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Because of Us

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“Every time I look into your eyes I see it.
You're all I need.”
Get You, Daniel Caesar

February 14, 2017 – Taehyung

KAKAOTALK
6:32 a.m.

Jinnie: VV, are you awake?
Jinnie: VV, wake up.
Jinnie: Hellooooo. Kim Taehyung. Are you there?
BigHit Taehyung: Sorry, you must want your other boyfriend, Kim Namjoon. You know, the one you kissed on the broadcast last night.
Jinnie: VV
Jinnie: Are you still upset about that?
BigHit Taehyung: how would you feel if I kissed Jimin on a national broadcast?
Jinnie: Vaguely turned on.
BigHit Taehyung: You are such a liar.
BigHit Taehyung: Your boyfriend the other night... your girlfriend three days ago
Jinnie: Hey, you leave Minnie out of this :D
BigHit Taehyung: Fine, you've know her since forever, she gets a pass. But you don't
Jinnie: Excuse me, but I will not be lectured about anything when you just planned a spring weekend getaway with Park Bogum.
BigHit Taehyung: You're kidding me, right? You know I don't have a choice. PD-nim made all the arrangements. It's supposed to be good for my acting career
Jinnie: So you won't have any fun at all in Jeju?
BigHit Taehyung: Yeah, I mean, we'll have fun, you know he's a good guy
Jinnie: Picture me sticking my fingers in my ears and yelling really loud right now because I do not want to hear it.
BigHit Taehyung: Aww. My Jin-hyungie is jealous.
Jinnie: Shut up. I am not. Don't make plans.
Jinnie: Go here <https://naver.modernseoul.org/2015/09/28/paiks-coffee/> and meet the mermaid.

Taehyung tumbles from Seokjin's bed and onto his knees, still cradling his phone in his hands. He moans, “Jimin-ah,” and is met with hollow silence. The dorm smells of fresh coffee mixed with the oily scent of last night's fried chicken. He winces to his feet, scrubbing one hand through his hair as he scuffles into the hall. Yawning broadly, he glances around the corridor, listening for the sounds of video games or music from the other rooms.

“Jungkook-ah?” he tries. His voice sounds wide in the quiet dorm, and he wonders, as he pads toward the kitchen, where everyone has gone.

He finds Yoongi half-asleep at the kitchen table, one hand curled around a half-empty mug, the other propping up a paperback horror novel. He's got his headphones in and a forbidding scowl, but neither of these things deter Taehyung, who knuckles the table to get his attention.

Yoongi lifts his eyes. “What do you want, Taehyung?”

“Where is everyone?” Taehyung asks.

“Fuck if I know,” Yoongi says. He returns to his book, resolutely licking his thumb to flick to the next page.

Taehyung checks his phone. It's 6:34 a.m. Way too early for everyone to be awake already and out of the dorm. Everyone, that is, except for Yoongi.

Taehyung squints at him. “What's going on?”

Yoongi sighs. “Well I'm reading,” he says. “Or trying to.”

Taehyung decides to test him. “Where's Hobi-hyung?”

Yoongi lowers the novel. “Don't you have somewhere to be?”

So Yoongi's being deliberately cagey... which means whatever's going on, he's in on it. But Taehyung knows Yoongi well enough to know that he's not going to give him anything.

Taehyung gives Yoongi the side-eye. “Yeeeah,” he says. “I guess I do.”

“Then I guess you better get going,” Yoongi says. Again, he licks his finger and turns a page.

Taehyung lingers in the kitchen, barefooted and still wearing Seokjin's pajamas, as he clicks the Naver link in his KKT. The browser brings up directions to an ordinary coffee shop inside Seoul Station.

Experimentally, Taehyung asks, “Am I taking a trip?”

Yoongi narrows his eyes, but Taehyung catches the quickest flicker of a smile.

“Hyung, should I pack?”

“You should get going,” Yoongi grates out.

“Fine,” Taehyung says.

