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“We did things that we never would have thought to do if not for love. What changes the world is love.”
Na Jung, Reply 1994

August 2012

“All right, whose turn is it for dishes?”

From the common room, silence. Almost silence. He hears the tinsely jingle of Mario Cart and a muffled giggle.

Seokjin continues to chop the onions, pausing for a moment to wipe his nose with the back of his hand. He could threaten to stop cooking for them, but they'd see that for the dirty lie that it is. He loves cooking almost as much as he loves eating, and sometimes his love for eating scares him.

Cooking seems an even rarer pleasure since their days are packed end-to-end with dance practice, rehearsals, and lessons. So he sits cross-legged on the floor, dicing carrots, slicing onions, and dreaming of a larger kitchen.

Whispers rustle from the common room, followed by a smack and a groan of pain.

“Yah,” Seokjin calls. “Who's night for clean up?”

“Yoongi's,” someone answers. Possibly Jungkook, though it could have been Taehyung. Anyway, they're lying. It was Yoongi's turn on Friday.

As if conjured by the sound of his name, Yoongi shambles into the kitchen, scrubbing a hand through his hair.

“What do they want?” he grumbles.

“They said it's your dish night.”

Yoongi opens the refrigerator. Closes it. Coughs. “Who did?”

“Maybe Taehyung?” Seokjin says.

Yoongi grunts and disappears around the corner. Seconds later, the common room fills with shouts and laughter as the maknaes scramble out of Yoongi's path. Maybe two minutes later, Yoongi returns, wearing a pleased smirk on his sleep-creased face.

“It's Jimin's turn,” he says.

“Ah, Jimin,” Seokjin says. He plunks the carrots into a bowl and pulls himself up to the stove.

“Tell them you won't cook for them,” Yoongi suggests.

“Yeah,” Seokjin laughs. “Right.” He douses a skillet with oil and sets the burner aflame.

Yoongi opens the fridge, drinks straight from the carton of orange juice, and replaces it on his shelf. He says, “You're the hyung, hyung. Make them obey you.”

Seokjin scrapes the onions into the hot oil and wrinkles his nose. “I'm your hyung, too. You make them obey.”

Yoongi's head bobs, once. “Sounds fair.”

“Yeah?” Seokjin feels like this is far too easy. He's struggled with balancing kitchen duties and the rest of their activities since the day, when gathered around some table playing some team-building game, Seokjin revealed that he likes cooking. Seokjin instituted the rotating dish night policy when cooking and cleaning for seven people took a lot longer than he initially bargained for. So far, only Hoseok, Yoongi, and Namjoon consistently take their turns.

But Yoongi looks serious, and the maknaes do kinda fear him. Except for Taehyung who doesn't seem to fear anyone.

“Sure,” Yoongi says. Again, the single head bob. “It's a deal.”

 

Chapter Text

“Ah, yes, indeed it's fun times, fun times.” 
SureShot, The Beastie Boys

September 2012

“Who's turn for—?” Seokjin shouts, but before he's finished, Taehyung appears at the sink.

“Dishes,” Taehyung says. “Me.”

Seokjin prods the sizzling chicken with a spatula. “Again?” he asks.

In lieu of an answer, Taehyung says, “We need music.” He pulls his phone from his pocket and queues up a song Seokjin's never heard before, something discordantly American. He proceeds to hop-dance around the kitchen, shouting the few English words he knows into a kitchen spoon.

Seokjin laughs, he can't help but laugh, and Taehyung takes this for encouragement. He arches against Seokjin, pinning him to the counter. Taehyung offers the spoon-mike at the song's refrain, and even though Seokjin doesn't know the words, he yells along, matching Taehyung's volume if not his pitch, which can only be described as shrill.

Hoseok and Namjoon materialize from opposite sides of the dorm, each wearing expressions of equal parts consternation and alarm. Then Hoseok recognizes the song and leaps into the dance while Namjoon observes from a safe distance, muttering occasional warnings when Taehyung and Hoseok come too close to colliding with stuff. But after a few seconds, even he succumbs to the beat, trading his leader's demeanor for a kind of infectious, frenetic flailing.

Seokjin watches the reckless flapping that has overtaken his kitchen. He's torn between observing the spectacle and keeping the chicken from burning. Because the space is too small for them to join in, Jimin and Jungkook hover in the doorway, grinning as Hoseok and Namjoon croon the last notes of the song into Taehyung's spoon.

As the music fades, Jimin skirts Namjoon and tries to take Taehyung's phone from his hand. They begin bickering over what to play next while Hoseok leans over Seokjin's shoulder to peek into the pot of gently boiling water.

“Noodles?” he asks, hopefully.

“Vegetables,” Seokjin says.

“Ugh, again?” Namjoon groans.

Affecting an MC's persona, Seokjin says into his spatula, “Anticipate a delicious, healthy soup. But don't hate the chef, I just work here.”

Hoseok clicks his tongue. “Smells good, anyway.”

Jimin manages to wrangle Taehyung's phone from him, and the three maknaes crowd around it, arguing over song selection.

“Hyung, when will it be ready?” Jungkook asks.

Seokjin fishes a bit of carrot from the boiling water, but before it can properly cool, Taehyung swipes it, popping it immediately into his mouth.

Amidst everyone's protests, Taehyung shouts, “It's hot.”

Pabo,” Namjoon cries. “He just took it out of the water.”

“But is it done?” Jungkook asks.

Taehyung alternately chews and blows to cool his tongue. “It's crunchy,” he says.

“Not done yet.” Seokjin pets Taehyung's shoulder. “Everyone out, now. I need this space to work the magic.”

Namjoon and Hoseok spread their arms to herd the maknaes from the kitchen, and they go somewhat willingly, though Jimin and Jungkook are still glued to the playlist on Taehyung's phone. Taehyung trails after, and Seokjin thinks—maybe hopes—that he looks a little dejected. So Seokjin catches his wrist and tugs him back.

“Not you,” Seokjin says. “You're on dishes, remember?”

The way Taehyung brightens, like he's the first pick for a team in gym when he was resigned to be the last, gives Seokjin's heart a painful squeeze. Taehyung is still in high school, and from what Seokjin has gathered from their conversations, Taehyung protects Jimin. Jimin's the new kid; the one with the awkwardness and the baby fat. Jimin's the one struggling to fit in, but Seokjin wonders if maybe Taehyung is, too.

Taehyung takes up a set of chopsticks and beats a rhythm along the edge of the sink.

He says, “They took our music.” Then he taps the chopsticks across Seokjin's fingers, up his arms, over his shoulders, and along his neck. Seokjin squawks as he tries to fend him off, but there's no escape because the kitchen is so damn small.

“Yah,” Yoongi moans from the doorway. His eyes are so puffy, they're almost fused shut, and his hair is a disheveled fluff upon his head. “Must you be so loud?”

And Taehyung points to no place in particular and goes, “But they—”

And Seokjin says, “But we—”

Yoongi gives them the stare of death. He says, “When will dinner be ready?”

“Soon?” Seokjin says. He looks at Taehyung, who still brandishes his chopsticks.

Taehyung folds his hands around them and bows like some kind of utensil knight. “Soon, hyung,” he agrees.

Yoongi grunts. He squints at them before padding back to their bedroom, trailing a long, withering sigh in his stead.

And behind his back, Seokjin and Taehyung dissolve into laughter.

 

Chapter Text

“If you need something desperately and find it, this is not an accident.”
Emil Sinclair
Demian, Hermann Hesse

October 2012

Namjoon stabs his straw into the slushy ice of his frozen mocha, hoping to dislodge one of the chocolate chips from the clump at the bottom of the cup. Choi Seonsaengnim nods his approval and shoulders his pack. They walk, side by side, among the crowds of tourists and shoppers scattered throughout Myeongdong plaza. Against the brightly-lit storefronts, Mr. Choi appears plain and disheveled in his tweed jacket and cuffed gray slacks. His glasses were probably new during the Great Labor Action, and they make him look like a keenly-interested stick insect observing the antics of all the silly humans.

“So you're doing well, Joonie?” Mr. Choi asks. “You look as though you've been working hard.”

Namjoon knows it's a compliment as well as a caution, and he takes it as both. “I have been, sir, and I'm well, thanks. We have a good group, I think. Really, they're extraordinary.”

The crowds jostle and buffer around them, but he and his teacher keep their pace, heading south toward Namsan Park. Mr. Choi says, “You've told me about the others, but what about the new ones? How are they faring?”

Namjoon continues to fiddle with his straw. “They're settling in, I think. Suwoong's still here for now, though we're still unsure. Seokjin finally moved into the dorm, and did I mention Taehyung, the one from Daegu?—”

“—Yes, I believe so—”

“—And now we have Jimin, from Busan. He's young, but he's very, very good,” Namjoon says. “He had a rough start, I think. Maybe the roughest. I heard he was a big deal in Busan, and here, he's still fighting for his place. Our maknae, Jungkook, he's... well, he's good at everything, just everything. I think Jimin's used to having that title for himself.”

Mr. Choi pauses at a corner, lighting long enough to let a family with a stroller pass by. When they start walking again, he says, “As their leader, how can you keep them from fighting over who is the best and the strongest?”

Namjoon glances to meet his teacher's eyes. He understands that this is a pointed question. Like most of Mr. Choi's questions, it's aimed at getting Namjoon to think, to problem-solve, to look for connections beneath the surface. It's one of the reasons Namjoon seeks out Mr. Choi's counsel beyond the classroom. He listens to Namjoon and not only values his opinion, he encourages him to voice it.

It's several paces before Namjoon answers. “We have our mission,” he says. “To change the world with meaningful music. With our music.”

Mr. Choi nods. His eyes gleam huge behind his lenses. Then Namjoon smiles because he knows this isn't the answer to Mr. Choi's question.

He digs deeper. “We have each other,” he says. “We rely on each other. For everything. We do fight, all the time, but we listen to each other, and we talk.”

Mr. Choi adjusts the strap of his pack. The weather feels like the thin skin of a pear, delicate and soft. The scents of honey skein and roasted squid waft on the breeze and golden gingko leaves skitter on the pavement. Namjoon finds it easier to breathe today. He looks forward to these appointments with Mr. Choi, especially now that Namjoon is close to graduating. He likes getting out of the dorm, taking the subway on his own, feeling the thrum of the city around him, that pulse-deep energy reminding him he's alive.

And Mr. Choi understands Namjoon's struggle. His teacher remembers the Namjoon of before, when he didn't want to be alive, when he thought of the world as a trap full of dull teeth. Mr. Choi was one of the first to read Namjoon's songs, and rather than dismissing him as an angst-fueled teenager, he treated Namjoon like what he had to say was important.

For a sixteen-year-old struggling with identity, Namjoon needed that kind of sounding board, someone who would listen without judgment. Now that Namjoon is older and in a position of responsibility, Mr. Choi's thoughtful guidance is even more invaluable.

They come to the end of the long, narrow street, and from the crosswalk, they can see Namsan Tower glowing like a golden lantern above the twilit city. Mr. Choi says, “Oftentimes, a group will create a kind of internal code, something that binds them beyond the rules of normal society.”

Namjoon brightens with excitement. “Actually, we have that,” he says. “We've talked about exactly that. Seokjin and I, when he first started with the company, we talked about having consequences that apply to us all, equally, no matter what. And me and Yoongi, we've talked about never having secrets. If the others come to us in confidence, we've promised to tell each other, so that we can share our problems as a group. Then Hoseok, he's like our cheerleader. We can all go to him when we need to feel better.”

“Your instincts are good, Joonie,” Mr. Choi says.

Namjoon turns onto Samil-daero, guiding them back toward Chungmuro Station. He wants to believe that what Mr. Choi says is true, but he worries constantly that he's getting it wrong, that he's too rational and distant to be the leader the members deserve. It's this anxiety that pushes him into late nights and long weekends in the studio. It rips up his sleep and gnaws at his appetite until he feels oddly hollow inside.

Mr. Choi catches his elbow and pulls him to a stop. He says, “You've already done something it takes others years to master, Namjoon. You've learned how to delegate. By doing this, you've instilled a sense of trust in your hyungs, and together, you'll set rules for the others to follow.”

Namjoon dips his head to hide his blush. “You really think so?”

“I know so,” Mr. Choi says. “Bang Sihyuk is a wise man to put his faith in you.”

Namjoon cannot find fault with the first half of this statement, and he will work to the bone to prove the second half true.

But rather than agree outright, Namjoon mumbles, “Dunno how smart he is... he still won't let us date girls.”

And Mr. Choi laughs in his reserved manner, the sound of a man who understands one man's point, but solidly agrees with the wisdom of the other.

“So,” Mr. Choi says, once they resume their walking. "Any idea when you might debut?”

Namjoon chuckles, lightly. This is the question everyone's been asking, and the answer is, sadly, about as complicated as everything else in their lives. But, Namjoon has at least had some experience in answering it. He says, “Sometime in the next year, possibly in the spring.”

Mr. Choi whistles. “Long time to wait.”

“And a lot of work ahead,” Namjoon agrees.

They meander among the street cafe stalls, the scent of garlic fried chicken and fish cakes warming the brisk night air. Once they reach the subway station, Mr. Choi touches Namjoon's shoulder as a means of saying good night.

“We'll meet again in November,” he tells Namjoon.

“Yes, sir,” Namjoon agrees.

“Until then,” Mr. Choi says, and he unshoulders his bag to remove three paperbacks from inside. “I wanted to give you these.”

Namjoon takes the books, caressing each cover in turn. “Thank you, sir,” he says. “I can't wait to read them.”

Mr. Choi gives Namjoon a nod. “You'll enjoy the Hesse, I believe,” he says. “I look forward to hearing your thoughts.”

Chapter Text

“Until now, I knew this of myself:
That if you had thrown yourself down
Into the lion's den
My brother, I'd follow you in.”
Iscariot, Walk the Moon

November 2012

It was a year ago in September when Taehyung first met Kim Seokjin.

A year ago, the trainees were in the practice room when the managers brought Taehyung around to meet them. He'd felt tiny and frail among so many sharp-eyed strangers, and he was so far from home that he measured the distance with every single step. Because she knew of the harsh winters in Seoul, his Mom had bought him a fine goose-down coat – candy red and trimmed with fur. Even though it was still warm in September, Taehyung wore his coat like a snail wears a shell, like he carried his home on his back. He's outgrown the coat now, but it hangs in the dorm closet because he can't bear to part with it.

When Taehyung had entered the practice room, the managers signaled for the trainees to cut off the music and come meet the new recruit. There were six older boys then, and one much younger who looked warily inquisitive as he watched them file in.

The practice room smelled of damp heat and kimchi. The older boys crowded in like a schoolyard gang. One of them leaned in to whisper to another, one word, crisply enunciated: Baepsae. Both boys chuckled, but the whisperer's laugh was a hollow, bellowy sound, the kind of showy laugh used by game show hosts and used car salesmen.

Before the managers could speak, Taehyung jutted his chin at the older boy and said, “Are you concerned for me? There's no need, because I'm never fake.”

The accusation was clear: Taehyung was the real deal, while the whispering boy, for all his broad-shouldered splendor, hid behind the wall of his insults.

Someone in the back cackled. After a second of shocked silence, the rest followed.

And the whisperer... his whole demeanor shifted: the narrow of his eyes, the set of his shoulders, all of it seemed to melt, instantly replaced by a look of relief, like he was glad to finally drop the disguise. He nodded, once, and grinned at Taehyung, showing every one of his perfect, pearly teeth.

The managers introduced them: The wary boy was Jungkook, the maknae. The cackler was Yoongi, from Daegu like Taehyung, and his friend was Hoseok, who had a smile like a cup full of sunshine. Then there was Kidoh and Hunchul and Namjoon and Seokjin.

In Taehyung's memory, they enfolded him, wrapping him immediately into their huddle. The managers left: Keep up the good work, we'll check back soon. Yada yada yada.

Days or weeks later, the managers brought in Jimin.

Kidoh and Hunchul were gone by then. Taehyung thought of it like living on a desert island where storms or random monsters would come and pick people off one by one. He already felt a protective pull for those who remained behind, his survivors. He didn't want them to leave, but he also didn't know how he felt about someone new coming in.

Even someone like Jimin. They'd all seen his audition tape. Like, he could dance, but he was all chubby cute and lamb-y sweet. There was such a thing as too sweet, and Jimin... He looked like he was trying too hard.

They'd all said no. Nah, boo, pass. He didn't fit.

Yet there he stood in the practice room, a beanie on his head and a starving look on his face, like he wanted the whole world to just eat him up.

Seokjin approached him straight away. He said, “They told us you can sing.”

Jimin flinched. Jungkook met Taehyung's eye. They knew how this would go down.

Seokjin went, “If you don't sing something, I'll kill you.”

Jimin paled. He opened his mouth and the teeniest, breathless squeak came out.

Seokjin laughed, that booming car-salesman laugh, and he slapped the kid on the shoulder. The managers rushed to the rescue: Meet your new member, this is Park Jimin, keep up the good work, blah blah blah.

They left him there, in the lion's den, this wide-eyed little dweeb from Busan.

What else could Taehyung do but rescue him?

The next week, Jimin transferred to Taehyung's school, and it was hard work to keep him safe. Jimin had no chill at all. He's all reactions and feelings. It's like he didn't have a shield, he was just out there, bare and exposed, and Taehyung liked that rawness, even if it made Jungkook a little twitchy.

Jimin pushed to prove himself, so hard he made even Hoseok look like a slouch, so eventually, finally, the rest of the group came around.

Seokjin moved into the dorm in July. He took over the cooking and organized the chores. In the months that followed, lines were drawn. Alliances formed. As a group, they got a name and a formal lineup. They chose Namjoon as their leader. The seven of them lived together in their dorm, and they began to contemplate their future.

Now it's November, and it's freezing out, but Taehyung's coat no longer fits. During the first week of snow, he squeezed into it, pulling the zipper as far up as it would go, but his shoulders are too wide now, his arms too long. They're closing in on debut, but they still don't have much money. Taehyung knows his parents will send him another coat, but asking them feels like surrender when he's already taken so much.

He's sitting on the floor beneath the clothing rail, not really hiding, but sort of hiding, when a pair of legs appear beyond the dusky curtains of denim and cotton. A pair of hands whip back the hanging clothes, casting them aside with exaggerated flair, revealing Seokjin, dressed in his sleeping clothes, his hair freshly washed and smelling like strawberries.

Without asking any questions, Seokjin joins him on the floor. He drags the clothes back into place, settling him and Seokjin into semi-darkness.

“This is nice,” he says.

Taehyung doesn't want to talk; that's why he found this spot in the first place. Seokjin seems to get it, so for a long time, they don't say anything. They can hear the others – Jungkook doing the supper dishes, Hoseok and Yoongi talking about a new Taeyang song. Namjoon's in the shower, and from where they're sitting, they can see Jimin's bare feet dangling from the end of the futon in the common room.

After a while, Seokjin says, “You didn't eat much.”

Taehyung goes, “Yeah,” and it sounds sulky, even to him.

Seokjin squeezes his knee. “I saved some for you.”

And suddenly, Taehyung's fighting tears. Something about the tenderness in Seokjin's voice reminds him of home, and he misses his Mom so much. He's been trying to hide it, but...

“Hey,” Seokjin whispers. “It's okay. You're okay.”

Taehyung pushes the heels of his hands against his eyes.

“Tae-Tae, what is it?” Seokjin asks.

With that, the dam just crumbles. Taehyung spills everything, not only about the coat, but about his family, too, and he goes off on a tangent about being basically owned by the company but winds up somehow talking about how one day they'll all be conscripted into military service and how frightening that prospect seems when he's not even out of high school.

Once Taehyung runs out of breath, Seokjin takes a few seconds to process. Then he goes, “I have a coat. It'll probably fit you.” He angles toward Taehyung, pushes both his shoulders back against the wall. Purses his lips. Nods. “You should wear it.”

“Hyung, I can't take your coat,” Taehyung says, his voice raw and low.

“It's an extra,” Seokjin says. “My Mom sent it early for Christmas.” The way he doesn't meet Taehyung's eyes makes him think about the other extras Seokjin has but doesn't talk about. Like the expensive shampoo he keeps in a bin beneath his bed, and the new track shoes he got at Chuseok, and the brand new cell phone he received as an early birthday gift. Seokjin's family is well off, and though Taehyung has never thought about it, he's always kind of known. It explains Seokjin's bravado and swagger routine, the default setting for a young man who's used to getting his way.

Taehyung sees now that Seokjin never wore it well. In the last year, the spoiled, rich kid who so intimidated Jimin has all but disappeared. Seokjin now drives Jungkook to school in the morning. He manages their meals, keeps their pantry stocked, and makes sure they attend all their various appointments.

And now, apparently, he also shares his clothing.

Seokjin says, “So...you have a brother, right?”

“Younger. Yeah.”

Seokjin bumps Taehyung's shoulder. “Me too,” he says. “Older, but still... You'd do anything for him. Wouldn't you?”

“Of course,” Taehyung answers. “Anything.”

“So that's what it's like,” Seokjin says. “Here, with us. We're like brothers.”

“Okay,” Taehyung says, because it feels right. “Like brothers.”

“So, good,” Seokjin says. “I'll just get that coat.”

 

Chapter Text

“First love is only a little foolishness and a lot of curiosity.”
George Bernard Shaw

February 2013

“Who's in the shower right now?” Jimin asks.

They're in a heap on the futon, despite the thick heat of the common room and their sweaty hair and clothes. Taehyung and Jungkook are deep into a racing game, and Jungkook keeps jabbing them with his elbows as he tries to edge Taehyung off the track.

“Um, Seokjin-hyung,” Taehyung answers, absently and through his teeth. He's trying to fend off Jungkook's relentless sideswipes, but the maknae is aggressively competitive both on and off the game screen.

Jimin's head rocks back and he groans. “I'm starving and it'll be forever before dinner and I need a shower—”

“—Yeah you do,” Taehyung says.

Predictably, Jimin smacks his arm. In Taehyung's attempt to dodge the physical attack, he miscalculates Jungkook's virtual one. Taehyung's car careens from the side of a cliff and erupts in a billow of fire and death.

Jungkook immediately loads the next race. Taehyung passes the controller to Jimin.

Jimin leans in, conspiratorially. He says, “Taehyung-ie, I've heard about Jin-hyung. I've heard... things.”

Taehyung cuts his eyes at Jimin. They've lived together a while now. Taehyung doubts Jimin could have learned anything about the other members that they don't already know.

Jungkook takes the bait, though. He says, “What've you heard?”

A smile lights on Jimin's lips, partly embarrassed, partly intrigued. “I heard he's... gifted.”

Jungkook says, “I'm gifted.” He goes up for a high five, and Taehyung slaps it.

Jimin squints at the video screen, focusing hard on keeping his car pointed in the right direction. “I mean, like, really really,” he says, “Like, gifted.” And his eyes widen as if to emphasize his point.

“Who says?” Jungkook asks. Jimin plays coy and merely shrugs.

