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Despite This Cruel World

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part i: the end of his world

 

Yoongi should be surprised when he spots a dark figure leaning against the corner of the dimly-lit secluded street, but Yoongi is tired. He is tired and he can’t bring himself to care when Namjoon silently treads after him after Yoongi deliberately walks past him, ignoring his presence until Namjoon coughs into his hand and draws Yoongi’s attention away from the lock he’s struggling with.

If Namjoon sees the way Yoongi’s fingers can’t seem to open the door to his house because of the tremors that rarely leave him these days, he doesn’t comment on it.

Instead, he drops the cigarette he’d been chewing on, crushing it under the heel of his boot. And Yoongi eyes him with a mix of exhaustion and irritation. He doesn’t know what Namjoon wants from him, but he already knows that he wants no part in it. He wants to be left alone, wants his hands to stop fucking shaking so he can get the damn door to open and slam it shut in Namjoon’s face.

But Namjoon must read his thoughts because he takes a step forward, coming close enough for his shadow to engulf Yoongi, and it’s probably the first time Yoongi has ever gotten a good look at his face. They’ve never been close, only barely even classifying as acquaintances, yet Namjoon looms over him, so close that Yoongi has to lift his chin to meet his eyes, and he can’t trample down the instinctive twinge of fear he feels fast enough.

“Yoongi,” Namjoon says lowly even though they’re the only two people on this damned street. But they both know better than to believe that. “You haven’t been sleeping,” he says as if he’s making a revolutionary fucking observation.

Yoongi’s lip stiffly curls at the corner.

“Brilliant deduction, doctor,” he says dryly, looking away from Namjoon's knowing eyes and shaking the lock until it finally falls away, “now if you’re done with the health check-up, you can very kindly fuck off.”

He very much intends to walk past the tall man into the darkness of his home, but Namjoon grabs him by the shoulder and Yoongi stills.

“I do not intend to cross you, Yoongi. And I can tell when my presence is not welcome, but I won’t take much of your time. I only came here to deliver something to you.”

Yoongi eyes him warily while Namjoon pulls out what looks like an envelope from the breast pocket of his trench coat.

“I was instructed to hand this to you. Taehyung gave it to me a few days before he...” Namjoon’s lips stiffen at the corner and his deliberate silence doesn’t need to be filled. The words hang heavy in the air, and this time it’s impossible to miss the way Yoongi’s hand shakes when he pulls the envelope from Namjoon’s fingers.

It’s unexpectedly thick, but Yoongi isn’t surprised. His husband was quite the talker, and Yoongi can only imagine what he’s written to him. He has dozens of his letters from back when Yoongi was still a cadet and Taehyung the wide-eyed assistant of a train conductor. 

Despite his boyish naivety, Taehyung had a charm to him. He used to smile a lot more then, grinned so foolishly each time he saw Yoongi, it made Yoongi’s heart melt a little in his chest. He always had so much to say, Yoongi figured he’d been told to shut up quite often when he was a kid, but Yoongi found it charming, felt his bastard of a heart betray him each time Taehyung brought Yoongi’s knuckles to his lips and pretended he was some dazzling prince.

“I’ll leave you with it,” Namjoon’s voice jolts Yoongi out of his thoughts, and he looks up at the doctor whose eyes feel more intrusive than he’d like. Yoongi’s never been fond of the man, granted he never liked most of Taehyung’s “friends,” but there’s always been something especially peculiar about Namjoon. Nothing necessarily malicious, but something clinical, an academic curiosity that travelled beyond what Yoongi would consider humane.

“Thank you,” Yoongi murmurs, grateful despite his reservations. He’s already clutching the letter tightly in his fingers; Taehyung’s last words to him, Yoongi wonders what they’d be. A love letter? A warm note of his sincere affection? Their late days weren’t as full of that as Yoongi now wishes they’d been. They loved each other, there wasn’t a sliver of doubt about that in Yoongi’s mind, but they argued relentlessly regardless. Their ideologies, their beliefs, they clashed too often, and despite both of them wanting the best for each other, they still found themselves engaged in screaming matches for days on end. If Yoongi knew things would end the way they did, so abruptly and cruelly, he wonders what he’d have done. If he had a chance to speak to Taehyung again, what would he have said?