Excitement begins to percolate in him as he rushes around his room. About every tenth thought, Taehyung remembers that Seokjin kissed Namjoon on the cheek in their comeback broadcast. About every fifth thought, he remembers that Seokjin himself wrote the penalty and then joked that he hoped he'd have to serve it. Well, he got his wish, and now Taehyung wavers between being upset about it and feeling intrigued by Seokjin's current ploy to get Taehyung out of the dorm.

In the meantime, he scrounges through his laundry in search of his favorite crimson pants. Just to tease Yoongi, he shouts, “Have you seen my red pants?”

From the kitchen, Yoongi emits a raspy wail of sheer frustration.

Laughing, Taehyung abandons the search, choosing instead a pair of black track pants and a gray fleece hoodie. Yoongi continues to feign irritation as Taehyung stomps into his boots at the door. He pulls on his coat and scarf and flaps a noisy goodbye before heading off into the overbright February day.

*

Throngs of people skim in and out of Seoul Station, all brisk and busy and full of purpose. The February air feels crisp and brittle as fallen leaves. It smells of baked bread and ice and petrol. He's hungry, he realizes, but he'll have to wait to get breakfast until he meets the mermaid, whatever that means.

Behind his Rilakkuma face mask, Taehyung feels the tug of a smile. He slips among the bustling crowd, one small bird among thousands. He stops at the information desk to ask the lady if she knows Paik Coffee. She's sharp in her gestures as she gives him directions, and he listens carefully because he doesn't want to have to ask again.

As he enters the main concourse, he's so focused on her words that he blocks out everything else. He sees the Baskin-Robbins, the Lotteria Burger, the northbound Korail terminal, and then, unexpectedly, Namjoon.

Taehyung's so startled that he flinches to a stop in front of the concrete bench where Namjoon sits.

“Joon-hyung-ah!” Taehyung says. “What—?”

“Taehyung,” Namjoon says. He peers up at him, his lips pressed over his smile. “You're late.”

Namjoon's wearing a beige beanie. His phone rests loosely in his hand. At his feet sits a silver suitcase, and on the bench beside him, there is a sealed pink envelope.

Taehyung leans in to whisper, “Are you the mermaid?”

Now Namjoon does laugh. “No. Obviously.” He glances over Taehyung's shoulder, but when Taehyung goes to follow his gaze, Namjoon tugs his sleeve. “You have twenty-four hours to complete this mission,” he says. He stares straight up into Taehyung's eyes. “Do you accept?”

Taehyung looks from the suitcase to the envelope, and he begins to nod. “Of course I accept.”

Namjoon bobs his head, once. He hands him the envelope, then nudges the suitcase toward him. Once Taehyung takes the handle, Namjoon says, “Now go meet the mermaid.”

He juts with his chin, and this time Taehyung turns to look. There, at the corner of the concourse and the eastbound terminal, sits the unassuming Paik Coffee Shop, with a tacky cardboard standee of a mermaid lounging beneath a plastic palm tree.

“When did he plan this?” Taehyung ponders aloud.

In response, Namjoon answers, “You better get going.”

Taehyung's pulse stirs as he presses the envelope into his pocket. Dragging the suitcase behind him, he strikes off toward the shop. 

*

Within meters of the mermaid, Taehyung catches a familiar ripple of sound: the stifled chuckle of one Park Jimin. Taehyung swivels to scan the patrons of the coffee shop in search of the telltale blond head. Several small tables sit outside the shop's main perimeter, each occupied by groups of two or three business-looking types: women in dresses, men in suits. All of the tables, except for the one directly behind the cardboard mermaid.

Three young men in street clothes hulk around it, their heads bent together so that their knit caps almost touch. One of the young men's shoulders quiver, like he's either dying from some spastic fit, or he's failing hard at trying not to laugh.

As Taehyung approaches, one of them hisses, “Does he see us?”

The third one goes, “Shhh,” and kicks him under the table. All three of them dissolve into giggles.

Taehyung walks up to vise his hand on Jimin's shoulder. Jimin lets out a stunned yelp before he cranes, slowly, to meet Taehyung's eyes.

“Uh,” Jimin stammers. “Yeah, I, um, have to cancel our dinner tonight, Taehyung-ie.”

