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Wide Awake

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“Your oldest fears are the worst ones.”
Kim Namjoon

June 2016 - KCON Paris

Their staff have schooled them so well on how to act in public that most often, their training kicks in on instinct. Seokjin finds a strange kind of solace in this fact, because in the narrow space between their private life and the time they spend on stage, he has found plenty of places to hide.

Though sometimes it hurts when the others don't come to find him.

Seokjin leans against a padded headrest in the back of the production van, an ice pack clasped against his neck. The minty scent of muscle cream tingles his nose, but it has helped to ease the pain. Sejin-nim's on the phone outside the open doors, relaying information that Seokjin can't hear and doesn't need to. The staff didn't chide him for not sleeping (they could have) and they haven't scolded him about his eating (they should have), and all the production manager had to say about Seokjin's neck injury was that he must stretch more before rehearsals. Which he would do, but they always run out of time.

Sejin angles in, phone still affixed to his ear. He says, “We're getting you a muscle relaxer. And bed rest tonight, all right? No after parties.”

Seokjin gives him a thumbs up and returns to messaging his Mom. She's concerned for him in her own unobtrusive way. Like Sejin, she recommends rest, but also soup and tea, which is her solution to every malady known to man. Unlike Sejin, she believes that dating a nice girl will help to keep him healthy.

She types, The Hahn family visited again last week. You remember them from our trip to Hal-Abeoji's during Seollal?

Cold water trickles down his elbow, but it isn't the reason for his sudden shiver.

Yes, he remembers the Hahn family. Mr. Hahn is one of his father's lifelong friends and business colleagues. The Hahns often visit during winter break with their two children. Kunwoo, the oldest, attends architectural school with Seokjin's brother. Then there's Minha, known as Minnie by Seokjin and his school friends. She's currently a sophomore at Ewha Woman's University. The four of them together endured the childhood woes of skinned knees, insect bites, and family ski holidays. So of course, Seokjin remembers Hahn Minha.

Yes. Seokjin replies. How are they?

I know you'll be busy, but Minha will spend some time with us over the summer, she writes back.

Seokjin winces at the tightness in his neck. Please tell Minnie I say hello, he types.

He knows for a fact that Minnie's been dating an arts professor for the better part of two years. He's half-Taiwanese and substantially older than she is, so Seokjin understands her need for secrecy.

Sejin appears again in the doorway. “They're ready for the final goodbye stage,” he says. “Are you up for it?”

No, Seokjin thinks. He's not up for anything beyond a warm bath and the aforementioned muscle relaxer. But he nods, painfully, that he is. He types a quick farewell to his Mom before slinking from the van.

 

 

Hoseok says, “I've never seen so much confetti in all my life.”

Yoongi fluffs a ton of it from his hair. “Yep,” he says. “It's everywhere. Ev-'ry-where.”

“Hyung,” Namjoon moans. “You're getting it on my floor.”

“And this troubles you, why?” Yoongi says. “It's a hotel. They've dealt with worse.”

For whatever reason, they've all packed into Namjoon's suite to get ready for dinner. Namjoon, fresh from the shower, is toweling his hair dry, while Jimin and Jungkook crowd each other at the mirror to retouch their make-up.

Namjoon says, “I don't want it sticking to my feet while I'm walking around.”

Yoongi and Hoseok laze together on the small sofa beside a window that overlooks the atrium of their hotel. Taehyung has wedged himself onto the window sill so that he can watch the endless procession of idols, starlets, and models in the main plaza below.

“I think it's already between my toes,” Hoseok says.

“Gross,” Yoongi says.

Hoseok stretches. “I've had worse.”

“You have not,” Yoongi says.

“You recall the river mud from that time in Bukhansan?” Hoseok says. Then he retches in a soft, rolling kind of way.

“Let's not,” Namjoon says. He pats Seokjin's knee as he rounds the table from which Seokjin's been numbly observing everyone. “How're you doing?”

“I'm okay,” he says, and it's not entirely untrue. The muscle relaxer did as promised. He feels as loose and boneless as a jellyfish. The nagging jab in his neck persists, but he doesn't seem to care.

“Do you wanna go out?” Namjoon asks.

“I shouldn't,” Seokjin says.

“Oh! Oh, look, it's Taemin,” Taehyung shouts. Jimin and Jungkook leap over Yoongi's and Hoseok's knees to smash up against the window.

Yoongi goes to the vacated mirror. Combing his fingers through his hair, he mutters, “Taehyung-ie, you are such a fanboy.”

“We should go down and meet them,” Taehyung says. “Minho-hyung is my Hwarang co-star. He is really nice.”

“Oh, Minho is my Hwarang co-star,” Jimin mimics.

“He is the nicest hyung,” Jungkook chimes in.

“Do you wanna die?” Taehyung says. He smacks at them, missing them both. Jungkook hops back, colliding with the table, bumping it and Namjoon into the wall.

“All right, all right!” Namjoon yells. “Seokjin-hyung needs to get back to his room.”

Taehyung draws up from Jimin's headlock. “You're not coming with us?”

Jimin unwraps himself from Taehyung to flounce down beside Hoseok. Jungkook promptly sprawls across their laps.

Seokjin gestures weakly at his neck.

“You want me to stay?” Taehyung asks.

Yes, he thinks. He wants nothing more than a warm, snuggly Taehyung in his bed while they drink hot tea and watch From Up On Poppy Hill. But it's their last night in Paris. There will be parties and dancing, and Taehyung's Hwarang co-star is down there. They should all be out celebrating, enjoying the vivid Parisian night and all it has to offer.

So Seokjin shakes his head. Painfully. “Sejin-nim says I need rest,” he tells Taehyung. “But you should go. Everyone would talk if you stayed behind with me.”

At least Taehyung looks miserable as he's forced to agree.

 

 

It's another half hour before Namjoon finishes his hair. By then, everyone but Taehyung and Seokjin has lost their patience and headed downstairs. They escort Seokjin to his room like he's their doddering invalid uncle, and when they reach the door, Taehyung asks, “Do you have your key?”

Seokjin hands it to him.

“Aw, Jinnie-hyung,” Taehyung pouts. “You're so out of it.”

Seokjin sighs, “Yeah.”

Namjoon waits by the door as Taehyung tucks Seokjin into bed.

The moment they're gone, Seokjin rolls onto his back. He takes out his phone and pulls up a chat window for Hahn Minha.

You will not believe what my Mom texted me today, Seokjin writes.

Several minutes lapse before Minnie responds, What is it this time? Did she send pix of my horseback riding in Spain?

You went horseback riding in Spain? Seokjin texts back.

She sends, Last month. Never again. Horses are terrifying. What did ur Mom say?

They text back and forth another ten minutes, but it's clear from the delay between responses that Minnie is busy. It's 7 a.m. in Seoul; she's probably getting ready for class. Their conversation dwindles, as it usually does, and Seokjin sets his phone aside. He tries not to think about his Mom and her designs on his childhood friend, but...

Every young person in Korea knows the drill. The progression goes as follows: Grade school, college, enlistment, engagement, marriage, career, children, and death. No one ever bucks this system, not even idols. He is a young man of a certain age, one with a single semester left at university. It's only logical that his Mom would begin to make her plans.

Seokjin wonders what his mother would say if he told her that he's already been involved in a significant relationship for two and a half years. That he's in love with a man.

She wouldn't say anything. She would die. He's sure of it.

It's dark in the room, save for splashes of halogen gold cast across the wall. He knows he should be asleep, but he's come to despise these quiet moments. The times when he's alone, rare though they are, remind him of Minyeong, and his parting words to Seokjin.

It's an old fear, a holdover from his childhood, when Seokjin was an ordinary child with nothing more interesting than a nervous tick and the trips he took with his father. In his looks, he was a late-bloomer, and though he learned to use them to his advantage, Seokjin always envied the easy intelligence his older brother possessed.

Dumb luck and good genetics landed him on the street when SM scouted him in second grade; even dumber luck found him signing on with BigHit Entertainment in his freshman year of university.

In the beginning, his average-ness didn't show so much. Not like it does now. And the gap between him and the others is widening. No matter how hard he works, no matter how hard he tries, he can never keep up.

He feels the truth of Minyeong's words like the brutal sting of a razor blade. He is destined to be left behind. At some point, his good fortune is bound to run out. At some point, this dream will end, and he will be forced to wake up and face the truth.

He falls into fitful sleep, believing that tonight might be the beginning.

 

 

Only.

Seokjin wakes to the familiar weight of Taehyung in his bed. His damp hair smells of smoke and roses.

“Slide over,” he says, his voice gruff and sleepy. Seokjin does, and Taehyung nests into the curve of his body. Seokjin piles the pillows beneath his chin to support his twinging neck.

“I was afraid you wouldn't come find me,” Seokjin whispers.

“That's silly,” Taehyung says. “Go back to sleep.”

Seokjin slurs, “I'm your elder. You go back to sleep.”

“Okay, hyung,” Taehyung says.

He curls their linked hands around his waist, and together, they finally fall asleep.

 

Chapter Text

“I was living a lie concealed deep within myself.”
Herman Hesse, Demian

June 2016 - Dongdaemun

They came home to South Korea from Scandinavia, bounced immediately to Osaka and Tokyo, and then whisked off to France for KCON. They scarcely had time to brush their teeth much less hold group meetings before returning home again, and besides, Yoongi had begun to reconsider his thoughts on the matter altogether. He's always been a Live-and-Let-Live kind of guy, and if Namjoon or Jimin and Jungkook want to cling to their secrets, then it's no business of his or anyone else.

Oh, but that is until today...

Yoongi perches left of center stage at the fansign table, Taehyung on one side, Seokjin on the other. Taehyung's immersed in a conversation with a fan about anime, and Seokjin's doing his best to grin through his neck injury pain. Namjoon redirects most of Seokjin's fan interaction to himself while Hoseok, at the far end of the table, gallops around on a wall-eyed stick-pony someone gave him as a gift.

Which leaves Jimin and Jungkook largely unsupervised at the table's center, and they seem incapable of keeping their hands to themselves.

Not just their hands. When Yoongi leans back to catch Namjoon's eye, he sees that Jimin's hooked one of his legs over Jungkook's. He's practically sitting in the maknae's lap, and they lean so close that Jungkook's hair is tickling the side of Jimin's neck. This has gone on long enough that a gaggle of fans has congregated in a tight little knot, patiently waiting for their turn.

Neither Namjoon nor Seokjin looks up from the ring of fans in front of them. But Hoseok meets Yoongi's gaze. Distressed, he mouths, “What are they doing?”

“Fuck if I know,” Yoongi mutters. He feels a thump on his elbow and turns to peer down into the beaming face of the fourteen-year-old anime fan who had been, until that moment, talking with Taehyung.

Yoongi chats briefly with her, signs her photo card, and sends her to Seokjin. Then he excuses himself to meet Hoseok behind the table. As they inch their way along the narrow space behind their seats, Jimin and Jungkook engage in what might be thumb wrestling, but looks suspiciously like holding hands.

Hoseok whispers to Yoongi, “The staff have tried getting their attention, but—”

“—Yeah, they're oblivious,” Yoongi says tightly. “Might as well be in an empty room.”

“We have to do something,” Hoseok says.

“Yeah, I get that,” Yoongi says, then adds in a whisper. “But we can't out them.”

“No, but they can out themselves,” Hoseok mutters. “They're on the verge of doing it right here in front of everyone.”

Jungkook mutters something into Jimin's ear. Jimin convulses with laughter, his face blushing to a delicate shade of cherry blossom pink. Neither boy seems to even notice that someone's hovering mere centimeters behind their backs.

Yoongi taps Jimin twice on the shoulder. Jimin blinks up, owl-eyed and smiling, to find Yoongi and Hoseok scowling down at them.

“Hi, hyungs,” Jimin chirps.

Hoseok's smile never falters. “There are some people here who have waited a long, long time to see you,” he grinds out through his teeth. “Perhaps you should pay attention to them?”

Jungkook clears his throat. He and Jimin part, slowly, reluctantly, and Jungkook shifts toward their fans.

Jimin has the decency to at least look sheepish as he breathes out his reply. “Sorry,” he murmurs. “We were just talking.”

Namjoon cranes his head in Yoongi's direction. “Everything okay?” he asks.

Yoongi steps between him and Seokjin, bending to whisper into Namjoon's ear. “I think it's time we had our little meeting,” he says.

Namjoon scrubs the back of his neck. “Today?”

“If you don't mind.”

Emotions flicker across Namjoon's face. Yoongi understands his hesitation; Namjoon has secrets, too. But they needn't figure into the equation since Namjoon's secrets aren't nearly dry humping in the middle of a fansign event full of teenage girls.

“All right,” Namjoon agrees. “We'll meet upstairs before security clears us out of the building. Okay?”

“Fair enough,” Yoongi says.

But as he steps around Namjoon, he finds that Seokjin has moved into Yoongi's seat. Taehyung massages Seokjin's neck, an act that Seokjin enjoys with an almost feline expression of bliss upon his face.

Yoongi takes Seokjin's vacated seat and presses his fingers to his temples. He wonders when he became the person in charge of couples policing and resolves to resign the position the moment this evening's meeting adjourns.

 

 

“We can't go anywhere these days,” Yoongi exhales. It's not so much a complaint as an observation of fact. “Remember when we could all go out for a meal or a coffee whenever we wanted?” He stands at the window, peering down into Dongdaemun Design Plaza at the crowd of fans that refuses to disperse. “I mean, we were chased by sasaengs in Sweden of all places.”

When no one responds, he angles away from the sweeping view to find that he's still addressing an empty room. Empty except for Seokjin, who dozes on a plush green sofa pushed against the far wall.

Yoongi sighs. He checks his phone. If they're going to get this meeting done, they have roughly twenty minutes before the cars arrive to take them their next destination.

But oh no, they all had to have coffee and pastries from the catering carts downstairs. Everyone except for Seokjin, who has spent the afternoon bumbling around in a painkiller haze like an expensively-dressed zombie.

The others – minus Jimin and Jungkook, who are, arguably, the reason for the meeting in the first place, and without whom, the meeting cannot start – trample in three and a half minutes later, Namjoon in the lead with two cardboard carriers filled with iced Americanos.

Yoongi looks to Hoseok, arms splayed in a gesture that conveys, What the fuck?

Hoseok glances around. “They were right behind us,” he says. Taehyung joins him in the corridor to search for their missing members while Namjoon uses his booted heel to wrangle a coffee table over to the sofa where Seokjin is slowly fluttering awake.

Namjoon passes a coffee to Seokjin. “You all right?” he asks. Seokjin shrugs and immediately regrets it.

Another three minutes lapse before Hoseok and the maknaes bustle into the room flanking Jimin, who cradles a box the size of a suitcase filled with every kind of pastry known to man. They talk excitedly over each other, oblivious to their time constraints, when Namjoon finally calls them all to order.

“All right, everyone,” he says. “We've got about thirteen minutes before the cars arrive—”

“—They're already arriving, hyung,” Jungkook interrupts. He's scrolling through messages with one hand while digging through the pastry box with the other.

“So let's hurry,” Yoongi says, waving them all onto the sofa. Jimin slides the box onto the low table with a flourish and then beams as the others descend upon it.

“I did good, didn't I?” Jimin says proudly.

“Very good, Jimin,” Hoseok agrees, peeling a bear claw from the pile. “This is very good.”

Yoongi sucks air over his teeth, and everyone pivots slightly in his direction. He has to admit he kinda likes that, so he presses his advantage, cutting straight to the topic at hand. “All right, so Jimin and Jungkook have something they would like to tell the group. About each other.”

Jimin gleams at him, all round-cheeked chastity. “No we don't, hyung,” he says. And he laughs. He actually laughs. Then he knuckles Jungkook's knee, and Jungkook pops to attention, like he's been caught searching for porn on his phone.

“Um, yeah,” he nods. “We don't have anything.”

Thank God for Hoseok, who gives them a narrow glare of scrutiny. “You told us in Finland that you—”

Jimin hisses, dismissively. “That was,” he shrugs. “I was just... being... y'know, silly.”

Yoongi puts his hands on top of his head. “Silly?” he asks. “You were being silly?"

Jimin brushes a hand through his bangs. Beside him, Jungkook proceeds to strip his nails to the quick with his teeth.

Taehyung leans over to punch Jungkook's thigh. Around a bite of chocolate croissant, he says, “Can you believe they thought you two have—?”

Jungkook meets Taehyung's eye, and Yoongi witnesses as the realization unfolds between them like a poorly-constructed origami crane. Jungkook, who sucks at lying, gives Taehyung a weak grin and Taehyung, who hides nothing, responds with an expression that's half-wounded and half-disbelieving. Taehyung, his mouth agape, twists toward Jimin, who shuts him down with a minuscule shake of his head.

Which tells Yoongi two things: One, Jimin and Jungkook are lying. And two, they haven't told Taehyung.

Namjoon quickly intervenes. “Look, guys, this is a safe space. If you have something you want to tell, you can go ahead—”

“—Yes,” Yoongi says, squinting pointedly at Namjoon. “If any of us has anything to share, now is a good a time to do that.”

“Fine, I'll go,” Namjoon says. He sets his coffee aside and dries his palms on his knees. “I was dating someone. Her name is Amica. She's an International Business student at Hongik.” Only Hoseok has the chance to offer congratulations before Namjoon cuts him off. “But I ended it,” Namjoon says. “I can't focus on anything outside of us right now, and it wasn't fair to her. So... I ended it.”

“Fuck, man,” Yoongi says. “I'm sorry.”

Namjoon nibbles his thumb. “Yeah,” he sighs. “Thanks.”

They're quiet a moment as they each process this news. Neither Jimin nor Taehyung will meet anyone's gaze, and Seokjin still looks about as dazed an unearthed mole. Hoseok gives Yoongi a look that says, Well, you tried.

Which makes Yoongi question his reasoning behind trying in the first place. He arrives at the conclusion that it doesn't matter whether or not Jungkook and Jimin are banging behind the scenes (which they totally are; he and Hoseok did not imagine Jimin's confession in Finland). What matters is that they behave themselves in front of cameras and fans...

Jungkook disrupts this line of thought by announcing that their cars have arrived and security is on their way up to collect them.

Yoongi rasps out a sigh like a deflating balloon. “Are you kidding me right now?” he asks.

Jungkook tilts his phone to show the notification, as a means of answering Yoongi's question.

Namjoon seems relieved. “Next is our Festa Photo Shoot, everyone,” he says, getting to his feet. “Time to celebrate our third year together.”

“Wow, three years,” Hoseok crows, clearly eager to leap onto the cheerful train.

But this business with Jimin isn't over. Yoongi knows it, as does Namjoon, and, judging by the troubled set to Jimin's brow, he knows it, too. They're too busy to deal with it right now, but Yoongi guesses they're probably too busy to do anything else. So the discussion will have to wait until the next time they can carve ten whole minutes to themselves.

Chapter Text

“Oh, the ground I’m stepping on right now
I feel like it’ll disappear
the moment you let go of my hand.”
Hollywood, The Black Skirts

(If you haven't heard this song, it's here, and it's beautiful: https://youtu.be/jx3mRXZEg20)

July 2016 - Hongdae

The Alcazar becomes a second home to them. The sheets of their bed, a second skin.

They arrive separately each night. Each morning, they head off in different directions. In the hours between, they are inseparable.

They know each other's bodies so well now: Every cherished crease and fold, every ticklish spot, every freckle. Seokjin has memorized the faded skateboard scars on Taehyung's shins, the constellation of moles along his shoulder blade. He can trace the nearly invisible divisions of the stretchmarks along his thighs. At night, when Taehyung's asleep, Seokjin's thumb finds the perforation along his hairline where Namjoon's elbow split Taehyung's scalp before their debut.

And how things have changed since then.

Seokjin props a shoulder against the headboard to peer down into Taehyung's sleeping face. He looks young when he's asleep and devastatingly defenseless. Sometimes Seokjin still imagines Taehyung's future wife, and how in love with him she will be. He thinks of their children playing in the next room, waiting for their Mom and Dad to come fix breakfast and get them ready for school. Seokjin has to stop himself and reset his thoughts. He has to remind himself that they are together now, that Taehyung has chosen him.

Feeling daring, Seokjin smudges a fingertip over Taehyung's brow. He laughs to himself about how sensitive Taehyung is about his eyebrows. He's concerned over how thin they are, how they taper into near colorlessness along his temple. It seems a silly, trivial thing to be preoccupied with, but they each have similar little foibles. Yoongi hides his appendix scar. Hoseok thinks his arms are too long. Namjoon hates his dimples. Jimin dislikes his height and his chubby, round cheeks. Jungkook is at constant war with his skin. Taehyung has his eyebrows, and Seokjin... he has too many flaws to count.

Taehyung's lashes flutter, and Seokjin freezes. He wants him to wake up, but at the same time, he wants to watch him sleep. He loves these quiet in-between moments, when no one asks anything of them. When they can rest and be themselves. When they can kiss, and be kissed, and not be judged.

Not that the others judge them. But the outside world. The one Taehyung doesn't clearly see.

“Oh my VV,” he whispers. He swallows down the overwhelming heart of it. He doesn't know how else to describe it and lacks the vocabulary to express the feeling. It's an unspeakable joy, but there's an underpinning of anguish that keeps him tethered. It's the desire to fly coupled with the knowledge that he's forever earthbound. Like he's standing on the edge of a cliff, staring down into the water, knowing that he'll never jump.

This feeling is how Seokjin knows he's in love with Taehyung. Two and a half years have passed, and still he feels this almost desperate ache within him. Not all the time, not like it was in the beginning, but in moments of stillness like this. Or in the times when he catches Taehyung watching him. Their eyes meet, and it's like the ground shifts beneath him. Even to this day, Taehyung takes his breath away.

Warm rain whispers through the open window, smelling of rivermud and fresh lemons. Beneath them in the Hongdae street, a fruit vendor truck wends its way through the neighborhood, droning a looping advertisement through its tinny loud speaker. The couple in the adjacent room (who were arguably louder than he and Taehyung last night) have begun to quietly murmur and stir. The elevator's bell chimes in descending succession as the Pakistani eomma heads to the lobby to prepare the morning's coffee.

And Seokjin's phone alerts buzz. He set it to Do Not Disturb until 5:30, which means their time alone is almost gone.

He cranes carefully toward the side table, still nursing the muscles in his injured neck. He scrapes his phone into his hands and scrolls through his notifications. Three messages from his Mom, all reminding him of Hahn Minha's impending visit. Two messages from Namjoon, one sober from the night before, one not-so-sober from 4 a.m. Eight game notifications. Seven group chats from Hoseok, Yoongi, Kidoh, and Hunchul. Thirteen calendar reminders about upcoming assignments, production meetings, choreo practices, and studio sessions (for a song he has yet to finish). And one forlorn text from Jimin, asking if Taehyung is with him and why isn't he answering his phone?

Real life encroaches, harried and demanding. Seokjin sets it neatly aside and returns to stroking Taehyung's sleeping face. Slowly, like a swimmer drawn up from the depths, Taehyung begins to wake.

“Hey,” Taehyung says when he opens his eyes. He arcs up to bite the fat of Seokjin's thumb.

Seokjin takes this as an invitation. He grips Taehyung's hips and twists beneath him, so that Taehyung peers down, sleepily surprised, into Seokjin's face. They're naked except for the sheet between them, and Seokjin can feel Taehyung semi-hard against his thigh. It would take only the smallest amount of coaxing...

But the question, as always, is whether they have time.

“Let's stay here today,” Taehyung says. His voice sinks to that husky octave that sends Seokjin to the edge of his sanity. He sounds darkly determined and pins Seokjin's shoulders to the pillows.

“The whole day?” Seokjin asks. He basks for a moment in the simple appeal of the idea.

Meanwhile, Taehyung slides enticingly against him. “Clothing optional,” he says. He dips to nuzzle Seokjin's throat.

“Clothing ignored,” Seokjin sighs.

“Clothing thoroughly rejected,” Taehyung agrees. He sucks Seokjin's earlobe between his teeth. Seokjin struggles to tug the sheet from between them. Their bodies brush deliciously, skin against skin, and within a span of seconds, they both become fully, heatedly, dizzily ready. Seokjin shifts to his side, hooking Taehyung's leg over his thigh. Taehyung digs his heel into the muscle, edging them closer. He grazes his cheek to Seokjin's, reveling in the rasp of his unshaven jaw against his own.