What would Taehyung say to him? 

Yoongi will find out soon enough.

Namjoon’s hand squeezes Yoongi’s shoulder as if in reassurance, but Yoongi’s bones feel hollow. Even the littlest of forces feels like it would crush them to splinters.

“If you want to seek us, you know where to find us,” Namjoon murmurs, voice dipping low, and Yoongi finds himself nodding briefly even though he doubts it. “I know we aren’t close, but Taehyung means a lot to all of us too. If anyone understands your pain right now, it’s us.”

Yoongi would laugh at his fucking face, but he simply shrugs Namjoon’s hand off his shoulder. He’s tired and his throat is closing in painfully tight painfully quickly.

“If you’ll excuse me now,” he whispers, voice thicker than he wants it to be.

“Of course.” Namjoon dips his head in lieu of a goodbye.

When Yoongi slips inside his house and slams the door shut behind him, his knees finally give away. He slides down the door, letter clutched in his fingers and his forehead pressed against his knees, the first sob of the night escaping his throat and echoing in the empty house.

 

 

 

An hour later, Yoongi sits cross-legged in front of the fireplace, a bundle of what appears to be approximately forty lined white pages trapped together by a clip on the top left corner, all filled from top to bottom in Taehyung’s familiar penmanship.

The letters slope forward, and Yoongi is reminded of an inane memory of Taehyung being convinced that a man's handwriting is the teller of his personality. He feels his lips stretching into an involuntary smile despite himself and finally places his glasses on his nose as he holds the papers lower so the light from the fire illuminates its writing. Squeezing his eyes shut, he allows himself one shaky breath before he pulls them open and begins to read:

Min Yoongi, the love of my life, I have been preparing to write this letter to you for days, but now that I am, I am so impossibly terrified.

You must be confused, no there’s no doubt about it. This letter will be delivered to you a week after my passing, and I cannot imagine what the past few days must have been like. I wish I could take it all from you, love. I wish there was something I could do, to lessen your ache even by a fraction, and to know that I’m the reason for it all—

Yoongi grips the paper harder. The next few words are illegible, the ink smudged no doubt from Taehyung’s own tears, and Yoongi grazes his thumb across the wrinkled paper, feeling his chest tighten with a familiar ache. 

He swallows down the lump in his tight throat and reads on.

I wish I could apologise, but I do not even deserve that. I don’t deserve to ask for your forgiveness. But I do request that you hear me out, that you read what I am about to tell you very carefully.

As we both knew already, I was going to die. We never spoke of it, but merely closing our eyes and sealing our mouths shut does not make the truth disappear. It was inevitable. We both knew it. When I lost my legs and was trapped to this bed, it felt like I’d already died my first death.

Namjoon visited me on one such afternoon. You used to insist on staying with me, but I always pushed you away. We fought so much, and you never once raised your voice at me. I felt like a child. You fed me, clothed me, helped me wash myself, and I’ve never despised myself so much. You never lost your patience yet I continued to grow bitter. I pushed you away because I could not see you wasting your life on me. I felt like a burden was lonely. I am lonely. I am lonely and tired, and this body, it no longer makes me feel alive. I am wasting away, and looking at you spending all that energy, all that love on something like me—I say a thing because I no longer feel like a person—I have never hated anything more in my life.

Please do not misunderstand my intent, I am not writing this to inflict guilt upon you. I would never wish for such a thing. I merely need you to understand my state of mind at the time to make you understand why I did what I did. Namjoon visited me, and he had this look on his face. I knew he’d come to me with a proposal, and he wasn’t certain how I’d receive it.

I was proven true when after some idle chit-chat, Namjoon tried to casually ease into what was the true purpose behind his visit. I say tried, but he was so obvious about it. Anyway, he began to tell me about a doctor’s journal he’d managed to get his hands on a few months ago.

“It is quite gruesome,” he began, and coming from Namjoon, I had to believe that it was. “The doctor is dead now I believe. But that isn’t significant. It is his journal that is fascinating. He writes about an experiment where the head of a dog is completely severed from its body, but its blood supply is being maintained through the arteries and veins by means of an artificial heart. And here this: the dog’s head remains alive. Its brain remains capable of functioning. The doctor proved it by running several tests, like when food was smeared across the dog’s lips, its tongue would come out and lick it away. Its eyes would follow the people around in the room. It was alive.”