A moment lapses as the three consider what they know: First, Jimin's well-documented proclivity for gleaning information, and second, Seokjin's established reputation as Mr. Congeniality among the female staff of the company. While Jimin is a keen listener and the staff does adore Seokjin, these two things taken together aren't enough to substantiate Jimin's claim.

As it has tended to do often over the last few months, Taehyung's mind ticks back to the first time he met Seokjin. The confidence in his gait, the near-lethal cut of his eyes: It's difficult for Taehyung to reconcile that boy alongside the Seokjin they now know.

Taehyung must admit, he's curious if something other than lifelong wealth and always getting what he wants contributed to Seokjin's previously antagonistic ways. Even if it was an act, that role came from somewhere, and Taehyung wonders if certain physical aspects could contribute...

“I can find out,” he says.

Jungkook grunts, “What? How?”

“He's in the shower right now,” Taehyung says.

Jimin's eyes go wide again. “No, Taehyung-ie! I didn't mean—you wouldn't dare—”

But Taehyung's already on his feet. “You think I won't? How little you know.”

Jimin sends up a wail of protest, prompting a sharp rebuke from Namjoon, who is somewhere in the back of the dorm, probably trying to sleep. Jungkook chuckles but remains hyper-focused on the game.

“Just wait,” Taehyung says, “This is nothing.” But his heart, which thuds low in the base of his throat, begs to differ.

He repeats his last sentence to himself several times on the way to the bathroom door. People shower together in bath houses all the time, he tells himself. It's not that big a deal. This is nothing. Only. They've never done it here before.

His hands shake as he knocks on the door, but at the same time, he can't school the expectant smile from his face.

Seokjin answers with a single, startled syllable.

“It's me, Taehyung,” he shouts. “Hurry up, let me in.”

Seokjin does. Taehyung whips inside, slamming the door behind him.

The dorm bathroom is a wet shower roughly the size of an elevator car. The entire cubicle is bright with steam. Taehyung has to stand on tiptoe against the door to keep his clothes from getting soaked. Seokjin's against the far wall, his hair in his eyes, his body veiled by shower spray. That's when Taehyung realizes he hadn't quite thought beyond getting inside, and now that he has, his mind is blank.

Seokjin palms water from his face. Trails of bubbles thread down his shoulders and his arms. He says, “Taehyung-ah? What's going on? It sounded urgent.”

“I'm sorry, hyung,” Taehyung says. “I, uh... I just wanted to shower with you.”

Seokjin laughs, a gentle, bewildered braying. “I, uh—sure,” he says. “But take off your clothes first. You can hang them over there.”

“Right, okay,” Taehyung says. He tugs off his t-shirt and gym shorts, and though he tries to keep them out of the spray, he manages to get everything equally doused. Then he's naked, and Seokjin is naked, and there's the dense scent of hot water and Seokjin's expensive shampoo.

Seokjin steps back beneath the spray, tilting his head to drench his hair. “Don't worry,” he says. “Without my glasses on, I can't see you at all.”

“But hyung,” Taehyung says. “I can still see you.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin says. “I don't care.”

The easiness of the statement disarms him. Taehyung remembers, then, that he's here on Jimin's dare. But now that he's within Seokjin's orbit, it doesn't matter. He has blundered into this without thinking, hoping to catch a glimpse of Seokjin's body as a means of somehow measuring the boy he first met. Taehyung understands that this is impossible.

Whoever Seokjin was before he came to be here, that doesn't matter either. Seokjin can be the cocky (pun intended) know-it-all from Gwancheon and still remain the sincere young man who gave Taehyung his winter coat. The fact that they coexist, one nested within the other, pulls at Taehyung's curiosity. The only thing he can think with certainty is that he's never met anyone like Kim Seokjin.

Taehyung steps under the showerhead. Seokjin angles his body to allow him space. Taehyung closes his eyes as the water flows over his head and down his face. After a moment, he feels Seokjin's fingertips scrubbing through his hair.

“Can I use your shampoo?” Taehyung asks.

“It's strawberry milk,” Seokjin says. “My Mom sends it.”

“I know, I like it,” Taehyung says.

“Here, turn this way,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung does as he's told. Seokjin spreads a palmful of shampoo into Taehyung's hair. As he works the lather into Taehyung's scalp, Seokjin begins to talk. He tells Taehyung about his uncle's strawberry farm, and his little aunt who taught him how to cook. And then Taehyung, as he's rinsing his hair, tells Seokjin about his grandmother's strawberry farm near Daegu, and how he and his brother and sister help her pick the berries every spring.

It's not until the water turns cold that they realize they've lost track of time. For all Taehyung knows, they could have been talking for hours, though he doubts this since no one has come banging on the door to complain.

Seokjin shuts off the shower and passes his towel to Taehyung. “I guess we should go back out there,” he says.

Taehyung shares the reluctance he hears in Seokjin's voice. He says, “Yoongi will kill us for wasting the hot water.”

“You, definitely,” Seokjin says as he slips into his robe. “I'm safe because I provide food.”

Taehyung balks, “I see how it is.”

“Not really,” Seokjin says. “I'll protect you.”

Seokjin opens the door. Taehyung is conscious of the fact that Jimin and Jungkook are watching from the common room, awaiting a confirmation Taehyung no longer cares to give. They leave the bathroom like it's all normal, Taehyung in Seokjin's towel, his clothes a damp tangle in his arms.

And Taehyung says nothing, not during dinner as Jimin pokes at him incessantly. Not that night, when everyone but the maknaes have fallen asleep. Not even the following day when Jimin and Jungkook corner him in the practice room and tickle Taehyung breathless.

Finally, finally, after days of constant prodding, Taehyung snaps at Jimin, yelling at him that if wants to know so badly, why doesn't he just find out for himself?

It hurts Jimin's feelings. He sulks for five days straight.

But Taehyung doesn't take lightly the last words Seokjin said before they left the shower, even if they might have been in jest. Protecting each other is something they will all come to understand.

 

Chapter Text

“You struggle when you're young, even if you pay for it.”
Korean saying

March 2013

They're all exhausted. No one wants to admit this out loud. It's like they've formed some kind of diabolical pact that if one of them is still standing, then they're all still standing. Great, except that Seokjin's dead on his feet and Namjoon looks like he's prepared to beg for a bullet to the head rather than run through the choreo one more time.

Yoongi keeps thinking someone will break before he does. Jungkook has got to be starving by now, and Jimin's hair looks like he's been for a brisk swim through a rainstorm. Yet they keep at it, step after bone-grinding step. If Yoongi could manage to catch his breath between takes, he would remind them that he has important production work in the recording studio, and really, getting their songs finished in time for debut should take precedence over their footwork.

This. This is not what he signed up for three years ago when he pledged his life in blood to Bang PD. Endless hours of dancing? He wants to scream. Instead, he channels his rage into making every movement of his limbs snap as if his body is a whip wielded by Satan.

He doesn't know what happens that makes the others break formation, but he's grateful for the interruption, regardless of its cause.

Two seconds later, he regrets that feeling. There's a dash of blood across the floor, a vivid red exclamation point, and Hoseok's got a shoulder under Taehyung to hold him steady. The rest have huddled in too close, and Taehyung's pressing both palms to his temple, so Yoongi can't see how bad it might be. There's a whole flurry of fussing, with both Jimin and Jungkook trying and failing to coax Taehyung's hands from his face. And all the while, Seokjin is brushing Taehyung's arms and muttering, “It's okay, you're okay, you're okay.”

Yoongi's thinking they need to get Taehyung to sit down. When he goes for one of the folding chairs on the far wall, he sees Namjoon off to one side, looking sheepish and massaging his elbow. Yoongi chuckles dryly and says, “Yo, Monie, this is what happens when you practice with your sunglasses on.”

Namjoon's brows shoot up. He nudges the bridge of his glasses as if noticing them for the first time. Yoongi's known Namjoon a while now, long enough to understand that sometimes, when Namjoon's feeling the whole Rap Monster vibe, he goes in deep. Really deep. And that seems to be the case right now, because Namjoon looks as though he's waking from a dream.

Yoongi slides up the chair. Hoseok sweeps Taehyung into it.

“Jimin-ie,” Seokjin says. “Go get some ice. And Jungkook-ie, there's a first aid kit in the office.”

Jimin and Jungkook disperse without question. With them dispatched, Hoseok is finally able to ease Taehyung's fingers from his forehead. Yoongi sucks air over his teeth, realizing a moment too late that this doesn't help things. Taehyung looks up at him, dazed, his teeth clenched in pain. Hoseok passes a t-shirt to Seokjin, who uses it to dab blood from the gash at Taehyung's hairline.

“It's okay,” Taehyung mumbles. “Sometimes getting hit in the head gives your brain more space for thinking.”

Namjoon, who has also come to hover, says, “Yeah, I don't think it works that way.”

Over Taehyung's head, Hoseok whispers, “Think it'll need stitches?”

Taehyung emits a strangled whimper.

Seokjin says, “Shhh. No. He'll be fine.” But he meets Hoseok's eyes and shrugs like he thinks maybe it's too early to tell.

Namjoon pushes his glasses up into his hair. He crouches beside Taehyung and says, “I am so sorry. I guess I sorta went off course.”

Taehyung loops his arm around Namjoon's neck, petting him like he's the one in need of soothing.

“These things happen,” Hoseok says. “It's not our first blood, it won't be the last.”

“First blood.” Taehyung grins, and then winces at the pain.

Hoseok smiles back. “Just like Rambo,” he says.

Yoongi takes a step back, then, pulling Namjoon up with him. He keeps his voice to a whisper when he says, “Maybe this is a sign we're pushing too hard? Maybe we should call it, get some rest?”

Namjoon nods. “All right,” he answers. “We'll leave after this.”

They return to the huddle as Seokjin is telling one of his jokes. He says, “How do you clean your blood cells?” And even though no one says anything to encourage him, Seokjin takes Taehyung's pained smile as permission to proceed.

“A blood bath,” Seokjin says, and then he laughs his huge, honking, goosey laugh.

Namjoon pinches the bridge of his nose. “You're supposed to make him feel better, not slaughter him with puns,” he says. “I'm fine, by the way.”

“Of course you are,” Hoseok says. “You're not bleeding.”

“And Taehyung-ie's not either,” Seokjin says. “It's already stopped. You must be like Wolverine.”

This draws another smile from Taehyung, coupled with another flinch of pain.

Jungkook rushes in carrying the first aid box like an American football. “I'm sorry, hyung,” he explains, breathless, “The office was locked, but I found this one under the sink in the washroom.”

“Oh yes, good,” Hoseok says, taking the kit from him.

Seokjin pops the metal hinges on the box. There's antibiotic ointment and bandages, but he says, “We should probably put ice on it first, right? Reduce the swelling?”

“Yeah...” Yoongi agrees, and then he looks around for Jimin.

They hear him in the corridor, his voice muffled, and there's a soft pounding sound, like he's bumping the door with an elbow or a knee. Hoseok goes to let him in, and Jimin hems inside, quietly and diligently cursing as he hurries to Taehyung, streaming a trail of melting ice cubes behind him.

“I couldn't find any cups,” Jimin explains, his breath heaving. “Or a dish, or napkins...”

“Or paper towels?” Namjoon suggests.

“Or your shirt?” Yoongi asks as Seokjin scrapes the ice cubes from Jimin's pink fingers into the t-shirt he used to staunch Taehyung's bleeding.

Jimin continues to stare at his palms. One by one, they begin laughing with him as he realizes that in his panic, he delivered the ice with his bare hands. Still, regardless of the means, Jimin came through. Yoongi can't fault him in that.

Seokjin places the makeshift ice pack in Taehyung's hand and presses it gingerly to the wound. Taehyung bites down against the pain, and Yoongi notes the look in his eyes, something bordering on reverence, but inquisitive at the same time, like he's staring into the face of a saint.

Yoongi dismisses it. They're tired, it's late, Taehyung's injured, and Seokjin's tending him.

Anyway, it gets filed away as Namjoon steps in. He says, “I say we head home for the night, okay? We'll get some food and sleep and hit it fresh tomorrow.”

“I can keep going, hyung,” Taehyung protests. “We don't have to stop because of me.”

Hoseok squeezes Taehyung's shoulder. “No, no, no,” he says. “We have to protect our secret member. We can't reveal you at debut if your brains fall out during dance practice.”

“Zombie V,” Jungkook agrees solemnly. They bump fists, and together with Jimin, they get Taehyung to his feet.

They pack up and Yoongi goes with them, despite the heap of work that remains piled on his studio desk. Namjoon is right; they will pick it up tomorrow. Though Yoongi's exhausted beyond what he believed he could withstand, the idea of the next day's work still brings him joy.

 

Chapter Text

“That's what you want, but it's not what you're asking for
I said that's what you're asking,
but you're gonna get more than you bargained for.”
Iscariot, Walk the Moon

July 2013

The goal of the game, originally, had been to scare Hoseok. The objective changed for two reasons. First, frightening Hoseok had been too easy. Second, he turned the game on them, somehow, and the goal was now to either hide from him or outrun him.

Plus, Hoseok enlisted Yoongi, who provided cover fire from atop the playground slide.

This has gone on for hours. They're supposed to be shooting a pictorial, but the weather's not cooperating. What started out as dense fog morphed into sweaty drizzle, and now it's going on lunch time and the production team's hinting at calling it a day.

Easy for them. They can return to their office cubicles, their families, their evening meals. Taehyung has homework and a vocal lesson, followed by plain rice and a chicken breast, followed by dance practice. For his part, he hopes the sun keeps teasing them so they can just run around all day.

One of the managers keeps fussing at Jimin for messing up his hair. A beleaguered intern tags after Jungkook with a damp cloth, but she's yet to get close enough to clean the licks of mud from the maknae's calves. Then there's Hobi-hyung, screeching like a pterodactyl as he taunts them from the monkey bars.

Taehyung doesn't resist. It may be physically impossible for him to resist. When Hoseok gives chase, plunging down the slide in two graceful leaps, Taehyung flees. He's reasonably athletic, but Hoseok's a freakin' machine. They tear around the exercise equipment, whipping up mulch in their path. Taehyung vaults a hedgerow and slides dangerously on the slick grass beyond it. He read somewhere that to outrun a reptile, you had to dodge in a zigzag, so this is what Taehyung does.

Though Hoseok looks the part of a frilled lizard with his spiked mask dangling from his throat, Taehyung's plan fails. Hoseok not only catches up to Taehyung, he rounds on him, grips his shoulders, and tackles him to the ground. Taehyung shrieks and crab-crawls backward.

He collides with someone who catches his arms and drags him to his feet. Not one someone, but two, and the three of them stand together in a line: Jungkook, Jimin, and Taehyung.

“So it's come to this,” Hoseok sneers. He strikes Neo's kung fu pose from The Matrix.

“Back, dragon,” Jungkook says, and they all have to take a moment to stop their giggling.

From his perch on the slide, Yoongi yells, “Get 'em!”

“You heard the man,” Hoseok says. He jabs forward, experimentally.

Jimin and Jungkook link arms with Taehyung as a display of solidarity.

“There's no way you can defeat me like that,” Hoseok says.

“We don't want to defeat you,” Taehyung says.

Jimin goes, “We don't?”

Taehyung shushes him. He says, “We can't beat you.”

“No way,” Jungkook agrees.

“So we want to join you,” Taehyung finishes.

Jimin smacks Taehyung's chest. He's laughing so hard his eyes are closed.

Hoseok leans in. He says, “You mean, us... against Yoongi?”

Taehyung presses his palms together like a man in prayer. “Precisely.”

Hoseok pinches his chin as he considers. The three maknaes watch him, their bodies tense and ready. The intern who's been hovering around Jungkook steps near enough to snatch a stray leaf from his hair.

Then Hoseok shouts, “No deal!” and lunges for them. He catches Jimin, who squeals, but Taehyung and Jungkook wrench him free. They dart off in three different directions; Hoseok goes for Jimin, which makes sense since he's got the shortest legs. Jungkook's sprinted half across the peninsula already, but Yoongi is surprisingly close on his heels.

Which leaves Taehyung all alone in the small meadow behind their production van.

Taehyung crouches at the back bumper. He's breathing hard and smells wet grass and gasoline. Children play on the merry-go-round. An old man sells sesame sticks from the back of his bike-cart. Taehyung takes it all in, committing to his heart every warm flick of breeze, every stray waft of scent, every small, significant sound.

Taehyung hears the laugh and recognizes at the same moment that it's different. He creeps around the fender of the van, ears pricking at the words of the muffled conversation nearby. He hears Namjoon first. Though he can't pick out what their leader is saying, Taehyung knows he's making his voice sound deeper and smoother than usual. This pulls a smile to Taehyung's lips.

He edges closer, shoes grating on gravel. He pauses at the back wheel, hiding behind the open passenger door. From there he can see... legs. Girl legs.

Two girls' legs.

And Namjoon's.

And Seokjin's?

Taehyung recalls the laugh – not entirely fake, but not his real one, either. This is the showy, MC facade, the one Seokjin wears in public. The same one he apparently uses on girls.

One of the girls responds to something Seokjin says with a breathy giggle. They're dressed in modestly-cut high school uniforms. One of them is wearing mismatched Hello Kitty socks. She keeps scratching her ankle with the toe of her shoe.

Taehyung wonders if they are cute. They sound cute. He inches up, slowly, carefully, to peer through the tinted window. He sees them both leaning their elbows on the hood of the van, looking casual and remarkable all at the same time. They're wearing the same jersey/basketball shorts combo as the rest of them, but they look taller, somehow, broader. More sophisticated. More grown up.

Seokjin is nearer. Taehyung watches the way his Adam's apple bobs when he swallows. He focuses on the way his lashes twitch as he talks. When the girl with Hello Kitty socks smiles, he brushes her arm. Taehyung's breath drags in time with the girl's, and he wishes he could be... Her.

Jimin's screech pierces the air, followed by the bright ribbon of his laughter. Taehyung startles. His feet slide on the gravel. He hits the floorboard of the van, biting his tongue so hard he tastes blood.

Namjoon cranes his head to look into the van. “V-sshi?” he asks. “You okay?”

“It was a game,” Taehyung blurts. Then he freezes. He feels the width of his eyes, and for a second he's afraid they might roll out of his head. The girls gape at him, and he becomes aggressively aware of the grass stains on his knees.

But Seokjin doesn't see them. He's already made his way to the source of the noise, and he's standing, hands on his hips, listening to the animated retelling of Hoseok and Jimin's great chase through Hongdae Park. The commotion has broken whatever spell Namjoon and Seokjin cast, and the girls take their leave. But not before one of them – the plain socks girl – slips a note into Namjoon's palm.

Shortly thereafter, the staff wrangles Yoongi and Jungkook back to the filming location. The sun's lancing through the trees now, sharpening everything to wincing brilliance. Taehyung thinks it's hunger that makes him feel all clammy and out-of-sorts, but even after they eat, he feels strange.

Like his skin no longer fits.

 

Chapter Text

“It is possible that I just needed comfort.”
Binggeure, Reply 1994

October 2013

Seokjin thinks Yoongi should be home by now. At midnight, he told them he'd be wrapping up soon, but it is 3 a.m., and his bed remains fitfully empty. Seokjin's eyes burn, but he hunches around his phone, playing Candy Crush while waiting for the sound of the door. Instead, the crisp snap of silence meets his ears, cold in the wind that spits wet against the windowpanes.

Beyond his bed, someone (maybe Jimin) twitches in his sleep. Seokjin stretches, wincing at the dull pain in his calves. The sharp scent of liniment stings his nose. He doesn't know if it really helps soothe his muscles, but he likes the smell. It reminds him of his uncle, who uses it on his arthritic hands any time the winter winds whisper snow.

Seokjin knows he should try to sleep, but he keeps thinking about Minwoon in the hospital after his car crash. He's worried about Yoongi and their manager driving so late at night when it's not safe and they're both so tired. Also, if he doesn't fall asleep soon, he'll have to use the toilet. And then, since he would be up already, he could check the fridge for leftover pajeon. As he massages his shoulders, he wonders if it's still called breakfast if he hasn't been to sleep yet?

Jungkook snuffles in his sleep. Seokjin throws his sheets aside, when a shadow appears beneath the door. He leans against the wall, waiting for Yoongi to push into the room, puffing warmth into his fingers while gently chiding Seokjin for still being awake.

Several seconds lapse.

So it's not Yoongi.

A Kakao alert chirps, and Seokjin thumbs to read the message:

“Hyung, are you awake?”

Seokjin knees his way to the end of his bed and pulls open the door. Taehyung startles back and instantly launches into a bit.

“Ah, you scared me! You scared me!” Taehyung whisper-shouts, affecting the exaggerated satoori of some actor from a TV show. He feigns a gunshot wound to his chest and staggers through the doorway. Seokjin snatches his shirt sleeve and hauls him toward his bunk, shoving the door shut behind them. Jungkook stirs, flipping over in his bed, which is closest to the door. In the bunk above them, Hoseok continues to sleep, the tinny trill of hip-hop pumping from his headphones.

Seokjin knows he should be stern. He knows that Taehyung should be asleep, or at least pretending to be asleep like he was, but the way Taehyung stares at him... Seokjin just can't.

“Why are you awake?” Seokjin whispers. “You need rest, Taehyung-ie, you're still fighting a cold.”

Taehyung responds with an all-body shrug. “It's too quiet,” he says. “Plus, I got hungry.”

“There's pajeon in the fridge,” Seokjin offers.

Taehyung squinches his eyes. “There was.”

“Oh,” Seokjin says. “Okay.”

“Yoongi's not home yet,” Taehyung observes.

“Nope,” Seokjin says. “Namjoon's been asleep for hours.”

Taehyung nods. “Snoring's not so bad tonight.”

“Not too bad,” Seokjin agrees. He sits back on his heels and clenches his jaw against the knives of pain in his thighs.

Taehyung squeezes Seokjin's knee. “Me too,” he says. “Have you seen Reply 1994?”

“Hm, no,” Seokjin says. “Is it good?”

And Taehyung's already settling in, plumping Seokjin's pillows behind them and queuing up an episode. As the opening scenes begin, Taehyung explains, “That's Na Jung. Her parents run a boarding house in Sinchon—”

“—Probably close to here,” Seokjin puts in.

“Yeah, probably,” Taehyung says.

Lying alongside Seokjin, Taehyung proceeds to narrate the events of the show as they unfold, mimicking the accents and mannerisms of each character so flawlessly that Seokjin's sides ache from restraining his laughter. He's amazed they don't wake the others. But upon closer inspection, he thinks maybe it's more amazing that he and Taehyung are still awake.

Seokjin also feels relieved that Yoongi doesn't come home to interrupt them. This gives him a double-shot of guilt: One for being glad of Yoongi's absence, another for not working as hard as Yoongi does.

As the credits roll, Seokjin asks, “How did you learn to do that? The accents and stuff?”

Taehyung shrugs. “I like to make my brother and sister laugh. I act out the stories, do all the voices,” he says. “It's fun.”

“Yeah,” Seokjin agrees. “It is.”

Taehyung begins edging from the bed, ready at last to return to his own.

Seokjin says, “Maybe we can watch the next one tomorrow?”