“Oh really?” Taehyung asks.

Hoseok and Jungkook continue to lose it.

“Yeah, I'm busy,” Jimin continues. “I have plans. Apparently.”

“But you should have this, hyung,” Jungkook says. He pulls Taehyung's camera case from beneath the table and hands it up to him.”

“Am I supposed to take... pictures?” Taehyung asks.

Jungkook shrugs like, Just doin' my job, and Taehyung threads the bag's strap over his shoulder.

“And you should take these, too,” Hoseok says. With great fanfare, including music and sound-effects, Hoseok passes him a paper sack containing two jelly-filled donuts.

“And this,” Jimin adds. He passes Taehyung a bottle of strawberry-mango juice. “And you should probably go now. You don't want to miss your train.”

“Jimin,” Hoseok says through his smile. “Don't spoil it.”

“What?” Jimin says, pointing at the still-sealed envelope. “He has the tickets right there.”

Hoseok and Jungkook both groan. They press their palms to their foreheads, uncannily mirroring each other's expressions. Taehyung can't help but beam at all three of them.

“You guys are just the worst at this,” Taehyung says.

“Whatever,” Jimin says. “We just don't want you to miss your trip.”

“So I am going on a trip?” Taehyung asks.

Jimin stands up to give him a little shove. “Yes and you slept really late, so you have to, like, GO.”

“Okay, okay,” Taehyung concedes. He points down the hallway leading into the departure hall. “That way?”

“Line 4, transfer at Hoegi,” Jimin begins. Hoseok balks, and Jungkook clamps a hand over Jimin's mouth, which Jimin then proceeds to lick with the full, broad sweep of his tongue. Gaping, Jungkook recoils, and Jimin continues, completely unperturbed. “Then go all the way to Gapyeong.” 

*

Once aboard the train, Taehyung wedges himself out of the way against a back window. He proceeds to carefully pry open the envelope to examine the contents inside. He finds a folded, typed sheet of instructions and a charter bus ticket to Nami Island. The departure time on the ticket says 9:10 a.m. He fishes out his phone and checks the time against the subway schedule. Jimin, Namjoon, and Yoongi had been right. It's 7:47 right now, and he has 87 minutes of travel time, which means he'll be cutting it close.

Taehyung leans to sit on his suitcase, swinging his camera bag into his lap. People bump and jostle around him, playing games on their phones or reading the morning news. Ads for dramas and skin care products buzz on the CCTV, sliced up by station announcements and courtesy PSAs. He thrives on this kind of bustling noise and energy. This, plus the anticipation of his mission, sends pleasant sparks of warmth coursing through his veins.

Taehyung stuffs down both donuts in two bites each and begins to sip his juice. About thirty minutes into his journey, he receives a text from Seokjin:

Because you let me put my cold feet on you at night when we sleep.

Taehyung types back:

Hyung, is this a clue? Where am I going?

Seokjin responds with:

Because of how you see the world.

Taehyung thumbs sugar crumbs from his lips. He mutters, “Because of how I see the world...”

He unzips his camera bag and begins to riffle through its contents: his camera, which he bought for himself for his birthday; the telephoto lens; the lint-free cloth; four rolls of film – two black and white, two color – and a pair of wool socks.

“You and your cold feet,” Taehyung says. He unfolds the socks to find a small key rubber-banded around a rolled-up piece of paper.

Taehyung turns the key over and over in his hand. It's an ordinary key with the number 445 stamped into its head. It looks like the kind of thing someone would use for a small storage locker in an airport terminal or an amusement park.

Then he unrolls his clue, which says, Because you are my favorite, make sure to sit in Seat #4.

*

Taehyung sprints from the train station to the Gapyeong Bus Terminal, immediately grateful that he already has his ticket when he sees the line snaking around the office kiosk and into the icy parking lot. Eyes streaming from the cold, his face mask damp against his lips, he breathlessly mounts the bus's steps and passes the ticket to the driver.

“I'm supposed to sit,” he puffs out a breath, “In seat number four.”