“It was alive,” I echoed, and I could gather a vague picture of what was being proposed to me.

“It seems reasonable to conclude that the head and the brain do not need to be attached to the rest of the body to remain alive provided, of course, that a supply of properly oxygenated blood is maintained.” 

Namjoon then dragged a chair beside my bed and seated himself on it. At this distance, I could see the way his eyes gleamed with glee. 

“Now, after reading that, the obvious question in my mind was to know whether removing the brain from the skull of a human and keeping it alive and functioning as an independent unit for an unlimited period of time was possible.”

I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the growing excitement in Namjoon’s voice. I didn’t like the way he leaned over me as if he was sharing a wondrous discovery while I was feeling quite ill at the thought of it.

“I’ve been working on it quietly for the past few months. A couple of others have been helping me out, but we’ve all kept quiet about it. The doctor provided instructions on how to build this machine that supplies the blood to the brain, and we’ve completed a number of successful trials with animals, but I believe we’re ready now to operate on a human. From the surgical point of view, it doesn’t seem to me why it should be any more or less practicable.”

Namjoon grew silent after that. It was as if he was expecting me to jump at his thinly veiled proposition, but I did no such thing of course. Namjoon sighed then, and suddenly he looked a lot more somber than he had the entire evening.

“You’re going to die,” he said to me. The first time somebody had spoken it out loud. “I’ve seen cases like this before. This illness, it’s going to spread across your entire body. It’s taken your legs but it’s not done yet. It’s going to grow, and it’s going to consume all of you unless you do something about it. Unless you let me do something about it.”

I watched him silently. He was right. I was going to die. Nobody could contest that.

“Have you considered,” I started, “that I would, in fact, not be alive after you’ve performed whatever it is you say you wish to perform on me?”

“Why would you say that?”

“You say you’d keep my brain wet with blood, but would I be alive?”

Namjoon’s eyebrows crinkled with confusion. He was a man of science so I didn’t expect him to understand right away.

“Is all our life contingent on the existence of our brain? Are we purely physical beings? Have you considered our death is not merely the death of our physical bodies, but something non-physical as well?”

That cleared Namjoon’s confusion.

“You mean, like, souls? I never pegged you for somebody who believes in that sort of stuff.”

“I don't,” I huffed out, “or well I didn’t, not in any manner serious enough. But you reach close enough to the doors of death like I have, and you too would start to wonder about all kinds of strange things.”

“Alright, that's fair. I understand your reservations. We can talk through this. Tell me, what reason do you have to posit the existence of souls? Or any immaterial entity for that matter.”

“Corpses. They have all the necessary physical parts but you don’t see dead men walking around, do you?"

“Yes, but nor do radios. The parts need to not only exist, but they have to be functioning correctly for the body to perform its activities. You take a radio and you throw it on the ground. It stops working. Now, all the necessary parts are there, but they’re broken. They aren’t functioning like they need to. Or would you say that the radio had a soul that resided inside it previously and allowed it to play music? No, right? The same way, our bodies die because our brain is not functioning like it needs to in order for us to be alive. The brain is a peculiarly self supporting object. It manufactures its own cerebrospinal fluid, and the processes of thought and memory which go on inside it are not impaired by the absence of limbs or torso, provided, as I say; that you keep pumping the right kind of oxygenated blood under the right conditions.”

“But we are not like a radio. We are more than mere machines."

"Are we?"

"Yes! We do more than just what we're commanded to do! We are built with reasoning capacity, with thoughts and reflections and desires and goals! We don’t act in arbitrary fashion, we act purposefully. We have beliefs and desires, things mere machines don’t.”

That made Namjoon pause and lean back in his seat.

“You’re right,” he said, “a lightbulb has no desire to burn its tungsten, but that argument only goes as far as simple machines. Do you remember when Jimin visited the third district last year?”

“What about it?”

“A few guys up there were building a machine that would be able to play chess,” Namjoon told me.