“Yeah?” Taehyung says.

Seokjin nods, and Taehyung beams.

And that is how Taehyung first came to Seokjin's bed.

 

Chapter Text

“In the dust that never settles, I found my home.”
Forests, Duologue

November 2013

The maknaes go home at midnight with Hoseok and Namjoon, but Seokjin stays behind, partly in solidarity with Yoongi, who refuses to return to the dorm until he's satisfied with the vocals on their latest track, and partly to record a video log because he hasn't done one in ages and he feels like he maybe, probably should.

It's almost his birthday. Seokjin thinks he can talk about that. He's not easy in front of the camera. He's always afraid he'll say too much, or be too boring, or let something slip that they've been instructed not to mention. He makes outlines on his phone's notepad app, but he has to keep looking at it instead of the screen, so it's still not good enough.

Seokjin is contemplating this when he peeks through the small window of the practice room. He almost trips over his feet when he sees what he sees, and then he stands there for a full twenty seconds just... watching.

Taehyung sprawls on his back, pushing his body in a slow circle around the practice floor. His arms are over his head, and he's snapping selfie after selfie while he quietly sings to himself.

Seokjin hovers, his hand over the door knob, while he ponders a course of action.

Taehyung was supposed to go home. Taehyung has early lessons with Jimin tomorrow. Then he has time at the gym, followed by dance practice, followed by a session with the vocal coach, followed by more dance practice. He's set to graduate in a few months, so studying for finals should begin to factor into Taehyung's routine. Yet here he is, backstroking across the practice room like he hasn't a care in the world.

Seokjin should drive him home. On the way, he should lecture him, firmly, about the importance of sleep and school and doing as he is told.

Only he's begun to wonder about the living loophole that is Kim Taehyung.

The thing is, Taehyung works as hard as any of them. If he slacked at all, then he would deserve every bit of the dressing down that he (or Yoongi) could deliver. But despite Taehyung's sleeplessness and distractedness and general haphazardness, he has managed to keep up.

This is especially impressive given that he, like Seokjin, joined the company without any background in dancing or singing. He basically won his audition on energy and charm, so the fact that they all make exceptions for Taehyung should come as a surprise to no one.

But that isn't what stills Seokjin's hand on the doorknob.

Taehyung's been sneaking into his bed for weeks now. Once or twice a week, with no pattern at all save for Yoongi's absence, they meet. Between them, Seokjin and Taehyung have gotten quite clever at discerning which nights Yoongi will be late. They've even devised a secret Kakao code for when the coast is clear.

Seokjin's not forgetting that one confusing time in the shower, either. But it was long ago, and a one-time deal, so Seokjin doesn't think about it. Mostly.

The point is, neither of them have ever once brought up their bed-sharing in the presence of the other five. It's a tacit fact that these nights together remain their secret. Besides, with their promotions schedule and classes and practice, everyone's far too over-clocked and exhausted to notice when Taehyung is missing from his bunk.

Also, it's fun. After endless, excruciating hours learning choreo and working out, it's nice to just unwind. He and Taehyung sneak in snacks and watch episodes of Reply 1994. Sometimes, they play MapleStory on Seokjin's laptop, and Taehyung very quietly imitates the voices. Their time together is always the best part of Seokjin's week.

Tonight, though, neither he nor Taehyung sent the Sleepy Ryan to indicate they could meet, so Seokjin opted to stay behind with Yoongi. The others left an hour ago, but Taehyung remains, pressed against the wall, making faces at himself in the mirror. He's not supposed to be here, and Seokjin feels responsible.

And there it is: The real reason Seokjin can't go in. As the elder of the group, he is responsible for Taehyung. Their nighttime activities have begun to spill over into their days in the form of odd pop culture references and inside jokes. Someone's bound to figure out Seokjin's feelings; it's only a matter of time. And this game of dividing up their days and nights, of keeping secrets – however innocent they may be – could be dangerous for the whole group, and Seokjin should put a stop to it.

But the idea fills him with a dull, cold dread. He is selfish for wanting to keep this for himself: foolish, childish, and selfish. But the thought of denying Taehyung anything makes him physically ill.

Or maybe he's just tired. His hands are shaking, his palms damp with sweat. He leans his head against the cool window glass, and as he does, he rattles the door in its frame. Across the practice room, Taehyung springs up, instantly alert.

He says, “Jin-hyung-ie?”

Seokjin closes his eyes, swallows hard, and opens the door. He crosses to Taehyung, not sure what he'll say or do once he reaches him, but he knows what he should say, if he can muster the courage to say it.

Once he's standing over him, though, his thoughts burn off like morning fog and all he can see is Taehyung, looking hopeful and not even the slightest bit contrite.

“I decided to stay behind, in case you wanted company,” Taehyung says.

“Stand up,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung pushes to his feet. A fluff of dust clings to his hair; Seokjin combs it free.

He should scold him. He should at least remind him of the rules.

Seokjin says, “You have classes tomorrow.”

“I know,” Taehyung says. “Let's go bother Suga-hyung.”

Seokjin bites back a smile. “We're going home,” he says. Taehyung wilts, and Seokjin continues with, “After you film a log with me.”

Taehyung goes, “Whaaaa!” Like he's a five year old. Or like this is the outcome he's hoped for from the start.

Except, Taehyung has zero guile. Seokjin knows this. He operates purely on impulse.

And it's easy, so ridiculously easy, to simply give in.

 

Chapter Text

“You're the movements in my sleep
You are the words I couldn't keep.”
Teeth, The Japanese House

December 2013

There's a smell to Taehyung he can't quite place – it's a fresh soil and puppy dog scent, and it's in his hair and on his skin, and if he doesn't shower, the smell gets into Seokjin's sheets and clothes and pillows. But Taehyung does shower, frequently; they all do, because dance practice is sweaty work, and so the real Taehyung scent is more precious because of its scarcity.

Seokjin wonders at how quickly they folded into this closeness. He wonders this late at night when the rest are asleep, but his own bed contains him and a sleep-lorn Taehyung nestled against his chest. And Seokjin breathes in the fresh grass scent of Taehyung's hair—really inhales, like his life depends on it—and the warmth of him, plus the reedy springs of Taehyung's limbs, helps Seokjin sleep better than he has in months. Maybe ever.

They set their alarms for 3 a. m. That's when Taehyung slips back to his bed, because if Yoongi isn't already home by midnight, he won't be home until after three. In that way, Seokjin and Taehyung remain secret.

When the alarm buzzes, Seokjin wakes with Taehyung's breath on his neck. They cuddle like children at Christmas, full of dreams and anticipation.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin whispers. “It's time.”

Taehyung groans and twists deeper into Seokjin's embrace. Seokjin wonders, as he's wondered every night since Taehyung first started these visits, if the others would even care.

It's not the point, though. The point is, they are secret. With the seven of them within constant arm's reach, they have nothing that belongs to them only. They share food and shirts and socks and sheets and nothing is private; nothing is their own.

But this is theirs.

It isn't like they're doing anything, anyway. They're just sleeping.

Seokjin sees this for the lie that it is. If it was just sleeping, it wouldn't need to be a secret.

So what is it, then? Friendship? Fraternity? Insanity?

Maybe, though Seokjin doesn't feel crazy.

His arms tighten around Taehyung's body. It's involuntary, this response, and Taehyung answers by nuzzling into Seokjin's throat.

This causes an oddly layered feeling—a dull ache that begins behind Seokjin's eyes and radiates outward, spreading chills from his arms and down his spine and to his toes. Beneath that, quieter, more desperate, is the desire to remain as they are, warmly ensconced for as long as they want.

The alarm buzzes again. Seokjin swipes the screen of his phone to dismiss it.

“Taehyung-ah,” he whispers again. This time he couples the sound with a bump of his hip. “You have to go now. It's time.”

Taehyung sits up, frowning, dazed. “Did you sleep?” he asks at full volume because he doesn't know how loud his voice is. It fills up the silence, though it doesn't manage to wake the rest of the house. Taehyung rubs his eyes and looks like the child he still is: an 18-year-old who is far from home.

Seokjin smooths Taehyung's hair, which smells of bike rides and summer sun. “I'll see you in the morning, okay?” Seokjin says.

Taehyung looks confused but mostly sleepy. He slides from the bed and tumbles toward his own.

Seokjin lays back. He covers his eyes with his arms. It's a long time before Yoongi gets home, and when he does, Seokjin pretends to be asleep.

 

Chapter Text

“What is it you really want?”
Boy In Luv, BTS

January 2014

“Share your favorite story about dorm life,” Yoongi said.

There are so many stories Seokjin could have told. The time Jimin washed a red shirt with his socks and underwear, turning them all a pretty shade of pink. The time Namjoon broke the rice cooker, a game controller, a hair dryer, and the humidifier all in one day. The time Hoseok couldn't find his shoes because he left them outside their door and the neighbor took them by mistake.

He could have told any of these stories.

But Seokjin told the one about the shower.

The audience loved it. The show hosts loved it. Taehyung loved it.

Their manager, Minyeong... not so much.

They receive separate text messages demanding their presence in the office. There's no mention of reprimand, but they both just... know.

Seokjin paces the cramped corridor. Taehyung sits in the rigid chair by the office door, one foot up on the seat, the cord of his headphones draped over his shoulder. His music is so loud Seokjin can almost identify the song, and there's a defiant set to Taehyung's jaw. It's a jarring contrast for Seokjin, who has spent the last several months performing with V, the buoyant, brilliant, almost effervescent version of Kim Taehyung.

He's seen Taehyung upset; they all have. When Yoongi went into the hospital with his appendix last month, everyone freaked. But that was different. That was worry, concern. Seokjin hasn't seen Taehyung this closed off since... he can't remember. But whatever the manager has to say, Taehyung is prepared to fight.

Only it wasn't Hobeom or Sejin or Sanghyun who summoned them, but Minyeong. Minyeong, who watches them like a hawk, who measures their food and manages their expenses. Minyeong, who has, on occasion, cuffed a few them for not paying attention.

Mostly the maknaes.

Seokjin glances at Taehyung, who's now drumming his thumbs on his knee. Tightness twists in Seokjin's chest at the thought of Minyeong hitting him. And would he hit Taehyung over this? Probably not the shower story itself, but if Taehyung gives him attitude?

“You'll talk to him respectfully, won't you?” Seokjin asks.

Taehyung cuts his eyes at him but says nothing.

“Taehyung-ah, it wasn't your fault,” Seokjin says. “I told the story, I'll take the blame.”

“It was a funny story,” Taehyung says. “And this is stupid.”

Seokjin kneels by the chair. “Is it?” he asks. “We've been told what we can say on camera—”

“—We say a lot on camera,” Taehyung counters. “Hobi kissed me on Rookie King, how is this any different?”

Seokjin doesn't know what troubles him more: the venom in Taehyung's voice or the fact that he's dropped the honorifics from his speech. It's fine in close company; Seokjin will always let him slide. But with Minyeong...

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin cautions.

“What?” Taehyung bites out.

Seokjin touches his jaw, tilting Taehyung's face to meet his. Taehyung's resolve fractures then, the barest fissure crack. Seokjin sees the fear behind Taehyung's rage, sees how hard he's fighting to control it. And in that moment, Minyeong opens his door.

The manager glares down at them, arms crossed, his broad face like a statue carved from stone.

“Inside, both of you,” he says.

He closes the office door behind them.

There are no chairs. They're forced to stand in the cold, half-dark of the office cubicle, across a desk cluttered with file folders, empty mugs, and stuffed Pororo toys. The office smells of stale coffee, moth balls, and nicotine. There's a single printed page in the center of his desk, and Minyeong smooths it beneath his hands. He doesn't talk, not for a long time. He chews the inside of his lip and picks dirt from his nails. Seokjin has to remind himself not to lock his knees.

Beside him, Taehyung bounces on the balls of his feet. He curls his fists. He breathes louder than necessary, but he doesn't say a word.

After a long while, Minyeong says, “Take your headphones out.”

Seokjin reaches to tug the cords of Taehyung's headphones, but Taehyung bats his hand away.

“This is how you treat your hyung?” Minyeong asks, and they both freeze.

“No sir,” Taehyung mumbles.

Seokjin says, “He doesn't—”

“—I believe you've said enough,” Minyeong cuts in.

“Yes sir,” Seokjin says.

Minyeong releases a long, labored exhale. He pinches the page from his desktop like it's a filthy tissue and crumples it slowly between his palms.

“The company would like to remind you that as idols you agreed to certain terms of conduct,” Minyeong says. He presses the ruined page into a tight ball and continues to squeeze it while he speaks. “You are not only role models for your fans in South Korea, but you also represent the face of our nation overseas. You understand this, do you not?”

“Manager-nim, I just told a story,” Seokjin says.

Minyeong throws the balled page straight into Seokjin's face. Taehyung lunges, but Seokjin manages to catch him. He feels Taehyung's heart beating like a rabbit's pulse beneath his breast. His fingers wrap around Seokjin's wrist, but he knows Taehyung's fighting himself as much as anything. He's holding back because he knows there is nothing they can do.

Minyeong sniffs. “It is my job to look out for you and all of BTS, but you must keep to your agreement. You both know you can be replaced, right?” he says. “You understand that?”

Seokjin feels the shiver that ribbons through Taehyung's body. The heat of his temper boils off, replaced in an instant with a chilly reticence. He steps back, his head down, his hands loose at his sides. Seokjin follows, though he's too numb with shock to register it.

“This is your warning,” Minyeong says. “Take care that you heed it.”

Then Minyeong pulls a file folder from the stack. He licks a finger and begins to flip through its pages.

Seokjin hates that he stammers when he asks, “M-may we be dismissed, Minyeong-nim?

Minyeong gives them a look that says, Oh, you're still here?

Seokjin moves first. He turns Taehyung, tucking him beneath his arm to guide him through the door.

They're quiet in the elevator, quiet in the car ride home. Seokjin pulls into the parking garage. They sit in silence, listening to the tick of the engine as it cools.

After a while, Seokjin says, “We'll tell Namjoon—”

But Taehyung springs from the car, slamming the door shut behind him.

Seokjin wants to cry. But they have too much going on right now, too much to do, and this little trip to the office has put them off their schedule. He pulls up the planner on his phone, skimming through the pages of upcoming broadcasts and promotions until the feeling returns to his fingers.

Once his breathing settles, once he can see through his blurry eyes, he sends a text to his Mom, a hello and a heart. Then he goes inside and pretends that things are normal.

 

 

Seokjin wakes to the familiar weight of Taehyung in his bed. His damp hair smells of dust and flowers. They lie still a long while, listening to the sleeping sounds of the others, and Taehyung's eyes are wide and full and staring.

Seokjin doesn't know who moves first. Their lips brush and it's unexpected, this sudden softness. He wonders, wildly, if it's unintentional, but his heart pounds with such fierceness that it makes him blind. Yet he doesn't pull away, and neither does Taehyung, and it's not an accident.

Taehyung's first real kiss. Not a punishment, not a game, but a kiss.

Their fingers lace. Taehyung's eyes slip closed. Seokjin brushes the tip of his nose with his own. Taehyung shudders, like until that moment he was afraid to move, afraid that he misstepped or misjudged, but now he's safe.

Taehyung stretches his body to match the length of Seokjin's. They pull the blankets up to their shoulders, and they kiss, and it breaks them both wide open.

 

Chapter Text

“You gave me a tongue just to tie.
I'll swallow my pride if you swear not to lie.”
Clear, Shawn Wasabi

February 2014

Things return to normal, only now they kiss.

Like, all the time. They kiss in the broom cupboard, in the filming room, in Seokjin's bed at night. Never when someone can see them. Because Seokjin is careful. Even while Taehyung's a pinball bouncing into everything, Seokjin keeps his head.

“Jin-hyung.” Hoseok pokes at him with his chopsticks. “Do you have something in your eye?”

It's loud in the restaurant, almost exclusively because of their table, but Hoseok leans in rather than raising his voice. He doesn't hide his concern, though, and Seokjin knows he's been doing it again.

Not that he can control it.

Seokjin knuckles his eye. “No, it's fine,” he says. He plucks a cube of daikon radish from the dish and pops it into his mouth. “I'm just so hungry.”

In their trainee days, that had been the joke. When someone noticed the tick in Seokjin's left eye, Namjoon told them it twitched when he was hungry. The punchline was that it always twitched, ergo he was always hungry.

And while that's true, he is always hungry, the quirk has worsened. It's both eyes now, and it won't... stop.

This explanation tides Hoseok over for now. He pounds the table with his spoon and croons, “Feed us, we're starving!”

As if on cue, the waitress brings out a tin pan laden with beef. They groan exultantly as she lays strips of meat across the grill. The scent of the sizzling beef sends Seokjin into a state of near euphoria, and his eyelids flutter. The waitress minces around like a lion tamer in a cage full of hungry jungle cats. Yoongi and Jimin lean in from each side of their table, helpfully flattening the beef as it's placed. Jungkook stabs chunks of garlic clove between the slots, sending up spurts of fragrant flame from the coals below.

“No, you're ruining it,” Namjoon chides, but Jungkook nudges his hands out of the way.

“Hyung, this is the best way to roast it,” Jungkook says.

“Let him, let him,” Taehyung insists from his perch between Jimin and the window. “This is how we do it in the South.”

“Is it now?” Yoongi deadpans, and Taehyung grins.

Seokjin's eyes twitch.

A second later, his phone buzzes. He extracts it and reads Taehyung's message. A single emoji: a pair of eyes.

Thank you, I know, Seokjin shoots back.

It seems harsh. He adds a smiley.

Taehyung responds with heart eyes.

Seokjin softly swears.

“Someone get Jin-hyung a plate,” Namjoon chuckles. “He's about to fall out of his chair.”

Seokjin's paralysis breaks when he realizes that he's the one in possession of their plates. He deals them around the table like playing cards, and once they're all settled, he raises his glass in a toast. The others follow his lead.

“To Jimin-ie and Taehyung-ie,” he says. “Congratulations on graduating from high school. You've done well, and we are very proud.”

“Ah, yes,” Namjoon agrees. “Welcome to the world of men.”

Hoseok shouts, “Whoop whoop!”

“And next is Jungkook-ie,” Jimin sings, which causes Jungkook to choke on his water. While Namjoon is pounding on his back, Taehyung and Jimin start bickering over the perilla leaves, prompting Yoongi to confiscate them and place them into Hoseok's care. Yoongi then begins to cut portions of steak for them with the kitchen scissors, handing the first plate to Seokjin.

He doesn't wait. It's not often they get beef, so he plans to eat as much as he can, as fast as he can. They ease into the meal, gesturing for sangchu and kimchi and sprout salad as they talk. Jungkook extracts the roasted garlic cloves from the grill, and Namjoon proclaims it the best he's ever had. The conversation devolves into excited chatter about the month's upcoming events. It'll be a busy handful of weeks, packed with comeback stage performances, awards shows, and fansigns. They have secret birthday plans for Hoseok in the works, and Seokjin makes a mental note to remember to pick up the cake.

Seokjin smiles to himself as he stuffs an overlarge perilla-wrapped parcel of beef into his mouth. As he's chewing, he receives a text.

From Taehyung. A pig emoji.

Seokjin glances up the table. Taehyung's also chewing, and his nose is all scrunched up, like he's pleased with himself.

Seokjin responds with the peach butt-heart.

Namjoon leans over. He says, “Your eye's still doing the thing.”

Seokjin gestures, dismissively.

But Hoseok asks, “Are you wearing your contacts?”

Still chewing, Seokjin nods.

“Maybe it's time for a new prescription?” Yoongi suggests.

“Maybe it's stress related?” Hoseok wonders. “We've been working really hard, not getting much sleep. Are you sure you're taking care of yourself?”

Seokjin swallows. That's a big question, and the possible answers pile up like a logjam in his throat. He's keenly aware of the managers in the corner table, Minyeong among them, and though they're not hovering, Seokjin knows they're watching. Seokjin told Namjoon about the reprimand, but couldn't bring himself to speak of the paper-ball to the face. That part still stung too deep for words – not only that it had happened, but that it happened in front of Taehyung.

And then there's Taehyung himself. How could Seokjin even begin to—?

“There it goes again,” Namjoon says.

“Ahh!” Seokjin cries. He covers his face. “I'm fine. Really.”

“Maybe you need Soju?” Yoongi says.

“I was thinking meditation and vitamins,” Hoseok adds, “But sure, Soju.”

“I want some Soju,” Jungkook says, and Namjoon and Seokjin respond with a rousing chorus of “No!”

Then Namjoon launches into leader mode with, “Seriously, though, we need to look after ourselves as much as we do for each other. If we're sick or hurt or feeling stressed, we have to let someone know. Okay?”

They answer all at once that they will. But Yoongi's eyes linger on Seokjin's a moment longer. He looks like he wants to say more, but Seokjin knows he won't, not with everyone around. And anyway, the waitress brings out more beef, and they proceed to devour every scrap.

Once the meal winds down, the managers come up and offer their congratulations. Sejin and Hobeom bring the cars around, and the boys file out into the frozen Noksapyeong night. The streetlights glisten in gold and purple halos on the snow. Jungkook and Taehyung kick holes into an ice-bank until Minyeong bothers them both into the backseat of their car.

Seokjin winds up in the other car with Namjoon, Yoongi, and Hoseok. As they pull away from the curb, he receives a text.

This time Taehyung sends a gif of a tiny old man with a walker.

Seokjin types back: Is that supposed to be me?

Taehyung responds with: OLD.

Seokjin fires back: You will pay.

Seconds tick by. Taehyung answers with single word:

Promise.

 

Chapter Text

“Thankfully I have someone in my life who could read my sincerity when I didn't even know it. A hyung who comforts me just by existing.”
Bingguere, Reply 1994

 

March 2014

“I think we have rats in here,” Yoongi says. He slinks into the swivel chair beside Hoseok, careful not to dump their mocha-frappes into their laps. Hoseok takes his, and his look of gratitude shifts to one of concern.

“Rats?” His lip curls in disgust. “That's unhealthy.” He examines the whole room, ceiling included, as if a rodent might rappel from the AC vent and into his lap at any moment.

Yoongi taps the keyboard to wake up his computer. He scratches his head and wonders, distractedly, when he last had a shower. He says, “I know I'm part of the problem. I've practically lived here the last, what is it... two weeks?”

Hoseok nods as he sips. “We can talk to the others about cleaning up the wrappers.”

Yoongi smirks. “And cleaning up the rappers too.”

Hoseok hits him with a genuine smile. “Filthy rappers, with their sick, sick rhymes.”

The fact that Hoseok humors Yoongi's stupid jokes, even at 2 a.m., even after a night of zero sleep and a day of photo shoots and choreo practice, is one of the many things Yoongi loves about him.

His devotion to sanitation is another.

Hoseok says, “Did you actually see a rat?”

“No.” Yoongi waves a hand dismissively. “But I hear them, I think. Sometimes.”

A shudder racks Hoseok's body. “In here?”

“Well.” Yoongi drags a sip of his frappe. “In the walls.” His eyes blur as he tries to bring his computer screen into focus. He has a dozen files open on his desktop, all lyrics, all in various stages of completion.

