as well as a comforting warmth. He lay on what felt like a thick mattress, body covered in thick soft blankets. Jungkook hadn’t felt so warm and cozy in years.

His eyelids seemed caked in grit, and it took precious moments to open them, moments in which terror swamped him again. But then he blinked and could see again, blurry, but he could see. He could see a neat white ceiling and recessed lights glowing a soothing dim light. He looked right towards the crackling noise and saw an honest-to-god electric fireplace, one with no smoke or live fire but a virtual one that danced prettily and emitted a soothing heat and light.

His left hand seemed melded to something, and he rolled his head to look, every muscle stiff.

Jimin lay beside him, curled on a ball on his side, facing Jungkook, hugging his forearm and their intertwined hands to his chest. He looked awful, even if his closed eyes and relaxed lips looked peaceful and angelic. Wicked bruising shone around both eyes and the bridge of his nose. The blood had been cleaned away but the swelling looked awful.

But he was okay. And Jungkook was okay.

Where were they?

Jungkook didn’t belong in such nice surroundings.

It took enormous strength, and hurt badly, but Jungkook managed to sit up, leaving his left arm in Jimin’s grasp since it so obviously seemed to soothe him. He had exchanged hardly a handful of words with the boy but somehow this felt just as easy as hugging Namjoon or any of the others.

He felt another punch of relief and warmth when he fully sat up and saw Taehyung curled up like a puppy on top of the covers at the foot of the bed. The older boy lay curled on his side, hands tucked beneath one cheek, scrunched up forehead to knees. A frown etched his face even in rest, which made Jungkook sad.

He didn’t want his hyungs to be sad.

Surprising himself, he reached out, tentatively pushing aside a strand of lavender hair that had fallen over the boy’s face. Taehyung wrinkled his nose, making Jungkook suppress a smile, then stirred, eyelids fluttering. He saw Jungkook sitting up in front of him and yawned prettily, making a contented noise once he was done.

“Kook-ah,” he murmured sleepily, rubbing his eyes with fists like a sleepy child. “You’re awake.” Suddenly he jerked upright, eyes wide open. “You’re awake! Oh my god.”

Taehyung threw himself forward and the pair collapsed like puppies to the mattress, Jungkook clutching him hard as Taehyung started to sob. “You’re okay, you’re okay, oh my god,” Taehyung continued to cry.

Jungkook’s lips trembled. He felt as shaky as an angel balanced on the head of a pin, something warm and wondrous spreading beneath his skin. He clung to Taehyung, stroking his hair and letting him hide. Taehyung abhorred violence more than anything yet he had jumped in to danger at Jungkook’s side without a moment’s hesitation.
Jungkook held fast.

A cleared throat made them turn the pair turn watery eyes towards Jimin, who watched them now with sleepy half-lidded eyes. “Crazy bastards, the pair of you,” the pink-haired boy said quietly. “Thank you. Th-thank you so much, for what you did.”

Taehyung sniffled and wiped his eyes, ignoring the bruise on his cheek. “You’re welcome, Jiminie. You look like a Jiminie. Is that okay?”

Jimin blinked, stared at him for a moment. Jungkook, entertained, watched the transformation from surprise to something quieter like wonder as Jimin whispered, “O-okay. That’s okay.”

Taehyung giggled a little, and Jungkook watched Jimin blink again. Jungkook felt amusement warm him and finally banish the chill of the fight, even as Jimin let out a kitten-ish yawn and cuddle into his pillow with a few mumbled words. After just a few seconds, his mouth slackened and he relaxed back into sleep.

“He’s cute,” Taehyung whispered, giggling again, before nuzzling his nose against Jungkook’s. “Come on, the hyungs will want to see you. Unless you want to sleep more?”

No. The thought came instantly. He wanted his hyungs.

When he shook his head, Taehyung helped him up from the bed. Tae cooed sympathetically when he winced, and bore most of his weight as they shuffled out of what was obviously a bedroom. They walked down a dim hallway towards a room full of light and gentle noise.

“Hyung? Um, where are we?”

He blinked as they reached the doorway, the question immediately answered.

They stood at the entryway to a living room, a generous one by Seoul standards. A long L-shaped couch in worn leather dominated the space floored in dark carpet thick enough for his feet to sink into, across from a stand with a small holoscreen. Every wall, every single one, featured built-in bookshelves covered floor to ceiling in leather-bound books. Beyond the couch lay an open kitchen with a bubbling pot on the old-fashioned stove, casting the scents of chicken—actual real chicken, not a synthetic substitute—and herbs into the air.

The entire space reminded him of Namjoon hyung.

His hyungs sat scattered around the couch.

At first glance, they looked relaxed. But then Jungkook noticed the way Namjoon’s hands were fisted on his knees as he stared unseeingly at the wall. Hoseok and Yoongi clung to each other, arm in arm, heads together as they talked in hushed voices. Jin stood over the stove in the kitchen, shoulders obviously tense, even from behind.

Jungkook let a small sound escape him, both relieved at the sight of them but hurting at the stress now evident in all of their faces. This is exactly what he didn’t want, this concern, this fear for him. He hated being a burden.

Immediately all the noise ceased, and heads turned to face him.

Then Namjoon stood, so fast that Jungkook missed the motion, and headed for him with an expression of powerful relief, sweeping him into a gentle but firm hug. Jungkook found himself completely ensconced and overwhelmingly safe before he could even fathom releasing the silent whimper building in his throat. Namjoon kissed the top of his hair as Jungkook burrowed against his chest, craving his warmth.

Oh god, Jungkook had missed this. It hadn’t been very long since their first hug, since their last cuddle, but that indefinable feeling of warmth and home with Namjoon’s fresh paper scent remained the same. It was everything, his big dimples and deep eyes and kind soul and lanky frame that encompassed Jungkook’s so neatly. The way Namjoon could talk and talk about shit that Jungkook couldn’t fathom to understand but enjoyed hearing about and wanted to learn. The way he silently asked for permission prior to reaching out, the way he always looked out for Jungkook’s mental well-being,

Jungkook’s never been hugged by someone as if he’s putting his soul in their hands.

Exhilaration and wonder and marvel and relief and fear filled him in equal measures, an intoxicating combination that kept him right where he wanted to be, snuggled in against Namjoon’s chest and breathing in the scent of home.

“There you are, little one,” Namjoon murmured. “You scared me.”

Jungkook shivered, burrowed closer, as if that were possible.

“Scared us,” agreed Yoongi, huddling in on one side to ruffle his hair.

“All of us,” seconded Hoseok, who came in on the other side to kiss his temple.

“Let him breathe,” came Jin’s gentle order. “Come on, guys, he’s okay. Let me have a look at him.”

The others backed away sheepishly, but Namjoon kept an arm around his waist as Jin cupped his face and stroked his cheekbones with his thumbs. Touch starved, Jungkook leaned into the caresses.

“There you are,” said Jin with relief, just as Namjoon had. “You’ve got a hell of a black eye here, Kook-ah. Pretty bad bruising on your ribs, too, but none of them are fractured or broken. And your poor knuckles are all torn up, just like Taehyungie’s.”

Taehyung made a low sound at that, one that made Yoongi reach out and pull him in. Tae hid his face in his hyung’s shoulder.

“I’m okay, really,” insisted Jungkook, not wanting to worry them any further, though even he could see through his one good eye that ship had long sailed.

“You need more rest, and lots of ice, and good food,” Jin lectured, gently guiding him towards the sofa and pushing him down to sit, piling cushions around his side only for Namjoon and Hoseok to replace them with their own bodies. Jin scurried off to the kitchen as the others sat down again.

Jungkook sank against Namjoon’s warm side, his head fitting so well on his shoulder, rewarded by Namjoon kissing the top of his head. His voice rumbled against Jungkook’s ear when he said, “Taehyung told us what happened.”

To stave off the inevitable lecture, Jungkook returned, “Where are we?”

“My apartment,” Namjoon answered, faintly amused. He knew Jungkook sought to distract. “It was the only place big enough and close enough to the café for all of us to gather. None of us wanted to leave the three of you after you showed up like that.”

“No way.” Hoseok danced a hand over his shoulder. “Not you or Taehyung or Jimin. Tae told us, how you guys jumped in to save him.”

Taehyung shivered at the memory. Jungkook reached out to hold his hand but cuddled harder against Namjoon, craving his warmth. He wanted to lean more into Namjoon’s shoulder but felt the grit and grime on his skin too much. Someone had cleaned away most of the blood on his face and knuckles, but still.

He was dirty. The thought made him shudder. Too dirty for the likes of this apartment, this couch, his hyungs in their clean comfortable clothes and priceless antiques and…and…

A hand softly stroked his greasy hair.

“Joonie hyung has the coolest bathroom,” Taehyung murmured in his ear. “You really gotta check it out. Like, the shower has multiple showerheads.”

Jungkook froze, cast a glance at Namjoon.

“You’re more than welcome, Kook-ah. Taehyungie can fetch you some of my spare clothes, and Jin’s dinner should be ready by the time you’re done.”

He blinked. Shower? Borrow clothes? But…

“Really.” Namjoon leaned in closer, nudged his temple with his forehead in an affectionate gesture. “You’ll probably feel a lot better.”

Meaning he stank and they were all too polite to mention it.

“Kook-ah.” Namjoon sounded more stern now. Fingers crept beneath his chin and lifted his head, making Jungkook swallow as he looked into Namjoon’s eyes. “Stop whatever you’re thinking.”

“I-I…”

“I want you to be comfortable. Here, I mean. In my home.” A trace of nerves showed in the older boy’s eyes now, and rather than making Jungkook feel more off kilter, it made him feel better. He wasn’t the only one here in an entirely new situation and trying to feel their way through it.

It wasn’t just him.

“Would a shower help you feel better?” continued Namjoon, braver than anyone Jungkook had ever met.

A shower. A real one, not just a locker room in a gymnasium or the half-walled ones at the shelters. With shampoo and conditioner and soap that he didn’t have to stretch into multiple washings. With really clean clothes after, not just the least odorous ones in his bag.

Slowly, hesitation in every iota of movement, Jungkook nodded.

To his vast relief, none of them commented on the strange weight behind that entire exchange. They accepted it and moved on, Jin squeezing his shoulder before returning to the kitchen, Hoseok nudging his hip with a knee, Yoongi nodding at him in encouragement as Taehyung stood up and tugged Jungkook along behind him.

In the apartment—if it could even be called that, god, was this a penthouse?—Jungkook saw two separate stairwells spanning what looked to be three floors, with a maze of spacious rooms. Bedrooms and offices and bathrooms and books, books, books everywhere. He caught flashes of rooms as they continued walking, Taehyung guiding them perfectly as though already familiar with the place, but Jungkook thought he liked the main room the best—the enormous combination kitchen and living room with space for everyone to gather and see one another.