“Chess,” I echoed incredulously.

“Yes, it may seem far-fetched to us, but imagine a machine like that. Say you move your bishop, and the machine moves its queen to trap the bishop. Would it not be natural to ascribe the desire of winning to the machine? It’s got the ultimate desire to win the game and other supplementary goals of protecting its king, of capturing the opponent’s king. It’s got beliefs about reaching its goals by blocking certain paths and moves. It then amalgamates these desires, goals, and beliefs into action by making a move that is the rational response to its opponent’s move. It seems natural to say then that the machine does have desires and beliefs, and that it does reason.”

“But it doesn’t.”

“How so?”

“Sure, if a machine like this were to exist, it would be acting towards a goal. It may seem like it’s got desires of its own, but it’s only behaving as such. It’s only got, for the sake of this discussion let’s call it the “behavioral” aspect of the desire. It doesn’t feel the emotions that led to the formation of the desire. At the end of the day, it’s still following a chain of commands. Winning the game is not its own will. It hasn’t got free will.”

“And because we have free will, we must not be purely physical beings?”

“Yes. All physical beings are subject to determinism, and no object bound by deterministic laws can have free will. Therefore, there must be something more to us than the physical.”

“It's a good argument.” Namjoon smiled, but before I could respond, he held up three fingers in front of me. “But for it to work, you need all three premises to be true.” 

Namjoon brought down the first finger.

“First, that we have free will.” Namjoon brought down his second finger. “Second being that nothing subject to determinism can have free will. And for what it’s worth, I don’t myself believe that either of them are false.”

Then the third finger came down.

“But for the argument to be sound, you need its third premise to be true as well, and I'm not quite sure that that is the case. 'All physical systems are subject to determinism.' Now this could be true, but a lot of recent empirical evidence gathered by scientists has started to suggest that the fundamental laws of physics governing this universe are in fact not deterministic, but probabilistic. For example, say we have a radioactive atom that has an eighty percent chance it’ll break down in the next twenty four hours, and a twenty percent chance that it won’t. You collect a bunch of these atoms, and eighty percent of them break down and twenty percent don’t. Now, according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, there’s no underlying causal explanation for why that happens, why the atoms that broke down did break down and why those that didn’t break down didn’t. Determinism claims that if you set up the atoms exactly the same way, they've always got to break down, right? But the answer, according to the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics, is that that’s not how it works. All there is to say is that some of these atoms are going to break down and some won't. So determinism isn’t true at least at the level of fundamental physics. Which gives way to the possibility that all purely physical systems are not deterministic, and that it is possible for us to have free will and be a purely physical being at the same time.”

It was difficult to argue against that so I sighed and leaned back against my bed.

“Fine,” I conceded, “say you’re right and we’re entirely physical beings and keeping my brain alive is all there is to it. But I honestly still think that it’s pointless. What possible use is there in keeping my brain alive? I won’t be able to talk or see or hear or feel a thing. Personally, I can’t think of a more unpleasant scenario.”

“Actually, I believe that we’ll be able to provide you with a certain amount of vision, but let us take this slowly. I’ll explain the surgery to you in detail. But before that, the fact still remains: you’re going to die fairly soon whatever happens, and if there’s anything I can do about it, I am.”

“Seems to me,” I drawled, “there'd be some doubts as to whether I were dead or alive by the time you'd be finished with me.”

Namjoon laughed out loud and nodded his head in agreement before he stood up again and walked over to the window across the room.

“I suppose you’re right about that. But I don't think you ought to turn me down quite so quickly before you know a bit more about it.”

Trying to stop Namjoon was futile and I knew it so I didn’t bother. As much as I disliked it, I must admit the idea intrigued me, at least on some superficial level.

“Go on. It is not as if I could come over there and stop you.”

Namjoon twisted around and quirked an eyebrow at me like he was coming to some kind of conclusion in his mind, but whatever it was, he didn’t say. Instead, he pulled out his case of cigarettes and plucked one out, placing it between his lips before he fetched a tiny silver lighter from the pocket of his trousers to light the stick.

“At the very moment of your death,” he began after exhaling a mouthful of smoke, and I idly watched it rise up into the air till it dissipated. “I would have to be standing close by so that I’d be able to step in immediately and try to keep your brain alive.”