“We can try that thing we talked about,” Taehyung breathes.

In lieu of an answer, Seokjin nips kisses along Taehyung's collarbone. Taehyung rears back to study Seokjin's face.

“It's my turn, hyung,” Taehyung pouts.

Seokjin tries again to kiss him. Again, Taehyung swerves. Seokjin says, “We don't have time—”

“—You always say that.”

“It's always true,” Seokjin replies. “I have to drive Kook-ie to school in, like, an hour.”

Taehyung responds by sliding his hand between Seokjin's thighs. He brushes his palm over the swollen tip and closes his fingers around him. “I wanna feel you,” he says.

Seokjin wants it, too, but... “It's not like we haven't tried,” he reminds Taehyung.

“Not in a while.” Taehyung touches him, a repeated, fervent cupping, and Seokjin's on the verge of giving in, but reason, insistent as it is, keeps him from caving.

“It takes a lot of prep,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung grazes Seokjin's shoulder with his teeth. “I'm up for it,” he moans.

“I feel that,” Seokjin says. And Taehyung's not the only one. Seokjin hungers for him and he's so hard and it would be so easy to risk it but—

“We can't we can't we can't,” Seokjin says, wrenching himself free from the tangle that is Taehyung.

As always, Taehyung's not so easily deterred. He follows Seokjin's momentum, rolling onto his back to pull Seokjin astride him. Then Taehyung wraps his legs loosely around Seokjin's hips, moving beneath him in lazy, languid circles. “Hyung,” he moans.

“Taehyung-ah, I promise—”

Taehyung's brows arch. “Yeah?” he says.

Seokjin takes a moment to appreciate the difference between the sweet, defenseless, sleeping Taehyung, and the fully-aroused bundle of muscle currently caging him with his thighs.

“We'll make the time,” Seokjin says.

“When?” Taehyung pushes.

Seokjin sweeps Taehyung's hair back from his forehead. It's pale blond now, bright as a candle's flame. It makes his skin glow like sunlit honey. “I don't understand why this means so much to you,” he says.

Taehyung's first answer is simple, but the follow-up is far more complicated. “I wanna feel you like you feel me,” he answers. “And also...” He exhales and mutters, “I feel like a failed gay.”

“You... what?” Seokjin is careful to hide his incredulity. To laugh now would hurt Taehyung, and hurting Taehyung's the reason he's avoided this particular subject in the first place.

Taehyung rolls his shoulders in a shrug. “It's just, it seems like such a big important experience, but I haven't had it yet.”

“That's nonsense,” Seokjin says. “Who makes up these rules anyway?”

“Well Jimin says—”

“—Jimin?” Seokjin balks. “Jimin says?”

Again, Taehyung shrugs.

“Have he and Jungkook even—?”

“—Maybe,” Taehyung says. “But he hasn't... He won't tell me anything.”

“Well, why not?”

Taehyung lifts a shoulder. “I guess because... we wouldn't... tell him? You know, when we started?”

“Would Jimin really be that petty?” Seokjin asks. But he knows the answer and speaks it at exactly the same moment as Taehyung. “Yeah he would.”

“Then what does he know?” Seokjin says. He kisses Taehyung's forehead and then the tip of his nose. “Let Jimin and Jungkook worry about themselves. We've have an Us to tend to.”

Taehyung frowns in the way that's a smile. He whispers, “Hyung, may I tend to you?”

And Seokjin says, softly insistent, “I think it might be best if you did.”

 

Chapter Text

“Even if I try to hide it, or conceal it, it can’t be erased.”
Stigma, Kim Taehyung

July 2016 - Seoul

“Okay,” Namjoon says. “Let's get back to the concepts.”

Everyone around the table hunkers down, like they're bracing for a round of artillery fire. Jungkook and Taehyung are messing with each other's hands. Jimin sits straight in his chair, doing his best to show that he's listening. Hoseok flicks through a manila folder containing the director's storyboards for their new videos. Seokjin probes the back of his neck with two fingers, while beside him, Yoongi slouches in his seat, straining the swivel mechanism of his chair to the limits of its design.

“Look, we've all read the book, Joon,” Yoongi says. “I get where the directors are coming from. But most of our fans are so young, so I gotta ask... will they?”

Namjoon wonders at what point in their lives, if any, will Yoongi just agree with him? Probably never. Which is probably a good thing. Earlier, they agreed with each other for the sake of the managers and the production team, because they all have families and wanted to get home. Plus, Yoongi and Namjoon know the value of presenting a unified front to Bang PD. But now that it's just the seven of them around a table, they can talk things out for real.

“I think they will, yeah,” Namjoon says. “We're keeping with the Demian references and the overarching story line. The same characters, the same conflicts, but—”

“—Demian's probably post-grad reading level,” Seokjin points out. “College at least.”

“Which is why you can understand it, right, hyung?” Jungkook says.

“Of course,” Seokjin answers casually. “But most of our fans are in high school.”

Hoseok leans his chin on his hand. “My Dad always said you should aim over your students' heads with your reading. That way they'll climb higher to reach for understanding.”

“Your Dad is a wise man,” Namjoon says.

“Your Dad's a Lit Professor,” Yoongi says. “We're pop stars. We sing about the oppression of school systems, about youth and heartache and anxiety. These are the concepts we should focus on.”

Taehyung lightly pounds his fist on Jungkook's sprawled hand. He says, “I like the characters and their interaction—”

“—The characters are fine,” Yoongi cuts in. “These solo videos, though. They seem really esoteric, and we don't even know yet if our songs will fit them.”

Jimin meets Namjoon's eye. The way he's chewing his lower lip, Namjoon feels fairly certain that Jimin doesn't know what esoteric means.

So Namjoon says, “True, yes. They are pretty cryptic...” Jimin nods his understanding, and Namjoon smiles. “...But they're neat and interesting. They're a puzzle, and people like that.”

“You're a puzzle,” Yoongi says. His tone sounds playful, but it's edged with teeth, and Namjoon knows it's time to change the subject.

He says, “But like you said... none of the concepts matter if we don't finish our songs.”

“Mine's done,” Yoongi says. He pushes off from the table, spinning his chair in a slow circle. Like a victory lap.

“Anyone else?” Namjoon asks.

Around the table, the others cringe. Namjoon would bet that both Mr. Choi and Hoseok's father would recognize this scenario because they all look like errant students who have been called out for neglecting their homework.

Then Jimin clears his throat. “Mine's done,” he says. “I think.”

“Well can we see it?” Hoseok asks. His enthusiasm brims up like an overflowing cup, and Jimin's already looking skittish. Namjoon expects Jimin to bow out with an offer to show his lyrics to him or Yoongi at a later time.

But he doesn't. Jimin takes out his phone, thumbs to the notepad app, and slides it across the table. Then he rakes his hand through his hair while awaiting Namjoon's verdict.

He's not even halfway through the first read when Jimin says, “Taehyung's almost done with his, too.”

“What?” Taehyung says.

Half a second later, Seokjin goes, “What?”

The table falls silent. Hoseok creaks his chair forward. Jungkook reaches to worry with his shoelace. Namjoon taps Jimin's phone screen to keep it from going dark.

“Well,” Namjoon says. “Taehyung can share his song whenever he's ready,” before returning to Jimin's lyrics.

And they're good. Like, really good. In his head, he's already re-working a few of the lines, smoothing out a rhythm here and there. But overall, he can hear this one.

“Have you thought about composition?” Namjoon asks.

“A little,” Jimin admits.

Namjoon returns to the lyrics, pushing deeper on the second read. They exemplify the themes of darkness and falling from grace that they've been aiming for. And it feels real, too. Deep and heartfelt, like he's speaking from his own experience.

“It's brilliant,” Namjoon decides. “Really, I think it's amazing.” He pushes the phone across the table. “Mail it to me. We'll work on a few things before sending it to Rabbit, and then we'll get into the studio, okay?”

Jimin looks like he might float up through the ceiling. He's smiling so hard, his eyes have disappeared behind his apricot cheeks.

“All right,” Hoseok says, plunking his tablet onto the table. “Then I guess I'll share mine, too.”

 

 

They push themselves until 2 a.m., working around the table like they did in their early days. They hash out lyrics and squabble through concepts, and Namjoon knows he'll have to visit Jungkook and Seokjin privately to get them to share their songs, but all in all, he considers the night a success.

By the time they return to the dorm, Namjoon's body drags like driftwood while his synapses continue to spark like fireworks through his brain. He exists in the not-unpleasant disconnect between the physical and mental worlds, drifting along on impulse as he makes his way to the bathroom for a shower.

The washroom door lolls ajar, spilling out the scents of muscle cream and mango shampoo. Namjoon knuckles it open, glimpsing Seokjin in the mirror, slowly and methodically brushing his teeth.

Through a mouthful of foam, Seokjin mumbles, “I'm almost done.”

“No rush, man,” Namjoon says from the doorway. “Take your time. ”

Seokjin spits and rinses, tapping his brush twice on the rim of the sink. He moves like a sleepwalker, his actions muffled, his eyelids half closed. Namjoon can't help but note the dusky smudges beneath Seokjin's eyes, and he knows in that moment that Seokjin's been crying.

Namjoon steps into the bathroom, reaching for Seokjin's arm when Taehyung appears in the doorway.

Seokjin's posture tightens. He flashes Taehyung a stricken look before he hems between them and out into the hall.

Namjoon says, “Wait—”

But Taehyung bustles Namjoon into the bathroom, heeling the door shut behind him. He says, “Hyung, will you look at my song?”

Namjoon glances down at the clutter of pages in Taehyung's hands. They're torn from a yellow legal pad and scratched with sharp lines of wine red ink.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. “Of course.”

Taehyung presses his shoulders to the wall, as if that action will keep him upright. It fails, though, and he slides into a heap on the bathroom floor. He presses his fingertips to his forehead, bowing his face like a man awaiting judgment. Namjoon knows he should probably comfort him, but he turns his focus instead to the song in Taehyung's hands.

Namjoon neatens the pages into a stack. He adjusts his glasses, but the contrast of red on yellow makes it difficult to read. He puzzles through the first verse and...

“Oh.” Namjoon kneels beside Taehyung. He scans ahead in the text to confirm his suspicions. “Oh shit.”

Taehyung rubs his nose with the back of his hand. “Well?” he asks.

“It's... I mean, it's good. It's really good, but...” Namjoon exhales. He re-reads the song, this time as a whole. But there's no error in his interpretation; the song is precisely as he thought.

It's a confession.

He says, “I'm guessing by Jin-hyung's reaction that he's already read this?”

Taehyung nods. “Tonight,” he answers. “Earlier.”

Namjoon twists absently at his bangs. He says, “You understand his fears, right?”

Taehyung stifles down a sob and mutters, “Yes, hyung.”

Once more, Namjoon returns to the lyrics. He scans them again, feeling his way through the passion and the longing to the desperation at its heart. The need for forgiveness. The desire for punishment. The blood, the pain, the anguish.

Careful in his tone, Namjoon says, “You know how this could be taken?”

Taehyung shudders. “I know,” he says.

Namjoon asks his next question, even though he's already sure of the answer. “All other factors aside – social and political considerations, religion, family – how does Jin-hyung feel about coming out?”

Taehyung slowly shakes his head.

“Yeah,” Namjoon says. He shifts his weight so that he's sitting beside Taehyung against the bathroom wall. “I know you don't want to hear this, but... it's impossible, Tae. Right now, the way things are here and in the world, coming out... It will ruin your lives. I mean, you can still be institutionalized—”

“—I don't want to come out,” Taehyung interrupts. “And I don't want us to break up. But. Every time I talk with my family, every time I see them... I feel like I'm lying.” He steeples his fingers over his face. “And I don't want to lie anymore.”

Namjoon thinks of Jimin's song, the idea of being trapped within a lie. He asks, “Has Jimin read your song?”

Taehyung rolls his shoulders. “We wrote them together, but he hasn't seen it. I wanted Jinnie to... first.”

“And he's upset.”

Taehyung swallows hard. “He won't talk to me.”

Again, Namjoon thinks but doesn't need to say. He rests his head against the damp tile, turning these ideas over and over in his brain, pained by the knowledge that the others have only ever done as he and Bang PD have asked. They've poured everything into this music, delving deep into the labyrinth of their hearts to return home with blood and monsters in their hands.

When he peers at Taehyung's profile, he sees the grim set of his friend's eyes, the tight determination in the line of his jaw. Namjoon realizes they're a long way from the end of this fight, and none of them knows the meaning of surrender. Even with what he's learned about the hero's journey, about redemption and the fall, Namjoon understands the difference between fiction and reality. He can only hope that what they're going through right now doesn't wind up destroying them in the end.

A soft knock sounds on the door. Namjoon moves to answer, but the latch lifts and the door parts a few scant centimeters.

“Taehyung-ah?” His voice sounds small, as if swallowed by uncertainty. “May I come in?”

“Yeah.” Taehyung scrapes to his feet. “Yes.” He pulls the door open, stepping over Namjoon and into Seokjin's arms.

Namjoon inches around them. He backs from the room, shutting the door behind him. Then he folds Taehyung's song into a neat rectangle, pressing it into his pocket for safekeeping.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I want to remain.
I want to dream more.
Even so, what I’m saying is
That it’s time to leave.”
Awake, Kim Seokjin

July 2016 - Seoul

After Jungkook's song made all of them cry – like the slobbering sobs of a toddler kind of crying – Seokjin seems even less eager to share his song with the group. Hoseok knows it exists. He has it on good authority from Yoongi that Seokjin has been tinkering away on something for nearly half a year. The design team has already approved their concepts. Construction of their sets has already begun. They've begun fittings for their wardrobe, and they have scripts for their videos.

Yet Seokjin's remains the one song they haven't heard.

“We have to do something,” Jimin says. He's sitting on the counter, swinging his legs in agitated circles.

Yoongi pats his knee. “We have to do something,” he corrects. “You need to stay out of it.”

Jimin pouts for the span of a blink before he adjusts to a different tack. “Hyung, he can't be the only one without a solo song.”

“Yah.” Yoongi snaps his fingers in Jimin's direction. “Those dishes aren't going to wash themselves.”

With a prolonged sigh, Jimin slides down from the counter. He squirts dish soap into the hot water, filling the small kitchen with the pulpy tang of artificial grapefruit.

“He does have a point, though,” Namjoon says, and Jimin nods along as he scrubs a serving bowl. “We've all been through the recording booth now, and as far as I know, Jin-hyung hasn't even submitted his lyrics to Bang PD.”

“He'll get it,” Hoseok says. “He always does.”

“But what if he doesn't?” Jimin asks.

Jimin's always the one to pose this kind of question. The rest of them may be thinking it, but Jimin's the one to speak it aloud. Hoseok knows it's an expression of Jimin's anxiety. They're alike in that way, with their tendencies toward mother-henning, and Jimin natters and worries as a way of showing his love. Jimin loves Seokjin, despite their differences in the past, so Hoseok doesn't doubt Jimin's sincerity. He's genuinely concerned that Seokjin might be struggling.

“I'll talk to him,” Hoseok offers.

Jimin smiles as he rinses the bowl. He passes it to Yoongi, who automatically takes down a dishtowel to dry it.

“That's a good idea,” Namjoon says. “I think he'll open up to you.”

Hoseok hopes so, but there's enough of Jimin's concern in him to give way to uncertainty.

 

The following morning, after an exchange of messages on Kakao, Hoseok coordinates a meeting with Seokjin at the studio. He gently encourages Seokjin to bring everything he has written so far, so he's stunned into silence when Seokjin turns up empty-handed.

A whole minute lapses with Hoseok gaping and no doubt slack-jawed before Seokjin explains, simply, “I've decided not to do a song.”

Hoseok finds himself echoing Jimin's sentiment from the night before: “Hyung, you can't be the only one without a song.”

“But I can,” Seokjin says. “And I will be.”

The thing that hits Hoseok hardest is Seokjin's resolve. He sits – calm, composed, unruffled – his hands folded in his lap, his eyes clear beneath his smooth, blond hair. This is the Seokjin they first met: the coolly professional student known for his handsomeness and his fortunate birth. It's oceans apart from the Seokjin they live with: the devil-may-care punster who only the night before crafted a series of fish jokes so hilariously lame they made Jimin choke on his bulgogi.

The Seokjin seated before Hoseok now is the young man who works fifteen hours a day to master his Mandarin, and who has endeavored for a year eating only chicken breasts to carve his body into its current state of near perfection. Only instead of using that formidable determination as a scaffold, Seokjin has turned it into a foxhole, and he's hiding resolutely inside it.

“Yoongi says you have something,” Hoseok begins.

“I threw it away,” Seokjin says. But his eye twitches, and Hoseok knows him far too well to believe it.

“You wouldn't,” Hoseok says.

Seokjin adjusts the strap of his messenger bag. “I have class in forty-five minutes,” he says.

“Then why did you agree to meet?”

Again, Seokjin flinches. He says, “To tell you that I don't have anything.”

When he doesn't make a move to leave, Hoseok reads it as the thinnest crack in Seokjin's willpower. Hoseok knows he'll hate himself for this later, but he'll hate himself now if he doesn't give Seokjin a tiny push.

“Hyung, I can't imagine what you've been going through,” he says.

Seokjin breathes in through his nose and checks his phone.

He says, “You finished your finals the day we left for Osaka, your neck is still messed up, and our new choreo is ridiculously complex. Plus Taehyung's filming schedule...”

Seokjin shifts a fraction in his chair. He says, “I'll message Bang PD this afternoon. I'll let him know that I can't... do this. I think he'll understand.”

“Yes but we won't,” Hoseok shouts. The intensity of his tone doesn't surprise him, but its effect on Seokjin does. He looks fragile and afraid, like a small, trapped bird incapable of escape. Still, he recovers his chilly exterior. The only evidence that Hoseok's making any progress is the way Seokjin's throat tightens as he struggles, wordlessly, to construct his response.

“Hobi,” he says, his voice finally trembling. “I'm not like you.”

Hoseok grips Seokjin's hand and presses it to his heart, which is beating with the ferocity of a very large bird in a very small cage. “Feel that?” he asks.

Seokjin can only nod.

“We are just alike, hyung,” Hoseok says. “You're afraid, and so am I.”

“Why?”

“It's hard, getting to the heart of it,” Hoseok says. “It's the hardest thing there is. But it's in there, Jin-hyung, and it wants to come out.”

It's too much, and Seokjin stands up. “I should go,” he says. He steps past Hoseok to the door, and then he's through it, and then he's gone. Hoseok's tempted to chase after him, but he hears Yoongi's voice in the back of his head, reminding him about the reflex of fight versus flight.

Hoseok leans on his elbows and scrubs his eyes with his thumbs. Minutes pass as he rocks back, trying to think through his next move. He knows he'll have to tell Namjoon, and he'll have to do it before Seokjin sends his message to Bang PD, which means it may already be too late. He takes out his phone to call Yoongi, but before he can dial, he receives a text.

From Seokjin: a single file titled I'm Sorry.

It reads more like a letter than a song. Hoseok stands up as he scans the first verse. Then, slowly, he deflates as one by one the words find their way into his heart. Understanding sinks in him like a weight, and Hoseok knows now how alike they truly are. How much they hide behind their jokes and smiles. How much they lie.

Hoseok sits for a long time with the song open before him. He reads and re-reads it, and when he returns to the part where Seokjin asks himself the question, You, are you really okay? Hoseok allows himself to shed a few tears.

No, no, Seokjin answers in the next line. I am so afraid.

Chills race up Hoseok's arms as he recalls the words he spoke to Seokjin not fifteen minutes before. You're afraid, and so am I. Now Hoseok has the clear picture in his hand, the one thing Seokjin fears the most: getting left behind. But that's not the deepest hurt. What wrenches Hoseok's heart the most is Seokjin's resignation to his fate. Though he struggles and fights, he's aware of his limitations, and the knowledge that everything they are will one day come to an end.

Hoseok tabs to Kakao and messages Seokjin: Hyung, DO NOT contact Bang PD. We are recording this, no arguments.

Then he speed-dials Namjoon, who asks without even a hello, “So did you get it?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Hoseok answers. “Only it's worse than we thought.”

Namjoon scuffles on the other end of the line. Hoseok hears the squeak of a hinge and the thunk of a door. He says, “Hey, you know, it's okay. We'll work with what we have. It's his first—”

“—It's not that.” Hoseok twists his hair around his finger and gives it a tug. “The song is... It's beautiful, Joon. But it's what he wrote about.”

Namjoon exhales like he's bracing for impact. He says, “Yeah?”

“Yes,” Hoseok says. “It's gonna break your heart.”

 

Chapter Text

“Star, beautiful star, how can I shine like you?”
Little Star, AKMU

KAKAOTALK
2016 August 01
20:12

Minnie Mouse: You are so right about your Mom.

Prince Jin: Oh? How so?

Minnie Mouse: The matchmaking.

Prince Jin: Shit, really?

Minnie Mouse: Language, young man. Remember, I know where you live.

Prince Jin: Look at me not being afraid. Besides, I know stuff about you, too.

Minnie Mouse: You got me there.
Minnie Mouse: Anyway, I spent the last week with the Anyang City Kims.

Prince Jin: Mom might have mentioned it.

Minnie Mouse: And you... safely off halfway around the world.
Minnie Mouse: Did you go to Hollywood?

Prince Jin: We did. Saw the sign, Disneyland, the whales, everything.

Minnie Mouse: Officially jealous.

Prince Jin: Hey someday, right? You could ride horses on the beach.

Minnie Mouse: Let me stop you right there. Horses are evil... and you are a little bit evil, too. (^_−)☆

Prince Jin: ଘ(੭*ˊᵕˋ)੭*

Minnie Mouse: Anyway, it's not just your Mom who thinks we should date.
Minnie Mouse: My parents had a long talk with your parents.

Prince Jin: But you're with someone.

Minnie Mouse: Yes I am.
Minnie Mouse: And they will never allow it.

Prince Jin: Never allow it? What is this, 1965? Didn't you say you're in love with Mr. Arts Professor?

Minnie Mouse: LMAO That's Dr. Arts Professor, remember? And I'm 24, so what do I know about love? Besides, it's not like you'll do any different. When the time comes, we all do what they expect of us because we're good and grateful children.

Prince Jin: I won't.

Minnie Mouse: Come on, Jin-oppa. Does spending the rest of our lives together really seem so bad?

Prince Jin: I'm with someone, too.

Minnie Mouse: hashtag not surprised. Have you seen you?

Prince Jin: And we're in love.

Minnie Mouse: Again not surprised. Is she well educated? From a good family?

Prince Jin: Not remotely.

Minnie Mouse: Well, good luck with that. ( ^ ‿ ^ ) I did just want to warn you, in case your Mom appears with a bow and quiver full of arrows.

Prince Jin: Thank you, Hahn Minha. And for the record, 10-year-old me would have jumped at the chance of marrying 10-year-old you.

Minnie Mouse: LOL Only because you wanted my pink flamingo scarf.

Prince Jin: And those pink rain boots, remember?

Minnie Mouse: How I wept the day I outgrew those.

Prince Jin: I tried to stretch them out for you.

Minnie Mouse: With your giant smelly boy feet. ( ˘ ▃ ˘ ) Anyway, here's me: fourteen years too late and scarf-less.
Minnie Mouse: We should get coffee next time you're in the city, if your army of fans and bodyguards permit.

Prince Jin: I would really like that.

Minnie Mouse: Me too, Prince Jin. Byyyeee!

 

Chapter Text

“Oh, Universe, hold me up
Tried your best, is it ever enough
When it’s already dragging me down?”
Weight in Gold, Gallant

August 2016 - Los Angeles

“I have an idea,” Taehyung says as he climbs into the back seat of their rented car.

Seokjin immediately lowers his phone. Every idea of Taehyung's bears the need for scrutiny, because they're either ridiculous or brilliant but rarely anything in between.

Seokjin crosses his legs and leans in. “I'm listening,” he says.

“I could take one of your muscle relaxers.”

Before Seokjin can respond, Hoseok collides into the middle seat followed by Namjoon. Taehyung's thought and Seokjin's confusion become lost in a tangle of legs and loudness as Namjoon addresses the driver and the car noses out into Los Angeles traffic.

“Where are we going again?” Hoseok asks as he buckles himself in.

Namjoon checks his phone and tells them the restaurant's name, some famous burger nightclub that promises live music, great food, and anonymity.

