If of thy mortal goods thou art bereft
And from thy slender store
Two loaves alone to thee are left
Sell one, and with the dole
Buy hyacinths to feed thy soul
The door clicks shut behind him and Hoseok lets out a deep sigh, inhaling crisp air.
The sun is barely out still, the skies a dark purple fading to pink as it stretches towards land and although Columbia is at a lower altitude now than it was in the summer, the air is bitingly chilly as Hoseok rushes to get to work. It's always warmer in the shop.
Hoseok supposes that he really should hurry. It's the third time this week he's running late and he knows his boss wouldn’t appreciate it if he swept into the store twenty minutes past the clock. Taking a bite of the bread he brought out, Hoseok dashes onto the streets and pulls on his jacket, hoping to slip into his place behind the counter before Mr Botega could notice his errant employee coming in late for his shift once again.
The establishment is called Botega’s Blooms and not for the first time, Hoseok wonders what an unpleasant man like Albert Botega is doing with a flower shop. Peonies, camellias, roses, orchids, and a list of other flowers that Hoseok could not even begin to fathom pronouncing, are delivered every day at five to the sleepy business and Hoseok’s duty is to ensure that all the delicate stock made it into the safe shelter of the shop before they lost their beauty. He doesn’t usually mind moving in the boxes of flowers through the door, doesn’t mind the splinters and arranging buds into their pots, but having to encounter Mr Botega’s sneering disapproval every time he makes a mistake takes a toll most mornings.
“Late again,” is Mr Botega’s clipped response as Hoseok runs into view, his hands already closing around the rough crate-wood. “I do not pay you to sleep in, boy.”
Hoseok suppresses an annoyed huff and nods quietly, preferring to do his job so that he can retire to relative comfort behind the register after everything was done. The orchids go into their perch on a wooden shelf and Hoseok heaves the white roses to the place in the front of the store, a quick spritz of water leaves yesterday’s freesias in fine condition and Hoseok’s mind wanders as he ambles his way around, making sure everything is in place. Hoseok hopes Mr Botega’s daughter would spend some time in the shop before leaving for school later, he had ordered in a fresh shipment of lilacs that he is sure she would love.
It's stupid, Hoseok thinks, heart beating a little faster, but at the same time, he knows he can't help but to believe that if he wishes hard enough, the girl of his dreams may return his affections.
Elizabeth Botega is everything that her father isn’t. Kind, sweet and beautiful. Her hair is just that shade of warm brown that resembles rich loamy earth and Hoseok adores how it curls as it brushes against her shoulder. The way her amber eyes light up when she laughs makes his heart melt like sticky toffee and when she giggles, it's like a tinkling bell, but most of all, Hoseok loves how Elizabeth’s lips quirk into a half-smile whenever she teases him, almost like she's holding back an important secret. Today happens to be Wednesday, Hoseok reminds himself a little happily, and it's only a few hours more before she will waltz down those stairs wearing that blue silk dress with the ribbon and blow him a kiss before skipping down the road.
His heart leaps at the thought.
Exquisite like a rose and just as fair, the thought of Elizabeth leads Hoseok to think about the necklace he has tucked away somewhere behind his pillow. It's a pretty trinket that had caught his eye at the Columbia Raffle two months ago and while Hoseok has always meant to gift it, he hasn't been able to summon the courage today and once again regrets his nervous constitution. The urge to do it tomorrow is just as strong as the urge the day before, and the day before that, but Hoseok never quite dares to bring it. Still he promises himself to do it tomorrow anyway.
Tomorrow, Hoseok tells himself. Tomorrow.
The disappointed pit in Hoseok's stomach leaves unpleasant pangs so he busies himself with waiting.
But Hoseok’s wistful reverie is unceremoniously broken when a man walks into the store and stalks to the back shelves, passing him with nary a glance. Dressed finely, with neatly pressed slacks and an embroidered vest, the man peers at each shelf with poorly-concealed apathy. Hoseok makes to offer his services but stops himself. He wants to walk up to the man and but the strange manner he conducted himself is enough to give anyone sufficient pause. The man stayed stock still, eyes trained onto a pot. Most customers would have strolled around the store once or twice before settling on a buy and Hoseok doesn't really understand why those rhododendrons seemed so interesting but either way, Hoseok is sure he doesn't want to deal with a potential madman in the morning.
But before Hoseok can be further unsettled, a harsh bark snaps his gaze back to the shop's entrance.
“Citizen! Have you seen a man running past?!”
Hoseok jolts from his position and stands to meet the policeman. Sweat trickles down from his brow from under a deep blue cap and his pistol which he's holding up is still smoking slightly from the barrel. Outside, the thundering of more footsteps suggested that there was trouble rife, and Hoseok tries not to shrink from the disdaining glare of the man before him.
“Have you seen anyone?!” the policeman presses, eyes narrowing in impatience.
For a brief second, Hoseok’s eyes glances back to the man at the back of the shop. The man has turned around now, his kohl-lined eyes regarding Hoseok calmly underneath a shock of silver blond hair. Hoseok could almost make out the bruise forming by his mouth even underneath the slight shadow cast from one of the shop’s lights. All at once, Hoseok knows what he has to say.
“No, sir. No one ran past here.”
The policeman spits in irritation and Hoseok looks down at his hands, waiting for the thud of those leather boots to fade before looking back up. His heart beats like a fluttering bird against a cage and Hoseok’s brain feels filmy and slow, he lied to the authorities. The man in the shop can now kill him, kill him to silence any witnesses and he won't evet be able to spend his week’s wages on the boiled sweets at New Eden Square.
He wanted to try the lemon ones.
Hoseok watches the man slip out from behind the shelf and hopes that he just leaves. Elizabeth doesn't deserve to be scarred by seeing his bloodied body on the wooden floors, ruining the new polish her father had just made Hoseok put in. The lilacs have just arrived. Today should have been a happy one. But as the man walks closer to the counter, Hoseok feels his heart beat faster in staccato. He watches those brown eyes and flinches when the man lifts a hand to wipe at the blood from a split lip.
“Do you have hyacinths?”
His words are slow and slurred, melding together in a cadence that was strange to Hoseok’s ears.
“No. We don’t usually have hyacinths. But we could place an order for some if you’d like?” Hoseok offers, practiced words tumbling forth from his mouth. “Perhaps the purple wisterias would do for now?”
The man laughs and shakes his head, as if this exchange is perfectly normal and a policeman did not just wall in with a smoking gun. The man is his age, Hoseok thunks uncomfortably, give or take a few years. And despite his clothes, Hoseok can tell that he isn't from around this part of town. His brown eyes belied a weariness that his smile made no allusion to and Hoseok just wanted the man to leave.
“No—that’s all right,” the man replies easily, combing a hand through his hair. “I’ll wait for those hyacinths if you don’t mind.”
Hoseok nods mutely and tells the man to wait as he turns to get the order pad. Hoseok is reasonably certain that he isn't going to die since he hasn't already but worries about how to justify a shipment of hyacinths with nobody to collect them by the end of the week. Furthermore, he needs the name and address of a potential customer to make a special order and he isn't sure how Mr Botega will react to having a potential terrorist’s name on the books.
When Hoseok's fingers finally stop trembling around the pad, he realises that he needn’t have worried because when he finally turns back around, the store is empty once more.
Hoseok turns from the mirror where he was straightening his bow tie. Elliot, one of the orphanage’s newest charges peers from behind the door, his green eyes wide with poorly-concealed curiosity. Elliot’s mop of red hair was instantly recognizable since the day he got dumped on the porch step with a toothy smile, and since then, the scamp seemed content passing his days with terrorizing the cooks and rummaging through Hoseok’s things.
Hoseok turns back to the mirror. He doesn’t need to follow Elliot’s gaze to know what he was referring to. The choker he had bought for Elizabeth lay on the wardrobe, the charm polished to a new shine and glinting from the light off the sconces. Hoseok hopes she likes it. An entire afternoon spent pored over it with metal polish and a clean rag ensured that it shone like silver. Sure, it’s made out of metal, and probably not as finely crafted as something more expensive would be, but it is definitely something that he could bring Elizabeth without fear of rebuke. Two months’ wages are more than a decent sum to spend on a girl like her.
“None of your business, Elliot,” Hoseok replies easily, tucking the choker into his jacket pocket. The scamp is not as cute as he imagines himself to be and Hoseok does not have the time tonight to entertain him. Elizabeth is waiting for him at the dance and not a minute shall be wasted. Nevertheless, Elliot’s dejected face as he shuffles away reminds Hoseok of a pair of boys he led once in the orphanage. They had the same pout and glossy eyes whenever Hoseok refused to play with them after some assumed slight… but that was a decade ago, Hoseok reflects quietly, dusting imaginary lint off his shoulders. The turnover rate of the orphanage had always been very high and Hoseok barely sees each charge for more than a few months before they’re adopted. And anyway, they’re gone now.
Besides, tonight isn’t the time to consider why Hoseok has been left here in the old tucked away cranny of New Patriot Lane for the past twenty years.
The streets are decorated with fairy lights and Hoseok rushes past the festivities to get to the square. The “Bee” Sharps is thebarbershop quartet to hire for Columbia’s parties and Hoseok can just about hear their singing over the racket of an excited crowd on a night out. Hoseok has a bouquet of lilacs and snapdragons with him but if he does not hurry, Elizabeth will receive only a crushed handful of bruised petals after Hoseok is done pushing his way through the throng.
The square is filled with dancing couples, tall dashing men lifting their lady companions up by their waists, colourful skirts lighting up the night. His date isn’t in sight but Hoseok knows better than to shout for Elizabeth. Heavens knows that there could be at least fifty of them in this square alone. Struggling to spy curly auburn hair, Hoseok is about to squeeze to the other side of the square when a small hand closes around his upper arm.
Elizabeth is at his side, her hair bouncing around bared shoulders, bright eyes sparkling as he hands her the bouquet and she hands him a ginormous cotton candy.
She’s wearing green tonight, dress brushing her ankles, revealing that tantalizing strip of flesh between her heels and the lace hem of her skirt. Suddenly, Hoseok feels parched. The herringboned corset is strung so tightly, Hoseok wonders how Elizabeth is breathing in that monstrous contraption; her chest heaving with every inhalation. She grows very red when Hoseok is caught looking.
“Let’s dance,” she says sweetly and tugs at his cuff, Hoseok acquiescing with a dazed nod. Tonight is shaping up to be everything it promised to be.
They must have been dancing for about an hour because when Elizabeth finally allows them both a breather, there is sweat darkening the curls near her brow and her chest heaves heavier than before. Hoseok buys them both soda from a nearby hawker and laughs when Elizabeth spills nearly half of it down her front in her haste to down it. Although, he finds it considerably less funny when she wipes at her chest with a handkerchief, flushing pink. Hoseok doesn’t think he has ever been this happy in his life. The stars twinkle like jewels in the sky and he still has hours to spend till he is due to bring Elizabeth back to Mr Botega.
It’s time, Hoseok tells himself. Give her the choker, tie it around her neck and ask her to be yours. There is no better time for it, best to act now when Elizabeth is smiling shyly and sipping daintily at the lip of the soda bottle before some other attraction drags her attention away. Hoseok reaches a hand into his pocket and his fingers close around the cool metal, his fingers run over its carved grooves. He had picked a rose. It is cliché, Hoseok concedes bashfully. But what other flower could resemble Elizabeth’s loveliness and Hoseok’s obvious fondness for her aside from a softly unfurling rose?
And an explosion suddenly leaves a storefront emblazoned in hot red flames.
And the crowd goes wild. Like animals to slaughter.
Hoseok pulls at Elizabeth’s hand and she follows, the panicked cries around them growing in volume. His fingers are tight around her fragile wrist and Hoseok hopes he isn’t hurting her. There are screams. Hoseok barely registers a man crumple beside him, clutching at his arm. Blood was already darkly dotting his handsome velvet jacket as he staggers away. They step on fallen bodies of policemen and Hoseok registers the unpleasant feeling of running over broken flesh.
The sirens start to blare once they clear the square. It is the alarm signaling all citizens to return to their homes immediately, long wails repeated for an infinite amount of time as Hoseok brings Elizabeth towards the general direction of the flower shop. Hoseok had intended to bring her the rest of the way but something in his periphery catches his eye.
“No! Don’t go! Hoseok! Where are you going?!” Elizabeth is half in fits and she grabs at his sleeves. “Take me home! Take me home now!”
“I’m sorry, Elizabeth, but—
Hoseok stares at where a limping figure is currently leaning against the bricked wall of the Lincoln Building and he detaches Elizabeth’s hands, her nails leaving red crescents in his skin. “I need to help someone! Just keep running and you’ll be back home in five minutes. Don’t worry about me. Keep running and don’t stop!”
Her eyes are disbelieving as she shakes her head in betrayal, taking off towards home. Hoseok hopes that he would have time to explain his despicable behavior on Monday. But now—
The problem with Hoseok is that he never forgets a face. He hasn’t forgotten the pair of boys that gave him the six best months of his childhood ten years ago and he hasn’t forgotten the man that had stalked into the flower shop a year ago with a bruised face and tired eyes. There is something distinctly familiar about the way the man braces himself against the wall, running a hand through his hair, that has Hoseok walking closer when he should be making sure that Elizabeth got home safe, that he was back in the orphanage.
Why am I doing this, Hoseok thinks hysterically. His bravado has left him upon Elizabeth’s departure and all he has remaining are what’s left of the adrenaline and his damned curiosity. This is unwise, he tells himself, it is stupid and foolish and you’re going to die. But his feet seem to disagree with his rational mind because he walks closer. And closer.
And closer still, not shying away when the man presses a hand against his wounded side with one hand and raises a pistol with the other. Hoseok doesn’t forget a face and he knows this one. His hair was no longer platinum blond, dyed a soft pink instead. But Hoseok recognizes the fatigue in those brown eyes like he had just seen them yesterday and holds his hands up in surrender, hoping the man would hesitate long enough for Hoseok to offer his assistance. He doesn’t say anything when Hoseok pulls his arm across his shoulder and only flinches when Hoseok supports his weight as they limp slowly from the burning debris of Raffle Square. They don’t encounter any police except for the ones already sprawled on the cobblestones and the only noises that pierce the night are the sounds of distant gunshots far away.
They’re safe, Hoseok thinks as he drags the man across the orphanage’s threshold. The madam must have sent all the young ones to bed already because the common rooms are dark and no one is present to see Hoseok aiding a criminal of the state into his room. The man slumps into Hoseok’s bed like a paper doll, half-unconscious and Hoseok shrugs out of his clothes. There is blood blooming in patches on his shirt and Hoseok is sure that no amount of bleach could undo the ugly red-brown stains from marring the cotton. The jacket’s right sleeve is entirely soaked and Hoseok thumbs at the choker still in his pocket.
“Alcohol,” the man breathes, his voice barely louder than a whisper. “Alcohol, scissors, a needle, candle and thread.” The man’s eyes are half-closed and Hoseok feels his throat run dry, nodding before rushing out to procure whatever the man needs. He didn’t walk all this way just to have a corpse cooling between his sheets.
The supplies are shoddy and the lit candle casts eerie shadows across the room. Undeterred by the lack of proper lighting, the man cuts himself out of his clothes with shuddering gasps and Hoseok turns away when he sees fingers dig into the open oozing bullet wound in his side. The blood trickles out sluggishly when the dull grey bullet is retrieved and Hoseok prays to the Founders that the man pulls through to see the morning. With trembling hands, Hoseok sterilizes the needle with alcohol and heats it on the open flame before pushing it through pale skin, pulling the puckered wound closed. The man shuts his eyes and sighs when Hoseok cuts the thread, turning his sweaty face into Hoseok’s pillow.
Hoseok watches him till dawn breaks.
“Reckless and unchivalrous,” Mr Botega spits, cheeks flushed with indignation. Hoseok had suffered the worst when he had arrived at work that morning, uncharacteristically early, and so the man’s low muttering outbursts are easily ignored. Hoseok keeps his eyes on the counter in front of him, waiting until the words on the morning’s herald meld together into a grey blur. He can feel last night seep in like a tired ache into his bones.
Elizabeth has not looked at him since she came down. Her hair is tied up behind her in an artful plait, and there is a scratch beside her mouth, no doubt when something grazed her yesterday, but otherwise she looks no more worse for wear. And physically, she might not have been harmed but Hoseok knew that he hurt her yesterday, abandoning her in the middle of a Vox attack. Her eyes betray her despondency and Hoseok deeply wants more than anything than to restart last night: to wipe that uncertainty off her mien. Sighing, Hoseok forces himself to gaze at something other than the newspaper or Elizabeth.