The bus driver, a tiny elf of an old man, brightens like a Christmas light.

“Ah!” he says. “So it's you.”

Grinning, he takes Taehyung's suitcase and escorts him into the toasty interior of the tour bus like he's some kind of celebrity. Which he is, but he's not supposed to be... not today.

“Here you are, here you are,” the bus driver chirps. He hefts the suitcase toward the overhead rack, and Taehyung has to help him guide it into place.

“Was my... friend... here. Earlier?” Taehyung asks as he slides into the window seat. “And are there lockers somewhere?”

The driver waves dismissively and gives him a wink, which Taehyung doesn't really understand. He settles into the seat, thumbing off his face mask as the final passengers straggle on board. Once his knees brush against the seat, that's when he hears the crinkling of plastic.

Taehyung finds an eMart shopping bag folded into the mesh seat-back. Taehyung, still panting from his run, unwraps the bag to find a water bottle, a packet of his favorite ginger crackers, a single-serving pack of Nutella, and a mini-bag of sour worms. The clue taped to the Nutella package reads: Because you're too sweet.

Taehyung's blush spreads across his face and down the back his neck. He scans the passengers around him, all of them bright-faced and eager to start their adventure. It's a Tuesday, so it's mostly foreign tourists and families with young children, all snugly bundled against the cold. The bus shudders into gear and noses into the road, eastbound toward Naminara.

*

The thing with Seokjin's treasure hunts is that they're not just puzzles for Taehyung to solve. They're also the gift of time. Taehyung ponders this as he assembles his camera, gently wiping the lens and loading a roll of black and white film. When not directed, Taehyung tends to drift. He also tends to lose himself in things like video games or YouTube if someone – usually Jimin or Seokjin – doesn't intervene. Then there are other times when he becomes so fully absorbed in a special interest or repetitive task that he forgets to bathe or sleep or even eat, and that's when he must rely on the others to keep him on track.

Maybe it's because he's lived under the direction of a company that has scheduled and planned almost every minute of his life since he was seventeen. Or maybe he's just naturally distractable. Probably a little of both. But the point is, these little hunts get him out of the dorm. They give him the chance to explore and try new things he wouldn't normally do alone.

Sure, he and Jimin and Jungkook go off on short hikes and day-trips, but Taehyung finds that when they go out, he focuses on them rather than on the world around him. So it's different. When he's solving Seokjin's riddles, he has the chance to rely on himself, to be resourceful and independent. That, to him, is almost as important as the experience itself.

*

At Nami Island, Taehyung takes a swan-shaped ferry from the mainland to the ornate visitor's dock. He wanders along the riverside, snapping photos of its frozen surface. He chats with random people, asking if he can pet their dogs or speak with their warmly-swaddled children. The Metasequoia Road overwhelms him with its wintry beauty. He walks along the quiet tree-lined path, enraptured by the bare limbs that prick sharp against the stark blue sky.

Though they've been to Naminara before, Taehyung feels now like he can take the time to really enjoy it. There are no flags to capture, no challenges or competitions, no bungee jumping feats to shame or frighten him. Just the warmth of the sun baking down on his hair and the easy gait of travelers exploring the countryside.

He photographs everything. Outside the island's main restaurant where he eats lunch, he trails a small russet rabbit between the snowy hedgerows, getting close enough at one point for it to nibble a ginger cracker from his fingers. There's a curious, long-necked llama in a paddock who repeatedly munches his scarf. Taehyung takes a selfie with him and sends it to the group chat with the caption: me and Jin-hyung <3

At the appointed rendezvous time, Taehyung returns to the bus with snow-sludge caked to his knees and boots and a mild case of windburn across his cheeks. But he's smiling to himself as he takes his designated seat.

Outside the entrance to Naminara, there's a frozen fountain that looks to Taehyung like something spun out of moonlight and sugar. He takes a selfie in front of it and sends it to Seokjin with the words: The only thing more romantic would be if we were here together.

And Seokjin responds with, Because of the Eiffel Tower.