Taehyung wasn’t exaggerating. The master bathroom attached to what could only be Namjoon’s bedroom based on the messy bed and books scattered across the giant desk, made Jungkook gasp and pause in the doorway, suddenly scared to set a single foot inside. His grimy socks made the white floors—god, were those actual marble?—shine all the brighter. The double sinks in the black marble vanity looked to be raised glass bowls, with gleaming silver fixtures. The biggest tub Jungkook had ever seen in his life dominated one corner, with wide mantles built around it bearing candles and flowers spilling over silver tins. In the opposite corner sat a glassed-in shower stall, one big enough that Jungkook would bet everything he owned—his art book?—that all seven boys could fit inside.

Wait.

Where the hell had that thought come from?

Jungkook startled back to himself and closed his mouth as Taehyung tugged him inside, turning to look at him with a wide, knowing grin. “Crazy, right? Makes me and Jin hyung’s apartment look like a storage closet.”

“He never said a word,” whispered Jungkook, scared to touch anything. “This is all so beautiful and he never said anything, I never thought—”

Namjoon taught night classes at an inner city school. He had studied in New York and visited the MOMA but coffee stains dotted half of his shirts and wrinkles blurred every crease in his pants.

Jungkook thought he hadn’t stood a chance with Kim Namjoon, the professor.

And when faced with the real Kim Namjoon, he felt any little bit of hope simply die inside of him. He belonged on the streets, not surrounded by art such as this.

Taehyung stepped forward, hesitantly cupped his face. “Kookie? Are you hurting?” he breathed, thumbing at the tears that Jungkook only just realized were coursing down his cheeks. “Hey, hey now, don’t do that. Don’t cry, or else I’m gonna cry, and I’ve already been crying all over the hyungs for like, hours before you woke up.”

Jungkook choked on a giggle.

But still. “I-I…” Still he choked on the words. “I don’t belong here,” he whispered shakily, reaching up to tug Taehyung’s wrists away but the older boy didn’t let him.

“Stop,” Taehyung pleaded, eyes big and sad, his face cracked open. “Please don’t think that. You belong here, you belong with us.”

But he was a liar. There were so many things about him that was unnatural. Forget the fact that he was Unmarked and would never belong among normal people, let alone all of the wonderful people gathered in that living room—he was not only Unmarked but homeless. He didn’t belong in this grandeur, didn’t deserve their kindness.

“Kookie. Little one,” beseeched Taehyung, still standing there patiently, waiting, always waiting, never demanding. “I won’t ask you what’s wrong.”

Jungkook blinked at that.

“I know something is bothering you, and it’s okay that you don’t want to tell us yet.” Taehyung’s lips quirked, but he still looked sad. “Just promise me you’ll talk to me, whenever you want. Okay? I’ll be there.”

A heavy pressure settled in his throat, in his chest. Jungkook didn’t understand this boy, this beautiful boy who seemed to see him so clearly despite the walls Jungkook firmly set in place. He felt connected to Taehyung, in a different but equal way than he did with Namjoon, with Yoongi, with any of the others. Like there was an intrinsic understanding between them that words really couldn’t convey. One that led to them jumping into danger together with eyes wide open.

He settled for nodding, his entire body trembling. “P-promise.”

“Pinky swear.”

Jungkook looked dazedly at the extended pinky. “Really?”

Tae leveled a playfully stern glare at him. “Don’t make me break out the Joonie hyung voice.” They both knew that deep baritone he referred to, the one that made them all shiver and want to obey. “Pinky swear you’ll come to me if and when you want to talk.”

“Okay. Pinky swear.”

They latched pinkies, Taehyung bouncing forward to kiss his temple and nuzzle their noses together in what Jungkook realized would become their habit, before Tae turned to activate the holopad on the wall that controlled the shower settings. Jungkook nearly salivated at the cascade of water, the steam that already sluiced the glass.

“I’ll come back and set some fresh clothes for you on the counter. And I’ll be nearby if you need anything, okay?” Tae waited for his tentative nod before leaving the bathroom, shutting the door and leaving him alone.

Jungkook waited a moment, to see if Tae would return immediately with the clothes or not. When he remained undisturbed for a few seconds, Jungkook shed his foul clothes faster than he ever had in his life and all but jumped into the shower stall.

Pure, unadulterated bliss.

He released a moan that echoed obscenely off the marbled walls but he couldn’t be bothered enough to care.

-

In the living room down the hall, four men froze and looked up at the sound.

“Shit,” breathed Yoongi, bending forward to rest his face in his hands. “I’m so going to hell.”

“Bold of you to assume we aren’t already headed there.” Hoseok cleared his throat.

“Control yourselves,” ordered Jin in a casual way, but they all watched him turn towards the stove, face on fire.

Namjoon got up and took two strides towards the hallway. The others watched him with bated breath, wondering if the man’s iron control would collapse in the wake of Jungkook’s pretty noises. He hesitated, face a mask of indecision and pleased pride, before he turned and paced back to the farthest corner by the kitchen. Then walked to the hallway. Turned and paced back.

They watched with their eyes following him like a tennis match, as Taehyung crept into the living room, looking dazed. Jin went to his side, reached to comb his hair back, internally cursing at the bruise on his cheek.

“Taehyungie? You okay?”

Tae looked at him blankly for a second, then his eyes cleared. “I’m hard,” he said casually, in typical straightforward Tae fashion, before immediately walking over to the end of the sofa farthest from his two hyungs, sitting down, and pulling a pillow over his lap.

They fell into an uneasy silence.

“We’re all going to hell,” Hoseok sighed mournfully.

-

If Jungkook could have guessed at his hyungs’ reaction to an innocent yet heartfelt moan, he may have been more self-conscious about the sounds coming from his throat as he stood beneath the showerhead.

The water pressure felt perfect, a steady force against the top of his head and shoulders that seemed to instantly caress the knots from his frame. It even felt good on the many bruises dotting his skin, a pattern of ugly black and blue that he ignored with the ease of long practice.

He couldn’t track how long he simply stood there, ignoring the dirty water that washed down the drain, before he bothered reaching for the array of expensive-looking bottles on the built-in shelf. He sniffed at them idly, opposed to overpowering scents, and selected a shampoo with simple hints of mint and honey.

He groaned again as he massaged the shampoo into his scalp, never having felt anything like it, and took a ridiculous amount of time with it before rinsing clean. Again he ignored the ugly tinge to the water that rinsed away. Though he knew it was silly, he repeated the round of shampoo, addicted to the feeling, the sensation, the smell. Then he rubbed conditioner into his hair and allowed it to sink in while he scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed his body with a soft loofah and minty body wash. He rinsed his hair and body clean, then used the small mirror hanging on the wall, steam-free through some technology he couldn’t fathom about, and a brand new razor to shave the scruff from his face. He even groomed his personal areas, having missed that luxury while living on the streets.

Even if he ended up back on the streets tonight, he wouldn’t complain. Not when he had been given the gift of endless hot water, bath products and a safe environment—the door locked!—in which to bathe. Not after this gift.

Though he knew the others still needed to know what happened last night, and he felt a fierce and somehow protective desire to check on Jimin, Jungkook gave himself just a few more precious minutes and sat on the marble bench.

He tilted his head back, face to the spray and hot mist, and let himself cry just a little bit more.

-

Park Jimin awoke in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, and didn’t immediately panic.

Did he enjoy being somewhere he didn’t recognize? Hell no. But imbibing copious amounts of alcohol had always been his crutch to get through certain inescapable aspects of his job. And drunk Jimin tended to be blurry on the details, hence the perfect strategy to escape reality. So he really wasn’t a stranger to waking up to unfamiliar surroundings.
But he quickly realized no headache pounded at his temples, and his mouth carried the taste of stale blood rather than tequila, and he lay cozily tucked in. And completely dressed.

Strange.

He ignored the way his outstretched hand lay towards the rumpled blankets beside him, as though he had been holding on to someone, and slowly sat up, looking around. He stifled the urge to let out a low, impressed whistle, but damn. Fine digs. Where the hell was he?

His face throbbed as he swung to put his feet on the carpet and he hissed in a sharp breath, feeling for his nose, which ached at the slightest touch. A mirror on the wall reflected his tired face. He saw the two black eyes, one old and one new, and swollen nose and hardly blinked. Not the worst he’d ever received, but uncomfortable enough.

Oh yeah. It came back to him now. Jungkook, and Taehyung. The nice boys who had helped him. They had been here earlier, right? Jimin dimly remembered them all cuddled together on the big comfy bed.

God, his head hurt.

Bits and pieces of a fight flashed through his mind. Right, right, some guys had followed him home from the club after work, hoping for a more private show. Jimin hadn’t sold his body in years, not since he started making so much money dancing at the House of Cards, but his refusals hadn’t made an impact on the drunk assholes.

He’s not sure what might have happened if the kids didn’t jump in.

He shuddered at the thought, nausea building. With monstrous effort he shoved the memories aside to deal with later.

Did he faint after? Pass out? Was this the pretty boys’ house?

No fucking way, he immediately thought, getting slowly to his feet as his head started to ache in time with his throbbing nose, mind clearing from the sleepy haze. Taehyung looked well put together with worn but impeccably clean clothes, but the other kid, Jungkook, was sure as hell a street rat. Jimin remembered him more clearly now, as the haze of sleep cleared away. Old clothes with roughly patched holes, grungy shoes, wide and terrified eyes, bag of stuff he kept close. No way he lived in a place like this. This was where the upper echelon lived, the types of places Jimin had frequented once upon a time before he decided to have more respect from himself and make a living by taking off his clothes in public, rather than taking them off in private and allowing more liberties.

He shuddered. He didn’t like to think of his past. Didn’t like who he had been back then, who he may have become had he not gotten his head on straight. And gotten out.
Padding to the door, he listened at the crack. Some low murmurs, a chink of dishware. A tantalizing aroma of—was that chicken? He definitely wasn’t in his part of Seoul anymore. His kind of people ate the overly-processed and mass-produced shitty holocubes, the synthetic meats and veggies that carried the needed proteins and vitamins but none of the taste.

Intrigued, he pressed the button to open the seamless door and padded out, keeping to the walls paneled in a dark wood that he tried to convince himself looked ostentatious rather than gorgeous. It had to be fake, wood had been a rare resource for centuries. He eased his aching body into the shadows and peered around a corner into a massive living area.

Hoseok hyung. So that hadn’t been a hallucination. His friend from work, the one who made the best drinks and treated the dancers the best, sat beside a blue-haired man on the couch. A tall intelligent-looking boy who looked lost in thought paced in endless circles between the kitchen and living room couch.

Jimin pushed back his own pink hair as it fell into his eyes in order to better see, trying to puzzle it together, how the pretty Taehyung and sweet Jungkook and his hyung fit into this eclectic mix of people. A soul group, maybe? They certainly seemed close. But Hoseok had never mentioned finding his soulmates.

Without looking up from the holoscreen he seemed riveted by, where kdrama characters acted out a scene soundlessly due to the turned down volume, Taehyung spoke aloud, “No need to hide, Jiminie. We aren’t going to hurt you.”