Seokjin needs all three. Plus, alcohol. Maybe a lot.

His phone buzzes.

Your eye's doing the thing, Taehyung writes.

Seokjin shoots back, What do you mean you can take one of my muscle relaxers???

Taehyung shrugs as he types his response: Since you're worried about hurting me when we do the thing I want to do, a muscle relaxer could help.

Seokjin's fingertips go cold. He fumbles through his answer, typing and re-typing it three times before getting it right: That is literally the worst idea you've ever had. And we are not discussing this. Not here, not ever.

Taehyung's frown deepens. He writes, Are you mad?

“Hey, you all right?” Namjoon asks as he bumps Seokjin's shoulder.

“My neck,” Seokjin says. He rolls his head in a tight circle to illustrate. “It's really killing me right now.”

Taehyung folds his arms and leans against the window. Outside the lights of the LA street scroll by, painting his face in gold and shadow.

 

The burger place makes good on its promise of great food and privacy. It smells of beer-soaked sawdust, and patrons just toss their empty peanut shells all over the floor. But it's dim and smoky and different from what they're used to, so Seokjin decides, after his third shot of tequila, that it isn't so bad. Plus, Taehyung, Hoseok, and Jimin get roped into some kind of coordinated cowboy dance, which Seokjin watches from the bar with Namjoon.

Three shots in himself, and Namjoon tips forward. He yells over the live band, “Hey. You wanna talk about earlier?”

Seokjin slams back his fourth shot and knocks the bar for another. “Definitely not,” he answers.

Namjoon licks salt from the back of his hand. “You know what worst part is?” he asks.

“Worst... part?” Seokjin asks. The drinks have made his brain fuzzy, but he's still pretty sure he missed something.

“I want to text her, but I can't,” Namjoon says.

“You mean Amica,” Seokjin guesses.

Namjoon bites into a lemon rind. After wincing down his shot, he says, “I mean I can. But I shouldn't. So I don't. Cause, like, that's what's expected after a break-up, right? You're not supposed to engage. And y'know, the girls I take back to my room, they're all okay—”

“—Since when do you take girls back to your room?” Seokjin interrupts.

Grinning, Namjoon clasps Seokjin's arm with both of his hands. “Ssshhhh,” he says. “Once. Okay, twice I did. Like maybe three times.”

Seokjin gulps down the giggle in his throat. “When?”

“'Merican girls,” Namjoon says. “And one in France. Like, they didn't know who we are, so it was like, safe, right?”

“One in France?” Seokjin says. “Really?”

Namjoon says, “It was right after...” Then he announces, “More tequila.”

“Maybe you've had enough?” Seokjin suggests.

Namjoon touches two fingers to his nose. “Maybe you've had enough.” Then he knocks the bar and the bartender brings them each another shot.

“To American girls,” Namjoon says, lifting the glass between forefinger and thumb.

And Seokjin says, “To... Taehyung.” They clink their shot glasses together and throw them back.

Namjoon bumps the glass to its side and hooks his elbows on the bar's edge. “Look at 'em,” he murmurs, gesturing vaguely toward Jimin and Taehyung. Taehyung's wearing a boat-sized cowboy hat, and Jimin's got some over-sized fringe vest slung over his shoulders. They're laughing so hard it's as though they're holding each other up. As they watch, Hoseok leaps onto a table to dance while Jungkook snaps pictures and Yoongi throws peanuts at them. “How can they be so happy all the time?” Namjoon ponders aloud. He pinches Seokjin's sleeve, giving it a playful tug. “You, too. How do you manage?”

“I'm happy all the time?” Seokjin asks.

Namjoon eyes him side-wise. Then he sniffs. “Hm. You used to be...”

 

Seokjin stumbles out into the heavy California night and vomits twice into the scrub that edges the parking lot. His intestines and his brain both feel like they're still on fire, so he finds Sejin-nim and practically begs him to take him back to their hotel.

In a kind of nausea-laced haze, Seokjin showers, brushes his teeth, and completes his skin care routine. When Taehyung texts him who-knows-how-long later, it's with a single cryptic instruction that says: Meet me in the golden ballroom.

A year ago, six months ago, Seokjin would have refused. Out of anger or misplaced pride, he would have shut off his phone and hung a Do Not Disturb sign on his door. But tonight he searches like a man in a nightmare, jogging down corridor after corridor until he finds a cavernous, partially-lit chamber on the hotel's main floor. The double doors hang open, spilling a sweep of weak light into the hallway, and from there, Seokjin hears... singing.

Seokjin doesn't understand that he's angry until he's speaking. He doesn't know what he's saying until the words pour from his mouth. He crosses the checkered ballroom floor, filling the space with the sound of his voice. He's conscious on one level how loud he's being, and on another, he just doesn't care.

“When you were sick, I thought you were dying because someone had drugged you,” Seokjin shouts. “I almost came out to my mother because I was afraid and I needed to talk to someone and you weren't there.” His voice breaks, leaving him stranded in the center of the ballroom, surrounded by tables stacked with chairs and black windows sliced by spindling, gilded frames.

He hears, “I'm sorry,” and he twists toward Taehyung's voice.

“Stop. Apologizing,” Seokjin bites out. He stalks off in the direction of the sound, nearly slamming into Taehyung as he rounds one of the tables. Seokjin has to grip his arms to keep them both from falling.

Taehyung has yet to change out of his white button-down and skinny black tie. He reeks of cigarette smoke, a scent that Seokjin links inextricably to Minyeong, and in this closeness, he has to fight the gut-deep instinct to retch.

“For God's sake, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin says, the words thick in his throat. “You haven't even had alcohol since December.”

“Shhh,” Taehyung says. “I know. I know.” He laces their fingers and presses their foreheads together.

Seokjin can't account for what wells up inside him, except maybe alcohol, and maybe exhaustion, and maybe frustration over too many recent failings for him to count. Like the song that's been rejected a dozen times now, and the weight he still can't seem to shed, and the choreo he can't master, and his neck injury, and now this: His complete and embarrassing inability to give Taehyung the one thing that he wants.

“Are you happy with me?” Seokjin sobs.

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says. He begins to weep like it's a silent kind of surrender. Seokjin tastes the salt on his lips and realizes that he's kissing him. In public. Again.

But when he pulls away, Taehyung holds him there. “There's no one here,” he whispers. “It's just you and me. It's just us.”

Taehyung meets his eyes, but they're so close he looks like a cyclops. Which makes Seokjin hiccup a little laugh.

“Shh,” Taehyung soothes again.

Seokjin says, “What if I can never...? What if I... can't?

Taehyung sort of shrugs, but then he asks, “Why?”

“I can't—” He knows that's weak, so he says something equally pointless. “I don't know.”

“Yes you do,” Taehyung whispers.

Seokjin feels Taehyung's breath on his lip, feels his heartbeat pounding against his own breastbone. Taehyung's fingertips brush cold against the backs of Seokjin's hands. But the smell of smoke is on him, and in Seokjin's own nose, and it makes him feel like he's going to be sick again.

“I should've,” Seokjin says. His chin trembles, but he fights to speak. “If I... It's my...” Wrong again. “Dammit—”

“—Remember what Hobi-hyung says,” Taehyung tells him.

“Breathe,” Seokjin mutters. He tries, but the stench of the smoke... and the elevator, and Minyeong, the cardboard box jabbed hard into his ribs. He manages to say, “I don't want you to leave me.”

“Jinnie—”

“—No.” Again he tries to flee; again Taehyung keeps him there. And then Seokjin finally says it, so low it's barely even a whisper. “I don't want to corrupt you.”

Taehyung exhales a shaky breath. He says, “Is that what this is about?”

“Does that make me a failed gay?” Seokjin asks, aware of how petulant he sounds. “Because I just don't think I can take that, too.”

Taehyung peers up into the ceiling. After a moment he says, “You almost came out to your Mom?”

Seokjin shoves him. “That's what you take away from all this?”

“No. But it helps to know there is a situation in which you would—”

“—When you're dying?”

“Hyung, I wasn't dying—”

“—When I think you're dying?” Seokjin amends.

They both chuckle then, softly, partly relieved and partly exhausted. Seokjin pulls Taehyung's hands around his waist and rests his own palms on Taehyung's hips.

“I still don't understand,” Taehyung says.

Having spoken Minyeong's poisonous word aloud, Seokjin feels somehow stronger, less afraid and less ashamed. He asks, “Will you sing to me?”

“If I do, will you tell me everything that's been going on with you?”

Seokjin breathes out a long sigh. “How long do we have?”

“Forever,” Taehyung answers.

Seokjin buries his face against Taehyung's neck. “Then I guess it's a deal.”

 

Chapter Text

“You can smile as long as we're together.”
Prologue, BTS

August 2016 - Seoul

Namjoon watches him like he's a flight risk, like if he glances away for even half a second, Seokjin might bolt. Which, given the way Seokjin treated Hoseok a month ago and the way he's treated Taehyung on multiple occasions in the past, maybe he's earned the surveillance.

But today, Seokjin has no reason to run.

All around them, the studio crackles with activity. In a nearby sound room, Yoongi tears through a piece on his piano. Then he stops, talks loudly for a moment with the producer, and then resets to pound through it again. Seokjin and Namjoon stop by the practice room, where the tailor measures Jungkook's legs for a new pair of pants. She chides him, playfully, for growing several centimeters taller in the last three weeks because now his trousers will have to be redone in time for filming.

Meanwhile, Jimin surreptitiously divides his attention between practicing his solo stage with Hoseok and watching Jungkook in the mirror. When Hoseok sees Namjoon and Seokjin at the door, he breaks into his most generous smile. He taps Jimin, who jumps like he's been caught (because he has), and they cross the room to meet them.

“Well, how'd it go?” Hoseok asks.

“It's done,” Namjoon answers proudly. “He did it.”

Hoseok pulls Seokjin into a half-hug. “Knew you would.”

And Seokjin has to swallow his tears. “Not without you,” he manages to say.

Because it's the truth. Seokjin didn't want to share his song, and even after he did, he almost couldn't bring himself to sing it. After the initial read-throughs with Slow Rabbit, Hoseok sat with Seokjin for almost twenty-four hours straight. They went through it, syllable by syllable, until Seokjin could finally speak it aloud. Even still, it didn't click until Hoseok added a line about fate. Then it was like a key turning in Seokjin's heart, and with his eyes closed and the melody alive in his ears, it finally flowed from his lips.

“We should celebrate,” Jimin says. Jungkook gravitates toward them, forcing the tailor to trail after him.

“We've still got a couple tracks in post,” Namjoon says, and Jimin and Jungkook groan.

“But we will,” Hoseok promises. “Once they're done.”

“And once Tae comes home,” Jungkook says. The tailor taps his knee. He shifts a quarter turn as she continues to pin his cuffs.

Jimin peers hopefully at Seokjin, and it takes a moment for him to realize that he's looking for permission. Before he can wonder what could have possibly changed between them to warrant this treatment, Namjoon says, “This weekend, right?”

“Uh. Should be,” Seokjin answers.

“Then we can spare a few hours on Sunday,” Namjoon says.

Jimin and Jungkook huddle over Jimin's phone to check the weekend's forecast. The tailor finishes her measurements and orders Jungkook to go change. He and Jimin hurry off, leaving Namjoon, Hoseok, and Seokjin to make small talk with the tailor, who somehow says nothing of Jimin and Jungkook going into the dressing room together.

When they return and the tailor takes the pants, Namjoon gets their dinner orders and Seokjin slips to the hallway to phone them in.

After completing the call – five orders of japchae, three sides of kimchi rice, and a liter of cola – he opens his KKT to view Taehyung's message from this morning. As Seokjin reads it, he recalls the river-gray of dawn in their hotel room and the sandy scent of Taehyung's hair, the distant sound of thunder layered with the quiet measure of his breathing.

Taehyung wrote: The mornings I wake up in your arms, those are the sweetest days.

It's been a year since Seokjin tossed his phone into the Chao Phraya and eight months since Bang PD re-purposed Minyeong, but Seokjin and Taehyung learned their lesson well. They never keep anything of consequence on their phones. All of their cherished files go into a private email for them to archive on Seokjin's laptop at home. He screenshots the message, sending it to himself before reluctantly deleting it from the chat.

“Hey,” Namjoon says, startling Seokjin so badly he almost drops his phone. “Sorry.” He smiles and gives him that worried look again. Then he goes, “Kook-ah wanted to make sure you got the soda.”

“I did,” Seokjin says. He pockets his phone. “Twenty minutes and you can eat.”

“What about you?”

“What has wings but runs away from every fight?” Seokjin asks, and Namjoon nods.

“A... chicken.”

“I brought chicken,” Seokjin confirms.

Namjoon threads his arm in Seokjin's and they head back toward the practice room. Yoongi's piano riff ribbons through the recording studio, softer now and more somber. Twilight slants across the corridor in oblong strips of ivory and ash. The AC huffs to combat the humidity, and the air smells faintly of ozone and floor wax.

“You wouldn't really leave us,” Namjoon asks. “Right?”

Seokjin holds his breath and doesn't reply.

“Because you promised, remember?” Namjoon says. “We were at the cafe table in Myeongdong and you fed your fries to the pigeons, and we sat there and discussed our future and you promised that you were in this no matter what.”

Seokjin smiles in spite of himself. He wants to tell Namjoon that the boy who sat across from him all those years ago is not the same person walking beside him now. Time and experience have obliterated everything Seokjin believed he was. As for who he is now, he can barely even hazard a guess.

“I'm not gonna leave,” Seokjin says. But before Namjoon can smile, he continues, “But sometimes I wonder if it would be better for you all if I did.” He pushes past the injured look on Namjoon's face and continues. “I'm not saying this for sympathy, and I don't need, like, therapy or encouragement. Although I honestly think I've cried more in the last eight months than in all of my life combined.”

“Same,” Namjoon says. He tugs Seokjin to one of the benches at the end of the hall. They sit for a moment, watching the clockwork of traffic below, the endless ebb of buses and cars and people going about their daily lives.

“You ever going to tell me about this Amica girl?” Seokjin asks.

Namjoon gives a quick half-shrug. “Nothing to tell. We met in a coffee shop. She was reading Khafka on the Shore, and she had no clue who Rap Monster was, so I could be, you know, me.”

“Kim Namjoon, genius poet.”

“You're confusing me with Yoongi,” Namjoon says.

“I never get confused,” Seokjin says.

“Right, I forgot.” Namjoon stretches his legs. “Only with every choreography we've ever done.”

Seokjin presses a hand to his chest. “I order you noodles, and you repay me with this?”

Namjoon shoots back, “You still owe me a soup.”

“Aaaaand you're forgiven,” Seokjin says. They're quiet for a handful of seconds before Seokjin asks, “So, how long did it last?”

“Six weeks,” Namjoon answers. “Counting the week we were in Scandinavia.”

“Yikes,” Seokjin says. “Did you like her?”

Namjoon finally turns to meet Seokjin's eye. “Yeah. She was smart, y'know. And funny. She made stupid puns.”

“Ah, a keeper.”

Namjoon chuckles lightly. “Yeah. Anyway, like I said, it wasn't fair to her. My whole mind and soul exist right here.” He splays his arms to encompass the whole of the studio, the practice rooms, the recording booths, everything.

Seokjin pats his leg. “It won't be like this forever,” he says.

“You're the guy to know, I guess,” Namjoon says.

“Oh? How's that?”

Namjoon flattens his hair over his forehead. He says, “You know, when you and Taehyung first came to tell me you're in love, I had no idea it would last this long.”

Seokjin breathes out, “Yeah.”

“I figured you'd self-destruct after a few months, then you'd heal up and we'd all return to being hyungs,” Namjoon said. “And then, when you did self-destruct that time in Tokyo, I really thought that would be the end of it.”

Seokjin shuts his eyes against the pain of that memory. Those moments he spent alone and lost that night still make his heart skip hard inside his chest.

“But the fact that you are still in love coming up on three years together, in this environment, under this kind of pressure,” Namjoon goes on, “That means something.” He presses a palm to his chest for emphasis. “Jin-hyung, I tried dating one girl, and after a week, she drove me crazy. But you guys: You live together. You travel together. You plan your private time. You look out for each other. You've made a life with him, and it's working.”

It feels quietly validating to hear Namjoon talk about them in this way. Seokjin feels a smile rise up in him like a wave. He closes his eyes again, framing the words of Taehyung's text in his mind. The mornings I wake in your arms, those are the sweetest days. Seokjin knows this simple collection of words will sustain him for the whole next week.

“I love how Taehyung-ah sees the world,” he tells Namjoon. “It's not the real world. But it's the one I want to live in.”

The phone buzzes in his pocket. Not Taehyung, but Yeonbi at the front desk, letting him know their food has arrived.

Namjoon nods as he stands. “Again, same,” he says. They walk together to the elevator, and Namjoon thumbs the button. Yoongi's piano clinks delicately now, like ice in cocktail glasses. In the practice room, Jimin, Jungkook, and Hoseok sing loudly to Adult Ceremony as they practice Jungkook's birthday choreo.

As the doors slide open, Seokjin says, “I don't know how we can stay together, Joon. But I can't breathe when I think of our lives apart.”

Thankfully, Namjoon doesn't need to ask if Seokjin's talking about Taehyung or all of them. “So don't,” Namjoon says. The doors close and the elevator begins its descent.

“Just... don't?” Seokjin laughs. He can't help but think of the time he stood in this elevator with Minyeong, the acrid stench of smoke stitching deep into his lungs. A thousand sweet words from Taehyung and a thousand more encouragements from his friends and family and fans, yet it's Minyeong's words that still slice deepest into his heart.

“And don't leave us,” Namjoon says. There's a thread of desperation in his leader's voice, enough to let Seokjin know that he was legitimately concerned.

“I won't,” Seokjin assures him. The elevator doors part, and they go to the front desk, where Yeonbi flirts shamelessly with Namjoon while Seokjin pays the delivery guy for their food.

But Namjoon needn't have worried. Seokjin was always more afraid of them leaving him than the other way around.

 

Chapter Text

“What if, what if we're hard to find?
What if, what if we lost our minds?
What if, what if we fell behind
and are never found?”
Youth, Troye Sivan

September 2016 – Jungkook's birthday

“Did you know,” Taehyung whispers, “that my nose fits behind your ear?”

“Prove it,” Seokjin breathes.

Taehyung revels in the feather-brush of his eyelashes against Seokjin's neck. The softness contrasts sharply with the crisp, crinkling fabric of the red raincoat he's wearing, the sleeves of which make a reedy, swishing sound every time he moves his arms.

“Someone's gonna see us,” Seokjin moans. He slides Taehyung's arms around his waist, linking their fingers to keep him close.

“They won't see us,” Taehyung hums into Seokjin's skin. “They're too busy with Jimin-ie and Kook-ah.”

Even as Taehyung speaks, they hear the tech in the sound booth calling down instructions. The lights brighten and then dim as Jimin and Jungkook re-set for the ten-thousandth run-through of Adult Ceremony, which they're supposed to perform tonight.

But Jimin, resident perfectionist, somehow keeps messing it up.

“You did amazing,” Seokjin whispers between breaths.

Taehyung licks the delicate whorl of Seokjin's ear. “Yeah?”

Seokjin goes rigid. “Fuck, Taehyung-ah. If you keep that up, we're gonna need more than a curtain to hide behind.”

“Then I will definitely keep it up,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin twists within the cage of his embrace. Taehyung slides his hands up the back of Seokjin's sweat-shirt, tugging their hips closer as Seokjin shoves him against the wall.

“It's so hot when you rap,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung smooths his tongue along Seokjin's collarbone. “You like it?”

“I'm the biggest fan of your tongue work,” Seokjin mutters. His eyes slip closed. Taehyung angles back to gaze at his face. His blond hair mats to his forehead in sweaty spikes, and his cheeks blush to the color of sunlight on snow. Before he can stop himself, he takes out his phone and snaps the photo.

Seokjin's eyes flutter open. “What're you doing?” he whispers.

He pockets the phone. “I sent it to you,” he says, and he returns to nipping kisses along his jaw.

“Wait,” Seokjin says, and Taehyung pauses mid-bite to listen. “It's Yoongi,” Seokjin continues, and so Taehyung nods and continues as well.

“VV,” Seokjin says, almost pleading. Taehyung slides a hand up Seokjin's thigh and grins.

Taehyung whispers, “Let's do the, uh... We can, um...”

“Yeah. Let's.” Seokjin's lashes flutter. “Do you have—?”

“—Hyung,” Taehyung answers. “Of course I have.”

Seokjin arches up to nibble Taehyung's ear. He whispers, “Don't keep me waiting.” Then he dips around the curtain to disappear backstage.

 

Taehyung hums as he rustles through his bag. He tucks a packet of hand wipes and a travel-sized bottle of peach flavored lube into the pocket of his raincoat. As an afterthought, he stuffs in a bag of mochi crisps just in case, because sometimes Seokjin is hungry when they're done...

And then he hears Jimin's voice. Taehyung can't hear his words, but the pitch sounds thin and thready, like he's trying not to cry. Taehyung knows that sound too well to just leave it alone.

When they were in school together and Jimin was the pudgy-faced new boy trying way too hard to fit in, Taehyung became well-versed in responding to that particular tone. Only as he rounds the corner, bracing for whatever conflict Jimin might be facing, Taehyung finds Jimin and Jungkook squared off with Yoongi.

Taehyung hastily decides a retreat is his best course of action. Seokjin's waiting for him in the bathroom, and they only have a few hours to get it on and get a shower before the birthday thing begins.

Jimin meets his eye and gives him a startled head-shake – the signal to stay out of it – but before Taehyung can get into the clear, Yoongi glances back to catch him in his crosshairs.

Yoongi gestures for Taehyung to join them. He continues to talk in a hurried, hushed tone as Taehyung approaches. Though it's too brisk for Taehyung to hear, he can guess from the sharp set of Yoongi's shoulders that they aren't ordering food.

Taehyung comes to rest between Yoongi and Jungkook, nodding along as he tries to puzzle his way into the conversation.

“...And people notice,” Yoongi hisses. “The guy in the sound booth – our friend Jeongil – he is watching you two fuck around on stage and the staff has started talking.”

“They have?” Taehyung asks.

Jungkook scuffs the toe of his Timberland in a soft circle on the floor.

“Yeah, they have,” Yoongi says. “How do you think we found out? Namjoon's in the break room having a nice little chat with two of the interns who were concerned that you two were up to something.”

“But we weren't filming, hyung. And we aren't up to anything,” Jimin protests. “Taehyung-ie, tell him.”

“Uhm.” Taehyung glares at Jimin as he flounders for something to say. Jimin, wide-eyed, mouths an apology. “Jimin-ie would tell me if there was something going on?” he tries.

Jimin nods, enthusiastic in his gratitude.

Yoongi rolls his eyes. “Look. Maybe you're not filming, but there are people around. Just because you two don't cop to whatever this is—” he gestures a swift arc between them with his finger and thumb, “—It doesn't make you exempt from the rules that apply to Jin-hyung and Tae.”

Taehyung's phone buzzes. He takes out his phone and gasps at the photo Seokjin sent.

“Yep. Yes. Rules,” Taehyung mutters, thumbing back a hasty OMO, OMW to Seokjin. “Rules are... essential.” He begins to slowly back away from the circle when Yoongi snags his wrist.

“We're not trying to bust your asses,” Yoongi says. “Believe me when I say that this is as far from my comfort zone as anything I can imagine. But we have these rules to protect you guys. So whether you're banging in the supply closet or just being, like, bro-friends, you have to remember: People are watching you.”

Jungkook clears his throat. He goes, “We're not... bro-friends... or whatever.”

Taehyung asks, “So what are you?” Then he inwardly kicks himself because Seokjin's waiting for him and, and he's already pretty much naked...

Jimin looks at Jungkook. He says, “More than friends.”

“But not...” Jungkook's shoulders lift. “We don't want to label what we have.”

“Like I said, I don't care,” Yoongi says. “Do whatever the hell you want to do in your private time. Tie each other up. Dip yourselves in glitter and Jell-o. Fucking get it on. But not. In front. Of people.” He touches Jimin's chin with two fingers. “Got me?”

Jimin says, “I'm sorry, hyung,” and Jungkook echoes with, “We're sorry.”

Yoongi says, “Don't be sorry, okay? Just do something about it.”