*

Taehyung is all jitters when the bus arrives at Petite France. Despite the driver's admonitions to remain seated while the bus is parking, Taehyung bounds into the aisle to be the first one out of the door.

The driver calls to his back, “Return here in an hour!” and Taehyung responds with an impatient wave over the top of his head.

He fully expects to find Seokjin standing at the base of the miniature Eiffel Tower at the top of the hill, so he bolts along the winding streets of the replica village, ignoring the souvenir shops, the bakeries, the photo booths, and the museum displays.

But the little plaza stands empty, the cobblestones swept clean and glistening, the fake pansies in the planters bobbing their heads in the icy breeze.

Taehyung takes a moment to catch his breath. His nose is running again, and his throat feels raw and sore. He can smell roasted chestnuts and warm pastries in the tourist's shop behind him, so he ambles inside, surreptitiously searching for clues or a bank of lockers that will fit his key.

An older woman watches him from the cashier's booth. She's wearing a beret sewn with seed pearls and a pair of fingerless gloves. Her dark hair is tinted with violet highlights, which make her teeth look shiny and white.

After several minutes, she ventures, “Are you here with your friends?”

Instantly wary, Taehyung answers, “No. I'm here alone.”

“Hmf,” she huffs.

Taehyung walks up the narrow aisle, eyeing the woman as he asks, “Do you think I'm someone you know?”

Airily, she says, “Who would I know?” She taps her long fingernails on the lacquered counter of her register.

He shrugs and scratches the back of his head. “Maybe Hansung?”

“Hansung?” She sneers. “What's a Hansung?” Then, she goes, “You want something? A cocoa or a cider? It's very hot.”

Taehyung brightens. “Apple cider?” he asks.

“Yes of course,” the woman snaps. “What do you think it would be? We don't serve alcohol here. This is a family place.”

Taehyung shrugs, feeling oddly embarrassed. He says, “I don't drink, so...”

“So you want a cider,” the woman says.

“Yes, please.”

She edges around her counter and goes to the machine to pour him a steaming cup full of cider. He realizes, as she returns to her register, that he could have easily poured it for himself.

“You want a pastry? We have apple fritters, very delicious.”

“Uh,” Taehyung scrabbles out a 500-won coin for the cider. “No thanks.”

The woman purses her lips as she rings him up and returns his change. She says, “You sure you're not here with your friends?”

“Yeah, I'm by myself,” he says. “Are there lockers in this park?”

“Lockers?” she snips. “Why would we have lockers?”

Taehyung clears his throat. “No idea,” he says, and he leaves, feeling as though he's done something wrong. He steps to the edge of the courtyard, the cup clasped between his palms to warm his hands. A sharp wind whisks up from the Han River, which loops like a brown and white scarf around the hips of the eastern foothills.

Taehyung takes a moment, then, to gaze around the replica village of Petite France. In his hurry to reach the tower, he missed the delicate pastels of the buildings' stucco facades. He missed the painted vines and peaked rooftops. He missed the tinkling notes of a music box song playing on the park's sound system, which makes him feel oddly nostalgic and vaguely forlorn.

So he meanders a while, sipping his cider and seeing the sights. He takes pictures, too, finishing off the roll of black and white and exchanging it for color. He gets brilliant shots of the Little Prince in his garden, of the marionettes in the museum, of the buildings bright against the muted gray of the frozen hillside.

But then he returns to the Eiffel Tower and stares up at its pinnacle, wondering what Seokjin wants him to do.

The sun has begun to set. The air bites bitter in its chill, and a bank of slate-blue clouds slide in over the northern hilltops. Taehyung slowly rounds the base of the tower, peering between the gaps in the fretwork, searching for hidden objects or secret clues. He thinks he sees a light-colored something wedged into a joist high in the neck of the tower, so he presses his hands to the frigid metal, testing to determine how much weight the structure might bear.

“Don't you dare climb it,” he hears a voice behind him say.

Taehyung twists around. “I wasn't—”

“—Hmf,” the woman grunts. “You were thinking about it.”

Taehyung can only shrug in response. The woman comes to stand beside him. Her hands tucked loosely into her pockets, she says, “And you're sure not here with your friends?”