“What about poop?” Hoseok asks. He's messing with his own computer now, but Yoongi can see he's still preoccupied with the possible rat predicament.

“No, I haven't seen any poop,” Yoongi says.

Hoseok's mouth makes the ㅅ shape of distress. Yoongi decides it's time to change the subject.

“What are you working on today?” he asks.

Hoseok continues to frown but says, “I have this hook in my head, but I haven't gotten it out yet.”

“What's it about?” Yoongi asks. He clicks a random file and skims through it.

Hoseok rubs his face with both hands. “Something with cell phones. It goes, Can you please turn off your cell phone, I'm trying to talk to you, but you're just clicking Like...”

“Mm, good,” Yoongi says. “Autobiography.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Hoseok tries not to smile. “What've you got?”

Yoongi sucks air over his teeth. “Did you notice Jungkook and Jimin are sleeping in the common room now?”

“Are you writing about that?”

“Sort of,” Yoongi admits.

Hoseok eyes him sidewise. “Elaborate?”

Yoongi shifts in his chair. “Look, we're only human, right?”

“With the possible exception of Namjoon, who might be some kind of hybrid godling,” Hoseok agrees.

“Pht, he's too clumsy to be anything but mortal,” Yoongi says. “And he has needs like the rest of us. It's the basic hierarchy: food, shelter, sleep, affection.”

“Hm-mm,” Hoseok says. “Is that what the song's about?”

“Sort of,” Yoongi says again.

Hoseok juts his chin. “Let me see it.”

Yoongi tilts the screen and sits back to let Hoseok read.

“Oooh,” Hoseok hums as he scans the words. “So it's about that.”

Yoongi lifts his shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. “It's about living with six other men and not having any space of our own.”

“With the clever framing device of dreaming about a girl,” Hoseok says.

“Hey, we all do it,” Yoongi says.

Hoseok sighs. “Some of us do it a lot.”

Yoongi says, “Do you wonder if this is what our military service will be like?”

Hoseok makes his unhappy cat face again. “You've heard our Dads and uncles. They talk like it's the best time of their lives.”

Yoongi grunts. He has heard that, a hundred times from a hundred different men. It's even mentioned in that Hesse book Namjoon made them all read, how men glorify their time in the military like it's some kind of sacred rite of passage. Yoongi knows he's a cynic, but he mistrusts the system of forced indenture that is the Korean military conscription. And he thinks that anyone who proclaims it the Golden Era of Their Youth must be suffering from a kind of mutually-shared Stockholm syndrome.

With these thoughts fresh in his mind, Yoongi and Hoseok lapse into the type of quiet side-by-side work that Yoongi most enjoys. Jaunty as Hoseok can be in the studio and on the street, he sinks into a determined contemplation when he's working on lyrics. And unlike Namjoon, who feeds on the frantic give-and-take of discussion and debate, Yoongi and Hoseok both prefer to work without disruption.

Minutes lengthen into hours, and Yoongi's thinking wistfully of a deep bathtub full of steaming hot water when Hoseok vises down on his forearm.

“Listen,” he says through his teeth. “Do you hear that?”

Yoongi cranes his neck. Then he does hear it, a pronounced rustling off to their left.

“Is it a rat?” Hoseok asks.

“Maybe,” Yoongi allows. “But it's not in this room. What's next door?”

“A broom cupboard?” Hoseok says.

“Should we investigate?”

“No,” Hoseok answers, his eyes wide. “We should notify the staff. There could be a nest.”

Upon further listening, Yoongi thinks maybe the noise is louder than what one lone rat could make on its own.

“Is there anyone else here right now?” Yoongi asks.

Hoseok considers before answering. “Jimin and Tae, maybe, but Jin-hyung was going to drive them home.”

“I think Jimin went home with Kook-ah and Joon?” Yoongi says. “Minyeong-nim was going to drive them.”

“Hmm,” Hoseok says. “Then I think it's just us.”

Yoongi squints. “Maybe there's a ghost.”

Hoseok emits a strangled noise. “Don't say that, hyung,” he says. “I'm much happier with the idea of a rat.”

“Multiple rats,” Yoongi adds. He turns back to his computer, privately relishing the expression of ruffled indignation on Hoseok's face.

“Will definitely inform the staff in the morning,” Hoseok mutters as he, too, returns to his work. “And we'll remind the others to clean up after themselves.”

The scuffling continues beyond the wall. Hoseok pauses, giving Yoongi a sidelong eye. “Multiple rats,” he huffs. He puts on his headphones, cranking up some BigBang to drown out the sound. “I only see one.”

Yoongi draws a long sip from his mocha and digs back into his work.

 

Chapter Text

“And I'll use you as a makeshift gauge,
Of how much to give and how much to take.”
I Found, Amber Run

April 2014

The rule goes, Always assume you're on camera. The thing is, Taehyung doesn't care. They're in Beijing, and Seokjin speaks enough Mandarin to get them onto buses and into restaurants, and anyway nobody knows them here.

So it doesn't take much for Namjoon to persuade the managers to set them loose for the night, provided that Hobeom-nim goes with them. Hobeom agrees because it's also his first time in China, so the seven of them (plus Hobeom) run wild on the sidewalks, feeling the gritty, electric energy of the city in their lungs.

Taehyung and Jimin fill up his camera with selfies. Him and Jimin with the hat vendor. Him and Jimin eating fruit on a stick. Him and Jimin thwacking Jungkook with fruit on a stick. Jungkook putting Jimin in a headlock. Not a selfie, just a case of perfect timing.

To Taehyung, the crowded markets look like a movie set. Strings of fat red lanterns crisscross overhead, sifting a coppery glow into the streets. There's a pervasive smell like boiled cabbage and car exhaust, and he thinks he can feel the yellow dust caking his lungs, but there's dumplings, too, and some kind of skewered bug treat that Yoongi urges him to try, so he does, and it's not so bad.

They gather in a circle to witness this, and Seokjin pokes at it, his lips twisting in revulsion.

“How is it?” Hoseok asks. He looks like he might be sick.

“Crunchy,” Taehyung answers. “It's like beondegi, but leggier.” He scrapes another insect from the skewer, and as he's chewing, he brandishes it at Seokjin. “Try it,” he says.

“Try it, try it,” Jimin chants.

Up until now, Seokjin has sampled one of everything, including this weird squiggly thing that looked like a cross between a rat's tail and a headless snake that not even Jungkook would touch.

Seokjin shuffles back a few steps. “It has... claws?” he says.

“Crabs have claws,” Yoongi says.

“Lobsters have claws,” Hoseok says.

“Crayfish, too,” Namjoon adds. “They have claws.”

“Thank you,” Seokjin says.

“Hyung, you're a man of adventurous tastes,” Taehyung says. “Try it.”

Seokjin meets Taehyung's eyes. Taehyung licks his lips, and then delights in the effect it has on Seokjin. This has been their push and pull for months now. Taehyung sets the bait, and Seokjin takes it. Almost every time.

Seokjin shakes himself. He takes a deep breath. Then he says, “Okay.”

He goes in fast, biting through the bug's thorax so that half of it skitters to the pavement. Hoseok actually screams, like he expects it to race up his ankle. Seokjin chews through his laughter, and then lifts his shoulders.

“It's not bad,” he says. “Kind of—”

“—Crunchy, right?” Taehyung says. He pops another bug into his mouth. Hoseok gags.

“Like, nutty, too. Like a lychee,” Seokjin says.

“But not sweet,” Taehyung says.

Yoongi sneers. “Gross.”

Taehyung offers the skewer around, but Jungkook and Hobeom are the only other takers. And then they're ambling to the next stall, this one featuring boiled tripe and candied hawthorns. They cut from the main road to an alley where an ambitious vendor is selling bootlegs of American TV shows. It's the kind of place Namjoon has sweaty night dreams about, and he immediately instructs them all to search for Korean-subbed copies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

When no one's looking, Seokjin pinches Taehyung's hipbone, right in the ticklish spot Seokjin's only recently discovered. It jolts Taehyung, all the way to the soles of his feet, and suddenly he's eager to get back to...

Not their hotel. For this trip, the company could only afford two rooms. The seven of them are piled into two beds and a sofa while the managers split a second room next door. Normally, Taehyung doesn't mind; bed-sharing's one of his favorite things ever. It's just, he wants to try things. He wants to push Seokjin, to mess up his hair, to see him flustered. He wants to bite Seokjin. He wants to see if Seokjin will bite back.

Jimin and Hoseok wave Taehyung over to a booth full of stuffed pandas and brass dragons and painted masks.

“We should get pandas,” Jimin says.

“Matching pandas?” Taehyung asks.

“Brother pandas,” Hoseok agrees.

Hoseok and Jimin heft two pandas from the stack to make them dance. Jungkook flies a stuffed green dragon over them, razing them with imaginary gouts of flame. Popping open a paper parasol, Taehyung drops to a knee to guard their pandas from getting roasted.

And maybe they are loud. Maybe the shopkeeper thinks they're thieves. He comes at them with a broom and they scatter, shouting, into the adjacent alley where Yoongi and Namjoon are examining ornate cell phone cases. Hobeom is there, too, hanging back to keep an eye on them and their surroundings.

But Seokjin is missing.

Taehyung turns a slow circle, scanning the bobbing heads of the milling crowd. The alleyway slopes down to the main street, with vendor's stalls huddling tight to the brick facades of the buildings. Not far ahead and to the left, there's a narrow inlet, and just to peek, Taehyung ducks into it.

Seokjin catches his elbow, pulling him into the deep alcove of a doorway. He presses Taehyung against the cool brick and kisses him, once, full on the mouth.

Taehyung can hear his own breathing. He can feel his pulse in his fingertips.

But he goes, “Ugh, you just ate a bug.”

Seokjin jabs him in that same exact ticklish spot. “Ugh, so did you.”

Then Seokjin rakes a hand through Taehyung's hair. He makes a fist, tugging Taehyung's head back, and kisses him again. There's a kind of controlled gentleness to it, like he's playing at being forceful while maintaining his restraint. And this time, before they part, Seokjin licks his lip.

Taehyung whispers, “Hyung, I won't break.”

There's a subtle shift in Seokjin's eyes as he considers this. Then he says, “We can't, VV. Not here.”

Taehyung sounds pleading when he asks, “Then where?”

Seokjin straightens. He smooths Taehyung's hair back down, plucks the creases from his t-shirt. He runs a hand down Taehyung's arm, and they briefly link their fingers. They don't say it, but they know the others will be looking for them. Not because they suspect anything but because they care. They're in a foreign city, and no one knows them here. Plus, Seokjin's the only one who knows the language, so...

“We should return,” Seokjin says. “I'll count to twenty and follow you out.”

Just like that, Seokjin has reeled himself back in. Taehyung feels a hot spike of anger, but he's grateful, too, that Seokjin can keep his wits. That fact cuts him just as deep, that Seokjin isn't as unhinged as him. The impossibility of … whatever this is... settles on him like a lead vest. In Korea, they have to assume someone's always watching, and here, where they can be blissfully anonymous, they still have to hide.

Taehyung slips around Seokjin, out of the alcove and into the narrow alleyway. When he reaches the stone step that will take him back into the market, Seokjin calls, “Taehyung-ah.”

He turns and waits and Seokjin says, “We'll think of something.”

Taehyung smiles. He says, “Count to twenty,” and then he drops back down into the crowd.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Take me where you're going
I won't let you waste me
Holding to the deep end
I'll let go if you do.”
Pulse, Ider

May 2014

Seokjin sends the text, the time, and a picture of an octopus. And then he waits.

He's in a little market stall, the very best kind, one that uses inverted buckets as seats, and serves every kind of street food imaginable. Seokjin arranges himself in the corner, facing out so he can watch the street. He checks his phone. He orders a makgoelli. Then he checks his phone again.

It's early yet. The evening crowd hasn't hit the market, so it's scattered with American tourists who look wilted and bewildered in their strappy backpacks and floppy shoes. The humidity has been high lately, making the days feel thickly warm while at the same time chilling the air at night. But Seokjin likes it. He likes the way it diffuses the market scents of frying onions and chili paste, so that it gets into his lungs and under his skin.

Seokjin checks his phone again. The notification shows that Taehyung has seen the message. Good. He fights the urge to send a second message reminding Taehyung to bring a jacket. The clue he sent should be enough.

Is it enough?

Seokjin re-reads the message. Yes. They watched Reply 1994 together; Taehyung will get the reference. Seokjin's sure of it.

Like, 97 percent sure.

He feels antsy. But they all do right now. Since they returned from Beijing, their promotional activities drew to a close. They're in between album projects, though Yoongi, Hoseok, and Namjoon are constantly tinkering away at new things. Taehyung and Jimin have finished their high school coursework, and there's no new choreo to learn, so they have vast stretches of time to do... nothing.

For Seokjin, this feels like the slack in a kite string, like he's going to fall if he doesn't have something to tighten the tension. He and Jimin still work out every day. Jungkook still attends classes, Seokjin still has courses at the university, and Namjoon's been not-so-gently pressing them to practice their English. But for the most part, their days have been their own.

For people outside of the industry, this would be a blessing. But they've been so used to the pressure cooker of their life that free time feels like a special kind of torture.

The ajumma inside the market stall passes Seokjin his tin cup of makgoelli. Then she watches him, her purple lips pursed, her amber eyes eagle-sharp.

She says, “Foolish girl, to keep you waiting.”

“Oh,” Seokjin says. “It's not—”

But then Taehyung appears on the sidewalk. He's laughing as he rushes in, practically howling Samchunpo's quote from Reply 1994. Seokjin realizes in that moment how obscure the reference really is, and he feels quietly gratified that Taehyung's figured it out.

Seokjin moves to greet him, but Taehyung waves him back down. “Stay right there,” he says. Then he takes out his phone and snaps a photo.

“Send that to me,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung scoots up a bucket. “Already did.”

As if to punctuate the statement, Seokjin's phone buzzes. The ajumma eyes them, wordless, as they order their food, and Taehyung launches into a story about a dream he had with octopus aliens that took over the world, but they were kind octopus overlords, so after a while, everyone just accepted them and adapted to their culture.

“Octopus overlords would have amazing kitchens,” Seokjin says.

“Like, circular ones,” Taehyung says.

“They could cook eight things at once.”

“Or six things and play a game,” Taehyung says. “They were fun aliens.”

They're mirroring each other now, sitting knee to knee with their plates in their laps.

Seokjin says, “You solved my riddle.”

Through a mouthful of tteokbokki, Taehyung says, “Please. I am Samchunpo.”

“Then I'll be Sung Dong Il,” Seokjin says.

“But that's the Dad.”

Seokjin blows on his bindaetteok to cool it. “Yeah?”

“You're more like Lee Il-hwa,” Taehyung says.

“That's the Mom.”

“Yes.” Taehyung grins. “You're like the Mom.”

“A handsome Mom?” Seokjin asks.

Taehyung squeezes Seokjin's jaw and coos, “The handsomest Mom.” But Seokjin must've still looked doubtful, because Taehyung goes on. “Okay, not the Mom. But of all the characters, she's the most like you: Smart, funny, kind—”

“—You think I'm smart?” Seokjin asks.

“You did make up the riddle,” Taehyung answers.

Seokjin feels the blush course up his spine, spreading heat to his face and his ears. To cover, he says, “Hurry up and eat. This is just our first stop.”

“Our first, hm?” Taehyung says. He stuffs his face with rice cake.

Seokjin thumbs a smear of chili paste from Taehyung's chin. “Do you want to guess what it is?”

“No,” Taehyung says. “I like surprises.”

 

Despite the recent success of their music, they can still take the subway without much fuss. In Mapo-gu, they draw curious stares from groups of teenage girls, but it's not more than Seokjin's ever endured. Anyway, he barely notices because Taehyung is... vibrant, like he's lit from within. Seokjin can't tear his eyes from him.

And the dog cafe is a perfect choice, as evidenced by Taehyung starfished across the floor, wrestling with a blue-eyed husky named Jack. Seokjin knows Taehyung has a dog at home; they both do, and they miss them. But the dorm is too small for dogs, and they don't have the time to properly tend them, so this place helps to fill the puppy void.

Seokjin sits on the floor nearby with a fluffy Papillon in his lap. He's taking pictures of Taehyung with one hand while the Papillon ardently licks the cupped palm of his other. After a while, a little girl of maybe five years old toddles close to Taehyung while her mother observes from a safe distance.

When Taehyung sees the girl, he sits up and holds out a hand to her. She hesitates, though, her eyes darting from Taehyung to Jack and back to her Mom.

“Don't be afraid,” Taehyung says. “Jack is a sweet boy.” He musses Jack's fur, to the delight of both the dog and the girl, who squeals. Jack yips and wriggles forward, his tail wagging so hard it whips Taehyung in the face.

As Seokjin watches, it's as though the sounds drown out of the cafe, leaving only Taehyung and the puppy and the girl. He doesn't know why, but the scene wounds him, a deep and worrisome stab. He puts his phone away and hugs the Papillon to his chest. He watches them the way one watches old home movies, nostalgic yet removed, like it's something that belongs to another place and time.

Soon the girl's mother comes to collect her.

“I'm so sorry,” she says. “She hasn't learned her manners yet. But you seem really good with her. You're very patient.”

Taehyung beams. “Thank you,” he says. “I love kids. And dogs. And elephants, and orangutans, and octopus.”

He tickles the girl. She collapses into giggles. He brushes a hand over her shiny hair, and as her mother leads her from the cafe, she turns to wave goodbye.

Chapter Text

“Show me how to hold you.”
Pulse, Ider

May 2014, Part 2

The evening sky is like watermarked silk in a gradient of lavender and gold. They walk along the river, pleasantly quiet over their waffles and cream, when Taehyung receives a text. He tugs the phone from his pocket. “It's Jimin,” he says.

“Oh.” Seokjin nods. “What does he want?”

“Hold this,” Taehyung says, stacking his waffle with Seokjin's. He's already thumbing his reply when he answers, “He wants to know when we'll be back.”

“Oh,” Seokjin says again. He feels a flutter of anticipation. He has a third option in mind, but if Jimin's already asking questions, then... “Is he alone?”

“I'll ask.” Taehyung types. They wait. Then Taehyung says, “No, Hobi and Yoongi are there. Kookie and Joon are—”

“—Doing English lessons,” Seokjin finishes. “I know.”

Taehyung's typing again, his thumbs flying.

Seokjin says, “What are you telling him?”

“That we're seeing a movie,” Taehyung says.

“Taehyung-ie,” Seokjin balks. “We can't lie to him.”

Taehyung crams the last of his waffle into his mouth. “Who's lying?” he says. “We'll see a movie some day.”

Seokjin shoves him.

“Besides,” Taehyung says, lapsing into exaggerated Satoori. “I am Samchunpo. I'm brand new to the city, and I need my new friend to show me around.”

Seokjin gapes at him, but once he regains his composure, he says, “That's true. You wouldn't want to get lost like last time and end up in the police station—”

“—With all those protest fliers in my bag—”

“—So dangerous, Samchunpo,” Seokjin says. They're walking again, and something electric happens each time their fingers brush.

“But you'll protect me,” Taehyung says.

“Always,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung juts his chin in a look of smug satisfaction. They stare out over the river, watching the lights fleck silver into the waves, and Seokjin feels their time ticking away.

“Taehyung-ah,” he says. “I have some money.” He rushes the words out ahead of his shaky resolve. “We could rent a room, not for the night, but—”

“—A few hours?” Taehyung licks his lips. “Okay.”

The idea strikes them like a mortar flash. They walk a few steps further, too dazed to even speak.

Then Taehyung says, “Find a place and text me.”

“Smart.” Seokjin nods. “Better to meet there.”

“Always assume—”

“—we're on camera.”

“Right?”

“Right.” Seokjin squeezes Taehyung's forearm. He fights down the urge to kiss him right there in the street.

“Find us a place,” Taehyung says. They part and head off in opposite directions.

 

 

The thing is, Seokjin already knew the place. He didn't book the room beforehand because he didn't know how the night would go. There were too many variables, too many things that could go wrong, but now...

Now he's in Hongdae, in a room with the Eiffel Tower stenciled across one wall.

He's still wearing his jacket, still cradling the toiletries bag the clerk gave him at check in. He'd heard but didn't know until now, that the complimentary toiletries at a love hotel included condoms, massage oil, face wipes, and toothbrushes. He's staring dumbly at these items when he hears a knock on the door.

Taehyung jostles in wearing dark sunglasses and a black face mask. He toes out of his shoes and shoves a brown paper sack into Seokjin's arms.

Seokjin tags after him. “Were you followed?” he asks. He's mostly joking, but part of him entertains a terrible fantasy of iPhone-wielding sasaengs tracking Taehyung to their hotel.

“There were eight of them,” Taehyung says, peeling off his mask.

Seokjin lifts his gaze from the paper sack and the toiletries bag. “Eight what?” he asks.

Taehyung chucks his sunglasses to the bed. “Eight arms each,” he says. “Aliens.”

“That's, like, 64 arms,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung lunges for Seokjin, gripping his waist, crushing the sack between them. He twists and they tumble into the bed and Seokjin's pretty sure the sunglasses snap like a twig.

Through his teeth, Seokjin breathes, “You're one of them.” But he can't keep up the gag without laughing, so he just kisses Taehyung until neither of them can breathe.

When they finally part, Taehyung squirms free, spilling the sack onto the duvet.

Seokjin puzzles over the items in question. He says, “You brought condoms.”

Taehyung tears into a packet of gummy worms, yanking one in half with his teeth. “They're the big kind,” he says.

“Oh.” Seokjin sits up. Flashes of white spark behind his eyes.

“We smooshed the cookies.”

“Your sunglasses, too,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung frowns. “No more secret agent.”

“Double agent,” Seokjin says. He narrows his eyes. Taehyung matches his gaze, and they stare, each daring the other to blink.

Seokjin breaks first. His mind keeps paging back to Taehyung's condoms and what looks like a bottle of lube on the bed. He's forced to admit, internally, that he hasn't thought beyond what happens once they get to the hotel. A heartbeat later, Seokjin must confess the truth. It's coupled with a dark twist of shame as he understands, that on some level, he's thought of nothing else.

Meanwhile, Taehyung brought condoms. If the hotel hadn't provided them, Seokjin would have nothing. He had to do better. He'd promised to protect Taehyung and already, he was failing.

He's kneeling there, his palms up on his knees, when Taehyung aligns his posture to match his.

Seokjin whispers, “What are we doing?”

Taehyung folds their hands together. He says, “Hyung, I'm in love with you.”

Tears prick Seokjin's eyes. He manages a choked, “Why?”

Taehyung touches his lips to the bridge of Seokjin's nose. He asks, “Do you need a reason?” When Seokjin can only nod, Taehyung says, “I have thousands.”

Seokjin feels like they should talk more, about the things they risk, the careers they'll burn, the friendships they'll wreck, the hearts they'll destroy.