The light of day has cleared the senses and Hoseok sits through his shift with a latent panic clawing under his skin. He wasn’t thinking yesterday when he helped the man. And now—now, Hoseok thinks, bile rising up his throat, there is a Vox traitor hiding in my room. The most trouble Hoseok imagined himself getting into last week was returning Elizabeth later than her set curfew and the absurdity of Hoseok’s situation almost made him laugh in despair. The sentence for harbouring a known fugitive from the state authorities is at minimum a five year sentence down at the Soldier’s Field Cells. Hoseok shudders to think of the consequences should he not be even granted that. But I have committed a crime to Columbia, Hoseok thinks wretchedly, I should be punished.
“H—Hobi,” Elizabeth whispers, causing Hoseok’s head to snap up while Mr Botega watches suspiciously from across the shop. “I’m sorry for what daddy said to you this morning. I mean, I know you left to help that man and it’s not your fault for what happened yesterday regardless.”
Eyes widening, Hoseok nods slowly.
“Is he all right now?” Elizabeth says, her eyes soft and sad, hands wringing in concern. “He looked badly hurt yesterday.”
“He’s doing fine,” Hoseok lies.
“The Vox has really gone too far, haven’t they? Hurting innocent civilians just for their own stupid and dangerous beliefs.” Elizabeth’s voice catches as emotion rushes into her words. Her well-defined brows furrow in obvious disgust at yesterday’s violence. “I—I shall pray to the Founders for them at school today: to wash away their dirty sins and—and for your friend’s speedy recovery as well, Hobi.”
Catching Elizabeth’s soft hand in his own, Hoseok smiles at her gratefully. Yesterday must have done a number on Elizabeth’s nerves because he has never seen her this skittish and afraid, but her kind words are still so inherently herself that it makes Hoseok want to vault over the counter and kiss her. Hoseok tries not to think about Elizabeth’s reaction if she ever finds out that the ‘friend’ Hoseok had left her for is a member of one of Columbia’s most reviled groups. Elizabeth doesn’t deserve to swallow that kind of shock. She is too good a girl to have to accept Hoseok’s mistake.
Perhaps it is better that Hoseok hasn’t gifted Elizabeth the choker yesterday. The man has to go before Hoseok starts officially courting her.
When the clock strikes eight, Hoseok follows Elizabeth’s figure out the door and down the street, accompanied by Mr Botega. The city is on high alert after yesterday’s events and not a half hour goes by without police patrols marching down the cobblestones. However, business in the shop is busy. Weeping women, stoic businessmen, even schoolgirls dabbing at their wet cheeks, walk into the shop asking for funeral wreaths and arrangements. Hoseok runs out of white roses very quickly, and after that, lilies. Even the hydrangeas and orchids go in time and he ends the day with only two stalks of white tulips left.
The last customer Hoseoks serves is an old Chinese woman, her eyes filmy and sunken. She asks for yellow chrysanthemums.
When Hoseok returns to the orphanage, he brings with him a bundle of marigolds. They’d have wilted by next morning anyway and Mr Botega rarely notices what goes in the trash and what doesn’t. He gifts Elinor with one, the girl braiding her hair by the fireplace in the common room and gives three to the madam when she gruffly calls the rest of the children up for their bedtime. The rest, Hoseok keeps for his own room. But he makes sure that he doesn’t go into his room until the sky turns inky.
Hoseok bites at the dry bread, chewing and sipping at the day’s watery broth slowly. He waits for the cooks to grab their coats and leave and the madam to lock the front door before moving from his position at the table. It isn’t until the entire building is silent and still that Hoseok steals away to the kitchens to get another half a loaf of bread.
The man is awake, Hoseok can tell. Brown eyes that are no longer dimmed by the haze of pain, flick to him sharply when Hoseok unlocks his room door. Hoseok places the marigolds in his vase on the wardrobe before setting the food on the bed. Hoseok pushes the stolen serving of food towards the man carefully and watches the Vox’s throat work as he swallows mouthful after mouthful of bread. The man’s lips are still pale but his cheeks have regained a humanly flush, his eyes do not leave Hoseok’s face. Neither of them speak.
When the man is done eating, Hoseok brings him a mug of water. The man licks his lips when he sets the cup down.
“I remember saying that I wanted hyacinths.”
He was looking at the marigolds on the wardrobe. Of course he was, Hoseok thinks bitterly. No doubt, the man still thinks all this a joke, treating Hoseok’s prospects and possible jail sentence as a gambling chip like he did with his own future.
“You have to go.”
“I can barely limp to your mirror and back. I’m not going anywhere. Not till I can walk.”
The man’s voice is hard and steady, challenging Hoseok to disagree and it irritates Hoseok. This isn’t some game and it is infuriating how the man isn’t shifting an inch. Hoseok could not have the man here any longer. Last night was folly, and to have the man stay here at Hoseok’s home after is just plain stupid. Now that he is refusing to leave, Hoseok feels as if he has been pushed to the end of his tether. He can’t have this. He can’t.
Hoseok trains his eyes on the man, the man that is now staring at him unabashedly, wrapped up in Hoseok’s bed as if he owned it. Hoseok has to work for his own keep to retain a room at the orphanage and now, sees no reason why he has to give up his own comfort for some criminal that doesn’t know when to pack up and go. He has done his part, hasn’t he? The man is still alive. But if the police search the building, Hoseok will be punished for this lapse in judgement, for this horrible blunder.
He had worked so long to be accepted in Soldier’s Field but with just mere presence, the man condemns Hoseok back to the corners of society. He will be cast out from the orphanage. He’ll lose his job at the flower shop. He’ll be labelled a Vox sympathizer. He’ll never see Elizabeth again.
The man needs to leave.
“If you throw me out now,” the man continues quietly. “Then you might as well have left me outside to die yesterday.”
Hoseok’s temper cools. Because as much as Hoseok hates to admit it, the man is right. He doesn’t want the man to die. Not because of him. Hoseok doesn’t think he can bear that responsibility.
His eyes are so dementedly brown, the light from the sconces make them even darker.
“Get up,” Hoseok says flatly, rummaging around in the drawer of his night table. “I need to change your bandages.”
It takes time, but after a while, Hoseok doesn’t even remember what the first taste of fear felt like. He no longer jumps at police patrols and doesn’t even bat an eyelash when Elliot hovers around his locked bedroom door. Putting in extra shifts at the shop gives him sufficient money to scrape together an extra portion of a meal and what wouldn’t suffice; he could always swipe from the kitchens. Things are falling together into a new sequence of normal and Hoseok can almost forget what happened a month ago.
At least, that is what Hoseok tries to convince himself when he unlocks his bedroom door every night.
Yoongi. His name is Yoongi, Hoseok tells himself when he steps into the room. Hoseok doesn’t know why he does that. He knows the man’s name well enough. Perhaps it’s to prepare himself.
Yoongi treats the room like his own. He is either bundled into the sheets like a bird nesting for the winter, or lounging by the window seat with his legs propped up against the wall. He moves away when Hoseok has to change the bedsheets and always eyes the food he brings him suspiciously. Most times, Hoseok thinks that keeping Yoongi is almost like having a cat. He stretches and curls up on Hoseok’s bed like one and refuses to share the blankets even when Hoseok tries to yank them away. He gravitates towards sunny warm spots and snarks whenever the bread is too dry or the soup is too thin. It’s almost laughable if he wasn’t so annoying.
The man whines whenever Hoseok changes his bandages and looks wounded whenever Hoseok ignores him, although he is capable of doing the same for hours on end without capitulating. He hums nursery rhymes and songs under his breath in the middle of the night and goes through whatever Hoseok brings back. Yoongi had even dangled Elizabeth’s choker right in front of a blushing Hoseok before cackling and refused to give it back. (He did eventually but that was after Hoseok threatened not to bring dinner back the next night). Yoongi also had no qualms about what he thought.
For example, people have always told Hoseok that he was a bright cheerful fellow. Part of the reason why he clinched the job at the flower shop was his inclination to smile and laugh at anything and everything. Hoseok likes smiling! It makes him feel better when encountering the thought of facing a dreary day and even Elizabeth had always told him that she loves his smile, that she likes how it makes her day better. Everyone likes Hoseok’s smile and it isn’t until Yoongi that anyone has had a problem with it.
“It’s too big.”
“What?” Hoseok asks, turning around.
“Your mouth. It’s too big. It looks horrible when you smile,” Yoongi says, brown eyes trained on Hoseok’s face, closing before he twisted away.
They’ve divided up the bed into two parts. The bigger part closer to the window is for Yoongi since it is also closer to the door and Yoongi can shuffle outside to the bathroom better at night. It's also because Yoongi knows that his injury gives him special privileges with Hoseok and Hoseok can tell with the way the other’s eyes narrow into smug crescents whenever he lords over having more space to sleep. Of course, that smile is always preceded by the man in question sticking his messy head out and poking Hoseok in the side to move.
But despite the annoyance of having to share his room with someone he didn’t want to share it with, Yoongi is a good source of comfort after a grueling day. It didn’t take more than a week for Hoseok to tell Yoongi everything, from the first vestiges of his conscious memory and childhood to his daily activities at the flower shop. Hoseok tells Yoongi about Mr Botega and the orphanage’s madam, and he tells him about how to treat flowers. He tells him about the police patrols declining in frequency and how one of the girls upstairs had been adopted by a couple down in Drury Lane. But most of all, Hoseok tells him about Elizabeth. In return for the food and lodging, Yoongi stays silent and pats Hoseok’s shoulder when the going gets tough and smiles wryly whenever he waxes poetic about her. It's amazing because Hoseok has never had someone he can talk to; to unlatch the tight control he has over his thoughts and let them tumble free. But somehow, a runaway fugitive has assumed that role. Hoseok would have been more worried if he isn’t already so thankful.
Sometimes his heart hurts from keeping everything inside for so long.
This way is better.
“I dreamt of swings again,” Hoseok says as he pulls the curtains apart, the morning sun streaming in on a lazy Sunday. The dust motes sparkle like glitter.
Yoongi hums and stretches, collarbones shifting under pale skin.
It’s been a month since Yoongi moved in and Hoseok still startles a little when he sees someone in what should be his empty room. Tonight, Yoongi is resting by Hoseok’s dresser, breathing heavily, no doubt still trying to get himself to walk more than a few paces. Last night, Yoongi managed five trips lengthwise of the room before Hoseok had to carry him back to bed, fearing that the man might rupture something from the exertion.
“You don’t have to keep practicing,” Hoseok says, setting the food down before carrying an overwhelmed Yoongi back to his nest. “I’m not asking you to go anytime soon.”
Hoseok had brought back a custard danish from the bakery as well as tonight’s dinner. His stomach is already rumbling in anticipation. That and coupled with the kiss on the cheek Elizabeth had gave him when she had arrived home from school and Hoseok is walking on air. He has no doubt that his night would be very much ruined if he comes in to find Yoongi’s intestines splayed across the wooden flooring.
Yoongi curls up on the bed where Hoseok placed him and sighs, soft and defeated. Hoseok brushes away pink locks that are matted to Yoongi’s sweaty forehead and pats his back reassuringly. The police had probably stopped looking for Yoongi anyway. The guilt and shock of keeping Yoongi had faded after the first week and Hoseok would rather see his aid rendered to the end than turn out the man prematurely. But he doesn’t know how to tell Yoongi he doesn’t have to try so hard without flushing in secondhand embarrassment.
Yoongi turns to regard Hoseok.
Hoseok doesn’t like this. He hates how Yoongi sometimes looks at him like he knows something secret that Hoseok doesn’t; how his mouth would quirk to the side and his head would tilt, like Hoseok’s some kind of hard-to-work-out experiment in one of the Lutece Labs.
“No, you’re not,” Yoongi says. He shifts and clutches at his side when he does so, before sinking himself into the bed. Hoseok’s old ratty shirt slips down his thin shoulders and his hair resembles a hurricane-struck field. Pushing back an irresistible urge to cast his eyes down like an discomfitted schoolboy, Hoseok turns to attend to dinner. He has never thought of Yoongi as small, but right now, he looked every part a considering child. A considering child that is still too smart for Hoseok to unravel.
“I think that’s the problem,” Yoongi finishes lowly. Hoseok can see him in the mirror. Yoongi doesn’t shift his gaze away.
And Hoseok doesn’t ask what Yoongi means by that.
“Why don’t you call me Hobi? Isn’t it better than Hoseok-this and Hoseok-that?”
Yoongi avoids Hoseok’s eyes and from the way that the former’s mouth twists, Hoseok already knows he’s not going to get an answer.
Hoseok stands around awkwardly. His legs hurt but he’d prefer standing alert by the doorway than hunched over and asleep by the time the man comes around.
Both Hoseok and Yoongi have been waiting for about an hour for someone that Hoseok’s not sure that Yoongi hasn’t made up. It’s been minute after minute of an excruciating wait for one of the Vox to collect Yoongi from Hoseok’s home, and Hoseok feels those nerves from months ago return. Hoseok knew that Yoongi wouldn’t allow him to get hurt, but at the same time, these people are dangerous. Hoseok trusts Yoongi. But he doesn’t trust whoever’s coming to get him. What if they bring pistols? What if they bring the police?!
Yoongi is sprawled out on the bed, his pink hair, dark at the roots, fanned out around his head as he stares at the ceiling listlessly. He’s dressed in what Hoseok deems are his better clothes, even if the collar of the shirt is a little ratty and slips past Yoongi’s collar bone when he shifts, they are a grade better than the bloodstained rags hidden deep inside Hoseok’s cupboard. Hoseok wonders what he should do with them once Yoongi leaves. He should burn them.
They haven’t said a thing to each other even though Hoseok has so many things on the tip of his tongue it feels like he’s choking back words every time he swallows. He doesn’t know why they are fetching Yoongi so soon either. One morning, Yoongi was grumbling at the sunlight streaming through the windowpanes and in the evening, he’s sitting at the head of the bed and waiting for Hoseok grimly. Hoseok could tell from Yoongi’s face that it wasn’t good news and here they both are, hours later. Waiting for someone that Hoseok will otherwise have loved never to see. Hoseok wants to pry for more information, if anything has happened or if the note Yoongi had asked Hoseok to drop off at the alleyway between the baker’s and the butcher’s was more urgent that Yoongi had let on then. They haven’t spoken much in the past month, their interactions mostly consisting of Hoseok trying to coax non-monosyllabic answers from Yoongi’s lips, and Hoseok cannot help but feel slightly morose now.
“He’s late, you can sit down. You don’t know how much longer he’ll be.”
Yoongi turns his lazy gaze towards Hoseok, mouth pursing. Hoseok doesn’t know whether to feel more uneasy or pleased now that the stagnant silence in the room has been broken.
“I got you hyacinths,” Hoseok offers, walking to the bed and sitting down, mattress dipping under his weight. “The first shipment’s just come in.”
Yoongi smiles and shakes his head. “I can’t bring flowers with me, Hoseok.”
And Hoseok nods understandingly, even if he’s feeling a bit dejected. He had spent weeks convincing Mr Botega that hyacinths were a good flower to introduce and to forego getting yellow tulips for the last shipment. He had been hoping that Yoongi might have liked them more, maybe even pick them up and touch their soft purple petals. But it isn’t the man’s fault. He is going back to the Vox Populi, where he’ll probably be sent out to get shot at again. What is Hoseok thinking, asking Yoongi to bring along hyacinths.
But still it feels strange.
Even if Yoongi has been forced to hide away in Hoseok’s room by circumstance, Hoseok feels troubled by not giving Yoongi a parting gift, or at least something that Yoongi can remember him by. Hoseok doesn’t have the opportunity to make many friends, and even if he is a traitor, Hoseok cannot help but consider Yoongi to be one of his closest. If Yoongi ever suffers another bullet to the side, Hoseok prefers to have the man limp to his place screaming his head off than die inconspicuous in some roadside ditch.
But aside from clothes and a few personal items, Hoseok isn’t sure what he has to give. There are always more clothes, but Hoseok is sure Yoongi has enough back where he lives. He could give Yoongi more food, but it seems so temporal a thing to give someone. Hoseok runs through the inventory of what he can scrounge up in his little room and is disappointed to find that he can’t give much.
“Hey Yoongi,” Hoseok says, leaning over the man to retrieve the pouch from under his pillow. “I’m sure you can bring this with you.”
He knows the choker like the back of his hand. He knows the pattern of the lace trim on the edges and the way the rose petals curve into the heart of the flower. He’s felt its grooves every night and morning. The black velvet ribbon is soft-smooth to the touch and Hoseok lets his fingers run over those familiar edges of the rose petals before pressing the necklace to Yoongi’s palm. He could get another one for Elizabeth.
Yoongi is speechless, eyes widening. Fingers unfurled around his present. “I can’t take this,” he says, staring at Hoseok. “You told me how long it took for you to save up for it.”
“Yes and I want you to have it.”
And Hoseok does. He really wants Yoongi to have it. Roses have thorns and Hoseok cannot imagine someone as pretty and kind as Elizabeth to ever have something as ugly as thorns. Besides, the choker matches Yoongi. The dark of the velvet will bring out the pale of his neck. He can get Elizabeth another necklace; one that is prettier and more suited to her smile, maybe a chain pendant that glinted in the sun and bore his picture inside. One that’s far better. One that isn’t the rose choker, whose silver will now forevermore remind Hoseok of Yoongi’s wry grin.