“I'm not, I promise.”

“Hmf,” she grunts again. “Okay.” She continues to peer up at the tower along with him.

Taehyung angles toward her. “Which... friends?” he asks.

“A girl about yea-high,” she says, gesturing to her own forehead, “And a young man, very handsome.”

For several seconds, Taehyung can only blink. Then he mutters, “He came here with Minnie.” And then he smiles. “He came here on Saturday with Minnie!

“That's right, Saturday,” the woman says, proudly, her hands on her hips.

“Did they leave a message?”

She tucks an errant curl back under her beret. “As a matter of fact, they did.”

The way the woman hurries back into her shop makes Taehyung swell with a burst of warmth. Clearly, she relishes being in on this secret, and Taehyung can easily imagine Seokjin and Minnie explaining to her this part of his plan. The woman returns a moment later with a ladder.

“Go on,” she says, gesturing fervently. “Your friend used it, too.”

As Taehyung mounts the bottom step, he hears the bus driver announce over the PA that their tour will depart in ten minutes. “Right,” Taehyung breathes. “Okay.” He clambers to the top of the ladder and leans gingerly against the metal frame. There, wedged between the narrow beams, rests a package about the size of a salt shaker, wrapped in pink stationery paper.

From the ladder's base, the woman calls up, “Well, what is it?”

He unfurls the wrapping paper and reads the letter aloud: “Though this is not the real Eiffel Tower, one day we will meet there. Until then, because you still cry when you hear my song... Come and find me in the Garden of Morning Calm. I am in LOVE.”

The woman claps her hands over her mouth and squeals like a teenager.

Taehyung thumbs open the small cardboard box and finds a palm-sized brass bell engraved with Seokjin's initials and Taehyung's, above the words, “You are my best decision.”

Warm tears spring to his eyes. He cups the bell between his hands and kisses it, once, before tucking it into the pocket of his coat. From his vantage, halfway up the scale-model of the Eiffel Tower, he can see the wide belly of the river, and the bus below with its bevy of boarding passengers. The driver lingers at the door, greeting them as they arrive, occasionally scanning the main entrance, looking, probably, for Taehyung.

“Okay, I'm coming down,” Taehyung shouts.

The woman grips the rails of the ladder as he descends. Once his feet touch the ground, she grapples him into a clumsy hug.

“She is a keeper,” she tells him. “So clever and inventive. Very much in love.”

Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut against the sting of his tears. “Yeah.” He wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Yes. Thank you.”

“Go, lucky boy,” she says as she folds up her ladder. “Go catch your bus.”

*

Taehyung continues to toy with the bell as the bus wends its way along the swooping mountain roads. After about fifteen minutes, he receives a text from Seokjin that says, Because you hold my hands whenever I say or do something you know will embarrass me... make sure you wear your gloves.

He gets to his knees to wrest his suitcase down into the empty seat beside him, ignoring the driver's vigorous protests for him to remain in his seat. He knows he's got a half an hour's travel time between Petite France and the Garden of Morning Calm, so he takes his time as he unzips his suitcase, wedging it against seat-backs to dig through everything Seokjin packed for him.

He finds long underwear and extra socks, plus t-shirts, a hoodie and his favorite red pants (over which Taehyung can only smile). The suitcase also contains his phone charger, toiletries bag, an extra scarf and a beanie, his reindeer-print boxers (much to the amusement of the women in the adjacent seat), and a pair of brand new fleece-lined gloves stitched with white alpaca faces on each hand.

Taehyung takes out the gloves, tears off the tags, and unfolds them. Inside the left palm, he finds his ticket and a map of the garden. Inside the front cover of the map, Seokjin has written, Because your love guides me, I am never lost.

He buries his face in one of his t-shirts to hide the flood of color in his cheeks. The shirt smells of Seokjin's new sandalwood face wash, prompting a sharp shift in Taehyung's appetites as he entertains thoughts of tonight, and the things he hopes to do once he and Seokjin are together.