But Taehyung brings his lips to Seokjin's. The kiss is soft, but there is heat beneath it, a quiet well of burning urgency, and for them the fall is effortless.

 

Chapter Text

“I want to ruin our friendship.
We should be lovers instead.”
Jenny, Studio Killers

KAKAOTALK
2014 June 3

Jin Hyung: We need to talk about rules.

BigHit Taehyung:( ̄。 ̄)~zzz

Jin Hyung: Rules for us, pabo.

BigHit Taehyung:

Rule #1 – you let me do anything I want to you
Rule #2 – you let me call you Jinnie

Jin Hyung: We have to be careful, Taehyung-ie.

BigHit Taehyung: I'll only whisper when I call you Jinnie

Jin Hyung: VV

Jin Hyung: First rule. We can never fool around in the dorm.

BigHit Taehyung: (╥_╥)

Jin Hyung: Second rule. We can't share any of the pictures we take of each other.

BigHit Taehyung: For obvs reasons

Jin Hyung: Not those pictures. We should delete those.

BigHit Taehyung: I'm not deleting them, ever

Jin Hyung: We should save them off to some place not on the cloud or any of the company computers.

BigHit Taehyung: Jinnie what R U wearing?

Jin Hyung: V, I'm being serious.

BigHit Taehyung: Me too I wanna know

Jin Hyung: I'm wearing your pink shirt.

BigHit Taehyung: I'm touching myself RN

Jin Hyung: We have to be careful about that sort of thing, too. The touching.

BigHit Taehyung: Hyung, I always touch you

Jin Hyung: I know. We shouldn't.

BigHit Taehyung: Do we get to do anything???

Jin Hyung: Not around the others

and we CAN NEVER TELL THEM. Ever.

Not even Jimin.

BigHit Taehyung: Hyung, give me some credit. Everyone knows Jimin can't keep a secret

BigHit Taehyung: Any other rules, Lawyer-nim?

Jin Hyung: Yes.

Jin Hyung: You have to call me Jinnie.

BigHit Taehyung: Jinnie Jinnie Jinnie

Jin Hyung: You have to whisper it in my ear, right before. . . ≧◡≦

BigHit Taehyung: You did not just

Jin Hyung: ଘ(੭*ˊᵕˋ)੭*

Jin Hyung has changed his name to Jinnie.

BigHit Taehyung: When can we again?

Jinnie: We'll get our new schedule at the meeting thing today. We'll plan.

BigHit Taehyung: Good. BC we still have all those condoms

Jinnie: Shhh.

BigHit Taehyung: Hyung, I'm typing ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

Jinnie: I know.

BigHit Taehyung: So we'll use them another time. It's... kind of a big deal

Jinnie: omo, Stop

BigHit Taehyung: Mmm make me

Jinnie: I'm going to make you so hard.

Jinnie: ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

Jinnie: Didn't mean like that.

Jinnie: But kinda do mean like that.

BigHit Taehyung: You better promise

Jinnie: Yes, VV I promise.

 

Chapter Text

“Youth should be awkward and simple, and love should be untainted and cheesy.”
Na Jung, Reply 1994

June 2014

Seokjin reclines against the railing of Banpo Bridge, drawing the warm, wet air of the river into his lungs. He can smell the dusky scent of shellfish in the riverbed, and it immediately calls to mind the last time he and Taehyung stood in this same spot. He scans his phone screen, idly, waiting for Taehyung's response. Even though he's not listening to music, he's got his headphones in to discourage any of the passing crowds from attempting to engage him.

Normally, he wouldn't mind. He's always enjoyed fan interaction, even if it's minor congratulations from a random person on the street. Lately, their popularity has increased, possibly because of their upcoming one-year anniversary and the announcements of a comeback planned for August.

But he has plans today, plans that include dinner and alone time with Taehyung, and Seokjin wants to avoid recognition.

Their new schedule promises to slice their free time to slivers, and the new choreography seems designed to bend Seokjin's body into twisted pretzel shapes. Though he loves their new songs and he's proud of the progress he's making with his vocals, Seokjin knows he's staring down a long tunnel of challenging work this summer. What he wants right now, more than he can fully admit to himself, is another night with Taehyung.

Maybe this time they'll move beyond tentative touching and playing around with condoms. The possibilities thrill him, occasionally causing him to miss his footing if he becomes too unfocused. He's trying to appear like he's not in the middle of some sort of massive upheaval, but that's what it feels like, as if the earth is shifting beneath him, like he's trying to hold on while his brain makes sense of what his body obviously wants.

Seokjin wants Taehyung. He wants to touch him and to be touched. He wants to feel his breath on his neck, his hands in his hair. He wants to breathe in that earthy, sunshine scent of him, and be completely himself for just one day.

His Kakao notification tickles his ear, but his grin fades as he reads Taehyung's message: Hyung, don't be mad.

Seokjin's stomach tenses. He texts back: Where are you?

Taehyung answers: We're leaving the train platform.

We? Seokjin types.

Several minutes lapse without response, and then Seokjin sees them: Taehyung and Jimin threading through the bridge-bound crowd. Jimin texts as he walks, but when Taehyung nudges him to point at Seokjin, he waves, all rainbows and exuberance.

Seokjin's heart sinks.

Taehyung texts back. Seokjin reads his message and can only nod as he understands how this must have unfolded.

Jimin thinks a picnic will be awesome, Taehyung writes. He invited JK. JK was with RM.

VV, it's okay, Seokjin responds, but Taehyung's next message arrives immediately.

They're all coming, hyung. They're bringing food.

On one level, Seokjin's grateful for the warning. Taehyung's text allows him to compartmentalize what he wants for the sake of keeping appearances. But on a baser, more selfish level, Seokjin feels the sting of disappointment. Judging by Taehyung's heavy gait, he feels the same way – sullenly perturbed that Jimin's third-wheeling has grown into an impromptu family picnic.

Seokjin's first instinct is to soothe Taehyung. He texts back, Food is good! No worries. We'll have fun.

Taehyung reads the text. He stuffs his phone and his hands deep into his pockets. Jimin, oblivious to Taehyung's black mood, continues to skim and dip, dancing like a bird set loose from his cage. He draws the attention of several people on the bridge, but Jimin doesn't seem to care.

Seokjin can see the war playing out on Taehyung's face. Taehyung, who hides nothing, wants to cling to his annoyance. But at the same time, the sun has warmed the grass to a perfect, fragrant green, the sky is flecked with high silver clouds, and his best friend is so happy to be out with them that he is dancing.

Once they're across the bridge, Taehyung pulls Seokjin into a brief side-hug. Jimin, following his lead, does the same.

“It's a perfect day, right, hyung?” Jimin says.

“Yep, perfect,” Seokjin says.

Jimin brushes a hand down Seokjin's arm. He's laughing when he says, “Better than last time when you ditched me for the movies.”

Taehyung is half-playful when he fully shoves Jimin. “Do you wanna die?”

Jimin says, “My heart's already dead from your abandonment.”

“I already told you,” Taehyung says. “We thought you were with Jungkook.”

Jimin circles behind Seokjin for protection before saying, “Hyung, he's such a liar. He knew Kook-ie was in his language lesson.”

“Are you calling me, Kim Taehyung, a liar?”

Jimin beams. “Uh, I don't think I said Kim Seokjin.”

Taehyung lunges, and Jimin bolts. They tear down the bike path, howling and churning gravel in their wake. Seokjin follows at a civilized pace, taking the same trail to Hangang Park he and Taehyung took two weeks ago, when they decided to risk everything in a Hongdae love hotel.

The exquisite agony of this secret burrows down inside him. As he watches Taehyung, Seokjin's able to acknowledge the pain of being this close and not being able to touch him. But he must also reconcile the deliciousness of holding these tender moments close to his heart. It's both the deepest pain and purest joy he's ever felt, his wildest fears and sweetest comforts, all placed together side by side.

And Seokjin knows he's wrecked over this. He's good at pretending, but the others must sense something? And would they hate him if they found out? Would they ever be able to forgive them for his selfishness?

Seokjin sees Jungkook and Namjoon ambling up the sidewalk. Jungkook immediately wings off after Jimin and Taehyung, leaving Namjoon with a bemused expression and a bag of bottled waters. Namjoon continues his steady, slouchy pace, conscious of the picture he makes with his lemon yellow hair and gleaming combat boots.

He abandons the facade once he falls in step with Seokjin. Blinking mole-like against the blinding sunlight, he says, “This is an absolutely perfect day, isn't it?”

Seokjin swallows a chuckle. “Yes, it's perfect,” he says. He takes one handle of the plastic bag and together, he and Namjoon carry the drinks down to a wide patch of unclaimed grass. Jimin, Jungkook, and Taehyung have disappeared from sight, but Seokjin can still hear the keening trill of Jimin's laughter on the breeze.

Namjoon and Seokjin are just getting settled when Hoseok and Yoongi cross the bridge: Yoongi with a frayed quilt draped over one arm, Hoseok hefting a brown paper sack. They shout and wave in greeting, loping down the path to close the remaining distance.

Hoseok passes the food to Seokjin so that he and Namjoon can spread out the blanket. Yoongi promptly flounces down onto it, guarding his eyes against the sun. Seokjin kneels to arrange the food: kimbap, shrimp crackers, dried squid, and gummy snacks.

“Those are for Tae Tae,” Hoseok says, pointing.

“He's welcome to them,” Yoongi groans. He props up on his elbows, craning his body back and forth to stretch his shoulders. “That new choreo is going to kill me.”

Seokjin presses a bottle of water to his forehead. “Ugh, me too.”

Hoseok smacks Seokjin's shoulder. “You'll be fine, you both will. You said the same thing about the Bulletproof choreo, and you both learned it well.”

“Did I, though?” Seokjin laughs.

“Well, you learned it,” Namjoon concedes. “And me too.” He rips open a packet of squid and begins to thoughtfully gnaw on a piece.

“It's going to be a long-ass summer,” Yoongi says. “And did you notice the blanks on the schedule for July?”

“I noticed that,” Seokjin says. He noticed but hoped it was a mistake or an oversight.

Hoseok settles on his haunches beside Seokjin and they both unwrap rolls of kimbap. “Maybe a super-secret mission?” he asks.

“Probably a reality show,” Namjoon says, and they all moan. They endured the embarrassment of pranks, challenges, and cross-dressing last year with Rookie King, hoping that the truly cringe-worthy segments would be edited out to preserve their dignity. What a foolish notion that had been.

Yoongi huffs out a sigh of frustration. “It's right in the middle of our studio time,” he says.

Hoseok pets Yoongi's shoulder. “I'm certain Bang PD-nim has a plan,” he says.

Yoongi grunts.

The maknaes descend on them then, dripping sweat and throwing elbows to get at the food. Seokjin passes his water to Taehyung, who makes an effort to clasp their fingers, the briefest brush of intimacy. Within minutes, they're all lounging together, basking beneath the early summer sun, eating and talking and enjoying each other's existence. Seokjin feels a fierce stab of protectiveness. He has to fight the ludicrous, impossible impulse to put his arms around them all, to keep them safe from every kind of harm.

Hoseok, who is watching him, nods as though he can read Seokjin's mind. He goes, “Yeah.”

“Yeah,” Namjoon agrees. He gets up and hauls Taehyung to his feet. He pounds his shoulder and declares, “You're it.”

In the ensuing confusion, Namjoon gets a sizable lead, but once Jimin, Jungkook, and Hoseok leap into the game, it's an anarchic free-for-all.

Seokjin gets to his feet, brushing imaginary dust from his jeans.

Yoongi glances at him, squinting against the brightness. “You going in?”

“Think I will. You?”

“Nope.” Yoongi leans back, lacing his fingers behind his head. He says, “What a fucking glorious day.”

And while it's not the day Seokjin had envisioned, he finds he cannot disagree.

 

Chapter Text

“Through chaos as it swirls,
It's us against the world.”
Us Against the World, Coldplay

July 2014
Los Angeles

The second the lights go off, they're all in motion, whispering frantically across their bunks as they try to make sense of what's happening.

Hours earlier, they were splashing along the shore of a sunny California beach. This was their dream trip, to come to LA, to learn about hip hop from the masters themselves. But things have gone awry in the nightmarish manner of American horror films. Their manager, Minyeong, went into the coordinator's office to sign their paperwork, and in his absence, three of the largest men Namjoon's ever seen in real life stole their van and took them hostage.

Namjoon recalls the staccato sweep of streetlights as the van shot from the freeway to a road lined with nondescript warehouses. He strained to read the signs as they streaked past but they were in English, and by the time he translated the first letters, they were already gone.

And then they were bustled across a desolate parking lot while another man yelled at them to give him money, and Seokjin was still in the back of the van, too terrified to move, so they had to physically pry him from the seat to rush him inside.

They didn't cry, though. Jungkook and Hoseok looked close to tears, but they held on, even as the men slammed the doors and shouted at them to remove their socks and shoes. None of them spoke Korean, so Namjoon struggled to translate. They made him proud, following his lead without question, and without falling prey to their panic.

Now that they're alone, though, he feels their resolve unpinning, and he knows it's up to him to hold them together.

Someone – it sounds like Jimin – moans, “They took our phones.”

Someone else asks, “Are they going to kill us? Do they have guns?”

“I didn't see a gun,” someone answers. It sounds like Seokjin?

“I heard everyone in America has guns.”

“But I didn't see any.”

“That doesn't mean they don't have them.”

“Did they kidnap us?” It sounds like Hoseok. “Have we been kidnapped?”

Again, Jimin whimpers, “Hyung, they took our phones.”

“Okay, enough,” Namjoon says. He slides from the top bunk and calls to them all in a hoarse, half-whisper, “Keep calm and let's gather up.”

“Are they going to kill us?” someone asks again. Namjoon's pretty sure it's Jungkook.

Namjoon whispers, “They're not going to kill us—”

He feels a hand clamp his elbow. He's only partly relieved when he sees Yoongi beside him.

“Joon,” Yoongi whispers. “Why are you still speaking in English?”

Namjoon stands there, blinking as his mind resets. “Sorry, hyung,” he mutters in Korean. “I didn't realize I was.”

He takes a moment, then, to steady himself and gauge their situation. His eyes adjust steadily to the dense darkness, and his heartbeat finally slows. The room feels stuffy despite its size and smells faintly of motor oil and burnt leaves. Their bunks are arranged against the wall behind a series of portable paper screens.

Seokjin has already hunkered down with the maknaes on the outer-most bunk. He's pressed, rigid as a rail, against the wall, and Taehyung clings koala-like to his chest. Jimin and Jungkook huddle on the other side of Seokjin, and in the wan light, their staring eyes look wild, like they're young wolves hunkered in a trap.

Yoongi and Hoseok take up flank beside Namjoon.

“What should we do?” Hoseok asks.

“Right, okay.” Namjoon releases a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. “You and Yoongi have a look around. Check all the windows and doors. See if there's a way out.”

Once Hoseok and Yoongi disappear into the dusky gloom, Namjoon begins to examine the area around the bunks.

Jimin asks, “Are they going to sell us to the circus?”

“Not the circus,” Jungkook says. “They'll sell us as slaves. There's a slave trade in Mexico because of the drug cartels.”

And Taehyung begins to mumble, “I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” like it's some kind of prayer.

Namjoon says, “They aren't going to sell us.”

This silences them for a moment, except for Taehyung's continued admonition for forgiveness.

Seokjin caresses Taehyung's forehead with his thumb. He says, “Shhh, it's okay, you're okay.”

Taehyung shakes his head.

“What is it?” Seokjin whispers. “What are you sorry about?”

Taehyung rubs his nose against the collar of Seokjin's shirt. He says, “You always wanted to come to Hollywood, and now it's ruined.”

Seokjin releases a sharp chuckle. “We'll come again, someday, you and me,” Seokjin says. “We'll climb the Hollywood sign and wave to Disneyland.”

“And the whales?” Taehyung asks.

“And the whales,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung says, “I'm sorry for that time with Minyeong-nim.”

But Jimin chimes in with, “We'll come, too, Taehyung-ie. We'll swim in the ocean and skateboard on the sidewalk and we'll ride the cable cars—”

Taehyung snaps, “That's San Francisco. Pabo.”

“Shhh,” Seokjin soothes again.

“It's still California,” Jimin sulks.

With the strangely comforting sound of their banter in his ears, Namjoon continues to search their bunk. The floors are concrete. The walls are smooth, white, and impervious. A small vent sits in the center of the ceiling, but it's too tight for even Taehyung to squeeze into. Namjoon wonders, randomly, why action movies portray such disproportionately huge AC vents as portals of escape when duct-work in reality leaves them so piteously stranded.

Jungkook says, “I didn't tell my parents I love them.”

Again, Jimin says, “They took our phones.”

“Hyung, are they going to kill us?” Jungkook asks.

Yoongi answers him as he and Hoseok return to their room. He says, “If they were going to kill us, they would have done it already.”

“See?” Jimin says. “We're going to be slaves.”

“Hush for a second,” Namjoon says. He turns to Yoongi and Hoseok. “Did you find anything?”

Hoseok shakes his head. “All the doors are locked, and there aren't any windows,” he says.

“But we found cameras,” Yoongi adds.

Nodding, Namjoon says, “They have seven beds, not eight. If they're trafficking slaves, eight bunks would make better use of the space. But there are only seven.”

“So?” Hoseok asks.

“So if they knew there would be seven of us,” Namjoon says. “Then this is part of the show.”

“Or something worse,” Yoongi says.

“How could it be worse?” Seokjin asks. Even in the half-light, Namjoon can see his eyes twitch.

“It doesn't matter,” Namjoon says. “We're alive, and we're together. If it's part of the show, then we'll work for a good performance. If it's something else, then we'll face it together. When they return, we'll reason with them. We'll tell them why we need to return home unharmed, okay?”

There's a smattering of half-hearted Okays in response.

Hoseok crawls back into his bunk. He says, “If this is part of the show, do you think Bang PD knew about it?”

“No,” Namjoon answers firmly. “No way.”

“And if it's not part of the show,” Yoongi says. “Should one of us stay awake to keep watch?”

Again, Namjoon shakes his head. “It's more important for us to sleep, so we can be ready for whatever happens. It's been a long day, and we're all very tired. Do you think you can try to sleep?”

“Yes, hyung,” Jungkook answers. He nudges Jimin and they extract themselves from the maknae heap around Seokjin, creeping with sloth-like slowness to their own beds. Taehyung and Seokjin remain as they are, like they're both too shocked to move.

Namjoon hoists himself into his own bed. There's a moment of brittle tension as they each twist into their bedclothes and try for the sake of the others to put their worries from their minds.

Then Taehyung's voice cracks the silence when he asks, “Hyung, is there a washroom?”

Yoongi breathes an exasperated growl, but they all know it's not directed at Taehyung. As Hoseok explains how to find the restroom, Yoongi scrubs his hands over his eyes.

“This is ridiculous,” Yoongi hisses. “If this is part of the show, then the people in charge are assholes, and us performing for them makes us assholes, too. And if it's not part of the show... then the men who took us are dangerous criminals and we have reason to fear for our lives. So for the record, I think this sucks, and I'm not overly thrilled about America.”

Yoongi's rant is met with silence until Taehyung returns and takes his place at Seokjin's side.

Hoseok sniffs. “Good hot dogs, though.”

“Pretty girls on the beach, too,” Namjoon adds wistfully.

“Oh, the girls were very beautiful,” Hoseok says in English. “Very nice.”

“Yes, okay,” Yoongi concedes. “That part is true.”

“All right, then. We'll dream of that,” Namjoon says. “Good food and American girls.” Then he adds, almost in afterthought, “We should keep to our own beds tonight, so that tomorrow, we can face them all like men.”

Some time later – much later, by Namjoon's count – he hears the creak of bedsprings as Seokjin slides into his own bunk. And with them all settled, Namjoon can finally sleep.

 

Chapter Text

“Not all love is gentle. Sometimes it's gritty and dirty and possessive, sometimes it's not supposed to be careful or soft at all. Sometimes it feels like teeth.”
Azra T.

August 2014

“Tell me two words you hate,” Seokjin says.

Without pause for thought, Taehyung says, “Homeless... kittens.”

Seokjin moans. “That's so much worse than my two words.”

“What are your two words?”

Seokjin hefts his backpack into his lap. They're sitting hip to hip in the cramped floor space they've cleared in the abandoned broom cupboard. It's a dirty, dimly-lit hole huddled with musty mops and crumbling drums of floor wax, but they've dragged in a grimy lamp and a gymnastics mat to make it a place of their own.

Plus, it locks from the outside, and only Taehyung has figured out how to jimmy the handle to open the door. Once they're inside, they're removed from the world, secret and untouchable.

Taehyung licks his lips. Seokjin watches Taehyung's face as he works the straps on the backpack, savoring the rapt, expectant look in his eyes. Seokjin counts down the seconds of Taehyung's unraveling resolve, timing the reveal with the moment Taehyung shifts toward him.

Seokjin tugs back the straps to reveal his cache of contraband airport snacks. “Two words I hate,” he says. “Calorie restriction.”

Taehyung makes a low and appropriately appreciative growl as he digs through the contents of Seokjin's backpack. He turns the items out onto the mat between them, reading the labels as he goes: “Nutella. Toblerone, Bir-oh-eth? Pir-ou-ette? Is that even English?”

“I think maybe French,” Seokjin says. He's actually trembling with excitement as Taehyung rifles through packets of Kinder Eggs, Walker's Shortbread, and Swedish Fish.

Taehyung gives Seokjin his naughty-boy glare. He says, “How'd you sneak these past the managers?”

Seokjin passes the tin of Pirouettes to Taehyung. “Open these,” he says. Taehyung tears at the plastic seal with his teeth while Seokjin twists the cap on the Nutella. Seokjin can only shrug in response to Taehyung's question, though. He says, “They were busy with the suitcases, and you and Hobi had the self-cam, so while they were chasing you guys, I just... bought them.”

“In Sao Paulo?” Taehyung asks.

“Stockholm,” Seokjin admits.

They count back in their heads: LA, Tokyo, Osaka, Berlin, Stockholm, Sao Paulo, and then back to LA before returning home. Six countries in four weeks. And okay, so they ate a lot in LA, and in Berlin, and don't get him started on the amazing fried everything that was Sao Paulo. But did that warrant a daily allotment of plain chicken and vegetables upon their return? No, it did not.

Now here they were, a week from the release of their first full album, but when Namjoon suggested they celebrate, Minyeong said, simply, “You all celebrated enough overseas, don't you think?”

The answer to that question is also No. They worked hard overseas, especially after the pseudo-kidnapping that kicked off their training in LA. Taehyung and Jungkook would probably have nightmares about that for the rest of their lives, so no, they have yet to properly commemorate.

“I have more for the others,” Seokjin says. “But these are for us.”

Seokjin plucks one of the slender pirouette cookies from the tin and stabs it into the Nutella. It promptly snaps in half, and they both exhale a disappointed, “Oh.” Seokjin's attempts to salvage it result in a mess of crumbs mixed into the Nutella.

“You're ruining it,” Taehyung says. He reaches for the jar, but Seokjin yanks it away.