Yoongi’s gaze drifts to the choker in his hand and he worries at his bottom lip, as if still deciding. Hoseok doesn’t know how the same man who eats his breakfast in just his underwear in the mornings and refuses to help clean the room is the same as the one before him, looking at a roadside trinket like it’s made of varnished gold and bejeweled with the world’s finest sapphires. It isn’t a big deal, Hoseok thinks a bit fondly. Elizabeth wouldn’t have liked that choker anyway.
A knock on the window and both of them jolt from their positions.
Hoseok strides over and pushes the windows wide open, cold wind blowing into the room. It’s winter and Hoseok hopes that the ice doesn’t make Yoongi’s sore side worse. He’s only just begun to walk around normally.
The man has dyed silver hair tossed up in a pretentious silver quiff and so tall that Hoseok decides that he doesn’t trust Yoongi going off with someone that can easily look into Hoseok’s elevated bedroom without some effort. But it doesn’t matter what Hoseok thinks anymore because Yoongi responds easily to the pet name, “sugar”, and tosses a leg over the window.
“You’re late,” Yoongi says and even in the dim light, Hoseok can see how delighted Yoongi is. His smile is unrestrained and his eyes are crinkled into pretty half-moons. Hoseok supposes it’s understandable. It mustn’t have been easy being cooped up in a dingy room for two and a half months, having no one for conversation but Hoseok. The food has been a bit bland too, Hoseok thinks reproachfully.
In any case, it is understandable that Yoongi is excited to return to the Vox, to delve in more action and impetus than Hoseok can ever stand to partake in.
Hoseok’s happy. He’s happy that Yoongi’s going. Soon, he’ll be safe again and he’ll be able to lie spread-eagled on his own bed without having to suffer Yoongi’s knobby elbow to his gut nor the man’s whiny grumbles when the morning is too bright or the night too dark. He could buy those custard puddings and eat them by himself and not have to share, and not have to get those vile strawberry creams that Yoongi prefers. There will be less laundry to do and less things to clean; more silence and peace at night and restful dreamless sleep like the type Hoseok has always had. Moreover, tomorrow’s a Wednesday. Elizabeth always looks most beautiful on Wednesdays.
They both get what they want.
An elegant shift and Yoongi swings another leg over the window. His lover or friend or lover, Hoseok cannot decide, is already halfway down the street. Hoseok is annoyed, considering that Yoongi has only just recovered and shouldn’t be racing to catch up with some asshole that can’t bear to wait for what he was here for.
“Goodbye Hobi,” Yoongi says quietly, glancing at Hoseok over his shoulder once more with those dark eyes before jumping and landing softly on the cobblestone.
Hoseok’s happy. Or as happy as feeling as if you’ve lost something can be.
It isn’t until later that Hoseok notices that the hyacinths are gone from the wardrobe.
Under the worn sheets of his bed, Hoseok feels himself gripped by an unbearable fear. His heart is banging against his chest, clamouring for escape and it hurts. It hurts that he’s so afraid, so afraid of the flashes behind his eyes, of the heat licking at his fingertips, of the ache that strangles his chest and leaves him desperate and wanting. Hoseok remembers what he was dreaming about before he woke and he wishes he didn’t.
It crawls up the hand and singes at the flesh. His fingertips turn red, blistered, shiny with fluid before they split and slowly char black. He’s crying. The bones gleam like shining embers in the dark.
There’s bile in his throat and Hoseok represses the urge to throw up.
“Are you listening to me, Hobi?”
Hoseok jolts and turns to Elizabeth. She’s leaning against the counter, her eyes narrowing as Hoseok rubs his neck apologetically. He hasn’t been a very attentive friend lately and judging by the annoyance playing on Elizabeth’s face, she isn’t about to repeat herself.
“I’m sorry,” Hoseok says, feeling uncomfortable. “I just haven’t been sleeping well—I still dream about that night and s—sometimes, it scares me.”
Elizabeth’s face crumples into worry immediately and she leans over to peer at Hoseok’s face. The half-lie tastes horrible in Hoseok’s mouth and turns his tongue leaden. He didn’t deserve Elizabeth’s ready concern but to tell her the truth would be unthinkable. Hoseok has been dreaming about the Vox attack lately, and in the quiet moments before sleep, he sees flashes behind his closed eyelids, fiery and red. So red. Hoseok always wakes with a stifled scream in his oesophagus and a thundering heart. He hasn’t felt afraid since he was a child and for some reason, Hoseok knows it isn’t about the Vox attack. His stomach sinks and roils whenever he thinks about it, but he can’t seem to bring himself to stop.
Elizabeth sighs and brings a hand to Hoseok’s cheek. Before, Hoseok would have been ecstatic at how the both of them had drawn closer after the traumatic incident, but now, Hoseok just feels unbearably sad. Perhaps if her hair was dyed pink. If her eyes were darker. And Hoseok feels wretched to be thinking that.
Worry, panic-inducing and mindless worry. Hoseok cannot breathe. His stomach pangs and he tries to concentrate on the gardenias in front of him, watching the little curling petals shift in the breeze. And Hoseok keeps his eyes trained on them, even while a spark catches at the tips of blinding white and burns the flower down to its ashes.
The anxiety ramps up to a fever pitch before it simmers into sorrow.
Hoseok reaches up to wipe away blood from under his nose.
“Hobi-hyung,” A boy calls and he laughs, running up to him. His partner waving a stick excitedly in the air. “We found something. Don’t you want to see?”
Hoseok doesn’t need to, he has seen everything already. But he walks over anyway.
“Move those boxes and go.”
Hoseok nods and Mr Botega goes back to the accounts, beady eyes scanning through every transaction made during the day and the list of supplies coming in tomorrow. Hoseok doesn’t quite dare think it, but Mr Botega seems to be nicer to him lately. Perhaps it’s his frequent nosebleeds or maybe Elizabeth has said something about Hoseok’s wan spirits, either way, Hoseok isn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth and he acquiesces quickly.
The boxes are easy enough to lift and Hoseok assumes that he is free to go once he shifts them to the backroom and so without a word, Hoseok slips out of the shop once he is done, just in time to catch the last vestige of sunlight in the horizon.
Wincing as he walks, Hoseok keeps a hand on his abdomen. It has been hurting lately. Small pangs, little annoyances that he attributes to the change in the orphanages’ prepared dinners. And when it feels like he’s burning from the inside out, Hoseok gulps down water and pretends he doesn’t feel it until it goes away. He smiles at Elizabeth as she tells him about the catty girls in church and helps fussy customers until they leave with an armful of fresh flowers and their wallets considerably lighter.
It is different today, though. Hoseok has gotten used to the nightmares and nausea, has even learnt how to calm down when he wakes up to bloodied self-inflicted scratches down his chest. But today, Hoseok barely makes it to his bedroom, shouting at Elliot to leave him alone, before collapsing. There’s a distinct layer of pain already. And he feels angry. So angry. Hoseok feels unfamiliar hatred claw up his throat as he rends his sheets into ribbons. He’s burning. Broiling. Scorching. Dying.
Black agony climbs and crushes Hoseok’s heart. He feels almost ready to give in, to give in to these unwanted emotions, to the ligament-stripping pain and die. His head seizes again and Hoseok drags lines up his thigh, trying to contain himself. There’s unexplainable grief intertwined with his feelings of fury, like feathers placed betwixt shards of glass. But the sadness doesn’t stop the pain and Hoseok’s eyes squeezes shut.
There is nothing like it.
Hoseok thinks he might have experienced it once in his dreams: the pain. The fire twisting its way up his spine before drilling past his shoulder blades. Hoseok clenches his teeth and feels tears wetting his cheek as he muffles his screams into the bed. There’s a name dancing behind his teeth. Sharp and pretty. Even as Hoseok feels his senses fade, he can’t get him out of his head. He grasps for a slim frame and pale skin, for wide eyes and sour lips.
And he wants to tear them apart.
“Are you sure its him?”
“We don’t have time for this, Park.”
“No no… It’s just that—I think I know him. It feels strange.”
“Strap him down. I need him still.”
“Are you sure that you want to give him the vigour?”
The room is dark and Hoseok can hear the pattering of rain outside. It’s been raining for a while and Hoseok wonders when the controllers are going to steer them out of the raincloud they must have mistakenly gotten under. He can’t seem to focus on the voices, faces swimming in and out of view, making his head ache. There is a hand on his upper arm and Hoseok feels the rising panic ebb away. The pain feels duller now.
Another streak of fire razes down his left and Hoseok jerks to the side. He tried to struggle against the pair of arms pinning him down, but he’s so exhausted that he can hardly put up any concerted resistance. Leather straps cut into his skin. They stab him in the heart. The pain pierces excruciatingly and then everything fades.
The room is small, smaller than the Hoseok’s quarters. It smells like mouldy vegetables and the only light seeping into it is from the hallway outside. Hoseok has been awake for an hour now and the thundering rain outside doesn’t cease, the patters of heavy raindrops echoing the drumming inside his skull. He wants to get up but is afraid what might happen to him once the people outside realise that he is awake. In the corner of the room, Hoseok spies multiple abandoned bull-headed helmets and pretends not to notice them.
The pain is a distant memory and the only thing Hoseok feels is a distinct leaden sluggishness to his limbs. Curiosity finally overpowering his trepidation, Hoseok squirms out from under the musty covers.
The room outside is brightly lit and there is a young man sitting at a table. Hoseok would feel more disconcerted at his sunny smile but he is too tired to confront anything he doesn’t strictly have to. All Hoseok wants is to go home and get along with his mundane life. But the man grins brightly and waves Hoseok over and so he goes.
“How are you feeling?” he asks and Hoseok manages a smile.
Almost as if he senses Hoseok’s discomfort, the man pats Hoseok’s shoulder gently and all at once, Hoseok feels marginally better. There’s something about the boy. Something uncanny that leaves Hoseok at ease and yet, not really. The way he grins and flaps excitedly as he introduces himself, the way he tilts his head to the side, the way his face scrunches up, reminds Hoseok of someone he used to know. But trying to remember makes Hoseok’s head throb further.
“My name is Park Jimin,” he continues blithely, as if he has known Hoseok for years. And Hoseok remembers the name Jimin. He remembers—
“Your nose is bleeding,” Jimin says concerned and Hoseok sighs. His illness doesn’t seem to have fully been cured. Jimin generously sacrifices his handkerchief and Hoseok spends the next half hour with his head bent forward, hoping that the migraine and nosebleed will pass, while Jimin distracts him.
“But we’re a little apart from the Vox’s main movement. Namjoon makes sure we’re all kept in line and we usually go out on little missions to speak to those sympathetic to our cause. We don’t usually join the main movements unless they involve our part of town anyway and since the Vox are concentrating on Fink, it’s been pretty quiet around here—
Jimin continues chattering away about the Vox Populi branch that Hoseok has somehow found himself in the heart of and laughs happily like he wouldn’t be executed the moment the police find out where they are. And Hoseok should be anxious, terrified of how he’s going to get home and hide this stain of where he’s been and who he’s met away from the good society of New Patriot Lane and its neighbourhood, but he feels nothing more than a stunning lack of distress. He lets Jimin continue to talk and his heart to settle down into a steady tempo.
Apparently it was Jimin and that silver-haired fellow, Namjoon, who had carried him from his room at the orphanage. Hoseok doesn't quite follow what Jimin is saying about anything, and he hears nothing about the pain, but he does catch what Jimin says about the vigours to stop his shaking fits. They sell vigours in little vending machines all over Columbia, expensive things they were, and Hoseok cannot imagine buying even the simplest ones on his paltry salary every week. It is to barely concealed surprise that Hoseok listens to Jimin talks about them as if they were roadside goods. And Hoseok has never heard of the vigour Jimin is describing.
“So which was it,” Hoseok interjects, feeling more confused as Jimin blathers on about some other people keeping watch for any side-effects as Hoseok rested. “Was it Possession? Or Bucking Bronco?”
Jimin shakes his head. “It’s a different one, Hoseok. I think Namjoon can tell you more about it once they’re done with their meeting. And maybe you’ll meet the others then too.”
The food Jimin brings for Hoseok as they talk is nice and Hoseok learns that the cook, Seokjin, is a veritable genius when it comes to food. Although, Jimin’s barely concealed jabs that his skill was derived from his expansive appetite doesn’t go unnoticed. Taehyung is Jimin’s self-proclaimed soul sister and Jimin’s eyes light up in mischief whenever the former’s name tumbles from his lips. Furthermore, Jimin spends a considerable amount of time talking about his favourite person in the world. Hoseok finds himself fluttering his eyelashes teasingly every time Jimin even mentions the name Jeon Jeongguk, much to the younger’s annoyed amusement. If Jimin hadn’t dry-heaved so dramatically when Hoseok brings up Jimin’s possible romanticadmiration for the guy, Hoseok might have just bought into the love.
“But he’s really cute, Hoseok!” Jimin whines pathetically, shoveling more thick broth into his mouth. “You have to see him. You’d want to squish him, I swear.”
“I see you’re awake.” They both look up to see Namjoon standing in the doorway. Jimin gets up immediately and clears their bowls away. “Jimin says that you may have some questions?”
Hoseok stares at Jimin suspiciously. The boy hasn’t left his side and unless Jimin managed to send a message through alphabet soup while they were in the kitchens, Hoseok doesn’t know how the boy could have told the leader of the merry Vox traitors that Hoseok has some questions that had to be personally addressed. Besides, the last time Hoseok has seen Namjoon, he was taking Yoongi away while the latter was still injured. He isn’t sure that he has much to say to him now that is worth listening to.
Namjoon refuses to drop his eyes and so Hoseok is stuck in an uncomfortable stare-down with a man he does’t even quite like.
“He asked about the vigours,” Jimin offers.
Namjoon opens his mouth to speak, or at least Hoseok believes he would have if not for the fact that his audience seems to have suddenly lost interest. Hoseok still wants to know what they injected into his body to stop the pain, how it stopped it and where the pain came from. He wants to know what ability has he magically been given now that he’s been given a vigour. He wants to ask more about the Vox, what they plan to do with him and if he’ll ever be allowed home. Hoseok has so many questions and he’s sure that he’ll soon get the answers. But for now, all of them seem unimportant. Like puddles when compared to the vast blue sea.
Walking a bit behind Namjoon is a face that Hoseok has missed sorely.
The last time Hoseok said goodbye, he assumed that he would never see Yoongi again. If fortune stands, their paths would not have crossed. But Hoseok has never felt more glad that he had always been unlucky.
His hair is not pink anymore which leaves Hoseok somewhat disappointed, but green looks lovely on him and it makes the pink of his cheeks more apparent, like cherry blossoms in the fall. Yoongi’s eyes are still dark when they look at Hoseok, unsure and apprehensive and Hoseok feels his stomach grow hot. His fingers itch at the tips and his heartrate accelerates.
Hoseok hasn’t quite figured out the extent of the affection he feels for Yoongi, but he’s more than ready to admit that he’s missed the man more than he thought he would have.
Yoongi pushes his hair out of his eyes and his half-smile leaves Hoseok feeling a bit breathless. But Hoseok notices the bandages all along Yoongi’s arms. A spike of worry sends Hoseok closer, carefully tugging Yoongi’s wrist up to inspect his arms. The bandages look new.
“I’m sure you know my second,” Namjoon says a bit later, smirking.
Hoseok would feel more annoyed if he isn’t so happy and is eternally grateful when Jimin pushes Namjoon out of the room, announcing that they have matters to attend to and that it wouldn’t do to be late.
Yoongi lets Hoseok turn over his arms this way and that, only wincing slightly when Hoseok’s fingers skitter over somewhere too tender. Hoseok feels more animosity towards Namjoon after watching Yoongi gingerly prise Hoseok’s fingers away from his delicate arms. Hoseok had tried his best to return Yoongi to the Vox alive and hale, Namjoon has only just gotten Yoongi back and already, the latter is nursing new wounds. If this is how the Vox treated their second-in-commands, Hoseok has half a mind to smuggle Yoongi back. It’s stupid but Hoseok entertains the silly idea of Yoongi back with him once more without the idiot Namjoon endangering his life in unnecessary raids or whatever it is that left Yoongi wrapped up in bandages again.
But even while Hoseok likes the thought, he knows that there’s no way that Yoongi is leaving with him. There’s an easy authority that sits beautifully on Yoongi here. And even while looking far too thin and small in his worn clothes, Yoongi looks more at ease than he ever did in Hoseok’s room. Hoseok heart breaks a little.
“I’m sorry to drag you into this,” Yoongi says at last. He sighs frustratedly, pulling at a bandage fastening. “I never meant for you to—
Yoongi’s gaze softens and Hoseok’s stomach flips.