With his eyes closed, he imagines his lips pressed to Seokjin's warm throat. His pulse quickens, and his mouth goes dry. He bunches the cloth against his face and drinks in the spicy-sweet scent of his boyfriend...

Which is when he remembers he's on a bus full of people.

He flashes a sheepish grin at the women across the aisle as he returns the shirt to his suitcase. They were watching him and make no attempts to disguise their intrigue as he busily repacks everything into his bag.

One of women leans in, and taking a risk, she asks, “Are you Hansung, from Hwarang?”

Even though he's been an idol for years, even though he regularly attends fan signs and high-touch events, this kind of recognition always fills him with joy.

But Taehyung knows he has to take care, because these women are going into the park with him, and he doesn't want anything to jeopardize his ability to solve Seokjin's riddle or to meet Seokjin, if that's how it's supposed to play out.

So he says, “I look like him, don't I?”

The second woman leans over. Emboldened by her friend's question, she says, “You really do. You must be him.”

“Can you tell us about tonight's episode?” the first woman asks. She rests her chin on the second woman's shoulder, and they both grin at him, blinking and expectant.

“Uhm, I really don't know,” he says. A slow wave of heat climbs up his neck and spreads along his hairline to his ears.

The second woman jabs her friend's shoulder. “I told you, he's too old to be Hansung,” she says. But the first woman seems unconvinced. Even as the bus lumbers into the parking lot, she continues to glance in his direction, and Taehyung feels anxiety coil into his belly, at the thought of her confronting him again.

But as the tour group begins to disembark, the bus driver comes unwittingly to Taehyung's aid. He flags him to stay in his seat, and once everyone else has gone, he says, “Make sure you grab your luggage, okay? You won't be returning to the bus.”

“Oh?” Taehyung says. “Really?”

The driver bows his head. “You should have a key,” he says.

“Right!” Taehyung pokes through his pockets to locate the key on its springy orange band. “I have it,” he says.

“The lockers are just inside the gates, to the left,” the driver explains.

“Thank you,” Taehyung says, bowing in return as he shuffles from the bus, his suitcase in tow. “Thank you!”

Taehyung follows the crowd from a safe distance, handing his ticket to the attendant at the entrance, and then veering left to find the bank of storage lockers exactly where the driver said they would be. He stows his suitcase, taking only his camera, his phone, and the map inside.

*

Golden evening sunlight slants in wide slices as Taehyung first enters the garden. He wanders a while, snapping shots of bonsai trees and orchids and succulents. The small ponds have all frozen, their edges crisped white with ice, so that at dusk, when the the myriad of lights flicker to life, everything glows with colors Taehyung thought only existed in his dreams.

It's unlike anything Taehyung has ever seen, and as he slips along the snowy, fairy-lit paths, he begins to feel a swell of … something like loneliness: a bone-deep ache to have Seokjin with him, holding his hand, walking the trails at his side.

He searches everywhere for Seokjin, in every crowd, in every group and family. He does his best to capture the luminous spectacle, but nothing he does feels like it's enough. He lacks the photography skills to fully capture the light spangling across the wonder-filled faces of the children. He can't quite catch the flickering displays of twinkle lights that effervesce like rippling comets and falling stars. The cold and the contrast between the light and sky smear the colors into blurry bands across his viewscreen, until he finally puts the camera away to focus instead on Seokjin's final clue.

Because you still cry when you hear my song... Come and find me in the Garden of Morning Calm. I am in LOVE.

With the camera safely stowed, Taehyung takes in his surroundings. The scent of juniper and hot chocolate soak his senses. He's hungry again and longs for the snacks he's stashed inside the locker. Again, he breathes in and forces himself to focus.

The path slices through a meadow of shin-deep snow. Strands of sparkling blue butterflies drip from the bare branches above. Below, the snow-pack gleams pale silver, threaded with traces of lavender and azure and gold. The quiet tinkling of a music box tune chimes from seemingly everywhere. Fellow guests – families and couples and college kids in droves – meander along with him, marveling over the beauty of it all.

The trail descends gradually, angling toward the broad basin of an open field. Taehyung follows the crowd, thinking and thinking about Seokjin's clue, worried now that Seokjin is cold, too, and waiting for him alone.