“Tell me you love me,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung bites his lip. “No.”

Seokjin dredges his fingers through the Nutella. Taehyung fists a hand in Seokjin's collar.

“Tell me you love me,” Seokjin says again. He raises his Nutella-drenched fingers, ready to strike or defend, depending on Taehyung's next move.

Taehyung's laughter is the low, dark chuckle Seokjin loves most. He slides astride Seokjin's hips, and they collapse against the wall. Taehyung catches Seokjin's arm and attempts to drag Seokjin's fingers to his mouth. Seokjin arches his back to kiss him. Taehyung twists away, but not before Seokjin can smear Nutella across Taehyung's lips.

Taehyung hisses through his teeth. He dips forward. Seokjin bucks back.

He breathes, “Tell me—”

But then Taehyung kisses him, and it's deep, and it's hard, and it rips the breath from Seokjin's lungs. His wrist falls to rest on Taehyung's shoulder, and Taehyung breaks away long enough to suck Seokjin's fingers into his mouth. Then Taehyung renews the kiss, flooding Seokjin's senses with warm, velvety sweetness, and he believes that in this moment, he will do anything Taehyung might ask. His mind flits to the lube and hand wipes in his backpack, but...

“We can't,” Seokjin sobs. “Not here.”

“Yes, here,” Taehyung bites against his lips. He rocks into Seokjin's thighs, and the moan that rips from his throat is both ragged and involuntary. Seokjin runs his free hand under the hem of Taehyung's t-shirt, elated by the cascade of chills this chases down Taehyung's arms.

“Okay,” Seokjin says. “Okay.” He kicks the backpack, and Taehyung hauls it into their laps between them.

“Front pocket,” Seokjin pants.

And as Taehyung tears through the contents, they hear a sound outside the door.

Taehyung freezes, his mouth ajar, his fist clenched around the bottle of lube.

The knob rattles.

Seokjin's ears fill with the sound of his own rushing blood. Taehyung's jaw clenches. His eyes dart to the door.

“Is it Minyeong?” Taehyung asks. It's not so much a whisper as a half-choked sob.

Seokjin can only shake his head.

A voice beyond the door calls out, “Is someone in there?”

Taehyung swallows hard. His eyes fill with tears. “It's Yoongi.”

The realization crystallizes Seokjin's intent. He cleans his fingers with the hand wipes. He rakes down Taehyung's messy hair. He gets to his feet and pulls Taehyung up beside him.

When Seokjin opens the door, it catches Yoongi completely off guard.

“The fuck?” Yoongi spits. He minces back a few steps into the darkened hallway. Then he moves closer to survey the mess of the broom cupboard, the borrowed lamp, the gym mat, the scattered snacks. Then Yoongi examines them, and Seokjin notices for the first time the swipe of Nutella across Taehyung's cheek. He touches his own lips and knows what Yoongi must see.

Seokjin opens his mouth to explain. Yoongi holds up a hand.

“What the fuck are you doing?” he asks.

“We're in love,” Taehyung blurts.

“What?” Yoongi puts both of his hands on his head. “Since when?”

“November,” Taehyung says, and at the same time, Seokjin answers, “January.”

They glance at each other, surprised, and Seokjin says, “Well, we kissed in January—”

“—But I knew before that—”

“—And there was the time in the shower—”

“—And you gave me your coat—”

“—VV, that was two years ago.”

Taehyung touches Seokjin's elbow. “I know, hyung.”

“Oh fuck,” Yoongi snaps. He puffs his cheeks out like a child holding his breath. He scrapes his hands through his hair. On his exhale, he breathes, “We have to tell Namjoon.”

Seokjin and Taehyung both rush to object, but Yoongi throws up his hands. He paces off down the hall, and they follow.

“Hyung, you can't tell him,” Taehyung pleads. “Joon-hyung's the leader. He'll have to tell PD-nim, and they'll tell us to stop.”

“Or they'll replace us,” Seokjin adds.

Yoongi rounds on them. He says, “This is the kind of thing that brings idol groups down. You know that, right?”

“Not us,” Seokjin says. “Not this.”

Yoongi meets Seokjin's eyes, and the anger seems to drain right out of him. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and coughs out a chuckle. “We thought we had rats,” he tells them.

“We do have rats,” Seokjin says.

“Moth flies, too,” Taehyung adds.

“My point is,” Yoongi bites out. “You could have been caught by someone who isn't me.”

“Then will you help us?” Taehyung asks.

Yoongi scrubs his hands over his face, contorting his mouth into a twisted ellipse. “Look,” he says. “I'll do what I can. You know, I've been there, believe me.” Seokjin and Taehyung exchange a look, but Yoongi continues before they can clarify. “But we still have to tell Namjoon. I mean, come on, Jin-hyung. We all made promises when we signed on, and one of them was to never keep secrets.”

Seokjin rubs his nose on his palm. He can only nod in response.

Yoongi's posture softens. He says, “Go on. Get cleaned up. We're going home.”

On the way to the washroom, Taehyung takes Seokjin's hand and squeezes it.

“We'll make Namjoon understand,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung clears his throat. “Yeah,” he says. Then he goes, “I thought of two more words I hate.”

“Worse than homeless kittens?” Seokjin asks.

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says. “Getting caught.”

 

Chapter Text

“You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself.”
Max Demian
Demian, Hermann Hesse

September 2014 - Chuseok

Namjoon can admit he's not the most intuitive guy on the planet, but he likes to think he can tell when something is up. And something is definitely up.

He re-reads Yoongi's message on KKT. He checks the time and place against the subway map before joining the Gangnam-bound queue. When the train glides into the station on a waft of dry leaves and diesel, he steps into the car amid the press of passengers and tries not to think too far ahead.

Namjoon has tried pinpointing the moment when things began to go askew. He returns repeatedly to their time in America. He thinks of Seokjin and the maknaes huddled like frightened animals in their bunk, and his stomach turns. Then Coolio's insistence that Taehyung was a burden to them, and then Jungkook's injury, and then the relentless schedule of remastering their album in the LA studio. He and Yoongi had fought so hard about placing their creative direction into the hands of the American producers, the whole west coast must have heard them yelling.

Yet it had all turned out well. To paraphrase Nietzche, they had overcome themselves to carry their ashes to the mountains to invent an even brighter flame.

Although, maybe the flame had burned too hot?

As the train sways along the track, Namjoon loops his hand in the strap to keep steady. The people around him stare at the floor or their phones or into nothing. Most of the city has emptied in the last twenty-four hours as families return home for Chuseok. Jimin, Jungkook, and Hoseok all left yesterday after the fansign in Jong-ro. Namjoon has similar plans this evening, once he concludes this meeting with Yoongi and Taehyung and Seokjin.

Namjoon's stomach clenches. He tells himself to keep calm, to not read too far ahead.

But his intuition, faulty though it may be, warns him to be wary.

He thinks, Why else would these three want to meet with him? He remembers when Taehyung apologized to Seokjin for that time with Minyeong, and he recalls, too, when Seokjin told Namjoon about their formal reprimand. If he applies the logic of Ockham's Razor to this situation, then the answer is fairly plain. Namjoon only hopes he can convince them...

Again, his stomach flips. Yoongi didn't help, either. When Namjoon asked via text for more information, Yoongi replied with, “Just listen to what they have to say.”

Which only lends weight to Namjoon's theory.

The train skims into Gangnam Station. Namjoon exits, pushing his hands into his pockets. His mind pores through his list of possible responses, arguments, and caveats. He's prepared to beg at this point, but he realizes that leading with that could drive them further away.

Empathy, he thinks, not logic. Patience, not judgment. Understanding, not argument. As his teacher, Mr. Choi, says, If you can first listen to them, then they will be more likely to listen to you.

Because Cafe Fika is foreign-owned, it's one of the few businesses open for the holiday. Namjoon finds them in the back, away from the view of the street. He assesses the table – quiet, private – and the way they've arranged themselves around it. Taehyung and Seokjin sit together, their backs to the window. Yoongi sits across from them beside a seat left open for Namjoon. When they see Namjoon, Seokjin greets him with the austere formality of a businessman and not someone who's lived with them for two years.

Beads of sweat prickle beneath the headband of Namjoon's beanie. He repeats his watch words as he takes his seat: empathy, patience, understanding.

“So, um,” Yoongi says. “These two have something they want to tell you, and then they would like your advice.”

Shit, Namjoon thinks. Yoongi just basically confirmed my suspicions. He bites down on his thumb and nods for them to continue.

Seokjin clears his throat and says, “Taehyung-ie and I are... dating. We're dating, and we're in love, and we've kept it a secret since—”

“—November,” Taehyung adds, helpfully. “Almost a year.”

Seokjin smiles before continuing. “We kept it a secret because after the story I told about us in the shower, which totally happened before we started—”

“—dating,” Taehyung says, like he enjoys hearing the word out loud.

“Right, dating,” Seokjin says. “Minyeong-nim told us that if we weren't more careful we would be replaced.”

“We didn't mean to keep it a secret, hyung,” Taehyung says.

“But we know that something like this could threaten everything we've worked for,” Seokjin says. “And nothing in the world means more to us than... us. So, Yoongi encouraged us to tell you.”

Taehyung squeezes Seokjin's hand. And they wait.

Namjoon can scarcely hear anything over the ringing in his ears. He glances at Yoongi, wondering if perhaps this is some kind of bizarre hidden camera prank. But Yoongi just shrugs and sips his latte.

And that's when Namjoon starts to laugh. He tries to stifle it, which only makes it worse, and Seokjin looks mortified. Taehyung looks more than a little pissed off.

And Yoongi goes, “Dude.”

Namjoon swipes the tears from his eyes. “I'm sorry,” he breathes. He presses his palm to his forehead. “I just thought...” He forces himself to sit up straight. “I thought you wanted to leave.”

“Leave?” Seokjin asks.

“No, Joon-hyung,” Taehyung says. “We don't want to leave.”

The synapses in Namjoon's brain finally spark to the implications of their words. They are dating. They have, in fact, been together for close to a year, which rules out the possibility of them simply fooling around. Namjoon's heard of that happening with other idol groups. People make jokes about it: Men spending so much time in close proximity, minus the company of girls – things are bound to come up.

But...These two?

Through the lens of this new knowledge, Namjoon reappraises their entire situation. The weight of it settles on him, and he feels thunderstruck.

“Look,” he says. “I projected my own fears into this, and my laughing was just me being relieved that you aren’t both jumping ship. So, I'm sorry for that. I don't think this is funny, or trivial, in any way.”

“Thank you,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung nods.

“But, how?” Namjoon begins. He stops himself. Then, “How have you even—? And for nearly a year—? I can't even imagine, I never saw anything, never heard anything.”

“Oh, you heard them,” Yoongi says.

But Taehyung cuts him off. “Seokjinnie is very careful,” he says. He's snagging the frayed edge of his sleeve, and Seokjin places a hand over his to calm him.

Watching this interaction, Namjoon understands that maybe they weren't as secret as he might have guessed. The way Taehyung watches Seokjin, the way they finish each other's sentences. Taehyung's affection, which Namjoon dismissed as something bordering on hero worship, looks, in this light, very much like love.

And they did say love. They didn't hold back in that regard.

Namjoon thinks, If they can hide it as they have, in plain sight, for close to a year, then maybe they have a chance. It's incredibly risky. Foolish, even. Yet isn't love the one thing worth every risk?

He doesn't want to say no. So he says, “You want to stay, and I think that you should. But I think I need to know your plans, like, what it is that you want from this, so that way we can make a... strategy of some kind.”

Taehyung runs his thumbs along a seam in the table. “I want us to be together,” he says.

Namjoon scratches his head through his beanie. “You already know how difficult it is. We spend so much time in front of cameras, and that will only increase as we go—”

“—That's why we need your advice,” Seokjin says. “Because we're not going to stop being together, but we don't know what happens next.”

Taehyung knocks over the salt shaker. He rights it, clumsily, and Seokjin grips his hands beneath the table.

“I think we have to start by telling the others,” Namjoon says. Taehyung stands, but their laced fingers tether him in place.

“I told you.” Taehyung's voice hitches. “I told you that's what he'd say.”

Yoongi leans in. “Taehyung's afraid of what Jimin and Jungkook will think.”

Namjoon tries to meet Taehyung's eyes, but the younger boy gazes out at the street, his jaw clenched against the words he's too afraid to speak.

“What about Hobi-hyung?” Namjoon asks.

“Pretty sure he already knows,” Yoongi says.

“Hm,” Namjoon says. “So it's just Jimin-ie and Kook-ah?”

Seokjin ruffles a finger through the fringe of Taehyung's hair. “Just his two best friends in the whole world,” he says.

Namjoon raps his knuckles softly on the tabletop. He says, “Taehyung-ie, we have to tell them.”

“Or they'll find out like I did,” Yoongi says. “You really want a repeat of that?”

Namjoon's curious about that story, but he decides now is neither the time nor the place.

Taehyung drops back into his chair. He knots his fingers into his hair and buries his head against his arms.

“We'll set up a dinner,” Namjoon suggests. “A meeting like this, just the seven of us. We'll talk everything out. You tell them what you told me, and they'll understand, okay? You'll see, I know they will.”

Taehyung sits up. “When?” His eyes are red, but he looks focused, sharp, determined.

“This weekend,” Namjoon offers. “It's my birthday. We'll all be together anyway.”

When Taehyung doesn't answer, Seokjin says, “Okay. Then we'll tell them on Friday.”

 

Chapter Text

 

“Our hearts were racing with new challenges, our hearts were blazing, and we had no fear.”
Na Jung, Reply 1994

September 2014 – Namjoon's birthday

The day begins with a fansigning in Sinchon, followed by a nap of maybe two hours before the managers turn up to deliver them to a barbecue place for Namjoon's birthday. Midway through the meal, Yoongi suggests they move the party to a noraebang, his ploy for encouraging the managers to leave them unchaperoned. It works, and despite having a ridiculously early call the next morning, Seokjin and Namjoon convince the staff that they will see everyone returned to the dorm at a decent hour.

This proves to be a fanciful fiction, as they have yet to return to the dorm. They perch instead in the purple vinyl booths of the noraebang, the lyrics to Mr. Mr. scrolling across the plasma screen while no one sings along. There's a fragile silence, delicate as a bubble, once Namjoon asks them all to put their phones away.

Seokjin's pulse feels thready beneath his skin. He thought after telling their story to Namjoon that this would somehow be easier. Not easier so much as more rehearsed. And while he's practiced what he would say a hundred times, as he glances from face to face, he finds he cannot speak.

Yoongi's beside him, stoic as a stone, and Taehyung's pressed against Seokjin's side, vibrating like a stricken chord. Jimin and Namjoon occupy the adjacent booth, with Hoseok and Jungkook seated directly across. Seokjin's attention snags on Jungkook, who looks ill as the silence unspools around them. He has spent most of his life in an industry known for pranks and surprises, and his increasing unease helps Seokjin find his voice.

“Everyone,” he says. “We have something we want to share, but it isn't the kind of news that can leave this room.” He doesn't take the time to gauge their expressions. He only notes that there's a sudden airlessness around him, a shift in the tension, and he's messing it up, making it too heavy and too frightening and—

“We're dating.” Taehyung says.

Jimin coughs out a thin stream of giggles. And Jungkook asks, “Dating... who?”

“Each other,” Seokjin says. He feels his eye twitch. “We're together.”

Hoseok's head drops forward and his shoulders begin to shake. Seokjin thinks, wildly, This is it. This is the moment we broke everything.

But when Hoseok lifts his face, though it's shining with tears, he's smiling. He reaches way across the low table to squeeze Taehyung's knee, but his tears choke down anything he might say.

Jimin, on the other hand, rushes to fill the void. “Taehyung-ie,” he cries. “Why didn't you tell me before? And wait—when did it start? How long has it been going on? Have you told your families?”

“No,” Taehyung and Seokjin say simultaneously.

Jimin rocks back, holding his mouth to restrain his laughter. He's ecstatic, bordering on manic, and the more Seokjin thinks about it, the less he trusts it. It reminds of him of his aunt's response to the news of her father's death, how she went immediately into the kitchen and polished every serving dish she owned. He remembers row upon row of ice-blue porcelain bowls, all gleaming and spotless across her countertops, and her at the sink, her hands blister pink from the scalding foam.

So... Jimin is in shock. Meanwhile, Jungkook, his voice in splinters, asks, “What do you mean, you're together?”

Jimin smacks at him across the table. “They're together, Jungkook-ie. They go on dates, and they're in love. Oh my god, are you in love?”

“Look,” Taehyung says. “It's like when a person is searching for shoes—”

“—Yes, okay,” Yoongi steps in, cutting off Taehyung's footwear metaphor. “They go on dates, and they're in love. Beyond that, you don't need to know anything but what they're willing to share.”

“But we live together, hyung,” Jimin objects. “We share everything.”

“That doesn't make you entitled to anything they wish to keep private,” Yoongi snaps.

“Okay.” Jimin sits up, suitably sobered. “Yes, hyung.”

“Actually, that leads me to the point I wanted to make,” Namjoon says. “We have to remember, okay, this isn't Amsterdam or America. We live in Korea, and as much as we're happy for you – and we are, really, very happy – it's imperative that this stays between us. We all understand the gravity of this statement, right? I mean, you've been hiding this for a year—”

“—A year?” Jimin shrills.

“Almost,” Taehyung answers.

For the barest slip of a second, Jimin looks hurt and Seokjin sees it. Jimin recovers quickly, eager to continue his show of support as Namjoon moves them on. He says, “No one can find out about this. Not our families, not our friends, not the staff.”

“Especially not the staff,” Seokjin adds, meeting Taehyung's eyes. “Minyeong-nim would kill us.”

Seokjin's skin prickles as the others flinch against his words. What had been a casually flung comment now bears real weight. Seokjin understands, for the first time, that people die for what he and Taehyung are doing. It's so stupid, so pointless, and... He thinks to the moment of their first kiss, of Taehyung's wide, unafraid eyes, the brush of his breath on his lips. How simple it had been to let him in. To love him.

Why would anyone want to take that away?

Seokjin doesn't have the mind that Namjoon does, and it's times like this when he's glad. He doesn't want to follow these thoughts. He doesn't want to know an end or an answer. He only wants to hold these moments close and keep them safe.

Almost as though he's reading his thoughts, Jimin says, “We won't let anyone touch you.”

“He's right, we won't,” Hoseok says.

Jungkook still stares at them like they'd just stretched the horizon too wide for him to see. Though he doesn't shy away from Taehyung when Jimin pulls them both into a hug, he remains pensive and aloof even as Yoongi decides it's time to move on.

“All right, everyone up,” he orders. “We're supposed to be celebrating.”

They straggle, dazed, into the muggy night. At the Hi-Mart on the corner, Yoongi buys seven bottles of Soju, and despite a very strict edict against underage drinking, they each take a shot as a seal on this pact between them.

Seokjin's memories of the night go fuzzy at this point. He knows he, Yoongi, and Namjoon split the remaining Soju, that they wander en masse among night market stalls, buying street food and more drinks, until eventually, they lose count of who had what and how much.

He recalls the night in swatches of light and color. He remembers shouting and running, catastrophically banging his shins, him and Jimin hauling a boneless Taehyung over a turnstile, and then bursting into a subway car packed with bleary-eyed businessmen and dozing service workers.

He remembers dawn infusing the air with watercolor hues: rose gold and ash blue. He remembers Hoseok's face, radiant as a peach, as they amble purposelessly along the curb. That's when Namjoon gangles over, his arm hooked around Taehyung's neck. Taehyung slides from Namjoon's embrace and into Seokjin's arms, and Seokjin inhales the warm rain scent of his hair. He wonders how that smell still clings to him after their night of heat and sweat and Soju. He wants nothing more than to return to their dorm, to burrow deep into a bed and sleep in each other's arms.

But Namjoon slurs, “Let's film a log.”

Hoseok, the soberest among them, says, “That's... not a great idea, Joon.”

“No, 's a fantastic idea,” Namjoon says. “We'll film a log, and we'll say we've been in the studio this whole time, and also, you owe me a soup.”

“A soup?” Seokjin asks.

“Birthday soup,” Namjoon says. “You made miyeokguk for JK's birthday. I would like a soup, too, please.”

“But the...” Seokjin begins. “And the, um...? Also, we don't have any beef.”

Namjoon nods, deeply. “Here.” He extracts Taehyung from Seokjin and pushes him onto Hoseok. “Take 'em to the dorm, get 'em cleaned up, we have a concert today – a concert, really? – we have a concert?”

“The Brave Showcase tonight,” Hoseok says. “Plus two broadcasts this afternoon.” He dutifully guides Taehyung toward the others. “Yeah. We're dead.”

“Nah,” Yoongi says, sliding his arm around Hoseok's waist. “We can perform our choreo in our sleep.”

“We can, and you sometimes do,” Hoseok agrees. “That does not mean we should.”

“Shout out to sleeping in the makeup chair,” Jungkook says, and he and Jimin high-five.

As the others trail off in the direction of the dorm, Namjoon turns again to Seokjin. “Birthdays are fine things,” he says.

“Thank you for sharing yours with us,” Seokjin says.

Namjoon hooks an arm through Seokjin's. As they stumble together toward the company building, Namjoon says, “It's the way life works, sometimes. Things align this way and that. But even if they're not how you imagined them, they're still precious and perfect in their own way.”

“Ugh, you are so old,” Seokjin says. But he's on the verge of tears again, not borne of fear or sadness, but of a love so bright it could burst his heart.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. Not because he agrees, but because he understands. “You and me both.”

 

Chapter Text

“Without losing a piece of me,
How do I get to heaven?”
Heaven, Troye Sivan

October 2014

“Taehyung-ah!” Namjoon shouts. “You need to do your laundry.”

Taehyung and Jimin hear him, but they're in the middle of a song right now and cannot be bothered. The headphones snake between them as they grind up on each other, singing along as loud as they dare. They don't know the English for it yet, but the song's in Taehyung's range, so he's bookmarking it for future reference. Jungkook sprawls nearby on the futon, murmuring a separate melody as he snipes XBox zombies from a World World II foxhole.

Namjoon clips into the room, working on keeping up his appearance of calm. His white hair pokes out from his forehead in disheveled spikes, making him look a little like a Pokemon. Jimin pulls out his earbud and holds it up to Namjoon. He looks put out for about a half second before taking Jimin up on the offer.

And then the three of them are dancing, chins jutting, heads bobbing, elbows in the air. When the song ends, Namjoon passes the headphone back. Then, all seriousness returned, he says, “Taehyung, your clothes have exploded across the dorm floor. It isn't a pretty sight.”

Taehyung knows, and he nods. “But we've been so busy—”

“—And while that is true,” Namjoon cuts in. “You need to get your clothes off my bed. You can't just keep wearing your boyfriend's shirts.” He plucks the collar of Seokjin's striped pullover for emphasis. It's Taehyung's favorite, the one he puts on the second they return to the dorm each night. It smells like Seokjin – part sesame oil, part strawberry shampoo – and Taehyung loves it.