Hoseok must have been waiting forever for a chance with Yoongi again because he feels words bubble up to the surface and suddenly, he’s telling Yoongi everything that has happened since his departure. He tells Yoongi about the new shipment of foreign flowers from the colonies below Columbia, about his plans to attend the Winter Soiree, Elizabeth’s new dress and Yoongi nods and listens carefully, like he always does. His eyes are as dark as they were all those nights ago under candlelight. It’s with a bittersweet taste that Hoseok lets himself grow fonder of the other man.
“You’re not wearing the choker I gave you,” Hoseok says reproachfully. Yoongi looks genuinely apologetic but his expression slides off quickly when Hoseok starts guffawing. Yoongi is so pretty when he is angry, Hoseok wonders if that’s the reason why he loves antagonizing him. Yoongi scowls and rolls his eyes disgustedly. Hoseok wants to wipe off the frown with his lips.
But he doesn’t.
The air smells like fresh rainfall and dust. The back wall is covered entirely in grimy windows where the never-ending rain streaks down, covering the room with grim sobriety. Which it could have managed if not for the loud prattle.
In a wide open hall that Yoongi calls the Battle Room, Hoseok sees the strength of the “Patriot” Vox. Reports of the reviled Vox Populi weren’t exactly uncommon, the papers writing in length about the unholy chaos every other weekend, claiming the rebellion threatened to destroy the very fabric of society that Comstock has created in preparation for the Second Coming, deriding their godless ideas and ruthlessness. Unsurprisingly, Hoseok has many expectations, having always imagined the Vox to be an army of hateful devil-horned felons, gunning down those who opposed anarchy.
An unruly gang of three discussing dinner fulfilled none of them.
“Bangtan Sonyeondan! Or BTS for short,” Jimin exclaims loudly when Namjoon welcomes them into the room and starts the formal introductions.
“I came up with it,” Jimin says happily, eyes crinkling. “I saw it in a book once. It’s one of the ground-languages and I couldn’t read the squiggly symbols but it means bulletproof boyscouts!””
“It could mean bullshit babies for all we know.”
Jeongguk, the object of Jimin’s enthusiastic and exuberant affections, looks every bit as uninterested as Jimin describes while lounging on an old fold-out sofa. And yes, Hoseok is filled with an inexplicable urge to squish the boy before supposing that there must be something about teenage petulance that fills everyone with an irrational need to coddle. Unfortunately, Jeongguk does not seem to be particularly amenable to, it judging by Jimin’s pitiful wail when Jeongguk pushes the older off his lap.
Namjoon reintroduces himself and Hoseok takes his hand with the minimal amount of suspicion that he can muster. He still doesn’t like the silver quiff, or the affable smile the man readily gives him, or that he is so unnecessarily tall but Hoseok understands hospitality and so he accepts the gesture. Namjoon is easily comfortable with the power he holds and their dinner is decided with his final say. Yoongi heeds Namjoon’s decision like a proper second would and the rest fall swiftly in line.
“Tae and Jin are out right now,” Namjoon says by way of explanation and Hoseok carefully does not press for more details.
“It’s a vigour that binds to the OXEB7 genetic sequence, mutating it to produce different proteins. But for each individual, the reaction to the vigour is different because our genetic sequences are unique, which would account for the dissimilar effects of the vigour. The lac Y sequence keeps it straddling the edge of safe and—
“To put it shortly, it’s a vigour that gives each person a different ability,” Yoongi cuts in, shaking his head at Namjoon disapprovingly. “If you let him go on about it, he’ll start in on the experimental process and then you’ll have to sit through him talking about isolating the neural enantiomers.”
Hoseok stares at Yoongi. His head is starting to hurt. “So… each person has their own thing, is that it?”
“Jeongguk used to be a scrawny beanpole and now he can kick down walls,” Jimin chips in. “I can feel emotions and influence others. A bit. I can’t do it very well sometimes. Jin heals. Namjoon seduces machines—
“I do not!”
—Tae, well, no one really knows what Tae does. And Yoongi controls fire.”
Hoseok falls silent. He doesn’t know whether to believe what Jimin is saying. He’s heard of Fink’s mastery over vigours and there was a time where Hoseok would have loved to use Undertow but a vigour that’s different for each user sounds more than a bit like a fib. It has taken years for Devil’s Kiss to be released to just the Police. This vigour sounds…
"You don’t believe us," Jimin says sadly.
A fastening falls to the ground with a metallic clink and suddenly all eyes are on Yoongi. The bandages fall away and Hoseok sees pale flesh slathered over generously with ointment.
“Jin doesn’t want me to accidentally burn myself again if the pain relapses,” Yoongi says and steadily unwinds the rest of the bandages.
Yoongi stretches his hands out when the last of it falls to the floor and huffs at Jimin when the latter comes closer in concern. Jimin backs away obediently but looks extremely reluctant to do so. Even Jeongguk, resident hot-blooded adolescent, tries to approach, only to be batted away angrily. Hoseok doesn’t know why Yoongi isn’t allowed to use his ability but his protests are also silenced with a glare.
“I am not a child,” Yoongi bites and stretches a hand out.
A collective breath.
The flame seems to be alive, writhing above Yoongi’s hand, licking towards the ceiling. Yoongi cradles it with his fingers and his eyes are illuminated by red fire. It reminded Hoseok of the Devil’s Kiss advertisements back when they were still intended for civilian aids except Yoongi looks more at ease with it than the people in those info-tapes ever were. The flame flickers lazily and Yoongi smiles.
But then Yoongi closes his fingers and the flame spits. Hoseok sees the ball of fire between Yoongi’s smooth fingers. It turns blazing orange, then yellow, then green. The ball grows now, bright and hot and Hoseok backs away, feeling the flames heat his face.
It turns white and Yoongi’s eyes close.
When the fire turns blue, Yoongi spins it around his fingers and throws it at the window.
It burns through glass.
“Why am I here then? What do you need me for?”
“Yoongi was having a reaction to the vigour. He kept burning himself from the inside. All Jin could do was to stop and heal it after it happened but he couldn’t stop it from happening,” Namjoon explained, shuffling papers in front of an old scuffed desk. “And then Taehyung said to find you. And so we did.”
“It stopped after you received the vigour as well,” Jeongguk adds. Taehyung eyes him quietly, looking unbearably guilty.
“Some people don’t get an ability after the vigour,” Namjoon continues solemnly as the others fuss over Yoongi. “Taehyung didn’t. But maybe your non-reaction helped calm Yoongi’s overreaction.”
Yoongi’s face is unreadable as he puts on the bandages. Jeongguk brings him a chair and Jimin hovers around him. Hoseok wants to go closer but the angry flush on Yoongi’s cheeks are a clear warning to stay away and so Hoseok does. It feels a bit disappointing, to be given a vigour and having gained nothing of note to remark upon. But perhaps this is for the best, Hoseok tells himself. A vigour would have been unwanted trouble anyway. He’s only here for Yoongi after all.
“I’m going to go outside,” Yoongi announces, shrugging Jimin’s hand off his shoulder. It’s raining outside but nobody questions him.
Hoseok can only guess how embarrassed Yoongi must feel from fainting after his display and so he lets him go without a word. Hoseok doesn’t like how weak Yoongi looks, how the fire seemed to have stolen away the red from his mouth and the light from his eyes. Everyone else in the room averts their eyes as Yoongi’s footsteps echo through the room while Hoseok feels a blanket of unnatural calm settle over his too-fast beating heart.
“He doesn’t like feeling useless,” Namjoon says quietly once Yoongi is far enough away not to overhear. “And he hates that he’s gotten you into this.”
Hoseok can’t stop his gaze from following Yoongi’s retreating figure.
Taehyung tosses his head back in a laugh, eyes crinkling as Jeongguk flushes red.
It has been like that for the past two weeks. Hoseok will wander into the Battle Room after he’s done pottering around in his makeshift bedroom, only to find one of the younger ones fooling around in there. Most of the time, it’s Jimin and Taehyung wreaking havoc and entertaining themselves as the day passes, or Seokjin popping in with another plateful of food. It’s just harmless fun, so that the hours can tick by in something other than silence. If Hoseok is particular unlucky though, sometimes, It’s Jeongguk repressively pining after Taehyung with all the angst and teenage-pain that the boy can muster, while Jimin and Hoseok take turns gagging.
Today is Hoseok’s unlucky day.
Hoseok turns away when Jeongguk runs a hand down Taehyung’s cheek while the latter continues giggling obliviously. As riveting as the Battle Room has been, Hoseok cannot help but want to leave the building to explore. He hasn’t been allowed to, of course, and Jimin is under strict instructions to make sure he stays safe inside the building, but as the sunlight turns the floating dust motes into golden glitter, Hoseok wonders if he could persuade Jimin otherwise.
The younger trio are usually rotated out on missions every other day, with the specifics not known to Hoseok. Jeongguk gets the bulk of them, as is expected since the boy can wrought metal with little effort and makes an attempt to show it off every day, and Jimin is needed to put the marks at ease. That leaves Taehyung bearing the shorter end of the stick. With no abilities and little means to defend himself aside from a toothy grin, Taehyung finds himself lounging around with Hoseok more often than not. But even Taehyung gets to go out whenever they’re low on supplies, to requisition more stores.
“Does it bother you?” Hoseok asks once. “Not having any ability.”
Taehyung’s smile fades and his brows furrow slightly, deep in thought. It’s almost as if the question has never crossed his mind till Hoseok brought it up. But it doesn’t take long before the teenager is smiling brightly again. The change in demeanour unsettles Hoseok.
“No, not really. Does it bother you?”
Hoseok manages a wan smile. He doesn’t really know the answer yet. Taehyung shrugs and creeps in closer to Hoseok, snuggling into his side. Hoseok can’t wait to see the look on Jeongguk’s face once he steps in and sees them both.
“We’ve taught you better than to interfere,” a woman says, her voice detachedly disapproving. She lets go of Hoseok’s hand and Hoseok tries to stop himself peering curiously at her red hair, shining burnished copper in the evening light. The man beside her has been silent the entire walk here.
The woman’s words disintegrate into the warm air and Hoseok stumbles towards home. The madam must be furious. He’s been out for the entire afternoon and now he can’t find his friends and he’s wet and dirty and—
“I want to go out,” Hoseok says to Jimin.
Instantly, the younger looks apologetic. Hoseok knows the answer to his request, and he can’t blame Jimin for denying him either. Straddling the line between a Vox member and a civilian is difficult. Namjoon cannot justify letting Hoseok leave, it’s a security risk at best, and Yoongi refuses to grant Hoseok entry into BTS. In the end, Hoseok is abandoned to wandering around the premises like a poltergeist while waiting for either Yoongi or Namjoon to give in.
He hasn’t seen much of the two since that day either. Yoongi always seemed to be out on reconnaissance whenever Hoseok asks and Namjoon’s gone to meet with Daisy Fitzroy at the Factory Worker Housing. Hoseok knows that they’re probably too busy to bother about an extra person in their headquarters, but Hoseok cannot help but feel a tad resentful at his situation.
He can’t even go out to enjoy the sunshine.
“They always steer us underneath goddamn rainclouds,” Jeongguk complains, sipping at a hot mug of coffee. “As if a little rain will douse the anger in the people.”
Jimin sighs and places his cheek on the window, counting the raindrops as they sluice across the glass. Hoseok shakes his head and turns back to his book.
It doesn’t take long before Hoseok resigns himself to becoming the housekeeper. In a building holding just seven people and a ton of supplies, there is a lot of mess. Seokjin fusses about it every day and after days of excruciating boredom, Hoseok decides that he might as well do something about it.
He begins in his own room, moving dusty crates containing assorted material, mostly bull-horned helmets, up to the attic. Comandeering buckets and rags found in an unopened storage closet downstairs, Hoseok gets to work. It takes the whole afternoon but soon even the floorboards are gleaming, the walls are free of grime, and he feels very much refreshed. After his room is complete, Hoseok decides that since he’s stripping his own bedsheets for a wash, he might as well do so for the rest.
Seokjin runs out to get some washing powder and a washboard while Hoseok soaks each bedsheet in the bathtub. Hoseok tries his best to ignore the questionable stains and hopes Seokjin has the foresight to bring back some bleach as well.
It takes three whole weeks to finish sprucing up the building. When Hoseok isn’t in the Battle Room killing time, he’s either wiping, dusting or washing. Even Seokjin’s kitchen didn’t escape Hoseok’s dead-eyed ambition to eliminate dirt. And of course, Hoseok leaves the best for last.
He had just finished cleaning Namjoon’s room the other day, not bothering with permission. The room was by far the worst Hoseok had ever seen and that was a serious accusation considering Hoseok began his cleaning expedition with Jeongguk’s room. With a pile of dirty laundry rivalling Hoseok’s height and rusting screws and bolts in just about every nook and cranny, Hoseok nearly had a heart attack after being electrocuted by some open circuits left ajar on Namjoon’s desk. Hoseok hoped the man didn’t have anything important lying around because he had chucked half of the table’s contents into the bin.
With Jeongguk, Taehyung, Jimin and Namjoon down—Seokjin shook his head at Hoseok and locked his bedroom door—all that Hoseok has left to occupy him is Yoongi’s room.
Yoongi slept on the first floor, his bedroom right across the Battle Room. The trio has given him free leave of their rooms and Namjoon isn’t here to ask, but Hoseok believes that since Yoongi returns back every night for sleep and leaves again before dawn breaks, he is sure to notice if Hoseok runs through his things while cleaning. The only way is to ambush Yoongi for permission at a time when he can’t escape. Besides, Hoseok hasn’t seen Yoongi in a fortnight and it was starting to worry him.
Holding that thought in mind, Hoseok feels the cool metal knob turn under his fingers in the dark hall. The door swings open silently and Hoseok sucks in a breath.
The room looks like it’s been torched.
And lying supine on the bed, Yoongi.
There are streaks of soot on his face and his hair looked singed at the ends, but the person on the bed is unmistakable.
Hoseok rushes forward and places a shaky hand on Yoongi’s forehead. It’s hot, too hot to be healthy and Hoseok turns his trembling fingers to a metal basin beside the bed, squeezing a wet rag dry and dabbing at Yoongi’s face. The man recoils at the touch, pushing Hoseok away. Hoseok can see the healing cuts. Angrily, Hoseok wonders how long Yoongi’s been using the room in this horrible state without Hoseok knowing. There are bandages on the bedside table, and a basin besides. How long were they going to keep this from him? As if Hoseok hasn’t been an invalid for the past fortnight with nothing to do other than tidy up rooms while hiding this mess from him.
“It’s not serious,” Yoongi says. He hasn’t opened his eyes but is still steadfastly refusing to let Hoseok wipe the grime off his face. “I came in a half hour ago and Jin’s patched me up.”
“I told Jin to come tell me when you come home every night,” Hoseok says darkly, pulling Yoongi’s head into his lap as he wipes the rag down Yoongi’s cheek roughly.
“And I told Jin not to.”
They sit in silence for a while, with Hoseok setting the rag down, preferring to push Yoongi’s bangs away from his hot forehead. Yoongi lets him do so. The room, when Hoseok finally lets himself take a look around, is absolutely ruined. The dresser is blackened, the wallpaper is peeling off in charred bits, and the bed lurches and creaks whenever Hoseok shifts his weight.
But Yoongi seems perfectly at peace in his dilapidated room. He lets Hoseok’s fingers trace the slope of his jaw and his eyes blink open once they skitter down to his collarbones. Hoseok fingers the black velvet.
“You’re actually wearing it,” Hoseok says surprised.
He didn’t think that Yoongi would, even after whinging at him to. The choker looks perfect against his fair skin, the metal rose warmed by his rapidly rising and falling chest, almost as if it was made just for him. Slowly, Yoongi pulls away from Hoseok’s hands and the way he looks, so soft, so unsure, makes Hoseok’s heart clench. Their gazes meet and Hoseok wants to spend the rest of his life trying to make sure that Yoongi would always look at him just like that.
“If I told you I wanted to, would you let me?” Hoseok whispers, tucking one of Yoongi’s mint locks behind his ear. Hoseok doesn’t quite know what he’s asking from Yoongi but he hopes that the other understands. The Yoongi in his mind’s eye still has pink hair, but Yoongi in this current colour makes Hoseok’s heart skip a beat. He looks different but the same somehow. Yoongi’s cheeks are just as pale, as soft, and his lips are just as pink. But his eyes are sharper. More opaque yet painfully clear.
There were nights in the past month where Hoseok wondered if they could be together. If one day, he could take Yoongi’s hand in his own and kiss it while they walked along the Columbian Strand. Yoongi would growl at him and tear his hand away, and Hoseok would laugh and they could be happy together. Happy and safe. But Hoseok watches Yoongi now, watches his small chest rise and fall, and he can’t imagine them both walking down the Strand anymore. Yoongi turns away, face unreadable. Hoseok sincerely questions if Yoongi could ever find happiness in idyll. But it doesn’t matter anymore, he supposes.