Taehyung's phone vibrates again.

“And you,” Yoongi says, whirling on Taehyung. He drags air through his teeth. “Run through verse three again before tonight. At least twice.”

“Yes, hyung.”

Once Yoongi leaves, Taehyung dares to check his phone. His mouth fills with saliva, and he attempts again to back off stage.

“You're leaving us?” Jimin asks.

Taehyung dims the image on the screen. “I have something very important to do.”

Jimin's bottom lip quivers as he says, “More important than your best friends?”

Taehyung pans helplessly from one to the other. “Well, but—”

“—We could use your advice,” Jungkook says. “Yours and Jin-hyung's.”

Taehyung brightens. “Then I'll just go get him,” he says.

And Jimin takes out his own phone. “It's okay, I'll message him.”

“No. Wait!” Taehyung snaps his fingers in the air.

Jeongil the sound tech crackles over the PA system, “You guys ready to try it again?”

“Yes,” Taehyung shouts. “From the top.” He points to Jungkook and then to Jimin, and as the music cues up, he rushes from the stage.

 

 

“That took forever,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung, breathless, says, “I was stressed.”

He sinks against the stall door. Seokjin's face is the tender pink of a rabbit's ear, and his hair sticks up in pale furrows from where Taehyung knotted his fists.

As he re-buttons Taehyung's jeans, Seokjin asks, “Why is my VV stressed?” He stands to pet down Taehyung's hair, which must be as disheveled as Seokjin's own, considering how hard he pulled it earlier when he came. “Are you worried about Cypher?”

“No.” Taehyung's still working hard to steady his breath.

“Are you worried about... my dancing?”

“Should I be?”

Seokjin brays a soft laugh. “No.”

“Then, no.”

“Are you worried about the performance tonight?”

Taehyung smooths his thumb over Seokjin's swollen lips. Then he shakes his head.

“Are you worried about our promotions next week?” Seokjin asks. “Things get a little wild with our fans in the Philippines.”

“Nope,” Taehyung says.

“Then you must be stressed about... Jimin,” Seokjin says.

“Hyung, that was a really good guess,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin shrugs. “You're always a little worried about Jimin.”

“He's always a little worried about me, too,” Taehyung says.

He gives Seokjin an abbreviated account of what happened between Yoongi, Jimin, and Jungkook, and the promise he made on their behalf to talk with them later. Whenever they managed to carve out enough time.

But he knows that's the luxury they don't possess. They have to shower now and get to wardrobe and do the final sound checks before Jungkook's birthday performance, and frankly, Taehyung's surprised they managed even this much time to themselves.

“Hey, Taehyung-ah,” Seokjin grins.

Taehyung begins to shake his head. “No, hyung...”

“Know what we're doing in here, right now?” he asks.

Even as he cringes, even as he laughs, Taehyung feels compelled to ask, “What?”

“We're stalling.”

Taehyung sighs. “So many regrets.”

"You love it," Seokjin says before he brings his mouth to Taehyung's. There's sweetness beneath the heat of it, and Taehyung draws it out for as long as he can.

 

 

Chapter Text

“With shortness of breath, I’ll explain the infinite.
How rare and beautiful it truly is that we exist.”
Saturn, Sleeping At Last

September 2016 – MBC Champion Awards – Philippines

Jimin and Taehyung sit knee to knee in the green room, awaiting their turn in the makeup chair. Beside them, Yoongi dozes on the vinyl sofa, oblivious to the chaos of maybe a hundred various performers and trainees and staff. Just seeing him there, all falsely angelic in his state of semi-sleep, makes Jimin feel exhausted.

And Taehyung's not helping. He leans heavily on Jimin's shoulder, his eyes cemented to the text app on his phone. Taehyung smells of coconut shampoo and powdered donuts. It wouldn't be so bad, except that Taehyung's also like a living furnace. The heavy scents plus the warmth of Tae mean that if Jimin doesn't move soon, he might just spontaneously explode.

Jimin twists, feeling his spine pop like a champagne cork. He stretches, dislodging Taehyung, who groans as he nestles deeper into Jimin's side.

“Tae-Tae, if I don't get up, my legs are going to fall asleep,” Jimin says.

Taehyung nods but doesn't look up from his texts. He also doesn't move.

“Taehyung-eeeee,” Jimin moans. He slides across the sofa as far as he dares without touching Yoongi, but Taehyung follows his motion, curling into a fetal position to pillow his head on Jimin's thighs.

Behind them, a newly-debuted girl group runs noisily and excitedly through their choreo. Somehow, this doesn't wake Yoongi, so Jimin decides he can push Taehyung a little further.

He digs two fingers into Taehyung's shoulder. “I worked out with your boyfriend this morning,” he singsongs. “He let me touch his biceps.”

Taehyung rolls his head to squint up at him.

“And his triceps,” Jimin says, grinning. “And his glutes.”

Taehyung snorts and returns to texting, his head resolutely in Jimin's lap.

Jimin considers a moment his next course of action. Tickling Taehyung, while effective, would definitely wake Yoongi, and Yoongi already delivered a detailed description of what he would do to them if they let that happen.

Yeah, tickling's off the table.

Then Taehyung shifts a fraction, far enough that Jimin can read the top two messages on his phone screen.

“Are you texting Jin-hyung?” Jimin whisper-shouts. “He's like, twenty feet away.”

“In another room,” Taehyung says. “He's getting his hair done.”

“Kookie's getting his hair done, too,” Jimin says. “You don't see me texting him.”

“Please,” Taehyung mutters. “You send him selfies from the toilet.”

Jimin splutters, incredulous. He huffs, “I do not.”

Again, Taehyung angles his head to give Jimin a judgmental gaze. “I have proof,” he says.

“Liar,” Jimin growls.

Taehyung snickers as he pulls up a photo archive, and Jimin has to wonder if he's telling the truth. His brain casts frantically about, mentally skimming through recent KKT logs and Snapchats. Then he flashes to a heart-to-heart he shared with Taehyung after a blurry night out in Tokyo. There had been too many drinks followed by some extremely handsy business with Jungkook in a karaoke room. And Jimin may have gushingly confessed all of it to Taehyung on the floor of their hotel bathroom, where afterward, he may have also sent a series of swollen-faced, bleary-eyed selfies in a group chat between him and Jungkook and Taehyung.

“You were supposed to delete those,” Jimin hisses.

All feigned innocence, Taehyung goes, “Was I?”

Jimin lunges for Taehyung's phone. Taehyung snatches it away.

“You don't have them,” Jimin says. He pulls himself rigid and gnaws his thumbnail.

“You're right,” Taehyung agrees.

Which in Taehyung speak means he absolutely does.

“Gimme,” Jimin demands. He crooks a menacing finger beneath Taehyung's chin, which Taehyung smugly ignores. He resumes chatting, and Jimin can only assume that he's relaying all of this exchange to Seokjin, who's probably honking his stupid goose laugh while the stylist retouches his roots.

Jimin feels the teeniest bloom of anger in his gut. “Taehyung-ie, give it,” he says through his teeth.

“Nope.”

Yoongi exhales, and they both go still. Taehyung cranes his neck to watch as Yoongi slumps against the wall. Jimin seizes his opportunity before Taehyung has a chance to react. He swipes Taehyung's phone in one fluid motion, and then he leaps, spilling Taehyung to the floor.

He hears the baffled scuffling of Taehyung behind him, but Jimin keeps his focus forward, running as fast as his legs can carry him. Which, honestly, would be faster if they weren't half asleep... but the element of surprise gives Jimin a decent enough lead.

That is, until he slams into Jungkook in the junction of the corridor.

Jungkook, also working off the element of surprise, whirls Jimin against the wall and bites a kiss into his neck.

It's quick and dizzying and for a millisecond Jimin wonders if it actually happened. But then he feels the cool sting of its mark beneath his jaw.

“What are you doing?” Jungkook asks. Somehow he's breathless, too, and Jimin doesn't have any time to think. He pushes Taehyung's phone into Jungkook's hands.

“Don't ask,” he says. “Just take it and go.”

Jimin savors the moment of transition from confusion to conspiracy in Jungkook's eyes before he pockets the phone and lopes off in the other direction.

Jimin, on the other hand, tucks back into the main hall, where Taehyung is plowing headlong toward him. Jimin screeches and bolts, nearly toppling an SM production assistant and a handcart filled with coffees.

“Park Jimin!” Taehyung shouts, and Jimin screams. Laughter bubbles out of him as he dodges between a pair of backup dancers and two members of Astro. He hears Taehyung pause a moment to apologize to them, which only serves to widen Jimin's lead. He's able to duck left at the cafeteria and hairpin into an adjacent hallway before choosing a random empty dressing room in which to hide.

Jimin crouches beneath a clothing rack draped in black velvet cloaks and sequined dresses. He takes out his phone and messages Taehyung's.

After a moment, Jungkook writes back: Jimin why do I have Tae's phone???

Jimin hears the door creak. He covers his mouth to stifle his laughter. He writes back: I'll explain everything. RN I'm hiding. Then he snaps a photo of himself peering up between the sleeves of a satin gown embroidered with stars.

It's the camera's shutter sound that gives him away. Taehyung whips back the cloaks, shouts, and then pounces. He and Jimin tumble across the floor, skittering boots and shoes in their wake. Jimin hip-bumps into a hassock, and Taehyung slings astride him. He immediately goes for Jimin's coat pockets, turning out Jimin's dental floss and chapstick to the floor.

Taehyung's laughing so hard he's kinda drooling. When he starts in on Jimin's jeans pockets, Jimin lets his hands go slack in surrender.

“Oh no,” he teases. “Dig a little deeper, Taehyung-ie. Whatever will you find in there?”

He flips Jimin over, and when he doesn't find his phone in his back pockets, he smacks Jimin's ass.

“Where is it?” Taehyung pants.

“Where is what, now?” Jimin replies. He slides onto his side, resting his cheek on his fist. “Maybe you should check again?”

Taehyung shoves him. “Fine, whatever. I'll get it when we go to makeup. You probably just handed it off to Jungkook or J-Hope.”

Jimin gapes, and Taehyung grins like he knows his guess is true.

“Then you can go back to texting your boyfriend from fifteen feet away,” Jimin moans as he sits upright.

“He was in another room,” Taehyung explains.

Jimin snorts. “You always choose him over me—”

“—I don't always—”

“—Almost always,” Jimin amends.

Taehyung draws up to sit beside him. “You're the one I talk to,” he says. “You know everything.”

“Do I know more than him?” Jimin asks.

Taehyung bites his lip as he considers. “Yeah,” he says. “Probably.”

Jimin slumps. “Probably?”

Taehyung pats his knee. “It's not a competition.”

“Do you even know me?” Jimin asks. And they both laugh.

Outside, a stampede of dancers tromps down the hall, talking excitedly in Tagalog. Jimin reaches to twitch the curtain of cloaks closed over their heads, to hide them in case anyone comes through the door.

Then he leans in. He says, “Did you know that Jungkook and Seokjin talk about sex?”

“No,” Taehyung says, his tone edged with disbelief.

“Apparently all the time,” Jimin whispers. “Like, all the time. Jin-hyung gives him advice and stuff.”

Taehyung rubs his lip with his thumb. “I didn't know.”

“Well, how come we don't?” Jimin asks.

Taehyung answers, “Because you can't say the word penis without blushing.”

And Jimin slaps his thigh. “Taehyung-ie!”

“It's true,” he says. “Say it now.”

“You say it.”

“I already said it, like two seconds ago.”

Jimin folds his arms. “Say it again.”

“Penis,” Taehyung says. He splays his hands in a gesture that says, Your turn.

Jimin pushes his hands through his bangs. “I don't know why I have to say it,” he says, breezily. “I've probably done more than you have now.”

The way Taehyung glares at him, Jimin knows that he's right.

“You still haven't—?” Jimin shouts. “He still hasn't... done the anal thing?”

“You'll say anal but you won't say penis?”

Jimin scrunches up his nose and shrugs.

Taehyung roughs his fingertips through his hair. He says, “Anyway I kinda know why he won't, now.”

“Why?” Jimin holds up his hands. “What did he say this time?”

A long, quiet pause hangs like a spiderweb between them. Then, with a soft puff of breath, Taehyung breaks, and suddenly, without any kind of warning, he begins to cry.

“Taehyung-ie?” Jimin says, dragging him into a hug. “What is it?”

“Minyeong-nim,” Taehyung gulps. Then he stops himself and tries – really tries – to dam up his tears. But he fails and continues to weep. “He said some really terrible things to him, like it's Jin-hyung's fault we're gay and that he corrupted us and that he's fat and forgettable and we're all gonna leave him someday...”

The strength bleeds out of Jimin's body. He rocks back against the hassock and presses his palms to his face. His skin feels clammy. His tongue tastes like dust.

“He said that?” Jimin mumbles. Then, “He knows about us?”

Taehyung nods. He rubs his nose on his sleeve.

Jimin stares at Taehyung's hands as the pieces drop into place. “That explains so much,” he says. “Oh wow. Minyeong really said all those things?”

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “And he hit us. And took away our phones. And our food.”

“I am so glad that bastard's gone,” Jimin says.

“Me too,” Taehyung agrees.

Then Jimin asks, “Does Jin-hyung... believe him?”

“Some,” Taehyung says.

Then he clenches his jaw. Jimin can see him struggling, so he touches his hand.

“He was trying so hard to protect me,” Taehyung sobs. “But nobody was protecting him.”

Jimin pulls Taehyung against him, pressing his body hard against his. “Oh,” he whispers into his hair. “Oh, it's okay. It'll be okay.”

Seconds later, or maybe minutes later, they hear the door hinge squeak. Hoseok's voice calls, “Jimin-ie? Taehyung-ie? Are you in here?”

Jimin leans back to inspect Taehyung's face. It's a wreck, so Jimin passes him a satin chemise before wriggling out from beneath the clothing rail.

“Here,” Jimin says.

It's not just Hoseok, but also Jungkook and Seokjin, and... something is wrong. Jungkook has Taehyung's phone pressed to his ear.

“Is Taehyung with you?” Seokjin asks. There's something fragile in his voice, and Jimin feels a knot of worry twist into his chest.

“I'm here,” Taehyung says. He uses Jimin's arm to pull himself up. It's still really obvious that he's been crying, and Jimin sees the look the other three exchange. Then Jungkook holds out Taehyung's phone.

“You have a call from Daegu,” Jungkook tells him. “It's from your Mom.”

Chapter Text

“The wind blows and everything drifts apart.
The rain pours and shatters
Until the last leaf falls...”
Autumn Leaves, Min Yoongi

September 15, 2016

After an hour of searching, Seokjin finds him alone on the roof of their building, dressed in black and looking out over the bright swirl of Seoul.

“What are you doing up here?” he asks, trying to screen the worry from his voice. But if Taehyung responds, Seokjin doesn't hear it, because at that moment, the pressure from the stairwell sucks the door shut behind him. Seokjin tests it, relieved to find it unlocked. But the wind on the rooftop moans like a lonely ghost, and somewhere north of Bukhansan, silent lightning stitches across the sky. Seokjin smells dust and dry leaves in the air, and gets the strangest, foreboding feeling that the seasons are about to change.

Brushing chills from his arms, he joins Taehyung at the rail. “Jimin says you returned around lunchtime,” he says.

Taehyung leans his head against Seokjin's shoulder.

“If I had known you were home,” Seokjin says. “I would've cut my last class to get here.”

And Taehyung shakes his head.

“You didn't message me,” Seokjin says. Then he berates himself inwardly for making this about him. When it is not about him. It's about Taehyung and his visit home to Daegu to be with his family.

Taehyung was gone for four days and messaged only twice: once when he arrived and once when he left. Seokjin always feels anxious when Taehyung visits home, because he knows Taehyung doesn't like to hide things from them. And right now, with the impending release of Wings and Taehyung's song, there is so much he has to hide.

“I couldn't,” Taehyung says. The muscles in his throat work as he struggles to keep the words inside.

The first knife of fear slices down into Seokjin. He asks, “Why not?”

Lightning flashes, a pale and airless pulse across the night. Taehyung faces resolutely forward, glancing at Seokjin with only his eyes. Seokjin catches the reflection of the city across his cornea, gold against the dark of his iris, edged with the light of his un-shed tears.

“I can't keep doing this,” Taehyung whispers.

Seokjin braces his palms on the cold handrail. A warm wind whisks up the front of his hair. “Can't keep doing what?” he hears himself say.

Taehyung doesn't move. He doesn't speak. It's like he's suspended, a sleeping prince caught in a coffin of amber.

“Taehyung-ah!” Seokjin pleads.

He shivers awake and finally turns to face him.

“Lying,” Taehyung says. “I can't keep lying.”

“You promised,” Seokjin says. This is a knee-jerk reaction and not at all helpful, as evidenced by Taehyung's abruptly pulling away.

“My family, hyung,” Taehyung says. His voice breaks.

Anger flares up inside him. “And what do you think happens if you tell them? Hm?” His voice is too loud, his tone too sharp. “You think they'll just forgive you? That it'll somehow go back to being normal? You think they'll protect you?”

“Yes,” Taehyung says.

“They won't,” Seokjin says.

“You don't know them.”

“I know people,” Seokjin spits. A small voice in Seokjin's heart screams at him to shut up. But the fear inside is so much louder. “And I know they're not as good as you think.”

Taehyung narrows his eyes. “I miss optimistic Seokjin,” he says. “Whatever happened to him?”

“He fell in love,” Seokjin says and immediately knows it's wrong.

Because Taehyung retreats several steps, putting more distance between them. “What does that mean?” he asks.

“Nothing,” Seokjin says. “That's not what I meant—”

“—Then why did you say it?”

Because I'm scared, Seokjin thinks. But he says, “I promised to protect us.”

Taehyung mutters, “But what is it doing to you if—?” He glances at the ground and then down at the skyline. “It's not supposed to destroy you, hyung. It's supposed to make you stronger.”

“It does,” Seokjin says. He steps toward Taehyung. “It has.”

“And we don't even get to look at each other in public,” Taehyung says. “Meanwhile, Jimin and Jungkook—”

“—Don't compare us to them,” Seokjin says. “They are little boys at play.”

“Remember when we were?” Taehyung fires back.

“Really, Taehyung-ah? Do they ever even talk about their future—?”

“—Do we talk of anything else?”

Seokjin's breath catches like he's been punched in the ribs. “That's not fair,” he says.

“There are about a million things that are unfair in this,” Taehyung agrees. “Let's just add it to the list.”

“Now who's the optimist?” Seokjin snaps.

Taehyung's expression betrays a glimmer of regret. But he doesn't look away as he says, “You've changed.”

We all have, Seokjin wants to say. Over their years together, in the course of all they've seen and done, the seven of them have shifted and stretched, becoming creatures unrecognizable to their former selves. Like seeds planted in an alien soil, they take on the wild aspects of the land and air around them, and now they are rarer and more beautiful than Seokjin would have ever imagined.

But he lacks the ability to put this into words. And he's afraid. He is so afraid that maybe Taehyung is wrong: That the rest of them have changed, while Seokjin remains the same – A beautiful face to mask the slow, selfish, empty thing inside.

Seokjin has to take a breath before he can speak. He says, “What do you want?”

“You know what I want,” Taehyung answers.

Seokjin nods, once. “Fine,” he says, edging his voice with a sultry purr. “You want to do it here?” He knows he's being petty. He knows this is not what Taehyung's asking for. But he doesn't stop himself as he closes the distance between them. “We can do it now, if you want—”

“—Not that,” Taehyung bites out, shoving Seokjin back.

Good, Seokjin thinks. Now he's angry, too. He feels a perverse vindication that he knows will sting him later. But for now, he's on the verge of tears again, and he is so tired of crying.

“Please don't do this to me,” Seokjin begs. Behind him, lightning flickers like machine gun fire followed by the first low growl of thunder.

“It's all about you, isn't it?” Taehyung says.

“This is so messed up, Taehyung-ah. I came up here to find you, to comfort you,” Seokjin says.

“I don't need your comfort, I have my family for that,” Taehyung shouts. When he continues, it's as though he used all his energy and now can only whisper, “I need you to stand beside me.”

“I do,” Seokjin says. “I will. But I... You can't ask this, Taehyung-ah. Please.”

Taehyung licks his lips. “What will happen if I do tell them? Hm? They could forgive me, or they could hate me forever and never speak to me again. But that is not the point.”

“Then what is?” Seokjin asks.

Taehyung places his hands on either side of Seokjin's neck. He dips to brush their foreheads together, and they stand that way for a long while, listening to the sound of the approaching storm. Seokjin focuses on the coolness of Taehyung's fingertips, on the hush of his breathing and the smell of his hair, to the exclusion of everything else, even the pounding of his own faithless heart.

When Taehyung speaks, it's like the brush of a feather on Seokjin's face. He says, “They will know that I love you with all that I have.”

Seokjin shifts to kiss him, but Taehyung slips away before their lips can touch.

And Seokjin feels himself retracting, reeling back in, folding up into the neat, unruffled person he becomes once he's beyond the reach of fear. “So that's it, then?” he asks.

Taehyung looks both disappointed and defeated as he stares into his face. “Yeah,” he answers. “I guess it is.”

The breeze that brushes them feels as delicate as a bruise. A spattering of stinging raindrops dash down, turning the white of Seokjin's shirt translucent against his skin. Lightning gleams across the metal railing, and the thunder that follows sounds like a distant exhale.

“We should get inside,” Taehyung says. He moves toward the door, but Seokjin remains, unable to move, unable even to breathe.

“I'm sorry,” he says.

Taehyung lifts the latch, spilling an oblong blot of light across his face. He says, “Hyung, don't apologize.”

And he leaves Seokjin alone.

 

Chapter Text

“Feeling empty, feeling used
It's like we're running off fumes
A little broken, confused
But one thing I know for sure:
Ain't giving up on you.”
Ain't Givin' Up, Craig David  

September 30, 2016

“How long has it been since he's talked to you?” Hoseok asks.

By way of an answer, Seokjin says, “What time is it now?”

Yoongi checks his phone, but before he can reply, Seokjin shouts, “Twelve days. It's been twelve days.”

“Give him time,” Namjoon soothes. He pats Seokjin's shoulder, and the elder slumps into him in a sideways kind of hug. Namjoon sends an empathetic look toward Hoseok, who nods encouragingly in response. Looping an arm around Seokjin's shoulder, Namjoon gently strokes his hair and says, “He's going through a lot right now.”

Seokjin says nothing. He sits there with his eyes closed, his head on Namjoon's shoulder, and after a while, Hoseok begins to wonder if maybe he's fallen asleep.

But then Yoongi says, “If it makes you feel any better, he hasn't talked to the rest of us either.”

“It doesn't,” Seokjin mutters. “But... thank you.”

When the waitress of Cafe Mona Lisa approaches, she watches them with a look Hoseok has come to anticipate when they're in public. Without a doubt, she has seen them on the Clean Perfume ads in bus stops around town. The four of them have taken a table on the open-air deck upstairs to avoid people on the street interrupting their meal, which happens now with alarming regularity. Thankfully, though, this waitress keeps her professional demeanor as she takes their order for drinks.

While their increased visibility makes finding privacy outside of the dorm challenging, Hoseok sees this cafe as a bright side. The deck affords them a broad vista of bustling Itaewon, which smells of roasting chestnuts and fried tteokbokki. Far distant in the direction of Jamsil, they can see the unfinished shape of the Lotte World Tower jutting like a thick thumb into the sky.

The recent thunderstorms finally blunted the sharp teeth of summer, giving way to the sweet, crisp breath of autumn. The air stirs around them, brimming with energy, and Hoseok knows a night out will do their souls some good.

They've been busy preparing their comeback, which means full overkill on dance practice, language lessons, broadcasts, and interviews. They wrapped up their Epilogue tour, but now they're preparing for Third Muster and the release of Wings. Taehyung's still filming scenes for Hwarang. Seokjin's still attending his classes. So it's been too easy for Taehyung to lapse into long, sullen silences while Seokjin burrows beneath the mountain of his coursework. Hoseok knows Taehyung has suffered since returning from Daegu, but like most things between him and Seokjin, they keep the details to themselves.

Hoseok sneaks a quick look at Seokjin. His shoulders curl over his phone, which lays silent and inert on his palm. He gazes up into the blank, black night, watching the contrails of jet planes bleed across the sky. Yoongi and Namjoon talk across him about mixtapes and release dates while the last of the evening's sun dwindles beneath the skyline.