The others know this, too, and they haven't let him live it down. Even though he and Seokjin are in the open with the others, they continue to keep to their previous rule of not fooling around in the dorm. But, Taehyung's been able to sleep in Seokjin's bed and wear Seokjin's clothes to his heart's content.

The thing that has surprised Taehyung the most about his and Seokjin's coming out is not the other's reactions, but how quickly they all accepted it as fact and returned to normal.

Well, but for them, normal is a three-day concert in Olympic Park smashed between weeks of ten-hour dance practice sessions, plus the filming of their music video (which they completed in eight hours – a record time for them) and multiple fansign events all over the country. So Taehyung wonders if maybe it's not so much about acceptance as they're just too busy to think about it. For his part, that much remains true.

Taehyung pivots toward Jimin, who's all cherub cheeks and innocence. “Have you done your laundry?” he asks.

“Please,” Jimin says, “Every Monday. You know that.”

Taehyung pouts. “Fine,” he says. He unplugs his earbuds and passes them to Namjoon. “But I'm still wearing this shirt.”

“Go ahead, smelly,” Jimin calls to Taehyung's back. Taehyung whirls on him and Jimin slinks behind Namjoon for protection. At the same time, Jungkook writhes in mock-pain on the futon as his sniper dies a brutal, dismembered death.

 

Taehyung bundles a double armful of his clothes into the laundry room, kicking the socks and underwear that straggle to the floor in an attempt to keep it all together. Yoongi would tell him to use a basket, but that's so much less fun. Also, he can't find the basket.

He dumps his clothes onto the floor and begins the tedious process of sorting. Almost instantly, his mind wanders. He thinks back to the blur that was Namjoon's birthday. They had barbecue and Soju, which they let him drink, and there was cotton candy and more drinks and a missed train and some vomiting.

And as it turns out, Yoongi had been right. Hoseok did already know about him and Seokjin, though he's pretty sure that's because Yoongi told Hoseok beforehand. Also, now Jimin asks about a thousand questions a day. Every few hours, he slides up, grinning in the way that hides his eyes, and he asks, “So, like, does he use his tongue when you kiss?” and “Is that why you have so many pictures of Jin-hyung on your phone?” and “That time in the shower, did you...?”

Taehyung loves Jimin's questions. He doesn't answer all of them, because teasing Jimin rates in the top five of his favorite pastimes, but he likes being open with Jimin, which also rates high on his list of favorite things.

Laundry, however, falls somewhere near the bottom of the list. Taehyung tugs a sock over one hand, turning it into a puppet helper who sings the theme from One Piece as it picks through his permanent press. He's sorted most of the pile when Jungkook appears in the doorway.

“Hey, um, can I throw a few shirts in?” Jungkook asks.

Taehyung raises the sock puppet. “Of course you can Kook-ie,” he says in his cartoony voice, “Lights or darks?”

“Darks.” Jungkook smashes his lips together to hide his smile, which Taehyung takes as progress.

They fill the machine in silence, and Jungkook takes over when it's time to measure the detergent and fabric softener. Once they set the machine to running, they crouch together with Taehyung's light clothes heaped between them.

And Jungkook says, quietly, “How did it... happen?”

Taehyung raises the puppet and sings, “Our clothes get dirty when we wear them...” But he breaks off when he sees the glint in Jungkook's eyes. So he asks, “What do you mean?”

“Do you kiss?” Jungkook asks.

“Yeah, we do,” Taehyung answers. “He has nice lips.”

Jungkook folds his arms tight across his chest. “Did he kiss you first?”

“Not really,” Taehyung says.

“You kissed him.” It's a statement, not a question.

Jungkook is quiet a moment more, and Taehyung wants to speak, to fill up the space, to keep himself from feeling like he's about to crumble into tears. But he waits.

And Jungkook goes, “Did you know you were like this?”

“Like, you mean, like—?”

“—Into guys,” Jungkook says.

Taehyung says, “I'm into Jin.”

Jungkook glares into his lap. His voice turns quiet, his words crisp, and his next sentence is almost drowned by the sound of the washing machine. He says, “I just don't know how this could happen.”

Taehyung says, “Nothing's changed, Kook-ie. We're the same people—”

“—But are you gay?” Jungkook asks. There's the thinnest blade of anger in his voice.

Taehyung scrapes his teeth over his lips. He shrugs when he says, “I haven't really... thought about it.”

Jungkook dips his head. His shoulders tremble. Taehyung panics and wipes Jungkook's face with the sock, which should have elicited some kind of response. But Jungkook doesn't move; he just sits there, silently weeping.

“I'm sorry,” Taehyung says. He's not sure what he's apologizing for, but he repeats it until Jungkook lifts his head.

“Why?” he says.

There's a whole world of directions they could take with that one question. Taehyung doesn't know how to answer any of them.

And it doesn't matter, because like with most small moments in the dorm, someone blunders into them, and this time it's Jimin. He charges into the laundry room, kicking at Jungkook until he's scooted far enough back that Jimin can shut the door. Then he turns to them, breath heaving, to say, “Hobi-hyung wants us to—” Then he grates to a halt and says, “What's going on?”

Jungkook picks absently at a spot on his jaw. “Nothing,” he answers.

Jimin steps over Jungkook, crowding into the tight space between him and Taehyung. The air feels too thick, too humid. The fabric softener itches Taehyung's nose. Jimin's bony knees jab into their thighs, but Taehyung and Jungkook hold themselves rigid as if that will keep them from falling apart.

“Jungkook-ie, you're crying?” Jimin asks.

“Let me up,” Taehyung says.

“No,” Jimin says. “We have to talk about this.”

“I don't want to,” Jungkook mumbles.

“Well,” Jimin says, crossing his arms. “We're not leaving until we do.”

A look flashes on Jungkook's face that says he'd like to see Jimin try and stop him. In truth, if Jungkook wanted to leave, Taehyung and Jimin could both hold his arms and pull with all their combined strength, and they probably wouldn't slow him down. The only one who's maybe stronger than Jungkook is Seokjin, but he has a soft spot for the maknae and would likely as not just let him go.

Jimin doesn't have it in him to let things go. Taehyung knows this; Jungkook knows it, too. And so they both relent.

Finally, after a long, prickly silence, Jungkook says, “I don't think you should be with him.”

It hurts to hear it out loud. Taehyung says, “Why not? Do you think we're freaks?”

“No,” Jungkook balks.

“Is it unnatural?” Taehyung pushes. “Do you think it's a mistake?”

“No—”

“Do you think we're going to hell?”

“No. Stop,” Jungkook shouts. He swallows. “I think it's dangerous,” he says. “For all of us.”

“But they're in love,” Jimin whispers.

Jungkook chews the inside of his cheek as he considers his response. He glances at Jimin, nods, and says, “I know, but...” His gaze lingers on Jimin's face as he breathes out a ragged, “I know.”

Taehyung revives his sock puppet. He mimes the words, “Do you hate me?”

“No,” Jungkook answers. “Never.”

Again, with the puppet as a shield, Taehyung asks, “Can you be happy for me?”

After a moment, Jungkook fist bumps the sock puppet's face. “I'll try, okay?”

“Okay,” Taehyung says.

Jimin relaxes his shoulders against the wall. He stretches his legs across the laundry, pushing the pile into Jungkook's and Taehyung's laps. “Then let's just keep quiet and stay here a while?” he says.

Via the puppet, Taehyung asks, “And why are we hiding in the laundry room?”

“Hobi-hyung wants us to clean the kitchen,” Jimin admits.

Jungkook chuckles, lightly. “It's our first day off since—”

“—Forever,” Jimin finishes.

“And it's your turn for dishes,” Jungkook says.

Grinning, Jimin says, “Taehyung-ie, tell us about when you and Jin-hyung first kissed. Make it a good, long story.” Jimin laces his fingers behind his neck. “And don't leave anything out.”

 

Chapter Text

“I want to be the brightest star in your night sky
Please,
I want to be the sweetest flower in your garden
Say my name
So I can say yours, too.”
Youth (Night), Oohyo

 

KAKAOTALK
2014 November 23
8:41 p.m.

Jinnie: VV, Why do octopuses like camping?

BigHit Taehyung: No, hyung.

Jinnie: Because they have tentacles. Tent-acles. ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ

BigHit Taehyung: Bye

8:43 p.m. BigHit Taehyung has left the chat.

8:45 p.m. BigHit Taehyung has joined the chat.

BigHit Taehyung: Jimin and I are going to Akihabara for one hour, I have a plan

Jinnie: You? You have a plan?

BigHit Taehyung: Yes, can you trust me? Sometimes I have plans and they are brilliant

Jinnie: Sometimes you have plans that result in ruined t-shirts.

BigHit Taehyung: I improved those. They're cooler now.

Jinnie: Yes, cooler lol. They are air conditioned.

BigHit Taehyung: They have been Taehyung-ed.

Jinnie: I think I have been Taehyung-ed.

BigHit Taehyung: Not yet (-o⌒) ........ but you will be.

 

Seokjin throws open the door and hauls Taehyung inside. Already, Taehyung's laughing, that dark, cinnamon laugh of his, which continues even as Seokjin trails kisses up his throat, along his jaw, and across his face.

“You have gum?” Seokjin asks.

“Uh yeah,” Taehyung says.

“Spit it out,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung does. When he turns back, Seokjin grapples him to the bed and straddles his hips, enjoying the width of his boxy smile and the bemused arch of Taehyung's brows. “I didn't want you to choke,” Seokjin says. “Yet.” He then resumes pressing kisses into Taehyung's skin, reveling in every low moan that escapes from his lips.

Taehyung runs his hand beneath the hem of Seokjin's hotel robe, all the way up, and just like that, he has Seokjin's full attention.

“I brought something,” Taehyung says. He's making good use of his hand, so much that Seokjin barely registers that he's talking until he hears the crinkle of plastic and feels something cardboard poking his chest. Taehyung goes, “You're squishing it.”

“No, you're squishing it,” Seokjin says. He bumps his forehead to Taehyung's. Taehyung squirms to his side, placing a gold and red gift bag into the tight space between them. He keeps his one hand busy, almost casually stroking Seokjin, which makes it very hard to concentrate.

Meanwhile Taehyung reclines on one elbow, still wearing his leather coat, which smells of snow and feels illicitly cool in contrast to the heat of Seokjin's freshly-scrubbed skin. Taehyung licks his lip and drawls, “We went to a sex shop.”

“You and—”

“—Jimin-ie, yeah,” Taehyung says. He moves his hand to rest on Seokjin's hip. Seokjin strangles a whimper, one he hopes Taehyung doesn't hear.

Taehyung ruffles the silky tissue paper spilling from the bag. “Open it,” he says.

“This is part of your plan?” Seokjin asks as he tips the contents of the bag onto the bed: a long cylindrical container and a handful of foil-wrapped chocolates.

Taehyung scoops the chocolates to the bedside table. “These are for later,” he says. He places the cardboard tube between them. “This is for now.”

His eyes are alight. His fingertips tickle the starchy sheets. Seokjin watches his face as he extracts the object and then unwinds the bubble wrap.

“It's... pink,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung takes it and turns it on. It hums like a dragonfly.

Seokjin laughs. “It's a Hello Kitty dildo.”

“It's a toy.” Taehyung grins.

“Are you going to play with me, Taehyung-ie?”

Taehyung nips Seokjin's bottom lip between his teeth. Then, whispering the words into Seokjin's skin, he says, “I wanna do everything we've read about.”

Seokjin slides from the bed. He says, “Take off your coat.”

Taehyung flounces against the pillows, grinning as he shrugs out of his jacket.

Without looking over his shoulder, Seokjin says, “Your pants, too, take them off.” He pads to his suitcase, where he's packed his clothes and extra clothes for Taehyung, and where he keeps, in an inside pocket, a secret and so-very-handy bottle of raspberry lube. Then his hand closes on another object, squat and cube-shaped, with a suction cup at its base. He and Hoseok found it at a Daiso in Euljiro back in August. Along with the lube, Seokjin cups the cube between his palms.

Taehyung's jacket flumps against Seokjin's shoulders. He turns to find Taehyung smiling smugly up at him as he struggles free from his jeans.

Seokjin tucks the two objects into the robe's pocket. Then he takes his time to neatly, primly, fold the coat, partly because it gives him time to calm his breathing. But also because it affords him a moment of singular pleasure as he watches Taehyung strip out of his shirt and sprawl across the bed like some honey-skinned god.

“Music,” Seokjin says. When Taehyung twists toward his phone, Seokjin affixes his smuggled object to the headboard. He waits as Taehyung fusses with his playlist, holding his breath so that he can time it just right, and as the first notes of the song begins, Seokjin flicks the On switch.

Their small hotel room floods with a warm, flowing luminescence that splashes across the walls and the bed and their bodies in bands of blue and green and gold.

The lamp does everything Seokjin hoped it would. Taehyung falls into the pillows, his mouth agape, his wide eyes filled with wavering light. He breathes, “Where did you—”

“—Like you're the only one with plans?” Seokjin asks. He knees toward Taehyung, pinning his bare thighs beneath him. Seokjin kisses him, planing his hands over Taehyung's shoulders and down his arms. He sneaks his fingertips beneath the waistband of Taehyung's boxers. Seokjin brushes his thumbs over his hipbones, a favorite ticklish spot, and Taehyung bucks against him. He loops his arms around Seokjin's neck, dragging him down to his level, and—

“Your watch,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung holds up his wrist. Seokjin works the buckle, taking care as he slides it from his hand. He sets it on the bedside table amid the candies and the lube and Taehyung's phone, and for a moment, he's conscious of how this scene mirrors that first uncertain night in Hongdae: two frightened boys in a blank hotel room, trying to puzzle themselves together.

Only now, Seokjin is not afraid. In their downtime since then, they've shared countless articles – some with helpful illustrations – about how to do this. They're in Tokyo now, where the managers historically give them more leeway regarding their social time. And the other five know about them, which means they probably won't come knocking at 2 a.m. in search of a partner for finding an all-night ramen shop.

Now, they have nothing to stop them. Now, they only have each other.

“Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin whispers. His throat goes dry.

Taehyung adjusts beneath him. “You want me like this, hyung?”

Seokjin nods. “I wanna see your face when you come.”

Taehyung's eyes go unfocused as he sinks against the pillow. “We'll go slow,” he says.

And they do. They begin with Taehyung's nimble fingers and work up to Hello Kitty with its nifty vibrating function, and after a dozen false starts and misdirections, Seokjin slides astride Taehyung and – finally, finally – takes him in.

It hurts. No amount of prep can prevent that. They both know, and they continue, slowly, carefully, working up to a steady rhythm. There's a divine pressure as they move together, a depth of sensation like nothing he's ever felt, and when Taehyung releases inside him, it's Seokjin who cries out, and it's so loud and so unexpected, they collapse together into the bed.

“What are you yelling about?” Taehyung chuckles.

Seokjin works hard to find his way to the words. “I felt that, all of it,” he says. “It was... that was amazing.”

Taehyung eases Seokjin back so they can lay face to face. For a moment, he blinks, clearly as bewildered as Seokjin feels.

“Well,” Seokjin says. “I'm pretty sure we're gay.”

And Taehyung, equally breathless, sighs, “Yeah.”

Seokjin glimpses a look in Taehyung's eyes, then. It's beyond love. It's beyond words. It's reverence. And in the wake of that awareness, Seokjin makes a swift, unspoken promise to shield Taehyung from the world in every way that he can. Because he knows, Taehyung's not like the rest of them. No one who loves so deeply can possibly protect themselves.

Taehyung shifts to his elbow. “Seokjinnie,” he says. “Please don't cry.”

Seokjin traces Taehyung's brow with his thumb. “I won't cry every time, I promise.”

“Hyung,” he asks, dipping his nose to Seokjin's chin. “How may I finish you?”

Seokjin feels he's already taken too much, but the idea of Taehyung's hands on him stirs him back to attention. He catches his lips in a kiss and says, “In the shower.” And Taehyung follows.

 

Later, Taehyung nests against him, hip to naked hip. His head falls to rest on Seokjin's arm. The lamp's lights undulate in overlapping waves, casting them in shades of violet and marigold and sage. Their skin is toffee-warm, damp and pliable, and still smells of raspberries. Taehyung scrabbles a couple of chocolates from the side table. He peels them from their foil, offering the first to Seokjin before taking one for himself.

As it melts on his tongue, Seokjin thinks, It's the same sweetness as this moment. The same subtle sting, the same precious pleasure.

His eyes slide closed.

Every breath aches deliciously in his ribs.

And so ensconced, they fall asleep.

 

Chapter Text

“We dreamt like martyrs
I never thought I was bold enough
You pushed me further
And I take the blame for the both of us.”
Weight in Gold, Gallant

December 2014

Light spills through the sheers, the color of tender lily stems. Seokjin stretches, rolls to his back, and sucks air over his teeth at the luxurious soreness in his bones. He has to think, Are they in China? Or is it Singapore? He reaches for his phone, thumbing past the missed alarm notification to the calendar app.

Singapore today. China tomorrow.

A hazard of touring: it seems they spend more time in airports and hotels than they do in rehearsals and concerts. The details blur together like watercolor strokes, soft-edged and fluid, vividly contrasting the vibrant, crackling moments when they're actually on stage.

Then there's the hidden, in-between places, stitched from moments they pluck from their routine, and this is where he and Taehyung live.

Seokjin swings his legs over the edge of the bed. He recalls the missed alarm, the hushed words:

Taehyung-ah, it's time.

The child-like shake of his head. No, hyung. So loud, he's probably still asleep.

The brush of a kiss that catches like wildfire.

We can't. We're already late.

But they do. Because Seokjin can't resist when Taehyung knots his fists in Seokjin's shirt, when he gives him that dreamy-yet-determined look. And so it's rushed but electric, a story of bruised hips and bitten lips, and after, Seokjin guides a still bewildered Taehyung to the door.

Do you have your key?

Taehyung pats his pockets and nods.

Can you find your room?

Yes, Ama-Jin.

Kiss me, then.

No. But he does anyway.

Tell me you love me.

You love me, Taehyung says. Even half asleep, he grins at his turn of the phrase.

Seokjin pushes him into the hall. Now go.

He rubs his eyes at the remembrance of Taehyung's ruffled hair and bleary smile.

He's contemplating the hotel fitness room followed by breakfast with the others when there's a knock on the door. Seokjin scans their schedule. They have a 9 a.m. call today, and it's only 5:30. He thinks the others would message first before turning up so early at his door, especially since only he and Hoseok would be awake at this hour.

Seokjin pulls on his pink hoodie as he goes for the door. His hand freezes on the latch when he sees the face through the peephole. Later, he curses his school-boy conditioning for opening the door so quickly.

“Minyeong-min,” Seokjin says. “Good morning, sir.”

Minyeong squeezes into the room, smelling of hand sanitizer and nicotine, carrying two cups of coffee on a tray. He foists one cup on Seokjin, pressing out a thin smile before he says, “Here you are, happy birthday.”

Seokjin bows. “Oh, thank you, sir, but it was last week—”

“—Right, I know,” Minyeong says. He sets the second cup aside and begins a slow survey of the room. “I didn't get a chance before to offer my congratulations.”

“Thank you, manager-nim,” Seokjin says. He places the cup of molten coffee on the table. His hands are shaking as he pops off the lid, but the manager makes no sign of noticing. Instead, Minyeong produces a handful of sugar and creamer packets from the pocket of his cardigan.

“I didn't know how you take your coffee,” Minyeong says. “But I figured you for a man who likes his sugar.”

“Oh, yes sir,” Seokjin says. He feels muddled as he flicks the sugar packs against his palm, and when he rips them open, he dashes a clumsy spray of grains across the table.

“So. How are you, Seokjin-sshi?” Minyeong asks. He edges around the narrow bed, to the side where Taehyung slept. He squares the lamp on the end table. He pushes the alarm clock to perpendicular alignment. Seokjin's aware of his own boxers draped from the corner of the bed, left there after that second, hurried time when he'd been too exhausted to bother with anything more than his sweatpants. And their bottle of lube, almost empty, lays beneath his pillow, centimeters from where Minyeong stands...

Seokjin realizes he's gaping at the same moment he understands that Minyeong-nim has asked him a question. “Um...” He looks around for a spoon or straw to stir the coffee, stalling as he struggles to recall Minyeong's words.

“Here.” Minyeong fiddles a spoon from the room's service tray. He hands it to Seokjin, then peers over his shoulder. “That's a nice watch,” he says. “I didn't realize you wore one.”

If Seokjin was quick like Yoongi, he would have hurled back some pointed barb about people minding their own business. If he was clever like Namjoon, he would have responded with some slick story about borrowing it because it matches his shoes.

But he's not Yoongi or Namjoon, so he stands there, dumbly, as Minyeong says, “This is Taehyung's watch.”

“Yes, he must have left it,” Seokjin says. He's surprised at the ease that seeps into his voice. He stirs the coffee and turns, raising the cup in salute. “He's very forgetful.”

“You spend a lot of time with him,” Minyeong says.

“No more than the others,” Seokjin answers. The casual tone in his own voice chills him. He's trembling so hard he's afraid he'll rattle apart. He leans against the table, crossing his legs at the ankles, blowing out a breath as if to cool his coffee.

This is the thing about Minyeong, though: He isn't always cruel. He'll loop an arm around your shoulder, applauding your recent progress. He'll lavish you with public praise, but once no one is looking, he'll pinch you so hard it breaks the skin. He's the first to laugh at your jokes; the last to mete out punishment. He's responsible for their budget, for their weekly allotment of calories, and he treats both as leverage for prodding them to peak performance. For their own good, of course. He assures them that he always has their best interests at heart.

Also, Minyeong insinuates that he knows things. With one side of his mouth, he promises to keep you safe, while with the other, he wields the information like a scalpel, one that cuts before you can feel its damage.

He's smarter than Seokjin. More artful. More skilled. Seokjin keeps rigid, a rabbit hiding in the shadow of a hawk, as Minyeong continues his circuit of the room. He plucks the watch from the side table. Cradling it his hands, he turns to Seokjin.

“Taehyung-sshi should be more careful, shouldn't he?” Minyeong-nim says. “His father would be so disappointed to learn that he lost such a valuable keepsake.”

Seokjin's heart pounds in his throat. He clenches his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering.

Minyeong's smile doesn't touch his eyes. He shifts his stance, placing his left hand across his forearm to offer the watch to Seokjin. He steps in close, far too close, and Seokjin's aware of the wild, beloved scent of Taehyung still caught within his clothes.

“You'll take it to him, won't you?” Minyeong asks. “You'll make sure he's more careful in the future.”

“Of course,” Seokjin says, smoothly. “I'll keep a close watch.”

Minyeong barks a sharp laugh. “Always such a funny guy,” he says. “That's why they love you so much.”

Seokjin grips the coffee in one hand, the watch in the other. When Minyeong claps Seokjin's shoulder, he hates himself for flinching.

When Minyeong leaves, Seokjin perches on the edge of the bed, staring at the sheers that seem to breathe with the liquid light of dawn. He imagines them igniting, their edges curling and crisping black, the flames hungry as they climb, consuming everything to leave them gaping open and unbearably exposed.