Lately, Hoseok has been wondering if he could find happiness without Yoongi. And having Yoongi’s head in his lap confirms the answer he has known for some time now.
“I want to.”
Yoongi stares at Hoseok for a long while. Minutes pass and all Hoseok can do is to meet the other’s gaze and ignore the churning in his gut. Then suddenly, Yoongi drops the gaze, nodding stiffly and Hoseok feels the knot of tension release. He wishes that Yoongi’s “welcome to BTS” didn’t sound so much like a death sentence but he’ll settle for that than nothing.
Hoseok smiles and leans in, pressing a kiss to Yoongi’s cheek.
“The first thing you have to do,” Yoongi says as he adjusts Hoseok’s stance, “is to believe in yourself.”
And if that isn’t the most bullshit thing Hoseok has ever heard today, he’d drop the gun and head back into the building.
Ever since Yoongi’s allowed Hoseok into BTS, Hoseok has been allowed a lot more freedom than before. Hoseok cannot go back to New Patriot Lane, for fear of being recognised, but he has the freedom to walk around the neighbourhood if he so wishes. Although, Yoongi has professed that he would rather everyone remain inside unless they are sent out on a mission.
The neighbourhood is rough. Hoseok, himself, sneaks back in less than an hour after he is allowed out. There is washing hung out on the streets and the people curse brashly, spitting on the pavement if Hoseok dares wander too close to them. Grown men tear at each other and brawl on the streets while a gaggle of washerwomen cheer them on in vulgar amusement. Abandoned children scavenge at the rubbish, digging their grimy hands into the bins. Even the orphanage, at its worst, never had children running out of the door with less than finely patched up clothing.
“It’s a lot better than Shantytown,” Yoongi says, spooning soup into a chipped bowl. “The children don’t even have the energy to run there.”
Hoseok frowns. The solution to the influx of children seems simple. “Why don’t they send the children to the orphanage? The one back home isn’t even full.”
Yoongi barks out a laugh, shaking his head and Hoseok feels his stomach bottom out.
“Where do you think these children came from? They came from the orphanages, Hoseok. They leave them here when they’re not cute enough to find any new parents. That’s how Taehyung and Jimin wound up here.”
It unnerves Hoseok to think of Jimin and Taehyung as orphanage kids. But the idea of young innocent boys being turned out of sanctuary makes Hoseok feel physically ill. Perhaps they were at Hoseok’s, a pair of boys traipsing through the building with dirty hands and wide grins, and Hoseok never noticed. Sick to the gut, Hoseok doesn’t dare contemplate the number of children he fails to notice, and how many of them wound up on streets.
“Your nose is bleeding,” Yoongi says.
Hoseok wipes a hand over his upper lip only to see crimson.
“You’re not concentrating,” Yoongi scolds as Hoseok shoots another bullet way off target. Hoseok is starting to wonder if he would have better luck if he didn’t aim at it.
“It’s easy for you to say,” Hoseok complains. The recoil of the gun is making his arm ache. “Taehyung says you’re the best shot here.”
“And I didn’t become the best shot overnight,” Yoongi argues, pushing Hoseok’s legs apart with his knee, forcing him to aim again.
They have been at this for hours. Hoseok has only managed to shoot two bottles after wasting eleven rounds and after shooting for half an hour, he has barely even nicked the target. Feeling more pitiful, Hoseok sighs and takes aim again. He had this huge plan laid out, had even discussed this with Jimin last night. Hoseok was supposed to wow Yoongi with his amazing marksmanship, to be so deft with the gun that even Yoongi could not help but be impressed. After that, Hoseok would surprise the man with the hyacinths that he had gotten this morning and left in Yoongi’s room, healthy purple flowers that will surely charm Yoongi. Jimin had promised “profit”.
Another pull of the trigger and Hoseok winces when the bullet burrows through the wooden fence. His aim is still a far cry from being acceptable. Yoongi sighs and directs Hoseok’s hands, plastering himself to Hoseok’s back, and Hoseok can feel his stomach grow hot. Swallowing nervously, Hoseok can feel Yoongi’s breath behind his neck while the man whispers instructions into Hoseok’s ear. Yoongi’s fingers squeeze against Hoseok’s and another shot fires.
Yoongi steps away and Hoseok nearly faints in relief.
“Don’t come in for dinner until one of your bullets hit the yellow.”
“Do you think Tae is playing or if he’s really just dumb?” Jimin asks, flopping onto the mouldy sofa beside Hoseok.
Before them is one of the most pathetic scenes Hoseok has ever seen. And Hoseok has seen an eleven-year-old boy buy red roses for Elizabeth every day for six months.
Both of them aren’t really sure how Jeongguk managed to come by something as rare and expensive as strawberries, but watching him dip each of the scarlet fruits into granulated sugar before shamefully feeding an overjoyed Taehyung is definitely a sight to see. Taehyung licks and bites into each one with the sort of oblivious sensuality that only Taehyung can, and Jeongguk turns redder and redder with each bite.
Hoseok takes obscene pleasure in seeing the usually stone-faced and sarcastic teenager turn into that unsure eleven-year-old boy every time Taehyung so much as bats an eyelash in Jeongguk’s direction. It could be schadenfreude or maybe Hoseok just likes watching Jeongguk squirm, whatever it is, Hoseok hopes that Taehyung keeps giving Jeongguk hell the way he does. There can be no better evening entertainment.
“I think Jeongguk is turning into a strawberry,” Hoseok mock-whispers and Jimin laughs before his face turns disgusted.
“Oh god. I can feel his icky desire,” Jimin says, dry-heaving. “I’m out of here before I get heartburn and throw up dinner.”
Yoongi is sitting across from them, listening to Seokjin. The cook has many complaints and Hoseok is sure that Seokjin’s rapidly disappearing stash of chocolate oranges is one of them. Yoongi nods and agrees as if Seokjin is reporting some outrageous felony committed against him and Hoseok resists the urge to surrender his ill-begotten pile of chocolate orange wrappers. “Joonie promised to get me more but he hasn’t done shit!” Seokjin leaves still disgruntled and Yoongi may be relieved of having to listen to a heated grievance, but Hoseok is sure they would all be getting watered down soup and over-salted meat for the next month.
Hoseok feels warm when Yoongi pats Seokjin on the back and walks over to sit beside him. They have gotten closer over the past week. Yoongi teaches Hoseok how to shoot whenever he’s not out on reconnaissance and in exchange, Hoseok ensures that Yoongi isn’t dead every time he stumbles back to his room at three in the morning. Secrecy is the name of the game and Hoseok never asks where Yoongi’s getting his information, but when he sees red scratches on Yoongi’s neck and his bruised knuckles, he cannot help but worry. Yoongi’s not the empath, but most nights, Yoongi seems to reassure Hoseok that he’s all right more than vice versa.
With how close they’ve been getting to each other, Hoseok wishes Namjoon wouldn’t have to come back. The silver-haired man might be the leader of BTS, and while Hoseok doesn’t exactly have a personal grudge against a man he hardly knows, when Namjoon called Yoongi, sugar, all those nights ago, it had stung Hoseok more than he let on. Hoseok doesn’t know how he is going to handle Namjoon after this week, after Yoongi. He isn’t sure what he’d do if he sees the both of them like Taehyung and Jeongguk right now. It makes Hoseok nauseous to even think about it.
“I need to go,” Yoongi says tiredly, even as he makes no move to get up. When he finally does, Yoongi sighs and grabs the gun lying on the table, tucking it into the holster around his hips.
Hoseok follows Yoongi to the door and closes it long after the latter has disappeared around the corner.
“It’s the Lamb,” Namjoon says. “They’ve lost her.”
All seven of them are huddled together around a table as Namjoon’s fingers dances around a metal box. No one’s looking at each other, their eyes all trained on the electricity sparking out of Namjoon’s fingertips and the way the box sends them back. The whirring of cogs and gears inside fill the room, but the box doesn’t open. Seokjin huffs as Namjoon shifts, his fingers skittering against Namjoon’s neck. Underneath his fingertips, Namjoon’s skin gleam gold.
“Why do we have to open the box?” Taehyung asks. He is pale, probably unnerved by the surge in security down their street. The increased police presence has unsettled almost everyone, pushing their motives and identities that bit closer to the brink of exposure. The boy looks scared now, turning into Jeongguk’s protective hold when Namjoon sighs and tries again.
The box rattles as blue electricity zig-zags back to Namjoon’s fingers.
Columbia has been on strict lockdown since two days ago when the Lamb disappeared from her tower with the long detested False Shepherd, and the streets are teeming with police. It has taken every ounce of charm Seokjin has yesterday afternoon to persuade the patrolling officers to skip their house, citing dirty laundry and “unbearable filth” that can only be unsightly to the two “gentlemen”. While that was happening, Hoseok was waiting uneasily at the top of the staircase.
“Fitzroy says that someone passed her the box months ago, to be opened when such an event happened. Thing is, she can’t open it. Who would give someone a box they can’t open?”
“It could just be a piece of trash,” Jeongguk comments. “Are we going to waste all our time on random things strangers give us now?”
A sharp look from Yoongi silences Jeongguk immediately.
They sit obediently and listen as Namjoon relays information back to them from the Vox, and most of the news makes Hoseok’s stomach churn. Vigours have been disseminated at free will around the Vox insurgents, and most would possess the basic Devil’s Kiss or Undertow. Arms have yet to be secured but Namjoon has been told that weapons would not be a problem. With each new scrap of information, only one thing seems clear: revolution.
The loss of the Lamb has made the Columbian elite feel vulnerable and there is no better way to exploit their insecurity and paranoia than to show them that their god has truly abandoned them, Namjoon explains in a somber monotone. Hoseok tries to pay attention but the Songbird’s screeching in the far-off distance cuts through Namjoon’s words like a whistle. Hoseok cannot blame Taehyung from disliking the recent development. He’s scared too.
Columbia’s Elizabeth may have been taken from her tower, but Hoseok is more concerned for his Elizabeth. What are things like back at New Patriot Lane? Has Mr Botega decided he doesn’t need the extra hand after Hoseok failing to show, or has he already found a replacement? Hoseok misses the warmth of his bed, the safety of the orphanage. Being on the other side of the law makes Hoseok’s gut twist unbearably.
“Do we have any new special assignments?” Yoongi asks.
Namjoon mutters to himself, squinting at the box suspiciously before meeting Yoongi’s watchful gaze. “We have two. Both to be completed by the end of the month. The first is specific: the statue of Comstock at New Eden Square and the second is to destroy the Church of Comstock at the Welcome Center.”
“We only have two weeks to organize that,” Yoongi says harshly. “How does Fitzroy expect us to—
—I don’t know,” Namjoon interrupts, sighing heavily. He massages the bridge of his forehead wearily and it is only now that Hoseok realizes that the man has only just returned to the building and called the meeting. His bags are still by the door. Hoseok cannot confess to be happy to see Namjoon, especially when he brings such ill tidings, but he pities the man his duty.
“Jeongguk,” Yoongi says, turning to the youngest, unsurprisingly. “We need you to take point for both missions. Is that okay?”
Jeongguk makes to accept but Taehyung jerks forward violently.
“No! Of course not! He’s not going on any mission! We hardly prepared for these, Yoongi!”
“Taehyung,” Yoongi warns, tone edging the line of irritation.
“You can’t send any of us out there like that. Jeongguk’s not invincible! A bullet through the head would stop him just like it would stop any of us!”
Taehyung’s face is red with anger and Hoseok almost steps back. He has never seen the young man so filled with frustration before, not even when Yoongi had spent half an hour lambasting him on a botched supply run. His hands are on the table and he glares at Yoongi as if the latter has proposed that Jeongguk run face-first off the edge of a docking station. Which, given the nature of Yoongi’s request, might have been taken to be.
“If it’ll make you feel better,” Yoongi continues, unrattled, “I’ll be taking point on both as well.”
Yoongi looks taken aback. Even Namjoon turns his steely gaze onto Taehyung. From their expressions, Hoseok guesses that such insubordination is unprecedented. And yet, Taehyung holds firm, keeping Jeongguk behind himself as if the rest would personally drag him away if he stands any closer. Hoseok tries to keep from gawping, as do Seokjin and Jeongguk. Their mouths a little slack-jawed. Jimin looks nauseated.
Namjoon intercedes before the stare-off between Yoongi and Taehyung can become anymore venomous. “We need Jeongguk on point, Tae. He’s experienced at it, and honestly, the best candidate.”
“Put me on point too.”
“We can’t have you taking point and worrying over Taehyung when the fighting starts—
“I’ll take care of both of us,” Jeongguk says firmly. “I’d do it, but I want Taehyung on point too.”
Yoongi looks as if Jeongguk has just asked him to cut out his own lung but there is nothing he can do because Namjoon acquiesces. Taehyung looks appeased and Hoseok doesn’t miss the way Jeongguk holds the older more tightly after Yoongi shakes his head and huffs angrily. Seokjin cuts in smoothly to talk about their existing gunpowder stores and firearms and everyone is willing to get carried along in the discussion. But the downward tilt of Yoongi’s mouth doesn’t leave.
Hoseok isn’t expecting Yoongi to seek him out tonight. Namjoon is back, after all, and Hoseok expects that they would want to spend time with each other, but the knock to his door proves otherwise.
Yoongi shuffles in and throws himself on Hoseok’s bed the moment he is let in. Hoseok doesn’t know why, but he’s glad Yoongi decides to come tonight anyway.
But that is a lie.
Hoseok knows exactly why.
And really Hoseok means to ask, as he has been wanting to for a long time. He wants to ask about Yoongi and him, and maybe Yoongi and Namjoon, and well, about Yoongi. Because Hoseok thinks he might die if Yoongi doesn’t see the flourishing attraction between the two of them. He cannot be oblivious to it surely.
“Taehyung has never disobeyed me,” Yoongi says worriedly. The way he chews at his bottom lip makes Hoseok wonder if this is the same man as the one who singed the table with his fingertips just an hour before.
“You’ve never explicitly sent Jeongguk out on an unprepared assignment before.”
Yoongi’s eyes narrow, as if for the first time contemplating the burgeoning romantic relationship between Jeongguk and Taehyung. His mouth twists as if he’s tasted something bitter. For one, Hoseok cannot imagine what it must be like to see the boy you raised pick what seems like an absolute imbecile for a boyfriend and he supposes that must be why Yoongi looks like he might be sick.
Hoseok wonders if Yoongi’s face would be that sour if he proposes the thought of them together. He wouldn’t like it to, but Hoseok thinks he’d rather take the rejection than not knowing. His gaze slides over to where Yoongi is lying, staring up at the peeling ceiling tiredly and yet still looking like everything that Hoseok has never known he needed.
Hoseok has imagined this a thousand times. He has run through millions of opening sentences, mimicked dozens of smirks or shy smiles in front of the mirror, comforted himself through hundreds of well-conceived rejections. Yoongi’s face turns, the moonlight hitting his pale cheek, and Hoseok almost dares to imagine the yes that might spill forth from those pink lips. Yoongi stares at him patiently and Hoseok’s stomach twists into a tighter knot. He wants to say the words; the words that nearly form like muscle memory on the tip of his tongue but the sound dies in his throat and he recoils from embarrassment.
There’s a hand on his neck and Yoongi is sitting up. His hair falls into his eyes and Hoseok wonders who bears to cut Yoongi’s hair when they sweep against his eyelashes just so. They’re pressed knee to knee but Hoseok suddenly feels like he’s kilometres away from where he wants to be.
The press of soft lips.
Hoseok’s hand moves instinctively to cup a slim jaw and his eyes slide closed.
The words evaporate into wisps of breath and thoughts trickle down to the brush of Yoongi’s tongue against his. Hoseok’s mouth trails down and licks the sweat off Yoongi’s fevered skin, focusing on leaving marks where Namjoon could—
Hoseok jolts backward. Yoongi’s mouth is kiss-swollen and his eyes are glazed over, looking the very picture of sin. Hoseok’s blood grows hotter but he stops himself. This isn’t how things should happen. Yoongi’s mouth twists in displeasure, no doubt offended by the unexpected pause, and tugs at Hoseok’s shoulder, leaning back in. It takes everything from Hoseok not to give into the pull.
“You can’t do this,” Hoseok says, voice rough from their activities. His mouth remembers Yoongi’s taste and his head feels like cotton wool. “It’s not fair to either of us like this. It’s either me or Namjoon.”
Hoseok watches Yoongi frown and his heart drops.
“I’m not with Namjoon.”
Yoongi stares at Hoseok dumbfounded. He wipes the corner of his mouth and adjusts the collar of his shirt, covering the red hickeys under his collarbone that Hoseok has sucked into being. He shakes his head and Hoseok doesn’t quite understand...
Hoseok pauses, thinks, before continuing
—he called you sugar that night.”
“It’s a codename, you idiot.”