It's just like them to drift into work talk while they wait for their drinks. And it's just like Seokjin to let them since he has nothing to contribute. Hoseok tries several times to engage him in conversation, but even discussing what they'll have for dinner proves useless since Seokjin claims that he already ate.

When the waitress brings their drinks, Namjoon orders for the table – squash ravioli, a pasta with Vodka cream sauce, and a pizza with pears and a type of cheese that Hoseok's never even heard of.

Hoseok expects Seokjin to make a clever pun about the weird cheese with the monstrous name. But he doesn't say anything. He sits there, numbly ignoring his darkened phone, until finally, Namjoon intervenes.

“Look, man,” he says. “I'm just gonna put this out there for you to consider. All right?”

Seokjin draws a breath and waits.

“Taehyung-ah is twenty-one years old,” Namjoon says. “And the only person he's ever been with... is you.”

Seokjin's eyes twitch. “What're you saying?” He looks to each of them with an expression of mild alarm, like he suspects they've planned this little talk. Which they have. Though it's far from scripted, Hoseok, Yoongi, and Namjoon all have an idea about what they intend to tell him.

Yoongi drags air through his teeth. “He's saying, maybe Tae needs to be on his own for a while.”

Seokjin makes a soft gulping noise before he asks, “Well, but... for how long?”

This is where Yoongi and Namjoon run aground. Neither of them knows how to handle this question. Namjoon would probably launch into some metaphysical musing about the relevance of time in relation to connection. Yoongi would likely open with lines about futility, and how they're all going to die some day. Both know there's no way that will give Seokjin any kind of comfort.

And really, all Hoseok can offer is an equally unhelpful non-answer, which is, “Until he's figured things out.”

Seokjin puts his head in his hands. He peers into his drink, which is pink and fizzy and adorned with a ludicrously festive paper umbrella.

Namjoon leans in. He says, “You know, Jin-hyung, this soul-searching thing Taehyung's got going on, it won't last forever—”

“—But what if...?” Seokjin shuts his eyes and tries again. “What if he doesn't... pick me?”

Yoongi meets Hoseok's gaze. In that moment, he looks as miserable and helpless as Seokjin must feel. Hoseok wills him to say something helpful, something encouraging and inspirational, like it'll all be okay, or things will work out in the end.

But Yoongi says, “Maybe you can use this time to figure out some things for yourself, too.”

Seokjin grips his phone so hard his fingertips turn white. For a second, Hoseok nurses the concern that Seokjin might skip the thing over the railing like he did in Thailand. It wouldn't make sense, of course; they don't have to hide from Minyeong anymore. But sometimes love makes people do stupid, unpredictable things.

Hoseok glowers meaningfully across the table. Yoongi responds with a lilt of one shoulder, like he's got an itch beneath his ribs.

Okay, so maybe platitudes about happy endings are way too Disney for Min Yoongi. Hoseok understands Yoongi's almost pathological need for privacy, but out of all of them, his experiences would most benefit Seokjin right now.

In the next moment the waitress brings their food, and in the scuffle of plates and pasta and pizza slices, Hoseok turns to Yoongi.

He whispers, “You could really help him, you know.”

Yoongi forks a cascade of noodles into his bowl. “How, exactly, might I do that?” he mutters.

Hoseok knows what he's about to say might – strike that, it will – hurt Yoongi. But he says it anyway.

“Don't let Seokjin do like you did,” he says.

Yoongi stabs his fork into the pasta. He sits there, rigid as a rail, his fist clenched tight around the utensil as he tries to decide if he should be angry. His conflict lasts all of twenty seconds – the length of time it takes for Namjoon to surreptitiously score the waitress's number – before Yoongi relents with a withering sigh of resignation.

He slides the pasta to Hoseok and scrapes his chair up closer to Seokjin. He talks for a few minutes, keeping his volume below the noise of the neighboring tables. Seokjin nods the whole time, blinking back his tears. Namjoon seems oblivious as he peels a slice of pear gorgonzola pizza from the pan.

“Try it,” he groans, nudging it toward Hoseok. “It's unbelievable.”

“I don't know,” Hoseok sneers. “Didn't we learn our fruit-on-pizza lesson with Jungkook's pineapple fiasco in LA?”

“Hey, that was not a bad pizza,” Namjoon says.

“That's because pizza on its own is a universal good,” Hoseok says. “But as pizza goes—”

Seokjin abruptly stands up. He says, “Okay. I will.” And with a nod to each of them, he leaves the table.

Namjoon swallows his mouthful of pizza. He says, “But...? I thought we were trying to get him to eat?”

Yoongi twists a massive knot of pasta onto his chopsticks. He stuffs it into his mouth, and Hoseok can't help but notice that he looks immensely pleased with himself.

“Well,” Hoseok says. “I guess there are some things more important than food.”

 

Chapter Text

“I promise you, I will learn from my mistakes.”
Fix You, Coldplay 

October 1, 2016
Midnight

He finds Taehyung on the futon, dressed in the same clothes he was wearing when they left practice six hours ago. He's awake with his phone cradled in the hollow of his body, probably playing that stupid piano game again, but Seokjin's grateful for the headphones because Taehyung doesn't hear him approach.

Seokjin bends to touch his shoulder. Taehyung whips around, his eyes flashing, like maybe he's been fending someone off all evening (probably the well-meaning gestures of Jimin and Jungkook) when all he wants is to be left alone.

Seokjin knows he's running the risk of angering him in the same way they did. But Yoongi's words keep playing in his head, and he feels like at least he should try.

All of Taehyung's anger unravels upon seeing Seokjin; he doesn't fight or try to push him away.

“Get up,” Seokjin says.

Without a word, Taehyung obeys.

Seokjin takes his hand and leads him to his bedroom. He gently tugs the headphones from Taehyung's ears. He says, “You don't have to talk to me.” He pulls the door closed but doesn't shut it. “You don't have to talk to anyone.”

He strips off Taehyung's sweatshirt and lets it fall to the floor. Taehyung hugs his arms over his bare chest, and Seokjin reaches for the closest clean piece of clothing he can find. It's his striped pullover, worn threadbare in places from years of wear and washing. Somehow, though, it still smells of strawberry milk shampoo, and Taehyung melts instantly into its softness.

“But you should know,” Seokjin says, guiding Taehyung into the bed. “You are not alone.”

Taehyung hugs the pillow beneath his chin. Seokjin brushes a tentative finger over his hair.

Think about it, hyung, Yoongi had said. You know him better than anyone. What do you think Taehyung wants more than anything right now?

Seokjin knew the answer. Taehyung told him on the rooftop two weeks ago: I need you to stand with me.

Maybe taking care of him tonight can be the next best thing.

Seokjin pulls the duvet over Taehyung's shoulders. He smooths a hand along the curve of his body to tuck him in.

“Yoongi's trading with you tonight,” Seokjin says. “I'll sleep in his bed. I'll be right here—”

“—Hyung.” Taehyung snags his wrist. His fingers feel cold. His dark eyes glow with captured lamplight. He looks thin and vulnerable beneath the heap of the white duvet.

“I'll stay,” Seokjin assures him. “I'm not going anywhere.”

Taehyung parts the duvet, opening a space for him. Seokjin hesitates, because this is their pattern. They argue and bicker and then make it up with sex. It's been a thrilling three years, but their habit of substituting physical contact for communication has maybe taken its toll.

“Just hold me,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin toes off his slippers and climbs into the bed. Taehyung stares at him, his focus softening as he fights against sleep. Then he nestles his head against Seokjin's arm. Within seconds, the coiled springs of tension in Seokjin's heart begin to unwind.

He wants to talk. He wants to fill the moment up with the babble of his hopeful relief.

But it's not over. It's perhaps a step in the right direction, but it's far from reconciliation. The same truth remains an impasse – Taehyung wants to be out with his family; Seokjin wants to stay as they are.

Seokjin fights his instinct to speak, turning his thoughts to Yoongi's words instead.

You've been tiptoeing around each other the past two weeks because you think you deserve this, Yoongi had said. Because you've done it to him so many times.

The truth of it stings Seokjin. It stunned him to hear Yoongi speak it out loud.

And Yoongi wasn't done.

But when you were silent, it was out of fear, Yoongi went on. And Taehyung is not afraid. Recent events have forced him to consider what he wants from his life. He's reached a point where he has to ask: Can he stay with you and still be happy with himself?

Only now, with Taehyung drifting to sleep in his arms, has Seokjin paused to consider Yoongi's point of view. He's alluded multiple times to being in a similar situation but has not once shared anything beyond that simple admission. There had been none of Yoongi's wry sarcasm behind the words, only the sincere intent of someone who knows what he's talking about. Which only begs the question, What the hell had happened to Min Yoongi?

Because he's right. Everything he said has been right.

If you let him know he's not alone, he'll open up to you, Yoongi had told him. Let him talk if he wants to. Your job is to listen and wait. Be silent. I know it's hard, believe me. Don't fill up the night with what you want, hyung. Go to him. Be there for him. And don't let your pride get in the way.

Set within those terms, Seokjin's response was simple. He said goodbye to Yoongi, Hoseok, and Namjoon. He followed Yoongi's advice and came home to Taehyung.

And in the quiet space between them and sleep, Taehyung begins to talk. He doesn't raise his eyes, but speaks directly into the hollow of Seokjin's throat so that every syllable traces against his skin.

Taehyung talks first about his sister and brother, about their dreams and goals as they complete the next steps in their education. His story meanders naturally to his Mom and Dad, and the hopes they express for him each time he returns home. And then he speaks of his grandparents and their strawberry farm, and the life they thought Taehyung might have lead, if only he had stayed in Daegu.

Seokjin listens with the ears of a friend and not a frightened lover. He nods but he doesn't speak. He lets Taehyung have his say, all the while considering Yoongi's question. Can he stay with me and still be happy with himself?

Finally, Taehyung lifts his eyes. He says, “Remember when we used to stay up all night talking?”

Seokjin wonders if he's violating the rules by answering, but a simple nod feels insufficient. So he whispers instead, “All the time.”

Taehyung breathes out, “I miss that.”

“Me too,” Seokjin says.

“Sometimes I miss you even when you're right in front of me,” Taehyung goes on.

“Yeah,” Seokjin sniffs. “Yes.”

“I have to be a good son to them,” Taehyung says, his voice suddenly ragged. “I'm the hyung in my family.”

Seokjin's fingers tighten on Taehyung's hip. He nods again, this time because he's unable to speak.

“They look to me,” Taehyung begins. And then, “They see me as a—” He rubs his nose on Seokjin's shirt. “I'm a role model to them, someone to follow. But... it's all a lie.”

It's not all a lie, Seokjin wants to shout. This is not a lie. But Yoongi's words ring in his ears: Be silent. Let him talk.

“Not a lie,” Taehyung amends on his own. “But not the truth, either.”

He falls silent again, leaving Seokjin to ache in the agony of the in-between. His thoughts chase through his head like rabid dogs, each consumed with doubt and anger and fear. But Yoongi's advice keeps him still him until Taehyung can continue.

“You asked what I want,” he says. “You told me you can't give it. It's not fair to keep asking, when you've been clear about this since the beginning.”

Seokjin's breath pinches tightly in his chest. He feels as though he's floated up from his body, like he's watching the scene unfold from high above. And he knows he doesn't feel it right now, but he will. Once he wakes up, that's when everything will hurt.

He says, softly, “Taehyung-ah, are we breaking up?”

Taehyung suppresses a strangled gasp. “I don't know,” he mumbles. Then, “Maybe?”

Seokjin can't breathe. Pain radiates through him like a lightning strike. He bites it down. Though he's blind and he's breathless, he bites it down, because that's what Taehyung needs.

It's the hardest thing Seokjin has ever had to do, the worst pain, the deepest grief. The knowledge that after everything – all the hiding and the secrets, after all they have endured – it's over.

And there is nothing that he can do.

 

 

Chapter Text

“If I should hold all my dreams
Through the night of the way life sometimes seems
And if I can't see which way to go,
I'll stay lost in the silence 'til I know.”
Where Is Love Now? Nickel Creek

October 12, 2016

Seokjin remembers whiteness and the whisper of wings. As he struggles to his knees, one of which is bruised, he fights to find his bearings and finds instead, the floor. The tile feels slick and cold beneath his palms. He twists to sit down, bracing his back against the biting metal of the locker doors.

Fingers trembling, he tugs a damp towel around his shoulders. He bends his forehead to his thighs, recalling some old piece of advice that recommends putting your head between your knees when you feel dizzy.

Seokjin casts his thoughts back, trying to piece together what's happened – how he wound up on the locker room floor – and he can't.

He felt okay in the shower. He stood a long time beneath the stinging spray, breathing in the dense clouds of steam as the water droned away all of his parasitic thoughts. His skin still tingles from the scalding heat, and his muscles feel loose and elastic.

But he doesn't remember leaving the shower or getting dressed. Only a wall of white enfolding him, and a quiet, sudden rush of sound.

Seokjin tries to stand again, but a swell of nausea knocks him to the ground. His vision swims. Bright sparks flash before his eyes. He props against the lockers, scrabbling through his mental debris in search of anything that makes sense. He fumbles through his pockets, puzzling his phone and his keys onto the bench.

Nothing connects. He sits and thinks, but his thoughts are distant islands, each separate and unreachable, and he understands that something's wrong.

He dials before he can stop himself.

When he answers, Seokjin says, “I need help.”

Silence unspools on the other end of the line, a long and airless void.

“Please,” Seokjin says.

Then, “Hyung, where are you?”

Feeling heavy and stupid, Seokjin scans the room. “I'm at the gym.”

“Again?”

He nods. He dips his head to his knees. “Yes.”

“Okay.” Muffled movement. Then, “I'm on my way.”

 

 

Seokjin doesn't move. Even when a troupe of the company's backup dancers comes in to change, he remains on the floor. He hopes it looks like he's casually skimming his messages while he's waiting for his friends. A few of the dancers congratulate him on their comeback. Their video is already breaking records, they say, and there's talk of the album going global. Seokjin answers back, calmly, smiling his easy smile. His fake smile, which looks, remarkably, like the real thing.

As he's thumbing through his phone, he happens upon a message, and with a stab of pain, he remembers why he returned to the gym in the first place.

Why he ran on the treadmill until his vision blurred. Why he lifted his weights until his ribs ached. Even after his regular morning workout with Jimin, Seokjin came back.

Because he has to be ready—

“Jin-hyung.”

He hovers in the doorway, a silhouette against the late evening sun, but he doesn't enter. Like he's afraid to come any closer.

Seokjin carefully cranes his head to look up at him.

“Are you hurt?” he asks.

“I think I... passed out,” Seokjin says.

Anger darkens his face. “Did you eat today?”

“I did—”

“—Other than chicken breast.”

“I—” Seokjin has no defense. He has been stupid. So stupid. For so long. “I'm sorry I called you. I know you said you needed time. I just... You were the first on my list.”

“Can you drive?” he asks.

Seokjin thinks a moment. “Soon. Probably.”

“Do you need some water?”

He nods.

Taehyung enters the locker room. He goes to the cooler and fills a paper cup. Then he comes to sit astride the bench. He hands Seokjin the cup, making sure that their fingers touch.

Or it could be Seokjin's imagination.

He hopes it's not his imagination.

“Sip it,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin steeples the cup between his fingers. The water feels cool, and he shivers at the first touch of it on his tongue.

He says, “Are you—?” at the same time Taehyung says, “Did you—?”

Taehyung gives him the thinnest smile. “You go,” he tells him.

Seokjin drinks a little more. Then he says, “Did you drive?”

Taehyung stares hard at him. “I took the train,” he says. “You brought a car, right?”

Seokjin nods.

“Then we'll ride back together,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin can't help but feel... encouraged is too strong a word, but maybe relieved fits well enough.

But Taehyung says, “That's not what you were gonna say.”

“No,” Seokjin agrees. He drains the cup and crushes it in his palm. “I was gonna ask if you're still angry with me.”

“I'm not angry.” Taehyung hugs his chest. “I was never angry.”

“You were a little angry,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung gets up to pace. He fidgets, unsure of what to do with his hands. He asks, “Do you need more water?”

In that moment, Seokjin feels immensely proud of Taehyung, at how strong he's trying to be.

“No,” Seokjin says.

“You wanna try standing up?”

Seokjin pushes against the lockers. His skin aches with the dull chill of the metal. There's the coppery scent of blood in his nose, and when he exerts pressure on his legs, his vision sweeps askew like a bird in a storm. Taehyung shouts something unintelligible as he grips Seokjin's arms. He helps him slide back to the floor, and then he crouches to sit beside him.

They sit in silence a long moment. Someone in the girl's locker room runs the hand dryer. A dance instructor barks orders to a group of trainees in a nearby practice room. Far off, an elevator bell dings and even more distant, a train whisks into Yeoksam Station.

And with that comes the reminder that their lives move steadily on, regardless of what has happened between them.

“What are you gonna do, hyung?” Taehyung asks. “You can't keep doing this to yourself. The diet and the too-much-exercise. We have promotions all this week, and the next and the next. It's like a month before we get another break.”

“Before you get a break,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung lifts his chin. “What do you mean?”

Seokjin passes him his phone.

Taehyung reads it aloud. “Law of the Jungle?” he says. “Hyung, this is good! That show is huge right now—”

“—A reality show?” Seokjin says. His voice trembles.

“Oh.” Taehyung's shoulders slump. He angles slightly toward him. “Jinnie-hyung, just because of what Minyeong said, that doesn't make it true...”

“No it is true,” Seokjin mutters. “You've got Hwarang. Joon and Yoongi are getting collab offers from all over the place. Jimin and Hobi will have solo stages in December, and Jungkook's recording English cover songs. These are all legitimate creative projects. Meanwhile, Bang PD's sending me to the jungle because...” Seokjin presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. “Because I'm the joke, and I'm sure to make a fool of myself.”

“No, hyung.” Taehyung's frown deepens. He asks, “Did you already say yes?”

“Of course I said yes,” Seokjin answers. “When Bang Sihyuk asks us to do something, we always say yes.”

“But your classes?”

“I'll miss a few, but...” Seokjin stares up at the ceiling. “They've sent a schedule for my survival training and our promotions. I'll be stupidly, insanely busy for the next... forever. But hey, at least I'll be distracted from—”

Seokjin stares at his hands between his thighs. His skin feels clammy. His pulse beats a steady rhythm inside his skull. “This should be the most exciting time of our lives,” he says. “Our biggest success, everything we've worked so hard for and... I can only think of you.”

He's doing it again, he realizes, the thing Yoongi warned him not to do. He's not supposed to make it about him. His loss. His pain. His grief. It's just so much, and he feels like he's drowning. He can think of nothing more useless than another apology, so he swallows the urge to say he's sorry.

He says instead the simplest, truest thing.

“I love you.”

And Taehyung says, “I love you, too.”

They sit side by side in silence until Seokjin regains some strength in his legs. Then they slip quietly from the gym into the heavy, humid evening, to the car park that smells of baked engine oil, to the car Seokjin borrowed from the studio. They don't speak because there's nothing else to say. And once they reach the dorm, they both pretend that everything will be okay.

 

Chapter Text

“The world doesn't know how sad I am.”
Whalien 52, BTS

October 23, 2016

Four days ago, Taehyung sprawled on the practice room floor with Jimin and Jungkook, his legs hooked over Jimin's sizable thighs, while Jungkook attempted with limited success to tickle Jimin through the thick plush of his cabbage costume.

Their costumes matched – Jimin, the cabbage and Jungkook, a bunny – and the staff fawned over them like they were precocious little children. Jimin basked in the attention, soaking it up like... well, like a cabbage.

And Taehyung laughed along with them like he was happy, too.

Playing pretend has always been easy for him. Put on a costume, make up your face, and step into a completely different world. That's why his cousins love him. He's a grown-up kid, strong enough to give them Superman flight or spin them around like a carnival ride.

Right now, though, it's hard for him to tell when he's playing pretend and when he's just being himself. He's walking around like his heart lives outside of his body. He feels oddly detached and floaty, like nothing is really real, not even him.

Four days ago, when they wrestled Jimin to the floor of the practice room, Seokjin came in, still wearing his dumb horse and cowboy costume. He barely glanced up from his Nintendo when he yelled, “What are you still doing in here? It's time to put up your costumes and go home.”

“You're still in your costume,” Jimin remarked. Then he added in afterthought, “Hyung.”

Taehyung knew Jimin was provoking him on purpose. He and Jungkook kept trying to lighten his mood, or make him laugh or cry or yell at them again. They waited for Seokjin to react, hoping maybe he'd make a pun about vegetables and rabbits. But he remained in the doorway, his eyes fixed on his DS. He said, “Yep,” and continued to play his game.

“Come on,” Jungkook said, tugging Jimin upright. “Lettuce get out of these things.”

Jimin clutched his chest in mock offense. “Sir, I am a cabbage.”

“Oh, I'm sorry,” Jungkook said. “I can't hare you over my own awesomeness.”

Taehyung and Jimin collapsed on each other, giggling uncontrollably.

But Taehyung remembered Seokjin's words describing them as little boys at play, and the laughter blew right out of him. He looked up to find Seokjin watching him. But when their eyes met, Seokjin turned – clumsily, because his front half was a horse – and left the three of them on their own.

 

Now they're in Busan. They've skimmed through the last four days in a blur of adrenaline, caffeine, sugar, and Mystic Messenger. They attended (and won) four awards shows, filmed three broadcasts, hosted four fan meetings, and performed at the closing ceremony of the Busan Asia One Festival. They have a single night off before they return to Seoul for another round of promotions, and on their one night off, they get to have dinner with Jimin's and Jungkook's families.

They know each other, apparently. Well enough to have meals and drinks together even when their sons aren't performing in Busan.

Taehyung expends a lot of his energy not thinking about this fact. He spends a lot of time not thinking about his family and Seokjin's sharing meals together at holidays or getting together for drinks. As they pack into the small cafe run by Jimin's aunt, which she closed down for the night to give them all a place to hang out, Taehyung finds himself veering away from a lot of such potentially jagged thoughts.

So many, in fact, that to protect himself, he has to slip out into the safety of the deck to get some air. Only to find Yoongi already outside, sitting atop a picnic table, his fingers wrapped around a bottle of dark, brown beer.

Yoongi says, “You, too, huh?” and raises the beer in salute.

Taehyung hovers, unsure if he's intruding, until Yoongi pats the tabletop. Taehyung shuts the sliding door and joins him, and for a moment, they sit together in awkward silence.

A strong breeze scours up from the street, smelling of trash and fish and the barest tinge of brine. LED signs blare red and purple streaks of light against the windows, advertising puffer fish, noraebangs, Thai massage, and gentleman's clubs. Ambitious seagulls wheel around in the blank October sky, scanning the alley for insects and scraps.

Yoongi's ankles are bare beneath his cuffs, and Taehyung wonders if he's uncomfortably cold. Which leads him to wonder how long he's been out here in the first place. Through the tinted glass of the sliding doors, they can observe the others – their friends, their managers and staff, and Jimin's and Jungkook's families – but he knows that they can't see either him or Yoongi.

Inside, they've pushed half a dozen tables together in the main room. They sit crammed around them, eating and laughing, while the parents and managers tell jokes and share their stories. But from where he and Yoongi are sitting, they can only hear the thready jazz from the PA system punctuated by bursts of laughter from the gathered crowd inside.

Strands of fat Christmas lights frame the sliding door, giving the little panorama a strangely staged feeling, and again, Taehyung feels detached and disconnected, like a balloon snipped from its tether.

“It's pretty,” Yoongi observes. “Seeing it from the outside. Makes it all look perfect.”

“Yeah,” Taehyung agrees. “Just like a movie.”

As they watch, Hoseok and Namjoon each take a turn freestyle rapping. Even Namjoon's hesitation and embarrassment looks scripted, yet he plays the part, his dimples shining as everyone applauds. Then Seokjin gets up to tell a joke, which must be either really good or really awful if Jimin's spastic reaction is any indication. Seokjin finishes with one of his now-famous hand kisses, and in that moment, he appears like he's full of joy, like he's the happiest man on earth.

Taehyung reaches for Yoongi's beer and gulps it down. The foam kicks back, making him hiccup violently into his hands. He splutters and coughs, and Yoongi pounds between his shoulder blades.