Seokjin pours the coffee down the sink. He opens his Kakao chat and composes a message to Taehyung. But then he sits there, staring at the flashing cursor, paralyzed by his own carelessness, too terrified to press send.

 

Chapter Text

 

“And that's what destroyed you in the end. The longing for something you could never have.”
Leigh Bardugo, Crooked Kingdom

January 2015

KAKAOTALK
2015 January 11
4:48 p.m.

Suga: Joon. We have an issue. When will you be home?

RM: I'm at the book store in Euljiro-sam-ga. About twenty minutes out. What's up?

Suga: Something has upset SJ. He's inconsolable.

RM: Have you talked to him?

Suga: Yeah, I tried, but he won't listen to me. He's barricaded himself in the bunks.

RM: What? Why?

Suga: Fuck if I know, Joon. That's why I messaged you.

RM: All right. Go knock on the door. Tell him I'm on my way.

 

Namjoon puts back the Murakami book. It's not like he'll have time to read it anyway. He pays for the collection of short stories, figuring them for a better fit to the schedule they'll have over the next few months.

He stops by Caffe Bene to pick up bubble tea for Seokjin. He's pretty sure the girl at the register recognizes him, which is becoming more common around town with people of a certain demographic. She doesn't say anything, merely dipping her head to avoid meeting his eyes. It's the coy politeness he's seen in high school girls from Seoul and uni girls who are new to the city.

If he had time, he might linger and flirt. He might even press for her number. She's cute enough and might be interesting, too, if that's her copy of I'll Be Right There wedged between the sink and cash register.

But Namjoon doesn't have time. Yoongi's not one for exaggeration, which means there's a crisis at the dorm. As he takes the bubble teas from the attractive and possibly well-read girl at the counter, he thinks that they're overdue for a meltdown. Nothing in their workload has changed; they still exist within a kind of super-heated creative crucible, but they all seem to thrive in that kind of environment. As Seokjin has pointed out, their downfall is in their downtime. This sentiment strikes Namjoon as surprisingly wise coming from someone who spends so much time playing games on his PC.

Namjoon heads back out into bitter bleakness of January in Seoul. Scrims of black ice slick the sidewalks. People shrink deep into their coats and scarves and hoods. Namjoon thinks it's beautiful, the way the sun gleams like swallowed starlight on the fractured pavement. He pauses, wishing he could write this down, but his hands are full and the sidewalk too crowded, so he keeps going, repeating the words to himself so he doesn't forget.

He stamps his boots into the pile by the door. He deposits his book on the kitchen counter and enters to find the dorm eerily still. The bland smell of boiled rice clings to the air, mingled with the hint of mildew from the decrepit ondol beneath the floor. Yoongi and Hoseok are in the common room, sitting together like worried parents outside a hospital emergency room.

“Have you heard anything?” Namjoon asks.

“He won't respond to our texts,” Hoseok answers.

Yoongi chews the inside of his cheek and says nothing.

“Jimin? Jungkook?” he asks, crossing to the bunkroom door.

“Still at the studio,” Hoseok answers.

“Okay,” Namjoon says, steeling himself. “I'm going in.”

He raises his hand to knock, and Seokjin opens the door.

Namjoon tries not to stare, but it's a shock to see his friend in such a disheveled state. His eyes are puffy, his face awash with tears, and his hair, which is normally downy soft and shiny as a raven's wing, sticks up in a matted whorl on one side of his head.

Namjoon manages a stunned, “What—?” before Seokjin steps back to let him in. He shuffles to the nest he's made of his bed using his duvet and every pillow in the dorm. His laptop is there, too, propped behind a bank of blankets. Seokjin wedges himself into the pillow hollow, squeezing behind his computer like it's some kind of shield. As he gazes at the screen, fresh tears well in his eyes. He looks up at Namjoon and makes a soft, strangled sound. Namjoon stands there, mutely useless, their drinks melting in his hands, before he remembers that one of them is for Seokjin.

“Here, hyung," Namjoon says. "I thought you might need this.”

Seokjin takes it between both of his hands. He stabs the straw into the lid and sips in silence, all the while letting his tears fall.

Namjoon edges onto the end of the bed. He studies Seokjin, who is normally so polished and self-contained, and wonders what could have induced such despair. He decides there's only one possibility. Taehyung.

By a fluke of scheduling, their holiday breaks didn't coincide this year. While everyone else returned home for three days, Taehyung remained behind to film a broadcast. The managers assured them this would be a good opportunity for Taehyung, who was branching into acting as part of his ongoing effort to learn and do everything there is to learn and do in the world. But it meant that Taehyung left for Daegu on the morning the rest of them returned home.

Experimentally, Namjoon asks, “Did you and Taehyung... have a fight?”

Seokjin shakes his head.

“Is this about Taehyung?” Namjoon tries.

Seokjin swallows hard.

“Ah, Jin-hyung,” Namjoon says. “I have never met a freer soul than you. You take everything with such grace, and it troubles me so much to see something weigh so heavily on your heart.”

Namjoon watches Seokjin struggle. He sees that this is causing him actual, physical pain. But it scares him, too, because this is something they all fear but rarely express: What happens to the group if any faction among them has an irreconcilable difference? More specifically yet equally unspoken: What happens to them if Seokjin and Taehyung break up?

Namjoon knows he's inadequate to this job of consolation. Taehyung and Seokjin are people – friends so close they might as well be family – and yet he can't help spinning a damage plan in his mind while he waits for Seokjin to speak.

Then it occurs to him that Seokjin may not speak. Since they've been sitting here, Seokjin has done three things: cried, sipped his bubble tea, and touched a key on his computer. One single click.

Namjoon comes around the computer to sit with Seokjin behind its screen.

Together, they watch a minute-long video of Taehyung play-fighting with two young boys, probably his cousins.

When it ends, Seokjin taps the space bar and the video restarts.

Namjoon is beyond perplexed. The video is sweetly benign, the kind of thing that would send any person over-the-moon in love with Taehyung. But as it plays, Seokjin just... sobs.

Namjoon asks, “How many times have you watched this?”

“Around three hundred,” Seokjin says. “I've lost count.”

The video ends. Seokjin presses the space bar.

Still, Namjoon feels adrift. “Hyung,” he says. “I don't understand.”

Seokjin releases a ragged breath. When he talks, the words sound pinched, like he's fighting against each syllable. “I should have stopped him,” he says. “I'm his hyung. I could've stopped him, could've pushed him away.”

“This guy?” Namjoon gestures to the screen. “Really, who can resist him?”

Seokjin coughs a hoarse laugh. He presses the space bar. The video begins. “Taehyung-ie... wants children,” he says. “Some day, you know? He wants a family. To be a husband and a... a Dad. And he should be.” Seokjin brushes a finger over Taehyung on the screen. “He'll be so good at it.”

Realization crashes down on Namjoon. He breathes out, “Oh, Jin-hyung.”

Seokjin scrubs his eyes with the back of a thumb. “I have been... selfish. I am not what he needs, and if Taehyung would sit still for five seconds, he would see it, too. One day, he'll want these things: A home, a family, kids of his own. I can't give that to him, not any of it. I mean, what were we thinking?”

Namjoon says, “I don't—“

“—We weren't thinking,” Seokjin says. “We were busy not thinking. Because if we were, we would have understood that by being together now, we endanger the things we want from our later lives. Because some day, we'll go into the military, and some day, our idol lives will end, and wouldn't it be better if I just let him go? Wouldn't it be more humane to end it now, before—”

Seokjin's face is livid as a plum. His nostrils flare as he wages war with his lungs. It takes some time before he brings himself back under control. Once he does, he places his tea on the floor. He clicks to make the video replay. Tears still glisten in his eyes, but his rant served to sharpen his focus, and Namjoon sees there's more Seokjin needs to say.

“Before what?” Namjoon asks, a subtle nudge.

They watch the video loop once more. Taehyung slings his grinning cousins onto a mattress. They box and kick, and Taehyung playfully rebuffs them. Namjoon assumes there are giggles and shrieks, but Seokjin has the sound muted, probably because hearing Taehyung's laugh made it too much for him to bear.

Seokjin says, “Minyeong knows.” He meets Namjoon's eye. His chin quivers.

Namjoon clamps down a burst of panic. “Are you sure?” he asks.

Seokjin cups his hands over his mouth. He shakes his head.

Namjoon loops an arm around Seokjin's shoulder. After a moment, Seokjin melts into his side. He tells Namjoon everything, about Taehyung's watch and Minyeong's surprise visit to Seokjin's room in Singapore.

Namjoon will have to think later about what Minyeong does or doesn't know. If it had been any of the other managers, they would have gone straight to Bang PD, because they are honest and fair.

But Minyeong has his own agenda, he always has, and Namjoon will have to come to terms with that eventually.

The video ends. Namjoon closes a hand over Seokjin's to stop him from pressing play. He says, “Would you like my advice?”

Seokjin nods.

“Ultimately, the choice is yours, whether you stay with Taehyung or let him go,” Namjoon says. “If Minyeong knows or not, we won't let that get in your way, understand?”

Seokjin sniffles, nods again.

“But don't decide on Taehyung-ie's behalf,” Namjoon says. “Before you make any decisions, let him have his say.”

“I know him,” Seokjin croaks. “I already know what he'll say. I will have to be the one who decides.”

Namjoon lifts his shoulders. “Maybe,” he allows. “But things change as time moves us forward. We don't know what will happen tomorrow, or next week, or a year from now. So do yourself a favor. Don't give up on this yet.”

Seokjin knots his fingers. He stares at the image frozen on the screen. Then he closes the laptop and passes it to Namjoon.

“Good,” Namjoon says. “Now get some sleep. Taehyung will be home tomorrow.”

Namjoon goes out into the common room to find it empty. Hoseok left a note that he and Yoongi went to get food. Jimin and Jungkook are off... doing whatever it is they do when they have a block of free time.

Quiet like this is a rare thing, and Namjoon doesn't intend to waste it. He ferrets out a notebook and a stray piece of rice cake. Then he flops down on the futon and starts to write.

 

 

Chapter Text

“There is no dream that lasts forever.”
Demian, Hermann Hesse

February 2015

Stuff happens in Japan. It's a thing. When Yoongi's appendix burst, they were in Japan. The fourth or fifth time Namjoon injured his hand: Japan. The first time he and Jimin went shopping for toys: Japan. His first time with Seokjin: Also Japan.

In keeping with this pattern, something seems to be happening with Seokjin.

Not that things started here. Something's been weird with him since Thailand or China or maybe Singapore, but definitely before Christmas and their birthdays. Taehyung's been trying to figure it out, but Seokjin either changes the subject, which is distracting, or he kisses him, which is even more distracting.

For now, they're tucked deep beneath the stage, waiting for the techs to finish cuing up the lights so they can start rehearsing. The air brisks with the scents of gunpowder and sawdust. Five guys in coveralls thud above them, setting up pyrotechnics for the show.

“Jinnie,” Taehyung says. “If I ask, do you think they'll let me try on one of their work suits?”

Seokjin taps away on his phone, which glares aquarium blue in the murky darkness. He's texting, either with Kidoh or Ken, or his friend Minha, or maybe his Mom, and when he looks up, it's like he's waking from a dream.

“Did you say something?” he asks.

Taehyung flails, flapping at Seokjin with his overlong sleeves. Then he arches in, pressing their bodies so close he can see the pulse jump in Seokjin's throat. Taehyung dips his mouth to graze kisses along Seokjin's jaw. He hears the click as Seokjin swallows, feels his breath catch in his chest.

But he whispers, “Stop it, Taehyung-ie,” and he returns to his phone.

“Jinnie-hyung,” Taehyung pouts. “Play with me.”

“I said stop it,” Seokjin hisses.

Taehyung recoils, stung not only by the words, but by the sharpness of his tone. Almost immediately, Seokjin softens. He looks, in the wan light of his phone, like he might actually be sick.

He says, “Jimin-ie's running around with the self-cam. If they catch us—”

“—Can you trust me?” Taehyung asks. “He will never catch us.”

“You can't know—”

“—I can,” Taehyung assures him. “Because I told him not to come looking.”

Seokjin's jaw clenches. His left eye ticks. It almost never does that when he and Seokjin are alone.

“What's going on?” Taehyung asks.

Again, his lashes flick. “Nothing.”

“You're lying.”

“I'm not,” Seokjin nearly shouts. Then, almost too quiet to hear, he says, “I can't—”

The tips of Taehyung's fingers go cold. “Can't... what?”

Before Seokjin answers, the venue lights fluoresce to life, filling below stage with wincing whiteness.

One of the managers calls down, “All right, everyone, we're ready to get started.”

“We should go,” Seokjin says. Neither of them moves. Then Seokjin says, “Let's meet after rehearsal, okay? We should talk.”

 

The waiting makes Taehyung stupid. He's clumsy and fuzzy-headed. He bumps into Yoongi, who shoves him to his mark with a sharp, breathy swear. Later, in the car, an antsy silence swells between them as he and Seokjin talk to everyone but each other. They make dinner plans, agreeing to meet up once they've all had a chance to shower and change.

Taehyung texts Seokjin: Are we going with them?

Seokjin texts back and watches his face as Taehyung reads: Let's talk first, then decide.

Taehyung writes: Will you at least tell me what this is about?

Seokjin stares at his phone.

Hoseok says, “Oh, Jin-hyung, your eye's doing its blinky thing.”

Jungkook ruffles Seokjin's hair and goes, “Poor hungry hyung. We'll eat soon.”

And Taehyung wants to scream.

 

When everyone else goes to their rooms, Seokjin catches his arm, leading him to a quiet lobby with a coffee service, a vending machine, and a sofa. The window frames a fractured kaleidoscope of the Tokyo streetscape below. It's quiet save for the grating whirr of the snack machine.

Seokjin edges onto the couch, his hands in his lap. “Sit down,” he tells him.

“No,” Taehyung says.

“Taehyung-ah—”

“—Did you plan this?” he asks. “It feels like a setup.”

Seokjin peers up, his eyes imploring. He says, “Please, just let me say this.” It's almost a prayer, like he's not even talking to Taehyung.

“Hyung, don't,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin speaks anyway. His words sound too practiced, too precise. “I've been thinking about this for a while, and I know what you will say—”

Taehyung's throat aches against his tears. He slides over the back of the couch, takes Seokjin's hands in his. “I said don't. Please.”

“—One day you'll want a family, and a wife, and kids, and a home of your own, and I can't—” Seokjin's voice breaks, and so does Taehyung. It's as though a wave of white engulfs him. He can no longer see or hear anything, but Seokjin's mouth moves as he pushes through whatever stupid thing he feels he needs to say.

“It's too dangerous, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says. “If we end it now—”

“—Don't do this,” Taehyung bites out.

Seokjin tugs his hands from Taehyung's to cover his face.

“Hyung!”

Seokjin forces his hands back into his lap. His voice quavers, but he says, “I think it would be best for us if we end it.”

Taehyung stares at his fingers. His whole body feels numb. He whispers, “Seokjin-ah. Please.”

Seokjin stands and walks away. Taehyung doesn't watch him go.

 

Chapter Text

“Listen to my heart
It calls you at its own will
Because within this black darkness
You are shining brightly still.”
Save Me, BTS

February 2015, Part 2

“Jimin-ie, please let me in.”

Taehyung couldn't find his own room, but manages, after a few failed attempts, to locate Jimin's. He enters, bound for Jimin's bed, but collapses on the floor two meters short of the mark.

“Tae-Tae!” Jimin shouts. He's alone but has his phone in his hand. “What happened? Are you all right?” The words sound distant, as if from underwater. That's what it feels like, too, like he's drifting with the slow, sinking movements of a man who is drowning.

Jungkook appears out of nowhere. His wet hair dashes cold drops onto Taehyung's face as he kneels beside Jimin. “What's going on?”

Taehyung glances at Jimin's phone. “Did he call you?”

“Who?” Jimin asks. “Jungkook-ie?”

Taehyung shoves weakly at them. “No,” he says. “I have to go.” He tries to stand and fails. “I have to...”

Jungkook presses cool fingertips to Taehyung's forehead. “No fever,” he says. “But he's clammy, and he looks really pale.”

“He was off in rehearsal, too,” Jimin says. “Have you eaten anything?”

Taehyung doesn't answer but stares at the ground.

Jimin's phone glows with a text notification. He steps back to read it, then says, “We're meeting at the elevators. You can make it, right?”

Without giving him an opportunity to answer, Jungkook and Jimin haul Taehyung to his feet. Jimin coos, softly, “It's all right, Tae-Tae. We've got you.”

The hall seems like something from a nightmare, identically drab and impossibly long. Taehyung's pulse pounds against his temples. His vision blurs the lights into burning halos. The odor of the carpet shampoo stings in his lungs. He floats with Jimin and Jungkook as a tether on either side. If either of them let go, he feels he might fall from the earth and slide into the sky.

The six of them arrive at the elevators, the maknaes on one side, the hyungs on the other.

“Oh,” Hoseok says, panning in an exaggerated arc. “Where is Jin-hyung?”

Jimin's grip tightens on Taehyung's waist. He says, “We thought he was with you?”

Namjoon drops his head to meet Taehyung's eyes. “What's... going on?” he asks. Something in his tone rattles Taehyung. It's like he already knows.

“Did he call you?” Taehyung asks.

“No, he didn't call me,” Namjoon says. His eyes narrow, but no one else seems to understand what Taehyung is asking.

Hoseok takes out his phone to send a text. Yoongi leans around him to mash the call button for the elevator.

“He hasn't responded in the group chat,” Hoseok says.

“Call him,” Namjoon says.

Hoseok dials, presses the phone to his ear.

“Should we check his room?” Jungkook asks.

“Look,” Yoongi says. “We'll message him the address of the restaurant. It's Seokjin-hyung, all right? He's a grown man. He can meet us there.”

Jimin whispers, “Did something happen—?”

“No,” Taehyung growls.

“He's not answering,” Hoseok says. At the message tone, Hoseok singsongs, “Jin-hyung-ie, we're trying to reach you. We're going to Kyogyuso Sanbanchoten for dinner. I'll text you the address. We're getting in the elevator now, so... come and find us, okay?”

The words ping around in Taehyung's mind like the long-forgotten lyrics of a once-favorite song. Come and find me, come and find me.

The elevator arrives; the doors hush open. They pile inside, buffeting Taehyung along with them. Yoongi thumbs the button for the ground floor. The doors shut, and Taehyung's lungs seize. His knees buckle and he sways, but Jimin is there to hold him steady. Jimin's concern feels almost stifling and if he keeps it up, Taehyung will have to tell them. He'll have to admit what's happened, will have to acknowledge Seokjin's words, and speaking them aloud will make them real.

No. He can backtrack. He can find the place where things went wrong. He can still make them right.

Taehyung takes out his phone. As the elevator descends, he stares at the open KKT window to read Seokjin's last message from yesterday morning, after Taehyung returned to his room:

My handsome VV. Every morning when I open my eyes, I'm amazed. You and I, we have lasted till now, living under one roof, lying under one blanket, living like this.

Taehyung knows this quote. It's from Reply 1994, words that Sung Dong Il said to his wife, Lee Il-hwa. Taehyung wonders, Why these words? Why would he send these? He re-reads them, twice, ten times, a hundred. Then his heart snags on the phrase, We have lasted till now. Taehyung stares at them until the characters smear across the screen.

Seokjin was trying to tell him. Trying to soften the blow...

Well, it didn't work.

Furious, Taehyung types, Hyung, where are you?

After a moment, the cursor becomes an ellipse, a lifeline across an abyss.

Seokjin's text appears.

I don't know.

I'm lost.

And then, a snapshot.

Taehyung can read the address on the station sign. He knows the area, if not the exact place. He can catch him. He has to find him, has to tell him...

The floors count down, three, two, one.

“Okay,” Taehyung says, nodding. Resolute.

The elevator doors slide open. Taehyung breaks from them like a shot.

 

He takes the train to Harajuku. His pocket hums like a hornet's nest, but after reading the first twelve messages (all variations on a theme except for Yoongi's, which reads, This is why Bang PD doesn't like us to date), Taehyung ignores them.

The brisk run through the February night quells his panic and clears his head. He ascends from Harajuku Station, taking the steps two at a time, bursting onto a broad street embroidered with neon and gold.

Tourist crowds meander along the sidewalk. Taehyung slices through them, following a daisy chain of street lights leading to the torii gate of the Meiji Jingu Shrine. He jogs along, his hands in his pockets, the chill air crystallizing the tears in his eyes. Though the crowd thins as he enters the shrine, maybe a hundred people gather beneath the pine boughs, making their slow migration toward the temple beyond.

Taehyung calls out, “Kim Seokjin, answer if you can hear me!” He pushes his volume to shatter the pristine calm of the path. People part before him, ambling to the edge to watch him pass. “Kim Seokjin,” he cries. “Answer me.”

Gold light blooms up in the distance. The crisp tang of incense bruises his lungs, the burning prayers of Seollal cast in the hopes of a kinder fate.

Taehyung feels his faith dwindling, guttering like a candle flame. There are so many people, and it's so dark. It's been an hour since Seokjin sent his message. He could be anywhere now. He could have given up, left the temple and returned to their hotel. Taehyung may already be too late.

He pauses, his hands on his knees to catch his breath. A stitch jabs painfully in his side, and his throat feels like it's lined with fiberglass. Dense pine branches cloister above, smelling of smoke and snow.

He lifts his head and tries one last time. “Kim Seokjin—”

The image etches itself forever in Taehyung's heart: Seokjin turning at the sound of his voice, silhouetted black against a backdrop of lanterns, bright and orange as a gasoline fire. His face glows like a luminous mask cut with relief and fear.

Taehyung flies at him. He knots his fists in Seokjin's collar. “My answer is no,” he shouts. “You said it's best if we end it, but I don't agree.”

His voice as soft as snowfall, Seokjin says, “Please.”

Taehyung tightens his fingers. “My answer is no, Seokjin-ah. I am telling you no.”

“Please,” Seokjin says again. His voice hitches over his words. “Please forget everything I said. Please.”

Taehyung forces his fingers to flex. He dips his forehead to Seokjin's as he struggles to settle his heart. Seokjin nudges his nose against Taehyung's, and Taehyung finally dares to breathe.

“Never do that again,” he whispers. “Promise me.”

“I promise,” Seokjin breathes. “I am so afraid—”

“—I know—”

“—But this was worse than fear,” Seokjin says. “This is worse, it's so much worse.”

Taehyung smooths his face against Seokjin's, feels the rasp of his stubble against his cheek. Seokjin slides his hands under Taehyung's coat, pulling their bodies close. And there beneath the pines, in the company of passing strangers, within the glow of a hundred Seollal lanterns, Seokjin kisses him. It's full and deep and unrestrained, and Taehyung must link their hands to keep himself from falling.

He tastes the salt of Seokjin's lips. He feels their heartbeats align. Something once tenuous between them draws inextricably tight.

Taehyung whispers, “Tell me you love me.”

And without a blink of hesitation, Seokjin answers.