Jimin cocked his head, as the others looked at the pretty one.

“Who are you talking to, Tae-ah?” asked the one with blue hair from his spot beside Hoseok.

“Jiminie,” said Tae, still looking at the holoscreen, before suddenly turning and looking, eyes eerily accurate, at the corner where Jimin stood in hiding.

Stumped, Jimin stepped out of the shadows and into their line of sight. They all seemed to freeze for a second before they relaxed.

Hoseok launched himself up from the sofa and bounded over, grabbing Jimin in one of his trademarked soft but encompassing hugs. Jimin sank into the familiar warmth with a relieved noise from deep in his throat, fighting the urge to nuzzle into the comfort in front of the strangers. Hoseok had no such qualms and set to stroking his back and hair, murmuring, “So glad you’re okay. You scared me, Jiminie.”

“I’m okay, hyung. Thanks to Jungkook and Taehyung,” Jimin whispered through a thick throat. He hadn’t realized Hoseok cared so much. He had always been friendly, always protective and willing to lend an ear but…he hadn’t realized he was special. He hugged harder at the realization, making Hoseok coo at him.

“Glad you’re here, Jiminie,” Hoseok said finally, easing back after giving him a final squeeze.

“Me too, Jiminie!” Taehyung exclaimed as he bounced up from his perch on the carpet.
Jimin wanted to giggle at the sheer exuberance, but besides Hoseok and Taehyung, he was very aware of the other men in the room, watching him expressionlessly. He tensed at the edge of the cozy tableau. He still wasn’t at all sure what he was doing here and mentally started cataloguing possible exit routes to a front door.

“Jiminie,” repeated Taehyung, as if lost in thought. “Sorry, is that okay, I didn’t ask again, shoot. I know your name is Jimin, I’m not that dumb—”

“Stop putting yourself down,” commented the blue-haired one absently to Taehyung, but his gaze rested on Jimin. “I’m Min Yoongi. That’s Kim Seokjin, and Kim Namjoon,” he continued, gesturing to each of his friends in turn. “You’re in Joonie’s apartment.” The smart-looking one. “We brought you here last night, almost twenty-four hours ago. You’ve been sleeping.”

Jimin tensed a little. He spent an entire day asleep? He hadn’t lost time like that since the days he sold himself, days in which his mind would surrender to dark thoughts and getting out of bed became too monumental a task to face.

“You were injured,” said Seokjin, still stirring the contents of a big old-fashioned pot on the stove where that delicious smell originated from. “Your nose wasn’t broken but it was a close thing. You’ve got a pair of black eyes and a cut on your forehead, as well as some nice bruises to your ribs and thighs, but you’ll be okay. We checked on you both periodically through the night, no disorientation or nausea, which makes a concussion less likely. You need ice packs, rest and good food. Just like our maknaes.”

“Could have been worse,” Jimin murmured to himself, appreciating the boy’s rundown but he had already catalogued his own injuries. Old habit. Hoseok, still at his side, winced at the reminder. He was more than familiar with the injuries Jimin faced, from people not interested in hearing the word no.

Thinking about just how much worse it could have been led Jimin to look around again.

“You’re looking for Jungkook,” remarked Namjoon, finally pausing his pacing a few steps from Jimin to peer at him evenly, his expression tightly controlled.

“Yeah,” said Jimin slowly. “Wanted to thank him again.”

“He’s hurt, just like you and Taehyung are,” responded Namjoon, still quiet, still soft, but Jimin felt the words like a dagger.

"Worse than me," mumbled Taehyung, looking ashamed of himself. Jin and Yoongi both petted him in a comforting way. Namjoon glanced at them, eyes softening, before returning to Jimin.

The sheer control this Namjoon was showing told Jimin that the Jungkook kid was precious not only to Namjoon but all the boys in that room. They had to be a soul group, right?

The protectiveness he could sense from all directions certainly seemed to fit.

Oh, but no, that was a soulmark in the shape of an infinity symbol bared on Namjoon’s wrist, and he could tell from where he stood that Yoongi and Jin’s wrists were clear. And he knew Hoseok would have told Jimin if he had found his, he felt sure of that.

Huh. Still interesting, though.

“I didn’t ask him and Taehyung to help,” Jimin told them. Something deep inside him twinged painfully at this group thinking ill of him. He didn’t want them to think he would hurt the two youngest boys. He would never.

Hurt his saviors? What kind of monster would that make him?

“I would never want them to get hurt, would never want anyone to get hurt, especially not for the likes of me,” he added more firmly, watched Yoongi blink at him in surprise.

Hoseok whispered, “Don’t say that.”

Seokjin pursed his lips. “Kook-ah and Taetae didn’t jump in because you called for help? Because you asked them to?”

“I already told you he didn’t, hyung,” protested Taehyung, visibly upset.

“Hell no, Seokjin-ssi. I was getting my ass kicked until suddenly, I wasn’t. I don’t know why they jumped in like that, really, I don’t.” He added a scowl at Taehyung, who grinned at him tentatively, wide and boxy.

Hoseok snorted, walked over to nudge at Yoongi until the ocean-haired boy sighed a little and relaxed the tension in his shoulders. “Sounds familiar. I met Jungkook because he took on the hologuards trying to arrest me,” said Hoseok with a hint of laughter in his voice.

“And I met Kookie because I patched up his cheek after he got hit with a hologun,” Taehyung added, cheerful again now that everyone had relaxed.

Jimin stared. That bunny-looking kid, tackling hologuards, dodging hologun blasts? “He mixed up in something?”

“Hell no, our Kookie is an angel, he just made a mistake trusting Az but he managed to get away—”

“Okay, Taehyungie,” Namjoon interrupted gently, as Jin walked over to stroke Taehyung’s hair again. “Jungkook is a good kid, and, it seems to me, can’t stand sitting idly by when people are in trouble.”

“It’s admirable,” said Jimin quietly, earning Namjoon’s nod of appreciation. “And I’d think well of anyone who evaded Az and his goons.”

The casual name drop served its purpose, and had all levity instantly draining from the room.

“You know of Az?” asked Namjoon with iron control, and Jimin didn’t miss the way Namjoon shifted his weight and suddenly seemed to be between not only Jimin and the others, but between Jimin and an alternate hallway as well.

The temperature of the room seemed to plummet, as every man stiffened and watched Jimin with wary eyes.

Shit, Jimin thought.

This wasn’t good.

Jimin cleared his throat, wary of the looks being sent his way. Wanting to clear the air, he kept his voice calm and even. “I used to work for him. How do you know him?” he asked in turn.

“Our paths crossed once or twice,” Namjoon told him, eyes distant. “A long, long time ago.”

Jimin studied him. “You worked for RM.”

Shadows flitted through Namjoon’s eyes. “Something like that.”

Yoongi cast Namjoon a glance, then slowly got to his feet, aligned himself behind Namjoon in unquestionable loyalty, eyes focused on Jimin. “Seems to me like you’ve got poor tastes in employers.”

“Not me. My father.” Jimin met their incredulous stares without a hint of hesitation. A sweet kid like Jungkook mixed up in Az’s bullshit—maybe he could help shed light on the situation. Because no one achieved freedom from Az unless a price was paid or their body ended up in the Han River.

Maybe he could help. And pay back Jungkook even a fraction for saving Jimin’s life, and mind.

Those assholes had been tearing at his clothes, after all.

“Your father,” repeated Yoongi flatly.

“My dad had an issue with gambling. My mother left him because of it, took my little brother with her to god knows where, into the Chasm for all I know,” drawled Jimin, that small truth of him no longer causing an ache in his heart. He already knew he hadn’t been worth saving, even as a young teenager. “Az bought all of his debts and strung him up by the balls. He bartered me into Az’s service as a drug runner to help pay off his debts when I turned fifteen. But then I reached my eighteenth birthday and Az thought I’d earn more on my back than on my feet.”

Namjoon’s eyes went to slits, his face grim. “He sold your body.”

“I agreed to sell my body,” corrected Jimin. He had never been a victim. Just not smart enough to play the game. “In return for the forgiveness of my father’s debts and me being able to walk once the debt was paid, free and clear. And Az agreed, and forgave him, sure. Right before he put a bullet in my old man’s skull anyway. Worked the streets for a couple more years because I couldn’t see a way out, had nowhere else to go. Until finally I realized enough was enough and got out. I dance at the House of Cards, now. I was on my way home after work last night when those customers jumped me and…well. You know the rest.”

“Jiminie,” whispered Hoseok with horror in his voice. “You never told me.”

Jimin could only shrug a shoulder. His history wasn’t suitable cocktail conversation.

“You got out.” Yoongi looked at him steadily, his expression never changing, not a flicker of emotion crossing those sleepy eyes. The lack of reaction comforted Jimin more than sympathy would have. He was a cool one, Jimin decided.

“I did.”

“Az doesn’t let anyone walk away.”

“I managed. But that’s a story for another time, and only if Jungkook asks for my help.”

“Why would you help him?” countered Namjoon, but he didn’t sound combative. More reflective, like he was considering the scenario from all angles, weighing Jimin as the new variable in the room.

“He’s sweet.” Jimin’s lips twitched as he remembered Jungkook’s reaction to being called ‘kid.’ The scowl and forced affront, as though Jimin couldn’t see the blush tinge his cheekbones under the glimmer of the streetlights. “Saved me from a beating, and probably worse. I was once a kid in a similar situation to his, and I didn’t have anyone to watch my back.” Jimin looked around again. “He’s already much better off than I was, but hell with it. What’s one more?”

“One more, indeed,” murmured Seokjin, who looked lost in thought. His lips twitched a little.

Taehyung walked closer, away from his perch leaning against the couch where he had been watching and listening to the conversation with wide, watery eyes. Jimin noticed his tears and gaped at him.

He couldn’t remember anyone ever crying for him.

Taehyung marched right up to him and held out a hand. Jimin eyed it warily, and quietly asked, “We already touched last night. And why on earth would you hope to bear the same soulmark as me?”

Taehyung watched him for a moment, and his hand didn’t waver. He looked somehow young and old at the same time. Like he had seen all the terrible things this world had to offer but still walked around with his hands outstretched to catch, despite how many times life had given him cuts and bruises instead of wonder.

“You’re brave. And kind,” Taehyung said simply, tears still falling down his cheeks, but he smiled through them. “And I like your hair. So I want to try again.”

Jimin felt the giggle rise within him and he just couldn’t fight it. It made Taehyung smile wider, as Jimin stepped forward to slide his smaller hand into Tae’s and squeeze. “I like yours, too.”

No heat surged at their touch, but Taehyung whipped up his shirt anyway to show the paintbrush on his ribs. He looked disappointed but not upset, sending another megawatt boxy grin towards Jimin as Yoongi approached to squeeze his shoulder. To show solidarity, Jimin made a point of raising his own shirt, ignoring Hoseok’s whistle at the sight of his abs, to show the silhouette of the songbird poised in flight on his left ribcage.