“Sorry, hyung,” Taehyung moans when he's finally able.

“It's all right,” Yoongi says. He picks up the bottle, tilts it to the light, and passes it back. “Really, keep it.”

Taehyung presses the bottle between his hands. The glass feels cold and hard against his palms. He fights the urge to throw it, to see it smash across the wall. “Do they know?” he asks. “Jimin's parents? Do they know about him and Kook-ah?”

“Yeah, I doubt it,” Yoongi says.

“Do you think they'd care?”

“Yes,” Yoongi says with authority. “They would. Most definitely.”

Taehyung works his nails beneath the edge of the metallic paper label on the bottle. He begins to peel it off, one strip at a time, trailing a debris of glitter across his thumbs. “There are pictures of them together,” he says. “On the wall, behind the counter.”

“Yep,” Yoongi says. “None of us, only them: The golden sons of Busan. Maybe we need something like this in Daegu? My Mom can put up pictures of just the two of us in her cafe.”

Taehyung says, “My Grandma has...” and his throat cinches shut. He tugs a curl of the label free and it coils like a ringlet around his finger. “There's a place in my Grandfather's house with pictures of me.”

“Like a little shrine,” Yoongi deadpans, like he knows exactly what Taehyung is talking about.

Another ripple of laughter ribbons from the cafe. Hoseok and Seokjin stand arm-in-arm, regaling the group with a story while Jungkook hides his face with his arms.

Yoongi draws in a deep breath. He says, “Jin-hyung has lost a lot of weight.”

Taehyung remembers the day at the gym, how icy pale Seokjin's skin had looked beneath the fluorescent lights, how fragile he seemed when Taehyung had to help him to his feet.

“Too much,” he says. 

“Yeah. Hobi, too.” Yoongi scratches his cheek. “But we gotta look good, right? Isn't that what the life of an idol is all about? Always happy, always smiling?”

“Not you,” Taehyung says.

“I guess that's why I'm out here.” Yoongi narrows his eyes at him. “And you, too. How about that?”

“I hate it,” Taehyung admits.

“Yeah, it fucking sucks,” Yoongi says. “Here.” He loops his arm around Taehyung's shoulder, pulling him into a hug. Taehyung burrows into the borrowed warmth, drying his eyes against the denim collar of Yoongi's jacket, which still smells of the amber oil perfume Hoseok gave him back in Dubai.

After a moment, Taehyung mumbles, “I don't know what to do.”

“Neither does he,” Yoongi says.

“No,” Taehyung says. “He's better at this. He keeps himself busy. Sets himself apart. He'll be okay. He's so much stronger than me.”

Yoongi pushes him back to arm's length and stares hard at his face. “Don't believe that, not even for a second. I share a room with the guy, and I can tell you for a fact that he is devastated.”

“He is?” Taehyung chokes down a shudder.

“Yes, you'll be pleased to know your boyfriend is a goddamned mess.” Yoongi takes the beer bottle from Taehyung and sets it aside. “Sorry,” he says. “Ex-boyfriend.”

Taehyung covers his face with his hands. “I've made a mistake,” he says.

“Have you?” Yoongi asks.

“Have I?” Taehyung's voice echoes hollowly in the enclosed space. He realizes he's on the cusp of anger, and its ragged edge is the realest thing he's felt in weeks.

Yoongi closes a hand over Taehyung's balled fists. “Taehyung-ie, you listen to me,” he says, his tone grave, his eyes unblinking. “Before you do anything – anything at all – you better know the answer to that question. Don't fuck around with him—”

“—But I—”

“—Yeah, yeah, I've seen you,” Yoongi says. “Watching each other across the room. Laughing at all of his jokes. Leaning your head on his shoulder when we take photos. Any excuse to get close... Don't do that to yourself, and sure as hell don't do it to him. Make sure you're certain you've made a mistake, before you go making things worse.”

Yoongi stands up then. He stretches, bouncing on the balls of his feet. “I'm going back in. You gonna stay out here a while?”

“No, I'll come in,” Taehyung says, because he doesn't want to be alone. He picks up the bottle and again toys with the desire to smash it across the wall. But he doesn't want to disturb everyone inside, not with the sound of breaking glass, nor with his attempts to explain himself.

Yoongi, who seems to understand, gestures to the trash can. On his way inside, Taehyung drops the bottle into the bin. Then he puts on a smile as he and Yoongi enter, and continues to fake it as Jimin and Jungkook welcome him to their table.

 

Chapter Text

“Memories warm us from the inside, but they also tear us apart.”
Haruki Murakami, Khafka on the Shore

November 2016

“J-Hope, can you do me a favor?” Namjoon asks.

It's fantastically loud inside the back stage area, so loud that Namjoon can feel the sound waves vibrating in his back teeth. The stage area reeks of smoke and sweat, except for Hoseok, who is currently dancing along to Twice's performance of TT, and smells, as usual, like a million Korean won.

Hoseok taps his ear and shouts back, “What?”

This could take forever, Namjoon realizes, and they don't have forever. So he holds up his phone for Hoseok to see and types: Can you find Jimin and JK? The cars have arrived and they are MIA.

Hoseok gives him a double thumbs up and veers off into the network's labyrinth of dressing rooms, recording areas, and sound stages.

“Good,” Namjoon says aloud, and then he turns to collide with Taehyung, whose habit of sneaking up on people and getting into their personal space has only worsened in the last few weeks.

“Have you seen Jin-hyung?” Taehyung shouts. No cell phones necessary; Taehyung is louder than even broadcast-level Twice on stage.

“No, I haven't,” Namjoon says.

Unfortunately, Taehyung also can't hear well – probably the underlying reason for his poor volume control – so he leans in even closer to shout, “What?”

Namjoon grinds down his impatience. He takes up his phone and writes, When did you last see him?

“On stage,” Taehyung yells back.

“Wait,” Namjoon shouts. Then he types, Why are YOU looking for Jin?

Taehyung gives him a knowing nod. He says, “Because the cars have arrived, and he's MIA.”

Namjoon squints. He types, You go find Yoongi. I'll look for Seokjin. We'll meet Sanghyun-nim at the car park in fifteen minutes.

In an impressive imitation of Hoseok, Taehyung flashes two thumbs up. But before he can rush off into the maze of hallways, Namjoon catches his wrist.

“And hurry!” he yells. “Like Bang PD says, he's not the boss of the airline. We cannot be late.”

Taehyung gives him a dubious shake of his head, indicating that he probably didn't get that last bit. And it doesn't matter, because Taehyung hems off in his own direction, leaving Namjoon to contemplate where he might find Seokjin.

A year ago, Namjoon could have located Seokjin by seeking out the caterer's tables. Six months ago, he might have found him hip-locked with Taehyung.

But now?

Namjoon checks the washroom, because he's found Seokjin there a few times, hiding out, texting his Mom, or doing a final inspection of his makeup and hair. Namjoon sweeps their dressing room, which looks as though a typhoon rampaged through a Gucci store. Then he does a quick pass through the lobby, where he finds Jimin and Jungkook filming a video with the self-cam.

Upon seeing Namjoon, they shut off the camera and lope over, laughing as they launch into a jumbled story about Jungkook botching a conversation with one of the girls from Mamamoo.

“Hyung, it was hilarious,” Jimin gasps between giggles. “He was all like, Oh, hello, ummm...Hi.” Jungkook hooks Jimin's arms behind his back in an attempt to steer him away from the retelling.

Namjoon holds up his hands. “We're leaving for Fukuoka in forty-five minutes,” he says. “The cars are already here—”

“—Oh yeah, we know,” Jimin beams. “We've already loaded our stuff. Sejin-nim's the one who gave us the camera.”

“Yeah,” Jungkook adds, quietly. “He told us to keep busy. I guess we were a little—”

“—Excited,” Jimin says. He's grinning so hard Namjoon's a bit concerned he might actually pass out.

“Good, good. That's good,” Namjoon says. All the smiling feels infectious, so he permits himself a small smirk of his own. “If you see any of the others, remind them that we've got a schedule to keep.”

“We will,” Jungkook says, and Jimin adds, “Yes, hyung!” before they ramble off arm-in-arm, Jimin teasing the younger for his failed attempts at flirting, and Jungkook giving Jimin a look that says he'll pay for it the moment Namjoon's out of earshot.

Namjoon continues to smile as he renews his search. Their exuberance is far from unwarranted. Wings is soaring, out-stripping all of their loftiest expectations. The album even landed on the Billboard America charts, and with Blood, Sweat & Tears topping the Korean awards shows, their promotions have met with resounding success.

By comparison, Wings has made their personal tribulations seem inconsequential.

Not inconsequential. That's not the right word.

Because Taehyung breaking up with Seokjin is of consequence. As is the recent Twitter attack on himself, Seokjin, and Hoseok. The horrible words people of another fanbase said about them – the claims and accusations they made – these are not insignificant things.

And, of course, Namjoon can't forget the current political situation surrounding the corruption of their president. Peaceful protesters take to the streets every night, calling for her impeachment. The air in Seoul feels charged with that vibrant mixture of hope and revolution. All of these things are monumental in their own right. They are weighty and painful and potentially damaging, and yet, to him, they seem so far away.

Namjoon still feels it, though, that thrumming pulse of creativity bubbling like a storm within his brain. With every rush of wind that whispers through the silver grass, with every shouted greeting from a fan, Namjoon feels alive. Something new is coming, new music and new stories...

But he can't let himself get too carried away. He's still the leader, and right now, they have a plane to catch.

He finds Seokjin not by searching but by following the sound of his laughter. The boomy, expansive racket of it fills up the green room, where he's amassed a small audience of BigHit staff, plus their friend and fellow idol, Ken, and none other than Korea's golden prince, Park Bogum.

Namjoon stands there, quietly observing as his friend tells an endearing story about skiing in Jisan Forest as a child. Namjoon's heard this one before, but watching Seokjin tell it now is like hearing it anew. He can see in the eyes of this audience the sheer joy and shared chagrin of a young Seokjin's first time on the slopes.

Seokjin casts himself as this bumbling newbie, a clumsy kid who fell flat on his face and then ran crying to his father through a mouthful of snow. Namjoon knows that Seokjin's surprisingly athletic and is now an accomplished snowboarder. It's possible he tackled snow sports like he does everything else in his life, with an almost single-minded tenacity toward achieving his goals.

With a practiced ease, Seokjin transitions from the skiing story to a series of awful snow puns. Watching him, Namjoon finds himself daring to believe that Seokjin's going to be all right. Despite a hellish schedule that has him in dive training each morning, university classes every afternoon, and their standard battery of travel and promotions, he seems to be holding up reasonably well.

And maybe Taehyung breaking up with him is for the best.

Namjoon can't deny the dull tug he feels in his own heart. He remembers what he said to Seokjin back in August, about how he and Taehyung made sense together. Namjoon's not superstitious, but he feels an undercurrent of guilt, like he somehow jinxed them by saying it out loud.

Namjoon's been able to witness Taehyung's fortitude firsthand, too. As an added consequence of the break-up, Taehyung now sleeps in Namjoon's room. Jungkook moved out around the time of his Coming of Age, and no fewer than three weeks later, Taehyung slipped in to take the unoccupied bed. He's a whole different kind of loud than Jungkook, but he seems to really enjoy the hours upon hours (upon hours) he spends playing games on his PC.

Namjoon hears a scuffling in the hallway. He turns to see Taehyung peeking through a crack in the door, listening to Seokjin, just like he is.

When Namjoon meets his eye, Taehyung clears his throat. “I found him, hyung. Yoongi, I mean. They're all at the cars, waiting for—” He nods in Seokjin's direction, but he doesn't smile.

Yeah. Seokjin might be recovering, but Taehyung's expression makes Namjoon reconsider his earlier opinion about Taehyung's fortitude.

“Right,” Namjoon says. “Us. Gotcha.”

The interruption makes enough noise to disrupt the gathering. Bogum and Ken each take Namjoon's, Seokjin's, and Taehyung's hands, all warmth and smiles as they congratulate them and send them on their way.

In the corridor, they fall into step with Namjoon in between them. There's a moment of strained silence before Seokjin says, “Do you know the difference between a business man and a dog?”

Namjoon, smiling, goes, “Oh god you're gonna tell us, aren't you?”

“A business man wears suits,” Seokjin says. “And a dog just pants.”

Taehyung pinches the bridge of his nose. “Ugh, why?”

“Wait, I have another one,” Seokjin says. They reach the lobby, where several companies' camera crews are packing up their gear.

“I beg you,” Taehyung mutters. Seokjin catches his eye, and Namjoon would swear he could feel the crackle of energy that surges between them.

Seokjin pauses, his hands tucked loosely in his pockets. Taehyung squares with him, his back straight, his chin slightly raised. It's as though Namjoon's not even there.

“Badminton at an exotic bird ranch,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung shakes his head and bites back a smile.

“Toucan play at that game,” Seokjin finishes.

Taehyung says, “That is the worst thing I've ever heard.”

“Then why are you laughing?” Seokjin asks.

“I'm not,” Taehyung says.

“You are such a liar.”

At this point, Namjoon's not sure if they're going to kiss or throw punches. Either way, he quickly moves to intervene.

“Might I suggest separate cars,” he says. He loops his arm around each of their shoulders, guiding them in the direction of the garage.

Only once they're safely loaded into their vehicles and bound for Gimpo Airport does Namjoon understand that he's got it all wrong. Seokjin and Taehyung are not okay, and they're not even doing a great job of hiding it.

 

 

Chapter Text

“We repeat what we don't repair.”
Christine Langley-Obaugh

November 26, 2016

The past week lives in his memory like a faceless creature without a form. It lurks unseen, kissing salty, humid breath against his sunburned shoulders. It claws at his tattered toes and snips at his blistered fingers. It tweaks at the tendons in his arms and his back, and gnaws, toothless, in the hollow of his belly.

Which is how he finds himself, at 2 a. m., on the floor of the dorm's kitchen, cradling a pint of Dark Chocolate Cherry Fudge ice cream in his lap, despite the fact that they're leaving for Tokyo in less than six hours.

His hair hangs like a ragged curtain across his brow. He still has sand between his toes and squid flesh beneath his nails. He smells the pulpy scent of seaweed with every breath and can still hear the sawing of waves every time he shuts his eyes.

So he deserves this, he thinks, as he pops the lid from the pint. Gripping his spoon like a shovel, he gouges savagely into the chocolate-cherry swirl, ladling out half of the ice cream in one massive scoop.

Dimly, he hears, “What are you doing?”

In his jungle-and-jet-lagged condition, Seokjin has to think for a moment before realizing that it's not just his internal musings judging him, but an actual human hovering in the doorway.

Seokjin slides his gaze from the ice cream to the person across the kitchen.

He growls in response, actually growls, “I'm starving.”

And Taehyung breathes, “Thank god, finally.”

Seokjin shoves the spoon into his mouth, savoring first the silky cold of the chocolate on his palette, and then the burst of sweetness that blooms across his tongue. He rocks back against the refrigerator, his eyes shut, as the ice cream slowly and decadently dissolves in his throat.

Taehyung snags a spoon from the dish drainer and slides down beside him.

“May I?” he asks.

“Please,” Seokjin says. He props the container on his knee. “Save me from myself.”

Seokjin catches Taehyung's smirk as he spoons up a modest bite. As he chews it, Taehyung asks, “Did you see what they have planned for us at the MAMAs?”

Seokjin nods as he tongues chocolate sauce from his spoon. “I read the script on the plane.”

After the month he's had, it didn't surprise him. Neither he nor Taehyung have solo stages, and Seokjin's been filming in Kota Manado for the whole week, so there was no chance of rehearsing beforehand. He supposes they could have used Namjoon and Yoongi for this, but really, they're the worst actors (except for Jimin), so casting Seokjin and Taehyung as the devil and his prey makes the most sense.

A half-smile quirks onto Taehyung's lips. “All this worry about coming out,” he says. “And they're basically gonna do it for us.”

“We could refuse,” Seokjin says. He begins to excavate a large chunk of brownie from its ice cream confines.

“When Bang Sihyuk asks you to do something,” Taehyung says. “You say yes.”

Taehyung scrapes a bite from the edge of the brownie.

“Hey,” Seokjin says, cutting his eyes at him.

“I'm not gonna take your brownie, hyung,” Taehyung says. “You've earned it.”

“Why?” Seokjin squints. “What did you hear?”

Taehyung presses his free hand to his chest. “Hyung, it was terrible. No one would tell us anything,” he says. “We had to worry constantly that you were getting eaten by sharks or being forced to participate in some weird tribal ritual with your teammates.” He finds a vein of cherry sauce and attacks it. “So... will you let us know? Or are you gonna make us wait for TV?”

Seokjin chuckles. “When will you tell us what happens to Hansung?”

Taehyung grimaces. “Touche,” he answers. "I guess we wait."

“Well,” Seokjin says. “Clearly I didn't get eaten by sharks. I did get sick, though. I pushed myself too hard, but I... I don't think I embarrassed myself, so...” He lifts his face to find Taehyung watching him with a kind of unassuming gravity. The hopelessness of it burns him, to be so close and yet—

“Seokjin-ah,” Taehyung says.

He pauses mid-bite and goes, “Hm?”

“While you were gone, I thought about some things.” Taehyung smooths the surface of the ice cream flat with the bowl of his spoon. “I want to tell you about them, and I know you're tired, but... May I tell you?”

Seokjin inwardly braces himself. “Of course,” he says.

“Okay.” Taehyung nods, grimly. “So, the first. Um. Eventually, I'm gonna come out. You know, some day.” He lifts his hand in response to Seokjin's involuntary faltering. “You don't have to. Like, ever. If you want to stay as you are, then you should, and I understand that. But for me... it's not like I'm gonna change.”

Again, Seokjin shifts, this time angling toward him. “What... do you mean?”

Taehyung's forehead furrows as he begins to terrace the outer rim of the ice cream. “I used to think that maybe I was only gay for you,” he explains. “But what I've learned with my Hwarang hyungs is that... I am actually gay.”

Seokjin's brows arch. “They helped you figure this out?” he asks. He sounds jealous and does nothing to conceal it.

“Not like that.” Again, Taehyung smirks. “But. Yeah." He nods slowly. "And Jimin agrees with you, by the way. He doesn't think we should ever have to come out to anyone if we don't want to.”

“Really?” Seokjin stares into his spoon for a second. “That's... unexpected.”

“Right?” Taehyung presses his lips together to suppress his smile.

“Although, after what we saw in Busan, I wouldn't be surprised if his and Jungkookie's parents haven't already picked out a wedding venue.”

Now Taehyung does laugh, a sudden, sharp staccato, and they both press their hands to their mouths, waiting for the telltale rustlings of one of the others coming to investigate.

Once the moment passes, Seokjin dredges the brownie from its depths. He sucks it into his mouth and groans, euphoric.

“I have missed this,” Seokjin whispers as he chews. He opens his eyes, trying to gauge if Taehyung caught the double meaning he intended: the ice cream, but also him. But if he does, he makes no indication. Taehyung takes a small bite, swirling it pensively behind his teeth before he begins to speak again.

“Hyung, there's something else,” he says.

“The second thing?”

“Right.” He nods. “So. You know how we have a lot of singers in the Hwarang cast?”

Seokjin grins. “Those guys again?”

Taehyung rolls his eyes. “The production label is letting us record songs for the soundtrack—”

“—An OST? Taehyung-ah, that's such great news—”

“—And I've asked if mine could be a duet,” Taehyung finishes.

Seokjin drags his spoon around the edge of the pint, skimming up a curl of fudge and cherries. “Well, who will you choose?” he asks. “Your voice blends well with Kook-ah's, but there's a kind of magic with Jimin's, too—”

“—I already picked,” Taehyung says. He closes a hand over Seokjin's. “It hurts me that you think I could choose anyone else.”

It's not the news that wounds him, but the desperate longing that wells within his chest.

“Taehyung-ah,” he says. “Be smart—”

“—I am,” he says.

Taehyung grips his jaw, dragging Seokjin's mouth to his. Seokjin moans, a plaintive cry against the quiet night. Taehyung moves to quell the sound with his kiss. His cold fingers chase chills up Seokjin's sunburned arms. Seokjin's heart flutters and bucks in the cage of his ribs, and his thoughts scurry, defenseless and useless, without any chance of hope.

They kiss, and they kiss, and there is nothing tentative about the way Taehyung is touching him. He means it, every brush of his lips, every graze along his thigh. His fingers tighten around him, lightly teasing Seokjin to attention. They scrape to their knees, bringing their bodies together, the ice cream abandoned between them.

“Yoongi's asleep?” Taehyung whispers.

Seokjin can only nod.

He rakes his lips across his neck. “Shower?”

“Yes,” Seokjin moans. “Oh god, yes.”

Taehyung presses the flat of his palm to Seokjin's neck, scratching his nails through the rough fringe of his hair.

“Everything is still true,” Seokjin sobs.

“I know,” Taehyung whispers. He pushes a hand down the front of Seokjin's pants and closes tightly around him. “I know.”

They don't make it to the shower before getting swept away. They're silent in spite of their eagerness, and when Seokjin comes, he has to bite Taehyung's shoulder to keep from crying out.

And he doesn't care in the slightest that they let the ice cream melt.

Chapter Text

“I still believe,
even though it’s unbelievable,
To lose your path
Is the way to find it.”
Lost, BTS

December 2, 2016

Getting groped on stage by your definitely gay maybe-boyfriend in front of millions of people would likely be the high point of anyone's day.

But for Seokjin, it was just the beginning.

Although, arguably, things began to ramp up five days ago with a surreptitious hand job in the kitchen, smashing one of their longest-standing rules about never fooling around in the dorm. And while they didn't get caught, the occurrence itself plus the subsequent sleepless nights in Japan have left them raw enough that everyone knows something is up.

In the car from their hotel that morning, Yoongi had asked, “So, wait... are you back together or not?”

Seokjin fussed with the cuffs of his sweater. Conscious of how his words mirrored Taehyung's from the night they broke up, he answered, “I don't know. Maybe?”

Yoongi tracked the hazy Hong Kong skyline with his eyes. Across from him, Hoseok watched them while skimming through his text notifications.

“Are you okay with it?” Seokjin asked.

Yoongi had rolled his shoulders. “Doesn't matter if I am or not, hyung,” he said. “But if it keeps you from crying at night then I support it.”

Hoseok met Seokjin's eyes. He gave him the flattened smile of friendly solidarity.

“Well,” Seokjin said, “we're gay men in love. In Korea. I believe we're destined for tears.”

Yoongi twisted a lock of his hair and slumped deeper into his seat. “Yep,” he muttered. “Seems that's the way.”

Seokjin typed a message in a private chat to Hoseok: Is he all right?

Hoseok chewed the inside of his cheek as he typed his answer: This is always a difficult time of year for him.

Seokjin had stared at Yoongi. He wanted to push for clarification, but felt that moment was far from the appropriate time. And anyway, Yoongi only divulged details when it was on his terms, so Seokjin let it go.

 

 

During the flashblind red carpet walk and the media blitzkrieg that follows, it's easy for Seokjin to get caught up in the frenetic frenzy of the day. So he forgets about Yoongi's mood from this morning, and he forgets to be troubled about the things that happened with Taehyung back in Seoul. The stylists dress Seokjin in slick black silk that caresses his still sun-tender skin. Already playing his part as the demon tempter, Taehyung glides along, coolly aloof at his side.

Seokjin doesn't even realize there's tension between him and Jimin until it's already played out. They're all backstage for their costume change and Taehyung's special makeup, when Seokjin notices Jimin and Jungkook walking slowly together, practically holding hands. Seokjin's just playing around when he tries to squeeze in between them, but Jimin shoves him hard enough to make him stumble into a partition. The interaction fractures the thin veneer of Taehyung's outward calm, and he winds up shouting at Seokjin, much to Jimin's amusement.

It hurts Seokjin, though, more deeply than he can admit. And the immediate look of remorse on Taehyung's face... that only makes it worse.

But Seokjin decides not to make a big deal of it. They're at the MAMAs, he reminds himself, the largest awards show in the world. They are the most nominated group of the night, and though they don't hope to score even one of the awards, it reminds him to keep his focus. They have worked too hard for too long to fall apart now. So they'll talk later, and maybe they'll even have a chance for a little making-up making out.

Before he can chide himself for being so single-minded, Taehyung strong-arms him into the nearest washroom, where he bangs the stall door shut behind them.