“You mean leaving it in the head?”

“To start with, yes. I’d have to.”

“And where will it be afterwards?”

“If you want to know, in a kind of basin.”

“You’re serious?”

“Certainly I am.”

For a brief moment, I felt the absurdity of the discussion bubble up at the back of my throat, but I swallowed the sourness back down. That I was even entertaining the thought was ridiculous in itself, but there was no point in bringing attention to it at that point.

“Alright, go on.”

“As you already know, when the heart stops working and the brain is deprived of its blood and oxygen, its tissues die very rapidly. Anything between four to six minutes and the whole thing's dead. Even after three minutes you may suffer some substantial amount of damage. So I’d have to work very rapidly to prevent that from happening. However, with the help of the machine, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Do you know anything about the vascular arrangement of the brain?”

“No.”

“Okay, listen to me carefully then. The brain gets its blood supply from two main sources: the internal carotid arteries and the vertebral arteries. There are two of each, making them four arteries in total. Got that?”

“Yes.”

“The return system is even simpler. The blood is drained via two large veins, the internal jugulars. So you have four arteries going up and two veins coming down. Around the brain itself they naturally branch out into other channels, but those don't concern us. We’d never touch them.”

Namjoon pulled the cigarette from his mouth, holding it between two of his fingers and pointing it at me.

“Now imagine you’ve just died.”

“Exciting.”

“You’ve just died,” Namjoon continued, unconcerned. “And I would immediately cut open your neck and locate the four arteries, the carotids and the vertebrals. I would then perfuse them, which means I’ll basically stick a large hollow needle into each one of them. These needles would be connected to the artificial heart via tubes. Then working quickly, I would dissect both the left and right jugular veins and hook them up to the machine as well to complete the circuit, and there you are, the circulation to your brain would be restored.”

“I’d be like that dog.”

“I don’t think you would. You’d certainly lose consciousness when you die, and I don’t think you’d regain it for quite some time. But either way, conscious or not, you’d be in a rather interesting position, don’t you think? A living brain inside a dead body.”

It sounded like a frightful nightmare. But the excitement was evident in Namjoon’s voice, and I don’t think he noticed that I didn’t share it. It was as if he was unable to imagine why anybody would not feel the same entrancement that he did.

“We could now afford to take our time,” he said. “And believe me, we’d need it. We’d first wheel you to the operating room, accompanied by your heart of course. It must never stop pumping. And the next problem would then be to remove your brain from your dead body, undamaged and intact. The body is of no use at this point. In fact, it’s already begun to decay.”

I stared at the ceiling just to look away from Namjoon for some time. The unease had begun to crawl in finally. The conversation had finally departed from the realm of the detached, and it didn’t feel so much like a hypothetical anymore. It made my stomach tighten with a foreboding sense of horror, and I watched the white plaster and the fan slowly making its circles as Namjoon continued to describe with a discomforting clinicality what he was going to do to me.

“The skull and the face would be useless too. They’d both be hindrances, and I don’t want them around. All I want is the brain. So when I get you on the table, I will take a small oscillating saw and proceed to remove the whole vault of your skull. You'd still be unconscious at that point so I wouldn't need to bother with the anaesthetic.”

That had my head snapping back down to meet Namjoon’s gaze.

“Like hell you wouldn’t.”

“You just died a few minutes ago. You’d be out cold, I promise you.”

“Nobody’s sawing off the top of my skull without an anaesthetic,” I said.

For one brief moment, Namjoon parted his lips as if to argue, but then he closed it again and shrugged his shoulders, probably realising that it wasn’t worth the fight.

“Doesn’t make a difference to me. I’d be glad to infuse your whole head from neck up with procaine if that’s what you want.”

“Thank you.”

“It’s funny though,” Namjoon began, “just last week a patient was brought to me unconscious, and I opened his head without any anaesthetic at all. I was still working inside the skull, trying to remove a small blood clot, when he woke up and began talking to me as if nothing was wrong. He couldn’t feel a thing, and the next day he held no recollection of the incident when I asked him about it. The brain is truly a funny thing.”