Seokjin heaved a very loud sigh as he shifted the pot off the stove with a grunt of effort and banged his spoon on the side of the metal, disrupting all of the wondering stares being exchanged in the living room.

“Joonie, go fetch Kook-ah, will you? We all need some food about now.”

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Namjoon padded towards the bathroom, listened for a moment. He couldn’t hear anything, so he gently rapped his knuckles on the door. “Kook-ah? You all set?”

“One s-second, hyung!”

Namjoon grinned a little, then leaned back against the doorjamb and crossed his arms. He sighed a little, thinking of Jimin, the kid’s bravery. The dancer knew of Az, knew of RM, seemed to know the tangle of politics that ruled the Seoul underground. Namjoon sensed no ill will in him, and believed him when the boy claimed to want to help Jungkook, but he was another variable. Namjoon didn’t want to play games with Jungkook’s safety.

The thought that had plagued him since the group of them had become close had grown exponentially more adamant since Jimin woke up and shared what he knew.

He would have to tell them soon.

The door opened and a cloud of steam wafted out, distracting him from his thoughts. Jungkook walked out, wearing a pair of overlarge sweatpants and a white t-shirt. Namjoon shivered. His clothes.

The boy’s hair was still damp, and his cheeks were red from the heat. His doe eyes sparkled as he looked at Namjoon despite the bruising.

“Better?” Namjoon asked, holding back a chuckle.

“Hyung, your shower is awesome! It has jets! And cool lights! And a bench, did you know it had a bench in it?”

Namjoon couldn’t hold back any longer and chuckled a little, reaching out to tousle his hair. Jungkook just kept smiling, biting his lip bashfully.

“You know, I did know that. I’m glad you liked it. The clothes look like they fit.”

Jungkook nodded, more bashful now as he twisted his hands in the fabric of the shirt. “Thank you, hyung.”

This kid would be the death of him. Any day now.

“Any time, Kook-ah. Taehyungie put your things in the wash. Ready for dinner?”

“Dinner? Really?”

It pained him to hear the surprise in Jungkook’s voice. Did the boy really think they’d throw him back on the streets now? He realized Jungkook believed his homelessness was still a secret. Namjoon wanted him to confide in his hyungs, more than anything, but it couldn’t be rushed.

He, perhaps more than any of the rest of them, understood hesitance in confessing secrets.

“Absolutely. Jin hyung’s been cooking for hours. Come on.”

A hand shyly pulling at his wrist stopped Namjoon in his tracks. He whipped his head back to look at Jungkook, who bit his lip again and ducked his head shyly as he whispered, “Thank you, hyung. Really, thank you. For everything. I’ll pay you back—”

“That’s not necessary, Kook-ah,” Namjoon interrupted, fighting to keep his voice calm. The thought that he would take payment from Jungkook, after everything they had been through, made him burn.

“B-but you’ve done so much for me—”

“Because I want to. But I’ll tell you what. If you really want to do something for me—”

“I do! I really do.”

“Then could you maybe draw me a picture for my study?” Namjoon bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from smiling at Jungkook’s wide eyes. “The book I gave you fell out of your bag when we brought you all here. I saw the sketches on the end pages.”

Jungkook stiffened. “Hyung, I didn’t mean to mark your book, I really didn’t, I’ll replace it, I promise—”

“Kook-ah.” Namjoon cradled the boy’s fluttering hands in his own. “It’s okay. That book is yours to do with as you wish. I think your drawings make it better, actually.”

Jungkook gaped, making Namjoon want to chuckle, but he knew better.

“So what do you say? Make me a drawing and we’re even?”

“That hardly seems fair,” he whined weakly.

Namjoon’s lips fought to quirk. “It is to me.”

“Really?”

“It really is fair, more than, actually. It would be a reminder of one of my favorite people, nothing could be better than that.”

Jungkook seemed to contemplate his words, head cocked. Namjoon couldn’t tell what he was thinking. But he was eventually rewarded by a shy grin that wrinkled his nose and a little nod of his head.

“Okay, Namjoon hyung. What do you want a drawing of?”

“Surprise me. Now come on, I can hear your stomach rumbling from here.”

-

Jungkook followed Namjoon into the living room, reeling on the inside. Namjoon wanted a drawing, from him! A drawing to hang up among the priceless antiques and art decorating the walls of his penthouse. He couldn’t believe it.

The others looked up as the pair entered, Taehyung bouncing over immediately to hug Jungkook and nuzzle their noses together. Jungkook leaned into the embrace, letting the soothing touch eclipse his thoughts. He saw the others watching them fondly and felt himself blush. Again.

“Does he ever stop blushing?” wondered a new voice, and Jungkook looked over.

“Jimin hyung!” He all but ran over to where Jimin sat on the couch besides Hoseok and dropped to his knees in front of him, running his hands all over his shoulders and chest, peering up at his face. Shyness gave way to relief. “You’re okay!”

Jimin giggled, cheeks scrunching up, pink hair fluttering. He leaned down and leaned their foreheads together. “Thanks to you, little one,” he whispered, voice tender.

That damn nickname again. Jungkook blushed violently, and ignored the flurry of warmth in his chest. He sank back on his heels to pout. “I’m not little.”

“Of course not.” Jimin’s smile gentled, and he stroked warm fingers over Jungkook’s bruised cheek. “Thank you for what you did, Jungkook-ah.”

“You already thanked me, hyung,” whispered Jungkook, ducking his head shyly.

“It bears repeating. Not sure what would have happened if you and Taehyung hadn’t been there.”

Uncomfortable with the gratitude, Jungkook shrugged a shoulder and crawled up to sit beside the smaller boy. “We just evened the odds.”

“That’s what you guys said to me on the street, too.”

Jungkook shrugged again. He distracted himself by fiddling with the silver rings on Jimin’s fingers, huddling in close because it felt right.

“Why help me?” Jimin wondered, eyeing his patchwork of bruising, turning to include Taehyung in the question. The three of them huddled together on the couch, as the hyungs watched on.

Jungkook just looked at Taehyung. Then turned to stare at Jimin. He wasn’t sure he could put it into words, that rush of instinct he had felt to help him.

“Seeing you, it…it felt like seeing the face of someone I knew but couldn’t remember,” he thought out loud, frowning as he tried to put into words that force that had pushed him to act when anyone else may have stood aside. “Like—like the feeling I got when Namjoon hyung gave me my book. And when Yoongi hyung saved me, and when Taetae hyung patched me up. When Jin hyung made me cookies, and when I helped Hoseokie hyung run from the cops. Like that.”

Jimin’s eyes widened, and a look of great tenderness stole over his face. They could have been alone, for all they paid attention to the others listening in. “You don’t know me, Jungkook-ah,” he whispered. “I’m not cut from the same cloth as your hyungs.”

Out of the corner of Jungkook’s eye, he saw Namjoon look away.

“I don’t belong on the pedestal you’ve put me on,” continued Jimin quietly.

He decided to riddle through Namjoon’s odd reaction later. He snorted and rolled his eyes, making Jimin blink. “Why, because you dance at the House of Cards?”

Jimin narrowed his eyes. “How did you know that?”

“Red G-string,” he said back blithely.

Jimin mumbled something and Taehyung cackled out loud.

“How the hell do you know what the dancers wear?” Hoseok shot at Jungkook, astonished.

Did they all really think he was that naïve? He had been living on the streets for nearly a year. He had seen things he was sure the others hadn’t. The real answer was that he had slept in the alley across from the bar for a couple weeks because the chef at the restaurant across the street felt sorry for him and slid him leftover bulgogi on the sly until his boss caught wind and yelled at him for it. He had seen the dancers through the wide glass windows of the club.

Had caught himself wondering, once or twice, if a gig like that would pay more than a janitor’s salary.

But then he had seen Az go in, a couple times. Eavesdropped on the goons he left outside that Az ran those streets, ran the housing projects. Got the idea to strike a deal with him and approached Az with the deal on one of those very nights.

Jungkook blinked back to himself, in time to hear Jin drawl in an amused tone, “It seems our Jungkookie isn’t quite the doe-eyed little one we assume him to be.”

“You saved me even though you knew I was a stripper,” Jimin said, as though it was some big riddle.

“What does you being a stripper have to do with anything?”

Taehyung nodded with enthusiastic agreement. But Jimin looked stumped at the question.

Did Jimin really think Jungkook would judge him for that? When Jungkook himself was homeless and Unmarked? Not that Jimin knew that, but still. Jungkook was in no place to judge anyone, and would rather hurt himself a thousand times than judge one of his hyungs. Which Jimin had become an undeniable part of, as though he had slid into a gap ready-made for him and completed a group that hadn’t realized a piece was missing.

“I had the same thought when he got me away from the cops,” Hoseok told Jimin, slinging an arm around him from behind and jostling him a little. He winked at Jungkook. “You’ll get used to the little one’s courage soon enough.”

“You guys know each other,” Jungkook belatedly realized, watching Jimin lean into Hoseok’s grasp.

“They keep asking him to dance but he makes more slinging drinks,” Jimin told Jungkook.
Jungkook looked at Hoseok, head cocked, considering.

“You’re picturing me as a stripper, aren’t you?”

“Yep.”

“And?”

“Hot,” decided Jungkook, making Jimin double over in a peal of giggles. He looked away so he himself wouldn’t laugh—freaking contagious, those giggles—and caught the others staring at him. “What?”

They all averted their eyes, but Taehyung slid closer and plopped himself familiarly in Jungkook’s lap. Caught off guard, Jungkook scrambled a little, but caught him around the waist before he could slide off. Tae slid his arms around his neck, turned sideways in his lap with his feet towards Jimin. Jimin squeezed his toes, making Taehyung squirm.

Taehyung’s voice sounded so much deeper than Jimin’s as he whispered in Jungkook’s ear for only him to hear, “Our hyungs were feeling guilty for finding you attractive without knowing your sexuality. But now they know you also find boys attractive.”

Oh. The hyungs wanted him to feel safe, Jungkook realized, so they had never pushed to know the genders he felt attraction towards. Jungkook wanted to smile at their thoughtfulness, but he was distracted by Jin clearing his throat.

“Okay then,” he said loudly, breaking the sudden heated tension that had fallen over the room. Namjoon and Yoongi were watching the maknaes closely, a physical weight to their gazes. “It’s time to eat, come on guys.”

Taehyung smiled wide and kissed Jungkook’s nose before sliding out of his lap, skipping over to plaster himself to Jin’s back. Jin rolled his eyes but allowed the younger boy to cling to him as he piled food onto platters. Jimin got to his feet and stretched, back cracking in a satisfying way, then half-turned and extended a hand shyly towards Jungkook.