“I'm sorry,” Taehyung moans. He rucks his hands through his neatly styled hair. “I am so sorry.”

Calm, rational instinct takes over. Seokjin tucks his hands in his pockets and gives him a casual shrug. He says, “It's nothing. I'll simply punish you in a manner you'll never expect at a time when you least expect it.”

Taehyung knuckles him against the door. “Don't play with me, hyung,” he growls. Tears pool in his eyes as he presses his fists to his temples. “I didn't mean it. Maybe I'm more stressed than I thought, but I am really, really sorry.”

Too easily, Seokjin's armor drops away. “VV,” he whispers. “Oh, my VV. I'm okay.” Gingerly, he smudges his thumbs beneath Taehyung's eyes, catching the dew of his tears before they fall. “Though I feel I should have a stern conversation with Jimin—”

“—Yoongi will, for sure,” Taehyung mutters. “If Joon-ie doesn't do it first.”

“The staff were filming, weren't they?” Seokjin muses.

Taehyung nods as he chews his pinkie nail.

“They wouldn't post that. Would they?”

“These days they post anything featuring Jimin-ie and Jungkook-ah,” Taehyung sulks. “Even if Jimin is being rude.”

“Hm,” Seokjin says. “True.” He pinches his lips as he ponders this odd little truth.

“Hyung, you're messing up your lips,” Taehyung says.

Seokjin treats this as an invitation. He grips Taehyung's lapels and kisses him full on the mouth. He's very pleased to see that Taehyung looks a little dazed when they part.

“Now I've messed up yours, too,” Seokjin says.

Taehyung wobbles, unsteady, before he surges roughly forward.

And that's when they hear the distant announcement over the speaker.

“Did they just call us?” Taehyung asks.

“Fuck,” Seokjin chuckles. “I think they did.”

Taehyung slams open the stall door and shoves Seokjin through it. “Go,” he shouts. “I'm right behind you.”

 

Which is exactly what happens in their showcase performance. The parts when they're dancing filter and blur through Seokjin's conscience, as they usually do. Muscle memory takes over for the choreography so that he sees only the other six members amid streaks of spangling colored light.

He's breathless when they meet below stage to perform the part of Taehyung's seduction. Everything happens with clockwork quickness. They hear the crowd's reaction to Jungkook's suspension, and then the production managers wave them to their places. What lingers in Seokjin's heart are the words Taehyung presses into his ear before moving upstage to his mark. “Don't worry, Jinnie-hyung,” he breathes. “It's nothing we haven't done a thousand times before.”

“Yes,” Seokjin calls to Taehyung's retreating form, “but never with an audience!”

Then Seokjin's kneeling on the stage, his own breath heavy in his ears, the audience behind them. And Taehyung doesn't hold back. He drapes himself over Seokjin's shoulders. He drags kisses along his neck. He clutches at the fussy ruffles of Seokjin's silk shirt. He smells like smoke and roses, and Seokjin's every synapse burns.

Seokjin doesn't need to act as he closes his eyes. He swallows hard and wishes they were a thousand miles away.

After the finale, once the lift descends to return them to the scaffolds below, Namjoon wheels on them, and they all clasp hands. Sweat gleams on his beaming face as he babbles something uplifting and unintelligible over the deafening thunder of the crowd.

 

 

Maybe it's because of the afternoon's turbulent sea of excitement, and maybe it's because Yoongi's not paying them his fullest attention, but Seokjin decides to buck their normal protocol. He figures, What the hell? Taehyung just felt him up on stage, so what possible harm can come from them sitting together?

They then proceed to ignore Namjoon's meaningful, imploring glances while arm-in-arm, they tease and sing and play. They whisper stupid jokes about the presenters into each other's ears. Taehyung scratches Seokjin's neck with the very expensive beaded sleeve of his jacket. They play games, and they laugh, like no one else is watching.

They are pushing too far, Seokjin knows. They'll hear about it from Namjoon at least, and probably from Bang Sihyuk, too. But for once, he doesn't care.

Because the twenty minutes he spends pretending that he's out with Taehyung is the best he's felt in years.

Even when they win Artist of the Year, Seokjin sets that memory on an equal shelf in his mind, alongside the one of him and Taehyung, happy and in love for the whole world to see.

 

 

Later, much later in the night, exhausted and spent, Seokjin and Taehyung lay entwined in Seokjin's hotel bed. The room glows pale with silver lamplight, while dark shadows widen their grip on the world beyond their window.

Taehyung's voice sounds smoky when he says, “Remember our first trip to China?”

“Aaah,” Seokjin moans. “When we all had to share that one tiny room?”

Taehyung gestures widely to the suite around them. “Look at us now.”

Seokjin brushes his lips to the tiny mole on Taehyung's nose. “I am,” he says.

“Hyung...” Taehyung says. Though his eyelids slip heavier with each blink, he says, “We can go again if you want.”

“Tomorrow,” Seokjin soothes. “But tonight, I have one request.”

“Tell me,” Taehyung says.

“Let me kiss you once, anywhere I wish.”

Taehyung's eyes widen with intrigue. “Anywhere?” he asks. “Like, anywhere?”

Seokjin pushes Taehyung's bangs from his forehead. His hair smells like summer grass after a rainstorm. “Anywhere I wish,” Seokjin says.

“Okay, I agree,” Taehyung says, and then he squinches his eyes tight in anticipation.

Seokjin presses his lips to his ear and says, “The top of the Eiffel Tower.”

Taehyung recoils to level Seokjin with a scrutinizing glare. He says, “That is an unexpectedly public place.”

Seokjin's heart flutters. He thinks maybe it's too soon for such a passionate overture, seeing as they're not even officially back together. But he adds, hopefully, “Maybe the most romantic place in the world?”

Taehyung covers his mouth to hide the beginnings of a smile. He says, “What about your parents?”

“Perhaps it's best if they stay home,” Seokjin says. “I'm not even sure they're in love.”

“Jin-hyung!” Taehyung sighs through his nose. “Last week you said everything is still true.”

Seokjin smooths his palm over the broad plane of Taehyung's bare chest. “I keep thinking back to that night in Tokyo,” he says. “Not the part where I'm lost, but the part where you find me. I remember the sound of your voice calling my name. The way the lanterns lit up your face. The way you looked so relieved.”

Taehyung sinks into the pillows. He inhales, deeply, slowly, as he processes Seokjin's words. After a long, quiet moment, he says, “I want to believe I know what you're saying, but I... I really don't want to be wrong about it.”

“I'm saying that my heart already knew then what I know now,” Seokjin says. This is the part he's practiced to himself, because it's maybe the most important thing he's ever said, and he wants to be sure to get it right. “They are my family, Taehyung-ah. But you are my home.”

Taehyung stares at him, his eyes alive with lamplight. “Hyung, does that mean...?”

“Yes, it means—”

But Taehyung doesn't let him finish. He pulls him into an embrace and kisses and kisses him until, after a long, long time, they fall asleep in each other's arms.

 

Chapter Text

“You can tell them I am yours
I'm very, very proud.”
Woke the F*ck Up, Jon Bellion

KAKAOTALK
2016 December 16

Jinnie: Taehyung-ah, if you hold me like a koala...

Jinnie: Does that make you my Koala-Tae? ʕʘ‿ʘʔ

BigHit Taehyung: I could just stop answering

Jinnie: And if we spend time together, does that make it... Koala-Tae Time?

BigHit Taehyung: and now I'm throwing my phone in the trash

Jinnie: wait wait wait. Before you do, let me give you this...

Jinnie: You're in a room with a mirror and a table but no doors.

BigHit Taehyung: Is this a riddle, hyung?

Jinnie: Yes. How do you get out?

BigHit Taehyung: Is there a window?

Jinnie: No, there are no windows.

BigHit Taehyung: Are you in there?

Jinnie: No, you're all alone.

BigHit Taehyung: (∩︵∩) I don't like this riddle

Jinnie: VV, you have to escape so you can come find me.

BigHit Taehyung: Oh, wait..... Where are you?

Jinnie: I'm in the place where the king keeps his home.

BigHit Taehyung: In that case, I will see you in half an hour

 

Starlight glows in their window at the Alcazar, veiled with high, sheer, silver clouds. The air smells of snow and hums with the chill of excitement. Within minutes of Taehyung's arrival, they made a quick wreck of their bed, and now, Taehyung sprawls on his back, his shirt half-undone, more than a few of his buttons lost to the cause. Seokjin, panting, bends to smooth his tongue along the curve of Taehyung's neck. Taehyung shivers and knots his fists in Seokjin's hair.

“Did you bring our toys?” Seokjin mutters against Taehyung's throat.

“I brought them and the lube and a few other things, too,” Taehyung says. “For our birthdays.”

Seokjin moves against him. “Good,” he says. They can't give in yet (any more than they already have) because they're still waiting for their food.

But in the meantime...

Taehyung breathes, “How do you want me, hyung?”

“In every way,” Seokjin answers. He shifts to tug Taehyung's bare legs around his waist. He cups him with his hands, stroking him erect between his palms. He slides back to dip a light kiss to the head, and then drags his tongue in slow motion from the base all the way to the tip.

Taehyung swears as he tightens his grip on Seokjin's shoulders.

And Seokjin thinks, dizzily, Who needs food, anyway?

When, of course, there comes a knock on the door.

Seokjin rocks back on his heels. Squeezing Taehyung's hips for emphasis, he says, “Stay. Here.”

Taehyung squirms into the pillows while Seokjin hurriedly hunts for his robe.

The knock sounds again, this time more insistent.

“Don't move,” Seokjin warns, cinching the robe's tie around his waist. “There will be consequences.”

Taehyung reaches with slow, teasing deliberation to touch himself. “Oh no, hyung,” he moans, his eyes sliding closed. “I don't think I can wait.”

Seokjin mashes a kiss to Taehyung's lips, snags his wallet, and goes for the door.

Only it's not the delivery person, but a young woman in a pink knit cap with a matching scarf twirled around her neck.

Seokjin shoves her back into the hallway and slams the door behind him.

“Oh, Jin-oppa,” she gushes. “I thought it was you, I told Chawie it was you, and he said I shouldn't bother you if it is, because it's a love hotel and, well, look at you, maybe he was right?” She punches his shoulder, which is partly exposed because the robe has slipped down in the haste of getting her into the hall.

Stunned, Seokjin gasps, “Minnie-yah, what are you doing here?”

“Well, I saw you earlier, and I thought, This must be serendipity, us being here at the Alcazar at the same time as you, since you're the one who recommended it to us in the first place—”

“—I did?—”

“—Well, yes, months ago, only it was for my brother, remember, but you mentioned a naughty weekend getaway with my arts professor...” she slaps at his shoulder again... “so I thought, Why not? And we started coming here every month or so, it's so much more private than anything close to Ewha and we don't have to go all the way back to his house in Ilsan. So anyway, we're going to dinner and we wanted to invite you along.”

Which is when Taehyung opens the door to call out, “Don't forget the ketchup.”

Minha's mouth perks into a perfect, round O of surprise, and her cheeks, which were already pink, flush to a florid shade of crimson.

Taehyung catches Seokjin's elbow and clings tightly to it. He whispers, “She's not Burger King.”

“No, she's not,” Seokjin says. His words and his breath fight within the tight space of his chest. His knees tremble and his palms begin to sting, but he manages at last to speak. “This is Hahn Minha,” he says. “Um, Minnie, we called her, when we were kids. She's a friend of mine, from Anyang.”

Minha pans a panicked glance from Seokjin to Taehyung, and the gears in Seokjin's brain finally catch.

He slides his arm around Taehyung's waist and says, “This is—”

“—Park Jimin,” Taehyung says, smoothly extending his hand. “It's nice to meet you.”

Minha takes it and says, “Hey, I've seen you—”

“—Yes, I'm famous,” Taehyung agrees.

“No.” Seokjin yanks Taehyung's hand back. “No. This is boyfriend. He's my Taehyung,” Seokjin says.

Minha cocks her head to one side. “Oh my god, is this the one you told me about?”

Taehyung swivels his head to Seokjin. “You told her about me?”

Seokjin touches icy fingertips to his eyebrows. “I told her I'm in love.”

“But he's a guy,” Minha says. Her forehead wrinkles beneath the crisp black line of her bangs.

“Yes he is,” Seokjin says.

Her expression softens from confusion to concern. “And you're in love with him.” She claps her hands over her mouth. “Oh god, Jin. Your Dad's gonna kill you.”

Seokjin, in spite of everything, manages a crisp chuckle. “Yes, well,” he says. “We're going to tell them over winter break, so... it was nice knowing you, Hahn Minha.”

She looks horrified. She gestures weakly from Taehyung to Seokjin and murmurs, “Don't joke like that—”

The door to the next room opens and, startled, they all three leap like they've been caught by the police. A man in his mid-30s in a black wool coat steps out, brushing lint from his sleeve as he worries with his key. Once he turns toward them, he asks, “So Min, was it your friend or not?”

Minha shoves Seokjin toward their room. “No, no, mistaken identity,” she says. “But they are very nice and understanding about the whole thing, so I'm just saying goodbye.”

The man in the coat slips beside Minha, looping her arm with his. He adjusts his glasses, squints, and says, “You know, you do look familiar.”

“They were just getting back to their meal,” Minha says, tugging the man by his arm.

At that moment, the Burger King delivery guy rounds the corner. He checks the door number over Seokjin's shoulder and passes him two brown paper bags.

“So sorry to have been a bother,” Minha says as she brisks her arts professor boyfriend down the hall. When she glances over her shoulder, Seokjin mouths, “Text me later.”

Seokjin passes the delivery man his tip, and Taehyung leans in to whisper, “Ketchup.”

The man digs out a pocketful and dumps them into the bag. “You two have a good evening,” he says, and then he leaves.

Seokjin stumbles numbly into the room to collapse against the wall. “Fuck,” he mumbles. “Oh, fuck, what just happened?”

Taehyung hugs up on him, crushing their meal between them. He buries his nose against Seokjin's neck and sings, “You came out to someone. Before I did.”

Seokjin plucks a fry from the bag and traces it like lipstick around Taehyung's mouth. Taehyung snatches it between his teeth, and as he chews, he asks, “So. How do you feel?”

“Not hungry,” Seokjin says. He presses a thumb to Taehyung's lower lip, which is warm and sweet as a slice of nectarine. He places his fingers along Taehyung's jaw to gently tilt his head back. He dips his nose to the notch at the base of Taehyung's throat and fills the hollow with kisses.

“Taehyung-ah,” he breathes. “I don't think I can wait.”

“Yes, hyung,” Taehyung says. He discards the food on the table, and without a further word, Seokjin guides him to bed.

 

Chapter Text

“I thought success will make everything fine
But you see, but you see
As time goes by, I feel like
I’m turning into a monster.”
The Last, Agust D

December 20, 2016

Yoongi starts drinking after lunch. Scratch that. He starts drinking instead of lunch. He has a Soju, then two beers, and then some more Soju.

It's because he's tired. It's always worse when he's tired.

Now he's pretty sure he's shit-faced, but he's stretched out in Hoseok's bed, his head in Hoseok's lap, so it's not like he's died and gone to hell. Though the rest of the room is a chaos of laundry and half-packed duffle bags, Hoseok's bed smells like sandalwood and cinnamon. His blankets feel snug as a silkworm cocoon, and Yoongi wants nothing more than to drift down into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Only, Jimin and Jungkook crisscross each other on Jimin's bed, and even though he and Hoseok have the TV on, Jungkook diligently strums away on his guitar. Yoongi tries – god help him, he tries – not to let it irritate him. But the overlapping sound of Hwarang on the television and Jungkook's rhythmic plucking of Danger finally takes its toll.

“Kook-ah, do you mind?” he snaps.

Jungkook's eyes bulge. “Sorry, hyung,” he mumbles as he sets the guitar aside.

Yoongi swabs his forehead with his fingertips. “Nah, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have yelled.”

Hoseok pats Yoongi's shoulder. “If you have a headache, we have some ibuprofen.”

“I'm fine, Hope,” Yoongi mutters. “Let's just watch the show.”

Silence prickles around them. Yoongi has no idea what's happening on screen. There's a young woman and a handsome guy in a sedge hat. She's drunk and loses her shoe, but the dashing man in the improbable hat doesn't go and fetch it for her.

“Hyung,” Jimin says, sounding both sullen and contrite. “It's not even your room.”

“Jimin, it's not mine either,” Jungkook points out.

“I just, I don't think it's fair that you come in here and order us around,” Jimin says, “when you don't even want to be in here in the first place.”

“Jimin-ie,” Hoseok soothes. “Let's not fight, okay?”

Jimin chews on his lip, but Yoongi knows – hell, they all know – that he isn't done. On an ordinary day, it wouldn't matter. One of the things he appreciates about Jimin is his willingness to push boundaries, to challenge expectations, to question whether something is right or wrong or justified.

Only today Yoongi's battling down the urge to drink himself into oblivion, and he wishes that Jimin would just let some things go.

“I don't want to fight, hyung, I promise,” Jimin says. “But if Yoongi-hyung wants to rest, he should be able to do so in his own bed. They can even use Tae's and Joon's room. Joonie-hyung's having dinner with Mr. Choi, so he won't be home for hours—”

“—Fine,” Yoongi says, drawing himself upright. “I can take a hint.”

“Yoongi,” Hoseok coos.

And Jimin cries, “No, hyung! You don't have to go, I'm just saying—”

“—Look, Jimin-ah, I'm not going to stay in here and listen to you whine about Seokjin and Tae,” Yoongi says.

“I'm not whining,” Jimin protests. Then he adds, “But why do they need the whole room? Why can't they just share Jin's bed? It isn't fair to you. It's not like they're doing stuff. They're just watching the show like we are...”

Yoongi starts for the door, stamping through the scatter of Taehyung's dirty clothes as he goes. He scowls down at the knots of shirts and pants, wondering why Taehyung's clothes are even in here, when his head begins to throb dull and red behind his eyelids.

Hoseok, in his infinite kindness, says, “Yoongi offered them the room for the night. They need privacy right now. They just got back together.”

“Ach. Again.” Jimin scoffs. “How many times will this keep happening? They're so bad at this, and they only cause each other pain. And you know what they're planning to do, right?”

This last question is what draws Yoongi back. They all know Seokjin and Taehyung's plans to come out to their parents over the break, a choice Yoongi believes that only they can make together.

Yoongi stalks toward Jimin, narrowing his gaze as he nears, and Jimin takes a hesitant step back. Yoongi says, “If it happens a hundred times, we're not gonna say a goddamn thing except, Good for you for not giving up.” Jimin opens his mouth to speak; Yoongi shuts him down with a glare. “Yeah, I get that you're still upset because Joon reprimanded you after the MAMAs—”

“—Oh my god, hyung,” Jimin blurts. He gestures to Jungkook, who glances at the floor. “We were just playing around and Joon-hyung made it into a big deal.”

Yoongi feels the weight of the room drooping down on his shoulders. He says, “It is a big deal because it looked bad. We have an image to uphold, and I know you know this, so don't play at being obtuse—”

“—But I—”

“—I am so not done,” Yoongi grinds out. “You know, so what if you and Jin don't get along 'cause he's hogging up your Taehyung? Blah blah fucking blah.” A lump forms in Yoongi's throat, and he knows, if he doesn't get out of here soon, they're going to see him cry. But he chokes down his emotion to add one final thing. “Here is the basic truth: Right now, our friends are going through some difficult times – dealing with stuff you may never have to worry about – so for now, kindly shut the hell up and get the hell over it.”

Then Yoongi goes to storm out. But his outburst makes him shaky and weak, and with all the clothes piled around, he trips on the threshold and catastrophically collides with the door.

 

He wakes to a blurry, blinding kind of pain. Someone behind him presses something wincingly cold to the side of his head. Everything feels muffled yet over-bright, like he's underwater with Jimin, Jungkook, and Taehyung hovering right above him.

“Fucking Taehyung,” he mutters.

Taehyung pats his knee and frowns.

“Is he awake?” Hoseok says. His voice sounds thready, and Yoongi feels a stab of guilt because Hoseok is so bad with this kind of thing.

“Was I unconscious?” Yoongi asks.

“You don't remember head-planting the door?” Jungkook asks.

“Is there blood?” someone asks.

The cold thing, which turns out to be an ice pack, moves from his ear. “I don't see any,” Hoseok answers.

“I hit the door with my ear?” Yoongi says. “That must take a special kind of genius.”

“I think you were turning your head so you could yell at me some more,” Jimin says.

“Was I yelling at you?” Yoongi asks.

Jimin's bottom lip trembles. “It'd be nice if you didn't remember it, hyung. And also, I'm really, really sorry...”

Seokjin comes to kneel beside Yoongi, his bright red lobster phone in his hand. “Sejin-nim is on his way with a car. We're going to take you to the hospital, okay? Namjoon will meet us there.”

Yoongi groans. He lets his head fall back against Hoseok's knee. “I don't need to go to the hospital,” he says. “I'm sure I'll be fine after some sleep.”

“Nope,” Hoseok says, sharply. With a cool hand, he strokes Yoongi's chin. “You may have a concussion. We're not taking any chances.”

Yoongi indulges roughly fourteen seconds of pleasure from Hoseok's caress before he attempts to sit up. Predictably, Hoseok, Jimin, and Seokjin all force him back down.

“If I can stand up right now and walk around this room, will you consider calling off Sejin and Namjoon?” Yoongi asks.

Above him, Seokjin and Hoseok have a telepathic conversation involving their eyebrows. Then, as if they're of one mind, they both say, “No.”

Ignoring the tides of nausea in his gut, Yoongi lays back and shuts his eyes. “Fine,” he says. “Then you're gonna have to carry me.”

“Not a problem, hyung,” Jungkook says. “You weigh, like, twenty kilos fully dressed. I could carry you and Jimin to the top of Namsan Tower.”

Yoongi feels his consciousness ebbing back as curtains of darkness creep in from either side. Hoseok snaps his fingers in front of his face. “Don't you dare go to sleep,” he says.

“Goddammit,” Yoongi mutters. “You are the most annoyingly wonderful person I have ever known. Wonderfully annoying. The sweetest, best pain in my ass.”

Seokjin presses the back of his hand to his mouth. “That sounds... awfully suggestive.”

Yoongi clasps his forearm. “Guess you'd be the guy to know, right?”

“Oh shit,” Jungkook says. Behind him, the others begin to laugh, too. For a moment, the levity dispels the heavy worry that packs down around them like a mudslide. Things begin to take on a surreal quality after Sejin arrives and they help Yoongi down to the car. The pain seems to swell and pulse like rolling waves inside his brain. It's only then that Yoongi begins to realize he's really hurt, and that's when he finally gets scared.

He vomits once on the side of the street and feels glad that only Hoseok's there to see it. And then he feels genuine regret about the fact that only Hoseok was there to see it.

 

At the hospital, they ask him a hundred questions. Have you been drinking? Have you been taking any medication? Have you been experiencing sleeplessness or anxiety?

Even in his addled state, Yoongi hears how they whisper the word anxiety. How it's like a slur or a swear, something you don't mention in polite society. How it's something you have to hide.

He answers yes to all of the questions. Yes, he's been drinking. Yes, he's been taking his medication. Yes, he's been sleepless and anxious, and yes, it's always worse this time of year. He's too sensible to be superstitious about such things, but he has begun to wonder if maybe December is trying to kill him: His appendix three years ago, then last year's mysterious shellfish reaction that nearly took down Taehyung, too. And then that other thing almost ten years ago now, the thing he thought would ultimately destroy him. The thing that began it all, including his decision to move to Seoul.

So yes, even in the company of his friends, even in the light of their creative success, he's still fighting these demons. And he wonders, as the doctor shines a penlight in his eyes, if this part of his life will ever change.

 

Chapter Text

“It scares me to think of tomorrow,
the future that's waiting for us.”
Saturn Boy, Dream Koala

January 5, 2017

“Close your eyes.”

Taehyung obeys without hesitation.

“Now make a wish.”

He inhales, deeply, and then gives him a slow smile. “But my wish already came true.”

“Then make a new one.”

He inhales again and holds his breath.

Seokjin caresses his neck. He trails kisses along his shoulders. “Are you ready?”

“I'm ready.”

“Then blow your candles out.”