Yoongi’s cheeks are flushed pink and the heat present in the room melts away into disbelieving relief. After Hoseok’s awkward enquiry about Namjoon and a lot of flustered flapping later, Hoseok feels as if a massive weight has been lifted off his chest. Hoseok feels a tad sorry that he had callously thrown out all of Namjoon’s things without inspecting them more carefully but more than anything, he is overjoyed.
That pretty thing rolling around on his bed for the past hour is well and truly unattached and Hoseok can run a mile in happiness. Yoongi scrapes his fingers through his mint-coloured hair and pokes at Hoseok’s ribs viciously, claiming that the “stupid” smile on Hoseok’s face is putting him off.
“So I’ve been hating him for this long for nothing?”
Yoongi looks at Hoseok witheringly.
“Is this why you never kissed me?”
Hoseok stutters so terribly for a response that Yoongi smirks and drops it.
But not before he presses one last kiss to Hoseok’s cheek goodnight.
“How did we not know that we had this much?” Yoongi asks, incredulous. Crates upon crates of gunpowder and bullets are dragged out into the landing, Hoseok’s back popping as he stands and stretches.
Seokjin had only asked after the firearms available to them the day before with a note of worry, but it turned out the man had nothing to be concerned about because by the looks of it, Hoseok is certain that they have amassed enough resources to demolish a tiny chunk of Columbia, let alone a paltry statue and a church. Taehyung lets out another cry of delight as he unearths more hidden treasure down in the basement.
Hoseok sighs before trudging back down into the damp, Yoongi smiling at his misery. Hoseok knows very well the hierarchy of BTS, but he doesn’t see how being second in command makes one above having to carry heavy boxes. Hoseok’s back feels like a creaking hinge and his arms like limp noodles, while Yoongi stays pristine and pretty above the trapdoor, waiting for all of the crates to be hauled up for his inspection. Hoseok gives Jeongguk the stink-eye as the boy bursts forth with a stack of crates in both arms. Show-off.
Jimin whines when Yoongi barks at him to go back down but it doesn’t take long before the boy’s piteous pleas melt Yoongi’s ice-cold heart and they’re all given a break. Jimin slumps down on the floor, groaning loudly until Seokjin comes by with a timely tray of lemonade to shut him up. The lemonade tastes heavenly, tart but no less sweet, and Hoseok feels his muscles relax as it slides down his throat. He sees Yoongi subtly check him out from the corner of his eye and only wishes he had more lemonade to gulp down.
“Are you thirsty, Yoongi?” Hoseok asks, smirking as he takes one last draught from the cup. “Because you’re looking a little parched.”
Yoongi’s face turns red, scarlet, against the usual pallor of his fair skin. And his gaze immediately darts away. Hoseok would have been more charmed if he isn’t so delighted at the reaction. Jimin shoots them both a dirty look and crawls towards Seokjin, complaining about feeling greasy, hoping for sympathy.
“Taehyung,” Yoongi snaps, cheeks still blazing. “Don’t forget your afternoon session with me out in the yard.”
And with that, Yoongi stalks off, not passing anyone a second glance. Hoseok feels a surge of heat in his stomach before Seokjin smacks his shoulder. Hoseok can barely listen to a word the older man is saying though, too busy being buoyed on feelings of bubbly happiness.
Which disappears when Jeongguk cheerfully reminds everyone that they still have half the basement to clear out.
“I don’t remember much of the orphanage,” Jimin says, mouth twisting to the side. “A swing on a tree maybe? And bright sunny mornings… Not much else aside from that though.”
Hoseok nods and sips at his tea. His orphanage didn’t have a swing on a tree and Hoseok feels somewhat relieved. The little lawn out before the orphanage only had a springy holly tree that could barely hold up Hoseok’s leg, although it did turn beautiful in the winter. Hoseok feels his head twinge as he thinks about trying to strap a swing to those fragile silver branches.
Taehyung shrugs before laying his head on Jimin’s shoulder. The boy could not recall much apart from Jimin and Hoseok feels bad for trying to make them remember. For some reason, Hoseok feels extremely sorry for the pair of them, almost as if he’s solely responsible for them being turned out on the streets. He knows its irrational and yet—
Elizabeth has always said that it’s never too late to make amends.
“You don’t remember the swing, Tae?” Jimin asks. “We spent all our afternoons on it.”
Taehyung shakes his head and pouts, Jimin sighing and patting the other’s hair.
Hoseok almost wishes he had someone like Taehyung had Jimin and vice versa growing up. He’s been one of the lucky ones not to be cast away, but at the same time, Hoseok wonders what was the point of him staying. His wages at the flower shop were hardly anything to boast about and maybe—maybe once upon a time Hoseok could have met friends like Jimin and Taehyung. When he was young. The idea makes Hoseok feel unbearably sad.
Guiltily, Hoseok finishes his tea, avoiding the bitter dregs at the bottom of the mug. Those two boys from all those years ago: the thorn that constantly reminds Hoseok of his failure and the culpability that follows. He shouldn’t have just let the pair of his friends go. Perhaps if he asked the madam more insistently, she might have brought them back. The three of them may not have had a swing, but Hoseok remembers playing cops and robbers till sweat dripped into his eyes and his legs were sore. He remembers the laughing and the company and then the loneliness. The piercing loneliness.
“Are you okay?”
Jimin has pushed Taehyung off his lap and is bent over Hoseok worriedly. Sometimes, Hoseok forgets that Jimin is an empath but this instance is not one of them, and so he doesn’t bother lying when he drops his gaze, staring at the wood grain of the table dully. His head throbs as he thinks about his friends. He can’t remember their names. He can’t remember their faces.
“You’re still weak,” Taehyung says, dragging Hoseok to his feet and helping him to the sofa carefully. “I can tell that you haven’t fully recovered from the fits, Hoseok. It’s not good for you to be like this, Yoongi will be worried.”
“Your nose is bleeding again,” Jimin says and Hoseok presses his sleeve to his nose. Red, of course.
It comes and goes, Hoseok’s illness. It’s like the vigour has only staunched the worst of the symptoms and left him with an occasional susceptibility to the summer colds. It’s like getting rheumatism when it rains. Or nausea when it’s noisy. Hoseok hates it. He hates it so much sometimes he feels like he can cry. But crying in an empty room always feels rather stupid, and now, to cry in front of an audience would be unseemly.
“We should go, Tae,” Jimin says after a while, giving Hoseok a long look. “I think Hoseok needs some time to himself.”
It doesn’t take long after the door closes that Hoseok feels his headache start to ebb away. Hoseok doesn’t want to sleep yet, he wants to wait for when Yoongi comes back from his reconnaissance mission, to be awake when the man steps in, so that Hoseok’s heart can finally stop doing the nervous half-beats it does whenever Yoongi leaves to do something dangerous. But it seems that keeping consciousness is out of Hoseok’s hands because sleep overtakes him soon after, a brief respite.
It’s only through some half-conscious stumbling that Hoseok even makes it to his bed. He doesn’t remember falling asleep.
Hoseok awakens to fingers combing through his hair.
It is still dim out, but Hoseok expects that it’s more due to the rumbling clouds than the hour of the day. Yoongi’s by the side of his bed, fingers still playing with Hoseok’s hair. It’s intimate and it makes Hoseok’s heart clench, like his heart is too small for the affection rushing through it and the muscles are spasming. It is times like these, Hoseok wishes he has a name for them, but he knows it’s probably wiser not to. Naming something makes it too real, and Hoseok can still hardly believe that he’s here.
“You should’ve gotten some sleep,” Hoseok reproaches croakily.
With the increasing need for intelligence before the choreographed assignments, Yoongi snatches whatever rest he is afforded around his missions outside, be it tucked inside his own bed, on the sofa in the Battle Room, or spread out in the yard like a lazing cat. But even in the darkness, Hoseok can see the weariness in Yoongi’s eyes now, and he knows he hasn’t caught a wink since he’s gotten back.
“I should’ve,” Yoongi agrees.
The sheets rustle as Hoseok shifts to make room for Yoongi under the covers. His chest still aches terribly, like there’s a weight pressing down against his ribs, hard and unforgiving, but it’s better when he’s lying down than when he’s standing. Yoongi crawls in beside Hoseok and exhales in comfort.
Hoseok likes it when they are alone. When Yoongi is with him, and only with him, he’s less of BTS’ second-in-command, and more of the lazy bastard he was back at the orphanage. There are no barking orders or furrowed brows; the concerns of the Vox fall away like sugared walls under water. Yoongi doesn’t command Hoseok to do something or scold him for not aiming right. His eyes don’t look hard and unyielding. When they’re together, Yoongi drawls his answers and rolls his eyes like a child, he pinches Hoseok when he’s unhappy and laughs like a dying seal.
It makes Hoseok’s heart ache.
Huddling in, Yoongi places his head on Hoseok’s chest, eyes fluttering closed. He smells like rainwater and smoke and Hoseok wants more than anything to suck a bruise in that slender pale neck but it would be crossing tentative bounds, so he contents himself with pulling Yoongi closer. The rose choker gracing Yoongi’s neck is mark enough of what they share, Hoseok tells himself, trying not to want more. Wanting more will mean losing more, and Hoseok doesn’t have many things left to lose already. To lose this, will feel like suicide.
“Stop thinking and sleep,” Yoongi mumbles, words muffled in the collar of Hoseok’s shirt.
Yoongi’s so pretty like that, Hoseok thinks drowsily. The brush of lashes above his delicate cheekbones, the gentle tuck and flare of his waist and hip, the pale pink of his lips.
A rush of pain to his head makes Hoseok tremble. He needs more rest, and soon the migraine will pass, like it does. Hiding his illness tends to worry Hoseok more than the illness itself because whenever he so much as takes a pained gasp, guilt would come shooting into Yoongi’s eyes like blitzes of heavy remorse. It is no secret that Yoongi blames himself for Hoseok’s headaches, for his nausea, for bringing Hoseok here just because he couldn’t stop killing himself with his own goddamn ability. But Hoseok doesn’t know how to tell him that he’d rather die a thousand times than to not have Yoongi here, alive and well and in his arms.
Words like that sound nice inside Hoseok’s head but they inevitably turn bitter when they reach his tongue.
“I’ll slap you if you don’t stop thinking.”
“What would happen if you didn’t choose to come into that flower shop?” Hoseok asks, smiling at Yoongi over his bowl of oatmeal.
It’s early in the morning and neither of them are fully awake, but Hoseok likes it when Yoongi’s brows crinkle as he waits patiently for an answer.
Yoongi mumbles and shovels a spoonful of drippy oat into his mouth, chewing tiredly. They had been up the entire night before, Hoseok mouthing hot kisses into the creases in Yoongi’s skin even as dawn rose so Hoseok really doesn’t begrudge Yoongi for his unenthusiastic response. But he hums, hoping for something more substantial than a few muttered vowels.
“Where else would I have gone?” Yoongi mutters, “It was your shop or the bookstore next door.”
“Mr Flanagan is a very nice man.”
Yoongi rolls his eyes. “It doesn’t matter, Hobi. If I wanted to go into the bookstore I would have, but I didn’t.”
“Do you need help?”
Seokjin is huddled beside packs of explosives, biting his lip in concentration as he solders the wiring in place. The man has been huddled over wiring and metal for the past two days. The Church of Comstock has to go off in a controlled manner, and so wiring up the rigs had fallen to Seokjin. Hoseok had wondered why Namjoon couldn’t have flicked a finger and fixed it up himself, but Seokjin’s sullen reply had more than answered that question.
Hoseok wonders what is inside that little metal box that has kept Namjoon occupied for the past week. It looks so unobtrusive, barely anything remarkable. Hoseok has tossed it around a few times, Yoongi had shot bullets at it, tried to melt it with his fire, Jeongguk even brought all his strength down on the tiny little cube, and it barely made a dent into its pristine surface. Taehyung has been frightened half to death of it, eyeing it distrustfully every time Namjoon brings it to his vicinity, refusing to even touch the thing.
Perhaps the boy isn’t wrong. There is something about the box that gnaws at Hoseok’s gut. Anything that can withstand glass-melting temperatures is dangerous to Hoseok, and that danger is compounded by the fact that it hadn’t been crushed to smithereens under Jeongguk’s palm. Seokjin seems more annoyed by the fact that he is left to fiddle with the circuits because of it, muttering murderously whenever Namjoon walks by, even if the latter plies him with apologetic smiles every time he does.
“The fuses are in the back. Do you mind?”
Hoseok doesn’t, and so he sits there for the entire afternoon, passing Seokjin things that are out of reach and listening to the man ramble. It is incredulous, Hoseok thinks, watching Seokjin put together enough charges to take down a significant landmark while smiling as sweetly as a schoolchild after an extra serving of pudding. Hoseok finds himself nodding along to Seokjin’s grouses almost reflexively and it isn’t until halfway through Seokjin’s spiel of how all resources should be concentrated on the given missions instead of some stupid box, that Hoseok catches on to Seokjin saying something about his parents.
“Your parents?” Hoseok asks again, half-shocked.
Seokjin looks up quizzically, and after registering the surprise on Hoseok’s face, shook his head. “Not all of us are orphans, Hoseok. I still have parents, yes. Present tense.”
“So why did you—
—join the Vox?” Seokjin finishes, looking up from his work. “Namjoon and I used to study together, my parents knew his parents so it was only natural that we knew each other. He always always had these ideas of being great, you know? Our parents were in Fink management, so we knew all about Shantytown and the like. I never thought too much about it, but once Namjoon got into the Vox, I guessed it was only a matter of time before I did anyway.
“It must sound so stupid,” Seokjin says, rubbing at his neck, smiling at Hoseok. “Joining a terrorist cell just because my best friend got into it.”
Once upon a time, Hoseok might have thought Seokjin completely insane for joining the Vox for something so trivial. Hoseok knows what Fink management means and he has seen those beautiful houses at the Emporia on the occasional flower arrangement delivery. He remembers all the marble colonnades and chiseled steps, soft velvet curtains and embroidered carpets, the silk top hats and girls with lace trains. Luxury that could have tempted even the most honest of men.
They could have inherited those houses at the Emporia, gleaming and massive, instead of this dilapidated building; the entirety of Columbia’s finest offered at their fingertips only to trade it away for ratty trousers and a box of explosives. Hoseok wonders if Seokjin genuinely believes what he’s saying. If he really thinks he’s given all that up just to be with his friend.
“Do you want to be a great man then? Like Namjoon?” Hoseok asks, curious.
Seokjin shakes his head, laughing. Suddenly, Hoseok is acutely aware of how Seokjin, who cooks all their meals, sends the younger ones up to bed when it gets too late, and chides Yoongi for bleeding on Hoseok’s painstakingly cleaned floorboards, sometimes looks so unbearably young.
“No, no. I just want to be a good one.”
“It felt like fire,” Hoseok says. “It felt like someone wanted to burn me to ashes.”
Yoongi curls closer into him on the sofa. Hoseok didn’t need to see his face to know that Yoongi is upset. It was a topic that they didn’t broach often, Hoseok letting snippets go whenever Yoongi asked and changing the subject soon after. Hoseok knows how Yoongi feels about Hoseok’s recurring illness, understands how sick the vigour made him and yet, knows that Hoseok would still be writhing in hell’s fury otherwise. Guilt was an expression that didn’t look right on Yoongi.
“I’m sorry,” Yoongi mumbles into Hoseok’s skin. The sun is shining through the panes of the Battle Room and Hoseok can hear Seokjin shouting for Namjoon. BTS, explosives, shooting lessons, Yoongi. Hoseok wonders when this had become his life. The thought of this, this domestic simplicity, easy camaraderie, actually becoming his life makes him grin.
“You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Yoongi buries his face into Hoseok’s shirt and hits him in the chest viciously when Hoseok starts teasing the older man for his cuteness. It is startling how Hoseok has never realised how happy he feels until this very afternoon. He feels like he could run down the entire street and give hugs to the menacing washerwomen and the ruffian children. He wants to saunter up to a burly man and tell him about the gorgeous sunrise and how wonderful being alive is. Hoseok feels like he’s being stabbed in the heart and falling in love with the dagger.
He tells Yoongi as much, only to watch the latter’s face turn disgusted.
“Stop talking to Jimin. He’s a bad influence,” Yoongi says, nose scrunching up.
Three people huddle around a table on a dreary Monday evening.
Jeongguk has been squeezing the Box, as they have creatively named it, for the past minute. Fingers twitch around its smooth surface as the young man exerts his herculean effort, while Hoseok and Namjoon watch on in poorly-concealed disappointment.
The gears inside it spin and whirr but it doesn’t open. Expectedly.
This thing that Fitzroy has entrusted them with seem no less important than the missions due to be completed but despite collective efforts, the Box continues its steady beating, its mechanical heart unperturbed by fire, electricity, force or Hoseok’s personal brand of vocal abuse. Yoongi and Seokjin want to set it aside and Hoseok understands where they’re coming from. They have much better things to focus on in the coming weeks than a stupid trinket with no visible pay-off. Taehyung can barely stand to be in the same room with the thing, so his opinion is well-understood.