“I’ll have the procaine,” I told him pointedly.

“As you wish, Taehyung-ah.” Namjoon rolled his eyes. “Now, where was I? Yes, I'd take the oscillating saw and detach your calvarium completely. This would expose the top half of the brain, or rather the outer covering within which the brain is wrapped.”

Namjoon slowly strided back to the bedside where he’d dragged his chair to sit beside me. He seated himself in it again and leaned over me to knock his knuckle against my temple. I flinched back, and Namjoon grinned.

“You may not know this but our brains have three separate coverings: the dura mater, the arachnoid, and the pia mater. Most people believe that the brain just floats around naked inside the skull, but it’s actually wrapped up nicely inside these three membranes, and the cerebrospinal fluid flows between the pia mater and the arachnoid. Now, I myself would leave these three coverings intact for several important reasons, one of them being that within the dura run the venous channels that drain the blood from the brain into the jugular veins.”

Namjoon took a pause and leaned back in his chair. His face wasn’t as unconcerned as before. His eyebrows knitted together in the center and his lips pressed together in a fine line.

“The next few steps are trickier. We’d have to lift the whole brain cleanly, and this would mean chipping away a whole lot of bone, severing many nerves, and cutting and tying numerous blood vessels. The only way I could perform it with any hope of success would be by taking a rongeur and slowly biting off the rest of your skull until the underneath of the brain covering is fully exposed. The problems involved are highly technical so I won't go into them, but I feel fairly confident that it can be done. It's simply a matter of surgical skill and patience. And I'd have plenty of time since the artificial heart would be pumping away alongside the operating-table and keeping the brain alive. Now, say that I’m able to successfully do that, your brain only remains connected to the body by the spinal column. I would need to sever the spinal column just above the first cervical vertebra. The dura mater is open at this place to receive the spinal cord so I’d have to sew it shut. There’d be no problem there, and after that we’d finally be able to move the brain to a basin which would be filled with what we call the Ringer’s Solution. It’s a fluid used for irrigation in neurosurgery.”

Namjoon stared at me with a wide grin, his arms spread wide open and his fingers splayed out, like he was a gameshow host presenting me with the first prize.

“So there you go, your brain would then be in the basin, still alive, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason why it shouldn’t remain like that for years to come if we took care of the blood and the machine.”

“But would it function?” I asked him skeptically, and Namjoon’s smile fell.

“I’m afraid there’s no way I can tell for certain. I don’t even know whether you’d regain consciousness or not.”

“And if I did?”

“Then wouldn’t it be wonderful?”

“Would it?”

“Of course! You’d have all your cognitive faculties about you as well as your memory and—”

“And not be able to see, hear, talk, feel or move. Yes, very wonderful indeed.”

“Ah!” Namjoon exclaimed suddenly. “I knew I had forgotten something. I never told you about the eye. I am going to try to leave one of your optic nerves intact, as well as the eye itself. The optic nerve is not a nerve really, it’s the outpouching of the brain itself and the dura mater extends along the length of it and is attached to the eyeball. It all suits my purpose very well and makes it reasonable to suppose that I could succeed in preserving one of your eyes.”

“Wonderful. How about leaving me an ear as well?”

“No, no that would not be possible.”

“Why not? I want an ear,” I said. “I insist upon an ear.”

“You don’t understand how difficult it would be.” Namjoon said gently. “The mechanism of the ear is much more delicate than that of the eye. Its hearing apparatus, the cochlea, is encased in bone. As is the auditory nerve that is connected to the brain. I couldn’t possibly chisel out the whole thing intact.”

“Couldn’t you leave it encased in the bone and bring it to the basin?”

“No,” Namjoon said firmly. “This thing is complicated enough already. You really must leave it to me to decide what is feasible and what is not.”

“I haven’t actually said that I’d do it, you know.”

“Yes I know, Taehyung.”

“And I’m not quite sure that I fancy the idea.”

“Would you rather be dead instead?”

“Perhaps I would.”

At that Namjoon’s eyes narrowed. He stood up from his chair and sat on the bed beside me.

“Do you truly believe that?” he asked me.

I met his gaze and there was that hardness in them, the one that spoke of everything he’d seen in his career and his life.