 

Early morning sunlight sifts through the high windows of Seoul Station, casting the cavernous departure hall in shadows of ash and slate. Jimin and Jungkook went early to the southbound terminal, hoping that by arriving before daybreak, they might avoid drawing extra attention to themselves. Hoseok left for Gwangju the night before, and due to his injury, Yoongi elected to stay home over the break. This leaves Namjoon, Seokjin, and Taehyung to enter departure hall together just as the clock chimes 6.

“You have your tickets?” Namjoon asks, patting his pockets in search of his own. Seokjin flicks his against his palm. Taehyung shows his like it's an ace up his sleeve.

Namjoon finds his in the front flap of his rolling suitcase. Once he's certain it's secure, he hooks his thumbs in his pockets and says, “So... You nervous?”

Seokjin blows out a breath. “Suitably terrified,” he says.

Namjoon clamps his hand on Seokjin's shoulder. “Message me the minute you're done.”

“We will,” Taehyung says.

“The very second,” Namjoon insists. “I mean it.”

“I promise,” Seokjin says, and he pulls Namjoon into a hug. He hugs Taehyung, too, but with a fierceness that feels at once huge and fragile, like a bubble on the brink of bursting. After they reluctantly part, Taehyung leaves to join Jimin and Jungkook at the southbound terminal. He twists around twice on the escalator to wave an excited goodbye. And Seokjin blows him a kiss.

 

After Namjoon leaves for Ilsan, Seokjin has a thirty-minute wait for his train to Anyang. He paces the tiled floor of the platform. He messages everyone in the group chat. He plays games on his phone. He dips into the restroom to splash cool water on his face.

After a few minutes, the door bangs open behind him. When Seokjin looks up, he's stunned to find Jimin's reflection behind him in the mirror.

“Hyung,” he gulps out. “What are you doing?”

“I'm washing my hands,” Seokjin says, going as always for the joke. But this time it withers on his tongue as he gauges the expression on Jimin's face. He's blanched to the color of a seashell, and his eyes appear like dark, hooded hollows.

“No, I mean this,” Jimin says, gesturing weakly to the train station. “And you, and Taehyung. I've just tried talking to him again, but he won't listen to me. He never listens to me. But you have to listen, okay? You're our hyung. You don't have to do this.”

Seokjin slings his hands in a gentle arc to dry them. Then he presses his fingertips to his eyelids. The past few nights he's spent with Taehyung in their own bed, in their own home, making their own plans... it's given him hope enough to do this. But he feels physically drained, because that's what happens when you trade conversation for sleep.

“You know, Jimin-ah,” Seokjin says. “Taehyung's wanted this for a long time.”

Jimin takes a step closer. His hands twitch at his sides. He chokes out, “But it's so stupid, hyung. You could lose everything.”

Seokjin smiles. “Not Taehyung,” he says.

Jimin covers his face with his hands. He wheezes, a deep, ragged inhale. And then he stumbles forward, crushing Seokjin into a hug that pins him against the sink.

“You're so stupid,” Jimin sobs into the space beneath Seokjin's shoulder blade. “You're both so stupid.”

Seokjin threads Jimin's hands around his waist, and then twists around to properly embrace him. “Yeah,” he whispers into the top of Jimin's head. “Yeah, you're probably right.”

After several seconds of absolute stillness, Jimin raises his face. He rubs his cheek with the back of his hand. He croaks out, “You're really gonna do it? You're gonna come out to your parents?”

“We really are,” Seokjin says.

Jimin sags against him. Seokjin lifts his hands to smooth down the back of Jimin's snow-damp hair. He thinks back to behind the counter at Jimin's family's restaurant, to the small framed photos of Jimin and Jungkook that remain there even though Jimin's father no longer owns the place.

Seokjin says, “You two haven't been together as long as we have.” He has to feel his way along the words, because he's not sure what he can say that will soothe Jimin's distress. He draws a deep breath and continues, “There's a moment, you know, when you look across the pillow at the sleeping face of the one you love, and you understand, with perfect clarity, that there is almost nothing you won't do to keep that person in your life. You know – beyond doubt – that their happiness is your happiness. And you will protect it with all that you have.”

Seokjin smiles as he palms tears from his face. He goes, “What Taehyung-ah and I have, it's changed so much since we first fell in love. It's deepened and... and it's strengthened... and things are clearer, now. I know you don't understand. I know you've never really understood. But this is something we have to do. No matter what happens, this is what happens next.”

“God it's so dumb,” Jimin trembles. “But, it's really beautiful, too.”

“Thank you,” Seokjin laughs.

Then Jimin adds, in a voice that slides and lurches over the words, “You really love him, don't you?”

“With all that I have,” Seokjin answers.

At that, Jimin straightens. He wipes his eyes with both fists and gives Seokjin a weary nod. “Yeah. Me too,” he says. But before he can start crying again, he inhales and breathes out, “Well I have a train to catch.”

“Me too,” Seokjin says.

“Then bye,” Jimin says. But he slings around to hug Seokjin one more time before he leaves.

Eight minutes later, the Gwangmyeong-bound train arrives on time, just as it always does. And once aboard it, Seokjin practices and practices the words he's planned to say.

 

Once he arrives in Anyang, Seokjin spends the next five hours trying to wrangle both of his parents into the same room. He doesn't realize they've planned a late surprise birthday party until he's in his aunt and uncle's mini-van on the way to the Chinese place they always visit during holidays.

His mother shines with pride as his cousins and his brother take turns toasting his health and good fortune. His father gives a sober speech about the virtues of working hard and living well. The Hahns greet him and express their sadness that Minnie couldn't make it this time. And then his uncle tells a series of horrible Dad jokes that would have gone straight into Seokjin's repertoire...

But he can only think of the night before, of Taehyung's dark hair splayed across the snowy pillow of their bed. He wants to retreat to the safety of the photos archived from his phone: Hidden moments and secret words held sacred between them. Close your eyes, Seokjin had said. Now make a wish.

His parents present a layered chocolate cake decked with strawberries and roses. Candles sputter in the dark restaurant, illuminating the shape of his mother's delicate face.

“Make a wish, Seokjinnie,” she beams.

He thinks, My wish has already come true. He closes his eyes and blows the candles out.

 

His family has never been one for shouting. When he speaks his well-practiced words, he doesn't stammer or falter, and he leaves out no detail.

They ask him no questions. They gape at him, unable to speak. Sweat gleams at his mother's temples as she stands there, wordless, motionless, her hand pressed lightly to her lips. His father collapses heavily into his chair, his strong hands limp in his lap. When they finally do talk, they select their words as carefully as Seokjin did. Like him, they leave no room for misunderstanding.

The clock on the wall ticks, ten seconds, then twenty, then a minute. It's 11:28, and the last train leaves at midnight.

Slowly, deliberately, Seokjin packs up his things. He leaves his childhood bedroom the way he found it. He calls a cab that delivers him to Gwangmyeong Station. He sits in the last car, in the very back seat, and as the train pulls from the station, he takes out his phone.

As promised, he texts Namjoon. Then he calls Taehyung.

“I did it,” he says, before Taehyung can speak. “I told them.”

Muffled scraping comes from the other end of the line, and then Taehyung's voice rings clear across the distance. “Hyung, where are you?”

“I'm on the train,” Seokjin says flatly. “I'm going home.”

“What? No. Jinnie...”

“I'm sorry, Taehyung-ah. I'll message you when I get there. I gotta go.”

He hangs up and leans his head against the window. The train slurs and sways over the rails, lulling him into a stupor. Behind his eyelids, he sees Taehyung's wide eyes staring unafraid into his. He feels his fingers comb the hair from his forehead. He hears the tender sound of his voice whispering in his ear. But my wish already came true.

Chapter Text

“Today the moon shines brighter
on the blank spot in my memories
It swallowed me, this lunatic,
please save me tonight.”
Save Me, BTS

 

Seokjin is shocked almost to the point of sobbing when he sees Yoongi at the station gate. Yoongi takes his bag from him. He loops an arm around his shoulder to guide him down the steps.

“Namjoon and Taehyung messaged me,” he explains. “I'm gonna take you home.” In silence, they cross the frozen terminal and climb the steps to the exit. Sanghyun-nim waits with a studio car idling at the corner. He opens the door to brisk them inside, and when Seokjin twists against Yoongi, his forehead to his shoulder, his tears finally begin to fall.

Once home, Seokjin curls into his bed without removing his coat or his shoes. Yoongi sits on the edge of the bed, chewing his lip as he watches Seokjin struggle to steady his breath.

“I already let Joon know you're back in Seoul,” Yoongi says. “He won't be home until tomorrow night. Hope and the Busan boys don't return until Sunday, so for tonight, it's just us. But you're safe now, okay. You can sleep.”

It's as though Yoongi's cast a spell, because Seokjin's eyes slip shut and he swiftly drifts away.

 

Yoongi's still there when he opens his eyes again, so he has no idea how much time has passed. His pillow is damp from his tears. His body feels stiff, like he's in the throes of a fever. With a jolt he remembers his mother, her cool hands on his forehead, her whispered words before everything went dark. “Make a wish, Seokjinnie.”

He chokes out a desperate, involuntary sound, and Yoongi nods.

“Yeah,” Yoongi says. “Look.” He scrubs a hand through his hair. He rubs his knuckles across his eyelids. “I'm gonna tell you something, and I hope it will give you some insight or some comfort. Okay?”

Seokjin sniffs and nods.

Yoongi folds his arms across his chest. He says, “Ahhh, hyung.” He pushes his palms over his face. “You and me, we are more alike than anyone would ever guess. We both play things so close. We share nothing of our real selves. We are both in love with our best friends. And I came out to my parents, too, but for me, it happened when I was fifteen.”

Seokjin can only blink.

Yoongi huffs out a sigh. “Bedside confessions, huh?” He pats down Seokjin's hair as he moves on. “So I was fifteen, right, and over-my-head in love with this guy from my group, this rapper pianist I used to write with. My parents were convinced that it was just a phase, that I would grow out of it because I was... I guess they thought I liked being different, or y'know, difficult, or whatever. Plus, I liked girls, but not just girls.” Yoongi scratches his scalp. “Anyway, they put me in a hospital. They thought I was sick, that I needed help. And I did. But not for that. So when I got out, that was when I first tried to take my life.”

Seokjin stares at Yoongi's face, aglow with the wan light of their alarm clock. “You were fifteen?”

“Yeah, I tried to kill myself at fifteen.” Yoongi sucks air over his teeth. “Imagine if I had succeeded.” He strokes the rough stubble along his chin as he considers his next words. "It didn't work out with the guy, of course, 'cause I was fuckin' fifteen. I mean, what do any of us know at that age, right?" He says, “But my parents were freaked. I knew that. And I also knew I couldn't stay there and be who I am. So when I could, I left. I came here. I met Hope and Joon, met all of you. My parents came to accept me, eventually. But, uh...” His shoulders lift. “It'll never be the same.”

Seokjin presses the back of his hand to his nose to stifle the seemingly endless flow of his tears. The words come out strangled and weak, but he says, “I had to tell them. They had to know.”

Yoongi brushes a palm over Seokjin's hair. “You're right. They did. And hyung, they'll come around, I know they will. Seollal's right around the corner. You'll probably hear from your Mom before the end of the month.”

“But will they ever forgive me?” Seokjin whispers.

Yoongi continues to pet Seokjin's head as he answers, “Hyung, there's nothing to forgive.”

A small, significant reservoir bursts inside Seokjin, and from it springs a fresh well of tears, these from deep inside his broken heart.

And Yoongi remains beside him to let him quietly cry.

 

 

Chapter Text

“You know it all. You’re my best friend.
The morning will come again
Because no darkness, no season
Can last forever.”
Spring Day, BTS

KAKAOTALK
2017 January 06

KTH: I sent Jin about a million msgs, but he doesn't respond.

KTH: Is he there? Is he with you?

MYG: yeah, he's here.

KTH: Hyung, how is he?

MYG: still asleep
still in his coat
still crying

KTH: In his sleep???

MYG: seems like

KTH: That's it. I'm coming home

Taehyung stands at Seokjin's bedside and watches the rise and fall of his chest. Yoongi was right; he is still weeping, even in his sleep. His cheeks flush feverish pink against his pillowcase. The faux fur of his collar plasters to his neck, and beneath that is a gridwork of welts from the folds of his heavy coat.

Yoongi drowses in the chair beside the bed. He's still in his jeans and a black turtleneck. His hand curls around the spine of a paperback, one of the cheap pulp thrillers he sometimes likes to read, and his mouth lolls open in a slack, exhausted O.

Taehyung hesitates to disturb their rest. Thunder bumbles outside as storms tremble in from Incheon. All of Seoul hunkers beneath a tear-stained sky, waiting for the weather to make up its mind. The dorm smells of spring onions and coffee, but outside the air carries the scent of the sea and the crisp, expectant whisper of snow.

Taehyung brushes his fingertips to Seokjin's shoulder. “Seokjin-ah,” he says.

Seokjin angles toward his voice. His eyes trace ellipses behind his eyelids, like a dreamer deeply sleeping. Then Seokjin surges up, suddenly and unexpectedly, to crush Taehyung into a desperate hug. Taehyung closes his arms around Seokjin's ribs, pulling him so tight he can feel his heartbeat through his coat.

Behind them, Yoongi winces awake. He makes eye contact with Taehyung long enough to jut a thumb at the door, and then he slides from the chair to pad off toward the kitchen.

“You're here?” Seokjin murmurs in disbelief against his neck.

Taehyung rubs his hands along Seokjin's spine. “I am,” he says.

Seokjin nuzzles Taehyung's collarbone. “Well,” he says, “What did your family say?”

They said a lot, actually. They talked for hours, him and his Mom and Dad, knee-to-knee on the small deck of their apartment home. Bundled beneath flannel blankets, sipping mugs of hot ginseng tea, they listened to him tell the story of how he and Seokjin fell in love and how, for three years, they felt compelled to hide.

Although apparently, he hadn't hidden it as well as he thought.

Taehyung says, “They told me they already knew.”

Seokjin moves his head. “Yeah,” he says. Then, "Good."

Taehyung rests a hand against the nape of Seokjin's neck. He breathes in and permits himself an inward prayer. Seokjin squeezes him, tight as a vise, and burrows his head deeper against Taehyung's chest.

Taehyung says, “Hyung, let's get you out of this coat, okay?”

Seokjin whimpers and doesn't move.

“Okay,” Taehyung says. “Take your time.” He cranes his neck to peer into his face. “You don't have to talk to me.” He touches his chin with the tips of his fingers. “You don't have to talk to anyone.” He kisses the bridge of Seokjin's nose. “But you should know, you are not alone.”

Seokjin nods. He draws a shuddering breath. And then he begins to clumsily shrug out of his coat.

 

By the time Namjoon arrives after 7 p. m., Taehyung has managed to coax Seokjin to the table, where he, Seokjin, and Yoongi pensively sip from steaming bowls of udon. Rain drums down in steady, steely sheets, making the dorm feel like it's tucked beneath a hollow. They've been mostly silent all afternoon, each of them quietly recovering from their various worries, heartaches, and injuries. They spend most of their time shambling from the bedroom to the bathroom and then, finally, to the kitchen, where they're sitting when Namjoon comes in.

Namjoon ruffles Seokjin's hair and goes, “Hey, man... how you holding up?”

Seokjin says, “You didn't have to—”

But then his voice breaks and two silent tears slide down his face.

Namjoon flashes a panicked look at Yoongi, who gets up and waves him into the hall.

Taehyung slides his chair beside Seokjin's. As he smooths away his tears, he wonders whether this is something Seokjin can survive, or if maybe Seokjin had been right all those times when he insisted that Taehyung was asking too much of him.

All the way home from Daegu, Taehyung tried to cast himself in Seokjin's place. But the scenario exists beyond the grasp of even his imagination. Because when he thinks of his Mom and Dad asking him to leave, Taehyung's brain shuts down and simply refuses to comprehend it. So he sits there, chafing warmth into Seokjin's thumbs, desperately hoping that this hasn't permanently destroyed part of the brilliant light that Seokjin carries inside him.

Yoongi and Namjoon return a long while later. They drag up chairs so they're facing each other, and the way they lean in, Taehyung feels like they're in one of their executive team meetings when Bang Sihyuk presents a plan that they're all expected to follow without question.

“We think you and Jin-hyung could use some alone time,” Namjoon begins.

“So we're going to stay with Hope in Gwangju a few days,” Yoongi finishes.

Taehyung grips Namjoon's hand. “Really?” he asks.

“Yeah, we just talked to him,” Namjoon says. “His sister's not home for the break, so he's got an extra bed. Plus it'll be a good chance for us to work on some new material.”

“What do you think?” Taehyung asks Seokjin.

He purses his lips as he considers. Then he gazes up to meet Yoongi's eyes as he asks, “Can we use your bathtub?”

Yoongi squints. He says, “You mean, like, both of you?”

Seokjin nods, one very deliberate nod.

Yoongi sends a smirk over his shoulder to Namjoon that seems to ask Can you believe this guy? Out loud, he grumbles, “He didn't have to ask me. He could've just used it, and I'd never need to know.”

Namjoon pats Yoongi's shoulder. “This'll be good,” he says. “It's a great idea for all involved.”

“Yeah, yeah. They're not gonna be touchin' tips in your bathtub,” Yoongi says.

Seokjin grips Yoongi's forearm with both hands. “Thank you,” he says. “For... everything.”

Yoongi ruffles Seokjin's hair with his free hand. “Just, um, take care of that one, okay?” He gestures to Taehyung with only his eyes. Then he extracts his arm and shuffles from the room.

Namjoon beams his broadest, most mischievous smile. “I don't have a bathtub, so...” He shrugs. Then he asks, “You gonna be okay?”

Taehyung meets Seokjin's eyes. For the first time since he returned home, he sees the barest glimmer of hope in them. He presses Seokjin's hand between his palms, and Seokjin squeezes back.

“Yeah,” Taehyung says. “We're gonna be fine.”

Chapter Text

“You are my best decision.
Nothing can stop me.
Take me into the scattered light
To the end of the world.”
It's Definitely You, Kim Taehyung and Kim Seokjin

January 7, 2017

Seokjin watches Taehyung across the water. Whirls of lavender-scented glitter lick along Taehyung's bare chest and arms. Pale, pearlescent bubbles crest against the tops of his knees, which poke like islands from the foam. His ankles rest in the hollows on either side of Seokjin's pelvis, and Seokjin massages each of his toes in turn, delighted by the exultant groans this draws from Taehyung's parted lips.

“When we have our own place,” Seokjin says. “We definitely need a tub.”

Taehyung's eyes slide closed. “And one of those rainfall showers, too,” he adds.

“Like the one in that hotel in Dubai,” Seokjin says.

“Mmm,” Taehyung moans. “Yeah.”

Seokjin presses a thumb against Taehyung's insole. He says, “What else should we have?”

Taehyung goes cross-eyed as Seokjin exerts pressure against his arches. Then he says, “Trampolines.”

“In our house?”

“Hm-mm,” Taehyung says. “And a hammock.”

“And a hot tub.”

“And dolphins,” Taehyung says. “And an octopus.”

“We mustn't neglect our benevolent octopus overlords,” Seokjin says. “Without them, we may have never met... Secret Double Agent Kim.”

Taehyung opens one eye. “Would you say that you and I were instrumental in the great... Octo-pation?”

Seokjin clasps a hand to his chest, feigning shock. “That was the very best, most terrible Dad joke you have ever told.”

“Are you proud of me?”

“Oh, immensely.”

Taehyung looks pleased as he loops his arms behind his neck. Then worry creases his brow as he asks, “Do you think Yoongi will be mad that we used all his fizzy bath stuff?”

Seokjin breathes in the luxuriant layered scents of bee pollen and forsythia and decides that he really can't regret it. His body still aches with the dull, deep, tender pain of his heartbreak. His swollen eyes still itch and burn. His empty stomach roils, and his sinuses feel as though they've been scoured out with a bristle brush. So he doubts Yoongi will begrudge them his planet-themed bath bombs, even if they did use them all at once.

“We'll get him some more,” Seokjin says. Cupping his hands in the foam, he blows several glistening bubbles toward Taehyung, who watches them with the rapt joy of a child at Christmas time.

Taehyung pulls one of Seokjin's legs across his lap and goes to work on his calf. Seokjin's eyes roll closed as he revels in the sheer pleasure of Taehyung's touch. “Have I died?” he muses. “Are we in heaven?”

Taehyung chuckles darkly. “Close,” he says. He kneads his thumbs into Seokjin's thighs and adds, “Closer...”

“Yes,” Seokjin agrees. “In every way, yes.”

 

Later they curve naked beneath Seokjin's duvet, Taehyung's body nested against his. They watch Taehyung's favorite western Christmas movies: Love Actually and Moulin Rouge. After the epic argument Taehyung had with Jimin last year, Seokjin's not about to suggest to Taehyung that Moulin Rouge isn't a Christmas movie. Besides, it's a musical love story and they both adore it, so it's becoming a kind of tradition.

After a dinner of whatever they find in the cabinets, they catch up to Episode Six of Hwarang, prompting Seokjin to tease, “Why are we watching this? You're not even in it,” which causes Taehyung to jab Seokjin in his ribs. And then they watch Seokjin's first episode of Law of the Jungle, for which Taehyung has no words at all.

“Are you impressed that I survived a night at sea on a wooden platform with very little water and food?” Seokjin asks.

Wide-eyed, Taehyung nods.

“And are you impressed that I prepared the squid for us to eat?”

Again, Taehyung can only gape in response.

“It was delicious,” Seokjin says, nestling his chin on Taehyung's shoulder. “And I was amazing.”

“You were,” Taehyung whispers. “You were so scared to go, but you did so well.”

Seokjin feels a stirring of pride at hearing those words from him. “I did do well, didn't I?”

Taehyung hugs him closer. “Hyung,” he says. “I believe you can do anything.”

Seokjin pushes his hands through the tousled nest of Taehyung's hair. “We both can,” he says. “We all can.”

Taehyung closes his eyes. He fits Seokjin's forehead beneath his jaw and slides his arms around his waist. Within minutes, his breaths elongate into an even rhythm, which Seokjin can feel against his hair. His limbs feel languid, his body heavy, and with Taehyung snuggled against him, he feels pleasantly warm and comfortably calm. In spite of everything, he feels at rest. He feels... content. They will struggle more, he knows, and they will always fight this fight. But they will continue to find themselves here, in each other's arms. Time and again, they will find solace in each other.

 

They spend the next day in bed. They do anything and everything they've ever desired, because they're home, and they're safe, and there's no schedule to stop them.

In the evening, happily sore and wildly hungry, they order food and stand at the window, waiting for the delivery. Taehyung's in a mismatch of clothes – Hoseok's orange flannel PJs and Jungkook's faded gray t-shirt with the neckline long ago cut out. He's got a khaki canvas cap snugged over his hair, and he's opted for his wire-frame glasses instead of his contacts.

He looks shaggy and disheveled, far more grunge than Gucci, and the way that he keeps smiling... it's enough to stop Seokjin's heart.

Seokjin watches as Taehyung clasps a mug of tea between both of his hands. He takes a sip, and the smile sneaks back to his lips. Still grinning, Taehyung says, “We've done it, you know? We came out to our families. They know about us.”

Seokjin sips from his own cup. “It feels better,” he admits. “It feels right. Even if my parents don't accept us, I feel better that they know.”

“Really?”

“Yes, my VV,” Seokjin says. “Really.”

Taehyung, smiling, returns to scanning the skyline. Evening sunlight feathers gold into the buildings and along the icy sweep of the river beyond. Clouds scatter silver into the shadows, casting shimmers of light across the traffic and the trains.

But Seokjin watches him, entranced by the way Taehyung seems to glow from within. It's as though he's crossed a bridge, transforming both slowly and quite suddenly, from a youth into the man who stands beside him. Yet somehow, he's managed to keep all the light and wonder of his childhood inside.

Seokjin wants that. He wants to tend it in himself; he wants to protect it in Taehyung. Protect, but never stifle. This is his deepest hope.

Seokjin breathes in. Their kitchen smells of tea leaves and honey and rainstorms outside of their season.

“Taehyung-ah,” he says. “They know that I love you, with all that I have. I hope that you know it, too.”

“Always,” Taehyung whispers. “I will always know.” He closes his eyes and reaches for Seokjin's hand. They stand together, side-by-side, as the day flourishes brightly into night.