Jungkook stared up at him, the black bruised eyes contrasting sharply with the dancer’s pink hair. What was it about this boy? He had known Jimin a far shorter time than the rest of his hyungs but it didn’t seem to matter. It felt like awakening a long-forgotten habit when Jungkook reached out and took his hand.

He worried that Jimin may check his soulmark in the wake of their contact, but he feared for nothing.

Jimin simply pulled him up easily, then reached up to brush hair out of Jungkook’s eyes. Jungkook flushed again at the touch but leaned into it all the same, enjoying the caress. He wasn’t sure how he would be able to go back to a lonely life on the streets after all the skinship he had been gifted with, but he shunted that problem to the back of his mind.

Jimin tugged him along and followed the sound of the others’ voices through a wide archway into a room with a far wall made entirely of glass looking out at the Seoul skyline. A cozy wooden table stood in front of the view, with seven place settings groaning under the weight of roasted chicken, sweet potatoes, corn, broccoli…not a holocube to be seen.

Jungkook licked his lips.

Jin came around and fussily pushed the two youngest into the free seats beside Taehyung, Tae leaning over instantly and nuzzling his cheek. Jungkook giggled and dared to kiss his cheek, looking down at his full plate and blushing as Tae cooed and Jimin rested a hand tenderly on his thigh.

No one seemed to judge him for enjoying skinship from everyone.

Namjoon slid into the seat beside Jimin and Jin took his, directly across from Namjoon at the circular table. Jin plucked up a glass of red wine and brandished it. “Care to do the honors, Joonie?”

Joonie picked up his own glass and the others followed suit, Jungkook sniffing interestedly at his own goblet—real actual glass, not synthetic, what the hell—which was full of a sweet-smelling golden liquid. Together they raised them towards the center as Namjoon cleared his throat and said quietly, “I’m glad to have you all here in my home. It’s felt lonely for far too long. You’re all welcome here. Cheers.”

They touched glasses, seven hands and seven pairs of eyes locked on each other, then the moment broke as Jungkook sipped at his drink and made an interested noise at the surprisingly tart taste, as Jimin downed half his glass in one go to Taehyung’s delighted squeal of “Jiminie!” and Yoongi watched Tae with a fond look and Hoseok let out a belly laugh and Jin rolled his eyes but smiled.

Namjoon sat back in his chair to watch them all, grinning wide.

“White wine,” Jimin told Jungkook when he made another interested noise.

Oh. Wine. Jungkook had heard of it but never before had the chance to taste it. Wineries were rare, now, due to the changing environments of the planet. Grapes found it hard to grow in the altered consistency of the soil. Wine was a drink for rulers and kings and politicians, not a street rat.

But he wasn’t a street rat here. Here he was just Jungkook.

So maybe it was okay.

Jungkook gave himself a break from overthinking and dedicated his sole attention to his food. He shoved chicken and vegetables into his mouth, chewing fast, feeling his stomach lining groaning in both relief and complaint at the full sensation, one he hadn’t felt in he couldn’t remember how long. He knew he had little in the way of table manners but he was just so hungry—

No one rebuked him.

“Jinnie hyung, this is incredible,” Hoseok stated after a few minutes of contented chewing. “How did you learn to do all this?”

Jungkook knew Hoseok referred to the fact that cooking had become somewhat of a forgotten art. The elite members of society, the ones who still had access to fresh food and the subsequent dishes that could be crafted from such supplies, employed real chefs and bakers. But among the general populace there was no such thing. Jin hyung’s café was already something of an enigma for serving real actual baked goods instead of synthetic holocubes.

Jin looked slightly uncomfortable, and Hoseok hurriedly swallowed and said hastily, “Sorry, hyung, I don’t mean to pry—”

“No, no, it’s okay.” Jin reached out and stroked a hand over his shoulder. The older boy seemed to sigh a little, and glanced at Tae. “I, um. Well.” He looked so uncharacteristically hesitant.

Taehyung seemed to know the cause of Jin’s hesitance, or at least guess at it, because he nodded encouragingly at him. “It’s okay, hyung. I know you never told me where you came from but it’s okay, you can tell us if you want to. None of us would judge anyone else here, right?”

Jimin snorted a little, his fingers tracing idle circles on Jungkook’s thigh and distracting him mightily. “Please. If no one here judged me for being a stripper, and once upon a time a prostitute, then that ship has pretty much sailed.”

Jungkook dropped his fork with a clatter.

Jimin blinked, and everyone could see the moment Jimin realized that Jungkook had been absent for that conversation. Immediately Jimin’s hand left his leg and he made himself smaller in his chair.

Water stung Jungkook’s eyes and he tried to blink it away but the sight of it made Jimin hunch in on himself even further.

“My father’s debts got me indebted to Az, I did what I thought I had to do,” whispered Jimin, upset and panic coloring his words. “I got out, I left that life behind, I’m just a dancer now, I promise—”

Jungkook reached out and took his hand, intertwined their fingers, Jimin’s shorter ones fitting perfectly between his. Shocked, Jimin fell silent. Then Jungkook deliberately shifted their tangled hands back to rest on his thigh. Jimin still watched him with something like fear in his eyes so Jungkook raised their hands to his lips and skimmed his mouth over Jimin’s bruised knuckles.

A muted gasp came from his side, but Jungkook merely turned his attention back to his food and continued to eat with one hand. It took several moments, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Jimin return to his meal as well.

Taehyung giggled, the sound like chimes upon the air, and looked at Jin hyung smugly. “See?”

Jin rolled his eyes, the attitude immediately lost when he cast a fond look at Jungkook and Jimin. “I know. You’re right, Taehyungie. Like usual. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before. I took you in months ago, after all.”

“That’s okay, hyung. Maybe your subconscious knew you were waiting for the seven of us to come together,” said Tae cheerfully, slurping up noodles, either ignoring or unaware of the considering stares the hyungs cast his way.

Jin cleared his throat. “Um. Right.” Tae preened. “Um, the truth is, Hoseokie, I’m not from around here.”

“I figured that.” Hoseok shrugged a little at the answering look. “You told us you opened the café about two years ago. With your looks, your talent? I figured you didn’t come up in these parts.”

“No. No, I didn’t. I, um. I was actually born in another world.”

Silence fell. Jungkook blinked. Jin had come through the Chasm? He had never met a Chasm traveler before. Only those with funds—or those who worked for those with funds—could afford the trip to different worlds, a voyage as common yet as pricey as journeying across oceans had been in the early twenty-first century. For Jin to have been born elsewhere and then traveled to the Homeworld…

His family must be richer than even Namjoon.

Jungkook curled in on himself, causing Tae and Jimin to lean in and lend him their warmth. Jin glanced at him, worried, then returned his attention to Hoseok.

Hoseok simply seemed to marvel, as he shook his head. “Incredible. I’ve never met a Chasm traveler before.”

“Where are you from?” Namjoon asked, a familiar intrigued look in his eyes. Their scholar, faced with new knowledge.

“I don’t know,” admitted Jin. Jungkook thought his hyung seemed uncomfortable, but maybe it was because Jin always projected such confidence, the lack of it made him seem all the much more meek. Jungkook didn’t like it. He wanted his hyung’s casual confidence back.

“I made the crossing when I was a baby,” continued Jin. “My parents never spoke of where we came from, not that I can recall, at least. They died when I was young, and I was raised as a ward in Gangnam.”

Gangnam. That central district of Seoul that had never lost its glittery edge, that only flourished in the time after the Chasm. Real food, real riches, important people.

“My foster parents were chefs and they taught me,” Jin continued, staring down at his plate now as if uncomfortable with the attention. “But I hated living there. Hated the way those people would stare at me because I was the help, because they considered me up for grabs—”

He shuddered, and Yoongi leaned closer to stroke a gentle hand across the nape of his neck, like he would do for the maknaes. Jin exhaled unsteadily, then straightened his shoulders. “So I left,” he concluded simply. “Put all my savings into starting the café. Met Taehyungie. But I don’t want to stick around these parts forever, I’ve got a building on the coast that I plan on turning in to my next café, but it has to wait until I have more funds. I refused all rights to my foster parents’ money when I took off.”

“Jin hyung.” Taehyung got to his feet, went around the table to slide into Jin’s lap, hugging him around the neck. “You never told me,” he whispered, voice muffled.

“I left that life behind,” Jin answered gently. He looked up, latched eyes with Hoseok. “I’m much happier now. But that’s how I know my way around the kitchen.”

“Thank you for telling us,” Hoseok said. He reached out and took Jin’s hand when he offered it, squeezing gently.

Jungkook felt a horrible rush of guilt, the delicious food filling his stomach starting to curdle unpleasantly. Oh god, he felt like such a liar. He was Unmarked, he was homeless. Jin hyung and Taehyungie hyung and Jiminie hyung, they were so brave, they left awful circumstances and had the bravery to strike out on their own. Not only strike out on their own but tell their stories, confess their truths.

Jungkook hadn’t run away. He had been left behind. And he kept his truths tucked deep in his heart so no one could see.

His own family had abandoned him, because they couldn’t handle the shame of being associated with an Unmarked. What if he came clean and his hyungs did the same?

It all became too much. He felt so undeserving of their affection, their care. Panic spiraled into a familiar tickle at the back of his throat. He got to his feet, his chair emitting an awful scraping sound on the hardwood and making everyone jolt and look at him.

Namjoon got to his feet as well, his expression schooling itself from one of deep thought, to concern. “Kook-ah?”

“I, um…Th-thank you so much for the shower, and the f-food, but I…I have to go,” Jungkook muttered hastily, backing out of the room.

They all called after him but Jungkook broke and ran. His backpack sat beside the couch, overfull with ratty clothes and one expensive book, the fabric ugly with its stains in the face of such costly surroundings. Jungkook hefted it, his soul breaking at the familiar weight between his shoulder blades, and struggled into his old worn sneakers laying by the front door. He didn’t have time to change out of Namjoon’s borrowed clothes so fuck it he would take them and return them later. He felt the panic squeezing his ribcage, making it difficult to draw breath.

White spots started to dance at the corner of his vision so he didn’t notice Namjoon following him until he wrenched the front door open and his hyung shadowed him into the hallway.

That homey front door shut with a slam behind them and Jungkook whirled on Namjoon. “What are you doing?” He sounded terrified, even to his own ears, his voice echoing in the empty entryway.

“Walking you home.”

“No!” he blurted, running around Namjoon to step in his path to the elevator and outstretch his arms. “No, y-you don’t have to do that, hyung.”

“I want to. I insist, actually. I want to make sure my Kook-ah gets home safe.”

“No, no, really, I’m fine—”

“You’re upset and you shouldn’t be alone,” argued Namjoon in a voice so gentle that Jungkook wanted to concede but he couldn’t, no, he couldn’t do that—

“No!” he blasted out, making both of them blink.

Namjoon looked at Jungkook with nothing but his usual kindness and patience. “Will you tell me why? I would never be ashamed of or judge your home situation, little one, you know that.”