“Tell me,” I said to him, feeling the question on my tongue. It had been there for a while. “Why do you care so much about keeping me alive?”

The way Namjoon’s jaw tightened told me that the question was not unanticipated.

“Of course I care. You’re our leader—”

“But is my life any more important than any other fighter?” I cut him off.

Namjoon fell silent.

For a few moments, neither of us spoke. The silence was heavy with the weight of unspoken memories.

“Don’t you see them?” I asked Namjoon. “Our comrades?”

There was not a day that went by when I didn’t feel them breathing down my neck like cold damp ghosts pressed against my back.

“I led them to their deaths, screaming a whole slew of lies about sacrifice and freedom. Told them to give up their lives for the greater good.”

I laughed. To think they’d listened to a fool like me.

“I see them at night, you know? They keep asking me what became of the hearts they gave up.”

The first tear escaped, and I leaned against the headboard and laughed again. There’s no doubt that I looked like a maniac, staring at the ceiling like a fucking fool and laughing as I cried.

Namjoon didn’t speak a word.

“Have I any right to live? Look at me!” Snapping my head back down to meet Namjoon’s eyes, I pulled the blanket off my lower half and exposed what savage stubs remained of my legs. “Is this what you want to save? I killed men! Lied to them right till the end and led them straight to hell! I am a monster!”

I grabbed Namjoon by the front of his shirt and yanked him closer till our noses were nearly an inch apart.

“So don’t fucking tell me I deserve to live any more than they did,” I hissed at him.

The surprise had vanished from Namjoon’s face. In its place was a hardness that cemented itself in the lines of his face.

Namjoon slowly grabbed my hand by the wrist.

“You’re wrong,” he spoke slowly, but certainly. “No death has been in vain. Don’t you ever fucking say that their sacrifice amounted to nothing. We’re where we are because of the deaths of those before us, and we’re the ones who give meaning to their lives. It is the only way we can rebel in this cruel world. Which is why I need you to live. Not because you deserve to live any longer or because I value your life over everybody else’s. No, but because you’re our leader, and you are to play that monster, that bastard, right until the end, deceiving us to the very end. You need to live so that we can use you. That’s all there is to this.”

I let go of Namjoon’s shirt wordlessly and fell back against the bed, staring at the ceiling once again.

“I’m sorry,” Namjoon said softly.

“Don’t be.”

There was a pause as I watched the circling fan blades idly. I do not know how long the silence stretched but when Namjoon spoke again, the quality to his voice was a little different. More uncertain.

“I have yet to tell you one more thing,” he said.

“About my body, I presume?”

“Yes.”

I had guessed it was something like that.

“Initially, Jimin and I had come up with a roadmap of sorts. But we underestimated how fast the illness would spread. There’s a man up in the third district who’s doing some work in thought communication. Jimin has been in touch with him. You know how our brain throws off electrical and chemical discharges while thinking? And that these discharges go out in the form of waves, rather like radio waves?”

“I have some idea.”

“Well the guy has constructed an apparatus somewhat similar to an ordinary electro-encephalograph, but far more sensitive. He maintains that, with a few limitations, it can interpret what a brain is thinking. It produces some kind of a graph which is apparently decipherable into words or thoughts. I have yet to see it do that, but we thought we could somehow integrate that with sound technology and give you your own voice. Jimin claims he can build you a body and perhaps sensory stimulation in the future. But your condition has been deteriorating at a rate neither of us anticipated. So at this point, while we have high hopes for the surgery, the matter of building your body is yet undecided.”

“I see.”

“I will not lie to you, Taehyung. The operation is rudimentary at best. There are a lot of pieces to it we are yet to figure out, but we are running out of time. I know it does not sound reassuring, and you don’t have to answer me immediately.”

Namjoon pushed himself back on his feet.

“I will let you think it over in your time. I’ll drop by day after tomorrow and we can discuss this in further detail if you wish.”

Namjoon had crossed the room and his hand was on the doorknob when I stopped him.

“One last question. Do you yourself truly believe that when all of this is over, when my brain inside that basin, is that still going to be me?”