But from the base of the trail, where the path splits to circle the field, Taehyung sees a sign that reads, in wide gold letters: “with Love.”

Taehyung strikes across the distance at a run, but Seokjin isn't there. He's not hiding behind the letters. He's not watching on from Cinderella's coach or the twinkling displays of cupids and hearts. Taehyung circles around them twice just to be certain, all the time calling out Seokjin's name.

But he isn't there.

Taehyung stands in front of the lighted sign, his breath pluming ghosts from his lips. He mumbles, “Come on, Jin-hyung. Where are you?”

His brain answers, I am in LOVE.

Taehyung chuckles in spite of himself. He crouches at the base of the L and begins to search, feeling around every groove and crevice of each letter. He glances over his shoulder every few seconds, worried that a park attendant might come up and shoo him away. But no one comes to interrupt his search, and of course, he finds the clue in the crux of the letter V.

Taehyung sits back on his heels on the muddy earth and opens the small plastic-sealed parcel between his hands.

Inside he finds a key card for a place called the Pitch CoCo Pension Hotel. Seokjin wrote the suite number on the inner flap of the card's envelope, along with the next message: Because you came to get me that time I called you, even though you were still upset.

Taehyung chokes down a painful laugh. He says aloud, “I wasn't upset.”

Then, when he closes the envelope on the key, he sees a second message written on the back: You were a little upset.

He presses the back of his hand to his nose to stifle a sort of half-sob. Then he stands, fusses at the mud on his cuffs, and smiles. He's almost there now. He's almost done. With an exhale of relief, he enters the name of the pension into his phone and learns that it's thirteen miles by car from the park. He knows there's no way Seokjin would expect him to walk or find a ride on his own, so he returns to the entrance to retrieve his suitcase from the locker.

A man in a leather coat stands outside the gate, holding up a paper sign with the words My VV written by hand in English.

As Taehyung approaches, the man bows and asks, “Are you Kim Taehyung?”

“Yes,” he answers.

“Right this way, sir.”

Taehyung follows him to a sleek black car. As the driver opens the door, Taehyung asks, “Do you have a message for me?”

“One moment,” he says. He shuts the door, puts Taehyung's bag into the trunk, and returns to the driver's seat. As he's putting the car into gear, he peers at Taehyung in the rear-view mirror. He answers, “The person who ordered the car says, 'I hope you're hungry.'”

Taehyung's groan is almost involuntary. “Agh,” he says. “Yes, I'm starving.”

*

Taehyung can smell the suite before he can actually see the suite. As he navigates his way up the winding, gravel pathway toward their room, he smells woodsmoke layered with garlic and toasted bread. His stomach flips and leaps in anticipation of whatever heaven Seokjin has cooked up for them. The moment he swipes his key card, Seokjin pulls open the door.

He's radiant and well-dressed, his cheeks flushed to the tender pink of a kitten's nose. The lilting strains of Chet Baker trill from a Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen. Candles flicker along the windowsills, and beyond the window, a family roasts marshmallows around a fire, the flames sending cascades of sparks into the soft, velvety night.

Seokjin tugs Taehyung inside. He unwinds Taehyung's scarf and kisses his neck, right below the cusp of his jaw. He whispers against his skin, “Because you are my heart.” Then, cupping his face with both of his warm hands, he brings their lips together in a kiss. “And because you are my home.”

Taehyung soaks it all in, the smells of the food and the lush scent of Seokjin – lemon and salt and the barest trace of wine – and he's weak with it; dizzy, yet happily overwhelmed.

Seokjin kisses his eyelids. He kisses the bridge of his nose. He takes the handle of the suitcase and pushes the door closed.

Taehyung bends to unlace his boots, careful to nudge them into the cupboard by the door. He has to clear his throat before he can speak, but even then his voice sounds groggy and full of emotion. “This is your best one yet,” he says.

Seokjin takes Taehyung's hand. “This is just the beginning,” he says, and his eyes gleam as he guides Taehyung inside.