“I…I…” What was there to say? How could he just admit it? One of his most terrible truths…

Namjoon, very deliberately, took a couple steps forward, their chests brushing as Jungkook stood his ground to get him to stop. Jungkook weakly put up his hands, mumbling, “No, no, please, hyung, it’s fine, I’ll be okay—”

“Just tell me what’s the matter, little one, please, just tell me why—”

“Because I have no home!” screamed Jungkook, so loud that it brought tears to his eyes.
He pivoted away from the concern on his hyung’s face and fisted his hands over his eyes so hard that his vision went black.

“Is that what you wanted to hear?” he sobbed at Namjoon, upset and scared, at the end of his rope. “Are you fucking happy now? My family left me and I had nowhere to go. I’m homeless, I live on the streets, I sleep in the fucking park every night so go ahead, you can leave me alone now, you don’t have to be seen with the stupid homeless kid when you have all this—”

Namjoon grabbed Jungkook by the shoulder and hauled him forcefully into his arms, banding one arm hard around his waist and the other around his back to cup the nape of his neck and squeeze. Jungkook sobbed and paper and ink filled his lungs like a physical weight.

“No,” murmured Namjoon, lips catching against his hair, both of them shaking as desperate sobs rattled both of their frames. “I could never be ashamed of you, little one. Never.”

“B-but…I-I’m—”

“Homeless? So what. You’re still my Jungkook-ah. Still mine, baby. Where you come from doesn’t matter.”

Jungkook drew back, cheeks stinging with tears. “Wh-what?”

“Kook-ah.” Namjoon tenderly ran a warm thumb across his cheek, gathering tears. “Did you really think I would turn my back on you? After everything we’ve been through. Never. This changes nothing.”

“But…but…” There had to be an argument, though Jungkook couldn’t fathom one. He had spent so long convinced that Namjoon wouldn’t see him the same way once he found out. Now that he had, he floundered.

Where was the disgust? The judgement, the pity?

Instead it was just Namjoon. Standing there as tall and proud of him as always, looking ready to take on the world. Steady as a port in the storm.

Jungkook broke. Again. Simply melted into Namjoon’s arms, and Jungkook wanted to sob even more when he realized the embrace that hadn’t changed an iota from the hug he had received only hours before. Nothing had changed. Not a single goddamned thing.

“You’re still my Kook-ah,” Namjoon whispered against the top of his head, hands caressing his lower back and shooting tingles up his spine. “Nothing’s changed. Except the part where I ask you to come back inside. And stay.”

Jungkook shivered helplessly. Oh god, to stay in Namjoon’s penthouse…among the nice things and the books and the blankets and access to showers and good food and…and safety.

And Namjoon.

“You really w-want me there?”

“More than anything, baby. I promise. This isn’t because I pity you or I’m judging you or I’m trying to save you. I like you, and I want you to be safe. I want you to share my home,” Namjoon told him, painfully honest.

Jungkook had confessed one of his terrible truths. And Namjoon still watched him with the same concern and care that he always had. Nothing had changed.

Oh, to finally have something in the open. But would Namjoon feel differently if he knew he was Unmarked? But if Namjoon hadn’t refused him for being homeless, maybe…just maybe, nothing would change if Jungkook told him he was Unmarked. What a strange thought.

Overwhelmed, Jungkook broke. The stress of the confrontation had a headache pounding at his temples and his face simply crumpled with tears.

Dimly, he felt Namjoon gather him close, nudge him back towards the door. They went inside, Jungkook’s vision blurry as the others swarmed him. Jin barked some orders and next thing Jungkook knew, his backpack was taken off his shoulders, the weight leaving him like Atlas shrugging off the weight of the world.

He was laid down on a nest of blankets on the living room floor that felt soft as a cloud and smelled of fresh laundry detergent. Warm bodies that smelled of Taehyung and Jimin curled like puppies on his one side as he continued to clutch at Namjoon’s shirt and bury his face against his hyung’s chest to hide his tears. A hand that felt like Yoongi’s stroked his hair, and Hoseok crooned to him in a low murmur as he rubbed his feet, and Jin curled up on Namjoon’s other side to reach over and tenderly wipe away the tears from his cheek.

The last thing Jungkook knew before he fell asleep was the gentle kiss pressed to his hair, and the softly whispered words, “Welcome home, baby.”

 

-

Chapter Text

-

 

Jungkook woke up entwined in a mass of warm bodies, but he didn’t feel confused or disoriented. A dull headache throbbed from his tears, but otherwise…

He felt so safe.

He knew he lay curled against Namjoon, and that Taehyung curled around his head and shoulders, soft breaths stirring his hair, and Jimin lay squished between him and Taehyung. Hoseok’s head rested on his calves and Jin still lay opposite him on Namjoon’s other side. He knew how they all felt now, could recall the sensations of their touches and caresses in his sleep.

Jin’s eyes were open and watchful on his, and Jungkook predictably blushed and nuzzled harder into Namjoon’s chest.

“Cute,” cooed Jin, reaching over and pausing with his palm an inch from Jungkook’s cheek, an affectionate question that didn’t need to be asked, because Jungkook’s innate barrier to touch had broken the moment Namjoon had hauled him home and he had fallen asleep amidst his beautiful hyungs.

Even the little snore rasping in Namjoon’s throat was beautiful.

God, he was so sunk.

Jungkook pushed up into the touch and felt a sound come out of his own throat, something akin to a purr if humans were capable of purring, as Jin softly stroked a thumb over the rise of his cheekbone.

“Did you sleep well, baby?” Jin murmured to him.

“Stop,” Jungkook whined, hiding his face again. The chest he sheltered in trembled beneath his forehead and he stole a peek upwards, to see Namjoon’s eyes lazily half open and peering down at him.

“You didn’t answer the question, little one,” murmured Namjoon in this sleepy drawl of a voice, a hint of rasp to it.

“You embarrassed him,” came Taehyung’s sleepy voice, his lips catching on the little hairs on the back of Jungkook’s neck, making him shiver.

“We should keep teasing him until his face gets so red his hair catches fire,” mumbled Jimin, nuzzling against the small of Jungkook’s back.

Jungkook’s face went bright red, he knew it, he could feel it. He couldn’t even hide anymore because Namjoon gently pushed him up and to the side, sprawling him on his back. Everyone was awake now, all six of them watching him affectionately with varying stages of wakefulness.

Jungkook felt a warmth kindle in his chest that refused to fade.

Embarrassed by their attention, Jungkook rubbed his fisted hands over his eyes, yawned like a kitten. A loud thunk made him look over to see that Yoongi had dropped his forehead against the hardwood floor in a gap between the bedding, Hoseok patting his back in a there-there motion.

“Yoongi hyung?” Jungkook questioned.

“Don’t worry about him,” Jin said dismissively, unfolding to his feet in a way that made Jungkook, reminded of his height, blink. Jin idly stretched, raising his hands toward the ceiling and twisting his spine, his wrinkled shirt riding up. Jungkook jolted at the sight of a owl sketched in black riding the center of his back. A soulmark. The owl’s wings were outstretched in flight, eyes lifted up in hope, or maybe optimism.

Jungkook stared, and nearly drooled.

But then Jin announced, “Everyone up, I’ll get breakfast going.” Cheers met his pronouncement. “Clean up Namjoonie’s living room first.” Groans.

As everyone rolled to their feet, as some began folding up the blankets and gathering pillows, as some disappeared and reappeared from bathrooms, Taehyung following Jin into the kitchen like a puppy, Jungkook felt a tug on his arm. He looked around to see Namjoon, gazing down at him with a tiny smile.

“Come with me?”

As if Jungkook needed to be asked.

Namjoon led Jungkook away from the chaos, hand sliding from his wrist to his hand. Jungkook gaped down at the way their hands intertwined so perfectly, as though Jungkook’s hand had been designed to fit with hyung’s. He had never held someone’s hand before. His skin tingled, racing up his arm like pure starlight had been injected into his veins. He wondered if his palm was sweating, wondered if Namjoon would find it gross.
He looked up from the distraction when Namjoon stopped walking, blinking when he realized they stood in front of a closed door across the hall from Namjoon’s bedroom.

“Hyung?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry,” Namjoon said, shocking him.

“Wh-what?” What on earth could Namjoon need to apologize for?

“I didn’t mean to force you into confiding in me last night,” he said slowly but steadily. “I didn’t mean to pressure you or make you feel uncomfortable—”

“No,” Jungkook blurted, clutching his hand tighter. When that wasn’t enough, he gripped his hyung’s hand with both of his. “No, no, hyung, no. You didn’t make me tell you. I wanted to, I’ve wanted to tell you I’m homeless for a long time but I was…I was scared you wouldn’t look at me the same.”

Ashamed, he closed his eyes.

A whisper of soft lips across his closed eyelid had Jungkook blinking them open again, stunned. Namjoon leaned back, lips still slightly pouted from the gentle kiss. “I know how that feels, little one.” A hint of a frown creased his eyebrows. “Kook-ah, I have things I want to tell you, too. But I’m still trying to find the words. I also worry you and the others won’t look at me the same.”

Jungkook gaped at him. Namjoon had secrets too? He thought he was the only one with something to hide.

He didn’t begrudge his hyung for keeping them to himself. Jungkook would be a hypocrite to think that. But still. He couldn’t help but wonder. He thought about what he would want to hear, were the situations reversed. Then realized he didn’t need to, because the words were already spilling out of his mouth.

“I have things I still want to tell you and the hyungs,” he whispered brokenly, an unfamiliar bravery rising in him, as though Namjoon’s presence strengthened him from the inside out.

Fresh paper and ink.

“So it’s okay, hyung,” he continued, swallowing hard. “We can tell each other when we’re ready, right? None of us are going anywhere...right?”

Namjoon reached up, cradled his face in his hands with such gentleness that Jungkook felt the touch as more suggestion than demand. Still he looked up, into warm brown eyes and thick eyelashes. His gaze caught on lips that must still be warm from kissing his closed eyes and a new foreign warmth swarmed into his belly. He may have panicked at the sensation but for once it didn’t make him think of his anxiety or panic.

It felt good.

Namjoon eased him closer, pressed a soft, close-mouthed kiss to his brow, then skittered his lips down the side of his face, caught on the rise of his cheek, then a last press of lips to his nose. Then he eased back, leaving Jungkook breathless, aching and panting with an unfamiliar want.

“I don’t deserve you,” Namjoon whispered like a confession.

Jungkook scowled, because that was just wrong. When he said so, Namjoon laughed aloud.

“You’re distracting me,” his hyung said solemnly, finally releasing him. He turned to the closed door again.

“From what?”

Namjoon winked at him, channeling Taehyung for a moment, then opened the door. Rather than walking forward, Namjoon released Jungkook’s hand, slid his own hand to the small of his back and gently pushed him forward.

Jungkook stumbled over the threshold, giggling. His laughter died within a second.