“I don’t see why not,” Namjoon said, eyebrows crinkling in question. “You’re still the same person after losing your legs. Clearly, we are still us even if we lose portions of our body. Which then begs the question: which part of our body is the most essential in the matter of our personal identity? It would be obvious to suggest the brain, right? After all, our brain is what is responsible for our cognition, our personality, our beliefs, desires, fears, and memories. And your brain will remain undamaged. In fact, it’s completely untouched. We haven’t even opened the dura mater. The big difference is that we’ve severed all but one nerve attached to it. Which just means that your thinking will no longer be affected by your senses. You couldn't possibly feel pain because there wouldn't be any nerves to feel it with. In a way, it would be an almost ideal condition.”

I had a few things to say about how far from ideal it would be, but I was tired. Namjoon left soon after that with promises to drop by the day after the next, and I spent the entire day and night peeling and picking apart the absurd proposition placed before me. 

The idea was unarguably repulsive. It was obscene. The tremendous helplessness that accompanied it frightened me. Once Namjoon put my brain inside that basin, there would be no going back, no way of protesting or revolting.

But at the same time, the more I pondered, the more I began to consider it. Despite its obvious obscenity, I began to see the thought in a different light. Was there not, I asked myself, something comforting in the fact that I could escape death in some form? That I wouldn’t completely vanish and cease to exist in just a few weeks’ worth of time?

My body was dying. There was nothing of it worth preserving anymore. And here, I was being presented with a rare opportunity of getting another chance at life beyond this broken body.

But most of all, there was one salient thought that I now realise was the true tipping point. I felt a desire to cheat the system. The very system we’ve been fighting for years. I felt I could somehow win the awful odds we’d been given. Cheat the corrupt officials and cheat the ministry. Cheat the military and cheat every bloody person who set up this very system designed for us to fail. For us to die miserably without food or money or sunlight, grovelling at the feet of the higher-ups. I wanted to defy the death they’d decided for me.

That was the thought that cemented my decision, and I remember feeling much at ease once I’d made it. I gave Namjoon my answer when he dropped by the next time, and I remember how my appetite increased as well in the coming days and you were so shocked and elated.

This happened two months ago. And I’ve been writing this letter to you for a couple of weeks now. My strength has waned in this time. Jungkook offered to write for me instead, but I wanted to do it myself.

Namjoon, Jimin, and I have discussed several things since that day. They asked me if I was going to tell you, and I told them that I was. You deserve to know the truth, and I tried to give you as accurate an account of the events that occurred as I could. I imagine you feel overwhelmed right now, and most likely betrayed for I kept something as big as this from you.

But my intention was never to hurt you; quite the opposite actually. We’ve fought so much about this, but darling, please, you must know that I only ever want to protect you. You always tried to help in my matters, but I could never allow you to do that. You know that. You got angry when I kept things from you, but I do not wish for you to get caught up in all this. This entire fucking nation could be burning all the way to hell, and I’d still only protect you. And this was my way of doing that. I am telling it to you because you’re my husband and you deserve to know, but I do not wish to involve you in this.

It is my wish that you do not come to look for me. I know you’ll want to. You’re still hurt, but you must let it heal. Please. You must strive to be happy. And I cannot give you that happiness any longer. I became unable to do so a long time ago. So promise me, you must promise that you won’t come looking for me.

Please forgive me for asking this of you. I love you. You know that, right? Within minutes of meeting you, I knew that my life would never, could never be the same again. I won’t hide it; I am so unused to being understood, so unused to being seen, but you saw me. You understood me like no other. I thought to myself that it must be fate. It felt like the glass in my eyes was waiting for your reflection, the expanse of my skin waiting for your touch like spring, my mouth parched for yours in a way I did not know myself until I tasted you. 

I swear I have never loved before as I love you, to the point of tears and with such brilliance. You used to tell me that we’re all made of dead stars, and I do not know much about that, but if there’s one thing I know with utmost certainty, it is that darling, you are undeniably other-worldly.

I dreamt of you last night, truly my last one. You were playing the piano and I was turning the pages for you. I cried when I woke up. I am the luckiest bastard to have lived, to have married you, love. Thank you for giving me the chance to have known you, Min Yoongi. You are a marvel.

Yours,

Taehyung