Namjoon tells Jeongguk to put the Box down. Jagged edges of electricity sparks from fingertips into the metal and Hoseok watches blue lightning raze through Namjoon’s arms, glowing underneath skin and vessels. The electricity jumps excitedly around the edges, like dancing spiders and Namjoon’s glaring at the thing now. They’ve called in Yoongi to do his thing with Namjoon, blighting the Box with both highly energetic abilities but Seokjin had decisively called an end to that attempt when they caused a neighbourhood-wide blackout. Namjoon may be the leader of this joint, but even he couldn’t calm Seokjin’s tongue-lashing about “endangering Tae and Jimin and Kookie and what were you thinking doing this inside?! We could have all died!” Yoongi had left for recon early that day.
Still, despite desires to set the Box aside, Hoseok cannot help but feel there’s something crucial about it and he definitely doesn’t want to give up now. Maybe it has something to do with its surface, so smooth it looked like staring into a pool of liquid glass, or the fact that Hoseok gets an intense headache whenever he has to deal with it. Maybe it’s gut instinct or childish fantasy, but in all the stories he has read as a child, there is always something important about something impenetrable. And there’s something important about this Box.
“Stop messing about with that thing. Kookie! I need help with setting the table. Come.” Seokjin calls from the door. The younger gives them both an apologetic smile and follows obediently. Namjoon looks at the doorway, his mouth quirked into a half-smile. No one is ignorant of Seokjin’s current frustration with Namjoon’s preoccupation and nobody more aware than Namjoon himself.
“Sometimes I think Seokjin would be better off running a household than a splinter insurgent group,” Namjoon says. Smirking at the Box, he lets it tumble from his fingertips. It clatters heavily against the wooden table.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have dragged him along,” Hoseok offers. “He said you persuaded him to.”
Hoseok remembers what Seokjin said days ago, remembers that smile and tired eyes filled with light and Hoseok wonders if Namjoon knows.
Namjoon’s smile wanes but not before he claps Hoseok on the back and grins, dimples making him look less like the troubled intellectual leader of a populist uprising and more like a young man filled with hopeful promise. “I did and I wouldn’t be here without him.”
The air turns sharp and slightly uncomfortable, perhaps due to Namjoon’s unintentional confession and Hoseok coughs awkwardly. He doesn’t know if he’s in a place where he can rightly advise the leader of BTS without at least more familiarity. More than anything, Hoseok cannot understand how he ever imagined Namjoon being a love rival for Yoongi.
Namjoon’s face softens as Seokjin’s annoyed shout for them to “hurry up, dinner is cooling” streams down the hall. “We best go. He’s not above eating your portion.”
“Thank you for your help. I’ll see you at Delta Marker next time.”
“Don’t work too hard, baby. You still owe me a drink.” The young lady leans in to press a kiss against Yoongi’s cheek, crimson lipstick leaving a print against fair skin. With a wink, she slinks off, throwing her heavily perfumed fur wrap over bony shoulders.
And Hoseok has had enough.
“I didn’t know that’s what recon meant, Sugar,” Hoseok mutters angrily, downing what must be his fifth shot of the night.
They were in some seedy bar off Fink Manufacturing where Yoongi was supposed to meet one of his contacts that had information about the police’s next move. Hoseok was curious about Yoongi’s constant reconnaissance missions and Yoongi had deemed this one safe enough to allow a visitor. But after that display of ostentatious flirtation, Hoseok thinks he would have rather stayed back to help Seokjin with more circuitry.
“I’m sorry we’re not melting down the entrance gates to some of Columbia’s finest tonight,” Yoongi answers dryly, sipping at his vodka.
Hoseok sighs and uses the cuff of his sleeve to scrub at Yoongi’s cheek. “I don’t get why she has to just saunter around and touch you so much. Just say what we need and leave, you know?”
Yoongi smirks. Another sign that the Yoongi in Hoseok’s bed is utterly unlike the Yoongi that is second-in-command. Hoseok resists the urge to pout. Out of everyone, Hoseok likes to think that he is the one who best understands how gorgeous Yoongi is and to have that fact turned against him tonight is not one that he appreciates. Before tonight, he has never had a problem with the leather trousers Yoongi wears out for these missions but while wondering how many similar encounters have Yoongi allowed without his watchful eye, Hoseok grows more possessive.
Yoongi bumps Hoseok’s shoulder with his. “Don’t blame it on Estelle. It’s just the way she is.”
“Is that just the way you are?”
The shot glass meets the bar table with a muffled clink and Yoongi slides gracefully off the stool. Hoseok leaves a few bills before following the petite man out of the establishment.
Yoongi kisses like he talks: slurred, biting and unbearably hot. Hoseok likes soft drowsy kisses before dawn breaks like any other man, but he knows Yoongi much prefers everything to be like a bar fight. Hoseok imagines he could grow addicted to this, Yoongi’s arms looped over his neck, mouth depriving him of heady oxygen while Hoseok focuses on grinding his hips dirtily up. Hoseok may not have lipstick but he expects the bruising marks he leaves would remain much longer than Estelle’s would.
“Take me home,” Yoongi says roughly, gasping when Hoseok’s hands run up to grope his chest. “Now, Hoseok. Take me home now.”
Hoseok obeys orders.
Hoseok may be wrong. He wishes he was.
Another set of charges explodes behind him as he runs down the hallowed halls. The stone is crumbling, powdery white dust filtering down from the ceilings. Hoseok tries to avoid looking at his throbbing shoulder, not confident that he wouldn’t throw up if he did. He cannot think straight, not much connecting aside from get out now and whywhywhywhywhy.
It’s Taehyung. Taehyung who looked back at him with wide eyes and panic. Taehyung who shook his head and ran away, leaving Hoseok staggering to his feet to meet a zealot. Desertion, Hoseok might have understood. He hates Taehyung with all the energy he still possesses but if it were mere cowardice, Hoseok might have understood. He would have. He was no stranger to being afraid, even as terror now grips his heart and entwines around every harsh pant. There are many things that Hoseok can forgive and the human trait of being scared is at the top of the list; if Hoseok made it out, he wouldn’t even blame Taehyung for his actions.
But Taehyung locked the door.
He locked the doors of Lady Comstock’s altar and with that, sealed Hoseok’s easiest exit. It didn’t take long for the coloured light from the stained glass and flickering candles to reveal a Crow.
Hoseok remembers being scared. He remembers being afraid of losing his friends, of never finding a family, of getting scolded after he stole extra biscuits from the kitchens. But those memories evaporated like ashes in Hoseok’s dry mouth when the zealot materialized in front of him. They’re specters of hate and the gun in Hoseok’s palm felt like a rubber pistol. The zealot’s sword burnt like hellfire when it landed on Hoseok’s back and the pain is so stunningly familiar that Hoseok’s scream died in his throat.
Distantly, Hoseok tries to stay focused on running, thankful for small mercies that a lucky bullet to the Crow had stopped him dead. He must have wasted an entire round aiming at the rapidly moving flurry of birds, praying to whatever god that’s listening. Even now, Hoseok can barely breathe.
He had killed a man. A man under a purple hood, but a man all the same. Hoseok doesn’t know if the blood on his face was his or from the body lying on the marbled floor. The thought makes him sick. His head throbs with striking pain; the migraine returning at the most inopportune time. His nose drips crimson, head disorientated from the thundering blasts as stone and concrete collapses to the floor.
A pillar groans to Hoseok’s right. Gritting his teeth, Hoseok sprints for the courtyard. He couldn’t make it to the exit now. They were supposed to be well clear of the Lady’s altar before the first concerted charges went off. Yoongi had warned all of them to be careful.
The fear grips him stronger than the pain does. If Hoseok doesn’t make it out, he’d never see Yoongi again. Don’t die, the man had told him before they entered. His eyes were dark and serious and Hoseok wished it was that easy. Don’t die. Don’t die.
He can see the skies. It is morning now. The purpling sky has fallen away to reveal a beautiful blue.
A falling column catches Hoseok by the leg.
Hoseok wishes he could have kept that promise.
Lilacs. They are the harbingers of spring, the blooming of a fresh new year, of the first stirrings of love. Hoseok’s room once used to be filled with them, their small, dainty purple petals spread out in little bunches, the very symbol of delicate innocence. But as Hoseok stares at the vase of lilacs by the bedside, he can only think of how much they reminded him of hyacinths.
There is no question whose room he is in. Instead of worn floorboards and a small musty bed, the lace curtains are pulled to the side to let in the warm sunlight. The sheets are smooth and soft, a luxury that Hoseok has never felt before on his skin, and portraits of a happy family littered the dresser. A young girl laughing as she traipses down the cobbled streets, holding hands with her parents, smiling demurely at the camera in her uniform. Hoseok has only ever been here before when helping Elizabeth arrange flowers. She has always loved lilacs.
“There was no one available to care for you at the orphanage.”
Hoseok struggles to sit up, his arm weakly slipping against the bed. Elizabeth sets down the tray of food and rushes over to help him, her soft hands putting him to rights with ease. She stuffs a pillow against his lower back, propping him up as she brings over the meal. The last time Hoseok had seen her, it had been snowing.
They sit in silence for a while. Elizabeth’s eyes are sad and softly reproachful, even as she watches him eat. She looks more beautiful than she did before, her hair falling softly around her shoulders in ringlets. Hoseok’s heart twists.
“We found you in the rubble,” she says, voice breaking. Hoseok wants to wipe away the tears that brimmed in her eyes, feeling wretched. “You don’t understand how terrified I was! You disappeared for three months and then to see you lying bloodied on the floor at the church… Hobi, I—
Elizabeth’s voice trails onto harsh sobbing, and she flings herself by his bedside. Trying to comfort her, Hoseok runs his hand through her hair and remains silent. Here, with him now, there is a girl who believes whole-heartedly in the goodness of humanity, in compassion and kindness and the Founders, and Comstock, and she loves him. Or at least Hoseok thinks she does, in the young foolish way that he used to fall for.
But even as Elizabeth cries, Hoseok cannot help but wish he is somewhere else. He doesn’t know why he is here and how he got hurt but being here, in Elizabeth’s room, and hearing her cry isn’t where he is supposed to be. He feels different, like himself but stranger somehow. He remembers the flowers and his duties, he remembers that he still loves Elizabeth, but everything is not felt the same way it felt before. Head pounding, Hoseok struggles to remember and panics. He disappeared for months. What was he doing?
Everything feels foggy, foreign and vaguely, Hoseok wonders if Elizabeth can see the difference in his eyes, that he isn’t the man that he once was. He avoids her gaze, not wanting her to see if she could. He feels sorry for not understanding why he’s injured, where he’d gone, and more than anything, Hoseok wants to know why he feels empty. Hoseok disentangles his arm from Elizabeth’s hold and swallows uncomfortably when she stares at him confusedly through her tears.
Because as beautiful as she is, and always will be, Hoseok thinks he wants someone else. Someone he half-remembers but can’t make out.
“Tell me,” Elizabeth says, looking back up at him with red-rimmed eyes. Her voice is insistent. “Tell me where you’ve gone. I swear I’ll help you. I swear.”
Hoseok runs his hand down her tear-stained cheek and shakes his head.
Things go back to normal.
Hoseok takes up his room at the orphanage again, sweeps the dust that has collected off his dresser and places fresh flowers in the vase. He dips bread into soup and nibbles at his portion before dashing off to Botega’s Blooms before the sun’s risen, and listens to Mr Botega’s muttering. He speaks to Elizabeth with an easy candor and never fails to compliment her on Wednesdays, because those are the days that she looks the most beautiful, and she smiles at him like the radiant sun. In the evenings, Hoseok fills in the forms for orders. More lilacs, primroses, forget-me-nots, camellias, hyacinths.
Things in Columbia continue to fall apart. Hoseok reads about the controlled “demolition” of the church in a paper Elizabeth passes him, and he keeps track of any scrap of information since. The newspapers are a poor source, but gossiping mouths were always plentiful around the shops. Hoseok hears about the Vox’s movements, how they have taken over Fink Manufacturing, how Fink was dead, how entire areas of Columbia have already plunged into open battle. Hoseok should feel more afraid of Columbia’s descent into chaos, but most days, he fears his apathy more. Elizabeth spends more time at church, praying for the fallen.
For weeks, Hoseok waits, cleaning countertops, watering flowers and smiling at customers as they peruse the stocks. He waits, counting the weeks, the days, the hours and the minutes, and he waits for someone to come for him. It’s the excited beating of his heart that slows to disappointment, the heated drumming in his blood that cools just as quick, the knowledge and expectation that Hoseok is waiting for something, for someone, before he starts to second-guess himself.
When the night is at its deepest, Hoseok spends the wee hours of the morning tucked up in his sheets with his head hurting, pressure hammering against his cranium. Images, half-thoughts and forgotten dreams return to him. Hoseok dreams of many things but none of them reality, his memory ends at the crying and screaming in Raffle Square, Elizabeth clutching at his arm. Sometimes in the shop, Hoseok watches dust motes glitter in the sunlight and feels an irrepressible sadness. He remembers rainwater, smoke, warm sheets and nothing else. It doesn’t take long for the throbbing of his head to translate to the bleeding of his nose and Hoseok fears that he might finally be losing his grip on sanity. He prays more, following Elizabeth’s piousness. But the words inevitably turn to charcoal between his teeth.
Sometimes in the mornings, Elizabeth looks at him with something akin to heartbreak in her eyes. She scoops her hair behind her ear and doesn’t meet Hoseok’s eyes, hurt at Hoseok’s refusal to divulge his whereabouts since he disappeared. Hoseok knows he should be comforting her, pulling her into his arms to heal her wounds. But he doesn’t know where he’s been, and the feeling in his gut urges him not to say a word. So he doesn’t. He smiles at her and walks her down the street when she leaves for service on Sundays and hopes she finds more peace with the Founders than he did.
And Hoseok returns to waiting.
Apart from the occasional shudder, the thumping of police boots against the cobblestones, Hoseok slumbers in the idyll, waiting for fire.
Pink lips. Dark eyes. His hair is different. It’s black.
The man leans over the counter and smiles at him. As if they knew each other.
The boys laugh as Hoseok chases them. The smaller boy clings to the swing and shouts for Hoseok to come get him, which Hoseok would if he didn’t know that the former would dart away as soon as he got close. His friend grins at him from behind the tree. Hoseok wipes the sweat from his brow and revels in his thrumming heartbeat. He takes a step closer and they both shriek in excitement.
Hoseok chases them both around until he gets tired. He lunges at them and they dash out onto the road, giggling hysterically. Hoseok follows, down till the orphanage fades from sight. Until it gets dark and Hoseok can no longer hear the laughter of his friends. Until the alleyways and buildings bend to the sunlight.
The orphanage’s holly tree. Hoseok loves that tree. It always looked beautiful in the winter, crimson red against white. It flickers.
The orphanage’s swing. Hoseok loves that swing. He had spent many an hour on its worn seat, watching the setting sun turn the sky orange. It flickers.
The orphanage’s holly tree.
Hoseok loves that tree.
“You’re still sick,” Elizabeth says sadly, dabbing at Hoseok’s fevered forehead. “I’ve been telling Papa that he shouldn’t overwork you.”
Hoseok turns his head into her touch. Elizabeth is comforting and familiar in the midst of chaos, of half-forgotten memories and untrue-facts. When she pats Hoseok’s head and smiles gently down at him and Hoseok feels as if everything could be all right again, like the old times, where a shadow wouldn’t frighten Hoseok close to death and where a siren wouldn’t fill his veins with adrenaline.
Why then did this feel like betrayal?
A few days ago, Hoseok turned his room inside out in his pursuit to find the choker that he had bought Elizabeth. He doesn’t remember gifting it and Elizabeth denies knowledge of any present aside from the flowers he leaves in her room every week. After an hour, all Hoseok had was the velvet pouch he found tucked away in his dresser, sans choker. He spends the rest of the evening staring out of the window, willing the darkening skies to bring him answers. But all he’s left with is the coming of day, an empty pouch and the feeling of uncontrollable loss.
The police had been by, their notepads filled with questions and suspicious looks, storming into the orphanage with state-issued revolvers and Eve bottles. The madam ushers the children away, but she needn’t have. The policemen scare Elliot upstairs with heavy footsteps and Elinor runs to her room nearly in tears after they bark at her to leave the adults be. Hoseok sits like a shame-faced child on the settee, watching a policeman with Devil’s Kiss stretch out his red flame-caressed fingers. But the flames don’t burn hot enough for Hoseok’s liking and he looks away soon after.
Like any good citizen, he answers their questions obediently. And Hoseok wonders when the distinction between being a good citizen and a bad one came to him. They appear satisfied when they finally leave, telling Hoseok gruffly to keep away from any lowlifes and to report any Vox sympathisers that may come his way. Later that day, Hoseok dreams again of dark eyes.
“Follow me to church, Hobi,” Elizabeth says, startling Hoseok out of his reverie.