A bedroom. A beautiful, beautiful bedroom. With an enormous king bed piled high with plush pillows and blankets in soft fabrics of jewel tones of rubies and sapphires. A bank of windows on the far side looked out on the hololane coursing high above the streets of Seoul, skyscrapers climbing above, soft morning sunlight cascading over the plush beige carpeting. A low dresser in pretty wood tones—holy crap, actual wood—dominated the wall across from the bed, a large holoscreen on top. A pretty chandelier dripping crystals and dim light dangled from the ceiling above the bed. Books stacked the shelves on either side of the bed.

“Pretty,” breathed Jungkook, daring to take a couple steps inside only because of the shower Namjoon had permitted him to take the day before. He felt clean enough to wander but he hugged himself to avoid reaching out to finger the soft bedding. He turned to Namjoon, who leaned in the doorway watching him with warm eyes. “Is it yours?”

He knew Namjoon’s room lay across the hall but perhaps he had two?

Namjoon looked around the space himself, as though he were thinking, very hard. “This was actually my room growing up,” he finally said, in a contemplative tone. “My current room is where my parents slept until they died.”

Jungkook wanted to hug him, but something in his hyung’s body language said that wouldn’t be best right at that moment. So he settled for silence, channeling Namjoon’s patience.

“I had moved out before they died but they always kept my room for me. I decided to live here after they were gone, and moved into their room because I didn’t want to live in the past,” Namjoon finally said. He still wouldn’t look at Jungkook. “I didn’t want to close off their room and never touch it again. My parents would have called me a sentimental fool if I had done that. So I went through their things, kept what I wanted, moved into their bigger bedroom, and turned this one into a guest room.”

Now Namjoon padded closer, reached out to tangle their fingers together again. He squeezed, once, then smiled down at him. “Now it’s yours.”

“Whose?” Jungkook asked dumbly.

Surely he didn’t mean…

Namjoon’s smile broadened to a grin, looking like he was holding back a laugh. “It’s yours, little one. Your room, to sleep, to relax, your own attached bathroom to bathe—” he gestured to a doorway Jungkook hadn’t yet seen. “It’s yours, baby. Welcome home.”

Jungkook stared. His brain wasn’t computing.

After a full minute, Namjoon shifted on his feet. He reached up to scratch the back of his neck, a trademark tell. “We can change anything you don’t like,” he added swiftly. “You know, different blankets, or change the carpet, or I can take my books out of here if you don’t like them, I know they’re everywhere, sorry—”

Namjoon swallowed the rest of his words as Jungkook threw himself at his hyung. His exuberance sent them toppling to the bedspread, a tangle of bodies and limbs, sinking into the lush down. Jungkook couldn’t stop giggling.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he chanted, again and again, kissing Namjoon’s cheek swiftly before sitting upright, straddling Namjoon’s hips. He looked down and giggled again at Namjoon’s wide-eyed look of shock.

Jungkook went bright red, suddenly realizing their compromising position, and picked up Namjoon’s hand to twiddle with his fingers and try to ignore his hyung’s other hand resting on his waist. “Hyung, are you sure—”

“That I want you here?” he finished calmly. “Yes.”

“But…but…” There had to be some protest, had to be some downside here that Namjoon hadn’t considered.

“Kook-ah. Hey, little one, look at me,” Namjoon gently urged, waiting until Jungkook’s eyes met his. “Don’t you see? This way we both get what we want. It’s all good.”

For a moment, Jungkook let the warmth encapsulate him.

But then he tensed. Wait. Both getting what they want? Jungkook wanted a home, sure, but what the hell was Namjoon getting out of this deal except an unwanted and unforeseen housemate? There was no benefit for Namjoon in this situation, it was just Jungkook, homeless friendless Unmarked Jungkook, there was no upside for Namjoon here.

What could Namjoon possibly be getting out of this?

Then his heart sank. Because obviously something like this couldn’t come without strings, right? Maybe Namjoon did want something from him. And from the looks Jungkook caught his hyung sending him, he wondered if it was maybe something of a physical nature.

His heart, already trembling with joy and something that felt frighteningly similar to love, cracked and turned to dust.

Before Namjoon could discern Jungkook’s sudden despair, a knock on the doorjamb made them look around. Taehyung stood there, beaming.

“Breakfast is ready!” he chirped. He walked in, turned a circle. “Will this be your room, Jungkookie? We can have sleepovers!”

Jungkook wasn’t sure how much of his distraught confession to Namjoon the night before had been made common knowledge amongst his hyungs, but he stiffened even further. Namjoon must have discerned his tension as apprehensions about his circumstances, because he fluidly sat up beneath him, hugged him around the waist to murmur in his ear, “They know, little one. And it’s okay. They know you have a home here.”

But at what cost?

Jungkook was sure to school his expression into one of gratitude and understanding because that is what Namjoon would expect, even as Namjoon kissed his cheek then unceremoniously dumped him on the bedspread to get to his feet. Jungkook released a giggle at the playful maneuver because that was expected of him, and Namjoon ruffled his hair before nodding at Taehyung and walking out of the room, whistling.

Jungkook cleared his throat, sat up. Still battling heartache, and suddenly unsure what to say, what to do, how to behave, he got to his feet as well. He moved to the door but Taehyung stopped him with an outstretched arm.

He still felt that Taehyung could read him far too easily, because his hyung watched him now with care and concern.

“That offer I gave you before?” Taehyung began gently, unsurprised when Jungkook cocked his head to the side in confusion. “The one where you can talk to me, at any time, about anyone and anything? That still stands. I just wanted to let you know.”

But Taehyung was equally as close to Namjoon, Jungkook didn’t want to cause friction. So he simply nodded, promised that he would if he ever needed to, and throttled his current dread down deep in his chest so it wouldn’t show in his face as they went out to have breakfast.

Breakfast felt strained, to Jungkook at least. He wasn’t sure who knew what in regards to his living situation, and Hoseok’s cheer seemed false, and Jimin bounced off the walls as though he had crunched on straight coffee beans instead of Jin’s brewed mochas. Jungkook just wanted to go back to the nest they had cuddled in the night before, wake up and start today all over again. He tiptoed around Namjoon as he hadn’t since before his hyung gave him the art book, and he hated it.

But he felt so completely and utterly out of his depth. And it was more terrifying than the day he came home alone on his eighteenth birthday and found his childhood home completely, utterly empty, with his parents nowhere to be found. At least on that day, he really wasn’t that surprised. His parents stepped back from him as soon as his Soulmark Day passed without a soulmark, so yes his world had been destroyed, but he felt rather apathetic about the whole thing.

But there was no precursor for this. Nothing for him to fall back on. He wanted Namjoon, he wanted the others, all with a fire that he had never felt before. And if Namjoon expected sex in return for a safe home, maybe…it seemed fair?

Jungkook tried to convince himself he was wrong to think that way. He knew Namjoon better, knew his hyung would never behave in such a way, especially with him. Namjoon cared about him and he knew it.

But…but taking him in just made zero sense! Unless there was something in it for Namjoon.

The others knew he was distracted. Jungkook tried to hide it by smiling as exuberantly as Hoseok, by cuddling against Yoongi at the breakfast table, but he wasn’t fooling anyone, he could tell. They all constantly exchanged glances as if wondering how to proceed.

So Jungkook steeled himself, and made a decision.

“Hyung?” He deliberately leaned up on his tiptoes and breathed it into Namjoon’s ear, rewarded by an instant shudder. “I need a shower.”

Perhaps confused by his phrasing, Namjoon’s brows drew together, but his eyes kindled. “You have your room, Kook-ah,” he murmured, breath hot on his cheek, voice a low rumble. “Do with it as you wish.”

“Gonna shower, hyung. I’m dirty,” he said in that same tone, hating himself, but rewarded by Namjoon’s light blush. When he walked towards his room, he added a deliberate sway to his hips, and had all conversations instantly dying and half of his hyungs gaping at him. He reached the hallway, half-turned and cast a small smile towards Namjoon that radiated invitation. Only when it looked like Namjoon had swallowed his own tongue did he retreat to his room.

And, hating himself, jumped into a shower with the water ice cold.

-

“The fuck was that?” barked Yoongi as soon as Jungkook disappeared. He stormed towards Namjoon with anger in his eyes but Hoseok jumped between, caged Yoongi between his arms.

“Hyung, hyung, hey, don’t,” murmured Hoseok, his own body tense.

“What the fuck was that, Namjoon?” Yoongi demanded again, deliberately foregoing honorifics. The man on the receiving end of such a fucked-up invitation deserved none.

“I don’t know!” Namjoon half-shouted, trying to modulate his voice as Jin grabbed his arm in caution. “I have no freaking idea what that was.”

“You said you offered him a home,” Yoongi shot back. “Not a warm bed in exchange for getting him on his hands and knees!”

Taehyung and Jimin both flinched, hard, hard enough for them to cower back from the sudden confrontation. Jin saw and whipped around with a snarl on his face that put them all to shame. “Knock it off, now!” he barked, voice at a modulated yell.

Yoongi opened his mouth but Jin made a slashing gesture and hissed, “No! That’s enough. Both of you, take a fucking step back.” No one moved. “Now!”

Yoongi, aided by Hoseok pushing him back, and Namjoon, alone at one end of the living room, both took several slow steps backwards.

Jin blew out a breath, closed his eyes for a moment. “Hoseok, go to the maknaes, please,” he said in a more controlled tone. Hoseok murmured something to Yoongi before acquiescing, pulling the two youngest to the couch and cuddling them close. Taehyung and Jimin both hid against his sides, which made Yoongi and Namjoon avert their eyes, ashamed.

“I have no idea why Jungkook just acted like that,” Namjoon said, still grappling for sense amidst the confusion. The hell had spurred Jungkook’s sudden change of heart? He wanted the boy, wanted to please him, reassured him that they would both be happy with him living here…but…

Realization hit him like a bucketful of ice cold water.

“Oh my god,” he whispered.

He sank to a squat right then and there on the living room floor, head in his hands. He had handled it wrong.

All wrong.

So completely, entirely wrong.

“Joon-ah?” Jin knelt by his side, rested a hand that radiated heat against the small of Namjoon’s back. Namjoon, busy hating himself, allowed the touch but refused to absorb the comfort.

“I-I…” Namjoon gulped, analyzing every word he and Jungkook had exchanged in the past twenty-four hours. “Oh god, hyung, I’m an idiot, I fucked up—”

“Joon-ah,” said Jin more firmly. “Breathe. No, don’t look at me like that, just fucking do it. Breathe in, hold…good. Now exhale, slow. Again. And one more time. Good, now, explain.”

Namjoon continued to gasp for air.

Jin eased him closer, crooned to him as he ran his fingers through his hair, “Come on, baby. Let us help. Let hyung help.”

Namjoon shuddered, gasped, shuddered again. “I…Hyung, I think I fucked up. I said it wrong, I did it all wrong—”

“Shh, baby, shh,” Jin hushed.

Only when Namjoon took several deep breaths did Jin motion for him to try again.

“I…I said it wrong. I told Jungkook he had a home here, told him that if he stayed, we would both be getting what we want.”

Yoongi made a sound and charged forward, Jin jumping up to catch Yoongi by the shoulder. Namjoon struggled to his feet, looked at Yoongi beseechingly as he said, “I meant that if he lived here then he would be safe from Az and we would be able to spend time together! I meant that I would be rewarded by his company, his friendship! Not sex, damn it. I would never put Kook-ah in that position.”

Yoongi stared at him for a long, unreadable moment. Namjoon could hardly fathom a guess at his thoughts but knew any hatred Yoongi felt towards him could not come close to what Namjoon felt for himself.

“Yoongi hyung,” murmured Taehyung, making Yoongi look over. The younger boy had curled into a tiny ball pressed against Hoseok’s side, gazing up at Yoongi with wide eyes. They seemed to share a moment of silent communication, because a few seconds later, Yoongi broke their eye contact and sighed harshly enough for his nostrils to flare.

Yoongi padded over, and Namjoon tensed as the shorter boy knelt beside him. Then blinked and froze when Yoongi hauled him in for a hug.

“You stupid beanpole,” Yoongi murmured against his shoulder, his small body emanating warmth like a furnace. “How does the smartest one out of all of us not think before he speaks?”

“I-I…I’m sorry,” Namjoon stuttered and stammered, hands held wide at his sides, scared to return the hug, unsure of the meaning.

Yoongi released another sigh and only squeezed him harder. Tentative, aching now, Namjoon relaxed his arms and allowed his hands to slowly slide around Yoongi’s waist.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you,” Yoongi told him.

“I’m sorry, too.” Yoongi released him, pulled back a little, shaking his head. “What?” asked Namjoon, and received a sharp flick against his forehead. “Ow, what the hell?”

“You know I’m not the one you need to apologize to,” said Yoongi calmly, nodding when Namjoon paled. Then Yoongi got to his feet with a wince as though his muscles weren’t designed for strenuous exercise, and moved to curl up on Taehyung’s other side, Taehyung nuzzling against him with an approving murmur.

Jin helped Namjoon up, brushed his shirt off fussily. “I’d offer to come with you but I think you and Jungkook need to talk. Really talk,” Jin told him. “But we’ll stick around. I’m keeping the café closed today—”

“Hyung, you shouldn’t do that—”

Jin leveled a look at him that made him immediately shut his mouth. “The business can handle us taking a personal day,” he explained to both Taehyung and Hoseok’s quiet cheers. “The seven of us have been through a bit of upheaval lately and need time to settle down. But right now, you need to go talk to our boy.”

Namjoon took a long, shaky inhale. “I really messed up, hyung.”

Jin smiled gently, an encouraging thing. “Oh, honey. It’s okay. Words are hard, after all.” He gently pushed him towards Jungkook’s bedroom. “But we can always find more of them.”

-

The door to Jungkook’s attached bathroom was closed, and Namjoon could hear the shower audibly running as he timidly perched on the side of Jungkook’s bed. His palms were sweatier than they had ever been in his life, even in his line of work prior to teaching. He worried that he had messed things up beyond repair.

The shower stopped, the room shrouded in sudden silence. A few pattering footsteps, a hiss of cloth, a flick of a switch. Then a moment’s quiet in which Namjoon could hear an audible inhale, and the bathroom door opened. No steam emerged. Jungkook took two steps out, dressed only in the loose sweatpants Namjoon had lent him, leaving his chest bare.

Jungkook’s frame spoke of malnourishment, his ribs visible beneath the skin of his chest, the skin itself scarred and bruised in multiple places. But strength lay in the tone of his biceps and abdomen. And oh god his waist, his tiny waist, the perfect size for Namjoon’s hands to cup and squeeze and wrap around to drag Jungkook closer and…

Namjoon swallowed, looked up, and found Jungkook’s eyes locked on his. And in the boy’s face, Namjoon saw an apathetic and tired sort of resignation.

Speechless at the sheer depth of the look, one that looked like habit, Namjoon froze, and Jungkook made it to the side of the bed and sat beside him with a hot hand touching his thigh, leaning in, face so, so close to Namjoon’s so that he could smell his own minty body wash on the boy—

Namjoon jerked away so violently he fell off the bed.

He scrambled away, probably looked comical on his hands and knees, and put his back to the dresser, panting up at Jungkook. The boy looked distraught and confused, that same hand that had felt so right on Namjoon’s thigh now outstretched as if in supplication.

“S-sorry hyung,” Jungkook whispered, and Namjoon felt a faint stirring of hope. Yes, yes, Jungkook got it, he understood now that Namjoon had never ever meant to give him the impression he wanted sex in exchange for a home—

But then Jungkook stood fluidly, drew down his sweatpants to reveal his bare legs and no under clothing. His skin gleamed in the dim lighting. He then reclined back on the bed, legs and arms both stretched out in absolute surrender. But Namjoon saw the cording of his muscles and the beading of sweat at his temples and the way his jaw clenched shut.

And Namjoon’s anxious inner voice, which hadn’t shut up since Jungkook issued him the invitation, went utterly, utterly silent.

He got up, moving slow, as if to avoid spooking a frightened animal. He walked to the side of the bed, watching Jungkook’s eyes dilate in something akin to terror, then bent down and picked up the sweatpants. He held them out to the boy and kept his eyes firmly on his face, though a small and terrible and vile part of himself felt hungry to look.

Jungkook’s breath hitched. But he snatched the sweats, rolled to the other side of the bed and off to his feet to draw them on so hurriedly he left scratch marks on his legs. Namjoon shucked his own hoodie he wore over a t-shirt and tossed that to the boy as well, who pulled it on equally fast.

Then Jungkook stood there, panting and wild-eyed, hands tightening and relaxing into fists by turns.

“Breathe,” whispered Namjoon softly, the first words spoken since he had entered the room. He tried to emanate the same kindness mixed with authority that Jin hyung emanated so effortlessly. “Breathe, little one. Please.”

They stared at one another across the expanse of bed. Namjoon waited until the desperate gasps that rattled Jungkook’s frame calmed a little, and a little color eked into the boy’s pale cheeks.

“Good. Now, Jungkook-ah, I want you to look at me. Here, right here.” Namjoon tapped a finger between his eyes, waited until Jungkook’s wild gaze latched on and the boy was paying absolute attention. “Jungkook-ah, I do not want sex in exchange for you staying here.”

Jungkook blinked rapidly, swiftly as a hummingbird’s wings. “What?” he croaked.

“I do not want sex in exchange for you staying here,” repeated Namjoon firmly, his earlier anxiety faded to nothing in face of Jungkook’s panic. Jungkook’s comfort took precedence, even in his own mind. Always would.

“I do not want sex in exchange for you staying here,” he said, one more time, because Jungkook still stared at him with blown pupils. “I spoke earlier of both of us getting what we want. For myself, that means the relief and comfort of knowing that you are safe, and the pleasure of your friendship. Friendship,” he repeated firmly.

“Y-you…” Jungkook seemed to be thinking, hard, his eyebrows narrowed. Deep in thought, he whispered, “But you want me. I’m not a fool. I’ve seen the way you look at me.”

Namjoon winced. Was he so transparent? But he refused to allow Jungkook to think, for even one more second, that sex was expected for him to stay here.

“I think you’re beautiful,” he confessed, watching the lovely pink tinge spread across Jungkook’s cheeks. “So beautiful. But, for now…for now? Friends.”

A long, poignant pause. Namjoon fought against the instinct to reach out, to cuddle the boy close.

“Friends,” echoed Jungkook, as though confused by the word. A longer moment of silence that strained Namjoon’s ears. Then he said again, “Friends?” but this time his voice had a marveling tone to it. He walked around the bed to Namjoon’s side, peered up at him with something skin to wonder, and said once more, “Friends.”

Then he blinked, spilling tears over his cheeks, and whispered, “Can friends still hug?”

All tension left Namjoon with a whoosh of an exhale, and he banded the boy tight in his arms, Jungkook snuggling against him with a loud broken sound of relief. The boy’s movements sent them both tumbling to the bed but this time Namjoon remained firmly upright and sitting on the edge of the mattress, Jungkook turning sideways to cuddle in his lap, face pressed to his throat, lips catching on the hollow at the base of his neck.

Namjoon swallowed. “I’m sorry, little one,” he murmured against his hair. “I’m sorry I said things so badly. I never meant—”

“It’s okay, hyung,” he whispered sweetly, sniffling a little. “Maybe you weren’t clear, but I jumped to conclusions. I’m not…I’m not used to people giving me things and expecting nothing in return. It doesn’t really make sense to me.”

“You’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice,” Namjoon butted in wryly, thinking of the others anxiously awaiting them in the living room.

Jungkook head-butted him with his forehead. “I’m sorry too, hyung. For thinking that of you. My mind tried to remind me that you aren’t like that, that you would never treat me that way, but I didn’t listen.”

“It’s okay, Kook-ah. I can hardly blame you. Are we okay?” Namjoon tried not to let any anxiety eke into his tone.

“So okay,” the boy whispered back.

They relaxed there for a little while, listening to each other breathe.

-

All of the icky feelings from earlier had faded, every single one. All that was left was he and his hyung, as calm and gentle as it had always been. Jungkook realized he was subconsciously timing the rhythm of his breaths to match Namjoon’s only when he cleared his throat and listened to his hyung’s breath stutter.

“You’re very mature, hyung.”

Namjoon made a face. “I don’t think so.”

“No, really,” insisted Jungkook, wanting his hyung to know he was appreciated. “You’re so good at talking things out. And you’re patient with everyone and you spend all your time learning and stuff.”

Instead of embarrassment at the praise, Namjoon looked...was that sadness? Regret? But then he shook it off and peered down at Jungkook with his usual gentle smile.

“You didn’t know me a few years ago,” Namjoon said quietly. “I doubt you would have the same impression. But it means a lot, that you think that, Kook-ah. Thank you.”

Jungkook hunched his shoulders, shy, but leaned into his hyung’s embrace again. A gentle rap on the door made them look over. Jin hyung peered in, face softening when he saw the pair cuddling on the bed.

“Just checking on things,” he said softly, smiling a little when Namjoon and Jungkook both smiled at him.

“It’s all good, hyung,” Jungkook chirped, speaking up. “I never should have let myself think that he sees me as a prostitute, and Namjoonie hyung should have chosen his words more carefully.”

Namjoon and Jin both winced, but from behind Jin came a hearty burst of laughter. In the next moment Hoseok and Jimin pushed past Jin and scrambled into the room, Jimin grabbing Jungkook out of Namjoon’s arms despite Namjoon grumbling, and bringing Jungkook down to the rug to snuggle. Jungkook squealed and squirmed against Jimin and Hoseok without actually trying to break free.

Not for the first time, Jungkook thought his heart would give out from the happiness unfurling in his chest.

 

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