The Welcome Center had been destroyed so when Hoseok steps out at the Emporia, he wasn’t really all that surprised. Elizabeth had done her hair up in a fancy braid and wore an expensive lace dress her mother had bought for her sixteenth birthday, the hem sweeping her delicate ankles. She looks right at home among Columbia’s richest, the very picture of delicate devotion. In contrast, Hoseok felt inferior standing beside her in his mucky shoes and starched green shirt. He wonders if the people milling about were thinking the exact same thing.
People stream around them, the apparent confusion that had touched the rest of Columbia did not appear to have touched Emporia, women bustle along the shops with their husbands and maids, children run after each other on the cobbled stones and airships drift past undisturbed. The tranquility makes Hoseok’s stomach twist. Breathing deeply, Hoseok tries to concentrate on the blue skies and happy crowds, and to quench the feeling that he’s been here before.
Memorial Gardens is lovely in the morning light. Elizabeth takes Hoseok’s hand and they approach Lady Comstock’s mausoleum together. The glass coffin holds treasured cargo: the mother of the country unnatural in her preserved death. Hoseok avoids his eyes to examine smooth white marble instead, not daring to look at his lady’s mien. Elizabeth solemnly places the wreath of flowers and kneels to pray, motioning for Hoseok to do the same.
Hoseok knows many prayers. O’ Founder’s Light and Sweet Little Lamb are just a few of them. He sang Triumph of Columbia just like any proud patriot on Comstock Day and had once spent days at the Church of Comstock listening to the pastor preach from the Book of Freedom. But on this morning, the words would not come to his lips. Instead, Hoseok stares at the unruffled skirt of Lady Comstock, the rose pressed against her breast, her pallid face, and wishes for Elizabeth to be finished. The dead was never supposed to be displayed like that. But the calmness of dawn breaks
And like déjà vu, Hoseok hears—
Fire, a searing pain that turns his skin to liquid. A smile and dark eyes.
And Hoseok remembers.
Hoseok pulls Elizabeth to Port Prosperity. There are gunshots echoing in his ears and more than once, he has had to pull Elizabeth away from running to a call for aid. He can see the glow of nearby exploding grenades, he can hear the screams clearer than she, and he would be damned if he lets her down again. Elizabeth’s fingernails dig deep into Hoseok’s forearm and he knows that she’s scared, her breaths coming short and quick, but not enough to be immobilized; not like last time. And Hoseok remembers it now. He remembers it now. He has never felt more alive than now, at this very instant, and he hopes Elizabeth cannot spy the relief displayed brazenly on his face.
The evacuating airships are at the port, where state security has presumably kept the Vox insurgents away from. People scramble on board, pushing and tussling, unlike the image of fine society they were just hours ago. Weeping mothers shush their squalling children as more push to get on safe refuge, a man had collapsed in the corner, staunching blood flow from his lower abdomen. Hoseok knows the man is not going to make it but like everyone else, he keeps his silence. A silence that is swiftly filled when Elizabeth starts crying the moment she’s on board, harsh gasps spilling from her lips. It is difficult to untangle her clammy fingers from their tight grip on his shirt, prying at them until her hold turns loose.
Her amber eyes are bewildered even through her tears, her cheeks ruddy and red. She’s pale with shock and Hoseok knows with a sinking feeling that it may be the last time he sees her face. If he leaves now, he will never see her again. He will never ask her to dance, tuck flowers behind her ear, break her heart. But now that Hoseok remembers—he remembers—he knows resolutely that there will never be someone else. And pretty as Elizabeth was, is, he is still looking for someone else.
Elizabeth screams for him when he steps back onto Emporia as the airship leaves dock but Hoseok doesn’t look back. He’s not sure that he could continue to be calm if he catches sight of her tears, and so he listens to the gunshots as he walks down the street, towards a place he had read about only in info-tapes and pamphlets. Hoseok doesn’t know where he’s going but he trusts his feet. He’s been here before after all. Once upon a dream.
Picking up a gun from a fallen corpse beside the bank, Hoseok loads it with fresh bullets before heading through the winding roads, looking out for signs to the Market District. The way forward is easy but Hoseok feels his nerves fray as the Vox gallop past, shouting viciously, waving red banners and dragging bodies brutally to their destination. Their bull-horned helmets gleam dully in the sunlight and Hoseok wants more than anything to remember. He wants to remember everything. Because the blood on his upper lip reminds him of more than just illness and the throb in his head has finally aligned with the beat in his heart.
The Lutece Labs are unguarded as Hoseok pushes through the doors. The building was dark, lit dimly by a massive sparking machine that spanned across the entire floor. Hoseok has never seen the device before…
But he knows the person standing next to it.
“I knew you’d remember to come here. You always remember to, always always always,” Taehyung sing-songs, turning around to smile brightly at Hoseok. The light illuminates his face unnaturally as Taehyung puts the pen and clipboard he was holding aside and leans in to prod at the complicated mesh of colourful wiring. He straightens again after a while, shaking his head. “Fink did his work. I can’t get it to work no matter how many times I try.”
Crumbling marble. A glimpse of blue skies. “Why’d you try to kill me?” are the words that tumble forth from Hoseok’s mouth first.
Taehyung looks at him and for the first time, Hoseok realizes how incredibly small he looks, even while standing tall and imposing in the center of the room. But distrust cools his concern and Hoseok would much rather cock his revolver in the man’s face than go any closer.
“Do you know where the Luteces went?” Taehyung asks in lieu of a reply, tilting his head to the side. Hoseok shakes his head gruffly. He neither has the curiosity nor patience to entertain Taehyung's many questions. Hoseok has many questions that require answers, he wants to know about Yoongi, about Namjoon and Jimin and the rest, and whether Taehyung had done the same to them what he tried to do to him and if Hoseok had to walk out of the building with blood on his hands and a chamber empty of bullets.
“I do,” Taehyung announces quietly, voice strange. His hand drifts back to stroke the dull metal of the device. He peers at it lovingly, with a touch of disconcerting fondness. “The Luteces are everywhere now, everywhere. I see them sometimes when they come to visit me. But they’re not here now. They’re busy, I think.”
“Taehyung,” Hoseok warns, bringing his gun out.
“You see,” Taehyung persists, turning back to Hoseok, brows furrowed. “Something that I’ve learnt in every universe that this device opens to me—in every universe that I’ve been to—is that there are two factors. Constants and variables. Sometimes things change, little things, things barely worthy of notice. Like who Park Jimin is, or what he does, or where he grows up. A holly tree or a swing, does it even matter?”
“What are you talking about?!”
“But sometimes there are things that don’t. They’re like little thumbtacks of reality, indisputable fact. Like who Jung Hoseok is, or what he does, or why he always always always remembers.”
Hoseok remains silent as Taehyung wanders towards the table. He pulls open a drawer and from it, lifts out stacks upon stacks of files, papers strewn across the desk covered in dust. Taehyung lifts a finger to empty air, draws it down, and Hoseok watches as the files rip apart to reveal a table clean of any mess. The sight flickers. And the seams of the rip shine. The rip seals.
Hoseok sees papers once again.
“The Luteces call it a tear,” Taehyung explains. “It’s how I always find supplies in the raided warehouses Yoongi sends me to. I open tears until I find one reality that has what we need. But I suppose I don’t need to any longer.”
From another drawer in the desk, Taehyung retrieves a very familiar metal box. Hoseok’s heart leaps to his throat. Taehyung drifts his fingers over the near flawless surface of the metal and thumbs at its barely discernable opening. With another flick of his wrist, the Box vanishes in another sliver and this time, the tear reveals it open.
“The Luteces send their regards to their latest charge,” Taehyung says when he robs the Box of its contents and throws it to Hoseok.
The smaller wooden container Hoseok catches pales in comparison to its invincible protector and its flimsy metal latch opens with a lift. Hoseok feels his hands burn as he touches them, pain surging easy and hot into the pads of his fingers. It was a picture of him as a child, along with two boys whose faces seem so agonizingly obvious now that Hoseok sees them in printed sepia. There was a large tree in the background. With a swing on it.
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re a constant, Hoseok. You’re a constant. It means that no matter how many universes I go to, no matter how many times I try, you’re always Jung Hoseok, always an orphan, always in love with Yoongi and always alive when all of this ends. You could be on the side of the Vox, or on the side of Columbia. You could be the Chief Constable or a chimney sweep starving in Shantytown. None of it matters,” Taehyung hisses, his voice turning low and angry. His eyes flash, like reckoning lightning.
And just like a tornado evaporating into air, Taehyung’s rage recedes and the boy becomes the one that Hoseok remembers spending time with: demure, dazed and mild. Taehyung looks up at the ceiling, like he’s lost his train of thought, before staring at Hoseok blankly. It’s unnerving and Hoseok feels his hackles rise, especially when Taehyung’s smile widens.
Taehyung’s gaze looks faraway and his voice breaks.
“Jeongguk is the other constant, Hoseok,” he says softly, so soft that his words barely reach the air before vanishing into dust. “He’s always Jeon Jeongguk. He’s always strong and kind and young, he always brings me flowers and he always makes me smile and I always always always fall in love with him. Every time. And in each and every single universe that I’ve chased him to, he always dies. He always dies. And I thought—
—I thought, maybe, if you did this time, he wouldn’t have to.”
Hoseok can barely find his voice.
Taehyung doesn’t answer but Hoseok thinks he can see the moment the boy’s heart breaks into smithereens. His smile falls away like autumn leaves and the tears bubble to his eyes while he crumples slowly, knees slamming into the linoleum beside the machine. Hoseok finds himself walking closer to the boy with the powers of the invincible. Around Taehyung, precious slivers of different worlds slice open, bathing him in silvery light.
The dusty files on the table contain hundreds of pictures. Jeongguk grinning up at the camera, Jeongguk staring out at the rain through the windows, Jeongguk sharing a secret smile that made Hoseok’s stomach bottom out. Some have just been taken, glinting glossily, Jeongguk’s smirk and wink reminding Taehyung of what he has, had lost and will lose. Some are yellowed with age, film browning with exposure. Hoseok briefly wonders how long Taehyung has been traversing universes and crossing realities with the vague sliver of hope that’s crushed every time Jeongguk sacrifices himself to the cause.
Hoseok turns over file after file.
Jeongguk with sunlight in his hair. Jeongguk scrunching up his nose. Jeongguk pressing a kiss to Taehyung’s lips. Jeongguk looking, for all intents and purposes, like he’s invincible.
Hoseok didn’t bother flipping through the rest of them.
Taehyung’s shuddering sobs have quieted into harsh breathing and Hoseok squats down beside the boy. He runs a hand down Taehyung’s back, patting him till his breathing becomes even, with the awkward awareness of the gun he had brought pressing conspicuously against his waist.
“It’s almost funny.” Taehyung holds a photograph, thin and fragile, almost tearing at the corners. “I can never die and he always does.
“It’s the first photograph I took of him, the first universe we met in. Before I knew I loved him,” Taehyung whispers, tears dripping heavily onto the image, and Hoseok can do nothing but nod. Hoseok wonders how many times Taehyung has seen Jeongguk die.
Jeongguk smiles up at the both of them, eyes unseeing, expression unchanging.
They both sit on the floor of the Lutece Labs, breathing in the dust and hearing as the Vox charge outside, energized in their hellion fury. In the dark, memories come back to Hoseok in snippets, memories from his other lives. He remembers Jimin and Taehyung at the orphanage as children, he remembers Yoongi as his deputy in the Columbian Law and Order office, he remembers Seokjin as director-in-charge of engineering in Fink Manufacturing. And then he remembers Namjoon as a martyr of the Vox, of Jimin bleeding out in the raid on Monument Island. He remembers Yoongi as a schoolteacher preaching Columbian values, of Jimin being the only unfortunate child of a Shantytown reject, of Jeongguk chasing his footsteps at the orphanage and Hoseok remembers too much but this time, his nose doesn’t bleed.
Taehyung draws tears into the fabric of reality around them. They seal themselves up following Taehyung’s idle finger, silver potential stitching back into dull reality. Hoseok listens to the belying tranquil silence outside and counts the dust motes as they wait for something to happen.
“What will you do now?” Hoseok asks, long after the sun has set.
“I won’t give him up,” Taehyung replies dully. “Not even if I have to go to every single universe in creation and he dies in every one of them.”
Hoseok pauses. The silence settles again.
“Is Yoongi okay?”
“He’s with Namjoon organizing the Vox’s final push in two days. He’ll find you after all of this is over. He always does.”
Hoseok crawls closer to Taehyung and holds him still even as the boy flinches away. Hoseok can’t decipher the look on his face. Something akin to grief and detachment perhaps, but not regret. Never regret. There’s still darkness in his eyes, like it’s inked into his soul and Hoseok realizes that finding insanity in Taehyung is like looking for a pinprick of madness in a pool of forced cheer but now that he knew where to look, the darkness in Taehyung’s eyes scared him. Hoseok wondered how none of them noticed earlier. Not even Jimin.
Even though things are starting to reconcile, mercifully, Hoseok doesn’t remember his other lives aside from what ripples of memory break through the surface. Experiences intertwine, and more than once, Hoseok sees Jeongguk’s dying gaze. He dies as a Vox leader and he dies as an innocent Columbian bystander. He dies as a wealthy man’s only heir, and as the runt of the orphanage’s batch of rowdy pups. Hoseok wants to vomit but there’s nothing within him to heave up. Instead, Hoseok runs through the murky waters of his mind and tries to remember Taehyung as more than just the broken boy always huddled over a bleeding body.
The gun is warm in his hand and Hoseok remembers how Yoongi pressed his fingers to it, how he stood behind him and told him to aim. He remembers Yoongi’s hair, glinting in the sun, gummy grin making Hoseok’s heart work double-time. The way his dark eyes narrowed into badly-hidden disgust whenever Hoseok missed the target, and how it always melted away into badly-hidden affection when it hit. Hoseok feels like crying but his eyes are dry—Taehyung might have cried enough for both of them for an eternity.
Pressing Taehyung’s curling finger around the grip of the revolver, Hoseok backs away.
“Do you remember what you said?” Hoseok asks, eyeing the boy carefully. “You told Yoongi that a bullet through the head would stop Jeongguk just like it would stop any of us. You remember that?”
Taehyung nods slowly. He twirls the gun around his fingers, grip sure and capable.
“Do you think one would stop me?”
Closing his eyes, Hoseok thinks of Yoongi and tries to imagine the man directing the scores of available hands throughout Columbia, forging what he hopes to be a more compassionate society, one that would remember an orphan boy dawdling through life tucked away in New Patriot Lane. And beneath the sparks in his eyes squeezed tight, Hoseok sees holly trees melt into swings, Elliot and Elinor meld away into familiar friends and Yoongi smiling so sweetly up at him that it makes his heart ache.
Hoseok wants more than anything to be able to kiss those eyelids one last time. To feel them flutter beneath his lips, to see those dark dark eyes blink back at him.
Hoseok hears the click of the safety but he doesn’t hear the gunshot.
“Don’t die,” Yoongi says, his lips pressed against the shell of Hoseok’s ear.
Hoseok buries his head into Yoongi’s neck, breathing in his scent. He smells like smoke and rainwater and warm sheets. Yoongi reminds Hoseok of something in his childhood, familiar and dear and Hoseok wants more than anything to be safely sequestered back at base, in the bed they share, whispering vows into Yoongi’s fevered skin.
“I won’t. I promise.”
“What flower shop doesn’t have hyacinths?” the man asks, scowling at Hoseok.
“One which sells things people want,” Hoseok replies sunnily, ignoring the blistering glare. He handles problematic customers all the time and this one is no exception. “Would you rather purple wisterias? We just got some this morning.”
The man fingers his choker in contemplation. Something about it looks familiar. Maybe it’s the way the silver rose petals curve into the heart of the flower. It looked really pretty against the man’s pale neck and if the man was friendlier, Hoseok would have asked to have a better look at the cool metal. As it were, Hoseok wishes the man would just settle for some wisterias and stop bothering him about hyacinths.
Hoseok watches the man while he thinks. Despite the attitude, his eyes were the prettiest shade of brown, darkly eyeing Hoseok with poorly-concealed suspicion. And his hair was black, glossy like a raven’s wing.
“I could place an order for some hyacinths, if you like?” Hoseok offers. He hasn’t really the faintest clue where to get hyacinths but Hoseok supposes new stock around the shop is always good for business. The man runs a hand through his hair and Hoseok grins at him winningly.
The man rolls his eyes but finally, he nods, filling in the form Hoseok hands him with a scrawl that’s barely legible.
“I’ll be back to collect them in a week.”
Hoseok watches as the man stalks out of the shop. Vaguely, Hoseok wants to see the man again. If only just to see if he would be satisfied when the hyacinths come in.
Min Yoongi, the form says.
The name sounded familiar. Perhaps they had met before, Hoseok considers, poring over the order slip. But the bell rings, startling Hoseok from his daydreams and he greets the new customer before stashing the form with the others.